The Biggest Risk | Anna Argent
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The Biggest Risk

Book 3 of The Whisper Lake Series

When Hanna Lowrey ends up stranded outside the small Ozark town of Whisper Lake, the fresh start she so desperately needs is pulled a little further out of reach. Her faithful truck let her down, she’s about to lose the only decent job she could find before she even starts it, and the jealous, user ex-boyfriend she left behind in Cincinnati promised he’d find her if she ran. It feels like every bad decision she’s made over the past few years is nipping at her heels, no matter how fast or far she runs.

 

To make matters worse, she’s convinced that the handsome, charming stranger who offers her a ride into town is just one more bad choice waiting to turn into disaster.

 

When Nate Grace finds the young, stranded woman on the side of the road in the rain, his rescue instincts kick in hard and fast. He’s always been a sucker for a hard luck story, and the drenched damsel in distress seems to have the worst luck he’s seen in a while. Still, there’s something about the woman he can’t stop thinking about, despite his best efforts.

 

Bad luck may have tossed them together, but in a short amount of time Hanna ignites Nate’s blood like no one else ever has. He’s determined to keep her close no matter what it takes or what his meddling family thinks. Only he knows his deepest desires and the dreams he has for his future, and a woman who compels his every waking thought doesn’t pass through their little town every day.

 

Whatever it takes, he is going to make her his.

 

As much as Hanna wants Nate, she’s too smart to ignore that she’s made too many mistakes in her life—especially when it comes to men. She’s barely holding things together as it is, and she’s not sure if she should trust herself enough to take the biggest risk yet—one that has the power to destroy her completely…

Read Excerpt

Chapter One

 

Rex gave his last gasp along a narrow Missouri highway winding through the Ozark Mountains.

 

Hanna Lowrey steered her faithful companion to the side of the road, coming to a stop in front of a sign reading, Welcome to Whisper Lake. Population 3847.

 

There wasn’t a single house or building in sight.

 

The rolling, green countryside was thick with walnut and oak trees, leaving only glimpses of the pale, ghostly skeletons of the occasional sycamore. Insects hummed in buzzing choruses from inside the shadowy woods. The air was hot and thick enough to walk on, leaving Hanna’s skin sticky and damp. Her heavy sigh stirred the air inside the truck, bringing with it the scent of old vinyl, rust, and an impending storm.

 

She patted Rex’s steering wheel. “Don’t worry, boy. We’ll get you all patched up as good as new.”

 

She and her old Ford truck had spent the last ten years together. He’d been her chariot during her last two years of high school and a brief, awkward stint in college. He’d been her workhorse through three moves. He’d been her safe harbor from four shitty jobs, a metric crap-ton of bad first dates, and one catastrophically failed business venture with a side of romance gone tragic. And since her untimely eviction in Cincinnati, he’d been her home. He was old, tired, and ready for retirement, but she refused to give up on him now. All he needed was a little R&R and a mechanic who appreciated his rugged beauty and faithful service the way Hanna did.

 

Night was closing in, and the fireflies had already begun making their appearance. With no choice but to walk into town, Hanna got out of Rex, slung a duffel bag filled with the bare essentials over her shoulder, locked up every other worldly possession she owned in the truck, and headed into town.

 

Thick, humid July air clung to her skin. The smell of lightning was on the breeze, and the warning rumble of thunder echoed overhead inside heavy, gray clouds.

 

With no idea how far she might have to walk to find a mechanic, she tried to convince herself that it was a good thing that her duffel bag was so light now. But since it contained what was left of her cash and clean clothes, it was a hard sell, even for an optimist like herself.

 

Three months. That’s how long it had taken her to find steady work outside of Cincinnati, and in that time, she’d run through nearly every penny of savings she had. If not for the garage sale she’d had before being kicked out of her apartment, she wouldn’t have had enough gas money to make it this far.

 

If she couldn’t get all the way to Oklahoma City and the job that awaited her there….

 

She shook her head and refused to let herself think about that. She would make it. There was no other choice.

 

Hanna squared her shoulders and drew in a fortifying breath.

 

This was an adventure—a chance to enjoy a nature walk on a warm summer evening. It was not a horrifying string of events that would ultimately lead to her bloody death by an ax-murdering yokel. One day she would tell her kids about this story and laugh.

 

Of course, getting to that point meant not breaking down in a mass of debilitating tears now.

