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The Fearless One

The Fearless One, January 2024
by Lori Foster

Canary Street Press
Featuring: Jedidiah Stephens; Diah
ISBN: 1335517138
EAN: 9781335517135
Kindle: B0BQZ1CXV1
Mass Market Paperback / e-Book
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"A heartwarming, danger touched romantic read!"

Fresh Fiction Review

The Fearless One
Lori Foster

Reviewed by Annetta Sweetko
Posted December 26, 2023

Fiction Family Life | Romance Contemporary | Small Town

Memphis Osborn has it all planned out. He has been renovating a rundown campground that had been known for its rather shady past. He plans to catch them and put them in jail. He didn’t expect his brother to send him help in the form of a helper.

Jedidiah Stephens, Diah to her friends, is searching for clues to uncover the truth behind the deaths of her family. The isolated campground was where the clues sent her. She certainly had not expected to find someone like Memphis. She wasn’t the trusting type but if she were to be able to trust, he would be that man. Too bad secrets and danger seem to be surrounding the camp and the people that arrived to “work” there.

THE FEARLESS ONE by Lori Foster brings two people together that really deserve some happiness. Diah has a traumatic past and is searching for the truth. She has a bit of trouble with trust, but Lori Foster gives readers a good look at her past. Memphis, whom we met in THE DANGEROUS ONE (his brother Hunter’s story), has his life all planned out. He certainly did not expect to get involved with a skittish woman, but the heart speaks loudly and he will have no choice but to listen. All he has to do is convince Diah.

THE FEARLESS ONE brings back other favorite characters from past books: Madison McKenzie, his BFF; his brother Hunter and his wife Jodi. Adding in, Remmy Gardner a tough buddy, two more employees Lane and Sable, two exceedingly cute and fierce dogs (Turbo and Tuff), a couple of inept bad guys, and a really horrible villain, and you have THE FEARLESS ONE.

Ms. Foster is an amazing storyteller with her varied characters who are so realistic you just might know someone just like them. Her descriptions of the surroundings, how she makes you feel what they are feeling, and laughing along with their conversations will have you reading page after page without a thought to time passing. I suggest you grab your favorite beverage, maybe a box of tissues, a comfy chair, and enjoy THE FEARLESS ONE.

Learn more about The Fearless One

SUMMARY

He had it all planned…until she showed up.

Jedidiah Stephens came to the Colorado Rockies for one reason: to uncover the truth behind the fire that killed her family. She’s been chasing down clues, and everything has led her to an isolated campground. Her plan is to get a job there so she can investigate who comes and goes. Getting involved with her boss, Memphis Osborn, the ruggedly handsome groundskeeper, is definitely not part of the plan.

When Jedidiah arrives on the scene, Memphis just knows she's up to something. He can see the desperation in her eyes and warily agrees to hire her. As they work side by side, Diah triggers his deepest protective instincts—and the chemistry between them ignites.

But the more Diah digs into her family’s past, the more secrets she unravels…and the more afraid she becomes. She lost everything once before. She’ll never forgive herself if now she loses Memphis, too.

Excerpt

THE FEARLESS ONE
Chapter 1

 

     For early April, the Colorado weather was unseasonably warm. Probably in the low sixties with enough sunshine to make it feel warmer. Jedidiah Stephens, who went by Diah for short, loosely held Tuff’s leash in the only available finger she had. Loaded down with supplies, she made her way along the rutted, occasionally muddy road leading to the budget campground.

Hard to call the miserable path an entry, though. Surely the guy who’d bought the place planned to fix it up a little before he opened in mid-May. If not, she’d see what she could do about it. At the very least, the potholes needed to be filled and everything regraveled. Otherwise, anyone pulling a camper was in for a really bumpy ride, possible damage to the undercarriage of their travel trailer, and there was a good chance they’d get stuck.

Checking the time on her phone, she saw that she was thirty minutes early. Hey, it wasn’t easy to be timely when she relied on others for her transportation. Good thing she’d found a nice woman who’d let her, her number one guy, Tuff, and her luggage hitch a ride in the back of her pickup. Talk about getting jostled, and now she was more windblown than ever.

Not that she cared. This was the chance she needed to solve the mystery, rid herself of nagging questions and finally get on with a new, better life. Free.

Oh, how she wanted to be free.

She couldn’t change the past or stop the occasional nightmare; she understood that. But by God, she could put an end to running, and in the process forge a new future.

If she let it, excitement and even a little nervousness would take over. Ruthlessly, she tamped down those two disagreeable emotions. The owner’s brother had sent her here, so her early arrival shouldn’t be a big deal. Supposedly, she was a shoo-in for the job.

“Can’t be too much farther,” she said to Tuff, who looked up at her with a frown of concern. For real, her dog was a world-class worrier, but this time Diah had to agree with him. It was starting to feel creepy. The long road in, lined by tall aspens and pines, was plenty isolated. Other than the sounds of critters in the trees, the area was dead silent.

