Clare was just lifting the box of cupcakes off the front counter when she became aware of the utter silence of the general store. Even at the funerals of her parents, she hadn't heard this kind of silence in Birch Crossing.
Awareness prickled down her arms, and she looked at Norm, who was in his usual spot behind the front register. She could have sworn that there was amusement crinkling his gray eyes when he nodded toward something behind her.
Clare spun around, and there he was.
Her mystical knight in shining armor from last night.
Her heart began to race as she met his gaze. His stare was intense, penetrating all the way to her core. She was yanked back to that moment of his hands on her hips, of his strength as he'd lifted her. The power in his body as he'd emerged from his truck after he'd defeated the cliff. Her body began to thrum, and his expression grew hooded, his eyes never leaving hers, as if he were trying to memorize every feature on her face.
He was wearing a heavy leather jacket that flanked strong thighs and broad shoulders. His eyes were dark, as dark as they'd been last night in the storm. Whiskers shadowed his jaw, giving him a rough and untamed look. His boots were still caked with mud, but his jeans were pressed and clean. His light blue dress shirt was open at the collar, revealing a hint of skin and the flash of a thin gold chain at his throat. His hair was short and perfectly coiffed, not spiked and rugged like it had been last night. A heavy gold watch sat captive on the strong wrist that had supported her so easily.
Today, he wasn't the dark and rugged hero of the night.
Well, okay, he was. His power transcended mud, storms, nice watches, and dress shirts.
But he was also, quite clearly and quite ominously, an outsider, a man who did not fit into the rural Maine town of Birch Crossing.
Then he smiled, a beautiful, tremendous smile with a dimple in his right cheek. "How's your daughter?"
A dimple? He had a dimple? Clare hadn't noticed the dimple last night. It made him look softer, more human, more approachable, almost endearing. Suddenly all her trepidation vanished, replaced by a feeling of giddiness and delight to see him. She smiled back. "She's still asleep, but she's okay. Thanks for your help last night rescuing her."
"My pleasure." His smile faded, and a speculative gleam came into his dark eyes. "And how are you?"
No longer feeling like a total wreck, that was for sure. Not with Griffin Friesé studying her as if she were the only thing he ever wanted to look at again. Dear God, the way he was looking at her made her want to drop the cupcakes and her clothes, and saunter with decadent sensuality across the floor toward him, his stare igniting every cell in her body. "I'm fine." She swallowed, horrified by how throaty her voice sounded. "Thank you," she said. "I owe you."
"No, you owe me nothing." He smiled again, a softness to his face that made her heart turn over. "Seeing you hug Katie was plenty."
"Oh, dear Lord," Eppie muttered behind her. "Now he's going to kill Katie, too."
Clare stiffened and jerked her gaze from Griffin. The entire store was watching them in rapt silence, listening to every word. Oh, God. How had she forgotten where they were? Wright & Sons was the epicenter of gossip in Birch Crossing, and everyone had just witnessed her gaping at this handsome stranger.
Assuming her decades-old role as Clare's self-appointed protector, Eppie folded her arms and glared at Griffin, the man who dared to tempt Clare.
Astrid and Emma were leaning against the doorjamb, huge grins on their faces, clearly supportive of any opportunity to pry Clare out of her dateless life of isolation. But Norm's eyes were narrowed, and Ophelia was letting some scrambled eggs burn while she gawked at them. Everyone was waiting to see how Clare was going to respond to him.
Oh, man. What was she doing nearly throwing herself at him? In front of everyone? She quickly took a step back and cleared her throat.
Griffin's eyebrows shot up at her retreat, then his expression cooled, and his eyes narrowed. "Kill off Katie, too? " He looked right at Eppie. "Who else am I going to kill?"
Eppie lifted her chin and turned her head, giving him a view of the back of her hot pink hat.
"The rumors claim that you're in town to murder your ex-wife and daughter," Astrid volunteered cheerfully. "But don't worry. Not all of us believe them."
"My daughter?" Pain flashed across Griffin's face, a stark anguish so real that Clare felt her out heart tighten. Just as quickly, the vulnerability disappeared from his face, replaced by a hard, cool expression.
But she'd seen it. She'd seen his pain, pain he clearly kept hidden, just as she suppressed her own. Suddenly, she felt terrible about the rumors. How could she have listened to rumors about him when he was clearly struggling with pain, some kind of trauma with regard to his daughter?
She realized he was watching her, as if he were waiting for something. For what? To see if she believed the rumors?
She glanced around and saw the entire store was waiting for her response. Eppie gave her a solemn nod, and Judith did the same, encouraging her to stand up and condemn this handsome stranger. Sudden anger surged inside her. "Oh, come on," she blurted out. "You can't really believe he's a murderer?"
Astrid grinned, Eppie shook her head in dismay, and the rest of the room was silent.
No one else jumped in to help her defend Griffin, and suddenly she felt very exposed, as if everyone in the room could see exactly how deeply she'd been affected by him last night. How she'd laid awake all night, thinking of his hands on her hips, of the way his deep voice had wrapped around her, how he'd made her long for the touch of a man for the first time in a very long time.
Heat burned her cheeks, and she glanced uncomfortably at Griffin, wondering if he was aware of her reaction to him. To her surprise, his face had cooled, devoid of that warmth that they'd initially shared, clearly reading her silence as a capitulation to the rumors.
He narrowed his eyes, then turned away, ending their conversation.
Regret rushed through Clare as she glanced at Astrid, torn between wanting to call him back, and gratefully grasping the freedom his rejection had given her, freedom from feelings and desires that she didn't have time to deal with.
"I need a place to stay," Griffin said. "A place without rats, preferably."
Griffin's low request echoed through the room, and Clare spun around in shock. Then she saw he was directing his question to Norm, not to her. Relief rushed through her, but there was also a pang of disappointment.
No, it was good he wasn't asking to stay at her place. Yes, she owed him, on a level beyond words, but she couldn't afford to get involved with him, for too many reasons. Staying at her house would be putting temptation where she couldn't afford it. There was no way she was going to offer up her place, even though her renter had just vacated, leaving her with an unpleasant gap in her income stream.
"Griffin stayed at the Dark Pines Motel last night," Judith whispered, just loudly enough for the whole store to hear.
"Really?" Guilt washed through Clare. The Dark Pines Motel was quite possibly the most unkempt and disgusting motel in the entire state of Maine. How had he ended up there?
"Well, Griffin," Norm said as he tipped his chair back and let it tap against the unfinished wall. "Most places won't open for another month when the summer folk start to arrive. And the Black Loon Inn is booked for the Smith-Pineal wedding for the next week. It's Dark Pines or nothing." Griffin frowned. "There has to be something. A bed and breakfast?"
Norm shook his head. "Not this time of year, but I probably have some rat traps in the back I could loan you for your stay."
"Rat traps?" Griffin echoed. "That's my best option?"
Astrid grinned at Clare, a sparkle in her eyes that made Clare's stomach leap with alarm. "Don't you dare—"
"Clare's renter just moved out," Astrid announced, her voice ringing out in the store. "Griffin can stay in her spare room. No rats, and it comes with free Wi-Fi. Best deal in town."
Oh, dear God. Clare's whole body flamed hot, and she whipped around. Please tell me he didn't hear that.
But Griffin was staring right at her.
Oh, yes. He'd heard. And so had everyone else.