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Th e last time she saw Rob McGuire, he was down on one knee in front of all their friends, diamond ring in hand, and gazing up in hopeful expectationat her college roommate. So what on earth was he doing seven years later on her parents' doorstep? And with a cop no less.
With a quick intake of breath, Olivia Diaz stared from one man to the other, finding Rob's frowning demeanor more encouraging than that of the solemn-eyed officer of the law. But she focused on the latter.
"What's wrong?" Had something happened to her parents? She'd arrived in Canyon Springs shortly after midnight Tuesday before Labor Day weekendto an empty house. And now at 7:00 a.m., she'd thought it still too early to call any of her sisters to find out where their folks might be.
"And you are?" The stocky Native American officer presented a polite smile, a light breeze ruffling his hair.
"Olivia Diaz." She motioned to the rugged, ponderosa-pine-studded acreage encompassing the rental cabin property her family had run for decades in the high country of Arizona. "My parentsPaul and Rosa Diazown Singing Rock."
She shot an anxious glance at Rob, then stepped out the door and onto the front porch of the two-story log home. It was Rob, wasn't it? She'd only gotten a few hours of sleep, but surely she wasn't hallucinating. The same trim build, broad shoulders and square jaw. Something in the expressive gray eyes flickered. Did he remember her?
The officer held out identification, again drawing her attention. "I'm Deputy Nate Karel of the County Sheriff's Department, here to see Mr. or Mrs. Diaz. Mr. McGuire here indicated they were out of town, but when we saw signs of habitation at the house, we thought they might have returned."
Tension drained. Her parents were okay.
"No, they're not at home, but in their absence you can speak with me." They'd probably gone on an overnight trip to the Valley of the Sunthe Phoenix areabut she herself would be managing the property in the not-too-distant future. That was her parents' hope, anywayor had been. After last year's episode it might take some convincing, but she was determined to win them over.
"There's been vandalism to the property." The soft, Navajo cadence of the officer's tone thrummed gently in her ears as he produced a small notebook and pen.
She glanced again at Rob, who seemed to be following the conversation with almost proprietary interest.
What was he doing here?
"And you arrived when, Ms. Diaz?"
Refocusing on the officer, she cringed inwardly, belatedly self-conscious of her bare feet, cut-off shorts and battered Phoenix Suns tank top. Appropriate late-August attire for hanging around the house, but not for hosting a visit from law enforcementor the man who'd populated her dreams for more years than she cared to admit.
"I got in not long after midnight. Drove all the way from Mississippi to surprise my folks."
Some surprise. No one home. Nothing edible in the fridge.
Not even their aging pooch, Maverick, had been around to offer a tail wag.
The officer nodded, seeming to weigh her response as he jotted down a few words. "Did you hear or see anything out of the ordinary at that hour?"
"Vehicles. Voices. Lights." Amazingly, Rob's mellow tone still sounded familiar to her ears despite the passage of time. "Someone broke into one of the cabins and trashed it."
Great. He appeared out of nowhere in the middle of her world and this was the welcome he got. "Your cabin?"
Rob shook his head. "A vacant one. Timberline."
Then what business was this of his?
"Ms. Diaz?" The deputy drew her attention again. "Would you like to take a look at it? Tell us if anything is missing?"
Like she'd know? She hadn't been out to Timberline in almost a year. To any of the cabins on the property for that matter. Her most vivid memory of the farthest cabin to the west wasn't of its furniture and fixtures, but of a heated argument she'd had there with her oldest sister, Paulette.
"I wouldn't be much help. I've been out of town for quite a while." Besides, much to her shame, now that she knew her folks had come to no harm, her mind wasn't on the issue at hand. Exhilaration bubbled below the surface as she again caught the eye of her old college crush, dressed this morning in a navy blue T-shirt, jeans and charcoal windbreaker. Her heart sped up a notch as he returned her openly curious gaze. He'd always been an eye-catcher, but who'd have thought that was a mere fledgling phase?
