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"Are we lost, Mom?"
"No, honey. We're not lost." Parked on the dirt shoulder of a narrow rural road, Rory frowned at the building a few dozen yards away. "I'm just not sure this is the right address."
"If we can't find it, can we go to the Christmas place?"
"We'll see, sweetie. We're looking for a new place to live right now."
"I don't want a new one."
"I know you don't," she murmured. Freckles dotted Tyler's nose. His sandy hair, neatly combed when they'd left the house, fell over his forehead, victim of the breeze that had blown in when she'd lowered his window to get a better look at the address on the roadside mailbox.
Nudging wisps back from his forehead, she smiled. "But we need one. And I need you to help me pick it out. It's our adventure, remember?"
"Then can we go to the Christmas place?"
They had seen a banner for a holiday festival in nearby Port Orchard when they'd driven off the ferry. Tyler had been asking about it ever since.
Everything she'd read last night on the internet made the area around the shoreline community a few miles around the bend sound nearly idyllic. The part of her that didn't want to get her hopes up knew that could simply have been good marketing by its chamber of commerce. The part that desperately needed this not to be a wild-goose chase focused on getting them moving.
"Not today, I'm afraid." She hated to say no, but housing had to be their first priority. "We don't have time."
It was nine fifty-five. They were to meet the seller's representative at ten o'clock.
Reminding Tyler of that, and agreeing that, yes, they were still "exploring," she pulled his hood over his head and glanced to the structure surrounded by a few winter-bare trees, dead grass and a wet patch of gravel that, apparently, served as a parking lot.
The address on the mailbox matched the one on the card. The structure, however, bore no resemblance at all to a residence. The two-story flat-roofed rectangle of a building faced a partial view of a little marina two city blocks away and backed up to a forest of pines.
A long, narrow sign above the porch read Harbor Market & Sporting Goods. Signs by the screened door read Fresh Espresso and Worms and Closed Until Spring.
Mailboxes farther up the road indicated homes tucked back in the trees. The only vehicle to be seen, however, was hers. With no sign of life in either direction, she was about to pull out her cell phone to check the address with Phil Granger when she remembered what the woman had said.
She'd warned her to keep an open mind when she saw the place. To look for possibilities.
The potential goose chase was also, apparently, a scavenger hunt.
A narrow driveway curved around the back of the building and disappeared down a slight hill. Thinking there might be a house or cottage beyond the gate blocking it, she grabbed the shoulder bag that held everything from animal crackers to a Zen meditation manual and gamely told her little boy they were going to look around while they waited for the person they were to meet to show up.
The damp breeze whipped around them, scattering leaves in their path as they left the car. With a glance toward the threatening sky, she was about to reconsider her plan when the relative quiet gave way to a squeak and the hard slam of a door.
Across twenty feet of gravel, she watched six feet two inches of broad-shouldered, purely rugged masculinity in a fisherman's sweater and worn jeans cross the store's porch and jog down its three steps.
"Sorry about that." His apology came quickly, his voice as deep as the undercurrents in the distant water. "I didn't mean to startle you. I keep forgetting to fix the spring."
The breeze blew a little harder, rearranging the otherwise neat cut of his slightly overlong dark hair. He didn't seem to notice the wind. Or the cold bite that came with it. All lean, athletic muscle, he strode toward them, his glance shifting between her and the child who'd smashed himself against her leg.
That glance turned questioning as he stopped six feet from where she'd rooted herself in the driveway.
"Are you Mrs. Linfield?"
Surprise colored the deep tones of his voice. Or maybe what she heard was disbelief. His pewter-gray eyes ran from the wedge of auburn hair skimming her shoulders, over the camel peacoat covering her black turtleneck and jeans and up from the toes of her low-heeled boots. His perusal was quick, little more than an impassive flick of his glance. Yet she had the unnerving feeling he'd imagined her every curve in the brief moments before she realized he was waiting for her to speak.
"I didn't think anyone was here." The admission came in a rush. "I didn't see a car, so we were just going to look around"
"I flew over. Floatplane," he explained, hitching his head in the direction of the water. "It's down at the marina.
