Authors: Shelly Alexander
Also by Shelly Alexander
It’s in His Heart
It’s in His Touch
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2016 Shelly Alexander
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Montlake Romance, Seattle
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Montlake Romance are trademarks ofAmazon.com, Inc., or its affiliates.
Cover design by Laura Klynstra
To my husband, who captured my heart with his smile the first night we met.
To my mom, Frances, and her hilarious sidekick, Clyda. When you two get to heaven, the angels will belly laugh at your shenanigans.
To my dad, H1. I’ll meet you in the back right-hand corner of heaven someday.
To Mozart, a tiny toy poodle who is the newest addition to our family. I never thought a five-pound pooch could bring such joy.
And to the town of Red River, for being my muse and my inspiration.
About the Author
Miranda Cruz was sure that getting hot and bothered at awakebroke at least one of the unwritten rules of funeral etiquette. Especially since she was the hostess.
Ms. Bea, Miranda’s friend and mentor, deserved more respect.
The scent of freshly baked oatmeal and raisin cookies drifted over the bar that separated the kitchen from the dining area, to fill the room and hopefully bring some comfort to the mourners. Miranda pulled the last batch from the oven and dished them onto a plate with a spatula.
The heat climbing up her legs to settle between her thighs was from the oven, right?
Right. Of course it was the oven. Or her black formfitting pants. She probably should’ve bought the next size up.
It definitely wasnotbecause of Bea’s hot and handsome grandson, Talmadge. His mere presence was absolutely not the cause of her throat turning to chalk dust or her rusty girl parts turning a flip or her need to stay on the other side of the funeral parlor, the other side of the graveside service, and the other side of the room. All damn day. Until she felt like she’d been playing a game of keep-away, and he was it.
No, the heat seeping into every single inch of her five-feet-two-inch body was not because of Red River’s prodigal son—a leader in green architecture made famous for his environmentally friendly designs and for bringing hotel chains around the world into the age of energy efficiency—come home to bury his beloved grandmother.
Definitely the oven. She kicked it closed with her black ankle-booted foot. With a toss, her oven mitt landed on the outdated Formica counter.
When she’d bought the small Victorian inn just off Red River’s Main Street from Bea Oaks five months ago, she hadn’t considered that her first public event would be to mourn the loss of her old friend. She hadn’t considered that she’d have to figure out how to run an inn on her own without Bea’s experience and advice. She hadn’t considered that before opening for business, the renovations would chew up most of her savings from waiting tables since she was fifteen.
Obviously, Miranda needed to spend more time considering.
She waded through the ocean of mourners, offered condolences, sidestepped a few boxes of tile that her contractor still hadn’t installed, and placed the fresh plate of cookies on the table of picked-over food.
She arranged a few serving dishes, straightened the stack of napkins, made sure enough clean silverware was available. And then she had no choice but to turn her attention to the roomful of saddened guests who had no idea how much Miranda was really going to miss Beatrice Oaks.
No one except . . .
Miranda’s stare settled on Talmadge, who was standing on the far side of the inn’s large dining room. His injured arm in a sling under his suit jacket, he chatted with a middle-aged couple.
For the tiniest moment, her heart beat in an odd cadence before it caught the right rhythm again.
She had known Talmadge would come to his grandmother’s funeral. Of course he would. But a small part of her had hoped he wouldn’t show. Another teensy weensy part of her had hoped he would.
Wouldn’t. Would. Wouldn’t. Would.
And then there he had been, his broad shoulders filling the funeral parlor doorway. Eyes rimmed in red for the grandmother who’d raised him.
As they’d done then, her insides were back to doing the jive like she was a contestant onDancing with the Stars. Or a pole dancer at a gentlemen’s club. Because Miranda was pretty sure that only a person of questionable habits would have carnal thoughts at a funeral.
Another wave of heat flamed through her.Gah!
Sandy hair slicked back, Talmadge’s strong jaw moved as he spoke to the middle-aged couple. Midsentence he turned and locked gazes with Miranda like he knew she’d been watching him. His lips stopped moving, and he just stared at her.
The hint of a smile settled onto his lips, and she suddenly found it hard to breathe.
Her gaze flitted away, and she offered a kind word to a guest who walked past, then busied herself with rearranging the food. Maybe the ham should go next to the mashed potatoes? Should her homemade oatmeal cookies really be next to the sauerkraut? And should her obnoxious female pheromones be spewing sexual attraction so close to the deviled eggs?
That might actually be a health department violation, now that she thought about it.Note to self: no pheromone spewing when the inspectors come to give their stamp of approval.
Talmadge returned his attention to the couple, shook the man’s hand, and headed . . . towardher.
Miranda swallowed and looked around for any excuse to avoid speaking to the famous Talmadge Oaks. The man who walked on water—as far asArchitectural Digestwas concerned—and raised out-of-practice girl parts from the dead.
Ms. Bea’s toy poodle huddled in the corner of the dining room and watched the crowd while tremors of fear racked his tiny body. Miranda hustled over to him.
She was being silly, right? So what if she’d crushed on Talmadge since she was in ninth grade. Who cared that he was the only man who made Miranda’s insides go all molten and quivering just as much now, at twenty-eight. She was a grown woman! It was time to stop running from him. She’d been avoiding him during his rare visits to Red River for so many years she’d lost count.
Actually, no. No, she hadn’t. It had been seven years since she’d decided to never cross paths with Talmadge Oaks again. Seven years, three months, and twelve days, but who was counting?
Talmadge worked his way through the crowd toward her, shaking hands and speaking to the guests as he passed. His stare kept returning to her, and his progress didn’t slow. He kept coming. And kept coming. And kept coming.
Grown woman my ass.A girl was never too old to play keep-away, and it was time to run before she became “it.”
She scooped up the dog and patted the beige mound of fur on top of his little head. “You need to pee, Lloyd,” she informed him. She raced down the hall and eased out the back door.
The screen door banged shut behind her, and she nudged the wood swing into motion as she walked across the wraparound porch and descended the stairs. Wheeler Peak was stark white with snow against the blue New Mexico sky, and a few end-of-the-season skiers dotted the slopes. The chairlift creaked as it eased up the face of the powdered mountain, mostly empty because it was the middle of the week.
“Go on, boy.” She set Lloyd on the snowy ground and tried to shoo him toward the evergreens that separated the inn from the ski lodge and gave it a quaint air of privacy.
He looked up at her and sniffed as though she’d just asked him to compete in the Iditarod.
Shivering against the mid-April cold, she rubbed the arms of her gray sweater and studied the thawing icicles that hung from the weathered eaves of the porch. Her contractor should’ve sanded and repainted those already. A prickle of worry shimmied up her spine. Her contractor should also show up for work once in awhile.
Someone inside lifted a window in the dining room. Muffled voices spilled out along with the sound of silverware clinking against plates. Talmadge’s deep voice drifted out and coiled and curled around her. A voice so smooth it should be bottled and sold as an aphrodisiac.
She tossed her long black curls over a shoulder and stepped farther away from the window.
A high-pitched squeal from a pair of female skiers riding the chairlift sent Lloyd scurrying under the picnic table that was pushed against the peeling white siding of the inn. Miranda peeked underneath. A small mound of trembling beige fur huddled against the wall.
“It’s okay, Lloyd.” She patted her knee, but he trembled harder. She eased onto her hands and knees in the snow and scooted under the table, a hand outstretched to coax the dog out. He whimpered and cowered against the wall.
“Let’s go, Lloyd.” Her tone bloomed into that of a Disney princess. “It’s really cold out here, buddy.” She smooched for the dog to come.
The dog plastered himself to the wall and shook like a bowl of Jell-O.
Miranda reached for him.
“Dude, I’m putting this on YouTube,” a guy said from behind her.
She tossed a look over one shoulder and did a double take. Two stringy-haired teenaged snowboarders held up their phones.
On all fours.
With her ass pointing right at them.
“Hey!” she yelled at Frick and Frack. Gossip in this town already flew at the speed of light. One compromising situation could set tongues wagging for years. “Stop that! You arenotputting me on YouTube.”
Thank God she was wearing pants. Even if they were a little too formfitting. Formfitting was the style. And they showed off her curves, made her feel more confident. Ms. Bea had raved about Miranda’s figure when she wore these pants.
She just never thought her ass would end up on YouTube while she was at her friend’s wake.
One of the snowboarders snickered.
Miranda’s voice softened to a coo. “Lloyd, the show we’re putting on is over.” She reached for the dog, stretching, stretching . . .damn these tight pants. Her fingertips brushed against his curly fur. Just a little farther and she could grab him around the belly.
Her tongue slid between her teeth, and she reached that extra few inches . . .
A loud rip echoed through the entire Red River Valley.
At least it sounded that loud to her. Cold air slid over her silk undies and the bared back of her thighs, the chill biting at her skin.
“Hellfire,” Miranda said.
“Dude!This one’s gonna get a ton of views!” said Frick.
The searing heat of humiliation singed every nerve ending in her body. A feeling she was well acquainted with. A feeling that had shadowed her since she was a kid, sunk its teeth into her, and refused to let go because of a mother who’d been the center of town gossip for years, her colorful past with men the cause of whispers and taunts. Hell, her mother didn’t even know who the fathers of her two children were. Some people in Red River had kept track of her mom’s long string of boyfriends, though. Every single one. Until her mother moved to the next town.
“Sweet,” Frack joined in. “She’s definitely not a dude.”
Oh, for God’s sake.She snagged the dog with one hand and pulled him to her.
“Get lost, boys.” Just three words, but Talmadge’s voice was firm. Authoritative. The voice of a leader.
Aaaaandthe singe in her nerve endings turned to a five-alarm fire.
Frick and Frack stumbled over each other, gathered up their boards, and mumbled, “Yes, sir.” Miranda could see their legs disappear around the corner, presumably headed for the lift.
“Miranda?” Talmadge asked, but his tone held no doubt as to her identity. He knew the ass greeting him was hers.
Miranda scrambled backward so fast her head connected with the edge of the table. “Ow!” Her free hand flew to the pain that lanced through the top of her head, but her hair caught in a sliver of the rotting wood. “Ah!”
Her eyes clamped shut.
“Stay still.” Talmadge bent and managed to free her hair from the headlock the table had her in. Unfortunately, keeping her eyes shut couldn’t protect her from the awkwardness of the situation. She straightened. Ignored the incinerating heat that crept up her neck. Focused on the owner of that almost edible voice.
And finally forced her eyes open only to realize she was on her knees, eye-level with Talmadge Oaks’s crotch.
Another wave of heat nearly stole her breath. She swallowed, wanting to crawl back under the table.
He offered his good hand. “Let me help.”
Miranda’s gaze slid up the expensive fabric of his custom-cut suit that fit his tall frame to perfection. A thick, corded neck flexed with power when he spoke, or laughed . . . or just stood there doing nothing except looking like sex on two legs . . .
Miranda lost her train of thought and swallowed again.
With his usual air of confidence, he raised his brows.
Her attention snapped to his outstretched hand. “No! Um, I’m fine.”
She tried to stand, but the dog squirmed. Afraid she might drop the fragile little guy, Miranda overcompensated and lost her footing. A powerful arm caught her around the waist and hauled her to her feet. Pressed her against a hard and hot body that towered at least a foot above the top of her head.
She landed against his firm chest and pressed one palm to it.
A brick wall of muscled stealth.
Her stare anchored on the slight dimple in his chin, then moved to his mouth. She lingered there for a second before looking up into silvery-blue eyes, and just like that, she was crushing on him all over again. Just like she had so many years ago in high school while he totally ignored her. Looked straight through her like she was invisible because she was three grades younger than him. The fact that he had been the quarterback of the football team didn’t help either. A never-ending entourage of friends—both girls and guys—had followed him everywhere, vying for his attention, while Miranda worked every day after school, waiting tables at Cotton Eyed Joe’s to help her irresponsible mother pay the bills.
No, Talmadge hadn’t known she existed. Except for that one time seven years, three months, and twelve days ago.
Pressed between them, Lloyd yapped at Talmadge, who loosened his hold on Miranda but didn’t let go.
“The dog needed a potty break.” Miranda glanced at the trembling dog folded under her arm.
Talmadge’s mouth curved just a tad. “That’s a dog?”
“Um, yes. He’s a poodle.”
Surprise flared in Talmadge’s expression. “That’s ahe?”
Lloyd’s trembling slowed to a quiver. Like her stomach every time she looked at Talmadge Oaks.
A glint of mischief danced in his eyes. “It looks like something you found in a trap nibbling on a piece of cheese.”
“He belonged to your grandmother.”
Talmadge’s brows slid together. His stare flitted to the dog, then back to her.
“His name is Lloyd,” Miranda explained. “As in Frank Lloyd Wright.”
Talmadge’s eyes softened.
Which turned Miranda into a blubbering idiot.
“Because Frank Lloyd Wright’s work is what inspired you to become an architect, and Bea said you used to study his projects in a book she gave you, and . . . um, yeah.”
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.Miranda almost made the sign of the cross. Instead she pulled her lip between her teeth and bit down to shut herself up.
“I didn’t know Bea got a dog.” That almost-smile that never quite formed into a full-on grin and always seemed to hold a hint of sadness appeared on his lips, and Talmadge stared at Lloyd like he’d missed an important detail.
The bright blue bows in each of Lloyd’s ears trembled in unison with his whimpers. When he pawed at Miranda’s arm, his blue nail polish shimmered against the afternoon sun.
“She needed a companion since your grandpa’s been gone and you stopped coming home.” Miranda bit down on her lip again and nearly drew blood.
The hint of a smile on Talmadge’s lips melted away, and something flashed in his eyes, turning them darker. He released her and took a step back.
Dang.Apparently some things never changed. Every time she was around Talmadge Oaks, her IQ somehow dropped to the level of a rock, vanishing along with her self-restraint. Good thing she hadn’t spent a lot of time with him in the past. And even better that she didn’t plan on spending any with him in the future.
Miranda Cruz wasn’t a bouncy, gum-smacking kid anymore.
That fact had been hard to ignore ever since Talmadge first saw her standing in front of his grandmother’s casket, tears flowing and black pants clinging. Every swipe at the wetness on her soft cheeks distracted him from her killer body and made him focus more on the woman she’d become. There for his grandmother when he wasn’t. Even hosting the wake to honor Bea’s memory and offer support to everyone at the funeral.
Miranda Cruz was hard to ignore, period.
Impossible now that he’d walked outside to enjoy a few minutes alone in the frosty mountain air and had been greeted by her black panties and a firm, round bottom that would fit nicely in the palm of his hand.
“I mean it’s none of my business that you stopped coming to visit Bea.” Miranda plowed on, her unusual gold-brown eyes widening at her own words. “Um, I just meant she loved the dog, and she missed you.” Her teeth caressed her bottom lip.
She turned her full attention to the shivering rat-dog, who apparently had belonged to his grandmother. Another detail in Bea’s life she’d left out, always so careful not to make him feel guilty about his infrequent visits home. Always so mindful to not seem lonesome, even though she’d obviously been lonely enough to get a dog.
The secure, self-reliant mask Miranda had worn all day evaporated. Her free hand went to the hem of her sweater, and she tried to pull it down in the back.
Talmadge curbed a smile. From what he’d seen, she’d need a knee-length robe to cover the gaping hole in her pants. Not that he minded the view.
“Sure.” Talmadge let that one word hang in the air. She looked at him as though she expected more. He just gave her a lazy stare, which made her sink her straight, white teeth deep into that pink lip.
He pointed to Lloyd. “You sure he’s not a rat? Bea didn’t see all that well the past few years.”
“How would you know?” Miranda blurted. “I mean, you haven’t been home, so . . .” Her big brown eyes slid shut for a beat.
He didn’t care what Miranda Cruz thought of him.
The burning in his stomach was probably indigestion.
“I called Bea every week.” Why the hell was he explaining himself? “And I called Uncle Joe to get insider information because Bea always said she was fine.” Bea understood how demanding and important Talmadge’s environmental projects were. How hard it was for him to come back to Red River and face the memories of his parents. How he needed to give something back to the world. She just never knew exactly why.
Success had a price. Being an international leader in sustainable green architecture didn’t leave much time for visits to Red River. Bea never put a guilt trip on him, never made him feel like he’d deserted her. Hell, she was proud of his accomplishments.
Yeah, he’d just keep telling himself that.
Now that Bea was gone, he didn’t owe anyone else an explanation. “Calling was the best I could do because of all the building projects I’ve had going on.”
His free hand involuntarily went to the deep, radiating ache in his shoulder and he rubbed.
He cursed his inability to stay off a building site and let the contractors do their jobs. But he had a financial stake in the Trinity Falls project—a big one—and letting others do all the labor wasn’t his style. He was a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-’er-done kind of guy. The on-site work was the fun part. Watching his designs take shape and come to life, even swinging a hammer once in a while, made his job so much more worthwhile and personal.
The sweat of hard physical labor required to construct his environmental building projects eased the regret of all he’d destroyed in his selfish youth.
Miranda held up a palm. “You don’t have to explain.”
Damn straight he didn’t. “I just thought you should know that I didn’t abandon my grandmother.” He pinched the bridge of his nose.
Miranda studied the dog as though she didn’t know what to say. Well, hell. He didn’t know what to say either, now that she had firmly established what a crummy grandson he was.
“Sorry about your arm.” She pointed to the sling. “I saw the accident on the news.”
Who hadn’t? The footage of the ground caving in on him while he directed the heavy earthmoving equipment in the first phase of the Trinity Falls development had been broadcast around the country. Was still airing on most channels in the Pacific Northwest just for shock value.
Right. Lucky. That was his middle name. Lucky that the engineering firm he’d hired to assess the feasibility of Trinity Falls had used cheap equipment and missed the existence of ancient tribal ruins before Talmadge had sunk his entire fortune into the project? Lucky that he’d staked his professional reputation on a project that was about to ruin him? Or maybe she thought he was lucky for losing his grandmother during the most difficult time of his professional life.
“I mean, that tractor, crane thingy—”
“Excavator,” he said flatly.
She flinched at the harsh edge of his tone. “Um, yeah. That excavator could’ve killed you. It fell right on top of you.” She fidgeted with the bows in the dog’s fluffy ears. “At least that’s what it looked like on the news.”
Itshould’vekilled him. Nocould’veto it. And he didn’t really want to talk about it.
“So the rat-dog,” he said. “He looks pretty skittish.”
A dimple appeared on each cheek when Miranda smiled, and the iciness in Talmadge’s heart thawed.
“Maybe we should feed him cheese instead of the expensive dog food Bea usually bought.” She gave a small, throaty laugh.
He remembered that laugh. And the dimples. Definitely the dimples. And the way her glossy lips shimmered under the afternoon sun as she spoke made Talmadge go still. They were just so nice and pink. And ripe like a juicy piece of fruit he’d like to taste.
And for a second, time stood still.
She drew in a deep breath of fresh mountain air. Even under the heavy sweater, he couldn’t help but notice how her full breasts swelled.
The creaking chairlift passed overhead and the chatter of two skiers drifted down to them.
He gave himself a silent kick in the pants, and Miranda looked away, clearing her throat. He was pretty sure getting turned on at a funeral was inappropriate. Although Bea probably would have cheered him on. She had sung Miranda’s angelic praises during every weekly phone call since they’d become such good friends the past few years.
If only Bea had known how well he and Miranda really did know each other.
“Well, I suppose he’s your rat now.” Miranda pulled at the back hem of her sweater again and closed the space between them to hand him the . . . uh,dog.
“Oh, no.” Talmadge took a step back and shook his head. No way was he getting stuck with a pet to take care of. “I can’t take care of a dog. Can’t he stay with you? I have a life.” Okay, that might have come out wrong.
Her mouth tightened, and she gave him a glare as sharp as broken glass. “Of course, nothing I have to do in this Podunk town could be important, right?”
Definitely came out wrong. Always had when he was around Miranda.
He drew in a breath. “I won’t be in town for long.” Now that the biggest and financially riskiest project of his career had ground to a halt, he had to get back to Washington and figure out a solution before all of his investors pulled out. “When I go home, I won’t really behome. I’ll spend most of my time on the jobsite.”
The smile she flashed at him matched the defiant look in her eyes about as well as a male dog matched bows and nail polish. Only the lightning-fast pulse that beat where neck met shoulder gave away her nervousness. Her hitched-up chin and proud, level stare hid it well.
“Since you think he looks like a rat, he’ll make a great pet for you. A perfect match, if you ask me.”
“I didn’t ask you.” He stared down at her. She was a breath away. Close enough that her sweet and savory scent made blood rush from his head to his groin.
Still holding out the dog to him, her eyes narrowed, and an inexplicable thrill of challenge bolted through him. The same thrill he got every time he was faced with a new environmental building project the experts said couldn’t be done.
“Then it’s a good thing I don’t need your permission to speak,” she said.
“Still just as sassy as I remember.” His voice dropped to a whisper, and his eyes wandered over her pretty face.
A breeze kicked up, sending a chill all the way to his bones in Red River’s high mountain altitude. Miranda shivered against the cold blast of air, and the tiny dog wiggled, trying to escape from her grasp. She lunged forward to catch him just as Talmadge did the same. They collided, his good arm sliding around her waist again to steady her.
Sandwiched between them, Lloyd whimpered. At least he’d helped save the dog from falling even if Miranda was trying to level him with a badass stare.
He should let her go.
But hell no. She felt too right against him. His head dipped, and he inhaled a big dose of the tasty scent of her perfume . . . or soap . . . or shampoo . . . or whatever made her smell so delicious that his mouth watered like a Pavlovian dog.
That had gotten him neutered once before. His balls were probably still mounted on Miranda’s wall like a trophy she’d taken down on safari.
But having her so close surprisingly eased the ache of sadness over losing the only mother figure he’d ever really known. And the guilt over having left Bea behind to save the world, one environmentally conscious building at a time.
Miranda pulled out of his embrace, her long, silky hair bouncing around her shoulders. He instantly regretted letting her go. Her warmth drained away from him, replaced by coldness both in his limbs and around his heart. The ache in his chest and his shoulder throbbed even more, or at least it seemed to, without her softness pressed against him.
She clutched for the backside of her split pants, no doubt trying to cover herself. Waste of time, because that part of her very feminine anatomy was forever burned into his memory. Had been long before today. Ever since that one time . . . her first time . . . and the only time for him that was worth remembering.
“Lloyd is yours now.” Miranda tried to hand Lloyd to Talmadge again, but he took another step back. She splayed a hand across the gaping hole in her pants. Dang, it was cold out.
“No. He’s not.” Talmadge absently rubbed his shoulder. “I can’t take care of a dog.”
“He’s sweet, but I can’t take care of him right now either.” The renovations, a contractor who rarely showed up for work, and a dwindling bank account occupied every minute of every day. She was running short on both time and money. If the Closed sign in the window didn’t turn to Open soon, she’d end up right back at Joe’s waiting tables for the rest of her life.
Fear sliced through her.
More tears of grief threatened.
She beat them back, because as much as she missed Bea, she would not show weakness to anyone in this town again. She’d weathered the fiery looks of condescension and the gossip from a certain group of Red River’s population because of her mother’s reputation. She wasn’t about to go weak and needy now that she was so close to her dream of independence. Or her dream of becoming a respectable business owner and proving that she was nothing like her mother.
Two skiers slid past and disappeared behind the crop of evergreens, heading toward the lodge. Miranda turned away so they couldn’t see her butt. Which meant her butt was pointing toward Talmadge.Sheee-ut!She spun back around to face him. Why couldn’t he just go away? Leaving hadn’t been a problem for him in the past. At the very least, he could go back inside the inn and leave her alone.
She gave him the same wicked smile usually reserved for the occasional drunken tourists who got too fresh when she’d waitressed at Joe’s. She’d perfected that look early in life because of the boys who assumed she was easy like her mother. That look said “cross me and die.” She closed the short distance between them, grabbed Talmadge’s good hand, and placed the toy poodle in the center of his large palm.
His eyes rounded, a horrified expression capturing his perfect features. “But—”
She held up a hand, silencing him.
Nice. Surprising too. Seeing Talmadge Oaks look so vulnerable and unsure of himself must be a rare occurrence indeed. And it only took a six-pound poodle with nail polish to do it. Served him right to be stuck with a fluffy, bow-wearing pooch after insinuating that his life was more important than hers. His life might be more high profile, but it certainly wasn’t any busier. Or any harder.
“No buts.” Mr. Greenpeace had already been allowed one too many butts for today. Hers, to be exact.
He pulled Lloyd into the crook of his arm. The panicked look Talmadge gave the dog said he might as well be holding a baby alien. Talmadge flexed the hand that protruded from the sling, and a deep grimace captured his face.
A pang of guilt stabbed at Miranda’s chest. She did love that little dog. And forcing a prissy, high-maintenance poodle on an injured man who probably couldn’t zip his own fly right now wouldn’t make Bea too proud.
“Can you just take him for a sec so I can adjust this sling?” Talmadge gritted his teeth as he spoke.
With a hand on her hip and the other covering her butt, or trying to, she studied Talmadge. “Okay, fine.” She stepped toward him and took Lloyd, cuddling him against her chest. His trembling had spiked when she’d handed him over to Talmadge, and Lloyd buried his nose in the crook of Miranda’s arm.
“He’d be better off with you. He’s scared of me.” Talmadge’s hand slipped under his jacket. He adjusted the sling around his shoulder. Another pained scowl flitted across his face, and his eyes dilated until all the blue was gone, and only large, black pupils remained.
An annoying pinch stung Miranda’s conscience.
“Why can’t you take care of a little dog?” The pain in his expression seeped into his words and turned his voice ragged. He rubbed his shoulder like it was hard to concentrate because of the discomfort.
The heat of rising irritation evaporated most of Miranda’s compassion. Obviously, he hadn’t gotten the memo that he wasn’t the only one with a life. “Shouldn’t you be inside getting more slaps on the back for your latest architectural award? And I didn’t see you with a date. Where’s the requisite hotel heiress?”
A muscle in his jaw flexed and released in a steady cadence. “I wouldn’t bring a date to my grandmother’s funeral.”
No, she supposed he wouldn’t. “Ah, that’s right. It was a wedding, if I remember correctly.” And she definitely remembered correctly, even if it had been seven years, three months, and twelve days ago.
Her hand went to her hip, and she notched her chin up to stare him down with silent ’tude.
He looked away. “I didn’t invite her. She just showed up on her own. We . . . forget it.”
The familiar weight of disappointment and heartache crushed Miranda’s chest just like it had back then. Her gaze shifted to the jagged tops of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, mostly blanketed in snow this time of year.
“What are you doing out here, Talmadge?” Miranda loved to say his name. Just like him, it was unique. It caressed her lips like warm butterscotch every time she said it, which she’d purposefully kept to a minimum over the years.
Because she adored butterscotch.
“Just getting some fresh air and looking around the place. I did spend a lot of time here with my grandparents when I was growing up.” He surveyed the weathered siding of the inn, his eyes traveling up to the roof that was in desperate need of new shingles. “It’s really decayed.”
She stroked Lloyd’s head, but the cold air nipped at her exposed bottom again, and her hand shot around to her backside. “Bea tried her best to keep the inn looking nice, even after your grandfather passed and she had to close it. But the last couple of years she didn’t have the same strength she used to. That’s why she sold the place to me.”
Talmadge flinched, and Miranda wasn’t sure if it was because of his injured arm or the truth about his grandmother and the inn.
“Sounds like you did a pretty good job keeping Bea company in my absence. Why is that?” He looked up at the squeaking lift, the muscle in his jaw working again.
