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The roar of a motorcycle shattered the quiet of the warm August afternoon. A Harley cruised to a stop behind the red SUV parked at the curb. Rider and machine appeared as one, black-and-silver power. Beth Carlson halted mid-step on the wooden porch that wrapped around the front and side of the white two-story house—her new home. Her heart pounding, she clutched the large cardboard box in her arms.
Quiet returned as the rider cut the motor. Dismounting, he flipped back the visor of his silver helmet like a knight returning victorious from battle. While he strode up the walk, he took off the helmet and tucked it under one arm. His black T-shirt, faded black jeans and long dark hair, pulled back in a ponytail, gave him a rugged, rebellious look.
Beth's mouth went dry. Her heart raced as she stared at the stranger. Meeting new people always made her nervous. Blinking, she tried to focus her attention somewhere else, but his approach captured her gaze like the fly caught in the spiderweb hanging in the corner of the porch. When he looked her way, a sense of déjà vu swept over her. Yet there was nothing familiar about his handsome face.
Hoping to push aside her anxiety, Beth opened the screen door and set the box down just over the threshold. Then she turned to Kim Petit, the friend who was helping her move. "Who's that?"
"Clay Reynolds. I told you about him."
"You mean the guy who moved into the upstairs apartment?" Beth willed her heart to quit hammering against her rib cage.
"Yeah. Come on. I'll introduce you, but first you've got to close your mouth and quit drooling," Kim kidded.
Clamping her mouth shut, Beth berated herself for giving Kim the wrong idea. She let the screen door bang shut and reluctantly followed Kim to the porch steps. Nothing about this man impressed Beth. Everything about him made her want to run the other way. Motorcycles and men who rode them only reminded her of a past she didn't want to think about.
"Hey, Clay," Kim called. "I want you to meet Beth Carlson."
He took the two steps leading to the porch in one stride. His expression exuded confidence. He smiled, and his gray eyes twinkled as he extended his hand. "Hi, Beth. I hear we're going to be neighbors."
"I guess so." Pushing up her glasses, she pasted a smile onto her face. As his large hand firmly gripped hers, shivers raced down her spine. Not shivers of excitement but of unease. The smooth sound of his deep voice made her apprehensive. This man and his motorcycle dredged up memories of her troubled teenage years. Memories she had tried to bury.
"You've got great timing, Clay," Kim said, taking his arm.
"Is that right?" He gave Kim a curious glance before letting his attention settle on Beth.
Kim nudged him with an elbow. "We need your help moving Beth's stuff."
"Let me head up to my apartment first. Then I'll be right back to help."
Beth watched him disappear around the corner of the porch. When she was sure he was out of earshot, she looked at Kim. "He works for Jillian Lawson? He doesn't look like the corporate type."
Kim nodded. "Yeah. Surprised me when Jillian introduced us at church. He's a lawyer and works as a consultant. Mostly with nonprofit organizations. While she's on maternity leave, he's here to oversee her charitable foundation. Good-looking guy, isn't he?"
Beth shrugged. "If you like that type."
"What's not to like?"
"He's just not my type." Beth shoved at her glasses again. "Besides, all the good-looking guys I've met go for tall, skinny, bleached blondes." Beth flipped her hair with one hand. "Not dishwater blondes with a few extra pounds on the hips."
Kim shook her head. "Beth, you underestimate yourself."
"It doesn't matter. I'm not interested."
"You could've fooled me. I saw the way you looked at him."
Beth gazed across the yard at the motorcycle. Its chrome gleamed in the sunshine filtering through the trees that lined the street. She couldn't go into the reasons she had no interest in her new neighbor. Bringing up the past would only create a gulf between her and Kim.
Beth didn't want that. When she moved to this little town in eastern Washington State a couple of years ago, Kim had befriended Beth. That friendship meant more to her than just about anything except her son, Max. The fact that Kim didn't pry was a wonderful bonus to her friendship.
Beth tried to smile. "My look had nothing to do with his looks. The noise startled me, and I don't like motorcycles."
"If you say so." Kim hopped down from the porch and headed for the SUV. "Let's carry in some more boxes."
"Sure." Beth started down the steps, too, but footfalls on the porch captured her attention. As Clay appeared from around the corner, her stomach lurched. Why did she react so much to this guy? Just because he was a handsome man? She hated her body's betrayal.
Grinning, he gave her a salute. "Reporting for duty. What do you want me to do?"
Beth's mind went blank. His presence had her completely discombobulated. And it wasn't just the fact that he was good-looking. Ever since she could remember, meeting new people had made her uneasy. Although she had moved several times as a child, she had never overcome the inability to make friends with ease. And now even this simple move across town to less cramped quarters for her and her teenage son brought with it the uncomfortable task of meeting someone new. "Help us bring in these boxes from the back of my SUV," Kim answered before Beth could open her mouth.
"Where's that husband of yours?" Clay asked Kim as Beth joined her on the front walk.
"Brian's with Sam and Max. They're using Sam's truck to move Beth's furniture. They'll be here soon."
