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Natalie Holt blinked open one eye and slapped her hand against the alarm clock blaring out heavy metal music. Heavy metal wasn't typically popular in the mountains, but she'd managed to tune in to a college station situated a few towns over from where she lived in Crimson, Colorado.
Not her preference, but she slept through every other genre from classical to country to talk radio. Even the annoying default alarm buzz couldn't jolt her awake these days. Probably a result of averaging about four hours of sleep each night.
Last night had been closer to three hours since she'd stayed up to finish the monthend medical billing for the senior living center where she worked. She'd been lucky to pick up the extra positionher official third job. She needed the money but couldn't afford to take any more time away from her nine-year-old son, Austin. A decent night's sleep was one of the few expendable items on her schedule.
Austin was the best thing in her life, and Natalie would manage through bleary-eyed sleep deprivation or walk on hot coals if it meant keeping him safe. Even if she collapsed from utter exhaustion in the process.
But she wasn't dead yet, so she dragged herself out of bed and threw on a sweatshirt and pair of black yoga pants that hadn't seen the inside of a yoga studio for years. It was Saturday morning, which she hoped meant Austin was still asleep. When she found the door to his room open she expected to find him at the computer or in front of the TV. Instead, the farmhouse where they'd been living for the past several months was quiet.
She headed down the stairs toward the hallway that led to the master bedroom, but something caught her eye out the front window. Shading her eyes against the bright morning light, she stepped onto the porch, wrapping her arms around herself to ward off the frigid temperatures. It was the start of December, so the cold air and dusting of snow on the flagstone porch were to be expected, but still a shock. Not smart to brave the cold precoffee.
An enormous black SUV sat in the driveway, and a shiver of unease slithered up her spine. Who would be paying such an early morning visit to Ruth Keller, the elderly woman who owned the property? And where was her son at this hour of the day?
She turned and went back into the house. The farmhouse had been remodeled with two distinct sections, the bedrooms on one side and the main living area with the kitchen, dining room, office and family room on the other. Her heart raced, then slowed as she found Austin curled on Ruth's bed with her, reading aloud from one of his beloved Magic Tree House series of books.
"Hey, Mom, I'm keeping Miss Ruth company." He smiled, showing off the gap between his two front teeth. Orthodontia was definitely a part of their future, but Natalie would put off that financial worry for another day.
Ruth's smile was softer. "Good morning, dearie. I hope you weren't worried about Austin."
"Not at all," Natalie lied. "But next time wake me up before you come downstairs. Okay, bud?"
"And maybe you should give Miss Ruth some room on the bed. I don't want you to put any pressure on her hip."
Ruth placed a hand on Austin's arm when he went to move. "He's fine. I like the company."
Natalie didn't doubt that for a second. Ruth Keller was a firecracker of a woman, even pushing her mideighties. She liked to be independent and active, which was why she'd initially hired Natalie to help with her care. According to Ruth, Natalie was the only nurse in town who didn't treat her as if she had one foot in the grave. Natalie had been happy to coordinate doctors' appointments, buy groceries and help around the house in exchange for using the two upper guest bedrooms. But Ruth had insisted on paying her as well, and Natalie was in no position to refuse the money. A few weeks ago, Ruth had fallen and bruised her hip, which increased Natalie's responsibilities.
She knew Ruth was terrified of eventually ending up in assisted living, despite the fact that she already had a room paid for each month at the senior center. Natalie had vowed to help out as much as she could to make sure that Ruth could stay at the farmhouse as long as possible. There was another home-care nurse who came in for respite shifts, but it was a lot for Natalie to balance with her schedule at the senior center and the medical billing work. Natalie was determined to handle everything.
She'd learned a long time ago that the only person she could depend on in life was herself. "How about breakfast?"
"The man's making it," Austin informed her, then went back to reading.
"Don't get too far ahead." Ruth tapped the page with one bony finger.
"The man?" Natalie took a step closer to the bed, remembering the luxury SUV parked in front of the house. Her skin suddenly tingled. "What man?"
"I must have forgotten to mention it to you." Ruth straightened the covers over her lap, keeping her eyes averted. "Austin, what happens next? Do Jack and Annie find the ninja?"
"Mention what?" Natalie asked, reaching forward to grip the bedpost. "Who's here, Ruth?"
"Hello, Natalie," a long-forgotten voice said from the doorway behind her.
Her fingers tightened around the wood until her knuckles went white.
"You remember Liam Donovan," Ruth said cheerfully, although she still wouldn't meet Natalie's gaze. "The two of you knew each other in high school."
Breathing was supposed to be an involuntary muscle reflex, but in that moment Natalie forgot how to draw air into her lungs. Concentrating, she forced her breath in and out. Saying she'd known Liam Donovan was like claiming Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton once had a passing acquaintance.
She turned, keeping her features a placid mask as stormy gray eyes clashed with hers. "It's been a long time, Liam. Nice to see you." Which was partly the truth. Yes, it had been over ten years since she'd spoken to Liam Donovan. But nice didn't begin to describe how it felt to be in the same room as him after all this time. It made her feel nauseous, invigorated, desperately sad and filled with regret. But not nice. Her feelings for Liam had never been nice.
One side of his mouth lifted as if he found her outright lie amusing. The smile didn't reach his eyes, and the storm inside them cooled by several degrees. "I'm here to visit Ruth, to make sure she's okay after her fall. And to find out why I'm paying for housing every month at assisted living when she's still here even though she's been injured." Ruth had been Liam's nanny when he was younger, but Natalie knew the woman loved him as if he was her own family.
"She fell two weeks ago and is almost fully recovered." Natalie didn't try to stop the censure in her voice. "She's worked out how she wants to handle her room at the center with the director, so you'll need to discuss that with him. I can assure you she's well cared for. I've got it under control."
