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"I'm in so much trouble."
Ben McKnight sat in the twilight shadows on the rear second-story deck of Blackwater Lake Lodge. The angry blonde who'd just stomped up the wooden stairs from the lush grounds below obviously was too caught up in her snit to notice him. She continued to mumble to herself as she paced back and forth in front of the redwood railing.
"Is it me?" she grumbled. "Do I attract trouble like black pants pick up pet hair? Or lint? Or fuzzballs? What is my problem?"
Then she lashed out with her foot and connected with one of the sturdy, upright posts anchoring the railing. It was a solid kick and after a few seconds the message traveled to her brain. When it got there, she blurted out, "Damn it! Now my foot's broken."
Beautiful, angry women who talked to themselves were not in Ben's wheelhouse, but broken bones he knew something about. He stood and walked out of the shadows into the circle of light cast by the property's perimeter lights. "Maybe I can help."
She turned and gasped. "Good Lord, you startled me. Where the heck did you come from? I didn't know anyone was here."
"I figured that. The talking to yourself sort of gave it away."
"That happens when you don't want to talk to anyone else." She limped closer. "Who are you?"
"Ben McKnight. Doctor McKnight. I'm an orthopedic specialist at Mercy Medical Clinic."
"Call me crazy, but I didn't think it was in a doctor's job description to scare a person to death."
"True. Do no harm is the cornerstone of the Hippo-cratic Oath."
She pressed a hand to her chest and took a deep breath. "Then your bedside manner could use a little work, Doctor."
"Sorry." He watched her put weight on the foot and wince. "For the record, I don't recommend kicking things as a communication technique. Especially when you're wearing four-inch heels. Next time I'd use my words if I were you."
"What am I? Five?" The tone was full of irritation that seemed completely self-directed. "Okay. That was childish."
"Would you like me to take a look at the foot?"
"No. I'm fine. Completely over it. I'm calm and tranquil."
"I could tell," he said dryly. "All the pacing, stomping and trash talk were a clear indication that you're totally in your Zen place."
"I didn't mean for anyone to see that. It's been a bad day and when that happens, I come up here to decompress. Pretty much every night. My serenity spot isn't normally occupied."
"Since I'm trespassing, the least I can do is listen." It would give him a chance to look at her mouth.
"Thanks, but I really have nothing to say."
"All evidence to the contrary. Look, whether or not you feel like talking, you should probably sit for a few minutes and elevate the foot. There could be swelling."
"Did you learn that in medical school?" She limped toward the two chairs nestled in the shadow of the lodge.
Ben put his hand under her elbow, mostly to help take some of her weight, but partly to touch her. "Actually, that's basic first aid. Every coach of every team I've been on since I was five has preached ice and heat for an injury."
"How many teams have you been on?"
She lowered herself into the Adirondack chair and leaned back with a sigh. There was a matching natural-wood ottoman and he cupped her ankle in his hand, then lifted it, resting it on the flat surface before slipping off her high-heeled shoe.
"A lot." Ben sat on the ottoman beside hers.
"What sports did you play?"
"Soccer. Basketball. Football. My senior year I was on the Blackwater Lake High School team that won state about fifteen years ago."
"So you're a local boy?"
"How come I haven't seen you around?" she asked. "I just got back."
"Do you have family in Blackwater Lake?"
"Father. Older brother, younger sister."
"That qualifies." She thought for a moment. "So, I can't help being curious. You have family close by, which makes me wonder why you're sitting in the shadows on the deck all by yourself. Did you have a dinner date here at the lodge and she left in a huff? Are you a guest here at the hotel? Or just stalking someone who is a guest?"
He laughed. "I'm a guest. Staying here while I'm having a house built."
"Too old to live at home?"
"Something like that," he said.
The clouds drifted away from the moon and the deck was bathed in silver light, giving Ben a better view of the blonde. She was prettier than he'd thought, with a small face and deep dimples. Her eyes looked blue, although he couldn't tell the shade, and tilted up slightly at the corners. Her hair was straight, and cut in layers that framed her face and fell past her shoulders. Her arm through the light sweater she wore had felt delicate and small-boned. Although the heels gave the impression of height, she barely came up to his shoulder, which made her not so tall.