 

With her chin held high so it wouldn’t tremble, she walked for another half a mile. So far, there was no sign of Whisper Lake, and she began to wonder whether or not this town was here as advertised, and if so, where the heck was everyone? All she’d seen were trees, bugs, rocks and more trees. Not a single one of the nearly four thousand residents had driven by her, which, as she considered it, was probably a blessing. Everyone knew that the ax-murdering yokels came out about the same time as the mosquitos. And those little bloodsuckers were definitely out in force.

 

Hanna came around the next bend just as the dark sky opened up on a crack of thunder. A curtain of rain fell over her, breaking the muggy heat and soaking her to her skin.

 

She used her body to shelter the duffel bag as much as possible so she’d have something dry to wear, but it was a futile effort. Within minutes, the bag grew heavy as it soaked up rainwater, and she gave up trying to save it.

 

Frustration and anxiety bore down on her, shaking her resolve. Maybe it was better to go back to Rex, lock herself inside and wait until morning. She had a comfy sleeping bag in the bed of the truck under a mostly watertight camper shell. There was a cooler stocked with bread and peanut butter, and now she had a refreshing shower to wash away the stress of the day. What more could a girl need?

 

She’d still have to make this walk in the morning, but at least she’d be able to do it in the light of day, when the ax murderers were all asleep, digesting their prey and dreaming their demented dreams.

 

Headlights bounced off of the trees up ahead, gleaming on wet bark and leaves.

 

She went instantly tense, thoughts of bloody axes and being buried alive dancing in her head.

 

Her internal optimist busted free of her clenched muscles, and she spoke aloud so she wouldn’t feel so alone. “This is a good thing. People mean civilization. Civilization means mechanics. Mechanics mean Rex will be saved. I won’t lose the job before I even start.”

 

As the car cleared the curve, she could see that it was a truck just like Rex, only thirty years newer and several rust spots fewer. It veered onto the wrong side of the road where she walked and slowed to a stop on the shoulder a few yards in front of her, forcing her to either walk right by it or turn around like a coward.

 

Ax murderers didn’t drive shiny new white trucks. They drove dingy vans with no windows and blood dripping out of the tailpipe. Right?

 

If Hanna was going to die today, she was going to do it with her chin held high. So rather than turn around like a sissy, she kept walking, keeping out of arm’s reach of the driver’s window.

 

As she stepped off the paved shoulder, her feet sank in mud several inches deep. Cold, gritty liquid sloshed between her toes.

 

Lovely.

 

The truck’s window rolled down to reveal a stunningly handsome man. He had short, black hair and the palest green eyes she’d ever seen. His jaw was square and covered in a fine, dark stubble. His lips were full enough to make any woman jealous, and when he displayed his gleaming white teeth in a smile, Hanna finally learned what it meant to feel like she might swoon.

 

He propped his tan arm on the dripping window frame and looked her up and down.

 

“Need a lift?” he asked with a slight, knowing grin.

 

This was how all the best murderers started. A handsome man. A little small talk. And bam. Next thing she knew, she’d be clawing the inside of a coffin, buried alive. And—because she didn’t smoke and was too poor for a cell phone—she wouldn’t even have a convenient light source to show her where to scrape, like the people in all those movies did.

 

Her voice shook with anxiety. “No, thanks. Just out for a little walk.”

 

She adjusted the bag on her shoulder so it was tucked a bit more behind her, out of sight. Nearly everything of value she owned was in there, and she couldn’t stand the thought of it being stolen.

 

He lifted an inky brow and suppressed his grin. “In this weather?”

 

“I like the rain. But thanks for stopping.” Hanna started walking again, breathing a sigh of relief that she’d lived through such a dangerous encounter.

 

Before she’d even cleared the truck’s taillights, he backed up. “You really shouldn’t be out here. It’s getting too dark to see well. You could get hurt.”

 

“I’ll be fine,” she said as she kept walking. “How much farther is it to civilization?”

 

“Another mile.”

 

It would be fully dark by then, and she had no flashlight. “But the sign.…”

 

“The town technically starts a mile that way, but it doesn’t really get going for another mile behind me.” He gave a casual wave of his big hand. “It’s a local border war thing from years back. But I’m happy to give you a ride.”

 

A charmer, she thought, one who is used to getting his way.

 

Been there. Done that. Never again.

