All widower Luke Hunter wants is to raise his three kids—and be left alone. When Delaney Marks arrives in town to oversee the youth group’s house renovation project, Luke decides he must come out of hiding. He’s worried she’s too young to get the job done. He’ll have to keep a close watch on her—and on his heart. Because being with the vibrant girl makes it easy to forget their age difference and to start hoping for a future he doesn’t deserve. As tensions rise over project pressures, Delaney tries to make Luke see that some things are just out of his control—and that he is worthy of happiness…with her.
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"Not everyone is meant to be in your life forever, I guess."
Taken aback by the unexpected, too-close-to-home observation, Luke Hunter placed a work-booted foot on the bottom step of the empty storefront's covered concrete porch, doing his best not to frown at the attractive blonde perched on the railing.
"But that's why," she concluded with a dazzling smile that made his breath catch, "we need to make the most of every moment, don't you think? Enjoy life to the full with a thankful heart. That's what's bringing me to Hunter Ridgemountain country Arizonafor the summer."
Until her red Ford Focus had pulled up in front of the rental property fifteen minutes late, a Beach Boys tune belting out of the stereo and her long, sun-streaked hair tumbling around her shoulders, he'd never before laid eyes on Delaney Marks. Although attempting to listen closely, he didn't quite grasp the entirety of the convoluted tale of what brought her into his world that afternoon. But, as near as he could piece together, it had something to do with the departure of a boyfriend, an aunt in poor health, and following her heart.
"Then I hope" he managed something he trusted was akin to a smile "that this property is what you're looking for."
"Oh, it is." She turned to gaze down the ponderosa pine-lined road that curved through the little town's business district, then back at him. "I looked at it online before I made this appointment. It's ideal."
Why were all these artsy types continuing to flock here anyway? Why not Sedona? Jerome? Someplace where they'd fit in and wouldn't annoy the locals.
Without a doubt, this young woman fit the stereotype, with denim-look leggings, an embroidered turquoise tunic and dainty leather sandals. Silver hoop earrings glinted when she tilted her head, and a bracelet shimmered around her ankle. Was there a finger on either hand not encircled with a ring?
Yesterday, the second day of June, Grandma Jo Josephine Davis Huntertold the extended family that a woman had called about renting a property along Hunter Ridge Road. No doubt another outsider determined to further change the character of their town.
Unfortunately, he'd drawn the short straw and had to deal with her today when he'd much rather be balancing the Hunter Enterprise books orbetter yetsolidifying long overdue relocation plans. It was more than time he took his future into his own handsdespite what family members thought. Opportunity had knocked in the form of a potential job offer from two ex-army buddies in Kansas. He had only to wait for the door to swing open. Or give it a push.
"I assume, Ms. Marks," he said, "that you want to take a look inside?"
"I'd love to."
Her too-appealing mouth widened as she caught his eye with a startlingly flirtatious glance. An uncomfortable warmth crept up his neck. This wasn't the first time she'd openly looked at him that way, as if fancying what she saw.
Yeah, right. Like he was buying that.
Who could blame him for suspecting her motives? He was at least a decade older than her own fresh-faced mid-twenties. A military vet. A widower for the past six years. The single father of three. Barely keeping it all together. Even though she couldn't have known any of that when she breezed into town, he held no illusions that he came even close to what some pretty young babe was dreaming of.
But an hourglass figure and eyes sparkling with admiration wouldn't gain her a hoped-for advantage in any rental contract negotiations. He had a houseful of hungry mouths to feed and every dime counted.
Her gaze still holding his, she hopped off the railing to stand before him, close enough that he could see the sprinkling of freckles across her nose.
"And please, call me Delaney."
With a brisk nod, he unlocked the door of the two-story natural stone building. Nestled between a pottery shop and Hunter Ridge's version of a deli, the first floor housed an open space ideal for commercial use, with a studio apartment above. He motioned for her to precede him inside and caught her fresh, citrusy fragrance as she glided by.
Midafternoon sunlight slanted in from the open door and unshuttered windows, filling the high-ceilinged, wooden-floored space with an inviting glow. A faint scent of cinnamon lingered in the air, no doubt the persuasive touch of his aunt Jessi.
Spreading her arms wide as if embracing the interior, Ms. MarksDelaneygave a soft cry of delight that echoed through the spacious room. "I knew I'd love it."
"You understand, don't you," he said, feeling obligated to offer caution, "that leasing for three months rather than for an entire year means a higher monthly rental rate?"
It was during the summer when Hunter Ridgeand the high elevation mountain country at largemade up for the economically slower months.
She shrugged. "No worries. I'm originally from Canyon Springs, so I totally get it."
Canyon Springs? That wasn't much over thirty minutes away, so why
"I could hardly believe it," she continued, "when I saw this place on the property rental website. I'd been afraid I'd get stuck in an ugly, generic apartment complex."
"I don't think Hunter Ridge has too many of those."
