Read an Excerpt
Last Chance Proposal
By Barbara DeLeo, Lewis Pollak, Alethea Spiridon Hopson
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Barbara DeLeo
All rights reserved.
With the sun of a South Pacific summer's day burning through his black T-shirt, Cy Hathaway bent and peered in the old hall window. He scrubbed the heel of his hand across a fine film of dust and cobwebs, screwed one eye shut, and peered in with the other.
Rows of people in shorts and T-shirts sat on wooden benches, listening intently to the presentation. His heart began to drum deep in his chest, jet lag and the anticipation of what he was about to do scrambling his thoughts. It wasn't the meeting that had drawn him to this hall from the other side of the world. It was the speaker, Ellie Jacobs. A girl from his past, someone he hadn't seen in eight years. And if everything went according to his carefully constructed plan, the woman who'd soon be his stand-in wife.
Despite this being the longest shot known to mankind — and the most selfish thing he'd ever done in his life — he wouldn't leave New Zealand until she agreed to marry him. He'd managed to get the grandparents to give him two weeks with his son over Christmas, but after that ...
Ellie Jacobs was his last chance.
He only hoped she could forgive him for everything he'd done.
He pushed the door open and a crowd of bodies twisted as one on their regulation wooden benches. The hall hadn't changed since he'd left as a teenager. Dust motes shimmied in the air, and the place still smelled of hot sun on polished wood. Red and green Christmas decorations trailed haphazardly from the ceiling, and the portrait of a young Queen Elizabeth hung crooked on the wall.
"I'll be staying at Starfish Cottage, if anyone has more questions in the next few ..." The lyrical voice from the front faded to nothing.
"Hi." He lifted a hand and his words echoed in the quiet corners of the hall. "Sorry I'm late. Holiday traffic, and I forgot about the country roads. I'd hoped to be here earlier."
There were murmured hellos and the man next to him stood, his blue eyes twinkling under bushy brows. "Cy, great to see you. It's been a long time, son."
He smiled and took Jack Parker's extended hand, but his gaze was glued to the lectern. Was that Ellie? That stunning woman in black trousers and white blouse, fingers pressed to her lips and eyes rounded in surprise? He'd thought about her constantly since the notice of the meeting arrived like a talisman at his home in Colorado. When he'd read her explanation of the restoration she was heading in Rata Cove, when he'd seen her flowing signature at the bottom of the glossy announcement and remembered her big heart, open smile, and generous spirit, he knew she was the answer. But it was the face of the eighteen-year-old girl he'd known that filled his mind then, not this confident, poised woman. The chestnut curls she'd worn wild and free as a teenager were now pulled away in a high ponytail, her face small and eyes wide as she shook her head. "Cy, it's good to see you."
Memories of summers spent with her flooded him as he settled on the hard wooden bench. The endless games on scorching sand, snorkeling in the warm, clear water of the cove. The thought of one day in particular, the one and only time he and Ellie had made love, was stronger than any other. That day, and the life-changing consequences of their actions, seared into his memory.
Realizing Ellie and everyone in the hall was now staring at him, he pulled his thoughts to the present. "I hear there are some changes happening around here."
"Yes." Ellie cleared her throat before tapping notes on the lectern. Tortoiseshell reading glasses sat on her nose and made her look as confident and in control as she sounded. "You've heard about the restoration project?" She smiled, and the warmth on her face was a tonic to his dog-tired brain.
"I'd love to hear more."
She pushed a lock of hair from her face. "The council's employed me to lead a restoration project on some of the buildings close to the beach. The hall, the old library, the boardwalk. I'm looking for community input before I finalize my plans." She paused. "I don't recall seeing you at any of the initial meetings." She glanced down at her notes, then slowly back up at him again, and his chest constricted for the time he'd lost with her and the strangers they'd become. "I don't have a submission from you, do I?"
"No, I ... ah ... I thought I'd be more help by actually being here." He hadn't been to Rata Cove in nearly a decade, didn't have a right to be part of this, and wouldn't have returned if he didn't have to ask the biggest favor of his life. "So, where are things up to?"
Ellie glanced at her watch. "This meeting's run its course, Cy. We've been discussing my restoration plans for close to an hour and we need to move out for the New Year's pageant practice."
"I've just arrived in the cove." Weariness filtered into his voice as he dug a hand through his hair. "But I'll take you up on the offer to answer my questions at your cottage."
Ellie nodded, then after a little more general discussion, closed the meeting and people began to stand and walk from the hall into the brilliant sunshine. He moved against the flow to reach her, greeting people he hadn't seen in years. Callum Brown, one of his old surfing mates, said hi and introduced Cy to his kids, and Tom from the store slapped him on the back and told him to stop by for a chat. As he drew closer to the front, he could hear what some people were saying.
