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She was driving a long way from her mostly comfortable attic apartment in San Francisco in order to talk her baby sister out of making the biggest mistake of her life. At least U.S. Marshal Dakota James hoped that’s what she was doing. The only hiccup in her plan was Taylor. The kid knew her own mind and wouldn’t hesitate to tell big sister it was presumptuous to believe she’d suddenly lost it because she was marrying a near stranger.
What other option did Dakota have? Stand by and do nothing? She couldn’t do it.
The drive north from San Francisco under clear skies, windows down to let in the salt-scented air as the road periodically took Dakota close to the ocean, was calming. What did they call it in those self-help books? A Zen experience.
It wasn’t exactly that, but it was close enough and a nice change from the pressure of work that had gotten her put on leave in the middle of a major drug case.
Just north of Gold Beach, Oregon, she spotted a pickup parked on the side of the road. The right-side rear hung from a jack. An older gentleman, with white hair looking like it hadn’t seen a comb in recent days, struggled with the tire. He was dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt with sleeves rolled up to his elbows. Back rounded at the shoulders, he didn’t appear to be a day under eighty.
Feeling an absurd kind of kinship with the broken-down vehicle, Dakota pulled up behind the older Chevy. Getting cautiously out of her Mustang, she approached the man with caution. You could never be too careful. Trouble, in her experience anyway, could come in the most benign-looking packages.
“Need some help?”
Straightening his back, the older gent pushed a hand through his hair, making the disorderly waves worse. “Not many girls know how to change a tire.”
“I can do it. Been taking care of my own tires for a long time.” She couldn’t help the wink and smile she sent his way. He was cute in an engaging, octogenarian way.
“What’s your name, young lady?”
“Dakota James, sir.”
He glanced at her Mustang. Bushy eyebrows arched, but he didn’t comment. She knew what he saw. A Marine medallion on the back window proclaimed, at least until recently, she’d spent a good share of her adult working life in the Marine Corps. The medallion had been there since the day she finished the car’s restoration.
“Claude Henley. Let’s see what you’ve got.”
Even with him hovering over her shoulder, it didn’t take Dakota long to get the tire changed. When she was done, she put his tools in the toolbox in the back of the truck. “That should do it. You’re all set to go.”
“Hold on a second. I’ve got something for you. A small thank you for helping a stranded old man.”
“No thanks necessary. I’m happy to help,” she said, backing toward the Mustang.
From ingrained habit, the firm command stopped her where she was.
Claude reached into the cab of the truck. He came back carrying what looked like an old-fashioned metal lunchbox. When he flipped opened the lid, on one side was a thermos, on the other a sandwich and cookies in separate baggies. He held out the bag of cookies. “My wife baked these.”
Dakota put up a hand to stop him. “Really. You don’t have to give me anything. You needed help. I just happened to be the lucky one passing by.”
He gently took her hand and, wrapping her fingers around the package of cookies, looked her squarely in the eyes. “I insist. These cookies are made from a recipe that’s been passed down in my wife’s family for generations. I only share them with special people.”
“But—” I’m not special.
“No arguments now.” He was a stubborn old cuss. “To quote George Eliot in Middlemarch, ‘people glorify all sorts of bravery, except the bravery they might show on behalf of their nearest neighbor.’” He squeezed her hand. “Thank you.”
Abruptly, he let her go, climbed into his truck and with a jaunty wave, drove off. Dakota stood there for a long moment, alternating staring at the cookies and watching him drive away.
She blinked, climbed behind the wheel of her car and, digging one of the cookies out of the baggy, took a bite. She closed her eyes in appreciation.
When was the last time anyone had called her special? Or brave? Lifting her chin, she followed Claude’s example. No more wasting time. She had someplace to be and a mission to complete.
When she reached the outskirts of Angel Point, the Oregon coastal town looked a little windblown, but not nearly as frayed around the edges as Dakota felt. She parked the Mustang close to The Chowder House. The 1966 red Ford was her baby. The only one she was ever likely to have. She’d gotten the little beast, a classic—and more dependable than anything else in her life had been for a very long time—for a song and had it restored to its original condition. Her efforts on her own behalf hadn’t been as successful.
