Beth shielded her eyes against the sun and glared at the blue Mercedes parked in her spot. Not again. How could people not see the reserved sign? With a huff of irritation, she maneuvered her Beetle into the only open guest spot even remotely close to her office and killed the engine.
Juggling her lunch, insulated mug of coffee, and several files she’d taken home the night before, she held her door open with one knee while wiggling her way out of the narrow opening. The brick side of the building prevented her from walking normally so she inched her way toward the sidewalk using a half-squat waddle.
She’d almost made it to the finish line when a gray suit coat blocked her path. Blowing her hair out of her eyes, she looked up. Of course, it would have to be Daniel Haven witnessing her awkward shuffle. All 6’3 inches of dark-haired, broad-shouldered male.
“You look like you could use some help.” Without asking, he captured the files from her arms and held out a hand to help her onto the sidewalk.
The feel of his fingers wrapped around hers nearly rendered her speechless. How many times had she walked past this man’s office, hoping, praying he would look up and notice her? Now, today, when the humidity had already fried her hair and melted the makeup off her face, he decided to strike up a conversation.
“You okay, Beth?” He gave her fingers a little squeeze.
She fumbled for a response. “I…um…I’m fine. Just not used to parking so far away from the building. Someone took my spot.” The second the words left her lips, she winced. “They probably had a good reason, though.”
Daniel shifted his green-eyed gaze to the Mercedes. “I think that’s your boyfriend’s car.”
Beth tugged her hand free. “My…what?”
“Your boyfriend.” He gave her his full attention. “His name’s Stuart, right?”
“Stuart? As in Stuart Adler?” Beth gritted her teeth. “He is not my boyfriend.” He was, however, in a world of trouble.
“Oh.” Daniel led the way around the building toward the main entrance. “He said the two of you had been dating for a couple of years.”
Steam bubbled up inside Beth’s ears. Of all the practical jokes…she and Stuart had grown up together, and he’d always been a prankster. And his jokes had continued throughout their college years. But when he’d gotten hired as junior counsel at the same law firm she worked, he’d promised there’d be no more pranks. Apparently, he’d lied.
Realizing she was keeping Daniel waiting, Beth tucked her coffee close to her side and reached out her hands for the files. “I’ve known Stuart since we were kids. He likes to joke around.”
Daniel opened the door instead of handing her the files. “So maybe he wants more than he’s telling you.”
“We’re more like brother and sister. He said those things because he thinks he’s funny. Anyway, thanks for your help.”
“No problem.” He pressed his back against the door so she could walk past him. “So just to be clear, you’re not dating Stuart. At all?”
“Never. We’ve only been good friends. Of course, that may change after today.” One step toward the elevator, she realized Daniel wasn’t moving. “Are you coming up?”
“In a second.” He gave her a small smile that made her cheeks flush.
“Oh, okay.” She shuffled uncertainly from foot to foot. “Then I’m going to need those files.”
“Have dinner with me.” The words danced in the air, leaving Beth both breathless and faint.
“What? Did you…just ask me…”
“To have dinner with me. Well, it was really more a command. That’s probably how it sounded, but it isn’t how it was meant.”
Beth tilted her head back to see his face better, and she couldn’t be mistaking the slight tinge of red on his cheekbones. “So you’re asking me?”
He chuckled and ran a hand across the back of his neck. “Yeah. I would have asked you sooner, but…”
“Stuart.” She grinned, the world a bit brighter, and she didn’t even care about the Mercedes in her spot.
“Well? Will you?”
Her heart thumped so loud, she wondered why he couldn’t hear it. “Absolutely.” The word gushed out, and the tips of her ears went hot. “I meant that as an affirmative not as…”
“As long as it’s a yes, Beth.”
“It’s definitely a yes.”
Later that night, Daniel walked her to her front door, his hand holding hers. “You know, we should find whoever owns that Mercedes.”
Beneath the porch light, Beth looked up at him. “Why?”
“To say thank you.” He brushed his lips against hers, and Beth sighed.
“We’ll do that first thing tomorrow morning,” she whispered.
“Give her the house.”
“I don’t want the house.” And she certainly didn’t need it. What Jackie needed most was air and to avoid her husband’s angry eyes.
