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"I really like what I see."
Adam Stone wasn't just talking about the apartment for rent. The same applied to the pretty lady renting it. Jill Beck was hot, and not just because of all that curly red hair. The thought of asking her out crossed his mind, but that wasn't why he was here. A truck with his stuff was on the way from Dallas to Montana and he needed to find a place to live here in Blackwater Lake before it arrived.
"Isn't this a little too small for you, Dr. Stone?" When Jill settled her brown-eyed gaze on him, he momentarily lost the power of speech.
The two of them were standing in a spacious living room. One window looked out at a dense forest of evergreen trees, and the other had a view of the wide expanse of sparkling blue water known as Blackwater Lake. Only the woman in front of him was a better view than either.
"Call me Adam."
He glanced at the body of water that gave the town one hundred miles north of Billings, Montana, its name. Then he looked around the apartment again. It seemed like just what the doctor ordered. The unit had an eat-in kitchen plus two bedrooms and baths. The walls were painted a light olive-green and trimmed with wide white baseboards that butted up against the pinewood floor. Crown molding highlighted the nine-foot ceilings.
The stairs up to this apartment were located to the side of her front door. He'd seen her place and it was identical to this one, although her walls were painted a particularly sunny shade of yellow that was appealing. He'd thought it suited her, until he turned serious about becoming her tenant. Wariness now replaced her cheery expression.
He folded his arms over his chest and looked down at her. "I'm a single guy. How much room do you think I need?"
"I have a feeling it's more than you can find in my upstairs." The clouds swirling in her beautiful eyes definitely wouldn't drop precipitation in the light-to-moderate range.
Adam could tell he was in for a hard time. A family practice doctor learned to listen, note verbal cues and read between the lines. He was a really good family practice doctor and knew her jeans were in a knot about something. Maybe when they'd climbed the stairs she'd caught him checking out her butt.
It was in his top five, hovering around one or two in the shapeliest category. He was a guy and guys were hardwired to notice girls, especially pretty ones. As far as looks, Jill Beck wasn't in the top ten, but there was something about her. And not just her chest. Yeah, he'd noticed that, too, but had been very careful to look at her face during this conversation.
The positive part of that was appreciating the cute splash of freckles on her upturned nose. But admiring her butt and the freckles on her face wasn't a hanging offense, so he was at a loss about what was bugging her.
Talking was the best way for him to find out. "If I was a family man instead of a family practice doctor, your upstairs would present some space challenges. But that's not the case. I was told it's the best place to rent and I can see why."
"Someone at Mercy Medical Clinic told you about me?"
"Yes." The retiring doctor he was replacing had given him the scoop. Along with two thumbs-up from the receptionist and the nurse.
"Have you looked anywhere else?" she asked.
"I have," he admitted. "But there's not a lot available."
"There are a couple of houses," she said helpfully. "And the Blackwater Lake Lodge probably has a room until you find just what you're looking for."
"Yeah. But the houses aren't as convenient to town and the clinic. The lodge" He shrugged. "I want to settle somewhere. By process of elimination, that puts this property in the lead."
"Lucky me." Her tone struggled for upbeat but fell way short.
Adam could feel his stubbornness kicking in, and that wasn't necessarily a good thing. "I'd like to rent your apartment, Miss Beck."
If she noticed he didn't call her Jill, she didn't say anything. She shrugged. "The lease is on my desk. I suggest you read it before making a final decision."
There was a warning in the words, but he followed her downstairs to the computer desk tucked into a corner of her living room. This furnished twin of the upstairs apartment gave him an idea how homey it could be.
A chocolate-brown sofa sat in front of the fireplace with a flat-screen TV on the wall over it. The couch partitioned the room into work and relaxation spaces and with warm touches in both. Brass lamps with scalloped shades on tables. In framed pictures covering the walls he recognized the lake outside and the surrounding mountains. Photographs were everywhere. On the desk beside the computer was one of Jill with a little boy whose curly red hair gave a clue who his mother was. As far as he could tell, there were no photos of the boy's father.
She handed him the paperwork. "Look it over carefully."
Adam didn't need a microscope or a magnifying glass to see that the terms of the agreement favored the landlady. Big-time.
"I wasn't aware that this was the down payment on purchasing the property."
"A landlord needs some safeguards," she explained.
If she was a single mom, that would account for the financial safeguards stipulated in the agreement. "That's quite a hefty security deposit."
"And this penalty for early lease termination seems excessive in addition to spelling out that a tenant is on the hook to pay the agreed-upon rent for the duration of the contract or until an alternative renter is secured."
"Also necessary," she said. "The costs of cleaning and painting between renters adds up. Then I have the costs of advertising to fill the vacancy on top of the lost revenue."
"But I'm not going to skip out on the rent."
"That's what they all say." Even if the tone hadn't given her away, skepticism was there in the expression on her face. "This covers the winter months. In spring and summer there's a better chance of getting a tenant who sticks."
"What makes you so sure I won't?"
"The last doctor took off after the first snow."
"I'm not the last doctor."
"Right," she said. "The clinic will replace you when you go."
"That's not what I meant and I'm pretty sure you know it."
