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The man did crazy-good things to her…

Macy had no desire for anything complicated. As long as they were discreet, no one in town would know. Friends with benefits. She’d never really had one of those.

“Why are you looking at me like that?”

She blinked and realized she had been staring at Blake. “Uh… you’re very handsome.”

That sly grin spread across his face. “Okay.”

He turned back to the computer, but continued to grin. He knew.

“You do bad, bad things to me, Mr Marine.” The grin grew bigger.

“I haven’t touched you,” he said, his eyes still staring at the screen.

“Oh, but you don’t even have to,” she whispered. Maybe she had had one too many glasses of wine with the dinner. The room was too warm…

That made him turn.

“Ms Reynolds, are you coming on to me?”

“Yes, sir. I believe I am… So what are you going to do about it?”

Her Last Best Fling

Candace Havens

Her Last Best Fling - fb3_img_img_a5c3cb5c-abbb-5709-82d2-352140cc034a.jpg
www.millsandboon.co.uk

Award-winning author and columnist CANDACE “CANDY” HAVENS lives in Texas with her mostly understanding husband, two children and three dogs, Harley, Elvis and Gizmo. Candy is a nationally syndicated entertainment columnist for FYI Television. She has interviewed just about everyone in Hollywood, from George Clooney and Orlando Bloom to Nicole Kidman and Kate Beckinsale. Her popular online writer’s workshop has more than two thousand students and provides free classes to professional and aspiring writers. Visit her website at www.candacehavens.com.

For those in the military

and police and fire departments,

who put their lives on the line for us every day.

Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

1

AFTER NINE MONTHS of hell in the Middle East—stuck in a hot, dark cave—Blake Michaels welcomed the deluge pounding his windshield. Heavy rain might keep the curious townsfolk from showing up at the Lion’s Club. His mom had moved the party when she discovered a good portion of Tranquil Waters wanted to be there for the hero’s return.

He was no hero.

He was a man who served his country, and happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The gray, wet weather mirrored Blake’s mood. He wasn’t fond of crowds, at least since he’d returned to the States. The time away had changed him in ways he’d only begun to explore.

He appreciated the thought of a party in his honor, but being around that many people at one time was enough to give a guy the cold sweats. His doctors had promised the anxiety would eventually pass. Almost a year in solitude with only a guard, who never spoke for company, had left him with a few issues.

Once, in the hospital afterward, the nurses had found him huddled in a corner of his room. He never wanted to repeat that night.

He’d had a complete blackout, an “episode” they called it, and it scared the hell out of him. That was when he started to take the therapists more seriously.

As he came around a curve on the highway, a flash of white popped up before him. Brakes squealed as his Ford slid to a stop. His breath ragged from trying to steer away from the woman and the giant animal struggling against her. She held the animal while simultaneously trying to push its hindquarters with the toe of her candy-red high heels into the backseat of her car. This was a problem as her tight pencil skirt only allowed her leg to move to a certain height.

Crazy woman.

The dog outweighed her by at least fifty pounds. She’d have better luck putting a saddle on the black-and-white creature and riding to wherever she wanted it to go.

If they didn’t get off the two-lane road fast, someone would plow into them. No way would Blake allow that to happen.

A dog isn’t worth her losing her life.

He paused for a second.

Dang if he wouldn’t have done the very same thing. He loved animals. Scotty, the therapy dog at the hospital, gave him hours of companionship while he went through the hell the docs called physical and mental therapy.

Straightening his truck on the shoulder, Blake hopped out.

“Here,” Blake said as he shoved the beast into the back of the Ford SUV.

As he did, the woman teetered on her high heels and fell back. He caught her with one hand and pulled her out of the way. Slamming the door with his foot so the dog couldn’t get out, he steadied her with his hip. Pain shot through his leg, and he sucked in a breath.

“Are you okay?” He kept her upright with his hands around her tiny waist. The sexy librarian look with the falling curls hiding her face, nearly see-through, rain-soaked blouse and tight skirt over sexy curves did dangerous things to his libido.

Down, boy. Down.

“Thanks,” she said as she glanced back at the dog. “I’m fine. I better get Harley back to the shelter. This is the second time this week she’s broken out. Her owner passed away, and she keeps trying to go home. If you ask me, it’s the saddest thing ever to see an animal suffer.” She waved her hand. “Well, there are worse things in the world, but it’s sad that she doesn’t understand that he’s gone.”

“You could have been killed,” he said through gritted teeth, although more from the pain in his leg than being upset with her.

Stiffening, she turned slowly. When their eyes met, a clap of thunder boomed. She jumped and stumbled. He held on to her to keep her from falling down.

Tugging out of his grasp, she raised an eyebrow. “Yes, I’m aware of the danger.” Her chin jutted out slightly. “Which is why I stopped to get the dog. She was a danger to anyone else who might cross her path. Thank you for your assistance.”

вернуться

1

AFTER NINE MONTHS of hell in the Middle East—stuck in a hot, dark cave—Blake Michaels welcomed the deluge pounding his windshield. Heavy rain might keep the curious townsfolk from showing up at the Lion’s Club. His mom had moved the party when she discovered a good portion of Tranquil Waters wanted to be there for the hero’s return.

He was no hero.

He was a man who served his country, and happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The gray, wet weather mirrored Blake’s mood. He wasn’t fond of crowds, at least since he’d returned to the States. The time away had changed him in ways he’d only begun to explore.

He appreciated the thought of a party in his honor, but being around that many people at one time was enough to give a guy the cold sweats. His doctors had promised the anxiety would eventually pass. Almost a year in solitude with only a guard, who never spoke for company, had left him with a few issues.

Once, in the hospital afterward, the nurses had found him huddled in a corner of his room. He never wanted to repeat that night.

He’d had a complete blackout, an “episode” they called it, and it scared the hell out of him. That was when he started to take the therapists more seriously.

As he came around a curve on the highway, a flash of white popped up before him. Brakes squealed as his Ford slid to a stop. His breath ragged from trying to steer away from the woman and the giant animal struggling against her. She held the animal while simultaneously trying to push its hindquarters with the toe of her candy-red high heels into the backseat of her car. This was a problem as her tight pencil skirt only allowed her leg to move to a certain height.

Crazy woman.

The dog outweighed her by at least fifty pounds. She’d have better luck putting a saddle on the black-and-white creature and riding to wherever she wanted it to go.

If they didn’t get off the two-lane road fast, someone would plow into them. No way would Blake allow that to happen.

A dog isn’t worth her losing her life.

He paused for a second.

Dang if he wouldn’t have done the very same thing. He loved animals. Scotty, the therapy dog at the hospital, gave him hours of companionship while he went through the hell the docs called physical and mental therapy.

Straightening his truck on the shoulder, Blake hopped out.

“Here,” Blake said as he shoved the beast into the back of the Ford SUV.

As he did, the woman teetered on her high heels and fell back. He caught her with one hand and pulled her out of the way. Slamming the door with his foot so the dog couldn’t get out, he steadied her with his hip. Pain shot through his leg, and he sucked in a breath.

“Are you okay?” He kept her upright with his hands around her tiny waist. The sexy librarian look with the falling curls hiding her face, nearly see-through, rain-soaked blouse and tight skirt over sexy curves did dangerous things to his libido.

Down, boy. Down.