Don’t be such a chickenshit… You gotta toughen up… Jesus, you’re a scaredy-cat.

She’d heard those comments too many times to count. Worse than hearing them?

Knowing they were true.

To the right of her, something rustled in the underbrush—and effectively stalled her breathing. Tuff went alert, staring in that direction, then dismissed it. Almost immediately to her left, a flock of birds took flight, stripping a year off her life. Tuff sidled closer.

Automatically, she sought to reassure him, and in the process reassure herself as well because Tuff’s nervousness always became her own, and vice versa.

Putting a hand on his neck, appreciating the contact with another living creature, she gently rubbed. “Yeah, maybe I should have asked that lady to drive us right up to the campground, huh? I hadn’t figured on it being such a hike, though. His street sign should give a damn clue, right?”

Tuff looked forward and perked his ears.

“Squirrel?” she asked, because she could handle a critter. “Rabbit?” But no. She heard it now, too. Singing. And there up ahead, finally, the winding road opened to a clearing, with a small parking lot on the right and a wooden shed that served as a gatehouse and check-in station on the left. Right now the shed was empty, but it had been recently painted and looked big enough to accommodate a few people. Nearest the road was a drive-through window, so visitors wouldn’t have to get out to check in for their stay.

Thank God they’d finally reached the campgrounds. With a duffel bag hanging from one shoulder, her packed tent slung over the other, and a suitcase in her hand, her shoulders were killing her. The soft suitcase was a roller, but not on this pitted, bumpy path.

Seriously, she wished she were stronger. Wished she were braver, too.

Sometimes she wished she were someone else entirely.

As Tuff strained against the leash, he almost got away from her. Quickly readjusting her free hand, not just a few fingers, Diah said, “Quiet,” in her low command voice, and although Tuff’s furry lips rippled, he didn’t make a sound. Such a smart boy. So many times over the past two grueling years, she’d given thanks that Tuff had come into her life. He was her best friend, her protector, and pretty much the only reason she ever smiled. “We’ll sort of sneak in, okay?”

A muffled, “Fft,” was Tuff’s reply. And yup, she grinned.

When she got to the check-in, Diah unloaded her belongings beside it. Looking around, she took in several small cabins that appeared newly repaired. Some trees had been trimmed, RV and tent lots were mostly cleared, but overall the grounds were a work in progress.

Straight ahead, not too far from the entry, a larger cabin—which by no means made it large—appeared to be the source of the singing. She heard, “Love me, love me, saaaay that you love me,” in a high falsetto and couldn’t help but laugh.

“Oh, man, Tuff, do you hear that?”

“Lovefool” by the Cardigans. If she hadn’t heard it in a bar during karaoke night, she’d have no idea. The drunken chick who’d sung it then hadn’t done as good of a job as this guy. He really belted it out with gusto.

Snickering, she said to Tuff, “No time like the present,” and led him along to the cabin, around to the side and there… Ho boy.

Naked.

Using an outside shower.

Forget the warmth of the sunshine. It was freaking April in Colorado.

Thank God a concrete block half wall kept her from seeing him in all his glory, but holy moly, what he showed was enough to keep her gawking. Dude had seriously hot, muscular shoulders and flat abs… Heck, she could see the tops of his hip bones, too. It was a mighty fine display, one she hadn’t been prepared for.

Tuff sat down, maybe mesmerized. Diah’s legs were suddenly shaky enough that she wouldn’t mind sitting, too.

Lounge back and watch the show? Would’ve been nice.

Unfortunately, she was a human adult, not a dog, so she had to announce herself. She tried loudly clearing her throat, followed by a sharp, “Ahem.”

Nothing.

Face turned up, he sang out another verse while rinsing shampoo from dark brown hair a few inches too long. When was the last time she’d seen anyone built like him, all firm, ropey muscles on a tall frame?

Yeah, that’d be never.

Not once in her twenty-four years had she ever encountered any guy, anywhere, who looked like this one.

Shameful to admit, but she eyeballed him a little longer before saying again, louder this time, “Ahem.”

Pausing in midverse, he cocked open one dark blue eye, framed by spiked lashes. He spotted her and at his leisure, without a hint of haste—or modesty—pushed back his wet hair and got both eyes open.

Intently watching her now, no longer singing, he…continued his shower.

What. The. Hell.

A big soapy hand went over his throat, the back of his neck, across his chest and beneath one arm.

He was so damn attractive, her heart ping-ponged around in her chest. Since he didn’t speak, she assumed she’d have to. “Hi, I’m, um…” Who was she? Oh, yeah. “Jedidiah Stephens. Appointment at three.”

Turning his back to the water, not at all put off by being caught in the buff outside, his gaze moved over her body, but quickly came back to her eyes. “I don’t have any appointments.”

