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“The clam chowder is great,” Taylor said as casually as she could manage, despite the thump of her heart, as butterflies dive bombed in her stomach. In fact, Camille’s shellfish stew was known far and wide as the best along the Pacific Northwest coast. “I recommend the chowder bowl.”
“Chowder bowl it is, then.” Bill smiled at her. That was a good sign, wasn’t it?
Forcing a normal breath, she placed their orders with Camille Rivers, owner of The Chowder House. Camille cast Taylor that look. The encouraging one that said, Good luck, honey.
Under the table, Taylor twisted the silver bangle that was her favorite, then motioned her friend away and returned her attention to Bill, an attractive man she’d met in Nolan’s Kite Shop when they’d both reached for the same bright red dragon kite.
He’d laughed and picked another with an eagle across its face. Before she knew it, he was asking where the best lunch was to be had…and would she like to join him?
Taylor crossed her fingers behind the menu where Bill couldn’t see. Fifth try was the charm, right? Her work left little time to make easy connections. And except for that one incident in Portland when she hadn’t reacted fast enough, she took pride in being good at her job.
“What do you do, Bill?” She winced. She could have at least chosen a subject less littered with sneaky potholes.
“I own a second-hand store in Tillamook.”
“That sounds like fun.”
Could she have sounded more uptight and stilted? What was her problem? Ask her to catch the bad guys, or how to shoot straight and hit her target when circumstances warranted, and she, Taylor James, was your girl. Have a casual, fun discussion, like the confident, perky blonde amusing Gabe Adams at a table in the center of the restaurant? She may as well pack up her chowder and go home.
Her landlord and neighbor, Gabe, made dating look so easy. He knew how to hold a decent conversation when on a date. The ladies he took out would be more than happy to spend the rest of their lives with him. If he’d let them. At least that was what the town gossips said.
Bill leaned forward in his chair. “It can be fun. I love giving used furniture a second home with new owners. How about you?”
On the brink of committing dating hara-kiri, or so she’d been told by Gabe on more than one occasion, she dragged her feet answering. His date, the Chatty-Cathy next door, in her daffodil sundress and light Easter-egg blue sweater, mocked Taylor’s serviceable jeans, black tee shirt, and tied-in-a-knot tongue.
Camille brought their sourdough bread bowls filled to the brim with steaming, creamy chowder. Taylor sucked in a deep breath of warm cooked clams to calm the manic thump of her pulse.
You can do this.
It was a simple date. She had nothing to hide. Perhaps Bill wouldn’t be intimidated like the others. Scooping a spoonful of chowder, she forced her lips into a smile. “I’m Angel Point’s sheriff.”
In reality, she was chief of police. The temporary position was part of the mayor’s plan to put the town on the tourist destination map.
Bill’s snort of laughter turned strained. “You’re kidding.”
“Nope.” She sighed, hoping her lunch date wasn’t about to come to an abrupt end.
A spoonful of chowder stopped midway to his mouth. “That’s…interesting.”
From the caution creeping across her companion’s face, it didn’t seem like a good idea to admit she was also a U.S. marshal taking a self-imposed leave of absence. She swallowed soup passed the lump in her throat. “I couldn’t ask for a better place to work. Will you be coming to the kite festival in two weeks?”
His cell rang. “Could you excuse me? I have to take this.”
He walked to the other end of the restaurant. Waiting for his return, Taylor caught Camille’s curious look, brows raised in question. She shrugged her shoulders then stared out the window at waves ruffled by the persistent, strong, April wind.
From where she sat, she couldn’t see Shipwreck Rock. Down the beach and out of sight, the landmark was as tall as a skyscraper and had earned its name because when the winds were high, like they were today, the jutting rock became a death trap for any boat or ship unable to avoid its hulking presence. If she were a ship, she would lay down money she was about to become the next one to meet its demise.
“I have to go. Forgot there’s an estate sale I told a customer I’d go to this afternoon.”
“What about lunch? You have to eat, right?” As an attempt at humor, her delivery was weak.
Bill wouldn’t meet her gaze. It was clear he’d already decided to cut lunch short. “We could…um, take a rain check?”
Cross date number five off. “Sure.”
She jerked her chin up with the same determination that wouldn’t let her fail seventeen and a half weeks of U.S. Marshals basic training to graduate at the top of her class. She would not apologize for who she was and what she did for a living.