Miranda’s rhythmic petting of Lloyd’s head slowed. “What do you mean?”
Talmadge turned expressionless eyes on her. “I sent money to help Bea out. I’m sure you were well compensated for all the help you gave her.”
Miranda’s jaw locked down so tight she thought it might come unhinged. “I did not take money from Bea.” Miranda may have grown up dirt poor, but she’d never taken a thing she hadn’t earned. She certainly wouldn’t have taken money from a sweet old woman like Bea, who had taken Miranda under her wing and encouraged her to do more with her life than wait tables and live on tips.
Of course he wouldn’t think so highly of Miranda. He had become accustomed to crusading celebrities who poured money into his environmental projects. He was also no stranger to young, beautiful women who had the same last names as hotel chains and were remodeling and trying to “go green.” If the celebrity magazines were accurate, he had become well acquainted with a few over the past seven years.
He shrugged with his good shoulder. “But you did let her loan you the money for the inn.”
“It’s an owner-financed contract.” Miranda’s voice had gone low and shaky. “And Bea was my friend.”
“Don’t you have friends your own age?”
“Of course I do.” Her teeth ground. “But your grandmother needed someone to schlep things around, and I was it, Talmadge.” This time his name didn’t roll off her tongue like butterscotch. Her words were more like a steady flow of hisses.
“Was there another reason you spent so much time with my grandma after I moved away?”
“Just what are you suggesting?” And there went another hiss. Miranda slid the tip of her tongue against her teeth just to make sure it hadn’t forked.
He lifted a shoulder. “Just gathering information, that’s all.”
“Bea was like a mother . . .” Miranda’s eyes started to fill, and her voice went all croaky. The grief over losing Bea—the best parental role model Miranda had ever had besides Bea’s brother, Joe—was finally rising to the surface like a storm churning over the ocean. Finally catching up to her. A tidal wave of tears surged toward her.
“You know what?” She leveled a hot glare at him. “Bea and I signed a contract. I gave her money down. A lot of it, and I haven’t missed a payment.”
“I’ll pay you every penny.”Or die trying.“So if you’re implying that I took advantage of Bea somehow, then you’re insultingly mistaken.”
He studied her, a torn expression on his face. “I wasn’t—”
“If you’d been around, she wouldn’t have had to depend on me.” She stepped up to him, the tips of her high-heeled boots almost grazing the toes of his expensive wingtips. Her stare met his chest, so she had to tilt her head back to look at him.
His eyes went dark and stormy as they caressed down her face to linger on her mouth.
As hard as it was, she tried to ignore the hum of electricity in the air between them. “Bea left what little she had to you.Iwas her witness. So if you’re angry that Bea sold the inn to me instead of leaving it to you—”
“—then too bad. If it meant that much to you, you should’ve shown more interest.”
His gaze didn’t leave her lips. “I did—”
“Legally it’s mine unless I default on the payments.”
Their eyes locked, and the hum of electricity turned to a high-voltage current that snapped between them. The woodsy scent of his cologne fogged her brain for a second, and she swayed into him.
When Talmadge’s muscular neck flexed and his head tilted forward, Miranda let out a tiny, almost inaudible squeak just as his mouth covered hers. To say she was surprised that he kissed her was an understatement. Like saying that thing Miley Cyrus did with her tongue was only mildly unattractive.
But good God, hewaskissing her. His lips moved over hers, warm and smooth but patiently in charge at the same time.
She should push him away. She really should.
He must’ve sensed the tremor of hesitation, because his kiss grew more demanding. She sighed and parted her lips. His warm tongue eased inside to caress hers, and a shudder of desire stormed through her entire body.
This was so not a good idea.
This wasTalmadge Oaks!The guy she’d longed for and avoided—mostly—for years.
She went rigid from head to curling toes, but his kiss grew deeper, and he slid his free hand around her waist to pull her closer. She followed his lead, allowing her lips and tongue to match his, stroke for stroke.
He just tasted so damngood.
The way his commanding mouth was on hers sent searing heat through every nerve ending in her body, and her hesitation ebbed. The rhythmic caress of his lips and tongue against hers soothed her doubt. The cold air turned sizzling hot around them. He sighed against her mouth. The last of her resolve tumbled like an avalanche at the top of Wheeler Peak, and she settled into him.
His freshly shaved jaw flexed as his kiss grew more demanding, his mouth leading and coaxing her into doing his will. She adjusted Lloyd under her arm and relaxed against Talmadge. With a sigh, she slid a hand up his chest, over his neck, and into his soft, straight hair.Finally.
Just as she remembered it, that sandy mane was the only soft thing about the man.
When his tongue caressed hers with just enough firmness to let her know he was in charge, a fire ignited down under. He fanned the flames by using the tip of that very clever tongue to trace her bottom lip. Nipped at it, then pulled it between his teeth and suckled.
Her girl parts went nuclear, and she nearly buckled at the knees. He must’ve felt her legs go slack, because his good hand sank to her bottom and he caught her. His strong fingers flexed into the bare flesh at the top of her thigh, and his thumb caressed the silk of her panties.
A sigh whispered through her, and she went slack. He steadied her by pulling her tighter against his muscled chest.
Good Lord, what he could do with just one good arm, a tongue, and two lips.
Caught between them, Lloyd yapped. Miranda broke the kiss. As she came back to reality, her eyes fluttered open. Talmadge’s hand cupped her ass. Outdoors. For the entire town to see.
Sonot a good idea.
She needed to stop this foolishness before a compromising photo showed up in theRed River Rag. As Red River’s newest entrepreneur, she absolutely did not need to be the subject of the new Tumblr blog that featured all of the town’s juiciest gossip. Whoever the blogger was must work for Homeland Security. They seemed to have hidden cameras all over town, e-mail hacking capability, and they probably had some illegal wiretaps going on, because they kneweverything!
Bad enough her bared ass might show up on YouTube. At least her face had been blocked by the table.
She looked up into Talmadge’s eyes, and they sparkled with confidence.
She’d tried not to live up to her mother’s colorful reputation for so long, she should know better. But after a few stolen moments with Talmadge Oaks . . . She might as well hand him the Sharpie that could permanently mark up her rep for good in this town. He would never smear her name. He wasn’t the kiss and tell type. No, he was too much of a crusader for that. Too busy defending the weak. Protecting the innocent. Saving the world. But if anyone saw them . . .
Gah!When would she learn that she couldn’t trust herself to be alone with Talmadge?
She’d made that mistake seven years, three months, and twelve days ago.
She wasn’t going to make it again.
The dirt over Bea’s grave probably wouldn’t even have time to settle before her grandson left town and returned to his life on the West Coast. If he didn’t leave on his own, some silicone hotel heiress who wore dresses so short she’d have to shave up to her eyebrows would waltz in and drag him away. Again.
“Excuse me.” Her chin notched up. “Your sense of direction must be off, because your hand seems to have wandered too far south.”
“So it seems.” He looked down at her from beneath shuttered lids.
She shook off the squeeze of lust that made her want to pull his head down and cradle him against her neck.
The warmth of his expansive palm fell away, and the cold spring breeze returned to bite at the back of her thighs. She cringed and returned a splayed hand to her butt. At the loss of his heated fingers, a swooshing breath of disappointment escaped before she could stop it, and his silver-blue eyes shimmered with amusement.
A knowing gleam danced in his eyes, as if he could tell that she really didn’t want him to stop. He looked away and studied the squeaking chairlift. “Sorry, but your fingers running through my hair definitely didn’t scream ‘let me go.’”
He pulled on the lapel of his jacket and reached under to adjust the sling again. The flash of a grimace coursed across his features for a fleeting moment, then it was gone, and he stood there. Staring at her in complete command of his presence and not the least bit flustered.
“It won’t happen again,” he assured her.
“Okay. Good,” she said with her mouth, but her brain and her quivering girl parts shouted,Use both hands next time!She looked away for the briefest of moments, pulling her bottom lip between her teeth. When she looked back at him his gaze dropped to her mouth, and his eyes went all dark and cloudy.
She had a sudden urge to lick her lips.
“Then you have my word I won’t touch you again.” One side of his strong, lush mouth lifted into a self-assured half-smile. “Unless you ask me to.”
Her lips parted at the innuendo. The memory.
As though he’d read her thoughts, amusement flickered in his eyes.
“I assure you I won’t be asking.” She tried to brush past him but stopped at his side and looked up at him. “About your inheritance—” A twinge of guilt feathered through her when she glanced down at Lloyd. Unfortunately, he had become an innocent pawn in their game of wills.
She gathered her courage and shoved the little football-sized dog into the crook of Talmadge’s arm. His arm and hand naturally closed around Lloyd.
This time she did brush past him. Ears burning, hand trying desperately to cover the opening in her pants—thank the angels in heaven she’d worn new panties today—she climbed the wooden stairs. Her boots clicked against the back porch. With a firm push, she sent Bea’s old swing into motion again and jerked open the screen door. Time to put on some new pants and tend to her guests before she changed her mind about giving him the dogandabout asking him to grope her backside again.
Because she’d enjoyed that part much more than she should have.
Miranda andher sweet little backside disappeared into the inn.
Thwack, thwack, thwack.The thud of the screen door lessened with each bang until it slowed to a stop. Miranda’s soft lips against his and her greedy fingers spearing through his hair like she’d been waiting to do that again for years had caused his brain to make the same sound.
Talmadge tried to pull air into his aching lungs. The last time the wind was knocked from his chest he’d fallen through a thin layer of earth and hit the floor of an undiscovered archeological dwelling like a jackhammer hitting solid steel. Watching the excavator fall in right after him with no air left in his lungs to scream was still causing him nightmares. This time, a small, graceful woman who hardly reached chest level had left him breathless by handing him a dog half the size of Talmadge’s shoe and telling him his business about his grandmother.
He looked down at Bea’s dog, who had erupted into another fit of trembling the second Talmadge’s arm closed around him. What the hell was he supposed to do with a poodle?
Talmadge drew in a heavy breath. Who was he kidding? It wasn’t just the dog. The truth of Miranda’s words—that Talmadge hadn’t come home to visit Bea enough—or at all the past few years—had hit him square in the chest and drove the nails of guilt and grief straight through his heart. He’d wanted to double over right there on the snowy ground beside the inn where he’d spent so much time growing up.
Every person at Bea’s funeral had made it a point to tell him how proud she was of him and his work. What Bea hadn’t known was he’d invested every last dime into the master-planned community of Trinity Falls, Washington, where every building, road, school, park, and home would be environmentally efficient. A project on the cutting edge of green living that had attracted attention from environmental and architectural organizations around the world. And then he’d screwed it up by hiring the wrong engineering firm, which had nearly gotten Talmadge killed.
He didn’t even want to think about the damage to his finances and his professional reputation if he didn’t find a way around this mess. He’d been too ashamed to share those two details with his grandmother.
Now Bea was gone.
His stomach twisted so tight that pain lanced into his limbs. He studied Bea’s dog. “Wow,” Talmadge said, taking in Lloyd’s bows and nail polish. “Sorry this happened to you.”Thiswas Bea’s surrogate replacement for the grandson she was so proud of? Maybe Bea wasn’t as proud of him as he’d thought.
Two skiers slid past, headed toward the lift, and Lloyd let out another high-pitched bark that was more like a squeal. He started to tremble harder.
Talmadge rolled his eyes and lifted his injured hand to give the dog a gentle pat on top of his fluffy head. Perfume wafted out of the cotton ball’s hair. Talmadge sniffed and jerked his head back. “Seriously? We need to get your man-card back.” Maybe he could drop the dog off at the groomer before leaving Red River. The groomer might even be able to help find Lloyd a new home.
Another stab of guilt sliced through him. He’d obviously abandoned Bea, and now he was doing the same to her dog.
Talmadge cradled Lloyd and walked along the sidewalk that led around to the front door, sidestepping patches of packed snow. Weeds popped up through the cracked sidewalk as proof that spring had converged on the Red River Valley. As he followed the crumbling concrete path along the side of the inn, he assessed the dilapidated condition. The loving attention his grandparents had given the property was gone, and the neat grounds were now in disrepair.
He took the steps up to the front door, pushed it open, and walked through the foyer to the spacious great room to the right. The wake was wrapping up, and several people had filtered out. A few family members lingered to talk in the dining room to the left. Talmadge bent to put the dog down, but Lloyd’s quaking resumed.
Really? He had to stand here and babysit a trembling dog? But as small as the perfumed pooch was, someone might step on him. He was pretty easy to miss since he was no bigger than a rat, and Talmadge didn’t want to bury both his grandma and her dog in the same day.
He looked around the room that used to serve as a place for the guests to socialize and relax, hoping for a safe place to put Lloyd. Some of the drywall was torn out, exposing the studs. Bea’s old antiques and parlor furniture still filled the inn, at least the rooms Talmadge had seen, and were covered with drop cloths. Building materials were stacked around the room in no particular order. Several workbenches were covered with miscellaneous junk, none of which looked like a real project with purpose.
Talmadge gave up, kept holding the dog, and moved across the room to the stone fireplace where a fire blazed. The flames helped kill the chill that hung in the room because the walls were exposed down to the studs, and the insulation was gone. He stroked Lloyd’s head with the fingertips of his injured arm. Even that small movement hurt, but the little guy wouldn’t stop shaking. When the warmth of the fire started to seep into them, Lloyd’s tremors slowed.
Talmadge smiled at the pooch. Funny. Warming himself by the fire had been one of Talmadge’s favorite things to do in this room once upon a time. He kept stroking the dog’s cotton ball head and stared into the fire.
Uncle Joe, Bea’s brother, younger by twelve years, walked over to stand with Talmadge.
“You going to be okay, Uncle Joe?” Talmadge gave his great-uncle a warm smile because the owner of Red River’s most popular watering hole—all six feet four inches, two hundred and eighty pounds of him—had cried on and off like a baby since he’d first called Talmadge with the news.
Joe took a handkerchief out of his back pocket and blew his bulbous nose. Loud. “Yeah.” He sniffed and nodded, his aging double chin wagging a little. “Bea was like a second mom to me. She darn near raised me, just as much as our mother did.”
Talmadge knew exactly what that was like. “She raised both of us, didn’t she?”
Another blow and sniff, and Joe put the handkerchief back in his pocket. He propped an arm on the mantle, his tweed sports coat going taut against his enormous girth. “She did. And helped out a whole lot of other folks, too. More than I can count.”
Speaking of . . . Without turning his head, Talmadge found the woman Bea never failed to exalt during every single weekly phone call over the past two years. He studied Miranda from the corner of his eye.
In a fresh pair of jeans that fit her rounded bottom like shrink-wrap, she gathered up dirty plates and cups, wadded napkins, and silverware. The sparkly things on her pockets held his attention as she made her way into the kitchen, and then returned to gather up more. She stopped every so often to greet one of the few remaining guests, consoling with a hug or a squeeze of their hand. A fluid smile stayed anchored to her full lips, but it didn’t show in her gold-flecked eyes. She clearly missed Bea as much as anyone else, including himself.
Unlike him, though, Miranda had been there for Bea. That fact had driven a rusty nail into his conscience out on the patio a few minutes ago and during most of his weekly calls to Bea. Miranda’s deep well of compassion toward his grandmother had brought him comfort as well as pricked his guilt. Which was why he’d interrogated her outside when he really should’ve been thanking her. Something told him that Miranda wouldn’t consider that unexpected kiss he’d laid on her a show of gratitude.
But the grief in her simulated smile made him want to take her in his arms. Kiss her until the hollowness in his chest filled with the same warmth she’d shown Bea and the sadness in her eyes turned to a glimmer of desire. Her eyes shimmering with passion was a beautiful sight. Even if ithadbeen seven years since he’d last seen it, it wasn’t something he’d ever forget.
Sometimes it occupied his thoughts during lonely nights when he couldn’t sleep.
The afternoon sun shining through the windows glinted off her silky black hair as it bounced around her shoulders with each step and movement. Not even the cheap fluorescent lighting made her less attractive.
Even in high school she had always seemed to catch the light. But she’d been too young for him back then. Already three grades behind him, she was still younger than anyone else at Valley High because she’d been moved up a grade.
“Bea mentioned that she sold the place to Miranda several months ago.” Still watching her, Talmadge’s words were an absent mumble.
Joe hooked a thumb under his lapel. “Miranda’s good people. Worked for me since she was a young’un.”
Talmadge nodded. “I remember.”
“Never had an employee as good as her and probably never will. Your grandma was lucky to have Miranda’s help the last few years.”
Yes, Miranda’s help had been invaluable. Talmadge’s throat thickened, and he looked away. He was a shallow prick for being jealous of the bond that had formed between Bea and Miranda because he should’ve been the one here helping her out.
“Who’s doing the remodel?” He tried to get back on point, because he’d much rather talk about Miranda’s wayward renovations than about his shitty attempt at being a worthy grandson. And despite all the mess and supplies and torn-out walls, he didn’t see any tools. Talmadge didn’t just design energy-efficient buildings. He was hands-on throughout the entire construction process and had been doing carpentry work alongside his grandfather since he was twelve. He could spot substandard materials without so much as a backward glance.
Uncle Joe, on the other hand, could cook a mean rib eye, but no one had ever accused him of being handy with a hammer and nails.
Before Uncle Joe could answer the question, two of Talmadge’s elderly widowed cousins sidled over and flanked him. Their silver hair turned a bitter shade of blue under the unflattering lighting.
“Clydelle. Francine.” Talmadge greeted the elderly sisters with a friendly smile, but Uncle Joe grumbled under his breath.
“There you are. We were trying to find you. Some of the guests wanted to say good-bye,” Clydelle said. “Saw the pictures of you inTimemagazine, Talmadge.” Clydelle leaned heavily on her cane. “Nearly sent your grandma to the emergency room with heart palpitations.”
Talmadge cringed. It had been hot the day the reporter came to interview him on a job site because he’d been deemed one of the one hundred most influential people of the year. So he’d doused his white T-shirt with cold water. He never guessed that the thin fabric would become see-through and cling to him like a second skin. He had no idea the hardhat, work gloves, and steel-toed boots would make him look more like one of the Village People than a successful architect who liked to roll up his sleeves and help get the job done.
Francine gazed up at him over the reading glasses perched on the end of her wrinkled nose, one shoulder drooping under the weight of her suitcase-size purse. “Tell me, sonny boy, are the muscles in that picture real or did they Photoshop you?”
“This is Bea’s wake,” Uncle Joe growled.
At least Francine had the decency to look contrite. Clydelle didn’t seem the least bit apologetic. “Next time you’re on HGTV, have them hose you down before they start taping.”
Talmadge fought off a smile. “I see you two ladies are still keeping Red River on its toes.” Not every old lady would invite a twelve-year-old boy to her weekly pinochle game and fleece him of every cent. Talmadge hadn’t placed a bet since then.
Unless you count his failing investment in Trinity Falls, which technically wasn’t gambling.
“As I was saying before you two old hens interrupted,” Uncle Joe grumbled and returned his attention to Talmadge. “There’s a new contractor in town who’s in charge of the construction. He moved here from Denver last year. Don’t know much about him except that he seems to cater to the older folks in town.”
Huh. Why would anyone move here from Denver?A good contractor would get way more business in a big city. Maybe he’d retired in Red River and took jobs just to stay busy.
“How old is he?” Talmadge took in the rich mahogany crown molding that gave the place so much character. It was dry and faded, but a new coat of varnish would bring it back to life.
“Your age. Early thirties. Maybe a few years older,” said Uncle Joe.
Too young to retire. Miranda made another pass through the room, gathering up plates and checking on the guests. Her smooth walk and easy smile lit the room, and no sign of the hardships he knew she’d faced while growing up showing on her beautiful face. She glanced in his direction, and their eyes connected. She seemed to falter, stilled for a second, then turned to speak to one of Bea’s distant relatives.
Talmadge tore his gaze from Miranda to survey the amateurish carpentry work.
“What’s his name?” Talmadge may need to do some checking.
“His name is . . .” Francine tapped her saggy chin thoughtfully. “Bill . . . no, Brent . . . no—”
“His name is Ben Smith,” Clydelle said.
Smith?Could be a coincidence, but having such a generic name seemed kind of convenient.
“That nice young man sure has been a lot of help to us widows who don’t have a husband around anymore.” Clydelle gazed off in the distance, a smile on her face.
“You two just like to watch him work without a shirt on,” Joe groused. “He couldn’t even provide credentials or references.”
Francine piped up, adjusting the weight of her bulging purse to the other shoulder. “He only takes off his shirt when he gets hot.”
“It’s April,” Talmadge deadpanned. “In the Rockies.”
“Hard work still makes a man work up a sweat.” Clydelle waved her cane at him. “You should know that better than anyone, Talmadge. That picture inTimespeaks a thousand words.”
Francine winked up at him.
Miranda made her way through the thinning crowd toward them. Talmadge’s pulse kicked up a notch, her sweet taste still lingering on his mouth.
As she approached, she laced the fingers that had just been spearing through his hair, and his scalp tingled for her touch. He lifted a hand to run his own fingers through his hair, but Lloyd squeaked.
“Sorry, buddy,” Talmadge whispered to the dog. “Didn’t mean to try to use you as a brush.”
Miranda joined their circle, squeezing her laced fingers. Her thumb furiously scratched against the other. “Can I get you anything else?” Her gaze shifted from Joe to Clydelle and then to Francine. She ignored Talmadge.
“No, dear.” Clydelle patted Miranda’s arm. “You’ve done Bea proud today.”
Miranda smiled, and Francine pinched one of Miranda’s dimpled cheeks.
“Thank you for hosting, hon. I know you’ve got your hands full with the remodel.” Joe looked at Talmadge. “I wanted to hold the wake at my restaurant, but Miranda insisted on doing it here,” he said, slinging a burly arm around Miranda’s shoulders like she was family.
Talmadge supposed she was, much more so than himself the past few years. Family at least showed up to the party. Talmadge had skipped out of town at eighteen to go to college, visited Red River as little as possible, and then stopped coming home at all after his grandfather passed away. He thought he could leave behind the awful memories of his parents’ accident. Instead, his absence had created more guilt and regret. Not only had he not been around for Bea, he never had the guts to tell her that he was to blame for the accident that took her only son and saddled her with the responsibility of raising Talmadge.
“It seems appropriate.” Miranda gave Joe a comforting smile and a daughterly hug. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Her gaze fell to the floor. “I’m only sorry that, um, certain people wouldn’t come to the wakebecauseI’m the host.”
“If they’d shown up, I would’ve thrown them out anyway,” Joe assured her.
Ah, her mother’s infamous exploits, no doubt. Talmadge remembered the scandal that had caused Miranda so much humiliation in high school that she hadn’t come to school for a week. Once upon a time, Ms. Karen Cruz had made enemies out of a few churchgoing families. Apparently, some of the married women in Red River didn’t take kindly to their husbands getting hauled in front of the deacon board because of rumors of inappropriate behavior with the disgraceful Ms. Cruz.
Miranda was her mother’s daughter in last name only. She shouldn’t be blamed for things that were beyond her control. This was Red River, for God’s sake. A town that prided itself on down-home, salt-of-the-earth people who were there for each other when it counted. But some old grudges died hard, and a few God-fearing families who had it out for anyone with the last name of Cruz must’ve skipped church services the day forgiveness was taught.
Francine looked Miranda up and down. “Dear, you’ve changed pants. The other pair was so darling.”
Miranda’s hand went to her rear end, and she glanced at Talmadge. He allowed a barely-there smile to glide onto his lips. Her amber eyes flashed, and her mouth pursed. A gesture he was sure she didn’t mean to be provocative, but damned if he didn’t find it the most attractive thing he’d seen in a long time . . . except for Miranda’s black panties, which he’d just had the privilege of seeing up close and personal. And touching. The touching part was even better, because they’d been as soft as the back of her creamy thighs just below her extraordinary ass.
He couldn’t help it. She hesitated just long enough for Talmadge to offer up another teasing barb. It was just too easy. And too much fun. But their answers came out at the same time.
“Miranda had a wardrobe malfunction.”
“I didn’t want to clean up in nice pants.”
All three of the older folks volleyed looks between Miranda and Talmadge.
Her cheeks turned light pink, which only highlighted her dark, silky hair and creamy skin. She wouldn’t look him in the eye.
He kept his gaze fastened to her.
“Where did you two disappear to?” Clydelle leaned in like she was hoping for a juicy piece of gossip. “You were gone for some time.”
“Lloyd just needed a walk!” Miranda’s words tumbled out.
Lloyd yapped at his name, and all eyes turned on the quivering dog in Talmadge’s arms. Silence fell for a second while the small audience took in Talmadge and his new ward.
He had grown accustomed to being in the spotlight since starting his front-running architectural firm in the Pacific Northwest, where green living was the center of attention. He’d learned to handle the attention from Hollywood celebrities who needed a cause. Holding his thoughts in check, never talking much so his words couldn’t be twisted, had become a way of life for him. But somehow holding a prissy dog made him want to pull at his collar and loosen his tie.
“Talmadge, dear.” Francine reached up and touched the back of his head. “How did your hair get all messed up? It looks like someone—”
Miranda choked, sputtered, and patted her chest while trying to catch her breath.
“Are you okay, hon?” Joe asked with fatherly affection.
She nodded, still unable to speak, but she glanced at Talmadge.
“Must’ve been the wind when I stepped outside to get some fresh air.” His eyes never left hers.
Miranda’s entire face deepened to a nice shade of red, and she looked away.
He didn’t miss the look Clydelle and Francine shot each other, and the waggle of Francine’s bushy gray eyebrows.
Maybe Miranda deserved a little embarrassment for brushing him off like his kiss had been a nuisance. Okay, she didn’t really deserve it. Hehadbeen a little out of bounds. But she certainly didn’t seem to mind by the way she sank into his kiss and molded against him.
Until the dog barked, and she swore she’d never let him touch her again. Kind of like the way she blew him off seven years ago after they’d done a lot more than kiss, chalking it up to a drunken mistake. Still, he liked the color rising up her slender neck and settling in the tip of her dainty ear behind which wavy locks were tucked on one side. Liked it almost as much as her slender fingers anchoring in his hair to muss it up and pull his mouth closer against hers.
Jesus, this is Bea’s wake, not a singles bar.
Joe cleared his throat. “So, Talmadge was just asking about the remodel.”
“Is that so?” Miranda’s expression went stony.
“When’s it going to be done?” Talmadge asked.
“Why?” Miranda’s lips thinned into a hard line.
Talmadge shrugged. “Just curious.”About your contractor.“I did grow up around the place.”
“It’s done when it’s done.” Her head tilted to one side like a challenge.
Her hand went to a curvy hip, and he couldn’t help but follow the movement.
“What about you, Mr. Oaks?”
Mr. Oaks?Hadn’t she just been returning his kiss—with extremely enthusiastic lips—while running her fingers through his hair? “Uh, what about me?”
“How long will you be in town?”
“Not more than a few days, I imagine.” That sassy fire ignited behind her gold-brown eyes.
“I would think you have a team of doctors and physical therapists waiting for you back in Washington.” She nodded to the sling that cradled his arm.
“And an entire community of contractors and employees anxious for their fearless leader to return.”
Hell, people usually stopped and listened when he spoke, because he was usually the person in charge.
Miranda Cruz didn’t.
“And probably a long line of young, hotel-owning heiresses eager for your arrival on the West Coast.”
It had beenonegoing-green hotel heiress, and Talmadge had never made that mistake again after she’d stalked him for the better part of three months and even showed up in Red River at his best friend’s wedding.Uninvited.The rumors over his other liaisons were hype to sell gossip magazines. He’d learned to ignore them.