 

“That’s okay. You’re on your way out. I don’t want to be a bother.” Rain tickled her nose and ran down between her breasts. Her hair was knotted into a crooked bun, but that was starting to get waterlogged and heavy, too. She could feel the weight of it sagging just behind one ear.

 

She probably looked like hell, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing when trying to deflect the attentions of rapist, psychopathic, serial-killing yokels.

 

He backed the truck up slowly, keeping pace with her. “It’s no bother. Besides, I’d never be able to enjoy the rest of my night if I knew you were out here alone on the road.”

 

“I’m not alone,” she lied in a squeaky voice.

 

The man sighed. “I know your mama probably taught you not to hitch a ride with strangers, but I’m not going to hurt you.”

 

“Isn’t that exactly what you’d say if you were planning to hurt me?”

 

All men hurt women. Eventually. Even if he didn’t want to kill her, there were worse things he could do.

 

He sighed. “You’re not going to make this easy on me, are you?”

 

“To the contrary, I’m making it as easy as I can. Just drive off. No muss, no fuss.”

 

A thick layer of mud seeped in over the top of her tennis shoe. She felt it ooze down along her skin, grinding grit against her already cold, chafed flesh.

 

Another heavy sigh escaped his lips, and then she heard his cell phone beep as he dialed. “Hello, Sheriff. It’s Nate Grace. There’s a woman out here on the highway just east of town. She looks a little suspicious to me. Out in the rain with no coat or umbrella, refusing aid. Perhaps some kind of mental disorder. I’m going to bring her in for her own safety.”

 

He waited for a response, then thanked the sheriff and slid his phone back into his shirt pocket.

 

“Bring me in for my own safety? What the hell?” Outrage sparked beneath her skin, driving away the chill that had begun to grow there.

 

Nate shrugged. “I forgot to mention that the sheriff is my cousin. And that I can’t stand to leave a woman in need alone on a highway in the dark.” He put his truck in park. The emergency flashers went on, and then he stepped out into the mud.

 

He wasn’t dressed like an ax murderer. Instead, he wore a neat white button up shirt with the sleeves rolled up to reveal thick, tan forearms. As the rain soaked it, the fabric clung to the kind of muscles usually reserved for the cover of fitness magazines. His jeans were worn but clean, hugging his muscular thighs like they never wanted to let go. Not that she blamed them. The man was definitely a tasty treat for the eyes.

 

The cowboy boots on his big feet were high end—snakeskin accents with intricate stitching and details. At least they used to be high end. Now that they were coated with a thick layer of ditch mud and decomposing leaves, she wasn’t sure they were worth much at all.

 

He was tall, confident, and sporting a stubborn streak so wide, you could probably see it on satellite. He didn’t rush forward, grabbing her with those giant hands of his. Instead, he stood there, watching her while the rain soaked him.

 

“Are you going to come easy, or do we have to do this the hard way?” No anger, just an easy acceptance of the facts.

 

A little spurt of indignation made it out in her snippy tone. “I don’t know you. Despite your little phone drama with the sheriff, I have absolutely no mental issues. All I want is to be left alone so that I can make it into town by dark and find a mechanic to tow my truck. I really don’t think it’s too much to ask for you to go on about your business and leave me to mine.”

 

She started walking, hoping he’d take it as a dismissal.

 

Instead, he went right along with her, backing up to keep her in sight.

 

“You’re a woman. You’re alone. It’s raining and dark. If you don’t see that this is a bad situation just looking for a chance to get worse, then there are definitely some mental issues in that pretty head of yours somewhere.”

 

Hanna came to a halt and stared at him. “You could be the worse.”

 

She knew he was, she just didn’t know exactly how. Stealing, lying, cheating, shattering her dreams into a million jagged pieces…it was the male playbook.

 

He went still. “Excuse me?”

 

“You said things were looking for a chance to get worse. That could be you, and I’m not too floored by your good looks to realize that.”

 

“My name is Nate Grace. I told you I wouldn’t hurt you. A Grace’s word is his bond. So, I ask again. Easy way or hard way?”

 

“If this verbal battle in the pouring rain with you is the easy way, then what the hell is the hard way?”

 

“The easy way is you getting in the truck under your own steam. The hard way is I toss you over my shoulder and shove you in the truck for your own good and that of my fellow townspeople.”

 

Hanna backed away, unsure if she was more pissed or afraid. “You have no right to manhandle me.”