“Thanks,” she said as she glanced back at the dog. “I’m fine. I better get Harley back to the shelter. This is the second time this week she’s broken out. Her owner passed away, and she keeps trying to go home. If you ask me, it’s the saddest thing ever to see an animal suffer.” She waved her hand. “Well, there are worse things in the world, but it’s sad that she doesn’t understand that he’s gone.”

“You could have been killed,” he said through gritted teeth, although more from the pain in his leg than being upset with her.

Stiffening, she turned slowly. When their eyes met, a clap of thunder boomed. She jumped and stumbled. He held on to her to keep her from falling down.

Tugging out of his grasp, she raised an eyebrow. “Yes, I’m aware of the danger.” Her chin jutted out slightly. “Which is why I stopped to get the dog. She was a danger to anyone else who might cross her path. Thank you for your assistance.”

He’d offended her without meaning to. The nurses were right, surly had become his natural state. “I—uh...” He wasn’t sure if he should apologize. With his luck, he’d only make it worse.

“Mr. Clooney’s rooster Pete says the thunderstorms are going to be pretty bad the next couple of days,” she said as she climbed into the vehicle. “And that darn rooster is never wrong. Perhaps you should think about staying inside so you aren’t tempted to help poor defenseless animals.”

With that, she slammed the door shut.

Did he just get the brush-off?

Mr. Clooney’s rooster? Wait, how was that annoying creature still alive?

He remembered when his brother poured half a bottle of cold medicine in the rooster’s feed so they could sleep in one morning during the summer. If anything, the somewhat drunk rooster crowed even louder the next morning.

The SUV sped off toward town.

Yep, that was definitely the brush-off.

It’d been a while since he’d spent time with a woman. Well, besides, the doctors and nurses at the hospital. He’d done four tours in a row, only taking a few months off occasionally to see his mom while trying to forget everything he’d gone through the past two years.

This final tour was one he couldn’t put on the “man shelf.” That’s what his therapist, a woman who was exceptionally bright and never let him get away with anything, had called his ability to shove things that upset him to the back of his brain. Every time he tried to redirect the conversation away from his recent past, she called him on it.

Blake shoved a hand over his newly shorn hair. He’d let it get longer in the hospital, but his mom didn’t like it that way.

And hell if he wasn’t just a big ole mama’s boy. Blake and his brother, J.T., would do anything for her. She’d held their family together after their dad died when he and J.T. were teens.

He might not like the idea of the party, but eating home-cooked meals his mom made was high on his list of favorite things. He could suffer through any inconvenience for that.

Thunder hit again, and the black-haired woman’s heart-shaped face popped into his mind with those almost-translucent green eyes that had seen too much of the world. He wondered if the thunder might be an ominous sign that he should stay away from her.

He grinned.

Nope, that wasn’t going to happen. The last thing he needed was to chase some skirt, but there was something about her. She’d been dressed sexy, but she didn’t suffer fools gladly.

That was something he admired.

He liked a challenge. This was a small town, and he was about to be at a party with some of the best gossips in Texas—and that was saying something in this state. A type like the sexy librarian would surely be a topic of conversation. His mom hadn’t mentioned anyone moving into town during their chats, so the woman had to be fairly new to Tranquil Waters.

After parking the truck in front of the Lion’s Club, he ripped off the wet shirt. He had an extra hanging in the cab. Once he was dressed in his blues, he steeled himself for the oncoming tide of good wishes.

“For he’s a jolly good...” voices rang out as he swung open the door and stepped inside. In other circumstances, he would have run back to the truck. But he smiled and shook hands, all the while thinking about that woman with the raven hair and killer red heels.

Perhaps having half the town at his party wasn’t such a bad thing.

Facing the blue-haired gossip brigade, he gave them his most charming smile.

“Ladies, you haven’t changed a bit,” he said. “If I didn’t know better I’d guess you were selling your souls to keep that peaches-and-cream skin of yours.”

His mother rolled her eyes, but stood on tiptoes to give him a hug.

“You’re up to something,” she whispered.

Oh, he was definitely up to something.

* * *

“BRAN MUFFINS AND fake butter. That was one knight in shining armor,” Macy complained to Harley as she wrapped wire around the lock on her cage. She never swore around the animals in the shelter as she believed they’d been through enough trauma, without listening to her temper tantrums. So when she wanted to use angry words, she thought about foods she hated.

“Doesn’t it figure that ten minutes after I vow no more men forever, he shows up?”

The dog made a strange noise that sounded like “yes.” Great Danes did have their own language. And she bet Harley understood every syllable she said.

“Oh, no. He has to be so hot that steam came off of him. And me.” She fanned her face. The heat from the encounter still on her cheeks.

“Here he comes galloping on his horse to the rescue.” Macy’s last two relationships were nonevents, except for the part where they’d cheated on her. Three weeks ago she’d discovered the man she thought she might marry was having what he called “a meaningless relationship” with an intern at the paper.

Well, it had meant something to Macy.

Harley made a strange sound.

“Fine, it was a truck he galloped in on, but still.”

The dog whined again.

“Lovely girl, I’m sorry. I’ve been going on and on about me, when you have much more to be sad about.” She squatted as much as her skirt would allow and petted Harley through the kennel.

The handsome face of the knight was one she recognized. Though his dark brown hair had been cropped close to his head, it was those dark brown, almost-black eyes she couldn’t forget. The marine, who’d been captured in Afghanistan, had returned home. She’d been headed to the welcome-home party to cover it for the newspaper. That wasn’t the kind of thing publishers did at larger papers, but this was a small town. Darla, the reporter assigned to the story, had to pick her kid up from school and take him to the dentist. And the other two reporters had the flu.

Thinking that it would be a quick in-and-out, Macy had decided to cover the party.

Well, until she found Harley soaked to the skin.

She loved animals. They weren’t as judgmental as humans. Since she was sixteen, she’d been volunteering at various shelters around the world. Every time she took a new job, that was one of the first things she did. Well, except for when she was in the Middle East. She didn’t have time to breathe then, let alone help anyone else.

In the newspaper business, one had to move a lot. There was constant downsizing and she had to go where the jobs were. That was how she’d landed in Boston—until the fiasco that was her almost-fiancé throwing their comfortable life into the proverbial toilet.

Harley nudged her.

“I promise as soon as the fence guy gets done, you are moving in with me. If this rain would stop, they could finish.” This was the first pet she’d ever adopted. The old girl had one green and one blue eye. The sorrow in them tore at Macy’s heart. She was an orphan, too, and she’d bonded with the dog ever since she’d caught her trying to get back home the first time.

Her great-uncle Todd, who had been Macy’s only remaining relative, had willed her the town’s newspaper. For months she’d been trying to sell it with no luck. When she walked in on her ex and his meaningless plaything, she decided moving to a small locale wasn’t such a bad idea. Along with the paper, her uncle had left her a beautiful house overlooking White’s Lake. She’d decided to put an eight-foot fence along two of the four-acres of the property so Harley would have a place to roam.

“Great Danes need a lot of space.” She smiled and scratched the dog’s ears.

“Hey, I thought you went to the party,” said Josh from the door as he slipped booties over his shoes for sanitary purposes. He was the local veterinarian who donated his services to the shelter.

“I was on my way, but Miss Harley got out again. I caught up with her on the highway.”

