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A sudden gust of wind whipped into the office and Adam Clements winced, held the already glued stick in place and breathed to steady his hand. Another couple of seconds and he could let it go. From the moment he’d hit his home gym this morning at daybreak, getting this model finished for his father had been his focus. As he’d mopped the sweat from his face after a round of weights, he’d tried to visualize the end product. It so wasn’t his area of expertise but giving up wasn’t an option.
Should have put a stopper in front of the door. The idea had crossed his mind earlier but the weather was gorgeous if slightly cool and he’d not given it any more thought. Another gust rattled the Cherry Lake Commerce Award plaque on the wall and was followed by a resounding slam of the front door. He looked up when a feminine cry shattered his focus. A set of cobalt-blue eyes connected with his over the balsa wood project. A petite goddess stood holding one gloved hand in the other, a look of pain on her pinched pink lips.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize the wind had come up quite so strong. Trying to get some fresh breeze from the lake in here to get rid of the overpowering smell of this glue.” Even so, the strong chemical fumes hung around the office. He pulled his hand away from the model, quickly wiped away the excess glue from his fingers on a rag and strode toward her, holding his hand out for hers. “Are you badly hurt? I can take you to the clinic if you’d rather not show me.”
A wavering smile crossed her lips and she dropped her hands to her side, hiding them behind the warm winter coat. “I’m fine. Honestly.” Small white teeth crept over her bottom lip before a hint of a smile lit up her face again.
“But you’re hurt. I saw how you grabbed at your hand. Please let me help you since I’m the one at fault here.”
“I promise you, I’m fine.” She glanced toward his desk. “It’s really good. The model, I mean.” When she raised her hand and pulled the knitted beanie from her head, the honey-blonde curls tumbled around her face, settling on her shoulders like a soft halo giving him a better picture of the stunning woman that stood in front of him. She couldn’t have been more that 5’2” tall but her presence filled his father’s small real estate office. A sense of friendliness bubbled from her tiny frame, reminding him of an expensive bottle of champagne only just opened and ready to explode on his taste buds.
“Thanks. It’s a gift for one of the local kids that my father was halfway through making. He’s uh, not quite up to finishing it right now so I promised to take over for him. One less thing for him to worry about while he recovers.”
“That’s so sweet of you.” A small dimple appeared in the cleft of her chin when she smiled. Cute. It was hard to look away from it.
He brushed off the compliment and held out his hand once again. “Adam Clement. What can I do for you?”
A gloved hand met his as a frown settled between her perfectly sculptured brows, replacing the smile in an instant. “I was to meet a Mr. Clement here but I’m not sure I have the right man. You sounded far older over the phone.”
A quick stab of pain shot him in the gut, reminding him how close to death his father had come and the reason he was in Cherry Lake holding down the fort instead of being in Seattle. “That would have been my father. I’m dealing with the family business until his health improves.”
The blue eyes shadowed with a quick flash of anguish. “Oh no. That’s terrible. I do hope he gets well soon. Nothing too serious I hope.”
“He’s had a major heart attack and surgery but at least they managed to get to him in time. A couple of months of recuperation and he should be as good as new. I hope so anyway. I’d like to get back to Seattle sooner rather than later.” That had been the plan but it wasn’t set in stone.
“Well, I wish him a speedy recovery then.” She looked around the office before talking again. “I wonder if I could get my keys?”
Adam tore his gaze from her face. She really was beautiful but seemed somewhat guarded. “Of course. What did you say your name was?”
“It’s Dakota Moore. I’m renting the cottage by the lake.”
Miss Dakota Moore. “Ah, Galway Cottage. That’s right. I remember Dad saying you’d taken the lease for twelve months. Your sister helped move all of your furniture in last week. Seems like a very capable and friendly lady.” He stepped back to his own desk and took a file from the inbox tray.
“She is. Such an organizer. She’s so pleased I decided to come to Cherry Lake that she felt the need to help me settle in.”
It didn’t take long to find the lease agreement with her name on it, a copy of her driver’s license attached for identification. For once, the picture did its owner credit. “Right, here we are. I need you to sign that you’ve received the keys and it’s all yours.” He slid the paperwork across the desk and handed Dakota a pen. “If you would initial where I’ve marked.”
