THE TIDE LAPPED at the sandy shore beyond the deck of the cedar-shingled bungalow where Kurt Remington sat on the deck of his cottage, fingers to keyboard, working on his latest manuscript. Dark Times was due to his agent at the end of the month, and Kurt came to his cottage in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, to hunker down for the summer and complete the project. He lived just outside of New York City and he wrote daily, sometimes for ten or twelve hours straight. In the summers, he liked the change of scenery the Cape offered and was inspired by the Cape’s fresh air and the sounds of the sea.
He’d bought the estate of a local painter a few years earlier with the intent of renovating the artist’s studio that sat nestled among a grouping of trees on the far side of the property. Initially, Kurt thought he might use the studio as a writing retreat separate from where he lived, with the idea that leaving the cottage to work might give him a chance to actually have a life and not feel pressure to write twenty-four-seven. What he found was that the studio was too far removed from the sights and sounds that inspired him, and it made him feel like even more of a recluse than he already was. He realized that it wasn’t the location of his computer that pressured him. It was his internal drive and his love of writing that propelled his fingers to the keyboard every waking second. The idea of making the studio into a guest cottage crossed his mind, but that would indicate his desire to have guests, which would mean giving up his coveted writing time to entertain. So there it sat, awaiting…something. Though he had no idea what.
The cottage was built down a private road at the top of a dune, with a private beach below. A curtain of dense air settled around him. Kurt lifted his eyes long enough to scan the graying clouds and ponder the imminence of rain. It was seven twenty in the evening, and he’d been writing since nine o’clock that morning, as was his daily habit, right after his three-mile run, two cups of coffee, and a quick breeze through the newspaper and email. Once Kurt got into his writing zone each day, other than getting up to eat, he rarely changed his surroundings. The idea of moving inside and breaking his train of thought was unsettling.
He set his hands back on the keyboard and reread the last few sentences of what would become his thirteenth thriller novel. A dog barked in the distance, and Kurt drew his thick, dark brows together without breaking the stride of his keystrokes. Kurt hadn’t risen to the ranks of Patterson, King, and Grisham by being easily distracted.
“Pepper! Come on, boy!” A female voice sliced through his concentration. “Come on, Pepper. Where are you?”
Kurt’s fingers hesitated for only a moment as she hollered; then he went right back to the killer lurking outside the window in his story.
“Pepper!” the woman yelled again. “Oh geez, Pepper, really?”
Kurt closed his eyes for a beat as the wind picked up. The woman’s voice was distracting him. She was too close to ignore. Get your mutt and move on. He let out a breath and went back to work. Kurt craved silence. The quieter things were, the better he could hear his characters and think through their issues. He tried to ignore the sounds of splashing and continued writing.
“Pepper! No, Pepper!”
Great. He was hoping to squeeze in a few more hours of writing on the deck before taking a walk on the beach, but if that woman kept up her racket, he’d be forced to work inside—and if there was one thing Kurt hated, it was changing his surroundings while he was in the zone. Writing was an art that took total focus. He’d honed his craft with the efficiency of a drill sergeant, which was only fitting since his father was a four-star general.
“Oh no! Pepper? Pepper!”
The woman’s panicked voice split his focus right down the center. He thought of his sister, Siena, and for a second he considered getting up to see if the woman’s concern was valid. Then he remembered that his sister often overreacted. Women often overreacted.
“Pepper! Oh no!”
Being an older brother came with responsibilities that Kurt took seriously, as had been ingrained in him at a young age. That loud woman was someone’s daughter. His conscience won over the battle for focus, and with a sigh, he pushed away from the table and went to the railing. He caught sight of the woman wading waist deep in the rough ocean waves.
“Pepper! Pepper, please come back!” she cried.
Kurt followed her gaze into deeper water, which was becoming rougher by the second as the clouds darkened and the wind picked up a notch. He didn’t see a dog anywhere in the water. He scanned the empty beach—no dog there, either.
“Pepper! Please, Pep! Come on, boy!” She tumbled back with the next wave and fell on her butt, then struggled to find her footing.
Come on. Really? This, he didn’t need. He watched her push through the crashing waves. She was shoulder deep. Kurt knew about the dangers of riptides and storms and wondered why she didn’t. She had no business being out in the water with a storm brewing.
Drops of water dampened Kurt’s arms. He swatted them away with a grimace, still watching the woman.
“Please come back, Pepper!”
The rain came in a heavy drizzle now. For the love of... Kurt spun around, gathered his computer and notes and took them inside. He checked to see that he’d saved his file before pushing the laptop safely back from the edge of the counter, then turned back to the French doors. I could close the doors and go right back to work. He eyed his laptop.
She sounded farther away now. Maybe she’d moved on. He went back out on the deck to see if she’d come to her senses.
“Pep—” Another wave toppled her over. She was deeper now and seemed to be pulled by the current.
