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Rock Dempsey loved Sunset Island.
He loved the way the small island off the Georgia coast lay tossed like a woman's dainty slipper near the mainland. He loved the way the island sat at the mouth of the Savannah River, the land caught between a glistening oval-shaped bay and the ever-churning Atlantic Ocean. He loved having the sunrise to the east over the sea, and the sunset to the west over the bay.
As he stood in the middle of his workshop, with the ocean breezes coming through the thrown-open doors from the ocean on one side and the bay on the other, Rock decided a man couldn't ask for much more in life.
Unless that man was pushing thirty-five and his whimsical mother was still asking him when he was going to settle down and produce a passel of grandchildren for her to spoil.
"Roderick, I could die and go to heaven without even a memory of a sweet baby to carry home with me," his mother, Eloise, had told him in a gentle huff just that morning when he'd stopped by for breakfast.
They had this same conversation at least once a week. It was never a good sign when his mother used his given name in a discussion. But then, his brothers Stone and Clay had to hear it from Eloise, too, each time they came to visit.
In her mid-fifties and long widowed, Eloise Dempsey kept close tabs on her three sons, properly named Roderick, Stanton and Clayton, but affectionately nicknamed Rock, Stone and Clay. She fretted that none of them had yet to make a lifetime commitment to one woman. If Rock blamed their artistic mother and her flighty ways for her sons' obvious fear of commitment, he'd never say that out loud to Eloise. She'd had enough heartache in her life, between being disinherited and then losing the man she had loved—and had given up that inheritance to be with—to the sea in a terrible storm. Even if she had sacrificed quality time with her sons to become one of the most famous sculpture artists in the South, Rock was trying very hard to come to terms with his lovable mother's flaws. And his own.
Rock reminded himself that Eloise was trying, now that she'd found success with her art, to make things up to her children. Still, the memories of eating TV dinners and going to bed tired after watching over his two younger brothers always left a bad taste in Rock's mouth.
Growing up, he'd often dreamed of a traditional family, with a mom and dad who were devoted to family and children, with good, home-cooked meals and nights spent together watching a movie or sharing a supper out on the shore. Rock and his brothers had missed out on those things. While their mother pursued her art, they had had to find odd jobs here and there to make ends meet. The islanders had been kind and watchful, and Eloise had continued her work, unaware and undisturbed, while her children had the run of the land.
If he closed his eyes, he could still hear the hiss of her welding torch, late into the night. The glare had always been too bright for Rock, but the sound of it never went away. If he looked north toward what the islanders called the Ankle Curve, he could just make out the turret of the rambling Victorian beach house where his mother had lived and worked for so many years. He could still see her there, in the big barn settled deep in the moss-covered trees that she used as a studio, bent over yet another bust shaped from clay or an aged cross forged from wood and stone. His mother's hands had created beauty.
But he'd missed those same hands tucking him in at night.
Not wanting to dwell on his mother's shortcomings—or his own in the love department, for that matter—Rock turned back to the cabinets he'd been restoring for Miss McPherson. Now, there was an available single woman. She was in church every Sunday, tithed regularly, cooked everything from Brunswick stew to clam chowder and had a smile that lit up a room. Too bad she was pushing eighty.
"One day I'm going to get up the courage to ask Miss Mac why she never married," Rock said to the gleaming oak cabinet door he'd just finished vanishing.
"Do you often talk to your cabinets?" a soft feminine voice said from the open shed doors.
Rock turned to find a petite, auburn-haired woman staring at him, her green eyes slanted and questioning, a slight smile on her angular face. He stood there like a big dummy while she walked into the quiet cool of his work shed, her crisp white cotton shirt and polished tan trousers giving her an air of sophistication.
Coming out of his fog, Rock grabbed a wipe rag and ran it over his hands. "I'm afraid I do tend to talk to my creations. A bad habit." Tossing the rag aside, he leaned back on the long, dented work table. "What can I do for you?"
She pushed at a wave of burnished hair that kept falling over her chin. "I'm Ana Hanson. I just moved into the Harper house—soon to be Ana's Tea Room and Art Gallery."
"Oh." Trying to hide his surprise, Rock pushed off the table to extend a hand. "My mother told me about you."
And had urged him to get to know the single newcomer to the tiny island a little better. "Ana will be lonely, Rock. Invite her to church, at least. Just as a way to break the ice."
"Well, don't look so glum," the woman said, her head tilting in defense. "Did I come at a bad time?"
Despite his mother's very obvious suggestion echoing through his head, Rock tried to stick to the here and now. He felt horrible at the way he'd sounded. "No, no. It's just—I had expected—I thought you'd be older, more like my Mother's other eccentric friends." Feeling more foolish with each word, he quickly added, "Mom said you needed some new cabinets?"
Ana nodded through an amused smile, causing the same silky length of curls to fall right back across her face. "Yes. As you probably know, the Harper house needed major renovations. Some of the preliminary work in the upstairs apartment has been done, thanks to my sister—she's a Realtor and has all kinds of connections with carpenters and contractors out of Savannah—but I wanted someone local and more accessible to help me renovate the kitchen and main dining area."
"And that'd be me?" Rock grinned, glad that at least his mother's bragging often brought him new customers.
"You come highly recommended," Ana said as she ran a hand over a newly restored pie safe. "That's one reason I waited before finishing this part of the project. Your mother suggested we might work together on this—that you'd understand… what I expected…as far as cabinets and bookshelves go."
