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The last place Leif Andersen wanted to be was the Portland airport. An avowed loner, he didn't look forward to sharing his homehis sanctuarywith a stranger. But that was what he got for owning the biggest and emptiest house in Heartlandia, and it was the imposition he'd accepted on behalf of the town mural.
The absolute last thing he expected to find was this woman sporting a female version of a bolero hat, black gaucho boots and a sunset-colored wrap waiting beside the baggage claim. That had to be herwho else could it be? In all honesty, what should he have expected from an artist from Sedona? She was probably dripping with turquoise underneath that poncho, too.
Attitude adjustment, buddy. This is for the greater good. You volunteered.
Approaching the conspicuous woman, he called out, "Marta Hoyas?"
She turned her head and nodded demurely. All business, or plain old standoffishhe couldn't tell from here. Maybe she thought he was a chauffeur, but he worried about a long and awkward ride home in either case.
He approached and, seeing her more closely, was taken aback by her appearance. The term striking came to mind. He offered his hand. "I'm Leif Andersen." She'd already been notified by Elke Norling that she'd be staying at his home for the duration of her mural painting.
Marta had olive skin with black walnut eyes, the color of his favorite wood for woodworking projects. They tilted upward above her cheekbones, accented by black feathery arched brows. A straight, pointy-tipped nose led to her mauve-colored lips. Nice. Rather than smile she made a tense, tight line, jutting out a strong chin. Her raven hair was pulled back under the hat brim in a low ponytail that hung halfway down her back. She'd qualify for beautiful if she didn't look so damn stiff.
"Good to meet you." Marta said the words, but combined with her weak handshake, Leif had a hard time believing them. However, years in construction had left him unaware of his own power. Maybe he'd crunched her fingers too hard.
"Just point out your bags and I'll get them for you," he said, focusing back on the task at hand and not the unsettling woman to his right. Again, she nodded. Hmm, not much for conversation, and truth was, that suited him just fine. He wasn't looking for a friend or female company. Having lived alone for the past three years in his five-bedroom, three-thousand-plus square foot home that he'd built, well, having another person around was going to take major adjustment. So far, she seemed as much of a recluse as him, and she'd probably get lost in that great big house just like he did. They'd probably never even run into each other. Good.
She pointed at a large purplewhy wasn't he surprised?suitcase rounding the corner on the carousel and he pulled it off. Then another. And another. Had she moved her entire wardrobe?
"Let's take these to the curb, then you can wait while I bring the car around. Sound like a plan?"
He rolled two suitcases. She rolled the third, plus her carry-on bag to the curb. Then he strode off, vowing not to feel compelled to get this one to talk. She wasn't here to talk. She'd come to Heartlandia to paint a magnificent mural on the city college walls, one that would depict the city's history and live up to the beauty of her great-great-grandfather's beloved town monument.
Making the trek to his car, he decided Marta wasn't exactly standoffish. He'd only just met her and shouldn't make a snap judgment. She was definitely distant and quiet, but something in the way she carried herself portrayed pride. Maybe taking a mural-painting job for a small town was a step down for her?
He'd studied her website when the college had made their final decision. She had a solid reputation and did art shows across the country but mostly in her home state of Arizona. Some of her work hung in modern-art museums and at US universities. The kind of painting she did, as best as he could describe it, and he definitely wasn't an expert, was Postimpressionism. She liked large canvases and big subjects. The style seemed well suited for their historical mural needs.
In a world of pop and abstract art, he appreciated her use of vivid colors and real-life subject matter. Hers were paintings where he knew what he was looking at without having to turn his head this way and that, squint to figure it out and then make a guess. What he liked most was her use of intense colors to make her point. In that way she was bold and unrestrained, unlike the quiet woman beneath the bold and unrestrained clothing he'd just met. Bottom line, this style would stand out on a wall at their local college, and that was all that was important.
As he drove toward the curb to pick her up, it occurred to him that beneath her cool exterior, deep under the surface, maybe all was not right in Marta Hoyas's world. This was one of the traits he'd developed since he'd lost everything he lovedan uncanny ability to read people, especially in the pain and suffering department. He could spot sad people anywhere. Saw the same look on his own face every day when he shaved. Yep, he'd go easy on the woman, and maybe they'd work out a compromise for living under the same roof for God only knew how long it would take her to paint that mural. This, too, he would survive.