Suddenly he wondered who he was talking to. He didn't even know her name. On top of that, she was the one asking all the questions. "Are you sure you don't want to tell me why you're so ticked off?"
"There's nothing to say."
"For starters you could define the mess you're in."
"I was hoping you didn't hear that," she said.
"Nope. Sorry. Every word. And let me quote here, 'I'm in so much trouble.' Should I be afraid to get too close? Are you at the top of an assassination list? On the run from law enforcement? A CIA spy doing covert surveillance?"
"Right, because so much happens in Blackwater Lake that the government needs to surveil." There was a suggestion of sarcasm and the barest hint of mockery in her tone.
"You don't like it here?"
She met his gaze. "Let's just say it's not New York or
"So define trouble. You could be pregnant," he pointed out.
"You have quite the imagination." Her lips turned up at the corners in a brief show of amusement. She had an awfully spectacular mouth when it wasn't all pinched and tight. "And that would be a miracle since I haven't had sex in"
"Yes?" He looked at her and waited.
"That's really none of your business."
"Maybe not, but now I'm awfully curious."
"Be that as it may," she said, "you're a stranger and I'm not in the habit of sharing personal information with someone I've barely met, Dr. McKnight."
"At least you know my name. That's more than I can say about you."
"Camille Halliday." She looked at him expectantly, as if waiting for recognition. Actually more like bracing for it, as if the information would be unpleasant.
The name did sound familiar, but he couldn't place it. "It's nice to meet you, Miss Halliday."
"Likewise, Dr. McKnight. Now, I really should be going." She slid the punting foot off the ottoman and gingerly tested it on the deck.
"How does it feel?"
"Several of my toes hurt," she admitted. "Can you walk on it?"
"I have to. Work to do."
"At the hotel?"
"In what capacity?" he wanted to know. "I run the place."
That's when her last name clicked. Her family had made a fortune in the hotel and hospitality industry. "You're one of the Halliday hotel chain family."
"Among other things," she said a little mysteriously. After sliding her other leg off the ottoman, she moved forward in the chair and tested more weight on the foot. Drawing in a breath she said, "That smarts a little."
Ben realized he didn't want her to leave yet. "I'd be happy to look at it for you. Sometimes taping a couple toes together helps."
"Thanks for the tip. Taping a toe I can handle." Her words implied there was a whole lot more she couldn't handle.
"Okay. But if you don't want me to examine it, at least sit for a few more minutes and take the pressure off."
She sighed, then nodded. "I can sit, but that won't relieve any pressure."
"You're not talking about the foot now, are you?"
"No." She caught the corner of her bottom lip between her top teeth as she stared out over the back grass and the thick evergreen trees beyond.
"What's wrong? Might help to get it off your chest."
"It might, but I can't. One of the first things I learned getting a master's degree in hotel management was never unburden yourself to a guest."
"I'm not really a guest," he said. "It's more like a lease until my house is ready."
"Why didn't you do that?" she asked. "Rent a place, I mean?"
"Oh, so you get to ask questions but I don't? How about a quid pro quo?" He met her gaze. "You tell me about your trouble and I'll spill about my living arrangements. What can it hurt?"
She stared at him for several moments, then nodded. "It's pretty common knowledge that this property in the hotel chain isn't doing well financially. My father gave me six months to stop Blackwater Lake Lodge from hemorrhaging money or he'll close it down."
"I see. So you have half a year."
"Not anymore." She blew out a breath. "I've been here two and a half months. The employees are intractable and do their own thing. Personnel turnover is too high and we bleed money in training until a new hire is competent enough to pull their own weight. I think someone is skimming money from the books, but I'm so busy putting out fires that I can't get to the bottom of it. And I'm running out of time."
"Do you have a personal attachment to this property?"
"I'd never seen it until January." She sighed. "But my father is testing me. If I can pull this off, I'll get a choice assignment somewhere that's not in the wilderness of Montana."
"Ah." Making the lodge successful was her ticket out of here.
Ben could understand. Once upon a time he couldn't wait to shake the dirt, mud and mountain air off, but he didn't feel that way now.
"So, why are you back here?" she asked.
