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By Denise Hunter
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2009 Denise Hunter
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSabrina Kincaid heard the jingle of the café's glass door opening and glanced at the clock above the workstation: 7:12 on the dot.
She grabbed the fresh pot, turned toward the tables crowding the Cobblestone Café, then headed straight to his table—might as well get it over with—table seven, a two-topper near the front.
He would be seated against the beadboard wall, facing the kitchen, unfortunately. He would be wearing a blue "Cap'n Tucker's Water Taxi" cap, a light-colored T-shirt, and a crooked grin. She would offer him coffee, he would accept, then he would spread open The Inquirer and Mirror and take thirty minutes on all twelve articles while she waited on other customers, her bony knees knocking together like bamboo wind chimes.
"Evan," Gordon called from the kitchen. "Table twelve needs to be bussed."
Evan's blond ponytail flipped over his shoulder as he turned and wiped his hands on his stained brown apron. "Right, dude."
Sabrina stopped a foot from the scarred maple table, avoiding eye contact, looking only at the fat rim of the ivory mug as he slid it toward her.
How many words had they exchanged in the year he'd been coming to the café? One hundred? Two hundred? Couldn't be much more than that.
As always her expression was free of emotion, though a powerful hurricane brewed inside. It was a skill she'd learned early, perfected well, and if that had earned her the title of Ice Princess, so be it.
"Morning, Sabrina." Tucker's deep voice was raspy. And, as usual, he cleared his throat after the greeting.
Was she the first person he spoke to each morning? The thought made her hand tremble. A stream of hot coffee flowed over the cup's rim and onto Tucker's thumb. He jerked his hand back.
Idiot! Her first spill in months and it had to be Tucker. And with hot coffee.
"I'm sorry. Let me fetch a towel." She turned toward the kitchen, heat flooding her face.
He stopped her with his other hand. "I'm fine." He wiped his thumb on a napkin and held it out. "See?"
Sabrina made the mistake of meeting his eyes. Oh, yes. She saw, all right. Under the brim of his cap, his blue eyes contrasted with his summer-brown skin. One strand of dark hair curled like a backward ITLITL, nearly tangling with his eyelashes. He disliked his curly hair, but hated going to the barber so much that he procrastinated until it was an unruly mop. He wore contacts because he was nearsighted and because glasses would blur under the sprays of water as he guided his boat.
He was still looking at her.
She was still looking at him.
Look away. Say something. "Anything else?"
"A smile?" Tucker's own grin lifted the tiny scar near the corner of his mouth—a souvenir from the time his twin sister dared him to jump from his second-story bedroom window when he was nine.
But Sabrina wasn't supposed to know about that. She pulled at the tip of her ponytail with her empty hand.
"Give it up, McCabe." Behind her, Oliver Franklin's voice was a lifeline. "Top me off, Sabrina?"
She turned, grateful for the distraction, and filled his cup. The sand-colored coffee darkened to caramel as she poured, the rich smell of the brew drifting upward on wings of steam.
"Not feeling particularly efficacious this morning?" Oliver tilted his round head, his hairline receding another inch as he hiked his bushy gray brows. He gripped the mug with fat hands calloused from garden tools.
"I'm as efficient as always, just a bit clumsy today." Sabrina took his egg-streaked plate and stacked a smaller plate on top.
"Dagnabit, Sabrina," he said as she walked away. "Is there a word you don't know?"
She deposited the plates into Evan's tub, set the pot on the warmer, and loaded a tray with table five's food. Was Tucker watching her? She always felt like he was, which was ludicrous. Still, it made her stand a little straighter, smile a little more—at other customers. He was good for her tips.
You're just some server he toys with. Nothing else.
When she turned with the loaded tray, her eyes pulled toward him. Don't look. Just walk. Look at the sun streaming through the glass front. Look at the family at table four, the toddler, crouched in the wooden high chair, letting loose a wail that could be heard clear down at the wharf. Sabrina pulled a packet of crackers from her apron pocket and slipped it to the mom as she passed.
When she reached table five, she served the food, then tucked the tray under her arm. "Anything else?"
"Tabasco sauce?" the mother asked. "Oh, and he needs a refill of juice." She handed Sabrina her son's cup. The overhead lights sparkled off a huge diamond.
"Be right back." She had to pass Tucker's table on the way.
He turned as she passed, his sandaled foot sliding into her path as he shifted into the aisle. "Sabrina. I know you're busy, but I was wondering if we could chat a minute."
The request stopped her cold. Sabrina didn't chat with customers. Char chatted with customers, even the rich ones. Evan chatted with customers too. But not Sabrina, and certainly not with Tucker. It broke her unspoken line between customer and server, and that line was the only thing separating her from disaster."I—I have too many tables."
