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The house was finally ready for company.
With a sigh of weary satisfaction, Rebecca Warwick sank into the rocking chair beside the crackling fire in the mammoth stone fireplace. Shoving a strand of honey-colored hair off her forehead, she sipped a well-earned cup of tea. In spite of the drizzling rain pattering on the roof, the low-ceilinged room of the centuries-old log mountain house was snug and warm. It was also immaculately clean for the very important guest who would be arriving tomorrow for a month's stay.
Becca smiled in anticipation of the elderly doctor's visit. Dwight Peyseur had lived in her house for a month last summer while providing much-needed free medical care to their isolated community deep in the North Carolina mountains. During that time, she and Emily, her four-and-a-half-year-old daughter, had come to think of him not only as a compassionate physician but also a kindly grandfather, a member of the family. They were looking forward to his arrival tomorrow morning.
In spite of her longing for a bath to wash away the dust and grime from her cleaning spree, Becca couldn't force herself to leave the comfort of her chair. She seldom took the opportunity to sit a spell and relax, as her granny used to say. But school was out for summer vacation, Emily was down for her nap, and leftovers in the fridge relieved Becca of the need to begin preparing supper. With a luxurious stretch, she set her cup aside, settled deeper into the chair, and promptly nodded off to sleep. A relentless banging at the front door jerked her from her slumber. Anxious to stop the racket before it awakened Emily, Becca leaped from the chair and hurried to the entry. With her heart pounding from her rude awakening and her mind wondering what dire emergency had precipitated such an uproar, she yanked open the heavy door.
The man before her drove all thoughts from her head, but was no deterrent to her thundering heart.
A tall, broad-shouldered stranger gazed across the front yard toward a Land Rover parked by the gate. Even though she couldn't see his face, Becca recognized immediately that the man was an outsider, definitely not one of her many neighbors and kin who lived in the surrounding hills and hollows of Warwick Mountain.
He didn't wear worn jeans or overalls, faded chambray shirts or scuffed work boots that were the common uniform of those who farmed the steep, rocky terrain. In fact, the man looked as if he'd never had a close encounter with dirt, much less hard labor, in his entire life. His expensive khaki slacks were unwrinkled, his muted madras shirt the finest cotton, and his Italian loafers shone as if they'd just been polished. His thick brown hair had obviously been professionally styled, and the gold watch on his wrist would probably feed a mountain family of six for a full year.
Remembering her manners, Becca asked, "May I help you?"
She assumed the man was lost, having taken by mistake the long, winding road that deadended in the village, and then followed the gravel road to her house.
He turned at the sound of her voice, and when he faced her, she felt the air leave her lungs as surely as if someone had driven a fist into her stomach. His sun-streaked, mahogany-colored hair, slightly dampened by the rain, fell across a broad forehead above a pair of magnificent eyes as deep and brown as the river that ran through the back forty acres. With his golden tan, lean muscular build and a slow, easy smile that made her insides quiver, he looked every inch a quintessential California surfer, aged to a marvelous thirtyish maturity.
"I'm looking for Rebecca Warwick." His voice was deep and warm and she took a moment to register his words.
"Why?" she asked in surprise, once she'd recovered breath enough to speak.
"I'm supposed to stay in her home. I understand she's the local schoolteacher."
Becca shook away the confusion the handsome man's arrival and unexpected query had caused. "I'm Rebecca Warwick." She noted that the pupils in his remarkable eyes dilated with apparent shock at her admission. "But there must be some mistake"
"You're Rebecca Warwick? The teacher?" Disbelief tinged his voice and showed clearly in his expression.
She shrugged, smiled and tried to make light of his skepticism. "Last time I checked. You can see my driver's license if you want proof."
He shook his head, his eyes clouded with confusion. "Didn't Dr. Peyseur call you?"
"No one's called. The phones have been out since last night's storm."
"Don't you have a cell phone?" His expression turned even more incredulous.
Becca's smile widened at his disbelief. "The surrounding mountains block the signals. Cell phones aren't much use here."
Her smile disappeared. "Why was Dr. Peyseur supposed to call me?"
The stranger shook his head again in obvious frustration. "I'm sorry. Dwight promised he'd let you know he can't make his annual trip."
Disappointment cascaded through her, not only for her own loss at his canceled visit but for the continued suffering of those his medical attention would have helped. "Why can't he come? Is he all right?"
The man's eyes glowed with warm sympathy. "As all right as he can be with a broken wrist."
"Oh, no. That's awful. How" Then, suddenly recalling what her visitor had mentioned earlier, she raised an eyebrow. "You said you're supposed to stay with me?"
