AWOL in times of family tragedy, Walker Cole doesn't expect a warm welcome home. Nor does he expect to see Amy Clarkhis sister's nerdy friend who had a mad teen crush on himnow a smart, sexy woman.
Though Walker knows he's caused Amy pain and hatred, his own pain is worse. He can never tell the truth about his hellish years away. But when Amy's paralegal work endangers her, Walker jumps at the chance to guard her irresistible body and prove himself worthy of trust and forgiveness. Even Cutter, the Foxworth dog with a nose for trouble, has his back when trouble explodes!
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Amy Clark slipped her glasses back on as she reached the baggage claim carousel. It was cool and rainy here in Seattle in mid-April, but LA had been having an early heat wave so she welcomed the change. She welcomed even more being away from everything else she'd left behind. Already the burden of her problem felt lighter.
Even after years away, this misty green place still felt like home.
It felt safe.
With your luck, you 'll end up back here soon, running home because the big, bad city was too ugly, too nasty for you.
She wasn't ready to admit that it was both those things yet. She'd worked hard and loved her job as a paralegal. She wasn't ready to give up on the dream. Even if it seemed on the edge of turning into a nightmare.
Which reminded her, she was going to have to get her car fixed when she got home. How stupid to have scraped it up like that trying to escape that van that hadn't really been following her anyway. It just happened to be going the same direction, hundreds of people headed for the airport and the surrounding area every day. She was just on edge, her imagination in overdrive. She
She whirled, a huge grin spreading across her face as she saw her best friend. Hayley ColeFoxworth, she corrected, still not quite used to the changelooked as she always did, vibrant, her green eyes sparkling. Their hug was worthy of two people who had been friends since the second grade.
The baggage carousel came alive, began to move. Hay-ley looked at it warily.
"I'm getting better," Amy said with a laugh. "A whole three-day weekend with only one bag and a carry-on."
"And a purse the size of Alaska," Hayley retorted.
"Well, yes. Because you never know."
"It's not really leaving home if you bring most of home with you," Hayley said, right on cue. They both laughed at the old, familiar exchange.
Amy spotted her suitcase and grabbed it as it circled past. It was heavy, but not impossible, and they were soon headed to the parking structure. She was glad she'd put on her jacket, but still welcomed the chill in the air.
"Hot in LA, huh?" Hayley asked.
"In more ways than one," Amy said, a bit of the grimness she'd pushed aside creeping back into her voice. But she didn't want to go into it now, so she diverted. "Are the daffs up?"
"All over," Hayley answered. "Mr. Elkhart planted some new ones last fall, some interesting colors."
"I'm a traditionalistI love the yellow ones." A bouquet of daffodils was one of the most cheerful sights she could imagine.
"I know, you always did. We can "
Hayley broke off, laughing. They'd reached her car, and a second later Amy was laughing, too. For sitting in the driver's seat, looking at them with a pleased expression, was Hayley's dog, Cutter.
"I left him in the back," Hayley said.
"Is he going to drive?" she asked with a grin.
"Wouldn't surprise me. At all."
Amy laughed at Hayley's serious tone as her friend hit the unlock button and the compact SUV chirped obligingly. She opened the driver's door. Cutter jumped out at their feet. He was as beautiful as Amy remembered with his black head and shoulders and russet-brown body. He greeted Hayley with a swipe of pink tongue. To Amy's surprise, she herself got a more effusive greeting, a plumy tail-wagging, nudging sort of dance that made her smile. She set down her voluminous purse to greet him properly.
"Well, hello again, Cutter."
He gave a short yip, and she bent to pet him. The moment she stroked his dark head she felt an odd sensation of relief, as if suddenly she knew it would all work out, it would all be all right. All the fears seemed to not vanish but at least recede.
In that instant, the welcoming dance stopped. The dog leaned into her, staring up into her face. Something in the intense gaze, or in those gold-flecked dark eyes, was mesmerizing, and she couldn't seem to look away.
And then he moved. He turned, sat down at Amy's feet and looked up at Hayley. And Hayley, oddly, stopped mid-motion as she was putting her own purse in the car. Her eyes flicked from the dog to Amy.
