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Falling For Mr. Dark & Dangerous

Falling For Mr. Dark & Dangerous by Donna Alward
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The crunch of tires on snow let Maggie Taylor know he was here. The U.S. marshal. The man who'd thrown a monkey wrench into things before he'd ever even arrived.

She parted the curtains and looked out over the whitecapped yard. A late March storm had dropped several centimeters of snow earlier in the week and then the temperature had plunged. Now it looked more like Christmas than impending spring.

Maggie sighed as the black SUV pulled up beside her truck. She'd almost booked a trip to get away from the late surge of winter. She'd always found an excuse not to travel, but now that Jen was away from home, she'd decided to treat herself for once and go somewhere hot, where she'd be catered to instead of doing the catering. In fact, she'd been taking extra time browsing around the travel agent's on a trip to Red Deer when he had called, requesting a room for a prolonged stay.

Of course, since she'd been out at the time, Jennifer had taken the call and booked him in without even asking. Not only had it spoiled her plans, but it had caused a huge argument between her and Jennifer. She pressed her thumbs against her index fingers, snapping the knuckles. If it hadn't been about that, it would have been something else. They were always arguing, it seemed. They never saw eye to eye on anything anymore.

As if preordained, Jennifer chose that moment to gallop down the stairs. Maggie stared at the pink plaid flannel that covered her daughter's bottom half, topped by a battered gray sweatshirt that had seen far better days. Maggie felt guilty at the relief she knew she'd feel when Jennifer went back to school after her spring break. These days they got along much better when there were several miles between them.

She dropped the curtain back into place, obscuring her view of the man getting out of the vehicle.

"Honestly, Jen. You're still in your pyjamas and our guest is here." She ran her hands down her navy slacks and straightened the hem of the thick gray sweater she'd put on to ward off the chill.

"I haven't done my laundry yet." Jennifer skirted past her and headed straight for the kitchen.

Maggie sighed. Even though Jen complained that there was nothing to do around here, she somehow always left laundry and chores up to Maggie. And Maggie did them rather than frustrate herself with yet another argument. Their relationship was fragile enough.

When Jen had informed her of this particular booking, Maggie had lost her cool instead of thanking her daughter for actually taking some initiative with the business. Instead she'd harped about her ruined vacation plans.

She should just let the resentment go. Mexico wasn't going anywhere. She'd go another time, that was all. And the money from this off-season booking would come in handy come summer, when repairs to the house would need to be undertaken.

The marshal was a guest here and it was her job to make him feel welcome. Even if she had her doubts. A cop, of all people. He was probably rigid and scheduled and had no sense of humor.

Letting out a breath and pasting on her smile, she went to the door and opened it before he had a chance to ring the bell.

"Welcome to Mountain Haven Bed and Breakfast," she got out, but the rest of the words of her rehearsed greeting flew out of her head as she stared a long way up into blue-green eyes.

"Thank you." His lips moved above a gray and black parka that was zipped precisely to the top. "I know it's off-season, and I appreciate your willingness to open for me. I hope it hasn't inconvenienced you."

It was a struggle to keep her mouth from dropping open, to keep the welcome smile curving her lips. His introductory speech had locked her gaze on his face and she was staggered. She'd be spending the next three weeks with this man? In an otherwise empty bed and breakfast? Jennifer would only be here another few days, and then it was back to school. It would be just the two of them.

What had started out as an annoying business necessity was now curled with intimacy. He was, very possibly, the most gorgeous man she'd ever seen. Even bundled in winter gear she sensed his lean, strong build, the way he carried his body. With purpose and intent. His voice was smooth with just a hint of gravel, giving it a rumbling texture; the well-shaped lips unsmiling despite his polite speech. And he had killer eyes…eyes that gleamed brilliantly in contrast to his dark clothing.

"I am in the right place, aren't I?" He turned his head and looked at the truck, then back at her, frowning a bit as she remained stupidly silent.

Pull yourself together, she told herself. She stepped back, opening the door wider to welcome him in. "If you're Nathaniel Griffith, you're in the right place."