Josh tickled the dog under her chin, his fingers poking through the cage. It was a large eight-by-eight-foot space, but it wasn’t big enough for the hundred-and-seventy-five-pound dog.

“Nice knot with the wiring there. Do you sail?” He pointed to the impenetrable knot she’d devised to keep Harley in.

She shrugged. “Something I picked up from my dad. In the summer we’d go sailing.” Those weeks were some of the happiest of her life. Her parents were journalists, so it was in her blood, but it meant they traveled the far ends of the earth, leaving Macy at home.

“So are you heading over to the hero party?”

Feeling as if she’d stood in a rainstorm for an hour, which she did, she decided she’d be better off going home. “No, I’m heading back to my place to change.”

She noticed Josh wasn’t meeting her eyes. He did everything he could not to look at her.

She glanced down. Her white blouse was completely sheer and she was cold.

Great. Wonderful. Lovely.

“Well, Cecil is up at the front, so I guess I’ll be going,” she said as she made a quick exit.

Josh was a nice guy. They’d even tried to date once. But discovered there was absolutely no chemistry, which was probably why he was doing his best not to look at her nipples protruding through the sheer fabric of her shirt and nude-colored bra.

Unless she wanted to be the fodder for more town gossip, there would be no party in her future.

The lovely scent of wet dog pervaded her senses as she made the short drive home.

Five minutes later, she turned on the fireplace in the main family area. The front of the place had a Gothic Revival exterior. The back was full of windows. She loved the water. Living near it made her feel close to her dad.

After constantly chasing the next big story, the pace of Tranquil Waters nearly killed her at first. But she’d grown accustomed to the quiet. Her whole life she’d heard Texans were incredibly kind, and they were— However, the ones here didn’t trust outsiders, especially Yankees, of which she was one, having spent most of her formative years in the Northeast.

A hot shower was in order. Then she’d bundle up and see what Mrs. Links, the housekeeper who worried that Macy was wasting away, left in the fridge for dinner. The housekeeper came in three times a week, even though Macy was perfectly capable of cleaning up after herself.

Mrs. Links was another part of her strange inheritance from Uncle Todd. He’d provided for her weekly allowance until the time she no longer needed employment.

Macy didn’t have the heart to ask the nearly seventy-five-year-old woman when that might be. For someone who made a living by asking the tough questions, Macy had a soft spot when it came to animals and her elders.

As the warm water sluiced across Macy’s body, her mind drifted to the marine. Those biceps under her hands were of a man who wasn’t afraid of hard labor. Marines had to stay fit, and she had a feeling he’d have washboard abs, as well.

Men with great abs were her weakness.

You swore off men.

The smell of his fresh, masculine scent. Those hard muscles, the warm smile, even after all he’d been through.

The blood thrummed through her body.

She hadn’t been with a man in what felt like forever. That was all. He was hot, and any other woman would feel the same way after looking into those sweet chocolate-brown eyes.

Turning down the water’s temperature to cool her body, she wondered how long she’d be able to resist the marine.

вернуться

2

VIOLENT THOUGHTS CROSSED Blake’s mind as Mr. Clooney’s rooster crowed, waking half the town—so much for the extra rest. Shoving the pillow over his head, he closed his eyes and willed himself back to the dream about the woman in the red heels. The rooster crowed again.

“I’ll kill that bird some day,” he growled as he rolled out of bed. Too many years in the military had him up, showered and sipping coffee ten minutes later.

His mother had taped a note to the fridge that said, “Muffins are in the warming drawer. Love, Mom.”

At five in the morning, she’d probably already been at the feed store for at least an hour. She liked to get the paperwork done before the place opened. Even though she didn’t need to be there anymore, she’d insisted on keeping the books and visiting with customers when they came in. She’d built the business from the ground up while his father traveled the world with the military. She believed in having roots and wasn’t much for leaving the town she’d been born in. Their relationship worked, because when they were together, they treated each other as if no one else existed in the world. Well, except for Blake and his brother.

Their parents made certain their boys had an idyllic childhood in the town centered between two lakes. They lived on the edge of town, which had exactly four stoplights, a couple of grocery stores and various shops on the rectangle, as they liked to call it. When the town was first built, there was no real plan. When they finally decided they needed a courthouse it was built in the heart of the rectangle of shops and businesses.

But Tranquil Waters had changed while he was deployed. He remembered laughing about the letters from his mom talking about how the town council had decided that they could have a Dairy Queen and a McDonald’s on the same side of the highway.

They also—thanks to the lakes and artists and writers who populated the town—had a good tourist industry year-round. It was almost Halloween and he hadn’t seen a house yet that hadn’t been decorated. There were several haunted B and B’s and even a large corn maze on the Carins’ pumpkin farm.

Everything seemed so simple in a small town. It didn’t take a CIA spook to find out that the woman he’d run into on the highway was the new publisher of the town newspaper.

“That Yankee girl just doesn’t understand our ways,” complained Mrs. Lawton. “She reported that old Mr. Gunther was thrown in jail Saturday night. Well, everyone knows he’s spent every weekend in that jail cell for the last twenty years. Ever since his sweetheart of a wife, Pearl, passed—God rest her soul—he’s just been longing for her. Poor man. What he needs is a new woman, a younger one to keep his mind off his troubles.”

While she had glanced around at the other women in her circle, Blake had a feeling she wanted to be the new woman to occupy Mr. G’s thoughts. Blake grinned as he sipped his punch. Didn’t matter that she’d just turned eighty-five and Mr. G had to be nearing a hundred.

“She has that huge house, darn near a mansion,” Lady Smith chimed in. Her name was Lady, and for some reason everyone in town called her Lady Smith. Out of respect, and the fact that she was a friend of his mother’s, Blake had once called her Mrs. Smith when he was about ten. She’d scolded him and told him she was a Lady, and he’d do well to remember that in the future.

The town was full of oddballs, and he’d been one of them. As a kid, he’d run around dressed like Davy Crockett for two years and no one had said a word. Apart from his brother, who was more a Spider-Man fan.

“She’s got more money than she knows what to do with. Imagine, putting the paper on the inter—whatever those kids use nowadays,” Lady had complained. “People here like to hold a newspaper in their hands. And she doesn’t seem to understand that there are some stories that just aren’t fit to tell. I’ve written countless letters to the editor, but she never prints or listens to them.” Lady waved her hand in the air dismissively.

“Darn Yankee.”

How dare she tell the truth about Tranquil Waters. The nerve of the woman. Blake found himself chuckling as he rinsed his cup in the sink.

His mother probably didn’t need his help at the feed store. But he didn’t want to sit around stewing. It almost always sent him in the wrong direction.

He wondered where Macy—he’d finally learned her name—might be. Likely still in bed, if she were smart. Any sane person would be at this hour of the morning. Pulling the truck out of the drive, he saw something run past.

Blake blinked a few times and followed the blur.

“It can’t be.”

The monster dog he’d recently stuffed into a car sat on the porch of a white-framed house with a for-sale sign in the yard. The spot was about five blocks from his mom’s house.

The way Harley stared at the door, as if willing it to open, broke his heart. Blake had seen a lot of awful things through the years, but kids and animals in distress were his weaknesses. He’d do anything to protect them.

Macy was right. Unlike a human, the dog couldn’t understand her master was gone.

Exiting the truck slowly, he stepped up the stone path. She glanced back at him, with the saddest puppy eyes. One of the eyes was blue, the other green.