After showing her identification, the front desk gal at the sheriff’s department told Dakota she could find Taylor having lunch with her fiancé at The Chowder House. Apparently, the restaurant was best known for its clam chowder. That’s what the sign out front said.
Inside, she found her sister talking to her guy at a table on the far side of the room, close against a bank of windows overlooking lush landscape. Her sister’s back was to the room, an odd thing for a James to do. How could you see trouble coming if you weren’t watching for it?
Dakota pressed her lips into a straight line. Adams didn’t appear to be a man in love. A man in love didn’t look bored, his entire attention focused on his phone instead of his lunch date.
He finally leaned back in his chair, with one jean-covered leg stretched out, foot encased in a well-worn cowboy boot. He finished a text before laying his cell on the table and responding to something Taylor said.
“Come to Angel Point to celebrate my engagement to the love of my life,” Taylor had insisted the last time they talked.
Love? Dakota wasn’t really a believer.
And Adams proved it. There was no light of that illusive phenomenon on his face when he gazed at Taylor. Okay, he was handsome. It appeared he had good taste in boots. She would give Taylor that, but there was no spark in his body language that said she was his one and only. He didn’t lean toward his fiancé as if every minute she wasn’t in his arms was torture.
Dakota didn’t know what love was supposed to look like, except she was pretty sure what she was looking at wasn’t it.
Not that long ago, New Year’s Day in fact—the one day every year when she and Taylor made it a point to get together—they’d enjoyed a good laugh over neither of the James sisters having a date for New Year’s Eve, because getting a date to stay past the appetizers was nearly impossible. It said something that today the plate of appetizers between Adams and her sister looked like it hadn’t been touched. Her Spidey sense was right. There definitely was a problem.
Why had the kid agreed to marry Adams? The man looked more like a construction worker than a doctor. Not that there was anything wrong with a good-looking, hunky construction worker. Taylor just didn’t usually go for the cowboy type who built things with his hands and came home wearing the results of his day on his clothes.
A part of Dakota wished she believed in love with the same gusto Taylor did. And that she could be happy for her sister. Perhaps then she might be persuaded to date someone with Adams’s strong shoulders and broad chest.
She took a step toward Taylor. Having this conversation over the phone would have saved her a lot of time and miles of wear and tear on her Mustang. Unfortunately for the forced leave she’d thought to turn into a vacation on Oahu, this was a mission that needed to be conducted face-to-face.
She squared her shoulders. A skirmish with Taylor, no matter how serious, was always fun.
“Can I show you to a table?” The woman asking had thick, auburn hair that fell in waves to her shoulders and a smile in her light brown eyes.
“No, thank you.” She gestured vaguely in Taylor’s direction. “My party’s just over there.”
“Okay, then. Your server will be right with you.” The woman turned to the next person behind Dakota. A line had formed while she’d been scoping out the terrain.
As she wove between tables, Adams’s gaze shifted. His brows lifted when he saw her. Her stomach took a tumble as he pulled his booted foot under his chair and angled forward on his elbows.
The closer she got, the better she could see the flicker of male interest growing in a gaze that drifted slowly over the loose white, button-down shirt tucked into the jeans she wore instead of her usual marshal’s getup.
Irritation—definitely irritation, not attraction—took her by surprise. A flirty grin spread across his handsome face. Before she could put a kibosh on her runaway thoughts, Dakota actually thought cute . . . on the market? Yum!
OMG! What was she doing? And was the dude actually sending I like you, let’s play vibes to his fiancé’s sister? He definitely didn’t have that bored look on his face any longer.
Her heart skipping more than a beat or two, she gave herself a mental hand slap and crossed the intervening space, only stopping her outraged march once she reached Taylor’s elbow. Sisters did not poach each other’s guy!
She sent Adams a glare that in her drill sergeant days had made raw recruits shiver in their new combat boots. After silently promising she’d never think of him as a hunky, sexy guy again, she opened her mouth to extricate her sister from this . . . this . . . playboy’s clutches.