He smiled finally, a quick upturn of the lips, and exhaled, a cloud forming in the frigid air. "That's a relief. I was afraid I'd gotten lost. And please—" he pulled off his glove and held out his hand "—call me Nate. I only get called Nathaniel when I'm in trouble with my boss or my mother."

She smiled back, genuinely this time, as she shook his hand. It was warm and firm and enveloped her smaller fingers completely. She couldn't imagine him in trouble for anything. He looked like Mr. All-American.

"I'm Maggie Taylor, the owner. Please, come in. I'll show you your room and get you familiar with the place."

"I'll just get my bags," he said, stepping back outside the door.

He jogged to the truck, reaching into the back seat for a large black duffel. He leaned across the seat for something else and the back of his jacket slid up, revealing a delicious rear-view clad in faded denim. A dark thrill shot through her at the sight.

"Wow. That's yum," came Jen's voice just behind her shoulder.

Maggie stepped back into the shadows behind the door, feeling the heat rise in her cheeks. "Jennifer! For God's sake, keep your voice down. This is our guest."

Jen took a bite of the toast she'd prepared, looking remarkably unconcerned by either her words or her appearance. "The cop, right? The one I booked? Mom, if the front's anything like the back, it totally beats Mexico."

Nate turned around, bags in hand and Maggie pressed a hand to her belly. This was silly. It was a visceral, physical reaction, nothing more. He was good-looking. So what? She was his hostess. It wasn't her style to have an attraction to a guest.

It wasn't her style to feel that sort of pull to anyone for that matter, not these days. It was just Jen pointing out his attributes. Maggie wasn't blind, after all.

His booted steps echoed on the veranda and he stomped the snow from his boots before coming in and putting down the bags.

Maggie shut the door behind him. Enough draft had been let in by the exchange and already the foyer was chilly.

"I'm Jen." Jennifer plopped her piece of peanut butter toast back to her plate and held out her hand.

"Nate," he answered, taking her hand and shaking it.

When he pulled back, a smudge of peanut butter stuck to his knuckle.

"My daughter," Maggie said weakly.

"I gathered," he answered, then with an unexpected grin, licked the smudge from his thumb.

Jen beamed up at him, unfazed, while Maggie blushed.

"You took my reservation," he offered, smiling at Jennifer.

Jen nodded. "I'm on spring break."

Maggie held out her hand. "Let me take your coat," she offered politely. "The closet's just here."

He shrugged out of the jacket and Maggie realized how very tall he was. Easily over six feet, he towered over her modest height. He handed her the coat, along with thick gloves. She smiled as she turned to the closet, the weight of the parka heavy in her hands. For a man from the sunny south, he sure knew how to dress for an Alberta winter.

The phone rang, and Jen raced to answer it. Nate's eyes followed her from the room, then fell on Maggie.

"Teenagers and phones." She raised her shoulders as if to say, "What can you do?"

"I remember." He looked around. "She gave great directions. I found you pretty easily."

"You drove, then?" Maggie hadn't had a chance to get a glimpse of his plates. Maybe the SUV was a rental. He could easily have flown into Calgary or Edmonton and picked up a vehicle there.

"The truck's on loan from a friend. He met me at Coutts, and I dropped him off before driving the rest of the way."

Maggie shut the closet door and turned back, getting more comfortable as they settled into polite, if cool, chitchat. This was what she did for a living, after all. There was no need to feel awkward with a guest, despite Jen's innuendoes.

"Where does your friend live?" Maggie asked. Nate gripped the duffel by the short handles. Maggie paused her question. "Would you like some help with your bags?"

"I've got it." He moved purposefully, sliding the pack over his shoulder and gripping the duffel.

Maggie stood nonplussed. His words had been short and clipped, but she'd only been offering a simple courtesy.

Her lack of response stretched out awkwardly while Jennifer's muffled voice sounded from the kitchen. Inconvenience at his arrival was now becoming discomfort. Perhaps she'd been right after all when she'd thought about having a cop underfoot. Terse and aloof. She prided herself on a friendly, comfortable atmosphere, but it took two to accomplish it. By the hard set of his jaw, her work was clearly cut out for her.

Nate spoke, finally breaking the tension.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be rude. I'm just used to looking after myself." He smiled disarmingly. "My mother would flay me alive if I let a woman carry my things."

