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At seven in the morning on the first day of June, Callie Kennedy knocked on the front door of Nate Crawford's big house on South Pine Street.
Nate hadn't shared two words with her since that cold day last January. But he'd seen her around town. He'd also kept tabs on her, though he would never have admitted that. Word around town was that she was not only a pure pleasure to look at, she was also a fine nurse with a whole lot of heart. Folks had only good things to say about Nurse Callie.
He pulled the door wide. "Well, well. Nurse Callie Kennedy," he drawled. Then he hooked his fingers in the belt loops of his Wranglers. "You're up good and early."
She gave him one of those thousand-watt smiles of hers. "Hello, Nate. Beautiful day, isn't it?"
He knew very well why she'd come. It wasn't to talk about the weather. Still, he leaned on the door frame and played along. "Mighty nice. Not a cloud in the sky."
"Happy June first." She beamed even wider, reminding him of a sunbeam in a yellow cotton dress with a soft yellow sweater thrown across her shoulders and yellow canvas shoes on her slim little feet.
"Let me guess
." He wrinkled his brow as though deep in thought. "Wait. I know. You're here to collect on that bet I made you."
"Nate." Her long lashes swept down. "You remembered." And then she looked up again. "I love your new house."
"That's some front door."
"Thanks. I had it specially made. Indonesian mahogany." It had leaded glass in the top and sidelights you could open to let in a summer breeze.
"Very nice." She looked at him from under impossibly thick, dark lashes. "And the porch wraps all the way around to the back?"
"That's right, opens out onto a redwood deck." And they might as well get on with it. "Come on in."
"I thought you'd never ask."
He stepped out of the doorway and bowed her in ahead of him. "Coffee?"
"Yes, please." She waited for him to take the lead and then followed him through the central foyer, past the curving staircase, to the kitchen at the back. He gestured at the breakfast area. She took a seat, bracing an elbow on the table and watching him fiddle with his new pod-style coffeemaker.
"I've got about a hundred different flavors for this thing
The morning light spilled in the window, making her skin glow and bringing out auburn gleams in her long dark hair. "Got one with hazelnut?"
"Right here." He popped the pod in the top and turned the thing on. Thirty seconds later, he was serving her the steaming cup. "Cream and sugar?"
"I want it all. How many bedrooms?"
He got her the milk and the sugar bowl. "Three to five, depending."
"I have an office down here in the front that could be a bedroom. The master also has a good-sized sitting room with double doors to make a separate space. That sitting room could be a bedroom, too." He got a cup for himself and sat opposite her. "Not a lot of bedrooms, really, but all the rooms are nice and big."
"More than enough for a man living alone, I'd say."
He wasn't sure he liked the way she'd said that. Was she goading him? "What? A single man is only allowed so many rooms?"
She laughed. "Oh, come on, Nate. I'm not here to pick a fight."
He regarded her warily. "Promise?"
"Mmm-hmm." She stirred milk and sugar into her cup. "I heard a rumor you're planning on leaving town."
"Who told you that?"
"You know, I don't recall offhand." She sipped. "This is very good."
"You're welcome," he said gruffly.
She sipped again. "It's odd, really. Three months ago, you moved from the ranch into town, and now people say that you're leaving altogether."
"What people?" He kept his expression neutral, though his gut twisted. How much did she know?
No more than anyone else, he decided. To account for his new, improved lifestyle, he'd started telling folks that he'd had some luck with his investments. But as for the real source of his sudden wealth, even his family didn't know. Only the Kalispell lawyer he'd hired had the real storywhich was exactly how Nate wanted it.
"You know how it is here in town," she said as though she'd been living in Rust Creek Falls all her life. "Everybody's interested in what everyone else is doing."
"No kidding," he muttered wryly.
"Several folks have mentioned to me that you're leaving."
Why not just admit it? "I'm looking for a change, that's all. My brothers can handle things at the ranch, so my bowing out hasn't caused any problems there. At first, I thought moving to town would be change enough."