She went blank for a moment before the obvious answer came to her. “Oh, hey, I’m sorry for disturbing you.” Belatedly remembering that people were usually put off by her intent stare, she turned to give him privacy. But yeah, she wasn’t comfortable with anyone at her back so she shifted again, facing to the side. If he tried to leave the shower to approach her she’d catch him in her peripheral vision, but at least her gaze wasn’t directly on him. “I’m looking for Memphis Osborn.”

“He’s busy showering.”

Confusion hit her. “You’re both showering?” How… Why…? Thoughts of mud wrestling or some other sexy activity flashed through her mind. Two sweaty guys. Muscles straining…

Sucked that she’d missed it.

A gruff, short laugh came from him and he said, “You’re not seeing the big picture. I’m Memphis, I’m showering and I don’t have any appointments.”

Chagrin brought her around so that she fully faced him again. Yup, still gloriously naked. How could she not stare? “You own this place?”

Beside her, Tuff stirred. The poor dog was as tired as she was and no doubt ready to bed down somewhere for a nap.

“Guilty. As you can see, I haven’t opened yet.”

“I know the place isn’t open.” She resisted adding, “Duh.” As if explaining to a little kid, she spoke slowly. “I have an appointment about a job.”

His gaze dipped over her bare legs, making her wish she’d worn jeans instead of shorts. Yeah, if only she’d had a chance to do laundry, but it wasn’t always possible on the road. His attention lingered for a mere heartbeat before returning to her face…and roaming over her every feature as if figuring out who—or what—she was. Rude!

Because she’d ogled him, too, she couldn’t really get huffy about it… The hell she couldn’t! She was fully dressed, not prancing around outside bare-assed. “Take a picture, why doncha?”

“You wouldn’t mind?” He reached for the cell phone he’d left on the top of the half wall near a folded towel. As he lifted the phone, the music that came from it abruptly died.

The sudden quiet was jarring.

He pretended to take aim.

Belatedly, she found her voice, which erupted with irritation. “Look, I was told to be here and that you’d hire me.”

“Sight unseen?” Shaking his head to deny that, he set the phone aside, turned off the water and reached for the towel—which he only slung around his neck. “I don’t think so.”

Swear to God, she could see steam rising off those impressive shoulders. Her palms tingled at the idea of touching him, maybe coasting her fingers over the swells of muscle. “Aren’t you freezing?”

“Little bit.”

Yet, he didn’t dry off. “Is there a reason you’re showering out here instead of inside somewhere?”

“Yeah.”

She waited, but he didn’t elaborate. Fine, she could play this game. “Wanna share?”

Amusement tugged at one corner of his very sexy mouth. “Might as well, since you’re still here.” He made a halfhearted effort at drying himself. “I’ve been living in this cabin, which is the biggest on the grounds, but still not big enough for me.”

“Seriously?” It looked great to her.

“The shower was especially small,” he explained, “so I’m extending the back end with a larger bedroom and master bath. It’s not quite done and until it is, I have more room out here.” He eyed her again. “Used to have plenty of privacy, too, until some girl and her dog just showed up out of the blue.”

Odd that the words were disgruntled, but the tone not so much. If anything, he seemed amused. Maybe she was going about this all wrong. After adjusting her tinted glasses, she tried on a congenial smile. “This is Tuff.”

“What is?”

“My dog. His name is Tuff.”

Glancing down, he gave a short laugh at the dog’s sleepy expression. “Hey, boy. Are you really that tough?”

“T-u-f-f,” she explained. “He came with the name when I adopted him. He’s fast, smart and super protective.” She tacked on the last just in case he wasn’t as easygoing as he seemed and had any thoughts of hassling her.

Disinterested in all the human chitchat, Tuff yawned.

“He’s also tired.” Memphis searched the area. “Where’s your car? I didn’t hear you drive in.”

“I walked.”

Skeptical, he asked, “From where?”

Right. Nowhere was near so the question made sense. “We hitched a ride in the back of a woman’s truck. She dropped us off by the camp sign.”

“The camp sign that’s a little over a mile away?”

That far? Hmm. Maybe she could garner some sympathy and that’d soften him up. “Only a mile?” To add an edge of drama, she put a hand to her back. “Felt longer with me carrying all my gear and leading the dog. I think it took me a good forty minutes.”

Lacking even an ounce of pity, he grinned. “Great exercise, right?” He turned a finger in the air. “I’m stepping out now, so unless you want your feelings hurt, you might want to turn around.”

“Why would it hurt my feelings?”

He hitched one of those big shoulders. “No idea, but you’re acting all affronted that I’m out here naked, on my own property where you shouldn’t be, showering in a place that’s none of your business, so I assumed you’d object.” After spewing that mix of nonsense and censure, he waited.

Left with no choice, she gave him the truth. “Eh, since you’re a stranger and everything, I’d prefer to keep an eye on you.”

“What a lame excuse. Admit you want to see me.”