Miranda’s eyes narrowed.
Before she could think of another sharp comeback, he launched one in her direction. “I’m here as long as I’m here.”
She pressed her lips together and stared at him.
Glared. Glared was a better description.
“Oh, wait!” Miranda tapped her chin with one finger with melodramatic flare. “Maybe Miss January is counting the days until you get home, too.” She leveled a flaming stare at him that singed something deep in his chest.
So she’d obviously seen the latest overblown story. The unfortunate incident with Miss January had been a publicity stunt set up by the girl’s agent and a damned nervy reporter. Using an important charity event, which Talmadge had organized to spark energy-efficient home construction along the western seaboard, as a stage to grab headlines for a pinup girl had pissed him off. He most certainly hadnotgrabbed her ass on purpose! She’d sidled up beside him wearing spiked heels that were six inches too tall and a skirt that was twelve inches too short. When she stumbled and fell against him, his hand had just landed there for a second until she regained her footing. Was he supposed to just let her fall? The media would’ve crucified him for that. Besides, he’d learned a long time ago that the bad publicity came with the territory, and it was a necessary evil when dealing with celebrities looking for a cause.
Interesting, though, that Miranda’s words held a tone of . . . jealousy? Nah. Couldn’t be. She seemed to dislike him too much to be jealous. So why in hell was she hammering him over his love life?
“Lately, I seem to attract women who need my assistance with that part of their anatomy.” He should probably feel guilty for taunting her.
She searched his eyes, found the hidden meaning, and blanched.
Nope. Not feeling the least bit guilty. Because his hand had not only been on her very nice and round ass just a few minutes ago out on the patio, but she’d needed his assistance in similar form once before. Seven years ago at their mutual friends’ wedding.
Her mouth clamped shut, and her plump lips thinned.
At least this time he managed to shut her up without having to kiss her in front of all these people.
Too bad, because he wouldn’t have minded that at all.
Talmadge’s room looked exactly as it did the day he left for college. Bea had been sentimental that way, so she’d left his sports trophies lining the shelves on the wall, a framed picture of him and his parents the year before they were killed sitting on the dresser, and the same dark blue down comforter that used to keep him warm during Red River’s frigid winter nights.
Talmadge pulled a fresh change of clothes out of his suitcase and tossed them onto the old quilt that Bea had kept folded at the foot of his bed. Changing out of the suit he had worn to the funeral was no easy task with a third-degree shoulder separation. One-handed it took him about a decade to unbutton his shirt. Just the thought of lifting his shoulder to pull on a fresh T-shirt hurt, so he left the unbuttoned white dress shirt on—the sweet scent of Miranda’s perfume still lingering from when she was molded against him just a little while ago. With some effort, he managed to get into a pair of jeans. He fumbled with the button at his waist, gave up, and settled for zipping them. Even that was a struggle.
Just a few more days in this town to get Bea’s will out of the way and close up the house. Then he could get back to Washington, start rehabbing his shoulder, work on a solution to Trinity Falls, and leave behind the emotional turmoil that still haunted him in Red River.
He opened the closet, and the scent of cedar and mothballs made him sneeze. Mostly empty hangers hung from the rod. He pulled the string overhead, and the single bulb with no fixture to dull the light stabbed at his eyes. His high school letterman jacket was the only piece of clothing left inside.
He fingered the leather sleeve. There were a lot of memories wrapped up in that jacket. Most of them good, some of them not. But all of them called to him from a different time before his career took off and his life became so complicated.
No. Not true. His life had been complicated since that effed-up day when he was a kid and his defiance obliterated his family and landed him on his grandparents’ doorstep.
The dull ache of sadness closed around his heart. Now his grandparents were gone, and he had nothing except his work to fill the void. And even his work was questionable at the moment.
He shook it off and went downstairs to the kitchen to feed Bea’s dog.
Bea’s dog.Not his. He could not take care of a dog right now. Especially one with painted nails and a rhinestone collar.
Talmadge shook the dry dog food he’d picked up at the Red River Market into a plastic bowl and set it on the baby-blue linoleum floor that seemed much dingier than his grandma ever would’ve allowed. “Come and eat, Lloyd.” The dog scampered in from the living room. Then Talmadge filled another plastic bowl with fresh water and placed it beside the food.
He stood back. “Bon appétit.” Seemed appropriate for a French poodle.
Lloyd sniffed, then sat on his haunches and turned his nose into the air.
“Sorry, buddy, it’s all I could find at the market.”
Talmadge looked in the pantry for Lloyd’s regular dog food one more time but came up with nothing.
He blew out a breath. He had more important things to do than worry about a dog.
“Sorry, buddy. Children are starving in Africa. I’m not driving back to the store tonight just to get different food.” And he certainly wasn’t going to call Miranda and ask her what Lloyd usually ate.
He’d had enough of Miranda Cruz for one day.
Actually, no. He hadn’t had anywhere near enough of her. That was the problem. He’d kissed her because he’d wanted to ever since the last time. Had never forgotten the time they were together.
And since he’d stepped out onto the inn’s back porch and got a nice view of Miranda’s panties, he hadn’t stopped wanting to see her in nothingbutthose panties. And maybe a pair of boots.
Jesus, he was acting like a horny teenager. Their first kiss—and everything else that had gone along with it—had happened years ago in a moment of weakness. They’d both had a few drinks at a wedding reception. And afterward Miranda told him it had been a huge mistake. A huge,drunkenmistake.
The throb in his shoulder deepened. It seemed to get worse when he was stressed, and thinking about Miranda Cruz made his blood pressure spike.
Lloyd’s disturbing glare hadn’t faltered, so Talmadge glared back. In under a minute, Talmadge broke, and grabbed a couple of gallon-sized baggies from the pantry. He started to fill them with ice from the freezer.
“Give me a minute, and I’ll see if I can find some human food for you.” He looked at Lloyd while scooping ice into the bag.
Lloyd sniffed again.
Talmadge shook his head.
So why had he never been able to completely get Miranda out of his head? He had no idea what possessed him to kiss her today.
He just liked the way she was so down-to-earth. So real. So unlike the women who’d tried to latch on to him since he’d become rich and famous. Well, he was still famous. For now. He glanced at his arm, which was cradled against his middle. If his investments and his current building project didn’t improve soon, he wouldn’t have to fend off shallow women anymore. His market value would plummet like the Dow Jones after an oil spill.
That was probably the only upside to his problems. He had grown tired of the plastic women his career had thrust into his path. Who would’ve guessed that becoming an architect would turn him into a quasi-celebrity?
He smirked. What a joke. He hadn’t dated much the last several years because of it.
He grabbed an ice pick from the drawer and chipped away at the ice cubes that had frozen together in a solid block at the bottom of the ice bag.
Miranda was a breath of fresh mountain air, and she’d obviously cared about his grandmother. And he’d gone and made stupid accusations because his ego had been wounded. Worse, he’d nearly made her cry.
Then he’d kissed the sense out of her until she let out a tiny moan. Which only made him want more.
It seemed to take another hundred years or so to chip and fill the bags, but he finally balanced them over his shoulder. He reached for a rolled-up ACE bandage on the counter and the bags wobbled. The hand on his injured arm shot up instinctively to steady them, and he howled in pain. An ice pack slid off and hit the floor with a thud.
Lloyd skittered into a corner, trembling.
Shit.Talmadge threw the other bag into the scarred ceramic sink and gripped the edge of the counter. Opened the ruffled blue plaid curtain and stared out the picture window over the sink that overlooked the twinkling lights of Red River below.
Coming back to Red River for his grandma’s funeral had been hard enough. He knew she hadn’t been feeling well. Had heard it in her voice during their phone calls. Then it was too late, and she was gone without him saying good-bye. But coming back a failure? An absolute nightmare, even if no one knew he was all but broke.
Kneeling, he gave the dog a scratch and picked him up. “Sorry, buddy. Didn’t mean to scare you.”
He wandered into the den where he’d spent evenings with his grandparents and every Saturday morning watching cartoons until he was old enough to drive. The worn shag carpet was rough against his bare feet and crunched with each step. The place was tidy, but a thick layer of dust coated the coffee table, and the brown paneling and outdated furniture made the place look dank and dirty.
What had Bea done with the money he’d sent her over the years? She could’ve remodeled every inch of the place. Better yet, she could’ve let him tear it down and build a new house. A mansion by Red River standards. But she’d loved this old gingerbread house up on the hill with just enough elevation to look out over the town. His grandfather had built it for her when they first married, and she couldn’t part with it.
He eased onto the frayed but comfortable sofa, set the dog in his lap so he could grab the remote, and flicked the channel to ESPN. There. Back to the real world. That should help relax him.
Except it didn’t because all he could think about was his floundering project back in Washington that was still headlining the news across the state. He plucked his cell off the coffee table and Googled press coverage on the Trinity Falls accident. He tapped the link for a Seattle-based channel.
Talmadge’s chest tightened as the news anchor reported on the accident, the injuries, the ancient ruins, and the unknown future of the Trinity Falls community. A preaching, teaching lecture on the irony of a leading green architect nearly destroying one of the most important archeological finds of the century. Conveniently, the reporter left out the part about how Talmadge himself stopped the project immediately to call in the authorities and every tribal council in the state of Washington.
He stared at the screen as the reporter droned on.
He hit the stop button and tossed the phone onto the lace doily in the middle of the coffee table. He let his head fall back to rest on the sofa cushion and rubbed his tired eyes.
A new call dinged on his phone. His office assistant’s name popped onto the screen. He touched the green button and answered.
“Hey, boss. Sorry to bother you at a time like this. How’re you holding up?” Ellen’s kids were grown, but she still held that motherly tone.
Probably why he hired her. She reminded him of Bea.
“I’m makin’ it. What’s up?” Hopefully not Trinity Falls, unless it was good news.
“That crazy reporter called again. The one who writes the gossip column for the local paper. Wanted an update on you and Monica.”
That would be Miss January. Talmadge’s eyes slid shut.
“I told her you were out of the office for a family emergency. Want me to give her any other message? Like maybe to get lost on a deserted island or something?”
“She’ll just get more relentless. Ignore her for now. I’ll deal with it when I get back to Seattle. Anything else?”
“I’ve taken up knitting. It helps pass the time.”
He smirked. “Glad to hear business is that good while I’m gone.”
“I’ll knit you a scarf.”
Maybe she could teach him how to knit since he didn’t have much work going on at the moment. He let out a hollow laugh. “I’ll be back in a few days. Call if anything else comes up.”
He ended the call, and Lloyd nuzzled Talmadge’s chest. With his arm wrapped around the pooch, Talmadge used a forefinger to scratch Lloyd’s belly.
Someone rapped at the front door, and Lloyd yapped. Langston maybe? At the wake, his high school buddy had threatened to stop by for a beer. A beer or four sounded pretty good right now.
Talmadge drew in a deep breath, left Lloyd on the sofa, and walked into the foyer.
Bea’s old house didn’t have a peephole, so Talmadge flipped on the porch light and jerked open the door, expecting Langston to be standing there with a six-pack of beer under his arm and a smart-ass smirk on his face. It had become a ritual during Talmadge’s rare visits home.
Instead, Miranda’s eyes rounded, and she seemed to stop breathing for a beat.
It wasn’t the gust of frosty evening air that made his skin tingle. It was her big brown eyes cascading over his chest, bared by the gaping shirt. Despite the frigid April temperatures, heat started to gather below his waist when her gaze fixed to the unbuttoned waistband of his jeans. The copper flecks in her eyes blazed to life.
Still in the clothes she’d had on when he last saw her at the wake, she held a grocery bag in each arm.
But her attention stayed firmly on his . . . crotch.
He couldn’t help it. He couldn’t. The corners of his mouth curved up.
“Can I help you with something?” Because by the look on her face, shewantedhelp with something.
Her gaze snapped to his, her eyes widening even more.
Satisfaction bloomed in his chest because even though she’d just saidnowith more defensiveness in her tone than the Seattle Seahawks had in their starting lineup, she nodded involuntarily.
“I, um, brought Lloyd’s food. And his dog bowls.” She gave one of the bags a jerking boost. “There’s some leftover food from the wake in this one. I thought you might get hungry, and the deviled eggs are really good.” When she mentioned the deviled eggs her eyes grew bigger and her expression turned to mortification.
Talmadge couldn’t imagine why talking about deviled eggs would make her react that way. Deviled eggsweregood. He liked deviled eggs.
She tried to shove both bags at him at once.
“Oof.” The bags jammed against his chest, and his good arm closed around one of them. “I can’t hold the other one. Would you mind bringing it in for me?”
She blinked at him.
“You’ve been inside Bea’s house, right?” He knew for certain she had.
Two more blinks.
He raised both eyebrows at her and angled his head to prompt her to speak.
“You’re half-naked,” she blurted, keeping her eyes steadily on his. The sheer willpower she exerted tonotlook at him from the neck down showed in her stiff expression.
A muscle next to her eye ticked.
He fought off a chuckle. “Come on, Miranda. I’m not naked. I had a hard time changing because of my shoulder.” He paused. A tiny pang of guilt gathered in his chest for wanting to tease her. But hell no, he couldn’t resist. “Besides, we’ve seen each other naked before.”
Like Miranda could ever forget being skin to skin with Talmadge Oaks. Especially since it had been her first and her only time to ever be skin to skin with . . . anyone.
She narrowed her eyes at him and tried to ignore his perfectly sculpted abs.
She really did try.
But then he adjusted the bag against his hip and the hard muscles of his chest rippled and jumped.
Her mouth turned to chalk dust.
“I can’t come in.” Surely that croaking sound wasn’t her voice? “I’ll just leave it here on the porch.” Yes, she definitely sounded like a frog. Time to go before she leaped all over him or her tongue shot out to lick him or something even more embarrassing. Hadn’t she just blurted something about deviled eggs? The very ones that that were laced with her pesky pheromones.
Holy Jeez. She started to set the bag down.
“My shoulder’s acting up, Miranda. Can you help me out?” He shrugged. “Since you’re here and all.”
She really shouldn’t. She hadn’t always exercised good judgment around Talmadge, especially on the rare occasions she’d found herself alone with him. Besides, the way people in this town idolized him because of his notoriety, even jumped when he snapped his fingers, irritated her.
“Please.” His voice and his look were a little helpless and a whole lotta cute.
Her insides turned to mush.
Without a word she took a step toward him, and he angled his body so she could cross the threshold. When she brushed past him, the rich scent of his soap sent her pulse racing. He kicked the door closed with a bare foot and headed toward the kitchen.
“In here.” He tossed his head in the general direction of the kitchen. With long strides, he walked ahead of her, his shirttails flapping to each side, Levi’s draping perfectly over a firm butt and muscled thighs.
Miranda squeezed her eyes shut for a second and nearly bumped into the wall.
Talmadge stopped and frowned over his shoulder. “You okay?”
“Um, yeah. Just tired from putting on the wake.”
As soon as he turned to stroll into the kitchen, Miranda mouthed a curse and followed him She set the bag on the counter and stared at the bowls on the floor.
“He’ll never eat out of that.”
Talmadge’s brows pulled together.
She took the bag from his arm and set it on the counter. Digging inside, she produced a small can of expensive gourmet dog food and held it up for him to see. Then she dug into the bag again and pulled out two of Bea’s bowls. “He’ll only eat this brand of dog food, which isn’t available in Red River.” Miranda set the can on the blue kitchen counter. “And he’ll only eat out of these bowls.” She separated the two pieces of fine china and popped the lid off the can.
“That’s Bea’s good china,” Talmadge murmured.
“Yep.” Miranda pulled open Bea’s flatware drawer and grabbed a spoon. “He’s spoiled.”
She spooned the mushy dog food into the bowl and called Lloyd’s name. She placed the bowl on the floor next to the other two. He pranced into the kitchen and buried his thin snout in the food, lapping it up like it was his first meal of the day.
“That’s amazing.” Talmadge watched Lloyd eat. “Bea never let me use those dishes, because she didn’t want any pieces to get broken.”
“What did you need help with?” Miranda wiped her hands on a dishtowel.
He turned those silvery eyes on her and stared at her for a second like he was still trying to wrap his head around a dog eating out of his grandmother’s coveted china. “Oh,” he finally said. “Can you help me wrap up my shoulder? I can’t do it one-handed, and it needs to be iced several times a day.”
Simple enough. She could do that.
He tugged one sleeve down over his arm, and that side of his dress shirt fell away, exposing more of his chest.
Miranda’s vision went all fuzzy for a second.
“I’ll show you how to do it,” he said.
Those words made his ripped torso snap back into perfect focus. Once—seven years, three months, and twelve days ago—he’d shown her how to do other things. Very nice things. Things she missed right about now.
“Miranda?” He fished the ice packs out of the sink.
She shook her head to clear her muddled brain. “Yes.” She nearly yelled. “Sure thing.”
“Can you grab one of the bandages?” He nodded to the two long strips of rolled elastic bandages and set the bags of ice on the counter. “I’m going to hold one bag in the front and the other in the back so they overlap just a little.”
She scurried over and snatched up the bandage. Then she sidestepped around him to work from behind. No way was she going to stand face-to-face with him so close that his breath would wash over her cheeks, down her neck, and prickle her skin all the way to her—
“Wrap the bandage over my shoulder.”
She jumped. Then reached up to follow his instructions.
The heat of his skin and the cold ice mingled together as her fingers brushed across his chest to stretch the bandage into place, and a shiver ricocheted through her. She swallowed.Okay. Done. God, he smelled good.
“Okay, circle it under my arm and back up over the shoulder again.”
What?She breathed him in.Oh. Yeah.She followed his instructions, her hand skimming along the sleek angles of his torso.
“Now diagonal across my back.” His tone turned husky.
She smoothed the bandage across his back, and the muscles rippled under her touch.
“Then all the way around my chest . . .” His voice cracked on the last word and trailed off.
What was that annoying ringing in her ears?
She reached around his torso with the bandage and had to wrap both arms around his middle to catch the bandage roll with the other hand. And oh, sweet baby Jesus, he was so warm and hard. Her breasts pressed against his back, and she really wanted to kiss the bare skin between his shoulder blades, because it was right there just an inch from her lips.
His breath hitched, and she hesitated. Her arms were still wrapped around him like a sensual embrace. He released the ice packs, secured now by the bandage, and placed his hand over hers.
“Miranda?” He said her name, soft and gentle, and this time his tone held a question that entailed far more than just helping wrap his shoulder.
“What?” she snapped, peeved at herself much more than at him. Because, really, how could she let herself react like . . . like one of his hotel-owning groupies? “I just couldn’t reach it.” She switched the bandage to the other hand and put a few inches between them while she wrapped it over his shoulder again.
His big hand fell away from hers. “I was just going to ask where Bea gets the dog food.” His voice went hard, just like his body.
“Oh.” She wrapped and diagonaled and circled and wrapped. And tried to shake off the zing of heat pulsing through her veins straight to the spot between her thighs. The spot that only Talmadge had been able to bring to a boil. “She had to drive into Taos for it.” She tried to smooth the damned croak in her voice. “I’ve picked it up for her the past few months because she didn’t feel like making the trip.”
Finished with the bandage, she secured the end by tucking it into the web she’d woven around him.
He turned to face her. Stared down at her from under shuttered lashes. “Thank you for helping Bea. And thank you for the wake.”
Oh. Well. She cleared her throat, and the ringing in her ears got a little louder.
“Is there anything else I can do for you?” She nearly swallowed her tongue. “I mean do you need help with anything else?”
The corners of his strong mouth lifted into that half-smile. And for a moment, she wanted to step into his arms and soothe whatever troubles he’d been carrying inside as long as she’d known him. The sorrow that showed in that almost-smile. The one she’d dreamed about. Owned by the guy she’d wanted since before he went and got all famous and had beautiful, rich women stuck to him like Velcro. The only man on earth who could rip her heart right out of her chest and grind it to a pulp if she let him.
She wasn’t going to let him.
She took a step back. “I’m leaving.”
His gaze dropped to her mouth. “You don’t have to.” It was an invitation. “But you probably should.”
Andthatwas a warning. His lust-laden voice and smoky eyes clouded her senses, circled around her heart and threatened to break it in half. At least he was honest. Always had been. So Miranda gathered what little willpower she had left and walked out. Because the truth was, Talmadge was the one leaving and Miranda never would.
Giving the door to the inn’s owner’s suite a frustrated slam, Miranda tossed her keys and purse onto the dinette table. She needed a shower. A hot one. Or maybe a cold one would work better after rubbing against Talmadge’s bare, muscled back, because she needed something to douse the flames still making parts of her body quiver that had absolutely no business doing so. At least not when anyone else was in the room.
A wavy, black head of messy hair peeked around the corner from the kitchen. Her younger brother, Jamie, waved and pointed to the phone at his ear. His thin build and five feet eight frame made him look more like a high school kid rather than a college sophomore.
“Mom,” he mouthed.
“I’ve got classes and homework tomorrow, Mom. I can’t help your new boyfriend move in.” Jamie rolled his eyes at Miranda.
Her grimace turned to a groan. Not another one. The last one was supposedly “for real this time” and was going to marry her mother and take care of her if she’d just let him move in and recover from a back injury. Yeah, he’d lasted about as long as her mother’s meager paycheck. Then he borrowed her car to go to the liquor store and never came back.
Jamie shot Miranda an evil grin. “Hold on, Mom. Miranda wants to talk to you.” He walked over and shoved the phone at her.
“I hate you.” She took the phone, and Jamie laughed.
She flicked on the floor lamp that sat in the corner of the den, and sank onto Bea’s old plaid sofa. Talmadge’s grandparents had only used the owner’s suite to rest during the day when they ran the inn, so the furnishings were sparse. Miranda lived there, and someday she’d redecorate and make it a homey little place all of her own. Right after she figured out how to pay for it. In the meantime, Bea’s old sofa was Jamie’s bed. It was a whole lot cheaper than a dorm at Highlands University.
With an exhausted breath, Miranda put the phone to her ear. “Hi, Mom.”
“How’s my little girl?” Her mother’s voice, raspy from years of inhaling smoke from menthol cigarettes and seedy biker bars, scratched at her ears like claws against a chalkboard.
Right. Miranda hadn’t been a little girl since she was two. She’d been a grown-up practically since birth, trying to fill in the gaps of responsibility in her family just to survive. Once Jamie arrived, Miranda had gone from adult to mother figure. All by the age of six and a half. While Miranda was making sure Jamie was bathed regularly and teaching him to read, her mother’s biggest concern was finding another man with a Harley.
“I’m just fine. You?” Why did she even ask?
“You sound tired, sugar.”
Oh no.Sugarusually meant her mother wanted something. And that something was usually money.
“What is it, Mom?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Her mother was already defensive.
Definitely wanted something.
Miranda exhaled. “Nothing. I’m just tired. Bea’s funeral was today, and I had the wake at the inn.”
Her mother sighed. Loudly. “You’re a good soul, Mira. Taking care of someone who wasn’t even family.” She emphasized the last three words.
“Bea did a lot for me. I owed her.” For the way Bea had taken an interest in Miranda’s life, given her the credit no one else had for raising Jamie when her mother was off doing Lord knew what with God knew whom, sometimes not coming home for days at a time, Miranda owed her a lot more than a wake.
Her heart suddenly squeezed. Her friend was never coming back.
Here it came.
“Ted is moving in.”
Oh, this one’s name was Ted.
“Can we borrow your Jeep? All he has is a Harley.”
Well, she wasn’t going to chance another one of her mother’s boyfriends running off with the only vehicle Miranda owned.
She’d been supporting herself and Jamie since she was eighteen, even moving them into the apartment over Lorenda’s garage. Miranda loved her mother, she really did. Who knew why her mother had turned out the way she had? She wouldn’t talk about her childhood, but Miranda had figured out a long time ago that it must’ve been hard and very, very painful. Still, she wasn’t going to keep enabling her. “Can’t, Mom. I need it to haul supplies for the renovations.”
“Maybe the inn was a bad investment, Mira.”
Miranda rubbed her eyes with a thumb and index finger. Was it too much to ask that her mother show some support? A little encouragement? Just once? “Look, Mom, I have to go.”
Jamie came out of the kitchen, munching on barbecue chips. He picked up one of his textbooks off the table and waved it at Miranda.
“Jamie needs help with his homework.”
Thank you,she mouthed to her little brother and hung up.
“Okay, I don’t hate you quite as much.” She kicked off her shoes.
“Good. So . . . I’m getting a job.” He shoved another chip into his mouth and chomped.
“What? No, you’re not.” No he wasn’t.
The drive back and forth to college because she couldn’t afford a dorm chewed up a lot of his time. Besides, she wasn’t about to let Jamie waste precious study time at a dead-end job. Not with his brains. She’d been deprived of a college education even though she’d finished first in her senior class and scored a thirty-one on the ACTs, but she’d see to it that Jamie got one if it bankrupted her.
Which it just might, because her funds were running dangerously low. If she had to choose between paying for Jamie’s tuition and paying the mortgage on the inn, she’d have to default on the note and lose her dream of becoming a business owner.
“I want you to focus on school.”
“I am focused on school,” he argued around a mouthful of chips.
She gave her head an authoritative shake, switching into mother hen mode. “I don’t want a nothing job to distract you from studying.”
Her phone rang. Good, because she was not having this conversation. She worked too hard to make sure Jamie had a better life. She didn’t want him to lose focus now that he was half finished with his degree.
“Hello.” She answered the call without even looking at the number.
“Hey, girlfriend,” said Lorenda, her BFF since high school.
“Hey yourself. Whatcha doing?”
“I’m packing to jet off to Paris for a romantic weekend with my new rich lover,” Lorenda said, all seriousness.
Lorenda laughed. She’d been mostly a single mom since her two kids were born, because her husband hadn’t come home from Afghanistan alive. Both boys were still in elementary school, so trips to Paris and romantic weekends weren’t on Lorenda’s list of priorities. “I’m cleaning the boys’ bathroom. They had the stomach flu the last two days.”
“Oh dear.” Miranda wrinkled her nose.
“Yeah, I’m living the dream.” Her tone softened. “Sorry, I missed Bea’s funeral.”
“Bea would’ve understood.”
“My mom and dad said you did a nice job with the wake. How’d it go?”
The way Miranda saw it, she had two choices. She could tell her best friend the truth about how Talmadge had so thoroughly explored her mouth with his and how he’d done an exceptional job fondling her ass with his big, warm hand. Or she could lie.
“Oh, you know. Just an average wake, I guess.” Average wake her ass. Literally.
“Need me to come by tomorrow and help clean up?” Lorenda offered.
“Already done. Besides, it sounds like you’ve got plenty more to clean than I do.”
Lorenda laughed. “Hey, my mom just called. Did you know there was a town meeting tonight?”
“Nope.” Between losing Bea and organizing the wake, Miranda hadn’t kept up with the weekly events in Red River. “Why?”
Never a good sign. “What?”
Jamie wandered into the kitchen and stuck his head in the refrigerator to look for more food.
“You were kind of elected to chair the Hot Rides and Cool Nights Festival this year.”
Miranda sat up. “Elected? I didn’t put my name in.”
“Um, Mom said Clydelle and Francine put it in because no one else volunteered.”
“But Mrs. Wilkinson usually chairs it.” A flutter settled in the pit of Miranda’s stomach, because Mrs. Wilkinson hated Miranda. With a passion. Because Miranda’s mother had caught the eye ofMr. Wilkinson many moons ago, and that didn’t go over so hot at their church since he was a deacon and Mrs. Wilkinson taught Sunday school. Of course, they painted her mother as the aggressor, and Mr. Wilkinson swore nothing physical had happened between them.
