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Even with the kitchen faucet running and an Indigo Girls CD turned up high, Fran Bishop heard the crunch of gravel as a car rolled up the driveway on the other side of the building. Partly because she'd taken advantage of the unseasonably warm late-September afternoon and had opened the windows and sliding-glass door, but she'd also been waiting for the sound-for Mitch Matthews.
He'd booked the best room in the Oceanside Bedand-Breakfast, the third-floor Orca Suite, for five weeks. The same room he always chose. This time though, he was coming to stay at the tail end of tourist season and was alone. He'd never stayed here more than a week, and never without a beautiful woman to keep him company.
Most tourists were long gone. Starting tomorrow, until the annual Cranberry Festival the third week of October, Mitch was Fran's only guest.
The car door slammed. With more anticipation than she had any right to feel, Fran shut off the music, dried her hands on her apron and then hung it on the hook behind the basement door. She barely had time to straighten her braid and smooth her yellow blouse over her dark green cords before Mitch's footsteps thudded across the planking of the ocean-view deck. The knocker hit the door twice-Mitch never used the buzzer-with crisp, staccato raps.
Already smiling and stifling the urge to hurry, she moved through the dining and great rooms and across to the entry. She opened the door. "Welcome, Mitch."
His grin was as irresistible as ever. He moved past her, bringing the tang of the sea air with him. At five feet ten in her socks, she wasn't small, yet Mitch stood a good five inches taller. A big, powerful manand handsome to boot.
While she silently admired his broad shoulders and strong jaw, he set down two large bags and a laptop computer case.
"It's good to see you," he said, his gray eyes mirroring the words.
She felt her cheeks warm with pleasure. "And you. When you didn't book a room over the summer, I thought that, after five years, you were tired of Cranberry or the Oceanside."
"I'll never get tired of you, the Oceanside or the Oregon coast," he said. "Thank God for this oasis."
"Oasis, huh? Can I quote you on my Web site?"
"Sure." He sniffed the air. "Something smells good, but around here, it usually does."
Mitch's ability to see the best in a person and offer genuine compliments, combined with his looks and skills as a motivational speaker and writer, were what drew people to him. He certainly made Fran feel good. Her smile widened.
"What you smell is my work in progress," she said.
"I'm working on a recipe for the Cranberry cook-off, the event that kicks off the Cranberry Festival."
Mitch nodded. "I read about that on the "net. Sounds interesting."
"It always is. Especially this year. The Food Network will be here, filming the contest."
The publicity would bring attention to Cranberry, where the locals depended heavily on tourism to survive. Fran hoped to be this year's grand-champion ribbon, which meant winning in her category and then beating out other category winners in a final round. The overall winner earned ten thousand dollars, among other prizes. Running the bed-and-breakfast was expensive and, with no income November through January, she barely kept afloat. And, after recently putting on a new roofThe cost had been staggering. Her savings were nearly gone, and prize money would go a long way toward replenishing them.
But better than the money was the chance of interesting the Food Network in a cookbook of her own, an otherwise near-to-impossible feat for an unknown cook.
"I really want to win the grand championship," she said.
"With your culinary skills?" Mitch smacked his lips.
"You're a shoo-in."
She laughed. "Wait until you taste my entry before you say that. But if you do, you can't tell a soul what it is. I don't want any of my friends stealing my idea."
"Your secret will be safe with me. I noticed another car in the driveway. I didn't realize anyone else would be here this late in the season."
"Only one couple, the Hortons from Sacramento. They're upstairs now, but they'll be down for the wine-and-cheese social." The get-together was a daily, late afternoon ritual Fran offered her guests. "They've read your books and attended one of your seminars at the hospital where they work. They're eager to meet you."
"Just what I wanted to do, make small talk with strangers," Mitch muttered with a pained expression.
Since he'd always been an outgoing, friendly man, this surprised Fran. "I shouldn't have mentioned your name to them," she said. "But you always like meeting new people and I thought, Never mind. They're leaving tomorrow after breakfast. Then you're my only guest until the Cranberry Festival." For that popular week all seven rooms at the Oceanside were reserved.
"That's what I hoped for-solitude. My editor expects a book the first of November and I'll be finishing the thing while I'm here."
"The book I read about, on finding your bliss?" As a reasonably contented but sometimes lonely woman, Fran looked forward to gaining insight into living a happier life. "Sounds like an interesting topic."
His three previous books were filled with a wisdom and common sense she admired. She kept autographed copies of each on the bookcase that divided the dining room from the great room, for guests looking for something to read during their stay.
"It's interesting, all right."
Though he was smiling again, Fran couldn't help but sense a great heaviness, as though he carried the weight of who knew what on his back. She wanted to reach out, brush the hair off his forehead and somehow ease his burdens, but she had no business touching him.
"How are you?" she asked, studying him.
"Couldn't be better."
An automatic response. He'd always been upbeat, at least during his stays here. After all, he made his living motivating others. What in the world had caused this darker, sadder mood?
Since she wasn't about to ask-Mitch was her guest and, as such, deserved his privacy-she'd never know. What she could do was take care of him the best way she knew how. With delicious, hearty breakfasts, welcoming, comfortable surroundings and the peace and quiet he wanted.
"I'll just explain to the Hortons that you need to finish the book. They're nice people. They'll understand."
"Please don't do that. I don't want anyone to know it isn't done." His gaze sought hers. "Can I trust you to keep my situation private?"
The pleading look was another she'd never seen. She didn't understand his need for secrecy, but she wasn't a woman to betray a confidence. Besides, with Mitch staring intently and soberly into her eyes, she'd have promised him anything. "Of course."
