Blue-collar landscaper Brett Walker has no interest in the Hollywood vacationers flocking to his hometown in the California mountains. But the scarred ex-soldier does have a duty to protect Blue Arrow Lakeand the family ski resortfrom a serial burglar. So when he suspects a break-in, he takes action and ends up catching sinfully tempting down-on-her-luck heiress Angelica Rodriguez. She reminds him of trouble, but he can't deny her a safe place to stayin one of his cabins.
Angelica has plenty of reasons to distrustlosing her money to her father's legal woes being one of them. Getting up close and naughty with rough, tough and sexy Brett tempts her out of her comfort zone and into the arms of a man who's not from her wealthy world. She's after safety and he's chasing justice, but the fire between them might reveal that all they want is each other.
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When Brett Walker caught sight of the flashing lights in his rearview mirror, his heart gave a quick jolt and he wondered why he was being pulled over. His DMV tags were for the correct year. He was up-to-date on his bills. The license for his landscaping business was current, too. As he pulled to the side of one of the narrow lanes in the wealthy enclave of Blue Arrow Lake in the Southern California mountains, he thought perhaps one of his three younger sisters might have called the sheriff's department to execute a welfare check. Poppy was the most likely choice. But Shay might have done it, too.
It wasn't that he was avoiding his two youngest sisters exactly, but they were so damn starry-eyed over the men in their lives. While all four Walker siblings were pretty hardheaded, only his other sister, MackenzieMachad the same hard soul as he. All the smiles and sighs and grins and kisses a person had to witness when hanging around Poppy and Ryan and Shay and Jace rubbed said soul raw.
So he'd been pacing himself on the Walker fests.
Brett unrolled his window as a man wearing a tan uniform strolled up to the driver's side. Placing both hands on the wheelthis wasn't his first rodeohe glanced up. "Don." Even a law-abiding citizen felt a spurt of relief at recognizing a longtime friend. "What is it, a broken taillight?"
"Naw, nothing like that." He hitched up the belt bristling with equipment. "I saw you go by and thought I'd take the opportunity to have a little chat."
Brett remembered another "chat" he'd been forced to have with a law enforcement officer. His gut curdled at the memory. The result had been a two-day stay in the lockup. "You're making me anxious here, Don," he said. "I'm shaking in my boots."
The other man snorted. "You're wearing your usual granite face. How's the family?"
He meant Brett's sisters, since his mother and father had been gone for years. "Poppy and Shay are both engaged now."
"I heard that. Flatlanders?"
It was what the mountain people called those who came from "down the hill" to visit their peaks and pines at 5,000 feet and beyond. Those who usually resided by the beaches and in the cities of SoCal could hardly believe it when they climbed into their cars and took a two-hour drive to discover a place with four actual, authentic seasons. Lakes for summer play. Snow for winter games. The spring and fall were quieter, but no less beautiful to residents like the Walkers who lived here full-time and had done so for one hundred fifty years.
The full-timers had to share with those flatlanders, though. The resort mountain communities of the area had palatial homes near ski runs and expansive mansions on the banks of private lakes. Wealthy people came up on weekends to their alpine retreats, which gave rise to businesses that provided for the visitors' needs and tastes: gourmet grocers and house-cleaning services, organic restaurants and landscape-maintenance companies. "Yep, flatlanders," Brett told the other man.
Brett shrugged. "Eye of the beholder, right?" Money didn't impress the Walkers. The opposite, really, and he'd been inclined to dislike Ryan and Jace on that principle alone. But the men his sisters had chosen had proved themselves, which hadn't always been the case.
Shay had been the product of a brief affair between their mother and a wealthy visitor when his parents' marriage had hit a rough patch and his father had temporarily decamped to South America. But Dell Walker had ultimately returned and treated Shay as his own for the rest of his lifeher bio dad had never shown his face again.
Poppy had become a single mom when her son's rich-but-shallow father had run back to Beverly Hills.
Brett had been screwed in his own way by the moneyed. He'd earned the chip on his shoulder.
"Business good?" Don asked now.
"Sure." This time of year, he was still mowing and trimming, but soon enough he'd be planting bulbs for spring and protecting flower beds and shrubbery from the coming harsher weather. "We'll see what happens in winter." Then he switched to snow removal. If there wasn't any white stuff to shovel or plow, he'd be in for a dry spell.
"But you're still out and about the area every day, right?"
Brett's eyes narrowed. Don wasn't just shooting the breeze. "Yeah " He drew out the word, uneasy again.
Don cleared his throat. "I don't like to sound an alarm."
Except that's exactly what he was doing. "Spit it out."
"Looks like we have a string of burglaries," he said, frowning.
"Here?" Brett glanced around. This particular community was gated, and besides the patrolling sheriffs, residents could let a security service know their schedule and request daily checks.
