Between her steady waitressing job and less-steady gigs designing websites, Ames Jensen is scraping together enough money to buy the old farmhouse that holds most of her most treasured childhood memories.
When a complete stranger buys it right out from under her nose, she stomps over for a neighborly visit, prepared to dislike him on sight. Yet even after he nearly brains her with a shovel, she finds herself more attracted than alarmed.
Falsely implicated for stealing from the Esposito crime family, Nick Ross is frantically in search of his supposed accomplice, Elliot Jenson, or at least the money and information the man took. Elliot’s hometown seems the perfect place to look—and the last place the Espositos will look for him.
Elliot’s cute, vivacious sister is an unexpected mother lode of clues—and smoking hot distraction. But when she does a little digging of her own, the truth threatens to send their love—and their lives—down in the crossfire.
"Fans of lighthearted, small-town romances will enjoy Fugitive Heart. Packed with quirky characters and laugh-out-loud moments, this story is the perfect remedy for a lazy weekend."
--RT Reviews Magazine
“Um.” In the face of the New Yorker’s frightening glare, Ames found she’d completely lost her power of speech. She couldn’t remember her own name, let alone what had possessed her to break into a stranger’s house. She tried to regain that righteous indignation she’d felt as she’d fished the key from her pocket. Her house. Not his. He was the interloper here.
“I…” she began again, then got distracted by his sheer magnetic presence. The rumors of his hotness had not been exaggerated. He was tall, lanky, dark-haired and brown-eyed. No, not brown. Almost black and with a gaze so intense she felt as if all her clothes had magically disappeared and she was standing there naked. Her face burned, and she fought the urge to fold her arms over her breasts. Not that he was staring at her chest or anything. He was looking into her eyes—deep into her eyes, mesmerizing her like headlights did a stupid deer. She’d walked right onto the highway just because she thought she owned the road.
Anyway, she couldn’t cross her arms because she clutched a Tupperware of fried chicken. Mutely, she thrust the container at him like an offering to some wild and foreign pagan god—and where the hell had that image come from?
“Chicken,” she muttered. “From the Back Porch. Where I work.”
The broken fragments of speech were better than nothing and seemed to be enough for now. He leaned the shovel handle against the wall and reached to take the chicken. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” She glanced down the hallway toward the front door, wishing she could run for the rectangle of sunshine. “I’m sorry I let myself in. I did knock and call out, but no one answered and there was no car here, so I thought you might be, I don’t know, in town or something. So I came in. Because I have the key.”
“Why do you have the key to my house?” His low, sexy voice purred like some big car engine, a little rough and in need of tuning but oh so powerful.
“The neighbor, Mrs. Landry, gave it to me ages ago. I was in and out so much, measuring rooms and windows, that she finally just gave me the key so I could let myself in.”
“So, what, you’re like some interior decorator or a contractor or something hired by the realty company?” His frown deepened, knitting his straight black brows together.
“No. It was… This house was supposed to be mine. I was buying it. Or, I mean, saving up to buy it. And then Jenny made a deal without talking to me first.” The bitch, she thought.
“Then you knew the house is occupied?” He glanced down at the Tupperware container in his hands as if trying to decide whether to shove it back at her. “But you came in anyway.”
Ames knew her cheeks were fire-engine red. She could feel the blood burning in them. “It was stupid. I apologize. I just wanted to…to see the place one more time before you got really moved in. I thought you were gone, so I took the opportunity.”
He moved toward her—no, sauntered or maybe stalked was the right word. His long legs glided over the floorboards, which creaked beneath his weight. Ames found herself wanting to take a step backward, but she stayed rooted to the spot until he was right in front of her, looking down into her eyes, making her feel like a mouse facing off against a tomcat. A tomcat with a devastating gaze and a scruff of stubble on his jaw that, for just an instant, she imagined rubbing roughly against her own cheek.
“I’m sorry I took your house.” One corner of his mouth slightly quirked upward.
“I’m sorry I broke into yours.” She smiled back and an odd moment of connection flashed between them.
He dipped his head, acknowledging her guilt. “Well, anyway, thanks for the chicken. It smells good.”
The deep-fried scent rose between them, a small barrier of crispy crackly goodness.