To this day, Mrs. Wilkinson’s head spun full circle when she saw anyone with the last name of Cruz. That woman had already made Miranda’s life uncomfortable by lifting her nose in the air like Miranda was dirt every time they ran into each other. Which was often in a town the size of Red River. “Why didn’t she volunteer this year?”
“Apparently, she was late to the meeting. Not a lot of people were there because of Bea’s funeral today. Clydelle made a motion to vote on it tonight, Francine seconded the motion. Right before Mrs. Wilkinson walked in claiming someone had sliced one of her tires. Mom said Old Lady Wilkinson didn’t exactly take the news with grace. So watch out for her. She’s scary.”
The woman was way beyond scary. She was one hundred and fifty percent shouldn’t-be-allowed-to-operate-heavy-equipment-or-own-a-gun crazy.
And just like that, Miranda was back in the Wilkinsons’ crosshairs.
“Your ass went viral.” Jamie shouted at Miranda over the buzzing of the electric sander in her hands. He sat on a barstool behind the inn’s kitchen counter while she tried to keep some forward momentum going with the renovations. She’d lost valuable work time because of hosting the wake yesterday . . . and because her contractor was still AWOL.
“What?” She shouted back at him without looking away from the wood beam that ran across the dining room ceiling. Because surely she’d just heard him wrong. He did not just say—
“Your ass,” he yelled, “went viral!”
When Miranda jerked her head around to look at him, the old rickety ladder she stood on shook. She went still, regained her balance, and flipped the power switch to off. The handheld sander whirred to a stop, and she glared at her brother through orange safety goggles.
With a toss of his head, Jamie pushed his long, black bangs to one side and turned his laptop so she could see the YouTube video of her on all fours. The recording appeared a little off-color from behind goggles, but it was indeed her ass. Bared for all the world to see on YouTube, except for the thin silk layer of her sheer panties.
She clamped her eyes shut.
“Guess how many views you’ve gotten just since the wake yesterday?” Little brother sounded way too happy about her butt cheeks showing up on social media.
“I was trying to help Lloyd!”
“No really. Guess.”
“Shouldn’t you be defending my honor? Hunting down the delinquents who caused my humiliation?”
He smiled. When he leaned forward so he could see the screen, too, his bangs fell across one eye. “I’d rather give them a high five. This is sick stuff. You know how many years I’ve tried to find something this good to hold over your head?” He answered his own question. “Ever since you practiced cutting my hair because you were thinking of applying to beauty school.”
“It didn’t turn out that bad.” Sort of.
“You had to take me to the barber and have it shaved to the scalp.”
True. But on the upside, she’d realized becoming a hairstylist wasn’t her thing.
She rubbed her forehead. “Can’t you take the YouTube video down?”
Jamie shrugged. “Once it’s out there, it’soutthere.” He didn’t look away from the screen. “Oh, wait. This is the good part.” He held up a finger for a second, eyes intent on the screen, then burst into fits of laughter.
“Don’t you have college classes to attend? Or do you just like wasting my money?”
He flipped his laptop around again. “Online class today.” He pointed to the screen and grabbed a cookie from the bin.
“You eat more than you’re worth,” she deadpanned. Maybe she’d give him another haircut after she duct-taped him to the barstool.
He tossed his hair to one side again and munched on the cookie. “Precisely why I’m getting a job.” He grabbed another cookie, trying to satisfy his voracious metabolism. Damn him. “And I’m going to pay you back all the tuition money one day.”
“Every penny.” She tried to make it sound like a reprimand but ended up fighting off a smile instead. “Afteryou finish your degree. So no job. Not unless it has something to do with a future career.”
“You know I love you, sis.” Jamie blew her a kiss, and her heart warmed even though she knew he was just sucking up. He was a great kid, and he was there to help her whenever she needed it, just the way Bea had been.
Bea believed Miranda could turn this place into a thriving focal point of the town again. It had been Bea’s idea for Miranda to buy it. But now Talmadge had inherited the note. He might consider a grace period on the payments if Miranda needed it.
She chewed the inside of her cheek.No.No way would she ask him for help. Not after how close she’d been to tossing her self-control to the wind while helping wrap his shoulder. And especially not after he insinuated that she may or may not have taken advantage of his grandmother, a woman she’d loved like a mother.
She needed to prove her mettle to Talmadge Oaks.
No. She needed to prove her mettle to herself.For Jamie’s sake, she had to prove once and for all that they didn’t have to accept the hand of poverty that had been dealt the Cruz children. Since they’d never gotten any encouragement from their bar-hopping mother, Jamie was worth Miranda’s effort.
Even though he enjoyed the humiliation of her ass going viral on YouTube.
She flipped the sander on again, but a loud knock sounded on the back door. Carefully, she leaned to the right and looked down the hall. The door swung open a second later.
Talmadge swaggered in, dressed to the nines. Overkill for Red River, in her opinion. But holy lip-smacking moly, he was the most perfectly formed man she’d ever seen.
She drew in a sharp breath and looked away, only to have his sheer male beauty draw her attention right back. She felt like a bee that had just discovered an ocean of nectar.
He flipped a pair of black aviators to the back of his head as soon as he stepped across the threshold in black tailored dress pants and black driving shoes. A sling still held the injured arm against his midsection, but a black mock turtleneck clung to the hills and valleys of his chest and arms.
He could’ve done Don Corleone proud dressed like that, except for the tiny poodle under his arm. A mob boss probably would’ve preferred a pit bull over a bow-wearing toy poodle.
“Morning.” His lips seemed to mouth the words as she took him in. She looked down at the buzzing noise and snapped out of the trance. Flipped the switch to off again.
He gave her ladder a long once-over. The muscles in his jaw flexed, and several creases appeared between his eyes.
“Morning.” She touched her jaw to make sure it wasn’t hanging open, and to her surprise it wasn’t. Because the man was drool-worthy.
“Hey, Mr. Oaks, you probably don’t remember me, but I’m Miranda’s brother.” Her little brother’s voice shook with admiration.
“Kid brother.” Miranda shot him a disgusted look, because Jamie never looked at her with that kind of awe. And she was paying his way through college! “Seven years my junior.”
“Six and a half, and you never let me forget it,” Jamie mouthed off, but his expression went timid the moment his attention returned to Talmadge.
“Because you should show your elders some respect.” Miranda’s teeth were starting to hurt from grinding them so hard.
Jamie smiled at her, took an exaggerated bite of a bagel, and plunked his legs up on the counter crossed at the ankles.
“Sure, I remember you. You’re just taller now.” Talmadge chuckled and notched up his chin at her brother. Miranda thought Jamie would melt right there on the floor from hero-worship.
Really? Talmadge was an architect, not a movie star. She rolled her eyes. But part of her heart cinched tight, and she wondered if Jamie’s instant respect for Talmadge had something to do with never having a dad around. Never evenknowingwho his dad was. Of course, Talmadge seemed to command that respect from most people in a room simply by stepping into it.
“Did you forget something, Mr. Oaks?” Miranda turned her attention back to the other annoying male in the room.
Jamie blew out ahumphlike she was the biggest dream crusher in the world and straightened to tap away on his laptop again.
Talmadge gave Lloyd a boost. “I need to leave him here.”
Miranda set the sander on the flimsy metal shelf attached to the top of the ladder and grabbed a paint scraper. Furiously, she started to work on a crossbeam directly over her head. “Why would you leave him here? He’s your dog.”
Talmadge came over and stood next to the ladder. “He whined and yelped all night.” The tone of his voice raised a notch like he was kind of desperate.
Involuntarily, her gaze flitted to Lloyd. “Where’d he sleep?” She tried not to look at Talmadge. Tried to focus on the task of stripping an already well-stripped section of the beam. She scraped some more, the speed of her strokes increasing.
“In the laundry room. It was too cold to put him outside. Plus I didn’t see a doghouse in Bea’s backyard.”
Miranda blew out an exasperated breath.Men could be so dense.
“He’s not an outside dog.” As if the bows and nail polish didn’t give that away. “He’s not used to sleeping alone. Let him in your bed.” She swallowed at her own statement.
Talmadge stared at the dog, horror etched across his face. “Beg your pardon?”
“He’s used to sleeping with Bea. So, let him sleep with you now.”
“This dog is not sleeping in my bed. No one sleeps in my bed.”
The tool slipped from Miranda’s hand. She grabbed for it, caught it, and steadied herself on the swaying ladder. Right. Not a lot of sleeping went on in Talmadge Oaks’s bed when someone besides him was in it. She knew that all too well.
Her insides coiled so tight she thought she might spontaneously combust.
Talmadge set Lloyd down and went to stand at the foot of the ladder. “You’re going to kill yourself on this sorry excuse for a ladder.” With his good hand, he gave it a small shake. It nearly toppled with her on it.
“Hey!” She grabbed onto a rung. His steadying hand on the small of her back sent heat racing through her.
At least it wasn’t on her ass this time.
“I’m not going to let you fall. I just wanted to prove a point.” His warm palm molded against her back.
“By killing me?”
“Sorry, but what thehellare you doing on this shoddy old thing with tools in your hand? If you don’t kill yourself, you could easily lose some fingers, or a limb, or an eye.”
She pulled off the safety goggles and propped them on top of her head. “That’s what these are for.”
His gaze studied her eyes. Looked deep, then dropped to her lips.
The tip of her tongue slipped out to wet them.
“Plastic goggles aren’t going to do much good if you fall on top of an electric sander that’s going full speed.” He took the sander from the top shelf of the ladder and set it aside.
“The remodel is behind schedule. I can do some of the projects myself. I’m not afraid of hard work.”
“Shouldn’t your contractor be doing the heavy lifting? And if he’s a professional, he should have better equipment than this.” Talmadge gave the ladder a dismissive wave. “Where is he?”
She hesitated. Good question. Not that it was any of Talmadge’s business, but a good question nonetheless. So good, in fact, that she’d been wondering that very thing ever since she handed Ben Smith several thousand dollars for roofing supplies. The next day he’d texted that he was sick with the flu and hadn’t shown up for work since.
That was several days ago, and he’d stopped answering his cell. So, wherewasMr. Smith?
None. Of. Talmadge’s.Business.All he needed to know was that she was handing him her payments at the end of each month.
So why did she feel it necessary to defend her choice to hire Ben Smith? Lots of people in town had used him. All of Red River’s silver-haired widows were happy with him. Couldn’t stop singing his praises, in fact. So Talmadge’s suspicious tone irked Miranda because maybe he was insinuating that she’d made a poor business decision. “Ben needed money to buy roofing materials, and then he got sick.” She hoped. She prayed that was true. “When he comes back, he’ll bring his equipment. In the meantime, I found these tools in the storage closet.”
“In the meantime, get down off that death trap.” Talmadge’s statement was a demand.
Or rather a command. He wascommandingher!
She wielded the paint scraper and started on the beam again. “I’ve got work to do.” Shedid nothave to do what he said.
“You can’t work if you’re hurt.”
“You should know.” She pointed to his sling.
They glared at each other.
Without taking his eyes from hers, he reached for the scraper in her hand, tossed it on top of a pile of materials, and gave the ladder a small but firm shake. She lost her balance on the wobbling ladder and fell right into his arms. Well,arm.
He used his good arm to catch her and held her flush against him with her legs dangling in the air. His look was firm, his minty breath caressing her cheeks.
“Put. Me. Down.”
He stared down at her with a smoky gaze. “Whatever you say.” His words came out more like a murmur, and the tickle of his breath raced down her neck all the way to her toes.
He let her slide down his hardened body, inch by glorious inch. And oh, heavens, if this were a contact sport, she’d trample every woman for miles to join the team. Her feet touched the ground, finally . . . unfortunately . . . and she stepped out of his arm.
“Don’t get back on that thing.”
This was her place, and she’d been taking care of herself and Jamie since before she hit puberty. She wasn’t going to be cowed by a man the way her mother always had. Now that Bea—the closest person to a role model Miranda had ever had—was gone, she’d damn sure help herself instead of relying on a man for anything.
Because men never stayed around.
One of his silky brows arched.
She grabbed at her ponytail and twisted the end around an index finger. Studied the sawdust that she’d left on the entire length of his front, stark against his jet-black clothing. Served him right.
She tried to feign a condescending tone. “Look,Mr. Oaks—”
The silver-blue of his irises flared to a dusky purple.
God, she loved purple.
She glanced away for a nanosecond before trying to manufacture more indignation. “I know you’re used to commanding your employees, the press, adoring activist fans, and women from all tax brackets—”
A muscle in his squared jaw tensed.
“But I’m not your employee. I’m not an adoring fan.”Liar.She followed every one of his projects. Had for years. And the last two years, she’d made a weekly date at Bea’s to bring her laptop and read articles off the Internet because Bea’s vision was deteriorating. “And I’m certainly not a woman who wants . . .”You.She had to bite her lip to keep from blurting it. And suddenly her throat went very, very dry. Who turned up the thermostat in here, anyway? She could barely pay her bills as it stood.
She wasn’t sure if it was the way he set his freshly shaved jaw, or the way one of his lush brows arched with just enough arrogance to make her teeth grind, but she snapped. This was her dream, not his. His dream had been fulfilled and was still waiting for him back in Washington. Even though he’d caught a tough break with Trinity Falls, his grandparents had made sure he got the education he needed to pursue his career.
So why was he here interfering with the one and only chance she’d ever have to be something more than a waitress? To be in control of her future and take charge of her destiny.
“I’m done taking orders from other people. I’m the boss in this place. The contract I signed says so. So go find someone else to order around.”
An almost-smile slid onto his mouth. Without a word, he turned the ladder on its side and stomped on the hinge, which snapped like a twig.
This time Miranda’s jaw really did fall open.
He carried the ladder past the counter to the back door.
“Get the door,” Talmadge said to Jamie, who scrambled to his feet to do Talmadge’s bidding.
Miranda wanted to scream. Talmadge tossed the ladder outside against the trash Dumpster and walked back into the inn. He brushed his hand against his dusty clothes, then Jamie let the door slam shut again.
“Better,” Talmadge said. “Now what were you saying,Ms. Cruz?”
“That was the only ladder I had!”
“Not saying much. I’ll bring you a better one from Bea’s. My grandfather’s work shed is still filled with equipment.”
“But—” Miranda tried to slow her spinning mind. How dare he walk in here and . . . and . . . take charge.
She looked at her brother for some familial support.
Jamie stared at Talmadge, the admiration in her little brother’s eyes about as subtle as a neon sign in the middle of a power blackout.
“Dude, that was awesome.” Jamie’s voice was an awe-inspired whisper. “No guy has ever brought Miranda to her knees.” Jamie turned pink and glanced at Miranda. “Uh, pardon the pun, sis.” He looked at Talmadge. “Who knew she’d let her new boyfriend boss her around.”
Miranda and Talmadge’s heads swiveled toward Jamie.What did he just say?
“He’s not my boyfriend,” she blurted at the exact same time Talmadge spoke up.
“I’m not her boyfriend,” he said. Not quite as loudly as she did, but the firm authority in his voice was no less effective in conveying his distaste for the thought. Which galled her to the bone.
“Sure you are.” Jamie grabbed his laptop and turned the screen to them. A picture of her and Talmadge, lips locked, bodies molded together, his hand groping her ass where her pants had split in two, stared back at them. “This just showed up on theRed River Rag.”
Miranda’s eyes crashed shut. “Oh my God. This can’t be happening.”
Talmadge’s tone turned confused. “What’s theRed River Rag?”
“It’s a Tumblr blog about all of Red River’s gossip,” said Jamie.
“I thought Tumblr was mostly porn?” Talmadge said. When Miranda shot him her very best disgusted look, he mumbled, “Not that I would know.”
Miranda had tried to live clean. Tried not to earn the same bad rep as her mother. And she’d pulled it off spectacularly except for that one tiny indiscretion with Talmadge seven years, three months, and thirteen days ago. Miraculously, she’d been able to keep those few hours they’d spent in the inn’s honeymoon suite top secret, but now she was making headlines over an accidental rendezvous that involved her wardrobe malfunction, Talmadge’s hand, and both of their lips? At Bea’s wake!
Oh, God.She was supposed to be building a reputation as Red River’s newest respectable proprietor.
Jamie chuckled like it was funny, which it wasn’t in the least. “If Tumblr is mostly porn, then you two fit right in.” Jamie laughed harder.
So not funny.
“I’m going. Tokillyou,” Miranda said through gritted teeth.
“Hey, it’s your ass going viral on the Internet, not mine.” Jamie held up both hands.
“It will be in the most painful way possible. When you least expect it,” Miranda promised.
“It’s not my fault you got caught on camera making out with someone famous.”
Miranda’s jaw locked. “We were not making out,” she managed to grind out. Well. Damn. Yes they were. “Were we, Mr. Oaks?”
He just shrugged, one corner of his mouth curling up. “We kinda were.”
She pinched the bridge of her nose.
“Sick! My sister’s dating Talmadge Oaks. Wait till I put this on Instagram. I’ll have girls all over me.”
“We’re not dating!” Miranda yelled. “And I swear to God if you put thatanywhereor tell anybody, you will never be able to sire a child to carry on our family name.”
She turned on Talmadge. “You have to do something to stop this. People in Red River will listen to you. I can’t have people thinking we’re . . . we’re . . .”
She pointed to the door, steam virtually swirling from her ears. “Go. Now.”
He flexed the hand on his injured arm and looked down at it. “I’ve got a couple of appointments. Lloyd will stay here while I’m gone.”
It wasn’t a question. He wasn’t politely asking for a favor like normal people would. It was a command. She almost blurted no just to show him she really was the boss, but she did love the little dog.
Talmadge trekked toward her, stopping a breath away. “I’ll be back later with arealladder and some tools.” He placed the edge of his index finger under her chin and lifted her gaze to meet his. Mockery gleamed in his metallic eyes. “Sweetheart.”
Talmadge found a parking spot along the curb in the middle of Red River’s historic business district and glanced at his watch. He was late for the reading of Bea’s will, but he doubted being a few minutes late in Red River would ruffle a lot of legal feathers. He was surprised Red River even had an attorney now.
He picked at the sawdust that Miranda had just left all over him. Dirty clothes were a small price to pay for the feel of her sliding all the way down his body. He’d wanted to hold her there; the contrast of her soft curves against his work-hardened body had ignited a fire down below.
He picked faster.
The sawdust clung to his dress clothes like gum, so he finally gave up and got out of the old Ram truck. The door creaked when he slammed it.
Wheeler Peak was magnificent any time of year, but particularly in the winter and spring when it was still clothed in white all the way to the bottom. He admired it for a second while a few cars tooled by, and then darted across the street to Angelique Barbetta-Holloway’s law office, which was above her husband’s Main Street medical practice.
He climbed the stairs, rapped a knuckle against the open door, and peeked inside.
“Please come in.” Angelique stood and welcomed him.
“Nice to meet you.” Talmadge walked in and shook her hand over the desk.
She waved him into a seat in front of her. The tasteful armchair barely fit his large frame, but he was used to it. So he adjusted himself at an angle.
“You as well, Mr. Oaks.” Rumor had it she was as smart as she was beautiful and was fiercely in love with her new husband, Dr. Blake Holloway, with whom she was expecting a baby.
And he’d gleaned every bit of that information by scrolling through theRed River Ragon his phone since he’d left the inn a few minutes ago. Wow. Anything a person wanted to know about Red River was on that blog. But it was the pictures of him and Miranda that kept drawing his attention. She seemed so perfect in his arms that a spark of pride had swelled in his chest, and a lump had formed in his throat. Something he hadn’t experienced when he saw his pictures with beautiful women in the celebrity mags.
“Call me Talmadge.” He motioned to the specks of sawdust that covered most of his front. “I was helping a friend with a project.”
Angelique shook her head, her black ponytail swishing around her shoulders. She waved toward an open door to his right where several cans of paint sat on the floor along with brushes, rolls of tape, and a few drop cloths. A half-assembled baby bed leaned against the far wall, and miscellaneous parts were strewn across the wood floor. “I totally understand.” She laughed. “The words ‘It’s one baby. How hard can it be?’ actually came out of my mouth when I found out I was expecting.”
He smiled. Liked her already. “Congratulations, Mrs. Barbetta-Holloway.”
“Call me Angelique. I rarely go by my last name, since I chose to hyphenate it. Entire wars can be fought in the time it takes to say the whole thing. Irritates my husband to death.” She smiled. “Which is why I did it.”
She removed a file from a drawer and set it in front of her. Her silhouette was framed by the large picture window behind her. Talmadge studied the rich design of the classic crown molding that surrounded the window and lined the top of the walls.
Besides running the inn, his grandfather had done carpentry work on the side. Talmadge had helped with some of the repair jobs in these apartments back in the day. Even then he imagined how beautiful the old buildings could be if transformed by someone with a vision for them. The same kind of vision he had for Trinity Falls. Starting an entire green town from scratch had seemed like a brilliant idea until a few weeks ago.
The hand on his injured arm involuntarily clenched and released.
Scaling back to smaller, less ambitious jobs might be forced on him now. So might poverty, if Trinity Falls didn’t work out.
“How are you holding up?” Angelique asked, the backdrop of a clear blue sky and a snow-blanketed Wheeler Peak making the situation seem more pleasant than it was.
“I’m okay.” He used his fewer-words-are-best method of handling a conversation.
When he didn’t elaborate, she got right to the point and opened the folder sitting in front of her.
“I asked you here for the reading of Bea Oaks’s last will and testament.” Her voice was all professionalism.
Talmadge nodded.Shouldn’t take long.Although his grandparents hadn’t been poor, they also weren’t people of significant means. Besides the old gingerbread house where he grew up, there might be a little life insurance money. He’d never asked. He’d been the one to send money home every month since he got his first job right out of college. But Bea gave most of it to charities, saying she had no debt and didn’t need more material things at her age. She’d even asked him to stop wiring money into her account at the Red River Community Bank.
He hadn’t. How could he not send money home to the grandparents who had taken him in and raised him? What his grandparents chose to do with the money was up to them. If it made Bea happy to help others with it, then Talmadge was good with that. He understood that pull to give back. He’d spent his entire career doing the same. It was the reason he decided on the riskier path into green architecture instead of mainstream designs. It was his attempt to preserve instead of destroy. He’d destroyed too much early in his life.
“You, Talmadge Oaks, are her only living survivor and beneficiary.”
Scalding heat bit through his nerves.
Yes, thanks to him, his grandparents had no one else left.
He fought off a scowl and nodded for Angelique to continue.
She proceeded to read the will and all its legalese. Talmadge let her words flow over him as though it was Bea herself speaking.
Bea had updated her will a few months ago.Somewhat puzzling because Bea didn’t have much, but okay.
She had been of sound mind and body.Yep. Sharp as a tack until the day she passed.
Miranda had served as the witness to her last will and testament.
Miranda.He shifted to find a more comfortable position. Analyzed the edges of a cottony white cloud that was just starting to come into view over Angelique’s head while she spoke.
Bea left all her worldly possessions to Talmadge.No surprise.
Angelique read off the list of possessions:
First, the house and everything inside. He had no idea what he’d do with it. His life was back in Washington along with all his screwed-up investments. If he had a chance of recovering his life savings, he had to get back to Washington . . . and figure out how the hell to get his stymied building project moving again.
Next, the Subaru Talmadge had bought her some years ago—which she refused to drive, preferring Grandpa’s old Dodge Ram pickup instead. Talmadge couldn’t blame her. He preferred the gas-guzzling jalopy too. It felt more familiar. More like home than the new, economical, and environmentally friendly model.
Wouldn’t his friends crusading to stop global warming just crucify him for that?
Last, a life insurance policy, the value to revert to her account at the Red River Community Bank totaling . . .
Talmadge sat forward. “Did you just say—?”
Angelique peered at him over sophisticated reading glasses. “Yes, I did. See for yourself.” She shifted the papers and leaned across her desk so he could read it.
That was a hell of a lot of zeros.
“Where’d my grandmother get that kind of money?” It wasn’t the Hail Mary he needed to cover his potential losses, but it would go a long,longway in keeping his life running until he could figure out a way to preserve the archeological ruins, strike a deal with the tribes in the Trinity Falls area, and the wheels of production could start turning again so his investment could pay off.
Angelique pulled off her reading glasses. “She got a lot of it from you.”
Talmadge tried to speak, but no words came out.
“Both of your grandparents had sizeable life insurance policies. Bea donated some of the money you sent her, but she saved most of it for a rainy day. Apparently, she made some very wise investments, too.”
Talmadge gave Angelique a blank stare, because his brain couldn’t wrap around this news.
“Since I’m fairly new in town, I didn’t know your grandmother very well, but Bea seemed like a practical woman.” Angelique tapped her glasses against the document. “Bea tried togiveMiranda the inn, but Miranda refused to accept it. Said she’d pay for it or not have it at all. So I drew up the sale in the form of a contract. You’ve inherited that contract as well.”
Opening the folder, Angelique pulled out another document. “Here it is.”
Talmadge reached for the paper, but only scanned it. “I’m aware. Bea told me.” He scrubbed his good hand over his jaw. Flexed the injured hand and flinched at the soreness that shot through his shoulder. “I’m not an attorney. I’m just a guy who happens to know how to build things. I’m not even all that smart.”I’m a dumbass when it comes to investments.“I’m missing your point.” He gave the contract a shake. “What does Bea’s agreement with Miranda have to do with the rest of my inheritance? Aren’t they two separate things?”
Lacing her fingers together, Angelique nodded and leveled keen, intelligent eyes at him. “Normally, that would be true.”
Talmadge met her gaze. “But my gut tells me this situation isn’t normal.”
Angelique smiled, a look of approval spreading across her face like they’d just solved a difficult crossword puzzle together. “And something tells me that you’re much smarter than you’re willing to admit.”
He raked a hand over his jaw again and stared at Miranda and Bea’s signatures scrawled at the bottom of the page. Bea’s age showed in the shaky lettering. Miranda’s smooth, looping strokes flowed graceful and majestic across the page.
Even her handwriting turned him on.
“Let’s hear thebut,” said Talmadge.
Angelique gave him another approving smile.“But,”she said with emphasis, “there was a separate codicil that Miranda didn’t know about. No one did. Until now.”
Something speared at his gut.
Angelique’s expression softened like a mother looking at her child. He’d seen it many times in Bea’s eyes. Had seen it in his mother’s eyes on the rare occasions that she wasn’t worrying about how to please his dad so his temper wouldn’t turn explosive. “She was very proud of you. Because of how you tried to look out for her financially, she wanted to leave you a legacy in her own way.”
That was Bea. Always looking out for him, always showing him unconditional love in everything she did. Wetness welled in his eyes, before he spoke in gravelly, broken words. “She was a good woman.”
“The best, I’m told,” said Angelique. “But I still haven’t fully answered your question about how this relates to Miranda Cruz.”
No, she hadn’t, and Talmadge wasn’t sure he wanted to hear it.
“She also knew that Miranda would have a hard time on her own financially. Apparently, Miranda has been working at Joe’s since she was a teenager and used her savings for the down payment on the inn and the remodel.”
“Your grandmother wanted you to help Miranda get the inn open and running.”
He gave his head a hard shake. “Not possible. I have to get back to Washington. I’ll hire a new contractor for the inn.” A competent one. An honest one.
