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How long are you going to sit on that motorcycle, pal?
Peering through the rain-splattered front window of her big, rectangular kitchen, Kat O'Brien wondered if the guy even breathed. At least fifteen minutes had gone by and he hadn't moved. Not a muscle, not a gloved fingertip. No, draped in a yellow slicker, he sat still as a stone carving on the leather seat of the big black bike parked in her circular driveway staring ahead at the surrounding evergreens, leafless birch and maples and verdant winter undergrowth. Perhaps the hammering February sleet had frozen his body in place and it merely waited for a gust of wind to topple it and the bike to the ground.
God forbid, Kat thought.
Well, she couldn't stand here all afternoon ogling the fellow. If he'd come as a potential guest to her bed-and-breakfast, he'd knock on the door when he was ready.
Or if he had gotten lost, sooner or later he'd crank the machine and boot it back to the village proper, a mile up Shore Road.
Restless, she returned to making cookies on the large wooden worktable, the one her late husband had constructed when he was alive, when his big laugh and voice boomed throughout the Victorian he inherited from his grandparents before he married Kat.
Again, she glanced toward the window. Seldom was she leery about her guests, and those she instinctively had gut-twinges about, she didn't book. However, the majority of her customers were annual returnees, folks loving the peace and quiet, the bit of wilderness offered within the hills and forests of Firewood Island. But this stranger had driven slowly up the lane to park and stare at God-knew-what.
Come on, mister, she thought for the tenth time. Make up your mind.
A shiver scurried along her arms. She told herself if his intentions were unsavory, he would not have ridden up on a guttural Harley-Davidson. Yet, she wasn't a fool. She always kept her doors locked, and she never questioned her instincts.
Currently, both her rental cabins stood empty. It was, after all, the last Tuesday of February. With fewer vacationers during the winter season in Washington's Puget Sound, she was thankful that at least one man Dane Rainhart, who'd been her older sister's boyfriend twenty years agohad booked the smaller cabin last week. He was due to arrive tomorrow for a three-month sabbatical, though from what Kat didn't know.
After putting the third cookie sheet in the oven, she set a candle centerpiece on the ten-seater rectangular oak table that had been in the O'Brien family for eighty years.
Should she stand on the veranda, yell out to gain the guy's attention? Go tap his shoulder or his wet, glossy helmet?
Pressing her lips together to hold back a chuckle, she pictured her eleven-year-old son, Blake, rapping on the helmet . Yo, dude. Anybody home in there? Good thing school was in session for another hour.
Well, hopefully, before the school bus arrived, the man would come to his senses.
Sighing, she slanted another look toward the country-paned front window. Biker-man hadn't budged. Rain gear and big black boots aside, he had to be chilled to the bone.
"Okay, mister," she muttered. "Enough already."
She checked the oven clockten minutes leftand headed for the mudroom to grab her red quilted vest off a hook and the orange umbrella out of the stone crock next to the boot shelf. Striding from the kitchen, Kat hurried across the living room to the front entry.
"Either you come in," she grumbled, stepping outside, "or find yourself another driveway to view."
She slammed the door. Not a muscle moved on his body.
Was he dead?
Certainly, he had to be cold. Heck, he had to be frozen.
The veranda's downspouts gushed water into a pair of stocky wooden barrels. The American flag her late husband, Shaun, had hung when they first opened the B and B, drooped like a drenched sheet from its pole-to-pillar attachment.
Flipping up the umbrella, Kat jogged down the six wide steps and strode toward the motorcycle. Under her shoes the lane's gravel lay slick with sleet, while her umbrella vibrated under the onslaught of snow and rain. Relentless since yesterday, the inclement weather chilled the air and vaporized her breath.
"Hi," she said, approaching the man's right side. "Lost your way?"
For the first time, he stirred, turning his head slowly in her direction. Her breath staggered. His irises were the electric-blue of the summer delphiniums she grew in the corners of the porch steps, and his lashes the rain had clumped them into long dark spears. At first glance, she assumed he was a California beach-bumhis skin sported a deep bronze color. But looking into his cold eyes, she realized the last place he'd want to be was on some beach.
She lifted her free hand, gathered her wits. "I think you made a wrong turn down my road."
His gaze traveled past her shoulder, to the oval sign next to the flag, the wooden sign she'd painted with a border of ivy and delicate white flowers circling scripted gold lettering that read, The Country Cabin.