"To build a house and put down roots. Blackwater Lake is a great place to live." When she stood, he did, too. "Can't see renting something, settling in, then moving again. I'm focused on expanding Mercy Medical Clinic and providing quality health care for the town and the tourists who come here to visit."
"It's a really noble goal." She touched his arm to steady herself while slipping her shoe back on, then limped toward the stairs. At the top she turned and said, "Good luck with that, Doctor. Now I really have to say good-night."
After she disappeared from sight, he heard her uneven step as she walked down the stairs.
Ben found her intriguing and was sorry she'd had to leave. Still, the quid pro quo had put everything in perspective. He was staying and her objective was to get out of town as fast as possible.
That was too bad.
Until last night Camille hadn't known Ben McKnight existed and now she wondered how he could have been staying in her hotel without her being aware. He was tall, funny and as good-looking as any man she'd met in L.A. or New York, and she'd met a lot of men, according to every rag sheet tabloid paper on the planet.
Now Dr. Ben McKnight was having dinner in the Black-water Lake Lodge restaurant where she was filling in as hostess. The last one had quit and it was hard to run a five-star establishment without a greeter and seater. Hopefully the interviews she had tomorrow would be productive. Fortunately it was Sunday and not busy. At least it hadn't been until Doctor Do-Good had arrived and asked for a table by himself.
Since then at least four women, two from the lodge staff and two civilians, had come in, sat with him, written something down on a small piece of paper, then handed it to him. Since they were small scraps of paper, she was pretty sure the information wasn't their medical history.
At the moment he was sitting by himself and the place was practically empty except for a couple lingering over coffee and dessert at their table near the stone fireplace.
Cam just couldn't stop herself. She strolled over to where she'd seated him a little while ago and smiled. "Did you enjoy your dinner, Doctor?"
Ben nodded. "I did. The food here is excellent."
"Amanda will appreciate hearing that. She's the chef." And someone Cam had coaxed here from New York. The plan was to prove herself in six months and the two of them would get their pick of prime assignments in one of the Halliday Hospitality Corporation's other properties. "Can I get you something from the bar?"
"No, thanks. I'm on call for the clinic."
"Are you expecting broken bones tonight?"
"Mercy Medical Clinic docs rotate the responsibility of being available to triage emergency calls."
"We take information and decide if the patient on the phone needs to see a doctor and which one could best take care of them. If it's an orthopedic problem, I'm their guy. Otherwise Adam Stone, the family practice specialist, is up."
Cam was "up" all day and night here at the lodge. It wasn't the same as life and death, but she had to be available to deal with any crisis situation. Her performance was being evaluated, and Dean Halliday, her father and president of Halliday Hospitality, didn't grade on a curve.
"Maybe dessert and coffee?" she suggested. "I happen to know the chef makes the best seven-layer chocolate cake in Montana."
"Is that a fact?" Dark brown eyes teased and taunted.
"Slight exaggeration. But if it's not the best you've tasted in Blackwater Lake, this meal is on the house."
"Can you afford to take the chance, what with losing money and all? Or," he added, "I could lie just to get the meal comped."
It wouldn't be the first time a man had lied and taken advantage of her, but she'd been younger then. Naive. Vulnerable. All of that was a pretty way of saying she'd been stupid and her judgment about men sucked. But she was going to prove herself here in this little backwater town or die trying.
She gave him her best smile, the one that showed off her dimples. "But if you don't tell the truth, we'll both know."
"You're on." He laughed and showed off his own considerable charms.
His teeth were very white and practically perfect. The pretty people she'd once counted as her closest friends all had cosmetic work to make their smiles perfect, but Ben's looked like nothing more than good genes. There were streaks in his brown hair that came from the sun and not a bottle at the salon and the bump in his nose kept him from being too pretty. He had a natural ruggedness about him that had nothing to do with acting technique and everything to do with being a manly man. Again with the good genes.
Cam had promised herself after a teenage run-in with police that she'd never again do anything she'd regret. Last night she broke that pledge. She regretted not letting Dr. Ben McKnight examine her foot. Not because she needed anything more medical than an aspirin and a bag of frozen peas for swelling, but simply to feel his big, competent hands on her leg.