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Hunter Cabot, Navy SEAL, had a healing bullet wound in his side, thirty days' leave and apparently a wife he'd never met.
On the drive into his hometown of Springville, California, he stopped for gas at Charlie Evans's service station. That's where the trouble started.
"Hunter! Man, it's good to see you! Margie didn't tell us you were coming home."
"Margie?" Hunter leaned back against the front fender of his black pickup truck and winced as his side gave a small twinge of pain. Silently then, he watched as the man he'd known since high school filled his tank.
Charlie grinned, shook his head and pumped gas. "Guess your wife was lookin' for a little 'alone' time with you, huh?"
"My" Hunter couldn't even say the word. Wife? He didn't have a wife. "Look, Charlie "
"Don't blame her, of course," his friend said with a wink as he finished up and put the gas cap back on. "You being gone all the time with the SEALs must be hard on the ol' love life."
He'd never had any complaints, Hunter thought, frowning at the man still talking a mile a minute. "What're you"
"Bet Margie's anxious to see you. She told us all about that honeymoon trip you two took to Bali." Charlie's dark brown eyebrows lifted and wiggled.
"Hey, it's okay, you don't have to say a thing, man."
What the hell could he say? Hunter shook his head, paid for his gas and, as he left, told himself Charlie was just losing it. Maybe the guy'd been smelling gas fumes for too long.
But as it turned out, it wasn't just Charlie. Stopped at a red light on Main Street, Hunter glanced out his window to smile at Mrs. Harker, his second-grade teacher, who was now at least a hundred years old. In the middle of the crosswalk, the old woman stopped and shouted, "Hunter Cabot, you've got yourself a wonderful wife. I hope you appreciate her."
Scowling now, he only nodded at the old woman the only teacher who'd ever scared the crap out of him. What the hell was going on here? Was everyone but him nuts?
His temper beginning to boil. He put up with a few more comments about his "wife" on the drive through town before finally pulling into the wide, circular drive
leading to the Cabot mansion. Hunter didn't have a clue what was going on, but he planned to get to the bottom of it. Fast.
He grabbed his duffel bag, stalked into the house and paid no attention to the housekeeper, who ran at him, fluttering both hands. "Mister Hunter!"
"Sorry, Sophie," he called out over his shoulder as he took the stairs two at a time. "Need a shower; then we'll talk."
He marched down the long, carpeted hallway to the rooms that were always kept ready for him. In his suite, Hunter tossed the duffel down and stopped dead. The shower in his bathroom was running. His wife?
Anger and curiosity boiled in his gut, creating a churning mass that had him moving forward without even thinking about it.
He opened the bathroom door to a wall of steam and the sound of a woman singingoff-key. Margie, no doubt.
Well, if she was his wife Hunter walked across the room, yanked the shower door open and stared in at a curvy, naked, temptingly wet woman.
She whirled around to face him, slapping her arms across her naked body while she gave a short, terrified scream.
Hunter smiled. "Hi, honey. I'm home."
"Now, honey," he drawled the words out, completely enjoying watching the shock ripple across her features, "is that any way to greet your husband?"
He had her nervousthat was for damn sure, he told himself. Easy enough to see by the way her eyes darted from one side of the room to the other, as if looking for an escape route.
Well, there wasn't one. She wasn't going anywhere until he had some answers. But that wasn't to say he couldn't make her as uncomfortable as possible. No better than she deserved for pretending to be his wife, for God's sake.
The shower area was directly behind her, and steam twisted in the air like fog. A quick glance around the once familiar bathroom allowed Hunter to notice the jars and bottles of lotions women seemed to be unable to live without. Plus, the black towels he preferred had been replaced with navy-blue. Not to mention a vase full of flowers in the corner of the marble vanity counter.
Looked as though she'd made herself damned comfortable in his home, too. Which meant she'd been lying to his grandfather. Damn it. Fresh anger churned in his gut, and he had to fight to contain it. This naked, curvy, all-too-delectable woman had been lying to a lonely old man. Probably wormed her way into his affections and was no doubt stealing him blind to boot. Well, her game, whatever it was, was up. He didn't care how good she looked naked. Well, he cared, but not enough to let himself get sidetracked.