Before the words tumbled out, Taylor realized she was there and jumped out of her chair. “Kodie! You made it.” Slender arms wrapped around Dakota’s neck. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
Only Taylor had the power to cheer her up when her life was at its worst. Closing her eyes, almost able to ignore the rush from Adams’s unexpected flirting, Dakota savored the hug and squeezed her sister back.
Still, she had to tell Taylor her guy was a player. Pulling back from her sister’s embrace, Dakota forced the words past the guilty lump in her throat. “Listen—”
Adams had risen from his chair, his expression carefully blank now. Served him right that he was totally getting outed.
“When did you get into town?” Indicating an empty chair at the table, Taylor gave a tug on her hand.
“About twenty minutes ago. Look, Taylor, I need to talk to you.”
Her sister waved a hand at Adams. “This is—”
“You can’t marry this . . . this guy,” Dakota blurted.
“Beckett Leland,” Taylor said at the same time.
“I certainly hope not,” a male voice behind Dakota joined in. “Especially since she’s already engaged to me and it’s against the law for a lady to be married to two guys at the same time. A sheriff should know better.”
Dakota spun around, coming face-to-face with a tall, better-than-average-looking man, who was trying very hard to smother his laughter.
If she weren’t so embarrassed at her gaffe, she might laugh too. But another mistake in a long line of mistakes just wasn’t funny.
He held out his hand. “I’m the real Dr. Gabe Adams. You must be Taylor’s sister, Kodie.”
“Dakota,” she said, clenching her jaw.
Taylor was the only one who got to call her Kodie, the nickname Frank had given her when she was a little girl, when the sun still rose and set on the man she’d once called “Dad.”
A flush climbed up her neck to burn her cheeks. Straightening, she took the hand the real Adams offered.
“Nice to meet you.” When she made an error, Dakota owned up to it. Refusing to look at the guy she’d mistaken for her sister’s fiancé—he was probably having a good laugh—she cleared her throat. “Sorry about the mix-up. I didn’t mean to . . .”
“No worries.” Adams’s reassurance didn’t bank the twitch at the corners of his mouth or the amusement flooding his astute gaze.
Placing a conciliatory hand on her shoulder, he leaned around her to kiss Taylor. “Did you get yourself engaged to this scruffy Marine while I was seeing patients this morning?”
Taylor laughed. “No. Just a case of mistaken identity. Besides, Beckett’s not my type.”
Let the scruffy Marine laugh. Dakota had been in more mortifying situations. Like when Granger had given her the boot right in the middle of an important case hunting down drug runners on the West Coast, and then ordered her not to come back to work for two weeks. All because her concentration was shot to heck.
Unfortunately, she’d been unable to turn that particular lemon into lemonade and had made a rookie mistake. A decorated Marine turned Marshals Special Operations should have gathered more intel before beginning a mission. Even if that mission was a civilian one. No wonder Granger had put her on leave.
There must be a way out that didn’t involve taking another hike across the crowded restaurant. Her gaze latched onto a canine tail on the other side of Leland. The dog lay with his head on his paws, dark eyes on her face. The animal wore a red service vest. Had Leland been injured in some way that wasn’t obvious? There was no time to find out. Still, seeing the dog here was . . . soothing.
“I’ve got to go.”
“But you just got here,” Taylor protested.
Three pairs of eyes watched her. Four, if she counted the dog. Taylor looked confused. Dakota didn’t blame her. There was something disconcerting about emotions that wouldn’t go back in the box where they belonged.
Adams pulled out a chair. “Stay. Please. Have lunch with us. Or, if you want, Beckett and I can take off, so you girls can catch up.”
“You don’t have to leave.” Reluctantly sinking into the chair Adams offered, Dakota leaned uncomfortably on her elbows.
She focused on the sound of conversations from the other diners—which wasn’t as easy as it should have been, the smell of food as plates passed by the table, while making a mental list of small details around the room. The soft green of the walls. Mismatched chairs strategically placed around the tables. White, lace-patterned tablecloths.
Blinking rapidly, she pushed back on the emotions from the past that had started erupting like one of Yellowstone’s geysers after that last emergency response at Marine base in South Carolina.
Adams hovered beside her chair. Taylor clung tightly to her hand.
“I’m okay,” Dakota reassured them on a deep breath, half laughing at her partial success. “Nothing to see here. Honest.”
