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Cooper Grant sipped at his coffee leisurely, as if he had all the time in the world. Which he did, as long as she was here. And since the little café had just opened for the day, and her shift had obviously just begun, she was going to be here for a while.
The woman flicked a glance in his direction, but again it wasn't as if she thought he was watching her. She didn't seem aware of him in particular; she was keeping her eye on all the occupied tables. Which were numerous this time of day; the Waterfront was obviously the place to meet in the morning in tiny Port Murphy.
Of course, he thought wryly, it was also the only place in town open at this hour, and darned near the only place in town at all.
No, he didn't think she knew he was watching her.
But she acted like she was afraid someone was. Odd.
He took another long sip, savored the rich flavor; the little town's only full-time eatery had the coffee down right. And the food, too, if his nose was any judge; the smells wafting around were enough to make him wish he'd ordered a real breakfast instead of just toast and coffee. The place might be old and look a bit shabby, but the kitchen in the back corner was spotless, and the thin, wiry man with the poker face and the Navy tattoo on his forearm ran it with what Cooper guessed was military precision.
In the moments when she was busy taking an order from a group of four who were seated at a corner table, he took another glance out the window. It was hard not to get lost in the postcard-worthy tableau. The picturesque little cove dotted with boats—one of them his own, on an offshore mooring— the rows of little houses, some brightly colored enough to stand out like gems scattered on the hillsides, and the already snow-capped mountains in the distance.
Getting downright poetic, Grant, he thought. And turned his attention back to his quarry, the brunette with the pixie haircut, the heavy, dark-rimmed glasses, and the oversized T-shirt with the café logo. This was about the only time she was still, when taking an order. The rest of the time she flitted around like a hummingbird, always moving, never lingering, but keeping everything efficiently handled.
As she turned to take the next order his gaze shot back to the right side of her face, and the small mole just in front of her ear. His mouth quirked. He didn't really blame himself for needing the reassurance; she'd transformed herself so completely that if it wasn't for that mole, he'd still be searching.
But once he'd seen it, he'd compared the other things that didn't change, the shape of that ear, the lines of the jaw, nose, mouth—and once he'd gotten close enough to see that despite the black-rimmed glasses she was wearing contact lenses, which would explain the brown eyes instead of blue—he'd known he'd found her.
He took a sip of the excellent coffee, thinking about the phone call he was looking forward to making, to tell his client his wait was over. He pictured the reunion between Tristan Jones and his little sister, and felt the warmth of a satisfaction that was all too rare in his life.
Although he did wonder about the transformation. A haircut was one thing, but the dye job, and above all the disguising contact lenses? What was that all about? He understood the need for change after tragedy and trauma—understood it all too well—but what did totally changing your appearance accomplish?
It had to be a girl thing, he decided finally. And he'd given up trying to understand those.
He watched as she turned in the order from the table in the corner, spoke briefly with the cook, checked to be sure no new diners had arrived, then picked up the pot of fresh coffee off the warmer. He actually enjoyed watching her. He appreciated efficiency, in whatever realm. She certainly didn't act like a nut case, but what did he know?
She started, as usual, with the table nearest the door. If she ran true to form, she would circle back to the counter after the tables, starting at the far end, which meant she would get to him last. Which was why, after three days of observing her, he'd chosen this seat near the door.
Well, that and the fear that if she realized he was looking for her she might panic and run. He wasn't sure why she was so edgy, but he couldn't deny that she clearly was. No ordinary person on an ordinary day was so hyperaware of everything around her; the slightest movement outside, even a seagull landing on the railing, drew her eye. He wondered if she was having some kind of trouble that was making her so wary, but it seemed at odds with this place that appeared to be the epitome of peace and quiet.
He watched as she refilled cup after cup. She was quick yet didn't seem hurried, a nice knack in this job.
You'd never guess that eight months ago she was seen more often in silk, satin and stiletto heels than jeans and baggy T-shirts, Cooper thought.