Of all the… She folded her arms and tried to glance away. Couldn’t quite do it, though. “I won’t stare.” She wouldn’t. Her stare had gotten her into trouble too many times.

Had gotten her hurt as well. A long time ago, she reminded herself, and yet it was a lesson she’d never forget.

“Suit yourself.” The towel wasn’t nearly big enough to adequately wrap around his lean hips, but he came out from behind the block wall anyway.

And strolled away.

“Hey.” Diah hustled after him. “Where are we going?”

“I’m going for clothes, and you aren’t invited.” He glanced back. “Much as you’d apparently love to watch.”

Damn it. She had to do better about staring—and usually she did. Given how good he looked, she’d cut herself a little slack for the lapse.

Ignoring his jibe, she aimed for a marginally reasonable comment. “I’ll wait out here.”

Keeping his back to her, he said, “No reason. I’m not hiring you.”

Unacceptable, so she stalled with a question. “You don’t have a shower room here for guests?”

Idly, he pointed in the direction of a concrete building farther out. “Right there, but it’s still loaded with spiders.”

Even as she shuddered, she prodded him by asking, “Squeamish about bugs?”

“Not particularly, but I’d as soon not shower with them.” He went up a few wooden steps to his front door.

Rather than keep chasing him, Diah acted like everything was on track. “Go ahead and get dressed, then I’ll explain.”

At that, he dropped his head forward and laughed.

She waited to see what he’d say, but with another shrug, he opened his door and went inside.

Damn. Now what?

Pacing away, her every step kicking up debris in the gravel walkway, Diah tried to plan. She came up blank. He had to hire her, period. In fact, thanks to Memphis’s brother and his wife, she’d already considered herself hired. They’d offered her assurances.

Could she use that to her advantage?

Twenty minutes later, he still hadn’t returned. People didn’t take that long to get dressed. It was a nice day. Underwear, shorts, a shirt…presto. He’d be done in under a minute.

So he was dodging her. Did he think she’d give up and leave? Fat chance.

She considered knocking on his door, but that wasn’t a great way to make a good impression on a job interview.

If she could turn this into an interview.

If she hadn’t just been completely dismissed.

Crap, what if he was calling the police or something?

Tuff whined, and that helped strengthen her resolve. She hadn’t come this far just to give up. True, she wasn’t the bravest person. So what? She had perseverance and initiative. “Come on, buddy. We both need a rest and Mr. Naked can just do whatever the hell he’s in there doing. I’m not budging unless I’m dragged away.”

Having done it many times now, in many different places, she methodically moved her gear to a cleared site, dug out Tuff’s bowl and filled it with water from Mr. Naked’s outdoor shower. While the dog drank she got set up.

Naturally, she’d chosen the spot closest to his cabin.

He’d figure out that she wasn’t leaving. She couldn’t.

One way or another, this was where she had to be.

*

While Memphis hastily pulled on boxers and loose cargo shorts, he watched the woman through one of the specialty “one-way” mirrored windows installed on his cabin as she literally—and expertly—pitched her tent.

On his property.

As if she had every intention of staying, despite anything he’d said. It nettled him big time, and yet it also had his blood pumping. Exhilarating. He hadn’t been this enthralled since moving here and buying the campgrounds.

Sure, he went into town every so often, and he’d visited with his brother and sister-in-law a few times. At least once a week he conferred with Madison, who was not only hardcore at tech but also claimed to be his BFF. Most best-friends-forever would visit in person more often. So far, he’d only met Madison in person a handful of times. Not a biggie since her husband and brothers were scary dudes who excelled at intimidation.

They didn’t intimidate him only because he understood them. They were big-time enforcers of justice, and on a smaller scale, he could help do the same from this campground.

To make the idea a reality, he’d been mostly working alone, setting up security cameras, motion sensors and reliable public WiFi for the guests—which he could easily monitor when necessary.

Eventually, he’d finish some of the necessary things, like cleaning out the showers and fixing the entry road, but any contractors he had around would be clueless to the real reason he had this place.

In fact, the only people so far who knew were his brother, sister-in-law and Madison.

After thumbing his brother’s number on his cell, he waited, and as soon as Hunter answered, Memphis said, “What the hell is this?”

“Memphis?” Hunter asked with feigned innocence.

“Yes, it’s your brother. I thought you loved me.”

“Do,” Hunter said, then asked, “So what’s the problem?”

“You sent someone here for a job.”

“I told you about that.”

“You told me about a guy—Jedidiah—not a pushy girl.” A girl with super-long, gorgeous legs, silky-looking brown hair with blondish ends, and an arresting set of eyes partially hidden behind rose-tinted glasses.

Eyes that instantly captivated.

She also had a totally funky fashion sense.

Not that he didn’t appreciate her cute coverall shorts worn with a faded pink long-sleeve top.

Hunter stated, “Jedidiah is a woman.”

“No shit.”

“You called her a girl.”

“You know what I meant.”