She leaned down and started to pen her signature. A heavy silver pendant on a long chain around her neck swung over the papers catching his attention. The stamp on the back was one he recognized.
“Glitterz. That’s a Glitterz piece of jewelry isn’t it?” He should know. A hefty chunk of his last season’s paycheck went to the jeweler that stocked that high-end brand.
Dakota lifted her head and smiled at him, a smile that reached her eyes this time. “Yes it is. You certainly know your jewelry.”
“I should. I bought plenty of it over the years. One of my girlfriends was totally in love with the designs and exclusiveness of each piece. She gathered quite a collection while we were together.” Not that he regretted the gifts he’d given her, they’d been good together while it lasted. “Do you have many pieces yourself?”
“A few.” Pink tinged her cheeks as she finished signing with a flourish and handed the pen back to him. “My keys please, if you don’t mind.”
“Of course.” He filed the paperwork, then opened the cupboard that held the keys and located the set for the rental. “Here you are. Address is on the key but you would have passed the cottage on the way into town. Welcome to Cherry Lake, Miss Moore.”
“Thank you. I’m sure I’m going to enjoy it.” She slipped the keys in her coat pocket.
He followed her to the door, keeping a hold of it against the wind while she pulled the knitted beanie back over her head, tucking the blowing strands of honey tinted hair out of the way. “I hope you enjoy your stay.”
“Thank you. I’m sure I will.” She stepped down one step and grinned at the little black dog hanging out of the car window watching her every move. “Sit down, Tiny. There’s a good girl.” The poodle sat on the driver’s seat, her gaze on her owner.
“Yes, she is. Tiny Dancer won’t cause any trouble. I can promise you that. She’s a good dog and well trained.”
“I’m sure my father wouldn’t have let you lease the cottage if he thought otherwise. That’s an unusual name, fan of the ballet?” He leaned on the doorframe watching the dog getting agitated as her owner stood talking to him. Adam had no wish to see her leave.
“No. Elton John fan actually. Tiny is the dancer in this family. From the time I got her she would pirouette like a professional whenever she got excited.” She laughed, a soft tinkling sound that touched something in his heart. “I never could get both of my feet to work in sync enough to get through the first couple of ballet classes, much to my mother’s disappointment.”
Adam nodded his head. “Right, Elton John. One of my favorites too, especially his earlier tunes.” He held out his hand again. “It was nice to meet you, Dakota. If you need anything, please call. You’ll find Cherry Lake a pretty friendly little town where we all get to know one another.”
“I’m counting on it.” She withdrew her hand and skipped down the steps, turning back to him as she opened the car door throwing him a stunning smile. “Thanks. I’ll see you around then.”
She slid into her seat and let out a heavy breath. Talk about a hunk. The guy was model material. Tall with a firm frame, not overly muscular which she liked. Short blond hair with a slight curl at the front and the most kissable lips she’d seen in a long time. Just her luck she’d sworn off men or things might be very different.
Her father’s advice about her whirlwind romance had fallen on deaf ears at the time but she’d paid dearly for ignoring the wisest man she knew. Dumped by her fiancé a month before their wedding was enough to turn anyone off men. Roger’s final words still haunted her, popping up to remind her to think before she leapt next time. “I gave you everything. Stood beside you, backed you up and held your hand when you got overwhelmed with the fame. And what do you have to offer me now? A room in your parents’ condo while all we had is gone because of a stupid car accident. That was the lifestyle I wanted, Dakota, what I fought for. Not what you have now. I don’t think so.”
That stupid car accident hadn’t been her fault and she’d paid dearly for it regardless. Roger seemed to forget that the condo she’d had to sell to cover the medical bills was hers, not something he’d put anything into. And her career had already taken off before he arrived on scene, acting like he’d come to save her. From what, she’d had no idea. Shame she couldn’t see through him then, before he’d shown his true colors.
Everything had been hers. Every single thing and losing it all had been devastating. But it was all worth it to keep her hand intact and find out exactly what kind of man she’d fallen in love with. Never again would she be so swift to declare her feelings or get carried away by a handsome face and honeyed words. She wanted more substance in her life partner. Dakota had her spidey senses on full alert around every man that looked at her twice.
She’d promised herself she wouldn’t even look at another male unless he was in diapers or retired for at least the next eighteen months and she still had six to go. But she’d settle for a friend any day of the week, especially one who looked as good as Adam Clement.