 

No anger showed on his face, but she could hear his frustration creeping into his voice. “And you have no right to put a black spot on our town name by getting yourself killed when one of our upstanding citizens or some tourist heading to the lake accidentally hits you in the dark.”

 

She hadn’t thought about that—she hadn’t considered that she’d be the one to ruin someone else’s life by being in a bad place at an even worse time.

 

She didn’t want to be hit by a car, but even more, she didn’t want to be the reason someone else suffered in guilt for the rest of their lives, wondering why they hadn’t seen a young woman walking along the road in the rain.

 

His voice dropped to a low, coaxing tone. “Now please. Get in the truck and let me take you somewhere safe.”

 

Hanna had known men like this before. They didn’t give up. They didn’t relent. They were tireless, fearless machines set on getting what they wanted. And right now, Nate wanted her in his truck.

 

She was tired. Wet. Cold. She had no money for a cab, no phone to call one. She was at the mercy of the elements, and apparently, this stranger.

 

With what little fight she had left in her, she gave him a dead-level stare. “If you murder me, I promise I’ll find some way to come back and haunt you for the rest of your life.”

 

Chapter Two

 

She was afraid of him.

 

The realization hit Nate like a slap in the face.

 

He’d told her that he wasn’t going to hurt her—told her that his word was his bond—and yet she was still afraid.

 

He was a good man. Protected those weaker than himself and did the right thing, even when it was hard or inconvenient. His parents had raised him right, and while this young woman had no way to know all of that, it still grated against him that she feared him.

 

“What’s your name?” he asked as she made her way out of the thick mud.

 

“Hanna.”

 

“That’s it? No last name?”

 

“Do you need one?”

 

Another sign of her mistrust. “Guess not.”

 

He really hated her fear, but he wasn’t about to leave her out here alone. With those two constraints, there was only one more thing he could think to do.

 

He dialed his sister. “Hey, sweetie. I could use a hand.”

 

The sound of the diner chimed in the background—silverware hitting plates, ice tinkling in glasses, the music of voices raised in friendly conversation.

 

“Is it important?” Flora asked.

 

“Yes. I know you’re busy there. I wouldn’t have called if it wasn’t urgent.”

 

“Where are you?” she asked, not even asking what he needed. She was good like that.

 

“Just past the sharp curve heading east out of town.”

 

“I thought you had that big meeting tonight with some fancy restoration specialist.”

 

“I did. Guess I’ll have to reschedule.”

 

“Wow. This must be important. Be there in ten.”

 

Nate hung up and tucked his phone away to save it as many raindrops as possible.

 

Hanna had walked around to the back of the truck while he was talking. She’d watched him the whole time, as if expecting him to pull out a mask and chainsaw.

 

“Inviting company to the party?” she asked.

 

“You’re afraid of me. I thought if I asked a woman to drive you into town you’d be more at ease.”

 

Her shoulders lowered slightly. The duffel bag on her shoulder shifted, pulling her white T-shirt tight against her full breasts.

 

With the fabric wet, Nate could see right through it and the thin white bra she wore. Her nipples were a dark shadow, puckered tight against the chill.

 

His mouth watered, and he had to shove his hands in his pockets to hide the way they flexed against the need to touch.

 

She really was cute. Bright gray eyes. A dusting of freckles across her pink cheeks. A single dimple in one cheek. Her hair was a soft, light brown with just a hint of gold to it. She was bit shorter than his usual type, but for some reason, he found it appealing on her. Maybe it was her shape, all perfectly proportioned with rounded hips and tits, and a small waist to bridge between them. Her wet clothes clung to every curve and hollow, showing off lines that would make any pinup girl jealous.

 

Her hair was tied up in a messy knot, slumping to one side in a soggy pile. She kept biting her bottom lip in anxiety, and now it was all swollen and deep pink.

 

He wondered if he kissed her if she’d forget all about her apprehension and quit gnawing on the tortured bit of flesh. At this point, he didn’t even care if she slapped him so long as she let go of that poor bottom lip.

 

He must have been staring at her too long, because she frowned and wiped her mouth like she thought she had some food there.

 

Usually he was smoother with women, but this one seemed to be impervious to his chivalry and his charm. She was all bristles and self-defense, which made him wonder what she’d been through to make her that way.

 

The rain’s speed picked up as the storm grew to its full fury. Wind whipped the high branches of the trees. A steady downpour chilled his skin, and Hanna’s arms were covered with goosebumps big enough to see from where he stood, several feet away.

