Love at… not first sight.

Blast from the past. Or not so distant past.

Last winter, Ronan McAllister came back to town. Broken. Exhausted. Not the man he wanted to be. Payson Roberts was ready to find the one. Not exactly the set up for true love.

A wee bit obsessed with James Bond (dashing, mysterious, charming, skilled, Payson) was unimpressed with Ronan's bedraggled, sullen crankiness on first meeting him. Finding out he was exactly the spy she had dreamed of all along? Not exactly a dream come true.

Why Running Home? Why now? I stumbled upon a review for Wildest, in which the reviewer mentioned enjoying it, but their favorite was still Running Home. And, I thought to myself, dang, I haven't read that one in a while. There are those moments from Running Home that dance in my imagination, just under the surface, and I have not had the time to indulge on this one in a while.

Here is one of my favorite scenes. Some others to look out for: When Ronan goes out to kick some bad guy ass in France. When he comes walking down the dock and knocks Payson's socks off. When Payson schools him at laser tag.

A Teaser. Love at... not first sight. Diving right into the sparks-flying-confusing-lust-at-first-sight scene... 

Full dark sure came early in the winter around here. The air was just below freezing, but at least the sky was clear. Payson grabbed a warm wool coat and scarf before heading out the door for the gallery opening. She was thrilled that the gallery was re-opening, confident that it would be a major tourist draw, bringing more art-lovers to Seaview.

However, now Natalie was either making art or selling it full time, abandoning Payson. She’d run Flotsam Antiques alone for only a short time before she’d hired Natalie on part-time for deliveries and extra help, and she wouldn’t be easy to replace.

Laura had called her about an hour before the event tonight, proudly announcing that she’d found some temporary help for her. A big strong man who would be able to help her with deliveries and reorganize the back room, which she’d been putting off for… well, since she opened.

Her son, Ronan, had returned from Europe a week or two ago. Apparently, he was a busy computer programmer that travelled all over the world. After a recent train wreck in Germany and getting laid off from his job, he was forced to move home.

Laura wasn’t specific, but it sounded like he was having a hard time adjusting. So, Laura was hoping that working for Payson would give him something to do other than wallow in self-pity. Poor guy, losing his livelihood like that had to be rough.

Payson was happy to have the help around the shop; her backroom really needed an upgrade. It was getting more than a little embarrassing. Some folks appreciated good presentation, and she was one of them. But… the backroom wasn’t seen by anyone but her, so she’d let it go… for way too long now.

If Ronan was half as handy with tools as the rest of his family, he’d have the room spiffed up in no time. Besides, she’d do about anything for the McAllisters. The whole family had taken her in as one of their own since she’d moved to town. Aiden, Maddy, now Chase, were her closest friends. Since Laura’s retirement from her seat as a county judge, she was fast becoming a good friend as well.

The McAllisters were like that; bringing in strays and making them feel included and loved. They had taken in Chase when he was an angsty youth. Then, when he returned last summer, Frank had hired Chase as his right-hand man at McAllister Fisheries. Almost immediately, he and Maddy had fallen head-over-heels in love. The kind of love that always made Payson sigh wistfully.

Checking her appearance one last time before covering the gorgeous dress with her heavy peacoat, Payson admired her latest find. For the occasion, she and Maddy and Laura had made a girl’s trip into Portland to go dress shopping.

She’d picked out a long black satin dress with spaghetti straps and a deep cowl neck that showed a hint of cleavage. The back was way more risqué than she’d ever been daring enough to wear before, with a very low cowl showing off most of her back. Laura had insisted, telling her she looked like a model in the gown. It didn’t take much arm twisting for her to cave and buy the stunning thing.

Initially, she’d freaked at the idea of not being able to wear a regular bra, but it was surprisingly comfortable. Growing up, she’d envied her mother and sisters with their curvy figures, but as a late bloomer, she finally developed a decent rack. Not much to brag about in the hips still, so she flaunted the assets she had.

For the occasion, she’d worn jet black eyeliner with smoky eye shadow and mascara to accent her green eyes. She had pulled her auburn hair into a messy bun with plenty of wispies to frame her face so she could show off her back. Having started teaching a local self-defense class, Maddy had decided she and Payson should be work-out buddies. She had been dragging her out running and had them on a weight-lifting program.

Grueling as it was, Payson appreciated the results and was pleased to show off some of her hard-earned muscle. And good cardiovascular health, of course. Satisfied, she headed out the door.

