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"Now that looks like trouble." If there was one thing Jericho King could recognize, it was trouble. Fifteen years in the Marine Corps had given him almost a sixth sense—a sort of internal radar. He could spot potential problems coming at him from a mile off.
This particular problem was a hell of a lot closer.
Jericho squinted into the late afternoon sunlight and watched as a short, curvy woman with long brown hair bent over and reached into a neon-green compact car parked on the gravel drive.
"Still, not a bad view," the older man beside him muttered.
Jericho chuckled. Sam had a point. Whoever the brunette was, she had a great butt. His gaze moved over that behind and then down and along a pair of truly sensational legs. She was wearing a pair of bright-red, three-inch heels that, even as she stood there, were sinking into the gravel and dirt drive.
"Why do women wear those idiotic shoes, anyway?" Jericho asked, not really expecting an answer.
"Generally," Sam Taylor mused, "I think it's to get men to look at their legs."
"They ought to know they don't have to work that hard," Jericho told him with a slow shake of his head. "Well, we don't have time to deal with her today. So whoever she is, I'll take care of it fast. Bet she's looking for that day spa on the other side of the mountain. I'll get her straightened out and on her way."
He took a single step forward before Sam's voice stopped him.
"Y'know," he said, "I don't think she's lost. I think she's the one I talked to about the cook job. You remember, you put me in charge of hiring Kevin's replacement?"
"Yeah but, a cook?" Jericho narrowed his gaze on the woman, still bent over, rummaging around in her car as if looking to find a stray gold nugget. "Her?"
"If that's Daisy Saxon," Sam told him, "then yeah."
"Saxon. Saxon…" Knowledge slammed into Jericho hard and fast. Shifting a glance at his foreman, he asked, "Did you say Saxon?"
"Yeah, your hearing's still okay," his friend said, then added, "Why? What's the problem?"
What's the problem?
"Where would I start?" Jericho muttered as the woman straightened up, turned and spotted him and Sam standing on the wide, front lawn.
She clutched an oversize purse to her chest as she stepped onto the lawn and headed toward them. Her long brown hair lifted in the wind, her dark brown eyes were locked on him and her full mouth was set in a firm line of determination.
Jericho watched her as something inside him stirred. He squelched the feeling fast. This woman wouldn't be staying, he told himself. If she was really Daisy Saxon, then there was no place for her here. Hell, he thought, just look at her. Was there ever a more female woman? When women arrived at his camp, they were dressed for it. Jeans. Hiking boots. This one looked as though she'd just left an upscale mall. She was soft and pretty and delicate. And delicate wouldn't last here on the mountain.
Not in Jericho's world anyway.
He'd hear her out, apologize about the job confusion, then send her on her way. It would be best for everyone—especially her. She didn't belong here. He could tell that much just by looking at her. It only took seconds for these thoughts and more to rush through his quickly overheating mind.
"Pretty thing," Sam mused.
Jericho didn't want to notice, but damned if he could seem to help it.
The woman took maybe four uneven strides in those stupid heels before she tripped on a sprinkler head and went sprawling, sending her purse flying.
"Damn it." Jericho started for her.
But in the next instant, a tiny, furry creature jolted out of her purse and charged him with all the enthusiasm of a rabid pit bull. The grass was high enough that all Jericho could see of the miniature dog was its reddish-brown ears flapping in the wind.
Yips and barks in a pitch high enough to peel paint shot through Jericho's head as the improbably small dog, teeth bared, did its best to intimidate.
It wasn't much.
Sam's laughter erupted from beside him and Jericho muttered, "Oh, for God's sake."
Then he gently eased the mutt out of his way with one foot. The dog stayed on him though, even as Jericho neared the fallen brunette, who was already pushing herself up off the lawn.
Her hair fell in a tangle around her face. There were grass stains on the front of her shirt and disgust written on her face.
"Are you okay? " he asked, bending down to help her up.
"Fine," she murmured, taking his hand and staggering to her feet. "Nothing like a little humiliation to bring color to a woman's cheeks." Bending down again, she scooped up the little yapper. "Oh, Nikki, honey, you're such a brave little peanut. What a good girl, protecting Mommy."
