Mitch Kowalski was doing sixty when he blew past the Welcome to Whitford, Maine sign, and he would have grinned if grinning on a Harley at dusk in a shorty helmet wasnâ€™t an invitation to eat his weight in bugs.
He was home again. Or he would be after he passed straight through town and nursed the bike down the long dirt drive that led to the Northern Star Lodge. As eager as he was to get there, though, he eased up on the throttle as the first lights of Main Street came into view.
It had been three years since heâ€™d visited his hometown, but he could have navigated the road with his eyes closed. Past the post office where heâ€™d landed his first real job, then lost it because old man Farrâ€™s Playboy subscription was a hell of a lot more interesting than sorting electric bills. Then the Whitford General Store & Service Station, owned by Fran and Butch Benoit. Junior year, heâ€™d taken their daughter to the prom and then taken her up against the chalkboard in an empty classroom.
Mitch downshifted and executed a lazy rolling stop at the four-way that passed for the townâ€™s major intersection. To the left were two rows of ancient brick buildings that housed the bank and town offices and an assortment of small businesses. To the right, the police departmentâ€”which had had its fill of the Kowalski boys in their youthâ€”and the library, which had been fertile hunting grounds for a teenage boy looking to charm the smart girls out of their algebra homework.
Yeah, it was good to be home, even if everything was closed up tight for the night. The people of Whitford knew if they had business in town, theyâ€™d best get it done before the evening news.
He went straight through the intersection, but he didnâ€™t go far before the old diner caught his eye. Or the sign did, rather, being all lit up. Last time heâ€™d passed through, the place had been closed up tightâ€”driven out of business by a bad economy and an owner who didnâ€™t care enough to try to save it. But now there was a new name on the sign, a couple of cars in the parking lot and flashing red neon in the window declaring it open.
His stomach rumbled, though he felt it rather than heard it due to the loud pipes on his bike, and he pulled into the parking lot. Josh, his youngest brother, wasnâ€™t expecting himâ€”unless the boxes of clothes and other stuff heâ€™d shipped ahead had arrivedâ€”and he would have already eaten anyway. Rather than go rummaging for leftovers, Mitch decided to grab a quick bite before heading on to the lodge.
The first thing he noticed when he walked through the door was the remodeled fifties decor, with a lot of red vinyl and black-and-white marble. The second thing he noticed was the woman standing behind the counterâ€”a woman heâ€™d never seen before, which was rare in Whitford.
Mitch put her at maybe thirty, seven years younger than him, and it looked good on her. She had a mass of brown hair twisted and clipped up into one of those messy knots that begged to be let loose. Jeans and a Trailside Diner T-shirt hugged sweet curves, and her ring finger was bare of either a gold band or a fresh tan line.
A little plastic rectangle was pinned above the very nice mound of her left breast. Name tags were a rare thing in a town where relationships were formed in playpens and cemented in the kindergarten sandbox, so it caught his attention. By the time he took a seat on a red padded stool at the counter, he could read it. Paige.
He deliberately sat with his back to the two other couples in the place in the hope they wouldnâ€™t recognize him right off. One, because heâ€™d rather Josh heard he was back in town from him, not the grapevine. And, two, because he was a lot more interested in maybe getting acquainted with Paige than getting reacquainted with whoever was in those booths.
â€śPlease.â€ť Her eyes were brown, even darker than the coffee she poured into an oversize mug for him. â€śYouâ€™re new here.â€ť
She gave him a look over her shoulder while setting the carafe back on the warmer. â€śIâ€™ve been here every day for almost two years, but Iâ€™ve never seen you before. Newâ€™s relative, I guess.â€ť
He plucked a menu from between the condiment rack and the napkin holder, wondering if the food choices had gotten an update, too, along with the sign and the vinyl. â€śI had my first taste of ice cream in that booth right over there.â€ť
She leaned her hip against the stainless steel island the coffeemaker sat on and looked him over. â€śTall, dark and handsome, with pretty blue eyes. You must be one of Joshâ€™s brothers.â€ť
Usually a guy didnâ€™t like being told he had a pretty anything, but heâ€™d learned a long time ago having pretty eyes led to having pretty girls. â€śIâ€™m the oldest. Mitch.â€ť
Her smile lit up her face in a way that elevated her from just pretty to pretty damn hot. â€śOh, Iâ€™ve heard some stories about you.â€ť
He just bet she had. There was no shortage of stories about him and his brothers, but he couldnâ€™t help wondering if sheâ€™d heard the one about the backseat of Hailey Genestâ€™s dadâ€™s Cadillac since it was a Whitford favorite. Rumor had it when old man Genest finally traded the car in for a newer model, it still had the cheap wine stains in the carpet and the gouges from Haileyâ€™s fingernails in the leather.