She laughed and his heart beat faster at the sound of it, as refreshing as a cool drink of water on a hot day.
"No, probably not." She looked happily around her. "Your town has done an admirable job of retaining its rustic character, its backcountry ambience."
"We do our best to safeguard our heritage." Unfortunately, not as well as they should have in recent years.
Delaney strolled across the space, empty except for a massive iron woodstove on the far side of the main room. Then she spun toward him. "I can't believe this place hasn't already been snatched up. Is there something you're not telling me? Like the roof leaks or there's no indoor plumbing?"
He held up his hands in a gesture of innocence. "A couple from Flagstaff signed a lease, but unforeseen circumstances dictated that they break their contract a few days ago."
She closed her eyes momentarily and drew in a slow breath, almost as if communing with an unseen person. God? Then with a contented sigh she took a confident step toward him. "Meet your new tenant."
Had he heard right? "You haven't even seen all of it yet."
She didn't so much as slant him a sheepish look to indicate she recognized the impulsiveness of her decision. Clearly, she wasn't a stranger to spur-of-the-moment leaps.
"There's an apartment, too, right?"
"A studio in the loft." He motioned upward to a low wall that concealed a portion of the raftered space above. "Full bath. Kitchenette. There's a balcony overlooking a patio and toward the wooded properties farther up the ridge."
"I guess I should take a peek, huh?"
He couldn't help but notice how gracefully she crossed the room to the rear of the building, her gently waving hair flowing down the back of her petite frame. Just beyond the staircase she paused to look in an open door. "A half bath, too? Perfect."
"And a kitchen in the back."
She hadn't yet mentioned her intentions for the space, but Hunter Ridge would likely be welcoming another handmade candle shop or stained-glass studio for the summer season. Not exactly what the town needed. At least, however, the town councilone member of which he had the privilege of calling Mommight sleep better at night with another source of income added to the roster.
He watched with more interest than he was willing to admit as Delaney poked her head into the kitchen, then peeped out the back door window before returning to the main room and heading up to the loft, her footsteps sounding lightly on the wooden stairs.
The next thing he knew, she peered down at him from over the low wall, dimples bracketing a wide smile. "Just as I thought. Love at first sight. Where do I sign?"
No haggling? No pointing out that he'd already laid claim to the previous person's forfeited deposit so he could afford to cut her a sweeter deal? But in this economy, he wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth.
"Come on down, then, and we'll do business."
While few Hunter Ridge natives cared for the influx of newcomers, the bottom line could be a hard taskmaster. But the interlopers would pay well to snag a piece of this mountain country paradise. For that very reason, Delaney's showstopping smile would serve to little advantage. While the engaging look she occasionally cast his way sparked an almost forgotten flicker of masculine satisfaction, he tamped it down. He had neither the time nor the energy for flirtatious females.
Been there, done that.
And, God help him, he was still paying the price.
Less than an hour later, Luke Hunter rose from behind a wooden desk to drop two keys into Delaney's outstretched palm.
"Welcome to Hunter Ridge."
"Thank you." But despite his hospitable-sounding words, it was clear the sober-eyed Luke Hunter wasn't thrilled at the prospect of renting the place to her. Not that he was hostile, exactly. Maybe resigned was a more accurate word.
In a town with too many empty storefronts, you'd think he'd have laid on a thick coat of persuasion to prevent her from marching down the street to the next available space. Instead, when they'd retreated to the offices of Hunter Enterprises, across the blacktop road and a few doors down from what was to be her new summer abode, he'd practically tried to talk her out of signing. But parking limitations, minuscule dimensions of the apartment, and precautions regarding the woodstove didn't faze her in the least.
This summer was to be a chance not only to help the local church youth ministry while remaining conveniently close to her aunt in Canyon Springs, but an opportunity to find out if her artistic talents held any merit. Would her skills eventually rescue her from a lifetime with her nose pressed to a computer monitor?
"I can hardly wait to move in." She stood, tucking the keys and paperwork into her oversize woven purse, a tingle of anticipation skimming up her spine. But whether that was solely rooted in God leading her to an ideal property for the summer or founded in the somewhat hesitant smile her handsome new landlord had just bestowed, she couldn't be sure.
Probably a bit of both.
She rewarded his effort with a high-wattage smile of her own, but he frowned ever so slightly and abruptly stepped to a shelving unit to purposefully peruse its contents.
Was he shy? Unsociable? Or a man with more important things on his mind than the eagerness of a new tenant embarking on a summer adventure?
Nevertheless, she again couldn't help but notice how he held himself with an almost military bearing, the overhead light that illuminated his neatly clipped, sandy brown hair also emphasizing the strong planes of his face. No, he didn't appear to be a man who'd empathize with her bubbling enthusiasm, nor had she missed the flicker of censure in his eyes when she'd presented her photo ID. He'd clearly been unimpressed by the evidence of her recent California residency.
