Autumn carries more gold in its pocket than all the other seasons.
When Brett Walker caught sight of the flashing lights in his rearview mirror, his heart gave a quick jolt and he wondered why he was being pulled over. His DMV tags were for the correct year. He was up-to-date on his bills. The license for his landscaping business was current, too. As he pulled to the side of one of the narrow lanes in the wealthy enclave of Blue Arrow Lake in the Southern California mountains, he thought perhaps one of his three younger sisters might have called the sheriff’s department to execute a welfare check. Poppy was the most likely choice. But Shay might have done it, too.
It wasn’t that he was avoiding his two youngest sisters exactly, but they were so damn starry-eyed over the men in their lives. While all four Walker siblings were pretty hardheaded, only his other sister, Mackenzie—Mac—had the same hard soul as he. All the smiles and sighs and grins and kisses a person had to witness when hanging around Poppy and Ryan and Shay and Jace rubbed said soul raw.
So he’d been pacing himself on the Walker fests.
Brett unrolled his window as a man wearing a tan uniform strolled up to the driver’s side. Placing both hands on the wheel—this wasn’t his first rodeo—he glanced up. “Don.” Even a law-abiding citizen felt a spurt of relief at recognizing a longtime friend. “What is it, a broken taillight?”
“Naw, nothing like that.” He hitched up the belt bristling with equipment. “I saw you go by and thought I’d take the opportunity to have a little chat.”
Brett remembered another “chat” he’d been forced to have with a law enforcement officer. His gut curdled at the memory. The result had been a two-day stay in the lockup. “You’re making me anxious here, Don,” he said. “I’m shaking in my boots.”
The other man snorted. “You’re wearing your usual granite face. How’s the family?”
He meant Brett’s sisters, since his mother and father had been gone for years. “Poppy and Shay are both engaged now.”
“I heard that. Flatlanders?”
It was what the mountain people called those who came from “down the hill” to visit their peaks and pines at 5,000 feet and beyond. Those who usually resided by the beaches and in the cities of SoCal could hardly believe it when they climbed into their cars and took a two-hour drive to discover a place with four actual, authentic seasons. Lakes for summer play. Snow for winter games. The spring and fall were quieter, but no less beautiful to residents like the Walkers who lived here full-time and had done so for one hundred fifty years.
The full-timers had to share with those flatlanders, though. The resort mountain communities of the area had palatial homes near ski runs and expansive mansions on the banks of private lakes. Wealthy people came up on weekends to their alpine retreats, which gave rise to businesses that provided for the visitors’ needs and tastes: gourmet grocers and house-cleaning services, organic restaurants and landscape-maintenance companies.
“Yep, flatlanders,” Brett told the other man.
Brett shrugged. “Eye of the beholder, right?” Money didn’t impress the Walkers. The opposite, really, and he’d been inclined to dislike Ryan and Jace on that principle alone. But the men his sisters had chosen had proved themselves, which hadn’t always been the case.
Shay had been the product of a brief affair between their mother and a wealthy visitor when his parents’ marriage had hit a rough patch and his father had temporarily decamped to South America. But Dell Walker had ultimately returned and treated Shay as his own for the rest of his life—her bio dad had never shown his face again.
Poppy had become a single mom when her son’s rich-but-shallow father had run back to Beverly Hills.
Brett had been screwed in his own way by the moneyed. He’d earned the chip on his shoulder.
“Business good?” Don asked now.
“Sure.” This time of year, he was still mowing and trimming, but soon enough he’d be planting bulbs for spring and protecting flower beds and shrubbery from the coming harsher weather. “We’ll see what happens in winter.” Then he switched to snow removal. If there wasn’t any white stuff to shovel or plow, he’d be in for a dry spell.
“But you’re still out and about the area every day, right?”
Brett’s eyes narrowed. Don wasn’t just shooting the breeze. “Yeah…” He drew out the word, uneasy again.
Don cleared his throat. “I don’t like to sound an alarm…”
Except that’s exactly what he was doing. “Spit it out.”
“Looks like we have a string of burglaries,” he said, frowning.
