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Zoe Chamberlain's vintage Volkswagen van, aqua and white with yellow daisies stenciled on the doors, rolled to a halt in the scenic vista pull-off and gave up the ghost. She wasn't too surprised. The engine had been rebuilt three times. But like knowing an aging pet was living on borrowed time, it was hard to imagine letting go.
More than anything or anyone else, Bessie-Zoe's VW bus-was the constant in a life that rarely stayed the same from one week to the next. Apparently, Bessie had decided that Silver Glen, North Carolina, was Zoe's next stop.
Zoe stepped out of the van, yawning and stretching, enjoying the cool morning air and the April sunshine. At her feet, spread out in a narrow valley between two mountainsides, lay a charming town. From this distance the houses and businesses looked like an alpine postcard. Switzerland in miniature.
Unfortunately, the quaint village did not have taxi service. As she scrolled through the options on her phone's search function, she grimaced. Her only choice for transportation appeared to be the Silver Beeches Lodge, a pricey hotel that offered shuttle service. Presumably, they had in mind trips back and forth to the nearest airport, but Zoe had no doubts about her ability to wrangle a ride.
A nomadic lifestyle meant getting along with all sorts of people in all manner of places. Zoe could blarney with the best of them. And she'd been told that her smile could melt the hardest of curmudgeons.
So here she was again. A new town. A new set of problems to handle. In her heart of hearts she knew this couldn't go on much longer. She was tired of running. And her recent illness had taken more out of her than she first realized. The excitement of seeing new horizons every week-sometimes every morning-was beginning to pall. Though she tried to ignore it, a feeling of yearning grew ever stronger. Yearning to put down roots, to feel a part of something bigger than she was.
She had used a quest for adventure as justification for her cowardice. Yes, she had seen the world. And yes, travel was broadening. But the truth was, her past was going to catch up with her. If not here, then in the next place.
It was time to face her demons and take a stand, but she wasn't ready yet. First, she needed rest and time to recoup. Making such a change would be scary.
The town below seemed incredibly peaceful. At this moment in her life, peace was a commodity to be craved. Maybe Silver Glen could offer her that. First on the agenda would be leisure and complete recovery. Once she was back on her feet, both in mind and body, she'd be ready for whatever happened. Hopefully.
She patted Bessie's fender and sighed. "Well, old girl. I guess this is where I'm hanging my hat for a little while. I'll get you towed as soon as I can. In the meantime, enjoy the view."
Liam Kavanagh spotted the slender blonde the moment she set foot in the lobby. She would be hard to miss under any circumstances, but carrying a guitar case and wearing a multicolored cotton skirt that swished around her ankles, she looked like a 1960s love child returning from an outdoor rock concert. The bounce in her step and the upward curve of her lips gave her a girl-next-door appeal.
The highly trained staff at the Silver Beeches knew to greet guests with warmth and charm. Liam had watched them in action time and again. He rarely took the time to personally interact with visitors unless they were close friends of his.
He didn't know this woman. At all. But some powerful response propelled his feet forward. Before Pierre, the concierge, could offer to help, Liam intercepted the eyecatching female. "Welcome to the Silver Beeches Lodge. May I help you?"
The woman hitched a large raffia tote higher on her shoulder and gave him a winsome smile. Her eyes were the blue of a summer sky. "I'd like to check in, please."
He lifted a mental eyebrow. Rooms in the hotel started at eight hundred a night and went up from there. This beautiful creature hardly seemed the type to avail herself of the upscale amenities, but he'd been surprised before. "Do you have a reservation?" he asked.
"I do. Made it online an hour ago. Is that a problem?"
He deserved her frown. The tone of his voice had come across as suspicious. He shrugged. "Of course not. I thought I had looked at all of today's check-ins, but I must have missed yours since it was recent. Welcome." He motioned for her to accompany him. "Marjorie, there at the desk, will take care of you. Please let me know if you need anything at all. Our wish is to make you as comfortable as possible."
