Fool's Gold Series
Nancee Smith shrieked, jumped and spun toward the unexpected voice. For a second all she saw was the sheer size of the intruder. The icing spatula she waved seemed woefully inadequate as a weapon. Then she blinked and focused, only to realize she wasn't in any danger—at least not physically. Emotionally was a whole other story.
Her throat tightened as she spoke the man's name. Jesse Sheppard—known as Shep to his friends—had blown in and out of her life for the past ten years. They had more than a past. They were practically a Lifetime movie franchise.
She pressed a hand to her chest—as if that would help her breathing slow. "What on earth are you doing here?"
"Here as in Fool's Gold or here as in your great-aunt's kitchen?"
Good question. "How about both?"
His gaze settled on the spatula. "You planning to run me through with that?"
"It's not sharp enough to do any damage." Not that she wanted to physically hurt him. Not exactly. She set the icing tool on the counter and waited for him to explain his presence. Which shouldn't take long. Shep had never been much of a talker.
They'd met her first summer in college. She'd taken a part-time job with the forestry department. Mostly manning the welcome center, where she warned visitors not to feed the bears or light fires outside designated camping areas. Shep had been one of the permanent rangers, and he'd had her from the second their eyes had met.
She supposed every woman had one of those kind of men in their lives, and if they didn't, they should. She'd tried to play it cool, but there was no way she could resist his broad shoulders or green eyes. He'd been tall, muscled and mostly silent, but when he'd smiled…well, her heart had filled in what he hadn't said.
They'd spent the summer together. When she'd had to go back to college in September, he'd promised to stay in touch. Only he hadn't. He'd moved on, and she'd thought she had lost him forever.
Three years later, he'd shown up in her life, only to leave again. Two years after that, he'd done it for the last time. She'd sworn she was over him. Over as in done. With a capital D. Finito.
Yet here he was, in her great-aunt's kitchen.
She leaned against the counter, determined to let him speak first. No more filling in the silences for him. No more assuming his quiet "I love you" meant anything other than, Hey, let's make wild, passionate love for a few weeks and then I'm leaving you.
"I work for Fool's Gold search and rescue, and I teach a couple of night classes at the community college. Biology."
She felt her mouth drop open. Teach as in teach? "You finished your degree?"
"And got a master’s?"
One shoulder rose, which she took to mean yes. The man really should learn American Sign Language. Then he could communicate fully without speaking a word. But more pressing, how could she not know these things about him? Shep had been such a significant part of her world for so long, yet she hadn't known he'd finished college?
"I thought you just did the forest ranger thing."
The timer dinged, and she pulled a tray of cupcakes out of her great-aunt's commercial-size oven, then stuck in the next batch. She turned back to Shep.
"How did you get to Fool's Gold?"
She refused to smile. Instead she kept her gaze on his face and waited.
"I interviewed for the job and was hired."
Which made sense but didn't answer any of her questions. Why here? Why now? For a brief second she wondered if he'd taken the job because of all the times she'd talked about the town when they were together. But that was ridiculous. It wasn't as if she'd had any influence on him. His chronic leaving was proof of that.
"Why are you in my aunt's kitchen?"
One corner of his mouth turned up. "Didn't Gladys tell you? I'm her handyman. I take care of things around here. Keeping her driveway clear when it snows, fixing leaky pipes. I put up her Christmas lights before Thanksgiving. That kind of thing. She's a cool old lady."
"Don’t let her hear you call her old. She'll scalp you."
Nancee rubbed her eyes. She'd only been in town for two days and was still trying to adjust to all the changes in her life. She was tired, a little crabby and confused to be facing the only man she'd never been able to forget.
"How are things with you, Nancee?" he asked.
How was she? How was she? Was he kidding?
"You want a recap?" she asked, her voice sharp. "Really?"
She picked up the icing spatula again. It wasn't much, but holding it made her feel a little more in control.
"Let's see. The last time I saw you, or rather didn't see you, I was standing in a chapel in Las Vegas. Where you were supposed to marry me. I'm not sure if you remember that we planned to elope."
The muscles in his face tightened, but otherwise he didn't react. "I remember."
"Good. Because I do, too. So after you left me at the altar, I went back to law school and finished there, then got a job in DC. I met a really nice guy named Sean, and eventually we moved in together. Well, it turns out he wasn't as nice as I thought. Three months ago the FBI, Homeland Security and a whole bunch of other people showed up at our condo to arrest him for suspicion of terrorism. They were also investigating me. Which was the coolest thing ever."
She could hear her voice rising but couldn't seem to control it. Nor could she stop shaking. She clung to the spatula.
"I was quickly cleared, but let me just say having that happen really did a number on my career at the law firm. Then I had to hang around until the various agencies said it was okay for me to leave town. About then Sean was released on bail, so I could break up with him. Oh, I tried to take my cat, but technically he's considered Calvin's owner and wouldn't let me. Even though he's never once cared about Calvin and that cat is all I have."
Tears filled her eyes, but she blinked them away. "Then I got fired for, you know, living with a terrorist suspect and then I came here. I'm staying with Gladys until I can figure out what to do with my suddenly broken life." She pointed to the dozens of cupcakes on the counter. "In the meantime, I'm doing contract work for a local bakery. At least it's practically Christmas and everyone is in a cupcake-buying mood."
She took a step toward him. "So that's how I am, Shep. Just peachy. Except for, you know, being investigated by the FBI, being fired and losing my cat. And you?"
"You never were much of a talker, were you?" She threw down the spatula and told herself to breathe.
"No. I'm more of a doer."
Shep closed the space between them. Before she could figure out what he was planning, he cupped her face in his large hands and pressed his mouth to hers.
At the first touch of his warm lips, all her worry faded. There was only this moment and the magic of this man. He'd always had the power to transport her, to convince her with a single kiss that everything was going to be just fine. It wasn't, of course, but for those few seconds, she could relax and simply be. Then he drew back and reality crashed in on her. She pushed him away.
"You should go," she told him.
"All right." He turned toward the door, then looked back at her. "It was nice to see you. I hope we run into each other around town."
She was less sure about wanting that. Shep had always been trouble for her. What was that old saying? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Well, she was zero for three with Shep. Giving him a fourth chance didn't make her stupid, it made her pathetic. No way, no how. She was done. With a capital…oh yeah. She'd already promised herself that.
"I can't do this again," she told him. "Not now."
"I know," he told her. "I get that. I won't be in your way." He paused, as if he was going to say something else.
I've always loved you. I never forgot you. You're the woman of my dreams. Any of those statements would have been nice, she thought wistfully. Ridiculous and unbelievable, but nice. What he said instead was, "Have a nice day."
And then he was gone.