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Starr Cimino vowed to invest in new pjs, even though her love life was currently on life support.
Facing her arch nemesis in a threadbare Beach-combers Restaurant T-shirt before she'd even had her morning coffee just sucked. So much for armor to gird her five-foot stature.
Her steely spine and some wit would have to suffice. She braced her back and stood down the strong and vital force filling the door of her seaside carriage house in Charleston, South Carolina.
She didn't doubt her ability to deck anyone who threatened her. She'd learned young to take control of her life after all her crook parents had forced her to endure. But it just wasn't cool to take out a seventy-eight-year-old lady in a housedress. The mother of the man to whom she'd given her heart and virginity.
At least she could reclaim her heart.
Swiping the sandy sleep from her eyes, Starr forced a smile taught to her by her foster mother, "Aunt" Libby. "What can I do for you, Mrs. Hamilton-Reis?"
Other than toss some blue food coloring into her fish pond so the old bat's prize guppies would look more like a certain current cartoon fish. Okay, so Aunt Libby's training hadn't totally saturated Starr's consci-ence as a teen.
Grudges. Man they hurt the soul and she really should get over it, but this lady had treated her worse than the scum on her fish pond for right around seven-teen years.
And God forbid Starr should date the woman's precious heir.
So Starr and David had met behind sand dunes and shimmied up the rose terrace to climb into his bedroom window during their teenage romance that had swelled and broken her heart in one tumultuous year.
"What do I want?" Alice Hamilton-Reis's voice rose and fellalong with the rush of the waves along the shore. "I want your relatives to move their RVs out of my neighbor's view."
Her family? Here?
Prickles spread over her as she looked around and found that, yes, there were three RVs parked right on the grass between the Hamilton-Reis's historical plantation house and Starr's carriage house. The same RVs she'd ridden in before luck and an efficient social worker had intervened.
She shoved her hands through her snarled mess of hair, as if that might somehow restore order to her rapidly tangling world. No luck. In fact, the worst luck sauntered into view with broad shoulders and serious temptation.
David. Her attention skipped off those RVs pronto. He took the lengthy porch steps of his family's Southern antebellum mansion with the same confident strides he'd possessed even as a lanky teenager who'd sent her pulse skyrocketing. David made clothes look good, no question. He wore formal dark pants with loose hipped ease, a crisp white shirt contrasting against his jet-black hair and a tan that attested to time spent in the sun.
Her heart rate still doubled, but for another reason.Yes. Because of their history and how he'd so deeply bruised her tender feelings over ten years ago with his all-or-nothing ultimatums. He wanted her to give over her hard won control of her life, and heaven help her, he'd once truly tempted her. And when she'd seen him again a year ago, her willpower had been in the negative numbers. They'd landed in bed together in seconds flat. Then they'd found their clothes again, he'd stuck to his same, unflinch-ing party linepick up and follow him around the world, leave behind the only home she'd ever known. His way.
Not a chance.
She didn't want to think overlong on the fact that she hadn't been with anyone since thenthus her crummy lingerie and love life gasping for breath. She would tingling to life again.
Lord knew she had enough to think about dealing with her biological parents showing updon't look, don't look, don't look at those RVs yetand David's perfect-lineage mama staring her down.
David stopped on the bottom step and yet still he stood around the same height as the women on the porch, darn him. "Mother, you shouldn't be outside in the morning damp air." A hand towel draped around his neck attested his recent shave, yet he still looked totally calm and col-lected even though he'd obviously rushed out after his mother. "Your doctor said for you to keep your feet up until the new blood pressure medicine takes effect."
Great. She had to be nice to the old bat or she ran the risk of David's mother stroking out on the carriage house stairs.
Aunt Libby's voice echoed through her head. Man-ners. Manners.
Jeez. She searched for something to say. Seagulls and cranes swooped for breakfast along the shore. Distant church bells from downtown Charleston chimed seven.
Starr tugged at the T-shirt and pretended she wore her favorite form-fitting jean dress and wedge heels with ties that wrapped around her ankles. She was good at the princess pretense. She'd perfected it as a gypsy child on the road. She refused to let herself be ashamed for things they had donethe things they'd insisted she do. She reminded herself she was a businesswoman now. She and her two foster sisters had turned Aunt Libby's mansion into Beachcombersan up-and-coming res-taurant.
