Nealy Grainger knew that returning to Cypress Pointe meant an inevitable encounter with her teenage crush, and momentary husband, Dane Peterson. She could handle it. She wasn't the wounded girl who'd left Cypress Pointe years ago, heartbroken and furious when Dane had annulled their marriage the day after they'd eloped.
Now one of L.A.'s most in-demand celebrity event planners, Nealy's only come back for a vacation and to help with her sister's weddingnot for a reunion with her long-lost love. But the more their paths cross, the more the sparks fly! Maybe their connection isn't over just yet .
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After being away from Cypress Pointe, Florida, for more years than she cared to count, Nealy Grainger expected to find more changes in her small hometown. Sure, a few new businesses had taken up residence on Main Street, but the familiar sights of Milly's Gifts and Things, Rascal's Candy Shoppe, Duke's Grill, and Cuppa Joe, her grandmother's coffee shop, remained the same. Maybe she expected more because her life had changed so much since she left. Shouldn't everyone else's life have changed, too?
Late-afternoon sunlight sparkled off store windows while tourists browsed from the sidewalk, some seeking protection under the store canopies to escape the afternoon heat. She drove the candy-apple-red rented convertible toward the north end of town, deeply inhaling the salty air as she cruised past the public beach, the location where countless days had been spent lounging in the sun, splashing in the waves and hanging out at late-night bonfires.
From the radio, Trisha Yearwood's lyrical voice crooned a soulful melody about driving past an old boyfriend's house after many years away.
Yes, it had been years since she'd been home, but the old boyfriend part? The term boyfriend, even if she had considered him a quote-unquote boyfriend, would have been used quite loosely. What they'd had was intense, quick and forever burned upon her heart. Boyfriend? No. They'd fast-forwarded through that phase and went straight to the altar. Husband? Yes, with a capital H.
Actually, ex-husband was a more accurate description.
Her cell phone rang to the tune of "Surfin' U.S.A.," a peppy Beach Boys song she'd come to love since living in California. She snatched up the phone and noted the caller ID. Her boss's number. If she was calling, it meant some kind of drama had transpired. Nealy had had everything in order before leaving. As executive assistant to the party planner of the celebrities, every detail must be perfect. Expensively perfect.
"Hi, Crystal. Is everything all right?" she asked while silently praying she hadn't forgotten anything.
"Mr. Taylor wants the color scheme changed."
"Now? The party is Friday night." She'd checkmarked each detail with the man weeks ago, from the monogrammed napkins to the rented crystal chandelier he insisted on dangling from a tree on his oceanfront property.
"His astrologist says blue is not a good color for him this month. She insists he should focus on red."
Nealy worked for Milestones by Crystal, a much sought-after event planning company in Los Angeles. They had three huge parties booked for the upcoming weekend and even though she'd put her vacation request in weeks ago, her boss didn't let the pesky little inconvenience of Nealy being out of town stop her from calling.
"Can't Liz handle it?"
"No. Mr. Taylor refuses to talk to anyone but you."
Nealy took a deep breath since she couldn't close her eyes and count to ten. Hollywood clients could be a challenge, but her boss even more so. She'd loved her job when she first started four years ago, but as the company grew, their stress levels had gone off the charts. Her boss knew Nealy had come home to visit her family, yet she phoned as if it were a snap for Nealy to handle the problems from Florida. So much for her vacation.
"Okay, I'll give him a call as soon as I can. Then I'll get in touch with Marsha at Elegant Linens. She owes me, so I'm sure she'll make the changes. Can you speak to Michele and see what she can pull off with the flower arrangements?"
The rustling of papers sounded over the line. Nealy formed a mental picture of Crystal sitting at her desk, her attention already focused on a different problem while Nealy tried to fix the current one.
"Hmm. Michele? Yes, I'll contact her."
Nealy breathed out a sigh of relief. "Good. I'll call Mr. Taylor. And, Crystal?"
"Then I'm on vacation, okay?"
"Of course. Unless I need you."
Crystal signed off. Nealy knew it wasn't the last time she'd hear from the woman during her much-needed break.
In the past year, Nealy's workload had doubled. She never complained because she appreciated the steady paycheck. With the prospect of a new client signing with them soon, her workload was about to get even more hectic.
