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"Jonah, be careful with that!"
Too late. The six-year-old's careless playing had alreadly sent the shopping cart careening across the parking lot, and the boy's little legs couldn't run fast enough to stop it. As the cart slammed into the door of a blue pickup truck parked near the main entrance, a loaf of whole-wheat bread fell from the shopping bags and thumped to the black asphalt. Three oranges and an apple rolled beneath the truck that now bore an impressive four-inch scratch across the side of the door.
Zoe Lawton dropped the sack of potatoes and the package of toilet paper she was carrying and chased after her son. The strap of her handbag slipped off her shoulder and hung around her forearm, hampering her efforts. The purse hit the ground, its contents spilling across the pavement.
This day just kept getting worse.
A tall man stood a few feet away where he'd been placing his own groceries into the back of the truck. In her brief perusal, Zoe caught a glimpse of his firm mouth, piercing brown eyes and a glacial stare that could have coated Death Valley in ice.
"I'm sorry, Mom. I didn't mean to," Jonah wailed.
The culprit stooped beneath the truck, scrambling to pick up two of the oranges. His sparkling blue eyes were filled with remorse. To add insult to injury, he pushed the shopping cart out of his way, gouging another mark across the left front fender of the truck.
"Jonah, stop already!" Zoe clasped her son's hand and pulled him away so he couldn't do any more damage.
"I just wanna help," the boy said.
"I think you've helped enough." The man's deep voice sounded low and angry, like rumbling thunder. He stalked over to stand in front of them, placing his hands on his lean hips as he perused the scratches with an irritated scowl.
Not brown. His eyes were amber, with a dark coppery ring around each of the irises.
Looking up, Jonah's chin trembled. "I'm real sorry, Mister. I didn't mean to."
For a fleeting moment, Zoe saw a flicker of compassion in the man's eyes. Then he raked his fingers through his short, dark hair, showing his frustration. "I just bought this truck three weeks ago."
His growled words showed his annoyance but seemed to be for himself alone. A passing comment that made Zoe feel even worse. If some little kid banged a shopping cart into her new truck, she wouldn't be happy about it, either.
Zoe pasted her most apologetic smile on her face and met the man's gaze. "I'm sorry. I'm going to pay for this. I'll take care of the damage."
He turned and she caught the scent of his spicy cologne, mingled with spearmint. A short lock of sable-brown hair fell over his high forehead, just above one arched brow. Though Zoe was tall for a woman, she had to look up to meet his eyes. Strong, athletic shoulders covered by a black ribbed T-shirt blocked her view of Jonah. The man braced his legs, his muscular thighs sheathed in worn blue jeans. Scuffed cowboy boots topped it all off. A completely masculine man. And highly annoyed.
As she gathered up the contents of her purse, Zoe wished she'd changed her soiled shirt and faded denims for a clean set of clothes before heading to the grocery store. Having just arrived in town three days earlier, her time had been spent setting up summer child care for Jonah and straightening up the three-bedroom house she'd rented along the bench bordering Bingham River. In spite of the morning rain and May breeze sweeping through the valley, a rivulet of perspiration dampened the back of her neck. She'd worked hard today and felt grungy and exhausted. There'd been no time to fix her hair or apply makeup. Now she felt mortified to be seen looking like a street urchin with a hooligan child. She brushed a hand over her short hair, self-conscious about her bedraggled appearance.
"Just forget about it," the man said with a rasping voice.
"What?" Zoe took Jonah's hand and blinked, trying to concentrate on something besides the man's full mouth and blunt chin.
"I said, let it go. The damage isn't worth bothering with. Besides, every work truck worth a dime has a few good scratches on it." He gave her a half smile that didn't quite reach his eyes.
Did he mean it or was he just trying to get rid of her?
Jonah wriggled against her side and she released his hand, thinking he'd stay put this time. She was wrong. He hurried over and clasped the edge of the truck, jumping up to peer over the side. The rubber soles of his tennis shoes squeaked as he braced his toes against the man's truck to get traction.
"Jonah! Come away from there." She glanced at the man, her cheeks burning like road flares. Now was not a good time for her son to misbehave.
"I just wanted to see what's inside," Jonah said.
"Nothing but sacks of groceries." The man heaved a disgruntled sigh and shook his head at the boy.
"He's normally a well-mannered child. He usually minds me." Zoe rushed to reassure the man, wondering why it mattered so much to her. She hated the thought of this handsome stranger believing she couldn't control her own son.
"I can see that." He pursed his lips, looking skeptical.
"He's just a bit excited. You see, we just moved to town, and he's been helping me get settled in our new home."
