Read an Excerpt
That sure smelled like fire.
Caleb Beck backed out from his crouched position under the sink and laid down the wrench. Hopefully the patch on the pipe would work. "Mags! Are you cooking something?"
He clomped over to the industrial oven he'd installed at the bed-and-breakfast a few years ago. Cool to the touch. He peeked inside, just in case. Empty.
The inn had seven guest bedrooms, and four of the rooms had their own fireplaces. He sniffed the air and turned in a circle, his fingers looped on his tool belt. The smell didn't come from upstairs. Out the window over the kitchen sink, Caleb spotted the inn's owner, Maggie West, working in the garden. It would be just like his ab-sentminded sister-in-law to not follow city code and burn something out in the yard.
He yanked open the back door. "Maggie. Are you burning something? Leaves, maybe?"
Maggie rolled her eyes at him, her hands on her hips and her curly brown hair puffing out in every angle imaginable. "Burning leaves at the end of summer? We have months yet for that. Don't tell me you hit your head in there."
Caleb growled. Should have known he wouldn't get a straight answer out of her. Maggie had been stubborn since they were kids playing on the beaches of Lake Michigan together.
He let out a long breath. Be patient. "Well, something is burning, and if you're just going to stand there
"It's probably faulty work done by my handyman." A laugh in her voice, she bent back down to tend to her garden.
"But I'm your handyman."
"Like I said."
He shoved through the back door and his eyes landed on the door that led to the basement. Of course. These old Victorians came complete with ancient and terrible wiring. Sure, the homes filled the tourist town of Goose Harbor with charm, but the laws against changing historical landmarks made it difficult to improve the buildings when safety came into play. Maggie might not take him seriously, but the whole place could go up in a heap of smoke if he didn't act fast. Caleb hurtled down the stairs, taking them two at a time.
The sight that met him made him freeze for a moment.
A woman he'd never seen before hunched over a metal tub in the middle of the cold floor. Her blond hair splayed across her face and blocked him from seeing her expression. Pieces of paper fanned out in all directions around her.
He took a step forward. She didn't look up. Caleb scooped up one of the papers. A letter.
Her shoulders trembled. "Never again."
Paige tossed a stack of folded papers onto the small fire burning in the tub. Flames licked the edge of the bin as the paper started to curl and turn black. Next, she grabbed a mound of white fabric from beside her. If she tossed that wispy bunch of cloth into the small tub, the fire would get out of control. Not to mention smell awful.
He crossed to where she sat on the ground.
Almost in a daze, Paige lifted her arms, ready to stuff the white pile of fabric into the fire.
Caleb caught her wrists. "What are you, crazy? Don't do that." He tugged what now registered in his head as a dress out of her clutches.
Paige slammed her hands onto her hips. "Give that back."
Caleb tossed it out of her reach. She moved to go after the dress, but he grabbed her slender shoulders, and she finally looked at him. When her crystal-blue eyes locked on his, something warm curled inside his chest. He knew enough about women to know only one thing could cause those huge raccoon marks on her face. She'd been crying. Not just cryingsobbing. But even the running mascara couldn't mask her simple beauty. The splash of freckles across her cheeks, delicate nose and pursed lips as she exhaled
everything about her screamed protect me.
Had he ever been able to deny someone who needed help?
Caleb shook that thought away. He'd had the opportunity to protect more than one person he cared about and failed. Miserably. Never again.
He didn't deserve another chance.
A thin breath rattled out of her, and she shrank away from him. "I'm sorry. I don't know what I'm
" Paige looked like a scared animal begging a hunter not to shoot her.
"What were you doing?" Caleb kept his voice low and even.
"Can you please hand me my wedding dress?"
?" His eyes darted to the white pool of fabric he'd thrown to the corner of the basement. The girl was going to shove a wedding dress into the fire? What could have happened to her? "You can't burn that in here. It's not safe. Besides, a wedding dress is something to keep forever."
"Forever. Ha. Forever doesn't exist." Paige ran the back of her hand under her eyes and pushed up to her feet. Brushing past him, she scooped up the dress. "I can do whatever I want with it."
Caleb tugged the dress away from her. "Not toss it in that fire. In fact" He strode past her to the sink near the washer and dryer and filled a pitcher with water. Walking back to the small metal tub, he doused the fire inside. The flames hissed as they died.