“Bea was very specific that she wantedyouto help Miranda with this project. She said your hands-on style would ensure that the renovations would be done right, and it would help Miranda’s budget stretch.”
It would also ensure his daily involvement.
It wasn’t that he didn’t want to spend time with Miranda Cruz. She was the first woman in a long while who had sparked an interest in his mind and several other parts of his body. In fact, he’d thought of little else since he walked out onto the back porch of the inn and found her on all fours with her firm, round bottom smiling up at him.
But hehadto go back to Washington and deal with his problems. Especially now that he had some money to function with.
“Miranda’s contractor doesn’t seem very competent. I’ll find someone else. I can keep in touch with the new guy from Washington. Skype works wonders, so I can look the guy in the eye, and I’ll make sure he sends me the receipts. I’ll have Miranda’s kid brother check the supplies and make sure it all adds up.”
That would be helping. So he would still fulfill Bea’s last wishes, even if he wasn’t onsite. Problem solved.
Except that Angelique’s arched brow and sympathetic smile told him that there was definitely still a problem.
Rubbing at his temple—because a migraine the size of a skyscraper was coming on with every second that he sat there—he exhaled. Loudly. “What else?”
Both of her black eyebrows rose. “You are definitely a smart man.” Closing the file, she moved it aside and eased back against her burgundy leather chair. “The codicil stipulates that you can’t touch the money until the day Miranda’s inn opens for business.”
His jaw dropped.
“You’re joking.” The money in Bea’s account was the only way he could afford to pay a contractor to finish the renovations on the inn. Had his grandma gone senile, and he’d just missed it? Because including such a ridiculous demand in her will defied logic. “Bea knew it would be next to impossible for me to stay in Red River that long.”
Angelique shrugged. “Apparently ‘impossible’ and ‘next to impossible’ were two very different things to your grandmother.” Angelique folded her hands in her lap. “Bea was certain that even if you offered Miranda help with money, Miranda still wouldn’t accept it.”
Right. He didn’t have much money anymore. His eyes slid shut, blocking out the impossibility of the situation. When he opened them, Angelique gave him a kindhearted look.
“Miranda’s not big on taking things she hasn’t earned. It’s one of the reasons your grandmother loved her. So Bea thought the best way to ensure Miranda’s success would be for you to offer your time and skills. She hoped Miranda would be less likely to turn that sort of help down.”
He rested an index finger against his chin, staring down at the document in his lap. “What happens if I don’t stay and help Miranda?”
Angelique picked up the folder and handed it to Talmadge. “It’s laid out in the codicil. This is your copy.”
He opened the file and scanned it. “The money goes to the city of Red River. All of it.” Talmadge tried to disguise the disbelief in his voice. He hadn’t minded Bea giving every cent to charity until five minutes ago when he thought her frugal ways and thoughtfulness had saved his sorry ass. But now? Hot anger rushed through his veins and gathered in his chest. There hadn’t been strings attached to any of the money he gave her, so why would she do this to him?
“That’s the legacy she intended. If you didn’t need or want the money, she figured you’d want it to go toward a building project that benefits others. It will be used to build an after-school sports and recreation facility for kids in Red River,” said Angelique.
And the heat lightened to lukewarm. He couldn’t help but smile at Bea’s motive. She’d always been willing to help any stray kid who came along, including him. And Miranda, too. He ran his thumb over the page where Bea had signed her name. His grandmother was one sharp cookie.
“There’s one more thing.” Angelique waved to the paper in his hand. “Look at the last paragraph.”
He did and didn’t like it one damned bit. “Why can’t I tell Miranda about the money or about what’s in Bea’s codicil?”
Angelique’s sigh said she understood what a tough spot he was in. “Apparently, Miranda has a thing about not depending on men.”
Already figured that out.Staying in control seemed to be her mission in life. “How am I supposed to get Miranda to accept my help without telling her my inheritance is tied to the opening of her inn?”
“Bea felt sure you’d figure something out. She saw how you’re able to convince celebrities and wealthy business magnates into pouring millions into your charitable environmental projects. You can tell Miranda every detail after the inn opens. Not before.” Angelique pointed to the paper. “Your grandmother was very specific.”
And the strings attached to the money were to keep him here. But for what purpose?
Inhaling deep, he looked up at Angelique. “Guess I’ll be in town for a while.”
Talmadge thanked Angelique, even though he wasn’t feeling too damn thankful at that moment, and left her office. He stepped out into the sunshine and breathed the crisp air into his lungs.
What the hell had Bea been thinking?
He walked around the building and into the alley to find some privacy while he called his second in command back in Washington. “Hey,” Talmadge said as soon as Larry Jameson answered. “I’ve run into a snag here. I’ll have to stay a little longer than I planned.”
Tension flowed through the line. “How long? Our investors are antsy, and the subcontractors aren’t going to wait forever. They’re already mumbling about moving on to their next jobsites.”
Talmadge kicked at a lump of dirty snow in the alley. “Any news from the tribal councils?”
“Not yet, but they’re meeting in a few days. Rumors are flying up here that they’re going to want us to tear down the entire building site and restore the landscape around the ruins. You know what that means.”
Hell yes, he knew what it meant. It meant he’d lose everything. Not only would it cost millions to raze the infrastructure of an entire town he’d already started laying, but it would take even more millions to start the eco-restoration process. And even then, it would be decades before the landscape would regain the natural vibrant flora and fauna.
It meant an epic professional failure that would dismantle every effort he’d made in the world of green, sustainable architecture. It meant he’d let Bea down again. Even if she wasn’t around to see it, he’d still know the truth about himself. He always had.
Fuming, Miranda traipsed down Main Street toward Lorenda Lawson’s real estate office after showering off the sawdust and changing into fresh clothes. She needed to vent to her BFF and figure out how to undo the damage caused by theRed River Ragand YouTube. A firestorm of gossip had probably burned through the entire county by now because of those pictures. Pictures of her and Talmadge posted on the Internet for the world to see. What people might think was going on in the pictures . . . And he’d broken her ladder!
Well, she wouldn’t stand for any of it.
No one in Red River would take her seriously as a business owner if she didn’t stop the rumor mill from churning. And Talmadge had to help stop it somehow. Except that his response to the pictures on theRed River Ragwas to call hersweetheart.
Her own brother had gotten the wrong impression and thought the pictures were racy. Of course, he also thought they were funny without fully understanding the implications to her reputation.
Miranda crammed her hands into her red wool coat and continued her march down Main Street, bracing herself against the cold wind.
At least Talmadge had been a gentleman about the one time she’d given in to her desire and asked him to satisfy her burgeoning curiosity. It had been time. She’d turned twenty-one, and with few prospects in Red River, she didn’t want to be a virgin forever.
When Lorenda’s high school sweetheart, Cameron Lawson, came home from the military so they could get married, Talmadge came back for the wedding. He looked so damn hot and worldly in his tuxedo compared to her, whose grand travels had included not more than a few hours in any direction.Andhe was leaving to go back to Washington, so no one would ever know except him and her.
Talmadge had seemed like the perfect choice. She had been inexperienced, but he was gentle when he figured out it was her first time. Taking his time to soothe her nerves, making sure she enjoyed it. A lot. It had been all she’d imagined it would be. And so, so, so much more.
But then they had walked back into Joe’s to catch the end of the reception, only to have a tall blonde throw herself into Talmadge’s arms and assault him with her pouty lips. The sight of Talmadge’s arms instinctively wrapping around the beautiful, not to mention famous, hotel-owning reality star was a sight Miranda never forgot. He’d just been doing the same thing toher. Seeing Talmadge with Momma Long Legs—who was wearing a flashy dress that probably cost more than Miranda’s tips for a whole year—had crushed her pounding heart, which had still been thrumming from his exquisite lovemaking.
The four-poster bed in the inn’s honeymoon suite where Talmadge had taken her that night was still there. Always would be. He’d made love to her in that bed like she was a precious object.
The one thing Miranda had learned that night was weddings and tuxedos and sexual curiosity were a dangerous combination. Okay, maybe she’d learned two or three more things. Very, very intimate things.
She waved absently as a car meandered down the street and beeped its horn.
Talmadge had never told a soul, as far as she knew. And she’d never let her self-restraint crumble again.
But that self-restraint may have been for nothing, thanks to her and Talmadge’s glorious wandering hands and persuasive lips showing up on the Internet. The way gossip flowed in this town, the rumors wouldn’t stop until a juicier story came along.
Ifa juicier story came along.
Fear pinged around the inside of her chest.
Miranda stopped at the intersection where one of the side streets crossed Main and waited for an old Ford to pass. She crossed the street, and two ladies walked toward her on the sidewalk. Friends of Mrs. Wilkinson.
“Hi, Miranda,” the dyed redhead said. “Nice catch.” Her voice was sultry, knowing.
The other was heavyset with jet-black hair piled on top of her head. “Figures,” she said under her breath.
“We weren’t—” Miranda tried to say as they brushed past her.
One of them whispered, “At his grandmother’s wake no less. Glad I didn’t go.”
The other one harrumphed. “No wonder she wanted to host it.”
In front of the heavy glass door labeled Brooks Real Estate, she came to a stop and threw the door open with a shove.
Lorenda sat behind her rustic log desk, nails clicking against a computer keyboard, blonde hair pulled back into a knot. She looked up and smiled before adjusting the stylish scarf around her neck, then kept typing. “I’d ask what’s wrong, but most of the town’s already talking about it.”
Miranda threw herself into a chair and slid down with her head leaning back and an arm over her face.
“That bad, huh? Funny you didn’t mention it last night when I called.”
Miranda nodded under her arm. “Last night I didn’t know I’d end up on YouTube or that stinking blog. I’m ashamed of what Bea would think.”
“Bea would still love you no matter what. Maybe even more.”
Miranda peeked from under her arm, giving her BFF a quizzical stare. Lorenda was a few years older than her, but they’d been like sisters since they were kids.
Lorenda shrugged while clicking away on the keyboard. “My mom thinks Bea wanted you and Talmadge to get together.”
“How does your mom know that?”
Lorenda shook her head. “No idea, but you know how the older women in this town get together and talk.”
“News flash. It’s not just the Red Hats who gossip.” Miranda sat up, still glum.
“True.” Lorenda punched a few more keys and shut down her computer. “The kids’ school principal insisted on walking me to my car after a parent-teacher conference, and we were supposedly engaged by the next morning.” Lorenda straightened some papers on her desk. “And there were no adults over the age of forty around the elementary school that day, trust me.”
“What am I going to do?” Miranda rested her elbows on the desk and plopped her head in both hands.
“Ignore it.” Lorenda gave Miranda’s arm a sisterly squeeze.
When Miranda looked up, Lorenda’s look was earnest.
“Even if it’s true, ignore it.” One side of her mouth lifted into a sympathetic smile. “Areyou and Talmadge . . . you know?”
“No, we’re not.”We did once. A very long time ago . . . at your wedding reception.Heat flooded through Miranda, and she studied the bank of snow that lined Main Street through the large office window. Not even Lorenda knew about Miranda’s long ago tryst with Talmadge, and she wasn’t about to give out that 4-1-1 now. Not after so many years.
Why bring up the humiliating past with Lorenda now, when those stupid pictures were already capable of sinking her reputation and possibly her respectability as a business owner before she even opened?
“’Cause I gotta say, girlfriend, you two were going at it pretty good in that photo.”
“It was an accident!” Miranda blustered.
Lorenda’s brows rose. “How exactly wasthatan accident?”
When Miranda glared at her, Lorenda said, “I’m not judging. Lord, I’m as green with envy as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.” Lorenda laughed. “See how pathetic I am? My vocabulary has graduated from Kermit the Frog to Donatello, and that’s all I have to look forward to with two adolescent boys.”
With that, Miranda softened her tone. Lorenda had been a single mom since her husband was killed in action when their two boys were both still in diapers. She’d sacrificed any attempt to meet a nice guy and devoted herself to raising her kids.
“Well, we’renot.” Not that Miranda hadn’t thought about it. Dreamed of it. Fantasized about Talmadge for the past twenty-four hours straight. But some things were just that—fantasies. Never meant to become reality. They lived different lives. Had different dreams. And their lives and dreams were half a continent apart, which made any chance of her and Talmadge getting together impossible unless it was a temporary fling.
If Miranda ever trusted a man enough to give up even a smidgen of her independence, it would have to be forever. With a ring, and a license, and witnesses. And maybe a law passed by the US Supreme Court stating that he would be Miranda’s equal, her partner for life—not just until her money ran out or a better piece of tail came along like one of her mother’s notorious boyfriends.
“He owes me a ladder.” Miranda huffed.And an apology for ordering me around in my own inn.
“What?” Lorenda gave her a confused look.
Miranda shook her head. “Never mind.”
Lorenda drew in a motherly breath, slow and methodical, then let it out. “Want to get some lunch?” Lorenda came around to Miranda’s side of the desk and propped her butt on the edge. “My treat to cheer you up.”
Miranda stood, and Lorenda gave her a hug. “Do you have a paper bag I can wear over my head? Because everyone in this town now thinks I’m sleeping with Talmadge Oaks.”
After Talmadge’s meeting with Angelique, he crossed Main Street and climbed the front stairs at Cotton Eyed Joe’s, where he and Langston planned to meet for lunch. Maybe he could enlist his buddy’s help with the inn. Talmadge sure as hell was going to need it now that Miranda’s renovations had become his primary building project instead of Trinity Falls. He was going to have to double-time it to finish the inn so he could get back to Washington.
A wave of panic skated over him.
He needed that money in Bea’s account, but would staying here for the next several weeks doom Trinity Falls completely? Miranda also had to agree to him taking charge of the renovations.Withouthim telling her about his inheritance. If her attitude toward him this morning was any indication, he doubted she’d be willing to follow his lead. And why did the prospect of working side by side with Miranda make his panic shift to anticipation?
The large room at Joe’s that tripled as a dining room, bar, and dance hall bustled with lunchtime patrons, but his eyes locked onto Miranda.
Sitting in one of Joe’s red leather booths at the back of the restaurant with Langston’s sister, Lorenda, Miranda laughed. Threw her head back and laughed like a carefree kid. Her profile was perfect. The slight upturn of her nose right at the tip was elegant. She was so natural. So beautiful. Miranda’s long silky curls bounced around her shoulders, a wisp falling over a smooth cheek.
From a booth along the right wall, Langston lifted a hand and waved Talmadge over. The familiar red-checkered tablecloths and the crunch of discarded peanut shells sent an odd feeling of comfort coursing through him like he was home.
He slid into the seat opposite Langston.
“I took the liberty.” Langston pointed to the mugs of beer on the table. He grabbed menus and tossed one across the table. Aviators were pushed up into Langston’s wavy brown hair, his face was bronzed from extreme skiing, and he still sported the same boyish grin from their teenage years when he’d blocked for Talmadge on the football team.
Talmadge took a pull from the frosty mug and glanced at Miranda.
She and Lorenda both stared in his direction. Lorenda gave a friendly wave, so he waved back. Miranda didn’t appear as happy to see him. Her dimples disappeared, and a frown replaced the hearty smile that had been on her face.
“I haven’t seen your sister since I’ve been in town. How are she and the kids?” Talmadge knew the entire town still felt the hole left when her husband was killed in action. Talmadge and Langston felt it too, because they’d all been high school friends.
“The boys are growing up fast. Lorenda’s still bossy. I tried to sit by her, and she kicked me out of the booth so they could talk girl stuff.” Langston shuddered. “So are you going to give your old buddy a huge discount on a vacation condo in your swanky new green town when it’s finished?” Langston gave him a boyish grin. “’Cause the only way I could afford it is if it’s close to free.”
Talmadge’s chest went cold. “Sure.”
Langston eyed him over the menu. “Is the new town still going to happen? Trinity Falls has to be the most innovative idea of the century.”
Not so much.
A heavy sigh flowed out of Talmadge. “I’m working on it.” That was the best answer he could give because his ability to manage the crisis in Washington had become infinitely more difficult a few minutes ago in Angelique Barbetta-Holloway’s office.
Langston gave him an I-know-bullshit-when-I-hear-it look. “What’s the plan to get it going again?”
“Like I said, I’m working on it.” He tried to keep the pessimism out of his tone, but Langston’s raised brow told him he hadn’t been the least bit convincing.
Langston leaned in and dropped his voice. “Are things that bad? I know the project has kind of gone to shit, but it hasn’t been flushed completely down the toilet, has it?”
Talmadge shrugged. “It’s circling the bowl.”
Langston sat back. “Don’t give up on it yet. The idea was great.”
Right. So great it was about to ruin Talmadge financially and professionally. If he left a town half built and uninhabitable, he’d lose the confidence of the entire architectural industry and the environmental community, all in one swoop. If he had to tear it down, it would ruin him and most of his financial backers. If that happened, he doubted he could find investors to build out-houses in the future.
When Talmadge didn’t respond, Langston got the hint and dropped it. “How’s the arm?”
“Hurts like hell.” Talmadge rolled his slinged shoulder and fought a grimace. “How’s the new job as a helicopter EMT?”
“Flight paramedic,” Langston corrected. “Different than being in an ambulance, but good. I like it a lot.”
“Here’s to career changes.” Talmadge raised his mug.
Their mugs clinked together, and they both took a long drink. Langston gave him a curious look. “Is there a hidden meaning in that statement?”
Without thinking, Talmadge shrugged the wrong shoulder and winced, reaching to massage out the pain. “Looks like I might be here longer than I expected.” He glanced in Miranda’s direction. She tossed that silky hair over a shoulder and leaned in to say something to Lorenda. “Some things have . . . come up.”
“Uh-huh. I saw theRed River Rag.” Langston eyed him. “Would one of those things be sitting across from my sister?”
Talmadge’s eyes darted in Miranda’s direction again.
“Maybe.” He twisted the frosty mug in a circle. “It has something to do with Bea’s last wishes. I have to jump through a few hoops before I can go back to Washington.” How could he not do what Bea asked, after all she’d done for him?Plus, I need the money that’s waiting in the Red River bank.
Guilt washed through him. What would Bea have thought if she knew how much he needed that money? She’d have finally figured out what an awful person he was—the thing he’d been trying to hide since his parents’ accident.
He took another long swallow of cold beer. Maybe the alcohol would numb his whirring brain for a few minutes so he could relax, because he wasn’t sure Miranda would let him take over the renovations no matter how much she needed his skills and expertise. “It’s complicated.” And a bad idea, because every time he stepped into a room with her all reason went sailing out the window and plunged over a cliff. “But Miranda is sort of one of the hoops.”
She glanced in his direction like she knew he was talking about her. Her gaze flicked away immediately, but she was watching him. His pulse revved to a low thrum.
“If you’re going to be in town for awhile, our new chiropractor can probably help with your shoulder.”
Talmadge rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Not a bad idea. Wow, Red River is really growing. Lots of new professionals have moved here since I came home last.”
“All the new casinos and movie studios going up around the state created a demand and lots of new jobs.” Langston grabbed some peanuts out of the tin bucket at the end of the table and cracked open the shells. He popped a few in his mouth and munched. “They’ll all want to vacation in Red River, so I expect new vacation cabins to start springing up.”
Talmadge’s gaze eased back to Miranda, her silky hair, pretty face, and perfectly proportioned body drawing his attention like a beautifully designed piece of architecture would.
Langston jerked his chin over one shoulder toward Miranda. “She’s a good catch. Lots of guys in this town have tried to date her. They’ve all crashed and burned.”
The waitress came over and took their order, then scurried over to the bar.
“At the funeral, your mom made it a point to mention you still weren’t married.” Talmadge gave Langston an evil grin. “Why don’tyoudate Miranda?”
“I tried. She wasn’t interested. Said I wasn’t grown up enough.” Langston shrugged, a noncommittal way of admitting it was true. “Besides, she’s like a little sister. She spent as much time around my house growing up as I did. But if the photo on theRagis any indication, I’d say she’s plenty interested in you.”
Talmadge shook his head. “Not gonna happen. I’ve got enough to worry about right now.” As much as Miranda made his brain go soft and his groin go hard, he shouldn’t start something with her that he couldn’t finish. “That would just complicate my life even more.”
“Women always do. I still can’t even figure out my sister,” Langston said on a groan. “And don’t get me started on my mother.”
Lorenda and Miranda stood to leave, tossing their purses onto their shoulders.
“Listen, Bea wanted me to make sure the inn opened as planned. Apparently the remodel isn’t going well for the new owner.”
As the girls headed toward the front of Joe’s, Lorenda detoured toward their table. Miranda let out a muffled protest, but Lorenda must not have heard her, because she kept coming their way. Miranda hesitated. Looked to the front door, then at Talmadge. Reluctantly, she followed Lorenda.
“Think you can help me out with that?” Talmadge asked him before the girls were within hearing range.
“Anything for you and Bea.” Langston chugged his beer. “And Miranda.”
Talmadge could never repay the network of friends and family who had checked on Bea since he’d moved away, and Langston was at the top of the list along with Miranda. His gaze darted to her.
She and Lorenda walked up behind Langston at the precise moment that the big lout said, “So back to the photo of you feeling up Miranda.”
Talmadge’s mouth went dry, and he shook his head as a signal for Langston to shut it. It seemed a little more discreet than yelling at his buddy to shut the hell up in a public place. Unfortunately, it didn’t work, because Langston kept on talking.
“She looked pretty into it. I gotta say, buddy, I was surprised, because Miranda Cruz doesn’t sleep around.”
Talmadge exhaled. Should’ve yelled at him. Or smacked him upside the head.
“Hello, boys.” Lorenda’s voice was chastising like she was talking to one of her kids, and she glared at her brother. Langston jumped at Lorenda’s voice. His head swiveled around to find her standing at his back, and he blanched.
Miranda’s eyes rounded, then narrowed. A deep red burned up her neck and then settled in her cheeks, her lips thinning into a frown.
“Uh,” was all Talmadge could manage. He had nothing else.
“I see the two of you are just as mature as ever.” Lorenda turned her sharp glare on Talmadge.
“We were just—” Talmadge stumbled over the words until Miranda folded both arms under her full breasts. His gaze slid over the sapphire-blue sweater that accentuated her figure, the sight grinding his brain functions to a complete halt.
“I know exactly what you were doing.” Miranda elbowed Lorenda aside so she could lean over the table and speak in an angry whisper. “No, Langston Brooks, I . . .” Red seeped all the way to the tips of her ears, and her eyes shifted to Talmadge before returning to Langston. Like she was remembering. “Ido notsleep around, for all the good it’s done me. Everyone in Red River thinks that I do now . . . thinks that I’ve slept . . . with . . .” Her gaze slid to Talmadge again, and flecks of fire danced in the brown of her eyes. “I can’t build a business if no one in this town respects me. So stay away from me and the inn. I can’t afford any more gossip.”
He opened his mouth to say he was sorry for offending her, but instead, “You’re wrong. My presence would attract business and help your reputation,” came out. “I could renovate the inn better than anyone else. It’ll be completely energy efficient if I do it.”
Wait. Did he really just say that? Because that wasn’t even close to what he’d intended.
Langston coughed something that sounded like “oh shit” behind his hand.
Miranda’s flame-throwing glare told Talmadge that he’d just screwed up big time.
“Have you forgotten that you don’t live in Red River,Mr. Oaks? And even if you did, what makes you so sure I’d give you the job?”
“Because I’m the best, and you need me,” he blurted. Both true, but shit. Could he have sounded more like an arrogant asshole if he’d tried?
Langston coughed again.
She handed Lorenda her purse and took a step toward Talmadge. “Oh, really?” Both hands went to her curvy hips, and Talmadge wanted to lick his lips. “Then try this on for size.”
Plastering on a sad puppy-dog look, she raised her voice for the crowd to hear. “Oh,Talmadge,” she said dramatically.
Both of his eyes went wide.What in the hell was she doing?
“I know I’m not good enough for you, but to hear you say it . . .hurts!” She emphasized the last word so much it reminded him of the time he had to watchGone with the Windwith Bea. “And to say you can’t stand Bea’s ugly dog is almost . . .cruel.”
Gasps zinged around Joe’s, and several women tried to incinerate him with dirty looks.
Talmadge closed his eyes for a second, only to open them and find Miranda tearing up. She was good. Her mother should’ve named her Scarlet.
Miranda sucked in a deep breath and let loose again. “You’ve broken my heart and Lloyd’s too, but I can forgive you. I just want one last kiss before you leave us for good.”
Before Talmadge knew what was happening, Miranda sank both hands into his hair and laid the sweetest, sexiest, deepest kiss on him. The softness of her lips pulled him into a dream world, and his arm threaded around her waist.
A female voice rang out. “That’s it, honey! Show him what he’s lost!”
She deepened the kiss.
Her warm breaths whispered across his stubbled jaw, and her honeyed taste made him want more of her. One hand kneaded up her spine, flexing and rubbing the softness of her sweater against her toned back.
“Uh-huh,” another female voice hollered. “Make him sorry!”
And just as quick as Miranda had advanced on him, she broke the kiss and backed away. Her absence left him cold, unsatisfied, wanting her back against him. Already lonely for her.
“There,” she whispered. “That should give them something to talk about.”
Several women clapped in support of the damsel in distress. Talmadge thought he heard the wordschmuckecho through the room, but he couldn’t be sure, because his brain had fogged over.
Taking her purse from Lorenda, Miranda pulled large sunglasses from her bag and perched them on the end of her nose with slow, exaggerated movements.
“Have a good day, boys,” she said so only the four of them could hear. She pushed the sunglasses up the length of her nose with an index finger. “I’d call you gentlemen, but the term doesn’t seem deserved.”
And with that, Miranda Cruz sashayed out of Joe’s like a rock star.
As soon as Miranda reached the pavement outside of Joe’s, she bent, put both hands on a knee, and gasped for air. Had she really just put on a show for the entire town?
“Wow.” Lorenda charged through the door, trying to catch up. “That was awesome.”
“Served him right.” Miranda straightened, her breaths still uneven. She buttoned her wool coat against the bitter wind that was blowing in a late-season storm. “Can you believe what he said?” Her voice rose a notch with each word. “Of all the arrogant, self-important . . .”
“Egotistical.” Lorenda zipped her down vest.
“Yes! Thank you,” Miranda fumed. They started back toward Lorenda’s office. “Well, the gossip was already flowing. At least now no one will think there’s something going on between me and Talmadge.”
“Quite brilliant, actually. I’m proud to be your friend.” Lorenda pulled on leather gloves.
“Mission accomplished.” With as little damage to her rep as possible, thank you very much. “The pictures on YouTube and theRed River Ragshouldn’t be a problem anymore.”
Except she couldn’t think of anything else except the taste of his lips and the way his big, rough hands flexed into her flesh with just enough pressure to drive her insane. Or how he invaded her sleep all night. Made sweet, passionate love to her in her dreams until she woke up sweating and on the brink of an orgasm.
Yes, that was somewhat problematic.
They stopped at the intersection to cross Main Street, and a muddy car with snow tires beeped as it passed. She and Lorenda both waved.
Whatever. Talmadge would be leaving in a matter of days, and then she could get her focus back. Maybe she could hunt down her contractor and get the renovations jump-started again.
She studied the slushy asphalt as they crossed the street and stepped onto the sidewalk.
So why did the thought of Talmadge leaving Red River make her feel so empty?
She shook it off. Didn’t matter. She’d just turned the flow of gossip in her favor for once.
“Uh-oh.” Lorenda put a hand on Miranda’s forearm and squeezed.
Miranda followed her friend’s gaze to the door of Lorenda’s office.
Mrs. Wilkinson stood there glaring—face pinching, cross dangling—waiting. For Miranda.
