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Note to self: never prepay your honeymoon.
Ally Smith sat on the beach under a tattered umbrella nursing her watered-down piña colada and wondered why that caveat didn't make it into any of the wedding planning books. Probably because no one plans a wedding with escape clauses.
She should write her own book for brides-to-be. She'd definitely include a chapter on cancellation clauses, the folly of prepayments and how to mitigate the financial toll of lost deposits. Oh, and some fun stuff like how to build a nifty bonfire with three hundred monogrammed cocktail napkins.
And a chapter on how to know you're marrying the wrong guy.
She dug her toes into the warm sand and watched the sailboats bobbing on the waves as they made their way into and out of the marina just down the beach. Why hadn't she pushed harder for the trip to Australia where she could at least be snow skiing right now? June in Oz was supposed to be fabulous. Why had she let Gerry talk her into this when they lived just twenty minutes from the Georgia coast—a popular honeymoon destination in and of itself? She could go to the beach anytime she wanted. She didn't have to fly to the Caribbean for sand and surf.
Because I was too happy to finally be engaged.
In the four months since she'd happened home at lunch-time to find Gerry having a nooner with their travel agent— which explained why he'd insisted they use her to begin with, and probably also why Ally was booked into the worst hotel on the island—she'd come to realize some hard truths: she'd picked good looks and charm over substance, and she should have dumped Gerry-the-sorry-bastard four years ago.
Now, two days into her "honeymoon," she was bored out of her mind.
"Is this seat taken, pretty lady?"
The low, gruff voice pulled her out of her reverie. Shading her eyes from the late-afternoon sun, she turned to find the source of the question.
And nearly spit out her drink as she ended up eye level with the smallest swimming trunks ever made, straining over a body they were never designed to grace.
In any decent movie, the voice would have belonged to a handsome tennis pro with a tan and bulging biceps. This was her life, though, so while her admirer did sport a tan, his body bulged in all the wrong places—like over the waistband of his Speedo. Ally bit her lip as her eyes moved upward, past the gold chain tangling in his furry chest hair to the three-day salt-and-pepper stubble, the ridiculous iridescent blue wraparound sunglasses and wide-brimmed Panama hat.
She was being hit on by a bad cliché. This horrible vacation experience was now complete. "I'm sorry, what?"
"You look like you could use some company. How about we have a drink and get to know each other?" Without waiting for her response, the man lowered himself into the adjacent lounge chair, took off his sunglasses and stuck out his hand. "Fred Alexander."
With no excuse to deny the tenets of her proper Southern upbringing, she shook the proffered hand. The palm was damp. He held her hand a bit too long, and she fought the urge to wipe it on her towel once released. "I'm Ally. It's nice to meet you, but—"
"A pretty girl like you shouldn't be sitting out here alone. No telling who might come along to bother you." He winked at her.
Yeah, no telling. There were plenty of people on the beach. Why had Fred picked her to hit on? Because you are a loser magnet. First Gerry and now this guy. At least Gerry had been good-looking, a fact he'd never let her forget.
She had to escape. She should have just stayed in Savannah. Oh, but no, she'd been steamed over the loss of so many other down payments that she wasn't going to let a vacation go to waste, too. It had sounded so practical at the time. She knew better now.
"I was just about to go in, actually. I think I'm getting too much sun." She reached for her bag and slid to the edge of her seat, ready to beat a hasty retreat. Fred placed his hand on her wrist and stroked his thumb over the skin. Ally gently moved away from his hand and out of arm's reach as she stood.
"I'd be happy to rub some lotion on you." Fred's eyes roamed slowly down her body and back up to her cleavage, making her skin crawl. With a slow shake of his head, he said, "That's a crime, Ally. A girl with a body like yours should be showing it off in a bikini." She'd never been so glad to be wearing a one-piece in her entire life, and as he licked his lips in appreciation, Ally felt as if she needed a hot shower.
"Thanks, but no. I'm—"
"Dinner, then. I saw you checking in alone yesterday and figured you'd be looking for some company."
