Gabe stood on a small two-lane road and waited. He wasn’t waiting for any cars to come by, because he could be waiting for hours. He sure as hell wasn’t waiting for any people.
But he’d waited years to stand in just that spot, and he was going to enjoy it. The bus had dropped him off at the closest station, but the closest station didn’t go anywhere near the town. He’d been walking most of the day, hitchhiking when some brave soul stopped for him. Blisters had formed on his tired feet, but he barely noticed. Each step was a gift, each drop of rain and gust of wind something to treasure. The sky over his head and the open road were pleasures he’d never take for granted again.
The town’s sign was rough and weathered, its edges warped. It wasn’t one of those new modern signs with laser-printed white letters. This was aged wood, the once rich cedar now a dull gray. The letters were burned into the surface and coated with paint, most of which had faded long ago.
Welcome to Lost Coast Harbor, it said.
Gabe’s tight-lipped smile was brutal as he stepped across the town line. For six years, he’d pored over maps, memorizing the names of every street, from the main highway to the smallest alley. He didn’t hesitate when he hit first one fork in the road, then another.
Whoever named the town hadn’t been joking. The town wasn’t in the middle of nowhere. It was on the very edge of nowhere, pressed up against the enormous swell of the Pacific Ocean. It perched on the ragged cliffs of the Northern California coast, as though it hadn’t quite decided whether or not to jump into the churning water below.
This wasn’t the California of the movies, all beaches and bikinis and smiling tanned faces. This place was fog and lashing rain. It was wind that bit at your ears and made your eyes water. Maybe it was pleasant in summer, but summer was still a long way off.
The weather didn’t slow him. He loved every stinging drop. At least he was free to feel the harsh weather. He was even free to turn around if he wanted. Instead, Gabe took one step after another, inexorably moving toward his goal.
The town square looked just as he’d pictured it. The large park in the middle was ringed by a one-way street that held most of the town’s key businesses. They were small buildings, just two or three stories, with the exception of the courthouse. On the south side of the square, the historical building rose above the others, its bell tower a dark silhouette against the night.
Only the bar remained open. He’d read about it and seen pictures on the Internet, but it was still startling to see Donnelly’s Pub in person. After years of research and planning, it was finally real.
A couple of locals opened the front door, bringing a burst of noise and light with them. Gabe ambled to the other side of the road, not moving too fast. He didn’t want to draw attention to himself.
They glanced his way but didn’t seem very curious. He exhaled in relief. In a town as small as this, curiosity was often the default position, particularly where strangers were concerned. The couple sounded like they’d had a beer too many, and their overloud laughter faded when they turned down a side street.
The harbor was about a mile south of the town center, tucked into a small cove. As Gabe approached the docks, the biting ocean air hit him. He inhaled, slow and deep. There was nothing like the sea.
Gabe kept to the shadows, stepping lightly down the metal stairs built into the cliff. A stranger in the town center was unexpected enough. An unfamiliar face lurking around the harbor at midnight would raise questions he didn’t want to answer.
The ocean was active tonight, the January winds making the water churn. The crashing waves covered the sound of his feet on the metal dock.
Unlike the rest of the town, the dock was modern. It had been built to withstand heavy loads. The ocean was on one side, and several single-story buildings were on the other. A few ships waited to be loaded with cargo, and he picked out the shadows of heavy industrial equipment, cranes and forklifts silhouetted against the night sky. About five hundred feet down the coast, he could just make out the small harbor where locals kept their boats, but there was no hint of movement. He was alone.
Cameras were probably mounted on the roofs, so he pulled the hood of his sweatshirt tight around his face and kept his head down. He did his best to avoid the dim orange lights that barely illuminated the dock.
Half the buildings were dedicated to the fishing industry and the other half to the shipping company. Both had the same name on their signs.
Hastings Enterprises. Gabe’s lip curled in a snarl.
He peered into one of the windows. Though it was late, the plastic blinds were open and the lights were still on.