"Sorry. I didn't mean to barge in unannounced. I was expecting Dwight to pave the way." With an ingratiating look that warmed her to her toes, he offered his hand. "I'm Matthew Tyler, Dr. Peyseur's partner. I'll be filling in for him, since he can't perform surgery with his wrist broken."
When Matthew Tyler grasped her fingers, they tingled with a strange warmth, as if a jolt of electricity had arced between her and the attractive stranger, and she found herself momentarily tongue-tied. Regarding him from beneath lowered eyelids, she wished for her grandmother's gift of second sight. Granny Warwick would have known in an instant exactly what this handsome stranger's motives were, why he'd come to Warwick Mountain and what he'd accomplish, for good or ill, while he was here.
Becca, however, had inherited only a fraction of her grandmother's gift. While she couldn't predict the future as Granny had, she could read people fairly well upon first meeting them. For an instant, she perused Matthew Tyler as if he were a fascinating book.
Knows what he wants and gets it. Extroverted. Believes in himself and his abilities. Boundless ambition. High energy.
Temper shows when he's pushed to his limits. Good-hearted
"May I have it back now?"
He gently tugged his fingers from hers, and she flushed with embarrassment at being so absorbed in her reading, she had forgotten she held on to his hand. But at the end, right before she'd broken contact, she'd sensed something else, something deeply hidden, a sense of intense dissatisfaction that Matthew Tyler tried to deny existed. She'd lost the vibes, however, before she could identify the source of his discontent, and her unfulfilled curiosity hummed with interestuntil she tamped it down.
She didn't intend to find any man interesting. An interesting man would add complications to her life she neither needed nor desired.
Remembering her Southern hospitality, however, she stepped back and opened the door wider. "You'd better come in out of the rain."
When she moved aside for him to enter, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror in the entry hall. Her hair, caught back from her face by a bandanna kerchief, was a mass of tangled curls, dust smudged her cheek, and the clothes she had chosen for her housecleaning were faded and shabby. Not exactly the attire she'd have selected for meeting the best-looking man she'd ever seen.
Not that his looks mattered. She'd been vaccinated for life against the wiles of handsome, wealthy men by the heartbreak Grady had put her through.
Then why is your heart pounding as if you just climbed Lovers' Peak at a run? her conscience demanded.
Becca chalked up her accelerated pulse to unfulfilled curiosity and concern for Dr. Peyseur. No way was she ever letting a charmer affect her life again. Once burned, twice shy, and she'd been torched for life.
"Dr. Peyseur wasn't due until tomorrow," she explained. "I wasn't expecting"
"He was supposed to alert you that I'd arrive early, but with the phones out.." He shrugged his broad shoulders, and concern etched the handsome lines of his face. "If you're not prepared, I'll stay at a motel. Is there one in town?"
Becca shook her head. "You passed through town to reach here."
His eyes widened again with shock.
"You call that a town?"
"A village. There's just the Shop-N-Go convenience market and gas station and the Baptist church. And the old feed store that's closed now. The nearest motel or bed-and-breakfast is over forty miles away."
He raised an eyebrow in misgiving. "Back down that sorry excuse for a road that had me hanging off the sides of mountains to get here?"
She nodded and suppressed a smile. The narrow, winding mountain roads were especially daunting to those who weren't used to them. "But a motel won't be necessary. Your room is ready."
Even as she said the words, she experienced a shiver of reluctance. In Warwick Mountain, everyone knew everybody else's business. Having an elderly and respected doctor staying with her and Emily was one thing, but to share her house with the handsome man beside her for a monthunchaperonedwould have every tongue for miles wagging in disapproval.
Especially Aunt Delilah Bennett's.
Aunt Delilah had yet to forgive the previous scandal Becca had caused over five years earlier, one that had rocked the small community to its core. The hardworking, impoverished people of Warwick Mountain were kind and generous, but they adhered unswervingly to a strict moral code. Only with Granny Warwick as her staunch champion had Becca managed to survive their disapproval. Not only survive, but eventually to earn the respect and admiration of neighbors who had initially shunned her. The last thing she needed was more notoriety. For her dreams to reach fruition, she had to keep her reputation intact.
The prospect of once again being the center of such intense scrutiny and public censure because a handsome stranger was residing under her roof might have been enough for Becca to send the attractive Dr. Matthew Tyler packing, down the treacherous road he'd found so formidable. She wanted him off the mountain, back to wherever he'd come from.
Until she remembered little Lizzie McClain, the main focus of Dr. Peyseur's intended visit.
Against Lizzie's problems, Becca's dilemma seemed insignificant. She could endure again the nasty gossip, raised eyebrows and her pious neighbors' chilly disapproval if having Dr. Tyler in her home meant curing Lizzie of her horrible affliction.
Then she thought of Emily.