The fresh air felt great, and the icy breeze only added to the messy bun look. Grateful the new gallery location was only two blocks down from her own shop, she walked despite her delicate lace-up heels. A little chill and some great shoes wouldn’t slow her down.

Wow, they sure had decked the place out. Greeters dressed in formalwear took her ticket and directed her to the bar. Servers dressed in black pants and white jackets carried appetizer trays around to the guests.

Great turnout. The place was huge, and it looked like half of the permanent residents of Seaview were here, plus a hundred more from out of town. The local shop-owners had all been invited as they’d be key to promoting each other, but otherwise the event was primarily a fundraiser for budding local artists, including programs for kids.

Scanning the crowd, she wasn’t seeing any of her favorite people. She made polite conversation with those she knew as she perused: the mayor and his wife, some fellow shop owners, a few of the single guys in town that she’d dated. One might think it would be awkward, but she tried to always remain friends. Which had been part of the problem; she was quite proficient at making casual friendships. It was the meaningful relationships that were harder to come by.

Natalie was standing by a collection of high contrast black and white photographs of lighthouses that she had clearly taken, beaming as guests asked her about her work. Although she was incredibly shy, she was in her element tonight. Payson snuck up and pinched her friend lightly on the arm and gave her a thumbs up, before giving her space to show off.

Dang, where were Maddy and Chase? Where was Aiden? She was looking forward to meeting their mysterious brother, and her new employee, Ronan. Payson made for the bar, grabbing a glass of red wine to take on her self-guided tour of the gallery while she waited for her friends.

Much of the art was impressive; great selection and variety, predominantly coastal themed of course. It was amazing to think there were so many talented artists in the area. She stopped to admire a colorful mixed media sculpture, appreciating the creativity involved in designing the ocean scene using re-purposed bottles and cans.

From behind her, a deep, rumbling voice interrupted her solo contemplation. “A bit contrived.”

She turned abruptly with a scowl. The art critic stood right behind her, and she ran right into the rock-solid chest as she turned to admonish him for his rudeness. He growled and grabbed his right side when she bumped him, his fierce scowl deepening.

Art critic was a total grizzly bear… but filled out the tux rather nicely… a bit like James Bond. Didn’t look like 007, with a gnarly beard covering most of his face, his hair tied back with a few strands falling out, as it was not quite long enough to pull into a neat pony. His icy blue eyes looked familiar, but they looked distant and lifeless.

In a huff, she stepped back to gain some distance and foolishly knocked into the sculpture with her butt. With another harsh growl, and with surprising cobra-like reflexes, he reached around her and righted the piece before it went crashing to the ground. Her face was now pressed right up to his chest. As much as she hated to admit it, he smelled fantastic, like fresh mountain air.

Not that she spent a lot of time in the mountains. Or smelling men for that matter. What was going on with her?

The grizzly wrapped his arm around her waist and pulled her away from the teetering sculpture, as she’d been frozen in place, totally confused by her reaction to him. His hand splayed across her bare back; she burned at his touch. Surprised and irritated by his effect on her, she snapped at him, “Get your hands off of me.”

“Hey lady, I’m just trying to save the gallery before you destroy all the art in it.” What was his deal? He could at least stop glaring at her and insulting her.

Payson pushed at his chest to get some distance from the conundrum of a man; spilling her wine on his jacket. Dammit, she just couldn’t catch a break around this guy. At least she’d missed the white shirt. “If you hadn’t grabbed me so… boorishly, I wouldn’t have spilled.” Where had her manners gone? She was raised better than this.

Not having a napkin, she grabbed the handkerchief from his chest pocket and attempted to pat the area dry.

He grabbed her wrist, “I’ve got it.” He pulled the handkerchief out of her hand and brushed the wine off himself, then stuffed it back in his pocket.

They scowled at each other, neither willing to be the first to look away.

From down the hall, Maddy’s voice reached them. “Looks like you two have met, fantastic.” Payson turned at the sound of her friend’s voice. You two? Those familiar eyes… they were McAllister eyes. That meant… Ronan. Sh*t.

Sh*t. He’d just completely offended Maddy’s best friend.

“Payson, you are so lucky Ronan will be helping out at the shop. He’s got a good eye and will have that storeroom organized in no time.” Maddy beamed at him as she introduced him to her best friend.

