Chapter One

 

THE BACK porch of the lake house had a screen door that opened onto a wide wooden deck. From there, short steps led down to a dock overlooking a broad lake surrounded by pine trees with small cabins nestled between them. Derek Sawyer stepped out into the warm morning air and let the spicy scent of pine embrace him, along with the surprisingly fresh smell of damp mud. There was something here, something that relaxed and soothed him like a soft blanket. He’d known he wanted to own the cabin the moment he set eyes on it.

His dog pushed past him and trotted to the edge of the deck, debating whether her short, arthritic legs were up to venturing down the steps.

“Gracie!” Derek heard his fiancé call from inside, making him sigh. Tim wouldn’t come after the dog, of course—he’d rather just shout for her. That’s what I get for falling in love with a cat person.

“She’s okay,” Derek said to the darkened interior. “I’ll keep an eye on her.”

“Fine.”

He walked to the edge of the deck and sat down on the steps, reaching his right hand up to scratch Gracie’s ruff. The old mutt leaned into him, closing her eyes and sighing in contentment. “What do you think, girl? Nice place?”

It was a little late to change their minds. Derek and Tim had signed the closing papers yesterday. Now Tim was inside with the real estate agent, sorting out all the keys the previous owners had left behind and making sure nobody had left any unpleasant surprises in the closets. The cabin was theirs.

It was an extravagance, especially since they wouldn’t be living in there year-round. But Derek had wanted a place by the lake ever since he could remember—a place to breathe in the fresh air, relax in front of a fire at night, maybe do a little fishing….

When a coworker mentioned the cabin on the internal corporate bulletin board to let people know she was lowering the asking price, he’d practically dragged Tim to come with him that weekend to look it over. Tim had been less than blown away, but to Derek, it was perfect—almost exactly like the cabin he and his dad had stayed in when he was a boy. And they could afford the mortgage. It had been on the market so long, the owner had agreed to an undersell.

“Is it falling apart?” Tim had asked skeptically.

“No,” the real estate agent assured them. “But nobody’s buying these days. Not in this area. And most people consider a summer cabin too extravagant right now.”

The inspectors and bank appraisers hadn’t found any problems, so Derek had eventually worn Tim down. They still had their condo in town, and maybe they’d trade that for a more permanent house someday. But for now, they had a summer cabin.

“Max! No! Come here, boy!”

Derek didn’t have time to figure out who was shouting. Gracie tensed a split second before a very big and very wet German shepherd came bounding up the steps from the dock. Derek hadn’t even seen him climb out of the water—he’d been too lost in his thoughts. The dog was obviously friendly, his mouth open in an enormous, goofy grin and his tail wagging furiously, so Derek was merely startled when the beast clambered up to plant a wet kiss on his chin. Gracie seemed less than thrilled by the invasion, but she wasn’t inclined to growl at other dogs. She simply looked put out.

A second later the German shepherd shook himself, spraying water everywhere.

“Max! Get over here, right now!” The man’s voice came from behind Derek, so Max burst through the space between Gracie and her master, smearing more mud on Derek’s T-shirt and leaving swampy footprints along the wooden deck.

Derek turned to see a handsome, well-built man with short, dark brown hair kneel down to grab the shepherd by the collar. The man glanced up with startling sky-blue eyes, his brow furrowed in embarrassment. “God! I’m so sorry about that! He got all excited there was somebody on the deck, and he got away from me.” He was panting slightly, as if he’d been running.

Derek stood and made a futile effort to brush some of the mud off his shirt. He gave up and extended his hand to the visitor. “That’s all right. I can survive a little mud. My name’s Derek.”

“Russ,” the man said, accepting the handshake with a warm smile. “I live in the cabin over there.” He pointed to the other side of the deck, where a path wound through the shrubbery on the hillside. A cabin similar to the one Derek had just purchased could be seen nestled in the pines a short distance away.

