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Jeannette Williams hurriedly pushed the vacuum cleaner into the closet and closed the door, then nervously tightened the band on her ponytail. She was frazzled. More frazzled than when she had to run after her four-and-a-half-year-old son. If she didn't finish her duties at this mountaintop log home by four o'clock, she could get fired.
In the kitchen she seemed to be all thumbs as she poured expensive ground coffee into a canister. Suddenly her fingers slipped on the glossy bag and the grounds spilled over the counter and onto the floor.
Jeannette was used to rolling with the punches and picking up the pieces. She'd had to do that after her fiancé died before Jonah was born. But today, knowing she still had an evening's worth of work in a restaurant she didn't like, she almost felt defeated. Still, defeat wasn't in her vocabulary. Jonah was her focus.
She hurried to the closet, found a dustpan and brush and fell to her knees in the kitchen, cleaning up the ceramic-tiled floor.
When she heard a noise outside, she glanced up at the kitchen door the moment it opened. A tall man with a black Stetson stood in the doorway, looking as startled to see her as she was to see him. His jaw was covered with what looked like a week's worth of beard stubble. His cheeks were gaunt. His chambray shirt was tucked into blue jeans, but the sleeves were rolled up, revealing strong forearms. His brown boots were dusty. For an eternal moment she gazed into his green eyes. He looked so sad. A second later she thought she must be mistaken because they were snapping with impatience and annoyance.
Her words came out in a rush. "I'm sorry I'm still here. I'll be gone in a few minutes. I was a little late getting here and I was just ready to leave when the coffee spilled"
"Just leave," he said gruffly.
"Really," she insisted, "I'll just be a few minutes."
"Go on," he commanded. "I'll do it myself."
She knew from her instructions that he valued his privacy, that he was a solitary man who didn't want to be disturbed. Tears came to her eyes as she blinked fast to keep them from falling. Wouldn't that just be altogether humiliating? She didn't even cry at the lewd comments some of the customers made at LipSmackin' Ribs. But this man's sadness, demeanor and penetrating gaze shook her. Still although he was obviously angry with her, there was something in his bearing, something underlying the gruff-ness in his voice, something in those green eyes that . appealed to her. She was going crazy, she knew she was. A tear did slip from her eye and rolled down her cheek.
Her mountain man, obviously seeing her distress, blew out a breath, closed the door and came over to where she knelt. He was over six feet, so broad-shouldered, so virile.
A little tremor ran through her and she wasn't exactly sure where it came from. He was studying her as if he was trying to figure out something.
Then he crouched down beside her. "I'll help you clean up the mess."
That she hadn't expected. But as she'd learned long ago, both the good things and the troubling things in life were usually unexpected. For a few moments, silence trembled between them as she used the brush, and he slid one very large hand with long, tapered fingers across the rust-colored tile, pushing coffee grounds into the dustpan.
She had to make another stab at saving her job. "I need this job. I have a son. I'll buy more coffee." In her effort to explain again, she peeked at his profile. It seemed a tad familiar, though it really couldn't be
His hand brushed hers. She felt the tingle of contact to the tip of her ponytail.
Suddenly she was looking into those green eyes once more and falling .falling .falling. "Sorry," she murmured again, feeling like a total idiot. When was the last time she'd been this clumsy? This scattered? This .at-tracted to a man?
She shook her head as if to clear it, remembering Ed and the accident and all her fiancé had tried to do for them. Maybe trying to juggle two jobs was affecting her the same way it had affected him.
"I didn't pick up the tip you left." She swallowed hard. "I won't take it. If you have extra things you'd like me to do next time, just leave a list." She knew she sounded frantic and breathless, but she was. She wished he'd say something. Before she thought better of it, she clasped his forearm. "I really need this job."
His skin was tanned and hot and taut. And she could feel the brown hairs under her fingertips. Heavens, she was losing it!
She released his arm and just as she thought he was never going to speak to her, he finally said, "It's okay. Accidents happen. I should have checked the drive for your car when I got back from hiking, but you've always cleared out before I returned."
That's the way he wanted it. She could tell.
"This won't happen again," she promised.
With most of the coffee in the dustpan now, he took the brush and pan from her hands and stood with it. He strode to the closet, opened it and poured the coffee into the trash can inside.
Then he dusted off his hands and turned to face her. "We'll forget all this happened. It'll be our secretunder one condition."
Jeannette rose to her feet and had to tilt her chin up to meet his eyes. His one condition made her wary. Just what did he expect in return? As hunky as he was, she was not about to
A half smile tilted the man's lips, as if he could read her mind. "Just don't tell anyone you saw me here."
Relief flooded Jeannette. Yet maybe there was just a little disappointment mixed in. In that moment he'd mentioned a condition, she'd imagined his strong arms around her! But checking his expression again, she could see he was serious.
"I won't tell anyone," she vowed.
Tilting his head, he held out a hand to her to seal the deal. She took it and was immediately affected by her proximity to him, the fall-air, man-smell of him, the skin contact that had already shaken her before. His grip was firm, though the press of his fingers was gentle. Her breath caught. Her heart raced. For propriety's sake, she pulled away.
Altogether flustered now, she gestured to the floor. "Are you sure you don't want me to wash it up?" "I'm sure."
Although for a few minutes she'd felt a connection to him, now he wanted her gone. She could do "gone" if it meant holding on to her job. Quickly she snatched her keys and purse from the counter.
But the tall, well-built man's voice stopped her. "What's your name?"
"Jeannette. Jeannette Williams."
"You forgot something, Jeannette." He handed her the bill that had been tucked under the coffee canister.
"I don't deserve it."
"Sure, you do. A little spilled coffee doesn't wipe out all your cleaning sessions and grocery buying that have made my life easier."
She thought of Jonah and the apartment they'd moved into a few months ago. She thought of the bills stacked on her table, and she took the money from this enigmatic man's hand.
Then she fled his house, wondering if he ever used the silver SUV in his garage wondering how he could stay on that mountain alone.
She considered her son again, and her job at Lip-Smackin' Ribs. She'd do whatever she had to do for Jonah, no matter how hard it was.
As she drove down the deserted, bumpy, unpaved road hoping she didn't get a flat tire, she remembered her mountain man's fleeting smile. Her heart beat faster all over again.