“I hope you know I’m calling another town meeting and demanding a revote,” Mrs. Wilkinson barked as soon as Miranda and Lorenda got within hearing distance. “The Hot Rides and Cool Nights Festival and Parade kicks off our summer tourist season. People come from all over the Southwest to show off their cars. There are different divisions, different categories, food vendors to organize, and theparade. . .” She poked a finger in Miranda’s direction. “It’s just six weeks away, and with your lack of experience, it would fail.” The older woman’s condescending tone snagged on Miranda’s already strained nerves. “Youare not going to be in charge of the most important event of the year.”
Clydelle and Francine lumbered up behind Mrs. Wilkinson.
“I thought the most important event of the year was the annual firefighters’ dance?” Clydelle leaned on her cane.
Francine adjusted the gigantic purse on her arm. “No.” She shook her head thoughtfully. “It’s the annual firefighters’ marathon to raise money for the department. They get all sweaty and some even take their shirts off.”
Mrs. Wilkinson’s face pinched even more. “No wonder people are talking . . .” Her lips thinned into an artificial smile, her eyes flashed venom, and Miranda knew Old Lady Wilkinson had heard about the embarrassing pictures. “As if your mother wasn’t bad enough, now you’ve teamed up with these old loons.”
Miranda drew in a sharp breath at the insult.
Francine lifted her purse. “Watch it, sister. This purse is a lethal weapon, and I’m not responsible for my actions when my blood sugar drops. I haven’t had lunch yet.”
“My cane’s been known to accidentally slip from my grasp and do some serious damage too.” Clydelle waved it in the air.
Mrs. Wilkinson let out an indignant gasp. She eased back against the door of Brooks Real Estate. “This year’s chairperson and planning committee are also responsible for organizing the construction of the new town gazebo. I’ve already taken the liberty of having plans drawn up, so a revote will most certainly swing in my favor.”
“There’s not going to be a revote if we can help it,” said Clydelle. “It’s your own fault for not attending the town meeting.”
Mrs. Wilkinson sniffed. “And I’m sure you two know nothing about how my tire got slashed?”
Francine drew her purse behind her back like she was trying to hide it. “Nothing at all.”
Mrs. Wilkinson turned her prickly gaze back on Miranda. “And whatever you did to win that vote won’t work.”
“I didn’t even put my name in for the nomination,” Miranda said. “I wasn’t at the meeting.”
Mrs. Wilkinson looked Miranda up and down. “I’m sure a woman of your . . . character has other means of gaining favor.”
Miranda took a step toward her, her fists clenched, but Lorenda held her back.
“Miranda’s sharp. She’ll be a great chairperson for the festival. Maybe it’s time for a change,” Lorenda said.
“She can’t even keep a contractor around. Word has it he’s left town.” Mrs. Wilkinson gave Miranda another evil smile. “Interesting that you were his last client.”
So did Lorenda.
“He’s sick, not gone,” Miranda said with so little conviction that she didn’t even convince herself.
Mrs. Wilkinson raised her nose in the air and leveled a deliberate stare at each person in the circle. “That gazebo is the biggest civic project in years.She”—Mrs. Wilkinson gave Miranda a dismissive wave—“knows nothing about building anything. That inn is already turning into a disaster. I won’t let her ruin a new landmark in our city too. The townspeople have no choice but to call for a revote, and they’ll appoint me.”
Miranda had had enough. “What makes you so sure? Maybe the people in this town are tired of your dominating ways and you trying to control everything.”
Mrs. Wilkinson gave a pretentious sigh. “Oh, they’ll vote for me. Because if they don’t, I’ll pull all of my support from the festival and make sure none of my friends offer their help or support either.”
Hellfire. That would split the town in half, because people would feel forced to choose sides. Maybe Miranda should resign before a modern-day rendition of the Hatfields and McCoys started right here in Red River.
She felt Talmadge’s warmth before she heard his voice. It spiraled around her like protective armor as he stepped up behind her so close that his breath whispered through her hair.
“Turns out I happen to be free the next several weeks.” Everyone fell silent the moment Talmadge spoke. People had a habit of doing that. His solid, steady voice commanded respect. “I’ll be in town longer than I thought. I can design and build the gazebo for Red River.” He glanced down at her, his eyes raking over her face. “With Madam Chairperson’s approval, of course. She’s one of the smartest people in Red River, so I have no problem working for her.”
She turned to look at him. “You won’t be in townthatlong. I don’t see how it would work.”
“I’ll be in town long enough.” He gave her a reassuring smile that was a little brighter than his usual.
“She might make a good madam, but she’ll never be chairperson. Not as long as I have anything to say about it,” Mrs. Wilkinson said.
Everyone ignored her.
“I really couldn’t ask you to do that,” Miranda said to Talmadge. He was perfect for the job, but the point of her obnoxious public display a few minutes ago was to get rid of the man. She couldnotwork with him for the next several weeks on a project. He was supposed to be leaving town, so her stupid pheromones would stop spewing all over him, and so she wouldn’t be tempted by his hair that felt like heaven between her fingers.
“You’re not asking me.” His eyes latched on to her lips and wouldn’t let go. Traitorously, they parted. And sweet baby Jesus, she wanted to give him another kiss for coming to her rescue. Gah! “I owe you.” His famous half-smile appeared. “For Bea. And for giving you the wrong impression about . . . my respect for you.” His voice rose a notch, like he wanted to be sure no one missed his point. “And for insulting Bea’s dog. This will be my way of repaying you and contributing something to Red River in Bea’s memory.”
Well. What could she say to that?
He didn’t wait for her to say anything. He flashed a heart-stopping smile at Mrs. Wilkinson and said, “It’s settled then. No need for a revote. Miranda’s got it under control, and I’ll report to her.”
Masterfully handled, even if it did put Miranda in an awkward position. Mrs. Wilkinson might be able to sway public opinion about Miranda, but no way could she influence Red River to oust one of America’s most sought after architects, especially since he was a hometown boy willing to donate his services for free.
Clydelle and Francine cheered. Lorenda volunteered to be on the planning committee. Mrs. Wilkinson looked as though she might commit a violent crime.
Talmadge stared down at Miranda with his usual confident air.
“I’m heading back to Bea’s to start some preliminary sketches. I’ll pick Lloyd up tomorrow when I bring over the drawings for you to look at.”
Before Miranda could answer, Talmadge stepped off the curb and strolled over to his grandfather’s old truck. Tall, proud, confident. His tailored black pants cupping the nicest ass this side of the Rio Grande.
Miranda’s heart sank to her snow boots, because she’d never be able to resist him if they spent too much time together. So he’d be in town for a while. So they’d work on the gazebo together. How much time could that take? He’d show her drawings, give her updates. A few minutes a week tops.
She’d just have to make sure the minutes didn’t stretch into hours. If she had to spend hours with Talmadge Oaks, she’d be so screwed. Literally. And the problem with that was, she already knew she’d like it.
Late-morning rays of sun cascaded through the aluminum blinds of Miranda’s bedroom and heated her cheeks. The warmth on her face roused her from sleep. She yawned and looked at the clock on her bedside table. Her head fell back on the pillow, and she rubbed her eyes.
Yesterday she’d tried to deal with two pesky problems—getting rid of Talmadge Oaks and stifling the gossip about them—only to find herself in deeper with both. Today she had to deal with another roadblock as big as Wheeler Peak—either find her contractor or hire a new one with what little money she had left. This was exactly the kind of problem she would’ve taken to Bea, asking for guidance. Sound advice and wisdom. Now she had no one to turn to.
She threw an arm over her eyes and pulled the worn quilt up to her chin. She’d rather lie in bed and pretend her dream of owning a thriving business wasn’t about to splinter into a million pieces. Extra sleep wouldn’t hurt, because she was exhausted after a long night of fitful sleep. Well, not actualsleep.More like lying in bed with Lloyd curled at her feet, thinking of Talmadge’s arm circling her waist when she kissed him yesterday at Joe’s. His hand wandering and massaging up her spine.
She lifted her arm and peeked at Lloyd.
He whined like he knew she was thinking about him.
“All right. Let’s go outside.” Miranda threw back the heavy covers, exposing her flannel Tweety Bird pajama pants and yellow tank top. With a push, she got out of bed and the old brass frame creaked. She went to the closet to find a pair of flip-flops.
She rummaged through the antique dresser in search of her favorite sweatshirt.
How was she going to work with Talmadge on the gazebo for weeks and not run her fingers through his luxurious hair? No, the festival and the gazebo would seal her reputation as a solid, responsible pillar in the community. She had to stay professional. Distant. Unattached. Unfortunately, Talmadge didn’t inspire any of those things. In fact, a new side of her came out when he was around. A sensuous side she didn’t know existed.
Sort of like having an evil twin.
Lloyd yapped, and Miranda shut the drawer without finding her comfy Sylvester the Cat sweatshirt. She smooched at Lloyd, and he jumped off the bed to follow her down the hall.
The comforting, protective look in Talmadge’s eyes when he deflected Mrs. Wilkinson’s personal attack against Miranda had made her heart thump for hours. This morning her girl parts were quivering all over again just thinking about it. Even as she showered before bed last night, she couldn’t think of much else. Imagined his warm hands on her back, caressing and kneading up her spine. Willing them to find her aching breasts.
Imagine her lack of fulfillment when the hot water ran out and she had to turn off the pulsing shower massager.
Her inability to curb her wandering thoughts and curiosity every time she was with Talmadge was becoming a serious problem.
She shuffled outside through the private entrance of her suite, and Lloyd promptly hiked his tiny leg on a paper cup someone had tossed to the ground. The sky was overcast, and a blast of cold wind reminded her she was wearing a thin tank top. Shivering with her arms wrapped around herself, she smooched at Lloyd. “Come on, boy. Let’s go in where it’s warm and get some breakfast.”
She reached for the doorknob but it didn’t budge. She jiggled it. When it didn’t open, she shook it violently.
Crap. It must’ve locked when it slammed shut.
Wait. Bea kept a key hidden in a planter on the front porch. She called for Lloyd to follow and went around to the front of the inn.
When she rounded the corner, she stopped cold. Bea’s old Dodge and Langston’s classic convertible Mustang sat out front.
Miranda hesitated, but another cold blast of wind made her trot up the steps and reach for the front door. It opened.
Lloyd ambled alongside her, and they entered the foyer and walked through the great room.
New sheets of drywall leaned against one side of the room along with rolls of insulation. A sturdy ladder and tools were laid out on one of the workbenches that had been draped with a cloth yesterday.
A stream of male voices reached her from the dining room, and she rounded the corner to find her little brother sitting on a stool at the counter that separated the kitchen from the dining area. His laptop was open, and Talmadge and Langston—a virtual wall of all things male, especially ego—surrounded Jamie.
Talmadge’s sling was gone, and his arms were crossed over his firm chest. The flexed muscles of his biceps strained against a gray thermal shirt, and faded Levi’s hung low on slender hips, weighed down by a tool belt.
Tool belt?She rounded on the supplies behind her in the great room, then turned back to stare at the interlopers.
“Dude, no way is Superman more powerful than Batman’s gadgets,” Jamie, the techie geek, said.
Miranda rolled her eyes.
“You’re wrong,” Langston said. “Superman is the most powerful superhero. Period.”
Talmadge spoke up, all seriousness. “You’re both wrong. Thor is the most powerful superhero in the universe.”
Jamie shook his head. “Thor isn’t from this universe. Plus, there’s nothing cool about a hammer.”
“Depends on the size of the hammer.” Miranda couldn’t see Talmadge’s face because his back was angled away from her, but the smart-ass smirk was evident in his tone.
All three men laughed obnoxiously.
“Dude,” Jamie said. “It would have to be areally bighammer.”
Oh for God’s sake.Miranda cleared her throat, and all heads swiveled in her direction. Hands on hips, she stared at them as Lloyd ran over to Talmadge and whined up at him.
“He wants to be part of the conversation.” Jamie clicked his tongue at the dog, but Lloyd pawed at Talmadge’s foot.
“That dog is too intelligent for this conversation.” Miranda leveled a firm stare at Talmadge. “What are you two doing here?”
Langston walked behind the counter and poured more coffee into his travel mug. “I’m here for the free coffee.” He didn’t look at her. “The rest is between you two.”
Talmadge scooped Lloyd up into the palm of one hand. “I came for my dog, for one.” His not-quite smile was back, but then his stare dropped to her braless bust that had just been outside in single-digit temperatures. His gaze went smoky.
Her arms flew to her chest and she wrapped them around herself. Despite the cold temperatures and the fact that she was wearing a tank, scalding heat scored her insides and raced over her.
“Nice pants.” Amusement threaded through his words.
“Did you bring gazebo sketches?” She ignored his smart-ass comment.
“Yes, but I came to help with the inn, too. Looks like you need it.”
Before she could tell him “Hell no,” even though she did need help, Jamie started clicking away on his laptop. “Oh, wow.” He stopped and stared at the screen. Something flickered in her little brother’s eyes as they darted from her to Talmadge.
And the heat at her core turned to a block of ice in her chest.
She did not want to know. Really, she didn’t.
“What?” She blew out a heavy sigh.
“Um.” Jamie gave her a wide-eyed look, then glanced at Talmadge again. Her little brother’s cheeks turned a subtle shade of pink. “I think I’ve got a text.” He pulled a phone from his pocket and tapped at the screen.
Talmadge turned the laptop toward him and Langston. Talmadge slid a slow, lazy look at her while Langston let out a low whistle.
No.No, no, no.Something told her the day was about to go south, and she hadn’t even brushed out her bedhead yet.
“I was sitting right there yesterday, but that kiss looks even hotter online.” Langston angled his head toward one shoulder. “And look. They misspelledtongue.”
She forced her legs into motion and joined the fray of onlookers.
There it was emblazoned across the screen, the title of today’s post on theRed River Rag:Heartbreaker or Hero? Can Red River’s architectural icon redeem himself? Can the wounded Miss Cruz and her new pup, Lloyd, give Mr. Oaks another chance? That steamy kiss with all that tonggue has us rooting for them to work it out. Looks like Red River’s favorite young lovers have their work cut out for them, and we’ll be watching. So stay tuned!
Oh. My. God. Her clever plan to get rid of Talmadge couldn’t have backfired. Now Red River wanted them to work it out?
A picture of Miranda all over Talmadge like she was an octopus on his face glared back at her, his hands on her as though he knew his way around her body well. Had done the same thing before.
Actually, they had. Once. No, wait. Twice.
Was the author of that smut rag an undercover operative? Because they had cameras everywhere!Damn Patriot Act.
“Nice.” Langston grabbed a screwdriver from his belt and absently tapped it against the counter while he stared at screen.
Miranda turned a searing glare on him.
He glanced at her and did a double take. “Um. The sweater you were wearing. Nice . . . ensemble.”
Right. Guys like Langston Brooks didn’t use words likeensemble.
Miranda thought she might actually spontaneously combust.
“I mean . . . those jeans really compliment your—oof!” Langston said when Miranda’s elbow connected with his ribs. She snatched the screwdriver out of his hand.
One arm still trying to cover her chest, she pointed the tool at Jamie and Langston. “Out.”
When they scurried toward the door, Talmadge tried to follow. Miranda’s hand shot out and anchored flat against his chest. “Not you.”
He stopped cold. Surprising, because he was two hundred pounds of lean muscle and towered over her like one of his buildings would dwarf a hut. When he stared down at her through hooded eyes, his heat coiled around her like a cloak. Wound around her girl parts and squeezed like a closing vise.
Her mind blanked.
Wait. What was she going to say again?
When she didn’t speak, an almost-smile appeared, lifting one corner of his mouth.
God, that washawt.Her stare sank to those divine lips. Really, how could she not stare at them? She knew how good they tasted.
The vise cinched tighter, setting off a barrage of quivers somewhere below her belly button.
“We should get to work,” he said. “There’s a lot to do around here.”
Work?Yes!That’s what she had been about to say. His presence distracted her from her work.
“There’s a reason I asked you to stay away yesterday. I appreciate what you did with Mrs. Wilkinson and helping with the gazebo, but—” She waved the screwdriver in the air to make a drama-queen point. “I can’t have people getting the wrong impression about us.”
One of his golden brows lifted.
“Getting the wrong impressionagain. I don’t want any more pictures of us showing up online.”
Talmadge’s eyes anchored to her mouth. She sucked in her bottom lip in response. Then those baby blues traveled down her neck to her shoulder and all the way along the length of her arm to her hand still resting flat against his solid chest.
She tore it away and immediately missed his warmth. “I already have a contractor.”
Talmadge looked around. “He’s doing a stellar job.”
Okay, so the guy hadn’t been the most reliable. And she was behind schedule because of his lax work hours. And she may very well run out of money before the renovations were done and she could open for business. But was that really the point?
Well. That kind of was the point. But Talmadge would only complicate her situation even more, and she could figure this out on her own. Maybe.
“He’s doing afinejob.” Sort of. “He’s just having some personal problems.”
“He’s fired,” Talmadge deadpanned.
Miranda sputtered. “He is not.” There’d be no firing around here unless she decided to do it. “That’s not your call.” Her voice started to shake with uncertainty, and she bit her tongue to stay focused.
Did absolutely no good. She was still ready to cave like an igloo in an avalanche. Because of the way the male scent of his freshly showered body washed over her. Because of the way his still-damp hair was slicked back behind both ears, and a little chunk fell forward across his forehead. Because of the way he looked at her with such confident assurance that it made her want to believe that his mere presence would make every one of her problems go away and set her world right. Or turn it completely upside down.
She drew in a ragged breath.
He was just so freakingtall.And muscular. And gorgeous.
She mustered her very best bitchy stare. Which was so totally not believable, because his mouth curved into a boyish smile.
Dammit. She really needed to work on upping her bitch-factor. It just didn’t come natural.
“I hold the note and the deed to this place,” he informed her as though she weren’t already aware. “The quicker these doors open for business, the sooner I can have some peace of mind that the investment I inherited from Bea is safe, and I can be on my way.”
Andtheeeereit was. He couldn’t wait to get out of this little town and get back to the prestige of being a celebrity architect. Small-town life was beneath his pay grade.
“I don’t need your help.” She kinda did. “Nor do I want it.” Okay, maybe she wanted it a little. Among other things.
Good Lord! Snap out of it!She absolutely did not want . . . no . . . she did notneedto count on a man the way her mother had. Miranda could do this on her own.
“Doesn’t matter, sweetheart.” Talmadge’s smile was cocky. “You’ve got my help whether you want it or not.”
After his colossal gaffe yesterday at Joe’s, the chances of Miranda agreeing to let him take over the renovations were about as good as her contractor giving back her money, even if Talmadgehadkept Mrs. Wilkinson from sinking her fangs into Miranda.
The way he saw it, he had two options.
One: play the I’m-your-creditor card and take charge of the renovations whether she agreed or not. When it came to any kind of building project, everyone followed his lead. Hell, he’d earned that leadership role in his profession.
Miranda’s face glowed red with anger.
Right. Option one wasn’t working out so well.
He shifted to option two: make her think she was still in charge.
“Don’t be foolish, Miranda. You need help with this place.” Talmadge was trying real hard to keep his mind and eyes off the taut nipples showing through her thin shirt. The moment he’d turned and saw her standing in the dining room staring at him with sleepy eyes and messy pillow-hair . . . glaring at them over the absurdity of superheroes while wearing silly cartoon pajamas . . . Well, hell. His throat had closed up, and he’d wanted to toss her over his shoulder and take her back to bed.
“You’re callingmefoolish? How can you help, Talmadge? You can’t stay in Red River that long. I’m surprised you’re staying at all.”
So am I.But sure enough, here he was, trying to seize the one chance he had at gaining some capital that would help keep the lights of his firm back in Washington turned on for a little while longer. “I’ll be here for as long as necessary. I never leave a job unfinished.” Not willingly, anyway.
Her lips parted. Several small creases formed above her brows. “Oh. Well, um . . .” She glanced at his shoulder. “Your shoulder. You can’t do this kind of work.”
“I’m starting rehabilitation this week,” he countered.
“In Red River?” Her tone turned a little desperate and her eyes a little wild.
He nodded. “Doc Holloway and the new chiropractor in town are going to help.” Luckily, Langston had given them a call last night, and within an hour, an entire posse of physical therapy assistance was at his service. One of the perks of a small town.
“So? You’re still hurt. I need someone who can handle manual labor.” She waved her arms around the inn.
Nice. Her round, firm breasts bobbed a little and both nipples strained toward him. Disappointment threaded through him when she crossed her arms over her chest again.
“Jamie and Langston have agreed to help with the heavy lifting. I’m going to be the foreman,” Talmadge said.
The copper flecks in her irises blazed to life. “I’mthe foreman. It’s my place.”
“It won’t be if you don’t get some help with the remodel.” Talmadge leaned a hip against the Formica counter. “Bea’s last wishes were for me to help, since you wouldn’t let her give you the inn.”
A fact Talmadge deeply respected.
“So you know I didn’t take advantage of your grandmother.”
Talmadge winced. “Yeah, sorry about that. Emotions were running high.”
“I was her witness. There was no statement to that effect in her will.” She said it like she didn’t believe him.
Her exposed skin was goose-bumped, so Talmadge grabbed his jacket off the counter and draped it around her shoulders. She pulled it close around her and snuggled into it.
“Thank you.” Her voice softened.
Good. He might be wearing her down. Because she was sure wearinghimdown. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could be in her presence without tasting her again. “Uh, she left me a note.” He was skating on thin ice here. He hadn’t said anything that would violate the terms of the will, but he was getting close.
He hesitated. Helping Miranda would be a win-win for both of them. She would get her business open and running, the inn would be more energy efficient if he did the work, and the pot of money waiting for him at the end of Miranda’s renovation rainbow would provide cash flow while he sorted out his derailed project.
Her big, chocolaty eyes stared up at him.
“Uh . . .” Damn, he didn’t want to lie to her. “This place meant a lot to her . . .”
Miranda’s expression softened, and wetness shimmered around the rims of her eyes.
“She, uh, wanted to see it become a success and thought I could help.” Okay, still the truth.
He almost pulled it off without lying. He did.
Until he opened his big, stupid mouth and said, “Her note said she wanted me to stick around until the inn is open again, then she wanted us to use her life insurance to build an after-school rec center for kids here in Red River.”Ah, shit.A thread of truth ran through that statement, but not enough to keep it from being a lie.
A tear glided down Miranda’s smooth cheek, which still had the impression of a sheet mark creased into it. She swiped under her eyes with a finger.
Talmadge’s eyes slid shut for a second.Liar, liar, pants on fire.
“That’s just like Bea.” Miranda sniffled. “Always trying to help kids.”
“Uh, yeah,” was all Talmadge could say without blurting the truth.
The back door cracked and Langston stuck his head in. “What gives, you two? It’s cold out here.”
“Give us a second,” Talmadge said to Langston, who rolled his eyes and shut the door. Talmadge looked at Miranda. “Plus, I owe you big-time for looking out for Bea the last couple of years. Consider my work payback.” She pulled that lip between her teeth again, and he wanted to bend down and suckle it. He coughed. “Do we have an agreement?”
“Well . . .” She bit her lip. “I guess when my contractor comes back to work, I could return the supplies he’s probably already bought with the money I gave him.”
Right. And Trinity Falls was going to build itself overnight.
She chewed that plump lip. “And I’ll have to find a way to let him go without hurting his feelings.”
Talmadge wanted to sigh. He doubted that so-called contractor would ever step foot inside the county again after the cash payload Miranda had obviously handed him.
“But what about the gossip about us?” Her expression dimmed. “People already think the worst. It’ll only get worse with you hanging around here all the time. I mean come on, Talmadge.” Her voice turned to a plea. “You’re famous. People are not going buy into you hammering nails and reshingling my roof unless . . .” Her cheeks pinked, and her gaze darted away.
He couldn’t help but chuckle. “You know I wouldn’t do or say anything to hurt your reputation. Didn’t I prove that seven years ago? And it’s about time someone takes Mrs. Wilkinson’s tiara away. She still hasn’t realized she’s not queen of Red River.”
Miranda’s eyes closed on a slow blink. “I mean you’re stealing my thunder, Talmadge.”
His brows scrunched together.
Miranda took a deep breath. “The inn, the gazebo. I appreciate all you’re doing, but it’ll hurt me as much as it’ll help. I needed to do these things on my own to prove myself in this town as a business owner.”
The door cracked again, and Jamie stuck his head through. “Seriously, people. My teeth are chattering.”
“I think I know a way to work this to your advantage.” Talmadge dangled the bait. “I have connections with home remodeling shows. Let me make some calls.” And, shit, again. Because he did not want to call public attention to his prolonged stay in Red River with Trinity Falls sitting stagnant back in Washington. His investors were already squirming. “I can play this off as a project that’s for my professional benefit, not yours. Everyone will think you’re doing me the favor.” She was. She just didn’t know it. “We’ll make it clear that you’re calling the shots. It would mean a lot to Bea if you let me work on the inn.” And there went the guilt card.
Her chocolaty eyes clouded with skepticism, and she chewed her lip. Finally she nodded. “Okay. For Bea. But I’m the boss, not you.”
“Fair enough.” Talmadge smiled down at her. Without looking away, he called to Langston and Jamie. “Come on in, guys. We can start by coming up with a plan and a timeline.”
With any luck, he could pull this off and get out of town without anyone getting hurt. Most of all him, because coming to the rescue of Miranda Cruz was becoming a habit. A habit he wasn’t sure he wanted to break.
Had Talmadge screwed himself six ways to Sunday?
At 8:00 a.m. sharp four days later, he parked in front of Noah’s Bark Grooming before meeting Miranda at McCall’s Hardware. With everything on his mind—especially the bossy, beautiful woman—he’d forgotten some necessary supplies. Several times. Because this would be his sixth trip to McCall’s Hardware in three days.
He never forgot supplies. Never.
But Miranda, in all of her sassy glory, had him thinking about much more than supplies and renovations and home-improvement shows. He didn’t know if he could keep his hands or his mouth off of her lush curves and kissable lips for the next five weeks, which was about how long both the inn and gazebo projects would take if he worked at full-throttle times ten.
But first he had to help Lloyd with the whole man card thing. He scooped a trembling Lloyd from the passenger seat and gave him a pep talk.
“Bart Simpson’s mom called. She wants her hair back.” Talmadge patted his fluffy head. “You’ve got this.” Maybe a new haircut would make him look like ahe, instead of a ferret in drag.
Talmadge left Lloyd with a frowning groomer who insisted he looked exactly the way a poodle was supposed to look, regardless of gender, and drove over to McCall’s.
He pulled into the parking lot. Miranda’s Jeep was the only other vehicle there.
He parked and stared at the front door. Four days ago he’d worked up a renovation plan, hit the ground running with the remodel, showed Miranda his preliminary drawings of the new gazebo, scoped out Brandenburg Park where the gazebo would be built, and put in calls to several home remodel shows to see who could run a segment on the inn’s renovations when they were done—all while trying to make Miranda feel like she was in charge.
The glow on her face and the shine in her eyes as she processed and organized everything he said, the gears in her sharp mind snapping and grinding, and the way she rolled up her sleeves and worked harder than anyone he’d ever seen had been worth it. She’d be an exceptional business owner. Hell, she’d probably be an exceptional project manager—as good as any he’d worked with.
He, on the other hand, was lower than dirt for not telling her the whole truth about his reasons for staying in Red River. Sure the inn held a special place in his heart, and he did want to see it finished just as much as Bea had. But he had still twisted the truth, because he didn’t want to lose his inheritance. That’s what he got for giving an answer on the fly while distracted by her spectacular rack—that had one, been braless, and two, been outside in the cold.
