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Oh, my God. Is he coming here?
Before Harper Summerville glanced out her front window to see Max Bradshaw striding up the sun-dappled trail between the evergreens on the inn grounds, she'd been enjoying her day off. It was fun puttering around the little playhouse-size one-room-plus-loft cottage that was part of her employee compensation as the summer activities coordinator for The Brothers Inn. She loved, loved, loved the glimpses she could catch from up here of the fjord that was Hood Canal and the soaring Olympic mountains beyond it. The spectacular scenery was what brought people to the little resort town of Razor Bay, Washington.
Seeing a huge, unsmiling man bearing down on her, however, made that enjoyment falter. And her heartbeat inexplicably pick up its pace.
He looked different than he had during their previous two brief meetings. Plus, the first time she'd seen him, as well as on the handful of occasions when she'd glimpsed him around town, he'd been wearing his deputy sheriff's uniform. But there was just no mistaking a guy that big, that hard-looking, that intense and contained for anyone else.
She blinked as he suddenly left the path and disappeared from view, then shook her head at herself. Oh, good show, Harper. Conceited much? Because, despite her cottage being the only one up here before the trail wound into the woods, it apparently hadn't been Bradshaw's destination. Breathing a sigh of reliefright?she plugged in her earbuds and turned back to the couple of boxes she'd put off unpacking.
Within moments, she'd revived her earlier enjoyment. She loved seeing new places, loved meeting new people and diving into a new job that was never quite like any other. Since she'd structured her life to do exactly that, she was generally a happy woman.
Harper sang along with Maroon 5 as they played through her earbuds. As she efficiently unpacked the boxes of odds and ends her mother had insisted on sending her, she swiveled her hips and bopped in time to the music.
Thoughts of her mother's hopes and expectations for her, however, elicited a sigh in the midst of crooning along with Adam Levine. Gina Summerville-Hardin refused to believe that Harper could live very contentedly without a permanent base or a host of belongings, since making a home had been her way of coping with the constant moving from place to place that had been part and parcel of her husband's work. Neither Gina nor Harper's brother, Kai, had loved the adventure of seeing new countries and meeting new people the way Harper and her dad had.
Still, Harper had to admit that she adored the throw pillows and candles her mom had sent. They added a homey touch to her minuscule cabin. Admitting as much certainly didn't take away from how she chose to live and honor her dad's memory.
All the same, when the song ran its course, she thumbed through her playlist and pulled up her father's onetime theme song.
"'Papa was a rolling stone,'" she sang along with The Temptations as she focused on finding a place to put the other items her mother had sent, given that storage space was at a premium. "'Wherever he'"
Something warm brushed her elbow. Her heart climbing her throat like a monkey riding a rocket, she jerked her chin downward. She stared at the rawboned, big-knuckled masculine hand touching her.
And screamed the house down.
"Shit!" Max Bradshaw's voice exclaimed as she ripped the earbuds from her ears and whirled to face him.
He was in the midst of taking a long-legged step away from her. His big hands were up, palms out, as if she had a howitzer aimed at his heart.
"Ms. SummervilleHarperI'm sorry," he said in a low, rough voice. "I knocked several times and I heard you singing, so I knew you were here. But I shouldn't have let myself in." Slowly lowering his hands, he stuffed them into his shorts pockets and his massive shoulders hunched up. "I sure didn't mean to scare the shthat is, stuffing out of you."
Even through the embarrassment of knowing he'd seen her shaking her butt and singing off-key, it struck her that these were probably the most words she'd ever heard him string together at one time in her presence. Drawing in a deep breath and dropping the hands she'd clasped to her heart like an overwrought silent film heroine confronted by the mustache-twirling villain, she pulled herself together. "Yes, well, intention or not, Deputy Bradshaw"
"Max," he interjected.
"Max," she agreed, wishing she'd simply said that in the first place. After all, not only had they been introduced on the day she'd interviewed for her job at the inn but they'd attended the same barbecue just a couple weeks ago. "As I was saying"
Her already open front door banged against the living room wall, and they both whirled to stare at the man barreling through it. From the corner of her eye, Harper saw Max reach for his right hip, where his gun no doubt usually resided.
