Authors: Elisabeth Naughton
His pulse skipped, and warmth spread through his belly at just the thought of her. He’d hoped she’d call after their impromptu date on Friday, but she hadn’t. He knew she was interested—he’d felt it when they’d danced—but something was holding her back. And, after five days, it was clear she wasn’t going to be the one to take the next step, which meant if he wanted more, he had to be the one to take the initiative.
He headed out of the parking lot before he could change his mind. Checking the address he’d heard Samantha give the receptionist at the ER last week and had jotted down, just in case, he turned onto her street and scanned the houses.
Hers was the last one on the end of the quiet street, a rambling, two-story Queen Anne with steep gabled roofs, fronted by a “For Sale” sign. Weathered columns graced the large, wraparound porch. Chipped and peeling paint gave the house a gray, rather than white, appearance. An uneven brick path overgrown with moss led to the front door. But the towering maple trees in the yard gave the old house character. And the Douglas fir that rose behind the property promised privacy for someone willing to give the house a little TLC.
He parked along the street and climbed out, wondering what she’d think about him just stopping by. Hoped she’d be pleased. The harsh bark of a dog greeted his ears as he made his way up the front path toward the porch, and seconds later a large golden retriever bounded around the side of the house and jumped up, pressing wet paws against his chest.
Ethan jerked back, but the dog only wagged his tail and slobbered—no threat at all—so he scratched the brute behind the ears. “Hey, there, big guy.”
“Grimly, get down.”
Ethan looked up when he heard Samantha’s voice, and a smile curled his lips as he took in her curly hair pulled back at her nape, the slim jeans on her long legs, and the baggy sweater that hung to her hips. “Hey.”
Surprise flickered in her eyes. Followed by a hint of panic.
Panic was good. If he’d seen annoyance or frustration, he’d be turning right around. But panic meant she was interested.
“He’s just a big oaf. Don’t worry, he’s harmless.” She grabbed the dog by the collar and pulled him away. “Grimly, quit.”
The dog barked once, then sat at Samantha’s side and wagged his tail.
“Um, so, this is a surprise.” She smoothed the flyaway curls away from her face in a nervous gesture while Grimly flicked her hand with his nose to get her to rub his head. “What are you doing here?”
Nervous was also good. “I probably should have called. Sorry. I just finished up with Thomas and thought I’d stop by to see how you were doing before I head over to find a hotel room.”
“You’re staying in Hidden Falls tonight?”
He nodded. “Most of the staff was already gone by the time Thomas and I were done. I need to meet with several of them in the morning before school starts. Easier to just stay over.”
“I wasn’t sure if you were coming back.”
Did he sense disappointment in her words? That was also good. Really, really good. “I had cases I needed to see to in Portland. This was the first time I could get out here. But I was definitely coming back.”
“Oh. Well, that’s good. For Thomas, I mean.”
The relief passing over her features made him relax. No, not good for Thomas. For her. He hadn’t misread what he’d felt the other night on the football field. And stopping by unannounced was definitely not a mistake. That low pulse of arousal beat through him, the same one he felt whenever she was close. “Not sure what you’ve got planned for the evening, but I was hoping maybe you’d want to get some dinner.”
The edge of her lips curled, just enough to tell him she was . . . oh yeah . . . very pleased. “I was just about to take Grimly for his walk.”
“Now?” He glanced toward the sky. “It’s about to get dark.”
“I know. But he’ll be hell to live with if he doesn’t get some time outside. He usually runs ahead and leaves me in the dust anyway, but it’s good for him.”
“Mind if I tag along?”
Her smile spread across her whole face, making her dark eyes absolutely sparkle. “You got a coat?”
“Yeah, let me grab it from the car.”
“Okay, I’ll meet you out back. I have to get mine too.”
By the time he made his way around the side of the house, Samantha was already standing on the back stoop, zipping her jacket. The backyard was unfenced, stretching to the forest behind her house. A low rose hedge at the side of the drive separated her property from the neighbor’s. “This is a great place.”
Grimly barked, looked at them, then took off running. Samantha stuffed her hands in her pockets and met him on the grass.