It looked like any other industrial office. Desks, file cabinets, rolling chairs. There were also several thriving plants, a surprising sight in a cold office. Gabe thought the equipment looked modern, but what did he know. It could have been years old. He hadn’t spent much time in offices, and none at all the last six years.
There was one item he hadn’t expected to see. A red sign with big white letters sat in the window.
Before he could stop himself, Gabe laughed out loud. It was a short burst of sound, quickly swallowed by the night, and it bore as little resemblance to an actual laugh as bared teeth did to a smile.
A light snapped on. He leapt backwards, seeking the shadows. Gabe’s heart thudded in his ears, wondering if the man himself would appear. His fingers curled into claws. Violence was rarely his first choice, but he only felt pleasure at the thought of his hands wrapped around the man’s neck. He would squeeze until Hastings’ eyes bulged and the bastard confessed every sin he’d ever committed.
But Gabe didn’t want violence. That would send him back to the hell he’d finally escaped. He forced his fingers to relax.
The woman who stepped through the interior doorway definitely wasn’t Hastings. Gabe exhaled, unsure if he was disappointed or relieved.
He studied her, wondering what part she played in Hastings Enterprises. No one was insignificant. It didn’t matter if she was a receptionist or someone’s girlfriend. She would know something, and that would lead to something else, and eventually one of those things would lead to Hastings. They had to.
She was pretty enough. Her dark brown hair was pulled into such a tight bun he wondered if it made her head ache. She squeaked into the tall range, maybe five-eight or so, and she wore sensible brown flats rather than heels. Her pants were brown as well, her top a perfectly serviceable white button-down that hung on her narrow frame. Her features might have been nice, if her mouth wasn’t pursed and her brow furrowed.
She looked, Gabe decided, like a woman in desperate need of a good lay. He dropped his gaze to her left hand. No ring.
The beginnings of a plan clicked into place, and his smile turned wolfish.
The woman grabbed her purse and keys. Gabe ducked between two buildings, where the darkness was unrelieved by a single light. He sent a silent prayer of thanks for the moonless night.
The door clicked shut and the woman’s steps moved along the dock. They were light, almost as soft as a dancer’s. When she reached his hiding place, she glanced between the buildings, almost as if she sensed he was there.
It was too dark for her to spot him, but she’d paused beneath a lamppost. He could see her clearly.
His breath caught. He’d been wrong. She wasn’t small-town pretty. When her face softened and the long lines of her body were revealed by the light surrounding her, she was downright lovely.
Gabe swallowed and felt his balls tighten.
Fuck, how long had it been since he’d even seen a good-looking woman, let alone been near one? If this woman helped him achieve his revenge while looking so soft and pretty, he’d be a fool not to enjoy the bonus.
Except…she probably had nothing to do with his arrest. He’d be using an innocent woman for his own ends.
He squashed those doubts before they grabbed hold. Gabe had spent years looking after everyone else, and in the end it took everything he had.
This time, he was only looking after himself.
* * *
Maddie closed her front door with a sigh of relief. The walk home had been bracing, if bracing meant she could no longer feel her fingers and was fairly certain her ears had fallen off two blocks ago.
She stomped her feet in the entryway to bring her toes back to life. She also wanted to make noise just because she could. For the first time in years, she didn’t need to worry about disturbing anyone else.
Her house was finally her own. No raucous music on the weekends, no mysterious lifeforms in the refrigerator, no one to notice when she came home on the wrong side of midnight. She closed her eyes and reveled in the long-awaited solitude.
“Maddie? You home?”
She froze and considered going back outside.
“I thought I heard you come in.” Bree strode down the narrow stairs, looking far too awake for that time of night. Then again, Bree had never kept a regular schedule. Even in high school, she’d been as likely to be wide awake at four a.m. on a weekday as not.
Maddie shut her eyes and counted to five. Maybe ten would be better. “You’re still here?”
“Blame Jared. I tried to pick up the keys, but the office was shut every time. I’m sorry, Maddie. I know you’re ready to live alone.”
