Eve Harmon has always enjoyed Christmas, but this year it reminds her of everything she doesn't have. Almost all her friends are married now, and that's what Eve wants, too. Love. A husband and kids of her own. But the B and B she manages, and even Whiskey Creek, the small Gold Country town where she was born and raised, suddenly seem confining.
Eve's worried that her future will simply be a reflection of her past. There's no one in the area she could even imagine as a husbanduntil a handsome stranger comes to town. Eve's definitely attracted to him, and he seems to have the same reaction to her. But his darkly mysterious past could ruin Eve's happily ever afterjust when it finally seems within reach. And just when she's counting on the best Christmas of her life!
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There was a naked man in her bed.
Eve Harmon's stomach tensed, and her heart skipped a beatbut she was pretty sure she'd invited him. From the way their clothes were strewn carelessly around the room, it was obvious that, not long ago, she'd been happy to have him with her.
She nearly groaned as her eyes swept over him. What had she done? She didn't have a boyfriend and she never slept around. She hadn't been with anyone since Ted Dixonan old friend who had briefly turned into more a year ago. And before him, it had been much longer. Most people, at least those younger than her parents, would consider her extended periods of celibacy rather pathetic for a woman her age. But she lived in a small town, cared about her reputation and had been holding out for the kind of love that came with a white picket fence.
She just hadn't found the right guy, and she was beginning to think maybe she never would. The odds weren't in her favor. Now that most of her friends were married, she didn't get out all that often.
But she had a lot to be grateful for in spite of her dismal love life, she quickly reminded herself. Although she'd never been the type who wanted work to become her sole focus in life, she liked her job. She ran Little Mary's, a B and B in a converted Victorian owned by her retired parents. They lived in the house a hundred yards in front of her own small bungalowwhen they weren't traveling in their RV like they were at the moment. Thanks to them, and the quaint, bucolic area where she'd been raised, her life had always been pleasant and safeand predictable. Absolutely predictable. Until now.
God, she hadn't even slept with someone she knew. And since there were only about two thousand people in Whiskey Creek, it was hard to find someone she didn't.
Shifting carefully so she wouldn't wake the man lying next to hershe needed to regain her bearings before confronting himshe tried to get a look at his face, but a thunderous headache made it difficult to sit up. That headache also explained how she'd ended up in this predicament. Last night she'd made the mistake of going out to celebrate her thirty-fifth birthday even though her friends weren't available until tonight, and she'd drunk too much. She'd been determined to do something wild and fun and completely out of character before reaching such a significant age, the age at which some doctors advised against getting pregnant.
Now she was paying the price for her out-of-control evening.
Had they even used birth control?
Briefly squeezing her eyes shut, she sent up a silent prayer that she'd had the presence of mind for that at least. It would be entirely too ironic for someone like hersomeone so cautiousto get pregnant because of a one-night stand.
What have you done? And what should she do now? Should she wake him? What would she say when he was looking back at her? She'd never been in this situation before. But she couldn't let him sleep much longer. She needed to get rid of him so she could shower for work.
Thank goodness her parents had had engine trouble and hadn't made it home from her brother's house yet. She'd lamented that yesterday, when she'd been bored and lonely while setting up her little Christmas tree. Today she was glad.
Moving slowly to compensate for her hangover, she managed to prop herself against the headboard and, once there, frowned at her bedmate.
Who the heck was he?
She had no idea, but she was relieved to see that he was no bum off the street. He wasn't even one of those "he looked a lot more attractive last night" kind of pickups everyone joked about. This guy was so far above average that she began to wonder why he wasn't already taken. Heaven forbid that was the case! She didn't see a ring on his left hand, which rested on the pillow above his head. But he had to have some story. If he looked this good sleep-tousled, she could only imagine what he'd be like once he had a chance to clean up.
It was his bone structure, she decided. Those pronounced cheekbones. The narrow bridge across his nicely shaped nose. The distinct ridge of his upper eye sockets. He also had a strong chin and a manly jaw, which certainly didn't detract.
So maybe she couldn't point to just one or two features. With his long, sandy-colored hair spread across his pillow, he resembled a fallen angeland his body further enhanced that image. Although bedding covered his lower halfthank goodnessshe could see his torso. He was built like a greyhound or panther, lean and sinewy and ideally proportioned with very little body hair.
