Liz Kowalski’s thirty-year-old shitbox, loaded down with everything she owned, went by the Welcome To Whitford, Maine sign trunk-first, bald tires hydroplaning as it headed for the ditch.
Knuckles white on the steering wheel, she swore as the ass end clipped a tree and the trunk popped open. Closing that sucker had been like shoving a twelve-inch Jack into a two-inch box and she could almost hear the sproing of her belongings popping out.
Welcome home, she thought in the seconds before the Buick’s nose smacked left-fender-first into the trunk of an old pine, stopping its slide with a bone-jarring jerk.
Well. That sucked.
Liz sat there for a minute, breathing hard and wondering how long it would be before she could pry her fingers off the steering wheel. Five minutes, maybe. Ten. She’d never been so scared in all her life.
The knock on her window almost made her wet herself. An older man with a fisherman’s hat perched on his head was peering in at her and she could see a woman—his wife, presumably—trying to see over his shoulder. Liz read the words is she dead on her lips.
Rolling down her window, Liz forced a reassuring smile. “I really appreciate you stopping, but I’m fine, thank you.”
“You just sit tight,” the man said. “My wife called 9-1-1 for you.”
Oh, no. No no no. “You didn’t have to do that. I’m okay. Really. Not even a scratch on me.”
She wasn’t entirely sure of that fact, but she didn’t seem to hurt anywhere. Just a whole lot of muscles that had tensed up and were now relaxing. And maybe a little headache starting.
“It’s no trouble at all, and we’ll stay with you until the police arrive.”
Maybe it wouldn’t be Drew Miller. He was the chief of police in Whitford, after all, so maybe he didn’t respond to minor traffic accidents. He probably sat at his desk and pushed papers while sending patrol officers to minor accident scenes. She hoped.
Liz pulled the handle to open the door, but Mister Good Samaritan pushed against it. “You shouldn’t move around until the paramedics check you out.”
“It’s raining. You should get back in your car.” So she could have relative privacy to scope out how many of her belongings were getting soaked. When the man shook his head, she bit down on a sigh of frustration. “I slid off the road and clipped a tree. It’s not even a real accident.”
“You could be in shock.”
From sideswiping a tree? Not likely. But she couldn’t be any more firm with her would-be rescuers without being rude. “I didn’t even hit my head on the window.”
“Better safe than sorry.”
It was another five very awkward minutes before she heard the siren. Rather than being relieved rescue from her hovering Good Samaritans was imminent, Liz leaned her head back and closed her eyes. She didn’t even bother hoping it wasn’t the chief as the wailing grew closer. The way her luck was running, it would be Drew and everything was about to get a lot more awkward.
“Don’t go to sleep, honey,” Mrs. Good Samaritan yelled through the window. “You might have a head injury. Stay with us!”
She wasn’t going anywhere, but she opened her eyes to make her rescuers feel better. And because she had her eyes wide open, she couldn’t miss the Whitford Police Department cruiser that pulled up. It wasn’t a sedan with the familiar striped scheme down the side. No, this one was a big, black, shiny, four-by-four SUV with a light bar across the roof and the town seal on the door. It was the kind of vehicle the top of the departmental food chain drove.
The door opened and the Whitford police chief stepped out. Drew Miller was tall and ruggedly built, which she found incredibly sexy because, at almost six feet herself, she didn’t meet many men who could pull off the me Tarzan thing with her.
He wore the department’s short-sleeved summer uniform, and a ball cap with WPD printed on it covered his dark hair. No rolling up onto the balls of his feet and hitching his gun belt for Drew. He commanded any room he was in whether he was armed or not.
He even commanded outdoor spaces, Liz realized as she watched him head toward her car with long, confident strides. He had sunglasses on, but she didn’t need to see his eyes to know his focus was one hundred percent on her.
“Are you hurt?”
Liz wasn’t sure if she heard him or was simply able to read his lips because she was staring at his mouth. He had an amazing mouth. It was the first thing she’d noticed the day of her brother’s wedding reception.
“Liz, are you hurt?”
She shook her head in answer to his question.
“We didn’t let her move,” the husband and wife said at the same time.
