Jessica Flynn picked her way along the grassy roadside. To her right, the forest beckoned, wild and beautiful. The timing wasn’t perfect, but after eyeing this undeveloped tract of land next to her spa for years, it had finally been put up for sale. And now it was going to be hers.
She rubbed at the headache squeezing her temples, remembering—belatedly—that she’d meant to take some ibuprofen before she headed out to meet with the realtor. Oh well, too late now. And actually, now that she was away from the hustle and bustle of the spa, she realized her whole body hurt, a deep ache in her joints and a shivery sensitivity on her skin that felt an awful lot like she was coming down with something.
Which was just friggin’ great. Half her staff had been out with the flu already this month, and she was booked solid with client appointments for the rest of the week.
But first things first…
About ten yards ahead, a white SUV sat in the gravel driveway beside the For Sale sign. As she approached, the vehicle’s front door opened, and a balding, middle-aged man stepped out.
“Ms. Flynn?” he asked.
“I’m Gordon McDermott.” He stuck out a hand, and she shook. “You said on the phone you own the adjacent property?”
“That’s right,” she said. The Haven Spa was her baby, the culmination of years of sweat, tears, and dreams. And once she’d bought this additional land, she was going to expand the spa into a rustic yet luxurious resort.
“Then he must own the property on the other side because he told me the same thing.” Gordon nodded toward a man standing at the end of the gravel driveway, his back to them.
Jessica’s spine stiffened as if it had turned to steel. He was tall, lean, and muscular, his black hair close-cropped, hands shoved into the front pockets of his jeans. And she’d know him anywhere.
Mark Dalton, the first man to own—and break—her heart. The man she couldn’t get within five feet of without wanting to kick him in the shins for being such a jerk when they were teenagers. And, unluckily for her, he was also one of the owners of the property on the other side of this one.
He turned, and their eyes met. His were the color of rich espresso, sizzling in their intensity. His bronzed skin was marred by a vicious scar that slashed his right cheek, the only outwardly visible reminder of the accident that ended his Army career. “Jess,” he said, his voice deep and a little scratchy.
“Mark.” Her hands clenched into fists. It figured he and his friends would have their eye on this property too. Well, she’d just have to outbid them because she’d been dreaming about expanding the spa for a lot longer than they’d been giving zip-line tours over at Off-the-Grid Adventures.
“I take it you two already know each other?” Gordon said, looking pleased.
She and Mark both nodded, eyeing each other warily.
“Great. Well, as you may have heard, the property owner, Randy Wexler, passed away unexpectedly a few weeks ago, and his family is looking to sell this property as quickly as possible to settle his estate. My impression,” he said, raising his eyebrows for emphasis, “is that he left behind quite a few bills that need paying.”
“That’s sad,” Jessica said. “I wonder why he never got around to building anything out here?”
“He’d owned this property for decades, hoped to someday retire and build his dream home here,” Gordon said. “Unfortunately, he waited too long to make it happen. Naturally, the family is thrilled that we already have not one, but two, interested buyers for the land.”
“I bet.” Jessica eyed Mark again. He still stood near the end of the gravel driveway—the driveway that Randy Wexler had envisioned leading to his dream home but instead dead-ended into the forest beyond.
Mark, never one for casual conversation, said nothing.
“As you both know, there’s a little over forty acres out there, all undeveloped. The property is zoned residential, but with businesses on both sides, I wouldn’t anticipate a problem having it re-zoned commercial.”
Mark cocked an eyebrow. She’d heard that the guys had had quite a time getting their property re-zoned to allow Off-the-Grid to open, but in the end, it had worked out. And the realtor was right—with businesses on both sides, re-zoning was a no-brainer.
“You mind if I have a look around?” Mark asked.
“Not at all. Take your time. I imagine you both are familiar with where the property lines lie,” Gordon said, gesturing toward the forest before them.
“Thank you,” Jessica said. “I’d like to poke around a bit too.” She’d already done some snooping on her own, but she couldn’t pass up the chance to openly explore. This land wrapped around behind the spa, and since no one used it for anything, she’d occasionally hiked through, daydreaming about little cabins with private hot tubs nestled in the woods.
Mark walked to the end of the driveway then turned and looked back, as if waiting for her to catch up. Dammit. She’d been planning to strike out on her own. Well, maybe she could feel him out for how serious he and the guys were about buying. “I didn’t know you guys were interested in more land,” she said as she fell into step beside him—well, kind of beside him. She’d left a few feet of space between them for good measure. Any closer and she might wind up wanting to strangle him. Because if she looked too deeply into his cocoa eyes, the memories threatened to swamp her. So many stolen kisses and whispered promises. This was the man she’d thought she might spend the rest of her life with, right up until he dropped her like a bad habit when he enlisted in the Army.
