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WHISPER OF LOVE

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Chapter One

“THERE ARE TWO types of people in this world, Tempe.” Jillian Braden moved across the kitchen floor in her sky-high heels with a cup of coffee in one hand and a purple scarf in the other. “There are people like me, whose brains never sleep, and there are people like you, whose brains need to sleep.” She wound the soft purple fabric around Tempest’s neck and fluffed Tempest’s long blond hair. She’d made the scarf for Tempest’s six-year-old client who was undergoing chemotherapy. “I could never hate you for being who you are. I love who you are.”

“I just don’t want you to think I’m ungrateful.” Tempest set her guitar case on the floor and hugged her petite cousin with whom she’d lived for the past three weeks. “Thank you for making this. She’s going to love it.” She admired the scarf, then put it in her bag for her visit with Mary later that morning.

After moving her children’s music therapy business to Pleasant Hill, an hour and a half drive with traffic from her home in Peaceful Harbor, Tempest had needed a place to stay, and Jillian had been gracious enough to offer her a room. She and her cousin were as different as night and day. Jillian, a fashion designer and owner of a high-end, slightly outlandish dress shop, worked all night, slept odd hours, and still somehow managed to function like the Energizer Bunny all day long, while Tempest required a solid seven or eight hours of sleep, lots of coffee, and tranquility.

Jillian gulped her Diet Pepsi and set the empty glass in the sink. It was seven thirty in the morning, and she’d been up all night working on a new design. Unfortunately, her studio was above the guest room where Tempest was staying, and Jillian had a penchant for dancing while she worked. They’d lived together for three weeks, and if Tempest didn’t get some sleep soon, she just might begin writing angry rock songs instead of the serene melodies her music therapy clients needed.

“So what’s your plan?” Jillian fluffed Tempest’s hair again.

She had a way of touching those around her, making them feel special and loved without appearing too handsy. Tempe had always been a little jealous of that ability. She wasn’t cold by any means, but she was careful. Careful in life, careful with her emotions, and careful with herself. Too careful. At closer to thirty than twenty, she was feeling hemmed in by her small hometown and, she had to admit, by her own careful nature. Moving to Pleasant Hill offered a fresh start for the direction of her business, and maybe, just maybe, the new town would expand her social life, too. That is, if she ever got enough rest to actually enjoy going out and meeting people.

“I’ll look for a room to rent someplace quiet until I see how my business grows and I can afford a place of my own. Or not, I guess,” she said, feeling disheartened. “There’s no need to sign a year lease until I’m sure I can make a go of things here.” She worked part-time at the hospital playing music for the pediatrics ward and ran a children’s musical playgroup two days a week at the community center, with the hope of one day taking the playgroup full-time. She was also still traveling back to Peaceful Harbor every weekend to work with a client until her therapy program had run its course.

“Oh, please. Once the moms around here meet you, they’ll be clamoring to sign their kids up. When you’re at Emmaline’s, check out her posting board. It’s always covered with ads. I bet you can find a cheap room for rent there.” Jillian looked at her reflection in the door of the microwave, using one finger to brush her wispy brown-slash-burgundy bangs from her forehead.

Emmaline O’Connor and Jillian had grown up together. She owned a café, appropriately named Emmaline’s, in the center of town. It was one of Tempest’s favorite cafés because the people were so friendly, it reminded her of home.

“That’s a great idea. I’m so focused on coffee or breakfast when I go there, I forgot she even has an ad board. Good luck with your designs.” Tempest picked up her guitar and pulled the strap of her bag across her body.

“No designing today. I’m going to sleep for two hours, and then I’ve got a group of girls coming into the shop for fittings.” Jillian headed for the stairs. “I don’t want you going to strange houses alone, so call me if you find someplace you want to check out. If I can’t go, we’ll grab one of my brothers.”

Tempe laughed as Jillian’s voice faded at the top of the stairs. She’d never escape her cousins’ overprotective nature. It was in their blood. Just like being careful is in mine. She buried that thought deep, because part of her worried she was fighting a losing battle by trying to break out of her cautious ways. But as a trained therapist she knew how her own insecurities could stifle her ability to grow and expand her horizons. She’d convinced her younger sister, Shannon, to spread her wings and move to Colorado, and now Shannon was madly in love and living with the man of her dreams, Steve Johnson. If only Tempe could convince herself to take a few risks, she just might get lucky, too.

“Tempe!” Jillian yelled from upstairs.

“Yeah?”

“Don’t forget, we’re meeting Jax and Nick for drinks tomorrow around five at Tully’s Tavern.”

