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The warm, salty breeze lifted Lora Bell's hair from her damp neck as she stepped from the ferry platform after docking in Cruz Bay, St. John. She knew the fierce humidity would wreak havoc on her carefully maintained cut and color so that by the time she reached Larimar, which was only a short drive out of town, the curl she fought to tame would spring to life with a vengeance.
Home sweet home, she thought sourly, pausing to quickly wrap her shoulder-length hair into a messy knot at the back of her head. Everywhere she looked paradise stared backcalm, azure water lapping at spun-sugar beaches, vibrant green foliage rimming the shorelinesbut Lora really saw something different. She saw obligation, poverty, decaying infrastructure, greed and corruption leaking through the cracks in the cement and stinking up the air like the open-air Dump-sters that everyone used to dispose of their trash. And she was angry as hell that situations beyond her control had dragged her home against her will.
Although quieter and more low-key than St. Thomas, St. John still saw its share of tourists and Lora was reminded of this fact as she navigated the throng of people walking by with their coconut-rum concoctions, clutching at wide, floppy straw hats in an attempt to shield their skin from the tropical sun. Unlike them, Lora wasn't here on a pleasure cruise.
She jerked her Louis Vuitton rolling luggage over the worn plank dock and continued, her steps quick and purposeful, toward the man awaiting her by the Jeep Wrangler her family had purchased many years ago and that had begun to wear its age like an embattled war veteran. She didn't bother hiding her frown when she saw the Jeep but Lora knew it was pointless to complain. Island cars were a special breed. The more banged up, the more street cred they acquired. But it'd been quite a while since she'd lived on the island and she much preferred a smoother ride nowadays, such as her company's sleek Lincoln Town Car, which had always been at her disposal when she'd been the company darling.
How the mighty have fallen. She gritted her teeth against the unexpected sting of moisture in her eyes and focused again on the problems facing her in the here and now. The long flight had been excruciating enough with nothing but her rapidly deteriorating sense of self to keep her company; who was she without her punishing work schedule to keep her busy? Who was she if she wasn't out there making mincemeat of anyone who stood in her way? Just as she discovered that the answer was not to be found at the bottom of a Chardon-nay bottle, it was not here, either. All that awaited her in St. John was more problems. She could only hope her problems in Chicago would waitthe ones greeting her in St. John would not.
Her gaze searched and settled on the one man she'd hoped she wouldn't see. Given that her luck had been somewhere in the toilet region, she shouldn't have been surprised that Heath Cannon would be the one to pick her up from the ferry.
Coincidentally, he wore the same expression of put-upon pique as she felt. Great. So they were both pissed. This ought to make for an uncomfortable ride to the resort. She met his hard stare with one of her ownintimidation was a tactic she had perfected. "I still don't understand why you couldn't take care of this situation until I could get here when my schedule allowed," she said to Heath who neither offered to take her bag nor cracked a welcoming smile in spite of being her ride. Not that she'd expected or needed such niceties, of course. "I can't imagine that Lilah couldn't handle whatever is going on."
Lilah, the younger of her fraternal twin sisters, had moved back home three months ago with the intent to help their grandfather with the resort, but apparently the job was too much for her flighty little sis and all hell was breaking loose with some sort of calamity. She swore under her breath when the wheel of her luggage snagged again. When Heath still hadn't said a word, she gave him an irritated look. "Are you even listening to me? Why'd you come, anyway? Why couldn't Lilah pick me up?" she grumbled, mostly to herself. She hated feeling as if she were to blame for this mess simply because she'd failed to jump at the slightest mention of a shadow on the horizon. But Heath was making it quite clear that he blamed her. The knowledge pinched and in turn, angered her further. She wasn't to blame and she certainly wouldn't accept the burden just because others were incompetent. "Well?"
"Lilah had things to do," came his curt reply as he rounded the Jeep to the driver's side. "So that left me holding the short straw."
As in, neither had wanted to pick her up. Nice. They were in an all-fired hurry to get her here but now that they'd succeeded they wanted to avoid her like the plague? Real mature. And just like Lilah. The spoiled brat. Everyone made allowances for the twins but when it came to Lora, she was expected to be the iron maiden, impervious to every slung arrow. She bit back a sarcastic reply and instead ignored his statement. She wasn't going to waste her energy sniping at Heath. She had precious little of it after the exhausting travel day. It was too hot and humid and she wanted nothing more than to stand under a very cold shower for at least five minutes.
Heath, fit as a surfer with nothing better to do than ride the waves and pick up bikini-clad chicks, remained silent, which suited her perfectly. The less they interacted, the better. He looked as she remembered from her childhood and subsequent sporadic visits home, though she didn't quite recall the muscle cording his shoulders and the way his broad chest tapered to slim hips. She yanked her carry-on, lifting it onto the backseat of the Jeep before climbing in, still angry over the entire situation and the wretchedly bad timing in regards to her career.
Oh, wait, what career? She winced inwardly at the recollection of what had gone down only a handful of days ago when her boss had not-so-gently fired her after losing a major, multimillion-dollar account to a competitor. The memory, fresh and humiliatingly devastating, caused a sick roiling in her stomach that completely soured the airline-issue ham sandwich she'd choked down during her flight. And now this? Family issues were the last thing she wanted to deal with, but Lilah and her grandfather had made a right mess of the family business and she had to clean it up or else lose everything.
