The words echoed in Lacey Seldon's ears as she guided the snappy red Fiat off the Washington State Ferry and up the ramp to the lush, green island that was to be her home for the summer.
She'd been hearing those words or similar ones for the past three months, ever since she'd exploded the bomb of her decision. The shock waves were probably still ricocheting around the Iowa cornfields, reverberating through the small, midwestern university town where she had been born and raised and where she had lived every one of her twenty-nine years.
Everyone had told her that. The head librarian had said it in his kindly, paternalistic manner when she had handed in her resignation as chief of the Reference Department.
Her parents had said it, her mother in tears, when she gave them the news. Her father the banker and her brother the stockbroker had taken the rational, economic approach:
"Leave a good job just when you're in line for another promotion? Don't be an idiot, Lacey!"
"You haven't even got another job to go to! At least wait until you've found something else!"
"Take the money left over from the sale of your house and live on that? But that should be set aside for the future! You may need it for something really important someday!"
Her mother's arguments, predictably enough, were more emotional. In that respect they were probably more honest. She, at least, was saying the things everyone else was really thinking.
"But you can't move away! You've lived here all your life. This is where you belong. Why won't you be sensible and marry that nice professor of psychology? You'd make a wonderful mother for his two sweet children.
"Why are you doing this? You've never been a
a wild sort of girl. You were always so well behaved, such a source of pride to your father and me." And then, more thoughtfully, "Except for the divorce, of course. But everyone knows that wasn't your fault. Besides, that was over two years ago, mercifully. You've had plenty of time to get over it. You don't belong out there on the West Coast. You know the sort of people who live out there. You've always been such a nice girl!"
The yard sale had been the largest in the town's history. Nobody ever moved and so such events tended to be on a small scale. But Lacey lined up nearly all her worldly possessions beneath the huge shade tree in the front yard. The house itself had been sold two weeks earlier and she was moving out as soon as her things were disposed of.
Everyone came, naturally, mostly out of curiosity. But it made for a very profitable sale. Aunt Selma, the one who had never married, took a look at the avidly interested crowd pawing through Lacey's things and winked at her niece. She had been the only one to show some understanding of Lac-ey's decision. Lacey wondered if it was because the woman might possibly remember what it felt like to be turning thirty and be trapped in a small town where everyone knew what was best for you.
"I'll take your mother home for a cup of coffee," Selma had announced firmly. "She'll never make it through this day without collapsing in hysteria if I don't!"
Lacey's mother, however, had survived, just as Lacey had known she would. The descendants of the strong, proud women who had made the Midwest into the heartland of America were basically made of very stern stuff. When Lacey finally found herself standing beside the packed Fiat, her family grouped loyally on the sidewalk in front of the home where she had been born, it was Mrs. Seldon who said with sudden decision, "You know, dear, I think that charming professor might not have been quite right for you after all. Imagine anyone who doesn't believe children should be given a sound wallop now and again! Perhaps there will be someone waiting for you out there on the West Coast____"
Mrs. Seldon was a practical woman. Lacey was almost thirty years old. She needed a husband and if she wasn't going to settle down with anyone locally, then the search had better be extended beyond the borders of town.
Lacey had kissed them all: her mother, her aunt, her brother and her father. They had each told her to write frequently, to be careful and to remember where home was. And for the first time since she had made the decision, Lacey herself had cried. She'd climbed into the overstuffed Fiat and had barely been able to see through the windshield because of the moisture in her eyes.
But the tears had dried by the time she'd reached the Iowa border. She wasn't crazy, Lacey told herself with an inner smile of satisfaction. In fact, this was probably the first sane thing she'd done in a life that had been a series of proper, conventional events since the day of her birth.
All the way through the Midwest and across the Mountain states she had thought about the beautiful, green island in the San Juan chain off the coast of Washington. It drew her like a magnet, symbolizing the complete change of direction she was making in her own life. It would be the starting point for a decade that Lacey Seldon had determined would not be as wasted as the last one had been.
So many years, she thought now as she followed the signs along a narrow road that encircled the island. So many years wasted. Her twenties. The years when she should be seeing the world, finding a fascinating job, discovering the unknown, taking risks and perhaps finding out what real romance and passion could be. All that time gone with nothing to show for it but a broken marriage, a job that had become incredibly routine and no prospects of ever finding the exciting side of life.
But this summer she, Lacey Seldon, would take charge of her own life and change all that. The restlessness that had been growing steadily until it had peaked in her twenty-ninth year had finally become more clamoring than all the rational arguments for continuing with her safe, monotonous lifestyle. Lacey Seldon was determined that her thirties would not be a repeat of the wasted years of her twenties. Life was short. Finally, before it was too late, she was going to live!
The small map on the back of the brochure that had been sent to her by the inn seemed accurate enough. The winding road slipped beneath the wheels of the Fiat, towering pines on one side, sweeping views of Puget Sound on the other.
Eventually the small sign announcing the turnoff came into view and Lacey swung the little car around the corner, following an even narrower road as it curved along the edge of a quiet little bay.
There, nestled cozily on the shore, was the Randolph Inn. Lacey smiled. It looked exactly as it had in the brochure. A huge veranda wrapped around the second level, rows of French doors opening out onto it. Stone and thick cedar logs had been used in the construction of a building that had been designed during an era of old-fashioned graciousness. In front of the main lodge a wide lawn stretched to the shore where small waves lapped lazily. Behind the main building she could see the tiny cottages snugly fitted into the pine and fir trees. One of those was hers.
Lacey parked the car in the tiny lot, pulled off the scarf that had kept her shoulder-length auburn hair in place in the open car and shook the deep, fiery tresses free. She had been growing her hair for the past two years, although few had noticed the small indication of incipient rebellion because she'd habitually worn the soft mass in a businesslike knot at the back of her head.