She really should have counted to twenty. Maddie hung her dark wool coat on one of the hallway pegs, thinking furiously. “It’s okay. Everyone knows what Jared’s like. You didn’t say it was one of the Hastings properties. I’ll get Oliver to bring the keys to the dock tomorrow.”
“You’re the only person I know whose boss will run errands for them. But yeah, that would be great.” Bree pointed to the stack of boxes by the front door. “I really tried to get out of here today. Erin even took the day off to help me.”
Maddie’s annoyance faded. Bree had been her best friend since second grade, and this wasn’t her fault. Having her for a roommate the last four years had been a lifesaver. Without her, Maddie would have lost her home, unable to make the payments on the mortgage she’d taken over when her mother died. But last week, she’d sent in the final payment. Years of scrimping and saving had paid off. It wasn’t much, this old cottage by the sea, but it was officially hers. No one could take it away.
Maddie ran her finger along the top box, labeled “Cords and various electronic shit.” It was so very Bree, honest and irreverent at the same time. “I know. And it’s not that I’m rushing to get rid of you…”
Bree snorted. “Yes you are, and you should be. You went from your mom to Charlie to me, and I moved in the day I came back from college. Neither of us has lived alone. It’s time to act like the sort-of grownups we sometimes pretend to be. I’m more than ready to hole up in my cabin in the trees, but don’t think for a second I’m taking off and leaving you here alone.”
“I can take care of myself,” Maddie protested.
“That’s exactly what I’m worried about—that you’ll only take care of yourself.” Bree waggled her eyebrows, in case her meaning wasn’t clear.
Maddie grimaced. She didn’t have much room to argue. Bree knew exactly how long Maddie’s dry spell had been, and the last few months her friend hadn’t missed a chance to remind her about it.
Bree’s smile turned a little bit wicked. “Or have you already found someone to invite back to your newly-empty house? Don’t think I didn’t notice the time. What were you doing tonight? Details, please.”
“Where do you think I was? There was a mixup at work. Two ships came in that weren’t supposed to. It needed to be sorted out, and I lost track of time.” Also, she’d wanted to give Bree a few more hours to leave, but she left that part out.
“You give that place too much of your time.”
“That place is why I now have a savings account.”
“Lots of people with savings accounts manage to leave work at five.”
Maddie wasn’t ready to admit why she’d recently increased her hours. Hastings Enterprises was putting in a bid for a huge chunk of land northeast of town. She needed to convince Oliver to let her work on that project—which meant she had to prove the shipping office was in good enough shape to function without her.
The promotion could change her life. She’d already learned everything she could as an office assistant. If she didn’t get out soon, she would stagnate, become just another person working a nine-to-five job that never led anywhere. It would pay the bills, but she’d stay in the same tax bracket the rest of her life. The one that meant she was secure and comfortable…until disaster hit. And if life had taught her anything, disaster always hit.
The real estate deal was a huge opportunity. Another chance to learn, to build her resume. It would put her one step closer to a career and the financial stability that came with it.
But Maddie knew what Bree thought of her plans, so instead she turned around and pointed at her professional but drab outfit. “Why are you asking where I was? Does anything about me scream ‘Hot night at Donnelly’s!’ to you?”
Bree was undeterred. “It doesn’t need to be a hot night. You’re probably a bit rusty, so you should aim for tepid. Have a starter date first.”
Maddie considered several responses, but they all led to her sputtering in protest. Instead, she walked past Bree without responding.
“It’s been almost four years, Maddie. Go on one date. Friends don’t let friends become spinsters at twenty-six. It’s time to try again.”
Try again. That made it sound like she’d embarrassed herself on a previous date, maybe tucked the back of her skirt into her tights. Maybe she’d found Mr. Not-Quite-Right, but a few more laps around the dating pool would sort her out.
Forget the dating pool. She was just seeing the light after almost drowning in the marriage sea. The mortgage was gone. Her credit cards had been paid off months ago, and soon she would have enough to buy a reliable used car. The nightmare she’d lived with for years was coming to an end.
