When a hurricane roars through Lacey Armstrong's home on the coast of Barefoot Bay, she decides all that remains in the rubble is opportunity. A new hotel is just what Mimosa Key needs, and Lacey and her teenage daughter are due for a fresh start. And nothing, especially not a hot, younger architect, is going to distract Lacey from finally making her dreams a reality.
Love has already cost Clay Walker everything. And if he's going to have any chance of picking up the pieces of his life, he needs the job as Lacey Armstrong's architect. What's not in the plans is falling for the headstrong beauty. Her vision of the future is more appealing than anything he could have ever drafted for himself. Will Clay's designs on Lacey's heart be more than she can handle, or will she trust him to build something that will last forever?
About the Author
In addition to being a four-time RITA nominee and one-time RITA winner, her books have won the National Reader's Choice Award for best romantic suspense for two consecutive years, as well as the Daphne du Maurier Award, the HOLT Medallion, the Maggie, Booksellers Best, Book Buyers Best, and many others. She resides in Florida. You can learn more at:
Read an Excerpt
Barefoot in the Sand
By St. Claire, Roxanne
ForeverCopyright © 2012 St. Claire, Roxanne
All right reserved.
The kitchen windows shot out like cannons, one right after another, followed by the ear-splitting crash of the antique breakfront nose-diving to the tile floor.
Shit. Granny Dot’s entire Old Country Rose service for twelve was in there.
Lacey pressed against the closet door, eyes closed, body braced, mind reeling. This was it. Everything she owned—a meager baking business, a fifty-year-old hand-me-down house, and a few antiques she’d collected over the years—was about to be destroyed, demolished, and dumped into Barefoot Bay by the hand of Hurricane Damien.
She stole a glance over her shoulder. Everything she owned, but not everything she had. No matter what happened to the house, she had to save her daughter.
“We need to get in the bathtub and under a mattress!” Lacey screamed over the train-like howl of one-hundred-and-ten-mile-per-hour winds.
Ashley cowered deeper into the corner of the closet, a stuffed unicorn clutched in one hand, her cell phone in the other. “I told you we should have evacuated!”
Only a fourteen-year-old would argue at a moment like this. “I can’t get the mattress into the bathroom alone.”
The storm was inside now, tearing the chandelier out of the dining room ceiling, clattering crystal everywhere. Pictures ripped off their hooks with vicious thuds and furniture skated across the oak floor. Overhead, half-century-old roof trusses moaned in a last-ditch effort to cling to the eaves.
They had minutes left.
“We have to hurry, Ash. On the count of—”
“I’m not leaving here,” Ashley cried. “I’m too scared. I’m not going out there.”
Lacey corralled every last shred of control. “We are. Together.”
“We’ll die out there, Mom!”
“No, but we’ll die in here.” At Ashley’s wail, Lacey kneeled in front of her, sacrificing precious seconds. “Honey, I’ve lived on this island my whole life and this isn’t the first hurricane.” Just the worst. “We have to get in the tub and under the mattress. Now.”
Taking a firm grip, she pulled Ashley to her feet, the cell-phone screen spotlighting a tear-stained face. God, Lacey wanted to tumble into Ashley’s nest of hastily grabbed treasures and cry with her daughter.
But then she’d die with her daughter.
Ashley bunched the unicorn under her chin. “How could those weather people be so wrong?”
Good damn question. All day long, and into the night, the storm had been headed north to the Panhandle, not expected to do more than bring heavy rain and wind to the west coast of Florida. Until a few hours ago, when Hurricane Damien had jumped from a cat-three to a cat-four and veered to the east, making a much closer pass to the barrier island of Mimosa Key.
In the space of hours, ten thousand residents, including Lacey and Ashley, had been forced to make a rapid run-or-hide decision. A few tourists managed to haul butt over the causeway to the mainland, but most of the hurricane-experienced islanders were looking for mattress cover and porcelain protection about now. And praying. Hard.
Lacey cupped her hands on Ashley’s cheeks. “We have to do this, Ashley. We can’t panic, okay?”
Ashley nodded over and over again. “Okay, Mom. Okay.”
“On the count of three. One, two—”
Three was drowned out by the gut-wrenching sound of the carport roof tearing away.
Lacey pushed open the closet door. Her bedroom was pitch black, but she moved on instinct, grateful the storm hadn’t breached these walls yet.
“Get around to the other side of the bed,” she ordered, already throwing back the comforter, searching wildly for a grip. “I’ll pull, you push.”
Ashley rallied and obeyed, sending a jolt of love and appreciation through Lacey. “Atta girl. A little more.”
Right then the freight train of wind roared down the back hall, hurtling an antique mirror and shattering it against the bedroom door.
“It’s coming!” Ashley screamed, freezing in fear.
Yes, it was. Like a monster, the storm would tear these old walls right down to the foundation Lacey’s grandfather had laid when he’d arrived on Mimosa Key in the 1940s.
“Push the damn mattress, Ashley!”
Ashley gave it all she had and the mattress slid enough for Lacey to get a good grip. Grunting, she got the whole thing off the bed and dragged it toward the bathroom. They struggled to shove it through the door just as the wind knocked out one of the bedroom windows, showering glass and wood behind them.
“Oh my God, Mom. This is it!”
“No, this isn’t it,” Lacey hissed, trying to heave the mattress. “Get in!” She pushed Ashley toward the thousand-pound cast-iron claw-foot tub that had just transformed from last year’s lavish expenditure into their sole means of survival.
In the shadows Lacey could see Ashley scramble into the tub, but the mattress was stuck on something in the door. She turned to maneuver the beast when the other window ruptured with a stunning crash.
Ducking from the flying debris, Lacey saw what had the mattress jammed.
Window blinds came sailing in behind her. No time. No time for unicorns.
With a Herculean thrust, she freed the mattress, the force propelling her toward the tub, but in her mind all she could see was the goddamn unicorn.
The one Zoe brought to the hospital when Ashley was born and Ashley slept with every night until she was almost ten. In minutes Aunt Zoe’s uni would be a memory, like everything else they owned.
From inside the tub Ashley reached up and pulled at Lacey’s arm. “Get in!”
This time Lacey froze, the mattress pressing down with the full weight of what they were losing. Everything. Every picture, every gift, every book, every Christmas ornament, every—
The bathroom door slammed shut behind her, caught in a crosswind, making the room eerily quiet for a second.
In that instant of suspended time, Lacey dove for the unicorn, scooping it up with one hand while managing to brace the mattress with the other.
“What are you doing?” Ashley hollered.
“Saving something.” She leaped into the tub on top of her shrieking daughter, dropping the stuffed animal so she could hoist the mattress over and seal them in a new kind of darkness.
The door shot back open, the little window over the toilet gave way, and tornado-strength winds whipped through the room. Under her, Lacey could hear her daughter sobbing, feel her quivering with fright, her coltish legs squeezing for dear life.