“What Mrs. Crenshaw means is that she doesn’t want only the house.” Jackie’s attorney tapped a pen on the conference room table. “Did you bring a list of your assets today, Mr. Crenshaw?”
“Jackie knows about my assets.” Andy bit out each word.
Remaining silent, Jackie kept her gaze trained on the polished gleam of the table where she could see her reflection.
“I will not have my client intimidated.” This from the attorney Jackie wished she’d never hired.
“Mr. Crenshaw has no interest in intimidating your client, Ms. Winslow.” Andy’s attorney sounded just as cool as the icy blue shirt he wore.
“That’s certainly not what I’m seeing. He hasn’t taken his eyes off her since we sat down.” Her gaze flickered to Jackie’s face. “Are you okay?”
Jackie wanted to scream. No, she wasn’t okay. She was suffocating. Drowning in her own foolish decision to drive her husband away.
Andy answered for her. “She needs a break.”
Jackie finally met his gaze. He knew her so well. After ten years of marriage, why did that knowledge surprise her?
Andy’s attorney, a shark with a reputation of going for the jugular, sniffed. “My client is only looking out for his wife’s best interests.”
“Ex-wife,” Ms. Winslow corrected.
“The court has yet to make that distinction.”
With all eyes watching him, Andy pushed away from the table and walked around to where Jackie sat. He took hold of her chair and gave it an easy pull. “Come on. Let’s get some air.”
“Andy, you shouldn’t be talking to her,” his attorney protested.
“”Walking isn’t talking.”
“She’s your ex-wife!”
“The court has not made that distinction yet. Excuse us.”
Andy’s arm around her waist offered comfort as he guided her out through the double doors of the conference room. They didn’t say a word to one another until they walked out into the warm sunshine.
“Why don’t you want the house?”
Jackie stopped walking. “Memories, I suppose.” Tears filled her eyes, and she blinked them away rapidly.
He tucked her hair behind her ears, a gesture so familiar, her breath caught. “Some of them were good,” he whispered.
She bit her lower lip. “I know.”
Andy sighed and crammed his hands into the pockets of the grey dress slacks that fit his lean frame so well. “If you don’t want the house, what do you want?”
“Not this.” But this, asking him to leave, had been her choice. She couldn’t blame Andy for being angry, confused.
He took hold of her arms. “What ‘this’ don’t you want? The division of our assets? The meeting with the attorneys? What?”
“I don’t want to lose you.” The words spilled out before she could stop them, and the look on her husband’s face kicked her in the stomach.
“You wanted me to leave.”
“No, I didn’t. It just seemed liked my only option.” Time to tell all. Give him the facts so he could make the decision on his own. “The cancer’s back, Andy.”
He yanked her into his arms, holding her so tight her ribs ached. “That’s what’s been going on inside of you. I knew something was wrong, but you wouldn’t let me in.”
“I won’t let you watch me die, Andy. I went through that with Mom, and it hurt so much I could barely breathe.
Andy loosened his embrace so he could look at her. He closed his eyes for a second, and when he opened them, his tears matched hers. “I’m not going to watch you die, Jackie. I’m going to watch you live. You’re scared, and I understand that, but pushing me away isn’t the answer.”
A sob tore through her chest. “I know. I know. I just don’t want you to go through—”
“How about you let me decide what I go through?”
She was back in his arms again, her head on his chest. “I’ll probably lose my hair this time.”
“I’ll buy you a wig.”
“I probably won’t be able to work for a while.”
“I’ve always wanted a wife who didn’t work.” He leaned back to give her a grin.
Jackie returned his smile. “I feel so stupid now.”
He brushed the remaining tears away from her cheeks. “Admittedly, pushing me away wasn’t one of your shining moments.”
The smile segued into a laugh. “Not just that. I gave my attorney a $5,000 non-refundable retainer.”
“Ah.” Andy nodded. “Well, if it makes you feel any better, I just put my attorney’s kid through college.”
“I’m really scared.”
“I know, but the only way we’ll get through this is together. Now let’s go home.”
I banged my head on the hood of the aging Chevy I’d been attempting to resuscitate. Rubbing the knot already forming, I pulled myself out from under the steel and straightened.
“I’m sorry.” The deep voice pulled my gaze to its owner.
In a charcoal suit with a pacific blue tie that matched his eyes, the man had every inch of my attention. “Umm...it’s okay. How can I help you?” Painfully aware of the grease under my nails and how I’d piled my hair into a sloppy bun that morning, I tried to sound professional.