“It is good. Gopher’s secret recipe. Been in his family for generations or so he claims, but I have my doubts. He’s the cook at the Back Porch. Where I work. Oh, I already told you that. I’m Ames, by the way.” Why was she babbling? At first she’d barely been able to squeeze out two words, and now she couldn’t seem to stop talking.
“Sam Allen.” He freed one of his hands from the Tupperware and stuck it out.
She took it. His palm was still warm from holding the container of chicken. Or maybe it was always that temperature. Either way, his warmth roused an answering heat in her.
She wanted to rub her hand on her jeans to dispel the sensation, but that might look rude and she’d done enough of that lately. “Okay, then. Sorry to invade your house like I did, and welcome to Arnesdale. It’s a real friendly place.”
“Yeah, I got that. A lot of food involved.”
She smiled. “If you’re a bachelor, you may never have to cook for yourself again.”
Oh great, now she sounded like Missy, sniffing around to see if he was married or not. She hadn’t meant it like that. Or maybe she had. A little.
“Hm.” He stared down at the container. “You could do me a huge favor by spreading the word among the townsfolk that I really prefer to be left alone. I don’t want them to think I’m unappreciative, but I like my privacy. Could you do that for me?”
“Um, sure. I understand. You like your privacy. This place is like a retreat for you.” She wondered what he was retreating from. Looking past his hotness, she noticed his mouth was tight at the corners. He didn’t seem like a man at ease. In fact, she’d go so far as to say his eyes appeared haunted or at least worried. She knew that expression well. She’d seen it in the mirror often enough over the past couple of years.
“A retreat? Sure. Something like that.” His tone was telling her she’d outstayed her welcome, and he led the way to the front door, leaving her no choice but to follow.
“I’ve always thought of this place as a haven. It’s been abandoned for years, as you can probably tell from its dilapidated state. But the house has so much potential. I had big plans for renovations. Not that I could afford them all at once, but I figured over the years I’d restore it to the beauty it must have been at the turn of the century. I can just see a big, sprawling family living here back then, the rooms filled with kids and pets and laughter. I’m a huge fan of Victorian houses, and I imagined painting the outside lilac with dark purple, green and yellow trim, which I know sounds weird, but that’s the kind of colors they’d use back then. They called the houses ‘painted ladies’.”
Right. Speaking of Victorian times, apparently her tongue was like a runaway horse. She couldn’t bring it back under control.
“Yeah?” he said, and that was enough to set her off again.
“My brother and I used to come here. The house was abandoned when I was about ten, and we wanted to check it out. We didn’t figure it mattered if we broke in and made it our clubhouse. It was great when we were kids. Our own private place. But about middle school Elliot got too cool to hang out with me. He brought his friends here to get high, and they trashed the place. Then a local cop on patrol saw a light flickering in here at night, caught the boys and kicked them out before they could burn it down. We both stopped going here after that. Then someone cleaned it up, moved in for a while as a tenant.”
“You and…Elliot?” Allen said.
“My brother.” She paused by the front door, a hand resting on the knob. “God, you must think I’m crazy babbling on like this. I guess I just wanted you to know this place is special. I hope you come to care for it as much as I have. Just thinking about all the history here is—” She cut herself off with a laugh. “I’m doing it again. Sorry. I’ve got no business telling you what you should feel about your new house.”
“Not at all. I’d like to hear more about the house. You’ve already made me appreciate it more than I did. Honestly, looking around the place, I was beginning to think moving here was a big mistake.” He looked at the plastic container still clutched in his hand. “Hey, if you’re not in any hurry, why don’t you stay and share this chicken with me and tell me more about Arnesdale?”
She looked from him to the sunny day outside. Part of her wanted desperately to run away and hide until she recovered from the humiliation of being caught poking around a stranger’s house, but the rest of her was clamoring that chicken with Mr. Sam “Hotness” Allen was an excellent way to spend what would otherwise be a boring afternoon off.
She weighed her options: laundry and housecleaning or lunch with a handsome, mysterious stranger. “Sure. I’m always up for some of Gopher’s fried chicken. Secret family recipe or box mix, it’s good.”
Ames followed the New York stranger toward the kitchen of the house—from now on she’d have to stop calling it her house—and marveled at the unexpected turn this run-of-the-mill day had taken. Mysterious handsome strangers didn’t land in Arnesdale, ever. What was Sam Allen all about and what had brought him to this quiet backwater?