Dakota waved as she turned the car back the way she’d come. On the drive back she had more time to take in the views over the lake. A small cluster of cottages sat perched on the edge of the water down a private laneway and that was where she was headed. Each cottage was painted a different color, the gardens planted with bright bursts of color to blend in with the building. A goal post complete with net hugged one side of the road opposite a lemon-and-white two-story cottage. A bike lay on the edge of the road, a helmet dangling over the handlebars. Dakota swerved around it, drove past another cottage and pulled up in the driveway of the pretty pale gray building set a little way back from where the lane ended in a sweeping cul-de-sac. A white picket fence, a gray mailbox and an open gate welcomed her to her new home. The garden was a mix of white lavenders and Japanese box hedges, formal but at the same time soothing and she inhaled the calming smell hanging in the air. A sense of peacefulness enveloped Dakota as she opened the car door.
Tiny jumped across her knee and out the car, scurried through the gate, darted around the garden sniffing the new territory. What she’d have done without her little dog these last months, she didn’t know. She slid out of the car, pulled the keys for the front door from her coat pocket as she walked up the paved pathway to the little portico over the front door. A half wine barrel of white flowers sat either side of the welcome mat. Someone really cared about this cottage. Dakota was lucky to secure it at such short notice.
“Come on, little poodle.” She ran up the steps onto the porch and slid the key into the door, peeking through the glass door in anticipation. It opened into a small entrance that led into the living room. A rush of nostalgia hit her like a sledgehammer. It was like stepping into her past, coming face-to-face with something she thought she’d never have again. A lump rose in her throat. The furniture had been in storage since she’d come out of the hospital and she’d been forced to move in with her parents. This was the first time she’d seen it since then.
Her father had arranged to have it delivered and Mari helped organize everything on this end for her move to Cherry Lake. Thank goodness the real estate agent had let Mari take the key so the furniture would end up in the right rooms. It looked warm and inviting. Like home. Her rugs, coffee tables and low bookcases were placed exactly where she would have put them. Ornaments and pieces of bleached driftwood, dried starfish and crystal she had collected over the years sat in boxes against the wall. She’d sort those out when she had time. Put everything where she wanted it. The cool blue-and-white Hamptons style furniture she’d fallen in love with when she bought her apartment soothed her nerves and for the first time in almost a year, Dakota knew she would be okay.
Tiny ran in the door and charged around the room, sniffing the familiar furniture before jumping up and slumping on the couch with her head resting on her paws, watching her human lose the battle with her emotions.
“This is it, our new life.” Dakota ripped open a lid, unable to resist pilfering through the contents and picked out a pearly oyster shell. She stepped over to a large picture window, ran her finger over the smooth surface. She looked out over Flathead Lake, soaking up the view. “We can do this away from the family. I know they mean well, Tiny, but I need to do this for myself, get my confidence back. Mari understands. I just wish Mom and Dad did too.”
She put her shell down on the windowsill, one she’d collected on one of her many beach walks, undid the buttons on her coat and let it slide off. A lone glass bowl sat on the low coffee table filled with vanilla infused beads beside an arrangement of white roses. The unexpected display made her stop and smell. She’d always loved vanilla and roses scattered around her apartment. How sweet of her sister to remember. She inhaled again, taking the time to relax before exploring her new home.
Folding the coat across her arm, she turned and walked down a hallway, under the stairs and stepped into what was her bedroom. The familiar antique cast iron bed covered with its patchwork comforter sat facing the window over the stunning water views. At least she wouldn’t have to make the bed tonight.
She tossed the coat over the foot of the bed before going into the en suite, giving it an approving glance. Perfect. Next she checked out the spare room, sighing in pleasure. Dakota had wanted her work space close to her living area and had chosen the second bedroom for her business. The loft bedrooms would be for when her parents or siblings came to stay. If they ever forgave her for leaving the city and their protective arms.
Her workroom. Gosh, she’d missed it. The fine intricate tools, the rare gems she had stashed away with visions sketched in black and white of her ideas, her projects for the future pinned to large corkboards stacked against the wall. Now she wondered if she’d ever have the chance to make them. The accident had robbed her of touch in several fingers, nerves damaged beyond repair, or so the surgeons said. Who knew if she would ever get to do the fine metalwork she was renowned for?
