The house next door had been standing empty for nearly fifteen years. Boarded-up, abandoned, forlorn-looking, it had passed into the category of eyesore a long time ago. The obvious solution was to tear it down.
That had been Marshall Austin's intention. He'd had plans to purchase the property, salvage what he could, and then level the building. Owning that land would have given him all the additional space he needed to breed and train his sled dogs.
Scowling fiercely, he cursed his bad timing. Thanks to his recent interest, Linnea Bryan had been reminded that she owned a house in rural Maine. Now she was coming to take a look at it for herself. According to the lawyer Marsh had talked to, she thought she could get a better price than he was offering by having the place fixed up before she sold it.
Just like her mother, Marsh decided. Greedy. Out for number one. No concern for those whose lives she threw into chaos.
"You're going to bore holes in the bay window if you keep staring through it that way," Aunt Jen remarked. "Why on earth are you glowering at the Dennison house?"
"Dennison's granddaughter refused to sell."
At his back, Marsh heard the faint whir of his aunt's wheelchair as it glided around the dining room table. A moment later, she edged in next to him and he could smell the delicate floral scent she favored.
"Why?" Jen inquired.
"I couldn't offer her enough money." Bitterness laced his words and he had to consciously control the urge to fist his hands. There never seemed to be enough cash on hand. He was doing okay, but he wouldn't be for long if he overextended his resources.
Damn the woman! What perverse impulse was motivating her? She'd never shown any interest in her inheritance before.
"No one's likely to offer her a better deal," Aunt Jen's soothing voice cut through his dark mood like a shaft of sunlight on a cloudy day. "Just be patient and she'll change her mind."
Would she? Not if she was anything like her mother, she wouldn't. Denise had been tenacious as a terrier, only one of the characteristics she'd shared with the species.
"She's coming here," he said aloud.
"Well, then," Jen insisted in a cheerful voice, "you have nothing to worry about. She'll take one look, see what a wreck the place is, and accept your offer."
The view through the window supported her opinion, but Marsh had a bad feeling about this. "She never once came to Austin's Crossing when her grandfather was alive. Why bother now?"
"I expect you can find out, dear."
Turning, Marsh forced a smile for his aunt's sake. He sat on the window seat, so she wouldn't have to crane her neck to look up at him. Although Jen beamed back at him with her usual toothy grin, Marsh's expression faltered. She was too thin. And there was gray streaking her dark hair. Her face had the pinched look that came from enduring almost constant pain. For the moment, however, all her attention was fixed on finding a solution to the problem of Linnea Bryan.
"Wouldn't some of your former associates be able to uncover some details on her financial status?" Jen asked. "A few phone calls, one or two favors called in, and you could have a complete background report." She hesitated, then added, "They owe you."
Uncomfortable with that idea, Marsh hesitated. Debt didn't come into it. More crucial was his reluctance to trigger memories of the eleven years he'd spent in police work and what they had cost him. He no longer had full use of his left arm, and hip-replacement surgery had left him with a permanent limp.
"Bad idea?" Jen asked.
Since he'd been back in Austin's Crossing, the two of them had moved beyond the parameters of being aunt and nephew to become friends. The sixteen-year difference in their ages had been bridged. And with Jen's help he was building a good relationship with the third member of their household, his nine-year-old half sister, Cassie.
Jen had suffered far worse injuries than his, he reminded himself, and had been left with much greater dependence upon others, too. Her ability to maintain a positive outlook had been an inspiration to him, easing the torment of his darkest moments. Her ability to remain optimistic in the face of all her difficulties continued to amaze him.
And her advice was sound. He still had a couple of very good friends in law enforcement. If he asked, they'd help.
"No, good idea, Aunt Jen. Forewarned is forearmed. Give me a few hours and I'll know all kinds of things about Linnea Bryan, right down to and including the color of her underwear."
"Surely this investigation doesn't need to go into quite that much detail, dear. I didn't intend that you invade her privacy." Jen's tone was prim but her eyes were twinkling, reflecting her relief that he was able to joke about the kind of contacts he had.
Not so very long ago, any mention of his former career put him in a dark, despondent mood for hours. Nowadays, he didn't have time to brood. Not about his injuries and not about Linnea Bryan, either.
"You never know what information will turn out to be important," he said with mock-solemnity.
Just for the hell of it, he'd have to see if he could find out what color undies she favored. It was amazing the amount of personal information one could glean from credit-card records. ~ ~ ~
"Take a right at the refrigerator." Repeated aloud, the directions she'd been given sounded even more unlikely.