"You mean Sam isn't hovering over Jillian? I thought he wouldn't let her out of his sight with the baby due so soon. Less than a month now, isn't it?"
Nodding, Kim laughed and opened the back of the SUV. "Jillian's spending the afternoon with her parents. That's the only way my brother would leave her. Sam is driving everyone nuts, including his wife. I'll be glad when my nephew is born."
Beth watched Kim with envy as Clay picked up a box and handed it to her. Not because Beth wished for his attention, but because Kim had such a natural way with people. She could strike up a conversation with anyone about anything at any time. Beth wished for that ability.
Giving herself a mental shake, Beth told herself that the world needed all kinds of people. Quiet people counted, too. Not everyone could be the life of the party.
"Who's Max?" Clay balanced two boxes in his arms.
"My son." Beth joined the duo at the back of the SUV. "He'll be a sophomore in high school this year."
"You have a son in high school?" Clay's brow wrinkled. "You look too young to have a son that age."
"Well, I do." Shrugging, Beth grabbed a box. She didn't want to explain why, at thirty-one, she had a fifteen-year-old son.
Before anyone could say another word, a horn honked. Beth looked up. A shiny blue-and-silver pickup truck loaded with furniture pulled up beside Kim's SUV.
Brian Petit, Kim's husband, leaned out the passenger window. "Hey, Beth, where should we park?"
She moved to the curb and pointed. "In front of Kim's SUV." After they parked, he and Sam Lawson emerged from the truck. Beth stepped into the street. "Where's Max?"
Brian shrugged. "Isn't he here?"
"I thought he was meeting you to help you load the furniture after school. He's had plenty of time to get there." Beth pushed at her glasses again. "Do you suppose football practice ran long today?"
"That's probably it. The coaches are pushing them hard. The first game's only a couple of weeks away," Brian said.
"You're probably right." Beth tried to convince herself of that scenario. Max was a good kid. She shouldn't worry.
Clay soon joined Brian and Sam as they moved beds, chests and a big oak table into the house while Beth and Kim finished bringing in the boxes. When Beth brought in the last carton, Brian stood in the doorway to her bedroom just off the living room to the right.
"Hey, Beth, come here and tell us if this is how you want your furniture arranged." Brian stepped aside.
Perusing the room, Beth took in the battered oak chest and dresser. Her beloved stuff looked a bit dingy in the bright light shining through the window that looked out onto the front porch. But it was sturdy and serviceable, and she was grateful to have it. She glanced at Brian. "I'd like the chest in that corner by the window. Everything else can stay where it is."
"How about Max's room?" Sam poked his head around the doorframe.
"I'm going to let him do what he wants in there. It's the first time he's had a room that big. So put his stuff anywhere, and he can arrange it later," Beth replied.
Clay picked up a framed picture from a half-opened box sitting on the floor. "Is this Max?"
Beth stepped closer to look. Clay handed her the photo. Setting it on her dresser, she stared at the image of her son with his dark hair and eyes so different from her light hair and blue eyes. She loved Max more than words could express. Despite the heartache of the past, she was glad to have Max. Her son, who now stood a couple of inches taller than six feet, was an attractive young man. Sometimes she worried that he was too handsome for his own good. Like his father. Like her new neighbor.
"Yeah, that's Max, but he's grown nearly a foot since that picture was taken. I could hardly keep him in clothes last year."
"So he's on the football team?" Clay asked as he helped Brian move the chest.
Beth grimaced. "Yeah. I'm not real excited about that. The game's so rough. Makes me cringe when I think about it."
Clay looked back at Beth. "What position does he play?"
"Wide receiver. Whatever that means." Beth shrugged. Clay chuckled. "Sounds like you need someone to fill you in on the finer points of the game."
"Are you volunteering?" Kim came to stand next to Clay. "Sure." Clay grinned. "I played wide receiver myself when I was in high school."
"Come on, guys." Brian stepped into the room. "No time for football instructions now. We've got more furniture to deliver. One more trip, and that should be it."
"Do you need help?" Clay called after Brian. Stopping, Brian shook his head. "No, you can help when we get back. For now, you can give Beth a hand unpacking." Brian turned to Beth. "Right, Beth?"
Swallowing hard, Beth looked from Brian to Clay and back to Brian. Why was Kim's husband microman-aging this move? Maybe he was only trying to be helpful, but now she was trapped into spending time alone with a dangerously attractive stranger. She glanced at Clay. "I...Kim's going to help me unpack. So you don't have to."
"Sorry, Beth." Kim shook her head. "Sam asked me to pick up Jillian and some take-out fried chicken from the Pinecrest Café for everyone. We'll eat here after they bring the second load of furniture. Okay?"
"Okay." Beth forced herself to smile. Now everyone was micromanaging her move. Or maybe just maneuvering her into spending time alone with Clay. She gave herself a mental shake for being paranoid.
"Then everything's settled." Kim gave Beth a wink as she exited the room with her husband.
Beth stood there surrounded by boxes, and watched everyone leave. Everyone except Clay. Maybe she wasn't being paranoid after all.