Megan Hamilton never really liked Elliot Bailey. He turned his back on her family when they needed him the most and it almost tore them all apart. So she’s shocked when Elliot arrives at her family’s inn, needing a place to stay and asking questions that dredge up the past. Megan will rent him a cottage, but that’s where it ends—no matter how gorgeous Elliot has become.
Coming back home to Haven Point was the last thing bestselling writer Elliot Bailey thought he’d ever do. But the book he’s writing now is his most personal one yet and it’s drawn him back to the woman he can’t get out of his mind. Seeing Megan again is harder than he expected and it brings up feelings he’d thought were long buried. Could this be his chance to win over his first love?
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Someone was trying to bust into the cottages next door.
Only minutes earlier, Megan Hamilton had been minding her own business, sitting on her front porch, gazing out at the stars and enjoying the peculiar quiet sweetness of a late-May evening on Lake Haven. She had earned this moment of peace after working all day at the inn's front desk then spending the last four hours at her computer, editing photographs from Joe and Lucy White's 50th anniversary party the weekend before.
Her neck was sore, her shoulders tight, and she simply wanted to savor the purity of the evening with her dog at her feet. Her moment of Zen had lasted only sixty seconds before her little ancient pug Cyrus sat up, gazed out into the darkness and gave one small harrumphing noise before settling back down again to watch as a vehicle pulled up to the cottage next door.
Cyrus had become used to the comings and goings of their guests in the two years since he and Megan moved into the cottage after the inn's renovations were finished. She would venture to say her pudgy little dog seemed to actually enjoy the parade of strangers who invariably stopped to greet him.
The man next door wasn't aware of her presence, though, or that of her little pug. He was too busy trying to work the finicky lock — not an easy feat as the task typically took two hands and one of his appeared to be attached to an arm tucked into a sling.
She should probably go help him. He was obviously struggling one-handed, unable to turn the key and twist the knob at the same time.
Beyond common courtesy, there was another compelling reason she should probably get off her porch swing and assist him. He was a guest of the inn, which meant he was yet one more responsibility on her shoulders. She knew the foibles of that door handle well, since she owned the door, the porch, the house and the land that it sat on, here at Silver Beach on Lake Haven, part of the extensive grounds of the Inn at Haven Point.
She didn't want to help him. She wanted to stay right here hidden in shadows, trying to pretend he wasn't there. Maybe this was all a bad dream and she wouldn't be stuck with him for the next three weeks.
Megan closed her eyes, wishing she could open them again and find the whole thing was a figment of her imagination.
Unfortunately, it was all entirely too real. Elliot Bailey. Living next door.
She didn't want him here. Stupid online bookings. If he had called in person about renting the cottage next to hers — one of five small, charming two-bedroom vacation rentals along the lakeshore — she might have been able to concoct some excuse.
With her imagination, surely she could have come up with something good. All the cottages were being painted. A plumbing issue meant none of them had water. The entire place had to be fumigated for tarantulas.
If she had spoken with him in person, she may have been able to concoct some excuse that would keep Elliot Bailey away. But he had used the inn's online reservation system and paid in full before she even realized who was moving in next door. Now she was stuck with him for three entire weeks.
She would have to make the best of it.
As he tried the door again, guilt poked at her. Even if she didn't want him here, she couldn't sit here when one of her guests needed help. It was rude, selfish and irresponsible. "Stay," she murmured to Cyrus, then stood up and made her way down the porch steps of Primrose Cottage and back up those of Cedarwood.
"May I help?"
At her words, Elliot whirled around, the fingers of his right hand flexing inside his sling as if reaching for a weapon. She had to hope he didn't have one. Maybe she should have thought of that before sneaking up on him.
Elliot was a decorated FBI agent and always exuded an air of cold danger, as if ready to strike at any moment. It was as much a part of him as his blue eyes.
His brother had shared the same eyes, but the similarities between them ended there. Wyatt's blue eyes had been warm, alive, brimming with personality. Elliot's were serious and solemn and always seemed to look at her as if she were some kind of alien life form that had landed in his world.
Her heart gave a familiar pinch at the thought of Wyatt and the fledgling dreams that had been taken away from her on a snowy road.
"Megan," he said, his voice as stiff and formal as if he were greeting J. Edgar Hoover himself. "I didn't see you."
"It's a dark evening and I'm easy to miss. I didn't mean to startle you."
In the yellow glow of the porch light, his features appeared lean and alert, like a hungry mountain lion. She could feel her muscles tense in response, a helpless doe caught unawares in an alpine meadow.
She adored the rest of the Bailey family. All of them, even linebacker-big Marshall. Why was Elliot the only one who made her so blasted nervous?
