THE MOST ELIGIBLE BACHELOR
UNDER HER ROOF
The tabloids were right: Sloan Holden is rich, powerful and incredibly handsome. But he's just another paying guest, as far as B and B owner Maggie Potter is concerned. The hardworking widow has a toddler to care for, a business to build, and a heart to protect. She can't succumb to the charm of a man who is just passing through.
Though drawn to his gorgeous landlady, Sloan knows "off-limits" when he sees it. Trouble is, Maggie and her little girl gave Sloan a taste of what he was missinga family of his own. The bachelor businessman could strike a deal with anyone, but can he find a way to bargain his way into Maggie's life for good?
About the Author
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"You must be Mr. Holden. Andhappilyyou're not a serial killer."
Sloan Holden expected beautiful women to come on to him, but as pickup lines went, that one needed tweaking. He stared at the woman, who'd just opened the door to him. "Okay. And you know this how?"
"I had you investigated." Standing in the doorway of her log cabin home turned bed-and-breakfast, Maggie Potter held up her hand in a time-out gesture. "Wait. I'm a little new at this hospitality thing. Delete what I just said and insert welcome to Potter House. Please come in."
"Thanks." He walked past her and heard the door close. Turning, he asked, "So, FBI? CIA? DEA? NSA? Or Homeland Security?"
"Which alphabet-soup agency did you get to check me out?"
"Actually, it was Hank Fletcher, the sheriff here in Blackwater Lake. I apologize for blurting that out. Guess I'm a little nervous. The thing is, I live here with my two-year-old daughter and another, older, woman who rents a room. It's my responsibility to check out anyone who will be living here."
Sloan studied the womanMaggie Potterdressed in jeans and a T-shirt covered by a pink-and-gray-plaid flannel shirt. Her shiny dark hair was pulled back into a po-nytail and her big brown eyes snapped with intelligence and self-deprecating humor. She was pretty in a wholesome, down-to-earth way, and for some reason that surprised him. He'd assumed the widow renting out a room would be frumpy, silver haired and old enough to be his grandmother. It was possible when his secretary had said widow, he'd mentally inserted all the stereotypes.
"Still," he said, sliding his hands into his jeans' pockets, "a serial killer by definition gets away with murder and is clever enough to hide it. Maybe I'm hiding something."
"Everyone does. That just makes you human." The wisdom in that statement seemed profound for someone so young. "But you, Mr. Sloan Holden, can't even spit on the sidewalk without someone taking a picture. I doubt you could ditch photographers long enough to pull off a homicide, let alone hide the incriminating evidence."
"You're right about that."
"Even so, Hank assured me you are who you say you are and an upstanding businessman who won't stiff me for the rent. Again I say welcome." She smiled, and the effect was stunning. "I'll do everything possible to make your stay here as pleasant as possible, Mr. Holden."
"Please call me Sloan."
"Of course." When she turned away, he got a pretty good look at her work-of-art backside and shapely legs. They weren't as long as he usually liked, but that didn't stop all kinds of ideas on how to make his stay pleasant from popping into his mind. That was proof, as if he needed more, that he was going to hell. After all, she was a mother.
"I just need you to sign the standard guest agreement." She walked over to the desk in the far corner of the great room.
Sloan followed and managed to tear his gaze away from her butt long enough to get a look at her home. A multicolored braided rug was the centerpiece for a conversation area facing the fireplace. It consisted of a brown leather sofa and a fabric-covered chair and ottoman. On the table beside it was a brass lamp and a photo of Maggie snuggled up to a smiling man. Must be the husband she'd lost.
Maggie handed over a piece of paper and he glanced through it, the normal contract regarding payment responsibilities, what was provided, dos and don'ts. He took the pen she handed him and signed his name where indicated.
"Do you need a credit card and ID?" That was standard procedure for a hotel.
"I recognize you from the magazines you seem to be in on a weekly basis. And I got all the pertinent financial information from your secretary. Elizabeth says you'll be staying in town for a while to work on the resort project."
"I know you're here at Potter House because Blackwa-ter Lake Lodge had a major flood when a pipe burst and is now undergoing repairs and renovations. Elizabeth told me you do a lot of work outside the office and wouldn't be happy with all the pounding, hammering and drilling."
"She knows me well."
"I got that impression. And she said you're not a heartless jerk like most tabloid stories make you out to be."
"Did I mention she's loyal?"