“Here?” Brett glanced around. This particular community was gated, and besides the patrolling sheriffs, residents could let a security service know their schedule and request daily checks.
“Here, there, across the lake, on the mountain ridge. There isn’t a real pattern we’ve detected, other than break-ins and missing valuables. You and I both know there are ways to get to these homes that bypass the gates and kiosks.”
“Yeah.” Brett ran a hand over his short hair. Thieves could come by boat or zip around on dirt bikes and avoid the paved roads. “We had trouble with kids in our cabins during the summer.”
“I thought of that,” Don said. “Any trouble since?”
“No. I’m living out there now.” Four miles off the mountain highway was a tract of Walker land that had once been a successful, though small, ski resort. After a wildfire came through and destroyed nearly everything, it had been left to nature. Then, last spring, Poppy had decided she wanted to refurbish the dozen cabins that remained standing. Despite the initial objections from the rest of the siblings, they were making progress. Slow progress, but progress all the same. “We think the fire in one of the bungalows was set by local kids. This seem the same? Locals?”
“They’d know how not to get caught.”
Unless they were naive enough to let themselves be used, Brett thought. But he shook it off because he wasn’t eighteen any longer and at the mercy of a lying little rich girl and her daddy who thought his spoiled darling could do no wrong.
“Keep your eyes open, will you, Brett?” Don said. “Since you’re cruising around all day, you might catch sight of something or someone that will help us crack this.”
With a wave, Don returned to his car and Brett continued on with his day. But uneasiness continued to dog him. If people suspected area kids were the culprits, it wasn’t a large leap to any local being blamed. If the owners of the vacation homes began distrusting the help they hired, it could impact the bottom line of people like Brett with his landscaping business. His sister Mac, too, who operated a cleaning service.
This wasn’t good.
His schedule full, Brett’s day didn’t finish until he was nearly out of daylight. Muscles aching, he pushed the lawn mower up the ramp into his truck’s bed. Then he settled into the driver’s seat and grabbed some water, practically hosing it down his parched throat. He’d brooded over the burglaries while he worked at a handful of properties. The usual mowing and clipping, but he’d also raked up mountains of fallen leaves. The pinecones had seemed to have it in for him. Two of the prickly buggers had fallen directly on his head.
He wanted a cold beer, a long shower and a hot meal.
Since he’d have to make yet another stop to purchase two out of the three, his lousy mood was only amplified as he started off in the direction of the highway.
It was quiet in the neighborhood. Nothing unusual for a midweek autumn day. But, remembering Don’s words, he paid more attention than he normally would. That’s why he slowed and gave a piercing once-over of the Rodriguez place.
“Liar,” he muttered to himself.
The piercing once-over was all about the damn woman he wanted to be all over—Angelica Rodriguez.
He sighed. She was so exactly not the type for him. She’d spent the summer at the house that now looked empty of life. Her mother was an infamous supermodel, now divorced from Angelica’s father, a hedge-fund manager with a Midas touch. Brett didn’t think the young woman did anything but dream up ways to torture him. When he arrived to work on the grounds, she’d come outside wearing radiant smiles and little sundresses.
She was evil like that.
Not to mention how she tempted him in other ways. Freshly made lemonade. Oatmeal and raisin cookies—his favorite. He didn’t know how she’d discovered that fact, but he wouldn’t put it past her to use Daddy’s money to purchase a background check of him.
All summer he’d been completely, uncomfortably, maddeningly aware she’d had an itch to go slumming. With him.
But looking at the huge villa-style house on the lake, dark except for a couple of dim security lights mounted on the outside, he guessed she’d gone home…or at least to some other Rodriguez-owned domicile. In Bel-Air, maybe. Malibu. For all he knew, Paris.
Thank God. He’d been losing his will to hold out against her. Would any man blame him? She had liquid brown eyes, a wealth of silky, espresso-dark hair, a body…
Don’t think about her body.
She’d once told him she’d modeled for a time in childhood to early teens, until she’d gotten too “fat.” Translation: long legs, beautiful features.
Bountiful, distracting, unforgettable breasts.
Brett closed his eyes, and he could still see them, damn it. Beneath a tank top. Under a loose-fitting shift. Once he’d seen her in a bikini.