Reversing her decision to remain quiet for the drive, she said, "I know it's difficult for you to comprehend but this is the absolute worst timing for me." She needed to be doing damage control to find another job before news of her untimely and involuntary exit rippled through the grapevine. Marketing was such an incestuous little circle with everyone knowing everyone else's business because oftentimes, the person sharing the hotel bed was the same person you were trying to seduce information from about the competitor. Once word spread about her firing, one of two things would happen: either her former company's competitors would start sniffing around, making offers becauseprior to her unfortunate lapse in judgmentshe'd been the best in town; or they'd treat her like the plague because, in this economy, no one could afford to hire someone who lost accounts. Period. Thus the need for damage control. Closing her eyes for the briefest of moments to recollect herself, she opened them when she realized Heath was talking.
"He's your grandfather and he needs you," Heath said, his voice a strong yet low timbre that hinted at the temper he was holding back.
She glared even as a slight shudder, undetectable to anyone aside from herself, danced along her backbone. Since when was it okay for Heath Cannon to reprimand her like an errant child? Damn him for being so self-righteous. He had no idea what she'd been through in the past week. She was tempted to tell him to zip it but she held the impulse in check by the smallest grace.
"I've been trying to get you to come for months and you've ignored every call, every email, every letter. Until now."
"Well, excuse me for misplacing a little faith in my sister to handle what was happening here," she shot back, reaching up to hold on while Heath took the Jeep out of town and up the winding road to the resort. "How was I supposed to know that little Miss Butterfly Brain would flake when it mattered most?"
"Don't call her that."
"Why not? It seems to fit. You forget I've known her her entire life," she said drily.
"Oh, then should we start calling you by what you've been known for?"
She cast a sharp glance his way, knowing full well how she was perceived both on the island and elsewhere. For lack of a better word: the Bitch. She wasn't naive and she wasn't sensitive about it, either. She firmly believed that strong women were often labeled out of insecurity. She lifted her chin. "Yes, well, I'm here now."
"There you go being dramatic again," she muttered, adjusting the thin band of her watch against her skin, hating that every square inch of her skin was damp. She could already feel sand in all sorts of places it didn't belong. "You said Pops was about to lose the resort. Something about back taxes and a lien against the property, which honestly isn't something I'm going to freak out about until I've had my lawyers take a look." Oh, damn. She no longer had lawyers. The company had a vast stable of lawyers at its disposal, something she'd learned to take for granted, which is why the statement had rolled so blithely from her tongue. But why admit that to Heath, she thought churlishly, the heat and the situation leaching away the last vestige of grace available to her. "I'm sure it's not as bad as you're making it sound," she snapped, wiping at the sweat dotting her hairline. She'd forgotten how awful the island humidity was. It felt as if a big, wet elephant were sitting on her chest. Just the act of breathing was a chore. How had she ever lived here without keeling over in a drippy, soggy mess?
"If it were just the taxes, I wouldn't have taken your precious time," Heath said, the caustic note in his voice hard to miss and stinging just a bit. "You knew that Lilah wasn't up to the job," he said, not even trying to hide the accusation in his tone. "She was in way over her head and now "
"So what is it then? What weren't you willing to tell me about Pops unless I came? Lilah wouldn't say, either." Well, Lilah wasn't exactly speaking to her at the moment, not after Lora berated her within an inch of her life for not handling things herself, which may have been a little harsh but she'd deal with that later.
Heath's mouth firmed and he seemed to falter under her direct query. His obvious hesitation gave her an odd, apprehensive tremor in the pit of her stomach. What could be so bad that Heath didn't just spit it out? Oh, God, not cancer Her fear conjured images of her mother and grandmother dying and she felt sick. "Just tell me," she said, the words tight in her mouth but it was becoming hard to breathe.
He shook his head, waving away her fear. "On the outside, Pops is healthy as a horse," he said, confusing her. He shot a quick assessing gaze her way, then finished with a sigh. "It's not his body that's failing. It's his mind. Pops has early onset dementia. He's losing it and I don't mean in the general sense that he's becoming forgetful at times. He Well, you need to see for yourself."
A chill washed over Lora. Pops? Dementia? Her grandfather was the only father figure she and her sisters had since their biological father decided he couldn't handle being a daddy any longer and split, which was followed with impeccable timing by the death of their mother from cancer. It'd been a double tap of anguish with a nice sledgehammer slam just for fun. There were parts of her childhood she'd purposefully blocked out. Her parents splitting, both voluntarily and involuntarily, was a particularly painful topic that she rarely visited.
Lora didn't dare risk a glance at Heath. She didn't want to see his condemnation. She heard it in his voice plain as day. If it was true that her grandfather was slowly losing his mind and she'd left Lilah and Heath to deal with it, she could understand why they were so pissed at her. Wouldn't she feel the same? Yes. A small part of her wanted to rail at fate for being so cruel to her family. Wasn't it enough that cancer had struck twice? Now they had dementia to deal with, too?
She swallowed the lump that rose in her throat but she refused to let Heath know he'd struck a nerve. She made a living by concealing the tiniest flicker of unease or distress and she'd found a certain usefulness for the ability in her personal life. She focused on the road. "Last time I checked you were a handyman, not a doctor. Let's not jump to conclusions."
"You're a piece of work," he muttered, throwing the car into the next gear without finesse, causing her to jerk against the seat belt. "Chicago is the perfect place for someone like you."
"Is that so? And why is that?" she asked without a trace of humor to soften the sarcasm in her tone.
"Because all the snow and ice is perfect for the frigid bitch you've become. I can't believe you and Jack are related and, frankly, if anyone else's name had been on the legal documents I would've gladly given them the information. As it is, you're the one listed as the next of kin in the event something were to happen to Jack, and obviously Lilah isn't cut out for this kind of stuff. I didn't have much of a choice," he added with a dark scowl.