“Yeah. It was my mother’s. I’m in the process of boxing up all her stuff. It’s a mess inside. My mom was a pack rat.”
“I saw the ‘For Sale’ sign. You’re selling it?”
“It’s too big for me, and once I leave, I don’t want to deal with the hassle of trying to find renters.”
“I didn’t realize you were planning on leaving Hidden Falls.”
They headed along a path toward the trees. “As soon as I can.”
“What about your job?”
“I only took it to help with expenses when my mother’s health went downhill. I always planned to leave when she got better, but then she passed, and I found myself stuck here dealing with her estate. Once the house sells, there’s really nothing holding me here. I’ll miss the kids, but I’m sure they’ll be able to get someone else after I’m gone.”
“You don’t like teaching?”
She stepped over a downed limb. The forest was dimly lit, rays of late-afternoon sunlight flitting through the trees. The rich scent of musty earth greeted Ethan’s nostrils, along with the sweet scent of Samantha’s perfume. The houses disappeared from view. Moss and lichen graced the tree trunks. Sword fern littered the forest floor.
“I like the kids. I’m not wild about all the politics. To be honest, I never taught before taking this job. Districts have leeway in hiring if there’s a high need. Chemistry’s pretty specialized, and the last guy had his nervous breakdown just before school started, so they were desperate to hire someone. It was really just a right time–right place kind of thing.”
“Why didn’t you leave as soon as your mother passed?”
“Because of the house. Because I promised David I’d give him at least until Christmas to find someone else. But I’m definitely not staying.”
Relief rippled through him, knowing she wasn’t married to Hidden Falls. Though it was short-lived when he thought about her heading back to California.
Not that he was about to share that with her, though. She was already skittish. He definitely didn’t want to do anything to scare her off when she was finally relaxing around him. “So you grew up here?”
“Pretty much. I left for a while to live with my dad after my parents split up but came back when I was in high school.”
“Where’s your father?” He pulled his jacket tighter around his shoulders. The forest was cold, his breath visible in the chill air. He’d like to move closer to her, use body heat to keep them warm, but he wasn’t about to push things. Yet.
“Um, last I heard he was in Florida somewhere.”
“Last you heard?”
“Yeah.” She waved a hand. “We don’t really get along. I haven’t seen him in years. Talked to him on the phone after my mother died, but he didn’t come home for the funeral.”
“How long have they been divorced?”
She glanced around the forest. “Gosh, probably seventeen years. I think I was around eleven when they finally called it quits.” She looked up at him. “They didn’t have a happy marriage. It was better all around when they divorced. I wish they’d done it sooner. I really don’t know why they stayed together as long as they did.”
The blunt way she said it made a tiny place in his chest ache. She really didn’t have anyone. No family to speak of. No close friends in this town. He knew what it was like to be alone. He couldn’t imagine what it would feel like to be alone at this point in his life, with absolutely no one to lean on.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly.
“Don’t be. I’m used to it. To be perfectly honest, I’ll be happy when the house sells. One less thing to worry about.”
“What will you do if it sells before Christmas?”
“Not sure. Probably find an apartment in town, have a huge garage sale. What about you?”
“Yeah, you, Mr. Observer. Where did you grow up?”
Ethan tensed. “Northeast Portland.”
“I hear that’s turning into a nice area.”
“Wasn’t when I was there,” he mumbled.
She’d opened up to him, and he figured he needed to give her a little more back. He wasn’t ready to share some of the really awful stuff. Wasn’t sure he ever would be. Not everyone could handle it. But he definitely wanted her to know more about him so they could see where this—whatever it was between them—was headed.
“I told you my siblings and I were all adopted, right?” When she nodded, he said, “I was the first. Fourteen years old. Michael McClane was my counselor at Bennett.”
Samantha stopped on the path and stared up at him. “The juvenile detention center?”
He nodded, watching her eyes closely for fear, apprehension, revulsion. What he saw was genuine curiosity, and in some strange way, that put him at ease. “My mother died when I was five. Drugs. My dad was an alcoholic. He passed from complications of cirrhosis when I was seven. I flitted from foster home to foster home after that, always managing to get myself into some kind of trouble. When I was thirteen, I got wrapped up with the wrong crowd. It was a stupid mistake, but it landed me in Bennett for about a year. After, I was placed with a family that already had four other foster kids. Michael came to check in on me one day. Saw it wasn’t a great situation. He arranged to take me in instead.”