And life was dear. Troubled, stressful, messy, not everything she dreamed it would be, but dear. Lacey Armstrong was not about to give it up to Mother Nature’s temper tantrum.
“Reach around me and help me hold this thing down,” Lacey demanded, her fingernails breaking as she dug into the quilted tufts, desperate for a grip.
Her arms screaming with the effort, she clung to the mattress, closed her eyes, and listened to the sounds of that dear life literally falling apart around her.
It wasn’t much, this old house she’d inherited from her grandparents, built with big dreams and little money, but it was all she had.
No, it wasn’t, she reminded herself again. All she had was quivering and crying underneath her. Everything else was just stuff. Wet, ruined, storm-tattered stuff. They were alive and they had each other and their wits and dreams and hopes.
“This is a nightmare, Mom.” Ashley’s sob silenced Lacey’s inner litany of life-support platitudes.
“Just hold on, Ash. We’ll make it. I’ve been through worse.” Hadn’t she?
Wasn’t it worse to return to Mimosa Key a pregnant college dropout, facing her mother’s bitter and brutal disappointment? Wasn’t it worse to stare into David Fox’s dreamy, distant eyes and say “I’m going to keep this baby,” only for him to announce he was on his way to a sheep farm in Patagonia?
Pata-frickin’-gonia. It still ticked her off, fourteen years later.
She was not going to die, damn it. And neither was Ashley. She stole a look over her shoulder, meeting her daughter’s petrified gaze.
“Listen to me,” Lacey demanded through gritted teeth. “I’m not going to let anything happen to you.”
Ashley managed a nod.
They just had to hang on and… pray. Because most people would be cutting some sweet deals with God at a time like this. But Lacey wasn’t most people, and she didn’t make deals with anybody. She made plans. Lots of plans that never—
A strong gust lifted the mattress, pulling a scream from her throat as rain and wind and debris whipped over them, and then part of the ceiling thudded down on the mattress. With the weight of saturated drywall and insulation holding their makeshift roof in place, Lacey could let go of the mattress. Relieved, she worked a space on the edge where the tub curved down to give them some air and finally let her body squeeze in next to Ashley.
Now Lacey could think of something else besides survival.
After survival, comes… what? Facing the stark truth that everything was gone. What was she going to do with no home, no clothes, no struggling cake-baking business, and maybe no customers remaining on Mimosa Key to buy her cookies and cupcakes?
The answer was the thunderous roar of the rest of the second floor being ripped away as if an imaginary giant had plucked a weed from his garden. Instantly rain dumped on them.
Once the roof was gone the vacuum dissipated, and, except for the drumbeat of rain on the mattress, it was almost quiet.
“Is this the eye of the storm?” Ashley asked.
Lacey adjusted her position again to curl around Ashley’s slender frame. “I don’t know, honey. Hey, look what I brought you.”
She fished out the unicorn from behind her and laid it on Ashley’s chest. Even in the darkness she could see Ashley smile, her eyes bright with tears.
“Aunt Zoe’s uni. Thank you, Mommy.”
Mommy just about folded her heart in half.
“Shhh.” She stroked Ashley’s hair, trying to be grateful for the rare moment when her daughter didn’t roll her eyes or whip out her cell phone to text a friend. “We’re gonna be fine, angel. I promise.”
But could she keep that promise? When the storm passed, the home her grandfather had christened Blue Horizon House would be little more than a memory sitting on a stretch of pristine beach known as Barefoot Bay.
But Mimosa Key would still be here. Nothing could wipe away this barrier island or the people who called this strip of land home. Like Lacey, most of the residents were the children and grandchildren of the first group of twentieth-century pioneers who’d built a rickety wooden causeway to take them to an island haven in the Gulf of Mexico.
And nothing could rid Mimosa Key of its natural resources, like magical Barefoot Bay with its peach-toned sunsets or the fluffy red flowers that exploded like fireworks every spring, giving the island its name. Nothing could stop the reliable blue moon that sparkled like diamonds on the black velvet Gulf every night.
If Mimosa Key survived, so would Lacey.
And there is such a thing as insurance, a pragmatic voice insisted.
Insurance would cover the value of the house, and she owned the land, so Lacey could rebuild. Maybe this was her chance to finally turn the big old beach cottage into a B and B, a dream she’d nurtured for years, one she’d promised both her grandparents she’d pursue when they’d left her the house and all the land around it.
But life had gotten in the way of that promise. And now she had nothing.
Instead of wallowing in that reality, she let the B and B idea settle over her heart once again, the idea of finally, finally seeing one of her dreams come true carrying her through the rest of the storm while Ashley drifted off into a fitful sleep.
By the time the howling had softened to a low moan and the rain had slowed to a steady drizzle, the first silver threads of dawn were weaving through the air space she’d made. It was time to face the aftermath of the storm. Using all the strength she had left, Lacey managed to push the soaked mattress to the floor.
“Oh my God.” Ashley’s voice cracked with whispered disbelief as she emerged. “It’s all gone.”
Yes, it was. A dilapidated old house that was more trouble than it was ever worth had been washed away by Hurricane Damien’s clean-up campaign. Lacey’s heart was oddly light in the face of the devastation. Buoyed, in fact, with possibilities.
“Don’t worry,” she said, gingerly navigating the debris, peering into the early morning light. “It’s not the end of the world.” It was the beginning.
“How can you say that, Mom? There’s nothing left!”
A few drops of warm tropical rain splattered her face, but Lacey wiped the water from her cheek and stepped over broken wall studs wrapped in shredded, sopping-wet attic insulation.
“We have insurance, Ashley.”
“Mom! Our house is gone!”
“No, the building’s gone. The beach is here. The sun will shine. The palm fronds will grow back.”
Her imagination stirred again, nudged alive by the reality of what she saw around her. She could do this. This land—and the insurance money—could be used to make a dream come true.
Beside her Ashley sniffed, wiping a fresh set of tears. “How can you talk about palm fronds? We don’t even have a—oh!” She dropped to her knees to retrieve a muddy video-game remote. “My Wii!”
“Ashley.” Lacey reached for her, pulling her up to hold her close. “Baby, we have each other. We’re alive, which is pretty much a miracle.”
Ashley just squeezed her eyes shut and nodded, working so hard to be strong and brave.
“I know it hurts, Ashley, but this”—she took the broken remote and pitched it—“is just stuff. We’ll get more, better stuff. What matters is that we’ve made it through and, you know, I’m starting to think this hurricane was the best thing that ever happened to us.”
Ashley eyes popped open with an incredulous look. “Are you nuts?”
Maybe she was, but insane optimism was all she had right now.
“Think about it, Ash. We can do anything with this property now. We don’t have to pay to remodel a sixty-year-old house; we can start from scratch and make it amazing.” Her voice rose as the idea sprouted to life and took hold of her heart. “You know I’ve always dreamed of opening an inn or B and B, something all mine that would be an oasis, a destination.”