Talmadge got out of the truck. The fresh layer of snow blanketing Red River was the only evidence that a late-season storm had rolled through the area. That was one of the things he missed about Northern New Mexico. The sun came right back out to turn the air crisp and brighten the sky, unlike in the Pacific Northwest where gray clouds hung over the landscape for weeks at a time.
He shoved his hands in his pockets and trekked across the lot toward the entrance. Time to see if he could buy the supplies he needed without getting distracted by lips and tank tops and cold weather.
Miranda stood in front of the paint samples, sipping a cup of coffee from the Ostergaards’ bakery. She needed a few dozen more cups before starting another day of work with Talmadge. After agreeing to let him help her, she was going to need a lot of strong coffee.
Or Xanax. Either would work. Too bad she didn’t drink, actually.
But there seemed to be little she could do. Hedidhold the note and the deed to the inn. And there was no other way to fend off Old Lady Wilkinson and prove that Miranda could manage a major community event. Truth was, Miranda could use Talmadge’s help. Since the inn had meant so much to Bea, she hoped he’d put his heart into it for his grandmother’s sake, get the job done quickly, and leave.
And the gossip about them . . . well, the plan for her to be in charge had lasted about five minutes. As soon as Talmadge shifted into architect mode, he did nothing but spout orders and step on her toes. Worse, he didn’t notice. Sure, he was helping, and that help was invaluable. But he was also snatching away a big part of her independence, something she couldn’t give up.
“You need help, Miranda?” Mr. McCall walked over to the paint mixing counter and pulled a set of keys from his red work vest to unlock the register.
“Just browsing for now. Thanks.”
He nodded. “Let me know if you need anything.” He disappeared down the aisle labeled “Hammers and Nails.”
Miranda rolled her eyes. Men and their hammers.
She returned her attention to the colorful display, and her thoughts to Talmadge. Help or not, she was pretty sure if she had to spend several weeks in close quarters with the only man who had ever touched ground zero, she would be toast.
She sipped from the to-go cup and plucked a powder-blue sample from the display. It was so early in the morning, she was the only customer in the store, and the quiet was nice. She could actually think without Talmadge’s male scent and her spewing pheromones clouding her mind.
How was she going to get through this?Gawd, but he was awful about bossing her around every time he walked into the room. Yeah, he might be good at this kind of construction project. Okay, he was freaking great at it, in an I-can-save-the-planet-all-by-myself kind of way. But Miranda could use her brains to manage the situation. Except she was pretty sure Talmadge would end up managing her right out of her clothes if she wasn’t careful, because she couldn’t hide her attraction forever.
So maybe she could make himnotwant to get her out of her clothes.
She chuckled. The thrill of anticipation coursed through her as she looked down at the new shirt that had been delivered to her door late last night.
After Talmadge left the inn yesterday, she’d made a small investment that would surely turn him off and keep it all business between them.
She pulled a few more paint samples from the display that would complement the powder-blue and lifted the piping cup to her lips as she smiled. She savored both the rich flavor of the coffee and the clever purchase that was going to drive Talmadge insane. It had taken two hundred dollars that she really couldn’t spare to find what she needed at a store in Albuquerque and then have a delivery service drive it all the way to Red River.
She downed a big gulp. Studied the rectangular paper paint swatches in her hand. The blue reminded her of Talmadge’s eyes.
The storefront doors slid open and Mr. Blue Eyes himself walked in.
She turned toward him. Ignored him, of course, continuing to study the samples and sip her coffee, but from the corner of her eye she watched him stop and harden his jaw into granite. He stared at her, taking in herinvestmentwithout so much as a blink.
Slowly, like she had all day, she looked up from the color sample. His unmistakable glare slid over her torso, fire spitting from those silvery-blue pools.
Yeah, the powder-blue sample with a hint of gray definitely matched his eyes. Probably why she liked it so much.
“So what do we need?” Miranda kept her tone all sunshine and cheer even with Talmadge’s stare shooting poison straight through the black T-shirt that had “Earth First—We’ll Strip-Mine the Other Planets Later” screen printed on the front in bold yellow letters. “I brought you a cup of coffee.” She laid the samples on the mixing counter and picked up the second cup she’d set there when she first arrived. She tried to hand it to him.
He didn’t reach for it. “What the hell are you wearing?” His voice was low and darned near lethal.
He was clearly pissed.
“Normally I’d tell a man to get lost if he asked me a question like that.”
“It’s not a come-on, and you know what I’m talking about.”
“Oh, this old thing?” Miranda tugged at the front of her T-shirt. “I pulled it out of the back of my closet.”
He took the coffee. “Then why does it still have the price tag dangling from the back?” His free hand slid under his coat and rubbed his shoulder.
Miranda reached for the back of the neckline and found a small rectangle of paper still attached.
Dammit. She yanked it off.
Talmadge blew on his coffee. “Since when are you an anti-environment activist?”
Since never. “Don’t you have a sense of humor?”
His mouth closed over the rim of the cup, and he drew in a long sip. Long lashes lowered for a second longer than a blink, and Miranda lost her train of thought.
He swallowed, smooth and slow. The muscles in his neck rippled as the liquid traveled downward like floating along a lazy river on an inner tube. “I do when something’s actually funny.”
She pulled her gaze from his neck and blinked at him. “How about we get to work?”
He nodded to the blue swatches on the counter. “That isn’t the best color choice.” He let the cup hover at his lips.
“What?” She looked up at the samples. “It’s a beautiful shade of blue.” He could look in the mirror if he needed proof.
He closed the space between them, the savory scent of coffee on his lips. “I didn’t say it wasn’t beautiful.” His presence unsettled her. His nearness came pretty close to setting her on fire below the waist.
Casually, he leaned his backside against the counter and crossed his legs at the ankles, his boot brushing against hers. Like a magnetic pull, she leaned toward him.
“Just because something’s beautiful doesn’t mean it’s right.” His gaze latched on to her lips.
“Um, why isn’t it the best choice? I like it.” She pulled her bottom lip between her teeth, self-conscious that he was still staring at it. Turning, she wandered down an aisle. Not any particular aisle. Just any old aisle would do with him looking at her like he wanted to drink her in as if she were a mocha latte with double whip.
He pushed off the counter and followed. “Too pale. It’s more of an indoor color. What are you going to name the place?”
She turned, surprised at the unexpected question. Actually, she’d thought about it a lot and hadn’t been able to come up with a name that felt right. He looked at her from under hooded lids, which had her trying to find another distraction.
Damn that fire down below. Maybe she should find the aisle that displayed portable fire extinguishers, because she needed something to put out those flames.
She grabbed a chisel off the rack. Chisels were handy tools. Surely something around the inn needed to be chiseled. In quick, nervous strides, she darted to the other side of the aisle. She ran her fingers over a few tools with no idea what they were used for. “Maybe I’ll name it the Runs Inn and Café.” Okay, she was just being contrary now.
He shook his head and reached into his jacket pocket to produce a list. “No way. You’re too smart for a name that stupid.”
Her hand stilled against a tool that looked something like a wrench.Mmmkay. Not what she expected him to say. Everyone in Red River just thought of her as the best damn server in town.
He took another long drink of coffee before setting it on the shelf. He walked toward her. His easy gait shouldn’t make her pulse hum. But it did, and the hum grew into a song when he stood in front of her.
“How about naming it the Bea in the Bonnet Inn?” Laughter sparked in his eyes. “The double entendre would pay tribute to your friendship with Bea and your badass boss routine.” His glittering gaze never left hers. “Two birds, one stone.”
Her eyes fixed to his lips. “Um, Pot, you’re black. You dish enough out, maybe you deserve a little bossiness in return.” His mouth was like a drug. Not a pansy-assed over-the-counter drug. But the kind pharmacists double-checked your ID for and still gave you the stink-eye as they handed it over.
“For trying to save your ass?” He glanced down to her hips. “Nice as it is.”
“Can we get the things we need?” She looked over the top of the paper in his hand and read the items on the list.
“Sure. Just as soon as you give me this.” He snatched the chisel from her.
“Hey. We agreed that you’re not in charge.”
“Okay, boss, what exactly were you going to do with a chisel?”
“Um.” She bit her lip.
“That’s what I thought.” He replaced the chisel on the rack, and metal clattered against metal.
His phone dinged, and he dug it out of his front pocket. “Jamie’s driving straight back to Red River after class to help out.”
“You’re texting my little brother?”
“Yep. Langston’s on his way to the inn, too.” He tapped on his phone. “I have others lined up, but they’ll have to come and go as they have extra time.”
“I don’t want Jamie neglecting his schoolwork because of the inn.” She knew all too well that putting work over studying led to dropping out, which led to fewer choices in life.
“You should stop treating Jamie like a kid. He’s a grown man.” Talmadge didn’t look up from his phone.
Talmadge thumbed the screen of his smartphone, and his eyes went wide. “Holy—” Cutting off the sentence, he glanced up at her. His face cracked into a wide smile. The sweetest, most honest smile she had ever seen on him. He wielded it like a weapon, and it stole her breath for a second. He turned the phone toward her.
“What the . . . ?” She grabbed the phone.
There she was with Talmadge. On theRed River Rag. A picture of them standing inside the inn, one hand pressed flat against his chest like she was pushing him away, the other hand brandishing a screwdriver like she was threatening him, and her face crinkled into a scowl. This one had to have been taken through the window.
“Did they take this from the lift? Who carries a telephoto lens on a ski lift?”
“Could’ve been hiding in the tree line.” His smile got even bigger. “But you’re the bad guy in this one.”
The title of the post readMiss Cruz resorts to threats! Are such drastic measures necessary, even if she is a woman scorned?
He tried to take the phone away, but she wouldn’t let go.
“I’m not sure you want to see the next one.” His tone turned to concern.
He tried to snatch the phone again, but she turned and pulled it out of reach. She scrolled to the next post. Her chest tightened. A picture of a shirtless Ben Smith wearing a sombrero, with full shot glasses lined up on a cabana bar and the ocean cresting on a beach in the background, glared at her. TheRag’s second post of the morning read,Looks like Red River’s favorite contractor has traded his tools for tequila. But we forgive him as long as he keeps posting shirtless pics to his FB page.
Her heart dropped like a chunk of lead. When it came to trusting men, her judgment was obviously as bad as her mother’s.
Talmadge’s expression wasn’t smug. It was soft and sympathetic.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I know what it’s like to make a professional mistake.” He shrugged. “I’ve trusted the wrong people before.” His jaw ticked. “I won’t let it happen again.”
Neither would she. Miranda flipped to the next post by swiping a finger across the screen.
Talmadge peeked over the top of the phone. “I just left the groomer a few minutes ago. Didn’t notice a soul taking pictures. The only other vehicle out this early was the senior center van. Whoever it is, they’re damn good.”
Her vision blurred from rolling her eyes so far back into her head.
A picture of Talmadge and Lloyd going into the grooming salon was there with the headline,Town hero redeems himself with his pooch. Can he do the same with the woman by renovating her inn now that her contractor has shucked his work boots for flip-flops? Should Mr. Oaks even try?
“You’ve got to be freaking kidding me!” She glared at him.
He held up both hands. “I didn’t take those pictures.” He pointed to the phone. “That’s your fault. You’re the one who made a public scene at Joe’s and set the whole thing in motion.”
“You have to do something.Anything.I can’t have this. Eventually you’re going to be gone—thank the Christ child—and I’m going to be left here with people talking. I can’t have that.”
“In this town? People are gonna talk, Miranda.”
“Well, they can’t!” She shoved the phone back at him.
He took a step closer to her. So close that his fresh, soapy scent closed around her and made her heart skip a beat. “They can.” He didn’t touch her, just crowded in on her so that his height, his broad shoulders, his warmth enveloped her. “And they will. They already are, even more than before because of that kiss at Joe’s.” Her fingers screamed to touch him, so she locked them to her sides “How do you think I can stop it?”
“Um, kick some photographer ass? You’re big enough. You can handle it.”
His head dipped a little closer, and she leaned her head back to look into his eyes.
She should push him away. She really should.
His quickened breaths washed over her and set her skin on fire. Definitely checking into that fire extinguisher.
“I’m not planning to hit anyone.” His voice had gone husky.
“What then?”Hervoiced turned to gravel.
“Ignore the talk. You can’t stop a gossip rag from gossiping. Trust me, I know.” His arm grazed hers, and something in the air around them stirred.
“What will people think? About us? What if they think I’m like my . . . ?” She swallowed, because his beautiful blue eyes caressing over her face made her want to take every bit of her respectability outside and start a bonfire.
Yep. She needed that fire extinguisher.
“Earn their respect.” They still didn’t touch, but his head tilted forward and his nearness encircled her. Hemmed her in as though his arms were around her. “Put on the best damn festival this town has ever seen.” His stare lingered on her lips again, and the hunger in his eyes was so powerful Miranda wanted to throw herself against him and let him taste his fill.
Aaaandthe rest of her body went up in flames. At that moment, Miranda didn’t feel the weight of shame from her mother’s sexual exploits. At that moment, Miranda knew what a beautiful thing sex could be. Had been. And she didn’t feel at all ashamed of her one time with Talmadge.
That mouth of his curved up again into a soft, sweet smile, like he could read her thoughts.
“You’re smart. You’re organized. More importantly, you’re determined. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t have been in a position to take this opportunity my grandmother offered you. So use some of that grit of yours and put together a planning committee. A team of people you trust. Like me.” His tone was so confident that Miranda felt like she could put on the World’s Fair right there in Red River. “And don’t ever give money to your employees. You pay the bills, buy the supplies, or whatever. People will do crazy, unpredictable things for money.”
For the briefest second, something indiscernible raced across his features. Then it was gone, and that odd look, almost like regret, didn’t matter anymore because his blue eyes grazed over her face. So close, so intimate that he might as well kiss her. It turned her insides to a puddle of need.
“I’m not good at asking for help,” she whispered. “I don’t like being rescued. I can take care of my own responsibilities.”
“Letting people help at the right time isn’t a weakness, Miranda. It’s smart business.”
The back of his index finger smoothed across her jawline, and her pulse raced as his lips lingered just a breath from hers. He looked down at her through those heavy lids and thick lashes that probably made every woman in America want to donate money to Save the Whales.
She should step away. Pull out of his magnetic hold and come to her senses.
Instead, her traitorous lips parted, and her eyes slid shut as she waited, anticipated, welcomed his kiss. Lust settled over her like a mist on a cool mountain morning.
A throat cleared behind her. “Uh, sorry.” Mr. McCall’s voice had her shaking the haze from her head. “You kids need anything?”
“Shit,” Talmadge whispered, looking over Miranda’s shoulder toward the front of the store.
“Thisis the kind of person Red River is going to trust with the biggest event of the year?” Mrs. Wilkinson’s snide tone echoed down the aisle. “You’re worse than your mother. At least she didn’t carry on in public. Much.”
Miranda’s breath caught in her chest.
“Just wait until everyone hears about this. They’ll be begging me to step in and take over.”
Oh. Hell. No. This bitter old woman wasn’t going to make Miranda feel worse than she already had.
Miranda turned. Slowly. Methodically. Until she could look Mrs. Wilkinson in the eye. “Go ahead and try.”
Talmadge’s palm pressed into the small of her back. Giving her strength, encouragement, false bravado. Becausewhat the hell was she doing taking on Mrs. Wilkinson?
Miranda drew herself up to stand taller before she chickened out. “I’mthe chairperson this year.” Holy crapoly, she must be crazy talking like this. “And as long as I’m doing my job, there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Mrs. Wilkinson sniffed. “We’ll see about that.” Her shoes clicked against the cement floor as she turned and stomped out of the store.
Mr. McCall gave Miranda a nod. “Since you’re my first customer of the day, I’ll give you a nice discount.” He scratched his scruffy gray beard. “And I’ll donate any supplies you need for the gazebo.”
Talmadge smiled down at her like he was proud. “There you go. Another person for Team Miranda, and it’s only eight in the morning. You’ll be headed for world domination by dinner tonight.”
Miranda tried to smile. “How about we buy stuff to build a bomb shelter?” Because she was sure she’d just started a war.
Talmadge followed Miranda back to the inn to start the day’s work. As he motored down a virtually empty Main Street, his phone rang. A Seattle number he’d come to know and dread popped onto the screen, and he declined the call. The reporter who was stalking him wouldn’t take a hint. When his voicemail beeped with a new message, he set his cell to speakerphone and listened.
“Mr. Oaks.” Her voice grated, even though it was smooth and fluid. “I’m going to run a story about your relationship with Monica Strayer with or without your input.” His hands tightened around the steering wheel. There was no relationship. It was a publicity stunt to get the cheesy gossip columnist a raise or maybe a promotion, and more headlines for Miss January, who couldn’t seem to keep her career going any other way. “She’s given me a quote, and I wanted to give you a chance to do the same.” The reporter’s voice went silky. Calculating. “And I wondered if you’d care to comment on why you’ve decided to take a sabbatical during potentially one of the biggest environmental catastrophes in the Pacific Northwest since theExxon Valdez. A catastrophe that your firm is responsible—”
He punched the End button.
He turned onto the inn’s driveway and parked next to Miranda as she hopped out of her Jeep and grabbed an armful of supplies from the back. He plunked his elbow against the window and rested his fist against his chin.
The inferior supplies her old contractor bought and Talmadge had thrown out had been rescued from the Dumpster and were organized on the front porch.
It was gonna be a long damn day.
He grabbed two sacks from McCall’s out of the backseat and followed Miranda up the walkway. The first hints of spring flowers were starting to peek through the snow-patched dirt along the front of the inn. Bulbs he’d helped Bea plant as a kid.
“There’s a reason I threw all this out.” He climbed the porch steps and eyed the materials. “The insulation and drywall are the cheapest on the market, the nails will rust, and those two-by-fours don’t meet code.” He stomped some mud off his feet before walking through the front door. “You’ll save money in the long run if you use better materials.”
She set her armful of supplies on a workbench and leaned a hip against it. “I’m not used to wasting things. I’ve always had to make do with what I had. Throwing things out that have never been used gives me hives.”
Another thing Talmadge admired about her. She knew how to conserve. That was the cornerstone of his specialized field—conserving energy and resources. Conserving everything except money. Green architecture was expensive. Which was why he’d invested so much of his money . . . okay, all of his money into Trinity Falls. He’d wanted to ante up and show his investors how much confidence he had in the project.
He set his sacks down next to her load and faced her. “How about we compromise and I try to find another use for some of them?”
She crossed her arms under her full breasts. It would’ve been a sight that inspired dirty thoughts if not for that silly T-shirt.
“Deal. Can at least a few of the supplies be used in a storage closet?” Her eyes lit. “Oh! How about we use the wood and drywall to make cute decorations for the rec center?”
Talmadge froze for a second before he recovered. “That’s one option.”
“When will we start on the rec center, anyway?” The sincerity in her expression made him want to grab one of the cheap nails off the porch and stick it in his eye.
“Uh.” He scrubbed a hand over his jaw. “We have our hands full right now. If you want to outsmart Mrs. Wilkinson, it’s not a good idea to spread ourselves too thin.” He almost choked. Trinity Falls had spread him so thin he should be transparent by now. “We’ll figure out the rec center later.”
“Thank you.” Her eyes went soft. Her gaze dropped and she picked at a fingernail.
She was thanking him. For a rec center that he never intended to build. Which made him want to stick arustynail in his eye.
“I’m not very good at accepting help.” She picked harder.
He leaned against the bench, too, and bent a knee. Which grazed her thigh, and a sizzle of desire skittered up his leg to his groin. “Really? I wouldn’t have guessed that.”
Her head bobbed up, eyes rounded. But when she saw his smile, she let out a breath, and the tension in her shoulders eased. “I don’t want to be needy, that’s all.”
Ah, mommy issues. He could relate.
The way she’d pretty much raised herself and still turned out so good, only to let the sound of Mrs. Wilkinson’s voice make her entire body go stiff at the hardware store and the soft, vulnerable look on her beautiful face right this minute made himwantto rescue her whether she needed it or not, the same as he wanted to save the world. Give something back because of what he’d taken away. She’d lost so much of her childhood, but it hadn’t been her fault the way his loss had been his. He couldn’t help but touch her, even though he shouldn’t.
He brushed a finger over her soft, creamy cheek, then put that same finger under her chin and lifted her eyes to meet his. A cloud of lust swirled around them as fierce as a tornado.
“Needing help and being needy are two very different things, Miranda.” His hand dropped to her neck, and he caressed it with his thumb. A slow burn started in his fingertips, skated up his arm, and stole the breath from his chest. “You’re definitely not needy.”
She swallowed. “Thank you for everything.” Her voice was almost a whisper. “Only a handful of people have ever had my back like you have.”
“Maybe because you haven’t let them.” Before she could disagree with him, he let his lips graze hers. Just a soft graze, but a rush of excitement jolted through him, and he had to go back for more.
Her mouth opened and he deepened the kiss, slipping his tongue in to find hers. Her lips were like velvet, and she let out a little whimper when he laced his arm around her waist and pulled her into him.
And then some asshole cleared his throat behind them for the second time that morning. “Uh, sorry,” said Langston. “Should I come back later?”
Pain lanced through Talmadge’s shoulder when Miranda pushed at it to break his hold on her. He winced, but Miranda didn’t seem to notice in her frenzy to put distance between them.
Hell yes, he’d rather Langston come back later. Talmadge rubbed his shoulder and shot daggers at Langston with a scowl. Which was totally undeserved because Langston was using his days off to help with the inn. Langston had also just saved him from making a mistake that both Talmadge and Miranda would likely regret.
But damn if her steel-toed boots, which contrasted with her tight jeans with the bling on the pockets, didn’t turn him on like a thousand-watt bulb. Completely inefficient but well worth the energy. And it would’ve been nice to finish that kiss.
“No!” Miranda all but yelled at Langston. “Stay. Please.”
Langston’s hesitant look darted back and forth between them, probably uncertain where his loyalty should lie.
Talmadge waved him in. “We were just getting started.”
“I could see that.” Langston raised a brow, his tone smart-alecky.
Miranda shot him a frantic look. “With work. We were just getting started with work.”
“Uh-huh.” Langston’s brow stayed raised, which seemed to irritate Miranda all the more. “Nice shirt, by the way.”
“Shut up.” Miranda pointed to the bar. “There’s bagels if you’re hungry.” She spoke to Langston in that familiar way siblings usually do, and it warmed Talmadge from the inside out.
If he was being honest with himself, because he sure as hell wasn’t being totally honest with Miranda, he was also a little jealous of their familial closeness. The camaraderie, the easy way they exchanged barbs and talked to each other, those things came from a lifetime of living in the same town. It was something Talmadge missed.
“Where should I start, Tal?” Langston asked, shrugging out of his coat.
Talmadge let out a frustrated breath. “Let’s finish the upstairs bathroom this week. After lunch we can start installing the new insulation.” He turned to Miranda. “That okay with you, boss?”
Miranda gave him an appreciative smile like he’d offered her a priceless gift. “That’ll be fine.” If him asking her permission over such a trivial thing made her eyes light like stars, damned if he didn’t want to offer her the moon, too.
Talmadge tried to focus. “Then let’s roll.”
Langston hauled some tools and caulking up the stairs.
“What about me? What should I do?” she said.
He wanted to tell her that she could take off that shirt, get in a hot tub with him, and massage the soreness out of his shoulder. Or kiss it with those velvety lips of hers. But that would only make him a bigger prick than he already was.
He pulled on thick work gloves and handed her a steamer and a scraper. “Can you start taking the wallpaper off in the bedrooms?”
She grabbed the tools.
“I got high-quality insulation yesterday. Much better than the stuff on the porch. I’ll measure and cut it while you and Langston work.” Because his shoulder hurt too much to swing a hammer. He slid a pair of goggles on. “I have an appointment in a little while for my shoulder, but when I get back, I’ll need you to help me install it. I can’t lift my arm high enough to hold it in place, so you can do that while I staple.” He smiled at her. “See? Asking for help isn’t hard.”
She gave him an insincere smile. “Is that why the muscle in your jaw just tensed into granite?”
No. It tensed into granite to match his dick, because he’d really like to see her in nothing but those steel-toed boots. Thinking of anything else but Miranda Cruz naked and writhing under him while she whispered his name was getting more difficult no matter how much he tried.
“My shoulder hurts. I grit my teeth a lot.” His gaze slid from her mouth all the way to her boots. “Ready to work . . .boss?”
Moist heat billowed from the steamer as Miranda worked to remove yet another layer of outdated wallpaper from the honeymoon suite. She reminded herself that Talmadge wasn’t in Red River for her. He was there because of Bea. Yes, her intellect understood that. Her body, on the other hand, refused to listen. It was hot and humming for his touch. And her heart, well, she was already losing it to a man who was only helping her out of a sense of duty to his grandmother.
Having a man as sexy as Talmadge Oaks come to her rescue, then touch her and kiss her like he meant it made it really difficult to keep her heart in line. Talmadge’s head appeared through the open doorway. “Hey. How’s it going?” He leaned against the doorjamb.
“Good.” She shut off the steamer and started scraping. “It’s like an archeological dig site. I keep peeling back more layers and don’t know what I’m going to find next.”
His expression darkened, and he stared at the floor. Hellfire, he had to be thinking about Washington. She stopped scraping.
“How is Trinity Falls going?” She’d been so caught up in her own problems she hadn’t bothered to ask about his.
He shook his head. “It’s not.”
“I’m sorry. You really don’t have to stay in Red River.” She cleaned the sticky bits of paper off the end of the scraper. “I’ll figure something out.”
His eyes went cloudy, and he looked around the honeymoon suite like he was remembering. “I always liked this room.” His eyes found hers and held them.
“It’s my favorite room in the house.” She pulled her lip between her teeth, and his eyes followed the movement.
They both startled when Langston yelled up the stairs that he was taking a lunch break and would be gone for a few hours.
Why couldn’t her body do a tap dance for a guy like Langston instead? He was hot and handsome too. He was available and, most importantly, he would stay around. Butnaw. She wanted the one who was leaving.
Must be genetic. She’d have to ask Doc Holloway about that. Maybe there was medication.
Talmadge straightened. “I’m heading out to my appointment. Jamie will be here later. You can handle things here while I’m gone?”
She raised a brow. “It’s a few hours. I’ll be fine. I’m not helpless.”
He chuckled. “Right. I got that.” Without another word, he disappeared, the wood stairs creaking under his boots.
Miranda stared at the empty doorway until she heard him drive away.
Could she handle things here? Pffst.
She went downstairs, snagged Jamie’s laptop from the bar, and Googled how to install insulation. With southern exposure and Red River’s dry climate, the inn wasn’t hard to heat during daylight hours, but after the sun set each night, a chill settled into the older buildings so prevalent along Main Street and along the base of the slopes. She appreciated Talmadge helping save on the cost of energy more than he would ever know. Any way she could cut expenses would help until she built up clientele.
Even though she did appreciate his help, she could still help herself, though. And moving the renovations along would only help both of them. She skipped over the first few steps about wearing goggles and such.
Ah. Number five got to the point, and she started fitting Talmadge’s neatly cut pieces of insulation in between the studs, making sure there were no gaps. Simple enough. She went back to the laptop. Okay, number six demonstrated how to fluff, so she fluffed. Number seven said to staple, so she climbed Talmadge’s industrial-strength ladder to staple.