Even though heâ€™d only been seventeen at the timeâ€”to Haileyâ€™s nineteenâ€”he still heard about those gouges if he got within speaking distance of Mr. Genest. Since Mrs. Genestâ€™s looks came off as a little more speculative than condemning, he tended to avoid her altogether. Not easy in a town like Whitford, but he could be quick when he needed to be.
â€śSo youâ€™re the one who blows stuff up?â€ť she asked when he didnâ€™t offer up any comment about the stories sheâ€™d heard, as if there was anything to say. While there might be a little embellishment here and there, most of them were probably true.
â€śYou could say that.â€ť Or you could say he was one of the most respected controlled-demolition experts in the country. His education, hard work and safety record never excited people as much as the thought of him getting paid to blow stuff up, though. â€śYou still got meatloaf on the menu?â€ť
â€śFirst thing the selectmen told me when I applied for a permit is that you canâ€™t have a diner in New England without meatloaf.â€ť
â€śIâ€™ll take that, and Iâ€™ll pay for an extra slab of meatloaf and a bucketload of gravy.â€ť
â€śHow about I give you the extras on the house as a welcome-home present?â€ť
â€śAppreciate it,â€ť he said, giving her one of his charming smilesâ€”the one that made his pretty eyes sparkle, or so heâ€™d been told. And since heâ€™d been told that by women in the process of letting him slide into second base, he was inclined to believe them.
He could tell by the flush creeping up from the collar of her shirt she wasnâ€™t immune to him. Nor was he immune to the subtle sway of her hips as she walked to the pass-through window and handed the order to a young man he was pretty sure was Mike Crenshawâ€™s oldest boy. Gavin, he thought his name was.
Dropping an old casino in the middle of crowded Las Vegas to make way for a grander one was an intense job, so it had been at least a couple of months since Mitch had blown off steam between the sheets. And a six-week cap on the relationship was perfect. He could enjoy the getting-to-know-you sex and the know-you-well-enough-to-push-the-right-buttons sex, but be gone before the Iâ€™m-falling-in-love-with-you-Mitch sex.
He checked out the sweet curve of her ass when she bent down to grab a bucket of sugar packets, and he grinned. It was damn good to be home.
* * * * *
Hearing the storiesâ€”and, oh boy, were there some good onesâ€”hadnâ€™t prepared Paige Sullivan for the reality of Mitch Kowalski taking up a stool in her diner. With his just-long-and-thick-enough-to-tousle dark hair and the blue eyes and easy smile, he could have been a star of the silver screen, not a guy who had just happened in looking for some meatloaf.
And maybe a little company, judging from what sheâ€™d heard. Supposedly, he was always in the mood for a little company. Unfortunately for himâ€”and maybe a little for herâ€”all heâ€™d get at the Trailside Diner was the blue plate special.
â€śSo where you from?â€ť
Paige shrugged, not looking up from the sugar holders she was refilling. â€śIâ€™m from a lot of places originally. Now Iâ€™m from Whitford.â€ť
â€śNope. Mom with aâ€¦free spirit.â€ť Mom with a few loose screws was more accurate, but she wasnâ€™t in the habit of sharing her life story with her customers.
â€śHowâ€™d you end up here?â€ť
â€śThat old clichĂ©â€”my car broke down and I never left.â€ť She topped off his coffee, but she was too busy making desserts for table six to stand around at the counter and chat.
As she built strawberry shortcakes, she grew increasingly aware of the fact Mitch was watching her. And not just the occasional glance because she was the only thing moving in his line of sight. No, he was blatantly checking her out. Since she was out of practice being an object of interest, it made her self-conscious, and the fact he was the best-looking guy to pass through the Trailside Diner since sheâ€™d opened its doors didnâ€™t help any.
No men, she reminded herself. She was fasting. Or abstaining. Or whatever -ing word meant she wasnâ€™t accepting the unspoken invitation to get horizontal in any manâ€™s eyes, no matter what he looked like. No. Men.
Gavin called her name a few minutes after she served up the desserts, and she grabbed the hot plate of meatloaf from the window. Mitch gave her a very appreciative smile before picking up his fork.
Ignoring the zinging that smile causedâ€”because she wasnâ€™t zinging, dammitâ€”she turned her back on him and started a fresh pot of coffee. Normally she wouldnâ€™t so near to closing on a weekday night, but she didnâ€™t have enough for one refill each should her customers be in the mood to forgo sleep in favor of caffeine and small talk.
Once the coffee was brewing, Paige pulled a clean bus pan out from under the counter and went from table to table, pulling the ketchup bottles and trying not to think about the man at the counter. She knew Mitch Kowalski had a dangerous job, and he certainly looked the part of the bad boy, in faded blue jeans and a black T-shirt hugging an upper body that screamed of physical labor.