"That's just my mother talking," Rock responded, noting that the floral scent of Ana Hanson's perfume managed to find its way to his nose over the smell of sawdust and varnish stripper. "She thinks I inherited some of her artistic ability."
"I'd have to agree with Eloise," Ana replied, an appreciative expression on her face as her gaze moved over the many cabinets, armoires and chests Rock had either built from scratch or restored. "She seems to be a good judge of talent."
"How do you know my mother?" he asked, curious as to how Ana had found her way to Sunset Island.
"I worked at an art gallery in Savannah," Ana explained. "We exhibited some of your mother's work. I got to know her when we held a reception in her honor."
"Ah, that explains it, then," Rock said, turning to put away his tools. "My mother's reputation precedes all of us."
"You sound almost ambivalent about that."
He whirled to find Ana's luminous green eyes on him.
"It's a long story, but yes, I guess it still surprises me that she's so famous."
"She has a lot of talent."
"Yes, she does. I can't argue with that." He shrugged, brushed wood chips off the sleeve of his T-shirt. "Look, I love and respect my mother. And her designs are beautiful. But she works too hard—she's almost obsessed with it."
"Most good artists are that way, don't you think?"
Rock studied her for a minute, wondering if this cute woman was just like his mother. Would Ana Hanson put work above all else in her life? Probably, since she seemed anxious to make her tea room a success. "I guess you're right. And since you worked in an art gallery, you probably appreciate art more than I do. So why don't we stick to a subject I know best—cabinets. What do you have in mind?"
Ana had a lot of things in mind, but she didn't think Rock Dempsey wanted to hear about her hopes and dreams for this business venture. Should she tell him she'd had to sell practically everything she owned to make the down payment on the Harper house? Should she explain to him that, since college, her dream had been to own some sort of gallery? Should she go into detail about how her sister, Tara, had suggested Ana use her talent for cooking along with her good eye for art to come to Sunset Island and open a combination tea room and art gallery?
Ana watched as Rock busied himself with cleaning his workspace. He seemed on edge, resistant to her. Maybe because his mother had sent her to him. Did Rock think Eloise was up to more than just securing him another paying customer? Well, Ana could certainly nip that little concept right in the bud. She didn't have time for matchmaking, even if Eloise meant well.
Ana had to get her tea room ready for the grand opening in a few weeks. And that opening depended on how quickly Rock Dempsey could help her.
"I have several ideas," she said in answer to his earlier question. "I want to build some cabinets and buffets in keeping with the Victorian flavor of the house. It was built around the turn of the last century."
"I'm familiar with the history of the Harper house," he said, smiling. "It's been vacant on and off over the years. When we were little, my brothers and I used to sneak in there at night, mostly to scare each other and see who would be the bravest by going into a dark, deserted house."
Ana decided Rock Dempsey seemed the type to brave any situation. He was the standard tall, dark and handsome, with fire-flashing deep blue eyes. But his face had an interesting aged look that spoke of wisdom and gentleness, the same tanned richness of the priceless wooden furniture he worked hard to restore. Did Rock need a bit of restoration himself, maybe?
"So, who was the bravest?" she asked.
He shrugged, grinned. "Well, none of us was very brave. I think I managed to sneak in a back window once, but, of course, Stone and Clay decided to come around front and jiggle the door, shouting 'Police,' which naturally made me run away in terror—terror that my mother would ground me for life, rather than fear of authority."
Ana started thumbing through a design book. "Sounds as if you and your brothers had an exciting life growing up."
"We had our moments," he said. "We've always been close—or…we were growing up. I guess we've drifted apart lately, though."
"That's too bad," Ana replied, thinking of the tenuous relationship she had with her sister Tara. Tara was hard to read at times, a type-A personality with a lightning temper and bitter memories. Ana harbored some of that same bitterness, directed toward her sister at times, toward herself at others. But she didn't want to think about that right now. She had to get back to work.
"So, anyway, I thought you might come by the house later today, if possible, to look at the kitchen and dining room. It's been completely overhauled—painted, new flooring, but I held off on the final plans. I want it to be perfect."
Rock handed her several more design books.
"Okay, then. Why don't you glance over these—there are several Victorian reproductions and some original restoration projects in there—and I'll meet you at the house, say, around four?"
"That would be good. I have some errands to run, but I should be back in plenty of time." She extended a hand. "Thanks… Rod—"
"It's Rock," he said, wincing. "My mother's choice of given names for her sons has left us the laughingstock of the island, I'm afraid."
"I like your name," Ana said, acutely aware of the strength and warmth of his big callused hand.
"Well, around here, everyone calls me Rock," he said. "Or… Preacher Rock."
Ana jerked her hand back. "You're a preacher?"
"Just on Sundays," he said, a teasing light making his dark eyes go as blue as the ocean at night. "I got the job by being in the right place at the wrong time, or something like that."
"You're going to have to explain."
He walked with her out into the oak-shadowed yard, then pointed to the tiny whitewashed church sitting like a child's playhouse a few yards away from his cottage and workshop. "Reverend Palc-zynski was the island preacher for over forty years. He lived in this cottage, preached every Sunday in the Sunset Chapel. Then one day he came out to the workshop to get his volleyball equipment—he loved to play volleyball—and fell over dead right underneath this great live oak. He was ninety."