"You had no right." She crossed her arms over her chest and her foot tapped on the cement floor. Too bad the petite woman couldn't have looked menacing if she tried.
"And you have no right trying to burn down Maggie's inn."
"I wasn't going toI promise I won't put it in the fire." She yanked a hair tie off her wrist and pulled her hair into a quick, messy bun. "It's been a bad day."
He took a step closer. Yes, this woman was beautiful. Of that there was no doubt. Despite her obvious grief and the spotty lighting in the basement, Paige's features were stunninglegs a mile long and honey-colored hair a man couldn't help but want to run his hands through. Her blue eyes were deep with locked secrets, kind of like an animal in a cage at the sheltera little sad yet with the promise of hope. A dusting of freckles formed striking constellations on her cheeks. They were cute, making her seem approachable even in her present state of distress.
What was she doing here? "Who are you, anyway?"
She lifted her chin. "I live here."
"Listen. I know everyone in this town and I have never seen you in my life. Who are you?"
Her lips quivered. "Can I just have the dress back?
"Not if you're going to try to do something crazy with it again." He moved his hands behind his back so she couldn't make a grab at the fabric.
She balled her fists up at her sides. "I'm so tired of people telling me what I can and can't do." She marched toward him, bringing along a sweet, flowery smell that made him want to lean closer even with the blaze in her eyes.
Her pointer finger jabbed into his chest. "You can't tell me what to do."
"I don't know what you're talking about, but"
I can't believe" She dissolved into a mess of tears and ragged breaths. Hands covering her face as her shoulders hunched, her knees began to buckle.
Caleb dropped the dress and caught her elbows before she hit the ground. She wasn't even trying to stand anymore. He had to press her to his chest and wrap his arms around her just to keep her upright. Her head fit right into the place next to his heart. "Shh. Hey. You're okay."
Okay? Should he have said that? It's not like he knew her problems. But no man in the world could handle a woman when she cried like that. He didn't even know her and her tears were making his heart bunch into a knot.
He tightened his hold a bit. "Did someone harm you? Are you in any sort of danger?"
One of her fists pounded against his shoulder three times before her fingers worked open and bunched the fabric of his flannel shirtfront. "How could he? I was ready
. Life was set
. How could he?" She sniveled into his shirt right next to his heart.
"I'm sorry. Whatever happened, I'm sorry you had to go through it." He rubbed a circle on her back.
Paige rested her forehead against his chest and took a few rattling breaths. He fought the foolish urge to bury his nose in her soft hair. Not counting his sister or Maggie, how long had it been since he held a woman in his arms? Two years.
The washing machine along the south wall clicked and started whirling. The tiny legs of the machine clattered against the cement with a high-pitched scratching sound. Maggie probably overfilled the thing, again.
The sound snapped the woman in his embrace back to attention.
Paige pushed out of his arms. "Oh. I'm so sorry. How stupid of me. You must think that I
He held up a hand. "You don't have to explain." He handed her the wedding dress.
"Thank you," she mumbled.
Caleb glanced up at the ceiling as if he could find directions on how to deal with distraught women written up there. A stuffed snowman grinned back at him. Nothing but beams packed with Maggie's decorations for all the different holidays.
He wouldn't leave the woman alone in the basement in case she did something else irrational, but he could hold his tongue and give her a minute to collect herself. Besides, it's not like he could help her if she asked. He'd never been able to help anyone before.
Stop acting crazy.
Paige Windom took a long, deep breath. What a way to start life in a new town. Good thing Dad couldn't see her now. Windoms don't crack. At least, that was what he always said. Then again, he'd lost his right to speak into her life. Cheaters and liars don't get to give advice.
Why wouldn't this man leave her alone? Her pity party was supposed to be an invitation-only thing. Table for one.
She didn't need a stranger seeing her in this state because this wasn't her. She organized everything, made to-do lists and had every lesson plan she'd ever written in a color-coded binder. Not that she'd admit it to anyone, but she even kept an Excel spreadsheet of her wardrobe to help match outfits for work. But well-laid plans hadn't led to dreams coming true. Not once. So maybe being rational wasn't worth it.
She sank to her knees.
