To find out who was claiming ownership of the only place he’d ever called home, Harry Maxwell knew he’d have to practice a little deception. So the wounded lieutenant changed his name a little. Altered a few facts. All for a good causeget in, get the truth, get out.
Until he met the Bramblebery House heir presumptive. Anna Galvez was captivating in ways he hadn’t even known existed. Still, after spending time with her, he wanted the house more than ever.
But only if she was in it
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Lights were on in her atticlights that definitely hadn't been gleaming when she left that morning.
A cold early March breeze blew off the ocean, sending dead leaves skittering across the road in front of her headlights and twisting and yanking the boughs of the Sitka spruce around Brambleberry House as Anna Galvez pulled into the driveway, behind an unfamiliar vehicle.
The lights and the vehicle could only mean one thing.
Her new tenant had arrived.
She sighed. She so didn't need this right now. Exhaustion pressed on her shoulders with heavy, punishing hands and she wanted nothing but to slip into a warm bath with a mind-numbing glass of wine.
The day had been beyond ghastly. She could imagine few activities more miserable than spending an entire humiliating day sitting in a Lincoln City courtroom being confronted with the unavoidable evidence of her own stupidity.
And now, despite her battered ego and fragile psyche, she had to go inside and make nice with a stranger who wouldn't even be renting the top floor of Brambleberry House if not for the tangled financial mess that stupidity had caused.
In the backseat, Conan gave one sharp bark, though she didn't know if he was anxious at the unfamiliar vehicle parked in front of them or just needed to answer the call of nature.
Since they had been driving for an hour, she opted for the latter and hurried out into the wet cold to open the sliding door of her minivan. The big shaggy beast she inherited nearly a year earlier, along with the rambling Victorian in front of her, leaped out in one powerful lunge.
Tail wagging, he rushed immediately to sniff around the SUV that dared to enter his territory without his permission. He lifted his leg before she could kick-start her brain and Anna winced.
"Conan, get away from there," she called sternly. He sent her a quizzical look, then gave a disgruntled snort before lowering his leg and heading to one of his favorite trees instead.
She really hoped her new tenant didn't mind dogs.
She hated the idea of a stranger in Sage's apartment. If she had her way, she would keep it empty, even though Sage and her husband and stepdaughter had their own beach house now a half mile down the shore for their frequent visits to Cannon Beach from their San Francisco home.
But after Anna vehemently refused to accept financial help from Sage and Eben, Sage had insisted she at least rent out her apartment to help defray costs.
The two of them were co-owners of the house and Sage's opinion certainly had weight. Besides, Anna was nothing if not practical. The apartment was empty, she had a fierce, unavoidable need for income and she knew many people were willing to pay a premium for furnished beachfront living space.
Army Lieutenant Harry Maxwell among them.
She gazed up at the lights cutting through the twilight from the third-story window. She was going to have to go up there and welcome him to Brambleberry House. No question. It was the right thing to do, even if the long, exhausting day in that courtroom had left her as bedraggled and wrung-out as one of Conan's tennis balls after a good hard game of fetch on the beach.
She might want to do nothing but climb into her bed, yank the covers over her head and weep for her shattered dreams and her own stupidity, but she had to put all that aside for now and do the polite thing.
She grabbed her laptop case from the passenger seat just as her cell phone rang. Anna swallowed a groan when she saw the name and phone number.
She wasn't sure what was worsemaking nice with a stranger now living in her home or being forced to carry on a conversation with the bubbly real estate agent who had facilitated the whole deal.
With grim resignation, she opened her phone and connected the call. "Anna Galvez speaking."
"Anna! It's Tracy Harder!"
Even if she hadn't already noted Tracy's information on the caller ID, she would have recognized the other woman's perky enthusiasm in an instant.
"So have you seen him yet?" Tracy asked.
Anna screwed her eyes shut as if she could just make those upstairs lightsand Tracydisappear. "I just pulled up to the house, Tracy. I've been in Lincoln City all day. I haven't had a chance to even walk into the house yet. So, no, I haven't seen him. I'm planning to go up to say hello in a moment."
"You are the luckiest woman in town right now. I mean it! You have absolutely no idea."