He winced and pointed toward a black sports car parked against the curb. “I think I need another battery. Is the…” he stopped, coughed, and tried again…”are you the mechanic?”
“I’m one of them, yes. Name’s Charlie.” I didn’t stick out my hand even though I wanted to feel the touch of his.
“Nick.” The way he smiled, he didn’t seem to mind my messy look.
Suddenly nervous, I swiped a rag from the doorknob behind me and wiped my hands. “Let me take a look.”
I walked toward the sleek machine. “When is the last time you replaced the battery?”
“Last year, I believe.” His gaze lingered on mine a little longer than necessary, but I didn’t complain. “Had to call roadside assistance for a jump just to get here. It’s not holding a charge.”
“It’s probably the alternator. I’ll check, but I can already tell you we don’t have those in stock, not for this baby.” I patted the side of the car like it was a friendly dog.
“How long would it take to get it in stock, provided that’s the problem?” He’d regained composure and now leaned against the driver’s door like he had all the time in the world, which was a good thing considering how long it would take to get an alternator here.
“About a week.” I headed back to the garage and snagged the voltmeter. “It won’t take long to install it once the alternator’s in, provided that’s the problem. If this checks out, I’ll put it up on the rack and run a diagnostic. You’re welcome to wait inside.”
“I think I’d rather watch if that’s okay.”
I wondered if he wanted to watch me or my work. I hoped his interest leaned more toward me which was ridiculous considering he probably lived in a fancy city so many miles away from my small town. “No problem.”
Nick didn’t just watch. He hovered. Close enough for me to smell his aftershave and see the stubble on his chin. Which was why I dropped the voltmeter. Twice. Finally, I stepped back to breathe. “Yep. It’s your alternator. I can get that ordered for you unless you have another shop in mind.”
He gave me a full throttle smile, and I caught my breath. “Something tells me I’m not going to mind hanging around town for a week.”
Heat rose up the back of my neck, and I scurried toward the shop with him right behind me. “You might change your mind when you see how little there is to do here.” I rang up the charges, and when he handed me his credit card, our fingers touched. Lightning zipped up my arm.
“Well, I already know one thing I’d like to do.” He lifted those perfect blue eyes to my face.
“I hope it doesn’t have anything to do with fancy cocktails or trendy nightclubs.”
“Don’t judge a man by his car. I like small towns. Been thinking about taking a long vacation to a town just like this.”
“Oh, yeah?” I might need CPR any moment.
“So what time does this garage close?”
“Six.” I couldn’t hear my voice over the rapid beating of my heart.
“Think I could buy you a cup of coffee?”
Be calm, Charlie. Act like you’ve had a date before!
“Sure. I’ll need to go home first and wash off the grease.”
“I hadn’t noticed it.” His gaze had dropped to my lips.
“Oh. Okay.” I came around from behind the counter. Trying to watch him and where I was walking didn’t work. The toe of my sneaker caught on a chair leg, and I pitched forward with a surprised yelp.
Nick’s arms surrounded me before I could hit the floor. For a moment, neither of us spoke. Or breathed. “About that cup of coffee…”
“Let’s make it dinner.”
While the butterflies in my stomach did a crazy dance, I smiled back at him. “How long is this vacation you’re planning?”
“My schedule’s flexible. I work mostly online.”
“I didn’t think I could love the internet more.”
“There he is again.” Katie ducked behind the cash register and pointed toward the open area of the coffee shop.
Elsie stood on tiptoe. “Who?”
“That guy I told you about who has been in here every night for the past five nights. Every time I look over there, he’s looking at me.” Not that Katie was opposed to the looks, but there was something about this particular guy that made her insides quake, like she’d never seen a good-looking man before.
Giving up on the pretense of glancing, Elsie opted to stare. “He’s cute. What’s the problem?”
“I think he wants to ask me out.” The thought had her hands trembling, and her mouth going dry.
“And that would be a bad thing, why? Mocha Latte small!” Ella called out to the woman waiting with the baby carriage. “Have a good day.”
“I’ve just come out of one relationship. I don’t want to go straight into another one.” That wasn’t entirely honest. She didn’t just come out of the relationship. She and Justin had been over for almost eight months now.