"But it's not?"
He glanced out the sunny window, where a blue jay flew down and landed on the deck rail and then instantly took flight again. "Maybe I need an even bigger change." He swung his gaze to her again, found her bright eyes waiting. "Who knows? Maybe I'll be heading back the way you came, making myself a whole new start in Chicago. I'm just not sure yet. I don't know what the next step for me should be."
She studied his face with what seemed to be honest interest. "You, living in Chicago? I don't know, Nate. I'm just not seeing that."
He thought, You don't know me well enough to tell me where I might want to live. But he didn't say it. She'd seemed sincere just now. And she was entitled to her opinion.
She wasn't through, either. "I heard you ran for mayor last yearand lost to Collin Traub. They say you're bitter about that because of the generations-long feud between the Traubs and your family, that it really hurt your pride when the town chose bad-boy Collin over an upstanding citizen like you. They say it's personal between you and Collin, that there's always been bad blood between the two of you, that the two of you once got into a knock-down-drag-out over a woman named Cindy Sellers."
"Wow, Callie. You said a mouthful." He actually chuckled.
And she laughed, too. "It's only what I've heard."
"Just because people love to gossip doesn't mean they know what they're talking about."
"So none of it's true, then?"
He admitted, "It's true, for the most part." Strangely, today, he was finding her candor charmingthen again, today he wasn't on his way to North Dakota to keep his annual appointment with all that he had lost.
She asked, "What parts did I get wrong?"
He should tell her to mind her own business. But she was so damn pretty and she really did seem interested. "Well, the mayor's race?"
"I'm over that. And it's a long story about me and Col-lin and Cindy, one I don't have the energy to get into right nowand your cup's already empty."
"It was really good." She smiled at him coaxingly.
He took the hint. "More?"
Each pod made six cups. All he had to do was put her mug under the spigot and push the brew button. "You've collected a lot of information about me. Should I be flattered you're so interested?" He gave her back her full cup.
She doctored it up with more sugar and milk. "I think about that day last winter now and then
He slid into his seat again. "I'll just bet you do." Especially today, when it's time to collect.
Her big eyes were kind of dreamy now. "I wonder about you, Nate. I wonder why you had to get to Bismarck, and I keep thinking there's a lot going on under the surface with you. I love this town more every day that I live here, but sometimes people in a small town can get locked in to their ideas about each other. What I think about you is that you want
more out of life. You just don't know how to get it."
He grunted. "Got me all figured out, don't you?"
"It's just an opinion."
"Yeah, and that and five bucks will get you half a dozen cinnamon buns over at the doughnut shop."
She shrugged, her gaze a little too steady for his peace of mind. Then she asked, "So, what about Bismarck?"
He was never telling her about Bismarck. And, as much as he enjoyed looking at her with all that shiny hair and that beautiful smile, it was time to get down to business. "Excuse me." He rose and turned for the door to the foyer, leaving her sitting there, no doubt staring after him.
In his study at the front of the house, he opened the safe built into his fine wide mahogany desk and took out what she'd come for. Then he locked up the safe again and rejoined her in the kitchen.
"Here you go." He set the two crisp one-hundred-dollar bills on the table in front of her. "I get it. You like it here. You've made some friends. They all say you're an excellent nurse, kind and caring to your patients. You're staying. I was wrong about you."
"Yes, you were." She sat very straight, those soft lips just hinting at a smile now. "I like a man who can admit when he's wrong." She glanced down at the bills and then back up at him. "And I thought I told you way back in January that money doesn't do much for me."
Okay. Now he could start to get annoyed with her again. "Then what do you want?"
She turned her coffee mug, slim fingers light and coaxing on the rim. "I've been staying in one of the trailers they brought in for newcomers, over on Sawmill Street."