Come to think of it, she knew a lot about the oldest Kowalski. While all the brothers were practically heralded as golden boys around town, there was a special gleam in the eyes of the female population when Mitchâ€™s name came up. Right on the heels of the gleam came the details, and if there was one thing she knew about the man, it was that he didnâ€™t disappoint.
Using her butt to push through the swinging doors, she took the bus pan of ketchup bottles back to the walk-in cooler. She wouldnâ€™t refill them until the morning, but she took a minute, hoping the chill would cool her overheating face. Okay, and maybe her body.
If a seventeen-year-old Mitch could make a young woman dig her fingernails into the leather seat of her dadâ€™s new car, just imagine what an experienced, thirtysomething Mitch could do. Not that heâ€™d be doing anything to her, since she was abstaining, but imagining was an -ing word that couldnâ€™t really hurt.
The strangest thing about the Mitch Kowalski stories was the lack of animosity. It didnâ€™t seem possible a man could romance a healthy percentage of the young women in a small town without leaving a trail of jealousy and broken hearts, but it seemed to her heâ€™d managed. Dreamy-eyed nostalgia was the legacy heâ€™d left behind.
By five minutes of closing, the place was empty except for Mitch and an older couple lingering over their lukewarm mugs of decaf, so she went ahead and turned off the Open sign. Her part-time waitress, Ava, who usually did the closing shift, was sick, so Paige had done the whole shebang, from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., and she was ready to collapse into bed.
Mitch met her at the cash register with his bill and cash. â€śWhat timeâ€™s breakfast?â€ť
â€śSix a.m.â€ť At least she managed not to groan out loud in dread of the four-thirty alarm.
He chuckled and shook his head. â€śLet me rephrase that. How late can I get breakfast?â€ť
It hadnâ€™t occurred to her sheâ€™d be seeing that much of him. It was a lot easier to resist temptation when temptation wasnâ€™t sitting at her counter, watching her work. â€śBreakfast all day, but no poached eggs after eleven.â€ť
He looked as if he was going to say more, but the couple from table six had figured out it was closing time and were on their way to the register. After giving her a smile that jump-started the forbidden zinging again, he walked out and she focused her attention on cashing out her final customers of the very long day.
When she went to twist the dead bolt on the door behind them, Mitch was at the edge of the parking lot, getting ready to pull out onto the road on what was a very big bike. The motorcycle rumbling between his legs was a black beast of a machine. While the leather saddlebags hid her view of his thighs, she couldnâ€™t miss the way his T-shirt stretched across his broad shoulders.
As he revved the engine and pulled into the street, Mitch turned his head and for a long moment they made eye contact. Then he smiled and hit the throttle, disappearing into the night.
No men. Paige flipped off the outside lights and turned away from his fading headlights. For two years sheâ€™d avoided having a man in her life. But temptation had never come in a package like Mitch Kowalski.
* * * * *
Mitch stood next to his bike with his arms crossed, his pleasure at being home eclipsed by the condition of the Northern Star Lodge.
How could things have gone so downhill in just three years? The front of the lodgeâ€”what he could see by the landscaping lightsâ€”looked, if not quite run-down, at least a little shabby. Paint on the porch peeling. Weeds growing around the bushes. One of the spindles on the stair railing was missing. He didnâ€™t even want to imagine what the place looked like in the full light of day.
His great-grandfather had built the lodge as a family getaway back when the Kowalskis were rolling in dough, and it had started its life as a massive New Englander with a deep farmerâ€™s porch. It was painted the traditional white, and the shutters, originally black, had been painted a deep green by his mother in an effort to make it look less austere. He could see one of those shutters was missing and several were slightly askew. They all needed painting.
At some point his great-grandfather had added an equally massive addition in an L off the back corner, with the downstairs becoming a large kitchen with a formal dining room, and the upstairs being the servantsâ€™ quarters.
His son, Grandpa Kowalski, hadnâ€™t fared well with the stock market, though, being a lot more of a risk taker than he was a savvy businessman and, when the old family money was gone, along with the big house in the city, heâ€™d reinvented the vacation home as an exclusive gentlemanâ€™s hunting club, and the Northern Star Lodge was born. The servantsâ€™ quarters became the family quarters. With the next generation, the hunters eventually gave way to snowmobilers and now Josh ran the place, but the five kids owned it together.
The boards creaked under Mitchâ€™s feet as he climbed the steps to the heavy oak front door, which squeaked a little on its hinges. The place was going to hell in a handbasket.
The great room was lit up, and his youngest brother, Josh, was sprawled on one of the sturdy brown-leather sofas, one leg encased by a glaringly white cast from foot to knee. There was a set of crutches on the floor, lying across the front of the couch. Josh had a beer in one hand and an unopened can sat on the end table next to Mitchâ€™s favorite chair.