What body hair he did have was golden and downy, as appealing as his tanned skin.
He'd make a nice subject for a painter, she mused, someone looking for refined masculine beautya man who could even be called elegant.
But not everything about him was elegant. When she looked closer, she could see that he had some very unusual scars .
What types of injuries could've caused those? she wondered. It seemed to her that he'd been shot, and more than once. Several round, bullet-size marks dotted his chest. Then there was a long, jagged scar on his side that must've come from something else .
Out of nowherehe didn't open his eyes first, so she had no warninghe grabbed her wrists in a crushing grip and slammed her onto her back.
Eve gasped as she stared up at him. Gone was the image of an angel, fallen or otherwise. Shocked at being so easily and unexpectedly overpowered, she couldn't even scream. His fierce expression, as if he was intent on causing her bodily harm, made it worse.
Had she brought home a homicidal maniac? Was he about to kill her?
The terror that surged up must've shown on her face because he suddenly came to his senses. He gave his head a shake. His expression cleared and, letting go, he eased off her and slid back onto his side of the bed.
"Sorry about that. I thought. " His words trailed off, and he covered his eyes with one arm as if he needed a moment to pull himself together.
Her heart was now pounding in unison with her head. But once she could speak somewhat normally, she prompted him to finish his sentence. "Thought what?"
His lips turned down. "Never mind. I was dreaming."
She pressed a hand to her chest as though she could slow her galloping pulse. "It couldn't have been a pleasant dream."
"They never are," he muttered.
He dropped his arm and looked over at her, andintriguing as that statement wasshe was too concerned about her nudity to pursue more of an explanation. She drew up the blankets, but he didn't seem interested in ogling her. His gaze circled the room, taking in the gauzy fabric that wound around the top of her canopy bed, the Christmas gifts she'd already wrapped and stacked in the corner, the many photographs of friends and family scattered across her dresser and the plantation shutters she'd recently had installed. He seemed to be taking stock of everything, weighing it, evaluating itespecially the closet and the door leading into the hallas if he might encounter some threat.
"Where am I?" His voice, although more commanding than before, hadn't quite lost the rasp that came from having just awakened.
He held three fingers to his forehead. She guessed he had a headache, too, although, suddenly, she could scarcely feel hers, thanks to that recent burst of adrenaline.
"I can remember the town," he said wryly. "It's not like I think I'm in China."
Fortunately, he sounded as normal as he looked. "Really? Whiskey Creek is where you're supposed to be? Because I've lived here my whole my life, and I don't ever remember seeing you."
"You say that like you know everyone."
"I do. Or just about."
As he proceeded to rub his face, she wished he'd cover up. The bedding had fallen away when he rolled on top of her. She could see far more of him than she wanted toat least now that she was sober. But he didn't seem to notice or care about his state of undress.
"I'm new here," he said.
"When did you move in?" she asked.
"I didn't. I should've said I'm visiting."
A lot of tourists came through. The quaint shops beyond the graveyard next door to her B and B catered to them, particularly in the summer. So an unfamiliar face in town, even in the first part of winter, wasn't remarkable enough for anyone to make a fuss.
"Where are you staying?"
He hesitated. "I don't remember the name of the place," he muttered. He had to be at her competitor's or one of the small inns or B and Bs out in the country. She hadn't seen him at her place. "How long will you be in town?"
"A short time."
His answers were clipped, terse and noticeably skimpy on the details. She might've asked what had brought him here. But he was being so evasive she didn't see the point. Was he putting her on notice not to expect any follow-up to their night together?
Eve told herself she didn't care that the first romantic encounter she'd had since her big mistake with Ted Dixon wasn't shaping up to be any more promising than the false starts she'd experienced before. She just wanted to make sure that her "no way am I going to stay home and watch TV on my birthday" mutiny hadn't left her with an STD. As soon as she felt reasonably assured that she hadn't ruined her life, they could part waysand she'd try to forget that she'd felt desperate enough to sleep with a stranger.
"I don't see anything in here that belongs to a man," he said.
She gave him a curious look. "A man?"
"I'm safe to assume you're not married? You aren't wearing a ring, but not everyone does."
Particularly a woman hoping to pick up a guy in a bar. Now she understood. She'd been too busy berating herself to clue in, or his meaning would've been clear from the beginning. "Do you make a habit of sleeping with married women?"
