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What had she gotten herself into?
Kristen Andrews eyed the leaden skies over the gray Pacific Ocean as she maneuvered her rental car around yet another curve on cliff-hugging Highway 101. Wasn't California supposed to be sunny and warm? Or did that description only apply to the southern part of the state?
She checked the outside temperature gauge on the dash. Forty-eight degrees on April 2. Hardly spring weather. Northern California must play by different rules—unless the cold was an aberration.
Otherwise, she was going to start having serious second thoughts about trading in the tropical warmth of Maui for Starfish Bay.
Cranking the heater up another notch, she checked the map on the seat beside her. Less than five miles to go. Maybe her new home would make up in charm what it lacked in warmth.
But ten minutes later, as she took inventory of the five-block-long stretch of 101 that comprised Starfish Bay's straggling main street, her spirits sank. A biker bar and the cheesy-looking Orchid Cafe and Motel bookended assorted shops and small businesses, including a general mercantile store, post office and dentist. An art gallery was the only bright spot. If she didn't have to spend the next few nights at the motel, she'd get a good laugh out of the gaudy sign in front that featured a huge purple orchid.
She was in no mood for mirth, however.
What in the world had the president of Mattson Properties seen in this place to merit spending millions of dollars on an upscale destination resort?
But a few minutes later, she had her answer. After pulling into the resort entrance and following a winding road through a spruce and hemlock forest, she emerged onto a windswept headland that soared above the ocean.
The view alone would bring people in.
In the far distance, a slight haze softened the line where sea and sky met. To the right and left, other headlands jutted into the blue water along the irregular coast, their steeply sloping rock faces sporting forested or barren tops, some of them wrapped in horizontal tendrils of cloud. Offshore from the tiny beaches and cliff bases, jagged boulders thrust through the surface of the water, aiming for the sky as the surf churned around them.
The resort was none too shabby, either. Not that she'd expected it to be. Louis Mattson didn't do things on the cheap. The low-slung two-story structure, constructed of wood and stone and huge expanses of glass, hugged the sloping headland, blending perfectly into the landscape and reeking of understated elegance.
Her anxiety dissipated a smidgen. It didn't have palm trees or tropical breezes, but Inn at The Point would be a pleasant place to work until she was asked to move on again. And when that time came, she'd leave with no regrets—and no strings. Like always.
A sudden pang of melancholy tugged at her heart, and she tightened her grip on the wheel.
Focus on the future, Kristen, not the past. Once you get settled in here, your mood will improve. It always does.
Fortified by her little pep talk, she followed the curving drive that led to the main entrance. The front door opened to disgorge some of the construction workers, and she stopped to let them pass. Painters, judging by their white pants and shirts. Too bad the place wouldn't be ready for occupancy for another month. She'd much rather spend the next few nights here than at the Orchid Motel. But at least she'd get a tour tomorrow, when she met with Mark Stephens, the general manager.
In the meantime, she might as well check in at the motel. And maybe she could find a slicker at the Mercantile. Given the ominous sky, chilly temperature and puddles of water on the inn's drive, she was going to need one.
She rounded the circle drive and accelerated back toward 101, groping in her purse for her lipstick. After her dash through the rain to the rental car at the Arcata/Eureka airport, she could imagine the state of her makeup. The repairs she'd made in San Francisco between plane changes had probably been washed away long ago.
Keeping one hand on the wheel, she set the lipstick in her lap, adjusted the rearview mirror and checked out her appearance. Not great. The shadows under her eyes from the long trans-Pacific flight made her look older than her thirty-one years, and her blush and lipstick had faded. A quick touch-up before
"Hey! Watch it!"
The muffled shout jerked her attention back to the road. Somehow she'd drifted toward the shoulder—and in another two seconds she was going to sideswipe a compact pickup truck that hadn't been there when she'd arrived.
Heart hammering, she wrenched the wheel to the left and sent a spray of water from a puddle all over the guy who'd yelled at her.
Once clear of the truck, she jammed on the brakes, closed her eyes and took a slow, deep breath. Then another. Whew. That had been a close.