"So gallant," she said, smiling at him in a way that made the back of his neck hot.
Was she mocking him? It wouldn't be the first time someone had accused him of being too serious. "It's what we do," he said, wincing at the stiffness he heard in his response. He didn't intend to be a stuffed shirt, but he'd been the head of a large and rowdy family since his father disappeared over two decades ago. The weight of his responsibility-and a certain bitterness about his father's lack thereof-didn't leave much room for lightheartedness.
He nodded briefly and excused himself as Marjorie took over. Crossing the lobby to where Pierre held court, he kept an eye on the newcomer. "Not our usual clientele."
Pierre pursed his lips. In his sixties now, he had worked for the Kavanagh family since he was a young man. He wore his formal black tuxedo with pride and ruled his realm with a firm hand. "Pretty," he said.
Liam nodded absently. He couldn't place her age. Pale skin so pure and fine it seemed almost translucent made her seem youthful, but in her serene gaze he saw the patina of experience. He wasn't sure why she fascinated him so. Perhaps because she was the antithesis of the expertly made-up women who often checked into the Lodge.
Visitors to the Silver Beeches were either retirees with plenty of disposable income, younger generations whose careers afforded them fame and fortune, or merely those who wanted to hide from the world. Privacy was an unspoken amenity. From rock stars to movie idols, from politicians to European royalty, every guest was pampered.
As a bellman came in from outside with the new guest's single suitcase, Marjorie handed a key card to the young woman and pointed her toward the elevators. When the bellman and his charge disappeared, Marjorie slipped from behind the desk and approached Liam and Pierre.
Liam frowned slightly. "Problem?"
Marjorie, a stout woman in her mid-fifties with salt-and-pepper hair, shook her head. "Not exactly. But I thought you'd want to know. She booked a basic room for six weeks."
Both men stared at her. Liam recovered first, though his gut tightened with unease. "Any problem with authorizing her method of payment?"
The seasoned receptionist shook her head. "Platinum card. No limit. But tell me-who books a reservation like that on the day of arrival? Spontaneity is one thing, but this is weird, don't you think?"
Liam kept his expression neutral with effort. Red flags were popping up all over the place, but he didn't want his staff to see that he was perturbed. "I'm sure she has her reasons."
Pierre straightened his spine, his gaze fierce. "I'll keep an eye on her, sir. If there's any funny business, I'll let you know."
Maeve Kavanagh appeared from the direction of the back stairs, her bun slightly askew and her reading glasses dangling from a chain around her neck. Liam's mother was a vibrant sixty-year-old with dark snapping eyes and a nose for sniffing out trouble. "You all three look like you've eaten a lemon. What's going on?"
Liam kissed her on the cheek. "Not a thing. Marjorie checked in a new guest. We were merely speculating about her background."
Maeve sniffed. "Not your place," she said firmly. "You know I can't abide gossip."
Liam smiled wryly. "Yes, ma'am. I remember." Inwardly, he was far less amused. The irregularities about the new guest's booking set his teeth on edge. He hated mysteries and secrets. His father's hidden life had nearly destroyed their family. And in the end had led to Reggie Kavanagh's premature death.
The one trait Liam couldn't abide in a woman, or a man for that matter, was a predilection to bend the truth. Even if the potential prevaricator came wrapped in a very appealing package.
Before he could give in to the temptation to initiate further contact with the blonde, he managed a smile for his mother and Pierre and Marjorie. "If you three will excuse me, I have some calls to make." Striding down the hall to his office, he told himself he was jumping to conclusions.
The newcomer could have any number of valid reasons for deciding on the spur of the moment to stay alone at a pricey hotel for six weeks.
Trouble was, despite his best efforts, Liam couldn't come up with a single one.
Zoe grilled the bellman on the way upstairs. "So tell me. Who's the yummy guy that looks like a young Harrison Ford?"