Ashley just closed her eyes as if she couldn’t even compute an oasis right then. “But if you couldn’t figure out a way to make it happen when you had an actual house, how can you now?”
The truth stung, but Lacey ignored the pain. This time she wouldn’t make excuses, that was how. She wouldn’t be scared of not finishing what she started and she wouldn’t let anyone’s disapproval make her doubt herself. Not anymore.
“Old Mother Nature just handed us a ‘get out of jail free’ pass, kiddo,” she said, giving Ashley’s shoulder a squeeze. “And you know what? We’re taking it.”
Six Weeks Later
He’s probably at lunch.
He wouldn’t take a job this small.
He might refuse to come to Florida in August.
Lacey had plenty of reasons why she shouldn’t press the Call button and ask to speak with Clayton Walker, president and CEO of Walker Architecture and Design. A trickle of sweat meandered down her back and trailed into the waistband of the cutoffs Ashley had pronounced too short for a mom to wear.
Too short? Too bad. She could walk around Barefoot Bay naked if she wanted to. Ever since the storm had ravaged the north hook of the island, she and Ashley had been alone out here at the beach. The insurance adjusters had come and gone, promising the rebuilding money, and the bulldozers had already leveled the storm-damaged house. Lacey’s two neighbors, one to the north and one to the south and neither very close by, had bailed after settling their claims and promising to sell her their lots for a song.
The next step in her ambitious scheme didn’t require age-appropriate attire, anyway. Her sweaty finger streaked the smooth glass of her phone, but before she dialed, she set the phone on the picnic table, one of the few items she’d salvaged from the storm.
What was stopping her from calling the architect?
Fear of rejection? Of course, an architect with Clayton Walker’s outstanding credentials, reputation, and portfolio of glorious hotels and resorts might not want to design her beachfront bed-and-breakfast.
But he had responded to her e-mail personally. And he had said, “Call when you have the insurance money and I’ll take a look at the property.”
She swiped beads of sweat from her upper lip and scooted the bench closer to the table, trying to slide into the one slice of shade formed by the trunk of a royal poinciana that had survived the storm. Peering through humidity-drenched curls, she studied her daughter at the water’s edge a few hundred feet of burning sand away. Madly texting, something she’d been doing more and more of lately, Ashley seemed oblivious to the squawking seagulls fluttering around her.
Ashley had rebounded remarkably after the storm, moving into Lacey’s parents’ house with a fairly positive attitude, probably since living down on the south end of the island put her closer to more kids she’d be going to Mimosa High with in a few weeks.
Most of the twelve-mile-long barrier island hadn’t fared quite as poorly as the northern end, where Barefoot Bay was located. South of Center Street they’d lost only screens and roof tiles, and a few windows. Businesses were all open in town and life was nearly back to normal down there. Even still, Lacey’s parents had decided to stay longer up north with her brother, giving Lacey and Ashley a place to live.
Good thing, because if Marie Armstrong were breathing down Lacey’s neck right now, harping on the complete impossibility of these plans, Lacey would never have the nerve to make this call.
She angled the phone and eyed the architect’s name, imagining the conversation with a man she considered a legend. She’d seen his picture on the company Web site and on the Internet. The guy looked like Colonel Sanders with all that white hair and a Southern-gentleman bow tie. How scary could he be?
Okay. It was time. She turned so the sight of Ashley wouldn’t distract her, and put her finger on the phone.
Should she call him Mr. Walker? His e-mail seemed so casual, at least for an architectural genius. So maybe he wouldn’t want—
A voice floated up from the beach. A male voice.
Lacey glanced over her shoulder, inhaling a quick breath at the sight of a man five feet away from Ashley. A half-naked man, wearing nothing but low-hanging board shorts and sockless sneakers. Shaggy hair, big muscles, and, dear God, was that a tattoo on his arm?
Was he a tourist? A surfer? More likely one of the many debris scavengers who’d popped up all over the island since they’d reopened the causeway, ready to make a buck off the misfortune of others.
Ashley laughed at something he said, and he turned just enough for Lacey to get an eyeful of sweat-glistening chest and abs and—wow.
Ashley flipped her hair and the man took a step closer.
Okay, stop right there, buddy. Lacey launched forward, driven by primal instinct, forgetting the call and ignoring the fiery sand singeing her bare feet.
They both turned at her words, Ashley’s body language screaming disgust as she rolled her eyes. But Lacey barely saw her. Her gaze was locked on the predator, preparing her counterattack in full mother-lioness mode, quickly assessing his danger level.
His danger level was… hot.
He stunned her with a blinding smile. He disarmed her with a shake of his honey-colored locks, revealing a handsome, tanned face and a tiny gold hoop in one ear. Then he stopped her in her tracks by stretching out his hand.
“I’m Clay Walker.”
“Are you Lacey Armstrong?”
“No. I mean, yes. But…” She froze, completely thrown, her brain short-circuiting at his words.
Colonel Sanders he was not.
He looked nothing like his picture. No white hair, no bow tie—no shirt! He absolutely couldn’t be Clayton Walker because, well, he was gorgeous.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded, not caring that she was a sweaty mess of venom-spewing, short-short-wearing, almost-thirty-seven-year-old mom staring at his washboard abs. Or that she still held the phone that she was just about to use to call him. Well, not him. Colonel Sanders.
“I told you I’d check out the property.”
“Oh, I expected someone…” Older. Dressed. Not gorgeous. “… after I called.”
“I didn’t want to wait,” he said. He kept his hand out and she had no choice but to take it, her hand instantly lost in big, calloused, masculine fingers. “I was too intrigued by the idea of building here.”
“So am I.” Intrigued, that was. Intrigued and wary.
“I hope you don’t mind.” He gave a cursory glance to his naked torso. “It’s hot as hell here.”
“It’s no problem,” she lied, extracting her hand and forcing her eyes off his body and onto his face. Like that was any less stupefying. “But there’s been a mistake.”
Dark brows shot up, revealing eyes just about the color of the water behind him. “A mistake?” he asked.
“You’re not Clayton Walker.”
“I go by Clay.” He smiled, kind of a half-grin that crinkled his eyes and revealed straight white teeth. “Got ID in my truck if you want me to get it.”
The hint of a drawl fit him as well as the shorts that hung off narrow hips. “That’s not necessary because I’ve been to the Web site and I’ve seen Clayton Walker, and he’s not…” Sexy. “You.”
“Don’t tell me.” The smile turned wry. “You were expecting Clayton Walker Senior?”
Senior? Like his father? “I was expecting the owner of the firm.” The man who designed some of the most stunning hotels in the world, who probably didn’t have hair to his shoulders or an earring or a tattoo of a flame-encircled star on a sizable bicep. “The Clayton Walker. That’s who I e-mailed.”
“Actually, you e-mailed me,” he said simply.
“I got the contact off the Web site.”
He shrugged a brawny shoulder. “I guess my name’s still there. It wouldn’t be the first time someone’s made the mistake.”