"Yeah, she's a real killer."
"Mommy" now flashed him a look no friendlier than the one her tiny dog was shooting him. "She's very loyal. I appreciate loyalty."
"Me, too," he said, staring down into brown eyes that shone like fine whisky held up to a light. "But if you're looking for protection, you might want to upgrade to a real dog."
"Nikki is a real dog," she told him and cuddled the little creature close. "Now, I realize I haven't made the best impression in the world, but I'm here to see you."
"Do I know you?"
"Not yet," she told him. "But I know you're Jericho King, right?"
"I am," he said flatly and watched as her gaze slid back to his.
"Nothing like making a fabulous first impression," she whispered, more to herself than to him. A moment later, she lifted her chin and said, "I'm Daisy Saxon. We haven't spoken, but you wrote to me a year ago after…"
"After your brother died," he finished for her, remembering that moment when Brant Saxon had died following a dangerous mission into hostile territory.
Jericho had seen men die before. Too many over the years he'd served in the Corps. But Brant had been different. Young. Idealistic. And dead way before his time. The kid's death had hit Jericho hard, precipitating his retirement and leading him here, to this mountain.
The fact that he blamed himself for Brant's death only added to the misery he felt now, facing the man's sister.
Pain whipped through her eyes like a lightning flash. There and gone again in a moment. "Yes."
In an instant, Jericho saw Brant Saxon, remembered the fear on his face that had faded into resignation, acceptance, as he lay dying. And Jericho remembered the kid wresting a promise from him. A promise to look after Brant's sister if she ever asked for help.
Well, he'd done his best to keep the promise, hadn't he? He'd written the more "official" sorry-for-your-loss letter, then he'd called her later, offered to do whatever he could. But she'd turned him down. Politely. Completely. She had thanked him for his call, told him she would be fine, then she'd hung up—ending, as far as Jericho was concerned, any responsibility he'd had to her.
So why in the hell was she on his mountain a year after telling him thanks but no thanks?
"I know a good bit of time has passed since we spoke," she was saying and Jericho tuned back in. "But when you called me, after Brant died, you offered to help me if you ever could."
"Yeah," he said, folding his arms over his chest. "About that. I never heard from you, so…"
"It's taken me a while to come to terms with Brant's death," she admitted, then sent a quick glance around her, checking out the property and Sam, still standing on the lawn watching them. "Could we talk about this inside maybe?"
Irritation spiked inside him and was instantly squashed. He didn't want to owe her but he knew he did. He'd given his word, not just to her brother, but to her. And one thing Jericho King never did was break his word. So he was going to have to deal with her whether he was happy about that or not.
He looked at her as she stood there, shivering a little in the cold wind blowing through the pines. Didn't even know enough to wear a jacket in the mountains. Even in California, fall could be a tricky time of year in the higher altitudes. But, he told himself, she was clearly not an outdoors kind of woman.
Of course she wanted to be inside. It was where she belonged. She was the kind who liked the great outdoors…from the other side of a window while sitting beside a fire and sipping a glass of wine. He knew her kind of woman all too well. And as he realized that, Jericho acknowledged that maybe he wasn't going to have to chase her off at all. Maybe she'd come to her senses on her own and admit that she wasn't suited to working here.
Besides, he could give her a cup of coffee at least before sending her off. Let her get a good look at the place she wanted to be a part of. See that she wouldn't like it. Wouldn't fit in. Wouldn't last.
"Sure. Let's go inside."
"Thanks," she said. "It's really cold here. When I left L.A. this morning it was seventy-five degrees."
"We're higher up," he pointed out dryly. Then he picked up on what she said. "You left this morning? And you're just getting here? At most, it's a three- or four-hour drive with traffic."
She rolled her eyes, planted a kiss on top of her silly dog's head and shrugged. "There was lots of traffic, but the truth is, I got lost."
Jericho just stared at her. "Didn't you have a GPS?"
