The tenth book in the Hometown Heartbreakers series, 2003
Good-looking men should not be allowed to show up on one's doorstep without at least twenty-four hours' notice, Stephanie Wynne thought wearily as she leaned against her front door and tried not to think about the fact that she hadn't slept in nearly forty-eight hours, couldn't remember her last shower and knew that her short, blond hair looked as if it had been cut with a rice thresher.
Three kids down with stomach flu had a way of taking the sparkle and glamour out of a woman's day. Not that the man in front of her was going to care about her personal problems.
Despite the fact that it was nearly two in the morning, the handsome, well-dressed stranger standing on her porch looked rested, tidy and really tall. She glanced from his elegant suit to the stained and torn football jersey she'd pulled out of the rag bag when she'd run out of clean clothes about two days ago because…
Her tired brain struggled for the reason.
Oh, yeah. The washer was broken.
Again, not something he was going to sweat about. Paying guests only wanted excellent service, quiet rooms and calorie-laden breakfasts.
She did her best to forget her pathetic appearance and forced her mouth into what she hoped was a friendly smile.
“You must be Nash Harmon. Thanks for calling earlier and letting me know you'd be arriving late."
“My flight out of Chicago was delayed." He drew his dark eyebrows together as he looked her up and down. "I hope I didn't wake you, Mrs…"
“Wynne. Stephanie Wynne." She stepped back into the foyer of the old Victorian house. "Welcome to Serenity House." The awful name for the bed and breakfast had been her late husband's idea. After three years she could speak it without wincing, but only just. If not for the very expensive custom-made stained-glass sign that had replaced a front window and the fact that her kids would object, Stephanie would have changed the name of the B &B in a heartbeat.
Her guest carried a leather duffle and a garment bag into the house. Her gaze moved between his expensive leather boots and her own mouse slippers with their tattered ears. When she finally headed upstairs to her own bed, she must remember not to look at herself in the mirror. Confirming her worst fears would cause her to shriek and wake the boys.
The man signed the registration card she'd left on the front desk and she took an imprint of his creditcard. Once she'd received approval, she handed him an old-fashioned brass key.
“Your room is this way," she said, heading up the stairs.
She'd put him in the front bedroom. Not only was it large and comfortable, with a view of Glenwood, but it was one of only two guest rooms that weren't under her third-floor apartment. When she wasn't completely booked, she found it much easier to have guests stay there than to constantly keep at her kids to stay quiet. Being loud and being a boy seemed to go hand-in-hand.
Five minutes later she'd explained the amenities of the room, said she would be serving breakfast from seven-thirty to nine and asked him if he would like her to leave a newspaper outside his door in the morning.
He refused the paper.
She nodded and headed for the hallway.
“Mrs. Wynne?" She turned back to look at him. "Stephanie, please." He nodded. "Do you have a map of the area? I'm here to visit some people and I don't know my way around."
“Sure. Downstairs. I'll put one out for you at breakfast."
“Thank you." He offered her a slight smile, one that didn't touch his eyes. It was late and she was so tired that her eyelashes hurt. But instead of leaving that second, she hesitated. Oh, not more than a heartbeat, but just long enough to notice that the overhead light brought out brownish highlights in his close-cropped black hair and that the hint of dark stubble on his square jaw made him look just a little bit dangerous.
Yeah, right, Stephanie thought as she turned away. Apparently she'd moved into the hallucination stage of sleep deprivation. Dangerous men didn't come to places like Glenwood. No doubt Nash Harmon was something completely harmless like a shoe salesman or a professor. Besides, what he did for a living was none of her business. As long as his credit-card company put the right amount of money into her bank account, she didn't care if her guest was a computer programmer or a pirate.
As for him being somewhat good-looking and possibly single-there hadn't been a wedding ring on his left hand-she couldn't care less. While her friends occasionally got on her case for not being willing to jump back into the man-infested dating pool, Stephanie ignored their well-meant intentions. She'd already been married once, thank you very much. Nine years as Marty's wife had taught her that while Marty looked like a grown-up on the outside, he'd been as irresponsible and self-absorbed as any ten-year-old on the inside. She would have gotten more cooperation and teamwork from a dog.