"We're so lucky to have you do this, Ellison," an elderly man said as he tipped his cap to her. "Things have been looking tired and run-down for years. We've all got faith you'll turn things around and people will start holidaying in the cove again."
"Thanks so much, Max." She touched the old guy's wrinkled hand. "It's great to have everyone's support."
"Thank you, Ellie. Harry and I can't wait to see the changes you're going to make," Betty Browning said as she shooed small children in front of her. "It only seems like yesterday you were performing in the New Year's pageant on this stage, and now look at you. All grown up and important and living round the world."
Ellie smiled at her too and waved to others.
When the last of the people had moved away he stepped forward and the air between them stilled.
"Ellie, it's great to see you."
Her back straightened, and she clasped her hands in front. Of course she wasn't going to lean in for a kiss on the cheek. He hadn't spoken to her since the day after she'd said she loved him, and he'd turned his back on her and left the cove for good, but the realization still stung. She rolled her lips together.
"To be honest, I was a bit stunned when you walked through the door. I thought you lived in the States. That's where I sent the homeowner's meeting notice, anyway. No one's been at your holiday house for ages."
Lines of tension played at the skin around the edges of her eyes as her questioning gaze drifted across his face. In eight years she'd become even more radiant, more animated than he remembered, but there was cool distance in her tone.
"It's been a long time." The words of a detached stranger had come out his mouth before he had a chance to stop them. He'd never been unsettled talking to beautiful women before, but this was Ellie, someone who, despite his best intentions, he'd hurt. "So you're an architect, right? Specializing in coastal properties?"
"Yes." A smile played at her lips as she picked up her suit jacket from the back of a chair and rested it over her arm. She shook her head and a ringlet escaped from her ponytail. "I just can't believe you're here. I've caught up with your mum and sister over the years, but we've missed seeing you back in the cove for holidays."
She'd changed so much and yet hardly at all. But there was something new, a secret, womanly power he could sense growing the longer he stood there. Of course he'd thought about her through the years, regretting they'd lost touch, wishing he'd done more to build a bridge after all they'd been through. Looking at her now, though, no one would know the dark places she'd come from. Seeing this confidence in her confirmed she was the perfect choice for his custody plan, and if that all went well, who knew how their relationship might develop? Now he just needed to choose the right time to ask her.
He slung hands in the pockets of his jeans. "I can't believe I waited so long to come back. Knowing how much you've always loved the cove I understand how important this restoration must be for you, Ellie. I'd like to know more about it."
She picked up the briefcase and held it in front of her. "I'm really sorry, but I don't have time to talk about this now. My sister Fleur and her son Louis are here for Christmas, but let's catch up sometime."
Catch up sometime? He shouldn't have expected her to be any more welcoming than that. "Fleur and Louis? Wow, he was just a baby when I last saw him."
She nodded and glanced toward the door.
"No problem," he said. "I only decided to come back to New Zealand a few weeks ago. Do you live here now?"
She laughed. "I wish. Work takes me all over the country and around the world, but I try to get back to the cove for the holidays. I'll be spending the next few months managing the start of this restoration, then I'm off to an island in Greece for the rest of the year." She grinned and lifted an eyebrow. "It's a tough job but someone's gotta do it." She flicked her wrist and looked at a bright blue watch. "Sorry, but I need to open the cottage for Fleur. You can ask any questions about the project while walking there if you like."
He nodded and followed her out into the sunshine.
* * *
When Ellie pushed her way out into the December afternoon, Cy fell into step beside her.
"Want me to carry that?" He nodded at her briefcase. "It looks impressively heavy."
She still couldn't believe he was here. The shock of seeing him again lay like a piece of cold concrete in her gut, but she wouldn't let him know how much his appearance had thrown her. "I'm fine, thanks."
He looked so different. What once had been a mess of curls kissed golden by hours in the surf, was now the salon cut of a city dweller, glossy and neat. Where multicolored boardshorts would've hung low on slim hips, tan jeans contrasted with a black T-shirt.
For so many years she'd imagined being in this moment, seeing his dazzling smile again, watching the confident way he walked into a room, but in her dreams it was never like this. Never with him standing like a stranger, asking her about a business project and she not able to think of one intelligent thing to say.
She hadn't counted on him being part of the project closest to her heart, though, and she'd have to find a way to deal with it. The longer she spent in Cy Hathaway's company, the quicker she'd fall under his spell — it had happened a hundred times before — but this time she wouldn't be telling him that. When she'd said she loved him all those years ago, he'd turned tail and run, and she'd never put herself in that position again.