Her fingers traced over the beadwork on the dress in her hands. The perfect Pronovias gownan A-line organza with a sweetheart neckline, complete with a cascade of ruffles. It had taken thirteen shopping trips to find the perfect dress. Thirteen. She should have known better.
She hadn't cried when she discovered Bryan with another woman and hadn't even shed a tear on the three-hour drive from Chicago to Goose Harbor. But for some reason, as she unpacked her bag in the little room on the back side of the inn, her body started to ache. It felt like a bad case of heartburn, but more painful. And no matter how tightly she pressed a pillow to herself, the hurt in the pit of her stomach remained.
Would she have to walk through the rest of life feeling numb?
Sure, she wanted independence, but no one told her how abandoned being free felt.
Floorboards above her creaked, and the sound drew her back to the present. A damp, mildew smell clung to the cracked cement along the walls of the basement. The other side of the room still boasted a dirt floor. Sunlight filtered in through the basement's window wells.
The man in the basement with her worked his bearded jaw back and forth. Had she really just tossed herself into his arms? Quite the first impression. Paige felt her cheeks begin to burn. What must he think of her?
He hooked his hands on his tool belt. The man's silhouette against the evening sunlight outlined broad shoulders as his flannel shirt molded over coiled biceps. When he held her, he'd smelled like a midnight rainstorm, fresh with a slight scent of pine trees. His athletic form made him look ready to build a house from scratch or chop down a tree. The man was all strength, but carried a gentle reassurance about his person all the same.
Regardless of his relaxed pose, he would be able to move quickly if she did something reckless with her dress again. Not that she planned to.
The man took a slow step closer and then knelt down in front of her. "Miss, are you all right?" His forehead creased. Only a foot or two away, she locked her gaze with his for the first time. His eyes were warmthe color of hot chocolate laced with cream.
Paige swallowed hard. "I'm okay."
He raised a brow. "Are you sure? You could talk to me, if that would make things better. I'll listen." His voice was a balm. Strong and reassuring.
Stop. Stop analyzing him. She hadn't come to Goose Harbor to check out the first man she bumped into. Not the first or the fifteenth.
"This isn't how I usually am. You caught me at a bad time." Paige rose from the floor, the dress clutched to her stomach. Maybe she'd sell the thing at a consignment shop in town. At least get some money out of it to help save toward a home of her own. Then strange men couldn't wander downstairs and find her during an off moment, and she wouldn't be able to embarrass herself again.
Although, the sooner she found a place of her own, the more the loneliness might seep in.
She set the dress on top of the washing machine. No need to bring it back to her bedroom. It would only serve as a reminder there.
The man got to his feet. "My name's Caleb. I'm friends with Maggie. Do you want me to go get her?"
Paige shook her head.
Caleb looped his hands on his tool belt again as if they needed to do something tangible. "Is there something I can do to help you? Anything?"
"Just go." Her voice cracked a little, even though she fought it.
"I'd feel better if I stayed here with you."
"I'm sure you have better things to do."
"Right now, making sure you're safe is the most important thing on my list."
Fine. She couldn't make Caleb leavenot if he shared a friendship with the inn owner, but she could make him feel unwelcome. Make sure she was safe? Unless he was the town greeter or an undercover cop, she didn't need him babysitting her.
Paige turned her back on him. A chill ran through her body. Why were basements so cold?
Caleb cleared his throat. "You're pretty quiet for a girl."
"For a girl, huh?" Paige fought back the first smile of the day as she turned to face him.
Like sunshine after a week of cloudy days, a full smile broke out across Caleb's lips, lighting up every plane and angle of his face. "I have a sister." His voice was bathed in tenderness. "She talks a mile a minute."
So he loved his family, had a nice voice and knew how to comfort a girl in need. Paige needed to get away from him. Quick. She couldn't afford to go soft on her vow against men so soon.
"I have to go. I'm sorry we had to meet like this." Paige rushed to the stairs and grabbed the railing. She looked back at Caleb. He opened his mouth as if he wanted to say something, but didn't.
Go, Paige. Just go. She'd gotten good at running away the past few months. At least, it was nice to think so. Without looking behind her again, she climbed the stairs and tried to forget the image of the concerned man in the basement with the gentle, chocolate eyes.