Fiery

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Whispering Cove, Book 11

Carmen Smith’s artist’s eye saw inspiration wherever she glanced as soon as she set foot on the cobbled streets of Whispering Cove, and among the inspiration she’s found the slower pace she always hoped for.

But as warm as her new life is, she harbors a secret dream to find a man who sees her as an equal and who loves her for who she is, rather than out of charity. The man she’s been partnered with to re-design the town square gets her fired up—but not in a way she expected.

Ryan Alden gave up his military career to help his father with the family business. He’s accepted his place in Whispering Cove, but still feels like an outsider at times. When he meets the bombshell babe with a vintage flare who challenges him like no other, he glimpses the life he has always longed for—but not in a way he anticipated.

From the get-go, they clash like oil and watercolor. And a relationship that looked good on paper might not be the right composition at all…

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

CHAPTER ONE

The sand’s cool grains shifted between Ryan Alden’s toes as he ran recon from the crowd’s outskirts. Appearance-wise he matched most everyone else on the beach—bare feet and shorts, tank top and ball cap. Growing up in Whispering Cove, he’d had friends, many of whom still lived in town or had returned, but he’d never felt like he fully belonged.

On the surface he belonged, had always belonged. In his head and in his heart, he never had. To those who paid attention enough to notice—in spirit—he stood out as vividly as the woman walking slowly at the water’s edge. Her red hair and curves weren’t too unusual, though he’d never have guessed her legs were as long as they were. It could just be a trick of her vintage-looking polka-dot swimsuit that showed off more than the fifties-housewife-type dresses and skirt outfits he always saw her in.

He definitely preferred the swimsuit with its unique way of showcasing her skin. Her curves. Her. Topping out at little more than five feet, she was a stunner and his pulse jumped every time he allowed himself to look at her, but what really drew his eye wasn’t her appearance.

She smiled and waved and chatted with people, but the moment they were no longer looking her smile slipped away. Her lids dropped, shielding the eyes that made him curious and each step of loneliness took a fraction longer than when she was aware of people looking. When she wasn’t, her toes dug a fraction deeper into the sand and lingered barely a breath longer before she took the next step.

It was as if she relied on the earth to ground her. As if she wasn’t truly sure of her place in Whispering Cove. Or possibly the world. He understood the feeling well, though he hadn’t begun to understand why until his senior year of high school when he’d told his parents he was taking a year off before starting college.

His announcement had kicked off a cycle of family discussions and arguments that revealed the truth about his parentage. While that explained years of hearing how unlike the man he’d called Dad he was, it only raised more questions.

Who was he really? Who was his real father? Why hadn’t he wanted him?

Those unanswered questions had deepened the loneliness in his soul and led him to the Marine Corps.

He’d gained a few insights in the service and some specialized skills, but it had all stopped mattering when he received a call from home that his family needed him. He’d made the tour he was on his last and returned home to help with the family business.

Each day since had held good moments, but each had also been a struggle.

“What are you sulking for, Gunny?” Byron Mitchell moved more slowly through the thick sand than when he hustled down Main Street, but not by much.

“I don’t sulk,” Ryan said with a nod of greeting. Casually he rocked back on his heels, lifted his toes from the sand. “Why aren’t you with your family?”

“Needed to talk to you.”

“About?” He looked down at the older man. He’d looked down at most everyone since he topped out at six-seven. It had only really been an issue in tight places. Many of those tight places were more emotionally than physically constricting.

“Your bid on the new landscaping for the square.”

Ryan dreaded the question even before he asked it, because his gut told him which one the council would have chosen. Elderly men tended to favor tradition, which suggested they’d go for the most conservative, ordinary concept. Given the designs he’d looked at, that meant boring and inexpensive. “Which one?”

“The one with the gazebo.”

Three of the finalists had included the gazebo as their centerpiece. “That’s not much help.”

“Right.” Byron smiled. “Well, we liked the idea of marrying tradition and youth in multiple dimensions.”

Ryan was getting an idea of the one they’d chosen. He wondered if he wouldn’t have preferred a boring flag on the hill. “You chose the statue project?”

“As a matter of fact, we did.” Pride glinted in Byron’s eyes, almost as if the idea had been his own. Except that would have been against the rules and the council was all about rules when they had contests. “Did you like that one?”

“It had possibilities, but it’s going to take the most time.” The possibilities had excited Ryan, despite his concerns with the design. It was larger in scope than the others and would keep him busy for several weeks. It would also challenge his skills because it involved much more than plants and borders. A 3-D comic strip of sorts circling the gazebo with each square depicting a different scene, ranging from the fifties to present day.

“Excellent.” Byron slapped him on the shoulder and nodded happily. “You can announce the news to the winner.”

“What? Why me?”

“The formal announcement will be posted in tomorrow’s paper. You two have to get to work fast. It’s got to be done before the parade.”

The Corps had taught him how to perform the impossible while rolling with the punches. He’d hoped for a slower pace now that he was out, though. “Are you kidding? That’s only a month away.”

“No. But that’s why you’ll be working with the designer. She’ll know the project and be able to help the crew if you can’t be on site.”

“I’ll work with her, but she’s not managing my crew.” No way. No one oversaw his crew but him. Certainly not a woman who had no idea how the family had done business the last sixty-five years.

“You can work that out with the chickadee.”

God help him, he was going to be working with a juvenile. “Who is she?”

Byron turned and pointed with a mischievous grin. “That be the chickadee there.”