“She’s qualified. Has an amazing background as a handyman—”

“Woman,” Memphis said, throwing the correction back at his brother. “Handywoman.”

“—and she can fix, or oversee the fixing, of all the things you still need repaired. Plus, Jodi liked her.”

Memphis hated to admit it, but an endorsement from his sister-in-law counted for a lot, because Jodi didn’t trust many people. “Background check?”

“We figured you’d do more, but overall she’s clear.”

Overall clear and yet she’d watched him shower without a single qualm. That definitely felt shady…or at least ballsy. Worse, though, she’d heard him singing. Being fickle, he grinned and said, “I don’t like it.”

“You mean you don’t like her? Will it help if I tell you she’s a lot like Jodi?”

“Good Lord.” No, that definitely wouldn’t help. If that was true, he shouldn’t have left her unattended.

Good thing he could see her walking around the grounds, inspecting one thing, frowning at another, testing the sturdiness of something else.

“I’ll share your reaction with Jodi.”

“Don’t you dare.” He adored Jodi and though she didn’t need it, he felt very protective of her.

“So what’s the problem? You were all about me marrying Jodi.”

His stomach dropped. “What the hell does any of this have to do with marriage?”

“I just assumed if you had any type of issue with Jodi, you wouldn’t have sacrificed me.”

Sacrifice? Ha! He’d have liked to see anyone try to separate his brother from Jodi. Satan himself couldn’t have accomplished it. “Jodi, with all her special talents, is perfect for you—but you and I are very different people and you know it.”

“Jodi swears that in the most elemental ways, we’re the same and she wants you to hire Jedidiah.”

Damn. Memphis watched as the woman sat cross-legged on the ground, then dug around in her duffel bag and found an apple. When had she last eaten?

“Memphis?”

“I told her to leave,” he murmured aloud, as much to himself as his brother.

“Did she?”

“No.” Bemused, he watched her fill a bowl with dry food and set it before Tuff. First a water dish, and now this. What else did she have in that pack?

He kind of liked that she’d taken care of her pet first.

“Memphis?”

“She seems to be settling in,” he grumbled. “Now I’m going to have to oust her.”

“Hang on.”

Alarm drew his attention off Jedidiah. “Hunter, don’t you dare put me on with—”

“Hey, Memphis.”

Damn it. “Hey, Jodi,” he said in his nicest, happy-to-hear-from-you voice. “How’s my favorite sister-in-law?”

“I’m your only sister-in-law.”

“Even if there were a dozen, you’d be my favorite.” He saw Jedidiah yawn with an elaborate stretch, her arms reaching high, back arching, before she relaxed again.

Fascinating.

Showing visible impatience, she pulled the band from her ponytail, finger combed her hair and deftly began braiding it over her shoulder.

Mesmerizing.

“You’re piling it on a bit thick, aren’t you?”

Jodi’s droll tone again gained his attention. “Not at all. You’re special. You know I’ve always said so.”

“Well, as someone special, I want you to keep her.”

Memphis rubbed the back of his neck where droplets from his still wet hair trickled down his spine. He really needed to finish dressing so he could confront his unwanted guest. “Putting an attractive woman here with me isn’t wise.” He snatched up the towel and roughly ran it over his head.

“You think she’s attractive?”

Memphis rolled his eyes. “You’re not blind, honey. You know she is.”

“I guess, but hey, I’m assuming you can control yourself.”

“Can I?” He’d never had to before. Given how Jedidiah had stared at him, the interest would be returned. If she became an employee, he couldn’t very well react to basic urges. Or could he? He’d never been a boss before.

Then again, if he didn’t hire her, she’d leave. Hmm.

“I know you can,” Jodi said. “And Memphis, she really needs the job. Give her a shot. See how it goes. You have a little time before you open, and I guarantee she’ll help you get the last few things in order.”

That casual last few things should have alarmed him, because seriously, he didn’t want others knowing why he’d bought the campground and how he planned to use it.

Hung up on a different part of what Jodi said, he harked back to, “What do you mean, she needs the job?”

Jodi huffed out a breath. “You met her, Memphis. Does she look like someone with a lot of resources?”

She’d hitchhiked in. She’d pitched her tent. Worse, she looked exhausted, so… “No.” Did she carry all her personal belongings with her? If so, she didn’t have much. “Spell it out for me.”

“Look, it’s her business, okay? All I’ll say is that if you send her packing, she’ll be sleeping in the woods somewhere.”

Sleeping in the woods? “What the hell are you getting me into?”

Hunter rejoined the conversation, saying, “Madison recommends her, too.”

Of all the… They’d already discussed this with Madison? “Listen up, brother. Women do not run my life.”

Jodi’s laugh came through loud and clear. “Keep her, Memphis.”

“She’s not a stray dog, you know.”

“Definitely not.” With more humor than the situation warranted, Jodi said, “You’ll like having her around. Trust me. I’ll check back with you in a few days.”