“That had to be the shortest date on record, even for you.” Placing a takeout bag between them, Camille joined her at the table.
Taylor dropped her head into her hands. “What am I going to do?”
“You just need a bit more practice. Or to be a little more selective about who you date.” At thirty-nine, everything about Camille shouted saucy Irish minx, right down to the russet-red, curly hair falling past her shoulders and the sparkle in her light brown eyes. Taylor had yet to see the first friend she’d made after coming to Angel Point without a smile and kind word, or…okay, honest observation.
She lowered her hands to her lap. “I’m afraid I’ll still be practicing when I’m in my seventies.”
“You’ll get the hang of it.”
Snorting, Taylor picked up the takeout, anxious to get home before the storm brewing outside grew to match the one inside her chest. She accepted the situation for what it was, but wishing for one simple date to go, unobstructed, to an enjoyable end, appeared to be asking too much. “I guess that’s that, then.”
“You know what I think you should do?”
There it was, her friend’s scheming expression. Taylor knew Camille would share her words of so-called wisdom whether they were wanted or not.
“You should date Doc Adams.” She nodded in Gabe’s direction. “Mother Nature threw out the mold when she made that man.”
Taylor resisted glancing at her landlord where he still lingered with his date, laughing at something the blonde said. “Uh…no.”
The playboy doc with the heart of gold, as Gabe was affectionately known behind his back, going out with the girl who couldn’t get a man to stay through a whole meal? A pity date? Wouldn’t that be a laugh? On her. Better they just remain friends.
“I put an extra helping of chowder in your takeout so you can share with the doc.”
Camille had her number. Taking her friend’s chowder home and sharing it with Gabe had become standard operating procedure after one of her failed dates. This time it looked like he would be busy. “Funny lady. You spoil him too much.”
“Someone has to. Are you coming to the opening night of Our Town? You could ask Doc Adams to come along,”—Camille winked—“as your date.”
Taylor hugged her friend. “You’re such a nag, but what would I do without you?”
“Become a gun-toting old maid and wither away?”
She wiggled her fingers at Camille. “Turn that matchmaker wand in your own direction, my friend.”
“Been there. Done that. Wore the tee shirt for as long as I could. Now it’s your turn.” A sudden pensive look crossed Camille’s face as she headed to the kitchen with her stack of dishes.
Well, crap. Camille had been married for nineteen years before losing the love of her life to a sudden heart attack. And Taylor had spent most of hers either being raised by a workaholic father or working in a male-dominated field from the moment she decided the U.S. Marshals was the career she wanted.
“Not going to happen at the rate I’m going,” she whispered at the closing kitchen door. In any case, marriage wasn’t her end game. Talk about skills. That would take some she had not inherited from her MIA mother or her older sister, who’d joined the Marine Corps and left home as soon as she could put on her running shoes and escape.
Ten minutes later, Taylor parked in front of the Craftsman house Gabe owned and had converted into a duplex. She’d signed the rental agreement the day she rolled into town to take the job of temporary sheriff. Before the ink had dried on the paper, her new landlord had been very polite, but firm. He did not date his tenants. Arrogant man. But she’d appreciated his honesty since, at the time, she had troubles of her own and wasn’t looking for a temporary romantic involvement.
And, speak of the devil. Gabe parked his Jeep behind her truck.
Camille was spot on. Taylor had to admit the man had the goods. With chestnut hair, cut short, and dark brown eyes, sporting a sexy sense of humor in triplicate, the rumors had to be true. Irresistible charm, coupled with the touch-me cleft in his chin, and a light growth of beard he never quite shaved smooth, his dating card most certainly had a wait list.
Taylor resisted fanning her face. She wasn’t one of his dating bunnies, and getting in line wasn’t on her must-do list. Gabe Adams was every woman’s fantasy. Just not hers.
He frowned at the bag in her hands. The line between his dark brows smoothed into a clarity that had her teeth grinding. “Want to talk about the latest disaster?”
A startling idea braked to a halt in her head. Shoving the crazy thought into a mental locker, she shrugged. “He had to rush off to an estate sale.”
“That’s what I thought,” she muttered, giving in to his charming smile.
Wrapping an arm around her shoulder, he eased her onto the porch. “Come in and tell Doc Adams all about it.”
