The short ride into town was full of awkward silence. Sensing his irritation with her, Cameron chose to stay quiet instead of peppering him with questions about the town, the state and what he might know about the Green Mountain Country Store.
“You got a name?” he asked.
“What kind of name is that for a girl?”
Instantly on the offensive, Cameron glared at him. “It’s the kind of name my parents gave me - and I had it long before Cameron Diaz was famous.”
Astounded, Cameron swiveled in her seat. “Tell me the truth - have I been abducted by aliens? It’s okay. You can give it to me straight. I can take it.”
“I don’t know about aliens, but I may as well tell you I have no idea who Cliff Clavin is either.”
Cameron’s mouth fell open. “The know-it-all mailman from Cheers? One of the top-rated shows of the eighties and nineties?”
“So you think I’m a know-it-all, huh?”
“You sound rather proud of that.”
“Well, you don’t have to be a know-it-all to get that wearing suede boots to Vermont in March isn’t the brightest idea you’ll ever have.”
“Pardon my ignorance, but I’ve never been here before.”
“All that technology laying in your lap, and you never got the 411 on the mud.” He snorted out a laugh.
“Anyone ever tell you that you can be somewhat insufferable?”
Arching an eyebrow, he smirked at her. “Only somewhat? I’ve fallen short of my goal.”
Exasperated, Cameron shifted to look out the passenger window.
“Was it something I said?”
She shook her head in disbelief. The guy was too much.
“What’s your name anyway?”
That got her attention. “Any relation to Lincoln Abbott?”
“That’d be my dad. How do you know him?”
“I don’t actually know him. Yet. I’m due to meet him tomorrow.”
“For what purpose?”
“To build a website for his store.”
“Damn it!” Will slammed the heel of his hand on the wheel. “I can’t believe him! We told him we didn’t want it!”
“We?” Cameron made an effort to keep the waver out of her voice. Would this interminable day ever end?
“My siblings and I. We’re his partners.”
“Oh.” Since the company had no website, she’d found precious little information about it online and had planned to start from scratch once she got to town.
“Let me guess - when he hired you he never mentioned that his children voted against a website.”
“Um, no, that didn’t come up.”
“This is so typical. He brings one of his big ideas to us, we tell him we aren’t interested, and then he does it anyway.”
“If you’re partners, how does he get away with that?”
“Because he owns the majority - fifty percent. The other fifty percent is split between the ten of us. Five of us help him run the store and vote proxy for the others. The other fi ve provide a variety of products to the store.”
“Ten of you?”
“I’m one of ten.”
“You have ten kids in your family?”
“I’ve never known anyone who had more than four kids in their family.”
“Well, now you know someone who has ten.”
As an only child, Cameron tried to wrap her head around what it might’ve been like to grow up with nine siblings. “What are their names?”
“You want to know the names of my siblings?” he asked, as if that was the stupidest question he’d ever heard.
“Yeah, I guess I do. If I’m going to be stuck in the middle of your family feud it would be good to know the people I’m dealing with.”
“Feud is kind of a strong word, but we do argue. A lot.” He sighed and tightened his grip on the wheel. “Hunter and Hannah are the oldest. They’re twins.”
“Ten kids and twins too?”
“Two sets of twins. Lucas and Landon are second from the youngest. They’re identical twins.”
“That’s so cool.”
He glanced over at her, seeming confounded by her interest in his family. But to Cameron, who’d grown up painfully alone, families like his only existed on the TV shows she’d glommed on to, looking for a family anywhere she could find one.
“I’m after Hunter and Hannah. Then comes Ella, Charlotte, Wade, Colton, Lucas and Landon and then Max.”
“Wow. That’s a lot of kids.”
“Is your mom in an asylum?”
His bark of laughter took her by surprise. “Nah. She rolls with it all. I’ve never met anyone as quietly efficient as she is. She always made it look easy.”
“How do you make ten kids look easy?”
“I don’t know, but somehow she did.”
“So which five are involved in the business?”
“That’d be me, Hunter, Ella, Charlotte and Wade. Several of the others are involved in businesses that feed products to the store. Colton runs the family sugaring facility that makes maple syrup, and Max helps him out when he’s able to between classes. He’s a senior at UVM. Landon has a woodworking business and oversees the volunteer fi refighting department in town. Hannah makes jewelry. Lucas manages the family’s Christmas tree farm and helps Landon with the fire department. I think that’s everyone accounted for.”
“Just out of curiosity— why don’t you and your siblings want a website?”
“Because we don’t need one. We have a very nice business just the way it is. A website will bring a bunch of issues we aren’t interested in dealing with.”
“We’ll have to hire people to fulfi ll orders, set up a distribution center, figure out shipping. So many headaches.”
“But it could grow your business exponentially.”
“We don’t want to grow our business. It’s fine the way it is.”
He drove into a quaint little New England town with a signature white-steeple church, a volunteer fire department, a combination café and gallery, and there, in the middle of everything, the Green Mountain Country Store.
In the dark, it was hard to see much, but it seemed small next to some of the other buildings and boasted a quaint front porch. They were past it before she could ascertain much of anything else.
Will pulled into a parking lot behind a large white Victorian house.
“Where are we?”
“I assume you’re staying at the inn since it’s the only place in town that takes guests.”
Cameron pulled out the confirmation message she had printed at home. “The Admiral Frances Butler Inn?”
“That’s it.” He cut the engine and got out of the truck.
By the time she emerged onto thankfully dry pavement, he’d fetched her luggage from the back. “Can you hand me the black bag? My running shoes are in there.”
He retrieved the bag she pointed to and dropped it in front of her.
“You don’t have to shoot the messenger, you know,” she said.
“What does that mean?”