“Do you work for him?”
“No, I don’t have anything to do with my father’s business anymore.”
“Oh. That’s a shame.” Disappointment dribbled in her stomach and mixed with some other unfamiliar tightness down there.
“But I am a contractor,” he said, an edge taking some of the smoothness out of his voice. “And a builder.”
“But you aren’t the Clayton Walker.”
He laughed softly, a rumbly, gritty, sensual sound that reverberated through Lacey’s chest down to her toes. “Look, I’ve been checking out this property for a couple of days and, based on that e-mail you sent, I’m totally capable of doing this job for you.”
Except he wasn’t capable because he was too young and too inexperienced and too… shirtless. “Are you an architect?”
“Technically, it depends on how you define architect. I am, but not completely licensed, so not officially.” He fried her with another smile, taking a step closer, giving her a better look at his really remarkable blue eyes. Not that she was looking for remarkable eyes on her architect. Which, by the way, he wasn’t. Not officially.
“Why don’t we take a look at the site and go over some ideas I have?” he suggested.
“How could you have ideas when I haven’t even told you exactly what I want?” She didn’t mean to sound snippy, but she couldn’t possibly trust this young man with her dream. She’d have to get rid of him and find out how to get to the real Clayton Walker.
“Maybe we want the same thing.” His gaze dropped ever so quickly over her, a stark reminder that she wore far too little today. And it was hot out here.
Oh, no. No no no. Don’t you dare go there, brainless hormones. This guy was twenty-nine on a good day, at least six or seven years younger than she was. The son of the man she wanted, not a man she wanted.
“When were you here?” she asked. Since the storm she’d been up here almost every day. “I haven’t seen you.” Because she sure as hell wouldn’t have missed him.
“A few days ago.” He finally tore his mesmerizing gaze from her and focused on the property behind her. “This is a truly legit location for a resort.”
Legit? He sounded like Ashley’s friends. Maybe he was even younger than she’d thought. “No resort,” she corrected. “Just a little B and B is all I have in mind.”
“Really? I’d dream bigger than that, Miss…” He inched imperceptibly closer, a smile lifting the corner of his mouth. “It is ‘Miss,’ isn’t it?”
Was he hitting on her? “Miz,” she said, a little edge in her voice. “And this isn’t a dream, it’s a plan for my—our—future. My daughter’s and mine.” Did he get the emphasis? “I have very specific plans.” But they don’t include you. “And I was hoping to meet—”
“My dad, I got that. He’s not who you want for this, trust me.”
Trust him? Not likely. “Your father’s a legend in his field.”
“But he’s in North Carolina, and I’m here,” he drawled with one more brain-numbing smile. “And I already have a couple of ideas for the kind of place you could put here.”
“Well, I have ideas, too. A… vision, actually.” And a bedroom-eyed, not-yet-thirty not-officially-an-architect wasn’t part of it.
“God, Mom, just give him a chance.”
Ashley’s voice startled her. She’d forgotten her daughter was there, taking in the whole exchange, and, of course, having an opinion. “Honey, this isn’t your concern. And, Mr. Walker—”
“Clay. The younger one.”
“I have to be honest with you,” she said with a sigh of resignation. “This is obviously a huge commitment for me, and I had my heart set on the man who designed Crystal Springs and French Hills, which, as you probably know, were built by Clayton Walker. The Clayton Walker. I’m sure you’re very good at what you do, but I want someone with more experience.”
His expression grew tight and cool. “Sometimes experience can work against you and what you need is”—he ran a hand through sixteen different shades of caramel hair, leaving it just a little more tousled, a lock falling to one eye—“a fresh perspective.”
Behind him, Ashley was staring at his backside perspective.
No. Yeah. Wow. This guy had to go. “I’m really sorry, but I don’t think there’s any reason to pursue this. Good-bye.”
He half laughed in disbelief. “Good-bye?”
“And thank you.”
He took one step backward. “I’d say you’re welcome, but I have a feeling you don’t really mean that.”
“Well, I do mean good-bye.”
With his head at a cocky angle that somehow managed to say “You will regret this,” without saying a word, he tipped a nod to Ashley and turned to jog off in the opposite direction.
“Mom!” Ashley choked with exasperation. “You were such a b-word to him.”
“I didn’t mean to be rude, it’s just that he’s not the person I want to hire. He’s not Clayton; he’s not the man I wanted.”
“But he’s obviously the man you e-mailed.”
She fired a look at Ashley. “In error.” Or was it? “Or maybe he hijacks his father’s e-mail or something, looking for lonely women.” Not that she was lonely.
“Well, I bet he finds them.”
“Dear God, he’s twice your age.”
“Is that why you sent him away?”
“No. He’s too young.”
“You just said he was too old.”
Frustration zinged through her. “Too old for you to ogle, too young to build my dream.” And for me to ogle.
Ashley pulled out her phone and thumbed the screen. “Great excuse, Mom.”
I had my heart set on the man who designed Crystal Springs and French Hills.
Well, you had him, darlin’, right in your silky little paw. Of course if she called Clayton Walker Architecture and Design, she’d get a different answer.
He ran hard, each jolt of packed sand fueling his determination. He wanted this job. He needed this job. And he had to close the deal before she hooked up with the legend who would squeeze out any competition, including his very own son.
Especially his very own son.
Damn it. He wasn’t about to let C-dub near this one. It was a matter of pride. Hell, it was a matter of survival.
And all that stood between him and what he wanted was a closed-minded, uptight, opinionated, voluptuous strawberry blonde. How could he change her mind?
From the minute he’d heard of the hurricane grazing Mimosa Key, he’d known it was the perfect solution. Remote, untouched, and off the competitive radar, he could get the soup-to-nuts job he needed to reinstate himself professionally. Post-disaster rebuilding wasn’t his favorite thing, but people in this situation tended to move fast and not take months to bid out work to competitive firms.
There had to be a way to win her over.
Well, there was the obvious. She had been pretty busy eyeing his personal landscape. While the idea of spending a long, hot summer night convincing her he was the man for the job had definite appeal, using sex to get the job was flat-out cheesy. It was bad enough that she thought he’d stolen the lead from his father—an understandable mistake since his sister refused to take his name off the Walker Architecture and Design Web site contacts. He wasn’t going to try to screw the work out of her, too.
Of course, she’d have the old man on the phone before Clay got back to his truck. The thought made him run faster, hurdling a fallen tree to get to the clearing in the road where he’d parked.
So call him, Strawberry. There’s nothin’ I love more than a challenge.
He opened the door to climb into the truck, glancing in the back cab at the sketches he’d brought. Bet she’d change her mind if she saw his ideas.
But maybe not. She might not have that much imagination if all she wanted to build on that gem of a property was “just a little B and B.” She’d go traditional. Cookie-cutter. Dull as dirt. Come to think of it, Dad would be perfect for her job. Reaching back, he grabbed the sketches.
