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Clay Marlow wondered for the hundredth time this week if he'd screwed up with his three-year-old daughter yet again. Wondered if she had, indeed, stopped crying as soon as he'd been out of sight, as his sister had sworn she would. Walking away from those tear-filled brown eyes nearly leveled him every single time. Every decision he made concerning his little girl made him doubt himself more.
He pulled into the small lot next to the Shell Shack, the beach bar owned by his friends Derek and Macey. Whipped too fast into the parking space next to Derek's red truck with his own extended-cab pickup.
And heard the cringe-inducing impact of his front bumper on the motorcycle a split second before he saw it.
Dammit. He needed more sleep. And a parenting manual.
He jumped out of the truck, adrenaline pumping, relieved there was no one in sight, which meant no one had been on the parked bike.
Wait a minute. He knew that bike. Knew exactly who it belonged to. Andie Tyler, who, like him, was an attendant in Derek and Macey's upcoming wedding.
He didn't know Andie well, but he got the impression she wasn't particularly understanding or easy to get along with. Especially when someone crashed into her beloved Harley-Davidson.
He took the walkway to the nearest bar entrance. Macey had invited the four wedding attendants to a happy-hour get-together. All because Andie was to arrive in town today.
At the open doorway, he stopped. His eyes were drawn to Andie like a hummingbird to red. She sat on the outside of the small group, her stool a couple of feet from Derek's. She had a half smile on her face, while the others—Selena and her husband, Evan, were on Derek's other side and Macey was behind the bar—laughed without restraint at something Evan had said.
In spite of her rough edges, she was pretty, someone who'd caught his attention last summer when she'd spent a couple of months on San Amaro Island working behind the bar with Derek.
Pretty or not, she was going to be one pissed biker chick.
Enough stalling. Might as well get this over with. He forced himself to join the group, stepping between Andie and Derek.
Andie looked up to find Clay Marlow standing inches away, taking all kinds of razzing from the others for being late.
"Andie, do you remember Clay?" Macey asked above the din.
Oh, she remembered Clay. You didn't forget someone who looked like that. Ever. Didn't matter that the people he hung out with were just as beautiful. He'd always stood out as the all-American guy who could do no wrong against Evan, the shameless flirt, and Derek, moody and unpredictable.
Biceps as thick as tree trunks bulged from a navy San Amaro Island Fire Department T-shirt stretched across Clay's shoulders. He had short almost-black hair, a cleanly shaved, stubborn-as-hell square jaw and…those eyes. Chocolate with flecks of gold. They'd made her nervous and fidgety when he turned them on her. They were filled with intense do-the-right-thing-ness and Andie sometimes did the wrong thing. Just because.
Clay laughed at whatever Evan said to him, then quietly said to Andie, "Your bike didn't happen to be parked out there beside Derek's truck, did it?"
His use of the past tense made Andie's skin prickle with foreboding. She narrowed her eyes. "Yes. Why?"
Clay shot a look at his buddies and rubbed the back of his neck. "I didn't see it," he said. "I hit it when I pulled in. I'm s—"
"My bike?" Andie was off the stool and out of the bar before he could finish speaking.
She saw it as soon as she cleared the doorway. The motorcycle lay on its side on the pavement, several feet from the front of a dark blue truck. The motorcycle's front wheel was bent and lying at an abnormal angle.
The handlebars were also crooked, and her formerly shiny bike was generally scratched up, dented and no longer pretty by any stretch of the imagination. She had the urge to yell but held herself to muttering under her breath.
For the first time since she'd arrived on the island this afternoon, she noticed how hot it was. The sun beat down on her and she felt as if she was burning up. She clamped her teeth down on the inside of her lip, tears pricking her eyes.
All of her belongings in the world had been strapped to the back and were now scattered on the pavement. She knelt and hurriedly picked them up.
Heat burned her cheeks as she scrambled to pack everything away. Nothing quite like having your meager life on display for anyone who wandered past.
"I'm really sorry." Clay came up behind her and bent to gather her toiletries. As he tucked them into one of her duffel bags, the sun glinted off the metal of her handgun. The thirty-eight she took everywhere with her caught Clay's eye, too, judging by the way he froze for a heartbeat.
"I've got it." She took the bag from him and zipped it shut.
"I'll take care of the repairs." Clay picked up the book about technology and the environment she was currently reading, and she snatched it away from him.
"Yeah." She coached herself to take a deep breath and calm the hell down. Likely his insurance company would do the taking care of, but whatever. "That'd be good."
Without his or his insurance company's "taking care of it" there was no way she could get her bike road-worthy again. She didn't have insurance, and though she had a puny emergency fund saved up, she was spending a lot of it on Macey's wedding.
Her bike was the only possession besides her gun that mattered to her. It was her freedom, her lifestyle. Her way off the island when she needed to escape. She would undoubtedly have to go without it for several days, minimum, and that made her sick to her stomach. Glancing at the tangle of metal she wanted to cry or, better yet, beat the crap out of something. Or someone.
"What happened?" Macey asked as she appeared on the scene. Evan walked out more slowly behind her.
"I didn't see it," Clay said. "I was preoccupied and this is where I normally park. The motorcycle was in the way."
"How could you miss that, man?" Evan leaned against the front of Derek's truck. "That's not some kid's tricycle that you can't see under the wheel."
Andie seconded that. How the hell did a guy miss a dark red Harley Sportster?