“Jodi—”

“Later, gator.”

Well, hell.

Hunter asked, “So that’s settled?”

Had he given Memphis a choice? He hated to disappoint Jodi, and now if Jedidiah left, he’d worry about her. No woman should be alone and unprotected in this area, much less alone in the woods.

And it wasn’t just the wildlife and weather that concerned him.

Memphis watched her stretch again, then pet the dog. “How did you and Jodi meet her anyway?”

“She was asking around town about you.”

His brows went up. “How so?”

“Curious about the campgrounds at first. When she found out you owned it now, she wanted to know your plans for the place. When you’d bought in, how long you’d been out there, stuff like that. Jodi got wind of it.”

“Of course she did.” Most likely, Madison had clued in Jodi. For a guy raised with only one brother, Memphis now had two awesome women in his life—a sister-in-law and a tech wizard bestie. He enjoyed them both; Jodi because she was special, both cunning and kind, and she made his brother very happy, and Madison because she was brilliant, connected, and it was nice to talk shop with someone who understood.

“Once we located Jedidiah, Jodi spoke with her.”

“Bet that was an interesting conversation.”

“Actually, Jedidiah seemed skittish at first, and you know Jodi. That made her extra curious, too, but also sympathetic. Jodi claims Jedidiah is here for a reason.”

That was the only conclusion that made sense. Why else would an attractive, healthy woman choose to hitchhike through Colorado, and then apply for a handyman job at a remote, rundown campground? “She could be dangerous.”

“You can handle yourself. Plus, Jodi said she wasn’t armed.”

He hadn’t even thought about her having a weapon. “Jodi would know.” His sister-in-law was more astute than most, and deeply aware of everything and everyone. Sad, how and why she’d learned to be that way—but it had made her perfect for Hunter, and vice versa, and that was what mattered most, not any tragedies in the past.

Did Jedidiah have a tragic past?

Seemed possible. After all, Jodi had a nose for recognizing kindred spirits.

“Memphis?”

That particular tone from his brother put him on guard. “What?”

“Give her a try, okay? If it doesn’t work out, if you have legit reason for wanting her off your property, Jodi and I will help you make it happen.”

“Why is it you two think you know everything I need?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Fine. She can stay the night and we’ll see how it goes.” He’d make no promises beyond that. “I should check on her now. She’s been out there stewing while we talked.”

“Ass,” Hunter said in exasperation. “Go take care of her, and let me know if you need anything.”

“Thanks.” He stuck the phone in his pocket, finished toweling his hair, grabbed a T-shirt from the drawer and stepped into old sneakers.

A singular sense of anticipation, something he hadn’t felt in forever, took him back out to the grounds and right up to where Jedidiah Stephens sat with her dog. No way did she miss his approach, especially now that his shadow encompassed her, yet she continued to pet Tuff without acknowledging him. The dog, however, sat up and let his tongue loll out—cautious, ready, but not yet aggressive.

Memphis waited, but Jedidiah said nothing, which meant he had to. “So do you have a reference?”

Squinting against the sun, aqua-colored eyes peered up at him. “Your brother and sister-in-law aren’t good enough?”

“Afraid not.” Was it the pink tinted glasses that made her eyes that unique shade, a cross between blue and green? Or perhaps it was compliments of colored contacts. For certain, he’d never seen eyes like hers.

She quickly glanced away, but as if she couldn’t help herself, her gaze returned to him. “Then no, I don’t have a reference.”

When she didn’t stand, he crouched down in front of her, noting her touch of wariness. Long lashes lifted, brown eyebrows went up…and then drew down.

“What?” she asked, her tone defensive.

“I’ll keep you on a trial period.”

Miraculously, her expression changed to one of relief mingled with joy. “For real?”

Happiness made her even more appealing. “A week.”

“Awesome.” A big smile put dimples in her cheeks. “That’s time enough to convince you that I’m good to have around.”

Bothered by her nearness, Memphis stood again. “Would you like the use of a cabin?”

“A cabin?” Finally, she came to her feet, too, and though she fought it, her attention flickered to his place. “Where?”

So much suspicion. Had someone mistreated her? It didn’t really feel like a specific concern as much as general caution. A good idea since she was a woman alone, in an isolated area with a large man she didn’t know. If Jodi was right, she didn’t even have a weapon to protect herself.

Standing in front of her, he guessed her to be around five feet seven inches—which put her a good five inches shorter than him.

The braid she’d refashioned was crooked but cute, and his fingers curled with the urge to see if her hair was as silky as it looked. Traces of dust clung to her arms and cheeks. Wisps of hair around her face had darkened with sweat.

None of that should have stirred him, and yet it did.

“What?” she asked again, this time in annoyance. She straightened those silly colored glasses, flipped her braid over her shoulder. “Something wrong?”

Unfortunately, everything seemed right. “No.” Gesturing to the cabin across from his own, he asked, “Will that do? It’s small, only a loft bedroom, kitchenette, love seat with a TV, and a tiny bathroom.” He needed her to be close by so he could keep an eye on her.