“I work until five, so I’ll meet you shortly after.”

“Fine. But don’t blow us off!”

She cringed. She’d blown off Jillian’s invitations to happy hour pretty often over the past three weeks in lieu of taking advantage of the peace and quiet at home. But she loved seeing her cousins, and she hadn’t seen Nick in months. She hollered upstairs, “I won’t. Gotta run!”

It was early September. Soon the leaves would take on beautiful fall colors, and she’d pull out her sweaters and knit caps. She faced the oncoming breeze as she walked to her car, reveling in the reprieve from Maryland’s scorching late-summer temperatures. She placed her guitar in the trunk and settled into the driver’s seat, humming the tune of the song she was writing for her client who was in a coma, and drove toward the center of town.

While Peaceful Harbor was anchored by long stretches of beach, Pleasant Hill was defined by rolling hills and sprawling pastures. The town of Pleasant Hill was busier than the harbor, although it wasn’t much larger. Brick buildings and upscale shops lined wide, brick-paved sidewalks along the main streets. Flowering dogwood trees were planted along grassy areas on each corner, providing shade above wooden benches.

Tempe rounded a beautifully landscaped cul-de-sac in the center of town and parked in the lot behind the café. Surrounded by a sea of high-end cars, she noted the difference from home, where most of the vehicles were pickup trucks, Jeeps, or convertibles, with a requisite amount of sand in the bumpers. She missed her quiet apartment overlooking the water, where she could sit outside and smell the ocean while she played her guitar. She was sure the change in scenery would be even more inspiring once she had a chance to enjoy it. She had a notebook full of ideas for song lyrics, but she desperately needed peace and quiet to put them together.

She followed a couple into the café, inhaling the invigorating scent of fresh roasted coffee and warm, baked breads. A gigantic chalkboard boasted today’s coffee specials in bright pink and breakfast specials in green, interspersed with happy sayings written in blue like, “Find your happy place,” and “Create your life!” Sunny yellow walls featured beautiful paintings from local artists, round tables lined the walls of the narrow café, and in the rear, a spiral staircase led to a loft with more seating. If the café weren’t so busy, she’d try to write there.

“Morning, Tempe,” Emmaline, a vivacious brunette, called from behind the counter, where she was filling a to-go cup. “Jilly just texted. The ad board’s over there.” She pointed to an overflowing corkboard on the far side of the register.

“Thanks.” Shaking her head at her overzealous cousin, she weaved around an elderly couple and a group of women to get a better look at the board. Help-wanted ads, ads for maid services, rooms for rent, and what seemed like a hundred miscellaneous items for sale were stuck to the board by colorful pushpins. A flyer announcing a children’s art boutique opening caught her eye, and she tore off one of the dangling strips of paper with the time, date, and place of the event and tucked it into her purse, making a mental note to ask the owner if she could play her guitar at the opening. She had a business to grow, and networking was everything. In fact, she realized, the café was the perfect place to catch the attention of busy moms who might need a break during the week. She made another mental note to make flyers for her children’s group and put them up around town.

Turning back to the board, she ripped off another tab from a flyer announcing a fall concert. There would be plenty of places to network and things to do if she could just find a place to sleep. A piece of white paper with crayon markings on the edges peeked out from between an ad for a car for sale and a blood drive. Drawn in by the cute childlike markings, she moved the other ads to the side, revealing an ad written in messy handwriting. Single room for rent. Quiet setting. No college kids. No partiers.

Now, that seemed perfect.

“Jilly said you’re looking for a place to rent,” Emmaline said as she handed her a to-go cup.

Tempest didn’t have to taste it to know it was her favorite, a caramel French vanilla latte. “Hopefully an affordable, quiet place.”

“If you want affordable,” Emmaline said, “avoid anything near the center of town. Did you get tired of Jilly’s crazy hours? I swear that girl hasn’t slept a wink since sixth grade.”

Tempest laughed. “She’s a bundle of energy. Unfortunately, I need quiet, so…” She pointed to the ad she was interested in. “This one looks like it might be perfect.”

Emmaline made a tsk sound. “I know most of the people who put up these ads, but I don’t know much about the guy who put up that one. He’s real quiet. Has the cutest little boy, but…I don’t know.”

“Do you think he’s a bad guy?”

“No, not necessarily.” She leaned closer and said, “He’s an artist,” as if that explained her concerns. “He lives on the outskirts of town, keeps to himself. That’s about all I know. He’s just…I don’t know. Maybe I’m being overly critical. He’s mysterious. Yes, that’s the right word for him.”