He stopped at the passenger pickup curb. She got in while he put all three bags in the bed of his covered pickup truck. Being in construction since he was eighteenhe still couldn't believe it had been twenty-four years since he'd joined his father's businessthere was just no point in driving a nice car.
"You ever been to Oregon?" he asked once he got back into the cab.
"Not in many years."
"Ever see your great-great-grandfather's monument?"
At last, a little sparkle of life in her dark eyes. "Yes. When I was fifteen. Beautiful."
She removed her hat, and he was struck again by her beauty. An uneasy feeling, one he hadn't experienced in years, demanded his attention, and it rattled him.
You 're a man, damn it. You've always loved women. Quit thinking like a priest.
Too bad he was hell-bent on living with a dead heart. Didn't matter what this woman did to his pulse. Losing Ellen to cancer had left him devastated. The thought of ever again going through anything close to thatloving someone with all of his heart and soul and losing themhad shut him down. Never again.
So how the hell could he explain the humming feeling under his ribs and down to his fingertips when he looked into her dark and mysterious gaze? She crossed one booted leg over the other and stretched forward to adjust the seat belt, jutting out her chest in the process.
"Can I help you with that?" he asked, trying his damnedest not to notice her breasts.
"I've got it. Thanks."
He focused back on driving, vowing to only look straight ahead from that moment on.
Typical of Oregon weather in late September, it drizzled as he exited the Portland airport and headed toward the freeway. Being three o'clock, it would be after five before they got back to Heartlandia this Saturday afternoon. And because she had yet to utter more than ten words, and he didn't exactly feel like playing twenty questions, Leif gripped the steering wheel a little tighter and hunkered down for what he'd expected since first laying eyes on heran extralong drive home, punctuated by awkward and strained silence. Like right now.
He swallowed. Fine with him.
Marta stared out the window, struck by how green everything was. What should she expect from a place that got more than forty inches of rain a year? Compared to her red-rock desert home, anyplace would look green. She glanced at Leif's profile. If he ground his molars any tighter, he'd break through his jaw. His weathered fair complexion, darkened by his outdoor workshe'd been told his was the construction company that had built Heartlandia City Collegemade him look in his midforties
like Lawrence. She shook her head, trying to ward off any more thoughts about her benefactor, and wasn't that all he'd wound up being? Her ex-benefactor
For five years she'd given up everything for him. Five years she'd traveled with him, met the people he thought she should meet for her career. Respected his boundaries and accepted his terms. Evidently Marta was only worthy of being his significant other. It had suited their relationship well for the first year. Hell, she'd even set up the rules. She'd rebelled against her parents' traditional marriage. Pooh-poohed her father's favorite saying: "A love like ours only comes once in a lifetime." Heck, she'd been through half a dozen boyfriends by the time she was twenty-two, and not a single one had been interested in anything beyond the here and now. That kind of love was passé. She hid behind her rebellious facade, the edgy artist, and tried to believe it didn't matter that no man had come close to loving her the way her father loved her mother. But they were so old-fashioned. Old school. She was a modern woman.
It had worked well with Lawrence at first, what with her traveling and long hours in her art studiothe studio he'd financed and built for her. But surprise, surprise, she'd fallen for him anyway, and celebrating her thirtieth birthday had made her long for something permanent. Something that said he held her above all others, that she wasn't replaceable. For three more years she'd settled for focusing on her art and waiting, but then her mother died and put a whole new perspective on love, one Lawrence could never measure up to. By then their relationship seemed more like a habit than a love affair. Even now with her leaving him, he hadn't protested
Think it over, my dear, he'd said. Nothing needs to change.
Wrong! Everything had changed eight weeks ago, and if he thought she'd hang around forever waiting for him to propose marriage, he'd been terribly mistaken.
She attributed her change of heart to losing her mother so suddenly last year. They'd been estranged over Marta's chosen lifestyle when an aortic aneurysm had suddenly taken her life. She'd never even gotten to say goodbye. Losing her mother had cut to the core, and she'd been determined ever since to honor her mother's memory with Lawrence. He, however, wasn't on the same pagethat was the phrase he'd used when she'd first brought up the subject.
Even now, with the new situation and her world turned upside down, he hadn't budged in offering marriage.