"You're right," she said, unable to keep the dry note out of her voice. "But I'm willing to bet you're about to enlighten me."
Tracy gave a low, sultry laugh. "I know we didn't mention a finder's fee on top of my usual property management commission, but you just might want to kick a bonus over my way after you meet him. The man is gorgeous. Yum, that's all I have to say. Yum!"
Just what she needed. A player who would probably be entertaining a long string of model types at all hours of the day and night. "As long as he pays his rent on time and only needs a two-month lease, I don't care what he looks like."
"That's because you haven't met him yet. How much longer will Julia Blair and her kids be renting the second floor? I might be interested when she moves outI'd love to be beneath that man."
Anna couldn't help her groan, both at Tracy's not so subtle sexual innuendo and at the idea of the real estate agent's wild boys living in the second-floor apartment.
"Julia and Will aren't getting married until June," she answered. With any luck, Lieutenant Maxwell would be long gone by then, leaving behind only his nice fat rental check.
"When she moves out, let me know. That might be a good time for us to talk about a more long-term solution to Brambleberry House. You can't keep taking in temporary renters to pay for the repairs on it. The place is a black hole that will suck away every penny you have."
Didn't she just know it? Anna let herself in the front door, noting that the paint on the porch was starting to crack and peel.
Replacing the furnace the month before had taken just about her last dime of discretionary incomenot that she had much of that, as she tried to shore up her faltering business amid scandal and chicanery. The house needed a new roof, which was going to cost more than buying a brand-new car.
"Now listen," Tracy went on in her ear as Anna opened the door to her apartment to set down her laptop, Conan on her heels. "I told you I've got several fabulous potential buyers on the hook with both the cash and the interest in a great old Victorian on the coast. You need to think about it, Anna. I mean it."
"I guess I didn't realize there was such a market for big black holes these day."
Tracy laughed. "When you have enough money, no hole is too big or too black."
And when you had none, even a pothole could feel like an insurmountable obstacle. Anna swallowed another sigh. "I appreciate the offer and your help finding a tenant for the attic apartment."
"But you're not interested in selling." Tracy's voice was resigned.
"Not right now."
"You're as stubborn as Abigail was. I'm telling you, Anna, you're sitting on a gold mine."
"I know." She sat down in Abigail's favorite armchair. "But for now it's my gold mine. Mine and Sage's."
"All right, but when you change your mind, you know where to find me. And I want you to call me after you meet our Lieutenant Maxwell."
As far as Anna was concerned, the man wasn't our anything. Tracy was welcome to him. "Thanks again for dealing with the details of the rental agreement," she answered. "I'll let you know how things are going in a week or two. 'Bye, Tracy."
She ended the call and set down her phone, then leaned her head back against the floral upholstery. Conan sat beside her and, like the master manipulator he was, nudged one of her hands off the armrest and onto his head.
She scratched him between the ears for a moment, trying to let the peace she usually found at Brambleberry House seep through her. After a few momentsjust when her eyelids were drifting closedConan slid away from her and moved to the door. He planted his haunches there and watched her expectantly.
"Yeah, I know, already," she grumbled. "I plan to go upstairs and say hello. I don't need you nagging me about it. I just need a minute to work up to it."
Still, she climbed out of the chair. After a check in the mirror above the hall tree, she did a quick repair of her French twist, grabbed Conan's leash off the hook by the door and put it on him, then headed up the stairs to meet her new neighbor.
As she trailed her fingers on the railing worn smooth by a hundred years of Dandridge hands, she reviewed what she knew about the man. Though Tracy had handled the details, Anna knew Lieutenant Maxwell had impeccable references.
He was an army helicopter pilot who had just served two tours of duty in the Middle East. He was currently on medical leave, recovering from injuries sustained in a hard landing in the midst of enemy fire.
He was single, thirty-five years old and willing to pay a great deal of money to rent her attic for only a few months.
When Tracy told her his background, Anna wanted to reduce the rent. She was squeamish about charging full price to an injured war veteran, but he refused to accept any concession.
Fine, she thought now as she paused on the third-floor landing. But she could still be gracious and welcoming to the man and hope that he would find the healing and peace at Brambleberry House that she usually did.
