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Every detail of this afternoon's fund-raiser for the Vine Beach Senior Center had been handled well beforehand, leaving Pippa Gallagher with plenty of time to scan the crowd. It appeared that everyone who was anyone in this little slice of Texas beach had accepted the invitation to come and bid on originals and prints of the celebrated artist Pearl.
Because the last children's book Granny had worked on was set on Oahu, Pippa had settled on a party to match. The tropical theme had gone over well, as evidenced by the plethora of citizens dressed in floral attire that made the room look as if it were a neon garden. The addition of palm trees and tropical touches to Granny's otherwise traditional décor gave the oversize reception room an island feel. With the doors thrown open, the sea air and sounds of the waves crashing nearby added to the ambience.
Waitstaff in Hawaiian garb passed through the crowd, offering fruit drinks and appetizers while Don Ho's ukulele music played softly through the sound system. Though Pippa had borrowed the ideas from an oil company executive's retirement party she had planned before she'd left the corporate world, the addition of Granny's paintings and the mayor in the costume of a Hawaiian chief was all Vine Beach. Mayor Murdoch caught her watching and lifted his spear in greeting.
"How you managed to get that man to wear that outfit is beyond me, Pippa."
She turned to see her friend Leah Berry-Owen grinning. "The same way I got Pop's Seafood Shack to provide the sushi."
Leah chuckled. "Pop would have a fit if he knew any fish was leaving his kitchen in a condition other than fried or grilled."
"It's just for the party," Pippa reminded the restaurant's owner. "Unless you're considering putting it on the menu. The guests are certainly enjoying it."
"It does seem to be disappearing." Leah's gaze slid past her to fix on something near the door. "And speaking of disappearing, look who is back in Vine Beach. And at a party, no less."
"What do you mean?" Pippa turned in the direction that her companion indicated but found her view blocked.
"Well, I mean Ryan said he'd been going to Starting Over group for the last couple of months, so technically I knew he was back, but this is the first time I've seen him out socially." Leah paused to address Pippa. "You know about Starting Over, right?"
Pippa nodded. She had indeed heard of the church-sponsored widowers' group and of Leah's husband's history, first as a member and now a mentor.
"His father probably made him go, what with his practically founding the group. Still " She craned her neck to look at the subject of her musings and then returned her attention to Pippa. "I'm just surprised he's here, that's all.
I mean, even though it's been almost two years since Oh, he's coming this way."
"He? Leah, who are you talking about?" Pippa turned around but a broad shoulder kept her from seeing anything. By tipping her head up, she looked directly into the pale green eyes of Logan Burkett. "Oh."
Swallowing hard, she took in high, tanned cheekbones and thick black lashes ringing eyes the color of beach glass. Caramel-colored hair streaked in places by the sun curled at the edge of the collar of his white button-down shirt. Faded jeans and boots gave the impression of a cowboy who had found a luau while looking for a rodeo.
His eyes darted past her as he smiled. "Leah Berry, right?" Logan extended his hand, and Leah shook it.
"Owen, actually. Or rather Berry-Owen. I married Ryan almost a year ago now." Leah's attention flitted to Pippa, her expression exhorting her to say something. Anything.
Seeing Logan Burkett again after all these years shouldn't have given Pippa a swarm of butterflies in her stomach. What was it about the man that made her feel as if she were still that goofy ninth grader with the awkward hairstyle and the complete inability to fit in?
Maybe it was the fact that Logan had changed very little since she'd last seen him. Oh, he was older, definitely sporting muscles that weren't there back in high school. But he was still the good-looking guy with the attitude that told the world he knew it and the oh-so-handsome face that backed it up.
He grinned, and her stomach did a flip. Oh.
Making a face at Pippa's prolonged silence, Leah continued. "Logan, you remember Pippa Gallagher from Vine Beach High, don't you?" Now she smiled directly at her friend. "Pippa, this is Logan Burkett."
Pippa reached to shake his hand and found his grip firm, his hands showing the calluses of a working man. "Welcome back to Vine Beach," she said, an absurd statement considering she herself had just returned a few months ago.
"Well, thank you," he said, "but we've already met."
"No," Pippa said quickly. "I would have remembered." The words, once out, made her cringe.
"B and B Construction?" He shook his head. "Surely you remember the guy you've been emailing with for the past month."
As in Logan Burkett. From ninth grade. The guy whose head probably still bore the scars of her skateboard falling out of the locker above his. The one with whom she had debated everything from ambient lighting and reclaimed floor tiles to low-flush toilets?
