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"He can't be single," Mary Margaret McSwain said, adjusting the focus on her binoculars as she peered at the store across the street. "He's too good-looking. It's McSwain's Law: If a man's gorgeous, he has to be married, gay, or a serial killer."
Zoe Baylor shoved a book of wallpaper samples out of her way and leaned across the oak table, bracing her long dark hands against the window frame as she tried to get a better look without benefit of magnifying lenses.
"Mary Margaret," Katie Quaid called in a warning tone as she struggled in the back door of the store, her tiny frame weaving under the weight of books of drapery swatches. After the day she'd had, she wouldn't have refused a hand, but her friends seemed too preoccupied to offer. "I don't want to hear another one of your stories about serial killers. Mrs. Pruitt changed her mind again about the color of the guest room. If you describe to me one more brutal way to do away with somebody, no one is liable to find Mrs. Pruitt for a long, long time."
Katie dropped the drapery samples on her desk with a horrendous crash. Neither of the women staring out the window so much as flinched. The tip of Zoe's nose dotted the plate glass in front of her like that of a hungry kid looking in a bakery window. Katie's business partner, known as Maggie to her friends, was kneeling on her chair, her well-rounded bottom sticking up as she leveled a pair of binoculars at some point across the street.
"Maggie, what on earth are you doing?" Katie asked. She knew her friend already had a solidly established reputation for being a flake. Spying on people with binoculars was not going to improve matters.
"I'm spying on the Adonis in the store across the street." Maggie sighed and moaned, never lowering her binoculars. "Haven't you heard? That old building was sold two days ago."
"Who bought it?"
Maggie sat back with her legs tucked under her and offered the binoculars to Katie, deftly untangling the neck strap from the ends of her bobbed red hair. The smile that tilted her mouth was challenging. "See for yourself."
Katie rolled her eyes and propped a fist on her slender hip. "I will not stoop to window peeping."
Muttering under her breath, Katie grabbed the field glasses from her friend and raised them to her eyes. Would she always be such a sucker for a dare? Probably. It had something to do with being only five feet one and seven-eighths inches tall. Being the first one to take a dare had always been her way of compensating for her lack of stature. That she was twenty-seven and had long since considered herself a grown woman had no effect on the trait.
"If this isn't the silliest thing you've . . ." The rest of her breath washed out of her on the softest of sighs as she focused the binoculars.
The dark T-shirt might have been painted on him. Even looking through the window of her store and the bay window of the store across the street, Katie could see the outline of his chest muscles, a wide expanse of hard, rippling pectorals. He was dancing as he washed the inside of the window. His breathtaking chest tapered to a narrow waist, and then to hips that were gently gyrating in time to the tune he was listening to on his headphones. He had the kind of body that was made for faded jeans—a flat belly, a perfectly rounded male fanny, slim hips, and muscular thighs.
Before Katie could dwell on any other part of his lower anatomy, she jerked the glasses up to his face. She might have lost her breath again, except she hadn't been breathing. Inky black hair tumbled onto his forehead, lending his male beauty a roguish quality. Maggie hadn't been far wrong calling him an Adonis. His was the kind of face ancient Greek sculptors would have fought over to immortalize in marble.
"His name is Nick Leone," Maggie said, as if it were the most dangerously mysterious name she'd ever heard. "He's from New Jersey. Lee Henry Bartell heard it from Dee Roberts, the real estate agent who sold him the property."
"What's he doing in Briarwood?" Zoe asked suspiciously. In a nervous habit she ran a forefinger back and forth over the plastic name tag on her nurse's uniform.
Katie forced herself to plunk the binoculars down on the table, embarrassed over her own involuntary reaction to the handsome stranger. She was no drooling man watcher; she had a business to run. "He must not know about the law against people from New Jersey moving to Virginia," she said in a teasing voice.
Zoe was too wrapped up in her musings to hear. "I thought he sounded like a Yankee," she murmured.
Maggie jumped on the comment like a cat on a june bug. "You heard him talk? You met him? Where? What's he like? He doesn't have a funny voice, does he? That would just ruin it for me if he had a funny voice. Where'd you see him?"
A horrified look came over Zoe's long, thin face. "Nowhere."
