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THE next time he ran away from his life, Noah McCarty vowed to make a better plan—or at least give it more forethought than a six-year-old staging a walkout over the lima beans.
Normally he wasn't a man given to impetuous acts. Anyone who knew him would agree—spontaneity definitely wasn't his strong suit. It wasn't even a shirt in his closet.
Through the mud-spotted windshield, steam rose from the radiator in an angry, sputtering cloud. The pickup he'd never had time to bring into the shop had finally quit on him. He cursed several times, feeling his annoyance build with every vapor cloud.
This was the last straw in an already small haystack. He couldn't blame the truck. For the better part of the morning, they'd been battling Friday morning stop-and-go traffic on I-93. Finally, in frustration, Noah had gotten off on one of the exits, figuring the scenic route would be better than crawling along at a caterpillar's pace.
Noah had gotten lost, ending up journeying along Quincy Shore Drive, heading nowhere. With no one waiting for his arrival, no one even knowing where he'd gone, he had the luxury of dawdling. As he drove into Hough's Neck, the roads narrowed, the area becoming less city-stepchild and more remote further down the peninsula.
Until the truck had shuddered to a halt, refusing to go another inch further.
In front of him, the radiator continued to spit and hiss, disturbing the quiet of the beachside street. Noah got out of the Silverado, stretching his arms over his head, releasing the kinks in his back. It didn't work. The kinks had become a permanent part of him, like an extra benefit for his job.
Aches, pains and heartbreak—all part of the joys of working in the juvenile justice system. Those were the bonuses he received to offset the awful pay, even worse hours and—
He wasn't going to think about that. When he got to Maine, he was going to hole up in Mike's cabin for a few days and have a damned fine pity party.
Because Noah McCarty had failed. In a very big way. The only thing he could do was retreat, lick his wounds and then come up with a career that involved absolutely no contact with human beings. Mountain climber. Sewer unplugger. Professional hermit. Yeah, his career options were limitless.
Either way, when he returned to Providence, he was done being the patron of lost causes.
From his place inside the cab, Charlie, his mother's well-indulged pocket pet, stopped shredding the Chevy's dash and let out a woof. Well, what passed for a woof coming from a voice box the size of a dime. Noah turned, then saw what had attracted the Chihuahua's canine instincts.
Not just a woman, but a beautiful woman. She stood on the porch of a small white Dutch Colonial, the breeze toying with her dark brown hair and tangling it around a heart-shaped face with eyes so blue they seemed to be part of the ocean behind the property. The scenery around the woman could have been an ad in a travel magazine. Parts of the oceanfront land were still untamed, with sea grass growing in wild spurts among the sand and driftwood. It was a warm September day, picturesque and perfect.
She was watching him, a sign in her hands, a question on her lips. The sign was turned to the side, but he could still read the hand-lettered words.
Room for Rent.
The ocean breeze skipped across the beach and up the walk, whispering its salty breath beneath Noah's nose. He inhaled, and when he did, he brought into his chest the scent of the open water. Of freedom.
Of exactly what he'd been looking for. "Room for Rent," he read again. Perhaps he didn't need to travel all the way to Maine for his personal misery party.
But just as quickly as he had the thought, he dismissed it. Mike's cabin was isolated, uninhabited. The perfect escape for a man who had every intention of becoming a grumpy recluse for a while.
"Can I help you?" she asked, taking a step forward, shading her eyes with a palm. "My truck broke down." He thumbed in the direction of the Chevy. "Could I use your phone? I'd call a tow truck myself but my cell battery is dead, too." Irony, in its finest form. All at the same time, his career, his reputation, his vehicle and most of his major electronic gadgets had imploded.
His mother, who believed anything coming out of a fortune cookie was gospel, would say it was a sign. A sign of what, he didn't know.
"Where were you going?"
A slight smile crossed her face. "Maine. I've never been there."
"That's something we have in common." He took a few steps forward, bringing his waist into contact with the short white slats of the gate. A white picket fence, he mused. The stereotype of home.
A stereotype that didn't exist, something Noah knew too damned well.
"Noah McCarty," he said, thrusting out a hand. This wasn't involvement. It was being polite.
She hesitated, still clutching the sign to her chest, then after a second, took a step forward, as hesitant as a baby bird. When her hand met his, warmth infused his palm, skating up his veins.
"Victoria Blackstone," she said, her voice as quiet as the light, teasing wind. She released his palm, then un-latched the gate to let him in. But as he slid through the two-foot opening, he noticed a wariness in her eyes, an uncertainty in her movements, and realized how he must look, stepping out of his beat-up truck.
That morning, he'd left his apartment in a hurry, without shaving or taking the time to don anything more complicated than a pair of old, paint-stained jeans and a raggedy T-shirt he'd gotten free at some festival.
"Nice to meet you," he said, to show her that his mother had raised him with a few manners.
"Come on in. You're welcome to use my phone."
"I appreciate it."
As they started up the walk, she glanced down at his boots, caked with mud from a foray into the woods two days ago. A trip that had been unsuccessful, resulting in Noah knee-deep in the soggy earth and his nephew, Justin, gone, as if he'd disappeared into the ether. "Do you mind wiping your feet? I have this thing about dirt on the floor."