"Yes, that's me. Guess I should have spelled out my whole name, but I don't have much patience for emails." A shrug. "Besides, with Vine Beach being such a small town, I figured you knew."
"Wait a minute," Leah said. "You're her "
"Construction foreman on the remodel? Yes, that's me. I've sent her a construction update email every Friday at noon for the past four weeks."
"Punctual," Leah whispered when Logan looked away. "I like that in a man. And, girl, he is cute, too."
Pippa nudged her friend and then gave her a look that, of course, Leah ignored. "Behave," she added as a useless afterthought.
Leah would never behave. Not when it meant giving up a chance to find a man for Pippa. Just because Leah was happily married to the handsome fire marshal, she did not have a license to send Pippa toward the altar.
The music on the sound system switched to a Beach Boys tune, a distraction that lasted only a second. Pippa's eyes narrowed as she thought back over the series of emails regarding the renovation of the building in downtown Vine Beach.
In a previous conversation, Granny had mentioned something about the foreman being a changed man. About finding his faith and going off to build churches in Africa and then losing it over some life tragedy, though the details on both were a bit vague. Perhaps she should have paid more attention.
Had Pippa known Granny was rattling on about Logan Burkett, she certainly would have.
"Pippa?" Leah nudged her. "You're staring," she whispered. "Stop it." And then she turned to Logan. "So, tell me what you're doing for my silent friend here. Rumor around town is the old bakery is going to be Mrs. Gallagher's showplace. I can't even get Pippa to tell me what the plans are."
"There's nothing to tell because the plans haven't been finalized yet," Pippa said as she found her voice.
"About that," Logan said. "I had an idea on the way over that I'd like to talk to you about when you get a chance."
"Before our meeting with Granny?"
A shrug. "Doesn't have to be."
"All right. I'll check my schedule and email you." Again she fought the blush that should have gone with such a ridiculous statement. Until Granny's art gallery opened on the first floor of the building Logan was remodeling, Pippa's schedule was light at best. Except for planning this event, the only actual work she'd done was over at the skate park.
Not that she considered building a ministry where kids could come and in-line skate or skateboard in a safe environment work. That was pure fun.
"It looks like the church will get its senior center after all," Logan said.
Leah grinned. "With Pippa in charge, there was never a doubt. Did you know she was quite successful in her former career as a corporate events planner and fundraiser?"
Pippa felt the heat flood her cheeks. What was wrong with her? This was her building contractor, not a potential prom date.
"Really, Leah," Pippa said. "I doubt Logan is interested in all that."
"I can see my friend doesn't want to brag," Leah said. "And as much as I would love to fill you in on all the details of her illustrious career, as owner of the company chosen to offer sushi to the masses this afternoon, I should circulate and do a little quality control." She eyed Logan before resting her attention on Pippa. "I'll call you later."
Before Pippa could comment, Leah was gone, blending into the crowd. Slowly Pippa met Logan's impassive gaze. Goodness but his eyes were a beautiful shade of green.
"You planned all this?" He nodded toward the crowd. "Impressive."
"It's what I do." Pippa reached out to snatch a festive-looking glass of pineappleorange punch from a passing waiter. "Or rather what I did before Granny decided she needed me closer to home."
"So you're taking care of your grandmother now?"
"Taking care of Granny? No," she said with a chuckle. "Hardly. If anything it's the other way around. I think she was lonely and wanted me home." Her gaze traveled around the room, then settled back on Logan. "She has plenty of friends but I'm all the family she's got here in Vine Beach."
"Well, it's nice that you're back anyway. It takes someone special to put a career on hold for a family member." Logan gave her a direct look. "About high school. I have to ask. Was I awful to you?"
His question caught her off guard. It was almost as if he had changed the subject deliberately. Being ignored in high school wasn't awful if the recipient wished she were invisible. And Logan's claiming back then to hate skateboards was fair since he had been hit enough times as they fell from the locker above.
So she said, "No," as she twirled the drink's pink paper umbrella with her index finger.
"Good." Relief punctuated the statement. "On the way here I saw kids dressed like they were up to no good. Reminded me of myself at that age. Not a good feeling to know I was one of them."
One of them?
Pippa bristled at the statement she'd heard far too often in relation to the kids at the skate park, kids who loved Jesus but looked different. As she once did.
"What do you mean exactly?" she asked carefully.
"I've spent a whole lot of years apologizing for the jerk I was back then."