"The hospital." Maggie nodded, her brown eyes narrowing in thought. "Hmmm, that's interesting. What was he there for?"
"Maggie!" Zoe exclaimed. "You know I can't talk about patients. It's not ethical."
"And it's none of your business, Mary Margaret," Katie added pointedly. "Have you called in the order for that grass paper John Harris wants in his office?"
"Yes. You know what the rumor is about him?"
"I don't want to hear any rumors about John Harris," Katie said, deliberately misinterpreting Maggie's question. She had a feeling the less she knew about the gorgeous arrangement of masculinity across the street, the better off she'd be. She scooped a couple of wallpaper books off the long table and returned them to their proper slots in the oak case along the wall.
"Not John Harris, Nick Leone!"
"Lord, Mary Margaret, the man hasn't been in town a week, and already there's gossip about him?" Katie pulled out a book of miniature country prints and headed for her desk. "I wonder if he knows what he's in for, moving to a small town."
"Rumor has it he's a mole." She raised her carefully plucked eyebrows for emphasis.
Katie ignored her, sitting down to page through the book, concentrating on paisley prints in order to get her mind off perfect male pectorals. Zoe shrugged. "I don't get it."
Maggie heaved a sigh. "A spy for the Company, an agent for the CIA. You know, double O, licensed to kill. They're called moles. Don't you ever go to the movies?"
"The CIA," Zoe whispered, rubbing her name tag. "I heard he was a fashion model."
"Oh, please," Katie said, laughing at her friends' wild imaginations. "I don't know which one of you is worse. Maggie, how can you make such a ridiculous remark?"
"I'm only telling you what I heard, sugar. Lee Henry told me that Dee said the man was very reluctant to discuss himself, and when she asked him what he used to do up in New Jersey, he wouldn't exactly say."
"That's all?" Katie questioned, trying to suppress a grin. "Lee Henry didn't see him talking into the secret phone in the heel of his shoe?"
Zoe muttered to herself, "So that's how he came by that gunshot wound."
"Gunshot wound!" Maggie bolted out of her chair to lean across the table and over her friend.
"Oh, damn! Don't tell anyone I told you!"
"A gunshot wound. What do you have to say about that, Katie Quaid?"
Katie wouldn't have shown her surprise at the news for anything. She kept her eyes glued to the flowered paper in front of her. "He was probably shot by some flighty woman who heard a wild rumor he was a secret agent. Maybe he had a hunting accident. Maybe he's a retired police officer. Maybe—"
"—we should find out for ourselves," Maggie interrupted smoothly, lifting the binoculars to her eyes again. She zoomed them in on Katie. "I'm leaning toward the story that he's in the federal witness-protection program. But in the interest of truth, I vote Katie our official ambassador and spy."
"I second," Zoe said, nodding enthusiastically as she caught Maggie's wink.
"Nominations cease. Go check him out, Katie."
"Don't be absurd." She shot Maggie a look from beneath lowered brows. They had been friends since their freshman year at William and Mary. Katie had no doubt that Maggie had caught her automatic response to Nick Leone and had decided to exercise her self-appointed role of fairy godmother.
"What? Are you scared? Do you secretly believe he's a double agent?" Maggie asked, pushing all the right buttons inside Katie without the slightest compunction. "I dare you to go find out."
Nick was happily lost in thought as he washed the dirt off the panes of the bay window. Wash, rinse, polish dry, move a little to the tunes from his favorite musical group—what a great life. Not many guys _thirty-_two years old were able to say they were living out one of their life dreams. He hadn't made it big on Broadway—that had been his first dream—but he'd given it his best shot. His second dream had been to start his own restaurant in a small, quiet town. He'd signed the papers on the beginning of that dream two days ago.
A lot of people thought he was nuts. His friends back home had been sure he would be massacred by wild men if he moved to Virginia. They had seemed genuinely uncertain as to whether Briarwood, Virginia, had as yet benefited from electricity and indoor plumbing.
As far as Nick was concerned, Briarwood had it all over any big city. He had been born and raised in Atlantic City and had spent much of his adult life in New York City, but in his heart he always had thought of himself as a small-town boy. The performer in him had yearned for bright lights, but offstage he had found cities could be lonely, unfriendly, dangerous—he rubbed his healing shoulder—places. His friends could have the dirty gray streets, the crime, the garbage-haulers' strikes, the pollution. He would take a nice quiet life in a town where people didn't need five locks on their front door.