Elsie snorted. “Yeah, cause eight months is like yesterday, right? You and he were over a long time before you broke things off with him.” Her eyes lit up. “Why don’t you go ask Mr. Handsome if he wants to ask you out?”
Heat rushed up Katie’s neck. “What? No way. I can’t do that.” For one, even the thought embarrassed her.
“Fine. I’ll do it for you.” Elsie started toward the swinging door that separated the back of the counter from the front of the shop, but Katie hurried after her and caught her arm.
“No. Don’t. He’s looking again.”
“Then go ask him. What’s the worst that can happen?”
Katie imagined all sorts of things. Still, the guy continued to look at her, and one corner of his mouth lifted in a crooked grin. She turned her back on her him and adjusted her hair out of his line of sight. “I’ll just go over and see if he needs a coffee refill.”
“We don’t offer free refills.” Elise wore a smirk.
“Today we do.” Clutching the coffee carafe for courage, she slipped out from behind the counter and marched, well, shuffled, toward the man’s table.
Seated in the far corner of the shop, he had a laptop in front of him, a briefcase on the floor, and a tablet to his right. He looked all business, and her stomach knotted. What if she was wrong?
“Would you like a refill?” Her voice squeaked.
He looked up, giving her a full view of beautiful, blue eyes. Sliding his cup closer, he smiled again. “Sure.”
She poured the fresh coffee carefully. “Listen, I know this might sound strange, but I’ve been seeing you in here a lot this week.”
Now he studied her like she was a prize science project. “I like to work here. The atmosphere’s good.”
“Oh. I thought there might be another reason.”
“Like?” She had his full attention.
Great. Perfect. She’d made a fool out of herself. “Never mind. Enjoy your coffee.” She turned and began a quick hustle back to the safety of the barista station.
“Hey,” he called out to her, stopping her in her tracks. She didn’t look back but heard his chair scrape against the tile. “You thought I wanted to ask you out?”
Could her humiliation get any greater? “I said never mind.” Now she picked up speed and made it behind the counter. A part of her wanted to duck into the stock room, but only she and Elsie were manning the front so she couldn’t hide.
He walked up to the counter next to the register and laid a dollar and some change next to it. “That’s for the extra coffee since I know it’s not free.”
“Thanks. Fine. Thanks.” Katie wanted him to go. As fast as he could.
“You weren’t wrong.”
Her hands stilled on the jug of milk. “What?” From the corner of her eyes, she saw Elsie’s huge grin, but all she could focus on was the man’s beautiful smile.
“Been a while, and I’m out of practice.”
“Me, too.” Katie slid the money off the counter. “So you do want to ask me out?”
“Well, yeah.” He scratched the back of his neck. “Because honestly, the coffee here sucks. So what do you say?”
“I’d say it would be nice to know your name first.”
“Benjamin. Ben for short.”
Katie untied her apron. “I’m off in ten minutes.”
A slow grin spread across his face. “Then how about we go get some better coffee?”
Beth sifted through the layers of lace inside her grandmother’s woven basket. Each touch brought back memories of sitting at her knee while Grandma told her stories of queens and kings who lived happily ever after. What Beth wouldn’t give to hear her sweet, melodic voice again.
Her fingernail caught the edge of a piece of paper, and she dug into the lace to retrieve an envelope that bore her name. Her grandmother’s familiar handwriting tugged at her heart, and she held the note close to her chest before withdrawing a lilac-scented piece of stationery.
Beth, this lace is yours. I hope you will use it for the wedding dress of your dreams. Love, Grandma.
“Grandma, you always were trying to get me married.” Beth swiped away tears before tucking the note beneath her leg. “If it’s meant to happen, it’ll happen.” She returned her attention to the basket in search of the delicate, blue lace her mother wanted. Instead, her fingers encountered another envelope—a note addressed to Lucas.
Beth’s heart quivered. Lucas Bryant. She’d spent most of her high-school years pining over him, hoping he’d start to feel something for her. They’d shared one dance at the prom, and he’d given her a gentle kiss on the cheek before wishing her a good night.
After graduation, she’d given up, but she’d never forgotten him. How could she when he lived right next door to her grandmother? Every time she came to town, she saw him. And now, her grandmother wanted her to see him again. She could put the letter in the mail. Or she could walk next door and give it to him like an adult.