Not the answer to her question. "I would hate to be judged by what I did in ninth grade. Or what I looked like." The latter was a carefully aimed dig at his assumption that kids' clothing somehow reflected their hearts.
"You look like sunshine right now," he said, then glanced away. "Sorry, that sounded really stupid. Anyway," he added abruptly, "I appreciate the invitation today. I don't usually go to these things, but your grandmother can be persuasive."
The oddest sensation came over Pippa as she watched Logan Burkett's obvious discomfort. Apparently anyone could feel out of place given the right set of circumstances. Even the most popular boy at Vine Beach High School.
The silence between them lengthened until Pippa felt compelled to fill it. "I don't know too many people in Vine Beach anymore. Just a few old friends are still here. Most have moved on."
"Seems that way."
Another conversational dead end. Pippa's eyes swept the crowd and then stalled on the town veterinarian and his wife, both good friends since her teen years. Eric made no pretense of not watching the two of them, although he seemed more concerned with Logan and what he might be doing here. Just as it appeared the veterinarian was headed her way, Granny waylaid him and they began conversing.
Pippa took a sip to fortify her dry mouth only to somehow manage to jab the end of the pink paper umbrella up her nose. With the back of her hand, Pippa swatted it away and saw it spiral out of sight to land beside a spray of orchids and a stack of Granny's books.
Thankfully Logan seemed too preoccupied with the crowd milling around them to notice. Still, heat flamed her cheeks as she took a healthy gulp of juice.
By the time she managed a somewhat neutral expression, Logan was grinning. So he had seen her embarrass herself. If only the ground would just swallow her up.
"This is a beautiful home," Logan offered. "Guessing it'll be hard to move out when the building is finished."
"Actually I don't live here," she said. "Granny would like me to, but that feels a little too much like high school, so I'm renting Leah Owen's beachfront place until the loft is ready."
"Which won't take long," he said quickly.
"Oh, I'm not complaining," Pippa said. "I love living right on the beach. There's just something about seeing the waves crashing and " She shook her head as she waved away the statement. "Anyway, it will be nice to live just around the corner from where I work, so I'll also be happy when I'm settled downtown."
"Around the corner?" Logan gave her a look. "Won't you be living upstairs from where you work?"
"Oh, yes," she quickly corrected. "Once the gallery is open. And it will be nice to live there," Pippa added. "Great architecture will trump sandy feet, I suppose."
"The sand's not that far away. Just a couple of blocks." Logan paused. "So where are you working now?"
"R10:14 Skate Park," she said. "Though I don't actually work there. I'm a volunteer."
"Skate park?" He chuckled. "That's funny."
Pippa stood a little straighter. "What's so funny about it?"
His smile faded. "Well, you don't exactly look like the skateboarding type."
"Now I know you don't remember me from high school. Maybe it was all those times my skateboard fell out of my locker and hit you on your head. I always wondered if you left Vine Beach High the next year because of that."
He gave her a sideways look. Slowly recognition dawned as his gaze swept the length of her. "But you're too."
Oh, this was fun. "I'm too what?" At his stricken expression, Pippa elected to give the poor guy a break. "If you were about to say that I am too pretty to be a skateboarder, then I would have to say thank you. If, however, you were about to say something else, then I retract the thanks."
"You've got me there. And you're welcome."
Logan waved a waiter over and picked up a glass of juice. Before he handed it to Pippa, he removed the yellow umbrella and stuck it in his front pocket.
Their eyes met, Logan looking amused. And then, just barely, one corner of his mouth lifted in the beginning of a grin.
"So, about the building," Pippa said. "Granny has a meeting with you to finalize the details on her calendar, right?"
"She does, though if you want I can send the details to you via email."
"No need," she said. "Our calendars are synched so the appointment reminder will be there when I get to work on Monday. I'm curious, though. Have you found any surprises during the demolition?"
"So far, no. The old building is solid as a rock. It just needs a little work, at least upstairs where you'll be living. Downstairs is going to take more time, but that's something we've already discussed." Logan's expression was tentative. "You said you like your view of the ocean in the rental. That reminds me of the idea I had."
Granny stepped into view, Vine Beach's mayor at her side. Apparently the part of the evening Pippa most dreaded was about to get under way. How many times had she smiled until her jaws ached at these events? Too many to count.
The irony was that while she loved to plan events, she had short tolerance for actually attending them.
"I'm curious," she said to Logan. "What's your idea? Some kind of decorating thing?"