Outside his door, the scent of freesia curled around her and she closed her eyes for a moment, missing Abigail with a fierce ache. Conan didn't let her wallow in it. He gave a sharp bark and started wagging his tail furiously.
With a sigh, Anna knocked on the door. A moment later, it swung open and she forgot all about being kind and welcoming.
Tracy had told the God's-honest truth.
Lieutenant Maxwell was tallperhaps six-twowith hair the color of aged whiskey and chiseled, lean features. He wore a burgundy cotton shirt and faded jeans with a small, fraying hole below the knee.
He had a small scar on the outside of his right eye that only made him look vaguely piratelike and his right arm was encased in a dark blue sling.
The man was definitely gorgeous, but there was something more to it. If she had passed him on the street, she would have called him compelling, especially his eyes. She gazed into their hazel depths and felt an odd tug of recognition. For a brief, flickering moment, he seemed so familiar she wondered if they had met before.
The question registered for all of maybe two seconds before Conan suddenly began barking an enthusiastic welcome and lunged for Lieutenant Maxwell as if they were lifelong friends.
"Conan, sit," she ordered, disconcerted by her dog's reaction. He wasn't one for jumping all over strangers. Despite his moods and his uncanny intelligence, Conan was usually well-mannered, but just now he strained against the leash as if he wanted to knock her new tenant to the ground and lick his face off.
"Sit!" she ordered, more sternly this time. Conan gave her a disgruntled look, then plopped his butt to the floor.
"Good dog. I'm sorry," she said, feeling flustered. "Hi. You must be Harry Maxwell, right?"
Something flashed in his eyes, too quickly for her to identify it, but she thought he looked uncomfortable.
After a moment, he nodded. "Yeah."
With that single syllable, he sounded as cold and remote as Tillamook Rock. She blinked, not quite sure how to respond. He obviously didn't want to be best friends here, he was only renting her empty apartment, she reminded herself.
Despite Conan's sudden ardor, it was probably better all the way around if they all maintained a careful distance during the duration of Harry Maxwell's rental agreement. He was only here for a short time and then he would probably head back to active duty. No need for unnecessarily messy entanglements.
Taking her cue from his own reaction, she forced her voice to be brisk, professional. "I'm Anna Galvez, one of the owners of Brambleberry House. This is my dog, Conan. I don't know what's come over him. I'm sorry. He's not usually so ardent with strangers. Every once in a while he greets somebody like an old friend. I can't explain it but I'm very sorry if his exuberance makes you uncomfortable."
He unbent enough to reach down and scratch the dog's chin, which had the beast's tail thumping against the floor in ecstasy.
"Conan? Like the barbarian?" he asked.
"Actually, like the talk-show host. It's a long story."
One he obviously wasn't interested in hearing about, if the remote expression on his handsome features was any indication.
She tugged Conan's leash when he tried to wrap himself around the soldier's legs and after another disgruntled moment, the dog condescended enough to sit beside her. "I'm sorry I wasn't here when you arrived so I could show you around. I wasn't expecting you for a day or two."
"My plans changed. I was released from the military hospital a few days earlier than I expected. Since I didn't have anywhere else to go right now, I decided to head out here."
How sad, she thought. Didn't he have any family eager to give him a hero's welcome?
"Since I was early, I planned to get a hotel room for a couple days," he added, "but the property management company said the apartment was ready and available."
"It is. Everything's fine. I'm just sorry I wasn't here."
"The real estate agent handled everything."
Not everything Tracy probably wanted to handle, Anna mused, then was slightly ashamed of herself for the base thought.
This whole situation felt so awkward, so out of her comfort zone.
"You were able to find everything you needed?" she asked. "Towels, sheets, whatever?"
He shrugged. "So far."
"The kitchen is fully stocked with cookware and so forth but if you can't find something, let me know."
"I'll do that."
Despite his terse responses, Anna was disconcerted by her awareness of him. He was so big, so overwhelmingly male. She would be glad when the few months were up, though apparently Conan was infatuated with the man.
She had a sudden fierce wish that Tracy had found a nice older lady to rent the attic apartment to, but somehow she doubted too many older ladies were interested in climbing forty steps to get to their apartment.
Thinking of the steps reminded her of his injury and she nodded toward the sling on his shoulder.
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