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Someone was on his beach.
Frowning, Luke Turner stopped halfway down the forty wooden steps that led to what was supposed to be a private beach on the shores of Lake Michigan. But the brim of a large, floppy hat peeked above the wide swath of tall grass between the base of the steps and the open sand. And it was low to the ground. Meaning the woman who owned it was sitting, not just pausing to admire the view while strolling by.
A definite breach of beach etiquette in this part of the world.
Stifling a sigh, he resettled the frame of his chair on his shoulder, took a sip of coffee from his mug and resumed his descent. He hadn't planned to start his visit to Pier Cove with a confrontation. He'd seen enough conflict during his past ten years as an army doctor to last a lifetime. Now that his enlistment was up, he just wanted some quiet time to reacclimatize to civilian life, complete one final mission before heading home to Atlanta and the E.R. job that awaited him, and chill.
And he'd planned to do a lot of that chilling on his private beach.
At the bottom of the steps, he stopped again to take another sip of coffee. He didn't want to make a scene. But he didn't appreciate trespassers, either. When Mark had offered him the use of his place, he'd said the house next door, which shared the beach, had been unoccupied since the owner died last fall. Luke was well within his rights to tell the woman to move on.
And maybe this would be easy. It was possible she was a vacationer who didn't know most Michigan beaches were private. If so, he could direct her to the public beach a short stroll away. Then he could enjoy this sunny Saturday morning in peaceful isolation.
Fortified by that little pep talk, he followed the narrow path through the swaying grass and stepped onto the sand.
The interloper was angled slightly away from him, seated in a beach chair, her long, shapely legs stretched in front of her, a pair of flip-flops askew in the sand beside them, as if she'd kicked them off. She was wrapped in a gaudy beach towel to ward off the morning chill Mark had warned him was common on the lakeshore even in mid-July, and her eyes were hidden behind sunglasses. Shoulder-length blond hair peeked beneath the brim of her hat, and her head was bent as she perused a book. Beside her, a thermos was stuck into the top of an overflowing beach bag, and she was juggling a mug of coffee in one hand.
In other words, she was settled in for the duration.
Bracing himself, Luke cleared his throat.
At the sound, the woman jerked toward him. The coffee sloshed out of her mug, and she yelped as the hot liquid splashed onto her skin.
Nice approach, Turner. Scare her half to death.
Luke took a step forward. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you."
Keeping a wary eye on him, she dumped the rest of her coffee into the sand and struggled out of the low-slung chair.
The book slid off her lap as she rose, and the towel slipped from around her shoulders. She grabbed it but not before he got a good look at her rounded figure.
She was pregnant.
And apparently unmarried.
Her empty ring finger was front and center as she readjusted the towel around her shoulders and clutched it in front of her.
So was the pink spot on the back of her other hand. He took another step toward her, eyeing the burn. "Cold water will "
She stumbled back, almost tripping over her chair on the uneven sand. He stopped. So did she.
But she scanned the beach, as if seeking help?
Although he couldn't see much of her face under the large hat, and her eyes were hidden behind the glasses, he was picking up fear. Not just leftover fear from being startled, but panic almost. She seemed poised to flee. As if she thought he might become violent.
Did he look that angry?
Maybe. More than one medic had told him he was intimidatingespecially when aggravated. Plus, at six-one he usually had a height advantage in any confrontation. And today he had a big one. The woman across from him couldn't be more than five-three, five-four. But he wasn't that mad about her being on his beach.
He forced his taut features to relax and summoned up a smile. "I'm not in the habit of "
"This is a private beach."
At her accusatory tone, his smile faded. "Yes, it is. My beach, as a matter of fact."
Her brow wrinkled. "No, it's my beach. Maybe you got turned around coming through the grass."
"Maybe you did." He gestured toward the top of the bluff with his mug. "I'm staying at Mark Lewis's place. I got in late last night."
The creases marring her forehead deepened. "I live next door."