 

“Get in the truck, out of the rain,” he said, holding out the key fob. “My sister will be here in a minute to take you into town. I’ll wait out here. You can lock yourself in so you don’t have to worry about me doing nefarious acts to you before witnesses arrive.”

 

“I don’t want to mess up your seats. I’m soaked to the bone.”

 

His patience was nearly gone now. She was shivering, probably both with cold and fear, and neither of those things was okay with him.

 

Nate kept his tone even, but used the stern voice he reserved for unruly employees. “Get in the truck, Hanna. Or I’ll put you there.”

 

Finally, she snatched the key away and started moving in the direction he wanted. Instead of getting in the front, she opened the rear door and climbed into the back seat.

 

He moved to stand under a tree to keep the worst of the shower off of him. As it was, he was already soaked, but at least he might save his cell phone.

 

Flora drove up a couple of minutes later. The shiny red Mustang was her baby, and there was no way she was letting Hanna in it dripping and muddy.

 

He jogged to Flora’s window, which she rolled down just enough to hear him. A pair of Grace green eyes the same color as his own peered out of the crack. “What’s up?”

 

“There’s a girl in my truck. Her car broke down up the road. She’s afraid I’m going to rape her and wear her skin like a cape. Can you run her to the motel for me? I’ve got one vacant room left she can use.”

 

“If she’s half as wet as you are, she’s not getting in my ride.”

 

“Take my truck. You can come back for me.”

 

Flora snorted. “Two trips? That’s silly. Didn’t you tell her you wouldn’t hurt her?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“So? What’s the problem?”

 

“She’s not from around here. I guess she thinks I’m lying.”

 

Flora’s eyes widened with outrage. “She called you a liar?” She unfastened her seatbelt, clearly preparing for war. “Where is this woman? I’ll straighten her out.”

 

Nate put his weight against the Mustang’s door to keep it shut. “You’re not going to do any such thing. She’s a scared, cold stranger who needs our help. Just take her to the motel. Please.”

 

Flora blew out a harsh breath. “Fine. But only because you said please. Girl needs to learn some manners.”

 

“Just ask yourself what would Mom do when faced with a cold, wet, frightened stranger?”

 

Flora gritted her teeth. “I am not Mom.”

 

“Can you at least pretend? Just for the next fifteen minutes?”

 

“You’re going to owe me,” Flora said.

 

“I know. With interest. Now go, before I melt.”

 

Flora grunted. “You’re not that sweet, brother.”

 

“I’ll wait by the Mustang for you.”

 

In the dark. In the rain. Missing the appointment that had taken him three months to schedule. All so he wouldn’t scare one young girl.

 

He was such a sucker.

 

#

 

Hanna watched the woman driving Nate’s truck from the back seat. In the rearview mirror, she could see the tight set of the woman’s jaw, as if she were angry.

 

“I’m Flora. Nate’s sister,” she said as she pulled the big truck around to head west.

 

Flora was young—early twenties—with shiny brown hair worn in a tight French braid. She was beautiful in a girl-next-door kind of way, with the most stunning green eyes Hanna had ever seen. Next to Nate’s.

 

Flora smelled of coffee, bacon and something clean and citrusy, like orange zest. She wore a red apron around her waist, and pinned to her red-and-white checked shirt was a nametag.

 

“Hanna,” she supplied.

 

Flora nodded once, that anger still riding her chin. “My brother’s a good guy.”

 

Of course she’d say that. Sisters tended to have blind spots where their brothers were concerned—a fact Hanna knew all too well.

 

She gave a noncommittal grunt.

 

“Where are you from?” Flora asked.

 

“East.” And because that sounded evasive and it didn’t really matter if she told this woman the truth, she said, “Cincinnati.”

 

“Traveling for business or pleasure?”

 

“On my way to start a new job.”

 

Flora’s gaze lifted to the mirror briefly, but it was enough for Hanna to see the serious light in the woman’s pretty green eyes. “If there’s anything I can do to speed that process along, you can find me at the Dockside Diner.”

 

In other words, get the hell out of my town and away from my brother.

 

Message received.

 

“Don’t worry,” Hanna said. “I’ll be out of this town as soon as humanly possible.”

 

Because if she didn’t leave soon, Jack might find her. And if he did, she wasn’t sure which one of them would suffer more.

 

Hanna thanked Flora for the ride and went into the motel office as was expected of her.