He hadn’t seen her eyes when he’d been dealing with the hindquarters.

“Hey, pretty girl, what’s up?”

He held out his hand, but she turned away from him. Lifting a large paw, she hit the doorknob.

Damn dog. His heart lurched. Not sure what he should do, he sat down on the top step next to her. He could drag her to the truck, but he didn’t have the nerve. If he gained her trust, maybe she’d go willingly. He had a feeling being at the house was about more than just returning to where she felt safe.

“I’ll sit here with you until you decide what you want to do next,” he said softly. He didn’t have anything better to do.

The dog pawed at the door again and growled.

Blake leaned back against the railing. He could have sworn the dog said, “Let me in.”

I am losing it. Now dogs are talking to me.

“Did you just say, let me in?”

The dog pawed his shoulder.

Yep, he was crazy.

“Oh, girl, sorry, I don’t have a key. I’d let you in if I could, but I don’t have one. And I have a code I live by. Breaking and entering isn’t an option.”

She barked and then leaped off the porch.

As quick as his sore leg allowed him, he got up and followed her around the side of the house.

When they reached the back porch, she pawed at the door handle and attempted to open it with her mouth. She snarled when it didn’t budge.

“Well, we tried,” he said.

She cocked her head, and he swore she rolled her eyes.

Taking off to a chipped birdbath in the middle of the lawn, covered with dirt, she pawed the rocks surrounding the base of the concrete fixture and barked. Blake limped out to the fountain, more to appease her than anything.

There on the ground was a key.

“Okay, dog. Now you’re freaking me out.” If she had had two legs instead of four, she could pass for human. And she had to be one brilliant pup to relate the key to the door.

As he unlocked the door, he noticed someone peeking over the fence.

He pointed an accusatory finger at the dog. “Fine, but if we get arrested you’re taking the rap.” He patted her on the head. Before he could turn the knob and open the door himself, she nosed it open and stood in the small kitchen, as if waiting for him to come inside. Once he was in, she closed the door with her nose.

Blake had never seen such a thing. The few dogs he’d had when he was a boy could sit and lie down, but that was about it.

Harley woofed and trotted to the living room, where she sat in front of a wingback chair. She nodded at him, as if she wanted him to sit down in it. More out of curiosity than anything, he did. A paw shot out and pushed so hard on the chair he worried he’d go head over heels.

But he didn’t fall.

The dog ducked beneath the chair and tossed out several stuffed animals, a ball and chew bones that had seen better days. Once she had her stash from under the chair, she moved the items one at a time to the charcoal-gray sofa. The booty soon became a pillow as she lay atop her toys, sighing as if she’d been on a long journey.

“Poor girl,” Blake whispered. The sight of her relaxing choked him up.

“That’s the first time I’ve seen her sleep since he passed,” a feminine voice whispered.

Head snapping around, he took in Macy Reynolds’s tight jeans, pink hoodie and those furry boots women wore when the thermometer dipped below seventy. The town was having an unusually cool October, and the temperature hung around the fifty-degree mark. A sleepy angel with no makeup, and more beautiful than she’d been the day before.

“I saw her running past my mom’s house when I left this morning and I decided to follow.” He held up a hand. “I swear she made me unlock the door. She showed me where the key was.”

“I believe it. Evidently the drama was about her missing toys. I don’t blame her,” Macy continued to whisper. “I’m kind of fond of my stuff. I don’t have that much, but what I do have is precious to me.”

Odd since he’d learned she inherited her uncle’s house. He assumed she had tons of stuff.

“What?” She checked her clothing as if she might have missed a button.

“Nothing. I...heard last night that you inherited your uncle’s new mansion.”

She scrunched her face. “Yes, he— Yes.”

“For the record, I haven’t been stalking you. Some of the gossips at the party were talking about it.”

She smirked and moved to the sofa to sit beside Harley.

“Is there an expiration date or something on being the subject of town gossip? I’ve never lived in a place where other people were so in your business. Usually, as a reporter, I’m the nosy one. It’s disconcerting. And I don’t think they like me very much, although I’m doing my best to turn their local into a paper that resembles more than tractor reports.”

He laughed, and the dog opened an eye and glared at him.

“Unfortunately, until the next interesting person moves to town, it’ll be all about you.”

“Yes, but the hero has returned.” She nodded in his direction. “Can’t you be the subject of conversation for a while?”

“Nah. I’m not nearly as interesting as a Yankee woman who wears pencil skirts and sky-high heels. And according to the gray hairs, you have a scandalous past where you combed the world reporting on everything from celebrities to wars. Some man broke your heart, and you’re here hiding away.”

Her eyes opened wide. “Wow. They are good. I wish they’d be as generous with their words with me. Honestly, I know heads of state who give more in an interview than people in this town.”

She hadn’t bothered to deny any of what he’d said, so it must have been true about combing the world and the man who was in her life. He wondered if that relationship was really over. He shrugged. “Give it some time, they’ll come around.”

“Will you talk to me?”

He frowned. “I thought that was what we were doing.”

“No—I mean, yes.” She waved her hand. “In an interview. The Tranquil Waters News should do a feature on the town hero.”

That was the last thing he wanted.

“There isn’t a lot these folks don’t already know. I’ve been gone for about seven years. I’m back, a little worse for the wear but alive. There isn’t much more to tell. I was doing my job but happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

She sighed, not unlike the suffering sound the dog had made. “I should have known. You’re no different than the rest.”

The disappointment in her voice forced him to do something he promised he never would.

“All right, if you want to talk, that’s cool, but not right now. I need to get to the feed store to help my mom.” Small white lie, but he had to stall to gather his thoughts. “I was on my way there when I saw Harley.” At least that part was true.

She glanced from the dog to him as if she were trying to discern the truth. “We could do something a little less formal, if that would make you more comfortable. How about tonight? I could make you dinner at my place.”

He almost laughed at the look on her face as if she couldn’t believe she just asked him to dinner.

“If food is involved, I’m there. If you’re sure?”

She nodded. “How about seven-thirty?”

“See ya then.” He stood.

“Don’t you need the address?”

He chuckled. “The house is where the old Gladstone farm used to be, right?”

“Yes. It overlooks the lake.”

“Trust me. I know that area very well.” More than once, he and his friends had thrown a party at the old barn, which had been torn down years ago.

“Do you need help with the dog?”

“No, I’m going to go grab my laptop and work here so she can rest. I have a feeling she’ll follow those toys wherever I take them.”

“Okay, see ya later.” He patted the dog and walked out the front door.

He had a date. Well, it was technically an interview, but he was practiced at giving nonanswers. He’d done it his entire military career. All of his assignments were classified, so he couldn’t share anything.

Hope she won’t be too mad when she finds out I’m as tight-lipped as the rest of Tranquil Waters.

He started the truck engine. The last thing he wanted was the sleepy angel mad at him.

* * *

“WHAT WAS I thinking?” Macy blurted into the phone. “You don’t invite people you’re interviewing to dinner.”

“Yes, you do. It’s just the dinner’s at a restaurant most of the time,” her friend Cherie chimed in. “Chill, girl. You’re going to have a heart attack. This guy must be superhot to make you so nervous.”

Macy slipped on a pair of flats. After his comment about the heels, she realized she’d been trying too hard. Except for those over sixty, this was more of a jeans and T-shirt town. She was perfectly comfortable in that attire.

