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"If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there shall thy hand lead me and thy right hand shall hold me."
Startled, Brianne Bailey froze. Listened. Straightened. Who in the world could be making such an awful racket?
She'd been in her kitchen, peacefully raiding the refrigerator for a quick afternoon snack, when she'd heard the first whack. Before she could determine the source, repeated pounding had built to a deafening crescendo and was echoing through the enormous house. It sounded as if a herd of rampaging elephants was trampling down her substantial mahogany front door. That, or she was being accosted by a psychopathic door-to-door salesman who knew she was there alone and hoped to frighten her into buying his wares!
Both ideas were so ludicrous they made Bree chuckle as she hurried down the hall to answer the knock. "Boy, I've been living in a world of fiction for too long," she muttered. "I'm beginning to think like the crazy characters in my stories." Which wouldn't be too bad if I were writing at the time, she added, smiling.
The hammering intensified. "Okay, okay, I'm coming," Brianne shouted. "Don't you break the stained glass in the top of that door, whoever you are. I'll never be able to replace it."
She grabbed the knob and jerked open the door, ready to continue scolding her would-be intruder. Instead, she took one look at the cause of the disturbance and gasped, slack-jawed.
The man standing on the porch with his fist raised to continue his assault on her helpless door was dirty, sweaty, scratched and bleeding, as if he'd just plunged through a green-briar thicket. He wasalso remarkably handsome in spite of his disheveled appearance. Left speechless, she wasn't having a lot of luck sucking in enough air for adequate breathing, either.
Her visitor looked to be in his mid-thirties, with dark, wavy hair and darker eyes beneath scowling brows. Standing there, facing her, he seemed larger than life. As if the pounding hadn't been enough, his reddened face was added proof of his anger, although what had upset him was a mystery to Bree. Far as she knew, she didn't have an enemy in the world.
"Can I help you?" She managed to speak.
"It's your pond," the man said, looking directly into her wide, blue eyes and pointing with a thrust of his arm. "It's cut off all my water!"
Brianne held up one hand in a calming gesture. "Whoa. There's no need to get upset. I'm sure we can work things out. Just tell me exactly what water you're talking about?"
"From the spring. Over there," he explained. "You built your new pond between my place and the spring."
"My pond? Oh, dear. Did I do something against the law?"
"I don't know. What difference does it make? By the time we finally get enough rain to finish filling that enormous hole of yours and spill over into the creek bed again, I'll be an old man."
Oddly, his comment amused her. She smiled, smoothed the hem of her knit shirt over her shorts and said, "I imagine that will be quite a long time."
"This isn't funny. I need water for my cabin."
"Which is, I take it, downhill from here?"
Certain the man wouldn't appreciate her growing humor, Bree fought a threatened eruption of giggles. "Thanks. I'm trying."
"Well?" he asked, scowling.
"Well, what? I had that valley explored before I made any changes in the landscaping up here. We did find one old cabin, but these hills are full of abandoned homesteads. Surely, you can't be talking about that decrepit old place."
"I certainly am."
"Oops. Sorry." Her smile turned apologetic. "You live there?"
"I do now."
"I see. What about your well?"
"Don't have a well. Or running water. Never have." He held up the bucket he was carrying. "That's what I've been trying to tell you."
"Why didn't you say so?"
"I thought I just did."
"Not hardly," Bree argued. "If you'd knocked on my door politely and explained your problem we could have handled this without everybody getting upset."
"Who said I was upset?"
She arched an eyebrow as she eyed him critically. "Some things are self-explanatory, Mr ."
"Fowler. Mitch Fowler."
"All right, Mr. Fowler. You can take all the water you need from my well. Will that satisfy you?"
"I guess that's my only choice." Some of the tension left him. "My Uncle Eldon and Aunt Vi used to live in the same old cabin. Maybe you knew them."
"I'm afraid not. I'm Brianne Bailey. Bree, for short." She politely offered to shake hands, waiting while Mitch wiped his on his jeans. "I'm not from around here. I "
The moment Mitch's hand touched hers she forgot whatever else she was going to say. Staring at him, she realized that he was returning her gaze with a look of equal amazement. Now that he was no longer irate, his glance seemed warmer, more appealing. It reminded her of a cup of dark, rich coffee on a cold winter's morning.
Brianne didn't know how long she stood there holding the stranger's hand, because time had ceased to register. She didn't come to her senses until she heard him clear his throat.
"I'm sorry I came on so strong just now," Mitch said, finally letting go and stepping away. "When I discovered we had no water it threw me for a loop."
"I'm sure it did." Bree eyed the bucket. "Before I get back to work I suppose I should show you where to fill that."
"That won't be necessary. It's too hot to come outside if you don't need to. Just point me in the right direction, and I'll get out of your hair."
The mention of temperature and hair together made her unconsciously lift her long, honey-blond tresses off her neck to cool her skin. Even in shorts and a sleeveless blouse she was feeling the heat, too.
