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After nine months of hell in the Middle Eaststuck in a hot, dark caveBlake Michaels welcomed the deluge pounding his windshield. Heavy rain might keep the curious townsfolk from showing up at the Lion's Club. His mom had moved the party when she discovered a good portion of Tranquil Waters wanted to be there for the hero's return. He was no hero.
He was a man who served his country, and happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The gray, wet weather mirrored Blake's mood. He wasn't fond of crowds, at least since he'd returned to the States. The time away had changed him in ways he'd only begun to explore.
He appreciated the thought of a party in his honor, but being around that many people at one time was enough to give a guy the cold sweats. His doctors had promised the anxiety would eventually pass. Almost a year in solitude with only a guard, who never spoke for company, had left him with a few issues.
Once, in the hospital afterward, the nurses had found him huddled in a corner of his room. He never wanted to repeat that night.
He'd had a complete blackout, an "episode" they called it, and it scared the hell out of him. That was when he started to take the therapists more seriously.
As he came around a curve on the highway, a flash of white popped up before him. Brakes squealed as his Ford slid to a stop. His breath ragged from trying to steer away from the woman and the giant animal struggling against her. She held the animal while simultaneously trying to push its hindquarters with the toe of her candy-red high heels into the backseat of her car. This was a problem as her tight pencil skirt only allowed her leg to move to a certain height.
The dog outweighed her by at least fifty pounds. She'd have better luck putting a saddle on the black-and-white creature and riding to wherever she wanted it to go.
If they didn't get off the two-lane road fast, someone would plow into them. No way would Blake allow that to happen.
A dog isn't worth her losing her life. He paused for a second.
Dang if he wouldn't have done the very same thing. He loved animals. Scotty, the therapy dog at the hospital, gave him hours of companionship while he went through the hell the docs called physical and mental therapy.
Straightening his truck on the shoulder, Blake hopped out.
"Here," Blake said as he shoved the beast into the back of the Ford SUV.
As he did, the woman teetered on her high heels and fell back. He caught her with one hand and pulled her out of the way. Slamming the door with his foot so the dog couldn't get out, he steadied her with his hip. Pain shot through his leg, and he sucked in a breath.
"Are you okay?" He kept her upright with his hands around her tiny waist. The sexy librarian look with the falling curls hiding her face, nearly see-through, rain-soaked blouse and tight skirt over sexy curves did dangerous things to his libido.
Down, boy. Down.
"Thanks," she said as she glanced back at the dog. "I'm fine. I better get Harley back to the shelter. This is the second time this week she's broken out. Her owner passed away, and she keeps trying to go home. If you ask me, it's the saddest thing ever to see an animal suffer." She waved her hand. "Well, there are worse things in the world, but it's sad that she doesn't understand that he's gone."
"You could have been killed," he said through gritted teeth, although more from the pain in his leg than being upset with her.
Stiffening, she turned slowly. When their eyes met, a clap of thunder boomed. She jumped and stumbled. He held on to her to keep her from falling down.
Tugging out of his grasp, she raised an eyebrow. "Yes, I'm aware of the danger." Her chin jutted out slightly. "Which is why I stopped to get the dog. She was a danger to anyone else who might cross her path. Thank you for your assistance."
He'd offended her without meaning to. The nurses were right, surly had become his natural state. "Iuh " He wasn't sure if he should apologize. With his luck, he'd only make it worse.
"Mr. Clooney's rooster Pete says the thunderstorms are going to be pretty bad the next couple of days," she said as she climbed into the vehicle. "And that darn rooster is never wrong. Perhaps you should think about staying inside so you aren't tempted to help poor defenseless animals."
With that, she slammed the door shut.
Did he just get the brush-off?
Mr. Clooney's rooster? Wait, how was that annoying creature still alive?
He remembered when his brother poured half a bottle of cold medicine in the rooster's feed so they could sleep in one morning during the summer. If anything, the somewhat drunk rooster crowed even louder the next morning.
The SUV sped off toward town.
Yep, that was definitely the brush-off.
It'd been a while since he'd spent time with a woman. Well, besides, the doctors and nurses at the hospital. He'd done four tours in a row, only taking a few months off occasionally to see his mom while trying to forget everything he'd gone through the past two years.
