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Abby Porter didn't realize she had company until Mulligan's tail began to thump a welcoming beat against the ground.
Swinging her feet over the side of the chaise longue, she began a hasty search for the sandals she'd kicked off. She'd located one and was in the process of looking for its mate when Mulligan lumbered to his feet.
As the dog trained his gaze on the corner of the house, Abby ignored the shiver that sowed goose bumps up her arms.
Thank you, Alex.
Her older brother's scare tactics were finally getting to her. All part of his plot to get her to come back to Chicago where he could keep a protective eye on her.
"Not a chance," she muttered, tamping down her unease. If she was going to be an innkeeper, she had to get used to people coming and going.
"Who is it, Big Guy? Who's here?"
In response, Mulligan let out a friendly woof. Which told Abby absolutely nothing. The dog's instincts weren't exactly an accurate barometer when it came to assessing a potential threat. A week ago, she'd had to intervene before he got up close and personal with a porcupine during their morning walk around Mirror Lake. Mulligan loved everything, from the squirrels that scolded him from the branches of the oak trees to her reliable, good-natured carpenter Daniel.
Relief swept through her, causing the goose bumps tracking her arms to subside a little, when Abby remembered that Daniel Redstone was supposed to stop by to pick up his paycheck before he left on vacation.
For some reason, he'd expected Abby to be as excited as he was when he'd won an all-expense-paid trip with one of the best professional fishing guides in the state of Wisconsin.
Abby hadn't been excited.
The elderly handyman might have worked at a speed that hovered between slow and a dead standstill, but the final result of his effort was no less than breathtaking. If it hadn't been for Daniel's promise to send over a suitable replacement to fill in for him, Abby would have been tempted to offer a sizeable—but anonymous—donation to the fishing guide's favorite charity if he agreed to cancel the trip.
That the thought had even crossed her mind told Abby that she was already showing some early symptoms of "Alex Porter Syndrome." A disease characterized by an intense desire to control the universe.
In the end, she hadn't had much of a choice but to agree to send Daniel off with her blessing. And consider it another surprise to add to the growing list of surprises she'd encountered since her move to Mirror Lake.
Mulligan's low woof thinned to a whine, and Abby quickly figured out why.
The man rounding the corner of the house wasn't Daniel Redstone.
This man was younger. Much younger. He wasn't stoop-shouldered and thin as a fly rod, either.
Abby rejected the thought immediately.
There was nothing lost about the man. He moved with the kind of fluid, confident stride she'd always envied. The kind that said he didn't simply know his place in the world, he'd carved it out himself. Khaki cargo pants paired with a plain cotton T-shirt accentuated the man's lean, muscular frame but made it difficult to pinpoint what he did for a living.
Abby's eyes narrowed. It would be just like Alex to send one of his minions to keep an eye on her even after she'd told him not to. She loved her brother to pieces but he did have a tendency to bully people to get his way.
She hadn't expected Alex to take the news of her departure well, but she hadn't realized how strongly he would respond to what he labeled her "defection."
A few short months ago, his reaction would have caused her to give in, but this time it had only made her that much more determined to break out on her own. It was time. And the way things had fallen in place, it seemed that God Himself had gone before her to clear the path.
She could only pray that Alex would eventually come around and accept her decision. If Abby were honest with herself—another thing she'd been practicing lately—she had to admit that it was partly her fault that Alex didn't have a lot of confidence in her. For a long time, she hadn't had much confidence in herself.
The stranger spotted her and veered down the uneven brick path leading to the gazebo. As he drew closer, the ruggedly handsome features became more defined. Strands of silky, ink-black hair lay even with the five o'clock shadow darkening his angular jaw. Mirrored sunglasses—Abby had never been a fan—concealed his eyes.
"Hello." Ignoring the second crop of goose bumps that sprouted up her arms, Abby forced a smile. She spotted her flattened sandal in the spot where Mulligan had been dozing and discreetly toed it back on. "Can I help you?"
He stopped several feet away, close enough for her to see her distorted reflection in his sunglasses. "Are you Abby Porter?"
"Then I'm here to help you."
Abby blinked. "Excuse me?"
"I'm Quinn O'Halloran."