"Nonsense," she said. "You look like you had to fight your way through a pack of wildcats to get up here. The least I can do is walk you out to the hose. Besides, I was taking a break, anyway."
"A break? Do you work at home?"
"Yes. I'm a writer." She waited for the usual questions about her publishing history. When they didn't come, she relaxed, smiled amiably and pointed. "This way. I need to water the new flower beds over there again, anyway. Sure wish we'd get some decent rain. It's been awfully dry lately."
"I know. At first I was afraid the spring had dried up."
Mitch stepped back to give her room to pass, then walked beside her as she led the way down the stone steps and along the path that took them around the east wing of the sprawling dwelling. In the distance lay the offending pond. Closer to the house, a bright yellow hose stood out against the green of the perfectly groomed lawn.
"You have a nice place here," Mitch said.
"Thanks. I like it."
"I do a little building, myself."
She noticed that he was assessing the newest addition to the house as they walked. "Would you like to wander around and look the place over? I don't mind."
"I'd love to but I need to get home. I didn't expect to be gone this long when I left the boys."
"Boys?" Brianne couldn't picture him as a scoutmaster leading a camp out or a Sunday school teacher taking his class on a field trip, which left only one other likely probabilityfatherhood. The notion of having one man living close by didn't bother her nearly as much as the idea of his children running rampant all over the hills, whooping and hollering and disturbing the otherwise perfect solitude she'd created in which to work.
"I have two sons," Mitch said.
"Congratulations." There was an embarrassing pause before she went on. "I can't imagine coping with any children, let alone boys."
"It isn't easy." Mitch bent to fill the bucket, not looking at her as he spoke. "Especially alone."
Curiosity got the better of her. "Oh? Are you divorced?"
"No." Mitch straightened, his expression guarded. "My wife died recently."
Open mouth, insert foot, chew thoroughly. "I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have asked. It's none of my business."
The hint of a smile lifted one corner of his strong mouth. "It's no secret that I'm single, if that's what you want to know. And I'm not grieving. Liz and I had separated long before her accident. I hadn't seen her in ages."
"Then what about?" Brianne broke off and cast a telling glance down the wooded slope in the direction of his cabin. No more questions. She'd already said enough dumb things for one day.
Mitch, however, supplied the answer to her unspoken query. "Liz took the boys away with her when she left me. It took almost three years to track them down."
The poignancy of his situation touched her heart.
"What an awful thing to go through."
"Yeah, no kidding. I've got my work cut out for me now, that's for sure, which is why I'd better get a move on. Even kids who are used to living by strict rules can get into trouble, and mine haven't had much discipline lately. Ryanhe's eightsays he's used to looking after his younger brother, but that doesn't mean they won't both be swinging from the chandeliers by the time I get home."
She was incredulous. "Wait a minute. You have no waterbut you have chandeliers in your cabin?"
"No, ma'am." Mitch chuckled. "That was just a figure of speech." Glancing toward the mansion, he added, "I think you've been surrounded by luxury too long. You're out of touch with how the rest of the world lives."
She sighed. "I suppose you could be right. I find this whole area very confusing. There aren't any neighborhoods like I'm used to back home. People just seem to build whatever kind of house they want, wherever they want it, no matter what the places next door look like." Realizing how that comment had sounded, she pulled a face. "Sorry. No offense meant."
"Don't worry about it. You can't help it if you have more money than good sense." He followed his comment with a smile so she'd realize he'd been joking.
"Hey, I'm not that wealthy."
Mitch's smile grew. "Good. Maybe there's hope for you yet. Are you famous? Maybe I've read something you wrote."
Delayed reaction but predictable questions? "I doubt that. I write women's fiction. And I didn't get rich doing it. My father passed away several years ago, and I inherited a bundle. After that, I left Pennsylvania and moved down here to Arkansas to get away from the sad memories."
Mitch hefted the heavy bucket with ease and started toward the edge of the lawn where the forest began. "Can't run from those," he said wisely. "I ought to know. No matter where you go, your past goes with you, mistakes and all."
A jolt of uneasiness hit her as she fell into step beside him. "I hope you're wrong."
"Not about that. Experience is a great teacher," he said soberly. "Well, nice to have met you, Ms. Bailey, and thanks for the water. If you ever feel like slumming, just follow this streambed about half a mile. You'll find us at the bottom of the draw." He smiled. "Bye. Gotta go."
She raised her hand tentatively in reply. She'd have done more, but a flock of butterflies had just launched themselves en masse at the sight of his dynamic parting grin, and she was busy wondering if his last glimpse of her was going to feature her keeling over in a dead faint. The notion wasn't very appealing.
"Phooey. I don't swoon," Bree whispered, wresting control of her body from her topsy-turvy emotions. "I'm just a little woozy from the heat and humidity, that's all. I've never fainted and I never will."
Besides, that poor man is saddled with two little kids, she added, silently reinforcing her growing conviction that Mitch was anything but appealing. Children. Eesh! And the oldest was only eight! What a nightmare!