Authors: Joan Hohl
|Hohl Connected |
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What a helluva time to start over.”
“1 beg your pardon?”
Paul Vanzant glanced around sharply at the sound }f the soft inquiry. “What?” He frowned at the woman staring up at him. She was seated in a promoted niche in the rocks, her arms clasped around her drawn-up knees.
“1 said, I beg your pardon,” the woman repeated, watching him as he plodded through the sand to her. “Since I’m the only other person on the beach,” she said, flicking one hand to indicate the deserted shoreline, “I assumed you were speaking to me.”
“I’m sorry.” A rueful smile curved Paul’s lips. “I hadn’t realized I was speaking aloud.” He came to a halt a few feet before her and lifted his shoulders in a resigned shrug. “I find myself doing that a lot lately.”
“Understandable.” The woman’s smile was faint.
“It is?” Paul’s tone was mildly questioning; his glance was intent, comprehensive. Even though she was seated, he could tell the woman was rather tall. Her figure was full, rounded, not overblown but not svelte, either. She was not beautiful in the accepted sense; her features were too strong, too well-defined. But she was attractive, and her hair was a thick, gorgeous mass of chestnut waves, now blowing freely in the brisk breeze. “Why is it understandable?” he asked, smiling easily.
“I do it myself,” she responded, returning his smile and leaving him breathless. “Ever since the season ended I’ve caught myself muttering my thoughts aloud.” Releasing her grip on her knees, she raised one arm. “Would you give me a hand up?”
“Certainly.” Intrigued, Paul grasped her hand and drew her to her feet, which were, he noted, encased in expensive but battered-looking running shoes. “Why since the season ended?” he asked when she was standing beside him.
“I’ve been pretty much alone since then,” she explained absently, brushing the sand from the seat of her faded jeans.
“I see,” Paul murmured. Then he frowned. “No, I don’t see.”
The woman laughed, and her face softened into real beauty. “No, I don’t suppose you do. My name’s Karen Mitchell,” she said, extending her hand. “I own a bed-and-breakfast, and since the end of summer there haven’t been many tourists in search of either.”
Paul clasped her hand. “Paul Vanzant. And, coincidentally, I was on my way to your place.”
The woman slanted a questioning look at him. “On the beach?” she asked in a skeptical tone.
“No. Of course not.” Paul’s lips twitched into a smile. “I was driving along, watching for your sign, and couldn’t resist the lure of this stretch of shoreline.” He lifted his shoulders again in that self-deprecating shrug. “I parked the car and started walking.” He shifted his gaze toward the road and frowned. “My car’s along there somewhere.”
“Not in much of a hurry, are you?” Karen grinned. “I gave up rushing for Lent.”
“This is October.” Her grin widened.
“I enjoyed it so much I extended it.” Paul grinned back at her. “So, will you rent me a room?”
“But how did you know about my place?” Karen asked, playing for time while trying to decide if she should trust herself alone in the house with him.
Paul smiled in understanding and approval of her caution. “The taciturn proprietor of that picturesque general store in town recommended your place to me.” He frowned, remembering. “Come to think of it, he said he’d give you a call and tell you to expect me.” His dry description of Calvin Muthard, owner of the one and only general store in the small nearby town, was so accurate that Karen didn’t doubt for an instant that Paul had spoken to him. “When was that?”
Paul shrugged. “Thirty minutes or so.”
“That explains it, then.” Karen matched his shrug. “I’ve been out here on the beach for some time. If Calvin said he would call, then he called.”
“You could give him a call,” Paul suggested.
Karen’s smile was wry. “Knowing Calvin, he’ll keep ringing until he reaches me.”
“So, will you rent me a room?”
“Why not?” Karen laughed. “I’ve got plenty of them, all empty.”
“Good.” Paul turned away. “I’ll get my car and...” His voice trailed away and he turned to her, a smile on his lips. “Where /sthe house?”
Karen’s ordinary brown eyes grew bright with amusement and were suddenly not at all ordinary. Tiny gold flecks sparked light in their dark depths, mesmerizing Paul for an electric instant. The odd moment was broken when she pointed to a building beyond the rocks and dunes.
“It’s that monstrosity right there.” She smiled at him over her shoulder. “You can’t miss it, even if you want to.”
The house was large and solid-looking. Victorian in design, it appeared to have weathered every storm nature had flung at it. Its dignified form appealed to Paul “It’s beautiful,” he murmured, studying the structure. “I can’t imagine how I missed it.”
“I can.” Karen’s soft laugh caused an unusual tingling reaction at Paul’s nape. “You were walking with your head down. The few times you did glance up, you stared out to sea.”
“You were watching me?” Pondering the strange sensation at the back of his neck, Paul made a show of examining the veranda encircling the house.
“I’d tired of watching the gulls and talking to myself.” Karen’s voice retained a hint of laughter. “You were a diversion.”
“You live in that house alone?” One eyebrow peaked as he shifted his gaze to her face.
Karen nodded. “For now.”
Intrigued but unwilling to pry, Paul suppressed the questions that sprang to his tongue. “I’ll get the car and meet you at the house.” Pivoting, he headed for the road.
“I’ll start a pot of coffee,” she called after him.