"How long are you back?" She kept her attention forward, following the shade from the red-and-green pohutukawa trees nodding over the sand. Cicadas played a symphony in the background, and sea gulls screeched their guttural cries above.
"A couple weeks. There's ..." He cleared his throat. "I need to deal with some things." As he turned to her, his tone shifted. "I think what you're doing here is amazing."
Slowing her steps, she squeezed the handle of her briefcase. "Thanks. It's great that the council agreed to fund the restoration. I was really pleased to be asked to oversee it. There's not a lot of time and spare cash for the upkeep of towns like this. I approached the council last year and offered my services and they agreed to let me renovate."
He turned and stared hard at her, his blue eyes shining, and her heart did a loop. "You mean, you're doing this for nothing? That must be tough."
She lifted a shoulder and looked him in the eye. "I love this place. It has memories that would've been lost if something wasn't done. It was a no-brainer. My project in Greece should help pay the bills. As long as I get this finished in time."
"They're lucky to have you. My sister tells me you're an expert in this sort of thing."
A fizz shot up her spine and she stepped back. He'd been talking to his sister about her? "I love this place too much to let it die."
He scuffed a boot through talc-like sand. "As soon as your letter came I knew I had to get back here."
She'd never tried to contact him after he left, knew that what lay between them was too overpowering to ever be repaired. "I sent letters to all the homeowners, of course. Not just you."
He nodded and she continued. "I was surprised you were listed as owner. Did you buy your parents and sister out?"
Moving slightly, he bunched hands deep in his pockets and the fabric of his shirt pulled tight across his broad, muscled shoulders. "Mum and Kelly don't come here anymore. After Dad finally left, they found the maintenance difficult."
His father had left his mother? Cy had been so hurt by his father's affairs, the drama of his parents' relationship when they were teenagers. "How often do you get back to New Zealand from the States?"
"Not much." He looked out to sea and a muscle flexed at his jaw. That he was even more handsome than he'd been as a teenager seemed impossible, but it was true. "I own a chain of surf stores across the States, so I travel a lot. One of my competitors has been looking to buy me out, but I've worked hard to build it up, and I enjoy the challenge of running stores in different states."
He hadn't been back in the two summers since Ellie had returned from overseas. She knew because she'd lost count of the times she'd stood outside his house in a swimsuit and bare feet and imagined what it would be like if they still spent warm days here together. With his family, her sister Fleur, and nephew Louis ... and maybe a couple of kids of their own.
She shook her head to remove the crazy little fantasy that sprung itself on her when she least expected it. Years ago they'd made love one tangled, passionate time and then he'd left and never returned. She was the girl whose grief he'd made his own. He was the boy who still shared an ugly secret. She flicked a piece of hair from her face. "So, if you're here for Christmas, I guess you'll have family coming. I haven't seen your mother or Kelly in years. I'd love to spend time with them."
He picked up a shell and threw it out to sea. "They won't be making it this year."
Something tugged inside her. Cy had come all this way and wouldn't be spending Christmas with his family? Something wasn't right.
Share it with us, she almost said. Come and have an orphans' Christmas with Fleur and me and Louis while my parents riverboat down the Danube, or whichever way they'd planned to avoid Christmas at the cove for another year. But the words jammed in her mouth. Cy seemed preoccupied, closed even, and she wasn't sure how he'd respond.
His voice was hollow. "It'll just be the two of us for Christmas."
"The two of you?"
"Me and my son, Jonty."
"Your son." The beat of her heart almost hijacked any more words. "How old is he?"
A dark shadow crawled across his features. Without hearing the words come out of his mouth, she knew the answer. The grim set of his face gave it away.
The familiar vision of her brother's six-year-old body being pulled from the surf stamped for the millionth time in her mind. Her heart thudded, small and cramped in her throat. She set up the barriers as she'd always done, but the pain broke through.
"Ellie, I —"
He turned to her and she swung her attention to the sand to avoid his tortured stare. He'd been there that day, kissing her blind on a yacht when they should've been watching William. He'd know the chill dancing across her skin, the crater widening in her chest.
As her body quaked, he stepped closer before seeming to think better of it and kept on talking. "My son's never been here. Katie Newport's looking after him at the moment." He shook his head as they drew up in front of his family's holiday home. Surrounded by bleached logs and waist-high sea grass, it seemed to snooze on the sand. "I can't believe she's sixteen."
Excerpted from Last Chance Proposal by Barbara DeLeo, Lewis Pollak, Alethea Spiridon Hopson. Copyright © 2013 Barbara DeLeo. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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