"Miss, some decaf, please?" An elderly tourist, seated at the table behind Oliver's, corroborated her excuse.
"Of course." Sabrina went to fill the cup with juice, grabbed a bottle of Tabasco and the decaf pot. What could Tucker want? As far as he knew, she was only a server at the café.
Maybe he knows.
But he couldn't. She'd been so careful.
Yeah, so careful she'd lost her heart to the man.
I have not lost my heart. He's just a friend. A dear friend who would be lost forever with one little slip of the tongue. The relationship was hanging by a thread and she knew it.
Sabrina dropped off the two items for the family, then poured the decaf. She'd no sooner turned the carafe upright when Tucker stopped her again. His cup was empty. "I'll be right back with the regular," she said, even though she knew it wasn't coffee he wanted. It was a feeble stall that would buy her thirty seconds.
She stopped on the way to the coffee station and took the orders of a middle-aged couple, buying herself a few more minutes. Maybe if she took too long, Tucker would leave.
Sabrina put the order on the wheel and reviewed the lunch special with Gordon. She filled glasses with orange juice and ice water, set them on a tray, and delivered them to the table. In her peripheral vision, she saw Tucker waiting, his arms folded across the newspaper, rooted like a hundred-year-old oak tree. He wasn't going anywhere.
Reluctantly, she retrieved the coffeepot and returned to his table, filling his cup carefully.
"How about after work?" he asked, picking up the conversation as if it were only seconds later.
What did he want? Maybe he wanted to ask her out. The thought filled her, expanding her lungs like an inflated balloon. Then she felt the prick of jealousy. Pop.
She nearly rolled her eyes at the irony. "I have to be somewhere."
Behind her, Oliver chuckled, and Tucker shot him a look. He gave the brim of his hat a sharp tug.
Sabrina walked away. Her second job had flexible hours, but he didn't know that. Besides, Renny was expecting her. She had to find the perfect poison, and that would take a while.
The bell at the kitchen window dinged.
She was at the coffee station before she realized Tucker had followed her. His large frame made her feel small and cornered. He'd never gone farther than his table, and the fact that he did so today confirmed her suspicion that he wanted something more than idle conversation. And he wasn't giving up.
The rubber heels of her shoes brushed the wall behind her, and she straightened, meeting his gaze.
"Just a few minutes, all I'm asking."
His nearness sucked the moisture from her mouth and the thoughts from her head. She smoothed her thick hair toward her low ponytail. Say something. Anything.
"All right," she blurted. Anything but that.
His mouth relaxed, and the relief in his blue eyes made something twist in the pit of her stomach. "Thank you. I won't take much of your time. I'll meet you out front if it's all right with you? There's a bench down the way ..."
She nodded, all at once relieved and disappointed they were meeting someplace so public. What is wrong with you?
His lips quivered at the corners, and the faint lines around his eyes relaxed. He touched his fingers to the brim of his hat and retreated.
"What was that all about?" Char was a veteran waitress at the diner. Though not as efficient as Sabrina, her affability scored points with the regulars. "He finally making his move?" Her blonde hair had kinked into poodle curls, forecasting the day's weather.
Sabrina turned and put two slices of bread in the toaster. "Don't be ridiculous."
The kitchen bell dinged twice.
"Char, you want to stop your gabbing and come get this food before it turns to rubber?" Gordon called through the window, wiping the back of his hand across his fat jowls.
"Don't say I didn't tell you so." Char winked a wide green eye, the mascara-thickened lashes fluttering.
Sabrina watched her walk away, wondering if Char was right, hoping she was, then hoping she wasn't. She gave her head a sharp shake. She had five hours and four minutes to get her act together, and suddenly that didn't seem like nearly enough time.
I could really use some help here, God. Can you hear me?
But no, why would he? There's been nothing but silence on that front in months.
* * *
Sabrina threw her apron in the laundry bin and pulled her bag from the cubby in the break room. At least, Gordon called it a break room. It was more of a large closet with a table, two chairs, and enough wattage to light up Main Street at midnight.
The five hours since Tucker left had dragged by. She told herself she was dreading the meeting, but if that were the case, time would've raced, wouldn't it?
She slid the purse onto her shoulder and met her own gaze in the black-speckled mirror Char had perched on a shelf. Bending her knees so she could see her face, Sabrina pulled the rubber band, loosening the ponytail, and freeing her brown hair. She raked her fingers through it, wishing for smooth, glossy strands like her cousins', but her fingers worked fruitlessly.
Giving up on her hair, she rubbed at a fleck of mystery food that clung to her temple. Maybe she should splash water on her face. She stood back and surveyed her reflection. Her brown eyes gazed back, her best feature, framed with dark lashes thick enough to make Char jealous.
What could Tucker want with her? Her respiration quickened at the thought of him. What if he knew? What if she'd slipped and said something that would ruin everything?