"I know," he admitted, though he hadn't planned to. Her pupils widened slightly in surprise. It pleased him that he'd succeeded in surprising her. "Maybe I think about you now and then, too."
She gazed at him steadily for a moment. And then there it was, that hint of a smile again. "I'm tired of that trailer."
"I can understand that."
"But as I'm sure you know, housing is still kind of scarce around here." So many homes had been damaged in the flood the year before, and they weren't all rebuilt yet. "I really like the look of the empty house next door to you. And I heard a rumor you might own that one, too."
The woman had nerve, no doubt about it. "You want me to give you a house just for sticking out a Montana winter?"
Her smile got wider. "Not give it to me, Nate. Sell it to me."
Sell it to her
The former owners of both houses had chosen not to rebuild after the flood, so Nate got them cheap. He'd been a long way from rich at the time. His plan then had been to fix the houses up slowly, starting with the smaller one next door. He'd figured he would put money in them when he had it to spare, getting his brothers to lend a hand with the work.
But after his big win, he found he could afford to renovate them both without having to drag it out. With everyone believing his cover story of a windfall on the stock market, he'd told himself it was safe to go for it. He could fix them up and do it right.
He should have been more cautious, probably. Not spent so much on the finishes, not redone both houses. Or at least, if he had to go all out, he should have had his lawyer advise him, maybe put them under the control of the trust he'd established to make sure he would remain an anonymous winner.
Callie kept after him. "Oh, come on, Nate. You can't live in two houses at once, can you? I'm guessing you fixed that other one up with the intention of selling it, anyway."
He thought again that she was one aggravating woman. But she did have a point: he'd bought both houses with the idea that he would eventually turn them around. And really, she didn't seem the least bit suspicious about where his money might have come from. She just wanted to get out of the trailer park. He needed to stop being paranoid when there was absolutely nothing to be worried about. "Finish your coffee."
"And then what?"
"I'll give you a tour of the other house."
Those fine dark eyes gleamed brighter than ever. She pushed back her chair. "I can take my coffee with me. Let's go."
An hour later, after he'd shown her the property and then gone ahead and fed her breakfast, Callie made him an offer. It was a fair offer and he didn't need to quibble over pennies anymore. She stuck out her soft hand and they shook on it. He ignored the thrill that shivered along his skin at the touch of her palm to his.
On the first of July, Callie moved into her new house next door to Nate Crawford. The day before, she'd had a bunch of new furniture delivered, stuff she'd picked out in a couple of Kalispell furniture stores. But she still had to haul all her other things from the trailer park on Sawmill Street.
Emmet DePaulo insisted she take the day off from the clinic and loaned her his pickup. Then, being Emmet, he decided to close the clinic for the morning and give her a hand.
He got a couple of friends of his, Vietnam veterans in their sixties, old guys still in surprisingly good shape, to help load up the pickup for her. Then he drove it to her new house, and he and his pals carried everything inside, after which they returned to the trailer and got the rest of her stuff. With the four of them working, they had the trailer emptied out and everything over at the new house before noon.
In her new kitchen, Callie served them all takeout from the chicken-wing place on North Broomtail Road. Once they'd eaten, Emmet's friends took off. Emmet told her not to work too hard and left to go open the clinic for the afternoon.
She stood out on the porch and waved as he drove away, her gaze wandering to Nate's big house. She hadn't seen him all day. There were no lights shining from inside and no sign of his truck. But then, it was a sunny day, and his house had lots of windows. He could be inside, and his truck could very well be sitting in that roomy three-car garage.
Not that it mattered. She'd bought her house because she liked it, not because of the man next door.
After living in a trailer for six months, her new place felt absolutely palatial. There were two bedrooms and a bath upstairs, for guests or whatever. Downstairs were the kitchen, great room, front hall and master suite. The master suite had two entrances, one across from the great room in the entry hall and the other in the kitchen, through the master bath in back. The master bath was the only bathroom on the first floor. It worked great that you could get to it without going through the bedroom.