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Wolf Creek, Montana Mid-September
"Aunt Natasha? Aunt Elizabeth?"
Abigail Foster donned a light sweater and stepped out onto the wide porch, letting the screen door slap shut behind her. Two wicker chairs were pushed back from the white table in the far corner of the porch. An enameled tray and a plate with several sugar cookies sat next to a Wedgwood teapot atop the blue cloth. Lemon slices floated on the surface of amber-colored tea in delicate blue and white cups. Her aunts had obviously been interrupted during their afternoon Earl Grey break and had left the comfortable corner, sheltered by the potato vine that climbed up the trellis.
But where had they gone? Abigail looked up and down the wide street. Down the block, two eight-year-olds rode bicycles, weaving in and out of the autumn leaves collecting in red and gold drifts in the gutters. Two joggers, accompanied by a cocker spaniel tugging on his leash, circled around the boys and kept on going. The rhythm of the neighborhood ticked on as usual. But Abigail didn't see her great-aunts.
She crossed the porch and descended the broad, white-painted steps, following the brick walkway around the house to the side yard. She heard the murmur of voices as she neared the back of the house. The rumble of a deeper, male voice mingled with her aunts' lighter tones had her quickening her steps.
Leaves crunched under her boots as she rounded the corner of the house. She made a mental note to clear the fallen leaves from the bed of chrysanthemums and dahlias edging the white clapboard siding over the next day or two. She knew from experience that the lovely Indian summer days would quickly turn to chillier Octoberweeks, followed by snow in November.
The voices grew louder as she reached the backyard. A silver-gray pickup truck was parked on the gravel drive off the alleyway, just next to the stairs that climbed up the outside wall of the garage to the second-floor apartment above.
A tall man, dressed in faded jeans and boots with a blue flannel shirt stretched across broad shoulders, stood with his back to her, talking to her aunts. A big yellow dog nosed the leaves at their feet.
The dog raised his head, saw her, barked and charged.
Startled, Abigail froze, her eyes widening. The dog was huge and the closer he drew, the bigger and scarier he seemed.
"Buddy. Down." The deep male voice was sharp, the command undeniable.
The dog halted in midcharge and dropped to the ground.
Abigail stared at him. As her racing heartbeat slowed to something approaching normal, she realized that what she'd thought was a fierce predator was actually a blond Labrador retriever. He panted, his pink tongue lolling while his big brown eyes fixed on her with eager friendliness. His ears lifted with endearing interest as he eyed her.
Abigail looked up. The man walked toward the dog, pausing when he reached him. He limped slightly, she noted, but somehow, it didn't dilute the sheer power he projected. His coal-black hair was cut short. Equally dark eyebrows arched above gray eyes, startlingly pale in his suntanned face.
"Buddy's friendly—he wouldn't hurt you." He grinned, the twinkle in his eye disarming, and the flash of white teeth and easy quirk of his lips told her this was a man accustomed to charming women.
Alarm bells went off. The last time a man had smiled at her with that level of male interest and charm was during her senior year at college and things hadn't ended well. The whirlwind relationship and six-month marriage that followed had taught her a lesson about charming men she'd never forget. She was immediately suspicious of the dog owner's motives.
"Really?" she said coolly, lifting an eyebrow in disbelief. "He has an impressive set of teeth. He's never bitten anyone?"
"No, ma'am," he responded solemnly, although his eyes reflected amusement. "Not unless I told him to."
Despite herself, Abigail gaped. "You tell him to bite people?"
"Only criminals—and only in the line of duty," he amended.
Oh, no. Abigail nearly groaned aloud. Surely he wasn't…
"This is Mr. McCloud, Abigail," Natasha said as she and her sister, Elizabeth, joined them. "He's from the Colter Investigation Agency in Seattle. He'll be our acting sheriff until the town council can hire someone permanent."
"I see." Abigail eyed him with curiosity. "It's quite a coincidence that you work for Ren Colter's agency. A local rancher, Chase McCloud, is his business partner. Are you related to Chase?"
"I'd never met Chase before I went to work there," Quinn said with a slight smile. "I knew Ren—we met while working on a project overseas." He shrugged. "When he heard I was looking to change jobs, he offered me a spot in Seattle. That's where I met Chase."
"I suppose that only proves we live in a small world." Curiosity satisfied, Abigail belatedly remembered her manners and held out her hand. "Welcome to Wolf Creek, Mr. McCloud."
"Call me Quinn," he said easily, taking her hand in his. "Mr. McCloud is too formal."
His hand was warm, the palm and fingers slightly rough beneath hers. A working man's hand, she thought, wondering what it was about a lawman's work that created calluses. Too aware of the latent strength in his grip, she drew her hand from his.
She didn't think she'd ever seen eyes quite like his— pale gray irises rimmed with black—and his eyelashes were as dark as his hair and brows in his suntanned face. Belatedly, she realized she was staring and forced her gaze away from him. She glanced at the silver truck parked next to the garage, noted the black tarp covering bulky, unidentifiable shapes in the pickup bed and looked back at him. "You're staying in the apartment?"
He nodded. "Ren told me the mayor made arrangements for me to rent it from your aunts."
"We must have forgotten to mention it, dear." Natasha gave her a guileless smile.
Abigail sighed with resignation. Elizabeth and Natasha were seventy-five and seventy-seven, and their minds were as spry as their wiry bodies. It was far more likely her aunts had volunteered the apartment as soon as they discovered that the late Sheriff Adams's replacement was a single male.