This final tour was one he couldn't put on the "man shelf." That's what his therapist, a woman who was exceptionally bright and never let him get away with anything, had called his ability to shove things that upset him to the back of his brain. Every time he tried to redirect the conversation away from his recent past, she called him on it.
Blake shoved a hand over his newly shorn hair. He'd let it get longer in the hospital, but his mom didn't like it that way.
And hell if he wasn't just a big ole mama's boy. Blake and his brother, J.T., would do anything for her. She'd held their family together after their dad died when he and J.T. were teens.
He might not like the idea of the party, but eating home-cooked meals his mom made was high on his list of favorite things. He could suffer through any inconvenience for that.
Thunder hit again, and the black-haired woman's heart-shaped face popped into his mind with those almost-translucent green eyes that had seen too much of the world. He wondered if the thunder might be an ominous sign that he should stay away from her.
Nope, that wasn't going to happen. The last thing he needed was to chase some skirt, but there was something about her. She'd been dressed sexy, but she didn't suffer fools gladly.
That was something he admired.
He liked a challenge. This was a small town, and he was about to be at a party with some of the best gossips in Texasand that was saying something in this state. A type like the sexy librarian would surely be a topic of conversation. His mom hadn't mentioned anyone moving into town during their chats, so the woman had to be fairly new to Tranquil Waters.
After parking the truck in front of the Lion's Club, he ripped off the wet shirt. He had an extra hanging in the cab. Once he was dressed in his blues, he steeled himself for the oncoming tide of good wishes.
"For he's a jolly good " voices rang out as he swung open the door and stepped inside. In other circumstances, he would have run back to the truck. But he smiled and shook hands, all the while thinking about that woman with the raven hair and killer red heels.
Perhaps having half the town at his party wasn't such a bad thing.
Facing the blue-haired gossip brigade, he gave them his most charming smile.
"Ladies, you haven't changed a bit," he said. "If I didn't know better I'd guess you were selling your souls to keep that peaches-and-cream skin of yours."
His mother rolled her eyes, but stood on tiptoes to give him a hug.
"You're up to something," she whispered.
Oh, he was definitely up to something.
"Bran muffins and fake butter. That was one knight in shining armor," Macy complained to Harley as she wrapped wire around the lock on her cage. She never swore around the animals in the shelter as she believed they'd been through enough trauma, without listening to her temper tantrums. So when she wanted to use angry words, she thought about foods she hated.
"Doesn't it figure that ten minutes after I vow no more men forever, he shows up?"
The dog made a strange noise that sounded like
"yes." Great Danes did have their own language. And she bet Harley understood every syllable she said.
"Oh, no. He has to be so hot that steam came off of him. And me." She fanned her face. The heat from the encounter still on her cheeks.
"Here he comes galloping on his horse to the rescue." Macy's last two relationships were nonevents, except for the part where they'd cheated on her. Three weeks ago she'd discovered the man she thought she might marry was having what he called "a meaningless relationship" with an intern at the paper.
Well, it had meant something to Macy.
Harley made a strange sound.
"Fine, it was a truck he galloped in on, but still."
The dog whined again.
"Lovely girl, I'm sorry. I've been going on and on about me, when you have much more to be sad about." She squatted as much as her skirt would allow and petted Harley through the kennel.
The handsome face of the knight was one she recognized. Though his dark brown hair had been cropped close to his head, it was those dark brown, almost-black eyes she couldn't forget. The marine, who'd been captured in Afghanistan, had returned home. She'd been headed to the welcome-home party to cover it for the newspaper. That wasn't the kind of thing publishers did at larger papers, but this was a small town. Darla, the reporter assigned to the story, had to pick her kid up from school and take him to the dentist. And the other two reporters had the flu.
Thinking that it would be a quick in-and-out, Macy had decided to cover the party.
Well, until she found Harley soaked to the skin.
She loved animals. They weren't as judgmental as humans. Since she was sixteen, she'd been volunteering at various shelters around the world. Every time she took a new job, that was one of the first things she did. Well, except for when she was in the Middle East. She didn't have time to breathe then, let alone help anyone else.