He folded his arms over his chest and studied her. Elizabeth was the best assistant he'd ever had and an impeccable judge of character, even on the phone. She wasn't in the habit of sharing details about him. Not that she'd given away secrets to a competitor, but still While taking care of his living arrangements for this stay in Blackwater Lake, Montana, she must have phone-bonded with Maggie Potter, meaning that she trusted this woman.
In any event, he didn't have a lot of choice about where to hang his hat. The lack of accommodations in this area, along with a beautiful lake and spectacular mountains, were the very reasons this resort project he and his cousin Burke had undertaken would be a phenomenal financial success. It was their luck that no one else had noticed the amazing potential of this area before now.
"It sounds as if you got to know my assistant pretty well," he finally said.
"Lovely woman. She invited me to her wedding."
"Wow. You really did make a good phone impression. I didn't even get an invitation," he teased.
"She's probably concerned that the kind of photographers who follow you around aren't the ones she wants documenting the most important day of her life."
Sloan knew she was joking, but that wasn't far from the truth. Because he had money, his every move seemed to generate a ridiculous amount of public interestmake that female interest. That would give a guy trust issues even if he hadn't been burned, but Sloan was a wealthy divorced bachelor and deliberately never stayed with the same woman for more than a couple of months.
A man in his position had social obligations and often needed a plus one. On the surface it looked like dating, but he knew it was never going anywhere. So the more women he went out with, the more interest his personal life generated. But he was ultimately an entrepreneur who knew getting his name in the paper was a positive. Even bad publicity could be good.
And interest continued to escalate about whether or not any woman could catch the most eligible bachelor who had said in more than one interview that he would never get married again. That it just wasn't for him. The remark, intended to snuff out attention, had really backfired on him and created the ultimate challenge for single women looking for a rich husband. He was like the love lottery.
"My assistant knows I'd never let anything spoil her special day."
"Because you respect the sanctity of marriage so much?" It sounded as if there was the barest hint of sarcasm in her question.
He didn't doubt that she knew the tabloid version of his disastrous foray into matrimony. It was well documented and also ancient history. "I do for other people," he answered sincerely.
"Just not for yourself."
"It's always good to know your own limitations."
"Seems smart. And wise," she agreed. "So how long will you be here?"
"Indefinitely." That was certainly an indefinite answer. "I handle the construction arm of the company, so it will probably be quite a while. And Blackwater Lake Lodge is undergoing renovations."
He glanced around and found he liked the idea of not living in a hotel for what would probably be months. "You have a nice place here."
"Thanks. My husband built it." There was fierce pride in her voice even as a shadow slid into her eyes. "It wasn't planned as a bed-and-breakfast. We opened a business in town."
"Potter's Ice Cream Parlor on Main Street."
He nodded. "I saw it on my way here."
"Danny, my husband" she glanced at the picture and a softness slipped into her eyes "thought everything through. Downstairs is the master bedroom with another room for a nursery. But he figured as the kids got older, into their teens, they'd need their privacybedrooms and separate baths. And a game room to hang out in. There's even an outside entrance for the upstairs. I'm not quite sure how he planned to deal with that when they were teenagers." She shrugged and the light dimmed in her dark eyes. "It didn't work out as he planned, but it works for my needs now."
He wouldn't have asked if she hadn't brought it up. And he probably shouldn't have asked anyway, but the question came out before he could stop it. "What are your needs?"
A slight narrowing of her eyes told him she didn't miss the double entendre, though he hadn't meant it that way. She answered the question directly. "I decided to expand the ice cream parlor to include a café, a little more healthy and upscale than a coffee shop. Even though I took on a partner, we needed an infusion of capital. The simple answer is that I need the money to pay back the business loan."
"Josie, my other boarder, has been here for a few months. I've known her for a long time and this arrangement works for her. She's a widow and doesn't want the responsibility of a big house. When she wants to travel, she can go without worrying about the house she left behind. For the other room, you're my first. Tenant, I mean." A becoming flush crept into her cheeks. "Someone from your company who knows my brother contacted him about your housing dilemma and he put them in touch with me."
"And still you investigated me." One corner of his mouth curved up.
"It never hurts to be cautious."
Sloan couldn't argue with her about that. "So who is your brother?"
She frowned. "Do you know him?"
"Not personally. But I know the name. He did some computer and website work for my company."
Sloan also knew the guy was pretty well off. The way Maggie had emphasized the word need when talking about money, he was pretty certain her brother hadn't been involved in raising the capital to expand her business.
"You look puzzled about something, Sloan."
"I am. But it's none of my business."
