Authors: LuAnn McLane
I would like to extend a special thanks to editors Lindsay Nouis and Laura Cifelli for taking extra pains to make this book special. We worked right down to the wire but the end result was worth it!
As always, thanks to my agent, Jenny Bent. Your belief in my ability to tackle new and exciting challenges keeps me growing as a writer.
“Okay, okay, settle down,” Dakota scolded herself while taking shallow breaths. “Okaaaay . . .” After a moment, her rapid heartbeat calmed a bit, but then she felt a tickling sensation as if something was crawling between her shoulder blades. “Oh! God!” Wincing, she reached behind her back and slid her hand up her shirt, but the tiny tickling persisted just out of her reach.
She grumbled, arched her spine and tilted back her shoulders in a move that would have made Cirque du Soleil proud, but then in desperation tugged her T-shirt over her head. She slapped at her back with the sleeve and, sure enough, flung a big black spider into the air. “I knew it! Okay, now where did you go?” With a shudder, she squinted down at the hardwood floor.
With the curtains drawn, the room was in semidark ness, with the only real light slicing in through the open front door. “Aha—there you are!” Nervously twisting the T-shirt in her fists, Dakota crept forward with the intention of smashing the spider beneath her flip-flop. She even went as far as to raise her foot, but then stood there balanced on one leg, looking as if she were doing a karate pose. She swallowed hard and glared at the spider, but imagined the imminent pop and squish, and her foot remained poised in midair. “You can do this,” she whispered fiercely, but could not bring herself to perform the deed.
Dakota concentrated hard, dug deep for her killer instinct. “Okay, here goes nothing,” she murmured, gritted her teeth, and prepared herself to end the life of the spider.
“Are you okay?” a deep voice from out of nowhere questioned.
Jarred from her task, Dakota’s head whipped up and around. She dropped her shirt, lost her balance, and took a step back, squishing the spider with an audible crunch. Her eyes widened at the tall figure standing in the doorway, blocking out most of the waning sunlight. “Oh, God—ew!”
She kicked off the flip-flop she had soiled with spider guts and blinked up at the giant man standing in the shadows. Well, he wasn’t a giant—maybe six-two or -three, but to Dakota’s five feet four, and that was on a big-hair day, he seemed huge and looming. His dark hair reached nearly to his shoulders, and equally dark stubble shaded his square, unyielding jaw. A black T-shirt stretched across a well-defined chest and seemed to test the limits of short sleeves that revealed bulging biceps. Faded jeans ripped at the knees hugged muscled thighs.
“What made you scream?”
“Um . . .” Dakota inhaled a calming breath and was beginning to think she was in overreactive fight-or-flight mode when she noticed—
Oh, dear Lord
—that he had an ax by his side! With a gasp, she started backing away, thinking it had been a while since she had come home to Pine Hollow Lake, and perhaps things had changed.
“Hey, I’m not going to hurt you,” he promised in a deep voice that sounded a little bit insulted.
I’ll just bet that’s what all the ax murderers say
, Dakota thought while wondering whether she could scurry past him and run for the hills. She suddenly felt as if she had stumbled into a bad horror flick and she was Sarah Michelle Gellar. “I know karate,” she bluffed, hoping he had mistaken her one-legged pose and screams for some martial arts moves. Fat chance, but it was worth a try. “So just back off!” Dakota quickly removed her other flip-flop and held it up over her head as if it were a samurai sword.
Yeah, right. Even though it did kill the spider rather handily, the flimsy rubber wouldn’t do much damage to the man in the doorway. Still, knowing it was all in the attitude, Dakota wielded her weapon with all the fearlessness she could muster, which, unfortunately, wasn’t much, so she narrowed her eyes and added in a low and lethal tone, “I’m serious.”
“Are you, now?”
“Yes,” she said in a whisper of warning, and waved the flip-flop so hard that the fake daisy adornment fluttered to the floor and landed near his feet, as if she had just thrown down the gauntlet. Not good.
After a brief moment of silence, he shook his head, making Dakota feel as silly as she must’ve looked. Well, at least his demeanor suddenly didn’t seem so sinister, and that somehow eased Dakota’s fear, but then she became a little miffed at his uninvited intrusion.
