Safe in His Arms

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CHAPTER ONE


“WELL, PHOEBE?” HUNTER MACBRIDE stopped his decade-old motor home at the turnoff for the Liberty Lighthouse. “What do you think?”

Hunter’s seven-year-old niece turned her doll-wide gaze out the bug-and grime-encrusted windshield to get her first glimpse of Butterfly Harbor and California’s historic lighthouse. He powered down the windows and let the roar of the ocean welcome them. The faint sound of rattling pebbles cascading beside the lapping waves and late-winter wind reminded him of the carefree summers he’d spent at his grandparents’ beach house growing up. For the first time in a long time, Hunter felt as if he could breathe.

The coast had always brought him a sense of peace. In his experience, there wasn’t a problem that couldn’t be solved by the roar of the water and the sheer power of Mother Nature crashing against the rocks. He could only hope this place would do the same for Phoebe. It had to. He’d bet everything —including his career—on it.

“I’ve always loved lighthouses,” Hunter said. “Used to explore them whenever I could.” He cast an eye on Phoebe. “Nothing better than climbing to the top, around and around that spiral staircase—”

Phoebe looked at him and frowned, her brows knitting into a perfect V over her little nose.

“That’s right, a spiral staircase.” He wound his finger in a circle and drew it up. “Your mom and I used to have races to see who’d make it to the top first. One time I went so fast I threw up on her.”

Phoebe’s skeptical stare went blank at the mention of Juliana. It had been six months since her parents—Hunter’s sister and brother-in-law—had been killed in a car accident. Six months since he’d become sole guardian to his niece.

Six months since Phoebe had changed from a rambunctious, energetic chatterbox to a child of few words.

Hunter’s heart constricted as he rubbed the back of Phoebe’s hand. Thick dark curls framed her face and tumbled around her shoulders. There were times he swore he was looking into Juliana’s face, but with far wiser and more guarded eyes. What he wouldn’t give to take away the trauma and pain
his niece had been through. What he wouldn’t give to have his sister back.

“You want to know a secret?” He leaned close and whispered, “I haven’t eaten a corn dog since.” Phoebe’s lips twitched.

Hunter’s spirits soared. Earning a smile from Phoebe was tantamount to scaling Mount Everest. She was so guarded now. So controlled. It was all he could do not to jump out of the motor home and do a little dance of joy. Instead he gave her the warmest smile he could and continued his observations.

“I used to call lighthouses soldiers on the hill.” Hunter pointed at the tower stretching toward the sky. “They always look like they’re standing guard. Which they are, in a way. There’s a light up there, in the lantern room just inside the catwalk. It would glow and shine its light into the ocean and guide ships safely to the shore.”

Phoebe pointed to one of the smaller buildings surrounding the lighthouse. From a distance he could see the keeper’s cottage attached to the base with a roof in dire need of repair. Across the way, closer to the cliff line on its own rocky little hill, sat the carriage house that would serve as their home while Hunter researched and wrote the book—literally—on the Butterfly Harbor lighthouse and its restoration efforts to be used for publicity purposes.

He kept a slow pace as he maneuvered his oversize motorized baby down the dirt road. His smile widened as the white cottage with empty, weathered window boxes came into sight. “Yup. That’s our house.”

A quick glance at Phoebe, and he saw her mouth form a perfect O before she bit her lip and sat back in her seat.

“We’re going to have to set up some ground rules, kiddo.” Phoebe sighed.

“Until I get the lay of this place and figure out where everything is, I don’t want you wandering around on your own. You stick by my side or by the house, okay? Phoebe?” He gave her a look that told her he expected an actual answer. “Either by the house or here in the motor home.”

“Okay.”

“It’s going to take a few days to get used to everything. It’s okay to be scared of new places, Phoebs. But I won’t let anything happen to you. This is our big adventure, right?”

Did she have to look at him as if he was losing his marbles?