“Just because you’re mad at your dad for hiring me doesn’t mean you have to be cranky with me.”
“You were irritating me long before I knew my dad had hired you.”
“You’re just full of charm, aren’t you?” she asked as she pulled on sneakers.
“So I’m told.”
He waggled his brows at her. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
“Actually, I really wouldn’t.”
“Suit yourself,” he said with a shrug as he led her into the back door of the inn. He seemed to know his way around, so she followed him through a series of hallways to the front desk where he rang the bell on the counter. The place smelled like potpourri and lemon-scented furniture polish.
An older woman came through the door wearing a housecoat, pin curlers in her hair and a warm, welcoming smile on her plump face.
“Hi, Will. What a nice surprise. What brings you in tonight?”
“Hi there, Mrs. Hendricks. I’ve brought you a guest. Cameron . . .”
“Oh,” the older woman said, resting a hand on her head as if she just remembered her curlers. “I look a sight.”
“You’re pretty as a picture, just like always,” Will said.
“Will Abbott,” Mrs. Hendricks said as her face turned bright red, “you could charm a bird out of a tree.”
Will sent Cameron a smug smile, as if to say “Told ya so.”
Cameron cleared her throat, hoping to remind Mrs. Hendricks that a paying customer was waiting to check in. “Cameron Murphy. Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Hendricks.”
The other woman fi nally looked at her and gasped. “Oh my! What happened to your face?”
Cameron raised her hands to her face, remembering the moment of impact and how her nose had hurt afterward.
“You have two black eyes,” Mrs. Hendricks said. “And your nose . . .”
Alarmed, Cameron looked around for a mirror. “What about my nose?” She walked across the small lobby to a framed mirror and shrieked at what she saw. Her nose was swollen and sure enough, dark bruises were forming under her eyes.
“Oh my God!”
Turning back to find Will leaning against the counter and Mrs. Hendricks looking on with concern, Cameron marched back over to confront him. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Tell you what?”
“That my face was all banged up!”
“Um, maybe because I figured you’d hardly need me to tell you that something had smacked you in the face.”
“It must’ve been the airbag,” she said, remembering that moment of utter blackness. Had she passed out? She’d been ignoring the pain in her face as she tried to get her bearings with Will, but now that they mentioned it, her nose was throbbing rather insistently.
“The airbag would also explain the burn on your neck,” Will added.
“Burn?” Her voice was a shrill squeak. “What burn?”
He leaned in closer to her, and she swore her heart skipped a beat as she caught a whiff of his outdoorsy scent. The touch of his finger on her neck sent a shocking bolt of heat straight through her, landing in a tingle between her legs. What in the name of hell was that about?
“There.” As if he’d touched something hot, Will pulled back his hand and straightened out of that insolent slouch he did so well.The two of them stared at each other for a long heated moment.
“Was there an accident?” Mrs. Hendricks asked, interrupting the intense interlude.
“She hit Fred,” Will said gravely.
Mrs. Hendricks brought a hand to her ample chest. “Oh! Is he okay?”
“He seemed no worse for the wear,” Will said. “Good thing it was a small car.”
“It was a new car!” Cameron said, wondering if anyone in this godforsaken town would care that her adorable little car was no longer adorable.
“Well, as long as he’s okay,” Mrs. Hendricks said as if Cameron hadn’t spoken. Then she turned to Cameron. “I can call Doc Edwards for you, if you’d like.”
“Thank you, but that’s not necessary.” All Cameron wanted was a warm bath and an ice pack for her throbbing nose.
“Could I borrow the phone to call Nolan about her car?” Will asked.
“Of course.” Mrs. Hendricks handed him the portable phone, and he dialed a number from memory. While Cameron completed the check-in paperwork and handed over her credit card, Will filled Nolan in on the accident.
“Yep, she ran smack into poor old Fred.” A pause. “He seemed fine, but we might want to send the doc after him in the morning to make sure.”
Glowering at him, Cameron whispered, “The car. Remember the car?”
He met her glower with a scowl. “Now, about the car.”
Finally, Cameron thought, signing on the dotted line for Mrs. Hendricks and accepting the key to her third-floor room.
Will handed the phone back to Mrs. Hendricks. “Nolan’s going to fetch the car tonight so no one hits it out on the road. He said to check in with him in the morning. The garage is across the street.” Pointing toward the front door. “That way.”
“Thank you.” Cameron forced herself to look up at him and all his beauty. “I appreciate your help.” His eyes, she realized were light brown, almost gold. Why did he have to be so spectacularly gorgeous and so outrageously cranky?
“You need help getting your stuff upstairs?”
The idea of him following her to a hotel room sent more tingling awareness rippling through her. “I can do it.”
But before the words were out of her mouth, he was already heading to the stairs with her bags. Uttering a quick thank you to Mrs. Hendricks, Cameron scurried after him.
On the third floor, he deposited her suitcases outside Room 18. He stopped so suddenly that Cameron nearly ran into his broad back.
Turning, he caught her inches from his chest, and the awareness that had sizzled between them downstairs chose that moment to reappear. Cameron had never experienced such an overpowering need to touch another person. She rolled her hands into fists to keep from acting on the impulse.
“Listen,” he said, haltingly, “you seem like a nice enough person.”
“Wow, thanks.” Charming? Whatever.
His expression turned stormy. “What I was going to say is that things are apt to get a little heated tomorrow at the meeting. Don’t take it personally, okay? Our beef is with him, not you.”
“I’m here to do a job. Nothing about this is personal.”
“Good,” he said, apparently picking up on her double meaning as she’d hoped he would. “Let’s keep it that way.”
“Fine by me.”
“You might want to put some ice on your nose,” he said as he headed down the stairs.
Too bad he missed the gesture she made at his retreating back.