She was trying to come up with something haughty to say when she suddenly remembered that she was standing there in her skimpy lace demi bra with the little lock-and-key charm dangling between the pink cups. With her low-rise jeans hugging her hips, she realized she was giving him quite an eyeful. Exuding as much dignity as she could muster, which was none at all, she scrambled over to her T-shirt and hastily tugged it over her head.
“Okay,” Dakota said with her hands on her hips, “just who do you think you are, busting into this cabin without so much as a knock?” She asked this in a snooty tone, since now that she had come to her senses, she was pretty much convinced that he wasn’t a crazy backwoods killer. When her shirt felt funny, she realized she had put it on backward, and hoped he didn’t notice.
He scratched the side of his chin. “Well, the fact that you screamed several times had something to do with it. Pardon me for asking, but just why did you scream, and why were you half dressed?”
Dakota lifted her chin a notch. “If you must know, I was attacked by a spider.”
“Attacked?” he asked dryly.
She narrowed her eyes at the amused inflection in his voice. “Yes,” she answered primly, and then further explained, “I walked straight into a huge cobweb, and the spider”—she paused to demonstrate the hugeness by opening her arms in a circle—“crawled beneath my shirt.”
“So that’s why you were half naked?” He leaned one shoulder against the doorframe and crossed his arms over his wide chest.
“I wasn’t half naked!” she sputtered, but felt heat creep into her cheeks. Despite nine years in L.A., her Southern drawl suddenly returned with a vengeance. “And I have, you know”—she widened her eyes and put a hand to her chest—“aracnaphelia.”
“You mean arachnophobia?”
“Whichever one means that spiders scare the ever-living daylights out of you.” She waved a hand in the air, wishing he would come out of the shadows so she could get a better look at his face. Maybe it was because she was so used to metrosexual men, but for some reason his rough-around-the-edges appearance was making her female hormones kick into high gear. Feeling a little self-conscious at her wayward thoughts, she averted her gaze and looked around. “This place needs a good scrubbing.”
“Well, this isn’t a Holiday Inn. Look, I’m not sure where you were heading, but you must have made a wrong turn. You’re at Willow Creek Marina and Fishing Camp. This particular cabin belongs to Charley Dunn, the owner ’s father. The owner lives in L.A. and hasn’t been here in years,” he explained, but then suddenly stood up straight. “Wait, who are you?” he asked bluntly, even though Dakota could tell he had just put two and two together.
“Dakota Dunn, Charley and Rita Mae Dunn’s daughter.” While angling her head to the side, she peered at him more closely, still wishing the lighting in the room were brighter. “Are you Trace Coleman?” She had seen pictures of the ex-bull-riding star, and the man standing before her did not look like the former hotshot Professional Bull Riding champion. But then she remembered her father telling her Trace had been forced from the dangerous sport due to serious injuries.
“Yes,” he answered tightly.
Embarrassed at her incredulous tone, Dakota gave him a smile. “Well, it’s nice to meet you. My father tells me you do a bang-up job running the marina.” She moved a couple of steps closer to him and was about to offer her hand, but to her amazement he didn’t make any move to enter the room or to welcome her there.
“So, are you just checking up on things? Passing through?” Any hint of friendliness was suddenly gone, replaced with a distinct you-don’t-belong-here attitude.
“No, I’m moving in,” Dakota answered a bit stiffly. “I need some peace and quiet for a change,” she added, leaving out the fact that this marina was the only thing left in the world that she owned and she had nowhere else to go unless she headed to Florida and lived with her parents.
No, thank you.
“Oh.” He seemed annoyed. “But it
Dakota shrugged, since she didn’t really know the answer to his question. She certainly hoped so; living in a fishing camp cabin was a far cry from her house in L.A. But she didn’t think it was necessary to explain to Trace Coleman that her bubblegum pop days were long gone, or that her record label had released her several years ago.
“So you’re not sure?” he persisted.
“I’m reevaluating my career choices,” she responded vaguely. “I thought Daddy’s cabin would be a good place to—”
“Reevaluate?” He pinned her with a sharp look and waited.
