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Lucy Marinn, a glass artist who lives on San Juan Island, has just been dumped by her boyfriend Kevin. Needing some privacy and time to think, she goes to a nearby beach and meets a dark-haired stranger . . .
In the periphery of her vision, Lucy saw a dog making his way along the edge of the water. He was followed by a dark-haired stranger, whose alert gaze was fastened on her.
The sight of him kindled instant unease. He had the strapping build of a man who earned his living outdoors. And something about him conveyed a sense of having been acquainted with life's rougher edges. In other circumstances Lucy might have reacted differently, but she didn't care to find herself alone on a beach with him.
She headed to the trail that led back up to the roadside turnout. A glance over her shoulder revealed that he was following her. That jolted her nerves into high gear. As she quickened her pace, the toe of her sneaker caught on the wind-scuffed basalt. Her weight pitched forward and she hit the ground, taking the impact on her hands.
Stunned, Lucy tried to collect herself. By the time she had struggled to her feet, the man had reached her. She spun to face him with a gasp, her disheveled brown hair partially obscuring her vision.
"Take it easy, will you?" he said curtly.
Lucy pushed the hair out of her eyes and regarded him warily. His eyes were a vivid shade of blue-green in his tanned face. He was striking, sexy, with a quality of rough-and-tumble attractiveness. Although he looked no more than thirty, his face was seasoned with the maturity of a man who'd done his share of living.
"You were following me," Lucy said.
"I was not following you. This happens to be the only path back to the road, and I'd like to get back to my truck before the storm hits. So if you wouldn't mind, either step it up or get out of the way."
Lucy stood to the side. "Don't let me hold you back."
The stranger's gaze went to her hand, where smears of blood had collected in the creases of her fingers. An edge of rock had cut into the top of her palm when she had fallen. He frowned. "I've got a first aid kit in my truck."
"It's nothing," Lucy said, although the cut was throbbing heavily. She blotted the welling blood on her jeans. "I'm fine."
"Put pressure on it with your other hand," the man said. His mouth tightened as he surveyed her. "I'll walk up the trail with you."
"In case you fall again."
"I'm not going to fall."
"It's steep ground. And from what I've seen so far, you're not exactly sure-footed."
Lucy let out an incredulous laugh. "You are the most . . . I . . . I don’t even know you."
"Sam Nolan. I live at False Bay." He paused as an ominous peal of thunder rent the sky. "Let's get moving."
"Your people skills could use some work," Lucy said. But she offered no objection as he accompanied her along the rough terrain.
"Keep up, Renfield," Sam said to the bulldog, who followed with apoplectic snorts and wheezes.
"Do you live on the island full-time?" Lucy asked.
"Yes. Born and raised here. You?"
"I've been here a couple of years." Darkly she added, "But I may be moving soon."
"No." Although Lucy was usually circumspect about her private life, some reckless impulse caused her to add, "My boyfriend just broke up with me."
Sam gave her a quick sideways glance. "Today?"
"About an hour ago."
"Sure it's over? Maybe it was just an argument."
"I'm sure," Lucy said. "He's been cheating on me."
"Then good riddance."
"You're not going to defend him?" Lucy asked cynically.
"Why would I defend a guy like that?"
"Because he's a man, and apparently men can't help cheating. It's the way you're built. A biological imperative."
"Like hell it is. A man doesn't cheat. If you want to go after someone else, you break up first. No exceptions." They continued along the path. Heavy raindrops tapped the ground with increasing profusion. "Almost there," Sam said. "Is your hand still bleeding?"
Cautiously Lucy released the pressure she had been applying with her fingers, and glanced at the oozing cut. "It's slowed."
"If it doesn't stop soon, you may need a stitch or two." That caused her to stumble, and he reached for her elbow to steady her. Seeing that she had blanched, he asked, "You've never had stitches?"
"No, and I'd rather not start now. I have trypanophobia."
"What's that? Fear of needles?
"Uh-huh. You think that's silly, don't you?"
He shook his head, a faint smile touching his lips. "I have a worse phobia."
"What is it?"
"It's strictly need-to-know."
"Spiders?" she guessed. "Fear of heights? Fear of clowns?"
His smile widened to a brief, dazzling flash. "Not even close."
They reached the turnout, and his hand dropped from her elbow. He went to the battered blue pickup, opened the door, and began to rummage inside. The bulldog lumbered to the side of the truck and sat, watching the proceedings through a mass of folds and furrows on his face.
