Book 1 in the Whidbey Island Series
Wounded during a military rescue, Commander Max Ford returns to a naval base on Whidbey Island to recover. And part of his treatment involves working with a therapy dog. Max is surprised to learn that the dog’s owner is Winnie Armstrong, widow of his closest friend. She and Max were close in those months following her husband’s death. But they drifted apart, until that one night two years ago. The night friendship turned to passion…
Now he’s even more shocked to learn that Winnie has been keeping a secret from him. A baby girl. His daughter. It’s even more important he heal so he can be a part of his child’s life—and Winnie’s. Because all the attraction that pulled them together that one night is still there…only stronger.
Heat Level: Smooth Sailing
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Lights blazed from Max’s house as she turned into the drive. Once she’d parked in the back, she stepped out, taking a moment to admire the view. Purplish mountains with white tops loomed in the distance as the Cascades reflected the last of the sunset. The sky above was a shade of pink and the water below looked inky.
Winnie took in a deep breath.
She’d never tire of the natural splendor of the Pacific Northwest.
Although the night was calm, it was chilly outside. She walked up the path to the door and rang the bell. Sam sat next to her on the small porch, with the girls standing behind him.
Max opened the door with a flourish, and his grin was reflected in the twinkle in his eyes. “Hey, come on in! You haven’t eaten yet, have you?”
Winnie entered with Sam and was almost overwhelmed by myriad aromas that floated down from the upstairs kitchen.
“Hi, Uncle Max!” Krista stepped around Winnie and gave Max a huge hug, her arms tight around his waist.
“Hungee!” Maeve toddled over to Max and held up her arms.
Max lifted her up, slowly but surely. Winnie watched for any sign of pain or strain but detected none.
Max caught her gaze over Maeve’s tiny shoulder. “I just have to make sure I use my core muscles so my back and legs don’t cramp.”
“Sure, whatever.” She didn’t mean to sound flip, but it was all she could do not to scream. Why did her whole family have to be so crazy about Max? Couldn’t he just get to know Maeve a little at a time?
Couldn’t he see Sam for one hour per week like most other injured vets?
“Why do you have to always go for everything full-throttle, Max?”
She didn’t realize she’d spoken aloud until he put Maeve back down and straightened, never taking his gaze off her face.
“I said that out loud, didn’t I?”
“Yes, you did.” He smiled instead of frowning at her and she found the sudden intimacy uncomfortable.
“It’s okay, Winnie. I know there’s been a lot for you to digest this past week. As much as I hate to admit it, it’s been tough for both of us.”
Guilt hit her hard and she fought not to grimace or complain. This was her doing. She’d agreed to see Max this week, and she’d known where it would lead.
“I have no right to tell you that you’re coming on too strong with your daughter, Max. Since I’m the one who kept Maeve from you.”
“Yes, you are.” He gave her no quarter and she didn’t seek it.
Facts were facts.
But their chemistry was another matter. From the moment she’d walked into Max’s home, she’d been conscious of the intense awareness between them. Would it always be like this? Would they ever be comfortable old friends?
“Back to planet earth, Winnie.” His playful comment grounded her.
“What smells so good, Uncle Max?” Krista homed in for the kill.
“Are you hungry?” Max asked.
“Hungee!” Maeve shrieked.
“Starving. But—” Krista turned to Winnie, a question on her face.
“We’re going out to dinner at the Thai place after this.”
“That’s a shame because I have homemade Neapolitan pizza upstairs.”
Max looked at Winnie and she didn’t miss the amusement in his expression.
A laugh escaped before she was able to stop it. “I forgot about the pizza oven in the kitchen here. It still works?”
“Perfectly. And since my tour in Naples I pride myself on my pizza skills.” This time he looked at Krista and Maeve. “Girls, give your mom and me a minute, will you?”
Krista glanced from Max to Winnie and back, probably trying to figure out if they were going to do anything “disgusting” again.
“Sure. Can we check out the pizza?”
“Go right ahead, but keep Maeve away from that hot oven, Krista.”
Max issued the directive as if he’d been in charge of kids his entire
“C’mon, Maeve. Wanna go see where the pizza is made?”
“Pizzaaaa!” Maeve loved pizza and Winnie’s heart sank. No way were they getting out of here anytime soon.
Once the girls were out of earshot, Max turned his charm on her. His eyes alone were enough to sink her, but his smile and the way he clasped her hand left her defenseless.
“Winnie, please stay for dinner. I was hoping you would. The girls will get a kick out of homemade pizza.”
Focus on his words and not how warm his hand is.
“Max, we’ve been over this. You’ve just started with Sam, and you and I are already getting in too deep.”
“What’s ‘deep,’ Win? We’ve known each other for years. Even if we hadn’t made that beautiful baby girl, we’d have reason to enjoy a meal together. Even if I didn’t need Sam and your talents it’d be perfectly natural for us to spend time together. I’m Krista’s godfather and I’ve been so negligent in those duties.”
She felt she was seeing him for the first time. Gone was the happy-go-lucky young pilot she’d met fifteen years ago. He wasn’t even her protector anymore, as he’d been during his months as her CACO after Tom’s death.
In front of her stood a tall, strong, battle-hardened warrior.
Despite or perhaps because of his fight for his life, he was reaching out and asking her to grab a moment of joy. To share it with him.
“I’m not asking you for the world, Winnie. Just to join me for a pizza and soda. You owe me that much. Besides, it’s an easy way for Maeve and me to get to know each other.”
She broke their eye contact and nodded. “Okay. But, Max, this can’t be a habit. I don’t want the girls—”
He sighed. “I get it, Winnie. But don’t expect me to worry about your feelings too much. This isn’t about you.”
No, it wasn’t about her—as he kept pointing out.