“Hey!” Kurt hollered in an effort to dissuade her from going out any deeper. She must not have heard him. He scanned the water again and saw a flash of something about thirty feet away from her. Your stupid dog. Dogs were smelly, they shed, and they needed time and attention. All reasons why Kurt was not a fan of the creatures.
The rain picked up with the gusty wind. Good grief. He grabbed a towel from inside and stomped down the steps, Dark Times begrudgingly pushed aside.
LEANNA BRAY WAS wet, cold, and floundering. Literally. She’d been floundering for twenty-eight years, so this was nothing new, but being pummeled by rain, wind, and waves, chasing a dog that never listened? That was new.
“Pepp—” A wave knocked her off her feet and she went under the water, taking a mouthful of saltwater along with her. She tumbled head down beneath the surface.
Now Pepper and I will both drown. Freaking perfect.
Something grabbed her arm, and she reflexively fought against it, sucking in another mouthful of salty water as she broke through the surface, arms flailing, choking, and pushing against the powerful hand that yanked her to her feet.
“You okay?” A deep, annoyed voice carried over the din of the crashing waves.
Cough. Cough. “Yeah. I—” Cough. Cough. “My dog.” She blinked and blinked, trying to clear the saltwater and rain from her eyes. The man’s mop of wet, dark hair came into focus. He held tightly to her arm while scanning the water in the direction of where she’d last seen Pepper. His clothes stuck to his body like a second skin, riding the ripples of his impressive chest and arms as he held her above the surface with one arm around her ribs.
“Come on.” She coughed as he plowed through the pounding surf with her clutched against his side. She slid down his body, and he lifted her easily into his arms, carrying her like he might carry a child, pressing her to his chest as he fought against the waves.
She pushed against his chest, feeling ridiculous and helpless…and maybe a little thankful, but she was ignoring that emotion in order to save Pepper.
“My dog! I need to get my dog!” she hollered.
Mr. Big, Tall, and Stoic didn’t say a word. He set her on the wet sand and tossed her a rain-soaked towel. “It was dry.” He pointed behind her to a wooden staircase. “Go up to the deck.”
She dropped the towel and plowed past him toward the water. “I gotta get my dog.”
He snagged her by the arm and glared at her with the brightest blue eyes she’d ever seen—and a stare so dark she swallowed her voice.
“Go.” He pointed to the stairs again. “I’ll get your dog.” He took a step toward the water, and she pushed past him again.
“You don’t have t—”
He scooped her into his arms again and carried her to the stairs. “If you fight me, your dog will drown. He won’t last in this much longer.”
She pushed at his chest again. “Let me go!”
He set her down on the stairs. “The waves will pull you under. I’ll get your dog. Please stay here.”
Her heart thundered against her ribs as she watched him stalk off and plow through the waves as if he were indestructible. She stood in the rain on the bottom stair, huddled beneath the wet towel, squinting to see him through the driving rain. She finally spotted him deep in the sea, wrapping his arms around Pepper—the dog who never let anyone carry him. He rounded his shoulders, shielding Pepper as he made his way back through the wild waves.
She ran to the edge of the water, shivering, tears in her eyes. “Thank you!” She reached for Pepper and the dog whined, pressing his trembling body closer to the guy.
“You have a leash?”
She shook her head. Her wet hair whipped across her cheek, and she turned her back to the wind. “He doesn’t like them.”
He took her by the arm again. “Come on.” He led her up the stairs to a wooden deck, opened a French door, and leaned in close, talking over the sheeting rain.
“Go on in.”
She stepped onto pristine hardwood. The warm cottage smelled of coffee and something sweet and masculine, like a campfire. She reached for Pepper. Pepper whined again and pressed against the man’s chest.
“He…” Her teeth chattered from the cold. “He must be scared.”
“I’ll get you a towel.” He eyed the dog in his arms and shook his head before disappearing up a stairwell.
Leanna scoped out the open floor plan of the cozy cottage, looking for signs of crazy. How crazy could he be? He’d just rescued her and Pepper, and Pepper already seemed to be quite attached to him. He went into the water in a storm without an ounce of fear. The man was crazy. It dawned on her that she’d done the same thing, but she knew she wasn’t crazy. She’d had no choice. To her right was a small kitchen with expensive-looking light wood cabinets and fancy molding. A laptop sat open beside two neatly stacked notebooks on the shiny marble countertop. The screen was dark, and she had an urge to touch a button and bring the laptop to life, but she didn’t really want to know if there was something awful on there. He could have been watching porn, for all she knew, although he hadn’t checked her out once, even with her wet T-shirt and shorter-than-short cut offs. She couldn’t decide if that was gentlemanly or creepy.