Ugh. She took another step back. "Um, well, I…"
"I'm staying here, too. Suite sixteen. It must be fate that we're both here on our own…"
It was in her nature to make people happy, but this crossed the line. There was "nice" and then there was "stupid." She'd made enough stupid decisions—no more.
"Enjoy the beach." She could hear Fred muttering something about her attitude as she left. Whatever. What little enjoyment she'd had just relaxing to the sounds of the surf evaporated in the wake of being hit on by some creepy guy old enough to be her father.
Maybe the TV in her room had a movie channel. She could take that shower, order room service for dinner—if they even did room service in this hotel; she hadn't seen a menu when she'd checked in last night—and plan to do some sightseeing on the island tomorrow.
This was the most pathetic vacation ever. Or was she the pathetic one?
The lobby was mostly empty as she waited behind a couple checking in. More honeymooners. The young woman carried a bouquet, and the red-haired man at her side was having a hard time checking in since he couldn't seem to keep his hands off his new bride. They seemed happy, and Ally silently wished them well as they headed for their room.
"I'd like to see about ordering room service to suite twenty-six."
The hotel clerk shook his head. "Sorry. No room service. Just the restaurant."
Lovely. She thought she'd hit her low spot on this vacation with the arrival of Fred, but obviously there was much more awaiting her over the next few days. Like eating every meal alone.
"But I do have a message for you, Mrs. Hogsten."
"Miss Smith," she corrected automatically. Another good reason not to marry Gerry. She'd never liked the sound of his last name.
The clerk's eyebrows shot up in surprise, and he rechecked his computer screen.
Ally sighed. "I know. It says Hogsten, party of two, but it's just me. Miss Smith."
She saw the flash of pity in the man's eyes as the implications of staying alone in a honeymoon suite registered.
No sense trying to explain she wasn't the least bit sorry to still be single. "The message?"
He handed her a folded piece of paper. "Enjoy your evening."
"Thanks." She flipped it open for a quick peek as she walked back to her room. Her mother's number.
Good Lord, what now? She'd hadn't been gone that long, and she'd made sure all of them were squared away before she left.
Kicking the door closed with her foot, she dug in her bag for her cell phone, only to flip it open and remember she didn't have service here.
The minifridge in her room was well stocked after her trip to the local liquor store last night, and the bottle of Chardonnay called her name. She poured a glass and took a drink before dialing the long string of numbers to call home.
"Oh, honey, it's so good to hear from you!"
Her mom sounded as though the phone call was a nice surprise, which meant nothing was seriously wrong on the home front. That didn't mean she was off the hook, though. Ally drained her glass before she spoke. Instead of refilling it, she took the bottle with her over to the bed and sat down. She might need the whole thing. "You asked me to call. Is everything okay?"
"Oh, we're fine. I guess."
"Well, other than the fact your sister is going to put me in an early grave with her dramatics…"
Oh, goody. Ring the bell for Mom versus Erin, round 427. Did she really need to be discussing this long-distance?
Breathe in. Breathe out. How typical. Could her family not function for at least a few days without her there? She'd like to think that if she'd really been on her honeymoon, no one would expect her to deal with this. Who was she kidding? If her family tree were any nuttier, squirrels would start showing up at Thanksgiving dinner. She loved them, but not a one had an ounce of sense.
Maybe she'd been adopted. Switched at birth. Or had she been intentionally placed in this family simply to keep them all from spiraling out of control with their dramatics? It sucked to be the grown-up all the time.
When her mom finally paused for a breath, Ally started her peacekeeping duties. "Mom, it is her wedding—"
"Maybe so, but you'd think she'd understand how important this is."
It was a wedding, not the trials of Hercules, for goodness' sake. But it took another half hour for Ally to convince her mom of that, albeit temporarily. She banged her head against the headboard gently in frustration.
"And, Ally, honey, the state sent a notice about the property taxes."
"I took care of that before I left."
"So what do I do with the notice?"