Clay shrugged, clearly aggravated. "I'll take care of everything."
Andie slowly hefted the motorcycle upright. "The exhaust is busted up. Handlebars. Brake pedal."
Her control faltered and she clenched her teeth. She glanced around at Clay's bully of a pickup truck. How deeply satisfying it would feel to kick the crap out of it and punch dents into the sides.
"Andie." Macey employed her calm but firm voice, the one she'd used plenty on Derek when he'd been so messed up last year. "Let's take your bags inside. You can eat and we'll figure this out."
"I'll treat," Clay said. He stuck his hands in his jeans pockets and let them go inside ahead of him.
"I'll buy my own dinner," Andie told Clay after she put her bags in the back room.
Derek was behind the bar covering for Macey, and Clay took the seat between Andie and Selena. Macey rejoined her fiancé and explained what had happened to him and Selena as she topped off Andie's lemonade.
"Know anyplace that fixes Harleys?" Andie asked Derek.
"Not off the top of my head, but Gus might. I'll ask him tonight. Want something to eat? A burger?"
Andie shook her head. "Just some nachos, please."
"Get out," Macey told Derek, gesturing over her shoulder. "I've got it covered. You're off today."
"Bossy thing. Lucky you're so cute." He pressed a quick kiss to Macey's cheek, came around the counter and sat on Andie's right side.
"So where are you staying?" Macey asked. "Did you find a place yet?"
"I came here first. I need something cheap and temporary."
"I used to love cheap and temporary," Evan quipped. The other two men laughed but he earned a slap on the arm from a very pregnant Selena, whom Andie had just met this afternoon. "Where'd you live last summer when you were here?"
"In my tent. Closest campground is on the mainland about ten miles north. Works great as long as you have transportation." She couldn't help glancing at Clay.
"I said I'm sorry." He smiled sheepishly, making Andie forgive him a little bit.
"I told you you can stay with us," Macey said.
"Third wheel on the soon-to-be bride and groom's couch? Thanks, but I don't think so." Andie shuddered. "Might as well go with you on your honeymoon."
"No way," Derek said. "You promised you'd help run things here so Macey will actually stop worrying and enjoy herself."
Andie smiled and nodded, doubting Macey would have any trouble at all losing herself in her sexy fireman husband.
"Do you smoke?" Clay asked abruptly.
"No." She tried to figure out how that related to running the bar.
"Have wild parties?"
She stared at him. "Only when properly inspired."
"If you can keep it uninspired, I have a place you can rent," he said.
"Thank God. I was going to suggest it, Clay, but I didn't want to presume," Macey said. "Clay has a duplex over on Seagull Lane. He doesn't really need a tenant but I've been telling him he has the space so why not make the extra income?"
"I'm sure it's over my budget," Andie said honestly. Taking advantage of opportunities had become her way of life, vital when you traveled with no permanent address. When you never knew where your next meal or room would come from, it paid to not rule things out. But her budget was definitely closer to campground than duplex.
"I might be convinced to negotiate," Clay said. "To make up for wrecking your bike."
Now he was talking her language. "I might be convinced to check it out." She forced herself to be warmer than she'd been with him so far.
"Let's go now," he said. "I'll even give you a ride."
"Big of you," she said, grabbing a handful of her chips and shoving a couple in her mouth. "On the drive over you can start thinking about your 'I destroyed her livelihood' discount."
Clay followed Andie out to his truck and couldn't help watching the way her hips swayed and her worn jeans hugged her curves. The snug burgundy T-shirt fit her slender body as if she'd been born in it. Her usually straight brown hair hung just past her shoulders, tousled and tangled, he assumed, from her helmet and ride into town.
She had a hint of mystery about her, never one to talk about herself as far as he'd seen. Restless. According to Macey, she drifted around the country, never settling in any one place for more than a few weeks at a time.
Clay was well acquainted with that kind of restlessness, or had been in a past life. He'd never given in to it like Andie did, but he'd felt it. Let it get him into plenty of trouble as a teen. He knew what he'd been trying to get away from. What, he wondered, haunted this woman?
She stopped beside her motorcycle and Clay frowned.
"Let's get it loaded in the truck and I'll find a place to take it in the next day or so."
She nodded sadly as if she'd lost her best friend, her feistiness gone.
He opened the tailgate and pulled out a ramp, then they turned the bike around and tried to roll it toward the back of the truck. The damage made it difficult.
When they got to the ramp, they inched it along until, finally, it was loaded.
Clay secured the bike in the bed of the truck, brushed his hands on his jeans and went to the passenger side to open her door. He checked his instinct to help her up, clenching his fist. He went around and climbed in his side.
"Bike means a lot to you, huh?" he said as he started the truck.
She snapped her head toward him, her eyes narrowed. "It and the three bags you knocked off the back of it… That's pretty much everything I own."
"Takes guts to live like that."
She stared at him. "Maybe," she said finally. "Or maybe it's a lack of guts."
He studied her in his peripheral vision.
Though it probably wasn't wise, he was drawn to her. Lured by the need to know more about her, to figure her out. What made her doubt herself?
What made her run?
Andie exhaled her relief when Clay pulled up at his place. She could normally hold her own with anyone but riding in the truck with him made her clam up. He'd seemed to fill up the whole space with muscles and testosterone, and she'd been hyperaware of everything about him.