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A man was staring at her in the oral care aisle.
A gorgeous, make-your-ovaries-shiver man.
Though it taxed her considerable powers of restraint, Daisy Davenport McClure did not stare back. She wouldn't give the stranger the courtesy of knowing he had rattled her.
She couldn't help feeling discombobulated, though. Dark, wavy-haired, green-eyed strangers did not stare at plain, boring her in the grocery store. Or on the street. Or on a car or a boat or a train or anywhere else Dr. Seuss could have come up with. She simply wasn't the kind of woman who drew that kind of male attention – and that was exactly the way she liked it.
Why was he staring? She was almost positive she had checked her reflection in the rearview mirror when she picked up her sister outside their aunt's house twenty minutes earlier and didn't remember seeing anything weird. No stray leaves from the yard work she'd been doing earlier, no smudges on her cheek, no splotched paint, no lettuce in her teeth.
There was no reason she could think of why this man might be looking at her as if she were his salvation.
She almost turned around to go down another aisle but despite her certainty that she didn't have any leafy vegetable residue in her teeth, she still really needed toothpaste, which was why she was here. She drew in a breath.
"Excuse me," she murmured, reaching around him for her favorite brand, the one that promised to whiten, give her fresh breath and vanquish any hint of tartar or gingivitis.
"Sorry," he said, easing back a little. The man looked pale beneath his tan and she thought she saw white lines around his mouth.
Probably hung over. Maybe he was a tourist who had started his vacation here on the beautifully rugged Northern California coast by doing his own Cape Sanctuary happy hour pub crawl and now was paying the price.
He didn't really look like a tourist, but one never knew.
She grabbed her toothpaste, tossed it on her basket and stepped away, careful not to make eye contact.
"Sorry. Have we met?" he asked. His voice was an appealing tenor with a slight accent she couldn't quite place. Australian, maybe? New Zealand? It was as gorgeous as the rest of him. Naturally.
"I'm sure we haven't," she answered curtly. While she considered herself eminently forgettable, she certainly would have remembered him.
"Sorry. It's odd. I feel like I should know you, somehow."
"You don't," she assured him, grabbed a box of dental floss she didn't really need and hurried out of the aisle.
It was the kind of interaction strangers had all the time – banal, meaningless – but somehow the encounter left her rattled. He left her rattled. When was the last time she had noticed how long a man's eyelashes were or the strong angle of his jaw or the little indentation that hinted at a dimple?
Longer than she could remember. That she had focused on those things on a stranger who was probably wasted did not say much for her taste or her wisdom, two things she usually took great pride in.
Edgy and unsettled, she tried to put the guy out of her head and went instead to find her sister so they could finish their shopping and make it to their aunt's in time.
As Daisy might have expected, she found Beatriz in the magazine aisle, leafing through a tabloid. Her sister might be a twenty-eight-year-old divorced mother, but she was sometimes a teenage girl at heart.
Now Bea was a woman that someone like the tipsy stranger in the toothpaste aisle would notice, with her dramatic dark curls, the little pierced diamond in her nose, her perfect makeup (though a little heavy to Daisy's taste). Everything about her drew attention, from her clothes to her hair to her wide, generous smile.
Bea had been boho before boho was a thing, with her own unique style and the voluptuous body and serenely classic features to pull off whatever look she wanted.
She was only a little envious of her sister's style. They were half-sisters and didn't look much alike, except for the hazel eyes they had inherited from their mother. Daisy's stick-straight hair was lighter, a boring chestnut color, and she wore it in a shoulder-length classic bob, using hairbands or pulling it up into an updo to keep it out of her face while she worked.
She looked down at her own respectable three-year-old summer dress and matching sandals. She dressed for comfort and ease, not fashion, fully aware that she often looked like somebody's boring aunt – which she supposed she was, since Bea's daughter Mari was her niece.
So why had the man with the delectable accent even noticed her, let alone stared at her like he was ... hungry?
It didn't matter. She would likely never see him again. The tourist season on the Northern California coast never really ended but August was particularly crowded. He would probably be gone by Monday.
She didn't miss the fact that her sister's arms were empty and there was no cart in sight. "You were supposed to be picking up the birthday cake and the candles!"
She had a sinking suspicion they were going to be late.
"Sorry. I got a little distracted by this."
She flipped up the magazine so Daisy could see the cover. There, in vivid color, was a picture of one of the most famous men in the country, looking tortured and sexy. Lean, tattooed, dangerous.
Above his photograph read the headline in huge type:
Cruz in seclusion after attack by crazed fan
In smaller type that ran across his legs in the picture, in the tight leather leggings his fans loved, another headline read:
Whereabouts of rocker unknown.
