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The Welcoming

Nora Roberts

  For my friend Catherine Coulter,

  because she’s always good for a laugh.

  Chapter 1

  Everything he needed was in the backpack slung over his shoulders. Including his .38. If things went well he would have no use for it.

  Roman drew a cigarette out of the crumpled pack in his breast pocket and turned away from the wind to light it. A boy of about eight raced along the rail of the ferry, cheerfully ignoring his mother’s calls. Roman felt a tug of empathy for the kid. It was cold, certainly. The biting wind off Puget Sound was anything but springlike. But it was one hell of a view. Sitting in the glass-walled lounge would be cozier, but it was bound to take something away from the experience.

  The kid was snatched by a blond woman with pink cheeks and a rapidly reddening nose. Roman listened to them grumble at each other as she dragged the boy back inside. Families, he thought, rarely agreed on anything. Turning away, he leaned over the rail, lazily smoking as the ferry steamed by clumpy islands.

  They had left the Seattle skyline behind, though the mountains of mainland Washington still rose up to amaze and impress the viewer. There was an aloneness here, despite the smattering of hardy passengers walking the slanting deck or bundling up in the patches of sunlight along wooden benches. He preferred the city, with its pace, its crowds, its energy. Its anonymity. He always had. For the life of him, he couldn’t understand where this restless discontent he felt had come from, or why it was weighing so heavily on him.

  The job. For the past year he’d been blaming it on the job. The pressure was something he’d always accepted, even courted. He’d always thought life without it would be bland and pointless. But just lately it hadn’t been enough. He moved from place to place, taking little away, leaving less behind.

  Time to get out, he thought as he watched a fishing boat chug by. Time to move on. And do what? he wondered in disgust, blowing out a stream of smoke. He could go into business for himself. He’d toyed with that notion a time or two. He could travel. He’d already been around the world, but it might be different to do it as a tourist.

  Some brave soul came out on deck with a video camera. Roman turned, shifted, eased out of range. It was in all likelihood an unnecessary precaution; the move was instinctive. So was the watchfulness, and so was the casual stance, which hid a wiry readiness.

  No one paid much attention to him, though a few of the women looked twice.

  He was just over average height, with the taut, solid build of a lightweight boxer. The slouchy jacket and worn jeans hid well-toned muscles. He wore no hat and his thick black hair flew freely away from his tanned, hollow-cheeked face. It was unshaven, tough-featured. The eyes, a pale, clear green, might have softened the go-to-hell appearance, but they were intense, direct and, at the moment, bored.

  It promised to be a slow, routine assignment.

  Roman heard the docking call and shifted his pack. Routine or not, the job was his. He would get it done, file his report, then take a few weeks to figure out what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

  He disembarked with the smattering of other walking passengers. There was a wild, sweet scent of flowers now that competed with the darker scent of the water. The flowers grew in free, romantic splendor, many with blossoms as big as his fist. Some part of him appreciated their color and their charm, but he rarely took the time to stop and smell the roses.

  Cars rolled off the ramp and cruised toward home or a day of sightseeing. Once the car decks were unloaded, the new passengers would board and set off for one of the other islands or for the longer, colder trip to British Columbia.

  Roman pulled out another cigarette, lit it and took a casual look around—at the pretty, colorful gardens, the charming white hotel and restaurant, the signs that gave information on ferries and parking. It was all a matter of timing now. He ignored the patio café, though he would have dearly loved a cup of coffee, and wound his way to the parking area.

  He spotted the van easily enough, the white-and-blue American model with Whale Watch Inn painted on the side. It was his job to talk himself onto the van and into the inn. If the details had been taken care of on this end, it would be routine. If not, he would find another way.

  Stalling, he bent down to tie his shoe. The waiting cars were being loaded, and the foot passengers were already on deck. There were no more than a dozen vehicles in the parking area now, including the van. He was taking another moment to unbutton his jacket when he saw the woman.

  Her hair was pulled back in a braid, not loose as it had been in the file picture. It seemed to be a deeper, richer blond in the sunlight. She wore tinted glasses, big-framed amber lenses that obscured half of her face, but he knew he wasn’t mistaken. He could see the delicate line of her jaw, the small, straight nose, the full, shapely mouth.

  His information was accurate. She was five-five, a hundred and ten pounds, with a small, athletic build. Her dress was casual—jeans, a chunky cream-colored cable-knit sweater over a blue shirt. The shirt would match her eyes. The jeans were tucked into suede ankle boots, and a pair of slim crystal earrings dangled at her ears.

  She walked with a sense of purpose, keys jingling in one hand, a big canvas bag slung over her other shoulder. There was nothing flirtatious about the walk, but a man would notice it. Long, limber strides, a subtle swing at the hips, head up, eyes ahead.

  Yeah, a man would notice, Roman thought as he flicked the cigarette away. He figured she knew it.

  He waited until she reached the van before he started toward her.

  Charity stopped humming the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth, looked down at her right front tire and swore. Because she didn’t think anyone was watching, she kicked it, then moved around to the back of the van to get the jack.

  “Got a problem?”