The jewelry table had been set up near the window, but her tools and supplies were still sitting in boxes waiting for her to unpack. When she opened the boxes, she was going to be emotional. It was to be expected.
A sharp yap from Tiny as her claws hit the wooden floors followed by a knock at the door.
Get yourself together Dakota. Can’t go greeting anyone looking this fragile. She wiped her eyes, patted her hair and hurried out. Adam stood at the door, a smile on his face and a gift basket in his arms.
“Sorry, I don’t know what I was thinking when you left.” He held out the basket. “This is a welcome gift for you. Dad gives them to anyone he deals with and it wasn’t until you left that I remembered I hadn’t given you one. Sorry.” He gave her a lopsided grin that she found charming and just a little bit too appealing. How on earth could she be interested in someone when the mandatory time wasn’t up? She’d thought Roger scarred her for life. It would seem she was wrong.
“That’s really sweet of you.” She took the basket, noticed the bottle of wine and a couple of glasses. “Would you like to share a glass with me? No problem if you’re busy but it seems you’re being so friendly the least I could do is return the favor.” Dakota walked over to the coffee table and put the basket down.
“Haven’t I caught you in the middle of something?” Adam followed her in, shut the door behind him. “I’d hate to stop your unpacking or settling in.”
“No, not at all. I don’t have to hurry with anything. Seriously not planning on doing anything major tonight. Tomorrow will be soon enough.” She frowned as she looked at the boxes stacked in the kitchen.
“If you’re sure it’s not imposing I’d love to have a drink. But only one though, I have to call in on my mom before I go home. She gets a bit nervous staying on her own. Won’t hear of me staying with her while Dad’s in the hospital so the least I can do is check on her as I pass their place.”
“You are a caring son.” She took the bottle of wine and glasses, walked into the kitchen to open it.
“Did you want me to light the fire for you? I see it’s all ready to go so it won’t take me a minute and it’s starting to get rather cold at night.”
“Please. I guess Mari must have brought all the wood in for me and set it up. I don’t know what I’d do without her. She is such a great organizer.”
The sound of a match striking the box sounded before Adam spoke again. “I think that might have been Woodsie. He’s the local handyman and you’ll probably see him from time to time around the place. An older gentleman, big moustache and a deep voice. He does all the gardening so you don’t have to worry about any of that. If you run out of firewood, give him a shout too, it’s all part of your rental package. He lives two houses down.”
“That’s great, thanks.” She walked back into the room and handed Adam a glass of wine, took a sip of her own and sighed in pleasure. “This is very nice.”
“We aim to please, or at least my dad does. The real estate business is his baby.”
“Have a seat, Adam. Tell me about the town, help me get my bearings.”
He sat on the lounge and Tiny jumped up beside him, leaning into his side. He put his hand around her which gained him a tick of gratitude from Dakota. “Let’s see. I’ve been away living in Seattle for the last eight years but since I’ve been home, I haven’t noticed much change to be honest. It’s a nice quiet little town. Lovely people and the pace is quite slow which suits most of us. Good way to balance out my crazy lifestyle.” He laughed and Dakota felt the pull of attraction again. How ridiculous that this should be happening to her now. Trusting another man was going to be hard after Roger and his need for the highlife and her money but it seemed her hormones had other ideas.
“Crazy? In what way?” She kept her voice casual.
“I play soccer for the Seattle Sounders. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining at all. It’s been an exciting ride and I love the sport. But coming back to Cherry Lake is like a breath of fresh air. I find it a good way to recharge the batteries for the next season and having family here is the best excuse to come home even if this trip back was unexpected.”
“Sounds wonderful. I suppose you’d have to keep yourself pretty fit for that, even out of season?”
“Most definitely. I run every morning, always have. Did you see the mountains as you came into town?”
“Those are the Mission Ranges. My place sits snug up to the base of the range. Grandparents built the house when they were newly married and luckily they left it to me. It was my favorite place to go when I was a little kid. Plenty of parkland and ranches around and first thing in the morning I pretty much have the place to myself except for the animals.” He sipped his wine and rubbed his fingers over Tiny’s ears. “Enough about me. Tell me what brought you to Cherry Lake, Dakota?”
End of Excerpt