"Uh-oh," Hayley said.
"Are you all right?"
Amy hadn't expected that. At least, not so soon. "Fine," she said. And health-wise, it was true. Otherwise, not so much. But she needed to work up to discussing that. "I may need your help loading this up, though," she said, gesturing at the large blue suitcase.
"Hmm." Hayley sounded doubtful, but she seemed to accept the answer. She looked back at the dog. "I got it, boy. I promise."
Cutter gave a low, soft whuff and a movement of his head that looked startlingly like a nod. Amy had no idea what was going on. She'd never had a dog, so she was a neophyte.
Within a few minutes they were out of the airport and onto the freeway. Amy knew it would be only natural for Hayley to ask how things were going at work and she wasn't ready for that, so she turned it around.
"How are things at the Foxworth Foundation?"
"Quiet," Hayley said. Then she glanced toward the back of the SUV where Cutter was now settled in quietly. "At least, they have been. It's been nice to have a break."
"Especially since your last case was so huge. Talk about taking on the big guys!" Amy knew the Foxworth Foundation had only one goal, to help those in the right who couldn't fight alone any longer. The size of the case didn't matter, but sometimes it got both large and complicated.
Hayley laughed. "Hey, we weren't even here. That was Cutter and Brett Dunbar, with a little help from Rafe. And things are already getting fixed."
Amy studied her friend for a moment. Hayley had been through some rough timesthe death of her father when she was twelve, more recently the long, slow battle with her mother's terminal cancer. And of course there was Walker, that black-sheep miscreant. Hayley was far too generous when it came to her thoughtless, selfish, cold-hearted brother. All she ever said about the guy who had walked out after their family tragedy, who had later left her alone to deal with their mother, was that everyone had to handle grief in their own way.
She supposed she might be inclined to a little more generosity herself if she hadn't had such a crush on him when she was a kid, Amy thought. She'd adored Walker Cole, and although she was just his little sister's friend, he'd always been kind. And then he'd shattered all her illusions. She tried not to remember her foolishness.
"You're sure Quinn won't mind me being here? I mean, you have only been married three months."
Hayley laughed. "He's glad you could come. He even said it was too bad you couldn't stay for the month."
"I couldn't, anyway. I have our big office anniversary party in a couple of weeks," she said, "but remind me to thank him for that."
"He knows what you mean to me," Hayley said quietly. "He knows you were there for me every time life kicked me in the teeth. You never let me down."
Unlike your idiot brother, who left you alone to deal.
She stopped herself before she could go down that path. Thinking of Walker Cole was not going to help matters. Because then she would start thinking about how nice he'd once been to her, how he tolerated her silly crush, which would make her think of how just spotting him had sent her heart racing, how she'd learned everything she could about baseball because he played it. Then she'd graduate to his crooked grin, thick, unruly hair and those amazing hazel eyes that were a golden green rimmed with a darker shade, so different from his sister's meadow green. She knew it was a trick of melanin and light scattering, had even looked it up once, but that didn't detract from the beauty of them.
And here she was, thinking about him.
She shook off the odd mood, determined to enjoy this visit as much as she could, despite the reason for it. And despite her fear that her life was going to blow up.
"What are you frowning about?"
"Yes. Let me guess, you're still mad at Walker?" That was the problem with best friends; they saw things others might miss.
"After what he did? Of course I am. On top of everything else, missing your wedding without even a word except that stupid text message?"
For the first time a hint of disappointment showed on Hayley's face. "Yes. He did. And I'm not sure Quinn will forgive him for that very soon."
"I think I'd like to see the day they finally meet, if they ever do," Amy said, thinking with a rather grim satisfaction of the powerfuland intimidatingQuinn Foxworth taking Walker Cole apart piece by piece.
"You wouldn't hate him so much if you hadn't loved him first," Hayley said.
"Schoolgirl infatuation," Amy said, even as she realized ruefully how close her friend's words were to her own earlier thought. "Believe me, I'm angry enough on your behalf alone."