“Yes.” She knew what this marina meant to the community, and she wanted to assure him that she wasn’t there to sell the property. But unless she got her act together, she might have to, so she refrained from making promises she couldn’t keep. Her manager had advised her that if she wanted to salvage her music career, she must ditch her wholesome, squeaky-clean image. She had been instructed to sex up her brand and return to her redneck roots, with the hope of breaking into the hot country music scene.
There was only one problem: Her upbringing was Southern middle class, and her demeanor more genteel than redneck. Her manager wanted a kick-ass Gretchen Wilson or Miranda Lambert, but Dakota was more sugar and spice than gunpowder and lead. Although L.A. had broadened her horizons, she was still more at home at a potluck social than in a honky-tonk bar. “Plus, I have some serious songwriting to accomplish.”
“And you think this fishing camp will inspire you?”
“Yes,” she repeated softly, more to herself than to Trace. She suddenly felt a bit lost and alone as she gazed around the sparsely furnished cabin. Her career had skyrocketed her to the top, but she had quickly fizzled, and then landed with a resounding thud, not unlike many teen stars. But hard work and determination had always been her strong suit, so Dakota planned to dig deep for her inner redneck and give it her best shot. Perhaps big, bad, and broody over there could lend her a helping hand in that direction. She angled her head at the rough-and-tumble cowboy. “That’s my plan anyway.”
“Yeah?” he said in an irritated tone. “Well, good luck with that one.”
You’d better hope so
was on the tip of her tongue, but he folded his arms across his chest, causing a ripple of muscle that chased her train of thought right out the window.
Trace swallowed hard. It had been a long time since a gorgeous woman had looked at him with such unbridled interest. And after just having seen her breasts all but spilling out of her lacy bra like a Victoria’s Secret model’s, he was suddenly breaking into a sweat despite the cool evening breeze blowing at his back.
I do not need this
, he thought.
“So you’re sticking around for a while, then?” He knew his tone was chock-full of disapproval, but he couldn’t help it. She might own the place, but she was clearly out of her element.
“I’m just going to lie low, write songs, and reassess things.”
Trace jammed his hands into his pockets and gave her a look that said he wasn’t buying what she was selling. He could feel it in his bones that she was holding something back, and he sure hoped she wasn’t thinking about selling the property. Willow Creek Marina was his reason for getting up in the morning, and he couldn’t even let his brain consider that possibility.
“I do expect regular business updates, though.”
“Not a problem,” he said. She probably had no earthly idea how hard he and his crew worked or what this place meant to the locals who fished here. Plus, a fishing camp was no place for a woman, especially one who looked like her. Even with her T-shirt on backward and her sloppy blond ponytail sliding sideways, she was still sexy enough to make his mouth water. “But listen, we’re real busy right about now, and things can get pretty rowdy at night when the guys come back from fishin’.”
“I’ll be fine—trust me.”
“I’m serious, Dakota.” Trace told himself that it was because she was Charley Dunn’s daughter that he felt a sudden surge of protectiveness where she was concerned. If Charley hadn’t rescued him from what could have been a permanent perch on a barstool and thrown him into this job, he might still be sitting there, pissed off at the world.
“Really, you won’t even know I’m around. I’ll be as quiet as a church mouse.”
“Right,” Trace said with a deadpan look meant to remind her of her recent screams.
She put her hands on her hips and gave him a comical put-out expression that almost wrangled a rare smile from him. “Look, the spider thing was a fluke. I grew up around these parts. My daddy was a fishing guide, for pity’s sake. I’m hardly a shrinking violet, Trace.”
Oh, wow. The silky sound of his name on her lips awoke something in Trace that he thought he had buried in a deep, dark place never to be reached. But within a few short moments of meeting her, Dakota Dunn had managed to reach inside him and yank unwanted emotion to the surface.
And he didn’t like it.
“Oh, really,” Trace scoffed in a hard tone that was meant to tick her off.
“Yes, really.” When she did a sassy little head bop he knew he had to get tougher.
“Well, let me explain something to you.” Trace remained in the shadows but stood up straighter, even though it hurt to put his full weight on his bad leg. “This is a fishing camp. Full of men out to have a good time.”