He was pointing to the lonely redhead.

Ryan’s heart thumped harder. His heart always quickened when he saw her. He’d never been closer than twenty feet, which was plenty close enough since he didn’t have time for the kind of distraction a woman like her would be. Or the chaos she would bring.

“Get to it, Gunny.”

“What’s her name?”

“Carmen Smith. Her sister Aimee worked for Hauk until marrying Josh Bryan.”

He’d heard about that wedding, and about the singer’s plans to move back when his tour wrapped up. Maybe Carmen seemed lonely because she was missing her family.

“Be nice to her, Gunny. I think she’s a little sad.”

“I’m always nice.”

“Hmmph.” Byron snorted, but he did it good-naturedly. “I’ll be by the site tomorrow to see how things are going,” he called as he headed away.

“Tomorrow’s a little quick for you to expect any real progress.”

“Tomorrow,” Byron demanded before heading back toward his cronies.

Tomorrow. Byron expected him to have a crew working as early as tomorrow? The old man was going senile, but rather than argue, Ryan walked toward the woman. Carmen. Even her name was sexy.

As he neared, the salty scent of the water heightened. Fifteen feet away he noticed her shoulders hunched forward the slightest bit. With ten feet between them he saw that her eyes were pinched at the corners. Five feet apart he swore he felt her sadness.

He opened his mouth to call her name. As if she felt him looking at her, she straightened her shoulders and smoothed whatever haunted her from her face. Her head lifted and she turned. Her skin was as composed as his dress blues were pressed and polished. If he hadn’t been watching her for two months he wouldn’t have recognized it as a mask.

“You… Hi.” Her greeting was cheerful, though maybe a little too much so.

“Carmen.” Ryan closed the remaining distance and offered his hand. “I’m Ryan Alden.”

“Nice to meet you.” She slipped her hand into his, shocking him and squeezing tighter than he’d have expected. “Alden, as in Alden Landscaping and Alden Galleries?”

He nodded. “You’ve heard of us?”

“Your company does the lawn work at my apartment complex and I’ve walked through the gallery a few times.”

He nodded again. He’d seen her at the complex, by the pool with her hair slicked back after coming out of the water. Droplets spotting her shoulders and arms, tempting him to find a towel and dry her off.

“Byron asked me to come talk to you.”

“Yeah?”

“Seems we’ll be working together on your gazebo design.”

“What?” Her lips parted. Her pale blue eyes popped wide and stared directly into his. “Does that mean I was the winner?”

Ryan nodded. He could look into her eyes for hours. And her lips, the curve of them, encouraged him to bend down and take a taste. He wondered if she would shock him again if he touched her.

He set curiosity aside and focused on the mission. “The official announcement will be in the morning’s paper, or so Byron says.”

She shook her head and chuckled. “The town grandfathers strike again.”

“Excuse me?”

She glanced up, craning her neck. Those eyes he wanted to swim in sparked with shrewdness. “You haven’t been in town long have you?”

“Two months.”

“You’re single?”

“Yes.”

“Marrying age?”

“Um, sure.” He was taken aback by her directness, but it was refreshing coming from her. She wasn’t his type. That didn’t mean the idea of her clearing a path turned him off. “Though I’m not interested in a relationship.”

“Doesn’t matter.” She turned and continued walking, moving farther away from the crowd. “It seems Byron has picked his next targets.”

Ryan fell into step beside her. He prided himself on being quick to connect dots, but she wasn’t making much sense. “Targets?”

“Do you also know Errol and Harold?”

“They were friends with my grandfather. Poker buddies.”

She nodded. “Yep.”

“What?”

“They’ve taken their bets beyond the poker table.”

“They’ve always done that. They’ve been known to bet on the weather.” Their poker games had been going on for as long as Ryan could remember. Hell, he’d learned to play at their elbows and thanks to their tips had won more pots than he’d lost in the Corps.

“These bets started with their grandkids. They got them home, matched them up and got them to the altar quick.”

“Matchmaking bets.” No way. Byron couldn’t possibly have picked Carmen for him. From everything he’d seen about her, she was soft and wounded and sweet. He was jaded and militant and screwed up.

“You’re home. You’re available.” She shrugged. “You’re fair game.”

“And you’re not?”

“Weren’t you in the military?”

“Marines.”

“Didn’t they teach you to read a situation?”

“Yes.” Though he was trying not to read the message she was spelling out.

“You don’t think it was a coincidence that you won the bid and I won the contest, do you?”

“I’d prefer it that way.”

She chuckled as she slipped her arm through his. “Then brace yourself for some disappointment.”

Her hand against his bicep, her arm brushing his as he lifted his hand to form a bend of support, blew through him like a grenade. In its wake was an arousal he’d long suppressed.

He’d matched his stride to hers, keeping a slower pace than he liked. It was a nicer alternative to dragging her vertically challenged self across the beach. “You say that as if they never fail.”

“They haven’t yet.”

“I’ll be their first.” No matter how sexy the woman at his side was, or how quickly something inside him rose up in a need to protect her, or how easily her touch awakened his desires, he was not going to be married off. If she was right and he was being matched off, Byron’s chance of success was slim. He’d just taken on a Marine and one thing all Marines excelled at was winning.

She looked up and squinted into the sun. “Am I so unappealing to you?”

“You, no. Everything you say they’re trying to do, yes.” He pulled his arm from hers and stepped back. “Meet me at 0600 at the gazebo. The council wants this finished in time for the parade.”