"Yeah, hyper kids act that way sometimes."
She stiffened, fighting off bristles of anger. Calling her son hyper pinched a nerve in Zoe's composure. "Jonah's not hyper. He's just curious and energetic."
A miniature replica of his deceased father, Jonah was now kicking the tires. She didn't know what she'd do without him. She certainly wouldn't tolerate anyone assigning him a derogatory label.
The man looked doubtful, but she wasn't about to carry this conversation any further. He had a right to be upset, after all.
She dug into her purse, searching for a pen and paper. "I want to pay for the damage. It's the least I can do."
He held up a hand, his expression darkening. "Don't bother. Right now, I just want to get my ice cream home and in the freezer before it melts."
"Oh, I'm sorry." Zoe thought about her own perishables wilting in her shopping cart. She also wanted to get home, if only to get Jonah into a place where he could run around and burn off some energy. With the boy bouncing around the house, she doubted there'd be much relaxation until bedtime. Rather than try to cook dinner, she'd pick up hamburgers at the drive-through on the way. Since their move, Jonah had been wound as tight as a top. If only she could bottle and sell her son's energy, she'd be filthy rich.
"Hey, do you like fish?" Jonah pointed at the rear bumper of the man's truck. Zoe craned her neck to see a blue sticker with two Pacific salmon on it that read Save Our Salmon.
The man didn't move but responded impatiently, "Yeah, I like fish just fine."
Jonah flashed a wide grin. "My mom does, too. She knows everything about fish."
The man eyed Zoe as a dubious smile creased the corners of his mouth. "I'll just bet she does. You got a goldfish at home, do you?"
"Yep. How'd you know that?" Jonah screwed his face up in curiosity.
"Just a lucky guess."
"My name's Jonah, like Jonah and the whale. Mom's told me the Bible story over and over. Jonah was dis-bedient to the Lord, so he got swallowed up into the whale's belly. Only when he pented did the Lord cause the whale to throw him up."
Zoe stared at her son, stunned by his version of the tale. "Dis-o-be-dient and re-pen-ted." She enunciated the words slowly for her child.
The man coughed, a suppressed smile twitching his lips. "I've never heard the story told in quite that way."
"I've never been fishing before," Jonah continued. "My daddy died when I was just a baby. Mom promised to take me someday soon, once she learns how."
Zoe shifted her weight, wishing Jonah wouldn't spill their entire life out for a stranger. But she'd raised him to be honest, so she shouldn't be surprised by his candor.
A disbelieving laugh slipped from the man's corded throat. "You'd better be prepared to hook your own worms. Most women are squeamish about that."
"Not Mom. She can do anything.''''
Jonah's spoken confidence touched Zoe's heart. How she loved her little boy. His enthusiasm for life affirmed for her that there was so much good around her. After Derek, her husband, had died five years earlier, she'd wondered if she'd ever be happy again. But Jonah served as a constant reminder of how much she still had to live for.
"I'll just bet she can." The man's gaze traveled the length of her, as if sizing her up. His disbelieving expression told her what he really thought about her. Which made her feel incompetent and silly. And she wasn't. Not at all.
As a National Marine Fisheries biologist for the federal government, she'd worked hard in a maledominated field to earn her graduate degree and advance in her career. With Derek's death, she'd been forced to expand her earning base to provide a living for her eleven-month-old baby. With a day job, night classes and a little boy to raise, she'd worked hard to get where she was today. She was used to people, mostly men, telling her she couldn't succeed, but she'd learned to ignore them. Her knowledge certainly wasn't limited to goldfish in a bowl, but she wasn't about to expound on her training and experience in this parking lot. Not with an irate stranger.
Tanner Bohlman wanted out of this parking lot. Right now. He didn't care that Jonah's mother had a gorgeous smile that lit up her dazzling blue eyes, and he certainly wasn't interested that the lady was trying to give him her name and phone number.
"At least take my contact info in case you change your mind." She thrust a scrap of paper at him with her information scrawled across the top.
Against his better judgment, he glanced at her name. Zoe. Pretty and delicate, just like her. With short, blond hair and a lean, graceful figure.
"Thanks." Without looking down, he crumpled the paper in his fist.
"My goldfish's name is Rocky," the boy said.
"Is that right?" Tanner stepped over to the truck door, desperate to make an escape. Trying to keep from staring at the woman's full mouth and confused frown.
"You ever see some salmon?" the boy persisted.
"Jonah, quit with all the questions." The mother spoke the reprimand softly, but a warning glint filled her eyes.