 

The Moonlight Oasis Travel Lodge was a long, low building with an office in the center. Two rows of twenty rooms spanned out in matching wings, angled slightly like arms waiting for a hug. From the architecture, she guessed that it had been built in the 1950s, but the place looked too perfect to have survived more than half a century of guests. There was no wear on the floors or the rich wooden desk that had greeted countless travelers. The musty smell of old buildings she’d come to know so well was missing. There wasn’t even a layer of dust over the quaint lake decorations and historical photos lining the walls.

 

It was almost like this building had been perfectly preserved at the time of its completion—vacuum sealed and tucked away in bubble wrap until the very moment of Hanna’s arrival.

 

Maybe someone had just built it, designing it to look like a classic 1950s travel lodge.

 

She waited just inside the glass door until Nate’s big white truck drove away. As soon as the red glow of taillights was no longer gleaming off raindrops, she leaned into the door to make her escape from the motel.

 

She couldn’t afford a room—not if she wanted to have any chance of paying for her truck repairs. And even that was going to depend on how much fixing Rex ended up costing.

 

There was less than three hundred dollars left to get her to Oklahoma, and most of that she would need for gas for Rex.

 

She was just about to leave when a lanky teen came out from a room behind the gleaming wooden counter and asked, “Can I help you?”

 

Busted.

 

Since she sucked at lying, she opted for evasion. “Can you tell me where the closest mechanic is?”

 

“Sure, that would be Declan’s place. It’s down two blocks, turn south, and it’s right there on the left.”

 

“Does he have a tow truck?”

 

The kid nodded. “I think so. Want me to call him for you?”

 

“You know the man?”

 

He stared at her like she was a fool. “It’s a small town, ma’am. Everyone pretty much knows everyone.”

 

If she got Rex towed tonight, maybe this Declan guy could start working on it first thing tomorrow. She could be out of here by lunch and back on track to her new job.

 

“That would be great. Thanks,” she said.

 

The kid placed the call. After a few minutes, all the arrangements were made.

 

Now all she had to do was hope this mechanic would leave her truck outside tonight, rather than in a locked shop, so she’d have someplace dry to sleep.

 

Chapter Three

 

“What do you mean she didn’t stay here last night?” Nate asked as soon as he showed up at work the next morning. He’d thought about checking on her last night, but worried she’d think he was some kind of creeper, so he’d kept his distance until the first light of day.

 

“Where else would she have gone? Her truck was at Dec’s and there are no other hotels in walking distance. There’s no way she could have made it out to the cabins by the cave in the dark, unless she got a ride.”

 

Eddy, the high school dropout who served as night clerk at Nate’s motel, shrugged his scrawny shoulders. “I don’t know where she went. All I know is that Declan picked her up in his tow truck and left. She didn’t come back.”

 

She wouldn’t ride with Nate, but she got in a truck with Declan? What the hell? Nate loved his cousin, but the man looked like a freaking convict, all scruffy and tattooed.

 

Irritation heated his skin. “When was that?”

 

“Around ten last night.”

 

Nate walked away before he accidentally took out his frustration on the kid. Eddy wasn’t Hanna’s keeper.

 

Then again, neither was Nate. Too bad he couldn’t convince his brain of that fact. He’d been up half the night, thinking about her, wondering if she was settling into the motel okay, holding himself back from checking on her so that he didn’t scare her again.

 

He’d worried about her.

 

Fantasized about her.

 

He didn’t even know the girl. And while his sexual fantasies needed no familiarity to fuel them, why he would worry about her was a mystery.

 

As soon as he was out of the office, he dialed Declan.

 

“Did you pick up a tow last night?” he asked his cousin.

 

“Curvy little thing with a giant attitude and an ancient, piece-of-shit truck?” asked Dec.

 

“Yeah. That’s her.” Nate had driven down the road to find her vehicle as soon as Flora had brought his truck back. He’d wanted to make sure he didn’t need to push it off the road so no one would hit it.

 

Calling Hanna’s ancient truck a piece of shit was an insult to poo everywhere. It was a wonder the thing hadn’t fallen apart on the highway, leaving her skidding along the pavement in a rusted seat.

 

“Why do you want to know?” Dec asked.

 

“Because I found her stranded on the road last night and wanted to make sure she was safe.”

 

“You laying a claim?” asked Dec.

 

The blunt question jarred Nate stupid. “What?”

