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The television in Emily Castle's Aspen, Colorado, hotel room was tuned to the Weather Channel, where there was minute-by-minute coverage of the hurricane aiming directly at North Carolina's coast, the place that had been like a second home to her. Childhood summers there had been slow and lazy and sweet. The beach town her grandmother called home was where she'd ultimately experienced her first heartache, yet despite those painful memories and despite everything she had on her plate at the moment, it was where she needed to be.
Even before her cell phone rang, she was checking flight schedules on her laptop. She clicked on a connecting flight between Atlanta and Raleigh, North Carolina, just as she answered the incoming call.
"Already on it," she told her sister Gabriella. "I should be able to get to Raleigh by sometime late tomorrow."
"Not a chance," Gabi argued. "Flights are going to be canceled up and down the East Coast for at least a day or two. You're better off waiting until next week and booking for Monday, maybe even Tuesday. Avoid the craziness."
"What's Samantha doing?" Emily asked, referring to their older sister.
"She's rented a car and is already on her way down from New York. She'll be here later tonight, hopefully ahead of the storm. They're predicting landfall overnight. We're already getting some of the wind and rain bands clear over here."
Of course Samantha would beat the storm! Emily couldn't seem to stop herself from frowning. Though she'd never totally understood it, the odd competitiveness she'd always felt with her oldest sister kicked in with a vengeance. She supposed with three sisters, there were bound to be rivalries, but why with Samantha and not Gabi? Gabi was the driven, successful businesswoman, the one most like her in terms of ambition.
"I'm getting on a flight out of here tonight," Emily said determinedly, motivated by Samantha's plans. "If I have to drive from Atlanta, then that's what I'll do."
Rather than admonishing her, Gabi chuckled. "Samantha said you were going to say that. From the time you understood the difference between winning and losing, you hated it when she beat you at anything. Okay, fine. Get here when you can. Just do it safely. This storm isn't looking pretty. If it wobbles even the slightest bit to the west, Sand Castle Bay will take a direct hit. You can bet the road down to Hatteras will wash out again unless they were a lot smarter when they did the repairs after the last storm."
"How's Grandmother?" Cora Jane Castle was in her mid-seventies but still going strong and determined to continue operating the beachfront restaurant opened by her late husband even though no one in the family had demonstrated any interest in running it. In Emily's view, she ought to sell it and enjoy her golden years, but the mere mention of such an idea was considered blasphemy.
"Stoic about the storm, but mad as a wet hen that Dad drove over and picked her up to bring her to Raleigh to ride out the hurricane," Gabi assessed. "She's in my kitchen cooking and muttering a few very bad words I had no idea she knew. I think that's why Dad dropped her here, then took off. He didn't want to be around when she got her hands on my knives."
"Or it could be he had no idea what to say to her. That's his way, isn't it?" Emily said with a hint of bitterness. Under the best of conditions, her father, Sam, wasn't communicative. Under the worst, he simply wasn't around. Most of the time she'd made her peace with that, but on occasion simmering resentments rose to the surface.
"He has work to do," Gabi said, immediately defensive, as always. "Important work. Do you know the kind of impact these biomedical studies at his company could have on people's lives?"
"I wonder how many times he said exactly that to Mother when he went off and left her to cope with raising us."
For once Gabi didn't overreact. "It was a constant refrain, wasn't it? Well, we're all grown-up. We should be over all those missed school plays and recitals and soccer games by now."
"Says the not-so-well-adjusted woman who's doing her best to follow in his footsteps," Emily taunted with good humor. "You know you're no better than he is, Gabriella. You may not be a scientist, but you are a workaholic. That's why you get so uptight when I criticize him."
The silence that greeted her comment was deafening. "Gabi, I was only teasing," Emily apologized, aware that she'd crossed a line. "Seriously. You know how proud we all are of your accomplishments. You're a top executive at one of the hottest biomed companies in North Carolina, if not the entire country."
"I know. You just struck a nerve, that's all," Gabi said, then added briskly, "Let me know when you're getting in and I'll pick you up at the airport, okay?"