It wasn’t until her breakup with Garrison that Cherie, her nearest and dearest friend, forced her to leave Boston and took her for a makeover in Manhattan. They tossed out everything she’d owned and decided to start fresh with a sexy new wardrobe. Add a brand-new haircut that was perfect for her shoulder-length curls. And a newfound passion for accessories. Cherie had convinced her that shoes and purses were really works of art.

She didn’t have to twist Macy’s arm very hard.

But if Macy wanted to fit into the landscape of Tranquil Waters, she’d have to scale back on the big-city wardrobe, etc.

“Superhot doesn’t cover it,” she said honestly. “Scorching might come close. He puts that gorgeous action-adventure star Tom Diamond to shame.”

“Wait. Hotter than Tom Diamond? The man who will be my husband someday, even if I have to shoot him with a tranq gun and stuff him in my trunk? I think it might be time for me to visit Texas.”

“You are welcome anytime. I certainly have the room. And yes he’s that handsome, and he’s sweet to dogs and loves his mother. You know how tough that is for me. He’s like a triple threat. But I have to keep this professional. The last thing I need in this gossip-hungry town is to date its hero.”

“So you want to date him. Hmm.”

“Stop analyzing me and putting words in my mouth,” Macy complained. Cherie never stopped being a psychiatrist, but it was her only vice so Macy put up with her.

“You said the words. I’m just placing them in the proper order for you.”

“Privacy is impossible at any of the restaurants in town. I’m sure that’s why I came up with making the dinner. I wanted him to feel comfortable, to share as much as possible.”

“He’s a war hero, you know there’s not much he can say,” her friend warned.

“This isn’t my first time.” She’d been to almost every war zone in the world the past five years. It had only been the past twelve months that she’d decided to take a permanent position out of the line of fire. Little did she know it was just as dangerous at home.

She’d been shot at, kidnapped twice by insurgents and lost in the middle of the desert. None of that had been as bad as her ex’s betrayal.

“Stop thinking about that jerk. He’s not worth it.”

“How did you know?” Macy laughed at her friend’s incredible insight.

“He called here looking for you again. For a hotshot newspaper publisher, he’s not very good at finding people.”

Macy snorted. He was one of the best reporters ever, and if he truly wanted to find her, he would. But she’d told him if he did, she’d only turn him away again. It was the truth.

“Of course, I told him to stuff it up his—”

Lights flashed across her bedroom window. “Oh, man, he’s here early. Darn those marines and their punctuality.”

Macy stared down at the melee of clothing on her bed and picked up the frilly black blouse on top.

“Put down the black, and choose the red. Men love red.”

“That was scary. Fine. Red it is. I love you and I wish you’d come see me. It’s a nice town but—I still feel very outsiderish.”

“Oh, girl, don’t you worry. They’ll love you as much as I do. Just give them some time and the chance to get to know you. Charm the pants off that marine. That will be a great start.”

The doorbell rang and Harley barked twice.

The big dog had settled in just fine. Macy had even bought the dog her own couch for the family room. The fence had been finished that afternoon, and they’d reinforced the gate with two different kinds of locks.

She turned off the phone.

Harley sat patiently at the door waiting for their guest.

Shoving her curls out of her face, Macy took a deep breath and turned the knob.

Oh, shoot, the man is beautiful.

Dressed in dark jeans, cowboy boots and a dark blue button-down under a leather jacket, he was way beyond scorching.

Her normally agile mind couldn’t think of the word, but she knew there was one.

This is work. This is work. This is work.

He cocked his head and stared down at Harley.

“Did she run away again?”

“What?” Macy forced her hand to stay still even though she wanted to wave it in front of her own face, which was suddenly too warm even though the temperature outside was in the low fifties.

“Harley? You know the dog?”

He smiled at her as if he were humoring her.

“Uh, sorry. I’d been on the phone and I’m a little—uh—” Hot for you. No, that wasn’t right. “Out of sorts. Please come in. And Harley lives with me now. She would have been in here days ago, but the rain kept the ground too wet for them to finish putting the fence in.”

He handed her a colorful bouquet of chrysanthemums in a vase. “These are a present for your new home.” In his other hand he held a large paper bag. “I didn’t know what you were cooking so I brought a couple bottles of wine, some dark beer and, er...green tea.”

She took the flowers and led him to the kitchen. “Thank you, these are beautiful, but you didn’t have to bring anything.”

He shrugged and sat the bag down on her quartz countertop. “It’s the south, if you don’t bring a housewarming gift on the first occasion you visit, or to any party you’re invited to, they’ll talk about you for years.”

“I’ll have to remember that,” she said. Not that she’d been invited to anything, but maybe some day.

“I probably should have mentioned my kitchen skills are somewhat limited. But I make a mean beef stew. I put it on earlier today, so it should be ready in a few minutes. And I have bread and salad.”

“Sounds good to me. In general, I like food, so it doesn’t matter too much what it is. After C-Rats, I can, and have, digested everything from guinea pig in Machu Picchu to some weird toad in Africa. I’m not sure that last one didn’t lead to a night of hallucinations.”

She laughed. “I’m pretty adventurous when it comes to food, but I’ve never eaten either of those.”

“You get to a point where just about everything really does taste like chicken.” He smiled and her heart did a double thump.

Oh, heck, I’m in trouble.

She forced a smile.

“Now I feel like maybe I should have tried for something more exotic.” She examined the wine bottles he’d brought. He’d surprised her with his choices. She didn’t know much about wine, but neither bottle was cheap. “Do you have a preference?”

“Whatever you want is fine with me. I’ll be drinking the tea.”

At her quizzical look, he explained. “The docs are weaning me off the painkillers for my leg. It’s best if I don’t drink as it can create an allergic reaction. Although, me and my buddies at the hospital suspected they only told us that so we don’t find out how the painkillers are with alcohol. They deal with a lot of addicted vets there.”

“We can’t have that. Tea it is. The last thing I need is alcohol. It tends to loosen my tongue, and I’m not the one who needs to do the talking tonight.”

She caught the tightening of his lips before he turned away. “I don’t mind,” he said. “If you want a glass of wine. It won’t bother me.”

“No,” she said lightly. “I’ve grown fond of tea since moving here. Cracks me up that they drink it iced even in the dead of winter.”

“Staple of the South,” he said, pulling a large plastic pitcher with a lid out of the bag. “Usually it’s black tea. I have this friend from China who told me that green tea has healing properties. It also clears away some of the fogginess from the drugs.”

“I’ve heard that, too.” She’d forgotten about his injuries. Except for a small limp, he didn’t seem to be in much pain. But she’d met plenty of marines and she knew how tough they were. If he had to take drugs, the injuries were severe. The journalist in her wanted to know specifics, but it would wait.

“Before we eat, would you like to see the house? Actually, most of it is my uncle Todd’s taste. But I have a few touches here and there.”

“I like the stonework on the outside mixed with the pale brick. It blends into the rocky hills behind the house.”

“Yes, that was one of his ideas—for it to blend into the landscape. Though, I think it’s kind of fun that he added a Gothic touch with some of the windows and the roof alignment.

“Did you know my uncle? I mean, you’ve been gone awhile, but before?”