This was true, but she also knew that she had loved him, with all the strength of her teenage heart. She'd loved his laugh, she'd loved the way he teasingly winked at her and she would never, ever forget the time he had come to her defense when she'd been cornered by a trio of nerd-baiting mean-girl types. He'd already been tall at seventeen, and a star athlete, and that he had bothered to step in and chase off the threewho happened to idolize him, the star pitcher on the high school baseball teamhad thrilled her down to her thirteen-year-old soul. It had also insulated her somewhat from further attack. Word had gotten out that she was under the protection of Walker Cole, and while she was sure the nasty comments and thoughts continued, she was never backed into a corner again.
And then it had all fallen apart. His father died and a year later he was gone, the college scholarship abandoned along with his mother and his little sister. The mother and little sister Amy had always thought he loved.
Just goes to prove you're a lousy judge of men. If you ever needed more proof.
She shook her head sharply. This was not the time to dwell on her miserable dating track record. Not when she'd made a much more serious misjudgment than just dating the wrong men.
And this one could at the least upend, at the worst ruin her life forever.
At least, she hoped that was the worst.
You want to tell me what's really wrong?" Hayley finally asked when they were parked in line for the big ferry that would take them across the sound. "Because Cutter says something is."
Amy blinked. "What?"
"He knows you have a problem. And," Hayley added in a dry tone, "he expects action."
"What are you talking about?"
"That look he gave me, after you petted him. That's his 'fix it' look."
Amy remembered the moment when the dog had sat at her feet and looked at Hayley. Was it possible the dog had sensed her turmoil? From what her friend had told her, the dog was incredibly empathetic.
Amy drew in a deep breath, savoring the salt-tanged air, looking out over the water toward the towering, snowcapped Olympic Mountains. She couldn't wait to get into the thick trees where the fresh scent of evergreens would add its own note to the smell of home.
"I did want to talk to you about something. I need some help working something out, and you're the only one I trust."
Hayley smiled. "We always do work it out, eventually."
"Yes. Not," she added hastily, "that that's the only reason I came."
"I'm glad to see you whatever the reason," Hayley said. "So what's the problem?"
"I It's complicated."
"I assumed so or we could have talked it out on the phone."
"No, no, I couldn't talk about it on the phone."
Something about Hayley's demeanor changed then, and the next sideways glance she gave her was different, more intent, more alert.
"Amy, are you in trouble? Did something happen?"
"No and yes. Or yes and yes, maybe. I didn't do anything wrong," she hastened to assure her friend.
"I never thought you had. Or would. Is it a personal thing? Some guy?"
Amy laughed sourly at that. "Please. My love life is as dry as LA these days. Only available men I meet are lawyers, and I've found I don't care for most of them much. Not that it mattersI'm not their type, either."
"Not shallow and flashy enough?" Hayley suggested.
For the first time since she'd started this journey, Amy laughed with genuine pleasure. "And that is why I run to you, my friend. I would have said too quiet and serious. LA legal affairs is a high-powered world."
"Their loss," Hayley said dismissively. "So, what kind of help do you need? More than just talking it out?"
"I.don't know. That's what I'm trying to figure out."
"One question, then."
"Should we head for the house, or should I have Quinn meet us at Foxworth?"
Amy hadn't expected that to come up so soon. Hayley seemed ready to spring into some sort of action, just like that. Maybe working with Foxworth had brought that on.
"House," she said. "It's not immediate."
She put it out of her mind for the pleasant duration of the ferry ride. They took a walk around the upper deck, outside, so Amy could take it all in again. She looked back as they crossed, seeing the dock and the buildings shrink as the ones they were heading for slowly grew and she began to be able to pick out familiar buildings amid the tall, thick trees. She looked toward the cliffs of the south end of Whidby Island to the north, always a favorite spot of hers since the day she'd seen a pod of orcas passing through the strait.
To complete her ritual, she hit the snack bar for a cup of her beloved clam chowder. Her glasses fogged up as she held the steaming cup under her nose, and they both laughed.
"I like those," Hayley said, indicating the red frames.
"So do I," Amy said. The various pairs of glasses she had were her one indulgence; since she had to wear them, she wanted options. What had been a painful necessity as a child had become almost a signature style for her now. She even thought she looked odd without them.