Before Emily could offer another apology for what she had recognized as an insensitive, ill-timed remark, Gabriella had hung up. Not with the sort of clatter that would mirror Emily's own quick flares of temper, but quietly. Somehow that was much, much worse.
Boone Dorsett had been through his share of hurricane warnings and actual hits on the coast. He had the boarding-up routine down pat. But when it came right down to it, Mother Nature was always in control of the outcome.
As a kid he'd been awed by the ferocious storms, but he'd had little real understanding of the havoc they could wreak on people's lives. These days, with a son, a home and a busy restaurant, he had a far better grasp of what could be lost to high winds, devastating storm surges and flood waters. He'd seen roads washed out, houses toppled, lives uprooted.
Thankfully, this latest storm had taken a last-minute turn east and delivered only a glancing blow. There was damage, plenty of it in fact, but so far he hadn't seen the kind of destruction he'd witnessed in the past. In fact, it had been relatively kind to him. There'd been some flooding at his waterfront restaurant, a few shingles ripped off the roof at his home, but his biggest concern after checking out his own property had been for Cora Jane's family restaurant.
Castle's by the Sea had been a constant in his life, as had Cora Jane. Both had inspired him to go into the restaurant business, not to mimic Castle's success, but to create his own welcoming ambiance. He owed Cora Jane, too, for helping him to believe in himself when no one in his own dysfunctional family had.
The biggest reason for Castle's success, other than its proximity to the ocean, good food and friendly service, was Cora Jane's devotion to it. She'd called him half a dozen times since the storm had passed to see if he'd been allowed back into Sand Castle Bay. The minute the evacuation order had been lifted, he'd crossed the bridge from the mainland to check his property and hers.
Now, standing in the middle of the damp, debris-littered dining room at Castle's by the Sea, he called her with the damage assessment she'd been anxiously awaiting.
"How bad is it?" she asked, foregoing so much as a hello. "Tell me the truth, Boone. Don't you dare su-garcoat it."
"Could have been worse," he told her. "There was some flooding, but no worse than over at my place."
"Shame on me," Cora Jane interrupted. "I never even asked how you fared in the storm. Just some flooding?"
"That was the worst of it," he confirmed. "My crew's already cleaning up. They know the drill. As for the house, it's fine. So is yours. A lot of tree limbs in the yard, a few roof shingles ripped off, but otherwise it's all good."
"Thank heavens. Now finish telling me about Castle's."
Boone complied. "A couple of storm shutters stripped away and the windows blew in. You'll have to replace a few of these waterlogged tables and chairs, treat everything for mold, and paint, but all in all, it's not as bad as it could have been."
"Still standing. Looks solid enough to me, but I'll have it checked."
"And the roof?"
Boone sucked in a breath. He hated delivering bad news and had deliberately put this off till last. "Now, I won't lie to you, Cora Jane, but the roof's looking pretty bad. Once the wind gets a hold on a few shingles, you know how it goes."
"Oh, I know well enough," she said, sounding stoic. "So, is it bad, as in a goner, or bad as in a few stray shingles came loose?"
He smiled. "I'd want to get Tommy Cahill over here to check it, but I'm thinking you'd be better off just getting the whole thing done. Shall I go ahead and call him? He owes me a favor. I think I can get him here before the day's out. I can call your insurance company and see about getting a cleaning crew in here, too."
"I'd be obliged if you could get Tommy over there, but I'll call the insurance people and there's no need for a cleaning crew," Cora Jane insisted. "I'll be back first thing tomorrow with the girls. With them pitching in, we can clean the place up in no time."
Boone's heart seemed to still at her words. The girls could only be her granddaughters, including the one who'd dumped him ten years ago and taken off to start a better life than she thought he'd be able to give her.
"Emily, too?" he asked, holding out a faint hope that she wouldn't be back here, in his face, testing his belief that he'd long ago gotten her out of his system.
"Of course," Cora Jane said, then added a little too gently, "Is that going to be a problem, Boone?"
"Of course not. Emily and me, that's in the past. The distant past," he added emphatically.
"Are you so sure about that?" she pressed.
"I moved on, married someone else, didn't I?" he said defensively.
"And lost Jenny way too soon," Cora Jane said, as if he needed reminding of his wife's death just over a year ago.