At best, she was ready for the let’s-meet-for-coffee shallow end.
She reached the top of the stairs, but Bree was still going. “C’mon, Maddie. Let’s go out tomorrow. Find some naughty guy who can make your toes curl.”
Maddie faced her determined friend. She stood on one leg and pulled off her right flat, extending her flexed foot. “Uncurled and staying that way. You know what happened the last time I let curled toes make decisions for me. You want to find me a man, Bree? Find one that I always know where he is on Saturday nights. A guy whose credit score is higher than his IQ.”
Bree waved her hand, dismissing such paltry concerns. “Fine. Can we at least make sure you find this man between your legs on a regular basis?”
Bree ducked to avoid the shoe thrown down the stairwell, laughing the entire time. “You’re such a liar. I already know you agreed to meet Declan for coffee. As your bestest friend ever, I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.”
Maddie groaned. She loved Lost Coast Harbor, but there were serious downsides to living in a small town. “I didn’t tell anyone. If I had, everyone in town would be debating the pros and cons of me dating a Donnelly. It’s coffee,” she insisted. “A starter date. Nothing more.”
Her nosy friend looked a little too smug. “He’s hot.” Bree gave an appreciative nod. “In a nerdy, bookish way, but still hot. I approve.”
That was exactly why Maddie had finally said yes. Not the hot part. In truth, Bree’s assessment surprised her. The thought hadn’t crossed her mind. But Declan was quiet. Reliable. A bookstore owner. He was respectable, which made him the black sheep of the wild Donnelly family and perfect for her first foray back into dating, if that’s what this was. The fact that she didn’t feel the slightest flutter of excitement was a good thing.
“One date,” she called down to Bree. “Then you leave me alone for six months.”
Bree grinned and turned toward the kitchen. “Three,” she called over her shoulder, “and only if you give me all the details.”
A few minutes later, Maddie climbed into bed. She wore flannel pajamas, like she did most nights. This set was covered in monkeys and made her smile every time she put them on. There was an undeniable joy in wearing whatever she wanted. She slid between the sheets and sprawled across the queen-sized bed, claiming it for her own.
She’d dumped the old mattress the day she was cleared of all charges. Then she threw all Charlie’s possessions into boxes and hauled them to a local charity. That night, Bree and Erin came over. They made a bonfire of his clothes and toasted marshmallows over the flames.
It was all hers now. The home and everything in it. No one could take it from her.
Bree was right about one thing. Maddie was ready for change. Maybe even ready to date again.
But she also needed a change from her ex. Charlie was trouble through and through, and he always had been. It was one of the reasons she fell for him.
This time, she’d find a good man. Someone who understood her ambitions. He’d be clean-cut and kind. The sort of man who never forgot a birthday or watched other women when he thought she wasn’t paying attention. He might even wear khakis.
That was the kind of guy she wanted now, and she wouldn’t settle for anything less.
“What do you mean, you couldn’t get the keys?” Maddie tried very hard not to glare at the man who signed her paychecks.
Oliver blinked in surprised. “The rental office was locked.”
She threw her hands up. “You’re the CEO of Hastings Enterprises, and you’re telling me you can’t get into one of your buildings.”
“I never needed a key before. Jared’s in charge of the properties.”
“And he’s terrible at his job. He’s never there.” Be calm, Maddie reminded herself. She tapped her thumb and forefinger together five times. “Which means Bree can’t get the key to her cabin, which means I still have a roommate.”
Her boss’s brows drew together as he struggled to understand her frustration. Oliver was the firstborn son of the richest family in town. There wouldn’t have been a day of his life when he needed to split the rent to get by.
“I thought you and Bree were best friends,” he said, as perplexed as ever. The man masterfully ran the largest shipping operation between Oakland and Portland, but he didn’t always understand people. After all, there were rules to shipping. Schedules, weights, and distance. People were never so accommodating.