 

“You heard me. You apparently found her first. I thought I was the lucky one.”

 

“What the hell are you talking about?”

 

Dec sighed. “I don’t know how to be any clearer than this: She’s hot. I want to fuck her. But if you’re calling dibs, I’ll back off, seeing as how we’re cousins and all.”

 

Finally, Nate put the pieces together. Dec loved women. Lots of them. Frequently. If he was into Hanna, it was only a matter of time before he would be into her, literally.

 

The idea of the two of them together was appalling enough to make Nate’s tone sharp. “Yes. I’m staking a claim. Back the fuck off.”

 

“Whoa. No need to get your panties in a wad. I asked nicely, like a gentleman and everything. Grandad would be proud that I’m growing as a human being.”

 

“Just as long as you keep your hands off of her, you can grow however, wherever you like.”

 

“Got it. In which case, there’s something you need to know.”

 

“Know? About what?”

 

“Your curvy little friend,” Dec said, as if Nate were a dim-witted child.

 

“What about her?”

 

“She slept in her truck last night.”

 

A slow, icy rage began forming over the base of Nate’s brain. “And how, exactly, would you know that?”

 

“I startled her out of her cozy hole this morning when I went to work on the truck. She was asleep in back under the camper shell, all bundled up in a sleeping bag, her hair still wet from the rain. She’s hot first thing in the morning, all mussed and sleepy. That’s a rare trait in a woman.”

 

Now Nate was really pissed. He’d made sure she got back to town without the big, bad wolf riding along, even though it meant he now had to buy a new seat for his truck because his drenched clothes had shorted it out and no longer adjusted to his big frame. He’d arranged for her to be dropped off at the motel he owned so that she’d have a place to sleep. He’d even rearranged his day so that he could check on her and make sure she was comfortable and didn’t need a ride. And what did she do?

 

She slept in her truck.

 

“Did you hear me?” asked Dec.

 

“No, sorry. What did you say?”

 

“I said that from the looks of the setup she’s got back there, it wasn’t the first time she’d spent the night in the old rust bucket.”

 

“Well, for as long as she’s in town, it’s going to be the last time.”

 

“As much work as this truck needs, she’ll be here for a while.”

 

“As long as it takes to do the job right, understand?”

 

Declan’s tone was sharp with offense. “Of course. I wouldn’t let a sweet, fuckable thing like her go down the road if I thought her ride would leave her stranded as rape bait.”

 

“That’s good to hear.”

 

“So, what are you going to do with her?” asked Dec, sounding more nosy than merely curious.

 

“I’m going to find her and talk to her. Any idea where she is?”

 

“Not a clue. I suggest you use the Bat Signal.”

 

The Bat Signal was the Grace family phone/text/email tree. It was fast and effective, but using it also meant that everyone would know Nate was looking for her. And then they’d want to know why, which would lead to more questions than he wanted to answer.

 

As much as he hated involving his family, that was the quickest way to find Hanna and make sure she was okay. “Thanks for the info, Dec.”

 

“Sure thing.”

 

“And Dec?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“The bill for the repairs? If she can’t pay, send it to me, okay?”

 

“Works for me. At least I know I’ll get paid that way. Girl doesn’t have two nickels to rub together by the look of things.”

 

Nate hung up and pulled up the distribution list that sent a text message to everyone in his family. Within seconds, he got a flurry of questions about who she was, which he ignored. Then, finally, he saw the response he was looking for.

 

Flora’s text read: Hanna is here at Dockside. Has been for hours.

 

Nate thanked his sister and headed for the diner she owned. He had no idea why he had such a strong compulsion to see Hanna again, but he did. He’d spent half the night dreaming that she’d been squished flat on the road and left lying in the ditch like a deer. The other half he’d spent with his subconscious filling in all the intriguing little details of her body that her wet clothes had left obscured. He’d woken both worried and horny, his cock hard and throbbing.

 

As soon as he walked into the Dockside Diner, he saw Hanna. Her back was to him, but there was no mistaking her shape from behind. That sweetly curved bottom was perched on a high chrome stool at the counter. Her shoes were still muddy, though not as bad as they’d been last night. She’d changed shirts, but her light brown hair was still worn in a sloppy knot on top of her head. The mass was so thick, he wondered just how long it would be if she let it fall loose around her shoulders.