He sank into it and popped the top. â€śHowâ€™d you know I was coming?â€ť
â€śMike Crenshaw saw you walking into the diner on his way home from the VFW. He told his wife, who called Jeanine Sharp, who called Rosie at bingo. She called me.â€ť
Rosie Davis was the part-time housekeeper-slash-surrogate mother at the lodge and had been since Sarah Kowalski died of an aneurism when Mitch was twelve.
â€śYou come to babysit me?â€ť
By the look of his baby brother, he could use a nanny. And a shower. Their father had stamped his build on all of his childrenâ€”all of them, even Liz, pushing six feet and leanâ€”but there were differences. Josh had a rounder face with their motherâ€™s nose, and Ryan and Sean a more square jaw and their grandfatherâ€™s nose. Josh and Mitch had their fatherâ€™s dark hair, while the others were more of a dark-blondish like their mother. Mitchâ€™s face was strong, with the Kowalski nose, and he was the best-looking of the bunch, naturally. They all had their fatherâ€™s eyes, too. A brilliant blue that made people, especially women, take a second look.
Not many people would take a second look at Josh right then, though, unless they were trying to figure out if theyâ€™d seen his picture hanging in the local post office. His hair was a train wreck and it looked like he hadnâ€™t shaved in a couple of days. Worn-out sweatpants with one leg cut off at the knee to accommodate the cast and a T-shirt bearing the stains of what looked like spaghetti sauce didnâ€™t help.
â€śDo I look like a babysitter?â€ť Mitch took a long draw of beer, considering the best way to handle his brother. Head-on didnâ€™t tend to work well with Kowalskis. â€śHeard a rumor there was a hot new waitress in town. Thought Iâ€™d check her out.â€ť
â€śYeah, right. Rosie call you?â€ť
â€ś’Course she did. Your cast probably wasnâ€™t even dry yet and she was on the phone. Whenâ€™s the last time you took a shower?â€ť
Josh snorted. â€śNo showers for me. I get to take baths, like a woman, with this damn thing propped up on the side of the tub.â€ť
â€śGot some fruity-smelling bubbles?â€ť
â€śScrew you. How long you staying this time? Three days? A whole week?â€ť
Tired. His brother looked tired more than anything else, and Mitch felt a pang of worry. His little brother just flat out looked like hell. â€śRosie said you were limbing that big oak out front and fell.â€ť
â€śDidnâ€™t fall. The ladder slipped.â€ť He shrugged and sipped his beer.
â€śProbably because you had the ladder footed against your toolbox in the back of your pickup.â€ť
â€śNo doubt. Didnâ€™t have a tall enough ladder.â€ť
â€śWhy didnâ€™t you call in a tree service?â€ť
â€śGee, Mr. Fancy Engineering Degree, why didnâ€™t I think of that?â€ť
Rather than rise to the bait of his brotherâ€™s tone, Mitch drank his beer and waited for Josh to realize he was being an ass. Mitch wasnâ€™t the one whoâ€™d been stupid enough to foot a ladder in the back of a truck or too stubborn to ask for help, so he wasnâ€™t going to sit and take crap where crap wasnâ€™t deserved.
â€śFine. I should have called a tree service. I didnâ€™t. Now my legâ€™s fucked up. Happy?â€ť
â€śDonâ€™t be an asshole.â€ť Mitch drained the last of the beer and tossed it into the wastebasket somebodyâ€”probably Rosieâ€”had put next to the couch for his brotherâ€™s substantial collection of empties. â€śHow many of those are from today?â€ť
â€śNot enough.â€ť Josh knocked back the last of his can and crumpled it in his hand before dropping it into the basket with the others.
Mitch wasnâ€™t sure what was going on, but whatever Joshâ€™s problem was, it wasnâ€™t a busted-up leg. Every time Mitch came homeâ€”which, granted, wasnâ€™t as often as he shouldâ€”Joshâ€™s attitude seemed to have climbed another rung on the shittiness ladder.
â€śWhy donâ€™t you get cleaned up in the morning and Iâ€™ll take you out for breakfast,â€ť Mitch said. â€śWe can sit and watch the new waitress work.â€ť
â€śPaige? Sheâ€™s the owner, not a waitress, and sheâ€™s not interested.â€ť
â€śShe was interested.â€ť
â€śEvery single guy in Whitfordâ€™s taken a shot with her and, Iâ€™m telling you, she ainâ€™t interested. Sheâ€™s lived here like two years and hasnâ€™t gone on a single date that anybody knows about. And in this town, somebody would know.â€ť
Mitch thought of the way her gaze kept skittering away from his and how sheâ€™d blushed, and decided sheâ€™d just been waiting for the right guy to come along. There was no lack of interest on his part and, as long as she understood he was only Mr. Right in the right now sense, he was more than willing to break her alleged two-year dry spell. They could have a little fun while he got the Northern Star in order and then heâ€™d kiss her goodbye and go on to the next job with no regrets and no hard feelings. Just like always.