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A red-tailed hawk swooped down from Cameron Mountain and out over the small lake, gray and quiet in the mid-November gloom, as if to warn Jo Harper she wasn't alone but she had already figured that out.
She glanced down the private dirt road she shared with Elijah Cameron.
Yep. He was still coming.
Ignoring the tug of pain in her left side, she reached into the trunk of her car for a cardboard box filled with food and supplies she'd grabbed out of her apartment. She thought of the other places she could have exiled herself. New Zealand, for example. The south of France. Costa Rica. It didn't have to be Vermont. Black Falls. Her picturesque hometown in the heart of the Green Mountains.
It was summer in New Zealand, she thought as she lifted the box on her uninjured hip and noted that it was barely four o'clock and yet almost dark. The long, dark winter nights were upon northern New England. She'd left Washington early in order to arrive in Vermont while it was still daylight.
Using her elbow, she shut the trunk. Three brown-spotted bananas on top of the overflowing box hadn't fared well on the long trip north, but she hadn't wanted to leave them to rot in her microscopic Georgetown apartment. She didn't know when she'd be back at her job with the Secret Service. Technically, she was just taking some time off. But everyone knew she'd been all but ordered to clear out of town for a bit.
Jo knew it, too.
Elijah seemed to be carrying a vase of flowers, but that didn't make sense.
Even from fifty yards away, he looked as sexy, rugged and forbidden as ever. She hadn't realized he was home from the army. Not that her family in Black Falls would have told her, especially this weekbecause then she really might have chucked it all and bought a one-way ticket to New Zealand.
Elijah had built a house on the wooded hillside adjoining the thirty acres and its dozen, one-room, falling-down cabins he and his brothers and sister had every reason to expect to inherit one day. Instead, Drew Cameron had left the property to Jo. The shock of his death from hypothermia in an April snowstorm had only been compounded by that one detail in his last will and testament.
None of the Cameron siblings was more taken aback than Jo was herself by their father's inexplicable act of generosity.
She pushed the uncomfortable memory of her last encounter with Drew Cameron out of her mind. She didn't want to go there. Not now, not especially with Elijah ambling her way.
She watched the hawk glide back toward her and disappear into the woods and hills above the cabins.
There was no wind, but the air was brisk and chillyshe'd gotten used to Washington's warmer climate. She'd had to pull on her black fleece jacket when she'd crossed the Vermont border. She hadn't expected to be back in Black Falls until Thanksgiving, and then only for a short visit with her family.
But here she was, and who knew for how long?
The brightly colored leaves of October had fallen, just the rusts and maroons of dying oak leaves clinging to branches among the hemlocks, pines and spruces along the dot of a glacial lake. Jo noticed a battered dark green wooden canoe in the grayish frost-killed grass down by the lake. It was on her property, but it wasn't her canoe. No doubt it belonged to a Cameronprobably the one walking down the road with the flowers.
She carried her box across the weeds and dead pine needles that passed for a yard. Elijah kept coming. She saw no sign of a limpher sister, Beth, had e-mailed her in April after news hit town that Elijah, a Special Forces soldier, had been wounded, badly, in Afghanistan.
It was the day after Devin Shay, a Black Falls High School senior, had found Drew Cameron dead on the mountain named for his ancestors.
Jo stopped at the front doorthe only doorto the largest of the dilapidated cabins. It was set up on blocks and had moss growing on its roof, which couldn't be good, and its board-and-batten exterior needed a fresh coat of dark brown paint.
But it was the closest to the lake and the best of the lot. Most of the cabins probably should have been condemned years ago. A.J., the eldest Cameron, supposedly had drawn up plans for expanding Black Falls Lodge down to the lake, never expecting the land wouldn't one day be his.
Elijah left the dirt road and walked toward her as if he didn't have a care in the world. He wore a canvas jacket, close-fitting jeans and a navy blue Red Sox cap, and Jo noted the dark stubble of beard on his square Cameron jaw. If possible, he was even more appealing than he had been at nineteen, when he had whisked her off for three nights and four days in the very cabins she had just inherited.
She had never loved anyone the way she had Elijah Cameron.
But that was a long time ago.