Lucy waited nearby, watching Sam discreetly. His body was strong and lean beneath the worn bleached cotton of his tee shirt, jeans hanging slightly loose from his hips. There was a particular look about men from this region, a kind of bone-deep toughness. The Pacific Northwest had been populated by explorers, pioneers and soldiers who had never known when a supply ship was coming. They had survived on what they could get from the ocean and mountains. Only a particular amalgam of hardness and humor could enable a man to survive starvation, cold, disease, enemy attacks, and periods of near-fatal boredom. You could still see it in their descendants, men who lived by nature's rules first and society's rules second.
"You have to tell me," Lucy said. "You can't just say you have a worse phobia than mine and then leave me hanging."
He pulled out a white plastic kit with a red cross on it. Taking an antiseptic wipe from the kit, he used his teeth to tear the packet open. "Give me your hand," he said. She hesitated before complying. The gentle grip of his hand was electrifying, eliciting a sharp awareness of the heat and strength of the male body so close to hers. Lucy's breath caught as she stared into those intense blue eyes. Some men just had it, that something-extra that could knock you flat if you let it.
"This is going to sting," he said as he began to clean the cut with gentle strokes.
The breath hissed between her teeth as the antiseptic burned.
Lucy waited quietly, wondering why a stranger would go to this amount of trouble for her. As his head bent over her hand, she stared at the thick locks of his hair, a shade of brown so rich and dark that it appeared almost black.
"You're not in bad shape, considering," she heard him murmur.
"Are you talking about my hand or my breakup?"
"Breakup. Most women would be crying right now."
"I'm still in shock. The next stage is crying and sending angry text messages to everyone I know. After that is the stage when I'll want to rehash the relationship until all my friends start avoiding me." Lucy knew she was chattering, but she couldn't seem to stop herself. "In the final stage, I'll get a short haircut that doesn't flatter me, and buy a lot of expensive shoes I'll never wear."
"It's a lot simpler for guys," Sam said. "We just drink a lot of beer, go a few days without shaving, and buy an appliance."
"You mean . . . like a toaster?"
"No, something that makes noise. Like a leaf-blower or chainsaw. It's very healing."
That drew a brief, reluctant smile from her.
She needed to go home and think about the fact that her life was entirely different than it had been when she woke up that morning. How could she go back to the home that she and Kevin had created together? She couldn't sit at the kitchen table with the wobbly leg that both of them had tried to fix countless times, and listen to the ticking of the vintage black cat clock with the pendulum tail that Kevin had given her for her twenty-fifth birthday. Their flatware was a jumble of mismatched knives, forks and spoons from antique stores. Flatware with wonderful names. They had delighted in finding new treasures—a King Edward fork, a Waltz of Spring spoon. Now every object in that house had just become evidence of another failed relationship. How was she going to face that damning accumulation?
Sam applied an adhesive bandage to her hand. "I don't think you'll have to worry about stitches," he said. "The bleeding's almost stopped." He held her hand just a fraction of a second longer than necessary before letting go. "What's your name?
Lucy shook her head, the shadow of a smile still lingering. "Not unless you tell me your phobia."
He looked down at her. The rain was falling faster now, a fabric of droplets glittering on his skin, weighting his hair until the thick locks darkened and separated. "Peanut butter," he said.
"Why?" she asked, bemused. "Do you have an allergy?"
Sam shook his head. "It's the feeling of having it stick to the roof of my mouth."
She gave him a skeptical smile. "Is that a real phobia?"
"Absolutely." He tilted his head, studying her with those striking eyes. Waiting for her name, she realized.
"Lucy," she said.
"Lucy." A new softness edged his voice as he asked, "You want to go somewhere and talk? Maybe have coffee?"
Lucy was amazed by the strength of the temptation to say yes. But she knew that if she went anywhere with this big, good-looking stranger, she was going to end up weeping and complaining about her pathetic love life. In response to his kindness, she was going to spare him that. "Thanks, but I really have to go," she said, feeling desperate and defeated.
"Can I drive you home? I could put your bike in the back of the truck."
Her throat closed. She shook her head and turned away.
"I live at the end of Rainshadow Road," Sam said from behind her. "At the vineyard on False Bay. Come for a visit, and I'll open a bottle of wine. We'll talk about anything you want." He paused. "Any time."
Lucy cast a bleak smile over her shoulder. "Thank you. But I can't take you up on that." She went to her bike, raised the kickstand, and swung her leg over.
"The guy who just broke up with me . . . he was exactly like you, in the beginning. Charming, and nice. They're all like you in the beginning. But I always end up like this. And I can't do it anymore."
She rode away through the rain, the tires digging ruts into the softening ground. And even though she knew he was watching, she didn't let herself look back.
St. Martin's Press, Feb 28, 2012