"May I help you?" she asked again. "This lock can be sticky. Usually it takes two hands, one to twist the key and the other to pull the door toward you."
"That could be an issue for the next three weeks." His voice seemed flat and she had the vague, somewhat disconcerting impression that he was tired. Elliot always seemed so invincible but now lines bracketed his mouth and his hair was uncharacteristically rumpled. It seemed so odd to see him as anything other than perfectly controlled.
Of course he was tired. The man had just driven in from Denver. Anybody would be exhausted after an eight-hour drive — especially when he was healing from an obvious injury and probably in pain.
What happened to his arm? She wanted to ask, but couldn't quite find the courage. It wasn't her business anyway. Elliot was a guest of her inn and deserved all the hospitality she offered to any guest — including whatever privacy he needed and help accessing the cottage he had paid in advance to rent.
"There is a trick," she told him. "If you pull the door slightly toward you first, then turn the key, you should be able to manage with one hand. If you have trouble again, you can find me or one of the staff to help you. I live next door."
The sound he made might have been a laugh or a scoff. She couldn't tell.
"Of course you do."
She frowned. What did that mean? With all the renovations to the inn after a devastating fire, she couldn't afford to pay for an overnight manager. It had seemed easier to move into one of the cottages so she could be close enough to step in if the front desk clerks had a problem in the middle of the night.
That's the only reason she was here. Elliot didn't need to respond to that information as if she was some loser who hadn't been able to fly far from the nest.
"We need someone on-site full-time to handle emergencies," she said stiffly. "Such as guests who can't open their doors by themselves."
"I am certainly not about to bother you or your staff every time I need to go in and out of my own rental unit. I'll figure something out."
His voice sounded tight, annoyed, and she tried to attribute it to travel weariness instead of that subtle disapproval she always seemed to feel emanating from him.
"I can help you this time at least." She inserted his key, exerted only a slight amount of pull on the door and heard the lock disengage. She pushed the door open and flipped on a light inside the cheery little two-bedroom cottage, with its small combined living-dining room and kitchen table set in front of the big windows overlooking the lake.
"Thank you for your help," he said, sounding a little less censorious.
"Any time." She smiled, her well-practiced, smooth, innkeeper smile. After a decade of running the twenty-room Inn at Haven Point on her own, she had become quite adept at exuding hospitality she was far from feeling.
"May I help you with your bags?"
He gave her a long, steady look that conveyed clearly what he thought of that offer. "I'm good. Thanks."
She shrugged. Stubborn man. Let him struggle. "Good night, then. If you need anything, you know where to find me."
"Yes. I do. Next door, apparently."
"That's right. Good night," she said again, then returned to her front porch, where she and Cyrus settled in to watch him pull a few things out of his vehicle and carry them inside.
She could have saved him a few trips up and down those steps, but clearly he wanted to cling to his own stubbornness instead. As usual, it was obvious he wanted nothing to do with her. Elliot tended to treat her as if she were a riddle he had no desire to solve.
Over the years, she had developed pretty good strategies for avoiding him at social gatherings, though it was a struggle. She had once been almost engaged to his younger brother. That alone would tend to link her to the Bailey family, but it wasn't the only tie between them. She counted his sisters, Wynona Bailey Emmett and Katrina Bailey Callahan, among her closest friends.
In fact, because of her connection to his sisters, she knew he was in town at least partly to attend a big after-the-fact reception to celebrate Katrina's wedding to Bowie Callahan, which had been a small destination event in Colombia several months earlier.
Megan had known Elliot for years. Though only five or six years older, somehow he had always seemed ancient to her, even when she was a girl — as if he belonged to some earlier generation. He was so serious all the time, like some sort of stuffy uncle who couldn't be bothered with youthful shenanigans.
Hey, you kids. Get off my lawn.
He'd probably never actually said those words, but she could clearly imagine them coming out of that incongruously sexy mouth.
He did love his family. She couldn't argue that. He watched out for his sisters and was close to his brother Marshall, the sheriff of Lake Haven County. He cherished his mother and made the long trip from Denver to Haven Point for every important Bailey event, several times a year.
Which also begged the question, why had he chosen to rent a cottage on the inn property instead of staying with one of his family members?
His mother and stepfather lived not far away and so did Marshall, Wynona and Katrina with their respective spouses. While Marshall's house was filled to the brim with kids, Cade and Wyn had plenty of room and Bowie and Katrina had a vast house on Serenity Harbor that would fit the entire Haven Point High School football team, with room left over for the coaching staff and a few cheerleaders.
Instead, Elliot had chosen to book this small, solitary rental unit at the inn for three entire weeks.
Did his reasons have anything to do with that sling? How had he been hurt? Did it have anything to do with his work for the FBI?
None of her business, Megan reminded herself. He was a guest at her inn, which meant she had an obligation to respect his privacy.