“Thank you. It’s always better to be safe than sorry and I can’t tell you how much we appreciate citizens who go out of their way to help when they witness somebody in need.”
While the couple talked over each other in a rush to tell Drew how she’d lost control of her car in the rain and parked it in the trees, Liz took advantage of their distraction to get out and survey the damage. There was a lot of crumpled sheet metal and the ground was littered with broken lens covers.
In a rare stroke of good luck, it didn’t look like anything had flown out of the trunk. No underwear or toiletries or other personal belongings on display, though the top layer of bags and small boxes was going to take a while to dry.
“So she wasn’t speeding, then?” she heard Drew ask, and she knew him well enough to hear the undertone of amusement in his voice. He said it loud enough for her benefit, too.
Liz waited, her cheeks hot with humiliation and maybe something else, while Drew called in a status update and gently but firmly sent her two Good Samaritans on their way. She called out a thank-you, managing a wave and a smile as they left.
“You’re sure you’re not hurt?” he asked her again once the official part of his duties were over.
“I’m sure.” She couldn’t think of anything to say after that, which annoyed her. She’d known Drew since she was a kid and, just because they’d had sex the one time, she was as awkward as a middle-school girl with a bad crush.
He moved closer, looking her up and down. She told herself it had to be a police thing—checking her for injuries—but his slow perusal didn’t help cool her face any. Once he was satisfied with what he saw, presumably injury-wise, he took a slow walk around the car.
“Can’t say what your total damage will be, but with the way that fender’s crunched up against the tire, I know you can’t drive it.”
“Great.” Hell of a way to kick off her brand-new life, she thought as he radioed in a request for a tow truck.
“Why does it look like you have everything you own in this car?” he asked when he was done.
“Because everything I own is in this car.”
His face was so expressionless, she knew it had to be a deliberate effort on his part. Some kind of cop face, maybe. “Why?”
Liz found it hard to believe the chief of police in a town that loved gossip as much as Whitford hadn’t heard. “I’m moving back for good.”
“Oh.” Seconds ticked by in awkward silence. “I didn’t know that. Mitch has been traveling, but I was at the lodge weekend before last and nobody mentioned it.”
Mitch, Liz’s older brother, was Drew’s best friend. And Drew’s dad, Andy, was now shacking up at the Northern Star Lodge—the Kowalski family business—with Rosie, who was called the housekeeper, but had practically raised Liz and her four brothers. How Drew could be out of the family gossip loop was beyond her.
“I made the decision last weekend and it was pretty fast. As in, I got off the phone with Rosie and packed my car.” She gave a rueful laugh and waved a hand at the car. “I probably should have taken the time to have the tires changed.”
He didn’t laugh. “What made you decide to come back?”
It was a reasonable question, since she’d lived most of her adult life in New Mexico, but she wasn’t about to stand around in the rain and tell him how lonely and isolated from her family she’d felt. “Seemed like the thing to do. You don’t have to stay, you know. I can wait for the tow truck.”
“Actually I do have to stay. This is a bad spot to be loading up a ramp truck, especially in this rain, so I’ll need to do some traffic control.”
Traffic was a bit of a stretch, but she had to admit he had a point. Because of the angle of her car, the nose of the tow truck would have to be in the road and that meant he had to stay and wait.
Standing in the rain, alone with Drew Miller. She’d come back to start her life over and, so far, it was off to one hell of a beginning.
* * * * *
Drew Miller wanted to get back in his cruiser, hit the lights and sirens, and drive as fast as he could to anywhere but here.
Liz Kowalski was back in Whitford. His best friend’s little sister. The woman he’d enjoyed a rebound quickie with during said best friend’s wedding reception with the unspoken understanding Liz would be returning to New Mexico. And, more importantly, she would be staying there.
Not forever, of course. But he’d thought enough time would pass before her next visit so he could look at her without instantly remembering the way she looked naked, with her hair tangled around his fingers and her hips arching up to meet his.
He wasn’t sure how much time that would be, other than obviously more than the eight months or so that had passed since Mitch’s wedding.