He'd turned his attention away from her, listening attentively as Elizabeth asked him whether he'd had a good trip. Abigail took advantage of his distraction and lowered her lashes, screening her eyes, her gaze dropping to his hands.
Just as she thought, the ring finger of his left hand was bare.
Her aunts meant well, but Abigail really wished they'd stop trying to find a man for her.
"… wouldn't we, Abigail?"
"Hmm?" While she'd been frowning at Quinn McCloud's ringless left hand and pondering her aunts' possible matchmaking, Elizabeth had apparently made a comment that required her agreement. About something.
"I was telling Mr. McCloud we would be delighted to have him join us for dinner." Elizabeth eyed her with a faint frown, clearly wondering why her great-niece was woolgathering when good manners dictated she pay attention to the conversation.
"Of course." Abigail forced a smile. Why Quinn McCloud's handsome face, amused gray eyes and half grin raised her hackles to the extent they did, she didn't know. She did know, however, that she found it distinctly annoying that her aunts apparently thought he was charming.
The wry look he gave her told her he knew she wouldn't have offered the invitation if it had been her choice.
"That's very nice of you all, but I'll have to take a rain check," he said. "I need to unload the truck and check in at the office."
"Of course." Elizabeth was clearly disappointed, but then she brightened. "The Chamber of Commerce is holding a meet-and-greet hour later this week to introduce you to everyone. I'm sure we'll see you there. And of course," she added, "we'll see you often, I'm sure, since you'll be living only a few steps across our backyard."
"The apartment is fully furnished with towels and linens," Natasha chimed in with a smile. "but if there's anything you need, don't hesitate to knock on our door. I'm sure Abigail will be happy to help you."
It was all Abigail could do to keep from rolling her eyes. "Everyone is grateful you could step in on such short notice. I'm sure we'll all do what we can to make sure you're comfortable while you're here."
"I appreciate it. Now, if you ladies will excuse me, I'd better unload the truck."
"Certainly," Natasha and Elizabeth said in near unison.
He snapped his fingers and the big yellow Lab jumped to his feet, following him when he nodded at the three women and walked away.
Elizabeth and Natasha looked after him with pleased expressions.
Abigail refused to watch him. She spun on her heel and walked purposefully toward the back porch of the big Victorian house she and her aunts called home. Marching up the steps, she pulled open the screen door and stepped inside, her boots echoing on the wooden boards as she crossed the porch and entered the house.
The sunny old-fashioned kitchen was large and square, with a pantry opening off one side. Abigail collected the teakettle from the stove, filled it at the tap and returned to set it on the burner. She switched on the heat beneath the kettle with a snap and marched to the cupboard to take down a rose-and-white teapot with three matching cups and saucers.
Why the prospect of Quinn McCloud living in the apartment above the garage was such an irritant, she didn't know. Some things, she thought as she opened a drawer to take out three teaspoons and butter knives, defied simple explanation. There was simply something about him that shrieked "trouble."
And that's sufficient reason to be wary, she told herself as she carried a tray with a plate of pumpkin-spice bread, the silverware, a covered butter dish and three small plates through the living room. She deposited them on the front porch's wicker table and returned to the kitchen with the now-cold Wedgwood pot and cups just as her great-aunts bustled through the back door.
"Such a nice young man," Elizabeth declared.
"Yes, very," Natasha agreed. Beneath her short white curls, her eyes sparkled. "Don't you think so, Abigail?"
"I don't know him well enough to make a judgment," Abigail replied. The kettle whistled and she poured boiling water into the rose-and-white teapot. "I thought you might want to join me since your earlier tea was interrupted?"
She picked up the tray with the fresh pot and three matching cups and delicate saucers, catching the quick glance her great-aunts exchanged before she left the kitchen.
Certain they'd follow, she walked through the living room and out onto the wide porch, settling the tray atop the wicker table. By the time she'd unloaded the dishes Natasha and Elizabeth joined her. For the next few moments, the three were occupied with the stirring of sugar into cups and buttering of slices of rich golden brown sweetbread.
"It's wonderful timing to have a renter for the apartment, just when we need a bit of extra cash for new snow tires and furnace maintenance before winter arrives," Elizabeth said.
Abigail murmured a noncommittal agreement, sipping her tea.
"And Mr. McCloud seems like a very nice young man," Natasha responded, giving Abigail a sideways glance.
"Mmm," Abigail responded, popping a bite of bread into her mouth to avoid answering. She'd read the résumé sent by Colter Investigations to the town council when they'd requested a temporary replacement after a heart attack felled Sheriff Adams. "Nice young man" weren't exactly the words she would have used to describe someone who'd spent most of his adult life in violent action around the world. Perhaps "mercenary" might fit, she thought.
Elizabeth peered at her over the rims of her glasses, her deep blue eyes mirrors of Abigail's thick-lashed ones. "You don't seem impressed by Mr. McCloud, Abigail," she said bluntly. "Why not?"
Abigail chewed, swallowed and took a sip of tea. "Because," she said, returning the delicate china cup to its saucer. She thought about telling her great-aunt her objection was to Quinn McCloud's work history. But since Elizabeth was a member of the town council and had read the same résumé, she opted for a different tack. "He's too handsome," Abigail modified.
"How on earth can a man be too handsome?" Natasha put in with astonishment. "That's like saying someone's too rich or a woman is too pretty—it's just not possible."
"And he's too charming," Abigail added.
Elizabeth rolled her eyes. "Regardless, that doesn't mean Mr. McCloud isn't a nice man. I want you to promise you'll give him a chance before making up your mind to dislike him."