A loud tap sounded on her window, a few inches from her ear, and she jerked again.
Clenching the wheel, she turned her head to find a tall, broad-shouldered man with dark brown hair, piercing blue eyes and an angry glare giving her the evil eye. Fresh mud was splattered across his sweatshirt and jeans.
What she noticed most, though, was the ax in his hands. A big ax. Like the kind in the stories about Paul Bunyan.
When she remained frozen, he motioned for her to roll down her window.
Double-checking that her car doors were locked, she pried her fingers off the wheel and cracked the window two inches.
"Sorry about that." Her apology came out shaky.
His gaze flicked to the lipstick in her lap and he narrowed his eyes. "In the future, I'd suggest you focus on your driving instead of your appearance."
Warmth stole onto her cheeks, and irritation steadied—and sharpened—her voice. "You don't have to be rude about it. I said I was sorry."
Instead of responding, he gave her a once-over. Not the appreciative kind she was accustomed to from men, but one fraught with disapproval.
"This is private property. Didn't you see the sign at the entrance?"
Her hackles rose. Who was this guy to question her? He didn't look as if he belonged here, either. He wasn't even close to the main job site, and his casual, rugged clothing didn't match the white attire of the painters she'd seen coming out the front door.
"I happen to work for Mattson Properties. And you are?"
He gave her another appraising perusal. "You're not a construction worker, and the only staff on-site so far is Mark Stephens."
Okay, so he knew the manager's name. Maybe he was legit. "I'm the concierge."
One side of his mouth quirked up in a humorless smile. "I can buy that. You look the type."
She had no idea what that was supposed to mean—but his tone wasn't positive. "You never told me who you were."
As drops of rain began leaving dark splotches on his denim shirt, he scanned the sky and hoisted the ax over his shoulder. "Mark knows I'm here. So does Mattson. And put the lipstick away before you venture onto 101. The highway curves are a lot less forgiving."
With that, he turned and marched toward the woods.
Fingers still trembling, Kristen watched him in the rearview mirror as she put the car back in gear. He hadn't told her who he was.
But that was fine.
Because if she was lucky, their paths would never cross again.
"Yes. Here it is. Kristen Andrews for three nights." The white-haired woman touched an entry in the handwritten reservation book. "Welcome to the Orchid Cafe and Motel. I'm Genevieve Durham." Smiling across the eat-in counter that also served as a front desk for the adjacent motel, she extended her hand. "I hope you'll have a pleasant stay."
Kristen's fingers were engulfed in a firm clasp and given a vigorous shake as she responded. "Thank you."
The woman tapped a line on the registration form for Kristen to sign. "You don't look like our typical guest. My sister Lillian and I have owned this place for more than a dozen years, and most visitors are either fishermen or redwood gawkers. I don't peg you as either."
"You're right. I'm not. I work for Mattson Properties." She completed her signature and handed the woman's pen back. "I'm the concierge and event planner for the inn."
"Ah. Our competition."
Hardly. But Kristen opted for diplomacy instead. "I expect we may be catering to a different clientele."
"True." The woman's eyes sparkled with mirth. "You all will get the rich folks—and that's just fine. Long as they spend some of their money in town." She tucked the registration slip into the reservation book and stowed the bulging volume under the counter. "So where will you be living? Starfish Bay could use some new blood."
"I haven't decided yet. The commute from Eureka or Crescent City doesn't appeal to me, but it depends on what's available here. I jotted down a few numbers from the bulletin board at the Mercantile when I stopped in for this." She gestured to the yellow, hooded slicker she'd purchased.
"I'm sure you'll find a nice spot here. The fog can make driving tricky, so it would be better to live close. How would you like to pay the deposit for the room?"
Kristen dug through her purse and handed over her credit card, watching in amusement as the woman fitted it into one of those old-fashioned machines that required manually pushing a lever over the plastic rectangle to get an impression of the numbers. No surprise, though, given the ancient cash register beside it.
The woman handed the card back. "The dining room is just opening for dinner, if you'd care to stay. We have pot roast tonight—a house specialty—and my sister made blackberry cobbler. I don't mean to brag, but we have regular customers who drive all the way from Eureka and Crescent City for our home cooking."