The stranger's forward momentum carried him across the threshold and into the small room, the screen door slapping closed behind him. As he left the glare of sunlight flooding the porch, he coalesced into a tall, gangly man in his mid-thirties.
Then he was blocked from view as Max stepped in front of her. She leaned to peer around him.
"Are you okay, miss?" the man demanded, glancing about wildly. She assumed his eyes had adjusted to the dimmer interior lighting, for it was obvious from the way they suddenly widened that he'd gotten his first good look at Max. His prominent Adam's apple rode the column of his throat as he swallowed audibly.
For good reason. Max was six-four if he was an inch and probably weighed in the vicinity of two-twenty.
Every ounce of it solid muscle.
But Harper had to give the resort guest credit. He was clearly outmatched, yet while he looked as though he'd give a bundle to go back out the way he'd come in, he instead moved closer and ordered firmly, "Step away from her, sir."
"Oh, for God sake," she heard Max mutter, and hysterical laughter bubbled up Harper's throat. She swallowed it down as she watched Max do as directed.
Then she looked at the resort guest. "I'm okay," she said soothingly. "It's really not what you must think." She ran him through her mental database. "You're Mr. Wells, right? I believe your wife is in my sunset yoga class."
"Sean Wells," he agreed, shedding some of the tension that caused him to all but vibrate.
"This is Deputy Bradshaw," she said. "I screamed because I had my earbuds in and he startled me."
Sean relaxed a bit more, but he shot Max a skeptical look as he took in the bigger man's khaki cargo shorts, black muscle shirt and the tribal tattoos that swirled down his right upper arm from the muscular ball of his shoulder to the bottom of his hard biceps. "You don't look like a deputy."
The dark-eyed gaze Max fixed on him froze the other man in place. "It's my day off," he said with "Just the facts, ma'am" directness.
Harper had no idea why she found that so damn titillating.
"I just came by to ask Ms. Summerville to dinner," he added, and shock whipped her head around.
She gaped at him. "You did?" Crap. Was that her voice cracking on the last word? She hardly ever lost her poise. But in her own defense, during their previous encounters she'd gotten the impression Max viewed her as a mental lightweight. She would have sworn, too, that she hadn't even registered on his Attraction-O-Meter.
"Yes." Dull color climbed his angular face. "That is, Jake sent me. Jenny's having a dinner party tonight and wants you to come." Glancing away, he leveled an are-you-still-here look on Sean Wells.
The man immediately mumbled an excuse and melted out the door.
"Thank you," Harper called after him, then quirked an eyebrow when the deputy turned back to her. "You sure know how to clear a room."
"Yeah." The shoulder with the tattoo lifted and dropped. "It's a talent of mine." He gave her a level look. "So, what do you want me to tell Jenny? You in or you out for tonight?"
"I'm in. What should I bring?"
"You're asking me? I'm the guy who usually shows up with a six-pack of beer."
She grinned at him. "I'll call Jenny."
He didn't smile backyet something in his expression lightened, which might have been his version of one. Hard to tell, since his deep voice contained its usual crispness when he said, "Good idea. I'll leave it to you to let her know you're coming, then. So." He gave her the terse nod she remembered from their earlier encounters. "Sorry about scaring you. I guess I'll see you tonight." He turned for the door.
"I guess you will," she murmured to his already retreating back. She trailed in his wake as far as the screen door and watched through it as he strode down the path. She didn't turn away until he disappeared around a bend.
Wow. Nothing, not even the photograph she'd seen of him in the dossier the Sunday's Child's investigator had sent her, could adequately describe the sheer impact of the man in the flesh.
Then a small smile curved up the corners of her lips, and she shook her head. "At least this time he didn't call me ma'am."
Max banged through the door to the upstairs room that his half brother, Jake, used as a workspace. Striding right up to the long desk where Jake sat, he stopped, slapped his hands down on its surface and leaned his weight on them. "She said yes. She'll come." He sternly ignored the way his heart rate continued to rev from those brief moments spent with Harper. "I still don't know why the hell you couldn't just invite her yourselfit's your fiancée's party."
"Like I told you, bro." Jake dragged his attention away from the computer monitor he'd been studying. "I've been home four lousy days, and they've got me on one of the tightest deadlines of my life."