For a moment, she almost forgot they had a very practical, platonic friendship. It would be so easy to lean into Gabe’s comforting shoulder and stay there. She caught herself just in time.
From the moment she’d taken her first steps as a child, she’d been taught to stand on her own two feet. Her mother leaving her and her sister behind at an early age had reinforced that education.
The frisson of awareness curling her toes before she came to her senses fizzled after a brief second. Thank God. It meant nothing; only that she was a woman having a natural reaction to one more rejection in a long line of dismal dating mishaps.
Gabriel Adams was her friend. She hadn’t had many growing up with a workaholic father and brooding older sister. She couldn’t afford to screw things up because it turned out he was a nice guy and she, for an insane instant, lost sight of the fact that she wasn’t his type, nor he hers, for that matter.
Still, the idea she was doing her darnedest to ignore persisted. Nah. She couldn’t ask the man for…oh, my God—she pressed her lips together—dating lessons.
After ushering her into his side of the Craftsman, he pulled two bowls from the cupboard. “So, tell me about this date that didn’t end up with the guy stealing kisses from the prettiest sheriff in town. Does he live here? How did you meet the dude?”
Taylor ignored the sudden skip in her pulse. Gabe didn’t use the word pretty as in I-want-to-flirt-with-you, like most guys did. He thought all girls were pretty, from seconds after birth to old enough to use a cane.
“I won’t tell you his name, to protect the not-so-innocent, but he’s from Tillamook, and he likes flying kites.” Since it appeared Gabe intended to have a second lunch, she went searching for spoons and napkins. “He was nice.”
“When did you tell him you’re the sheriff?”
She rolled her eyes. Here it comes.
She knew it. Her timing had been off. “Did you hear Our Town is opening at the new theater next month? Are you planning to go?”
“I haven’t decided. Depends on my schedule.” He narrowed his gaze on her. Taylor squirmed. And not in a good way. “You told him right off the bat, didn’t you? I keep telling you to wait until the date is over before revealing you’re a lawman…woman…whatever. Guys aren’t keen on the idea that the gal they’re dating can ticket them for racing through residential districts or bust them for being non-compliant with local business laws.”
“You think he’s a felon?” She ground her teeth. That would be a great addition to her already smeared résumé.
She could see the headline in the Angel Point Gazette now. “Taylor James, Former U.S. Marshal Turned Small Town Sheriff, Seen At The Chowder House With Notorious Criminal, Bill Danvers.” Now she was going to have to check the man for wants and warrants.
Gabe laughed. “No, I don’t. Like I said—most guys don’t like dating the local law.”
“It could happen.”
“Given your track record, maybe not so much in the small town where you work.”
“You can’t honestly be suggesting I keep my job a secret? The guys are bound to find out sooner or later.”
“Sure, but later is better. Just play it cool at first.” He placed a full bowl of chowder in front of her on the breakfast bar.
Starving, since she’d left her lunch untouched, she scooped up a spoonful but paused. She eyed Gabe. “Play it cool? I’m not sure I know how.”
For a second, the amusement in his gaze gave way to something else. “That’s where you’re wrong, Sheriff. You’re very cool.”
Her breath stalled while an itch she wouldn’t acknowledge worked its way over her skin in response to the speculative look from a guy who was her friend first, her landlord second, and a hunky man coming up a fast third.
Taylor jumped in before he could say the next thing on his mind. “You know what? I don’t want to talk about my horrible dating skills anymore. Tell me how your day went instead.”
“The usual. Pregnant women coming out of the woodwork. One birth at the hospital.” Gabe settled on the stool across from her with his chowder. “You know that dog living in the park? I almost coaxed him onto the porch this morning. I think I’ll leave food out for him and see if he’d like to make his home with us.”
Us? Dr. Gabriel Adams would make a wonderful dog owner. She, on the other hand, had never had a pet in her life. Not even when she was a child. Her father had told her often enough that staying on top of his job, hunting criminals, and taking care of his motherless girls was all the responsibility he wanted. He didn’t have time to raise a mongrel, too.
Looking back, Taylor had to agree. He’d barely made time to raise his children. When she had kids—which was a long way in the future, despite the fact that she was a little turned on by Gabe’s sexy habit of scrunching his brows together when he was thinking through a problem—she would absolutely let them have a dog.
End of Excerpt