That day, he’d been afraid he’d lose his eyesight. Because not only had he garnered a glance at her front, but she’d turned around and he’d spied her luscious butt in bathing-suit bottoms.
Yeah, that kind of “fat.”
It should be against the law.
Blowing out a breath, he opened his eyes to take a final look at the place before moving on. He could see it clearly enough through the iron bars of the wide double gate. Now that she was gone, he was going to forget all about her.
A tiny light moved behind a window.
Brett rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. Was he seeing things? Blinking hard, he surveyed the place once more. The light was gone—
No, there it winked on again.
A prickly sensation skittered down his spine.
Putting his truck in Reverse, he slowly backed up the street and parked twenty-five yards away. There was more iron fencing at the sides of the property and it didn’t prevent him from seeing that light moving again, a firefly behind the glass and the briefest outline of a familiar figure. The hair on the back of his neck rose. All his nerve endings were awake now, and the weariness from the day’s endeavors were replaced with something else—curiosity, anticipation, maybe some dangerous combination of the two.
Trying to be as quiet as possible, he climbed out of the truck.
He didn’t bother pulling out his cell phone. This wasn’t a police matter. It was something else—the someone skulking about the inside of that mammoth house was none other than its mistress.
Don’t think of the word mistress.
His instincts were certain it was her because, since first seeing her, his body reacted in just this way when she was anywhere in his proximity. His skin would twitch, his scalp would tingle and he’d turn around and Angelica Rodriguez would be there in one of her witchy outfits—jeans, a pair of hiking shorts, a voluminous beach cover-up, it didn’t matter what she wore—and he’d have to steel his spine to be as hard as that other part of him was becoming.
No, I don’t want lemonade. Or a cookie. Or to spend endless nights in bed with you.
“Liar,” he muttered again. He’d wanted it all.
But she was doing something shady, he could feel that, too, and so he made his way around the side of the house; his aim, that moving light. There was no fencing between the house and its lake access and soon he was prowling toward that window.
Then he was right outside it. In the minuscule glow of the penlight she had in her hand, he could make out parts of her as she moved about the den. The dark pools of her eyes. The elegant line of her small nose. The dip above her bowed upper lip. Without a hesitation, he rapped on the glass.
Jumping, she shrieked. He could see the sharp sound of surprise on her startled face, which jerked his way, feel the vibration of it in his fingers, which were pressed flat on the pane.
She trained the light on him. He smiled at her. Toothily, he supposed, because she came toward the window at a wary pace until there was only a couple of inches between them.
And yet they were still worlds apart.
“Hey, baby,” he said. “Why don’t you let me in?”
* * *
Angelica Rodriguez stared through the glass into the early evening darkness and cursed fate.
She’d been doing a lot of that lately, as the very foundation of her life had cracked and then fallen away in the past few days. Some cheery—and at times annoying—inner voice kept reminding her to see this situation as an opportunity, but it sure didn’t feel that way when the man who had disliked her at first sight was now staring her down.
The man who, from first sight, she’d liked entirely too much.
“Let me in,” he said again.
Um, no. It didn’t seem wise to be too close to him when all her defenses were in this rocky state. So she smiled and waved both hands in a gesture that was supposed to communicate that she didn’t need him around or that she couldn’t exactly hear him or perhaps she was just too busy for a chat…anything that would get him moving along so she could sneak out of the house where she wasn’t supposed to be in the first place.
She turned away from the window to scoop up the papers she’d left on the desk and he rapped again.
Like a demand.
Holding on to her cool, she glanced over her shoulder. There he was, thirtyish, muscled and a bit threatening-looking, even though in the darkness she could only see his bulk and not those very fascinating scars on his face. One slashed through his brow to his hairline. Another crossed the bridge of his nose.
Angelica had never found the courage to ask him about them.
He jerked his thumb in the direction of the back door that led to the lake-view terrace. “Open up.”
The sounds of the words were not hampered by the glass, but she sure as heck wasn’t going to obey! Past June she would have opened up to him. She’d wanted to, and she’d been rebuffed enough times that it embarrassed her to count them. It had been amazing to her, how drawn she’d been to him then. For a woman who had a lousy history with the opposite sex—lousy enough that she was relatively inexperienced when it came to them—she was surprised to find Brett Walker brought out a different side of her.