In the newspaper business, one had to move a lot. There was constant downsizing and she had to go where the jobs were. That was how she'd landed in Bostonuntil the fiasco that was her almost-fiance throwing their comfortable life into the proverbial toilet.
Harley nudged her.
"I promise as soon as the fence guy gets done, you are moving in with me. If this rain would stop, they could finish." This was the first pet she'd ever adopted. The old girl had one green and one blue eye. The sorrow in them tore at Macy's heart. She was an orphan, too, and she'd bonded with the dog ever since she'd caught her trying to get back home the first time.
Her great-uncle Todd, who had been Macy's only remaining relative, had willed her the town's newspaper. For months she'd been trying to sell it with no luck. When she walked in on her ex and his meaningless plaything, she decided moving to a small locale wasn't such a bad idea. Along with the paper, her uncle had left her a beautiful house overlooking White's Lake. She'd decided to put an eight-foot fence along two of the four-acres of the property so Harley would have a place to roam.
"Great Danes need a lot of space." She smiled and scratched the dog's ears.
"Hey, I thought you went to the party," said Josh from the door as he slipped booties over his shoes for sanitary purposes. He was the local veterinarian who donated his services to the shelter.
"I was on my way, but Miss Harley got out again. I caught up with her on the highway."
Josh tickled the dog under her chin, his fingers poking through the cage. It was a large eight-by-eight-foot space, but it wasn't big enough for the hundred-and-seventy-five-pound dog.
"Nice knot with the wiring there. Do you sail?" He pointed to the impenetrable knot she'd devised to keep Harley in.
She shrugged. "Something I picked up from my dad. In the summer we'd go sailing." Those weeks were some of the happiest of her life. Her parents were journalists, so it was in her blood, but it meant they traveled the far ends of the earth, leaving Macy at home.
"So are you heading over to the hero party?"
Feeling as if she'd stood in a rainstorm for an hour, which she did, she decided she'd be better off going home. "No, I'm heading back to my place to change."
She noticed Josh wasn't meeting her eyes. He did everything he could not to look at her.
She glanced down. Her white blouse was completely sheer and she was cold.
Great. Wonderful. Lovely.
"Well, Cecil is up at the front, so I guess I'll be going," she said as she made a quick exit.
Josh was a nice guy. They'd even tried to date once. But discovered there was absolutely no chemistry, which was probably why he was doing his best not to look at her nipples protruding through the sheer fabric of her shirt and nude-colored bra.
Unless she wanted to be the fodder for more town gossip, there would be no party in her future.
The lovely scent of wet dog pervaded her senses as she made the short drive home.
Five minutes later, she turned on the fireplace in the main family area. The front of the place had a Gothic Revival exterior. The back was full of windows. She loved the water. Living near it made her feel close to her dad.
After constantly chasing the next big story, the pace of Tranquil Waters nearly killed her at first. But she'd grown accustomed to the quiet. Her whole life she'd heard Texans were incredibly kind, and they were However, the ones here didn't trust outsiders, especially Yankees, of which she was one, having spent most of her formative years in the Northeast.
A hot shower was in order. Then she'd bundle up and see what Mrs. Links, the housekeeper who worried that Macy was wasting away, left in the fridge for dinner. The housekeeper came in three times a week, even though Macy was perfectly capable of cleaning up after herself.
Mrs. Links was another part of her strange inheritance from Uncle Todd. He'd provided for her weekly allowance until the time she no longer needed employment.
Macy didn't have the heart to ask the nearly seventy-five-year-old woman when that might be. For someone who made a living by asking the tough questions, Macy had a soft spot when it came to animals and her elders.
As the warm water sluiced across Macy's body, her mind drifted to the marine. Those biceps under her hands were of a man who wasn't afraid of hard labor. Marines had to stay fit, and she had a feeling he'd have washboard abs, as well.
Men with great abs were her weakness.
You swore off men.
The smell of his fresh, masculine scent. Those hard muscles, the warm smile, even after all he'd been through.
The blood thrummed through her body.
She hadn't been with a man in what felt like forever. That was all. He was hot, and any other woman would feel the same way after looking into those sweet chocolate-brown eyes.
Turning down the water's temperature to cool her body, she wondered how long she'd be able to resist the marine.