And then she was there, pot in hand, giving him the practiced smile of a waitress as she gestured with the coffeepot.
"Top it off for you?"
He nodded, pushing the heavy mug toward her on the polished countertop. "Great coffee."
"It keeps people coming," she said with that same, neutral smile.
"I can see why. Not," he said as he took the mug back, "that there's much competition."
To her credit, the smile widened into something more genuine, less practiced. "There is that," she agreed.
In that moment an odd sensation swept through him. He felt the strongest urge to violate his client's orders and tell her. To put an end to the hell she'd been through, was still living in. Maybe it was simply that that had made her so twitchy; things like that awful night affected different people in different ways. He was living proof of that.
But Tristan Jones was calling the shots, and he kept silent. About that, anyway. Instead he went with a safe newcomer-to-local question that had the added advantage of being true.
"Cooper Grant," he said, holding out a hand. She gestured with the coffeepot, dodging the handshake. He let it pass; he was still feeling his way, carefully. "I'm looking for a place to dock my boat for a while. You're a local, right? Any ideas?"
She set down the pot. Her brow furrowed very slightly as she pondered the inquiry. In an unconscious gesture she reached up beneath the glasses and pushed at the skin around her right eye. Then she caught herself and stopped.
Contacts are bothering her, he thought. And wondered again why she'd done it. If it hadn't been for the glasses, he would have thought she just wanted a change, some women were that way, he guessed. But both? That spoke of disguise, and that stumped him.
"There's a couple of guest berths at the marina," she said in answer to his question.
"Checked. They're full."
She nodded as if she'd expected as much. "How long?"
To most people, that sounded fairly big. To someone used to the kind of yachts owned by the people Tanya and Jeremy Brown mingled with, it was a runabout. But her only reaction was to get more thoughtful. "Power? Sail?"
This might actually work, he thought. He'd learned from the woman behind the register that she was renting a place by the water, so he'd risked it on the chance she knew somebody with a dock. And the way she was reacting made him think he was right. She had thought of something. Something that perhaps depended on the depth of his boat's keel. Thankfully, his answer should resolve that.
"Where is it now?"
"On the last mooring out in the cove. Not sure I trust it, either. Seems a bit loose. Last night I swear I drifted a few feet."
"You're sleeping out there?"
"For the most part I live aboard, go wherever I want."
He watched her face for a reaction; living aboard a boat tended to be something people saw the appeal of either immediately, or never. She appeared to fall into the first group, judging by the slight smile that curved her mouth. The mouth that was still cupid's-bow perfect, even without the high sheen of fancy lipsticks or gloss that had been the norm in the pictures her brother had sent him.
"Sounds nice," she said.
"No roots," he pointed out, since that was the complaint most women had. Then wondered why he'd bothered.
"No ties," she answered, as if it were a good thing.
Interesting, he thought. Most women thought that a negative. "Well, one," he amended. "Every couple of months I go check on my mom."
He couldn't believe he'd pulled that one out. True, it usually won him some points with whatever woman he was trying to impress, and it had the advantage of being fact. But this woman was just a job; he wasn't trying to impress her. The woman in the photographs, maybe, but this quiet, plain little wren?
God, I really am that shallow, he thought ruefully.
And he'd lost track of one of his most basic rules; outward appearances rarely told the full story.
"Where's your mom?"
"Over on the dry side," he said. "Spokane."
"Hard to sail there from here."
"That's what buses are for."
Something flickered in her expression, and he wondered if she was thinking of her own bus trip here. But whatever it was, she didn't dwell on it.
"How long do you need the berth for?"
"Week, maybe two. I've got some maintenance and tuning to do. She's overdue."
With luck, he'd be done here well before two weeks, probably closer to two days once he made that call, but he was toying with the idea of staying anyway. There was something immensely appealing—and soothing—about the little town and its peaceful, charming waterfront.
"You know a place?" he prompted, when she didn't go on.