She shifted her thoughts away from the computer to the quaint breakfast nook to her left. Her eyes traveled past a little alcove with two closed doors and a set of stairs by the kitchen to the white-walled living room. There was not a speck of clutter anywhere. A pair of flip-flops sat by the front door, perfectly lined up against the wall beside a pair of running shoes. She located the source of the campfire smell. A gorgeous two-story stone fireplace covered most of the wall adjacent to an oversized brown couch. There was a small stack of firewood in a metal holder beside the hearth. The cottage was surprisingly warm considering there wasn’t a fire in the fireplace. Dark wood bookshelves ran the length of the far wall, from floor to ceiling, complete with a rolling ladder. The room was full of textures—a chenille blanket was folded neatly across the back of the couch, a thick, brown shag rug sat before the stone fireplace, and an intricately carved wooden table was placed before the couch. Leanna had a thing for textures, and right now she was texturing the beautiful hardwood with drops of water. She snagged a dishtowel from the kitchen counter as the man came back downstairs with Pepper cradled in his arms like a baby and wrapped in a big fluffy towel.
The possibility of him being crazy went out the door. Crazy people don’t carry dogs like babies.
He shifted Pepper to one arm and handed her a fresh towel. “Here. I’m Kurt, by the way.”
Pepper sat up in his arms, panting happily. Show-off.
“Thank you. I’m Leanna. That’s Pepper.” She tried to mop up the floor around her. Every swipe of the towel brought more drips from her sopping-wet clothing. “I’m sorry about this. For the mess. And my dog. And…” She frantically wiped the floor with the dishrag in one hand, using the fisted towel in the other to scrub her clothes, trying desperately to stop the river that ran from her clothes to his no-longer-pristine floor. She lifted her gaze. He had a slightly amused smile on his very handsome face. She rose to her feet with a defeated sigh.
“I’m so sorry, and thank you for rescuing Pepper.”
He glanced at his laptop, and that amused look quickly turned to pinched annoyance. His lips pressed into a tight line, and when he glanced at her again, it was with a brooding look, before stepping forward and closing his laptop.
“You should have”—Pepper barked in his ear; he closed his eyes and exhaled—“had the dog on a leash.”
“He hates it. He hates listening, leashes, lots of things.” Pepper licked Kurt’s cheek. “Except you, I guess.”
Kurt winced and set Pepper on the floor. “Sit,” he said in a deep, stern voice.
Pepper sat at his feet.
“How did you do that? He never listens.”
He dried Pepper’s feet with the towel, apparently ignoring the question.
You know dogs? She was intrigued by the dichotomy of him. He was sharp, brooding, and maybe even a little cold, yet Pepper followed him to the fireplace as if he were handing out doggy biscuits. Leanna couldn’t help but notice the way Kurt’s wet jeans hugged his body. His very hot body. He crouched before the fireplace, his shirt clinging tightly to his broad back, his sleeves hitched up above his bulging biceps, and she made out the outline of a tattoo on his upper arm.
“Yeah, Labradoodle. How’d you know? He looks like a wet mutt right now.”
He shrugged, expertly fashioning a teepee of kindling, then starting a small fire. “Where’s your place?” He slid an annoyed look at Pepper and shook his head.
“Um, my place?” she said, distracted as much by Pepper’s obedience as by Kurt’s tattoo. What is that? A snake? Dragon?
He looked at her with that amused glint in his eyes again. “House? Cottage? Campsite?”
“Oh, cottage. Sorry.” She felt her cheeks flush. “It’s about a mile and a half from here. Seaside. Do you know it? My parents own it. I’m just staying for the summer. I’ve known the other people in the community forever, and Pepper likes it there.”
He looked back at the fireplace, the amusement in his expression replaced with seriousness. “Come over by the fire. Warm up.”
She tossed the towels on the counter and joined him by the fire, shivering as she warmed her hands.
He kept his eyes trained on the fire.
“Did you drive here?” He picked up a log in one big hand and settled it on the fire.
“No. I biked.”
“I bike here a couple times each week with Pepper, but we usually go the other way down the beach. Pepper just took off this time. I left my bike by the public beach entrance.”
His eyes slid to Pepper, then back to the fire. “I don’t know Seaside, but let me change and I’ll drive you home.” He headed toward the stairs with Pepper on his heels. Kurt stopped and stared at the dog. Pepper panted for all he was worth. Kurt looked at Leanna, as if she could control the dog.
Fat chance. “He’s not really an obedient pet.” She shrugged.
Kurt picked up Pepper and brought him to Leanna. “Hold his collar.”
Okay, then. She looped her finger in Pepper’s collar and watched Kurt go into the kitchen and wipe the floor with the towel he’d given her. Then he wiped the counter with a sponge before disappearing into the alcove by the kitchen. He returned with a laundry basket, tossed the dirty towels in, and then returned the basket to where he’d found it and climbed the stairs.
“Guess he doesn’t really like dirt…or dogs after all,” she said to Pepper.
Pepper broke free and ran up the stairs after Kurt.
Leanna closed her eyes with a loud sigh.
Just shoot me now.