"Okay, then," the deputy concluded. "I guess that finishes things up here. I'll file the report, Mr. McGuire. Ms. Diaz. Thank you both for your time."
He shook hands with Rob, nodded at her, then headed down the steps and toward an official-looking SUV parked in the pine-rimmed clearing.
"Wait." She moved to the edge of the porch, wrapping an arm around one of the thick, hand-hewn wooden posts. If she was to be Singing Rock's manager, she'd better start acting the part. "Do you have any leads? Evidence? Anything forensic to identify the culprits?"
Officer Karel turned. "No, miss, nothing to speak of."
"You'll keep me posted if something comes up?"
"I will. Good day to you both."
She remained standing on the broad wooden porch of the house, watching the officer climb into his county vehicle. An approaching older model minivan passed him on his way out before pulling up in front of another two-story log structure across the clearingthe lodge, hub of Singing Rock activity housing the office, recreation room and an apartment upstairs. Olivia's nose curled at the odor of the vehicle's exhaust, entirely out of place in the pristine, pine-scented retreat. Guests must be returning from an early breakfast or errand run to town.
She turned again to the man standing a few feet away, keeping her arm looped around the post for fear she might float off in euphoria. Drinking in the sight of him, she couldn't disguise the delight in her voice.
"Rob McGuire, of all people. I can't believe after all this time you've shown up in Canyon Springs. Welcome to Singing Rock."
"Thanks." He brushed an unruly lock of sun-streaked brown hair from his forehead and offered a faint, though not unfriendly smile. But from the puzzlement reflected in his eyes, it was apparent that while he'd heard her name he still hadn't placed her.
"Remember me? Northern Arizona University? Church volleyball team? Friday night Bible study?"
He frowned, uncertainty still evident as he searched her features.
"The sole girl to jump off that bridge during the spring break mission trip to Mexico?" Surely he'd remember that. "The one who came as a smiley face to the church's autumn college kick-off party?"
It was at the costume party where they'd first met and she certainly hadn't forgotten him. A debonair masked Zorro. She still remembered his first words to her. Well, now, aren't you enough to make a man smile.
Was that romantic or what?
His eyes widened ever so slightly. "It's coming to me now. You dressed all in black and painted your face bright yellow with big black eyes and an ear-to-ear grin."
"Bingo!" Ha ha. She'd been stuck the entire evening in that perpetual state long after the other partygoersincluding Robdisposed of removable masks. But freshmen are entitled to a few missteps.
"Well, what do you know? Good to see you again."
He continued to study her as if sifting through a box of memories, comparing then and now. "You'll have to forgive meI thought you looked vaguely familiar when you came to the door, but I sure didn't recognize you."
Thank goodness. Vanity hoped she'd changed since her freshman days of tomboyishly cropped curls, skinny bod and multi-pierced ears. Late bloomer. She proudly shook back her now-cascading black locks, her smile widening in hopes she could coax one from him.
"I still can't believe this. What a small world. I mean, I haven't seen you sincesince"
Their gazes collided at the mutual memory, and from the discomfiture in his eyes she knew he'd remembered her at last. Warmth crept into her cheeks.
Oh, good going, Olivia.
The last thing she wanted to do was remind him of that public turndown of a marriage proposal she and half the church witnessed. Standing but a few feet from the ring's intended recipient, she'd had a front-row seat to his humiliation. "So what brings you here as a guest at Singing Rock?"
With his hands jammed in his jacket pockets, she couldn't get an answer to the question she most wanted to know. Then again, seven years had passed so of course he was married. Guys like him always were. And likely to a woman far more beautiful and spiritual than she'd ever hope to be.
Just her luck, he was probably here with the little wifey and a carload of kids. Or on his honeymoon.
"Actually I'm the manager here."
Her smile faltered. "Here? At Singing Rock?"