"Here, there, across the lake, on the mountain ridge. There isn't a real pattern we've detected, other than break-ins and missing valuables. You and I both know there are ways to get to these homes that bypass the gates and kiosks."
"Yeah." Brett ran a hand over his short hair. Thieves could come by boat or zip around on dirt bikes and avoid the paved roads. "We had trouble with kids in our cabins during the summer."
"I thought of that," Don said. "Any trouble since?"
"No. I'm living out there now." Four miles off the mountain highway was a tract of Walker land that had once been a successful, though small, ski resort. After a wildfire came through and destroyed nearly everything, it had been left to nature. Then, last spring, Poppy had decided she wanted to refurbish the dozen cabins that remained standing. Despite the initial objections from the rest of the siblings, they were making progress. Slow progress, but progress all the same. "We think the fire in one of the bungalows was set by local kids. This seem the same? Locals?"
"They'd know how not to get caught."
Unless they were naive enough to let themselves be used, Brett thought. But he shook it off because he wasn't eighteen any longer and at the mercy of a lying little rich girl and her daddy who thought his spoiled darling could do no wrong.
"Keep your eyes open, will you, Brett?" Don said. "Since you're cruising around all day, you might catch sight of something or someone that will help us crack this."
With a wave, Don returned to his car and Brett continued on with his day. But uneasiness continued to dog him. If people suspected area kids were the culprits, it wasn't a large leap to any local being blamed. If the owners of the vacation homes began distrusting the help they hired, it could impact the bottom line of people like Brett with his landscaping business. His sister Mac, too, who operated a cleaning service.
This wasn't good.
His schedule full, Brett's day didn't finish until he was nearly out of daylight. Muscles aching, he pushed the lawn mower up the ramp into his truck's bed. Then he settled into the driver's seat and grabbed some water, practically hosing it down his parched throat. He'd brooded over the burglaries while he worked at a handful of properties. The usual mowing and clipping, but he'd also raked up mountains of fallen leaves. The pinecones had seemed to have it in for him. Two of the prickly buggers had fallen directly on his head.
He wanted a cold beer, a long shower and a hot meal.
Since he'd have to make yet another stop to purchase two out of the three, his lousy mood was only amplified as he started off in the direction of the highway.
It was quiet in the neighborhood. Nothing unusual for a midweek autumn day. But, remembering Don's words, he paid more attention than he normally would. That's why he slowed and gave a piercing once-over of the Rodriguez place.
"Liar," he muttered to himself.
The piercing once-over was all about the damn woman he wanted to be all overAngelica Rodriguez.
He sighed. She was so exactly not the type for him. She'd spent the summer at the house that now looked empty of life. Her mother was an infamous supermodel, now divorced from Angelica's father, a hedge-fund manager with a Midas touch. Brett didn't think the young woman did anything but dream up ways to torture him. When he arrived to work on the grounds, she'd come outside wearing radiant smiles and little sundresses.
She was evil like that.
Not to mention how she tempted him in other ways. Freshly made lemonade. Oatmeal and raisin cookieshis favorite. He didn't know how she'd discovered that fact, but he wouldn't put it past her to use Daddy's money to purchase a background check of him.
All summer he'd been completely, uncomfortably, maddeningly aware she'd had an itch to go slumming.
But looking at the huge villa-style house on the lake, dark except for a couple of dim security lights mounted on the outside, he guessed she'd gone home or at least to some other Rodriguez-owned domicile. In Bel-Air, maybe. Malibu. For all he knew, Paris.
Thank God. He'd been losing his will to hold out against her. Would any man blame him? She had liquid brown eyes, a wealth of silky, espresso-dark hair, a body
Don't think about her body.
She'd once told him she'd modeled for a time in childhood to early teens, until she'd gotten too "fat." Translation: long legs, beautiful features.
Bountiful, distracting, unforgettable breasts.
Brett closed his eyes, and he could still see them, damn it. Beneath a tank top. Under a loose-fitting shift. Once he'd seen her in a bikini.
That day, he'd been afraid he'd lose his eyesight. Because not only had he garnered a glance at her front, but she'd turned around and he'd spied her luscious butt in bathing-suit bottoms.
Yeah, that kind of "fat."
It should be against the law.
Blowing out a breath, he opened his eyes to take a final look at the place before moving on. He could see it clearly enough through the iron bars of the wide double gate. Now that she was gone, he was going to forget all about her.
A tiny light moved behind a window.
Brett rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. Was he seeing things? Blinking hard, he surveyed the place once more. The light was gone
No, there it winked on again.
A prickly sensation skittered down his spine.
Putting his truck in Reverse, he slowly backed up the street and parked twenty-five yards away. There was more iron fencing at the sides of the property and it didn't prevent him from seeing that light moving again, a firefly behind the glass and the briefest outline of a familiar figure. The hair on the back of his neck rose. All his nerve endings were awake now, and the weariness from the day's endeavors were replaced with something elsecuriosity, anticipation, maybe some dangerous combination of the two.