He came back to the vehicle for one more bag, something that looked the size of a laptop, which gave her something else to consider. He had booked the cottage for three weeks. Maybe he had taken a leave of absence or something to work on another book.
She pulled Cyrus into her lap and rubbed behind his ears as she considered the cottage next door and the enigmatic man currently inhabiting it. Whoever would have guessed that the stiff, humorless, focused FBI agent could pen gripping true crime books in his spare time? She would never admit it to Elliot, but she found it utterly fascinating how his writing managed to convey pathos and drama and even some lighter moments.
True crime was definitely not her groove at all but she had read his last bestseller in five hours, without so much as stopping to take a bathroom break — and had slept with her closet light on for weeks.
That still didn't mean she wanted him living next door. At this point, she couldn't do anything to change that. The only thing she could do was treat him with the same courtesy and respect she would any other guest at the inn.
No matter how difficult that might prove.
What the hell was he doing here?
Elliot dragged his duffel to the larger of the cottage's two bedrooms, where a folding wood-framed luggage stand had been set out, ready for guests.
The cottage was tastefully decorated in what he termed Western chic — bold mission furniture, wood plank ceiling, colorful rugs on the floor. A river rock fireplace dominated the living room, probably perfect for those chilly evenings along the lakeshore.
Cedarwood Cottage seemed comfortable and welcoming, a good place for him to huddle over his laptop and pound out the last few chapters of the book that was overdue to his editor.
Even so, he could already tell this was a mistake.
Why the hell hadn't he just told his mother and Katrina he couldn't make it to the reception? He'd flown to Cartagena for the wedding three months earlier, after all. Surely that showed enough personal commitment to his baby sister's nuptials.
They would have protested but would have understood — and in the end it wouldn't have much mattered whether he made it home for the event or not. The reception wasn't about him, it was about Bowie and Katrina and the life they were building with Bowie's younger brother Milo and Kat's adopted daughter Gabriella.
For his part, Elliot was quite sure he would have been better off if he had stayed holed up in his condo in Denver to finish the book, no matter how awkward things had become for him there. If he closed the blinds, ignored the doorbell and just hunkered down, he could have typed one-handed or even dictated the changes he needed to make. The whole thing would have been done in a week.
The manuscript wasn't the problem.
Elliot frowned, his head pounding in rhythm to each throbbing ache of his shoulder.
He was the problem — and he couldn't escape the mess he had created, no matter how far away from Denver he drove.
He struggled to unzip the duffel one-handed, then finally gave up and stuck his right arm out of the sling to help. His shoulder ached even more in response, not happy with being subjected to eight hours of driving only days post-surgery.
How was he going to explain the shoulder injury to his mother? He couldn't tell her he was recovering from a gunshot wound. Charlene had lost a son and husband in the line of duty and had seen both a daughter and her other son injured on the job.
And he certainly couldn't tell Marshall or Cade about all the trouble he was in. He was the model FBI agent, with the unblemished record.
Unpacking took him all of five minutes, moving the packing cubes into drawers, setting his toiletries in the bathroom, hanging the few dress shirts he had brought along. When he was done, he wandered back into the combined living room/kitchen.
The front wall was made almost entirely of windows, perfect for looking out and enjoying the spectacular view of Lake Haven during one of its most beautiful seasons, late spring, before the tourist horde descended.
On impulse, Elliot walked out onto the wide front porch. The night was chilly but the mingled scents of pine and cedar and lake intoxicated him. He drew fresh mountain air deep into his lungs.
If he needed to look for a reason why he had been compelled to come home during his suspension and the investigation into his actions, he only had to think about what this view would look like in the morning, with the sun creeping over the mountains.
Lake Haven called to him like nowhere else on earth — not just the stunning blue waters or the mountains that jutted out of them in jagged peaks but the calm, rhythmic lapping of the water against the shore, the ever-changing sky, the cry of wood ducks pedaling in for a landing.
He had spent his entire professional life digging into the worst aspects of the human condition, investigating cruelty and injustice and people with no moral conscience whatsoever. No matter what sort of muck he waded through, he had figured out early in his career at the FBI that he could keep that ugliness from touching the core of him with thoughts of Haven Point and the people he loved who called this place home.
He didn't visit as often as he would like. Between his job at the Denver field office and the six true crime books he had written, he didn't have much free time.
That all might be about to change. He might have more free time than he knew what to do with.
His shoulder throbbed again and he adjusted the sling, gazing out at the stars that had begun to sparkle above the lake.
After hitting rock bottom professionally, with his entire future at the FBI in doubt, where else would he come but home?
Excerpted from "The Cottages on Silver Beach"
Copyright © 2018 RaeAnne Thayne.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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