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Grace Preston stared down at her bare feet peeking out from the hem of her long dress. Her sister's beach wedding had been romantic and casualexactly what the bride and groom wanted. But it had left her without shoes and feeling more than a little exposed.
Grace didn't bother to pull up her dress as she walked toward the water's edge. To hell with itshe'd never wear the halter style blue-green chiffon concoction again anyway. The water was cold and she ignored the wet sand clinging to her heels. The moon hung low in the sky, casting a great sliver of light across the ocean. The sound of cresting waves was faintly hypnotic and she relaxed a bit, taking a long swallow from the champagne flute in her hand. Once the glass was empty she quickly refilled it from the bottle she held in the other.
It wasn't like she intended to get drunk. That wasn't her style. She simply needed to be alone. Away from the cloistering effects of wedding guests and the party.
She's been home for five days and already felt as though it was time to leave.
But I won't.
She had a month. Four weeks to recharge and pull herself together. Not that she really believed she needed it. But her boss did. Her therapist did. She had her instructionsgo home go home and spend time with her family. Go home and forget the car crash that had killed a colleague and changed her life.
So, I'm here.
She took another sip, finishing her drink. One glass down. Maybe getting drunk would give her some relief from the heavy band of pressure pressing at her temples.
Relief now, perhaps. But regret in morning.
Grace Preston didn't do hangovers. She did fourteen-hour days and skipped lunches and four-inch heels. Vacations were usually a long weekend in her apartment with a laptop and one eye on the stock market.
And Crystal Point, the small beachside Australian town where she'd been born and raised, was a long way from her office, her apartment, her Jimmy Choos and her life in New York.
She took a few steps and cautiously dipped her toes into the ocean. The sound of music and laughter and clinking crockery faded as she headed farther from the huge tent and the celebration of Evie and Scott's wedding. The stars above seemed particularly bright, like they were mocking her, like they knew all her secrets.
Like they knew she wasn't quite whole and there was a tiny window of emptiness aimed directly in the center of her chest. Maybe it was the happiness radiating from her sister that had Grace thinking things she wouldn't normally think.
With a new husband and a baby on the way, Evie had never looked happier.
While Grace had never been more alone in her life.
The fact her boss knew as much was the reason she was back. She was home to recharge and be with the people who loved her. Not that she was about to admit that to anyone anytime soon. Her family thought she was simply home for the wedding and an extended vacation.
She kicked at the tide with her toes and gasped as cold water splashed up her calf, but then ventured in a little more. When she took a swallow of champagne the bubbles zinged up her nose and down her throat. A couple more glasses, she thought, and she might be on her way to sweet oblivion.
The idea made her laugh and she heard the sound echo and then ripple and somehow quietly disappear into the night as she took another step into the water.
Across from the river mouth, where the waterway met the sea, was Jay's Island. It had been part of the mainland once, but years of sand trenching to allow sugar cane ferries to pass had created a gulf between the two banks. Now it was home to nesting herons and sea turtles. When she was young she'd swum the distance, not put off by the fast current that dragged many swimmers along. But she hadn't done that in a long time.
Despite what some people believed, Grace didn't hate Crystal Point. She just had little in common with the small beachside community that boasted a population of barely eight hundred residents. Not after so many years anyway. Time had a way of creating distance and building walls. Grace simply didn't fit in. She never had.
"Don't think I'm gonna jump in and save you if you fall in and get pulled down by the riptide, Princess," she heard a deep and infuriatingly familiar voice say from behind her.
"I have no intention of ruining a perfectly good suit because you can't hold your liquor."
Grace swiveled in shock at the sudden intrusion and almost toppled over. Clenching her toes into the sand for balance, she moved up the bank to where Cameron Jakowski stood about ten feet away.
She scowled and fought a guilty look at the glass and bottle clutched between her fingers. She absolutely would not rise to his Princess jibe.
"What do you want, Hot Tub?"
She saw his smile in the moonlight, knew instinctively that his velvet brown eyes would light up, ready for battle with her. They had always called one another namesalways worked out new ways to needle each other. Hot Tub, Princesssilly names meant to antagonize.
"Just making sure you don't drown."
Grace shrugged her bare shoulders. "I didn't realize you cared."
He came closer. "It's a wedding. I doubt Evie and Scott would want their celebration ruined by your carelessness."
Grace's temper simmered. "I'm not acting the least bit careless," she said through clenched teeth. "And I'm perfectly sober."