The name meant nothing to her. "I'm sorry. I—"
"Daniel Redstone sent me." He yanked off the glasses and Abby found herself staring into a pair of slate gray eyes. "I'm your new carpenter."
"My new…" Abby couldn't push the rest of the sentence past the knot in her throat. She tried again. "He didn't mention you'd be coming over today." Better. The squeak that had made her voice sound like a rusty screen door was barely noticeable now.
He shrugged. "According to Daniel, you're under a tight deadline and need to keep the project moving along. I thought I'd stop by and take a look around to get a feel for things before I start."
"I am under a deadline but—Mulligan, no!" Abby lunged for the dog, who'd finally summoned the courage to inch close enough to swipe his tongue against Quinn's hand. She gave him an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry. We're still working on basic etiquette."
"You're a golfer."
"Golf?" At first the meaning behind his statement didn't sink in. When it did, Abby smiled. "No, I borrowed the term because I adopted Mulligan from the animal shelter an hour before he was to be euthanized."
"Another chance." The pale gray eyes lit with sudden understanding.
"It seemed to fit." Abby ruffled one of Mulligan's floppy ears. "And I happen to think everyone deserves a second one, don't you?"
Quinn didn't answer. Because Abby Porter's megawatt smile had momentarily short-circuited the hardware in his brain.
He knew her.
No, Quinn silently corrected the thought. He'd seen her before. On billboards strategically placed around the city of Chicago. Wearing black velvet and pearls. The reigning princess of Porter Hotels.
Only this princess looked different. And not only because of her smile. Honey-blond hair, caught in a casual knot at the base of her neck, accentuated delicate features dominated by a pair of eyes that were silver-green like an aspen leaf.
Instead of black velvet, she wore figure-hugging jeans, a paint-splattered T-shirt and a pair of sandals decorated with the gaudiest plastic daisies he'd ever seen.
But looks could be deceiving. He'd learned that the hard way. As far as Quinn was concerned, a diva in blue jeans was still a diva. Before she'd been aware of his arrival, he'd caught a glimpse of her reclining on the chaise longue with a book propped in her lap. Obviously she was so motivated to get the inn ready for her grand opening that she was taking a break before the day had barely started.
Quinn steeled himself against her smile, unnerved that it had had such an effect on him.
"Do you think you can spare a few minutes to give me a tour of the place?" He leveled a pointed gaze at the chaise longue.
"Of course." Abby's smile faded.
Quinn wasn't quite prepared for the direct hit to his conscience. If he'd forgotten the reason he'd changed his professional focus from providing security to buildings instead of people, a few seconds in Abby Porter's company had brought it crashing back. Buildings were easy to figure out. People, not so much.
They fell into step together, and Abby switched into tour guide mode.
"The main lodge started out as a private vacation retreat for a wealthy family, but eventually they donated it to a local church." She gestured toward the sprawling two-story split-log home that Quinn had passed on his way to the gazebo. "The congregation built five additional cabins on the water and turned it into a retreat center and Bible camp. Eventually, though, they couldn't keep up with the larger, more modern camps and had to turn it over to the bank."
Quinn could empathize. He knew all too well what it felt like to struggle to keep a business afloat.
"After that," Abby went on, "it ended up in the hands of a developer. He planned to replace the lodge with condos but later realized it wouldn't appeal to tourists who wanted a full recreation lake…and easier access to civilization. Most of the people who come back to Mirror Lake think of it as a second home rather than a vacation spot. They appreciate the slower pace."
"That's why you chose to turn the place into a bed-and-breakfast rather than a resort," Quinn guessed. "It will attract the type of clientele looking for peace and quiet."
Abby gave him an approving look. "It sat empty for almost five years until my Realtor happened to mention it a few months after I started looking. Believe it or not, I had to beg her to show it to me." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "But the first time I saw it, I knew it was perfect."
Quinn looked over at the lake, as clear and smooth as window glass, beyond a stand of towering white pines. He'd moved to Chicago after his tour of duty because he'd been ready to take on the world. Ready for a fresh start where no one knew the name O'Halloran. The energy and pace of the city had matched his lifestyle. Or so he'd thought. Until he moved back to Mirror Lake.