He took a step closer and caught the delicious scent of her. Jasmine, if he wasn't mistaken, and something inside him stirred. It had been a while since he'd had a woman. He'd been too busy with mission after mission and hadn't wanted to bother. But now, with a naked, wet, terrific-smelling woman within arm's reach, his body was snapping to attention despite the fact that he was as furious as he was aroused.
She was watching him as though she were a rabbit and he a cobra.
So, she was perceptive as well as a liar.
"What, no kiss?" he asked, moving in even closer. If she dropped one arm, he'd have another look at her high, full breasts. "Didn't you miss me, honey?"
She jerked a quick look behind her, saw no help there and whipped her head back around to glare at him. The action sent tiny droplets of water flinging from the ends of her dark red, curly hair, and they hit Hunter's face like raindrops.
"You just keep your distance, you pervert."
"Pervert?" He snorted a laugh and wiped the water from his face with one hand. "I'm just a husband trying to greet his wife."
"There's no greeting going on here. At all." Sidestepping fast, she snatched a navy-blue towel off the closest rod and wrapped it around herself in the blink of an eye.
Too bad. Hunter had enjoyed the view and the glimpse of peaked pink nipples he'd had just before she'd covered up. If nothing else, his "wife" had a body designed to make a man want to spend some time exploring those curves.
Now, though, she was managing to look down on him even though she was a full foot shorter than he was. The ice in her emerald-green eyes was enough to give a lesser man frostbite. But Hunter had the fires of righteous anger on his side, so he wasn't moved. Meeting her stare with an icy glare of his own, he demanded shortly, "Who the hell are you?"
"Who am I?" She whipped her head to one side, and her soaking wet hair swung back and out of her eyes, spraying Hunter with another spill of droplets. Frantically, she tucked one end of the towel into the valley between her breasts. But she was breathing so hard, the terry cloth shield she was obviously depending on didn't look any too stable. "I'm in my bathroom taking a shower, minding my own business when Oh, God." Her eyes widened. "You're I can't believe I didn't recognize you right away. But you scared me and"
He flicked another lazy glance at her now scantily clad body. "Babe, if I scared you, you had it coming. Imagine how it felt for me to find out from every-damn-body in town that I have a wife."
"Oh, for heaven's sake "
"That about covers it," Hunter snapped, taking another step toward her. His voice was deceptively quiet. "See, I've got a month's leave coming. Decided to head home, do some recuperating, check in with my grandfather " He walked a small, tight circle around her and enjoyed the watchful look in her eyes as she slowly turned in place to follow his progress.
"Imagine my surprise when everywhere I go in town, people are telling me how excited my wife is gonna be to see me."
"Well, I'm not. Excited," she added, as if he'd missed that. "More like irritated," she said. "Annoyed, really."
"Now that's a damn shame." Hunter stopped directly in front of her and did his best to loom. Wasn't difficult. Since he was taller than his "wife," forcing her to tilt her head back to look up at him was all too easy. "You think you're annoyed?"
"Wouldn't you be, when a perfect stranger sneaks into your shower like a scene out of the movie Psycho? All that was missing was that hideous, screechy violin music."
If she had been scared, she'd recovered now, Hunter thought. "I'm not the one in the wrong here, babe. You're the liar. You're the intruder."
"Is that right?" She sniffed, plopped both hands on her towel-covered hips and started tapping one bare foot against the bathroom rug.
"Straight up, that's right. You know damn well we're not married, so why don't you tell me what your scam is? And how the hell did you convince my grandfather to let you into the house?" The more he thought about it, the angrier he became. "Simon's nobody's fool, so you must be the queen of con artists."
"Con artist?" She slapped both hands against his chest and shoved. He didn't even sway in place. But her towel slipped a notch. He had hopes of another good look at her.