Linnea Bryan's expression was doubtful as she scanned the shoulder of the road. Then she saw it. Avocado green and doorless, the predicted household appliance appeared, incongruously rising out of a tuft of tall grass. It was tilted at a slight angle, as if to point the way.
Linnea slowed her classic red Mustang convertible to a stop, wondering if she really wanted to enter the narrow, winding dirt road. There were no signs to tell her where it led. She had only the word of a taciturn gas station attendant ten miles back to indicate that she was going to end up in Austin's Crossing.
A map would have been an excellent idea. Not making this trip at all might have been even smarter, but she hadn't had a whole lot of choice. This morning, certain that finding her destination would be a simple matter, she'd blithely left both the Maine Turnpike and civilization behind and headed into the wilds.
"You can't miss it," her grandfather's lawyer had assured her.
Hah! That three-piece suit had never bothered to visit the house in person. He'd given orders over the phone to have it boarded up, following her mother's instructions, since Linnea had been only thirteen when she'd inherited the place. She'd completely forgotten she owned it until recently.
As she turned onto the dirt road, Linnea wondered why her grandfather had made the long trek to that plush office in Portland to put his affairs in order. Surely there were attorneys closer to hand. A frown darkened her features as she bumped slowly along, determined that this washboard road would not damage her car.
Both frowns and bumpy roads were becoming familiar to her, she thought with a hint of irony. Certainly her carefully laid out career plans had hit a major pothole. The job security she'd believed was hers had vanished overnight when her middle-management position had been wiped out by corporate downsizing.
Think about something positive, she warned herself as she swerved around a downed tree limb in the middle of the narrow road. Getting depressed about her situation wouldn't help anything.
She concentrated on her house.
That house was going to sell for a quick profit.
With the resulting nest egg, she'd have enough to pay her bills for a few months, until she could find another job. Linnea was encouraged by the fact that she'd already had one offer on the place. Ridiculously low, of course. But still, if one person was interested in buying, there would be others.
Considerably cheered, she kept driving.
Ten minutes later, Linnea came upon a cluster of buildings. With no town line marker to tip her off, she might have driven right through, a feat that could have been accomplished in little more than the blink of an eye, but she'd been warned. The entire community contained only nineteen houses, one church, an abandoned one-room schoolhouse built sometime in the nineteenth century, a post office, and what the lawyer had called a "Mom and Pop" store. This had to be Austin's Crossing.
A faded sign over the door of a minuscule post office confirmed her deduction. Linnea pulled into the small parking lot and was about to get out of the car when she noticed the boldly lettered sign on the door: CLOSED FOR LUNCH. BACK AT ONE.
A glance at her watch told Linnea she'd have a twenty-minute wait if she wanted the postmaster to identify which house was hers. In a town this size, she suspected she could probably go door to door until she found someone at home to ask, but it seemed more efficient to take her question to the convenience store adjacent to the post office.
While she slipped her sunglasses into their case and finger-combed her short, dark hair, Linnea eyed the rustic clapboard building. The sign over the door identified it as the Austin's Crossing Market. ~ ~ ~
A flash of red first caught Marsh's attention. He glanced up from the refrigerated case he was restocking to peer through the notice-littered, plate-glass window at the front of the store.
Not just red. Flame red. Brilliant summer sunshine accentuated the eye-popping paint job.
After he slid the last two-liter bottle of soda onto the shelf, Marsh closed the glass door and retrieved the cardboard box he'd just emptied. Only then did he give his full attention to the driver, narrowing wary eyes to study her as she got out of the car and headed his way.
He knew who she was, if only because she looked as out of place here as her car did.
"City" was written all over her, from her pointy-toed shoes to the expensive little dress she was wearing. Its stylish length drew his attention to a great set of legs.
Frowning, Marsh told himself she wasn't worth a second look...but he stared anyway. Skinny, he decided. With no bosom to speak of. Not his type at all. And her straight, blue-black hair was cut so short the wind had barely ruffled it. He preferred long hair on a woman, something a man could run his fingers through.
An unwelcome image invaded his thoughts--long, dark hair hanging down a woman's back all the way to her hips.
Denise Dennison, Linnea Bryan's mother, had been Marsh's babysitter from the time he was a few months old until her abrupt departure from Austin's Crossing when he was five. He'd thought she was wonderful, especially when she hugged him and let him bury his face in those thick, sweetly scented locks.
Unfortunately, Marsh's father had felt the same way.
Shaking off the memory, Marsh eyed Denise's daughter with a considering gaze. His friends on the force had come through. He had the basics. Linnea Bryan had time on her hands because she'd just lost her job. It hadn't sounded as if she had any serious money problems, though. After all, she could always go work for her mother.