Nick had seen for himself how friendly the people in the small town were. Everyone said hello to him on the street. They were talkative—slow talkers compared to those he was used to, but they liked to talk. You couldn't buy a candy bar without having to tell at least one person your whole life story.
A frown creased his brow at this thought. He had evaded their questions as politely as he could. Nick had a feeling the people in the conservative rural community wouldn't understand if he were to tell them what he'd spent the last two years doing.
"Pardon me," Katie said, stepping through the open front door. He went on polishing the glass in the bay window, his hips swaying seductively. The blue foam pads of his headphones pressed against his ears. They were very nicely shaped ears, she noticed. Her stomach tightened. Immediately she began to scold herself. She wasn't at all a nervous person, and she simply did not ever allow herself to go gaga over a man. There was no point in it. Not even if the small of his back was the sexiest thing she'd ever seen wrapped in a skintight T-shirt.
Squelching her jitters, Katie crossed to where he was standing and pulled the plug on his music, disconnecting the cord that ran from the headphones into the tiny cassette player that was hooked onto his waistband.
Suddenly Nick's head swung in her direction. She took an involuntary step back as she felt the impact of his gaze. His eyes were brown—a rich coffee brown that darkened to chocolate as he looked at her. His grin was engaging, endearingly crooked, giving a boyish quality to his classic good looks. He pulled the headphones down around his neck.
"Are you the welcome-wagon lady?" he asked, his gaze shifting to the bouquet of spring flowers in a china vase she clutched before her. Someone should have captured her on canvas, he thought. Standing there in a full flowing skirt and a soft pink sweater with a lace collar, she was as delicate and feminine as the subject of a Renoir painting. Her hair was dark ashen brown, and she wore it pulled back from the fine bones of her face except for a soft fringe of bangs that angled across her forehead. She watched him with huge eyes that were a deep, pure gray.
Before her wits could scatter too far, Katie reined in her composure. She gave him a polite smile. "No," she said a little breathlessly. "My name is Kathryn Quaid. My store—Primarily Paper—is across the street from your building."
"Lucky me." Nick grinned, hoping to elicit a warm response from her. It didn't quite happen. The very corners of her mouth quirked upward, and he caught the hint of a sparkle in her eyes as she glanced away almost shyly.
"My partner and I want to welcome you to Briarwood, Mr.—?" She offered him the bouquet.
"Leone. Nick Leone," he said, accepting the flowers. He set the vase on the ledge of the bay window and reached out a hand to his new neighbor. "I'm very pleased to meet you, Miss Quaid."
Katie bit the inside of her lip as she grasped his hand. It was warm and firm. A sensation of heat suffused her as his hand engulfed hers. He hadn't looked quite so large from across the street. No less than a foot taller than she was, he loomed over her. He was nearly as tall as her brother, Rylan.
I don't want to be attracted to him, she told herself, trying to be practical. She was perfectly content going out with Michael Severs, a civil engineer, on an occasional date. They were good friends. Michael was nice and undemanding, while simply looking at this man had her rattled.
". . . what kind of store?" Nick's voice broke into her wandering train of thought.
"Wallpaper and custom draperies," she said, cursing herself up and down. She was certain her lack of composure wasn't showing outwardly to any degree; she had too many years of practice at projecting a controlled image. But inside she was off balance, and she didn't like it. With a strength of will that belied her size she calmly proceeded with the conversation. "My partner and I are interior-design consultants."
"No kidding? That's great," Nick said, deciding to seize the opportunity as he accepted the business card she had plucked out of her skirt pocket. He studied the thing as if it didn't look like Chinese doodling to him. The fine script of the company name was a blur without his reading glasses, but there was no way he was putting them on now. "You're exactly the person I need."
Katie refrained from saying he was more in need of an optometrist than a decorator. He was holding her card upside down.
"Please, Mr. Leone, don't feel as if you're under any obligation to make use of our services simply because we brought you a bouquet." She began inching toward the door. "I'd better be getting back. Again, welcome to Briarwood—"
From the Paperback edition.