After his first drive to this beach, he’d raced back to the rental unit to draw page after page of thumbnails. Nothing too detailed, just his gut-level reaction to the pristine, tropical hideaway of Barefoot Bay. It had all come together, too, looking like the success he needed so he could give the finger to his father and take the first step to rebuilding a reputation.
But Lacey Armstrong wanted the legend. The legend who would slap down a four-story stucco box, adorn it with Palladian windows, and pronounce it La Bella Vista at the Sea.
Damn stupid woman with her sexy thighs and preconceived notions.
He slid the rubber band off one sketch and studied what he’d drawn. How the hell could he convince her to look at these? And if he did, would it be enough to stop her from calling his father?
Just as he was about to toss them back, an engine rumbled from around the bend, and a muscular, roofless, high-end Jeep Rubicon accelerated toward him, a woman at the wheel, another next to her, and one in the back. Bass-fueled rock music blared from the speakers.
He was checking out the wild blonde hair, sunglasses, and tanned skin of the driver when one of the others yelled, “Stop, Zoe! Ask that guy!”
Tourists, no doubt. The Jeep came to a screeching stop fifteen feet away from him. The driver threw it into Reverse, fishtailing as she backed up to him.
“Excuse me!” she called, turning down the music. She glanced over her shoulder to say something to the other two as he came around the truck to get closer.
The one in the back didn’t look like a tourist, more lady exec with black hair secured in a ponytail and a crisp white shirt. She didn’t reply to what the driver said, but the woman in the passenger seat laughed softly, leaning forward to look at him, dishwater-brown locks falling over an angular face.
Blondie slid her sunglasses into her mane. “We’re trying to find Barefoot Bay, but the roads aren’t marked at all up here. Do you know if we can get through this way?”
Some time to come for vacation, ladies. “The beach is right there.” He pointed behind him. “Your best bet is to park here and walk down, or drive a little farther that way. You can get through, but there’s a lot of storm damage and the road gets pretty dicey.”
“Let’s go straight through,” the business-like one in the back said. Probably the Realtor helping them snag a cheap lot, he mused. Good luck with the bitchy property owner. “Once we get closer,” she added, “I’ll recognize Lacey’s place.”
Oh? Friends of Strawberry’s?
“Thank you,” the blonde said to him, adding a dazzling smile. “I really appreciate it. Looks like you’ve been to the beach.”
“Zoe,” the passenger said, giving the driver a nudge. “Do you have to flirt with every man?”
“Only the good ones,” she teased with a laugh.
“ ’S okay,” Clay assured her. “Yeah, I’ve been up there.”
“Is it a complete wreck?”
He gave in to a wry smile. “Complete.”
“Oh, man, what a shame.” She swiped her hand through her hair, sharing a look with her friends, then beamed another thousand-watter with dimples at him. “Well, thanks again. Is that your truck? Do you need a ride or anything?”
Oh, yes, he needed something. He couldn’t help smiling, because sometimes it seemed that whenever he faced a wall, the universe handed him a ladder.
“As a matter of fact, did I hear you say you’re headed up to see Ms. Armstrong?”
“Yes, we are,” Crispy said from the back. “Why?”
“Well, if it’s not too much trouble, could you give her these?”
“Of course.” The driver reached out and he met her halfway, handing off his ideas, which were immediately flipped into the backseat. “Are your name and number on there?”
“Tell her they’re from Clay Walker. The Clay Walker.”
Lacey had wasted way too much energy worrying about how to talk to Clayton Walker—Senior. He was unavailable at the moment. That was all Lacey could get from his arctic assistant, even after Lacey told her exactly why she was calling and how much she needed an architect for her inn at Barefoot Bay. She got to leave sketchy details of the land and job, which she doubted Miss Ice Cube was writing down, and only got a promise that Mr. Walker would call when he had a moment.
Which might be never, the bitch managed to imply.
Don’t let this be the excuse that stops you, Lacey chided herself as she and Ashley climbed into her mud-covered VW Passat. She’d call again to—
“Someone’s coming up the road,” Ashley said, holding up a finger to indicate the not-so-distant sound of a car engine.
Oh, God. Maybe he was coming back.
The thought gave Lacey’s heart a jump so unnatural and infuriating she twisted the key with a jerk just as a huge white 4x4 rolled over some debris and hit the horn loud and long enough to block out everything else.
“It’s Aunt Zoe!” Ashley shouted, throwing off her seat belt.
“Not just Zoe!” Lacey slapped her hand over her mouth, sucking in a shocked gasp. “They’re all here!” Tessa and Jocelyn waved and hollered from the roofless vehicle.
Zoe squealed the Jeep to a stop and all three of them scrambled out, running and dancing toward Ashley and Lacey, arms outstretched.
In an instant it was a huddle of hugs. Even Ashley joined in, jumping up and down as they squeezed and shrieked and an avalanche of explanations came pouring out.
“We wanted to surprise you!”
“We’re here to cheer you up!”
“We’ve been planning this since the hurricane but knew you’d tell us not to come!”
Lacey reeled, holding each dear friend in her arms, choking on laughter and disbelief and joy. Finally the eruption ended and she managed to get her head around the fact that her best friends had come to help her pick up the pieces of her storm-shattered life.
They’d come from across the country and, in Tessa’s case, the world.
“Tessa Fontaine!” She put her hands on clean, fresh cheeks, as always unadorned by makeup but so naturally pretty. “I didn’t know you were back in the States.”
“I just got back while you were dealing with this,” Tessa said, her voice as soft and earthy as her hair, shadows of sadness making her deep brown eyes so serious. “And, by the way, it’s Galloway again. I’ve officially dropped Fontaine.”
“Oh, Tess.” The divorce, of course, must be final. “Sucks.”
“Tessa lives with me now,” Zoe announced.
“Not forever.” Tessa shrugged a shoulder, which was toned from hours of farmwork in dozens of distant countries. “I went to Flagstaff to hang out with Zoe for the past month, but we didn’t bother you with any of that, since you’ve had your hands full.”
“We decided we just had to get out here and lift your spirits.” Zoe squeezed Lacey’s hand, her other arm already hooked over Ashley’s shoulder with casual affection. “And see our group goddaughter, who is getting way too grown-up and gorgeous.”
Ashley beamed a mouthful of hot-pink-banded braces at her. “Thanks, Aunt Zoe.”
Lacey turned her attention to Jocelyn, the only person on earth who could ride in a 4x4 down a beach road and not have a hair out of place.
“And it only took an act of God to get Jocelyn Bloom back to Mimosa Key,” Lacey exclaimed. “There must be a dozen L.A. movie stars who are paralyzed right now without their life coach.”
Jocelyn flicked off the comment with dismissive fingertips. “All I need is a phone and Internet and I can work from here for a while. You’ve always been there for each of us, so it was our time to come to you.”
“I’m sorry it took so long,” Zoe said, her green eyes sparkling with the joy that always seemed to light her from inside. “My job took off, so to speak.”