“I didn’t know him. I probably heard his name around town, but I wasn’t much interested in the newspaper when I was a kid. And some might say I was a little self-absorbed back then. I like to say, I was a teenager.”

They laughed.

She took him through the family area where Harley plopped down on her sofa. The television was on Animal Planet, which seemed to be the dog’s favorite along with anything on PBS.

He smiled. “She’s made herself at home there.”

“Oh, that couch is hers. I even had them put extra down in it and then had that wrapped in plastic and an outdoor fabric. Great Danes have joint and bone aches most of their lives. I wanted Harley to have a soft place to rest. Just a minute, I need to change the channel for her.”

Picking up the remote, she set it on one of the PBS Nova specials. Harley grunted her agreement.

She’d learned about the dog’s television preferences earlier in the day when she’d sat with her at her former home. If Macy tried to watch a channel Harley didn’t like, the dog would voice her displeasure.

Not that she was spoiled or anything.

The house was a Texas T shape. The various hallways fed into the center area, which was the main entertaining space. “Down that hall are two bedrooms. There’s another guest bedroom down that hall—” she pointed “—and the master bedroom and study are down that hall,” she said.

It didn’t seem appropriate to take him to the bedrooms. “There’s a loft upstairs with two more bedrooms. But it isn’t really worth the trip up. Let me show you the study. There are a lot of Civil War antiques in there. My uncle was a collector.” The rest of the house had been furnished in rich warm tone-on-tone colors. It was a comfortable place to relax at the end of the day. The only room that was slightly feminine was the master bedroom and bathroom, which Macy had decorated.

Macy opened the door to the study and smiled when Blake muttered, “Woooee. This is a museum.”

His eyes traveled over the glass cases filled with small items and guns from various Civil War battles.

She’d had the estate appraised and this room alone was worth a couple of million. The study had been outfitted with special equipment that would protect it from fire and anything else Mother Nature might throw at it. The whole house was a bunker of sorts, concrete surrounded by stone. The windows could withstand an F-5 tornado. That was good because in this part of the country hurricanes and tornados happened at least once or twice a year.

“I don’t have the heart to auction off these things. Other than the newspaper, this was my uncle Todd’s only passion. I can feel his spirit in here, and I just can’t let go of his stuff.”

Blake blew out a whistle. “I’m no expert, but even I know this is one incredible collection. There are people who’d pay big money for it, but I understand how you feel. My dad collected baseball caps and cards. We still have an entire wall of his hats, some are from teams that no longer exist, and a few are hats his dad had given to him. There’s an original Yankees cap in the bunch, but my mom hides that one when her friends come over.

“It was never even a question if we’d keep them. And I feel the same way about them, as you do.”

She smiled. “Sounds like you really loved your dad.”

Flipping off the light switch, he followed her out the door and to the kitchen.

“Has the interview started?” His voice had changed and he sounded as if he suspected her of trying to get him to talk about his past.

“No. Mere curiosity. I thought I’d feed you before grilling you.” She winked at him.

“Then, yes. My dad was a hero to my brother and me. He’s the reason I went into the military, albeit he was air force. He was a pilot until he decided to retire and help Mom with the feed store. He was a tough old goat, and my brother and I didn’t get away with much when we were kids.”

“I met your mom when I first arrived. I had to get a lawn mower and other gardening tools.”

He chuckled.

She served up the bowls of stew. “Your mother found me frowning as I checked out the lawn mowers. She dug around in her pockets and handed me a card that had the number of a teenager who does yards. Her exact words were, ‘He’s a good kid. For four acres it’ll be about a hundred dollars a week. If he tries to charge you more, tell him I’ll knock him upside the head.’”

Blake laughed. “Yep, that’s my mom.”

“I loved her. She was one of the few people who was genuinely kind to me. I’d heard Texans are a friendly bunch. And, okay, everyone has been nice to my face. But I get the strangest looks. And as I mentioned earlier, they haven’t been exactly welcoming.”

He carried both of the bowls to the other end of the counter where there were stools and place settings. “Like I said earlier, soon someone will move to town and then you’ll be one of the gang. Just give them more time.”

She smiled. “My friend Cherie told me the same thing. I’m not sure why it bothers me so much. I never knew any of my neighbors when I lived in New York, Paris or anywhere in the Middle East. Most of the time I lived out of hotels.”

At the mention of hotels, his jaw tightened. She’d read what she could find on him, and knew that he’d been in Africa when he sustained his injuries. He was protecting a visiting American ambassador there. He and most of his men were hit by enemy fire, but they’d saved the ambassador and other dignitaries that day. The soldiers had earned Purple Hearts.

“Don’t be too worried about it,” he interrupted her thoughts. “Small-town life isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. Eventually, you feel like a part of the community when everyone knows your name. It can be a wonderful thing, or a curse.” His eyebrow rose.

“A curse?” It hadn’t been that bad.

“Oh, yes. And especially if a certain high school girl’s dad finds you in the barn with her, um, counting hay straws. He calls your dad, who gives you the I’m-disappointed look in front of the entire town when he finds you later at Lucky Chicken Burger sharing a box with your friends.” He looked to the heavens. “People still talk about how he watched as my mom dragged me out by my ear. One of the most embarrassing days of my life.”

She nearly sputtered her stew, she laughed so hard. “I can’t imagine your mother doing that. She talks so highly of you. She’s so proud.”

“Now she is. That day, not so much. I was grounded for six weeks after that and wasn’t allowed to go on dates alone with a girl until I left for college. If we didn’t go in a group, I wasn’t given permission to go. I had to write letters of apology to the girl, her parents, my parents and our minister.”

He shook his head as she started to laugh again. “Sure, it sounds funny, but back then—my friends and my brother never let me forget it. I ran away to college so fast, it was no joke. Joined the marines to help pay for my bachelors and MBA.

“I was determined I would never come back to this place, but I’m a mama’s boy. I probably shouldn’t admit that. I missed her and dad so much by the end of that first semester, I hitched a thousand miles to get home by Christmas Eve. Of course, my mom read me the riot act because I could have been killed on the road.”

“Still, I bet she was glad to see you.”

He nodded. “It wasn’t long after that my dad got sick. So I was grateful we had that Christmas together.”

A chunk of carrot caught in her throat as she watched the memories pass across his face. There’d been a deep family love there. She envied him that. He grew silent.

She swallowed and had a drink of tea. “My parents traveled a lot for their jobs. We didn’t get to have many holidays together. I kind of envy you that.”

“What did they do?”

“Journalists. My mom wrote for magazines, my dad was on air for different TV affiliates.”

“Are they still at it?”

Macy bit her lip. “No. They were killed in a small-plane crash on their way to report on a new orphanage in India. Happened about eight years ago. Uncle Todd was my last living relative. It’s just me now.”

Blake frowned. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to bring up such painful memories.”

She patted his arm. Her fingers tingled from the contact. “You didn’t. We were talking about family. I just wish I had what you had and have with your mom. I believe the world would be a better place if more parents were like yours.

“I’m lucky that I have great friends all over the world. They helped me when I lost my parents. I was doing an internship in Bosnia with a newspaper and the military guys I’d been following arranged for me to get a flight home on one of their transports. One of them even flew with me and stayed until Uncle Todd could get to the base. I never forgot that. Kevin Donaldson was his name. He had two kids and a wife who adored him. Anytime I was stateside, they insisted on me coming to visit.