Maggie wondered what his mother would say if she knew Maggie looked after running the business and all the repairs on the large house single-handedly. She was used to being on her own and doing everything from starting a business to repairing a roof to raising a daughter.

"Chivalry isn't dead, I see." Her words came out cooler than she wanted as she moved past him to the stairs.

"No, ma'am." His steps echoed behind her as she started up the staircase.

When they reached the top, she paused. Perhaps because of his job he was naturally suspicious, but she was trying hard not to feel snubbed after his curt words in the foyer. It should have been implicitly understood that whatever was in his bags was his business. She'd never go through a guest's belongings!

"The Mountain Haven Bed and Breakfast is exactly that. A haven." She led him to a sturdy white door, opened it. "A place to get away from worries and stress. I hope you'll enjoy your stay here."

He looked down into her eyes, but she couldn't read his expression. It was like he was deliberately keeping it blank. She'd hoped her words would thaw his cool manner just a bit, but he only replied, "I appreciate your discretion."

He went inside, putting his duffel on the floor and the backpack on the wing chair in the corner.

"Local calls are free, long distance go on your bill, unless of course you use a prepaid card." Maggie dismissed the futility of trying to draw him out and gave him the basic rundown instead. "There's no television in your room, but there is a den downstairs that you're welcome to use."

Maggie paused. Nate was waiting patiently for her to finish her spiel. It was very odd, with him being her only guest. Knowing he'd be the only guest for the next few weeks. It didn't seem right, telling him mealtimes and rules.

She softened her expression. "Look, normally there's a whole schedule thing with meals and everything, but you're my only guest. I think we can be a little more flexible. I usually serve breakfast between eight and nine, so if that suits you, great. I can work around your plans. Dinner is served at six-thirty. For lunch, things are fluid. I can provide it or not, for a minimum charge on your overall bill. I'm happy to tell you about local areas of interest, and you have dial-up Internet access in your room."

Nate tucked his hands into his jeans pockets. "I'm your only guest?"

"That's right. It's not my busiest time right now."

"Then…" His eyes met hers sheepishly. "Look, I'm going to feel awkward eating alone. I don't suppose…we could all eat together."

Nate watched her closely and she felt color creep into her cheeks yet again. Silly Jennifer and her suggestive comments. The front side was as attractive as the back and Maggie couldn't help but notice as they stood together in the quiet room. It wasn't how things were usually done. Normally guests ate in the dining room and she ate at the nook or she and Jen at the kitchen table. Yet it would seem odd, serving him all alone in the dining room. It was antisocial, somehow.

She struggled to keep her voice low and even. "Basically your stay should be enjoyable. If you prefer to eat with us, that would be fine. And if there's anything I can do to make your stay more comfortable, let me know."

"Everything here looks great, Ms. Taylor."

"Then I'll leave you to unpack. The bathroom is two doors down, and as my only guest it's yours alone. Jennifer and I each have our own so you won't have to share. I'll be downstairs. Let me know if there's anything you need. Otherwise, I'll see you for dinner."

She courteously shut the door, then leaned against it, closing her eyes. Nate Griffith wasn't an ordinary guest, that much she knew already. She couldn't shake the irrational feeling that he was hiding something. He hadn't said or done anything to really make her think so, beyond being proprietary with his backpack. But something niggled at the back of her mind, something that made her uncomfortable. Given his profession, she should be reassured. Who could be safer than someone in law enforcement? Why would he have any sort of ulterior motive?

His good looks were something she'd simply have to ignore. She'd have to get over her silly awkwardness in a hurry, since they were going to be essentially roommates for the next few weeks. Jen wouldn't be here to run interference much longer, and Maggie would rely on her normal professional, warm persona. Piece of cake.

He was just a man, after all. A man on vacation from a stressful job. A man with an expense account that would make up for her lost plans by helping pay for her next trip.

Nate heaved out a sigh as the door shut with a firm click. Thank goodness she was gone.

He looked around the room. Very nice.

Harlequin; August 2008
181 pages; ISBN 9781426820564
Read online, or download in secure PDF format
Title: Falling For Mr. Dark & Dangerous
Author: Donna Alward
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