Burned

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Whispering Cove, Book 4

Vic Hayes is content with life in Whispering Cove. She owns a successful salon, has great friends and her perfectly manicured nail is on the pulse of the town’s gossip. For real happiness, she’s only missing one thing—a man. Settling for less than the perfect man, though, isn’t in her nature. He just has to see her as more than his best friend.

Widower Hauk Michaelsen always dreamed of escaping Whispering Cove, until single fatherhood, too young, made it impossible. He enjoys his life as owner of the small town pub. Friends, gossip, and his young daughter keep things jumping. He would do anything for his little girl, but he can’t give her the one thing she desires most—a mother.

When Vic and Hauk are teamed up for a Fall Festival project, sparks ignite suppressed flames. Testing boundaries they’ve never crossed, they find themselves eager to risk more—if Vic can convince Hauk that history won’t be repeated if he takes another chance on love.

This book has been previously published as part of an anthology series with Cathryn Fox and Mackenzie McKade.

PROLOGUE

A barnacle-suckin’ hand with a king and a six.

Byron Mitchell placed his second card facedown atop the first and reached for his tumbler of rum. It was a shoddy beginning, but he had bluffed his way out of worse. Then again, so had his weekly poker buddies Harold Adair and Errol Wilson.

Distraction. He could win with the right distraction, and these days the same distraction never failed. “How are those great-grandbabies growin’?”

“Fast.” Harold’s mouth curled into a smile as he laid his second card facedown. “Andie’s big enough to be having twins, but she won’t tell me if there’s more than one. Says wondering is what I get for meddling.”

Shaking his head, Errol placed his second card facedown with his first. “Place your bets.”

They tossed chips into the small pile. Errol dealt round three.

“It’s not meddlin’,” Harold mumbled.

“Women see it different,” Byron mused. At least according to his wife Ruth and Dani, his new granddaughter by marriage. Not that either of them were complaining that he’d intervened in Braydon’s life plan to sail in solitude. “Dani and Braydon are supposed to be paintin’ the nursery this week. They won’t tell me what they’re havin’.” Byron pursed his lips and swirled the rum in his tumbler. “They keep sayin’ I’d have too many thoughts on names.”

“Women are—”

“The reason we have babies,” Errol cut Harold off.

“My Katy,” Harold slipped in with a grin, “gave me that same line when she told me to stop coddling her.”

The left corner of Errol’s mouth twitched. The tell made Byron want to smile. His pal had a nice hand, but he was thinking more about his granddaughter and when she might bring him news of a baby. The distraction was working.

“Not that she’s fessing up to carrying my grandbaby,” Harold finished.

“They think they’re invincible.” Byron swirled the liquor in his tumbler again. “Maybe we should let ’em think we’re leavin’ them alone.”

“How do you mean?” Errol dealt the last round and they all placed their bets.

Whatever Errol had dealt himself wasn’t a great hand. He wasn’t revealing any of his tells like Harold. Their tells got bigger the better their hand.

“I think it’s time to get some other youngsters paired off,” said Byron. “Hauk is living in fear of reliving his past. And little Sophie deserves a momma. It’s time he figured out he can have it all.”

Harold nodded. “Reece has been running from Tabatha long enough.”

“And Adam is blind to Josie. Sees her only as his best friend’s sister. Doesn’t know how good they could be together.” Errol’s smile broadened. “With the Fall Festival coming, there’s a lot to plan.”

“They won’t be as easy to maneuver as the others. They’ll be on the lookout.”

“And the festival will be a great distraction.” Errol chuckled as he shuffled the cards he’d dealt himself. “We’ll give them jobs and watch the sparks fly.”

“Those boys won’t know what hit ’em.”

“Neither will the girls.”

Byron nodded, liking the idea more and more. It was always fun to see the young’ns get twisted up over finding love. “The bet?”

“The fastest match with the least intervention?” Harold offered.

“The most creative setup,” Byron countered.

“No. These kids know each other, so they only have to let go their fool notions about each other to see what they’ll have.” Errol poured more rum into his tumbler. “The match must be made before the end of the Fall Festival.”

They all nodded as their budding schemes swam in their eyes.

“Loser eats barnacles,” Errol tossed out.

“Loser buys the rum for a month,” Harold added.