“Wow. Look at me telling you my whole life story. Who is interviewing whom, here? I never talk to anyone like this.”

He winked at her. “It’s the green tea. Has mystical properties in it.”

They both laughed.

“Do you want another bowl?”

“Sure. The stew is good. I miss home cooking.”

She handed him another full bowl and shoved the plate of French bread at him so he could reach it. “I—I did some digging. As I mentioned, I’ve covered the military for years for various assignments. I know you can’t tell me exactly what happened, although I do know about the ambassador. That’s a matter of public record. And that you guys saved him and the others who were investigating the ammunitions camp someone had discovered in the Congo.”

“You have done your research.” His voice was guarded again.

“I don’t want to ask you anything I know you can’t answer. What I would like to know is how it happened. Several of your men were hit, but luckily everyone survived.”

He sat his spoon in the bowl and stared down at it.

“Some were luckier than others,” he whispered.

Her brow furrowed. “Do you mean the injuries?”

“Yes, and the nightmares. Some of us are having a tough time letting go what happened there.”

“What did happen?”

His deep brown gaze cut to her. “You know I can’t give you details.”

She sighed. “Was it an ambush? From what I’ve figured out so far, you guys had a peaceful week there until you were getting ready to leave. Then all hell broke loose.”

As if Harley had sensed the tension, she nudged between them and put her head on his thigh.

He sucked in a breath.

“Is she hurting you?”

“No. It’s just sore, like a bruise. Mind you, her head is like a ton of bricks.”

“It is very large. She accidentally bumped my nose earlier with her head when I put food in her bowl, and I thought for sure I’d have black eyes.”

He smiled, but it was weak.

Stupid. As professional as she was, it bothered her to realize she’d triggered such old memories—hurtful ones from the look of concern on his face.

That was it. He wasn’t just a hero. He was a man. That would be her story. No one needed to read about his nightmares of that terrible day, or the darkness that clearly haunted him. How often had she told that story? Heroes deserved to be recognized, but maybe she could focus on who they were after they came home, rather than who they were then.

So many soldiers were affected by the experiences they’d gone through. Some—not in a good way. But some said that it made them more aware of how small the world could be.

“I have chocolate chip cookies for dessert. Actually, I was going to show you the best way to eat them.”

“Well, I thought you ate cookies with your mouth.” He gave her an odd look, and she rolled her eyes.

“Ah, where is your sense of food adventure? In fact, I’m going to take that adventuresome nature of yours to a whole new level.”

“Bring it on, Macy. I can take whatever you’ve got.”

The seductive, whiskey sound of his voice and his choice of words did all kinds of naughty things to her.

Be careful.

But it was too late. She’d already crossed the line with Lieutenant Blake Michaels, and she wasn’t at all upset about it.

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3

BLAKE TOSSED AND turned in his bed. Thoughts of Macy in those jeans and that lacy red top made it impossible for him to sleep. He’d wanted to kiss her as soon as he saw her lick the whip cream from her lips. That pink tongue had darted out and all he could think of was capturing it with his mouth. He’d wanted to cover her in the white confection and lick every inch of her.

Damn. He had it bad for her.

He sat up on the side of the bed. He needed a shower, a cold one.

Why did she have to be a reporter? If she had any other occupation he’d be doing his best to get in her bed. He couldn’t remember when a woman had affected him the way she did. Her laugh, smile and the way she walked with those lovely curvy hips swaying back and forth held his attention.

He thought back over their conversation. Even though she’d pried, she did it respectfully. True to her word, she hadn’t asked him a single thing he couldn’t answer. And when she dug a little too deep, she’d backed off and made them chocolate chip cookie pies, her version of the whoopie pie.

She was hot. Smart and funny. The perfect combo.

But he couldn’t risk hanging out with a woman who might reveal secrets he prided himself on keeping. He might slip up, get carried away. And the last thing he needed was for his superiors to see something like that in the newspaper.

He’d been thinking about taking the honorable discharge on offer, and maybe settling down like his friends Rafe and Will. They’d all met when Will was their captain on missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Will had retired and Rafe had been in charge the day of the ambush. Rafe had all points covered. There was no way they could have anticipated the assault. There would have been a lot more casualties if they hadn’t been so prepared.

Before the memories pulled him into the darkness, Macy’s smile flashed before him.

Damn. Damn. Damn.

He needed to go for a run, but the docs said it would be another three weeks before his leg could take the pounding.

The town might be small, but they did have a health club that was open twenty-hour hours, specifically for folks who worked shifts.

Grabbing his swim shorts, he pulled on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. Throwing on his leather jacket, he was at the club in less than five minutes. A swim would be the only thing to burn off the excess energy. It was his substitute form of meditation since he couldn’t run. The club was nearly empty at four in the morning, and for that he was grateful. He didn’t have to make conversation or smile. The sleepy girl at the desk waved him by when he flashed his membership card.

Diving into the water he struck out hard, his arms and legs going at a blistering pace. After twenty or so laps, he slowed down and cleared his mind. The blank slate, his therapist suggested to calm his nerves, was hard for him to find some days. Tabula rasa, she’d called it. It was a challenge to find it when the sexy woman’s face kept popping up over and over again.

Then there was his mother who had waited up to pepper him with questions when he’d returned the night before. Macy had nothing on his mom, who kept giving him strange looks and then smiled when he said he was tired and needed to sleep.

He’d never understood women, and his mom was the most confusing of them all.

“I don’t know what that water ever did to you, but I hope you’re never that mad at me.” Macy’s voice penetrated his concentration. He nearly gulped a mouthful of water as he stopped abruptly. He was at the end of a lap, and she stood above the lane in a formfitting navy swimsuit.

Hell. The woman was trying to kill him.

His cock was so hard it hurt. He leaned up against the wall and put his arms on the side of the pool to hide the evidence.

What was he, twelve?

Get yourself under control, Marine.

“I have to give up running for a few more weeks and this is the way I meditate.”

She chewed on her lip. “I thought you did yoga, or sat and chanted to mediate.”

He smirked. “That’s awful closed-minded for someone who has traveled the world. Some people do. But I have trouble shutting off my brain if I’m not moving. When I sit still— Well. I have insomnia and sometimes exercise is the only way I can get myself to calm down.”

She sat down and dangled her legs in the water. “I hope it’s not because of what we talked about last night,” she said worriedly. “It’s my nature to push at people until they give me what I want. I tried not to do that with you, but sometimes I just can’t help myself.”

He couldn’t tell her the truth, so he lied. “No, it wasn’t that. Well, maybe a little. But not in the way you think.” He’d made a fool of himself. “Why are you here?”

She pointed through the window where a man had Harley on a treadmill. “One of the trainers from the rescue shelter is working with Harley. The treadmill is made for people who have bad joints.”

“She didn’t seem to have any trouble running around the other day.”

“No, but she shouldn’t have done it. Running like that is bad for her. We’re trying to teach her to walk at a fast pace on the treadmill. This was the only time Jack could do it. He’s a vet tech at the shelter and his shift starts at seven.

“I thought while they worked out, I’d come do some laps. I didn’t realize it was you until you made that last turn. I guess, though I never thought of it that way, swimming is my meditation, too. I do it more to make the puzzle pieces of my life and the stories I tell fit together. When I’m doing something physical, it helps me figure stuff out. And like Harley, I have a bad knee. I like running, but it doesn’t like me.”