The idea of kissing him had consumed her instead of making her cringe. The sensation of his arms around her was something she’d wanted, not wanted to run away from.
Now she didn’t have time for fantasy. She had a real life she needed to build for herself.
His mouth moved again, four syllables that she thought he might never have said aloud before. “Angelica—”
Twisting away from the sound, from him, she moved forward at the same time…and tripped over a trash can beside the desk. That sick sense of falling lasted only milliseconds. Then her palms slammed to the hardwood, preserving her nose from a flattening. The penlight she’d held rolled away, dashing light on the floor and baseboards.
Adrenaline was still shooting through her system when she heard him knocking on the window again. Ignoring it, she got to her knees and breathed, trying to slow her heartbeat. She shook out her hands.
Cursed fate. Her own clumsiness.
The knobs on the back door rattled. She glanced through the den’s open doorway, past the kitchen to the terrace. He was standing out there now, looking even bigger than before. More menacing. Impatient.
His fist pounded on the glass and it sounded so loud she worried the noise of it might carry across the lake and alert the sheriff’s department or the private security force. On a sigh, she clambered to her feet and approached the French doors.
She turned the lock and inched one open, prepared to tell him to go away.
He pushed, forcing himself inside.
In retreat, her feet tripped again, and she thought she might go down once more. Brett Walker grabbed her by the elbow to steady her. “Are you all right?”
She wrenched her arm away. “I’m fine.” Deciding offense was the best defense, she scowled at him. “What are you doing here?”
“I saw your flashlight moving around and decided to investigate. Power out?”
“No—” she started, but it was too late. He’d flipped on the closest switch. She squinted as the overhead lighting blazed on. “Please turn that off. The glare gives me a headache,” she lied.
He instantly turned it off, surprising her. “Sorry,” he said, his voice going softer. “Do you get migraines? My mother did. I know it’s hell.”
Guilt stabbed. “Um…well.” She couldn’t think of what else to say as her brain became occupied with the notion that handsome, sexy, manly man Brett Walker had a mother. It seemed as if he should have been carved from a giant redwood. Hewn from a granite mountain outcropping. Fallen from the sky like a meteor to dazzle humanity.
Of course, she’d met his sister Shay—beautiful—but to think of Brett with a parent meant he’d once been a boy. It boggled the mind.
Her eyes had grown accustomed to the dimness again and she saw one corner of his full mouth hitch in a sort-of semblance of a smile. “Cat got your tongue?”
“I’m having a hard time picturing you as someone’s little kid.”
“I was a typical one. Too loud, hated taking baths, relished teasing my younger sisters.”
It was the most conversation he’d ever had with her. She resisted the urge to hold the words close to her chest. The time for being thrilled over a tête-à-tête with Brett Walker was gone. More important matters should be occupying her mind.
The next thing she knew, he had hold of one of her forearms. “What?” she said, instinct causing her to try tugging free.
His clasp was gentle but firm. “Checking for damage. You went down hard. Not uncommon to sprain a finger that way. Break your wrist.”
He was running a warm, callous hand over her, from fingertips to wrist in a calming gesture. Inside she was quivering. On the outside, she kept still as he moved each finger individually, then rotated her wrist. “Hurt anywhere?”
She shook her head. He let that arm go, only to take up the other one. His thumb stroked the tender inside of her wrist, where the veins seemed to be scrambling like every clear thought in her head. She was pure sensation: hot skin, thrumming pulse, a heartbeat loud in her ears.
The edge of his thumb traced the outside of hers, then probed the triangle of flesh between it and her forefinger. “Tender?”
She shook her head. That was him, his ministrations so gentle they made her ache.
This time she nodded, because his touch made her so aware of the difference between the two of them. He was hard male; she was soft female. He could be the port she needed in the current storm that was her life. One move would put her against him, and she could cling to all that muscled strength. Lean on him to hold her up.
But men had only disappointed her before, and remembering that, she snapped back to reality and stepped away.