"I'm Erik Sullivan." Stepping closer, he extended his hand. His rugged features held strength, a hint of fearlessness. Or maybe it was boldness. Despite its lingering shadow, the square line of his jaw appeared recently shaved. He looked hard and handsome and when he smiled, faint though the expression was, he radiated a positively lethal combination of quiet command and casual ease. "I'm handling the sale of this property for my grandparents."
"You're a Realtor?"
"Actually, I build boats. I'm just taking care of this for them."
Her hand had disappeared in his.
She could feel calluses at the base of his fingers. He worked with his hands. Built boats with them, he'd said. What kind, she had no idea. The white-gold Rolex on his thick wrist seemed to indicate he was successful at it, though. The words capable and accomplished quickly flashed in her mind, only to succumb to less definable impressions as she became aware of the heat of his palm, the strength in his grip and the deliberate way he held that strength in check.
What she felt mostly, though, was a wholly unexpected sense of connection when her eyes met his.
Everything inside her seemed to go still.
She'd experienced that sensation only once before; the first time Curt had taken her hand. It had been a fleeting thing, little more than an odd combination of awareness and ease that had come out of nowhere, but it had dictated the direction of her life from that moment on.
As if she'd just touched lightning, she jerked back, curling her fingers into her palm, and took a step away. The void left in her heart by the loss of her husband already felt huge. It seemed to widen further as she instinctively rejected the thought of any sort of connection to this man, imagined or otherwise. Because of what she'd learned since Curt's death, it was entirely possible that what she'd thought she'd had with her husbandthe closeness, the love, the very rightness of the life they'd sharedhadn't existed at all.
Having struggled with that awful possibility for over a year, she wasn't about to trust what she'd felt now.
Conscious of the quick pinch of Erik's brow, totally embarrassed by her abrupt reaction, she rested her hand on her son's shoulder. Just as she would have introduced her little guy, the big man gave the child a cautious smile and motioned her toward the building.
"The main entrance to the living quarters is around back, but we can go through the market. Come on and I'll show you around."
Whatever he thought of her reaction to him, he seemed gentleman enough to ignore it.
She chose to ignore it, too.
Living quarters, he'd said?
"There isn't a separate house here?" she asked, urging Tyler forward as the sky started to leak.
"There's plenty of room to build if that's what a buyer wants to do. The parcel is a little over three acres. Living on premises has certain advantages, though." He checked the length of his strides, allowing them to keep up. "Shortens the commute."
If she smiled at that, Erik couldn't tell, not with the fall of cinnamon hair hiding her profile as she ushered the boy ahead of her.
Mrs. Rory Linfield wasn't at all what he had expected. But then, the new owner of the building next door to Merrick & Sullivan Yachting hadn't given him much to go on. He wasn't sure what the elegant and refined wife of Harry Hunt was doing with the building Harry had apparently given her as a wedding giftother than providing Erik and his business partner an interesting diversion with her total renovation of its interior. It had been his offhand comment to Cornelia, though, about a place he'd be glad to sell if Harry was still into buying random pieces of property, that had led him to describe the property his grandparents had vacated nearly a year ago.
The conversation had prompted a call from Cornelia yesterday. That was when she'd told him she knew of a widow in immediate need of a home and a means to produce an income.
When she'd said widow, he'd immediately pictured someone far more mature. More his parents' age. Fifty-something. Sixty, maybe. With graying hair. Or at least a few wrinkles. The decidedly polished, manicured and attractive auburn-haired woman skeptically eyeing the sign for Fresh Espresso and Worms as she crossed the wood-planked porch didn't look at all like his idea of a widow, though. She looked more like pure temptation. Temptation with pale skin that fairly begged to be touched, a beautiful mouth glossed with something sheer pink and shiny, and who was easily a decade younger than his own thirty-nine years.
He hadn't expected the cute little kid at all.
He opened the door, held it for them to pass, caught her soft, unexpectedly provocative scent. Following them inside, he had to admit that, mostly, he hadn't anticipated the sucker punch to his gut when he'd looked from her very kissable mouth to the feminine caution in her big brown eyes. Or the quick caution he'd felt himself when she'd pulled back and her guarded smile had slipped into place.