Tempest breathed easier. “A reclusive, mysterious artist with a cute kid? He just might be the perfect housemate.” After chatting for a few more minutes and promising to pass along a hug to Jillian, Tempest headed out to her car and called the number from the ad.

“Hello?” A deep voice came gruffly through the phone.

“Hi.” Caught off guard by his harsh tone, she forced herself not to be judgmental. “I’m calling about the room for rent.”

“It’s a single room. Four fifty a month. You’re not a college kid, are you?”

“No. You’re not a serial killer, are you?”

He was quiet for a moment, and she held her breath. No joking with Mr. Serious.

“Not today I’m not.”

His voice was so powerful, so serious, she thought about Jillian’s offer to accompany her. The guy put up a flyer in a public place, and according to Emmaline, he has a son. Surely he isn’t collecting bodies on the outskirts of town. She thought of her cousin Nick, one of Jillian’s older brothers, who could be just as gruff as this guy sounded, but he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Unless they hurt his family. Then all bets were off.

“You want to see the room?” he asked.

“Sure.” Her heart hammered against her chest. They agreed to meet after she was done at the hospital, exchanged names, and she wrote down the address. “Great. I’ll see you this evening.” After the call she immediately pulled up the Internet and searched artist Nash Morgan.

The few articles she found were dated more than four years ago, focusing on his artwork being sold in galleries along the East Coast. The accompanying pictures of his intricate wood and metal sculptures took her breath away. She searched back in time, seeking a picture of the gruff man behind the talent, but the only photograph was dated more than ten years ago. He was sitting on the hood of a truck wearing a pair of faded jeans and a gray T-shirt. Several leather bracelets circled one wrist, and a silver ring shone on his right ring finger. Dirty-blond hair stuck out from beneath a red Washington Nationals baseball cap. He had a small, beautiful mouth that curved up at the edges and a hint of a five o’clock shadow. His smallish dark eyes were fringed with lashes so thick they looked fake.

Handsome and artsy, an irresistible combination.

She set her phone on the passenger seat, telling herself she shouldn’t be thinking that way about the man who might become her landlord. As she drove toward the hospital, his image lingered in her mind. She struggled to reconcile the unguarded man in the photograph with the gruff one with whom she had just spoken.

**

NASH MORGAN SHIFTED his three-year-old son, Phillip, onto his hip and reached behind him to shut the gate. The chickens scurried away amid cackles and mad wing flaps. He set Phillip on the ground, and his son shook his head, shrugging like he’d been doing this for twenty years and couldn’t believe the chickens still ran from them. He ruffled his boy’s springy dark curls, drawing a serious, expectant look and an outstretched hand from Phillip. Nash loved his little man’s eagerness to get started on their evening chores. He handed him a smaller bucket from inside his larger one and nodded toward the coop.

Phillip returned the nod and clomped his booted feet into the coop to collect the eggs. Nash adjusted his baseball cap, listening as Phillip counted off each egg with an “Mm-hm.”

He drew in a deep breath, hoping, for the millionth time, that he was doing enough for his son. He was the only parent Phillip had. Or rather, the only one who wanted him, a fact that never failed to grate on him like nails dragging along a chalkboard. His cell phone rang and Larry Robert’s number flashed on the screen. Nash uttered a curse. Larry owned a gallery in North Carolina, and he’d given Nash his first big break. A break that could have carried him to a lifetime of success. But after Phillip was born he’d been unable to keep up with the demands of custom orders. Larry was opening another gallery in Virginia, and he wanted to feature Nash’s work. Nash had turned him down, but Larry was persistent.

Swallowing the acidic taste of disappointment, he let the call go to voicemail and looked across the yard at the barn, which served as his workshop for the furniture he made and sold in town. He’d long ago locked up his metalworking and wood-sculpting workshop and stored his unfinished work. Gallery-worthy pieces, if he ever had the time to finish them. Pipe dreams. He’d had them, even made them a reality for a while. But that was a long time ago, and there was no sense thinking about something that could never be—at least not until Phillip was much older.

He ducked into the coop and checked the chickens’ food and water. Scanning the nesting beds, he snatched up the few eggs Phillip had missed. Phillip leaned against Nash’s leg and yawned. Nash couldn’t imagine anyone not loving their child with all their heart, but Phillip’s mother, Alaina, had taken off three months after their son was born, and other than receiving official documents releasing her from her parental rights, he hadn’t heard from her since. Not a day passed that he didn’t worry about the long-term effects her leaving would have on his son.