A woman with rules. He hadn't met one of those since he'd left home at fifteen. "Will do. And I promise not to sneeze on the receiver or belch aloud or do anything else that might be even remotely disgusting or male."
A smile spread across her face. It wasn't an ordinary smile, the kind you saw on strangers passing you on the street. Or the kind people gave when they were handed a fruitcake at Christmas. It was a smile that had legs, one that softened into her cheeks and raised them into bright apple shapes.
The kind of genuine smile Noah hadn't seen in a long, long time.
A slight blush whispered over her features. She turned away and continued up her walkway. Behind him, Noah heard a familiar patter of itty-bitty paws.
Oh, no. The dog.
Before Noah could grab him, Charlie hurried past, tossing a growl at Noah as he did. Then he did a Jekyll and Hyde, shifting his demeanor to friendly. Cute, even. He darted up, thrust his nose against the bare leg beneath Victoria's capris, and introduced himself. Victoria gasped, then stopped, gaping at Charlie. "Oh my goodness. What a cute dog! Is he yours?"
If she only knew the personality lurking beneath that pixie canine face, the wolverine in Disney packaging. "Meet Charlie," Noah said, gesturing toward the pedigreed pup, who had wisely withdrawn his nose and planted his butt on the concrete beside Noah, whip-thin tail swishing loose stone dust from side to side. Looking for all the world like he might actually be a nice dog.
Ha. "Well, hello, Charlie." When her soft gaze connected with Noah's, he thought a man could fall into those eyes as easily as a down bed. "He seems attached to you."
"Not really. He knows which side his bread is buttered on and who's got the butter." Then he recovered his manners, thought of her. "Are you allergic to dogs? If you are, I can make him wait in the truck. He snuck out because he thinks everyone loves him."
Victoria's laughter was rich and melodic, a one-person vocal orchestra. "Maybe he's never met anyone who disagrees."
"Considering the way my mother's brought him up, you might be right. She dropped him off at my house with only one instruction—indulge his every whim."
Victoria considered Charlie, the sign once again clutched to her chest. "I've never had a dog. Or a cat." She spoke so quietly, he wondered if she was including him in the conversation. "Or come to think of it, a goldfish."
"I've always had a pet, usually one I found somewhere. Before my mother left Charlie with me, it was a cat. I had Bowser for five years and before him, it was Max and Matilda, a couple of dogs who thought playing fetch was for sissies," Noah said. "I seem to be the type that attracts strays."
The words left a sharp pain in their wake. He'd done far too much of that rescuing the unrescuable thing.
"I'm sorry, I didn't even think to ask you," she said.
"Would you like a glass of lemonade? Iced tea?"
It was simple hospitality, but for some reason, it hit Noah hard. Maybe it was the beautiful woman. The ocean air. The fact that he hadn't dated anyone in a long, long time. Either way, he felt something begin to stir within him, as if his old self were being resurrected.
That was crazy. He'd been out in the heat too long. Inhaled some of the radiator fumes.
"Lemonade would be great, thanks." Beside him, Charlie let out a high-pitched bark.
Victoria laughed again. "And some water for you, Charlie."
She left the sign on the porch, facing the words inward. As he scraped the soles of his boots against the welcome mat and then entered the house, he realized he'd never seen a home this tidy. She was clearly one of those women who took a scrub brush to everything in her life.
The tidiness he could understand, but the decor stopped him cold. He might as well have stepped onto the set of Happy Days. From the chrome kitchen set down the hall to the boxy floral sofa in the living room to his right, he could practically see the Cunninghams in every detail. Though he didn't know her well, he couldn't quite wrap his mind around the delicate, capris-clad Victoria Blackstone and these outdated rooms. "Behave yourself," he whispered to Charlie. "No peeing on her favorite chair. Or eating her shoes. Or gnawing escape hatches in the walls."
Charlie lifted his nose in the air and jaunted forward, as if he'd never consider such a thing and as if he hadn't just done all three things to Noah's apartment last night.
"The phone's over there," she said, pointing at a white wall phone in the kitchen.
"Thanks." He entered the room, noting the checkerboard pattern on the linoleum and the porcelain sink that was nearly as big as a bathtub. Something simmered in a Crock-Pot on the counter, filling the room with the scent of beef. He picked up the receiver, turned it to use the underside, then paused, noticing the coiled cord and ring of numbers. "Is this an antique?"
"Antique?" She glanced at the phone, laughed, then turned back to the avocado-colored refrigerator to pull out a pitcher of lemonade. Slices of lemon danced in the pale liquid. No doubt fresh squeezed. "Probably. We've had it in the house forever. My parents were a little wary of the whole touch-tone revolution."
Wary of touch-tone phones? What century was this house living in? For a minute, Noah felt as if he'd stepped back in time, transported to the world he'd inhabited when he was a little boy. When his father had been around and dinners had been on the table every night, waiting for them to create a family at the circular table. The phone would ring, and his mother would let it go, because dinner was a sacred time. Anyone who dared interrupt it better have a damned good excuse.
When he'd been thirteen and waiting to hear from Stevie Klein if Margaret O'Neil really did like him, the whole phone thing had been an annoyance. But now, in the shadows of history, he saw it as his mother trying to preserve family togetherness.
In the end, she hadn't been able to preserve a damned thing.