He looked at the bottle. "Prove it," he challenged. "Walk a straight line."
Grace bit back a scowl. "I'll do no such thing. You're not on duty now."
He chuckled and Grace forced herself to not think about how sexy it sounded. Okayso he had a great smile and a handsome face and filled out his police officer's uniform as faultlessly as he did the suit he wore. She'd have to be comatose not to notice.
"So, why are you hiding out here anyway?"
Grace moved up the sand. "Who says I'm hiding?"
Cameron hooked a thumb over one shoulder. "The party's that way."
She shrugged. "Maybe I'm not in the mood for a party."
"Nothing's that simple with you." Grace bristled. "Leave me alone. I don't want to argue with you."
Cameron stepped closer. "Now I know there's definitely something wrong with you. What's eating you tonight?"
"Nothing," she lied. "I'm my usual happy self."
"And now you're lying your shoes off."
Grace tugged at the hem off her dress and exposed her feet. "I'm not wearing shoes," she announced, holding herself upright despite a sudden surge of wooziness.
Of course, he knew that. He was a groomsman and she'd been partnered with him most of the afternoon. He'd already smirked when he'd spotted her bare feet and purple-painted toenails as she'd taken his arm to walk toward the altar.
Because Grace Preston didn't bare anything in public.
And Cameron knew that.
She glared at him some more. "I don't know why the men got to keep their shoes on. Anyway, I'll probably step on a stonefish and that will be the end of me."
Cameron laughed. "So much drama over a pair of missing shoes. Come on, I'll walk you back."
Grace shook her head. "No, thanksI'll stay here. I've had about all the marital bliss I can stand for one evening."
He was close now and Grace could see the curious expression on his face. "Are you jealous Evie's married?"
Was she? It seemed like everyone was getting married lately and getting their happily-ever-after. First her brother, Noah, had married Callie Jones and now, less than eight months later, Evie was tying the knot with Scott, Callie's younger brother. But no, she wasn't the marrying type.
"Certainly not," she replied quickly and took another sip of her champagne. "I'm very happy for my sister. I just meant " She stopped. There was no way she would explain anything to Cameron Jakowski. "Nothing. Leave me alone."
He moved toward her again, only this time she didn't step back. Toe-to-toe, he stood close to eight inches taller than her and without shoes it was impossible for Grace to stare him down without tilting her head up.
"And what if you go back into the water and get swept away by the current?" he inquired. "I don't want that on my conscience. I'm staying."
Grace shrugged. "Suit yourself," she said as she moved up the bank some more and headed toward a small cluster of rocks. She sat on the largest one and refilled her glass. "Want a shot?" she asked, holding out the bottle.
Cameron followed her steps and took the bottle. "I reckon you've had about enough of that." He dropped it onto the sand.
Grace watched the champagne seep away. "You're ruining my evening."
"Your evening looked well and truly ruined before you wandered off down here."
She frowned. "Are you spying on me?"
Cameron laughed. "Hardlybut you did bail on our dance."
"I didn't want to dance," she told him flatly. "With you or anyone else," she added.
Being partnered with Cameron for the entire celebration had been more than she could stand. Not only because she wasn't in any mood to combat his sarcasm or insults, but because the happy smiles and animated chatter of the wedding party had felt like a cloistering blanket around her shoulders. Since the accident she'd become less adept at handling crowds. Less inclined to make pointless conversation.
"You know, it wouldn't hurt you to open up a bit."
Grace almost choked on her champagne. Was he reading her mind? "To you? You're joking, right?"
He shrugged. "Why not?"
"Because you're you." She shook her head. "And you and I are like oil and water."
He stepped closer and thrust his hands in his pockets. "It's a double-edged sword," he said quietly.
Grace stared into her glass. "I have no idea what that's supposed to mean."
"Sure you do," he flipped back. "Admit it, Princess fighting with me gets you all worked up."
Grace wasn't admitting anything. "You're imagining things. Not everything's about you. And stop calling me Princess."
"Stop calling me Hot Tub."
He didn't move. He stood in front of her, smiling, making Grace so mad she was tempted to toss her remaining drink in his direction. For sixteen years they'd been stuck in this groovehurling insults, sticking it to one another at every opportunity.