Marty had cured her of ever wanting another man around. While on occasion she would admit to getting lonely, and yes, the sex was tough to live without, it beat the alternative. She already had three kids to worry about. Getting involved with a man would be like adding a fourth child to the mix. She didn't think her nerves could stand it.
Despite his late night, Nash woke shortly after six the following morning. He glanced at the clock andcompared it to his watch, which was still on Central Time. Then he rolled onto his back and stared at the ivory ceiling.
What the hell was he doing here? Dumb question, he told himself. He already knew the answer. He was in a town he'd never heard of until a couple of weeks ago, to meet family he hadn't known he had. No. That wasn't completely true. He was in town because he'd been forced to take some vacation and he hadn't had anywhere else to go. If he'd tried laying low in Chicago, Kevin, his twin and already camped out at Glenwood, would have been on the next plane east.
Nash sat up and pushed back the covers. Without the routine of work, his day stretched endlessly in front of him. Had he really gotten so lost in the job that he didn't have anything else in his life? Dumb question number two.
He knew he was going to have to get in touch with Kevin sometime that morning and set up a meeting. After thirty-one years of knowing nothing about their biological father save the fact that he'd gotten a seventeen-year-old virgin pregnant with twins and then abandoned her, he and Kevin were about to meet up with half siblings they'd never known they had.
Kevin thought finding out about more family was a good thing. Nash still needed convincing. By 6:40 he'd showered, shaved and dressed in jeans, a long-sleeved shirt and boots. While it was mid-June, a cool fog hung over the part of the town he could see from his second-story window. Nash paced restlessly in his comfortable room. Maybe he would tell his hostess to forget about breakfast. He could go for a drive and eat at a diner somewhere. Or maybe he'd just keep going until he figured out why, in the past few months, he'd stopped sleeping, stopped eating, stopped giving a damn about anything but his job.
He grabbed the keys for his rental car, then headed downstairs. At the front desk, he tore off a sheet of notepaper and a pen, then paused when he heard noises from the rear of the house. If the owner was up, he could simply tell her he was skipping breakfast in person.
He followed the noise down a long hallway and through a set of closed swinging doors. When he stepped into the brightly lit kitchen, he was instantly assaulted by the scents of something baking and fresh coffee. His mouth watered and his stomach growled.
He glanced around, but the big, white-on-white kitchen was empty. A tray sat on a center island. A coffee carafe stood by an empty cup and saucer. Plastic wrap covered a plate of fresh fruit. By the stove, an open box of eggs waited beside a frying pan. Through a door on his left, he heard mumbled conversation.
He started toward the female voice and crossed the threshold. A woman stood on tiptoe in front of shelves. As he watched, she reached up for something on the top shelf, but her fingers only grazed the edge of the shelf.
Nash stepped forward to offer help, but at that moment the woman reached a little higher. Her cropped sweater rose above the waistband of her black slacks, exposing a sliver of bare skin.
Nash felt as if he'd been hit upside the head with a two-by-four. His vision narrowed, sound faded and by gosh, he found himself experiencing the first flicker of life below his waist that he'd felt in damn near two years.
Over an inch of belly? He was in a whole lot more trouble than he'd realized. Apparently his boss had been right about him burning out.
A loud shriek brought him back to the here and now. Nash moved his gaze from the woman's midsection to her face and saw his hostess staring at him with wide eyes. She pressed a hand to her chest and sucked in a breath.
“You nearly scared the life out of me, Mr. Harmon. I didn't realize you were up already.”
“Call me Nash," he said as he stepped forward and reached up for the top shelf. "What do you need?"
“That blue bag. There's a silver bread basket inside. I'm making scones and I usually put them in the larger basket but as you're my only guest at present, I thought something smaller would work." He grasped the blue bag and felt something hard inside. After lowering it, he handed it to her. She took it with a shake of her head.
“I always meant to be tall," she told him. "Somehow I never got around to it."
“I wasn't aware it wasn't something you could get around to. I thought it just happened."
“Or not." She unzipped the bag and pulled out a silver wire basket. "Thanks for the help. Would you like some coffee?"
“Sure." He led the way back into the kitchen. While he leaned against the counter, she ran hot water into the carafe, then drained it and wiped it dry. After filling it with coffee, she turned back to him. "Cream and sugar?"