He came up to the doorstep with his vase of flowers. They were all liliesAsiatic lilies in varying shades of cream, apricot and copper.
Jo settled the box onto her right hip. She could have stayed with her sister or brother or in her old room growing up, but she'd opted for space, quiet and solitude. She'd always loved the lake. While she was doing damage control on her career, she figured she could also consider her options for what to do with her lakefront property.
Elijah barely contained a smile. "Rough week, Agent Harper?"
It wasn't looking to get better anytime soon. "Hello, Elijah."
"I didn't see you"
"Not a chance. You're a Secret Service agent who protects the lives of important people. You spotted me before you took the key out of your ignition."
She sighed. "You're not going to make this easy, are you?"
His eyes, the same deep blue that had captivated her as a teenager, sparked with humor. "No, ma'am. It's too good."
"No one else is making this easy. No reason you should." She nodded to the enormous vase of lilies he carried in the crook of one arm. "Taking up flower arranging, Elijah?"
"Penny dropped them off earlier. She didn't want to leave them out in the open. They're for you."
Penny Hodges owned the only flower shop in Black Falls and had always had a soft spot for Elijah. She and his mother had been best friends. Drew used to accuse both women of coddling his second-born son and had seen himself as the only one willing to impose discipline on him.
Ancient history, Jo thought, and now both Elijah's parents were gone.
"Who're they from?" she asked.
"What makes you think I know?"
"You looked at the card."
"Ah. Well." He sniffed an apricot-colored lily. "So I did. Are you armed?"
"It can be dangerous, having a badass Secret Service agent next door."
Just her luck that Elijah would be the first person she ran into in Black Falls. Despite the ordeals of the past seven monthshis father's death, his own near deathhe looked fit, as muscular and as physical as ever. But Jo didn't fool herself. Elijah Cameron wasn't the same small-town Vermont boy who had stolen her heart and soul as a teenager.
And she wasn't the same small-town girl.
"If the flowers are a gag gift from one of my colleagues, you can dump them in the lake. Paddle your canoe out to a deep spot and give them the heave-ho."
"They're from your new best friend in Washington."
Charlie Neal, Jo thought. That little bastard had the gall to send her flowers.
She contained her reaction and said tightly, "Take them inside if you would. My hands aren't exactly free."
Elijah tugged open the rickety screen door. "Did you pick this cabin for old times' sake?"
It was the cabin where they'd made love night and day after her high-school graduation. He had graduated the year before and spent the year working at Black Falls Lodgelong before A.J. took it overand avoiding arrest by Jo's father, the local police chief.
"This one has the best heat," Jo said, neutral.
"It also has bats. I see them flying in and out at dusk."
"It's too cold now for bats."
"They're snug in their beds up in your rafters," he said, entering the cabin.
Jo stepped inside and set her box on the rough wood floor next to her duffel bag, which she'd already hauled from her car. She wasn't that sure what all she'd packed. Frustrated, aggravated, anxious to get out of Washington as fast as she could, she'd tossed together clothes, reading material and leftovers with little thought to what she'd need.
Elijah put the flowers on the small drop-leaf table near the window overlooking the lake. Three of her colleagues who'd stayed in the cabins in October had referred to the decor as early junkyard, but they'd enjoyed the settingthe woods, the lake, the hills. They'd hiked, fished, gone canoeing, read books in the quiet.
That was before Jo's bad week. She doubted any of her fellow Secret Service agents would head to Vermont anytime soon, even if she did fix up the cabins.
She avoided looking at the iron four-poster bed in the alcoveit was the same bed she and Elijah had found so useful fifteen years ago.
"How long are you planning to stay?" he asked.
"Until the dust settles in Washington."
Jo bent down and grabbed the bananas from the top of her box. How long would she be here? As she stood up straight again, she tried not to wince in front of Elijah, a matter of personal pride, but she knew she'd failed.
"Still hurting?" he asked with no detectable amusement or sarcasm.
"Baking soda and water might help."
Now she detected a note of amusement and sarcasm. "Thanks. I'm fine."