A booted foot nudged hers under the table. She turned to Leland and found blueberries. His eyes were the color of blueberries. And she owed him big time for the distraction.
“What’s your dog’s name?”
“Tucker.” He scratched the dog’s head. Only the shepherd’s deep brown eyes shifted in his owner’s direction.
Adams took a seat on the other side of the square table. Dakota was grateful. The last thing she needed was for Taylor to discover her in-control big sister had let the genie out of the bottle and couldn’t put him back in. She’d caused enough of a stir already.
A waitress came to take their order. Though she wasn’t really hungry, Dakota ordered the first thing she saw on the menu. And coffee. She needed lots of coffee.
As the others placed their orders, she twisted her fingers into knots in her lap. For crying out loud. A James who couldn’t lock down her feelings? How humiliating was that?
Dakota pasted a smile on her face, hoping it looked real. She’d come to Angel Point to convince Taylor to protect her heart. That conversation would have to come later. Now was no longer the time nor place.
The tension racing through her veins eased off. She broke into the uneasy silence, asking, “Can anyone recommend a good hotel?”
“You can stay with me,” Taylor and Adams said at the same time.
Adams took Taylor’s hand. “Frank is staying with you.”
Dakota watched, a little fascinated, as Taylor let Adams anchor her by the simple touch. Her sister was as independent and self-reliant as they came. The smile the two shared, the stars in their eyes—as if they were in the restaurant all by themselves—shook Dakota’s firm belief that love wouldn’t last. In her thirty-one years, she’d certainly found no evidence that it could. The tender moment didn’t change her mind on that score.
It took a moment, but Adams’s words finally filtered through her brain fog. “Frank’s in town?”
Great. Running into Frank was not part of her plan.
“He’s been staying in my spare room, but he’s not here right now. He’s in San Antonio, selling his house.”
“Why is he selling his house?”
Taylor countered. “When was the last time you talked to him?”
“It’s been a while,” Dakota admitted stiffly. The last time, she’d been trying to forget and was just this side of sloppy drunk. Of course, the alcohol hadn’t fixed anything. She should have known better.
“I know he wants to be the one to tell you.” Taylor put her napkin aside, turning so she faced Dakota squarely. “I thought he called.”
“He may have.” She had no appetite for telling her sister, in the middle of a crowded restaurant, that she’d blocked his calls because . . . well, just because.
Her relationship with Frank had been a rocky road from the minute she’d lost her perfect family on the day her mother left. When he came to visit and found Dakota alone, drowning herself in whatever liquor she could lay her hands on, and thinking he could tell her how to fix her life when he had no clue how to fix his own—
That had been the final straw. It was easy after that to hit block on his phone number.
“He’s retiring.” Taylor took a deep breath. “And getting married.”
“Married?” She managed to keep her voice as reasonable as possible. Who would want to marry Frank? His track record was the worst.
Dakota would never forget hiding in the bathroom, covering her ears during Frank and Laney’s bitter fights at the end, before her mother finally packed her bags, leaving them all behind. Frank and Laney were poster children for love imploding long before getting to their unlikely happy-ever-after. And her family . . . well, they’d never been the same since.
“And he’s retiring? Workaholic Deputy Marshal Frank James? Are we talking about the same guy?”
Grinning, Taylor nodded. Dakota hadn’t seen that spontaneous sweet smile since they were little girls.
“Shocking, I know. I didn’t believe it at first, either.”
An unfamiliar longing seeped through Dakota as she wondered—not for the first time—what their lives would look like now if things had turned out differently between Frank and Laney.
“Who’s the unlucky lady?” she asked, taking a healthy gulp of coffee.
Taylor glanced over Dakota’s shoulder, causing her to turn and look too. “Camille Rivers. She owns this place.”
The good news was Dakota figured she would be gone before Frank got back to town. Which meant she wouldn’t have to make nice with the woman who was willing to step into the ring with the impossible-to-get-along-with Frank.
But her luck didn’t run that true. Camille came with the food. “How does everything look? Is there anything else you need from the kitchen?”