"If you think you're scoring points by acting all outraged," Hunter told her, his gaze dropping briefly to the slippage of her towel, "you're wrong."
She fumed silently for a second or two, and Hunter could have sworn he actually saw the wheels in her brain turning, calculating, figuring.
"You're not supposed to be here," she muttered.
"Oh, that's a good one, babe. I'm the one who's not supposed to be here?"
"You didn't tell Simon you were coming." She scowled at him. "And stop calling me 'babe.'"
"I'll call you whatever I damn well please. And you're lucky I'm not calling the cops."
Her mouth dropped open.
"As for my not letting Simon know I was coming, I consider that a good thing," he told her, meeting those hard green eyes with a cold look that should have frozen her on the spot. "Hard to catch a liar and a cheat if she knows you're coming."
"I am not ayou're really a very irritating man, did you know that?" She cocked her head to one side, and her wet hair hung in a curtain behind her. "No one in town ever mentioned that part of your personality. But then," she added, "you're scarcely here, so they've probably forgotten."
"I'm here now," he pointed out, ignoring the slight twinge of something uncomfortable. No, he didn't get back to Springville very often. He spent most of his time on base or being shipped out for various highly secret operations. Was he supposed to take a rare weekend off and drive all the way upstate only to turn around and drive back down again? He didn't think so. Besides, how he lived his life was none of this woman's business.
"This isn't about me, babe." He used the word deliberately and enjoyed watching her cringe at it. "Let's get to the real questions. What the hell are you up to? Why are you here? In my suite? Why are you telling everyone in town that we're married, and how the hell did you fool my grandfather into believing you?"
"Your suite," she muttered, inhaling so sharply she loosened the towel enough that it opened wide and swished silently down her body.
Hunter got one more good, long look at full, high breasts, perky pink nipples and soft brown curls at the apex of her thighs. His own body sat up and howled. Then she muttered a curse, grabbed the towel and wrapped herself up again.
"Your suite? That's a good one. I've been living in this suite for a year now, and, funny," she added with a touch of sarcasm, "but I don't remember seeing you."
Screw her snide tone. He was concentrating on the words. "A year? You've been pretending to be my wife, living in my house for a year?"
Had it really been that long since he'd been home? Damn, guess it had been. But he'd talked to Simon every couple of weeks over the last year, and the old man had never once mentioned the woman masquerading as Hunter's wife. Not one syllable. Not a noun. Nothing. What the hell was going on around here?
Had she done something to his grandfather? Threatened him in some way? Hard to believe. Simon Cabot was as tough as three old boots. But he was older now. Maybe
Hunter moved in even closer, riding a tide of fury that had the edges of his vision blurring. He looked down at her and had to admire the fact that she didn't back up. She didn't cower, even though she was far smaller than he, not to mention naked and all kinds of vulnerable. Her eyes flashed at him as if daring him to try to hurt her. It was almost like watching a toy poodle transform into a pitbull.
But admiration aside, he had to know what she was up to. "Play time's over, honey. Whatever scam you've been running, you're done. And if I find out you've stolen so much as twenty bucks from my grandfather, your cute little ass is going to wind up behind bars."
Steam was slowly sifting out of the room, and the air was chill enough to bring goose bumps to her still-damp skin. If she was feeling the cold, though, she ignored it. Lifting her chin, she said, "I'm not going to continue this conversation naked."
"Well, you're not leaving this room till I get some answers."
"I should have known you were a bully."
"Excuse me?" He actually felt his glower darken.
"Is this a military thing? You barking orders and expecting us poor civilians to jump into line? Well, I don't take orders from you. And you should be ashamed of yourself."
"Ashamed of myself? You might want to back off, babe" he said, and it came out as more of a growl, "I'm not the one pretending to be something I'm not. I'm not the one living in someone else's home under false pretenses. I'm not the one"
"Oh for heaven's sake, I'm not going to stand here and be insulted." She pushed past Hunter, giving him a straight-armed shove that caught him so off guard he actually stepped aside. He could have stood his ground, but then, he'd never been the kind of man to use his muscle against women.