A bit of deeper digging had turned up the surprising fact that Denise had made a success of herself after leaving Maine. These days she owned and operated a small software company in California.
Light footsteps tapped across the wooden floor of the little porch in front of Marsh's window. As Linnea passed by, unaware of him watching her from the other side of the glass, he caught an intriguing close-up glimpse of a turned-up nose, long eyelashes, and aquamarine eyes.
The same color she favored in her underwear.
"Well, hell," he muttered.
Refusing to be caught gaping at her like an infatuated schoolboy, Marsh abruptly headed for the back of the store. He had work to do, he told himself. And Denise Dennison's daughter was the last person he intended to allow to distract him. ~ ~ ~
A bell tinkled as Linnea entered the store. The old-fashioned sound and a decor to match brought a delighted smile to her lips. Just inside the door and to her right was a wooden counter with a high, padded stool behind it. All it lacked was a gnarled old codger sitting there to guard the cash register, the racks of cigarettes, and the microwave.
Attached to the oven was a sign offering to heat up hot pockets and English-muffin pizzas. Linnea realized she was hungry, in spite of the large, late breakfast she'd indulged in en route. The faint, lingering aroma of freshly perked coffee made her long for a cup of that, too, but she saw no sign of a pot.
As curious as she was peckish, Linnea surveyed her surroundings. The store was small but jam-packed. There didn't seem to be much that wasn't stocked. Just to the left of the entrance, next to the candy display, was a newspaper rack featuring a selection of dailies from around the state--Bangor, Waterville, Lewiston, Augusta and Portland were all represented...each by one copy.
A thunking sound alerted her to the location of the proprietor. Linnea chose an aisle that balanced pet food, canned vegetables, and tins of corned beef and tuna fish on one side, with paper products and pasta on the other, and followed it toward the rear of the store.
A man in jeans and a dark blue T-shirt had his back to her. With fluid movements sufficient to stop Linnea in her tracks, he reached up, took hold of a large carton of paper towels stored on a shelf just above the level of his head, and lifted it down.
He was one of the most outstanding specimens of the male of the species Linnea had ever seen. Muscular without being muscle-bound, he radiated strength. Her admiring gaze slid down over a tight butt and long, perfectly formed legs as he bent at the waist to place the carton on the floor. When he stood upright again, she took note of hair that was dark brown and wavy. He wore it long, tied in a queue at the nape of his neck.
Flexing fingers drew her attention, briefly, to his left hand. He stretched his arm, limbering it up as if he'd pulled a muscle while hefting the box.
Without looking around to see who had come into his store, he spoke. "Something I can do for you?"
Oh, yes, she wanted to say.
His voice was even better than she'd expected, and a good match with all that fine packaging. Deep and mellow, it made her think of molasses pouring slowly out of a jar.
Linnea held her breath when he started to turn around. So far he'd been too perfect. There had to be a flaw somewhere. But his features, while not exactly handsome, were interesting. His lips had a decidedly sensual appeal and his eyes were the color of maple syrup. She looked deeply into them, searching for some sign that he, too, was feeling this immediate and undeniable sense of sexual attraction.
Instead she found implacable mistrust. A wave of suspicion flowed toward her, strong enough to make her back up a step and draw in a startled breath.
Reality rushed back, and with it her common sense returned. What an absurd reaction to have to a complete stranger. Out of character for her, too. For one unguarded moment, whatever sophistication she'd acquired over the years had been jerked right out from under her. She'd obviously lost her perspective, as well as any instinct for self-preservation, right along with her career.
Despite his steady, unnerving gaze, Linnea tried for a firmer grip on her self-control. The last thing she needed was to be attracted to a man. Any man. Least of all one who lived in this godforsaken little town. This was neither the time nor the place for a fling.
Especially not the place.
"Something I can do for you?" he asked again.
With an effort, Linnea pulled herself together and at last managed to answer his question. "I'm looking for the Dennison house. Can you tell me which one it is?"
No surprise showed in his expression. No curiosity, either. It was as if he already knew who she was and why she'd come to Austin's Crossing.
Acutely aware that he radiated a dangerous intensity, she also got the distinct impression that he was barely in command of a tightly leashed anger. She couldn't begin to guess at its cause, but she did know that he was not a man she'd want to meet in a dark alley.
Not unless he was on her side.
And then, apparently deciding she'd been sufficiently cowed, he answered her question. His manner now was brusque, as if he couldn't wait to get rid of her.
"Turn right as you leave the parking lot. Your house is the third one on the left."
"Thank you." Intimidated, but determined not to let him see her squirm, Linnea managed a regal nod and took a moment to glance at the offerings at the back of the store. Off to her right was a combination deli, bakery and meat counter. Her mouth watered at the sight of cherry cheesecake and other delights under glass.