Maddie’s hair slipped. With a few rough twists, she tightened the bun at the base of her skull and jammed a pin into the mass to hold it in place. “That’s not the point,” she said. “Bree already paid first month’s rent and still can’t get into her home. Jared’s in breach of contract.”
That was the language Oliver understood. Contracts. Rules. Order. At last, he nodded in understanding. “I’ll sort it out.”
“Good.” She sighed in relief, then stood a little taller and lifted her chin. “There’s something else. I want to work on the land deal.”
If Oliver was surprised before, now he was flummoxed. “The Stanwick Ranch one? But I need you here.”
Maddie was prepared for him to say that. “No, you don’t. I’ve organized this place so it practically runs itself. You can hire someone else. Remember when I asked you for this job? I said you’d never regret it. That I’d be the best office manager you’d ever had, and I was right. You took a chance on me, and it paid off.”
Oliver sputtered for a few minutes. “But there’s a huge difference between filing systems and corporate documents,” he managed at last. “And I don’t have the time to train you.”
She stood as straight as she could. Maddie didn’t care for heels, but at that moment she longed for a few more inches, enough to almost look Oliver in the eye. “You know I’ve been taking business courses at the community college. My last semester starts in three weeks. I’ll have my associate’s degree by summer.”
His voice was a little too gentle. “Everyone working on this deal has an MBA. The most I can offer you is an unpaid internship.”
She wanted to yell. Or curse. Or yell curses. “I can do this, Oliver. I’m not saying you should hire me as a lawyer. Just let me manage the paperwork. Track schedules and deadlines, make sure the right people are in contact with each other. It’s not much more than I do here.”
He hesitated. A flare of hope bloomed in her chest.
A voice came from the doorway, low and perfectly modulated but coated in a thin layer of grit. “Am I in the right place?”
Maddie closed her eyes for a second. If she pummeled the man for interrupting, Oliver might think she wasn’t qualified for the promotion. She steeled her face into a pleasant expression and turned to face the newcomer.
And once again, she needed to remind herself to be calm. She began counting, but couldn’t remember what came after four.
The man before her was a god.
Not just a regular god, either. This was the kind who’d traveled to earth, found a bit of trouble, and decided he was having way too much fun to return to his celestial home. Any sensible woman would run the other way the moment she spotted him.
The dock was full of rough men, but he was nothing like the employees she saw day in and day out. Most of them were like Vince and Harold, with soft bellies from too much beer after work and faces weathered by exposure to the sun and storms. They were good guys, and they usually had a playful word for her when they stopped into the office, but none of them were what she’d call pretty.
This man’s stomach was perfectly flat. He wore his winter coat open, and the hoodie underneath was a size too small. It stretched tight across a broad chest.
His body was impressive. His face made her stop breathing.
On some level, she knew it wasn’t a face all women would like. A thin scar crossed his right temple, cutting from his eyebrow to his hairline. His nose looked like it might have been broken at some point, though it hadn’t healed crooked, and his cheeks were covered in dark stubble.
He was a couple inches over six feet, with dark brown eyes. Though the planes of his face were hard, his lips were full, almost lush.
She supposed more women might be into that part.
Maddie forced out a breath, shaking off her reaction to this man. He’d caught her off-guard, that was all. Yes, the stranger was freaking gorgeous, but he wasn’t for her—for so many reasons.
He looked like the quintessential bad boy, and she was supposed to have learned her lesson about guys like that.
Then he smiled, and she forgot every one of those reasons. It wasn’t even a real smile. It was close-mouthed, just a small curve of those full lips, but it was enough to soften the harsh angles of his face.
He gestured to the window. “I saw the help wanted sign.”
Pieces clicked into place. The beat-up bag resting at his feet, the clothes that didn’t quite fit. Guys like this stopped by every now and then, looking for any work they could find.