"Maybe. The guy's pretty picky about who he lets hang around. He'd want to know about you first."
"Me? I'm harmless."
"He's not going to take your word for it."
"Then whose word will he take?"
"Mine," she said.
Cooper leaned back. The bar stool at the counter put him nearly at eye level with her if he sat up straight, as his mother had always nagged him about. He lifted an elbow to rest it on the slatted back of the old-fashioned stool.
"So he trusts you," he said.
Interesting, he thought. Who had she gotten to trust her that much in the less than six months she'd been here? He knew it was only that. He'd started in Seattle, had been afraid she'd vanished into the masses of the metro area, or become one of the half million or so in the city proper. But then a routine check of the city's bus terminal, something he practically yawned through, had turned up a rather grandfatherly ticket seller who remembered her. She'd cut her hair by then, but she hadn't yet dyed it or added the brown contacts, or she probably would have gone unnoticed and unrecognized.
She'd bought a ticket to Port Angeles, but he hadn't found any trace of her there. That had started him checking all the bus stops before that, with the nagging awareness that Port Angeles was the starting point for ferry service to Canada, which would open a whole new can of worms.
Working on the assumption she wouldn't have left the country, he'd spent a long three weeks checking small towns in the area. He'd hit the edge of his patience for the drudge work in the middle of that third week; only the knowledge that Jones was paying the freight—and in turn most of the bills that had made him take the job in the first place—kept him moving. Then three days ago he'd walked into the Waterfront Café and taken a second look, then a third, at the unassuming woman who had refilled his coffee mug.
"Guess I'll just have to get you to trust me, then," he said, giving her his best smile, one he'd once been told could charm hornets.
She seemed immune. In fact, her gaze narrowed with suspicion. His own brow furrowed slightly; she didn't act like a woman in emotional turmoil. Oddly, the main sense he was getting from her wasn't even the grief he would have expected, although it was there, visible even in the masked eyes. The main thing he was feeling from her was fear.
That made no sense. Unless she really had gotten into some kind of trouble since she'd disappeared off the radar down south. That was a possibility he hadn't considered until now. Had she picked up some kind of stalker or something, was that the reason behind the edginess, the constant awareness of her surroundings?
"Are you all right?" he asked, dropping the effort to charm.
She seemed startled by the abrupt switch. "I'm fine." She picked up the coffeepot and started to turn away.
"Nell," he said, using the name on the small plastic badge she wore on the Waterfront T-shirt. She turned back. Still looked wary. He hesitated. He'd found her, that had been his job, it didn't really matter if she liked him or not. At least, not as far as the job was concerned. The instructions had been crystal; if he found her he was to say nothing until her brother could get here. Simple.
At least, it should be.
"I wasn't trying to snow you," he said. "It's just— I've been looking for three weeks, and.I'm tired."
It was all true, if not all of the truth. And that, he thought, took it out of the realm of totally cold calculation. Well, almost; he had to admit he was counting on the fact that she looked tired enough herself to be able to relate.
She wavered, but the suspicion lingered. "I didn't think temporary berths were that hard to find up here."
Up here. A true local likely wouldn't have added that. But somebody from down south—especially as far as L.A.—might. He hadn't had much doubt left, but that helped erase it.
"It's the combination," he said.
"A temporary berth and a marine supply store that will have what I need."
And that, again, was the truth.
"And a place closer to home to park a motorcycle?"
So she'd noticed that. It didn't surprise him, after watching her watch.everything.
"Exactly," he said.
"You carry it on the boat?"
He nodded. "Built ramps to offload it at a dock, but getting it in and out of the dinghy's a bit much. Rowing it? No way."
One corner of her mouth quirked, as if at the image. She turned, set the nearly empty coffeepot back on the warming plate, busied herself with starting a fresh pot. He could almost feel her thinking, trying to decide. He wondered who the guy with the dock was, why she seemed almost protective of him. Boyfriend?
Posted July 24, 2011
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Posted October 9, 2011
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