"I don't think so." The last word cracked before his eyes settled on her again. "You Kat O'Brien?"
"I am." She offered a smile and tried not to stare at how the slick plastic bill of his helmet caught the rain, trickling water onto his cheek in a jagged line following a scar on his whiskery jaw.
Unhurriedly, he removed the helmet and she saw that his neatly trimmed hair was the tarnished-gold color of a harvested grain field.
"I'm Dane Rainhart." His voice was deep, rough. "I'm a day early."
Kat blinked. Dane Rainhart? When she'd accepted his booking eight days ago, heard his name, a mental picture of a tall, gangly teenager emerged. Seventeen years old, frequenting her mother's house with a bunch of high school kids, looking to hook up with Kat's older sister Lee.
Good grief. When had that boy changed into this manthis hollow-cheeked, stone-faced man?
Stepping back, Kat reined in her flustered senses. Once, eons before, she'd had a little crush on her sister's boyfriend.
Little, Kat? Try huge. At night you used to squirm in bed thinking about him. And, all right. Since his call she'd reminisced about those days. Childhood memories, nothing more. Nothing.
Dane Rainhart had been a silly schoolgirl fantasy before she grew up, attended college and married the love of her life. Simply put, Rainhart's request to rent one of her cabins meant one thing only: a steady three-month income.
Wrapping herself in a cloak of no nonsense, she said, "Why don't you put your bike in the carport and come inside?" Then she headed around the side of the house, pointed to the empty spot next to her old red Honda Civic and waited as her guest walked the motorcycle into the stall. Watching him kick out the stand while his rain gear covered the cement floor in mini-pools of water, she realized he stood much taller than he had in her memories.
He set the helmet on the bike's seat, tugged off the wet slicker and draped it over the handlebars. From the carport's entrance, Kat had a crystal view. This was the boymanwho, more than two decades before, had gazed at her sister with a yearning equal to Kat's own at thirteen, looking at him.
Stripped of the rain gear, he wore a bomber jacket and black leather pants as pliable as bread dough. Did he have any idea how those two garments outlined his shoulders, biceps, thighs ?
Don't look further!
She forced her gaze up, but already the tightening had begun deep in her abdomen, and she recognized its source. Dane Rainhart, her teenaged heartthrob, had grown into a powerful, sexy man.
And she'd been a widow for four years, a widow unable to describe the ache of missing her husband.
The man beside the Harley simply brought that loss home.
Across twenty feet of carport, Dane studied the woman silhouetted in the entryway. Her orange umbrella and red vest threw splashes of vibrant color onto the dreary afternoon. Of average height and with a runner's frame, she could pass for a young girluntil a closer check confirmed the slight swell under the vest and the curve of denim at her hips.
She took a step back into the rain. "Come," she said. "We'll get you registered."
"Is it okay that I'm early?" He had worried the cabin wouldn't be available.
"It's fine." Then, as if she had access to his mind, "Your cabin's ready."
With a nod, he followed her through a side door to the back of the house where a cedar deck extended across half its length. Beyond a sketch of lawn and flower garden were two log cabins sheltered within the forest. The larger one stood to the left. A structure a third its size, which Dane assumed would be his for the next twelve weeks, stood to the right.
He couldn't wait to vanish behind its walls.
At the rear door of the house, the woman collapsed her umbrella, shook off the excess water. The nylon covering gone, he noticed her hair was thick and straight as a mare's mane. Curving an inch below her pale jaw, the dark locks framed her face in the same way wooden ovals once framed his granny's ancestral portraits.
"Don't worry about taking off your boots," she said as they entered a spotless mudroom. "Just wipe your feet on the mat."
After setting the umbrella to dry in a tall crock, she led him into an expansive country kitchen. Immediately, his mouth salivated at the aroma and sight of dozens of cookies cooling on tea towels spread across a green worktable with pots dangling overhead.
"Do you like oatmeal raisin cookies?" she asked, passing by the treats.
"Don't mind 'em." He couldn't recall the last time he'd tasted a homemade cookie. Hell, make that homemade anything.
She paused, her brown eyes amused. "Grab a couple, if you want. My son loves them, says they're better than chocolate chip. And that's something coming from a prepubescent boy."