Except he didn’t look like those men, with their tired eyes that had run out of hope years before. His gaze was hot and determined. He didn’t act like those guys, either. Other than the dockworkers, most of the men who visited the office spoke to Oliver first. Sometimes, they didn’t even acknowledge she was in the room. This guy hadn’t glanced in her boss’s direction yet. All his attention was fixed on her.
It wasn’t how polite people looked at each other, especially polite people who’d only just met. He stared at her as if she was the only thing he was capable of seeing.
Maddie shuffled papers on her desk. “Of course. Ah, the job requirements are here somewhere.”
She felt Oliver’s confused eyes on her. Maddie knew where every document was located. If she had to, she could file them while blindfolded.
When she felt composed again, she glanced up, looking at a spot just above the man’s eyes. She ignored the flutter in her stomach.
“What’s your experience, Mr…?”
“Gabriel Reyes. Gabe. I’ve done a lot of odd jobs over the years. Mostly construction, but if you have anything that needs to be lifted and carried somewhere else, I can do it.”
Looking at his shoulders and arms, Maddie didn’t doubt it. “Have you ever worked in shipping?”
His head shake was almost imperceptible.
Again, he shook his head, the motion a bit sharper this time.
“Do you know how to work a forklift or operate a crane?”
“No, but I’m a fast learner.”
Oliver came to life behind her. “Reyes? Gabriel Reyes?”
For the first time, Gabe looked at her boss.
“I know you. You were arrested while driving for Hastings Shipping. You were caught with guns.” As usual, Oliver seemed more confused than accusatory.
Maddie started, then studied Gabe with narrowed eyes. At Oliver’s words, the butterflies in her stomach went to sleep. She remembered hearing about his arrest. It had been the town scandal for several months…until she and Charlie gave them something juicier to gossip about.
He was a freaking criminal. She bit back a groan. She knew some women had a type, but usually that meant they liked them tall or outdoorsy. Nothing like that for her. No, her personal panty-dropper had to be convicts.
The man still stared at Oliver. “Yes.”
That was all. No explanations, no proclamations of innocence. Just confirmation that he was a criminal involved in some truly heinous activities.
“You went to prison, right?”
“Six years.” The words were bitten off, as if they physically hurt him.
“And you come back here?” Oliver studied the man. “That takes balls.”
A muscle in Gabe’s jaw twitched. “Not many places will hire a felon. I didn’t think…”
“That we’d remember you?” Oliver tapped the side of his head. “Steel trap.”
Maddie didn’t point out that Oliver hadn’t remembered a birthday, anniversary, or minor federal holiday in the three years she’d worked for him.
“Sure, you can have the job,” Oliver said.
Gabe’s eyes widened, the only sign he hadn’t expected it to go that way.
Maddie sputtered, struggling to find the words. “Have you lost your mind? He just admitted that he used your company to run guns. What’s to stop him from doing it again? And getting us all caught up in it?” Her voice grew higher as her panic rose.
Her boss gave her a look she knew all too well. It was the same one he wore whenever a stray kitten appeared outside their offices, or when a homeless stowaway found his way to the dock. “He served his time. He paid his debt. Everyone deserves a second chance, Maddie.”
Maddie inhaled. It was the one thing Oliver could say that she wouldn’t argue with, and he knew it. He wrapped one arm around her shoulder and gave it a squeeze, dropping a quick kiss on her temple.
Gabe watched every movement.
“It’ll be a while till you’re in charge of loading cargo,” Oliver warned Gabe, the only indication he hadn’t taken complete leave of his senses. “Come on. Let me show you around a bit.” He stepped outside and waited for the other man.
Gabe lingered for a second too long, still watching her.
“Don’t leave tonight before you fill out the paperwork.” Maddie aimed for civil, but even she could hear the throb of anger in her words.
Gabe’s eyes raked her from her tightly pulled hair to her boring shoes. She didn’t know what he saw, but it was enough to draw another small smile.
“I’ll be here for a while…Maddie.”
He followed Oliver out the door, leaving Maddie standing in the middle of an empty office, counting to ten over and over again.
* * *
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