Max strained against Russ’s grasp, his attention now drawn to Gracie. There didn’t appear to be any malice at all in the German shepherd—simply curiosity—but Gracie was half his size and a bit old for roughhousing. She half hid behind Derek’s legs, watching the bigger dog with trepidation.

“I’m sorry,” Russ said again. “We were on the dock when he saw you and dove into the water. I had to run up the path to intercept.”

Since Russ couldn’t stand properly with his hand on his dog’s collar, Derek knelt and offered his hand to the dog to sniff. Max skipped that part and immediately started licking his face.

“Max!” Russ tried to pull the dog away, but Derek laughed and dug his fingers into the fur behind Max’s ears.

“Well, aren’t you friendly! That’s a good boy!” Gracie seemed to sense that Max wasn’t much of a threat, despite his high energy level, and jealously poked her nose in for some nuzzling too. Derek rewarded her with a good scratch on the head.

“Who’s your friend?” Tim’s voice cut through the orgy of doggy affection. Derek glanced over to the kitchen door and saw his fiancé leaning against the doorframe, arms crossed over his chest. He was smiling, but Derek knew that look. The question hadn’t been referring to Max—Tim wanted to know who the handsome man talking to Derek was.

“Hi, hon,” Derek said, trying to head off an argument, though he knew it was hopeless. Not that Tim would fight in front of Russ or the real estate agent. He’d wait until they were alone together. “This is Russ. He lives in the cabin next door.”

“Nice to meet you. I’m Tim, Derek’s fiancé.”

Russ wasn’t an idiot. Derek could tell he picked up on the icy undercurrent in Tim’s voice instantly. The man smiled uncomfortably and stood, pulling Max back by the collar. “Nice to meet you too.” He glanced at Derek quickly and added, “I guess I should be getting back. I’m sure I’ll see you guys around.”

He left, awkwardly pulling Max down the path to his cabin and leaving a cold silence hanging in the air between Derek and Tim. Derek hated it when this happened, when Tim pulled this jealous lover shit in front of guys who weren’t doing anything to warrant it.

Derek stood up, scowling. Tim turned and disappeared back into the cabin without another word, so Derek followed, the serenity of the morning spoiled for him. He held the door open for Gracie, overhearing Tim mutter to the real estate agent, “We seem to have a very friendly next-door neighbor.”

“Oh, him?” she replied, oblivious to the tension in the air. “Isn’t he handsome?”

“Yes.”

“I hear he’s a policeman.”

“Well,” Tim replied, his expression one of utter boredom, “hopefully he’ll keep the neighborhood safe, then.”

 

 

FIGURES A gorgeous gay man would move in next door… and turn out to be engaged. Russ Thomas’s luck with men had always been crap. No reason this time should be any different. For a moment Derek had seemed perfect—tall and rugged, with short, sandy-blond hair, stormy gray eyes, and a surprisingly delicate, sensual mouth. Plus he loved dogs.

But he was engaged. Russ had never hit on a married man, and he wasn’t about to start now.

“Thanks a lot, pal,” he grumbled at Max as the dog trotted into the cabin through the side door while Russ held it open. “If you’re gonna embarrass me in front of a cute guy, couldn’t you at least pick one who’s available?”

Max ignored him and jumped up on the couch.

“Oh, terrific. Now I’ll have to wipe that down later.”

Max barked at him impatiently, and he relented. “Fine. I’ll put lunch on the grill. But no steak for you, brat. You’ll have a burger and like it.”

The threat of dire “punishment” didn’t seem to have much of an effect. Max merely panted happily at him and thumped his wet tail against one of the couch cushions.

As he took the meat out of the refrigerator, Russ thought about Derek’s fiancé, whatever his name was—it had already gone out of his head. The guy was good-looking in an understated way. Kind of thin, with glasses. Not really Russ’s type, though he could see some appeal there. But God! That look he gave me!

Clearly there wouldn’t be any invites to come over for Scrabble in the near future.