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The house was just as Lacey remembered it. Several years had gone by since she had last set foot on the property on Florida's Lower Keys, but now, as she gazed around, overwhelming feelings of familiarity and nostalgia besieged her.
The building stood two storeys high, with decking on both levels so that people could sit outside and look out over the bay while taking in the warm subtropical air. The hurricane shutters were folded back right now, revealing an abundance of windows and glass doors that would flood the house with light.
The whole structure was long and wide, its clean lines white-painted, so that it appeared picture perfect against the vivid blue of the sky. In the distance, coconut palms dipped their branches towards the sand, swaying lightly in the faint breeze.
Tears sprang to Lacey's eyes as the memories came flooding back… those long, hot summers of her teenage years, when she would run along the beach with her sister Grace, or swim in the warm waters of the sea.
They were happy memories, of a time when the two girls had idled away their vacations in natural pursuits, while their parents had relaxed in their holiday home.
'It'll be so good to see you again,' Grace had said over the phone just last week. 'I can't wait to come down and visit once you're settled in. But…' Grace paused. 'Won't this be a huge change for you? Are you quite sure you've thought it all through properly? I mean, you've lived in the UK all your life, and leaving all that behind will surely be quite a wrench? It was different for me. I had no choice but to come to the States, being married and with the children and all… I just went where Matt's job took him. I'm longing to be able to see you more often, but are you quite sure you're ready to put down roots here?'
That was something Lacey had thought about, long and hard, over these last few months. Some two years had passed since their parents had died, but finally the house in the UK had been sold, and Lacey had to come to terms with all the changes that had taken place in her world. What was she going to do with the rest of her life?
Of course, things might have been different if she hadn't split up with Nick, her long-term boyfriend. Once they had drifted apart, life had lost its rosy glow, and all she had been able to think of was being somewhere closer to Grace. Family, that was it, that was what mattered most of all.
She braced herself, trying to shake off those melancholy thoughts. Maybe she was simply tired after her long journey. The sun was setting now, casting a golden glow over the horizon, and she took one last look at the exterior of the house before turning the key in the lock of the front door.
She would have gone directly to the kitchen, to switch on the kettle and make herself a reviving cup of coffee, but the tranquillity of the evening was suddenly shattered by the intermittent sounds of banging, as though someone was hammering away at some solid, impenetrable object. The noise filled the air, an abominable intrusion that grated on her nerves.
She frowned. Who on earth was making that awful racket? Hadn't Rob said that her neighbour would be away for the rest of this week? Something had to be wrong. Was the place next door being burgled… ransacked?
She dropped her suitcases in the hall and went out of the house, doing her best to locate where the disturbance was coming from. They were isolated out here, some distance from any other houses, so it had to be her neighbour's place that was under threat.
The secluded nature of her surroundings made her stop and think for a moment. Ought she to take some sort of defensive weapon with her—a broom handle, maybe, or a heavy fire extinguisher? But perhaps she was overreacting?
Instead, she ran her fingers over the touchpad of the mobile phone that was clipped to her belt. She could speed-dial for help if necessary.
In the distance, she saw what looked like a barn, a huge building, its doors standing open, and there was light coming from inside. She walked towards it, taking the path that followed the line of the dock, and all the while the banging became louder and louder.
When she reached the barn, she stopped at the doorway. A man was in there, working, his long body leaning over what looked like a huge upturned boat that was in the process of being built. The hull was made up of golden oak-coloured planking, and the smell of new wood filled the barn.
There was no banging now. He was running his hand with infinite care along a seam line, as though testing for flaws in the woodwork, and Lacey could see that his fingers were strong, but not weathered by manual work as she might have expected. His skin was lightly sun bronzed, and his forearms were covered with a smattering of dark hair.
He hadn't noticed that she was standing there, and for a moment Lacey watched him in fascination. He was wearing dark blue jeans that showed off the taut, muscular lines of his long legs, and above that he had on a white T-shirt. He was in his mid-thirties, she guessed, a man who obviously kept himself fit, judging from his broad shoulders and rippling biceps.
Her absorbed reverie came to a swift end as the banging started up once more, with ear-shattering intensity. He had picked up a mallet and was pounding it against the head of a metal tool, driving some kind of thick cotton padding between the planks of the boat.
She covered her ears with her hands and walked fully into the barn. 'Hello, there,' she said, striving to make herself heard above the din.
His reaction wasn't quite what she had expected, but it was clear that she had startled him. He dropped the metal tool, which clanged as it hit the floor, but the mallet continued on its way, driving home with brute force and landing directly on his thumb.
The mallet joined its partner tool on the ground as the man gave a sharp yelp of pain. He hopped round in a circle of agony and the air was filled with an explosion of indecipherable expletives, ground out through gritted teeth.
Lacey's jaw froze in dismay. Guilt ripped through her as she watched him hold his injured hand in an effort to numb the pain with his fingers. His thumb was visibly beginning to swell, and the blood was building up underneath the nail bed, turning it to a dark shade of purple. She could only imagine the throbbing intensity of the pain.
He bent double for a moment or two, and then straightened, fixing her with a dazed stare. They stood in silence for a while, facing one another, until gradually his gaze sharpened on her.
'Who are you?' he said. 'What are you doing here?' Then he frowned. 'I had no idea anyone was within a mile of this place.'
'That's what I thought, too.' Lacey looked him over, doubt bringing a crooked line to crease her brow. 'Rob told me my neighbour would be away this week, so I came to find out what was going on. With all that noise, it sounded as though someone was wrecking the place.'