"Yeah, I've seen a few salmon in my day." Tanner jerked open the door to his truck, trying to ignore the pretty pink flush of color highlighting the woman's cheeks. He didn't want to make small talk with them. He had to leave. Had to get out of here now.
"Mom's gonna take me fishing for trout," Jonah persisted.
"Good for you." He stepped up into the driver's seat but couldn't slam the door. The kid was in the way.
"Come on, Jonah." The woman pulled her son back, then glanced at Tanner. "Be sure to let me know if you change your mind about the repairs."
Tanner shook his head. "Thanks, but I won't be calling you."
Not ever. The last thing he wanted in his life was another woman, even if her cute little son had accidentally bashed a couple of scratches into the side of his truck. After what his former fiancée had done to him two years earlier, Tanner wouldn't take the chance of falling for another woman ever again. It hurt too much.
He paused, tossing a quick glimpse at Jonah. "You stay back with your mom, now. I don't want to run over you when I back out."
Taking the cue, Zoe gripped the little guy's hand, tugging him out of the way. Satisfied that the boy was safe, Tanner slid the key into the ignition and started the engine. He paused just a moment, giving Zoe time to retrieve her potatoes and the wayward cart. Watching her struggle between holding onto her son's hand and maneuvering the weight of the heavy cart, Tanner almost hopped out to help her.
He resisted the urge, giving her time to move aside so he could drive away. He didn't like being rude but figured it was for the best. He just couldn't reciprocate her pleasant mood.
A twinge of regret tightened in his gut when he saw that she'd replaced her apologetic smile with a glare of disapproval. Under the circumstances, she'd tried to be as nice as possible. From what the kid had said, she wasn't married, and a boy like Jonah was bound to be a handful for a woman on her own.
But what had happened to Jonah's father?
Tanner couldn't help wondering. According to Jonah, the man had died. Tanner reminded himself that it wasn't his business.
He didn't like being so curt. But being friendly would only lead to him looking at that scrap of paper she'd given him. Then he'd be tempted to call her. And he wouldn't. Couldn't.
Checking his rearview mirror, he saw that she was still standing there, holding her purse and Jonah's hand, watching Tanner pull out of the parking lot. As he turned the corner and drove away, he forced himself not to look back again.
When he reached the first stoplight, he blew out a harsh breath, his pulse settling back to a normal beat.
He still remembered the color of her eyes. Electric blue, with a subtle midnight ring around each iris. Yeah, he'd noticed, in spite of her little boy's constant chatter and his desire not to like either of them. But noticing that a woman was attractive didn't mean he had to act on it.
As he navigated through traffic and headed toward his lonely apartment on the south side of town, he tossed the crumpled piece of paper she'd given him on the floor. He'd throw it away when he got home. Holding it served as a reminder of how lonely he was.
That couldn't be helped. Better to be lonely than to lose someone else he loved. First his parents, then his grandparents, then his fiancée. He'd been alone most of his life. He liked his solitude and doing what he wanted.
Tanner shook his head, trying to clear the painful memories surging through his mind. Cheryl telling him she loved him. Hugging him tight. Smiling so sweetly. And then, when she'd broken off their engagement, her sneer of contempt. She'd claimed she'd never loved him or his line of work. Not really. She'd only tolerated all their trips into the mountains. All the fishing excursions and hikes. Waiting until someone better came along.
That someone had been Tanner's best childhood friend.
Ex-best friend now. The hurt of Cheryl's betrayal sank deep into Tanner's heart, like a barbed fishhook. And every time he thought about them, it ripped his heart anew.
Tanner flipped on the turning signal and heaved a giant sigh. It was better to remain a bachelor and throw himself into his work instead. Much more rewarding and something he had control over. Being alone suited him just fine. Then he'd have no one to insist he do things her way. No one to destroy his relationship with his best friend.
No one to love.
Bah! He didn't need love to feel complete or to lead a full, happy life. He'd finally begun to make peace with his past. He'd focused on building his career, which had paid off. He'd recently been promoted as the Fisheries and Wildlife staff officer over the Steelhead National Forest. It kept him plenty busy. In fact, his career was his life.
No, Tanner didn't have the time or the desire to complicate his solitary existence with another superficial romance. Especially with someone like Zoe. The widow came packing baggage. A cute, precocious little troublemaker named Jonah.
As Tanner pulled into his driveway and killed the motor, he realized he had everything he needed. A good education, a comfortable place to live, a challenging career and a few coworkers to hang out with once in a while.
Stepping out of the truck, he glanced back at the wad of paper lying on top of the floor mat. Against his better judgment, he reached inside, picked it up and tucked it inside his pants pocket.