They all laughed at that, and Lacey could feel the pressure that had crushed her for all these weeks lift as easily as one of the hot air balloons Zoe piloted for a living.
“I already feel better just looking at you three,” Lacey said. “I can’t even remember the last time we were all together.”
“Tessa’s wedding,” Jocelyn said, probably able to tell them the date and what each of them wore.
“Uh-oh,” Tessa moaned. “This adventure better turn out more successful than that one.”
“Tess, c’mere.” Lacey reached to give her a hug. “You’ve been through hell this year.”
She took the squeeze, but not for long. “Hell is living through a hurricane. Zoe told me you stayed alive in a bathtub! Is that true?” she asked Ashley.
“Totally true,” Ashley confirmed. “Mom was incredible. If it weren’t for her, we’d have died in her bedroom closet.”
“Ohhh!” The outcry was in unison and came with more hugs, but the tears in Lacey’s eyes burned from the sweetness of Ashley’s unexpected compliment.
“Hey, Ashley propped me up a few times, trust me.”
“Lacey’s always been our fearless leader,” Zoe said. “The RA who kept us out of trouble for our entire freshman year of college.”
“Like anyone can keep you out of trouble, Zoe,” Tessa said.
They laughed again, but Jocelyn broke away to look around in disbelief at the bare trees, the piles of debris, and what once was a lovely beachfront property.
“God, Lace,” she said, turning slowly. “It’s like Barefoot Bay was demolished.”
“We got creamed up here,” Lacey agreed.
“Almost everything is gone,” Ashley said, an understandable whine rising in her voice. “Mom managed to save like five things of mine but everything else is bulldozed or blown away.”
Tessa gave her a sympathetic look. “That has to be tough on you, honey.”
“I’m telling you, sugar”—Zoe leaned into Ashley’s ear—“shopping op!”
“And you guys are living with your parents, Lace?” Tessa asked.
“In their house on the other end of the island, but they’re staying up in New York with Adam.”
“They don’t want to come back and help?” Jocelyn gave Lacey a look. “I know your mom likes to, you know, have opinions.”
Lacey bit back a laugh. “My dad offered, but honestly, the last thing I want…” Is to deal with Mother at a time like this. But she wouldn’t admit that in front of Ashley. “Is for them to have to put up with all the construction. But there’s plenty of room for you guys,” she added. “We’ll squeeze in.”
“Actually, I’ll stay over the causeway in a hotel,” Jocelyn said quickly.
“Like hell you will,” Zoe shot back.
“There’s plenty of space and we’d love the company. Right, Ash?”
“Oh my God, totally,” Ashley agreed, still holding on to her beloved Aunt Zoe. “You have to stay with us.”
Jocelyn shook her head. “Nope, sorry. I’m still on the clock with at least six clients and I’ve got to be available to them. I booked a room over at the Ritz in Naples, so I’ll stay there and come and go with you guys when I can.”
“La-dee-dah at the Ritz,” Zoe teased, lifting her nose into the air. “We’ll be having slumber parties and drinking wine all night.” She eyed Ashley. “Not you, of course. Show me the beach, doll face.”
Zoe dragged Ashley away and they ran arm in arm toward the sand.
Lacey let out a slow breath, watching them, then turned to Tessa and Jocelyn. “I can’t believe you guys are here.”
Tessa wrapped an arm around Lacey and tugged her toward the gutted foundation. “I can’t believe you lost everything.”
“Everything,” Lacey confirmed. “Baby pictures and memories, keepsakes and—oh, every day we think of something else.”
They tsked and sighed in sympathy.
“But, really, getting wiped out like this teaches you those material things aren’t important. What matters is that we survived, and are moving on.”
“To think I could charge a client three hundred an hour for doling out that advice,” Jocelyn said wryly. “And you figured it all out by yourself.”
“I figured a lot out while I was holed up in a bathtub and the world was falling apart around me.”
They walked as a threesome, arm in arm. “Like what?” Tessa asked.
“Like it’s time to use that three-quarters of a degree in hospitality I have. And I don’t mean a shoestring cake-baking business I run from my kitchen.”
“That inn full of antiques you’ve talked about since college?” Tessa stooped to pluck a stray orange flower that somehow had survived, rolling it in her fingers and giving it a sniff.
“And how’s that working out for you?”
“It’s not yet,” Lacey admitted sadly. “I thought I had an architect, but I don’t think I can get the one I want.”
“So you’re giving up?” Tessa’s voice had a familiar edge of frustration in it. “The world is full of architects, Lacey.”
“I need one with the right vision and credentials.”
The other two women leaned forward to share a look. “I smell a full-blown Lacey Armstrong rationalization coming on,” Jocelyn teased.
“No, no. I want to do this and I have the insurance money, which is enough for a really nice B and B, even a little more if I could swing it, which”—she gave a soft, self-deprecating laugh—“is always the question with me.”
“Now you know why we’re here,” Tessa said softly.
“To stop you from coming up with reasons why you can’t build this place and build it right.”
“You guys have always been good to me that way.” Lacey looked from one to the other. “What do you mean by ‘right’?”
“Finished,” Jocelyn said. “Up and running and making money.”
“I don’t know if I can…” Her voice trailed off at their stern expressions, and she laughed. “Okay, okay. And I’m going to need that money because my business is completely shut down now, and I’m living off savings.”
Jocelyn settled on the edge of the picnic table. “You want money, you gotta pamper the clients.”
“Clients? I can’t even get the architect I want to agree to come down.”
“You need a spa,” Jocelyn said, ignoring her comment. “I can send half of L.A. here if you offer a lava shell massage.”
“How about gardens?” Tessa rounded the table. “You have to grow your own food.”
“That would be awesome, Tess, but as you can see, we’re a long way from a crop of gourmet greens.”
Tessa waved a little flower she still held. “But you’ve got a live Ixora ‘Nora Grant,’ which, I guarantee you, is edible when properly cooked, and quite healthy.” She grinned when the other women rolled their eyes. “You’ll be back in bloom before long. I was in Borneo after a rough storm and we had an organic farm up and running by the next growing season.”
“Oh, definitely go homegrown organic,” Jocelyn agreed. “You can totally overcharge for that.”
“I love that you guys are planning the spa treatments and menu items and I don’t even have building plans yet.”
“Lacey.” Tessa squeezed her, pulling her to a stand. “Quit finding a reason to say no to everything.”
Just then Zoe and Ashley came tearing up from the beach, sand flying in the wake of their happy feet. “Ashley hasn’t laughed like that since before the storm.”
“Why do you think we put up with Zoe? She’s comic relief.”
“And she’s managed to stay planted in Flagstaff for, what, three years?” Lacey asked. “That’s some kind of record for our tumbleweed.”
“Her great-aunt Pasha keeps here there, I’ve discovered,” Tessa said. “Or she’d be gone with the next phase of the moon.”