“It looks great.” Taylor sank back in her chair to make room for the server delivering her chowder bowl. “Camille, this is Dakota.”
Loud and clear in her head, she heard Frank’s gruff voice. Mind your manners, girl.
Whatever. She didn’t often pay attention to anything he said anyway. Nevertheless, it wasn’t Camille’s fault Dakota had a long-standing feud with the man she was planning to marry.
“Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too. I’ve heard a lot about you from Frank and Taylor.” As they shook hands, Camille’s clear brown eyes and a wary consideration did their own assessment.
So, she was a call-it-like-it-was kind of lady. Maybe Camille Rivers could hold her own with Frank. Laney had never been that strong.
“Not all good, I suspect.”
“Not all bad, either.” Camille smiled. She turned to the others. “I’ll have someone come and refresh your drinks.”
Happily, after Camille went to greet more customers, the conversation at the table turned quiet as everyone dug into their meals. Dakota joined them because the food was there.
“So, that hotel. Is there one on the beach you’d recommend?” Before Taylor could utter the protest that was clearly coming, Dakota laced their fingers together. “I know you want me to stay with you, but I don’t always sleep well at night, and the beach would give me room to roam without disturbing anyone.”
Eventually, she’d have to tell Taylor that big sister’s job was in jeopardy. Just not yet. And she still had to have the little conversation that had brought her here to Taylor in the first place.
Finally, the kid nodded. “Beachside Inn is nice.”
A look passed between Taylor and Leland. Dakota scooted her foot away from the man who’d anchored her and saved her some embarrassment. She didn’t know what the look meant, but it didn’t bode well, she was sure.
It didn’t matter. Her only concern was finding a place to stay for the short time she was in Angel Point and having that talk with Taylor.
Adams finished his sandwich and slung an arm around her sister’s shoulders as he stole a spoonful of her chowder.
Dakota mumbled, “I’ll check it out. Thanks.”
The couple’s coziness with each other was kind of cute, and the doc seemed like a nice enough guy, but nice wasn’t enough, was it? She’d always figured Laney had started out as a nice enough woman, too, and look how she and Frank had turned out.
So far, from what she’d seen, she was going to have a hard time convincing Taylor to reconsider her engagement. Maybe if she could uncover evidence that Adams wasn’t the nice guy he appeared to be . . . Her shoulders slumped. Probably wasn’t going to happen. If Gabe had any skeletons in his closet, her sister would have uncovered them by now.
Taylor set aside her napkin and stood. “I’ve got to head back to work.”
Dakota scrambled to her feet. “Want to get together for a drink later?”
“Absolutely. Text me when you’re ready.”
Adams laced their fingers. “I’ll walk you to your truck.”
Sitting back down, Dakota scowled. There was no doubt about it. Her mission had landed on shaky ground. A cold nose nudged against her hand, bringing her attention back to the table and Leland.
“He likes you.” Leland sounded half-surprised. “I’m ordering dessert. Warm apple pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side. Want to join me?”
“Thanks, but—” Awkwardly, she patted Tucker’s head. Canines weren’t her specialty, from lack of experience more than anything, not because she didn’t like dogs. “I have to get going.”
He stood and held out a hand. As their palms met, Dakota felt a pull in his direction clear to her belly. He might not be Taylor’s type, but she suddenly had an insane feeling he could be hers.
Too bad really. She didn’t have the time, or luck, in the sexy man department. And because the Marine Corps was hard on relationships, her solution had been not to date, so that now, she was way out of practice.
The seductive smell of apple pie followed her as she forced herself to move with confidence through the scattered tables. Giving the young cashier an extra tip, she wished she could laugh away the idea of her, Dakota James, dating Leland. But face-to-face with the girl’s perky smile, she suddenly felt more unraveled around the edges than usual. It was lowering, actually, to be, for the second time in her life, so scrambled, she felt like eggs overcooked, slightly burnt and . . . rubbery.
There wasn’t much she could do about that, except live with it. She glanced back at Leland. He was watching, head tilted as if he was trying to figure her out.
Good luck with that.
Leaving the restaurant, she couldn’t brush aside the unsettling feeling that Beckett Leland kept watching until she was out of sight.
End of Excerpt