Mark kept his eyes on the leaf-strewn ground before them. “We’ve been talking about adding a mountain bike course. Ethan says there are some hills back here that would be perfect.”
A mountain biking course? She wasn’t opposed to the idea except for the fact that this property bordered her spa on two sides, and she wasn’t sure she wanted adrenaline-seeking men and women racing past her natural spring-fed hot tubs yelling and carrying on while her clients were trying to relax and unwind. “Why can’t you build that on the land you already own?”
“Hills on our side are too rocky. Perfect for climbing, not biking.”
“So you’re pretty serious then? About buying?”
His eyes flicked to hers, just for a moment, and he nodded. “You looking to expand the spa?”
“Yes,” she said and left it at that. Her headache was getting worse, and ugh, she really felt lousy. She was going to be so pissed if she had to go home from work early today.
She and Mark walked in silence for a few minutes, crunching over the bed of leaves and pine needles that carpeted this part of the woods. Birds twittered overhead, darting through the colorful foliage. Here in Haven, North Carolina, fall had officially arrived, bringing with it a chill on the breeze and a kaleidoscope of color in the trees.
October had always been her favorite month, what with the foliage, cool air, fresh apple cider, and Halloween—which was arguably her favorite holiday—closing things out. Yeah, fall rocked, especially out here in the Smoky Mountains, where Mother Nature really got a chance to put on a show. It was almost enough to take her mind off the stabbing pain behind her eyes and the vicious ache in her bones that intensified with every step she took.
Mark started toward a steep incline to the left, and she saw her chance to strike out on her own. “I’m headed this way.” She gestured to the right, toward the flatter area she’d been scoping out for her spa cabins. “I’ll see you back by the road.”
He paused, and those dark eyes met hers again, burning right through her. He nodded and turned away, hiking toward the hillside. She turned away too, before she caught herself doing something stupid like watching his very fine ass as he walked away.
Mark Dalton grabbed the rock and pulled himself up. It didn’t compare with the rock face they used over at Off-the-Grid, but he’d never say no to a new rock to climb. His right knee ached as he moved, stiff and tight in a way he’d never fully get used to.
He pulled himself over the top of the rock and stood, finally allowing himself to look in the direction Jess had gone. She was nowhere to be seen.
Just as well.
Since he’d returned to Haven, she’d made it clear she didn’t want anything to do with him. Not that he blamed her. It was just his dumb luck that he still wanted her something fierce. In the eleven years since he left Haven—and Jess—behind, no woman had ever come close to what he’d had with Jess. They’d shared something intense, something real, that he’d never felt with anyone else.
But that was in the past. These days, he’d gotten so used to the occasional random hook-up that he’d come to prefer it. He enjoyed being on his own. Always been a loner. Probably always would be. No doubt his fantasies about Jess were better off kept as just that…fantasies.
Pausing, he surveyed the hilly area where he and his partners had talked about building a mountain bike course. The terrain out here was ideal, lots of gentle slopes and steep drops. He, Ethan Hunter, and Ryan Blake had opened Off-the-Grid Adventures together last year, offering zip-line tours, rock climbing, survival skills classes, and the like. The whole thing had been Ethan’s brainchild, but the timing couldn’t have been more perfect for Mark. After he’d been injured in Iraq two years ago, his Army career had been sidelined. He’d spent a year working on the administrative side of things, but it didn’t fucking compare to being out in the field, busting drug deals or securing hostile territory with his Special Forces team.
Now, for the first time in his adult life, he was a civilian. Finally starting to come to terms with it too. There was something reassuring about the peace and quiet of the woods after spending so much time in a war zone. The creatures here weren’t capable of evil. They just did their thing and lived their lives. Not so different from him these days. Movement snagged his attention out of the corner of his right eye. Instinct had him reaching for the weapon he no longer carried. Exhaling slowly, he glanced over his shoulder. He moved more quietly than most hikers and often surprised wildlife out here in the woods. Sure enough, about two hundred feet away, a black bear and two cubs ambled through the trees. One of the cubs paused, looked back at him, and then kept walking.
No cause for alarm. Bears were pretty common out here and rarely bothered people unless people bothered them first. Mark watched as they made their way through the woods, headed roughly in the same direction Jess had gone. And that he didn’t like.