“Right. Maybe it’s just my big adventure. Let’s check this place out and
find the keeper.” He shoved open his door and dropped to the ground. He grimaced as he realized thirty-two wasn’t nearly as young as it had felt a few weeks ago. Hunter pressed his hands into the base of his spine and arched his back, shook out his legs and tried to remember what it felt like for his toes to move. “Maybe I shouldn’t have taken those last six hours in one stretch.” He swore he even heard the motor home sigh in relief as he slammed the door and headed around to help Phoebe out. First things first, unload then get something to eat. Preferably something that didn’t come out of a box or a can.

As he rounded the front of the white-and-gray motor home, he saw a woman striding around the side of the lighthouse. A woman who made him stop in his tracks. As a photojournalist, he was an observer by nature. He found people fascinating. The way they moved. The way they didn’t. But there was an aura about this woman, a power—the way she stood under the midafternoon sun, her dark hair pulled severely back into a ponytail, wearing worn, snug jeans encasing long legs and a gray sleeveless tank that made him shiver in response.

How was she not covered in goose bumps in this cool ocean air? Because the goose bumps would have been chased off by the muscles on this woman’s arms. Toned didn’t have anything on her. Neither, it seemed, did pain. Even from a distance, he could see the scars. Scars that marred her left arm and shoulder and reached up the side of her neck. Angry scars. But ones that spoke of strength and resilience.

“We aren’t open to tourists.” The woman’s voice danced along the wind, strong, clipped, no-nonsense. She planted her hands on her hips and pinned cool silver-gray eyes on him.

“I know. I’m Hunter MacBride.” He glanced back at the motor home before walking toward her, hand outstretched.

The caution in her eyes as he approached had him slowing.

“We aren’t open to hunters, either.”

Hunter grinned. Was that a joke? “Ah, good to know.” He chuckled and made sure to keep his distance. She was a woman alone out here. He didn’t blame her for being suspicious. “I’m a friend of Gil Hamilton’s from college. He’s hired me to write a book.” He jerked a thumb toward the carriage house. “Said I could stay here while I work.”

“Gil hired you to write a book?” She couldn’t have sounded more dubious if he’d told her he was a fairy-tale prince. “About what?”


“Butterfly Harbor. The Liberty here.” He inched his chin up to get a closer look at the lighthouse tower. “You must be part of the restoration crew.”

“I am the restoration crew.” She dropped her hands to her sides. “Gil didn’t tell me anything about this.”

Hunter winced. This was going so well. “Don’t know what to say. I’m a little earlier than expected. Maybe he hasn’t gotten around to it. You, ah, living in the carriage house?”

“No.”

“Oh. Well, great. I guess we won’t be putting you out, then. I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”

“I didn’t throw it.” She looked over his head, scanning the motor home as a door slammed. “You here with your wife?”

“I’m not married.” First time that statement didn’t come with a ping of regret. He was one of those men who’d expected to be married and well into a family the size of a softball team by now. But with his on-the-road job, the right woman had never presented herself. “I can’t just yell hey you, can I?”

“I’ve been called worse. If you’re not here with your wife, who—”

Had Hunter not been watching her, mesmerized with the way the light played against the odd color of her eyes, he would have missed the color draining from her cheeks and lips. Shock drifted across her face before tipping those eyes of hers into pools of misery.

Hunter felt Phoebe grab hold of one of the loops of his jeans as she circled around him. “Well, there’s my girl. Hey there.” He bent down and hefted Phoebe into his arms, not too difficult given she was such a little thing. Her jeans and dark T-shirt were warm from the sun. “This is my niece, Phoebe.” He took a step toward the woman.

The woman took a step back. And stared unblinking at Phoebe. Unease uncoiled inside him. “Phoebe, this lady is refurbishing the lighthouse. I’m guessing we’re going to be seeing a lot of each other.”

Phoebe clutched the back of Hunter’s neck and met the woman’s gaze.

“It would help if we knew your name,” Hunter pressed. What was wrong with the woman? Hadn’t she ever seen a single father before? Why was she looking at Phoebe as if she were an alien who’d landed from outer space? Her expression made him grip his niece tighter.

“Kendall,” the woman choked out. “Kendall Davidson.” And with that, she walked toward the keeper’s house, opened the weather-beaten green door and closed it firmly behind her.