Byron took a drink and watched the plan unfurl in his mind as clearly as the stars awakening in the fall sky. One thing he’d learned over the years was how to read the town’s youngsters. Hauk Michaelsen with his charcoal-tough heart, which was more fragile than he thought, was so used to what was in front of him, so blind to the woman who loved him he would never see Victoria Hayes coming. “Good thing you two have a taste for ’em.”

“Chase ’em down with a little rum and they won’t be so bad,” Errol laughed.

CHAPTER ONE

Hauk Michaelsen swiped a rag across the teakwood bar as a chilled, liquor-and-bar-food scented breeze swept through the open wall panels. Aimee Smith, his newest waitress and only employee who hadn’t called in sick, cleared dishes off the few remaining tables and carried them into the kitchen. Fortunately for them both it had been a quiet night.

“Nothin’ like couples in love and snuggled together.”

Hauk smiled at old man Byron Mitchell and kept wiping as he worked his way down to the rum bottles. At most, he would have two minutes before he was asked for a refill. He’d guess closer to thirty seconds.

As if on cue, Byron raised his glass to signal for more. “You almost had that.”

“A couple times,” Hauk acknowledged. Loving the man as much as he loved his own grandparents in Norway, Hauk grinned as he poured more rum for Byron.

Hauk didn’t like talking about his past, avoided it when he could, so hoping to sidetrack Byron, he asked, “You planning more matchups?”

“Doesn’t look like they need any help.” Byron waggled his brows at the couples in the bar. One swayed on the dance floor to a country ballad on the jukebox. Another near the open wall heeded the encouragement of the wind and huddled closer together, despite the warmth they would likely feel from the outdoor heaters. “Now you…you haven’t been with anyone since Jean Marie.”

“Nope. And it’s going to stay that way.” Hauk shook his head and backed up a step. Even if he did relationships, he didn’t have time for one. “You aren’t going to pair me off.”

“As if the idea of a good woman waiting when you get home is such a bad one.”

“There isn’t a woman good enough in Whispering Cove.” Or safe enough.

“You work too hard. The right partner would ease some of the burden you carry. A woman who would be a good momma for your Sophie.”

“My life isn’t a burden.” Mostly. Though the mention of his daughter, who was in bed sick in their apartment upstairs, hit that soft spot in his soul that only Sophie could command. The spot that made something inside him tremble with the need to give her everything she wanted and the mother she needed.

“Maybe not, but your Sophie deserves better.”

“Better than what I’ve given her?” A suddenly awakened affront strained against his tone. He didn’t care.

“Better than a mother who walks out on her.”

Krista hadn’t been willing to share herself with their daughter. He couldn’t deny that any more than he could argue against the importance of Sophie having a woman role model. They were lucky to have Vic, who his daughter adored, as a friend. And though he found her attractive—outright sexy—she was only a friend. He couldn’t let Vic become more, and he couldn’t give Sophie a mother.

Only once since Krista had he allowed a woman close enough to begin thinking of her as a mother for his daughter. Jean Marie had been everything he thought Sophie would need, but a rock-climbing accident had robbed them of the chance to find out.

No woman since had moved him enough to make trying worth the risk.

Still, watching his friends get mated up and hitched, watching them start their own families had him thinking about forgotten dreams and the things he’d planned for his life. Those memories, and the tragedies and hardships they’d circled around to, inevitably led him to thoughts of what he’d actually ended up with. A life without companionship, because it was the only way to keep things uncomplicated.

He’d needed uncomplicated after his wife’s body had been found battered on the beach and he’d been investigated. The town had been behind him then, just as they were now. Even with the occasional, lingering whispers of the bad luck surrounding women in his life, living in Whispering Cove was much better than anything he could have planned.

“It’s a disgrace, I tell you.”

Hauk leaned against the bar and prepared to listen to Byron rant. The man believed everyone between twenty-five and forty should be married and growing families, but Hauk wasn’t going to give him the pleasure of a direct acknowledgment. Not that he thought any response was safe. “What’s a disgrace?”

“That poor girl still hasn’t found the right man, and with the barnacle-suckin’ men trollin’ around town, she never will.”

Hauk smiled. Byron might claim not to be matchmaking, but someone had caught his attention. As long as he was left alone, Hauk didn’t care. “Which girl?”

“Poor Victoria.” Byron studied his rum, shaking his head as if tragically saddened. “I saw her out with Sean last night.”