"Probably not." She shrugged. "Ask anyway."
He nodded. "I know your brother by reputation and he has a few bucks. Yet you didn't get the expansion loan from him."
One of her eyebrows rose. "How do you know that?"
"Because you said you need money to pay back the loan. I don't think your brother would pressure you or put you and his niece out on the street if you fell behind on payments."
"No." She smiled. "But I wanted to do this on my own. My way."
"And what way is that?" Not the easy way, Sloan thought.
She glanced at the photograph, then back at him. "When Danny and I opened the ice cream parlor, Brady wanted to help us, but my husband refused. He appreciated the offer, but it was important to him to do it on his own. A respect thing. Some might call it macho male pride."
"He said it was human nature for people to not appreciate things they didn't have to work hard for. So we poured our heart, soul, blood, sweat and tears into the project.
Our phase one. The plan was always to expand and open the café, but there was a setback when he was killed in Afghanistan."
"I'm sorry." Stupid words. So automatic and useless. Why wasn't there something to say that would actually help?
"Thank you." She slid her fingers into her jeans' pockets. "Danny's gone, so I'm carrying on the dream. The way he would have wantedwithout my brother's help."
"With three sisters, I can say with certainty that my instinct would be to write a check if they needed it. Brady probably feels that way, too. So how's he taking this loan thing?"
"You'd think I gave his computer a particularly nasty virus." She grinned. "Still, I think he's secretly proud of me."
Sloan didn't doubt that. What brother wouldn't be proud of a sister like her? It would have been easy to let herself be taken care of after losing her husband, but she hadn't. She was raising their child and running an expanded business plus taking in boarders. Doing things her way. And it was a good way.
She glanced at his empty hands. "I assume you have luggage. I'll show you to your room, then bring your things up."
"Thanks, but I'll get everything." His way wasn't to let a woman carry his stuff, especially when that woman looked as if the first stiff breeze would blow her away. He admired her independence, but he did things his way, too. "There's a lot and some of it is heavy."
"Okay. Follow me."
Now, that he didn't mind doing, because she had an exceptionally fine backside. Aside from her obvious external attributes, there was a lot to like about his new landlady.
Smart, straightforward, self-reliant. Salt of the earth. He would bet his last dime that she wasn't a gold digger. He almost wished she was.
The next morning Maggie settled her crabby daughter in the high chair beside the round oak kitchen table. After giving the little girl a piece of banana, she whipped up a batch of biscuits and popped them in the oven. When the idea had taken hold to rent out the upstairs rooms, she'd come up with a different breakfast menu for each day of the week. Today was scrambled eggs with spinach, mushrooms, onion and tomato. Fried potatoes. Country gravy for the biscuits. And blueberries. This was one of Josie's favorites and made one wonder how the older woman stayed so trim. Could have something to do with her being tall and the brisk walk she took every morning after rolling out of bed.
Maggie hadn't seen Sloan yet this morning and was just the tiniest bit curious about what his favorite breakfast was and how he stayed in such good shape. The snug T-shirt he'd had on when checking in yesterday had left little to the imagination, and the man had a serious six-pack going on. Ever since she'd opened the door, her nerves had been tingling, some kind of spidey sense. It was like the princess-and-the-pea story she read to Danielle. Even when he wasn't near, she knew he was under her roof.
He wasn't model handsome, but there was something compelling in his eyes, which were light brown with flecks of green and gold.
"Mama" The single word was followed by the sound of a splat.
Maggie looked up from stirring the country gravy and saw that Danielle had thrown her banana on the floor. Very little had been ingested, but the little girl had mangled the fruit pretty well.
"Want some Cheerios, sweetie?"
Some words came out of this child's mouth as mangled as that banana, but cookie wasn't one of them. It was tempting to give in and let her have a treat. Just this once keep her happy so the first breakfast with their VIP guest would go smoothly and convince him she knew what she was doing in the B and B business. But her maternal instincts told her that was a bad habit to start.
"Good morning." Josie walked into the kitchen freshly showered after her exercise. She was in her early sixties but looked at least ten years younger, in spite of her silver hair. The pixie cut suited her. She moved beside the high chair. "How are you, munchkin?"
The little girl babbled unintelligible sounds, which were no doubt a list of grievances about her mother being the food police.
"She's not her sunny little self today," Maggie apologized. "She was restless last night. Teething, I think. I hope she didn't disturb you."
"Not a bit. The insulation in these walls is amazing." She looked around, blue eyes brimming with understanding. "How can I help?"