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Sandy Evans felt deserted. The man she loved stood with his broad back to her, his rejection undeniable. Her mother thought she was insane, and her best friend had told her it was just wrong to offer Hunter Bristol thirty thousand dollars to marry her. "He'll throw it back at you," Bobbie Raleigh had warned.
Marriage wasn't the point of the money offer, but-to be honest-she'd have loved it to be the ultimate outcome. So she'd ignored her mother and her best friend, and handed Hunter Bristol a check in that amount. His initial reaction was not promising. White shirt stretched across shoulders that were square and muscular, he'd been silent for about a minute, one hand jammed in the pocket of his gray slacks, the other holding the check between his thumb and forefinger as though it had been smeared with Ebola.
He turned around finally, and she knew Bobbie had been right. Sandy was about to have the check thrown back in her face.
Hunter Bristol was tall and athletic, a man built for action despite having the methodical, meticulous brain of a Certified Public Accountant. His light blue eyes radiated fury and his blond hair, a little too long and roughly styled, almost bristled with his effort to maintain some sort of control. Beyond the glass walls of his office, coworkers glanced their way, obviously wondering what was going on, though they pretended to look busy.
He waved the check at her and demanded, his voice just above a whisper, "Where did you get this kind of money?"
Suddenly tired of everyone's displeasure when all she'd meant to do was ease Hunter's financial problems, she folded her arms and stared boldly into his thunderous face. "I rolled an old lady for it," she said.
He took a step toward her, then apparently thought better of whatever he'd intended and stopped. He glimpsed the outer office and saw that his employer, Nate Raleigh, her friend Bobbie's husband, had come out of his office to talk to Jonni, his office manager, who sat at the front desk. But Hunter appeared to have more of Nate's attention than Jonni did.
"You're lucky," Hunter said, leaning back against a dark wood work table, "that you've got so many witnesses. You want to try that again?"
She closed her eyes with a sigh and perched on his desk, a patch of carpet separating them. "I refinanced the house," she admitted, attempting to sound reasonable. "You're my friend. I'd like to help you get out of debt so we can you know be more."
"Sandy!" His temper flared beyond his control despite their audience, and he flung his arms out to his sides in complete exasperation. "Are you totally deaf? We've had this discussion how many times in the months we've been going out? You will not pay my debts! I will not accept one dime from you."
"It's not out of my monthly income. This is-"
"No. No money from you. Ever."
"Hunter," she continued serenely, "it's not as though you gambled away your money or spent it on women and alcohol. Someone you trusted embezzled from you! This self-imposed penance is unnecessary. Let me help you pay your creditors."
He caught her wrist, pulled his office door open, and drew her after him toward the front door. Nate intercepted them, looking worried.
Nate was a bit taller than Hunter but leaner. The two had been good friends since Nate had moved to Astoria almost a year ago. Hunter had worked for Nate's brother Ben. When Ben and his wife died in a boating accident, Nate, in charge of Raleigh and Raleigh's Portland office, came to take over the Astoria branch and care for Ben's two young boys. Hunter and Nate had grown close as Nate adjusted to life in Astoria.
Nate glanced from Hunter to Sandy. "Where are you going?"
Hunter rolled his eyes. "We're going to sit in her car," he said calmly, "where we might have a little privacy. I am tempted to kill her, but you know I won't, so no need to be concerned."
Nate considered a moment, then asked Sandy with a small smile, "Do you want him sitting in your car? I can call his mother, you know."
Sandy had to smile back. Hunter's mother was Nate's housekeeper and nanny. "I feel perfectly safe," she assured him, telling Hunter with a glance that she really did. His attempts to intimidate weren't working. Well, they were, but he didn't have to know that.
Nate stood aside. "All right, then," he said. "Remember you have a client in ten minutes, Hunt."
Hunter ignored him and drew Sandy out into the gray morning. May in Astoria, Oregon, on the northwest coast, did not guarantee springlike weather. The smell of imminent rain hung in the air.
"I'm parked around the corner." She pointed in that direction, then dramatically favored the elbow he held. "I'll need this at a later date, you realize. I carry Addie in this arm. I mix cookie batter, I scrub the bathtub, I."