“Sean’s a nice guy.” He’d been a couple years ahead of Hauk in school and had taken over the family auto repair garage when his dad had fallen ill. He had stayed on even after his dad recovered and returned to work. He was the kind of guy Byron would normally choose for a woman settled in the town like Vic, though it was a little strange that she hadn’t mentioned him. “Seems like they’d get along.”

“Nice?” Byron set his tumbler down without taking a drink. “Nice isn’t what that girl needs. No. She needs a man who will challenge her and take her on adventures. She needs a man who will dance with her.”

“Dancing and adventures?” Vic had said many times her greatest adventure was listening to the gossip gibbons at her salon. They never bored her and she could hear all the good stuff without going anywhere.

“Do you know that girl has never left this town? Her entire life has been here. She doesn’t even own a passport.”

“The same is true about a large portion of our population.” Aside from a couple of trips to visit family in Norway, the same was true for himself. And he knew Vic didn’t care about travel any more than she wanted to move away from Whispering Cove. Knowing that didn’t mean he wanted to listen to Byron talk about her needs. “We aren’t all like Braydon.”

“Pfft. That boy wasted nearly half his life sailing the seas. He should have been settling down with a good woman. Starting a family.”

Predictable old man. A mention of his grandson and new granddaughter—because he would never consider Dani an in-law—was all it took to sidetrack him from Vic’s marital status. “Seems he’s doing just that.”

“Now that Dani got ’hold of him.”

The doc wasn’t the only one who’d convinced Braydon it was time to settle down. Not that he’d really settled. He’d just established a home to come back to when he was between assignments, though he’d take his new wife with him on more trips if she had a doctor to cover her patients in her absence.

“Braydon isn’t a concern now.”

Hauk waved good night to a few of his customers heading out the door. The others seemed to be finishing up their drinks as the night darkened and the cedar-scented votives Aimee had chosen for the night burned down. She’d claimed it would complement the smells of liquor and beer. He didn’t care about that as long as people were spending money.

“But Vic is?”

Vic.

Petite and larger than life on a high, she drew people to her. Her dating life had never bothered him, but suddenly the thought of her dating a very nice man slipped through his mind with an unsettling discomfort that lodged in his throat. It was a discomfort he somehow knew had little to do with what she meant to Sophie. In fact, it felt much more personal. And frustrating, because risking their friendship, putting her in danger if he fell for her intimately, couldn’t happen.

Vic.

She was upstairs likely tucking Sophie into bed. It was something he’d normally have gone up to do, especially with her having come down with a fever that morning. But with the staff out sick he’d called in reinforcements. Vic was always there when he or Sophie needed her.

“Actually, no.” Byron waved a hand over his tumbler. “The Fall Festival, though, that could be.”

Hauk shook his head clear to focus on the conversation he’d lost momentary track of. Braydon and Vic weren’t concerns. What…?

“How’s the festival a concern?” Everyone in town chipped in to help pull off the festival. Some donated supplies, others labor or skills at planning and promotion.

Hauk had worked on a couple of booths and the stage, and if the timing worked, assuming his employees got over their flu and could return to work, he hoped to turn the pub into a haunted house. It would take time to do it right though, and he hadn’t managed to pull it off yet in the last five years he’d been collecting stuff.

“We’re only a few weeks away and our headlining entertainer just cancelled. We’ve put feelers out, but so far no one has stepped forward with a willingness to take the gig.”

“You know, tomorrow night is karaoke night in here.” He still wasn’t sure how the customers had talked him into setting up that particular torment on a weekly basis. “Assuming everyone hasn’t come down with the flu, you might find some nice talent there.”

“It could be fun to have locals onstage.” Byron rubbed his chin. “I bet Vic would know of some prospects.”

“She does seem to know as much as you about our town and its people.”

“She’s a special woman, that one.”

“Yeah.” She’d stood by him and Sophie when the gossip about him swelled, which seemed to happen when new people moved into town. Understanding him because of her own losses, she occasionally told him people were wrong about him, that he was wrong about himself. She’d told him a few times before he wasn’t tainted, and a woman wasn’t doomed to tragic death just because she fell for him.

“Then it’s settled.” With one short, steady nod, Byron slapped the table.

“What’s settled?”