Jeez, even his ladder reeked of testosterone.
When she was done, she stood back to admire her handiwork. She was quite proud of herself for not being helpless. And dang it, it irritated her that she wanted Talmadge to be proud of her too.
She started on the next piece of insulation. She fitted, fluffed, and stapled.
Fitted. Fluffed. Stapled.
Until a strange, prickly sting started on her neck and arms.
She ignored it and kept working. Hard work was her friend, because there was a payoff when it was done. Her inn would be open, and she could get on with her life.
Which made the sting worse, because it spread to her chest and stabbed at her heart.
She ignored that too, but after another forty-five minutes of fitting, fluffing, and stapling a five-alarm fire went off over every inch of her exposed skin. When she couldn’t stand it any longer, she ran for the shower.
Almost thirty minutes later, she still stood under the hot streaming water, hoping it wouldn’t run cold. She braced both hands against the outdated pink tile on the shower walls, praying the electrifying sting would go away.
Please, Baby Jesus, make it stop.The razor-sharp pain bit into her skin as the water flowed over her.
It only seemed to get worse.
All she had to do was let the hot water wash away whatever was setting her skin on fire before Talmadge got back to the inn, and he’d never know that she’d screwed up like a helpless woman.
She reached for the knob labeled with a red H and cranked it up. And groaned and moaned even louder.
“Miranda?” Talmadge’s voice reverberated through the thin bathroom door of the owner’s suite. “Uh, is everything . . . okay?”
What did he think she was doing that would cause moaning? Her insides heated from embarrassment as much as the hot water heated her on the outside.
“Nothing! Just taking a shower.” She clamped her eyes shut. “What are you doing in my suite?”
“Well, I . . . heard . . . uh . . . noises.” His tone in that last word sounded amused.
“I’ll be out in a minute.” She grabbed a rag and raked it over her arm. A muffled scream escaped because of the pain that sliced over her skin before she could bite it back.
“Okay. Finished now?” Amusement definitely laced his words.
“Very funny,” she yelled around the shower curtain. “Get out of my private quarters, please.”
“Yeah, not going away. You’re one stubborn-assed woman. I told you to wait until I got back to hang the insulation.”
She didn’t answer.
“It’s the fiberglass.”
Probably shouldn’t have skipped the safety instructions.“I’m fine.” She ground her teeth against the fiery pain.
“I hope you’re not taking ahotshower.” He wasn’t even trying to hide the laughter in his voice.
And the temperature of her shower was his business because . . . ?
“Hot water makes it worse,” he said.
Her eyes clamped shut. Reaching for the knob, she turned the hot water down until it was lukewarm.
“Turn the hot off completely. Just use cold water.”
She really hated him right now.
Eyes still closed, her head fell back in defeat. Without looking she reached for the hot water knob and shut it off. Nothing on earth could possibly describe the petrifying jolt of misery that rocketed through every nerve ending in her body when the icy water hit her like an eighteen-wheeler hitting a squirrel.
An involuntary shriek tore from her lips. And a bark of laughter echoed through the door.
Damn the man.
“Shut it, Talmadge,” she growled around the shower curtain again. “How long do I have to stand here?” Her teeth started to chatter.
“Not long.” He bellowed out a full-blown fit of laughter.
That’s it. Hair up in a clip, she turned off the shower and reached for the towel hanging on an antique brass bar. Dripping wet and mad as a hornet, she wrapped it around her and held the ends closed with one hand.
She jerked the door open, and Talmadge’s sputtering laughter died. He was squeezing a small therapeutic ball. The rhythmic squeezes slowed to a stop, and he coughed out the last few chuckles as his gaze traveled her length. His eyes went wide, then darkened to a deep purple that shimmered against the bathroom light. Something sparked in those deep pools of incredible color.
She didn’t care.
“You could’ve told mewhyI needed to wait.”
Shoulders filling the old narrow doorway, he put his good hand above his head and grabbed onto the frame. Leaned in until she could feel his heat reaching for her, wrapping around her like a warm blanket on a cold winter night. She bet he would feel much better, much warmer than that damned insulation that was biting into her arms and neck.
Her pebbled skin prickled even more.
“I didn’t think you’d start without me.” His gaze dropped to her mouth, and it parted under his stare.
Okay, so he had her there. “Well, I wouldn’t have if you’d left more detailed instructions.” She’d just wanted to do something to help herself. And maybe impress him a little.
“Right. Because you’re so agreeable.” His voice had gone all husky, and his stare dropped lower, cascading down her neck, across the bare, wet skin of her chest, to where her hand held the towel in place.
“I should get dressed.” It came out as a whisper.
His gaze traveled back up to her collarbone, then anchored to her mouth again. “Probably.”
“Well, then . . .” She tried to push past him. He didn’t move.
Without a word, he let go of the doorframe and reached around her. His firm chest brushed against her breasts. They tightened and she sucked in a quick breath. But instead of enveloping her in his arms like she’d thought he would do, he snatched the strip-mining T-shirt off the counter and straightened.
“Just not in this.” He turned and strolled down the hall, leaving her staring at the lovely way his faded Levi’s cupped his firm bottom. Leaving her wanting to feel his touch and taste him again.
Leaving her dripping wet.
Alone in her bedroom, Miranda dabbed the water off her tender skin and tried to tell herself she did not just want to drop the towel she’d been wrapped in and let Talmadge’s hard body rub her dry. She pulled on a pair of old jeans, but when she tried to put on a shirt, it scraped over her arms like broken glass. Finally she gave up and reached for a soft tank top.
Her boots squeaked against the old wood floor as she trudged down the hall and out to the kitchen.
Lloyd ran to her, a new mustache shaved into his snout, and a spiked leather collar around his neck.
“What happened to you, little guy?” Miranda stooped to pick him up, but fire raked over her when his fur brushed against her arm. She flinched.
“I tried to get his dignity back.” Talmadge rolled up the cord of the staple gun and set it on the workbench. “Didn’t work.”
“He looks fine for a toy poodle.”
“That’s what the groomer said.” Talmadge filled a bowl of water and set it next to the small dog bed. “I brought some things over from Bea’s for him. Hope you don’t mind.”
Miranda smiled. An alpha guy like Talmadge putting together the doggy version of a diaper bag for a tiny poodle like it was his newborn baby—who would’ve thought?
She rubbed the burning sensation on her arm, which sent another shockwave of pain racing through her. She ground her teeth and tried to get comfortable.
“I can help with that.”
“With what?” Miranda kept staring at the floor.
“The pain.” He grabbed a roll of masking tape from the workbench and pulled out a barstool at the counter, motioning for her to sit. “I’m pretty impressed with your tough way of handling the pain. How long did you work with the insulation?”
She shrugged, and even that hurt. “Close to an hour. Give or take.”
“Most men would’ve been screaming like a little girl after five minutes, much less an hour. Unfortunately, the prolonged exposure probably made the pain much worse.” He gave her an approving smile.
That’s what she’d been after to begin with—his approval. And that made her both a badass and a dumbass.
He pointed to the stool. “Sit.”
It hurt too bad to argue, so she sat.
“It feels like I’m being stabbed with tiny shards of glass.”
“That’s because you are. Exposing bare skin to fiberglass is a mistake you only make once. Hold this.” He held up the jagged end of the tape roll, and Miranda gripped it. He unrolled a strip of tape and broke it with his teeth. “Hot water opens your pores and makes it worse. Cold water tightens the pores and helps work out the tiny pieces of glass.” He held up the wide strip of tape. “This will get rid of it completely.”
A tiny seed of defeat sprang to life in her soul, and she wasn’t sure either one of them was up to the challenge renovating the inn presented.
The way he was babying his shoulder didn’t inspire confidence. Plus, she was in a bear of a mood because of the pain. And because she’d acted like a fool and tried to wow him with her self-sufficient, hardworking initiative. And, dammit, because every minute that she was with him seemed to chip away at her resolve to keep it from becoming personal with a man who already had one foot out the door.
“Hold out your arm.” With a gentle touch—much more gentle than she’d expected—he smoothed the tape along her forearm.
Before she nodded, he ripped the tape off, which also tore a small cry from her.
“Sorry, but it’s the quickest way to get the glass out. It won’t hurt as much on your neck.”
“Jeez.” Miranda’s eyes teared. “Maybe I should bite down on a stick or something.”
Talmadge chuckled and kept working the tape, having her help tear off a new strip each time. A few more torturous rips and pulls and her arms were fiberglass free.
“Next time listen to me. I do actually know what I’m doing here.” He tossed the used strips of tape into the trash.
She let out a heavy breath that seemed to deflate both her shoulders and her confidence. “I’ve always taken care of myself. I wanted to do some things for myself instead of sitting around like a powerless girl.”
“Woman.” He moved to work on her neck. With gentle fingertips under her chin, he tilted her head to one side and exposed the length of her neck. “You’re definitely a woman, Miranda.” His voice dropped to a throaty rasp, and her insides did a dance.
Yes, she was all grown up. Seven years, three months, and eighteen days ago, he’d helped her take that final step in becoming a woman. That one magical night during Lorenda’s reception had been one of the only times he’d noticed Miranda. But he was definitely noticing now, and her girl parts liked the attention.
She cleared her throat. “Where’s my T-shirt?” she asked, as he worked the tape around her neck.
“In the trash Dumpster.” His hard chest brushed against her. He was close. So close that the steady rhythm of his breaths caressed over her ears, soothed her aching skin.
No wait. That was the tape, right? The tape took the glass and the pain away. But the tape couldn’t have been responsible for the balmy glow that washed through her and made her breasts ache for his touch.
“I spent a lot of money on that shirt,” she protested, but the look on his face told her he couldn’t care less.
“I’ll get you a new one. A better one. From a fancy store.”
“This is Red River. I don’t wear a lot of fancy clothes.”
“Then one of my company shirts.” He smiled, smoothing the tape over her neck again. “Unless wearing something of mine is repulsive to you. Then how about I call the Red River Mercantile and you can pick out anything you like.”
Repulsive wasn’t anywhere close to the feelings that rushed through her every time she saw his name in the news or his company logo on coffee cups and recycled notecards and refillable water bottles scattered around Bea’s place. The twinge of excitement that rushed through her every time she thought of their one and only time together . . .herone and only time . . . caused her heart to knock against her chest and her pulse to spur into a gallop.
When he was finished, he balled up all the tape and sunk it into the trash with a swoosh. He didn’t move away from her, though, and she looked up into his eyes. Even on the tall barstool, he was still more than a head taller than her.
“The truth is, I thought Bea would be around to offer her guidance.” The words tumbled out against her will. She shouldn’t bring it up. If she let one crack show in the dam of uncertainty and grief that she’d built up since Bea died, her whole world might crumble into a pile of rubble.
His brows came together, and she looked straight ahead at his chest. AndGawd, but didn’t he make a plain white Fruit of the Loom T-shirt look sexy.
“When Bea suggested I open the inn again, she planned to teach me the ropes. I figured she’d be around for years to lend advice.” Tears sprang to Miranda’s eyes.
“Bea was a rock for me too.” He kept a poker face, but he couldn’t hide the grief in his eyes. He bent and placed a hand on the counter on each side of Miranda, framing her in like one of his solid, efficient designs. “But I know she had faith in both of us. So we keep going forward no matter how hard it is. That’s how we honor her memory.” His eyes slid shut for a beat, several creases forming between his brows like he didn’t believe his own words.
When they opened, Miranda found herself biting her lip and staring at his. “This is a bad idea.”
“Terrible.” He studied her from under thick lashes, his eyes heating to nuclear disaster level.
“I don’t . . .”Just say it!Tell him you don’t sleep around except for that one time. With him. Right before his Barbie girlfriend walked in and reclaimed him. But then she’d have to admit she’d lied about it being a mistake because they’d had too much to drink.
She hadn’t had a drop. And she’d never regretted sleeping with him.
But she might regret it now, once he left her brokenhearted.
So she said the only thing that came to mind. The only thing that made sense to her in a world that was spinning off its axis because of his amazing scent and those eyes that made her pulse go thumpity-thump. “You’re leaving eventually.” Even she could hear the defenselessness in her tone because of her mind telling her,So what if he’s leaving.Enjoy it while it lasts, just like the first time.
“I am.” He didn’t deny it. Never had, and she had to admire his honesty.
“Um.” Her lips had gone chalky dry from her quick, shallow breaths. She wet them with the tip of her tongue.
His low growl made her pulse shift into high gear, and it drove her restraint right over a cliff. She meant to lean back, but instead she swayed right into him.
After a beat, he placed the edge of an index finger—so powerful yet so gentle—under her chin and angled her face up to meet his. Leaning in, he brushed his nose with hers, then captured her mouth in a kiss.
Getting involved with Miranda Cruz was a mistake. Big, big mistake. At the moment, however, exactly why eluded him. Becauseholy hell, she was wearing another one of those skimpy tank tops, and the cold shower made it obvious that she wasn’t wearing a bra. Again. The braless tank top streak she was on and the damn dimples overrode every bit of rationale he possessed.
He tried to kiss her as gently as he could, but when her hand slid up his chest, caressed over his neck, and wound into his hair, instinct took over, and the kiss became more urgent. He probed her softness with his searching tongue. Devoured her like a hungry wolf until a sensual sound came from the back of her throat, communicating her approval.
Her tensed posture relaxed, and she molded against him, soft everywhere he was hard. She sank into the kiss, her fingers doing a dance through his hair while the other hand slowly caressed up his arm, then down his chest. Her touch set him on fire.
Common sense told him this was a mistake. He should keep his damned hands to himself. She’d obviously suffered enough because of her mother’s notorious romps. This would be history repeating itself, because he’d already started something with Miranda seven years ago that he hadn’t been able to finish. He’d do the same now.
But common sense didn’t always register in the male brain when a man wanted a particular woman so bad it hurt. Damned if he couldn’t stop wondering how holding Miranda Cruz in his arms with her hands and lips turning him on was so wrong, when he’d never felt anything more right.
He pressed in on her, sliding between her legs, nudging them apart.
So this wasn’t exactly what he had in mind when it came to keeping his hands to himself.
He tried to pull away, but she tugged him back, fisting his T-shirt into her hands.
He broke the kiss and went to the window to pull the curtains closed. He was right back between Miranda’s legs before the warmth of her skin could fade. With a hand on each of her thighs, he flexed his fingers up the length of her legs, wishing the barrier of her jeans were gone. When his fingers wedged between her bottom and the barstool, he slid her forward, pulling her against the evidence of his desire. She squeaked. But instead of pulling away like he expected her to, she laced one of her legs around his and clamped her warm, lush body against him.
With one hand, he caressed the small of her back through her thin top, then eased his fingertips under it. When his hand connected with bare skin, she shuddered. Her small gasp and tiny moan drove him on. He kneaded up her spine, his other hand finding her breast. He cupped and massaged, and it peaked into his palm, sending flames through him.
He couldn’t stand it another second. With little more than a flick of his hand, the top was gone and she stared up at him with eyes the color of bronze all glazed over with lust and desire.
She was even more beautiful than he remembered.
He took in her flaming cheeks, her slender neck, which was just as red, and her full breasts and firm nipples. Then he locked his gaze with hers. The same uncertain look that had filled her eyes seven years ago was back.
“Are you sure?” Was he stupid? She certainly looked sure. Until she didn’t.
She hesitated, then nodded.
“Really, really sure?”
“Talmadge,”she ground out just like the first time they were together.
He leaned down to capture a pink bud between his teeth and suckled it until she whimpered.
Just as he released it to give the other the same attention, the cell phone in his pocket buzzed. He ignored it and pulled her into his mouth, caressing the taut flesh with his tongue. Her soft skin turned to pebbles under his callused hands.
“We can go to my room.” Miranda’s words were small gasps. “If we hurry, we’ll have time before Langston and Jamie get here.”
He straightened and looked down at her dazed expression. “I seem to remember telling you once before that you’ve got the wrong guy if you expect me to hurry.”
She sobered, and her eyes darkened. “Yes, I remember. Quite well.” The look on her face told him she remembered much more than that.
She had disappeared seven years ago, telling him their one night together had been poor judgment brought on by alcohol and the magical pull of Lorenda’s wedding. He tried to lean his forehead against hers, but she turned her head away.
His phone buzzed again. He reached into his pocket to turn it off, but Miranda pulled away and grabbed for her top.
“Would you listen to me for a change?” He stood between her and the hall. If he blocked the entrance to her suite, he could keep her from disappearing on him like she did then, because she wasn’t likely to go through the front entrance wearing a tank top in frigid temperatures.
With her back to him, she pulled the tank over her head. “There’s nothing to say. It was a mistake back then, and it would’ve been a mistake just now.”
Without a glance in his direction, she hurried to the front door. It slammed shut, and Talmadge let out a frustrated growl. “This conversation isn’t over,” he yelled at the door.
His phone vibrated again.
With a hefty breath, he answered the call. “Hello.”
“Talmadge.” Larry Jameson, his second in command over the Trinity Falls project, boomed through the line. “Got a minute?”
“Of course.” Talmadge rubbed his eyes with a thumb and index finger. “What’s the news?” He couldn’t keep the weariness from his tone.
When Larry hesitated, Talmadge’s chest tightened. “Go ahead, Larry.”
“The tribal councils still can’t come to an agreement on which nation should have jurisdiction over the site.” The burly foreman’s voice held a tone of weariness even deeper than Talmadge’s from trying to handle the situation in his absence. “We’re still at an impasse.”
Talmadge almost smirked, because tribal councils could argue over things like this for years.Impassewas a polite way of sayingstandstill. A diplomatic way of delivering the news that his life sucked. Hard.
Stupid.Stupid was actually putting it lightly. She couldn’t get physically or emotionally involved with Talmadge Oaks. It was a bridge to nowhere that would leave her heart in little pieces strewn from one end of Red River to the other.
Miranda’s teeth chattered as she pulled the spare key to her private quarters from under a withered pot of flowers and unlocked the door.
She slammed the door and stomped into the bedroom to look for another shirt. Something that would cover her more than the skimpy tank she’d put on because her skin was on fire. She found an old baggy sweatshirt at the bottom of a drawer and pulled it on. Stood there, pinching the bridge of her nose before going back out to the dining room where she’d have to face Talmadge and lay down some rules. Get him to exercise some willpower, because God Almighty, she obviously had none when it came to him and her.
Whatever. There was no him and her.
Talmadge was in town long enough to rid his conscience of guilt by seeing to Bea’s wishes. Asking Talmadge to help with the inn seemed exactly like something Bea would do. Always looking out for Miranda with the best intentions. But fulfilling Bea’s request was Talmadge’s main concern, not Miranda’s future. Thankfully, he’d reminded her of that by bringing up the first time they’d been together. The memory of seeing his flashy girlfriend wrapped around him like shrink-wrap right after he’d been naked with Miranda had hit her like a shock of ice water thrown over hot coals.
He had a life back in Washington. A life he needed . . . no, a life hewantedto get back to.
A knock sounded.
“Miranda.” The door muffled Talmadge’s voice.
Both hands fell to her hips and her head tipped back. With a deep breath, she gathered her nerve and went to the door. She pulled it open with a quick jerk.
“Look, Talmadge . . .”
He leaned against the doorjamb, muscled arms folded across his chest, one knee bent, looking hurt . . . and sexy as hell. Miranda’s mouth went dry.
“I’m sorry about bringing up the past. It was bad timing.”
“The timing was impeccable.” Her fingers tightened around the doorknob. “Why are you even here, Talmadge?”
“I’m here because . . .” His gaze darted away.
“I know you want to honor Bea’s wishes, but I told you I can figure something out on my own. You can work on the rec center in a few years when your big project in Washington is done. Bea would understand that you have more important things to do right now.”
A muscle in his jaw ticked.
“But you and me . . .” She heaved in a sigh. “Look, I know you’re used to girls swarming you because you’re kind of famous.” Her eyes trailed over his flexed biceps. “And really well formed.” One side of his mouth twitched up, and heat flamed up her neck. “But that’s beside the point.”
She sucked up her resolve. Squared her shoulders.
“You’re only here for a short time, and I’m not one of those girls who wants you for your money and your notoriety.” Maybe his body. She shook off the thought. “I have to live here after you leave. I have to face the stares and the gossip and the murmurs.”
“You’re right. But Bea wanted me to do this, so I’m here for the duration. You have my word, I’ll be here until the inn is open and the gazebo is finished.”
Her hand flexed around the doorknob. She’d heard men make similar promises to her mother, and stupidly, her mother always believed them.
Miranda swore she never would. But the sincerity in Talmadge’s silvery-blue eyes made her resolve crumble like a flimsy wooden bridge in an earthquake.
“Even though people are already talking, we have to keep this professional.”
“We could tell everyone we’re engaged, and then you could dump me,” he said, all seriousness.
The man really was crazy. Or stupid. No, no. Talmadge wasn’t stupid.Shewas the stupid one for getting herself into this mess. So that just left crazy. Years of loud construction noise had definitely scrambled his brains.
“We arenotpretending to be engaged. We keep it professional and friendly. Present a united front for Bea and for the festival.”
He nodded. “Professional and friendly,” he mumbled like he didn’t believe a word of it.
And, well. She didn’t believe it either. Playing this dangerous game with Talmadge would likely leave her with a trampled heart when he left town for good.
“Let’s get back to work then.” Talmadge pushed himself off the door. “Oh, Uncle Joe wants us to put in an appearance a week from Saturday at his place. It’s a fundraiser for the gazebo so you won’t have to depend on the Wilkinsons’ money.”
“Okay, I’ll meet you there.”
He turned and strolled down the hall. “I’ll pick you up. If we’re going to present a united front, we actually have to be seen together acting professional and friendly.”
“Be ready at seven that night,” he said over his shoulder.
Miranda wasn’t sure how she was going to keep it professional and friendly when she was spending all day, every day with the only man who made her want to give the finger to her reputation and do him every which way she could.
Miranda took Talmadge’s advice and started to assemble a trustworthy team to help plan the festival. After spending the rest of the week making phone calls to the small group of people that she had let into her inner circle over the years, she walked into the Chamber of Commerce building with enough gooey cinnamon rolls and coffee from the Ostergaards’ bakery to feed an army.
If there was one thing she remembered from her high school AP history classes, it was that an army tended to be more loyal if their bellies were full. Not only did she want her soldiers going into battle against Mrs. Wilkinson fully armed and ready to fight, but Miranda wanted to win the war. So she set out the cinnamon rolls and coffee in the conference room and went back for the cranberry-pecan scones—Mrs. Ostergaard’s specialty. No one stood a chance against those.
She’d scheduled the first meeting during Talmadge’s physical therapy appointment. On purpose. Miranda wanted to establish herself as the commander in chief without her council automatically deferring to him.
Plus, she couldn’t think with him in the room, much less plan an attack or lead a charge.
Within fifteen minutes the room was full of chomping, slurping, moaning-at-the-decadent-flavor volunteers.
Miranda went to the whiteboard and plucked the top off of a marker. “Thanks for coming, everyone.” Her voice cracked, and she wanted to fan her eyes as she turned and looked at the roomful of helpers. For someone who had felt alone most of her life, she had a lot of friends. Maybe Talmadge was right. Asking for help wasn’t always a bad thing.
She wrote out a list on the board. “Here’s what we need to accomplish for the festival. Can I get a volunteer to head each category? Everyone else can sign up to work on a task.”
Within two minutes each category was filled, and Lorenda furiously scribbled every detail down on a notepad while Miranda wrote the names on the board so everyone could see. It took twenty minutes for Miranda to cover all of the assignments.
“Let’s meet weekly for updates. Same time, same place,” she told her crew. “I’ll bring the refreshments.”
As they stood to go, Mrs. Wilkinson walked in with her son, Bart—the Red River elementary school principal—in tow along with the mayor. She didn’t bother with a hello before launching her first barrage at Miranda.
“I brought along two respectable people in our community to witness your lack of experience and to ensure that the chairmanship is rightly switched to the better candidate.”
“This meeting is for the Hot Rides and Cool Nights Festival. You must be lost.” Francine held her travel-trailer-size purse in her lap.
Bart’s receding hairline gleamed under the fluorescent lights, and he stared at his shoes. Mayor Schmidt—a tall, seventyish man with a potbelly and a keen eye for local politics—shoved his hands in his pockets.
And wow. Mrs. Wilkinson must donate a lot of money to Mayor Schmidt’s campaigns because he looked as hen-pecked as Bart.
Joe spoke up. “Looks to me like Miranda has everything under control.”
“Sure does,” said Clydelle.
Miranda ignored her quivering stomach and pointed to the whiteboard with an air of confidence. “Everything is well in hand.”
Mrs. Wilkinson gave her a calculating smile. “I’ve got proof that someone of such”—she looked down her nose—“questionable character shouldn’t be in charge. Show them, Bart.” She elbowed her son in the ribs.
He pulled his phone out and panned the screen around the room so everyone could see.
Miranda darted over to him and snatched the phone. TheRed River Ragwas open with a picture of her wearing the strip-mining T-shirt. It was taken when she had walked out to the Dumpster to throw out the trash.
“How . . . ?” Her words trailed off, because really? Gossip flowed like water in Red River, but this was getting ridiculous in a creepy stalkerish kind of way.
The title readBetrayal at its worst! Maybe Red River’s favorite environmental architect should find another tree to hug. Is this kind of disrespect worth Ms. Cruz wrapping her limbs around his trunk?
“How indeed?” Mrs. Wilkinson gave Miranda a smug smile. “How do you explain the lewd inference to your behavior?”
“Miranda doesn’t have to explain anything to you,” Clydelle said. “But Mayor Schmidt and I may have a story or two to tell from way back.” She waggled two bushy gray brows at the mayor. “Don’t we, Harold?”
A bead of sweat broke out on the mayor’s wrinkled forehead. “I think maybe we’ve misjudged Miss Cruz.”
A look of desperation flashed in Mrs. Wilkinson’s eyes, and she studied the whiteboard. “I don’t see the gazebo on the board. Mr. Oaks rarely came to visit his own grandmother. How can he possibly be trusted with such an important addition to our community when he doesn’t live in Red River? He’s not even here for the meeting.”
“I’m right here.” Talmadge walked in with drawings under his arm, his easy saunter exuding the self-assuredness of a leader.
Trying to keep the meeting a secret was probably silly, since this was Red River and everybody already knew what she had for breakfast by now.
“Sorry I’m late.” He took the seat closest to Miranda. “I brought preliminary plans for your approval, Madam Chairperson.” He gave her a dazzling smile. A real smile that had started to appear more and more since he’d been back in Red River. Not that half-smile that masked some sort of private pain. “I gave Ms. Cruz my word I’d be here until her inn opens.” He spoke to Mrs. Wilkinson, but he looked at Miranda. “She has my word I won’t leave until the gazebo is finished as well.”
She just stared at him, hoping the admiration in her eyes didn’t make her look weak.
He gave her an encouraging nod. “I hope they meet your specifications.” He said it like she had been the creative force behind his ideas. He placed the drawings on the conference table, and everyone leaned in to have a look. “If I didn’t capture your vision for the project, I can make as many changes as you want.” He spoke only to her, making sure everyone knew he answered to her and her alone.
Miranda wanted to kiss him. And thread her fingers through his gorgeous sandy hair. And maybe take his shirt off and run her hands all over his chest.
A storm of lust started low in her belly and gathered between her thighs. She crossed her legs and kept a determined and—hopefully—authoritative smile on her face. “Then by all means, Mr. Oaks.” That earthy purple color she loved so much flared in his eyes. “Show us what you’ve got.”