“Are you talking about me?” Zoe accused, breathless from the run. “Because I know when that little coven of yours gathers the topic is, What are we going to do with Zoe?”
“Not this time,” Tessa said smoothly. “The topic is, What are we going to do with Lacey?”
Zoe fanned herself and cupped her hand over her eyes. “Can we discuss it somewhere shady? Preferably with cocktails? It’s hotter here than Arizona and you’ve got a flippin’ beach.”
“It’s Florida in August, Zoe,” Jocelyn said. “That’s why they invented air-conditioning.”
“Which we didn’t have at Nana’s house for almost three weeks,” Ashley told them. “But we do now.”
“Thank God,” Zoe said. “Or I would be at the Ritz with Jocelyn, because I don’t sweat.” She nudged Ashley. “I glisten and glow.”
The banter continued as they walked to the cars, but Lacey held back, her arm still around Tessa. “I didn’t know how much I needed you,” she whispered, her throat suddenly thick with emotion. “Thank you so much for coming, Tess. I know this has been a positively horrific year for you, waiting for the divorce to be final.”
“Not horrific for Billy. He’s got a girlfriend.”
Lacey froze like ice water had been poured on them. “You have got to be kidding me.”
“Would I kid about something like that? Five years I’ve traipsed around foreign countries to build that organic-farms business with him, growing every seed but the one I wanted.”
“Oh, honey.” Lacey took both of Tessa’s hands.
“He’s all smug, too, like he’s a real man now that he’s finally made a baby.” Her voice cracked a little, like it always did on this subject. “He just texted the other day, and she’s only like three weeks pregnant.”
“I’m so glad you’re here now,” Lacey said.
“It really was Zoe’s idea. But I was on it in a heartbeat.”
“And, miracle of miracles, you got Jocelyn to set foot on Mimosa Key again.”
“Yeah, sort of.” Tessa eyed Jocelyn and shook her head. “Of course you can’t get anything out of her she doesn’t want to give, but one thing is clear: She won’t go south of that road that cuts across the middle of the island.”
Where her dad still lived, Lacey thought. “Hey, she’s here, Tessa. We’ll work around her issues.”
“Like that control freak would give us a chance to do otherwise. And, speaking of issues, have you heard from David lately?”
“Oh, Lord, please. Last I heard he was on an icing expedition in Antarctica or maybe he was trekking in Tibet. I lose track.”
Tessa rolled her eyes as they reached the Jeep. “So he’s still Peter Pan.”
“He sends money and Christmas cards,” Lacey said, the odd urge to defend Ashley’s father and her former boyfriend rising up.
“Enough for me.”
“Anybody at all in the romance picture?” Tessa asked.
Lacey just snorted. “What picture? I’ve dated the few single men on Mimosa Key and I don’t feel like bar hopping in Fort Myers with a teenage daughter at home.”
“Maybe we can join an online dating service together.”
“Get real, Tess.” Although Lacey had certainly considered it when she’d looked at the calendar and faced facts. She was going to be thirty-seven, and if she were ever to have another baby… No way she’d bring that up with Tessa now.
Thankfully, Jocelyn ended the conversation by waving her phone. “I need to check into the hotel,” she announced. “Client emergency. Why don’t you guys put your bags in Lacey’s car and ride with her? I’ll take the rental.”
Next to her, Lacey could feel Tessa tense for an argument, so Lacey jumped in, unwilling to ruin this perfect reunion. “Do what you need to, Joss. I’m just glad you’ll be close by.”
“Oh my God, Lacey, I was supposed to give you these.” Hanging over the driver’s seat of the Jeep, Zoe held up a few long cylinders. “They better have Hot Surfer Dude’s phone number on them.”
Lacey’s heart hitched as she took the tubes of paper. “What hot surfer dude?”
“Somebody named Clay Walker.”
She almost dropped the rolls. “You saw him?”
“Zoe practically ate him,” Tessa said.
“Like you wouldn’t have taken a bite,” Zoe shot back.
“He was the guy Mom totally dissed on the beach,” Ashley said.
“I didn’t dis him.” Lacey swallowed, the paper sticking to her damp palms. “What did he say?”
“Nothing,” Zoe said. “He just gave us those to deliver to you and told us to tell you they were from Clay Walker.”
“No,” Jocelyn corrected her. “He said the Clay Walker, the sign of a massive ego.”
“He should have an ego, ’cause that dude was smokin’ hot.” Zoe elbowed Ashley. “And kinda nekkid, too. I’d like to take a ride on those shoulders.”
Tessa covered Ashley’s ears. “Nice in front of the kid.”
“I’m fourteen, Aunt Tessa.”
“I don’t give a damn about his shoulders.” Lacey snapped the band holding the papers together so hard it broke. “He came here under false pretenses, probably some kind of impostor who hacks e-mail to get work.”
Zoe choked. “Yeah, there’s a lot of that on the Internet. Like he couldn’t get work as a male pros—model.”
Lacey spread open one of the rolls on the hood of her car. “We’re going to get a lot of con men down here after the storm… so…” Good God in heaven. “We should be…”
“We should be what, Mom?”
A slow, prickly chill climbed up her arms, raising the hair on her neck.
“We should be careful,” she whispered, staring at the simple ink sketch that took everything she couldn’t imagine but felt in her heart and brought it to black-and-white life.
“Careful of what, Mom?”
“Jumping to the wrong conclusion.” She stepped back, her hand to her mouth, her breath captured in her lungs, her legs a little wobbly. “Like I just did.”
“Wow.” Jocelyn leaned over her shoulder. “What do you need to do to get him to build that? ’Cause I’m pretty sure Zoe will do it for you.”
“I need…” An architect with vision. “A second chance.”
Hey.” Lacey tapped and pushed open the door to her childhood bedroom to find Ashley curled on the bed over her brand-new laptop. The one that had been deemed a “necessity replacement” days after the storm.
Ashley instantly lowered the screen, looking up with surprisingly bright eyes.
“You okay?” Lacey had to fight the urge to launch forward, arms out, maternal instinct at the ready.
“Fine.” With one finger she gingerly snapped the computer closed, shutting down whatever she’d been doing.
Lacey ran through a list of possibilities. Nine times out of ten, it was teen-girl drama that brought color to Ashley’s cheeks and fire to her eyes.
“You still want to go over to Meagan’s tonight?” Lacey asked, walking that fine line between privacy and parenting. Most of the time privacy won, because if anyone knew firsthand what a meddlesome mother could do to a teenage girl, it was Lacey.
“What’s going on, then?” And sometimes parenting won.
“Nothing, Mom. I’m just Facebooking.” Evidently, that was a verb now.
“No.” She scooted off the bed. “They’re waiting for me at Meagan’s. Can we go now?”
“Absolutely.” Lacey jangled her keys. “Zoe and Tessa and I are going to drop you off and go out to dinner.”
“She wanted to stay at the hotel.”