“Sure. Or I can stay in my tent.”

“And then shower with the spiders?”

Her lips scrunched to the side. “Yeah, okay. Cabin it is. Er… I mean. How much?”

Benevolent, Memphis held out his arms. “It comes with the job.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Is there a catch?”

So much distrust. “Yes. If I’m not satisfied with the job you do, you lose the cabin.”

“That’s it? For real? I’ll do a great job, you’ll see.”

He believed her. “Would you like to know how much you’ll get paid?”

“I suppose I should.”

Meaning she’d take the job regardless? Things got more interesting by the minute. He named the amount—slightly more than he’d intended to pay—but why not? She looked like she needed it. When her eyes widened, he felt good about upping the pay. “Will that suffice?”

“That’d be terrific, yeah.”

One issue down, now on to the rest. “Have you eaten?”

“You watched me eat an apple.”

He blinked.

“Dude, you have reflective windows. I know what they are. You look out, no one can look in.” She smirked. “Besides, I could feel you staring.”

His fascination grew. “I was on the phone with my brother.”

“Did he sing my praises?”

“Why would you think that?”

“He seemed all gung-ho on you hiring me. His wife did, too. They smiled about it a lot.”

Yeah, Memphis just bet they did. The lie came easily. “Actually, they cautioned me.”

Her brows dropped. “About what?”

He started her toward his cabin with a wave of his hand. “You asked about me around town.”

Nothing. Not a word as she followed along.

Prodding her, he asked, “How did you hear about the campground?”

More silence. He glanced at her and caught her concentrated frown. Ah, so she and this campground had a history? He’d have to look into that.

“The thing is…”

Understanding about secrets, he said, “Never mind, we’ll get back to that later. Would you like to come in while I get the keys to unlock your cabin?”

She peered around him, gave it some thought and looked at Tuff. “I can’t leave him out here alone. He’d go bonkers.”

“Should I assume you’ll only be able to work when the dog can be beside you?” That’d certainly limit what she could do.

“This is our first day here. First hour, even. He’ll relax once he gets used to the place. Usually, I can leash him nearby and he’s fine.” She shifted, then asked with dread, “Is that going to be a problem?”

Memphis shook his head. Instincts were a very real thing and his were telling him to accommodate her. “Tuff is welcome inside as well.”

For only a second, she showed her surprise. “Oh, okay, then sure. I can check out your bathroom, too, if you want.” Verbally back pedaling, she said, “I mean, to see what else has to be done.”

He let that go without a joke. “You have plumbing skills?”

“Give me the right tools and a little more muscle and I could pretty much build a house from the ground up.”

“No kidding?” He opened his door and stepped aside for her to enter. “A formidable skill for a… How old are you?”

After the slightest beat of hesitation, she said, “Midtwenties.”

“And so exact.” He came in behind her, which had her quickly turning to face him. Right, her aversion to having people at her back. Without making an issue of it, Memphis strode around her toward the kitchen. “Had some experience in contracting?”

“It’s mostly what I’ve done.” Leaning against a wall, she watched as Tuff sniffed everything—each piece of furniture, cabinet and along the floor. “I tried other jobs, but then I realized I have a knack for handyman work and pick up on stuff easily, so I’ve stuck with it.”

Unlocking a large cabinet on the wall, Memphis surveyed the labeled keys on tiny hooks, each with multiple duplicates, and withdrew the one he’d need. “Was your father in construction?”

With deep interest, she continued to stare at the cabinet.

It took Memphis a second to figure out why, and once he did, compassion overshadowed everything else. Whatever was going on with Jedidiah, she’d learned to be extra cautious. “I need duplicates in case one gets lost.” Her gaze shot to his and held. Such remarkable eyes. She didn’t just look at a person, she fixed on them as if nothing else existed.

The only time Memphis could recall a woman gazing at him like that was during sex, and even then, the attention hadn’t felt so intense.

Should he tell her that the tinted lenses did nothing to lessen the impact of her stare? Probably not—at least not yet. Not when she looked so mistrustful.

“Each cabin has a dead bolt on the inside of the entry door so when you’re inside, you’re safe. I have extra keys just in case someone locks themselves out, or loses the key.”

She needlessly adjusted her glasses and glanced away. “Right.” The uneasy smile she flicked his way didn’t include her endearing dimples. Giving her attention to the rest of the kitchen, she said, “I know how it works. No worries.”

“Oh?” Happy to give her the change in topic, he asked, “Have some experiences with campgrounds, too?”

“We visited them often when I was a kid.”

Something in how she said that made him wonder: Had she been to this campground? Trying to be subtle about it, he asked, “When was the last time you and your family visited—”

She interrupted to ask, “Mind if I take a look at your addition now?”

Huh. Apparently, discussions of her family were off the table. His curiosity grew, but again, he let it go.