She was dressed for a road trip, in old jeans that hugged her long legs and an even older T-shirt that was doing some body hugging of its own, thanks to the rain. Her thick, dark hair was pulled into a long ponytail and she sure as hell didn’t need makeup to show off those brilliant blue eyes. With her strong, stubborn jaw and skin that was tanned by the New Mexico sun, Liz looked as delicious to him as she had the last time he saw her. And just look how that had turned out—he was keeping secrets from his best friend.
Standing with her on the side of the road in the light drizzle, all he could do was hope the tow truck driver made good time and to hell with speed limits. For now, more awkward conversation. “Are you moving into the lodge?”
It would make sense. Liz’s family had owned the Northern Star Lodge for several generations, catering to hunters before turning their attention to snowmobilers and now adding the ATV crowd, as well. He knew Liz’s childhood room was still pretty much hers, even though it was occasionally used by other family members, because he’d been in her room last October. It only made sense she’d save money by moving back into it.
That made things a little complicated for Drew, however. His dad had moved into the lodge and helped manage it after falling for the housekeeper. Since Andy was his dad and Rosie was like a mother to Liz, that was entirely too much togetherness for him.
“I’m trying to go forward, not backward,” Liz said. “Ryan and Lauren put her house on the market now that she lives in Massachusetts with him, but they haven’t had a decent offer so they agreed to rent it to me.”
And since Ryan was her older brother, she was probably getting it for a good price. “And work?”
“I guess since Whitford got connected to the ATV trails, business has really picked up in town, so I’m going to help Paige out at the diner. Handy having a sister-in-law who owns the place.”
“Good. That’s…good.” He lapsed into silence again but then, after watching her shift her weight from foot to foot while looking everywhere but at him, he laughed. “For God’s sake, Liz, this is ridiculous.”
A slow grin curved her mouth and he finally got a glimpse of the girl he’d known as a kid. “You’re right. We’re acting like idiots.”
“So let’s stop.” Adult Liz was almost a stranger to him—except for the whole sex thing—but he’d grown up with the Kowalskis and he’d always liked Liz.
“We’re adults,” she said. “There was alcohol. We snuck off for a rebound quickie, which happens all the time at weddings. So what?”
So what? It was all he could do not to push her up against a tree and repeat the experience, that’s what. Though, without the quickie part. He wanted to take his time. And, since he’d been playing designated taxi service that night, alcohol hadn’t factored into his decision to whisper his bold invitation into her ear.
And, because he’d watched her the entire afternoon, he knew it hadn’t really played into her decision to accept, either. She’d had a couple of drinks during Mitch and Paige’s reception, but she’d been far from drunk.
But being chief had honed his acting skills and he was ready to put this eight-months-delayed morning-after awkwardness behind them. “Not a big deal. And now, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it doesn’t look like you’ll be driving this car anytime soon, so let’s move your stuff into my SUV before the tow truck gets here.”
He watched her chew at her bottom lip for a few seconds before she gave a resigned sigh. “I’ll be lucky if Butch can get parts for it, never mind fix it in a hurry.”
Butch Benoit ran the garage and gas part of the Whitford General Store & Service Station while his wife, Fran, ran the store part. He was an honest guy who didn’t play games and very few residents made the drive into the city to save a few bucks on service. “I think he’ll tell you to get whatever you can from the insurance company and use it as a down payment on something a little newer.”
She swore under her breath, but leaned into the car to get her purse and assorted other belongings from the front seat. He pulled the SUV as close as he could and started transferring things from the truck. By the time Butch arrived with the ramp truck, her car was empty of everything except the trash a long road trip generated, and his SUV was loaded down with her damp boxes and bags.
Drew moved his vehicle to make way for the tow truck, their light bars flashing bright in the night, then watched while Butch ran the hydraulics and dragged Liz’s car up the ramp.
“You sure know how to make an entrance, girl,” Butch told Liz once the wreck was strapped down. “I’ll look it over tomorrow, but even if you didn’t muck up the frame, it ain’t gonna be easy finding fenders for this one. Insured?”
“Yeah,” Liz said.
She looked like somebody had kicked her dog, so Drew suspected she wasn’t anticipating getting a lot from her insurance company. The car simply wasn’t worth very much, even before she’d crumpled it up.