"They've done a two-page spread on it." Bea flipped the magazine around so Daisy could see several other scattering of pictures, one that looked like a grainy picture of Cruz on an ambulance stretcher and another of a man whose face she couldn't see, slumped against a gray wall and holding his hands against his abdomen, a red stain spreading out across his shirt.
She couldn't read the caption from where she stood. Was that the attacker, or the mysterious man who had rushed to the rescue?
The attack on hometown boy Cruz Romero had been the talk of Cape Sanctuary since it happened a week earlier. People were talking about it everywhere she went in town. Every single client who came into Daisy's accounting and financial planning office that week had brought it up to her, asking if she knew anything about where Cruz might be, how badly he had been injured, if it was true that he had been attacked by a jealous husband.
She imagined Bea had it much, much worse.
Cruz was her ex-husband, after all.
"Still no word?"
Bea shook her head. "Not since he called the night of the attack to make sure Marisol heard it from him first, before the rumors started flying at school, to assure her he only had a scratch. He was rattled and didn't make much sense."
"I guess. After only a couple of minutes, he said he had to go, that he was heading to the hospital for a few stitches and to check on the guy who saved his life. He promised he'd call, but it's been radio silence since then."
"From Cruz, maybe, but you've heard from his people."
"Yeah, his agent calls every day. Cruz is in seclusion but Lenny assures me he's fine and he'll call as soon as he has the chance."
That was strange enough to Daisy, since Cruz loved connecting with his fans on social media. She had never had a close brush with death, though, so it wasn't for her to judge.
"Buy it, if you want. Buy all of them, but I would suggest you don't let Mari see them yet. She's still upset about her dad."
"She's probably read the online edition on all their websites already, along with everything else she can find," Bea muttered.
Daisy didn't doubt it. Her niece was not only tech-savvy and headstrong but she adored her father and would want to read as much as possible about the accident that had nearly claimed his life.
"You buy your tabloids, I'll pick up the candles and the cake. We still have to stop by Melenzana's for the gnocchi she wanted."
"Right. Sorry. I'll go get the candles and some matches to light them as well and a bottle of wine."
Bea snatched several other magazines with Cruz's face on them from the racks and tucked them in Daisy's basket.
Daisy hurried to the bakery. Though it was in the grocery store, they still the best cakes in town.
It was their aunt's fortieth birthday. For months, Stella had been insisting she didn't want a big party to mark the big day, she only wanted their family – the three of them and Bea's daughter Mari – together for dinner, in the garden of Three Oaks, Stella's two-story Craftsman.
Her aunt deserved a party attended by everyone in town. She deserved a freaking ticker tape parade, as far as Daisy was concerned. She knew all the other lost souls Stella had rescued over the years would certainly agree with her.
She couldn't go against Stella's wishes, though. She loved her aunt too much. If Stella only wanted her immediate family to celebrate her milestone birthday with her – and the money they would spend donated to her charity instead – Daisy would make sure that was exactly what happened.
She picked up the cake they had ordered weeks ago, threw in some crusty Italian bread and some of the high-quality olive oil the store stocked, then headed for the checkout.
The cashier in her line had worked at the grocery store as long as Daisy had lived in Cape Sanctuary, while the bagger was another of her aunt's rescues.
"Hey, Daisy," he said, not quite making eye contact. Tommy Mathews was on the autism spectrum. When he had come to Stella, he had been considered unmanageable and difficult, close to being institutionalized after his mother died. He had lived with Stella for two years, from seventeen to nineteen, and had thrived with her loving care before moving into his own apartment with two other young adults who had special needs.
Now twenty, Tommy had a steady job at the supermarket and was taking classes to earn an associate's degree at the community college in the next town over.
He had come so far because of her aunt, whose circle of influence was legendary.
"Hi Tommy." She adored him and all the other young people who had come in and out of their lives since Stella began opening her home up to other foster children in the years since she and Bea had moved out.
They were the first, she and Bea. Stella's nieces. Her aunt's influence started there and rippled out like concentric waves from a tiny pebble thrown into a pond.
The tears suddenly burning behind her eyes took her completely by surprise. She usually kept much better control over her emotions.
"Is that cake for Stella?" Tommy asked. "It's her birthday tomorrow."
"I know. It's a big day, isn't it?"
"She said she didn't want presents but I have one for her anyway. I'm going to take it to her tomorrow."
"Oh. That's so sweet of you."
"It's a plant, the kind she likes with pink flowers. I can get it for a discount from the floral department here. It was only sixteen dollars and twenty-three cents with tax, but don't tell her, okay?"
"I won't say a word, Tommy. I know she'll love it."
"Yeah. She will," he said, with a confidence that made her smile.
Stella had fostered about twenty other children, some with special needs like Tommy and other just in need of a temporary home for awhile, like Cruz Romero.