He silenced her with a glare as they walked to her little red Volkswagen Beetle. He opened the passenger side door, pushed her into the vehicle, then walked around to the driver's side and let himself in.
"How true to our whole argument," she joked, turning in her seat to face him as he climbed in behind the wheel. "You have to drive even when we aren't going anywhere. And in my car."
He rearranged his long body in the tight space so he could look at her. "I've warned you over and over that it isn't safe to leave the car unlocked. And is it possible for you to be quiet," he asked, anger still in his voice, "and let me talk?"
"Oh, sure." She leaned her head against the door and made a face at him. "But there's really no need for you to say anything. I know it all by heart. You intend to pay off the debts resulting from the embezzlement before you let yourself get into a serious relationship. And you won't accept help from anyone. I happen to know that Nate made a gift to you in an amount that would take care of all you owe and provide a down payment on a house so that if we did get serious, I could move out of my little house and we could get married and buy something bigger together. But you gave the money back to him."
He appeared surprised that she knew.
"Bobbie told me," she explained, "but only because she was excited about it and thought it was great for us. She didn't know you stashed the money away with the intention of returning it to him after you'd earned him some interest." She shook her head at Hunter. "I appreciate your nobility in wanting to get all those debts paid off, how you sold everything and moved into your little apartment to reduce expenses, pay off what you could and meet your obligations. But at some point your nobility is just self-flagellation."
His grim expression made her try harder to understand. "Hunter. Are you just mad at yourself for having trusted the employee who embezzled from you? Because you're not the only person who has trusted and lost. I didn't lose money, but I lost most of the faith I had in men when my father walked away from us and my husband left after Addie was born."
Hunter looked out the front window and rested his wrist on the steering wheel. God, he hated being stupid. Jennifer Riley, his fiancée, had walked away with every penny in his personal and business bank accounts because he'd trusted her and given her access. And she'd taken Bill Dunbar, a tax-season hire, with her.
"You're right," he admitted. "I'm mad at myself because she was my fiancée. I loved her and thought she loved me. Then she stole everything and left with another man."
He hated that he hadn't even seen it coming. Building up his business had been a struggle, but he'd thought he and Jennifer were in it together. He was beginning to see the light when he'd gone to the office early on April 1, three years ago, at the height of tax season, to find she had cleaned him out and disappeared with the rest of his life.
Sandy stared at him for a full thirty seconds. Because she was seldom speechless, he let himself enjoy the moment. When she was quiet, she had an angelic quality about her. She had cocoa brown eyes, pink cheeks and a freckle right on the tip of her nose. She was just a little plump, and in repose, exuded sweetness and gentleness. But when she began to talk and take charge of anything and everything around her, the sweetness evaporated and the gentleness became a warrior-woman fierceness that had to be admired though sometimes strongly resisted.
Sandy drew a breath and the quiet moment was over. "You never told me you loved her," she finally said. "I thought she was just an employee. We saw each other for months and you never thought to tell me that?"
They'd been keeping company since a committee meeting Nate hosted in the office's conference room had brought them together seven months ago. At first, he'd thought her interest in him was harmless, but she turned out to be one determined woman. He was learning today just how determined.
"It's a sore spot, okay? I didn't want to talk about it."
"But that's the kind of stuff people usually share."
"I'm sorry. You know me-I don't share well. It was a hard time for me all around."
She looked hurt that he hadn't explained about Jennifer, but she drew another breath and seemed to push the hurt aside. "Did she go to jail?"
"No, she escaped to Mexico, I think. The police lost her trail almost right away. I don't know where she is now. And I don't care. I'd just like my money back."
"So, you don't want vengeance, you just want your money." She pointed to the check. "There it is. Let's put that part of your life behind you and move on to what we can have together."
Hunter closed his eyes against her suggestion, then held the check up and slowly, deliberately, tore it in half. He was running out of ways to make his point with this woman. She was pretty and smart, but she wouldn't accept no for an answer.
When he'd met Sandy, her candor, her lack of pretense had fascinated him, and her two little girls had captivated him. Time spent with Sandy and the girls over Thanksgiving had deepened his interest, though her need to control everything and her kinetic energy drove him a little crazy. She not only did four things at once, but she also trapped him in her vortex. Which was a problem, because at this point he had to remain focused on his payback plan.