"Thanks." Dane took a cookie between his gloved fingers, savored its scent, then pulled open a panel of his coat and slid the treat into his shirt pocket.
She has a kid. His gaze tracked her to a door opposite the dining area, where she disappeared into another room. Of course, she does, fool. Why wouldn't she?
Because the possibility hadn't crossed his mind when he booked the cabin. He'd thought the owner or owners were older, with kids out of home or, at the very youngest, in high school. He hadn't expected the girl-next-door as a landlord, and he sure as hell hadn't expected preteens to live within a baseball pitch of where he'd be setting his boots on a mat.
Speaking of which He glanced over his shoulder. There hadn't been a single male articleboots or shoes, coat or ballcap, fishing pole or golf clubin that mudroom. All Dane saw were a couple of smaller jackets and a pink pair of those rubbery shoes women wore to garden.
Was she separated? Divorced? Widowed?
Why do you give a damn, Dane? You're here to hide and lick your wounds, remember?
She stuck her head around the doorjamb. "Dane?"
Ignoring her familiar use of his name, he crossed the kitchen and entered a small neat office with a beat-up desk, two metal filing cabinets and a window viewing the circular driveway. Posters of her cabins and the main house, along with maps of the village of Burnt Bend and Firewood Island, decorated one wall. His gaze fell to a photo on her desk of a barrel-chested man in a fisherman's hat, laughing at the camera, bear paw hand resting on the shoulder of a tow-haired preschooler. Husband and son?
Behind the desk, Kat O'Brien smiled. "You don't remember me, do you?"
"Should I?" And then, because he'd grown up on the island, he added, "Did we go to school together?"
"I'm Lee Tait's sister. You used to come to my mother's house when you were in high school."
Dane studied the woman across the desk, his memories scrambling back and back. And then it hit. Except this woman couldn't be the dark-eyed sprite once nagging her sister to be included in their group. Could she? "You're Kaitlin?"
"Kat," she corrected. "When I turned sixteen, I wanted a name that sounded fun, so I resigned Kaitlin to the " her fingers made air quotes " official drawer."
When he said nothing, when he could only stare, her smile slipped. Setting a pen on the registration book, she said, "I'll also need to include your driver's license on your registration form. Then I'll show you the cabin."
He felt those keen eyes observe his gloved hands as he wrote. Forcing himself to keep his head down, to not blurt, Be thankful you can't see the scars, he focused on his breathing. In his peripheral vision, he saw her turn momentarily to one of the metal cabinets.
"Your key," she said handing it over the instant he completed the information. Then, chin up, spine stiff, she led him out the door. "If you choose to eat with us," she said, locking up the office, "breakfast is at eight a.m. each morning, except Sunday when it's at nine. Lunch and dinner are your responsibility. However, I will set out refreshments and snacks at four p.m. on the dinner table." She nodded to the dining section where a long table, stationed in front of a wall-size, country-paned window, faced the circular drive. "You're also welcome to use the guest living room, back deck or sit on the porch gliders. The rest of the house is off-limits."
"Does the cabin have a kitchen?" he asked. Standing in her kitchen with its floor to ceiling cupboards, he noted the bow of her mouth, the way it tilted at the corners as though anticipating that fun she mentioned.
"Yes, both cabins are fully outfitted."
He glanced at her commercial Sub-Zero refrigerator, imagined the food inside, the ten summer guests seated around her table, chatting, laughing, asking each other questions. Though a stab of guilt pierced him, he was infinitely glad the current cold temperatures would give him an excuse to stay in the cottage and refrain from her listed amenities.
He headed for the mudroom, intent on leaving for the privacy of his cabin.
She followed. "I'll show you the way."
Before he could say, I know where it is. I booked the smaller cabin, remember? she zipped past him, grabbed the umbrella and was out the back door, her baked cookie scent swirling in his lungs.
Dane stepped onto the deck. Thankfully, a wet gust of wind eradicated her from his nostrils and he inhaled deep to ensure no trace remained. He did not want her image branded into his brain.
Yet he trailed her and that silly umbrella across the strip of wet lawn, up a flagstone path, to the log building sporting another rain-drenched flag, although smaller than the one welcoming visitors onto the veranda of her house.
Kaitlin O'Brien was a patriot.
He couldn't get inside the safety of the cabin fast enough.