He nodded. "Have been for a couple of weeks now."
She gave an uncertain laugh. No way. As achievementoriented as Rob had been in college, he had to be heading up his own Fortune 500 company by now. Or maybe even pas-toring one of those mega churches. "You're kidding, right?"
He shook his head, his eyes narrowingapparently at the disbelieving tone of her voice.
Realization slammed into her, leaving a meteor-size crater somewhere in the vicinity of her stomach. Mom and Dad had finally given up on her? They'd hired someone outside the family to run their business?
Her grip tightened on the post as she willed herself to renew a smile. Hiring Rob had to be a temporary situation, right? Until she came back. Until they could get things worked out between them.
"Hey, Rob!" A familiar female voice rang out from across the parking lot where the minivan had pulled up moments ago. She caught sight of her sister Paulette Alston standing beside it. "Would you give me a hand, please?"
Still shaken by Rob's revelation, Olivia stepped back inside the door to retrieve her flip-flops, then caught up with him at what must be her sister's new mom-mobile. She hadn't recognized it when it drove in. A slightly newer model than the last.
Paulette, not expecting to see her this morning, shot Olivia a sharp look as she approached. But Olivia shouldn't have been so surprised to see her oldest sister this early in the day. When you have five kids aged six to sixteen, you have to stay on your toes. This morning Paulette, her senior by a decade, appeared older than her thirty-five years. Black-brown eyes, devoid of the characteristic Diaz sparkle, were shadowed below with dark circles. Tendrils of limp, shoulder-length black hair, haphazardly tied back, escaped to brush her cheeks.
Paulette slid open the side door to the van, gaze focusing on Rob. "What was the deputy doing here? More trouble?"
"Timberline this time."
The hairs prickled along Olivia's arms. "This isn't the first time something like this has happened?"
Her sister shook her head. "Twice now in the past week.
Singing Rock's manager fished around in his jacket pocket. As he produced a piece of paper, Olivia at last confirmed the left hand holding it out was ringless. Her heart took flight, but only momentarily. With the way her love life had been going lately, that omission didn't mean much. But ever the optimist, Olivia pounced on the possibility.
"I jotted down a few things while the deputy and I inspected it." Rob unfolded his notes. "They outdid themselves this time."
Olivia stepped closer to get a better look at his neat, compact handwriting, her proximity bringing a fading bruise and healing scrape along the side of his cheekbone into view.
Paulette's stare darkened, as if to remind her that by her own choice she had no part in Singing Rock business. Her choice? Not hardly.
"I assume you've introduced yourself to our new manager, Liv?" Dark eyes flashed in obvious satisfaction. She'd never believed her little sister could handle the job and hadn't been afraid to say so.
"Actually, we already know each other." Olivia couldn't help but gloat inwardly as she served up the unexpected spin and watched her sister's smug smile dissolve.
"Oh, really?" Her eyes flitted from Olivia to Rob and back again, her mouth a grim line. "How's that?"
"College," Olivia and Rob said in unison.
Olivia could tell by the arch of Paulette's brow and the look she again darted at Rob that the disclosure met with disapproval. Then again, not much involving Olivia won Paulette's endorsement.
"Small world." Rob's words echoed her earlier comment, but without the enthusiasm Olivia couldn't help but hope for.
Paulette managed a smile as she turned to Rob and motioned to the interior of her van. "I was in Phoenix over the weekend and picked up supplies at the wholesale warehouse. Would you mind carrying them in for me?"
"I'd be more than happy to." Rob lifted out a box, then headed toward the lodge.
Olivia couldn't help letting her eyes linger on his retreating form. But, not surprisingly, as soon as he was out of earshot Paulette turned to her, blocking the view. "Surprised to see you back, Liv."
"Got in last night." She glanced toward the house, not up to a lecture this morning. "Where are Mom and Dad?"
"They borrowed an RV and headed for Tahoe until October. Left a week ago. You just missed them."