“You need a ride up to the lodge?” Butch asked.
Before Liz could answer, Drew stepped in. “She can ride with me. I’ve got all her stuff in my cruiser, anyway.”
“Okay, then. Liz, you can stop by anytime and I’ll give you an update. Make sure you call your insurance company tomorrow.”
She nodded, and then Drew collected the orange safety triangles he’d set out before gesturing for her to get in. Trying to ignore how weird it felt to have Liz Kowalski riding shotgun with him, he put the SUV in gear and headed for town.
“Where are we going?” she asked when they’d hit Whitford and he turned away from her sister-in-law’s house.
“Need to stop by my house first.” Not that he’d be inviting her in, because that could be a recipe for disaster. And to make sure he didn’t have a moment of weakness, he wasn’t even going to unlock the front door.
It only took a few minutes to reach the small farmhouse-style home he’d had to buy half of from his ex-wife, and he was glad it was dark. Since Mallory had left, he was having a little trouble with her flower beds and all her hanging plants, so the property looked a little shabby around the edges.
She didn’t say anything as he pulled up the right side of his driveway and then reached up to hit the button to open the left-side door.
“Hold on a sec,” he told her as the overhead door started to rise, and climbed out.
Once the door rattled open, he hit the light switch, illuminating his prized possession. It was a 1970 Mustang, the Boss 302, in brilliant orange with black racing stripes. He opened the door, slid into the leather seat and turned the key. It fired right up, the throaty engine purring like a kitten.
After letting it run a moment, he drove it out of the garage and parked it alongside the cruiser. After he got out, he closed the overhead door and gestured for Liz to join him.
“You can drive this until you figure out what’s up with your car,” he said, when she’d climbed out of the SUV and walked over to him.
Her eyes grew huge as she looked back and forth between him and the car, and then she shook her head. “I can’t borrow your Mustang, Drew.”
“Needs to be driven and I spend most of my time in the SUV, so you’d be doing me a favor. And it’s insured.”
“Nice try. Look, I appreciate the offer, but—”
“Did you know this car was the only one to beat Mitch’s Camaro in the quarter-mile back in the day?”
She smiled, running her hand over the black-striped hood scoop in a way that made him think of sex. “He’s always claimed he missed a shift.”
“Maybe my car was better or maybe I was the better driver but, either way, seeing the car annoys him. You driving it would really annoy him and I like keeping Mitch on his toes.”
Drew knew he was poking the sleeping bear, so to speak. The last thing he wanted was for Mitch to find out he’d slept with his sister. Parading Liz around in his Mustang probably wasn’t a step in the right direction.
But she needed a car and he had a car. And if it gave him some kind of primal thrill seeing Liz behind the wheel of his pride and joy, nobody needed to know that.
Enveloped in the scent of old leather and Drew Miller, Liz followed the big SUV through Whitford. Her fingers slid easily into the grooves decades of the man driving the car had worn into the steering wheel and she tried not to dwell on how sexy everything about the car—the look, the sound, the smell—was as she focused on the road.
It was better to think about how bad it probably sucked on gas, although whether or not it was worse than her own car remained to be seen. And just how much it would suck if she put so much as a door ding in the thing.
She’d continued to argue with him for what had to be another half hour after he’d given her the lame spiel about him wanting her to drive it to annoy her brother. There weren’t any car rental places within a reasonable distance of Whitford, but there had to be an extra vehicle kicking around the lodge she could borrow.
But he wouldn’t take no for an answer and, eventually, she’d gotten tired of arguing with him. So now she was driving the car she’d drooled over from afar during high school, though she’d never wanted a tour of the backseat like most of the girls had. Not that it would have mattered. Even if she hadn’t been nothing more than Mitch’s little sister to him, Drew only had eyes for Mallory.
Unfortunately, when Drew’s turn signal started blinking, Liz realized she hadn’t been paying attention and they’d arrived at Lauren’s small ranch-style house without her knowing quite how they got there. She’d jotted down the directions her brother Ryan had given her over the phone, but she suspected that scrap of paper was still in the console of her car, along with the fast food and gas receipts she’d accumulated along the road.