She sidestepped cranky Alice and faced her old lover who looked too darn good for this early in the morning, his dark hair glistening with water from a recent shower. Saints save her from her vivid imagination. "Hello, David, your mother and I were just discussing a better parking place for my, uh, " She couldn't bring herself to use the word family.
They'd given up that right when they'd left her in the foster child system for years on end. Doing nothing to bring her home, yet doing nothing to cut her loose for adoption.
Mrs. Hamilton-Reis turned to cling to her son's arm as if suddenly weak. "We need to get those recreational vehicles situated elsewhere. Surely it would be better for her business if they were over there on the beach rather than in plain view of her restaurant."
Of course his mother always put a better spin on things when he was around, not that she could really think much about his dear old ma when he was moving closer by the second and saturating Starr's senses.
Now that he was closer, she could see the monogram on the hand towel draped around his neck. The tangy scent of his aftershave wafted up the steps to tease her senses along with the salty scent of the ocean breeze. All of which stole her self-control much like waves stole sand from the shore.
And darn him, the way his eyes heated over her, it didn't matter what she wore.
Starr turned to Mrs. Hamilton-Reis, a hefty reminder of why she needed to keep her distance from David. "I'll talk to them about parking closer to the beach where the lawn's already patchy."
David's mother surveyed the lawn. "That'll be much better for business, my dear." Alice patted her son's arm. "Thank you for worrying about me. I'll be having breakfast on the veranda with my feet up. It would be lovely if you could join me."
He nodded. "I'll be in shortly."
The woman who'd once never passed up an oppor-tunity to tell Starr she shouldn't hold David back from pursuing his dreams pinched a smile as she started her pivot away. "I'm glad we could work this out, dear."
Starr scrunched her eyes closed with a sigh. Still the tequila sunrise bled through her lids to sparkle through her brain. Or was that all the emotion bubbling through her?
David. Her parents. Alice Hamilton-Reis. All at once. Too much.
She'd forgotten how the woman would speak nicely to her whenever David was actually around. Not that she'd ever been outright mean to Starr, just coolly disapprov-ing until icicles formed in the spiral curls of Starr's hair.
She shook free the insecurities of her youth and opened her eyes. Yep, David was still here and dear old mom was gone. Time to deal. Fast. Before the RV crew woke up and she had her hands more than full of frus-tration, and pain, a little voice whispered.
No. She was an adult, a businesswoman who cur-rently had a hunky, tempting piece of her past standing on her porch. "So, you're back from, wherever it is you traveled this time."
Even though his inheritance enabled him to sit back and never work if he chose, David still served as a civilian employee for the air force's OSIOffice of Special Investigations. He traveled the globe, slipping in and out of countries often undetected, just as he'd always planned during their teenage years, dreaming on a beach blanket under the stars. Even back then he'd wanted her to come along when the mission permitted and even then her root-seeking heart had quaked.
Taking the rest of the steps to join her, he stuffed his hands in his pockets and hitched one shoulder against her porch post, close. So close. "I was in Greece work-ing on a NATO counterterrorism task force."
"Wow, you can actually share what you're doing. That's rare." How many times had she wondered? Too many for her comfort level. "It sounds really awesome."
He stayed modestlyor covertlyquiet. The distant sound of waves and the breakfast crowd heading into the restaurant next door faded away as she couldn't help but focus on him.
Her babbling mouth ran away from her. "I imagine this is one of those missions you always talked about me coming along with you."
David cocked a brow, his head tipping to the side even if he still stayed quiet. Embarrassment heated through her with a need to fill the silence. God, he could still undo her thoughts as easily as he'd once undone her bikini top.
"But we both know that's old ground. Like I really could have picked up and gone to Greece now anyhow. I have a business to run, obligations to my business partners, my sisters. Still it sounds really exotic."
Her foster sister Claire would have relished experi-encing the exotic foods. They served mostly down-home Southern cuisine at Beachcombers, but Claire still enjoyed adding something a little different every now and again.
Once upon a dream, Starr had contemplated taking a trip or two to study the great artists of the world. Except, bottom line, she didn't want to spend her entire life on the road. She'd done enough of that for the first ten years of her life with her gypsy family.
Now, she thrived on the security of waking up to the same gorgeous ocean sunrise every morning. Her little carriage house behind Beachcombers might not be much, but it was hers. A home.