Char's words tweaked at the corners of her mind. "He's finally making his move ..."
Oh, for Pete's sake. He is not making his move. Sabrina grabbed the rubber band from her pocket and gathered her hair. He owns a company. Maybe he's hosting some event and wants you to serve.
"Better not keep him waiting." Char's voice sounded from the doorway.
Her eyes tilted coyly, and Sabrina felt heat flooding her face at being caught primping in the mirror like some pathetic adolescent. How many times had she found Jaylee and Arielle artfully applying makeup in front of their mirrors? Of course, it had paid off for her cousins.
"Oh, no, you don't." Char reached behind Sabrina and freed her hair.
"What are you doing?"
"Wear it down. Why do you always wear this infernal ponytail?"
Sabrina shifted as Char fluffed her hair. "We work in the restaurant industry."
"If I had hair like yours ..." Char leaned back. "There. Much better. No street clothes, huh? Well, I guess your uniform will have to do. At least you have nice legs. Now, go, before he thinks you chickened out."
She squeezed past Char.
"Good luck, honey."
Luck. She'd need it if she hoped to hold it together. She exited the café, blinking against May's bright sunlight. Her feet navigated the bumpy brick sidewalk, and she fell in step behind a cluster of tourists. If only she could squeeze into the middle and sneak past Tucker.
The bench was only three stores from the diner and, over the bobbing heads, she saw Tucker sitting there, elbows propped on his knees, staring across the street. There was no backing out now.
When she approached the bench, he stood. The group of tourists deserted her, leaving them alone on the sidewalk. In the distance, the ferry horn sounded, announcing its arrival at the wharf.
"Hi. Thanks for meeting me." He gestured toward the bench.
She lowered herself onto the wooden seat and set her bag in her lap. "You're welcome." Act normal. This is nothing out of the ordinary. You are a server and he is your customer. Nothing more.
"I know you have another job to get to, so I'll make this quick."
Quick would be good. Merciful. She gripped the leather handles of her purse and pulled it into her stomach.
"I was hoping to hire you for a project."
A curious mixture of relief and disappointment flooded Sabrina. She told herself it was relief that tightened her stomach. Now it's just a matter of listening to his proposal and saying no. I can say no, then go home. She envisioned the cozy loft above Renny's garage as if she could beam herself there. She pictured her favorite quilt spread across the bed, the built-in shelves brimming with novels, the antique desk in the corner where her computer awaited her.
"Go on." Sabrina crossed her legs. A pedestrian passed with a golden retriever on a pink leash, and she shifted to make room. The movement left her facing Tucker. He had one elbow propped on the back of the bench, his hand curling dangerously close to her shoulder.
"Well, the idea came to me when Renny Hannigan contacted me about a trip to Tuckernuck Island. We started talking about her stories, and she told me you're the mastermind behind the mysteries she writes—"
Sabrina shook her head. "I just do a little research for her."
"You're being modest. Renny told me about the twists you come up with. She raved that the stories are unsolvable because you find fresh angles and innovative ways to confuse the reader."
If Sabrina were that good, Renny's stories would be published by now. It wasn't lack of writing skill that kept her from publication. But what did her work for Renny have to do with Tucker?
"The things Renny said about you, combined with what I already know, made me think you were the perfect person for this project."
"I already have two jobs. Between the diner and my research for Renny ..." Her words petered out as he held up his hand.
"I know you're busy right now, but Renny said in another couple weeks you'd be finished with the book she's writing now, and that she'd need several weeks of editing time before she'd need your help again with her next story."
Renny. Sabrina clenched her teeth together. Why'd the woman have to go and tell Tucker that? Maybe she should close the door on this conversation before it went any further.
"I don't think—I was looking forward to the time off when I finished the research. I think it would be best if—"
"Just hear me out, okay? If you don't want to do it, that's fine."
His hand spread across his thigh. He had big hands with long fingers that tapered down to squared-off fingertips. He liked working with them. He carved wooden animals in his spare time and gave them as gifts to his family. He'd once wanted to give her a seagull he'd carved, but she'd refused the gift.
She cleared her throat and watched a family of four squeeze into a taxi across the street, the brother and sister fighting over the middle seat. "I'm listening." Please just say what you have to say and let me go home where my heart rate can return to normal.
"Well, as I was saying, I have this project I need help with."
His voice was so deep it seemed to rumble through her body. Practice saying no. It's not my cup of tea. I don't have time, but thank you for the offer.
"It's kind of embarrassing, but here goes."
Now he had her attention.
"There's this girl—this woman, I mean."
Sabrina thought her heart was already in her toes, but it didn't quite hit the tips until then. She reached for the end of her ponytail but found her hair loose.
Excerpted from Seaside Letters by Denise Hunter Copyright © 2009 by Denise Hunter. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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