"Not when I can think straight. But last night I wasn't using a great deal of discretion. I don't even remember how I got here." He lifted a hand. "Wait, yes, I do. There was some waitress from that hole-in-the-wall honky-tonk who"
When his eyes flicked to her, she noticed that they were a startling shade of green, far lighter than the more common hazel. His eyelashes and eyebrows matched the darker streaks in his hair.
"That's the name of the bar," she clarified.
He shrugged. Apparently he found that information irrelevantas though a bar was a bar and he'd frequented many. "Anyway, I have this vision of some waitress driving us over here and dumping us on what appeared to be a very long driveway, and that's about it."
When Eve's mind conjured up the same memory, she barely managed to stifle a groan. "Noelle Arnold." That Noelle, of all people, would know what they'd done made it so much worse .
"You don't like her?"
Her tone had revealed more than she'd intended. "Not a great deal. Not since she seduced her sister's boyfriend, then claimed she was pregnant so he'd marry her."
"Small towns "
She didn't like the way he said that. It seemed to imply that they were too backward to behave with as much sophistication as city folk. "I happen to be close friends with Kyle, the man she duped. Of course I'd feel defensive."
"You can feel defensive all you want, but this Noelle person did us a favor. She could easily have left us to our own devices. I certainly deserved it. I haven't gotten that wasted in" without bothering to ask, he rummaged on the nightstand and helped himself to one of her elastic ties so he could pull back his hair "a couple of years."
She could've pointed out that if Noelle had really been looking out for her, she would've seen to it that she got home safe and alone. But then she remembered making out with this man in the backseat of Noelle's car. No wonder Noelle had dropped them off together. Now she was probably running around, telling everyone she could think of that Eve Harmon, of all people, had picked up a stranger and taken him home to bed.
His eyes narrowed. Something about her had caught his interest. "What's wrong?" he asked.
She combed her fingers through her hair in an attempt to untangle it. While she had far bigger concerns than her appearance, she couldn't entirely resist her female vanity. Because her hair was jet black and her eyes blue, people often told her that she reminded them of the Disney version of Snow White. Some red lipstick added to the effect; she'd often capitalized on that when she needed a costume.
But maybe he didn't find Snow White all that appealing. He didn't seem too impressed.
"No, I'm not."
"You absolutely are," he said. "Did I say something to embarrass you?"
She stopped trying to act as if discovering him in her bed was no big deal. "This whole situation embarrasses me," she admitted. "I've never taken anyone home from a bar before and, unlike you, I won't be leaving this town any time soon. That means I'll have to face all the people who witnessed my licentious behavior."
He raised one eyebrow. "Licentious? "
"Promiscuous, debauched. Whatever you want to call it. Waking up with a total stranger isn't something that's normal for me."
He studied her, his gaze thoughtful. "Last night you told me it was your birthday."
"Quit being so hard on yourself. From what I could gather, it was a rough one. And with the holidays coming up, and knowing you're going to spend another year alone, you said it wasn't likely to get any easier."
Damn. She'd shared that? Hadn't she revealed enough when she took off her clothes? "My birthday was fine. Spending another Christmas as a single woman is fine. Everything's fine." How could she complain when she'd always had it so good?
She could hear the scrape of his beard growth as he ran a hand over his chin. "What's that saying about protesting too much?"
"I'm not protesting."
"If you say so."
Holding the sheet in place, she slid a few more inches away from him, but she couldn't go far. She was about to fall out of bed. He wasn't bulky, but he had wide shoulders and he didn't seem to be concerned about giving her space. "If you know it was my birthday, you remember more than getting dropped off here," she said. "It's coming back to me."
Bits and pieces were coming back to her, too. How she'd noticed him watching her from where he sat alone at the bar. How she'd danced for him in such a seductive manner, reveling in the appreciation she kindled in his eyes. How he'd eventually gotten up and walked over to join her. How he'd danced with her, so cautiously and respectfully even though the sparks between them felt like they were about to burn the place down.
How she'd slipped through the crush of bodies on the dance floor to catch her breath outside and he'd followed .
There were still things she couldn't recall, however, and his name was one of them. Had he ever told her what it was?
"Who are you?" she asked.
Without even a stretch or a concluding peck on the cheek, he climbed out of bed and started to dress.