"But not our son," Boone said. "I still have B.J. to think about. He's my life these days."
"I know you're devoted to that boy, but you need more," she lectured. "You deserve to have a full and happy life."
"Someday maybe I'll find the kind of happiness you're talking about," Boone said, "but I'm not looking for it, and it sure as heck isn't going to be with a woman who didn't think I'd amount to much."
Cora Jane drew in a shocked breath. "Boone, that is not what happened. Emily never judged you and found you lacking. She just had all these pie-in-the-sky dreams for herself. She needed to leave here and test herself, see what she could accomplish."
"That's your spin. I saw it a little differently," Boone said. "Maybe we'd better not talk about Emily. We've stayed friends, you and me, by keeping her off-limits. She's family and you love her. Of course you'd defend her."
"You're family, too," Cora Jane insisted fiercely. "Or as good as."
Boone smiled. "You've always made me feel that way. Now let me make those calls and see what I can do to get this place back in working order before you get here. I know you're going to want to plug in the coffeepot and open the doors as soon as the power's back on. I should warn you that could be another couple of days. You maybe ought to consider staying with Gabi until it's fixed."
"I need to be there," Cora Jane replied determinedly. "Sitting around here and worrying isn't getting anything accomplished. I imagine we can get by on that generator you had installed after the last storm."
"I'll make sure it's working and check the refrigerators and freezer to make sure things stayed cold. Anything else you need me to do before you come home?"
"If Tommy gives you a fair estimate on the roof, tell him to get started, okay?"
"You have my word, he'll be fair," Boone assured her. "And you'll be first on his list. Like I said, he owes me."
"Then I'll see you tomorrow," Cora Jane said. "Thanks for checking on things for me."
"It's what family does," he replied, knowing it was a lesson he'd learned from Cora Jane, not from either of his own parents. Being supportive simply wasn't part of their makeup.
As he hung up, he couldn't help wondering if there would ever come a day when he'd not regret that his ties to Cora Jane and her family weren't of a far more permanent variety.
It took Emily two frustrating days to make all the right connections from Colorado to North Carolina. More annoying than the time wasted in airports was imagining Gabi's I-told-you-so when she finally landed in Raleigh on a clear day that bore no lingering evidence of the nasty weather that had blown through the state two days before.
But when she emerged from the airport with her carry-on luggage, it was Samantha who awaited her. Her big sister enveloped her in a fierce hug.
Though huge, fashionable sunglasses hid most of her face, and her artfully streaked hair was swept up in a careless ponytail, there was no disguising that she was somebody famous. It had always amazed Emily how Samantha could wear faded jeans and a T-shirt and wind up looking like a cover model. She just had that celebrity look about her, even if her acting career had never taken off quite the way she'd envisioned.
"Where's Gabi?" Emily asked, glancing around.
"Gram insisted on going home," Emily said readily.
"Got it in one," Samantha confirmed. "The minute they allowed residents back out there, Gram packed her bag. Gabi stalled her for a day, then told her if she was going to be stubborn as an old mule, at least she wasn't going alone. They left this morning at dawn, so I stuck around to be your designated driver."
"Do you actually remember how to drive?" Emily inquired skeptically. "You've been living in New York a long time."
Samantha merely lifted a brow, which told Emily what her sister thought about her sense of humor. That was the thing about having an actress in the family. Samantha could convey more with a look than most people could with an entire diatribe. Emily had been on the receiving end of a lot of those looks over the years.
"Do not start with me," Samantha warned. "I made it here, didn't I?"
Emily nodded toward the waiting car. "Is that the same car you drove from New York? Or did you have to trade in a wreck?"
"You are not amusing," Samantha retorted. She glanced at the compact carry-on Emily had brought. "That's it? That's all your luggage?"
Emily shrugged. "I'm used to traveling light. I was in Aspen on a job when I heard about the storm. I didn't have time to go back to Los Angeles to pick up more things."
"Anything in there suitable for mopping and scrubbing?" Samantha asked doubtfully. "I just don't see you mucking out the family restaurant in your designer heels. Those are Louboutins, right? You always did have expensive taste."