“Good job, Phillip.” He said his son’s name so fast it came out sounding like “Flip.” He set down his bucket, wrapped his arms around his boy, and whispered in his ear, “I love you, little dude.” He kissed his cheek and scooped him up, earning the sweetest giggle known to man.

Nash grabbed the buckets and headed for the goat pen. Big and Little, the two goats, trailed behind them as Phillip followed Nash through the process of checking their food and water and sweeping out the goat house, as he did every night. Phillip wiggled the nozzle of the water pipe, just as Nash had, mimicking his “Hm.” Nash tossed a cup of oats in the food bin and waited while Phillip did the same. Big nibbled on Phillip’s shirt, and Phillip leaned down and kissed his head.

“C’mon, buddy.” Nash had grown up in rural Virginia. Most of his friends had lived on farms, and he had no doubt that caring for animals would help Phillip learn responsibility. Not to mention that his son adored all types of animals, from squirrels to goats to worms. That was just fine with Nash. In his experience, animals were a lot more trustworthy than people.

The sound of tires on gravel drew his attention. He scooped Phillip into his arms, locked the goat pen, and grabbed the buckets.

“Visitor,” he said, carrying Phillip toward the house and eyeing the Prius parking behind his old Ford pickup truck. His truck was a gas guzzler, but as much as he hated that, he needed the bed of the truck to haul the furniture he made into town. He hoped Tempest Braden, the woman coming to see the room he was renting out, wasn’t a preachy tree hugger. Hell, he hoped she would turn out to be the silent type so he could pretend she didn’t live in their house.

Phillip’s brows knitted, his hands firmly planted around Nash’s neck. He wasn’t used to visitors. The last several people who had come to see the room they had for rent hadn’t been the kind of people Nash wanted around his son. They’d rubbed him the wrong way—too aggressive, too loud, too shady, too flighty. He just needed a stable, responsible person to rent the room so he could afford to upgrade a few of his tools and start saving for Phillip’s future. He tightened his grip on his son and headed up to meet the tall blonde stepping from the car.

Her wispy skirt fluttered around her knees. Large pink roses with muted green leaves looked as if they’d been thrown onto the flimsy white material haphazardly. A fringe of lace lined the edges. On anyone else the flouncy, floral skirt might look immature. But her legs went on forever, and coupled with her tight, curve-hugging tank top, she looked like Sweet and Sexy collided at the corner of Sinful Temptation.

She turned as he approached, and Nash stopped in his tracks, standing still as a stone. The setting sun caught her hair, highlighting several different shades of blond in long, cascading layers that hung to the middle of her back. Her nose was slightly upturned, and she had a cute, rounded chin. He’d never seen such natural beauty.

She smiled and tilted her head. “Nash?”

Shaking his head to clear his thoughts, he forced his legs to carry him forward. “Yes. Tempest?”

She met him halfway up the hill. “Thanks for seeing me so quickly.” She peered into the buckets. “I hope I’m not interrupting.”

“Evening routine. Did you have any trouble finding us?” She was even more beautiful up close. Her hair was tousled, as if she hadn’t brushed it all day, and her eyes were so light blue, they had starbursts of white around the pupils, sparkling like diamonds. It had been a long time since any woman had caught Nash’s interest, and he reminded himself to rein in that attraction. The last thing he needed were complications in Phillip’s life. Even for a girl with the most spectacular blue eyes he’d ever seen.

“No. Your directions were perfect.” She smiled at Phillip, and when she spoke again her voice was soft as a summer’s breeze. “What’s your name, cutie pie?”

Phillip’s fingers dug into his neck. Nash nodded his approval.

“Flip,” Phillip said.

Tempest’s eyes widened with amusement. “Flip? That’s a unique name.” That beautiful smile lit up her face again. “I’m Tempest, but everyone calls me Tempe. It’s nice to meet you both.”

When she turned that smile on Nash, his entire body heated up. As a sea lover, he knew the word tempest meant a violent storm. It was obvious what type of unexpected storm this sweet-natured, soft-spoken beauty could cause, and he couldn’t afford to be caught in a squall.

“My son’s name is Phillip.” He said it faster than he’d meant to, and realized his son’s name came out sounding like Flip. He’d also said it harsher than he’d intended. Reeling in his attraction was going to make him look like an asshole.

“Then Flip it is.”

The way she said it sounded so damn cute, he wasn’t about to correct her.

“Flip,” Phillip repeated.

“Come on, I’ll show you the room.” He caught a whiff of her floral perfume on the way inside. It had been a long time since he’d smelled anything so feminine. Maybe this housemate thing wasn’t such a good idea after all.

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