“You and Vic will work together to find the talent for the festival.” Byron swallowed the last of his rum and tossed some money on the bar. “And while you’re with her, you can make her see she and Sean aren’t a good fit.”

“It’s not my place to interfere in Vic’s love life.” Love life. The earlier discomfort reared up along with an image of her in his arms. The words snapped like angry lobsters, rubbing him the wrong way. He shook his head. He’d never—okay, rarely—thought of her as more than a friend, so what was his problem all of a sudden?

“It’s always a friend’s place to warn another when they’re getting into a bad situation. Just think how different your life would be if someone had warned you.”

I was warned. I have thought about it. “I wouldn’t change anything that gave me Sophie.”

“You can’t be okay knowing Vic will leave you and Sophie tonight and head to another man’s bed. To know the love your daughter is bathed in could drain as quickly as murky bathwater when Vic finds a man who can give her a child of her own.” Byron shook his head and snorted. “If you are, you’re not the man I thought you were.”

Without giving Hauk time to respond, Byron hustled out the door as fast as his spry old legs would carry him.

Something felt wrong about the codger’s take on Vic, though Hauk couldn’t have formulated the right questions to figure out what if he’d been given the chance. Byron had tossed a lot at him. Had prodded sore spots best left…unprodded.

Vic had tried to tell him Krista was changing, that she had a hatred growing inside. He’d been so blinded by desire he’d ignored the warning. He’d ignored Vic until he’d been able to see the truth for himself. After he’d apologized for the unkindness he’d shown her back then, he and Vic had settled into a relationship where they had fun as friends. They talked about almost everything, but there were clear lines they never crossed. The most clear one being the line into the intricacies of the other’s personal life.

Yet somehow, Byron’s mention of Vic going to Sean’s bed had Hauk wanting to cross that line. Trouble was, he had no real reason she shouldn’t be with Sean, other than to say she deserved a man who would have an easier time dealing with her independence.

Sean wanted his women on the more subservient side. He’d said before that whoever he married could work outside the home, but in a predictable, nine-to-five, low-stress job, because he wanted her attention when work hours were over. Vic worked hard from early in the morning until late in the evening running her own business, and she had an active group of friends who kept her busy after hours. She wasn’t the woman Sean described.

Then there was the other side of trouble Hauk could get into if he crossed the line with Vic. Maybe she would take his advice and stop seeing Sean. It would open her up for the right man sooner, and Byron’s prediction of Sophie losing another woman in her life could come true faster, because when the time came that she did find her Mr. Right, she would dedicate herself to him. Sophie would likely get set aside more often. And Hauk could lose his best friend, as few men were okay with their women hanging out with other men.

“Damn it.” The discomfort in his throat shifted and sank until there was a mass of tension gripping his spine. He couldn’t deny his body’s message. Though he couldn’t act on them, he had underestimated his feelings for Vic.

“Something wrong, boss?” Aimee asked as she unloaded empty glasses from her tray.

“Yes. No. I don’t know.” Still unsure of what he would say to Vic, if anything, Hauk scrubbed his face. “Listen, I’m heading upstairs. Will you close up?”

“Sure, but…” Aimee glanced around the bar and back to him with worry. “I don’t… I haven’t…”

“You’ll be fine. Trust me.” The benefit of the small town was that everyone who frequented his place knew Sophie had seen Dr. Dani earlier, just as they’d know the rest of his staff was in the middle of or coming down with the flu. “No one will give you any trouble if you tell them I’ve gone up to take care of Sophie.”

Aimee was new in town, and her bouncing ponytail and cute smile were quickly winning her friends. Eager to please everyone, and curiously averse to responsibility, she was easily reduced to a ball of nerves, so Hauk spent several minutes calming her before heading upstairs where his daughter lay sick, and the woman suddenly commanding his attention was likely thinking about her date with Sean.

On the way, Hauk tried to picture his world without Vic so involved. With her ever-changing hairstyle and color, and her intelligent brown eyes that saw too much, she was an integral part of his world. She wanted her own family one day, and she deserved one. But knowing he’d have less of her time when another man won her heart dimmed Hauk’s image of his life while deepening the discomfort of her love life beyond him.

No woman should have such power over a man, and Vic had never tried to exert any on him. Still, it seemed she had a hold over him, and it would only increase if he crossed the line into personal grounds.

He would not, could not, should not cross that line.