She glanced at Leif again. Dark blond hair cut short, the kind that stuck up any which way it wanted, not the carefully styled spikes of younger men. His crystal-blue eyes had nearly drilled a hole through her head when he'd introduced himself. The guy was intense and focused on one thinggetting her where she needed to be for the next couple of months. That was fine with her. She needed this break, and the job had popped up at an opportune time. She needed the money. Granted, she'd been quite sure she had an edge in the final decision, being the great-great-granddaughter of Edgardo Hoyas, the Heart-landia town monument artist. This job would allow her to get away from home and her problems and regroup, to put a little money in her bank account so she could focus on the only thing important to her right now, the
"You okay with staying at my house?" Leif broke into her thoughts.
She'd been told she would have her own wing in a large and beautiful home.
"Oh, yes, um, that should be fine. Thank you for offering."
"Normally my guesthouse in the back is available, but I'm remodeling a house and the homeowners needed to store some things, and well, the woman had been renting the cottage from me for a couple of months"
"I understand." She cut him off, not needing to hear another word of his long and rambling explanation.
He glanced at her, then quickly returned his gaze to the highway. "I work long hours, so I won't be around to bother you. And I keep to myself. So"
More explanations. "We'll work things out." She should give the guy a break, since she could feel the sliceable tension in the cab.
She smiled, then noticed his poor excuse for a smile in return, but at least it softened his eyes. It also made a huge difference in his appearance. His wasn't a bad face. Not by far. He had a ruggedness that appealed to her artistic instincts. The kind of face she'd like to paint, especially when he grew older. Craggy with character. That was what it washe had character. She suspected that something besides working outdoors had stamped those premature lines in place. Being near him made her wonderhow would I depict this man on canvas?
The thought struck her. Even though Lawrence was profoundly handsome, she'd never desired to paint him. Photography was how she dealt with his classical good looks. The man belonged in pictures, not paintings, a subtle difference to most, but a deep divide in her rightdominant brain.
Why did Leif live in a huge house by himself? He didn't wear a wedding ring. Was he yet another man unable to commit? But why the big house, then? A man wouldn't build a big house without the intention of filling it with family, would he?
Quiet, brain. She'd been up since the crack of dawn to meet her driver to Flagstaff to catch her flight, then, because it seemed impossible to get a nonstop flight anywhere anymore, she'd spent more than six hours, including the layover, making her way to Portland. This highway was long and tedious, except for the lovely green pines. Her eyes grew heavy and she rested her head against the cool windowpane. She'd been far more tired than usual these past two months. Whirling emotions could do that to a person. And other things.
The silence in the truck and the vibration of the road soothed her, and soon she drifted off to sleep.
Leif pulled into his driveway and around the side of his house to the circular portion where he parked. Marta had slept contentedly for the past hour, which was fine with him. It gave him the opportunity to look at her without being obvious. She was hands-down beautiful, but even in sleep she tensed her brows. What was bothering her? Having to live with him? She'd said it wasn't a problem, and these days most thirty-four-year-old women, especially an independent artist like her, would be fine with that. He tilted his head, his hunch about all not being right with her world growing stronger by the moment.
Stopping the car woke her up, which was just as well because any second now his dogs would come barreling around the corner making a happy racket.
She stretched and shook her head to knock out the sleep. "Oh, thanks. Wow. This is lovely," she said, glancing across the yard toward the house.
He opened his door and jumped outside, and just as expected, Chip and Dale, one blond and one black, came running full out to the fence, barking as if they'd seen a wild turkey. "Hi, guys. Hush now." They didn't listen, just kept tossing those loud Labrador barks into the wind.
Marta crawled out of the cab, squinted and smiled. Good. She was okay with dogs. Because chances were they'd eventually break into her room and lick the living daylights out of her. Though he planned to keep them out of her studio. What a mess that would be.
He pulled her baggage from the back and they made their way up to the back door. Entering through the kitchen, he asked, "Are you hungry or thirsty? I can make you a sandwich or something to hold you over until dinner, if you'd like."
"Water would be great, thanks." She held her hat in her hand, and because the house was warm, she took off her poncho and folded it over her arm. Form-fitting black, straight-legged slacks hugged her curves with a simple white blouse tucked into the waistline. He'd been wrongthere wasn't a turquoise bobble in sight. As he filled a glass with filtered tap water, she pulled the clasp from her hair and down came thick black hair curtaining her shoulders. He looked away and swallowed quietly.
"Here you go," he said, handing her the water. "I'll take these bags upstairs to your suite." The sight of her standing in his kitchen made him need to put some distance between them.