  She jolted, nearly dropped the jack on her foot, then whirled around.

  A tough customer. That was Charity’s first thought as she stared at Roman. His eyes were narrowed against the sun. He had one hand hooked around the strap of his backpack and the other tucked in his pocket. She put her own hand on her heart, made certain it was still beating, then smiled.

  “Yes. I have a flat. I just dropped a family of four off for the ferry, two of whom were under six and candidates for reform school. My nerves are shot, the plumbing’s on the fritz in unit 6, and my handyman just won the lottery. How are you?”

  The file hadn’t mentioned that she had a voice like café au lait, the rich, dark kind you drink in New Orleans. He noted that, filed it away, then nodded toward the flat. “Want me to change it?”

  Charity could have done it herself, but she wasn’t one to refuse help when it was offered. Besides, he could probably do it faster, and he looked as though he could use the five dollars she would give him.

  “Thanks.” She handed him the jack, then dug a lemon drop out of her bag. The flat was bound to eat up the time she’d scheduled for lunch. “Did you just come in on the ferry?”

  “Yeah.” He didn’t care for small talk, but he used it, and her friendliness, as handily as he used the jack. “I’ve been doing some traveling. Thought I’d spend some time on Orcas, see if I can spot some whales.”

  “You’ve come to the right place. I saw a pod yesterday from my window.” She leaned against the van, enjoying the sunlight. As he worked, she watched his hands. Strong, competent, quick. She appreciated someone who could do a simple job well. “Are you on vacation?”

  “Just traveling. I pick up odd jobs here and there. Know anyone looking for help?”

  “Maybe.” Lips pursed, she studied him as he pulled off the flat. He straightened, keeping one hand on the tire. “What kind of work?”

  “This and that. Where’s the spare?”

  “Spare?” Looki
ng into his eyes for more than ten seconds was like being hypnotized.

  “Tire.” The corner of his mouth quirked slightly in a reluctant smile. “You need one that isn’t flat.”

  “Right. The spare.” Shaking her head at her own foolishness, she went to get it. “It’s in the back.” She turned and bumped into him. “Sorry.”

  He put one hand on her arm to steady her. They stood for a moment in the sunlight, frowning at each other. “It’s all right. I’ll get it.”

  When he climbed into the van, Charity blew out a long, steadying breath. Her nerves were more ragged than she’d have believed possible. “Oh, watch out for the—” She grimaced as Roman sat back on his heels and peeled the remains of a cherry lollipop from his knee. Her laugh was spontaneous and as rich as her voice. “Sorry. A souvenir of Orcas Island from Jimmy ‘The Destroyer’ MacCarthy, a five-year-old delinquent.”

  “I’d rather have a T-shirt.”

  “Yes, well, who wouldn’t?” Charity took the sticky mess from him, wrapped it in a tattered tissue and dropped it into her bag. “We’re a family establishment,” she explained as he climbed out with the spare. “Mostly everyone enjoys having children around, but once in a while you get a pair like Jimmy and Judy, the twin ghouls from Walla Walla, and you think about turning the place into a service station. Do you like children?”

  He glanced up as he slipped the tire into place. “From a safe distance.”

  She laughed appreciatively at his answer. “Where are you from?”

  “St. Louis.” He could have chosen a dozen places. He couldn’t have said why he’d chosen to tell the truth. “But I don’t get back much.”



  The way he said it made her stifle her innate curiosity. She wouldn’t invade anyone’s privacy any more than she would drop the lint-covered lollipop on the ground. “I was born right here on Orcas. Every year I tell myself I’m going to take six months and travel. Anywhere.” She shrugged as he tightened the last of the lug nuts. “I never seem to manage it. Anyway, it’s beautiful here. If you don’t have a deadline, you may find yourself staying longer than you planned.”

  “Maybe.” He stood up to replace the jack. “If I can find some work, and a place to stay.”

  Charity didn’t consider it an impulse. She had studied, measured and considered him for nearly fifteen minutes. Most job interviews took little more. He had a strong back and intelligent—if disconcerting—eyes, and if the state of his pack and his shoes was any indication he was down on his luck. As her name implied, she had been taught to offer people a helping hand. And if she could solve one of her more immediate and pressing problems at the same time . . .

  “You any good with your hands?” she asked him.

  He looked at her, unable to prevent his mind from taking a slight detour. “Yeah. Pretty good.”

  Her brow—and her blood pressure—rose a little when she saw his quick survey. “I mean with tools. Hammer, saw, screwdriver. Can you do any carpentry, household repairs?”

  “Sure.” It was going to be easy, almost too easy. He wondered why he felt the small, unaccustomed tug of guilt.

  “Like I said, my handyman won the lottery, a big one. He’s gone to Hawaii to study bikinis and eat poi. I’d wish him well, except we were in the middle of renovating the west wing. Of the inn,” she added, pointing to the logo on the van. “If you know your way around two-by-fours and drywall I can give you room and board and five an hour.”

  “Sounds like we’ve solved both our problems.”

  “Great.” She offered a hand. “I’m Charity Ford.”