"Yes," she said with a small sniff. "But—"
"Never mind." He turned, waved Sam off and led the way toward the house. When she didn't fall into line beside him, he turned back to look at her. "What's the problem?"
Scowling, she jerked her leg and said, "My heels sank into the lawn."
"Of course they did." He walked back to her and said, "Step out of them."
When she did, he snatched the shoes up, handed them to her and said, "This kind of shoe won't work here."
She followed him, hurrying barefoot across the grass. She caught up to him, balancing the dog-filled purse in one hand and her shoes in the other. "But they look good," she told him.
"How'd that work out?"
"Well," she said on a half laugh, "it's a first impression you won't forget."
Jericho felt a short dart of admiration course through him. She wasn't easily shot down. Then he stopped and looked down at her. Her cheeks were pink, her eyes were flashing with humor and there was a smudge of dirt on the tip of her nose.
She was way too beautiful.
"What?" she asked. "Do I have dirt on my face?"
"As a matter of fact…" He bent, scooped her up into his arms and heard her "whoosh" of surprise.
"Hey, you don't have to carry me."
"Those heels wouldn't work on the gravel either, and you're barefoot, Ms. Saxon."
She packed a lot of curves into her small body. As she wiggled in his arms, he felt a reaction that surely would have happened to any red-blooded, breathing male. The problem was, he didn't want to react to her. All he wanted from Daisy Saxon was her absence.
"Right. Got it. Heels, bad. I'll remember. And call me Daisy," she told him. "After all, since I'm snuggled in against your chest, no point in being formal."
"I suppose not," he said tightly, as a small, low-pitched growl erupted from the dog she held close. "That's a ridiculous dog," he muttered.
She looked up at him. "Brant gave her to me just before he shipped out."
"Oh." Well, hell.
He ignored the dog's warning growls and Daisy's stream of chatter about the house, the grounds, the weather, the fact that her car was almost out of gas and the nice people she'd met at the spa when she was lost.
His ears were ringing by the time he reached the front door of the main house. For a man used to the gypsylike life of career military, even owning a home was different. This place, though, was special.
This place had been in his family for almost a hundred years. One of his long-ago grandfathers had built the original cabin, then later it had been expanded into the King family getaway. Jericho and his brothers had spent nearly every summer of their childhoods here at the lodge.
It sat high on the mountain, square in the middle of several hundred acres of forest, streams and rivers. The cottage had grown into a veritable castle constructed of logs and glass, blending in so well with its surroundings, it practically disappeared into the surrounding woods. It was a sort of camouflage, he supposed, which was something he was all too familiar with.
He'd bought out his brothers' shares of the place years ago and, knowing even then what he would eventually do with the place, had hired an architect to make some changes. The building had been expanded yet again, becoming at last a sort of fantasy mansion, with sharp angles, a steep roofline and enough rooms that Jericho never needed to run into a soul if he didn't want to. He'd had the work done before he left the Corps so it would be ready for him. When he left the Corps, Jericho had headed straight here.
This place was both a touchstone to the past and a foothold on his future. He opened the arched, dark wood door, stepped inside and set Daisy on her feet quickly. Best to get that curvy body away from his as fast as possible.
She slipped her heels on and did a slow turn, taking in what she could of the house from the foyer.
"Wow," she whispered. "This is really…"
Cathedral ceilings arched high overhead, with pale, varnished logs crisscrossing in geometric patterns. The last of the afternoon sunlight slanted through the glass and lay dazzling golden patterns on the gleaming wood floors.
"Yeah, I like it." He led the way into the main room, right off the hallway, and she followed as he'd expected her to, those heels of hers clicking musically against the uncarpeted floors.
"It echoes in here," she said.
Jericho frowned as he looked back at her. "It's a big room."
"And practically empty." She shook her head as she glanced around. He followed her gaze. The furnishings were utilitarian but comfortable. There were sofas, chairs, a few tables and lamps and a long wet bar against one wall. There was a river-stone hearth tall enough for him to stand up in, and the view of the mountains was breathtaking.