“He would have asked me out by now, Grandma. I don’t know why you never could accept that we weren’t meant to be.” Reluctance in every move, she got to her feet.
The cool, fall air caressed her face as she crossed the grass to Lucas’ house. He opened the door on the first knock, an uncertain smile on his face.
“Hi, Beth. Didn’t think you were still here. Come on in.”
“It’s taking longer than I thought to clean out grandma’s house.” A lump formed in her throat.
He put aside the hammer he’d been holding and waved her toward the kitchen. “You look like you could use a cup of coffee.”
What she didn’t need was to be closer to him. “No, I-I can’t stay. I just found this in Grandma’s lace basket and wanted to bring it to you.”
Lucas’ brown-eyed gaze settled on the front of the envelope. “Mattie always did like to hide things in that basket.” He took out the note, and Beth watched as he read the cursive lines.
Even as curious as she was, she couldn’t ask him what her grandmother had written. “She left me one, too. Told me she wanted me to have her basket of lace. She hoped I’d make the dress of my dreams.”
“Well, this makes a little more sense then.” He held the note open with two fingers so Beth could read it.
Lucas, Beth has the lace. Now all she needs is a reason to make the dress.
Tears, a combination of embarrassment and grief, rolled down Beth’s cheeks. “I’m so sorry. Grandma was always a romantic at heart.”
He cleared his throat and looked down at the ground. “There’s more to it than that.”
“What do you mean?”
His gaze stayed on his boots while his hands folded the envelope into a tiny square. “Mattie knew that I…”
After a long pause, she prompted him. “That you what?” She caught a fleeting glance at his face before his gaze dropped again.
“This isn’t the right time, Beth.”
Her heart skipped a beat. He couldn’t be trying to tell her…no, it was impossible. “We’ll be putting Grandma’s house on the market soon.” She hoped the words didn’t sound like a push.
“What?” His gaze lifted. “I didn’t think you’d sell the house.”
“I can’t live in it. It has too many memories. As soon as I get it cleaned out, I’ll be going back to Asheville.”
“Then you won’t have a reason to come back to Brevard, I guess. And here I was thinking I was doing the right thing by waiting.” He sighed. “It’s never easy to know when it’s too soon.”
She placed a hand against his chest, and his heart raced beneath her palm. “Lucas, what is it?”
He blew out a breath and curled his fingers around hers. “Mattie knew I had feelings for you.”
She wanted to melt into him. “What? After all these years…you never said anything.”
“I know. I wanted to, planned to, but you left right after high school. Then you were dating that guy.”
“I’m not dating him anymore.”
His gaze lifted and connected with hers. “My parents wanted me to focus on education.”
“And you did what they wanted you to do. I always wondered why I never saw you with someone in school.”
A small smile curved his lips. “Dad wasn’t well.” He stopped and looked down, his silence reminding Beth of his father’s passing almost immediately after graduation.
“I’m sorry. I know it still hurts.” She took a step closer to him, offering silent comfort.
“It does. I wasn’t myself for a long time after he passed. It took me some time to get back on my feet. By then, you were dating someone. I figured I’d lost my chance.” Their gazes connected. “I’m better at swinging a hammer than I am at talking about things like this. So if it’s too late…”
“It’s not.” She took his hand in hers. “There’s plenty of time.”
“When do you have to go back to Asheville?” He captured her other hand and threaded his fingers through hers.
“I’m a freelance artist, remember? I can make my own schedule.”
Hope lit up his eyes. “So you can stay for a while?”
“I think it’s going to take me longer to clean out grandma’s house than I originally planned.” She gave him an impish smile. Inside, she wanted to dance across the lawn, but outwardly, she remained composed, a lady as her grandmother would have wanted.
“Well,” he brushed a tendril of hair away from her cheek, “maybe you can make some time for dinner.”
“I think that’s possible.”
“Yeah?” He tipped her face up with two fingers underneath her chin. “I’ve been waiting a long time to kiss you, Beth Harrister, but I’m going to wait a little longer.”
Disappointment flowed through her veins. “Why?”
“Because once I start, I don’t think I’ll be able to stop.” His lips touched her forehead.
Her breath stalled in her throat. “Dinner then? Tonight?”