Kristen hesitated. The aromas wafting from the kitchen pass-through behind the counter were setting off a rumble in her stomach, and lunch had been a long time ago. If the food tasted half as delicious as it smelled, she'd at least eat well while she was here.
"I think I will."
"Wonderful." Genevieve beamed at her and picked up a menu. "I have a nice cozy table by the window."
Once she was seated, Kristen ordered, checked her voice mail and responded to a few emails, jotting notes on the orchid-festooned paper place mat that proclaimed, "Wish upon a star in Starfish Bay—where dreams come true."
She shook her head at the flowery adage. Sentimental poppycock like that could lead to trouble—as could romanticized dreams of living happily ever after. She'd learned that the hard way.
But the past was the past, and she refused to dwell on it.
By the time Genevieve delivered a heaping plate of pot roast with savory potatoes and carrots, she'd shifted gears and was perusing the phone numbers and addresses of rental units she'd jotted down at the Mercantile.
The woman deposited the plate in front of her, then peered over her shoulder at the notebook resting on the table.
"That one's your best bet." She tapped the second address. "Nice, quiet location. Well kept. Wonderful landlord. Very warm and welcoming. It would be perfect for you. I'd be happy to give you directions."
"Could I impose on you for directions to all three?"
"Of course. It won't take but a minute. Everything's easy to find in Starfish Bay. Ready?"
Kristen picked up her pen and wrote the instructions as the woman dictated.
"But I'd start with that one, if I were you." Once again, Genevieve tapped the second address.
"I'll do that." Kristen tucked the notebook in her purse and dug into the pot roast.
Twenty minutes later, as she was finishing off the last bite of blackberry cobbler, the cafe owner returned and gave her clean plate an approving nod. "You did real fine."
Kristen dabbed at her lips with the napkin and shot the woman a rueful look as she stood. "Too many meals like that, and I'll have to buy a new wardrobe."
The older woman gave her attire an admiring sweep. "Speaking of wardrobes—that's a mighty pretty outfit. Reminds me of the cruise Lillian and I took in Hawaii fifteen years ago."
Kristen glanced at her beige capris and green silk blouse with a subtle hibiscus pattern. "As a matter of fact, it's from Hawaii. That's where I've been working for the past three years. But it's not too practical for this climate." She slipped her arms into the yellow slicker as she spoke.
"It is a mite cooler here. Lillian and I are from Georgia, so we were used to a bit more heat, too. But you can't beat this scenery." She picked up Kristen's empty plate. "You let me know if there's anything you need in your room."
"I will. And thanks for a great dinner." With a lift of her hand, she headed for the door.
Twenty minutes later, as the shadows began to lengthen, Kristen had to admit Genevieve had been right on all scores. The home cooking at the Orchid was fabulous, all of the rental properties had been easy to find and the second one on the list was by far the nicest.
She pulled to a stop in front of the two-story, two-family unit she'd circled back to after driving past all three.
Constructed of natural wood stained a golden/reddish color, it featured a cantilevered balcony across the whole second floor, above the front door. The wood of the railing matched the house, as did the stairway on the side that led to the balcony and a side entry on the upper level. A stone walk wound to the front door, which had flower boxes on either side. The property appeared to be in meticulous condition.
And the price was right.
She reread the notes she'd jotted at the Mercantile. The ad had said it was available for showing after six, and it was ten past. As long as she was here, why not drop in? That might be better than calling ahead. Seeing a place on the spur of the moment, in its unprimped state, often worked to a renter's advantage, as she'd discovered over the past nine years.
Tucking the slicker around her, she picked up her purse and slid out of the rental car. A fine mist hung in the air, and she hurried toward the front door, admiring the half circle of paned glass at the top and the long panels of art glass on each side. But the wind had picked up, and once under the balcony she wasted no time pressing the bell.
If nothing else, a tour of the apartment would get her out of the chill. And if the landlord was as warm and welcoming as Genevieve had promised, perhaps she'd even be offered a comforting cup of tea.
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