“Just like that?”
“No. Not like that. It was highly irregular. But a guy in social services owed him a favor, and he arranged it.”
She turned up the path and kept walking. “And the others?”
He fell into step beside her again. “Alec was a street kid. Got himself into some trouble and wound up at Bennett as well. We knew each other briefly there before I got out. Michael was also his counselor. After I’d been with the McClanes about three months, they brought Alec home. Figured I probably needed a sibling. They had no idea how, or even if, it’d work. But it did. My other brother, Rusty, came from a pretty screwed-up family. He ended up in my mother’s ER one night after a pretty horrendous incident. She took one look at him and figured he needed a home too.”
“Wow.” Samantha stared ahead at the trees around them. “Your parents really are saints.”
“Crazy is more like it. We were at each other’s throats the whole first year. By the time we stopped trying to kill each other, those teenage hormones kicked in. It was one thing after another with us.”
One side of Samantha’s lips curled. “I bet. And what about your sister? You did say you have a sister, right?”
She’d been paying attention the other night. “Yeah. She came along a few years later. She was ten. She’d bounced from foster home to foster home too, got into some trouble, and wound up in counseling.”
“With your father?”
“No. A colleague of his. I guess Mom always wanted a girl. She got one. A freaked-out ten-year-old who had to learn to fend for herself in a house with three rambunctious boys.”
“I think I understand why you each feel such a tie to one another.”
“When you’re given something you’ve never had before, you realize how special it is. It sounds crazy. Like it never should have worked. But it did. I can’t imagine my life without those lunatics in it.”
“You’re lucky.” Her voice softened, and she glanced down at the path.
Ethan’s chest tightened, and he gently gasped her arm, tugging her hand from her pocket. “Samantha.” Their feet stilled. His fingers slid down to hers, and warmth radiated from her skin, sending tingling sensations straight up his arm. Sensations he knew she felt too by the way her pulse skipped against his hand. “You don’t have to keep things locked up so tight. Sometimes letting them out can really help.”
Her mesmerizing eyes narrowed. “That sounds like the counselor in you.”
“Maybe. But it’s also the man in me wanting to get to know you better.”
She drew in a sharp breath. “Why do you have the innate ability to make me feel like I’m a teenager again?”
A sizzle of heat spread through his whole body, and he smiled. “Is that how you feel around me?”
“Yes. And it’s really irritating.”
He stepped closer. “It’s also arousing.”
Their eyes held for several seconds. Her gaze dropped to his lips. And as her breathing picked up, the desire he’d been fighting since the day he’d first heard her voice flared hot and strong.
He leaned down to kiss her.
Grimly barked, and she jerked back.
“Where did that stupid dog run off to?” She stepped around Ethan. “Grimly?”
Ethan sighed. They were always getting interrupted just when things were about to get interesting.
He followed her up the path before she could get too far ahead. “Samantha?”
Rounding a bend, he spotted her, standing on the edge of a clearing. Blue-green mountains lingered in the distance. The faint rush of water whispered through the trees.
Ethan slowed as he drew up beside her and looked around the forest. Déjà vu trickled through him, leaving his skin prickly and hot. And not in a good way.
“I used to play up here when I was a kid.” Samantha pointed. “My friends and I built a fort in the trees through there. On the other side of that ridge is a waterfall and swimming hole where we used to cool off when it was really hot.”
Ethan knew all too well about the waterfall. His pulse picked up, and he fought the growing sickness in his stomach.
He hadn’t realized this was
forest. He’d been a kid when he’d been here last. Hadn’t put two and two together. Hadn’t once thought it could be anywhere near Samantha’s property.
Samantha turned up the path and resumed walking.
Thankful she hadn’t noticed, he drew a deep breath and followed. But his fingers curled into his palms to fight the sudden nicotine craving, and he wished he hadn’t thrown away that last pack he’d kept hidden in his car.