"Just set it aside, and I'll get it when I come home. I'll double-check with the state to be sure, but I wrote the check along with your other first-of-the-month bills."
"Oh, then that's good."
The small headache her mother always caused after more than twenty minutes throbbed behind her eyes. "Mom, I'm going to go find some dinner now. I'll see you when I get home, and we'll sort everything out then."
"Of course, honey. Have a wonderful time. We'll talk soon."
With the phone safely back in its cradle, Ally leaned back against the headboard of the king-size bed and hugged the bottle of wine to her chest. I'm so glad I don't have cell service here.
Out her bedroom window, she could see the sun setting over the water. Dammit, she was on vacation. Granted, it was the strangest vacation ever, but it was her vacation nonetheless. She was alone in a honeymoon suite, in a place she hadn't wanted to come to, and staying at a low-end hotel because her travel agent was both spiteful and incompetent. And she'd paid top dollar for this disaster. It wasn't fair, and it wasn't right, but there were worse places to be. She should make the most of it.
She'd earned a vacation, by God. She'd put up with Gerry for three years longer than she should have in the hopes he'd shape up and be worth the investment of her time and energy. Instead she'd carried him—financially and emotionally—for all that time. Planning and then canceling the wedding had been stressful, and when she added in her family's constant stream of crises, it was no wonder she'd had a headache for as long as she could remember.
She needed a vacation. She deserved it. She would take advantage of it.
After one last long drink straight from the bottle, Ally reached for the phone again. By the time the desk clerk answered, she had a whole new perspective.
"This is Ally Smith in suite twenty-six. No, not Mrs. Hogsten. Miss Smith. I'd like your help in finding a restaurant that delivers and a masseuse who can come to my room tonight for an hour-long massage. And I need to know where the closest spa is. I'd like to get a facial and a manicure tomorrow. Oh, and I'd really love some fresh flowers in here."
"She's a real beauty."
Chris Wells nodded, even if he didn't fully agree. She needed quite a bit of work, but she still held great promise.
He'd wanted to have a closer look before he'd know if the problems were just cosmetic or if they ran deeper.
"She's fast, too," the man continued, pride evident in his voice, "but responsive and easy to handle."
"Her reputation certainly precedes her." Chris stepped onto the weathered wooden deck. At just over forty feet, the yacht was compact, yet elegant in design. Sadly, though, she had suffered from too many years of poor maintenance—the cleats were spotted with rust, the leather cover of the tiller was cracked and peeling. Twenty-five years ago, he'd watched his father skipper the Circe to her first win, and he'd known then that he'd race one day, too. In a way, he owed much of his career to the boat rocking gently under his feet.
The Circe was long retired, her heavy wooden hull no match for the newer, lighter racing yachts made of aluminum or fiberglass. But he wasn't here to buy a new racer—he was here to buy a piece of history and make her into a queen.
His crew had called him crazy when he'd told them he was taking time off to go to Tortola to see Circe, but Jack and Derrick would come around eventually. And he wouldn't trust anyone but them to refit her properly.
"Is she seaworthy? Any reason why she wouldn't make it home?"
Ricardo, the boat's current owner, smiled, obviously pleased with Chris's interest. "A few minor things you might want to look at…"
Chris listened to Ricardo's list with half an ear as he fished his cell phone out of his pocket and called home. "Jack. Send Victor and Mickey down here on the next flight. She needs a little work, but I should be ready to start for home by the end of the week."
"So you're going through with it?"
"Definitely." He was handing the check to a bug-eyed Ricardo even as he spoke.
"Why don't you come on home and let the guys bring her back instead?"
Chris took a deep breath as a feeling of rightness filled him. He was meant to own the Circe. "Because she's mine now."
"But we need you here. Paperwork is already piling up on your desk. And, if you're really going to break a record in October, we don't have time for you to putter around the Caribbean."
"I have an assistant to handle the paperwork. Grace can call if she needs anything. October is still a long ways off, and the Dagny is ahead of schedule. There's nothing for me to do but admire your handiwork."