Unable to help himself, he doubled back. No doubt Jess knew how to handle herself around bears as well as he did, but the duty to protect was too deeply ingrained in him to ignore.
The bear and her cubs had ventured far enough ahead to be out of sight now, but he could still hear their feet crunching through the bed of fallen leaves and twigs that covered the ground and the mama bear’s occasional snorts as she called to her cubs. They weren’t exactly stealthy, nor did they need to be. They ruled these woods, and they knew it.
He veered to the right in the direction he’d last seen Jess. It wasn’t hard to follow her tracks. The leaf bed here was still damp from yesterday’s rain, and the imprint of her shoes showed easily. He found her sitting on a tree stump, staring into the trees as if completely lost in thought.
Yep, that was Jess. He stopped and shoved his hands in his pockets to watch her. So damn pretty. Her brown hair hung just past her shoulders. A shaft of sunlight brought out its gold undertones. Probably daydreaming about her plans for expanding the spa. Not wanting to interrupt, he stood back and waited for her to notice him.
After a few moments, she stood and headed in his direction. About two steps before she walked right into him, she let out a little shriek and clutched her chest. “Oh my God, Mark. You almost gave me a friggin’ heart attack.”
He bit back a smile. “Sorry.”
“If you have to do your whole Army stealth thing out here, at least give a girl a heads-up, huh?” She frowned at him, her brown eyes flashing as she brushed past him and kept on walking.
“Didn’t mean to sneak up on you.”
“Why are you over here anyway? I thought you were checking out the hills for your mountain biking course.”
“Saw a family of black bears headed your way,” he said, falling into step behind her.
“And you thought I was just some helpless female who needed your protection?” She glared over her shoulder at him.
Nope, Jess was definitely not helpless.
“Well, for your information, I’ve seen plenty of bears out here over the years,” she said. “They don’t bother me a bit. I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself.”
“Got it.” Knew it was true too. And he also knew he’d do the same thing again, for any hiker out here, male or female, but especially for Jess.
Neither of them spoke as they walked back toward the entrance to the property. Silence was his preferred method of communication, but this silence buzzed with a tension that made his scalp prickle with misgivings. Whichever of them ended up buying this land, they were going to be neighbors, and it would make things a hell of a lot easier if they could get along.
Beside him, Jess rubbed at her forehead. All the color—and the anger—seemed to have drained out of her.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Fine,” she muttered, but now that he was close to her, she didn’t look fine. She was pale, her movements jerky as if she were in pain.
“Jess…” He touched her arm, hoping to get her to slow down, and Jesus H. Christ. “You’re burning up.” She jerked her arm away from his touch. “Am I?”
“Hold up a minute here.” He reached for her again, and this time she stopped, letting out a weary sigh.
“I might be coming down with the flu. Half my employees have had it already this month.”
He pressed a palm against her forehead, frowning. “You’re running a high fever. Have you taken anything?”
She shook her head. “I will as soon as I get back to the spa.”
“Let me take you home.”
She started walking again. “No, thanks.”
“You can’t go back to work like this.”
She let out a frustrated groan. “I know that. Much as it kills me to cancel on my afternoon clients, I can’t see as I have any choice. Not good for business if I infect them with my germs, is it?”
He walked beside her, still watching her closely. “Are you limping?”
“Will you cut it out? My joints hurt. I’m sick. I’m going home, I promise.”
But she didn’t complain when he offered his elbow to lean on, and that spoke volumes. They lapsed back into silence, making their way through the woods. A few minutes later, they rounded an outcrop and found themselves face-to-face with the bear and her cubs, not ten feet in front of them.
Jess gasped, her grip on his arm tightening.
The mama bear had been sharpening her claws on a tree trunk while her cubs climbed the tree. She turned her head at the sudden human intrusion and lunged in their direction, slapping her front paw against the leaf-covered ground as she blew loudly through her nostrils.
Mark raised his hands in the air, beginning to back away. “Easy, girl. We didn’t mean to sneak up on you.”
“Holy shit,” Jess whispered, yanking on his arm. “Let’s get out of here.”
“We are, but carefully,” he said, walking backward away from the bears while still facing them, keeping his body between Jess and the agitated mama. “She’s just bluffing. We startled her. She’s telling us we’re too close to her and her babies.”
“No friggin’ kidding.”
“No need to get upset.” He lifted his voice to carry to the bears. “Easy does it.”
Mama bear slapped the ground again, huffing loudly.
“Why are you talking to her like that?” Jess hissed in his ear. “You’re pissing her off!”