Trying to be as quiet as possible, he climbed out of the truck.
He didn't bother pulling out his cell phone. This wasn't a police matter. It was something elsethe someone skulking about the inside of that mammoth house was none other than its mistress.
Don't think of the word mistress.
His instincts were certain it was her because, since first seeing her, his body reacted in just this way when she was anywhere in his proximity. His skin would twitch, his scalp would tingle and he'd turn around and Angelica Rodriguez would be there in one of her witchy outfitsjeans, a pair of hiking shorts, a voluminous beach cover-up, it didn't matter what she woreand he'd have to steel his spine to be as hard as that other part of him was becoming.
No, I don't want lemonade. Or a cookie. Or to spend endless nights in bed with you.
"Liar," he muttered again. He'd wanted it all.
But she was doing something shady, he could feel that, too, and so he made his way around the side of the house; his aim, that moving light. There was no fencing between the house and its lake access and soon he was prowling toward that window.
Then he was right outside it. In the minuscule glow of the penlight she had in her hand, he could make out parts of her as she moved about the den. The dark pools of her eyes. The elegant line of her small nose. The dip above her bowed upper lip. Without a hesitation, he rapped on the glass.
Jumping, she shrieked. He could see the sharp sound of surprise on her startled face, which jerked his way, feel the vibration of it in his fingers, which were pressed flat on the pane.
She trained the light on him. He smiled at her. Tooth-ily, he supposed, because she came toward the window at a wary pace until there was only a couple of inches between them.
And yet they were still worlds apart.
"Hey, baby," he said. "Why don't you let me in?"
Angelica Rodriguez stared through the glass into the early evening darkness and cursed fate.
She'd been doing a lot of that lately, as the very foundation of her life had cracked and then fallen away in the past few days. Some cheeryand at times annoyinginner voice kept reminding her to see this situation as an opportunity, but it sure didn't feel that way when the man who had disliked her at first sight was now staring her down.
The man who, from first sight, she'd liked entirely too much.
"Let me in," he said again.
Um, no. It didn't seem wise to be too close to him when all her defenses were in this rocky state. So she smiled and waved both hands in a gesture that was supposed to communicate that she didn't need him around or that she couldn't exactly hear him or perhaps she was just too busy for a chat anything that would get him moving along so she could sneak out of the house where she wasn't supposed to be in the first place.
She turned away from the window to scoop up the papers she'd left on the desk and he rapped again.
Like a demand.
Holding on to her cool, she glanced over her shoulder. There he was, thirtyish, muscled and a bit threatening-looking, even though in the darkness she could only see his bulk and not those very fascinating scars on his face. One slashed through his brow to his hairline. Another crossed the bridge of his nose.
Angelica had never found the courage to ask him about them.
He jerked his thumb in the direction of the back door that led to the lake-view terrace. "Open up."
The sounds of the words were not hampered by the glass, but she sure as heck wasn't going to obey! Past June she would have opened up to him. She'd wanted to, and she'd been rebuffed enough times that it embarrassed her to count them. It had been amazing to her, how drawn she'd been to him then. For a woman who had a lousy history with the opposite sexlousy enough that she was relatively inexperienced when it came to themshe was surprised to find Brett Walker brought out a different side of her.
The idea of kissing him had consumed her instead of making her cringe. The sensation of his arms around her was something she'd wanted, not wanted to run away from.
Now she didn't have time for fantasy. She had a real life she needed to build for herself.
His mouth moved again, four syllables that she thought he might never have said aloud before. "Angelica"
Twisting away from the sound, from him, she moved forward at the same time and tripped over a trash can beside the desk. That sick sense of falling lasted only milliseconds. Then her palms slammed to the hardwood, preserving her nose from a flattening. The penlight she'd held rolled away, dashing light on the floor and baseboards.
Adrenaline was still shooting through her system when she heard him knocking on the window again. Ignoring it, she got to her knees and breathed, trying to slow her heartbeat. She shook out her hands.
Cursed fate. Her own clumsiness.
The knobs on the back door rattled. She glanced through the den's open doorway, past the kitchen to the terrace. He was standing out there now, looking even bigger than before. More menacing. Impatient.
His fist pounded on the glass and it sounded so loud she worried the noise of it might carry across the lake and alert the sheriff's department or the private security force. On a sigh, she clambered to her feet and approached the French doors.
She turned the lock and inched one open, prepared to tell him to go away.
He pushed, forcing himself inside.
In retreat, her feet tripped again, and she thought she might go down once more. Brett Walker grabbed her by the elbow to steady her. "Are you all right?"
She wrenched her arm away. "I'm fine." Deciding offense was the best defense, she scowled at him. "What are you doing here?"
"I saw your flashlight moving around and decided to investigate. Power out?"