"You've wasted your time coming here."
Linnea blinked, startled by his blunt words and jolted by his threatening tone of voice. All thought of food vanished.
"The Dennison place is too far gone to save. It's been neglected for more than a decade. Your best course, City Girl, is to take the offer you've already had and go back where you came from."
Who did he think he was?
Reacting to the insult implicit in his warning, Linnea went on the defensive. Drawing herself up a little straighter, she sent a cold look in his direction. Her words were clipped and even icier than her glare. "I don't believe what I do with my property is any of your business."
She intended to follow up this sharp put-down by stalking off in a huff, but he stepped into the aisle to block her escape route. She nearly ran into him, and even though she averted a collision at the last moment, she ended up standing so close to him that she had to look up to meet his eyes.
They'd be at eye level if she'd worn heels, she thought.
That knowledge was insufficient to counter the daunting impact his nearness had on her senses. Strangely, she was not afraid of him, just very aware of the apparent strength of his arms, the width of his shoulders, the faint, clean scent of Ivory soap and spicy aftershave.
Once again, she was forced to acknowledge her purely physical response to the splendid male animal before her. It was necessary to take a firm grip on her wayward thoughts. As they stared at each other, neither flinching, for a long, tense moment, she ordered herself to pretend indifference.
With stubborn determination, she managed to hold her ground, refusing to let him see just how much he unnerved her. She schooled her facial muscles into a haughty expression, but even as she did so she wondered at her own reaction. She wasn't behaving in at all her normal manner. Linnea Bryan was renowned in the business community for her ability to take a rational approach with even the most aggravating professional adversary.
So why was she suddenly uncertain what words were going to pop out of her own mouth next? Rather than risk saying the wrong thing, she kept silent, waiting for him to respond to what she'd already said.
"Everything in this town in my business." The simmering anger had been replaced by a stolid implacability that infused his voice with the ring of authority. John Wayne confronting the bad guys. Darth Vader ordering the fate of the galaxy. "We look out for each other in Austin's Crossing," he added.
Linnea recognized her terse, sarcastic rejoinder for what it was--a feeble attempt to hide an even less acceptable reaction to his words. For a fleeting moment she imagined just how it would feel to have a man like this one "look out" for her.
"I'm Marshall Austin."
"Am I supposed to be impressed that you and the town share the same name?"
A laconic note came into his voice. "Couldn't hurt."
"Well, I'm not. And that minor detail hardly gives you the right to behave like some kind of feudal overlord."
His quick, slashing grin rocked her, for it left her with the clear impression that he knew exactly what rights Medieval noblemen had once held over their female serfs.
The expression that replaced it a moment later was equally unsettling, a grimly determined look that boded ill for anyone who dared stand in the way of something Marshall Austin wanted.
"Take my advice, Miss Bryan. Don't stick around any longer than necessary. This town has nothing to offer you."
"You know my name." Somehow that was more disconcerting than anything that had gone before.
"Yes, I do. In fact, I know quite a lot about you."
Linnea took a moment to collect her thoughts. She had the uneasy feeling she had just been given until sundown to get out of Dodge. "Is Marshall your name...or your title? I wouldn't think a burg this small would rate any higher officer than a part-time constable."
One corner of his mobile mouth twitched at her acerbic response, as if he reluctantly had to acknowledge the accuracy of her jibe. Linnea realized she was holding her breath and let it out.
"See for yourself the condition your grandfather's house is in," he said, his facial expression now completely enigmatic.
"Thank you," Linnea replied in a tight, annoyed voice as he stepped aside to let her pass. "I intend to."
How absurd! She was feeling disappointed because he'd brought their verbal sparring match to an end. She'd expected him to respond to her play on words by telling her this town wasn't big enough for both of them. Instead he'd apparently grown bored with her. She'd been dismissed.
Linnea was about to stalk out of the store when the missing piece in the puzzle of all this hostility suddenly snapped into place. Whirling around, she faced him once again, and this time she was the one to shoot daggers in his direction. Her voice reflected both exasperation and outrage.
"You're the one who made that insultingly low offer!"
"No secret there." The laconic drawl was back, but his eyes held a new wariness.
"Then I suppose I should apologize for not recognizing your name." Her words all but dripped sarcasm and she barely contained the urge to sniff disdainfully. "The amount was so small that I didn't pay any attention to such minor details."
"Take my word for it," Marshall Austin said. "That's the best deal you're going to get."
"I wouldn't take your word for it that the sun is shining," she informed him, "and I wouldn't sell my grandfather's house to you now if you were the last prospective buyer on the face of the earth!"