"What's their big rush?" he demanded, all jazzed up and more than willing to take it out on his younger half brother. God knew that had been their mutual M.O. up until a few months ago. "Hell, you only lasted ten days of the three weeks you were supposed to be gone before you turned around and came home again. Shouldn't they have all kinds of extra time?" Pushing back, he folded his arms over his chest and gave Jake an assessing gaze. "For a guy who was in such a red-hot rush to get out of Razor Bay, you sure seem to have developed a taste for it."
"Yeah." Jake smiled. "You can blame Jenny and Austin for that."
"No fooling." Max's half brother had come back this spring to claim his newly orphaned, then-thirteen-year-old son Austin, whom he'd walked away from when he was just a teenager himself. His plan to haul the kid back to New York with him had hit the skids when he'd instead fallen head over heels in love not only with Austin but with the Inn's manager, Jenny Salazar, who had been a sister to his son in everything but blood.
Thinking about their relationship set off the "something's not adding up" instincts Max never ignored. "Why do you think Jenny decided on a dinner party when she knows your deadline?"
"Beats the hell outta me."
He found that hard to believe and simply fixed Jake in his best cop gaze.
And was tickled to see his half brother squirm.
"Okay," Jake said, giving the monitor a concentrated attention Max found suspicious, considering how rapidly he opened and closed the photo thumbnails, "I may not have stressed to her how short my deadline is."
"Seriously? Didn't stress or didn't mention it at all?"
"I might have forgotten to mention it." Jake essayed a negligent shrug, then gave up pretending to work. "Hey, if Jenny wants a party, then a party she gets." His smile was so fatuous Max was embarrassed for him.
"Okay. But getting back to your cut-short trip, what's National Explorer's hurry?"
"Unlike you, they never really expected it to take me the entire three weeks to do the job. And it was always understood I'd turn in the preliminary shots for them to choose from within a week of my return."
"So what you're saying is it isn't really the tightest deadline of your life."
Jake frowned up at him. "What the hell, Maxyou gonna break out the hose and bright lights next?"
"Hey, I'm just trying to get things to add up. Like, if you knew that seven-day deadline thing going in, why aren't you further along?"
"Uh, I might have spent most of it getting it on with Jenny."
"Jesus, do not tell me stuff like that!" Max involuntarily shuddered. "It makes me wanna scrub my brain with industrial-strength bleach to get the image out of my head." Until his half brother had come to town, he'd never once thought of Jenny as a sexual being.
Jake snorted. "Please. You're just jealous because you've got no women to roll around with."
Max's mind immediately went to the woman in the little cabin nestled just this side of the woods in the back acre of the resort. Harper. Of the beautiful creamy light brown skin. Of those big olive-green eyes and dark spiral curls. That smoky voice. He'd give his left nut to roll around
With a rough, impatient jerk of his head to shake her image out of it, he said, "Hey, I could get a woman just. .like
that!" He snapped his fingers under Jake's nose. Except he wasn't interested in any of the ones he could get. He was fascinated by Harper Summerville, and had been since he'd first clapped eyes on her when she'd shown up at Team Photo Day with Jenny.
He scowled at his half brother. "Next time find somebody else to run your errands. You're a dad, for God's sake. Why didn't you just order your kid to do it?"
"Would've if I could've, bro, but it's summer, he's fourteen and he's off in his boat somewhere with Nolan and Bailey, and bound to be gone all day. Besides" Jake shot him a sideways glance "didn't I carve some precious time outta my schedule to make coffee for you?"
"Hey, I showed you my work. Shared the genius of my very efficiently taken-in-ten-days photographs with you. I don't do that for just anyone, you know."
"And it was real special." He deliberately made his tone sardonic, but the truth was, getting to see his half brother's talent in a behind-the-scenes way
well, it really had been a treat. It wasn't every day a guy got to see hundreds of freshly downloaded photos taken in various locations throughout Africa by a well-known National Explorer magazine photographer.
He walked over to the open window of The Sand Dollar, the luxury cabin Jake had been renting on The Brothers Inn grounds since he'd come to town, and faked an interest in the eagle flying through the compound with a seagull and several crows hot on its tail. Watched as the summer breeze sent the heavy boughs to swaying in the evergreens that dotted the grounds.
Then he shoved his hands deep into his pockets and looked over his shoulder at his half brother.