Knowing her preferences, he stepped around her to lead the way to his bedroom. “It’s back here.” As they walked down the hall, he asked, “So other than an apple, have you eaten?”

“This morning.”

“Got a meal hidden in your gear? Because I don’t have the camp store open yet and even when I do it’ll be for basics without a lot of meal choices. The cupboards in your cabin aren’t stocked, either.”

Her hand went to her stomach, but instead of answering his question, she said, “I heard you’re making this a budget place, right?” Studiously ignoring his bed, she moved along to the extension.

In between his special projects for the campgrounds, he’d gotten the bigger bedroom and bathroom semifinished. The doors and all the windows were in, so the room was secure. The drywall was up, the seams mudded, but they needed to be sanded.

“It’ll be an affordable stay, not at all fancy. Only the basics offered.” Which meant that less reputable people would find it appealing. The grounds wouldn’t be on anyone’s radar. Low-key, unobtrusive—quick in and quick out. However, while guests were here, Memphis could do all the digging he wanted on their extracurricular and often illegal activities.

Jedidiah moved on, inspecting everything. “Electrical, plumbing and HVAC are all roughed in?”

“Yes.” He glanced around at the incomplete work. Once the room was closed up, he’d put finishing it on hold to focus on other projects that he considered key to the campground. “The shower only needs to be caulked.”

“So rather than caulk it, you choose to shower outside in April?”

“The weather has been mild and I find it invigorating.” Only a partial lie. There’d been times when he’d thought he’d freeze his balls off, completing his shower in under two minutes and racing back into the warmth of his cabin. “I sing to scare off the bears.”

“There aren’t any bears around.”

“Guess my singing is working.”

She snickered. “Want me to caulk it for you?”

“Why?” She sounded so earnest, he lifted his brows and teased her. “Just because you’re here, you don’t want me showering outside anymore?”

The humor slipped and her expression went blank. “I mean, no, sure…” Confusion brought her brows together. “Did you still plan to?”

Fighting a grin, he gestured at the bedroom. “At least until the rest of this is done.” When it was finished, his bed would get moved in here and he’d have the old, crowded bedroom to use as office space. “A little sanding, trim, paint… Won’t be much longer anyway.”

Determined, she faced him. “I can do all that.”

Never before had he met anyone so eager to take on work. “No kidding?”

Again moving past his question, she explained, “You’ve had your final inspections, right? I can do the hookups for the electrical, plumbing, HVAC—all that. Plus, I’m really good at trim work and I’ve done drywall plenty of times. Painting isn’t a problem, either.” Squaring her shoulders, she said, “I’ll even clear out the spiders in the public showers.”

Damn. Did she think she needed to work sunup to sundown? “Jedidiah…”

“Call me Diah. It’s not such a mouthful.”

“Diah.” Pretty name and it suited her. “All right.”

This time her smile showed only resolve. “I promise I’ll be a good worker.”

“I never doubted it.” He realized Tuff wasn’t with them and turned to see the dog snuffling into his closet. Quickly striding to him, Memphis said, “Hey there, Tuff, how’d you get that door open?”

Before he could reach the dog, Diah darted past him and pulled Tuff away. “Sorry.” Stiff and unsure, she stood protectively in front of the dog. “He gets nosy.”

Her moods bounced around too fast for Memphis to keep track, but always, to one degree or another, the uncertainty was there. Now, when it came to her dog, she did her best to shield him.

What did she think he’d do? Wondering about that, Memphis gentled his tone. “First, there’s nothing awful in my closet so I wasn’t worried.” To reassure her, he reached out and opened the closet door the rest of the way. She could see the clothes in front, but not really the shelving in the back. Not that he was hiding anything but he didn’t think she wanted him to give her an accounting of his belongings. “Even if I was hiding something top secret, I would never mistreat an animal. You don’t have to worry about me with Tuff. I just didn’t want him eating my shoes.”

“Tuff would never!”

Her affront on behalf of her dog was endearing. “If you say so. My brother has this goofy basset mix who seems to like the laces in my shoes.”

The mention of Turbo eased some of the defensiveness from her posture. “I met Turbo. He makes funny noises.”

“That he does. His barker is broken or something. He came that way when Hunter rescued him so we’re not sure how it happened, and now it’s just a very Turbo-like thing to hear a dog quacking.”

The dimples reappeared in her cheeks. “He’s bottom heavy, too, and bounces when he’s excited.”

“I imagine he was excited to meet Tuff.”

“Very.” Putting her hand on Tuff’s head, she said, “We didn’t know what to think, did we, bud?”

Tuff said, “Fft.”

“That’s his quiet bark, his way of keeping things understated. When he’s mad he sounds demonic.” Realizing what she’d said, she quickly backtracked. “Oh, but he doesn’t get mad often, only when something is really wrong or…” Her voice trailed off.

“Or he thinks you’re being threatened?”

 


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