That first night Quinn spent in his childhood home, temperatures had dipped into the forties, but he'd crawled out the window of his old bedroom and sat on the roof.
He'd forgotten what it felt like to see the stars at night. To drive for miles without seeing a single house or apartment complex. Quinn may not have wanted to return to the town where he'd grown up but he hadn't expected to feel a tug on his soul, as if he were still connected to it. Especially when his memories of the place weren't exactly the Hallmark kind.
Sensing that Abby was waiting for a response, Quinn's gaze moved from the lodge to the weathered cabins strung like wooden beads along the shoreline. Work, work and more work. But he was reluctant to strip the sparkle from Abby's eyes. Again.
"It's got potential," he heard himself say.
Abby turned and smiled up at him. "I think so, too."
Once again, Quinn wasn't prepared for the force of Abby's smile.
"What time does the rest of the crew usually get here?"
Abby shot him a puzzled look. "The rest of the crew?"
"The work crew," Quinn clarified.
Abby's low laugh went straight through him. "Now that Daniel is gone, you're looking at it."
She couldn't be serious. "You and Daniel have been doing everything yourselves?"
"That's right." Abby reached down to fondle Mulligan's ears. "I hired some teenagers to do some painting, but they have other jobs so they're only available on the weekend." She skipped up the wide plank steps and opened the front door. "I moved in at the beginning of June and started working on the main house right away. It was in fair condition but I'm still in the process of…"
The rest of the words dissolved in Quinn's ears as he stepped through the doorway into the great room.
The place was a wreck.
Fair condition, Abby had said. The grand opening was a month away but Quinn saw three months of hard labor. At least.
No wonder her Realtor had tried to discourage her from purchasing the property and her brother had had a fit.
Quinn didn't have to be a professional carpenter to see that the hardwood floors needed to be varnished, the walls painted and another coat of stain applied to the tongue-and-groove pine ceiling.
Abby tilted her head and a strand of sun-streaked blond hair molded itself to the curve of her cheek. "So, what do you think?"
"Wow." That about covered it.
Abby grinned. "I'll show you the kitchen."
Can't wait, Quinn thought.
He followed her, silently adding projects to the list with every step. New baseboards. New trim. New light fixtures.
It didn't make sense. Abby Porter was an heiress. She had the resources to level the entire place and have it rebuilt in a week. So why was she doing the bulk of the work herself?
"The kitchen is original to the lodge when it was built in the 1940s, so it has a lot of vintage charm." Abby paused in the doorway.
Vintage charm. A Realtor's term for gold linoleum and chrome-trimmed Formica countertops.
He stepped past her, bracing himself for what was behind door number one.
"Your eyes are closed," Abby said.
So they were. Quinn opened them. "They're adjusting to the change in light."
He had to look. No getting around it.
Relief crashed over him when he stepped into a room that could have been featured in a home decorating magazine. Given the fact the place was going to be a bed-and-breakfast, it shouldn't have come as a surprise that Abby had devoted most of her time and effort to the kitchen.
She'd stayed true to the time period by keeping the original glass-front cupboards and painting the bead board walls a sunny shade of yellow. Old-fashioned dish towels had been recycled into valances.
The marble-topped island in the center of the kitchen blended seamlessly with the vintage decor but the granite sink and gleaming stainless steel appliances were definitely modern, state-of-the-art tools for the serious cook.
Quinn's gaze continued around the room and snagged on an ancient green oven, straight off the set of a seventies sitcom.
"I couldn't part with her." Abby followed the direction of his eyes and accurately read his expression. "She's an icon."
She'd named the oven. "Does she… it… still work?"
"Correct me if I'm wrong, but if you're running a bed-and-breakfast, don't you need an oven that works all the time?"
"She's a little temperamental but we're getting to know each other." Abby gave the appliance an affectionate pat.
Quinn steeled himself against the woman's infectious charm. Abby Porter was a job. He didn't want to think of her as a person. And he certainly didn't want to like her.
Maybe Faye didn't need a new air conditioner in the office that badly….
Unaware of his thoughts, Abby tapped the toe of one sandal on the ceramic tile beneath their feet, setting the plastic petals into motion. "The floor was a bit of a challenge because it wasn't even when I started."
"You did all this yourself?"