Kent McCord regarded the petite woman standing at his door with consternation. Long, dark curls cascaded from beneath her hood, and a pretty mouth hung agape. Not that he wasn’t used to staring women. One of the perks—and irritations—of his business. Still, he’d hoped the owner of the dog that was currently galloping out of the living room to skid across the marble tiles would be too groggy with sleep to make the connection between his at-home, scruffy persona and his cowboy-hat-wearing, boot-stomping, country star image. No such luck.
The mystery woman’s fingers buried in Rebel’s fur as the big mongrel leaned against her legs. “Really, Kent? You don’t know who I am?”
This was a new twist. Now he was supposed to remember every groupie who ever threw herself at him on—or off—stage?
“I’m sorry, were we introduced at a concert? I’m afraid I meet so many—”
She rolled big brown eyes that suddenly struck a chord deep in his memory.
“Not at a concert. Here at Fish Lake. Granted it’s been fifteen years, and I was only thirteen to your sixteen…”
“Good God, Brenna?”
A nod sent curls flying. “I can’t believe you’re living in the backwoods of Maine. I thought you had a big, fancy house in Nashville?” She waved a hand. “Not that this place isn’t fancy.”
“I do have a place in Nashville.” He stepped back. “Why don’t you come inside? We’re letting in a whole lot of cold air.”
She stomped her boots on the mat then stepped into the foyer with her mutt at her heels. “Since you’ve kept your identity such a secret, I’m surprised you’d let a stranger inside those gates.”
His lips twisted. “I wasn’t really thinking. I simply reacted when the damn dog—or rather the sound of ripping paper—woke me up. It wasn’t until I had you on the phone that I realized the implications of making the call.” He headed toward the living room then glanced over his shoulder. “I know it’s an odd hour to talk, but we’re obviously both awake, and I’m sure you have questions…”
“I’ll never get back to sleep now.” She rubbed her hands together. “Curious doesn’t begin to cover it. No one’s going to believe me when I tell them—”
He stopped in front of the illuminated tree near the wasteland of wrapping paper. “About that. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention me to your friends.”
She pushed back her hood then unzipped the coat she pulled off to drape over the arm of a chair. “Wow, Rebel really did a number on your gifts. Sorry about the mess.” Her gaze swung back his way. “Fine, I’ll keep my mouth shut.” A stray piece of red and green striped paper stuck to the bottom of her boot, and she shook it off. “I guess I owe you that much.”
He moved a couple of feet when Rebel brushed past him to retrieve the rawhide bone he’d unwrapped earlier. Dropping down next to a large box, the mongrel clamped his jaws around the partially eaten bone and gnawed. Kent thought about commenting on his bad behavior when Brenna pretended not to notice, but decided there wasn’t much point.
“I wouldn’t ask you to lie, but…never mind. Thank you for your discretion.” He glanced toward the doorway. Had that creak been a sound from upstairs or just the old house groaning in the wind? “Uh, why don’t you have a seat?”
She perched on the edge of the long, leather couch then jumped when his dog uncurled beside her, stretched and yawned.
“Scare me to death.” She pressed a hand to her chest. “I thought that furry thing was a pillow.”
“Fluffy doesn’t disturb easily. Apparently she watched your beast destroy the place without so much as a single yip of protest.”
One brow rose. “Fluffy?”
His cheeks heated. “I didn’t name her.”
He let out a breath then sat in the recliner, still eyeing his late night visitor. She didn’t much resemble the young girl he remembered. The thirteen-year-old Brenna had been scrawny and nearly flat-chested, with her curls always confined in braids. Her obvious crush on him the summer he’d spent at the lake had been somewhat embarrassing—until he’d accepted his buddy’s dare and kissed her. The feel of her soft, never-been-touched-by-a-boy lips beneath his had elicited feelings he had no business harboring for a girl who hadn’t even started high school yet. After that, he’d avoided Brenna for the final week of his vacation.
“Huh? Sorry, I was marveling at how different you look.”
“I’m a twenty-eight-year-old woman, not a barely-teenaged girl. I would certainly hope I’ve changed.” Her chocolate-brown gaze drifted from his face downward. “You’ve filled out some, too, but I guess I have the advantage since I see your picture splashed across magazine covers every time I’m in the check-out line at the grocery store.”
Not much he could say in response to that, so he let the reference to his fame go. “When did you move to Fish Lake? If I remember correctly, the summer we met you were visiting your grandparents from…Portland?”
“Freeport. I moved here shortly after college. I always loved this town, and after my grandma died, I wanted Grandpa to have family close.”
He smiled. “I remember your grandpa as a cool, old dude, selling bait and tackle out of his store and telling off-color jokes.”
“He’s still a cool, even older dude, but he finally gave up the store. He still lives in his cabin by the lake and refuses to even consider moving in with me.”
“What do you do?”
“Teach kindergarten at Fish Lake Elementary.”
Kent glanced toward the tree where Rebel chewed and slobbered with obvious enthusiasm. “Are you as easy on your students as you are on your dog?”
Her eyes narrowed. “They’re five. Should I crack a whip over them if they color outside the lines?”
He grinned, recognizing a hint of the feisty girl who’d hung out at the dock where he and his buddy had worked renting canoes to tourists all summer. “I suppose not.”
She reached over to stroke a slim hand down Fluffy’s back. “Why would a big star like you buy a house in Fish Lake?”
A direct question deserved the truth. Or maybe at least part of it.
“I wanted a place to hide from the craziness that follows me everywhere I go. Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate every one of my fans, but constantly playing the role of the big-hearted country boy they expect to see gets tiring.”
“Is it really such a stretch?”
“Not usually since deep inside I’m not unlike the public Kent McCord. But ten years in the spotlight has taken a bit of the shine off.”
“So you chose Fish Lake as your hideout?”
“The summer I spent here with my friend, Tanner—do you remember Tanner?”
“The jerk who dared you to kiss me.”
His eyes widened. “You knew about that?”
“Let’s just say word spread. Continue.”
“Huh? Oh, yeah, uh, that summer was one of the best in my memory. This place has a Mayberry R.F.D. feel to it, which is a far cry from the cutthroat business world of country music.”
“So, when Tanner’s great-aunt, who owned this house, died last January, I bought the place from her estate since neither Tanner nor his sister wanted to keep it.”
Brenna frowned. “What’s the point in owning a house if you don’t get to enjoy it? Based on the comings and goings of your gargantuan SUV, you aren’t here much, and when you are, you’re holed up inside since no one has ever seen hide-nor-hair of you.”
“I was around more last summer. I grew my hair longer, wore a ball cap and dark glasses and spent quite a bit of time out on the lake with...” He cleared his throat. “When people aren’t expecting to see a celebrity, they don’t look for one in an average guy fishing from a canoe.”
Her brows knit. “I would have noticed.”
“I guess it’s lucky for me our paths never crossed. Until now.”
“So, you plan to skulk about indefinitely, keeping your identity secret from all your neighbors?”
He sighed. “I’m not so much concerned about the neighbors, but news would spread. Next thing you know, paparazzi would be camped outside my gates.” He looked deep into her honest brown eyes and couldn’t hold back the truth. “I’m just trying to protect—”
Light footfalls sounded on the stairs then bare feet slapped against the marble floor in the foyer before Kayla appeared in the living room doorway.
Over on the couch, Brenna drew in a sharp breath.
He let out one of his own. “My daughter.”
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