What he'd seen in those dark and lovely depths had hinted heavily of response, confusion and denial.
A different sort of confusion clouded her expression now.
He'd turned on the store's fluorescent overheads when he'd first arrived. In those bright industrial lights, he watched her look from the rows of bare, utilitarian grocery shelving to the empty dairy case near the checkout counter and fix her focus on a kayak suspended from the ceiling above a wall of flotation devices. Sporting goods still filled the back shelves. After the original offer to buy the place fully stocked had fallen through, he'd donated the grocery items to a local food bank. That had been months ago.
The little boy tugged her hand. "Why is the boat up there, Mom?"
"For display. I think," she replied quietly, like someone talking in a museum. "How come?"
"So people will notice it." She pointed to a horizontal rack on the back wall that held three more. Oars and water skis stood in rows on either side. "It's easier to see than those back there."
With his neck craned back, his little brow pinched.
"Are we gonna live in a store?"
"No, sweetie. We're just.." From the uncertainty in her expression, it seemed she wasn't sure what they were doing at the moment. "Looking," she concluded.
Her glance swung up. "You said this belongs to your grandparents?"
"They retired to San Diego," he told her, wondering what her little boy was doing now as the child practically bent himself in half looking under a display case. There were no small children in his family. The yachting circles he worked and played in were strictly adult. Any exposure he had to little kids came with whatever family thing his business partner could talk him into attending with him. Since he managed to limit that to once every couple of years, he rarely gave kids any thought. Not anymore.
"They'd had this business for over fifty years," he explained, his attention already back on why the property was for sale. "It was time they retired."
The delicate arches of her eyebrows disappeared beneath her shiny bangs. "Fifty years?"
"Fifty-three, actually. They'd still be running the place if Gramps hadn't hurt his back changing one of the light fixtures." Erik had told him he'd change the tube himself. Just as he'd helped with other repairs they'd needed over the years. But the Irish in John Sullivan tended to make him a tad impatient at times. "He can be a little stubborn."
"Did he fall?"
"He just twisted wrong," he told her, conscious of the quick concern in her eyes, "but it took a couple of months for him to be able to lift anything. Grandma picked up as much slack as she could, but those two months made them decide it was time to tackle the other half of their bucket list while they could both still get around."
Her uncertainty about her surroundings had yet to ease. Despite her faint smile, that hesitation marked her every step as she moved farther in, checking out the plank-board floor, the single checkout counter, the old, yellowing acoustic tiles on the ceiling. Watching her, he couldn't help but wonder how she would do on a ladder, changing four-foot-long fluorescent tubes in a fixture fourteen feet off the floor. Or how she'd wrestle the heavy wood ladder up from the basement in the first place.
Since Cornelia had specifically asked if the business was one a woman could handle on her own, he'd also thought his prospective buyer would be a little sturdier.
Rather than indulge the temptation to reassess what he could of her frame, hidden as it was by her coat, anyway, he focused on just selling the place.
"The original building was single story," he told her, since the structure itself appeared to have her attention. "When they decided to add sporting goods, they incorporated the living area into the store, built on in back and added the upstairs.
"The business is seasonal," he continued when no questions were forthcoming. "Since summer and fall recreation provided most of their profit, they always opened in April and closed the first of October. That gave them the winter for vacations and time to work on their projects."
It was a good, solid business. One that had allowed his grandparents to support their familyhis dad, his aunts. He told her that, too, because he figured that would be important to a woman who apparently needed to support a child on her own. What he didn't mention was that after the first sale fell through, the only other offers made had been too ridiculously low for his grandparents to even consider.
Because there were no other reasonable offers in sight, he wasn't about to let them pass up Cornelia's offer to buy itif this particular woman was interested in owning it. He hadn't even balked at the terms of the sale that required his agreement to help get the business back up and running.
Selling the place would rid him of the obligation to keep it up. Even more important than ending the time drain of weekly trips from Seattle to make sure nothing was leaking, broken or keeping the place from showing well was that his grandparents had been the last of his relatives in this part of the sound. Once the place was sold, he had no reason to ever come back.