He winced, holding onto his hand as though the pain was getting to him. The colour was beginning to drain from his face. 'Yes, Rob was right. I was supposed to be attending a business meeting in Miami, but it fell through.'
'Oh, I see.' She hesitated, her gaze troubled as she took in the extent of the damage. 'I'm sorry I intruded on you and caused you to hit your hand.' If she hadn't butted in, he wouldn't have hurt himself, would he? It also occurred to her that this wasn't exactly the best way to meet her new neighbour for the very first time.
He straightened, bracing his shoulders. 'At least you were trying to keep an eye on things. I hope you'll forgive the language.' Now that he had overcome the initial shock of injury, his voice was returning to an even keel, a deeply satisfying masculine timbre, firm and charismatic.
'Please don't worry about it,' she murmured, a wave of remorse for what she had done washing over her. For his part, he was still staring at her, his blue-grey eyes piercing in intensity, as though he was aiming to take in every detail of her slender shape.
Lacey was all too conscious of his glance roaming over her. She was wearing a cream-coloured linen skirt, cool and comfortable for the climate, teamed with a pale magenta cotton top. Both garments clung where they touched, and that made his slow, thorough scrutiny all the more uncomfortable to bear.
She shrugged back her long, honey-blonde hair and fixed him in return with an unwavering, blue-eyed stare. Her feelings of guilt were beginning to recede a little. She had been out of order, walking in on him, an innocent man on his own property, but he had been creating an almighty din and she had had just cause to investigate.
'I'm Jake Randall,' he said. 'Normally, I'd offer to shake your hand but, given the circumstances, I think I'll give it a miss this time.' His mouth made a wry, pained twist that managed to light up his features and add a roguish quality to his half-smile. He was still supporting his injured thumb with his free hand.
'Lacey Brewer,' she told him. 'I'm moving into the house along the dock.'
He nodded. 'I wasn't expecting you to arrive yet. Rob said you would be coming over some time next weekend. I think he was warning me to be on my best behaviour.'
'Oh! Was he really?' She blinked. She wasn't quite sure how she ought to respond. 'I can't imagine why he would think it necessary to do that.'
She knew, though, that Rob had reservations about his next-door neighbour. Rob was an old friend, a reliable tenant who had been living in the house for the last couple of years while she decided what to do with the property. He had her best interests at heart, and she was well aware that he had his doubts about Jake Randall. Last time she had spoken to Rob, though, he had come to the conclusion that her neighbour was, at best, slightly eccentric.
'He left for the Everglades a couple of days ago,' Jake said, 'off on another of his filming expeditions. Or, at least, he was heading out there after a detour to visit his family. He made it clear to me that if I saw you around the place you had a right to be there and I should give you some space.' He gave her a thoughtful look. 'He seems to be very protective of you.'
She smiled, pleased to know that Rob was looking out for her. 'We've known each other a long time. He was right, though, I wasn't supposed to be here until next weekend, but I had a change of plans. My boss discovered I had some days owing to me so I finished my contract at the hospital where I was working earlier than expected and caught a different flight. It will give me a chance to settle in and take some time off before I have to start work again.'
'Hmm… Rob told me that you're a doctor… is that right?' His dark brows lifted in a querying fashion, and she noted that they were the exact colour of his hair, raven black, lending him a devilish look that was emphasised by the strongly sculpted lines of his face…a face that was taut at the moment with the effort of containing his pain. 'Emergency medicine, he said.'
She nodded, and then glanced briefly at his hand. 'That's right. You know, I think perhaps you ought to have that thumb treated. You're growing paler by the minute, and I can see that it's troubling you a lot. It happens when the blood keeps pumping beneath the nail, building up pressure because it has nowhere else to go.' She tried to gauge his reaction, just as she would have done if he were a patient back in the UK, and his wince told her everything she needed to know. 'I have a medical bag back at the house,' she told him. 'I could treat your injury for you and do something to relieve the pain, if you like.'
He thought about it for a moment, as though trying to weigh up his options. 'Okay. Thanks. I guess that would be as good a way as any to get to know my new neighbour.'
He stowed his tools away in a box and then secured the door of the barn, before setting off with her along the dock. A couple of boats were moored there, a yacht and a schooner, and further along the wharf there was a collection of lobster pots.
The fresh smell of the sea wafted on the warm breeze, filling Lacey's senses, and planting a seed of hope for the future. She had come away from all that she had ever known to start afresh and what better place could she hope to do that than here?
Back at the house, she showed him into her kitchen. 'You should sit down,' she said. 'You look as though you're about to pass out.' Faint beads of perspiration were starting to form on his forehead. She glanced surreptitiously at his wounded thumb. He ought to have an X-ray, in case anything was broken, but her immediate priority was to lessen his pain. 'Just give me a minute,' she said. 'I'll go and get my medical bag.'
'Thanks.' He took a seat by the glass-topped table in the breakfast area.
When she came back into the room a moment later, she set to work straight away, laying out her swabs and dressings on a clean plastic surface and pulling on a pair of surgical gloves.
'First of all, I'm going to paint the nail with povidone iodine solution to make sure that any bacteria that might be present are killed. Then I'm going to heat up a metal paper clip over the gas hob to sterilise it. I'll put the tip of the paper clip into the base of your nail and the heated metal will burn a hole through the nail and allow the blood to escape.' She looked at him. 'Are you going to be okay with that?'
'If you told me you were going to hack off my thumb with a machete, I'd probably be okay with it right now,' he said, his square jaw clamping. 'Just do what you have to do.'