Alexa Counsel wrapped her
cardigan tighter and huddled deep inside the wool. She hurried down
the sloped driveway
from the bed and breakfast that was also the Maples’ home toward
the path that cut across the lawn to the candy store whose business,
when combined with that of the B&B, brought in almost as much income
for the family as did Danny Maples’ fishing tours.
Molly had told Alexa she was certain her daughter
had gone down to the docks to wait for the handyman she’d recently hired. Danny’s
bookings had picked up to the point that he had little time to spare
around the house or for the B&B these days, leaving Molly no choice
but to pay someone to take care of what had always been her husband’s
honey-do work. Finding help in the small fishing and tourist community
of Comfort Bay on the Oregon coast was an iffy proposition.
With so many of the town’s residents self-employed in one of those
two trades, the full-timers who weren’t retirees had their own
work to keep them busy enough to put their teens to work as well. And
since many of the part-timers flew south for the winter, that left Molly
Alexa trusted her friend to know what she was doing,
help but wish Molly knew something about Ezra Moore. Something as in
anything besides the fact that he happened to be in the Maple Sugar Shack
the morning she put out the “Help Wanted” sign and told her
he’d take the job. He didn’t ask about hours. He didn’t
ask about pay.
What he’d told her was that he was taking a sabbatical from a
position teaching disadvantaged youths in his Caribbean island home.
He wanted a change of scenery to stave off burn-out, new experiences
to share with his students, broader horizons with which to expand his
teaching repertoire. As noble as it sounded in theory, Alexa wasn’t
That said, she wasn’t the one desperate for someone to take over
the repairs, maintenance, and odd jobs Danny wasn’t able to find
time to fit in. And, really. She had no reason to doubt Mr. Moore’s
claims. She’d come to Comfort Bay five years ago for a similar
purpose. She’d stayed because, well, the small community was now
her home. Her job was here. She had commitments. She had friends.
And that reminder had her scrambling across the lawn toward the back
of the candy shop calling for Emmy Rose Maples to come home, her boot
soles slipping on the damp grass, the even damper air kinking her hair
around her face. If Ezra Moore was with Emmy Rose, all the better. The
trip down would do double-duty; on the way back, she could show him around
the property for her friend.
If not, then once he arrived he’d have to find his own way to
the Maples Inn. Comfort Bay’s population of just over twelve hundred
guaranteed he could ask anyone he met on the street and come away with
detailed directions. Five years later and Alexa, a California girl, was
still getting used to that element of small town living herself.
Alexa looked up from watching where she was walking
and searched out Emmy Rose. The girl had just rounded the side of the
shop and waved hugely with both of her arms. Alexa waved back, her mirrored
enthusiasm fading as she realized Molly’s daughter had, indeed,
found the new handyman.
At least that was who Alexa assumed was following
on the girl’s
heels. And even knowing all she knew about Ezra Moore’s impending
arrival, she had to bite down on her tongue to keep from screaming at
Emmy Rose to run.
Even from this distance, Alexa had no trouble discerning
that Ezra Moore was a formidably intimidating and dangerous man. He
was still too far
away for her to see his features clearly. She didn’t need to. She
stood by her assessment. With every step he took, danger rippled in his
wake like rings of water from a smoothly skipped stone.
It was in the way he never stopped soaking in his surroundings, looking
over his shoulder as he hefted his duffel bag higher, lifting his chin
as if listening to the sounds carried in on the ocean breeze, as if scenting
anything in the air he found threatening or unfamiliar.
She had no idea how or why she saw all of that so clearly. She only
knew that she did. She was not imagining the tingling at her nape, or
the flesh on her arms pebbling from fright more than from cold. All she
was doing was watching him, the tension in his stride, the stiffness
in his posture, thinking that both of those even more than his skin color
would cause him to stand out in Comfort Bay.
And then before she knew it, he was standing in front
of her, Emmy Rose a buffer between. Alexa met his eyes directly and
held herself tighter
as she shivered anew. She reached for Molly’s daughter and pulled
the girl close. And only when she felt the small body tucked safely to
hers did she hold out her hand.
“I’m Alexa Counsel. A friend of Molly’s.”
“Alexa’s my teacher,” Emmy Rose added as Ezra swung
his duffel to the ground. “Except at school I have to call her
“As is proper,” Ezra said, his eyes never leaving Alexa’s,
his cool fingers swallowing hers, the music in his voice continuing to
sing in her ears. “I am Ezra Moore, Mrs. Counsel. It is a pleasure
to make your acquaintance.”
Smooth, dangerous and . . . damaged. She saw it in his eyes that were
bright and sharp but devoid of emotion, heard it in his words that were
still playing a tune. She felt it most of all in his touch, in the way
he took too long to release her, waiting until she hit the edge of nervous
discomfort before letting her go.
“It’s actually Ms. Counsel. I’m divorced. But the
kids knew me first as Mrs., so . . .” Blabbering. She was blabbering. “Please.