And, apparently, his new employer.

Still recovering from a serious lack of sleep when his mother had called, he’d easily been suckered into accepting the role of handyman, delivery driver, and shop-boy for what she had implied was a frail old lady. At least, he had assumed. In his mother’s defense, he shouldn’t say suckered, he knew he was on a downward spiral and needed to get his ass off the couch. Wasn’t dead yet, so may as well find something to do.

He extended his hand for the introduction, but it was really more of an apology. He even attempted a smile, but he was downright rusty at it and was sure it came off as more of a grimace. Payson took his hand and shook it politely, if only to avoid Maddy knowing she thought he was an asshole.

Yeah, he was that. Although, she was no prize herself. Sure, she was f**king gorgeous. Amazing body with just the right curves. Intense green eyes, straight out of a fairytale. He’d nearly gotten his first hard-on in months just standing so close to her, inhaling her delicious scent, his hand on her bare back.

Regrettably, she was too much of a snooty priss for his taste.

“Payson runs the finest antique shop on the eastern seaboard.”

“Ronan, it’s nice to finally meet you. Laura told me that you agreed to come help me out at the shop… now and again,” her voice was gentle, but he couldn’t miss the challenge in her tone. Her eyebrow raised defiantly, she bated him, begged him to back out of the deal.

At least he wouldn’t be bored, working with this shrew in a smelly old antique shop. Maddy stood at his side, smiling and completely missing the disdain in either of their voices.

“Actually, I thought you were looking for someone to do some handyman work and serve as delivery driver and shop-boy until you find someone more permanent. I’ll be by 8 o'clock Monday morning - that work for you, boss?” She rolled her eyes but agreed. Might be fun getting a rise out of her on a regular basis.

At last, Chase arrived, rescuing him from further making an ass of himself. Handing him a frothy beer, Chase winked at him. He gulped half of it down before he said something even more stupid.

Chase nudged him. “Glad you’re here. This is really not my scene. I’m fairly certain Miss Hanson just patted me on the ass as I walked by. Have you caught her staring at you through her window yet?” Chase’s former nosy neighbor, now Ronan’s neighbor at the rental house, was a known busybody. But, her vigilance had helped save Maddy’s life last summer when she’d caught intruders at Chase’s house.

“Yeah, she’s a real treasure. I’m surprised her nose isn’t permanently turned up from pressing against her front window all day.” Ronan found it easy to smile suddenly, more at ease with people that knew him.

Although he and Chase had never been close before, they had a lot in common. Both had run far and fast from Seaview as soon as they’d graduated from high school; both had spent their years away surviving on adrenaline. Chase had been making sure Ronan felt normal and welcome in his return. His exercise equipment still in the garage at the rental, Chase came over every day to exercise.

Each day, he’d opened the door to the house and blasted heavy metal, enticing Ronan out without any pressure to interact. He had quickly accepted the no-conversation-required invitation and was enjoying their routine. All while burning the edge off the temper he’d developed since getting shot.

Ronan started to relax. Chase continued, making friendly conversation to put him at ease. “Maddy’s picked out half the gallery to go in the beach house; she finally settled on one of Natalie’s lighthouse black-and-whites.” They briefly chuckled, in a manly way of course, at Maddy’s expense. Like a trooper, she took the teasing, knowing he needed a distraction.

Green eyes shining brightly, Payson pasted on a polite smile and tried to carry the easy conversation. “Settling back into town?”

Ronan managed a tight, ironic smile, “Not really trying.”

Maddy tried to re-direct, but Payson continued, “Is Seaview not meeting your expectations?” The smile was there, and he could hear the tease in her voice, but he sensed she was baiting him.

“Seaview’s fine.”

Before Payson could fire back, Chase jumped in to diffuse what he must have noticed was already a ticking timebomb of a relationship, “It’s hard coming back. If it hadn’t been for Maddy, it would have been a hell of a lot rougher.”

Ronan understood. Chase must have had a rough return, the local bad boy and son of the town drunk, returning to take a lead position at the biggest business in town.

Maddy linked arms with Payson. “Let’s get you a fresh drink, bet you could use it. How’d your date with Gregory go? Soothe your dry spell?”

Payson’s blush was unmistakable, as was her elbow’s direct hit to Maddy’s ribs. Before he could hear the answer, they strolled off toward the bar together. He didn’t care anyway. She could sleep with whoever the hell she wanted.