An up-and-coming fashion designer, Ashlee James, popular with young stars, had shown an interest in hiring Milestones by Crystal to plan her clothing launch and then take care of all subsequent events. Everyone at the company had their fingers crossed the contract would come through, especially Nealy, who was tapped to lead the project. Interacting with elite clientele from Hollywood and L.A. had its moments, but Nealy logged long hours arranging an event. Did she have time for a social life? Please. Dating? Forget it. She hadn't seen Sam, her kinda, sorta boyfriend, in three weeks. Though when it came to Sam, her workload wasn't the only cause for the distance between them. He put in just as many hours at his office, which made their relationship status vague.
She pushed her dating woes to the back of her mind. She had more important matters to fret over. Namely, her sister's multiple engagement parties. Yes, multiple. What had started out as an intimate gathering of friends and family to celebrate the joyous occasion soon morphed into adding an additional party to allow the senatorthe fiance's fatherto invite his political friends and financial backers so they, too, could offer their best wishes. Between the demands of the two families, her sister had booked both engagement parties for this weekend.
When Nealy's sister Juliet had called to tell her about the engagement, she begged Nealy to plan the bigger party. Since she was marrying into an illustrious political family, Juliet wanted to impress her future in-laws. She complained because the coordinator she was working with didn't have ideas grand enough to make an impression on the senatorial family. Juliet wanted the glitz and glamour of a Hollywood A-list event. Nealy could make that happen.
Nealy had her reservations; after all, it wasn't as if she lived close by. Juliet put her in contact with the coordinator at the venue where both parties would take place and the two got down to business. Soon, Nealy realized her sister's frustration with the woman. To say her ideas were lackluster was being kind. Sure, a traditional party might be nice for the quaint coastal town of Cypress Pointe, but it would never do for her sister's opulent vision. Nealy took over and before long was working her magic from the other side of the country. Now she had only a few days to finalize the arrangements for the two events.
In addition to the engagement parties, Nealy's second mission involved Cuppa Joe, her grandmother's coffee shop. When her grandmother found out Nealy would be coming home, she asked Nealy to run the shop while she went on a seniors' cruise. Growing up, the coffee shop had been Nealy's second home. She loved the place and would do anything for her grandmother, so she agreed, but secretly wondered if she was pushing herself too hard.
She couldn't remember the last personal day she'd taken, let alone her last real vacation. Was it the first year she worked for Milestones by Crystal? Once she decided to come home to Cypress Pointe for her sister, she'd stood firm on using the vacation days she'd accumulated, knowing once they landed the Ashlee James account, there would be no more free time for visiting family. Okay, so this had turned into a working vacation, but after years of working nonstop, could she picture herself relaxing and doing nothing? Hardly. She'd been born in high gear.
Driving past Swindler's Ice Cream Shop, Nealy noted a young couple walking out the door, hand in hand. Her heart pinched at the sight. How many times had she and her ex met there for what they thought was a secret rendezvous? Another blast from the past. Until now, she'd kept the special memories from that summer tucked away. But really, what did she expect? Had she thought coming back to Cypress Pointe wouldn't stir up a mess of emotions? She thought she'd recovered from her heartache, but driving through town proved challenging.
Her cell phone rang. "Not again," she muttered, and immediately dismissed the leftover romantic notions and adopted her usual business tone. "Nealy Grainger at your service."
"Where are you?" her sister Juliet whisper-hissed into the phone.
"About ten minutes away."
"Step on it."
"Mom getting on your last nerve?"
"I swear, I'm about to break something. Tonight was to be spent visiting with you. It wasn't supposed to turn into let's-interfere-with-everylittle-detail night."
Today, Wednesday, the women of the family were getting together to make last-minute tweaks to Nealy's plans for the weekend. The next several days would be a whirlwind of formal social gatherings and casual meet-and-greet time as the families got to know one another.
"When did my engagement turn into a national event?" Juliet asked.
"When you agreed to marry a senator's son."
"I know I asked you to go big, but this has turned into a media frenzy. And who ever heard of a three-day engagement party?"
Their mother. When Nealy's older sister got married it had been a rushed affair because Lanie had been in college at the time, which left their mother disappointed at its small scale.
Now they were going to be related to a senatorher mother's dream come trueso the ante had gone up. And up. And up.
"Where's Grandmother? She's good at distracting Mom."
"She's fed up, too."
Not good if Dorinda Hobart, the voice of reason, couldn't fix things.
"Hold on. Sanity's on the way."
Nealy ignored the usual foreboding that accompanied anything to do with their mother. Instead, she enjoyed the balmy breeze tickling her face. She'd been putting off the prodigal return and the old twinge of inferiority crept up on her, well aware certain family members wouldn't welcome her with open arms. She didn't expect them to behave any differently. She'd burned her bridges years ago and dreaded the cool reception awaiting her.