He glanced at her left knee, there was a round puckered scar there, and then a long line that intersected it. His head snapped up, his eyes met hers. “You were hit.”

She nodded. “About three years ago. It was a through-and-through, but did some ligament damage on the way out. Nothing like what you’ve experienced.”

The thought of her being harmed brought out his protective instincts. He pulled himself up out of the water and sat beside her. “You don’t have a limp.”

“Nah. I had some great physical therapists.” She traced the scar on his right leg. “Wow, that’s nasty. Must really hurt.”

Her touch had an instant affect on him. Thankfully her eyes were fixed on his right leg and knee. The scars went from his midthigh through his knee and calf. In all he’d taken three bullets in the one leg. And another one in his back. “It’s a lot better than it was six weeks ago. What were you doing when you got hurt?”

“Researching a feature on the Arab spring. A demonstration I was covering got out of hand. Had to run for the border the first chance I got, and we were attacked. We were lucky that the marines were waiting on the other side.

“I got hit. They fired back. Luckily a navy surgeon fixed me up right away and then sent me to a good surgeon and physical therapist in Florida where he had a practice.”

“You shouldn’t have put yourself in danger like that.” The words had more of a bite than he’d meant them to. “You could have been killed.”

She pulled her fingers away from his leg as if he’d shocked her. “Uh, it’s my job to report the tough stories. And trust me, I’ve been through worse.”

Lifting her curls, she pointed to an ugly scar on the back of her neck.

The air left his lungs.

“That was the one that really scared me.” She stared at the water.

He reached out and touched the wound.

She jerked away. “But that’s a story for another day. I need to get my workout in. I’m sorry I interrupted yours.” She stood and he noticed her toenails were painted a violet color. Something about that made him smile. Then he remembered what he’d done.

“Sorry I touched you. I can’t stand violence against women. It—It’s one of my triggers.”

“Triggers for what?”

“A story for another day,” he repeated the phrase back to her. Then he grabbed a towel and wrapped it around his waist. “Have a good swim.”

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4

WHEN BLAKE TOUCHED Macy it was all she could do not to wrap her arms around him. No one had ever looked at her so tenderly or been so concerned. Her ex had been the one who sent her out on some of her roughest assignments. He’d expected her to be able to handle herself, and she did. But there was a small part of her that wished he’d worried about her once in a while. She should have known something was wrong when she called to tell him that she’d been shot and all he’d worried about was how she was going to get him the story.

She’d made the surgeon wait an hour so she could pound out ten pages and email it to the paper.

Blake would have been frantic worrying about her.

Hey, you are not turning into one of those women.

She refused to be the type of woman who needed the man in her life to save her. Macy prided herself on her independence.

Jumping into lane five, she sluiced through the water. When she thought of the marine, she tried to focus on the story she wanted to tell. But it was complicated. She didn’t quite have all the pieces yet. She needed to talk to his mother and others who knew Blake. Well, duh, the whole town knew him.

She wanted a different perspective.

The idea was just out of her grasp. She pushed herself harder and harder until ten laps later she was out of breath and hanging on to the edge of the pool in the same way Blake had earlier.

She glanced through the window to see how Harley was doing. Jack gave her double thumbs-up and she smiled.

Why couldn’t she go for a guy like Jack or even his boss, Josh? They weren’t the subjects of a story and, as far as she knew, they didn’t have any battle scars. Though, she sometimes wondered about Josh. He’d been wounded in some way. It was that haunted look in his eyes.

No one knew better than she did how those scars and secrets could weigh a soul down.

The treadmill slowed, and Jack gave Harley a treat. Climbing the ladder out of the pool, she dressed quickly.

Professional ethics kept her from loading Harley into her car and driving straight to Blake’s house. She wanted to comfort him. To hold him in her arms and maybe even slip her legs around him and absorb some of the pain he’d experienced.

When would she realize, she never did simple.

After drying Harley off with a towel, she got her settled in the SUV without any fuss. The dog was too tired to fight her. She lay across the backseat looking exhausted.

As Macy pulled up the long drive to her house, she quickly slammed on the brakes.

Harley growled at her.

The marine plaguing her thoughts sat on the tailgate of his truck more handsome than any man had the right to be.

What was going on?

Her body heated. One glance in the rearview and her cheeks were the color of primroses on a bright sunny day.

Every cell in her body screamed at her. She needed him just as much as he might need her.

Oh.

Cherie would start charging her by the hour.

But before she called her friend, she had to find out why the Blake was here in her driveway. His expression said the weight of the world was resting on his shoulders.

She let Harley out of the backseat.

“Hey,” she said as the dog ran up to Blake. He bent over and rubbed the animal’s ears.

Macy tried her best not to be jealous, but it wasn’t easy.

One small touch from Blake, and she already craved more.

“Hey,” he said eyeing her warily. “Sorry I just showed up. We need to talk.”

“About?”

“The fact that I touched you without your permission. I was taught better than that. I can write you a letter of apology if you’d like, but I thought it might mean more if I said it in person.”

She laughed. “Letters are so old-school. You could have texted me.”

He shrugged. “I kind of like the old-school ways, besides, I didn’t have your number. And there’s something else.”

“What’s that?”

“I really want to kiss you.”

She was in big, big trouble, she could confirm, because she wanted that, too.

* * *

“WOW. FOR A MARINE, you really aren’t afraid to tell it like it is.” Macy gave him a smile that didn’t quite meet her eyes. He’d made her uncomfortable, but he had to speak his mind. If she told him off, so be it, but he had to let her know how he felt.

If he’d learned anything the past six months, it was that life was short. And from his therapist, that the truth was important.

“It’s true. It’s who I am. And I understand you and I can’t— Well, that is, you have ethics. Some journalists don’t anymore, but I can see that you do. We have a connection. I’m fairly certain you’ve noticed it.”

She nodded.

Good, at least the attraction wasn’t one-sided.

“But you’re writing a story about me and that’s a conflict of interest.”

“Yes, it is.”

“So, I think I have a solution.”

She sat next to him on the tailgate and petted Harley.

“Don’t write the story.”

Immediately her back stiffened. “I can’t do that.”

“Why not? You’re the publisher of the paper, right? Your uncle left you the whole thing, so you make the decisions. Or you could have someone else write the story, though, I’m going to be honest—I wouldn’t trust anyone else.”

She sighed. “Why do you have to be so—you.”

He chuckled. “I’m not sure what that means, but do you agree with me?”

“The story is already compromised because you do strange things to me, Lieutenant Michaels.”

He lifted her chin with his fingers and waited. She nodded her approval.

“Strange things?”

“Yes,” she said softly. “I always seem to be too warm when you’re around.”

“Hmm. Maybe you have a fever.” He held the back of his hand to her forehead. Then let his fingers trail down her cheek. He leaned in to kiss her.

Harley let loose with a harsh bark.

They broke apart chuckling.

A giant head was eye level with them. Harley’s paws were up on the tailgate, and she gave them a look that said break it up.

“I think she’s hungry,” Macy suggested. “I should feed her.”

The dog grumbled.

“Do you mind if I help?”

Macy pursed her lips.

“Hands off, I promise. I won’t touch you again until you ask me.”

“This isn’t a good idea,” she said.

“What? Feeding your dog? Surely she would disagree.”

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