At age four-going-on-five, her daughter was old enough to realize if the neighbors turned their backs on her mother. Even for Lizzie McClain's and Jimmy Dickens's sake, Becca couldn't put Emily through the trauma of ostracism. At Emily's tender stage of development, the emotional impact of seeing her mother cast out could scar her for life.
Becca squared her shoulders. Fate had thrown her a curve in the form of Dr.
Matthew Tyler, but, for Lizzie's sake, Becca would find a way to deal with the problem. Too late to make other arrangements today, though. The man could stay this one night. He was nothing to her, after all, but Dr. Peyseur's replacement, a healer who had come to help the community. She would keep her distance, polite and appreciative but aloof, and locate another place for the doctor to board tomorrow.
Maybe with Aunt Delilah. Or Cousin Bessie. Or even Preacher Evans and his wife. In the meantime, if tongues wagged and eyebrows lifted, they were their owners' problems, not hers.
She assumed her most hospitable expression. "It won't take a minute to make fresh coffee. Would you like some?"
The radiance of his Hollywood-perfect smile lit the gloomy room. "Thanks. It'll chase away the chill from the rain. Is it always this cold here in June?"
"Not always. Sometimes it's scorching. Weather changes all the time." What was wrong with her? She was babbling like an idiot. "Make yourself comfortable by the fire. I'll be right back."
She hurried to the kitchen, wet a paper towel, scrubbed the dust from her cheeks, stripped off her kerchief and ran her fingers through her hair in an unsuccessful attempt to tame its chaos. Not that she cared how she looked to her visitor. She simply had her own standards to maintain.
The entire time she was preparing coffee, however, she couldn't escape the niggling feeling that she had seen Matthew Tyler somewhere before. But that was impossible. His and Dr. Peyseur's practice was in Beverly Hills, California, a place she'd never visited.
Taking a full mug, she returned to the living room where her guest had settled in the overstuffed chair beside the hearth. She handed him his coffee. "Here you are, Dr. Tyler."
"Call me Matt."
His friendly smile lifted the corners of his mouth and lit his eyes, brown as molten caramel. She was glad her grandmother's rocker was there to catch her when her knees weakened. She needed to turn the conversation quickly to a safe topic to quell her reaction to the man's charisma, which was probably part of his usual bedside manner. Enough nonsense, she told herselfshe wasn't some hormone-driven teenager, but a mature woman in her late twenties. Time she acted like one. "Tell me about Dr. Peyseur. How did he break his wrist?"
She focused on the kindly doctor's injury to keep her head from whirling. She'd worn herself out cleaning house, that was all. Breathed too many cleaning-fluid vapors. The chemicals had to be influencing her. She'd learned too much the hard way to allow any man to affect her as Matthew Tyler seemed to.
Apparently unaware of her inner turmoil, Matt sipped his coffee. "Dwight tripped on a garden hose while fetching his morning paper. Managed to break his fall with his right hand, but his wrist took the brunt. He'll be in a cast for six weeks. Maybe longer."
"Bones don't heal fast at his age." Worry for her old friend filled her. "He lives alone. How will he manage?"
Matt's eyes twinkled. "He doesn't live alone any longer. I saw to that."
"How?" She hoped he hadn't confined the old doctor to a nursing home. Dwight Peyseur loved his independence too much to adjust to such a routine.
"Hired him a housekeeper," Matt said.
Becca thought back to what the older doctor had shared with her about his life. After his wife had died ten years ago, he had continued to live in their Beverly Hills home. He ate his meals out, and he had a cleaning service that came once a week. "I thought he already had someone who takes care of the house."
The twinkle danced a little faster in Matt's striking eyes. "Mrs. Sanderingham is different."
In spite of her best efforts, Becca couldn't keep the blush from flaring in her cheeks. "You're not suggesting"
"Not suggesting a thing. But I admit to playing matchmaker." Oozing self-confidence and satisfaction, he leaned back in his chair and stretched his long legs in front of him. "Dwight's been alone too long since Madeline died. Mrs. Sanderingham is not only a registered nurse, an excellent cook and a superb housekeeper, she's exactly the kind of witty, intelligent woman Dwight needs in his life."
Annoyance stirred inside her. Matt Tyler had a nerve to force unwanted attention from a strange woman onto his partner. Becca knew all too well the irritation well-meaning meddlers could wreak on a person's life. When it came to matchmakers, Aunt Delilah considered herself world class. Becca was constantly fending off attention from so-called eligible men her aunt aimed her way.
"From what Dr. Peyseur told me," she said with more vexation in her tone than she'd intended, "he enjoys his solitude. That's why he likes being here so much. In fact, he also said that no woman could ever take Madeline's place."