But a lifetime ago it had been different. He was her brother's best friend and because of that relationship she'd known him since she was five years old. She'd liked him back then. He hadn't teased her for her bookish ways as her brother did. By the time she was preparing to leave for boarding school liking him had turned into a crush. But she didn't dare admit it or imagine he felt the same way. She left for school and took her silly dreams with her. Nothing had prepared her for the night of her sixteenth birthday when he'd unexpectedly kissed her for the first time. When school was over she'd returned to Crystal Point to take a break before she headed off to college and in those few months they'd dated one another. Cameron Jakowski had been her first real boyfriend. Her first kiss. The one man she'd never quite been able to forget.
"What's really going on with you, Grace?"
Her back straightened, shoving her into the present. "Spare me your fake concern."
He stepped closer. "It's not fake."
Grace didn't believe him. "Like you care?"
He laughed. "C'mon, Gracelighten up. You're not in your swanky office now. There's no one to impress by pretending you've got it all together."
Grace stilled. His words hit a raw nerve. Because she'd heard the same ones from the therapist her boss had insisted she visit. But Cameron didn't know that. No one knew. The terrible accident and the month afterward where she'd returned to work and pretended none of it had happened, or the way she'd spectacularly unraveled in front of a client. She needed to lie through her teethfor her own sake. "I always have it togetheryou know that."
"Do I? I know that you've been hanging around down here for the past hour. I know that you've barely cracked a smile all afternoon, at your own sister's wedding. I know that you're unhappy even if you don't have the courage to admit it."
Grace glared at him, hating she felt so transparent in front of Cameron, hating he could see through her. "And I know that if I admit to anything you'll just use it against me. No, thanks." She got to her feet and stumbled.
He grasped her arm quickly. "Steady," he said as he held her.
Grace tried to pull away but he held her firm. Something uncurled low in her belly, warming her blood. A familiar sensation she experienced whenever he was close. It unnerved her and she fought the feeling. "Let me go."
"You'll fall over."
"So, I'll fall." She was suddenly powerless as one strong arm came around her waist.
"I'd catch you," he said quietly.
Grace frowned. "Let me go please."
But she wasn't afraid. She'd never feared Cameron. Despite their differences, she'd always trusted him. Grace felt the nearness of him and fought the sudden warmth spreading across her skin. That he could do this to hermake her boil with fury one moment and burn with awareness the nextonly added to her resentment and determination to keep as far away from him as possible. He was the only man she'd ever known who'd been able to do that to her. The only man she'd ever thought could see through her, know her and work her out.
"I'm not doing anything."
"You are. You do. You always do. I just want." She stopped, stalled and felt herself get dragged into meeting his eyes. She was flustered, uneasy. "I can't "
"What is it?" he asked softly. "What's going on in that beautiful head of yours?"
Grace's resistance crumbled. The champagne she'd had suddenly freed up her tongue. "I just I don't belong here," she admitted and pulled herself from his grasp as she stepped backward. "I don't belong anywhere."
Cameron's hands burned from the feel of Grace's skin and he clenched his fists at his sides. The pain in her voice knocked through him, settling behind his ribs in a way that made him think about every feeling he'd had for herand buried.
"What do you mean?"
She turned away, clutching her arms around herself. "Nothing," she said quietly.
Cameron pushed the heels of his shoes up from sinking in the sand and pressed on. "What do you mean you don't belong?"
Grace twirled around and her long dress billowed around her knees. "Why do you care?"
Why indeed? He shouldn't. Grace was nothing but trouble. A workaholic ice princess who had little time for anyone. Me included. He'd found that out the hard way. Beautiful beyond words, smart and independentand about as warm as an Arctic winter. The perfect antidote for all his fantasies. Wanting her was about as sensible as wanting acid rain.
He shrugged. "Friendly concern."
Her beautiful face looked almost luminescent in the moonlight as she shot him a death stare. "Don't be nice to me," she said quietly, looking suspicious. "We're not friends and I just"
"We were more than friends," he said and took hold of her hand despite his best intentions to not touch her. "Once."
She stared at their linked hands and this time, she didn't pull away. Cameron's fingertips tingled. He knew that would happen if he touched Grace expected it didn't like it one bit but chalked it up to chemistry and tried not to let it mess with his mind. Over the years there had been the odd touch between them, the chance gesture of hands brushing and every time it was the same. The same vibration rattled inside him, over his skin, through his blood. He knew it wasn't like that for her, of course. Grace was supercool and controlled, with perfectly straight dark hair, immaculate clothes and haunting green eyeslike a mannequin on display. A mere touch wouldn't jangle Grace. But he remembered what it was like to touch her, to kiss her, to hold her in his arms. Those memories were burned into his soul.
As expected, she pulled away. "A lifetime ago."