It doesn't bother me.
Right. If she repeated the mantra enough times, she might believe it.
Instead of dwelling on her insecurities, she turned her attention to her sister. Juliet would be fretting over the details, because, well, that's what Juliet did. As the baby of the family, they went overboard to pamper and protect her.
Then at fourteen, Juliet had been in a horrific automobile accident. Hospital stays and months of rehab had been the norm for her for a long while. The physical scars had healed, but the emotional toll? Nealy wasn't sure her sister had ever recovered. So how could she deny her sister when she begged Nealy to come home, claiming she needed her cool, professional demeanor to deal with a party and a weekend schedule growing bigger and bigger by the moment? How Juliet expected Nealy to keep everyone calm, she had no idea. She was an event planner, after all, not a miracle worker.
As Nealy pulled the car into the parking lot of the Grand Cypress Hotel, the location of all the parties, crushed shells crunched under the tires. Searching for an empty spot in the crowded lot took longer than she'd anticipated but she finally eased into a space. Cutting the ignition, she grabbed her purse and briefcase before exiting the car.
She took a few steps before stopping in her tracks before the main entrance. Wow. The previously modern contemporary style of the hotel now sported a charming Southern plantation facade. When she'd worked here during high school, the place had lost its luster, even though many of the same families returned to the hotel to spend their summer vacations. She'd done shifts at the snack bar, been a lifeguard and parked cars for fancy events.
She'd also met her ex here.
From the moment she laid eyes on him waiting tables in the dining room, she had decided to go after him. She'd strutted below the floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the pool area, twirling her lifeguard whistle to catch his eye. It worked. Boy, had it worked.
Before more memories could overwhelm her, she took a breath and marched on.
Her heels sank into the crushed shells as she took the path from the parking lot. Why on earth had she chosen three-inch heels today? Not that she had a choice. She'd caught a redeye flight immediately after finishing up an event she couldn't miss. It meant she'd had no time to change from her lemon-yellow linen business suit and leopard-print heels. Huffing along, she reached the wide veranda of the renovated hotel.
Initially she'd been surprised when Juliet booked the engagement party, and subsequent wedding, at this location, until her sister explained the hotel's face-lift. The pristine white exterior with shiny black shutters fronted by a wide veranda dotted with rocking chairs promised a no-stress zone for weary guests.
As she stepped into the spacious foyer, cool air greeted her, along with some major structural improvements. The new owner had removed the old ceiling to create an open two-story masterpiece. Nealy's breath caught. Marble floors shone as light filtered through the frosted dome ceiling. A counter nearby, also in marble, had staff waiting behind it to help the guests.
She let out a low whistle. "Not too shabby."
Her cell phone rang. This had to be Juliet worried about her ETA. As she crossed the highly glossed lobby floor, her heels echoed. "Hold on," she said to herself, digging through the contents of her purse, intent on finding her phone, when she bumped into a tall, solid form.
"Whoa," a deep masculine voice said as firm hands grabbed hold of her upper arms to steady her.
"I'm so sorry," she sputtered, pushing her hair from her eyes. "I'm in a hurry and wasn't watching where I" Her words stopped as she recognized the man holding her in place. Him. "Dane?" she whispered.
"Nealy. Been a long time."
Her breathing nearly stopped as she gaped at her ex-husband, Dane Peterson.
No. This couldn't be right, could it?
"What are you doing here?" she managed to croak out.
"I'm the owner."
"The Grand Cypress Hotel."
Granted, running into Dane made her thinking a little fuzzy, but "You own this hotel?"
Knocked off-kilter by her first glimpse of Dane after twelve years apart, her legs became shaky. Why hadn't anyone told her Dane owned the hotel? Probably because they figured she wouldn't step foot in the place if she knew.
They'd have been right.
He'd aged well, exceptionally well, as evidenced by the unexpected stirring in her belly. His dark blond hair, highlighted by the sun, was cut short, a far cry from the disheveled locks he'd once sported. Whiskey-hued eyes and tanned skin portrayed the picture of a man in his prime. Even more handsome than the boy from her memories. She still remembered the lanky teen, long hair falling over his brow into his eyes, wearing T-shirts proclaiming the name of a favorite band paired with ripped jeans and sneakers. Today, a mature Dane wore navy pants and a light blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up his forearms. His dark shoes shone.
His masculine scent, so alluring and familiar, had her leaning toward him until she realized her mistake and blinking furiously, she took a hasty step back from the stunning man standing before her and the powerful reaction he evoked.
"How did you come to own this place?"