"Doesn't make it any less true."
He leaned a hip against her desk. "Are you trying to talk me out of renting from you?"
"Is it working?" she asked, neither confirming nor denying the accusation.
"Correct me if I'm wrong, but real estate is business. It feels like you're making this personal."
"It's both. I already spelled out the business part in the contract." Her gaze rested on the photo he'd noticed moments ago. "I'm a single woman with a child. That gives me a personal interest in who lives upstairs. It's why I do a pretty thorough background screening before even showing the place to a prospective tenant. The town sheriff is a good friend of mine."
He guessed that she'd hoped to turn up something that would give her a reason to tell him no. As a businesswoman she needed to show the empty apartment to everyone who didn't have a black mark on their record. But he asked anyway. "Did I pass the test?"
Her smile seemed reluctant, but that didn't detract from its beauty. "I usually take families' testimonials with a grain of salt, but yours are different."
"I'm aware of that, but why do you think so?"
"When your dad is a Nobel Prize-winning economist and your mother a nationally known biomedical engineer, not to mention your brother is one of the country's top cardiac surgeons, that tends to carry some weight."
"You have no idea." The burden of being related to the gifted and geekish had finally worked in his favor.
"And you're a family practice doctor." There was a thoughtful expression on her face as she tucked a strand of curly red hair behind her ear. "Did your folks bring the wrong baby home from the hospital?"
"I get that a lot." Long ago he'd learned not to take it personally. His line of work was exactly what he wanted. "I'd probably have done a DNA test except I look like my dad and I have a twin sister."
"Is she a doctor, too?"
"Yeah. Rocket science. She works for NASA."
"Wow. Your family has some very impressive credentials," she commented.
"So you know my background. That doesn't explain your hard-line rental policy."
"If you think about it, it kind of does."
Adam looked at her. "How?"
"I have to wonder why you're here at all."
"I'm not sure I understand what you're asking." Actually he understood exactly what was on her mind.
He'd fielded lots of endless questions about his career and life choice, especially from the overachievers in his family. The perception was that he wasn't as good if this was the best medical specialty he could do. His ex-wife had no problem dumping him when he'd made the decision. It wasn't flashy enough for her and Adam was still bitter enough to make Jill say straight out what he knew she was thinking.
"Blackwater Lake is a small town."
"But growing," he pointed out.
"Yes." There was a sexy little dent in her chin that was more pronounced when her full lips were pulled tight. "But right now it's not very big. Summer is winding down and winter comes early in northern Montana. You could have your pick of warm places to practice medicine."
Someone, probably his mother, had shared information about offers he'd fielded from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami and Dallas, where he'd been working until recently.
Taking any one of them in a major metropolitan area would have gone a long way toward reassuring his family about what they considered his lack of ambition.
He'd accepted a long time ago that they would never understand why he wanted to treat the whole person, whole families, rather than be a world-renowned expert in a single body part. If the people who knew him best didn't get it, there was no way to explain it to a woman with a chip on her shoulder.
Adam decided to try anyway. "I found out early in medical school that factors beyond disease and diagnosis affect an individual's health. Treating the whole patient and not simply specializing in a certain organ of the body was important to me. Knowing the people in their world factors into the medical protocols. I like people."
"That's very noble of you." She sounded sincere and hopefully impressed. "But why here?"
"I came to a camp in Blackwater Lake. My parents were busy and gone a lot, so keeping us kids busy and out of trouble was important. I fell in love with this place and never forgot it. Being part of a community is important to me. So, when an opening came up in the clinic, I applied."
"I'm guessing you spent more than one summer here at camp?"
"Every one for nine years." He nodded emphatically. "Dallas is great, but big. Seeing the contrast between there and here convinced me that small-town life was just my cup of tea. I want to live and work here in Blackwater Lake."
"That's easy for you to say when the weather is beautiful, like it is today. But what about when you have to fight your way to the clinic through a blizzard?" She held up a hand when he opened his mouth to protest. "I can tell you what happens. You change your mind about small-town life. You run, not walk, to the closest airport and it's not all that close.
You get on a flight to the nearest big city and guess who's left holding the bagor the lease. I have a family to support."
That sounded like confirmation that there was no ex helping her out with raising her son. Someone had obviously done her wrong, so he had to sign a legal contract to give her peace of mind.
Adam didn't react well to negative vibes, and Jill Beck had N-O with a capital N coming off her in waves. That made him want to challenge her and he could feel his stubborn streak going radioactive. It didn't always lead to the best personal decisions, and he had the only divorce in the family to prove the point. But the obstinate side always made his life interesting.
"I still want to rent your apartment, Miss Beck."
Her gaze narrowed on him. "You do realize what kind of money is involved?"
"In spite of my less challenging career choice, I did make it through medical school. I can do the math." He looked around at the living room with fresh flowers and more than one oval-framed needlepoint sampler. "This is charming. And the cost is not a problem."
"All right, Doctor"
"If my personal check isn't satisfactory, I'd be happy to stop at the bank for cash or a cashier's check." He took a pen from her desk and signed the agreement. After handing it back he said, "You're going to be my landlady. It's time you started calling me Adam."