“We’re making sure she knows we’re not prey, but we’re also respecting her wishes and getting out of her space.” He kept his voice calm, level, and loud enough for the bears to hear.
Mama bear continued to huff and snort, eyeing them warily until they’d backed out of sight into the surrounding trees. Only then did Mark finally turn around, leading Jess briskly through the trees in the direction of the road, keeping his ears tuned for any sound from behind them.
“Holy shit,” she said, looking paler than ever.
“She didn’t want to fight us. It was just a warning. You should take my survival skills class sometime,” he said, glancing at her. “I’ll think about it.”
He took that as a no.
They reached the road a few minutes later, and she removed her hand from his arm, tucking it around her waist. “Thanks for waiting while we poked around,” she said to Gordon McDermott.
“You two see everything you needed to see?” the realtor asked.
“Yep,” she said. “And then some,” she added with a small smile in Mark’s direction.
He nodded. “We’ll be in touch with our offer.”
“So will I,” Jess said, her expression hardening.
They said their good-byes, and Gordon climbed back inside his SUV.
“I’ll walk you to your car,” Mark said to Jess because she didn’t look entirely steady on her feet.
“No, thanks.” She started off in the direction of the spa, walking quickly.
He fell into step beside her anyway.
She frowned up at him. “You know, maybe some women swoon for your macho style, but I’m not one of them.”
“I noticed,” he said dryly, wishing her words didn’t burrow their way under his skin and stick there like some unwelcome parasite.
“So, ’bye then.” She waved a hand in his direction, picking up her pace.
He didn’t argue, just kept walking beside her.
She muttered something under her breath, glared at him, and kept walking. She wasn’t limping anymore, but he wasn’t sure if she was feeling better or just being stubborn and putting on a brave face so that he’d leave her alone.
The latter, apparently, because when the spa finally came into view, her shoulders slumped and her relief was palpable. She ran a hand through her brown hair and gave him another pointed look. “Okay, thanks for walking with me. I can take it from here.”
“Jess…let me drive you home.”
Now that she’d stopped walking, she looked like she might topple over if a strong breeze gusted against her. “I’m going inside to finish up a few things first. I’m fine.”
“You’re not fine, and I’m not taking no for an answer.”
“Stubborn man,” she mumbled. “Well, I’m going inside to finish up. You can wait here if you really want, but knowing you’re out here is not going to make me rush.”
On the contrary, she’d probably dawdle just to spite him, but he didn’t care. She was in no shape to drive herself home. So he stood to the side of the entrance, hands in his pockets, and waited. Eight years in the Special Forces had given him plenty of experience waiting. He could stand here all afternoon if he needed to.
He didn’t much like the idea of going up against Jess to buy this property, but there didn’t seem to be any way around it. She was certainly going to do her best to snag it for herself, and there was no way the guys would want to back down, so they would too. May the best man—or woman—win.
Thirty minutes later, she came out the spa’s front doors, her purse and another larger bag slung over her right shoulder. And it was a good thing he’d waited because she looked even worse than when she’d gone in.
She stopped in her tracks and gawked at him. “Oh my God. Have you seriously been standing here this whole time?”
“Well, I…I figured you’d leave. I forgot how stubborn you are when you get an idea in your head, but for the record, I’m perfectly capable of driving myself home.”
“Jess.” He stared at her, frowning. “Stop arguing and let me drive you home.”
“Fine.” She huffed in annoyance and led the way toward a black Kia Sportage parked around back. She was limping again, moving more slowly than she had during their earlier hike. The doors unlocked with a beep, and she walked to the passenger side. “How’s this going to work, anyway? How are you going to get back?”
“I’ll call someone to pick me up at your place.”
She pointed a finger in his direction. “I’m not inviting you in, just so you know.”
“Fair enough.” He slid behind the steering wheel and texted the one person at Off-the-Grid most likely to be goofing around on his phone this afternoon: Ryan’s teenage brother Trent. Sure enough, Trent replied right away. “Trent’s going to swing by and get me.”
Jess leaned back against the seat and closed her eyes. “Okay…207 Riverbend Road.”
“I know.” He started the engine and pulled out of the lot. Jess was quiet during the drive. He might have thought she was sleeping except for the lines of tension creasing her brow. Ten minutes later, he turned into the driveway of her little brown-sided house, parked, and shut off the engine. Her eyes opened, bright with fever, and she gave him a pinched smile. “Thanks for the ride, and you know…saving me from bears.” Then her usual attitude flared to life, and her eyes narrowed. “But I’m still going to outbid you on that land.” BUY IT NOW: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | Kobo | Google Play