So many lives, changed for the better because Stella was a generous, kind soul who loved to help people.
Unlike Daisy, who hid away in her house on the cliff, afraid to even smile to men she didn't know who talked to her in the toothpaste aisle.
The checker had rung up the last item when Bea hurried up, candles and a wine bottle in hand. "Sorry. Took me awhile to find them. Hi Janet. Hi Tommy! Daisy, put this on your check and we'll split the total."
The cashier gave a rather sour smile as she ran the candles and the wine through and added them to Daisy's total. Her sister would pay her, she knew, minus the cost of the toothpaste. These days Bea was much more careful with her money, though it had taken Daisy several years to convince her the healthy alimony and child support she received from Cruz wasn't exactly a blank check.
Tommy looked happy to see her sister. "Hi Bea," he said. "Tomorrow is Stella birthday. She's going to be forty."
"Isn't that great?"
"I bought her a present from here, a plant with pink flowers. I get an employee discount."
"Oh, she'll love that. Nice job, Tom."
He beamed, as charmed by Bea as everyone else in the world.
"See you later," Daisy said, used to being invisible around her more vivacious younger sister.
He gave an almost-smile as he handed her the cake. Bea reached in and grabbed the wine and the bag with the rest of the groceries.
"Bye, Tom," Bea said. She stopped to give him a quick hug, which seemed to please him, though he didn't hug her back.
As they walked out of the store, they had to pass a late-model luxury SUV limousine that was idling in the fire lane, one of Daisy's pet peeves. It wasn't just because of environmental reasons and the pollutants their idling vehicles were sending into the atmosphere. She hated the sense of entitlement, when people thought they were so important, they shouldn't have to walk fifteen more feet to a parking space like the rest of the peons.
A man was climbing into the back seat as they passed. He looked up and for just an instant, their gazes met. She should have known. It was the gorgeous man with the sexy accent.
He gave her a rueful sort of smile and a wave, which she pointedly ignored as she marched behind the vehicle toward her own fifteen-year-old BMW.
"Who was that?" Bea stared after the limo.
"No idea," Daisy mumbled.
"He looked like he knew you."
"Are you sure? He waved at you and everything. He looks familiar. Is he some kind of celebrity?"
Maybe. Daisy didn't watch much television and her knowledge of pop culture was nonexistent. She couldn't even tell which Kardashian was which and had no idea why she should care.
"You're the one who reads all the tabloids. You tell me. I don't know who he is. I only know I've never met him before in my life."
Before she bumped into him ten minutes earlier, anyway.
"It doesn't matter. We've got to go or we'll be late."
"Trust me, Stella won't notice. Mari's over there already and the two of them are probably in the middle of a hot game of Slapjack."
She had to admit, Bea was probably right. Stella hadn't wanted the party anyway and wouldn't care if they were a few moments late. "Here. You hold the cake. I don't want to set it on the seat and risk it falling off."
Bea made a face but held out her arms for the cake. After a quick stop at the Italian restaurant their aunt loved to grab the pre-ordered meal, Daisy drove to Three Oaks, the sturdy, graceful Craftsman house Stella had purchased for a song when she brought the girls here to Cape Sanctuary all those years ago
It had been a mess when they first moved in, she remembered, with only one tiny working bathroom and two habitable bedrooms. She and Bea hadn't minded sharing, so grateful to be together again and with their beloved aunt.
The three of them had worked together to make this a home: learning to put up drywall, painting, sanding floors, refinishing woodwork. Daisy had loved painting most of all, which was kind of ironic now, when she thought of it.
It had taken them the better part of three years but the result was a lovely home, filled with laughter and joy.
When they walked in, they found Stella in the kitchen wearing a ruffled apron splotched with huge yellow sunflowers. She was taking a tray of something out of the oven – her famous Oreo cookie mini cheesecakes, by the looks of it.
Her face lit up when she spotted them. "Girls! You're here at last!"
She set down the muffin tin on the stovetop, took off her oven mitts and rushed to kiss first Bea as soon as she'd set down the cake, then Daisy.
Daisy hugged her back, so very grateful to this woman who had rescued two lost girls. "You're not supposed to be doing anything," Bea scolded, "We brought dinner for you.
That's what you said you wanted for your birthday gift."
"You know me. I'm not good at sitting around. These are so easy, though. Mari helped." "Where is my child?"
"In here," Mari called from the room off the kitchen that Stella had always called the library, which functioned as an office, homework station and computer center.
"We were watching a YouTube video one of her friends posted on the computer when my timer went off," Stella explained as she set the cheesecake bites onto a rack to cool.
Daisy watched her aunt with the same unease she'd been feeling for several weeks now.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Cliff House"
Copyright © 2018 RaeAnne Thayne.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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