She took a step back from him, reluctance in every move. Their gazes held as she moved away from him, down the steps, and out onto the vibrant, green grass.
Back inside the house, she knelt at her grandmother’s basket. “Thank you, Grandma. Thank you for never
giving up on anything…especially us.”
The hurricane had finally passed. Kate stuck her head out the window and sniffed the air. It didn’t have that wonderful after the rain scent. She wrinkled her nose and looked over her shoulder at her cocker spaniel. “I bet you need to go out, don’t you, boy?”
Gus barked in response, and she gathered his leash, her legs still trembling a little. Okay, a lot. She’d just weathered her first hurricane since her move to the east coast, and she could guarantee it would be her last. Next time, she’d evacuate.
Tenants came streaming from their apartments, shouting questions to their neighbors. Kate had only moved in only two weeks ago and with her job and studying, she hadn’t had time to get to know anyone.
“Come on, buddy.” She guided Gus down the steps and into the grass. Thundering footsteps had her shrinking back against the brick wall. Three men ran past her, all muscled and tanned.
“Are you okay?” A deep voice pulled her head to the right. “You look a little shaky. First hurricane?”
Kate nodded. “And last.”
He smiled, his warm, brown eyes offering reassurance. “This one wasn’t too bad. Category two, but they can still do a lot of damage. Is your apartment okay?”
“Fortunately. The ones on the end didn’t fair so well.” She ran a hand through her hair, wincing at the tangles. She’d spent the last two hours buried in a bathtub with Gus in her lap. He was a wiggler when he was scared, and her hair had taken the brunt of his anxiety.
“Yeah, I know. I’m in an end unit.” He lifted a muscled shoulder in a half-hearted shrug before sticking out one hand. “I’m Matt.”
“Kate.” Her hand felt so small in his. Suddenly self-conscious, she tugged her hand free and clasped Gus’s leash close. “Any idea how long it will take the power to get restored?”
Matt rubbed the back of his neck. “A lot of that depends upon what caused the outage. If power lines are down, it could be a while. And if your guy is anything like mine, he probably doesn’t care for the dark.”
Kate’s gaze met his again. “What kind of dog do you have?”
“Golden Lab. He hates storms so much I took him to my grandparents when I knew this one was definitely going to hit. They have a generator.”
“You stayed on purpose?” She couldn’t keep the surprise from her voice. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be insulting, but I stayed because I really didn’t know any better.” She clapped a hand over her mouth and winced. “I didn’t mean it the way it sounded.”
He laughed, making her relax a little. “It’s okay. Yeah, I stayed. My sister’s a doctor, and she’s stuck at the hospital. And I wasn’t leaving town without her. Listen,” he thumbed over his shoulder, “a bunch of us are going to the pool to cook out if you’d like to join us.”
“No, I’d better not. I have to get back to study as long as I can while there’s still light.”
“Oh.” Matt took a step back. “You’re still in college.”
“Med school.” She corrected his assumption she was a co-ed.
He studied her for a second before realization dawned on his face. “Wait a second. Do you live in 301?”
How did he know where she lived? “Why?”
“Because a med student called the police on me last Saturday.”
“You were the one having the party? The noise level was through the roof.”
“Yeah, it was my grandmother’s 85th birthday party. She did get a little wild.”
Heat climbed up the back of her neck. “It was your grandmother’s party?”
He nodded, a big smile on his face.
She grimaced. “Okay, so maybe I’m a little sensitive to noise right now.”
“You don’t say?” He shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. I remember when my sister was still in school. We could drop a cotton ball on the floor, and she’d complain.”
“And I can really understand why. Just when I think I have things memorized, my mind goes blank.”
“I’d be happy to help you study…since I can’t have any loud parties now.”
The teasing in his voice erased her embarrassment. “Okay, you’ve made your point.” Gus whined and tugged on the leash. Reluctantly, Kate began walking. “I’d better take him.”
“Right. So how about that help?”
“You were serious?”
“How do you think my sister passed?”
“Got any extra candles?”
He fell into step beside her. “I think I can scare up one or two.”
“Hope you like anatomy.” The second the words left her mouth, she burst out laughing. “I mean…”
“I know what you mean, and I do. Very much.”
My thoughts, experiences, challenges, and goals. Right here. At least once a week or so. Oh, and opinions, too. Those will definitely come in. Join me!