Luke didn't try to hide his skepticism. "Mark told me the owner of that house had died and the place was empty."
The muscles in her throat contracted as she swallowed. "The owner was my grandmother. She passed away in October. I inherited the house and moved in four months ago."
Although the woman still seemed nervous, she tipped up her chin and held her ground.
Spunky little thing.
Luke took a sip of his coffee as he mulled over her claim. Mark had been out of the country for months, on an overseas assignment for his company. It was possible he wasn't up-to-date on his neighbors. And this woman didn't appear to be lying. Nor did she seem to be any happier about sharing the beach than he was.
He surveyed the strip of sand. It was narrow, but wide. They ought to be able to make this work.
"I'll tell you whatwhy don't we start over, seeing that we'll be neighbors for a few weeks?" Once more he tried out a smile. Setting his mug on the sand, he moved toward her and extended his hand. "Let me introduce"
Her grip on the towel tightened, and she took another step back.
Flummoxed, he stopped a few feet away, his hand still extended. What was with her, anyway? Maybe they hadn't gotten off on the best foot, but he hadn't done anything threatening.
As she secured the towel around her shoulders, his gaze dropped to the pink spot on her hand. It was turning red, and he suspected a blister would soon form.
He dropped his hand and nodded toward hers. "You need to put that under cold water. And it would help to cover it with sterile gauze. Cutting off the air will ease the discomfort and protect the skin. I have some if you need it."
"Thanks. I'll be fine."
She worked her feet into her flip-flops, then retrieved her mug and book and shoved them into the beach bagall the while keeping tabs on him. Slinging the canvas tote over her shoulder, she folded up her chair, tucked it under her arm and started toward the stairs.
The thought of her trying to navigate the steep, narrow steps in her condition while juggling the chair and tote sent a chill down Luke's spine.
"Why don't you let me help you with some of that?" He fell in behind her.
Throwing an alarmed glance over her shoulder, she picked up her pace. "I can manage. I do this all the time. Thanks." The expression of gratitude was tacked on, like an afterthought.
He fell back, watching as she plunged into the tall grass and followed the faint path, holding his breath while she labored up the wooden steps. When she took a quick look back toward the beach from the top, he raised a hand in farewell.
She ignored him.
Five seconds later she disappeared, heading toward the small bungalow tucked among the trees that he'd noticed from his bedroom window this morning.
Talk about strange encounters.
Shaking his head, he picked up his mug and moved farther down the beach, near the edge of the property line. As far away from the pregnant blonde's spot as possible. They might have to share the beach, but it was big enough for both of them. Better yet, his privacy should be safe. His neighbor didn't strike him as the warm, friendly, talkative type.
As he unfolded his chair, Luke tried to look on the bright side. If he had to have a neighbor, at least she wasn't part of some large, noisy family with a passel of kids who would disrupt his coveted and much-anticipated beach time.
Of course, it was possible his aloof beach mate had a husband or boyfriend or kids stashed in the bungalow. But some sixth sense told him she was here alone.
So where was the baby's father? Why wasn't he here to help her carry stuff up and down the steps?
Not your problem, Turner.
Determined to put his solitary neighbor out of his mind and enjoy the expansive view of the sparkling lake, Luke settled into his chair. He'd spent the past ten years caring about people in distress. Sometimes too much. Combat medicine was brutal, the injuries grievous, the mortality rate high. Eventually, the loss of life ate at your gut. He was here to heal. To keep a promise. To move on.
The last thing he needed was one more person to worry about.
As she held her hand under the cold running water in her kitchen sink, Kelsey Anderson focused on the dazzling expanse of blue water stretching to the horizon.
In the four months since she'd moved into the sturdy little cottage that had been built to withstand the brutal winter winds and ice of the Michigan lakeshore, this view had always calmed her. It carried her back to the carefree visits of her youth, when she and her parents and sister had come here for two or three weeks every summer. And it was the same view that had consoled her when she and Gram came alone all the summers after her mom died, while her dad had been working and her older sister had been busy with her part-time job.