“The scones should be ready in about five minutes. I had planned to make you an omelette this morning. Ham? Cheese? Mushrooms?" Last night he'd barely noticed her. What he remembered had been someone female, tired and strangely dressed. He had a vague recollection of spiky blond hair. Now he saw that Stephanie Wynne was a petite blonde with wide blue eyes and a full mouth that turned up at the corners. She wore her short hair in a sleek style that left her ears and neck bare. Tailored black slacks and a slightly snug sweater showed him that despite the small package, everything was where it needed to be. She was pretty.
And he'd noticed.
Nash tried to figure out the last time he'd noticed a woman-any woman-enough to classify her as pretty, ugly or something in between. Not for two years, he decided, knowing that figuring out the date hadn't been much of a stretch.
“Don't bother with eggs," he said. "Coffee and the scones are fine." He glanced at the tray. "And the fruit." Stephanie frowned. "The room comes with a full breakfast. Aren't you hungry?" More than he'd been in a while, but less than he should have been. "Maybe tomorrow," he said instead.
A timer on the stove beeped softly. Stephanie picked up two mitts and pulled open the oven door.
The scent of baked goods got stronger. Nash inhaled the fragrance of orange and lemon.
When she'd set two cookie sheets of scones onto cooling racks, she dug through a drawer and pulled out a linen napkin, then draped it in the silver basket.
“This morning we have orange, lemon and white chocolate scones," she said as she pulled a small crystal dish of butter from the refrigerator. "They're all delicious, which is probably tacky of me to say seeing as I made them, but it's true. Being a man, you won't care about the calories, so that's a plus." She offered him a smile that made the corners of her eyes crinkle, then nodded toward the door next to him.
“The dining room is through there." He took the hint and moved through to the next room. He found a large table set for one. The local paper lay on top of a copy of USA TODAY.
Stephanie followed him into the room, but waited until he was seated before serving him his breakfast. She poured coffee, removed the plastic wrap from his plate of fruit and made sure the butter was within easy reach. Then she wished him "bon appétit" before disappearing back into the kitchen.
Nash picked up one of the still-steaming scones. The scent of orange drifted to him. His stomach still growling, he took a bite.
Delicate flavors melted on his tongue. Hunger roared through him, as unfamiliar as it was welcome. He sipped the coffee next, then tried a strawberry. Everything tasted delicious. He couldn't remember the last meal he'd enjoyed, nor did he care. Instead he plowed through four scones, all the fruit and the entire carafe of coffee. When he was finally full, he pulled the copy of USA TODAY toward him and started to read.
A burst of laughter interrupted his perusal of the business section. He frowned as he realized he'd been hearing more than just Stephanie in the kitchen for some time. The other voices were low and difficult to make out. A husband? Probably.
The thought of a Mr. Wynne caused Nash a twinge of guilt. He didn't usually go around looking at other men's wives and admiring their bare skin.
He turned the page on the paper and started to read again, only to be interrupted by the sound of footsteps racing down the hall. He looked up in time to see three boys running toward the front door.
“Walk! We have a guest." The command came from the kitchen. Instantly three pairs of feet slowed and three heads turned in his direction. Nash had a brief impression of towheaded boys ranging in age from ten or twelve to about eight. The two youngest were twins.
Stephanie stepped into view and gave him an apologetic smile. "Sorry. It's the last week of school and they're pretty wound up."
“No problem." The boys continued to study him curiously until their mother shooed them out the door. The twins ducked back in for a quick kiss, then waved in his direction and disappeared. Stephanie stood in the foyer with the door open until a bus pulled up in front of the house. Through the window in the dining room Nash could see the boys climb onto the bus. When it pulled away, Stephanie closed the front door and walked into the dining room.
“Did you get enough to eat?" she asked as she began to clear his dishes. "There are more scones."
“I'm fine," he told her. "Everything was great."
“Thank you. The original scone recipe dates back several generations. My late husband and I rented a guest house from an English couple many years ago. Mrs. Frobisher was a great one for baking. She taught me how to make the scones. I also make shortbread cookies that melt in your mouth. I would be happy to leave a few in your room if you'd like." Nash told himself that her mention of a "late husband" didn't mean much more than that he didn't have to feel guilty for noticing Stephanie's bare stomach. The entire point of their encounter earlier that morning was that he wasn't as dead inside as he'd thought. Good news that was not particularly meaningful.