 

His fingers itched to slide through the strands, seeking out the heat of her scalp. Once he got a nice, firm hold, would she fight him, or would her body soften into his hold, waiting to see where he led?

 

His cock twitched at the thought, and he knew right then and there that he was going to do what he could to keep her in town long enough to find out which way she’d lean.

 

His sister was making the rounds, refilling coffee cups and catching up on the morning news. As soon as she caught his eye, she came toward him.

 

“Your drenched damsel in distress has been here for hours,” said Flora.

 

“Has she eaten?” he asked. If she didn’t have money for a room, she might not have enough for food, either.

 

“Only if you count about six cups of coffee.”

 

He nodded. “Fix both of us up with the works.”

 

Flora nodded and started to walk away. Nate stopped her. “I know how you feel about people taking up your seats without ordering food. Were you nice?”

 

“Very. Mom would have been proud.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

His little sister stood there as if she had something else to say.

 

“What?” he asked.

 

Flora leaned in close and lowered her voice. There were a lot of busybodies in Whisper Lake, and many of them started their day here, soaking in the gossip—or, in some cases, creating it—especially the group of old men Flora referred to as the Coffee Council, who hung out at the diner every morning. What one of them knew, all of them knew. And then they shared with the rest of the town. The process was both swift and efficient, and impressive enough that it nearly rivaled the Tattletale Telegraph.

 

When he and his siblings had been kids, none of them had been able to get away with anything because someone would always rat them out. No matter how far away from home they were, if they got out of line, they knew there’d be hell to pay as soon as they got home. There was no hiding. The Tattletale Telegraph was faster than any tennis shoe or bike tire ever made.

 

“There’s something going on with her,” Flora said.

 

“What?” asked Nate.

 

“I don’t really want to tell you because I know how you are.”

 

“How am I?” he asked, his tone a dare.

 

Flora sighed. “You always pick the fixer-uppers. If there’s a girl with a problem within five miles, you’ll find her and come to her rescue.”

 

“What’s wrong with helping people?”

 

“Nothing. Only you tend to get romantically involved. You like to fix women, but they never stay fixed, and they always end up making you pay in the end. And this one positively reeks of drama.”

 

Ouch. That stung a bit. Sure, Nate seemed to have an uncanny ability to find only broken women, but he hadn’t been involved with anyone for a long time. He’d been busy working on getting his own life together—his career, his home, his new project….

 

He hadn’t really had time for a fixer-upper, as Flora had called it.

 

“Drama? You don’t even know her,” he said.

 

“I don’t have to. My gut tells me that whatever’s freaking her out, it’s not good. She’s anxious. Jumpy. Not six-cups-of-coffee jumpy, but… I think she’s scared.”

 

He patted her on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, sis. I got this.”

 

She shook her head. “That’s just it. I don’t want you to get anything. Just leave her be. Let her go on her merry way and take her trouble with her.”

 

“All I’m doing is buying her breakfast.”

 

“That’s where it will start. But I know you, Nate. You have a big heart. She’ll give you some sob story and the next thing you know, you’ll be bending over backward to fix her problems.” She let out a heavy sigh. “Please. Just don’t.”

 

“I’m not doing anything. If a poor girl down on her luck doesn’t make you care, nothing will.”

 

Flora stiffened her spine. “Most people who are down on their luck are that way because they earned it. Poor life choices. Addiction. Laziness. General assholery. Being realistic doesn’t make me cold. It makes me practical. You’d be smart if you followed my example, rather than needing to rescue every damsel in distress you find.” She swept away to put in their breakfast order.

 

Maybe Flora was right. He’d always had a soft spot for a hard luck story. It had cost him more than his share of suffering, mostly in the form of bad employees and lost business. A couple of times he’d lost more than business and had to heal up from heartbreak. But that had been when he was younger and a lot more stupid.

 

At least he hoped so.

 

Still, he couldn’t stand by and see someone in need without doing something. Sucker or not.

 

Nate went and claimed the seat next to Hanna. “Good morning.”

 

She jumped with a start, but settled quickly. “Sorry. Too much coffee.”

 

“What’s wrong? Didn’t sleep well? Lumpy mattress?”

 

She stared at him for a long second, scrutinizing him. “The mechanic told you I slept in my truck, didn’t he?”

 

Nate shrugged. “He’s my cousin. We talked.”

 

“Is there anyone in this town not related to you?”

 

He gave her his most charming grin. “Sure, but none of them are very interesting.”

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