She had heard every conceivable homemade remedy in the past seventy-two hours, ever since she'd fallen victim to a prank orchestrated by the sixteen-year-old son of the vice president of the United States. Charles Preston Neal was a notorious handful. He had invited his cousins and friends over to the madhouse that was the vice president's residence for an elaborate simulated firefight with realistic-looking fake weapons. Jo was assigned to Marissa Neal, the eldest of Charlie's four older sisters, who lived nearby and was there for a visit.
Five minutes into their firefight, Charlie had pointed at his cousin Conor, who was about to shoot, and yelled, "I think it's a real gun!"
Jo had reacted instantly, jumping into action to save Charlie and his friends from possible injury or death. But the "weapon" turned out to be another of the authentic-looking toy pistols and rifles in the boys' extensive arsenal. She'd intercepted a barrage of airsoft pellets zipping toward Charlie and took the dozens of tiny, fake rounds meant for him.
Trying to live down the spray of pinprick welts on her left arm, side and hip would have been bad enough, but Charlie had collapsed in hysterical laughter, and that was it. Jo pulled him up by the ear and gave him an uncensored piece of her mind.
That was what one of his cousins or friendsno one knew which onehad secretly captured on video and put on the Internet.
Hence, today's drive up to Vermont.
Vice President Neal had mandated the boys all take a police-sanctioned safety course if they were to have any more simulated battles in the backyard, and he'd personally sat them down at the kitchen table and had them write notes of apology to Jo. There was no telling how many of them were in on the prank, but Charlie clearly was the ringleader.
But the damage was done. The video was out there forever, with Secret Service Special Agent Jo Harper grabbing the vice president's son by the ear and giving him a piece of her mind.
Not one of the finer moments in her career.
Marissa Neal was sympathetic, having fallen victim to her brother's pranks herself. Jo's quick action a few weeks earlier had saved Marissa from severe burns and possibly death when a gas stove had exploded in a cabin she and friends had rented in the Shenandoah Mountains. A simple accident. It wasn't publicized, much less splashed over the Internet.
"Dyeing your hair these days, Jo?"
She frowned at Elijah. "What?"
"I like the copper," he said, then nodded to the flowers. "That must explain Charlie's choice of colors for your lilies. They go with your hair."
"He has an IQ of a hundred and eighty. He knows how to manipulate people."
"Maybe he has a crush on you."
"I doubt that."
The youngest of five and the only son of a busy, popular vice president, Charlie was also desperate to be noticed, desperate to matter. As a Secret Service agent, and one not directly assigned to him, Jo couldn't let that be her concern but she couldn't help but notice, either.
He was also fair-haired, good-looking, exceptionally bright and surprisingly unworldly given his wealthy, high-profile family background.
Elijah pushed open the screen door and glanced back at her. "You really can't tell a toy gun from a real one?"
"Go ahead, Elijah, have your fun. Yes, I can tell. That's not why I got hit." She set the bananas on the two-foot cracked Formica counter in the bare-bones kitchen area. They'd be mush by morning. "It doesn't matter. Charlie and the rest of those kids are all safe."
"You did your job," Elijah said.
"That's the way I look at it."
His eyes stayed on her for a fraction longer than she found comfortable. "Didn't know I was back, did you?"
She returned to the box and saw that she'd made a mistake in packing the three cartons of yogurt she'd had in her fridge.
They were squished now, and ten hours in her trunk couldn't have been good for their contents.
Thinking about yogurt gone bad wasn't enough to distract her from the man standing in the doorway.
"I heard you were wounded," she said, raising her gaze to him. "You're okay now?"
His response was classic Elijah. Jo had never met anyone more resilient. Most of his years as a Special Forces soldier were clouded in mystery and the subject of much speculation in Black Falls. Even with her high-level security clearances, Jo doubted she could find out the specifics of the April fire-fight. She'd heard that a bullet had nicked his femoral artery, a highly dangerous injury. He could have easily bled to death.
According to her sister, he was evacuated to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in southern Germany, and only when he was out of danger had his family informed him of his father's death. Beth had heard the story straight from Rose Cameron, Elijah's younger sister, who had flown to Germany to be with her brother.
"But he already knew," Beth had said. "No one had to tell him."
Jo suspected that one look at Rose's face probably had been enough for Elijah to figure out the bad news for himself.