His gaze flicked to Austin, whose nose was once again buried in the book. "So I see."
She wondered for a moment what exactly Liam thought he saw. The boy who had been her first love was gone, replaced by a man who was so much larger, both in physical build and general presence. Liam had been beautiful in high school but now there was a raw masculinity to his features. He'd filled into his height and the potential of his looks. His hair was shorter than he'd worn it back then, the cut clearly from an expensive salon. It had darkened to almost black but remained streaked with the same chestnut shine she'd always loved to run her fingers through.
Even now her fingers itched to reach out and touch him, to prove that he was here before her, not just a visitor to her unwanted dreams and fantasies, as he'd been so many times in the past decade.
She ran a self-conscious hand through her own hair, several weeks past due for a trim and years from her last professional highlight. Her shoulders inched a little straighter. Pride was one of the few things so many years of struggling hadn't taken from Natalie. As the only weapon left in her arsenal, she would use it without apology.
Before she could reply, Austin scooted off the bed to stand next to her. "My mom is Miss Ruth's nurse," he said, his small chin jutting forward. "She's really good at it. Miss Ruth needs us."
For better or worse, Austin had inherited both her pride and her stubborn nature. He was unfailingly protective of her and didn't even blink under Liam's scrutiny. She imagined grown men in boardrooms cowering before that stare, but not her beautiful boy. She gave him a small squeeze.
"I'm sure Ruth is happy to have you here, Liam."
He gave the barest hint of a nod as he continued to study her son.
"Austin, sweetie, why don't you finish the story with Miss Ruth while Liam helps me with breakfast?"
"That's a great idea," Ruth piped in behind them. "Happy reunions always make me hungry."
Natalie threw Ruth a look over her shoulder and the older woman winked.
"I can help, Mom. I'm good at making coffee."
"That you are, big guy." She bent down to kiss his cheek, then whispered in his ear, "Miss Ruth needs you more this morning. Liam and I can handle breakfast.
Clearly reluctant, Austin narrowed his eyes at Liam before turning to climb back on the bed.
Liam held out his arm, indicating that Natalie should lead him to the kitchen. She tried to hold her breath as she walked by him, but his scent twined through her senses as if by osmosis. He'd changed something in the years since she'd known him, his soap or shampoo maybe. But underneath remained a trace of something that was all Liam, clean and a little spicy. Unfortunately, parts of her that didn't involve her brain had an immediate reaction to him. She reached out for the wall to steady herself.
"Cute kid," Liam mumbled as she passed him.
Her temper quickly roared to life. "He's an amazing kid. We're a team."
"What about Brad?" he asked as he followed her through the house.
She cringed at the mention of her ex-husband. "He's not part of Austin's life. He left Crimson and never looked back." Not exactly the whole truth, but as much as she was willing to share with Liam Donovan. For good measure she added, "I seem to have that effect on men."
When she glanced back Liam was frowning.
"You have no idea the effect you have on men, Natalie. You never did."
Oh. Well. She didn't know how to take that.
She moved to the refrigerator as a distraction and took out a carton of eggs, cheese and juice. "What are you doing back in Crimson? Ruth's hip is healing just fine. In another week or so, she should be cleared to drive again. I don't believe you're here to see to her welfare."
"She practically raised me until I was eleven. I love that woman."
She rolled her eyes as she put a pan on the stove, then began to crack eggs into a small mixing bowl. "I know.
And she thinks the sun rises and sets by you. It doesn't answer the question."
"I'm here to see to her welfare." As he stepped closer to her, Natalie worked to keep her fingers from trembling. He handed her an egg and she took it, making sure not to touch him in the process.
She could feel him watching her but kept her attention focused on the task in front of her.
"I believe someone is stealing money from my former nanny," Liam said after a moment. Her gaze crashed into his as he continued, "I'm wondering if it might be you."
Liam wasn't sure how he wanted Natalie to react to his little bombshell. He'd said it more for the shock value because he wanted her as off balance as he felt. A part of him expected her to throw a fit or crack an egg over his head as she screamed out her denial. Instead, she placed the egg on the counter as she went brittely still.
"Is that really what you think of me?" she asked, her gaze flaring as she watched him.
No, never, a voice inside him wanted to argue. I think you are still the most beautiful woman I've ever seen.
Even the ratty sweatshirt she wore couldn't cover Nat's perfect figure. Her dark hair pulled back in a messy pony-tail was still shiny and looked as soft as he remembered from years ago. She wore no makeup, but he'd always preferred her that way. Unlike when they were in high school, she now had faint circles under those big melted chocolate eyes that told him something was keeping her awake at night. Liam found himself wanting to know what it was and figure out a way to fix her troubles.
But that wasn't what this trip was about. Natalie had made her choice years ago. She'd picked this town over him. He wasn't about to come crawling back to her.
"I don't know what to think, Nat. You came to work for her and two months later almost ten thousand dollars is missing from her account."
"Did you ask her about it?"
"Of course I did. I called her when the accountant alerted me. She told me to mind my own business."
"Which wasn't an option for you?"
"She's a strong woman, but not as strong as she once was, either mentally or physically. You're her nurse so you must see that she's frail. I won't let someone take advantage of her."
"I would never do that."
"But you haven't denied taking the money and you've let her return to the house when I arranged for assisted living."
She looked up at him now, her brown eyes blazing. "I didn't steal anything, Liam."
Her voice was quiet but lethal. Liam realized he'd misread her stillness. He thought it might be masking guilt, but now he saw she was reining in her anger. Anger that he would accuse her of something so awful.
"I'm sorry, Natalie. The way the accountant spoke it was too much of a coincidence to ignore. You started working for her and soon after money goes missing from her savings account."
"Does she know you're monitoring her finances?"