He let out a relieved breath. "Good." "I'll tell them you're tired." "Which is the truth. No, if they're expecting to meet me, I won't disappoint them. But starting tomorrow, you can forget about the wine and cheese. Don't plan on seeing much of me."
Normally Fran set out cheese and crackers, opened the wine and then retreated to her two-bedroom, basement apartment. But with Mitch as the only guest, she'd been looking forward to joining him for the hour, just the two of them talking and getting to know each other better.
Disappointed, she nodded. "All right, no afternoon snacks. What about breakfast?" Sumptuous breakfasts were included in the price. "You still want that, don't you? A good meal to start the day will give you the energy you need to work."
"That's one of the things I like about you, Fran. You take good care of me." His mouth twitched and the sorrow eased from the planes of his face, turning him into the Mitch she knew. "I wouldn't miss your breakfasts for anything. Now, I'd like to take my things upstairs and wash up before the socializing starts."
She nodded. "Would you like help with your bags?" "No, thanks."
Slinging the strap of the laptop case over his shoulder, then hefting one suitcase in each hand, he headed for the wide, spiral staircase. Moments later, he disappeared.
His demeanor left Fran both worried and determined. She may not ever learn what had taken the light from Mitch's eyes, but she would do everything possible to give him what he needed. Peace, tranquility and privacy.
MITCH SET HIS BAGS on the thick carpet in the luxurious bedroom of the Orca Suite. He moved to the sitting room and laid his laptop on the desk that faced the ocean-his work space for the next five weeks. The top-floor suite, the best in the place, took up the entire third floor. Private and pleasant, with both a shower and soaker tub for two in the bathroom, the suite made for great romance. He'd never been here in the fall, and never without one woman or another. With a large-view window and balcony facing east and overlooking the ocean, the wood fireplace and cheery d'cor, the suite felt warm and inviting, even without a lover in tow. Exactly what he needed. He opened the sliding-glass door and strode onto the small balcony.
A chilly, salt-scented breeze ruffled the drapes and his hair, signaling a cool night ahead. The sun was about to set and the tide was on its way in. Waves rushed and foamed over the beach and the color slowly leached out of what had been a deep, blue sky. Gulls and pelicans circled over the water in search of fish.
Mitch inhaled the air and felt better than he had in a long while. The town, the sea, this house were salves to his sorry soul. So were Fran's nurturing ways. But then, her natural warmth always had drawn him.
He was looking forward to five weeks away from the energy-sucking people in his life, each with needs and demands. Especially his editor, agent and publicist. After pushing back his deadline twice, he had no choice but to complete the book he owed them. Everyone thought he'd finished the thing and was here to revise and polish it. Truth was, it has only half written, and badly. One hundred and fifty pages of pure garbage.
The motivation guru couldn't motivate himself. Now, there was something to write a book about. He snorted.
What in hell had possessed him to think he could write a book about finding your bliss? Did bliss even exist? Hell, if he knew. He scrubbed a hand over his face. Since his father had died eight months ago, he no longer knew much of anything. What he needed was time to think and sort out his life. Unfortunately, he didn't have that luxury.
Two pelicans dive-bombed into the sea, an enjoyable sight Mitch barely registered. Though he and his father never had been close, his death had ripped Mitch apart and affected him in ways he'd never imagined.
His creativity had all but dried up.
The instant the thought formed, his gut clenched in fear. Only the weak let emotions get in the way of work, his father always said. Mitch was not weak. He would drive out the demons and forge ahead. Setting his jaw, he willed away the anxiety.
Triumphant-for now-he relaxed. The one saving grace was, not a soul knew about his little problem, and no one ever would.
Like it or not, he was his father's son. They both were workaholics and given to stifle their feelings and move from woman to woman. True, there'd been a time when his dad had been faithful to his mother. But, since her death when Mitch was ten, the old man had been with countless women. Nothing serious and never for long.
Mitch had followed in those footsteps. He'd been fine that way, too. Until his father had set him thinking.
"Don't end up like me, son," he'd counseled in the weeks before he died. "Find a good woman, settle down and raise some kids. Put your career second, and you just might end up happy."
Surprising advice, and ironic, considering that Mitch was supposed to be the expert on happiness. He snickered.
So far no one realized he was a fraud. The motivational business he'd built from scratch was flourishing. His books made all the lists and businesses around the country wanted him for conferences and retreats. Now his agent and publicist were pressuring him to expand into the worldwide market. The time was right and Mitch knew without a doubt that he would triple his business and vastly increase his already impressive wealth.
Ten months ago, he'd have grabbed on to the idea and run with it. Now, after those last few weeks when he and his father had grown close, his father's advice ran continuously through his head. Mitch no longer knew what he wanted, except to regain his zest for life.
Would getting married help? If he ever met the right woman. For a while, with Mona, he'd thought he had.
They dated four months. An ad executive, she worked as hard as he did and seemed satisfied with their relationship. Mitch never knew for sure. He'd grown up in a home where you stifled your passions and uncertainty and, apparently, Mona had, too. Though they never talked about anything deep, never shared their hopes and fears, they got along well enough that, for a short while, he'd seriously considered marrying her.
But things hadn't worked out and they'd gone their separate ways. The sad part of that was, Mitch wasn't all that sorry. And, although he wanted to follow his father's advice, he wasn't sure he was built for marriage.
The wind gusted, this time hard enough to whip the cold air straight through him. He headed inside, pulling the sliding door closed behind him. Time for the dreaded wine-and-cheese social. He'd stick around for half an hour, then drive someplace for take-out, bring it home and eat up here. Turn in early and wake up refreshed and ready to work.
Come tomorrow, he'd hole up here and write the book-no excuses.