But today, as it had during the entire week's drive, Lacey's hair swung freely about her shoulders, falling in a graceful wave from the simple center part.
It framed a pair of auburn-lashed blue-green eyes that tilted upward very slightly at the corners. The eyes were full of intelligence, ready humor and not a little of that strong, midwestern stubbornness that had helped create a mighty nation.
The rest of the face, Lacey thought with typical realism, couldn't be classed as more than reasonably attractive. The problem with the face, she had long since decided, was that it didn't have either the cute, elfin charm or the sexy, seething look that would have gone so well with the deep red hair. The combination of a firmly etched nose, high cheekbones and a mouth that smiled easily was not unattractive but the overall impression tended to be one of wholesomeness rather than outright sensuality.
But there were ways of camouflaging that sort of look, she had decided. And one of them was with clothes. As she stepped from the Fiat, the yellow, crinkled gauze cloud of a dress swirled about her slender figure, its very drifting quality somehow calling attention to the small, high breasts and gracefully rounded hips. Together with the strappy sandals on her bare feet and the outrageous hoop earrings, it gave her a cheerful, free-spirited look, she thought.
She snatched up the huge, floppy shoulder bag and walked toward the main entrance of the lodge. It was one of those sunny summer days the San Juans boasted of and several guests were lazing above her on the veranda, icy drinks in their hands. Somewhere, she knew from careful reading of the brochure, there was an indoor-outdoor pool.
The lobby was empty when she stepped through the open French doors, no one waiting helpfully behind the antique front desk. Tentatively she rang the little bell, glancing around expectantly. When no one appeared after another moment, she shrugged and walked over to gaze out the window. She was in no hurry. She had the rest of her life ahead of her.
That thought was shaping her lips into a small, secret little smile when a deep, gravely polite voice spoke from behind her. "I'm sorry, miss, but I'm afraid the inn is full. Unless you have a reservation
?" The tone of the dark, rough velvet voice said clearly that he didn't think she did.
"I do," Lacey hastened to assure him, swinging around to confront the man standing in the doorway behind the desk. He was leaning against the jamb, idly wiping his hands on a white towel. And, somehow, he didn't look at all as she had expected a desk clerk to look. But she was out West now. Folks were bound to be different out here.
The smile that had been edging her lips widened brightly as she bent her head to dig about in the large shoulder bag. "I've got the confirmation somewhere in here. I'm renting one of the cottages for the summer, not a room in the inn, itself."
"But all the cottages have been reserved and the tenants have arrived, except for
" He broke off, a strange, slightly startled expression flickering in his silvery haze eyes. "You're not L. Seldon, the librarian from Iowa, are you?"
Lacey gave him a serene, confident glance. "I'm afraid so. Don't fret, you don't look much like what I imagined a desk clerk would look like, either!"
He stared at her and then a slow, answering grin quirked the corners of a rather hard mouth. When the smile reached his eyes, she realized he was concentrating a little too much on the yellow gauze dress. Belatedly Lacey stepped away from the window, ruefully aware of how the sunlight must have been illuminating her figure beneath the thin, summery dress. Firmly she handed him the reservation confirmation.
When he bent his head to scan it briefly, Lacey took the opportunity to study him in more detail.
He must have been around thirty-seven or thirty-eight, she decided analytically, trying to ascertain just why he hadn't seemed the clerk type. He looked his age, the years having marked him with the indefinable quality called experience. But whatever the experience had consisted of, it had not had a decadent effect. Rather, there was a hardness in him that spoke silently of a formidable will.
Tawny brown hair was combed carelessly back from a broad forehead. The thick locks were worn a little longer than they would have been among men his age back home, nearly brushing the collar of his blue work shirt in the back. His sleeves had been rolled up on sinewy, tanned forearms and the shirt was open at the throat, revealing the beginning of an equally tanned, hair-roughened chest. Broad shoulders tapered to a lean, narrow waist. Strong thighs were sheathed in a pair of close-fitting jeans that Lacey's mother would have severely frowned upon. Jeans like that on a man his age? It wasn't proper! Lacey's laughter gleamed in her eyes.
When he tossed down the towel and came to stand directly behind the desk, she saw that a look of lean, hard strength was clearly stamped on his face. It was there in the fiercely chiseled planes of commanding cheekbones, aggressive nose and unyielding chin. It was not a countenance one would call handsome, yet the impression it gave of authority and quiet power was surprisingly attractive.
He glanced up and saw her watching him and his silvery hazel eyes flashed with a look of satisfied amusement. He enjoyed her scrutiny!
"Welcome, Miss Seldon. We've been expecting you. And so, apparently, have a number of other people!"
She tilted her head in polite inquiry and watched as he ducked down out of sight behind the desk. When he straightened a moment later he was holding a huge, carefully bound stack of mail in his hand.
"We did as you instructed in your letter, Miss Seldon," he informed her politely. "We held all mail for your arrival. It started pouring in about a week ago."
"Oh, good," she murmured, reaching out to take the large stack with an eager hand. "I'm off to a solid start, at least."
"You intend to spend the summer corresponding?" he remarked dryly.
"I intend to spend the summer job hunting." She chuckled, flipping happily through the long white envelopes. "Most of these are from people I've been sending out resumes to for the past couple of months. I used the inn for the return address."
"I see," he said a little blankly. "How many resumes did you send out?"
"Hundreds," she confided cheerily. "With any luck, you'll be getting mail for me all summer long!"
"You've come all the way out here just to job-hunt?" He looked genuinely bewildered, Lacey decided indulgently.
"I've come all the way out here to do a great deal more than that," she assured him soothingly. "Now, shouldn't I sign in somewhere?"