Finding what he was looking for, Luke pulled a navy blue folder from a shelf and handed it to her. "Hunter Ridge Chamber of Commerce" it proclaimed in raised lettering. The possible significance of his last name and that of the community hadn't been lost on her.
"Although you can find this information online, I keep a few of these on hand." He motioned to the folder as she flipped through its contents. "Since water, gas and electricity are included, you won't need to make those arrangements. You mentioned, too, that opening a business isn't your intent, so those sections won't pertain to you, either."
"The space will be my studio." Loving the sound of thatso artistic and professionalshe proudly held out both hands, palms downward, to display her rings. "I make jewelry and hope to sell it through the Hunter Ridge Artists' Cooperative."
The corners of Luke's mouth dipped downward, but he made no comment. Instead, he briefly studied the varied ring designs, then gave a brisk nod. "Very nice."
"Thanks." She slowly drew back her hands, irritated with herself for hoping to hear something more along the lines of a few oohs and aahs. When had she become so insecure, constantly in need of reassurance regarding her craft?
A telltale muscle tightened in her throat. Since both Aunt Jen and Dwayne Moorley dismissed her artistic efforts as having no significance, that's when.
She drew in a reviving breath. "I've been making jewelry for myself and friends since a high school art class introduced me to working with silver. But it's time to see what the rest of the world thinks."
"I wish you the best, then."
Would it be too much to hope that friends and family members would feel the same? If she turned her back on the education her aunt had sacrificed to provide for a pretty much penniless, parentless niece, there would be few who wouldn't think her a foolish and most ungrateful young woman. She no longer cared about Dwayne's opinion, but would Aunt Jen ever forgive her?
With that sobering thought, she nevertheless managed a cheery farewell, and spun toward the door, away from Luke Hunter's probing gaze.
Tottering dangerously, her attempt at a poised exit faltered as the dog she'd tripped over leaped aside with a pitiful yelp.
Luke caught her by the upper arm with a steadying grip. "Are you okay?"
Warmth crept into her cheeks as she stared for a too-long moment into his intense blue eyes, her heart beating at an erratic clip. Then, with a self-conscious laugh, she slipped free of his grasp and stepped away, once again secure on her own two feet. "I'm fine, so you can relax. I'm not the suing type."
He looked momentarily taken aback. Then glanced down at the German shepherd that had retreated behind his master. "It's fortunate, then, that Rags isn't, either."
Shouldn't that quip have been accompanied by a smile? But she didn't spy so much as a trace of a grin on his face.
Nevertheless, she knelt down to call softly to the dog and, after only a moment's hesitation, he trotted to her, tail wagging, to be petted. "Sorry, big guy."
Amends made, she rose to her feet once more, only to be caught off-guard by an unexpected sadness in Luke's eyes. She'd stepped on his dog, tossed out ill-received lawsuit humor and made peace with the pup. Surely none of those things had wounded his feelings.
But he didn't look inclined to share his thoughts, so she bid him a hasty adieu and departed.
Once outside, she paused to catch her breath and take in the hodgepodge of older stone and frame buildings along the tree-lined road. Some snuggled against each other as if for mutual support, others were standalones with towering ponderosas pressing in close. A few, obviously vacant, stared almost forlornly at their more fortunate, occupied neighbors. But despite evidence to the contrary, Delaney sensed the promise of renewed life in the community.
A life she hoped to tap into this summer.
Her heart lightening, she angled across the road to her new home, then trotted up the steps. The summer held so much potential, a freedom she hadn't experienced since college graduation. And who was to say she couldn't arrange to bump into Luke Hunter more frequently than anticipated? After all, this was a small town.
And he did have amazing blue eyes.
No wedding ring, either.
She snatched up a flier tucked into the edge of the door, then inserted the key in the dead-bolt lock. If she could somehow banish that cheerless look she'd glimpsed and coax out a few smiles, the summer might be especially fun.
But she'd barely gripped the doorknob when a shadow emerged from the corner of her mind, halting her flight of fancy. With a sigh, she pushed open the door and stepped inside. Would she never learn? As Aunt Jen often reminded, when somethingor someonelooked too good to be true, it usually was.
Standing in the shadows, Luke held aside the office curtain and gazed toward the property Delaney Marks would be occupying for the next three months. She'd unlocked the door, briefly disappeared inside, and was now pulling a suitcase out of the backseat of her car.
"You're not going to believe this, big guy," he said to the dog seated at his feet. "She's moving in already."
Big guy. That's what his wife had called Rags from the time he was a tiny puppy. Odd that Delaney called him that, too, though he wasn't the largest of his breed.
Luke's gaze lingered as the new tenant tucked a floral sleeping bag under her arm and dragged an oversize pink suitcase up the porch steps. Talk about an optimist. She was eager to stretch her wings. To reach for her dreams. To taste all life had to offer.
He'd been like that once. A long time ago.