The teenage bellhop grinned. "That's Mr. Kavanagh. Mr. Liam Kavanagh. His family owns the Silver Beeches. Well, that and most of the town, as well."
"He works for a living?" She was surprised. In her experience, the uberrich kept to themselves as much as possible.
The young man waited politely for her to step out of the elevator when they reached the top floor. "Every one of the Kavanagh men does something. They were brought up to respect a hard day's work, even though the whole family is richer than God. Mr. Liam manages the hotel along with his mother."
Inside the room, Zoe reached in her bag for a generous tip that made the kid's eyes light up. "Thanks for your help," she said.
He bowed awkwardly. "All you have to do is dial the front desk if you need anything. Room service is available 24/7. In the center drawer of the dresser you'll find listings about all the restaurants here and off-site as well. Welcome to Silver Glen."
Alone in her luxurious new quarters, Zoe opened the armoire and smiled as she imagined how little of the space her belongings would fill. Learning to travel light had been a necessary lesson, and one she had mastered long ago. Nevertheless, she carefully unloaded her suitcase and put away everything she had brought with her. Being neat was perhaps a relic of her parents' influence, the one trait she couldn't shake.
There were still a few items in the van, but nothing she needed urgently. She turned in a slow circle, taking in every detail of her new accommodations. Here in the mountains of North Carolina, one might have expected a more rustic decor, but the Silver Beeches Lodge was elegant in the extreme.
The lobby alone telegraphed that message. Italian marble floors. Sparkling chandeliers. Priceless Oriental rugs of massive size. Enormous urns filled with fresh flowers. It had taken Zoe only moments to decide that Bessie had been correct about her silent suggestion. Zoe needed to rest, and this lovely hotel promised to be peaceful.
Never mind that it cost an arm and a leg. Her usual lifestyle was lean and frugal, so this splurge would not break the bank. Besides, after the winter she had endured, she deserved a little pampering.
Walking barefoot across the plush ivory carpet, she opened her guitar case and removed the instrument. The comfy bay-window seat was covered in crimson velvet. Poor Bessie would never have made it up the incline to the hotel. The Silver Beeches Lodge had literally been built into the side of the mountaintop, and its location gave guests a bird's-eye view of the valley floor far below.
Zoe curled her legs beneath her and bent her head over the instrument that had traveled so many miles with her. Strumming it absently, she hummed a tune that had been dancing in her head. She'd had to resist the urge to coax the bellhop into lingering for a bit to answer her questions about the hotel owner. Just because she was lonely was no reason to get the kid in trouble.
Her reaction to meeting Liam Kavanagh was the equivalent of experiencing a crush on a movie star. His in-your-face masculinity made her feel dainty and feminine. She might even have swooned a little bit. Even now, her throat flushed as she remembered the way he looked at her. The man was a walking fantasy. She glanced out the window and sighed.
Night was falling rapidly, and shadows crept across the valley. Her stomach rumbled. She remembered that her last meal had been an orange and a Diet Coke at a rest stop on I-40. She wished she could go into town and explore, but until Bessie was fixed, she was stuck here in the hotel. Dialing room service, she ordered a large dinner, including a serving of tiramisu. She was still a good fifteen pounds underweight, so the extra calories wouldn't hurt her.
After finishing her larger-than-normal meal, she felt both satiated and guilty. Changing into yoga pants and a sports bra, she checked the hotel directory and discovered that the workout facility was located on the basement level. She threw a light jacket over her shoulders, more for modesty than anything else, grabbed her room key and a bottle of water, and slipped out the door.
Liam strained with all his might as he lifted the challenging weights in one last rep. Red-faced and sweating, he wiped his forehead and neck with a towel, realizing ruefully that the punishing exercise had not dulled the throbbing arousal that plagued him.
He wasn't sporting an erection, but his body hummed with the need for sex. It had been too long, and the blonde who checked in that afternoon was exactly the type he found irresistible. Her silky hair brushed her shoulder blades. Though she was thin, her curves were all woman.