“Great, I could use a cup,” Paul shouted back, suddenly aware of the sharpness of the wind and the inadequacy of his poplin jacket.
The car was farther along the road than he had thought, and by the time he slid behind the wheel his fingers were numb with cold. Blowing warm breath into his cupped hands, Paul stared at the stretch of deserted road and frowned. Accustomed as he was to the noise and pace of city life, Paul could appreciate the solitude afforded by this empty section of the Maine coast. He himself had recently vacated a similar section. And yet for a woman to be on her own and living in a house that size... Paul’s frown deepened. Was she safe here? A prickling of alarm startled him out of his introspection. It was none of his business, he thought impatiently, shoving the key into the ignition. How and where Karen Mitchell chose to live was no concern of his. Besides, he mused, driving the car off the soft shoulder and onto the road, she was no longer alone. He was here now.
The house was even more fascinating on closer inspection. Though definitely weathered-looking, it had none of the brooding quality one might expect of a large, isolated house surrounded by sand dunes and facing an ocean. Pulling the car onto the sandy drive at the side of the house, Paul killed the engine, then sat gazing at the building while attempting to identify its attraction.
Welcome. Haven. Security.
Paul went still as the words rushed into his mind. He had been wandering aimlessly for months. Winter would soon eclipse fall. Was he subconsciously seeking a secure, welcoming haven? Had he also secretly hoped to find the warmth of a woman as well as the warmth of a solid shelter?
Ridiculous! Paul’s aristocratic features set into forbidding lines. He owned two perfectly adequate homes, both equal in size to Karen’s. And when he was ready he would go back, at least to his primary house in Philadelphia. As for hoping to find the warmth of a woman? Paul winced. He had not experienced even the slightest urge for a woman’s company in a very long time. He had existed without that particular physical urge by necessity. He needed lodging, nothing more.
Yet there was a lure to this particular section of the coast, an attraction Paul had not felt during the weeks he’d spent in his son’s cottage farther up the coast. That inexplicable lure was the reason he had pulled the car off the road to walk the deserted beach.
But the beach hadn’t been deserted, Paul mused, narrowing his eyes as he stared at the large house. Was it Karen’s magnetism that had been tugging at him? Paul blinked in surprise at the fanciful thought.
What utter nonsense! Paul shook his head to clear his mind. He was long past the age of believing in fateful attraction, if in fact he had ever been of an age to believe in it. The only lure here was the call of nature and a house reminiscent of another, gentler age, and it was a summons Paul didn’t have the time to indulge. He had drifted, rudderless, for too long. It was time to get back to working—and living.
Staring at Karen Mitchell’s house without really seeing it, Paul’s thoughts wandered back to a time when he had enjoyed life, years before the death of his wife, an event that had occurred six months previously. Learning of his wife’s infidelities had robbed his personal and business life of all the joy he’d derived from it. And yet Paul had continued, living a lie at home and at the office until the day his wife had driven her classic Corvette into a bridge abutment. At that point, he had literally dropped out. Within weeks he had formally retired from the banking work he loved and had closed the house in which he had laughed and loved and raised his two children. He had been wandering ever since.
Grimacing, Paul deliberately drew his gaze from the house. Peter was expecting to hear from him; and what his son was expecting to hear was that Paul was coming home, this time for good. He’d stay the night, then be on his way.
His dark eyes coolly remote, Paul swung the car door open and slid his tall body from the expensive vehicle. Striding purposefully to the back of the car, he removed only one of his cases from the trunk.
Karen swung the heavy door open as Paul mounted the veranda steps on the seaward side of the house. As he crossed the threshold the aroma of rich coffee, combined with the scent of an exciting female, assailed his senses. Against his will, Paul found himself inhaling both seductive fragrances.
“Are you hungry?” Karen asked as she closed the door, shutting out the rising wind.
“Yes.” Paul smiled at the realization that he’d been unaware of his empty stomach until that minute. “As a matter of fact, I’m famished.” His smile turned wry. “I believe I forgot to eat lunch.”
“Well, then, just drop your bag here in the hall,” she said briskly, indicating the spacious hallway connecting the identical doors. “Dinner won’t be ready for several hours,” she continued, turning away from the wide central staircase and walking toward an open doorway to her left. “But I can warm up some croissants for you to have with your coffee, if you’d like?” She paused in the doorway, eyebrows raised.
“I’d like that very much, thank you,” Paul answered with stiff formality. He noted her speculative frown as he bent to set his suitcase at the foot of the stairs. Chiding himself for his coldness, he attempted a lighter tone. “Is there somewhere I can wash up?” Karen’s expression eased as she nodded. “There’s the powder room.” She motioned to a door to the right behind the staircase. A smile teased her lips. “Be careful, though. You’re rather large and the room’s rather small. You could bump into yourself by merely turning around.”
Paul found the room every bit as small as she had warned it would be. A hint of a smile touched his lips as he washed his hands at the tiny sink. The powder room was an afterthought, he guessed, and had more than likely been a closet originally. The room wasn’t much larger than a rest room on a commercial jet plane. Paul imagined Karen in the cramped space, and his smile broadened to reveal strong white teeth.