At Christmastime she had mentioned love. Sharing the holidays with her and their friends had been wonderful, but he had to constantly remind himself to keep his distance. Still, her girls liked him, and he liked them. To remain removed from children was hard; he'd never quite accomplished that with Sandy's girls.
"Sandy, please try to understand this." She was looking away from him and he couldn't see the expression on her face, but he could sense her stubbornness. He had little hope of reaching her, yet he tried anyway. "I like you a lot, and under different circumstances, I'd want to see where our relationship could go. But, come on. We've talked about this already. I have things to do before I can consider marriage, and you're impatient to get on with your life."
She faced him finally. "Are you still in love with her?"
"Of course not."
"Then, I don't understand. You don't love her, but you don't care about us, either?" She let a beat pass, then shook her head. "So, that's it? We're just over? All those months of you being charming and letting the girls and me think you really cared about us meant nothing?"
"I told you in the beginning."
"Right, right. Your life is all about staying single to pay off your debts. Money. It's all about money. Well " Her voice grew louder, further amplified in the tiny car. "I'm trying to give you thirty thousand dollars!"
"Well, if all the situation required was money," he shouted back, "great, but it doesn't! I have to do this. My father worked extra shifts to help me get through college. My business was started with my parents' retirement fund. I didn't want to take it but they insisted because they loved me, were proud of me, and trusted me to do something great with it. When Jennifer stole from me, it was as though she took their money."
Again Sandy seemed at a loss for words, so he pressed on. He was now even angrier at her because she made him revisit the awfulness that had plagued his life for the past three years and would be with him for some time to come.
"You don't want to understand, because you're trying to buy the life you want. But you can't do that. You can't just decide what to do with my life so that it fits in with your plans."
Her eyes widened with disbelief. "Pardon me, but aren't you acting like all it requires is money? Money to pay your debts. Money to support a family. Money before you can decide to actually live?"
"Sandy, I need to fulfill a personal obligation. You just want me to fall in with your blueprint. I'm sorry, but a man doesn't let himself get into a mess, then let someone else-particularly a single mother with two little children-bail him out."
"I think you're scared-" she folded her arms, her body language clear "-I am an island in shark-infested waters."
But her voice gentled, despite its brutal message. "You picked the wrong woman once before and you're afraid of doing it again."
"You're absolutely right. And shouldn't you be scared? I mean, you believed in your husband when you married him and that didn't work so well. Shouldn't you be careful before you go to the altar again?"
Something died in her eyes at his reminder that she'd made a major, painful mistake. He felt almost guilty about that. She sighed, then cleared her throat. "Apparently." There was a moment of loud silence before she asked stiffly, "Would you please get out of my car?"
She was finally pushing him away. This was what he wanted, what he needed. He hadn't expected to hate it. "Sandy, you know where I stand. Eventually, things might be different, but for now."
"If you won't accept help, won't take that generous gift from Nate, how do you intend to make anything different?"
He said what he knew she wouldn't want to hear. "It'll take time. I've been chipping away at the debt for a couple of years, now. It's a slow process, but I have my self-respect."
"Yeah. Well, I guess there's no arguing with that." She pushed the passenger side door open. "I have to go."
Which was some kind of progress. But they still had to work together. "We have to find a way to be civil with each other," he reminded her. "You're the one who volunteered us to chair the opening of the Clothes Closet. We have to collect the clothes, plan some kind of event. There'll be meetings, reports to Clatsop Community Action " The Clothes Closet was a new arm of the Food Bank, being set up to provide warm winter clothing free of charge for those in need, and at a drastically reduced price to other shoppers.
"I can be civil," she said. "Just don't ask me to be friends."
He opened his door, too. "Of course not," he said before he climbed out. "That would require tolerance and respect for the other party's opinion."
The moment he got to his feet, she was there to push him out of her way and slip in behind the wheel. The wind whipped up from the river and a light rain began to fall. The atmosphere was perfect for the swan song of a love gone wrong. Or, less dramatically, for a love that couldn't be. At least for now.
She yanked the door closed and he pulled his hand away just in time. He stepped back before she could run over his toes. She drove away in a squeal of tires.