As Ashley scooped up a turquoise Hollister tote bag—another post-storm necessity—and grabbed a pillow from the bed, she threw a dubious look at Lacey. “Why does she come all the way across the country to see you and hole up at some hotel?”
Good question. “You’ve seen the Ritz in Naples. Hardly ‘some’ hotel.”
“But, Mom, I don’t get it.”
Neither do we, Lacey thought. “You know she grew up here and her mom died a while ago, so she has sad memories of this island.” Before a more elaborate explanation was required, Ashley’s cell phone vibrated and took her attention.
She read, and shrieked. “Oh my freaking Gawd!” Her fingers flew over the screen.
“Ashley, don’t talk like that.”
“Tiffany says Matt’s breaking up with Cami Stanford! It’s totally over!” She clicked more, the text winning over an explanation.
“Tiffany? Tiffany Osborne?” The one who was caught with pot in her locker in eighth grade? “Is she going to be at Meagan’s tonight? I didn’t think they were friends.”
“Maybe I have a chance with Matt now.”
Lacey tensed. “Have I met Matt?
Ashley put away her phone and gave Lacey a look that said it all. Back off, Mom. And because her own mother never had, Lacey let the conversation go as they piled into Lacey’s car and headed toward Meagan’s house.
“Would you look at that?” Zoe mused as they cruised through town.
“Look at what?” Lacey asked.
“Interesting,” Zoe said, sliding a look to Tessa that Lacey didn’t quite get.
“What’s interesting?” Lacey pressed.
“Just that little place with the drunk-looking bird on the front. It’s cute. Let’s have dinner there.”
“The Toasted Pelican?” Lacey shook her head. “No way we’re going there. They have sucky bar food. I think we should either go to South of the Border for Mexican or see—”
“I want to go to the Toasted Pelican,” Zoe said. “It looks like fun.”
“It is, if you want to get drunk and meet locals who live, breathe, and sleep fishing.”
“Maybe you’ll meet a nice guy, so I want to go there.”
“Mom doesn’t date, Aunt Zoe,” Ashley told her. “But if you go to South of the Border will you please get me a doggie bag of enchiladas? They rock.”
“Why doesn’t Mom date?” Zoe asked pointedly, turning around in the passenger seat to look at Ashley.
“Because she isn’t interested in any of the men on this island,” Lacey interjected, watching the yellow light at Center Street, ready to roll through it. “And my nonexistent dating life is not of any interest to my daughter.”
“Mom doesn’t date because she’ll never find a man like my dad.”
Lacey’s foot jammed on the brake in shock, jerking them all forward into their seat belts. “Sorry, the light was…” Her gaze shifted to Ashley in the rearview mirror. “Honey, where on earth did that come from?”
“Truth hurts, Mom.”
Lacey searched her daughter’s pale green eyes, exactly the color of David’s.
“That’s not why I don’t date,” Lacey said after a long, awkward pause. “I just haven’t met anyone interesting.”
“Which is why we’re going to the Toasted Pelican for dinner.”
“Zoe!” Lacey switched her attention to the other wayward child in the car. “I’m telling you, the food, the atmosphere—it’s not our kind of place.”
Zoe just lifted one eyebrow. “You might change your mind.”
Lacey was still too shaken by Ashley’s comment about David—which had happened a few other times recently—to argue over where they were eating. Silent, she took the next left and made her way to Meagan’s house, where three teenage girls were hanging out in the front, waiting for Ashley.
“Who are those other girls, Ashley?”
Lacey took a breath. “I mean, what are their names?”
“Oh my God, Mom. You’ve known Meagan since I was, like, in preschool. Bye, you guys. Have fun!” She was out before another question could be asked.
Lacey eyed the group but Tessa gave her shoulder a tap. “She’s fine, Mom. Anyway, they remind me of us at Tolbert Hall.”
“That’s the problem,” Lacey said. “I know what we did in college.”
“She’s in ninth grade. Don’t worry.” The girls were headed toward the house, heads close, giggling. “Nothing like a foursome,” Tessa added wistfully.
Lacey glanced over her shoulder. “Hey, you want to drive to the mainland and surprise Jocelyn? I hate that she’s alone tonight.”
“She doesn’t,” Tessa said. “You know solitude is like air to Jocelyn. She needs it to survive.”
“Anyway, we’re going to the Toasted Pelican now,” Zoe said again, this time with little humor and plenty of determination.
“What is with you?” Lacey demanded. “That place is a dive, the food is greasy, and the wine is watered down.”
“And an extremely sexy architect who may or may not be officially licensed but definitely appears to have some kind of magic drafting tool just walked in the front door. So move your ass, Armstrong. You got work to do.”
Lacey’s jaw dropped. She’d told her friends about meeting Clay on the beach and the story he’d given about his experience in the field, but clearly they weren’t dismayed by his lack of qualifications.
Tessa gave Lacey’s shoulder a nudge from the backseat. “C’mon, Lace. You know you want to.”
“That’s not how I want to talk to him, in some bar. I’ll… call him. After I hear back from his father. And check out his credentials. I don’t know anything about him and…”
Her voice faded, met by dead silence and “get real” stares.
“C’mon, you guys. Tonight’s for us. This is our reunion, a chance to catch up and talk, not worry about him and—”
“Lacey.” The warning came in unison and hit a bull’s-eye. They were right, damn it.
“You know, girls, sometimes nothing beats a watered-down wine.”
Zoe held up her fist for celebratory knuckles. “That’s what I’m talkin’ about.”
Clay looked from one woman to the other, still having a hard time remembering who was Gloria and who was Grace.
The two had flanked him fairly quickly at the bar. They were not-unattractive MILF-y types, late thirties or early forties. Both looked vaguely familiar, but Mimosa Key was small enough that even in his few days here he’d gotten to know some local faces.
Gloria was the dark-haired one, with thick bangs and big brown eyes, a little younger and more reserved than the other. Grace had frosted hair, a spray-on tan—which struck him as odd in Florida—and, despite the thick gold band on her left ring finger, seemed far more physically aggressive.
Grace’s first question was where was he staying.
“Hibiscus Court near the harbor,” he replied, sipping a lukewarm draft and fighting the urge to check out the bar for anyone else he might recognize. Not that he expected Lacey Armstrong to show up in a place like this. He’d come to grill the locals and find out what he could about her, so he forced himself to focus on the women who’d zeroed in on him as soon as he’d arrived.
“You planning to stay awhile?” Grace asked. “That’s a furnished rental, but I know Chuck Mueller wouldn’t let you sign less than a three-month lease.”
“I’m still deciding, but I wanted to keep my options open.” He’d signed that three-month lease, but he was optimistic like that. “And there aren’t a lot of other places to stay around here unless I go to the mainland.”
Grace’s smile widened as she exchanged a look with Gloria. “You just aren’t talking to the right people, hon. I’m the owner of the Fourway Motel.”
Excerpted from Barefoot in the Sand by St. Claire, Roxanne Copyright © 2012 by St. Claire, Roxanne. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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