Call me Alexa.”
“Alexa.” He took in her hair, her mouth, the line of her
jaw before his gaze returned to her eyes. His were nearly black, not
so much like coal, more like . . . bottomless. She didn’t think
she’d ever seen eyes quite so dark, and had yet to look away when
he added, “I am sorry for your loss.”
“You husband,” Ezra supplied before she could ask. “It
was difficult for you, the loss, and I am sorry.”
She backed up, straightening her spine and pulling
Emmy Rose with her, putting one step between the two of them and Ezra,
wanting to put more. “Thank
you, but I’m fine.” It was the only thing she could think
of to say.
No one had ever realized the toll the break-up with Brett had taken.
Molly and Rachel, her two best friends in Comfort Bay, had called him
a cheating bastard and supplied her with chocolate, doing their best
to keep her spirits from falling into a deep dark hole.
They’d fallen anyway, and she’d had to learn not to wear
her private face in public. She hadn’t wanted them to know the
truth of all she’d felt.
But Ezra knew.
He’d looked into her eyes and he’d seen the truth she tried
to keep from herself. She had no idea how he’d done it. She hated
that he had. She would have to work harder. Reveal less. Find a new trick
to use to hide what she was feeling. One that would fool the keen eyes
of perceptive strangers as well as her friends.
“I’m hungry,” Emmy Rose said, squirming away from
Alexa, her interruption breaking the coil of tension binding them that
was ready to snap. “I’m going home.”
Alexa watched the girl scramble up the hill, crossed
her arms over her chest to ward off the chill, and followed. Behind
her, Ezra hitched up
his duffel and then fell into step at her side. “Molly tells me
you teach school.”
He nodded; she saw it in profile. “Yes. Already
you and I have that in common.”
Was he expecting them to have more? He had no reason
to expect anything at all. He shouldn’t have even known she existed. Unless Molly
had mentioned her to him. Alexa latched onto the change of subject and
asked, “What all has Molly told you about Comfort Bay? Maybe I
can fill in the blanks for you. Or answer any questions?”
“You are not from this place originally, are
She avoided glancing over. Too much about him had already set her on
edge. She did not need the reminder of his size. Or of his hard strength.
She listened instead to the crunch and squish of the ground beneath their
boots and wrapped her cardigan tighter.
“I moved here five years ago. From L.A.”
“With your husband.”
“He wanted to get out of the city and give
the quiet life a try.”
“He did not find it to his liking.”
“He grew tired of it. After a while. Yes.” Grew
tired of her. Of their marriage that had been comfortable but never
“But you did not.”
She had, but she’d stayed. She did not abandon
friends or treat her commitments lightly. But yes. She missed the energy
of the city,
the excitement, the environment that stimulated in ways Comfort Bay could
It took her a moment to realize Ezra was no longer walking beside her.
She stopped, turned, snagged back strands of hair blowing into her face,
but said nothing, waited instead for him to voice whatever he had on
his mind, this man who was so very intriguing, so very . . . alive.
He didn’t make her wait long. “I was wrong about you, Alexa
Counsel. You don’t like it here at all.”
She shook her head emphatically to disabuse him of
the notion that he knew anything about her. To disabuse herself of
the notion that he was
right. “I have some of the best friends here I’ve ever had
in my life. I love my students. There are so many advantages to teaching
in a small district. The teacher student ratio for one. Of course there’s
the disadvantage of less funding, but the pros really do make up for
“None of that proves my assessment wrong.”
This had to be the most bizarre conversation she’d ever had with
a man she’d just met. “What are you so interested in how
I feel about living here?”
He tilted his head to the side, and she noticed for
the first time the jagged scar like a lightning bolt running from his
temple to his chin.
It was old and faded, a wound from a long time ago, and it started her
wondering about where he’d come from, the life he’d lived,
how old he was now.
“Because of what it tells me about you.” He
smiled then, a slight movement of his mouth that revealed the deep
groove of a dimple
at odds with the intensity of the rest of his face.
She wasn’t buying whatever it was he was selling.
No dangerously perceptive stranger was going to cause her to start
And she was not, she told herself, was not the least bit intrigued by
the dichotomy of his dimple and that lethal looking scar.
“You’re wrong,” she assured him, assured herself as
well. “I do like it here. I’m sure you will, too. Oh, one
word of warning. If you stick around for any length of time, don’t
be surprised if you get the sense that you’re living under a microscope.
Comfort Bay is a very . . . friendly town.”
This time when she started walking, he was quicker to catch up. He also
moved closer to her side, their shoulders brushing, the breeze blowing
the salty scent of the sea from his clothes into her path along with
the clean smell of soap.
“That will not be a problem. I am an open book.” He lifted
his duffel bag higher. “I have no secrets.”
She didn’t believe a word that he said. She
smiled politely, ignoring the prickles of premonition crawling down
her spine, prickles telling
her that his secrets were ones it might kill her to know.