  “DeWinter.” He clasped her hand. “Roman DeWinter.”

  “Okay, Roman.” She swung her door open. “Climb aboard.”

  She didn’t look gullible, Roman thought as he settled into the seat beside her. But then, he knew—better than most—that looks were deceiving. He was exactly where he wanted to be, and he hadn’t had to resort to a song and dance. He lit a cigarette as she pulled out of the parking lot.

  “My grandfather built the inn in 1938,” she said, rolling down her window. “He added on to it a couple of times over the years, but it’s still really an inn. We can’t bring ourselves to call it a resort, even in the brochures. I hope you’re looking for remote.”

  “That suits me.”

  “Me too. Most of the time.” Talkative guy, she mused with a half smile. But that was all right. She could talk enough for both of them. “It’s early in the season yet, so we’re a long way from full.” She cocked her elbow on the opened window and cheerfully took over the bulk of the conversation. The sunlight played on her earrings and refracted into brilliant colors. “You should have plenty of free time to knock around. The view from Mount Constitution’s really spectacular. Or, if you’re into it, the hiking trails are great.”

  “I thought I might spend some time in B.C.”

  “That’s easy enough. Take the ferry to Sidney. We do pretty well with tour groups going back and forth.”


  “The inn. Pop—my grandfather—built a half dozen cabins in the sixties. We give a special package rate to tour groups. They can rent the cabins and have breakfast and dinner included. They’re a little rustic, but the tourists really go for them. We get a group about once a week. During the season we can triple that.”

  She turned onto a narrow, winding road and kept the speed at fifty.

  Roman already knew the answers, but he knew it might seem odd if he didn’t ask the questions. “Do you run the inn?”

  “Yeah. I’ve worked there on and off for as long as I can remember. When my grandfather died a couple of years ago I took over.” She paused a moment. It still hurt; she supposed it always would. “He loved it. Not just the place, but the whole idea of meeting new people every day, making them comfortable, finding out about them.”

  “I guess it does pretty well.”

  She shrugged. “We get by.” They rounded a bend where the forest gave way to a wide expanse of blue water. The curve of the island was clear, jutting out and tucking back in contrasting shades of deep green and brown. A few houses were tucked high in the cliffs beyond. A boat with billowing white sails ran with the wind, rippling the glassy water. “There are views like this all around the island. Even when you live here they dazzle you.”

  “And scenery’s good for business.”

  She frowned a little. “It doesn’t hurt,” she said, and glanced back at him. “Are you really interested in seeing whales?”

  “It seemed like a good idea since I was here.”

  She stopped the van and pointed to the cliffs. “If you’ve got patience and a good set of binoculars, up there’s a good bet. We’ve spotted them from the inn, as I said. Still, if you want a close look, your best bet’s out on a boat.” When he didn’t comment, she started the van again. He was making her jittery, she realized. He seemed to be looking not at the water or the forest but at her.

  Roman glanced at her hands. Strong, competent, no-nonsense hands, he decided, though the fingers were beginning to tap a bit nervously on the wheel. She continued to drive fast, steering the van easily through the switchbacks. Another car approached. Without slackening speed, Charity lifted a hand in a salute.

  “That was Lori, one of our waitresses. She works an early shift so she can be home when her kids get back from school. We usually run with a staff of ten, then add on five or six part-time during the summer.”

  They rounded the next curve, and the inn came into view. It was exactly what he’d expected, and yet it was more charming than the pictures he’d been shown. It was white clapboard, with weathered blue trim around arched and oval windows. There were fanciful turrets, narrow walkways and a wide skirting porch. A sweep of lawn led directly to the water, where a narrow, rickety dock jutted out. Tied to it was a small motorboat that swung lazily in the current.

  A mill wheel turned in a shallow pond at the side of the inn, slapping the water musi
cally. To the west, where the trees began to thicken, he could make out one of the cabins she had spoken of. Flowers were everywhere.

  “There’s a bigger pond out back.” Charity drove around the side and pulled into a small graveled lot that was already half full. “We keep the trout there. The trail takes you to cabins 1, 2 and 3. Then it forks off to 4, 5 and 6.” She stepped out and waited for him to join her. “Most everyone uses the back entrance. I can show you around the grounds later, if you like, but we’ll get you settled in first.”

  “It’s a nice place.” He said it almost without thinking, and he meant it. There were two rockers on the square back porch, and an Adirondack chair that needed its white paint freshened. Roman turned to study the view a guest would overlook from the empty seat. Part forest, part water, and very appealing. Restful. Welcoming. He thought of the pistol in his backpack. Appearances, he thought again, were deceiving.

  With a slight frown, Charity watched him. He didn’t seem to be looking so much as absorbing. It was an odd thought, but she would have sworn if anyone were to ask him to describe the inn six months later he would be able to, right down to the last pinecone.

  Then he turned to her, and the feeling remained, more personal now, more intense. The breeze picked up, jingling the wind chimes that hung from the eaves.

  “Are you an artist?” she asked abruptly.

  “No.” He smiled, and the change in his face was quick and charming. “Why?”