Brett’s eyes narrowed, which reminded her again that he didn’t even like her. “You could have a snuffbox injury—scaphoid fracture—if you’re in pain there.”
“I’m fine,” she said again. “Really.”
He studied her face. “What’s going on?”
My father has been arrested for fraud. Our family properties have been confiscated and all his accounts have been frozen. Before being taken into custody, my dad siphoned off all my personal monies saved from my time modeling and from my trust, and he put them who knows where or used them for who knows what. I have no place to live, no money to live on, and I broke into my former home so I could collect some things beyond the clothes on my back.
“My father’s putting this place up for sale,” she said, lying again.
Brett’s gaze ran around the gourmet kitchen, where copper pans hung from a rack and spices were lined up on a shelf. He looked at the couches and chairs in the adjacent family room. “With all this stuff inside?”
“Uh-huh. Will add to the value as a very famous interior designer picked out everything from the paint colors to the window coverings to the custom furnishings.”
His mouth curled. “I just bet.”
It wasn’t as if she’d expected him to be impressed. “Anyway, there was a mix-up and I didn’t get a chance to pack my suitcases or retrieve my passport from the safe in the den.”
“That is a headache,” he said, though she wasn’t sure he accepted that as a logical explanation for why she was skulking around.
She smiled anyway. “So…I’m just going to make a quick trip upstairs and dump a few things in a bag. The rest I’ll get another day.” Without taking her eyes off him, she moved backward, heading in the direction of the stairs. “See you around.”
He prowled toward her. “I’ll go with you.”
“No!” She swallowed, modulating her voice. “No, no. You don’t need to do that.” While months ago she might have swooned at the idea of having him in her bedroom, now wasn’t the time to have him in there, distracting her.
“I’ve seen women’s underwear before,” he said.
Of course he had. “Not my underwear.” Curses! That had come out a little…throaty. Flirtatious even.
One of his brows winged up. “I’ll close my eyes when you go through that particular drawer.”
She’d reached the bottom of the staircase and put one hand on the newel. “This is completely unnecessary—”
“It’s completely necessary. There have been burglaries in the area. I don’t feel right leaving you here alone.”
“You didn’t worry about me being alone all summer,” she retorted, then felt her cheeks go hot. That sounded like a complaint from a silly woman with an even sillier crush. “Never mind,” she muttered, and turned to stomp up the stairs. Arguing would only prolong this whole embarrassing encounter.
Still trying to do her business without attracting the attention of anyone who knew she shouldn’t be in the house, she only allowed herself to turn on the closet light. If Brett wondered about that and why she pulled the curtains across her windows first, he didn’t say a word. Instead, he just stood in the middle of her rug, hands in his pockets, while she hurriedly packed two suitcases and gathered up her toiletries from the bathroom and put them in a smaller bag.
The only noise he made was when she tried to stack all three pieces of luggage in preparation for wheeling them out the door. “You can’t take them down the stairs that way,” he said. One went under his arm, the other he gripped in his right hand, the third he took up in his left. “This all?”
“Yes.” She gritted her teeth and tried sounding gracious. “Thanks.” For months she’d wanted a bit of his attention and now it was coming at the lowest point of her life when she couldn’t even enjoy it.
Maybe because he didn’t seem to be enjoying it.
They made it outside and she locked up after setting the alarm. The key went into her pocket instead of its hiding place behind the mailbox. She’d return it later.
Brett didn’t comment as he followed her to her car, which she’d parked down the road. If he asked why she’d avoided the driveway…
She hadn’t a clue. Trying to think up some excuse only gave her the beginnings of that headache she’d laid claim to earlier.
He must have seen it. Because after placing her things in the trunk of her car, he studied her face with a new intensity. “Cool compress on your forehead. Pain relievers,” he said. “Rest.”
“You have someone to take care of you?”
No. I realize now I never have. “Sure.”
“Okay.” Still, he hesitated. “You’re certain everything’s okay? There’s nothing I should know about?”
He’d never wanted to know anything about her. “Yes.”
“Good.” He touched one fingertip to her cheek. “Because if I find out differently, there’ll be hell to pay.”