And Lauren didn’t have a garage. Or rather, Liz didn’t have a garage, and she could imagine Drew sitting in the SUV he’d just shut off, cringing at the thought of his baby being exposed to the elements.
He didn’t say anything when they were both out of their vehicles, though. He just opened the back of the SUV and grabbed a box while Liz retrieved the key from where it had been taped under the mailbox for her. After unlocking the door, she opened it and felt along the wall for the light switch.
“It’s very…empty,” Drew said from over her shoulder, and she stepped aside so he could carry the box in.
Her new home was indeed very empty. There was a futon in the living room and, judging by the familiar quilt draped over the back, it was Rosie’s doing. Next to it sat an upside-down milk crate with a pile of paperback books on top, probably to distract her from the lack of a television. She went into the kitchen and smiled at the smallest microwave she’d ever seen, so new it still had the stickers on it. It was the only thing in the kitchen besides the stove, the fridge and a basket covered by a towel and a note.
She peeked under the towel first. Banana bread and pumpkin muffins, freshly baked judging by the smell. Then she read the note, written in Rosie’s familiar handwriting.
Welcome home! I know you said you didn’t need anything, but I brought in a few things so you could at least have a place to sit. Call me when you get in. Love, Rosie.
Home, she thought. Maybe all she had to sit on was a hand-me-down futon, but she was home.
The first bedroom she came to was empty, and the bathroom had the bare necessities. Liz smiled when she recognized the towels and hospitality toiletries used by the Northern Star. It cheered her up, knowing her family had ignored her when she said she’d be fine and didn’t need anything.
The big bedroom almost made her cry. Somebody had been busy, basically disassembling her room at the lodge and moving it here. Her bed was made with her favorite quilt, and everything from her dresser to her ancient unicorn lamp had made the trip.
She jumped, turning back to the hallway. She’d forgotten about Drew, who probably thought she’d abandoned him to carry everything in by himself.
“None of the boxes are marked, so I put them in the living room.”
“Thanks. I’ll help with the rest. I didn’t mean to run off on you.”
“It’s done. You don’t really own a lot, Liz.”
“I’m starting over,” she told him. “Sorry I’m not starting over in a place with a garage, though. It’s not too late to change your mind about the Mustang.”
“It’s a car. Won’t kill her to sit outside for a few days.” He shrugged. “I’m going to head out. If you stop by the station, we’ll write you out a police report for the insurance company.”
“Thanks for your help.”
“All in a day’s work, ma’am,” he said, and she laughed.
Once he’d left and she was alone in the empty house, her amusement faded. She sat on the edge of the futon and rested her chin in her hands, staring at the pile of her belongings. What the hell had she done?
One minute she’d been on the phone with Rosie, listening to news about the family. And somewhere between hearing about her sister-in-law Emma’s pregnancy and Rosie wondering whether Ryan and Lauren or Josh and Katie would make it to the altar first, the homesickness had hit Liz so hard she could barely breathe. Between her cousins and her brothers, the family was awash with love and marriage and babies. And since they’d all recommitted to helping Josh make the Northern Star Lodge a success, it seemed her brothers were closer than ever.
And there she was, all the way across the country with a dead-end relationship behind her and nothing but work ahead of her.
“I’m moving back to Whitford,” she’d told Rosie before she could talk herself out of it.
The housekeeper had only been quiet a few seconds before she said, “Your room will be ready.”
The idea of moving into the lodge didn’t appeal to her, though, and her brother’s fiancée having a house sitting empty had seemed like a sign she was doing the right thing.
She was still pretty sure she was doing the right thing, but it seemed a lot scarier now that she was sitting in a house so empty voices echoed. A house she was going to have to pay for all on her own. Hopefully the good citizens of Whitford were as generous with their tips as truck drivers could be.
With a sigh, Liz stood up. First, she was going to heat up some of that banana bread in the microwave because nothing improved a person’s outlook on life faster than Rosie’s baked goods. Then she’d start spreading her stuff out in the living room so it could all dry.
The glint of orange outside the living room window caught her eye as she walked to the pile of boxes. It had started raining hard again, but she forced herself not to cringe at the sight of the Mustang in the driveway.