But thanks to a tall, dark-haired man with broad shoulders, a powerful chest and biceps that were more scary than impressive, it didn't console her today.
If she had to have a neighbor, why couldn't it have been a single woman? Or an older couple? Or a family?
Why did it have to be a strong, lone male?
A shiver ran through her, and she turned off the tap. But memories, not cold water, accounted for her sudden chill. Memories she'd been trying hard to contain. And she'd done a good job of that.
Taking a calming breath, she examined the coffee burn on the back of her right hand. A blister had formed, and when she flexed her fingers the patch stung. Her neighbor had suggested she cover it with gauze, but how many people kept gauze in their house? A Band-Aid would have to suffice.
As she rummaged through her first aid supplies in the bathroom vanity, she tried not to let the stranger's appearance ruin her day. But she always looked forward to her solitary Saturday mornings on the beach. She relished those quiet early hours before she opened her quilt shop for the weekend.
That peaceful interlude wasn't going to happen today, though.
And perhaps not again until her neighbor left.
Unfortunately, he'd mentioned being here for a few weeks. That would take them to the end of summerand the end of morning weather conducive to sitting on the beach.
But maybe the allure of the sand and surf would wear off for him after a few days, and she'd have it to herself again. That often happened with visitors.
At least she could hope.
The view was great, and Luke shifted around in his beach chair, trying to unwind and enjoy it. But he couldn't find a comfortable position. Instead of chilling out, he felt restlessand more than a little guilty. He was sorry now about chasing off the jittery blonde. She seemed as much in need of a quiet respite as he did.
His relaxing morning a bust, Luke gave up. He had things to do anyway. Unpack, stock up on some groceries in Douglas or Saugatuck, get his thoughts together for Monday's meeting. He could try the beach again tonight. Watch the sunset, perhaps. They were supposed to be spectacular around here.
After draining his mug in the sand, he rose, he folded up his chair and set off for the steps.
As he waded through the tall grass, a book lying in the sand caught his eye. The one the blonde had shoved into the top of her beach bag before her hasty departure.
He bent to retrieve it, flipping the cover over to read the title: Banishing FearHow to Find Courage in Christ.
A woman of faith. Interesting.
An interesting title, too.
What was his neighbor afraid of? And why was she seeking courage?
Weighing the book in his hand, he debated what to do with it. He doubted she'd appreciate him showing up at her door. Especially holding a book with a revealing title like this. But he couldn't leave it in the sand, either.
She had a back porch, though. He'd glimpsed it this morning from his bedroom window. If he left it there, there'd be no need for face-to-face contact.
Decision made, he started up the steps. It was a long haul, and despite his stringent exercise regime, he was breathing harder after the steep climb. As he paused at the top, he glanced at the back of the bungalow next door, visible through the trees that divided the properties. The trek up would have been a lot tougher for his pregnant neighbor. Based on the quick glimpse he'd gotten when her towel had slipped, she was seven or eight months alongand she'd been lugging a lot more stuff than he was.
Yet she'd refused his offer of assistance.
A woman of mystery, no question about it.
He made a quick detour to lean his beach chair against one of the two Adirondack chairs behind Mark's Cape Cod-style, white clapboard house, setting his mug on the chair's broad arm. Then he crossed the lawn, circled around the woods and headed for his neighbor's porch.
His step faltered, however, as the screened structure came into view.
She was inside.
He'd have turned around at onceexcept he didn't like what he saw. She was balanced on a ladder, reaching toward the fixture in the ceiling. Attempting to change a lightbulb.
And the ladder didn't look any too stable.
He lengthened his stride.
All at once, as if to reinforce his conclusion, the ladder wobbled. As he broke into a sprint, she clutched at the sides, dropping the replacement bulb in the process. He heard it shatter as he took the two porch steps in one leap, opened the door and grabbed for the ladder, tossing the book he was carrying onto a wicker settee.