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Caught Between a Lie and True Love

 

CAUGHT BETWEEN A LIE AND TRUE LOVE

 

Caught Between Romance Series

 

By Sheila Seabrook

 

Copyright 2015 by Sheila Seabrook

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir. Com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

ISBN #978-0-9877069-6-6

 

STORY SYNOPSIS

 

Paige Calhoun has spent years concealing the truth about her family life. She’s got a new life now, centered around her daughter and her career, and there’s no room in it for anything—or anyone—else. But when instincts honed at the side of her con-artist dad warn her that her grandma is in trouble, she returns to Serendipity Island…where every single lie she once told to protect her tender heart could be blown to smithereens.

 

Brody Jackson always thought of Paige Calhoun as the little girl next door. Three years her senior, his sights were set on a football scholarship, and fame and fortune as a pro quarterback. But now he’s back home, his career down the tubes, battling a determined grandma for permanent custody of his teenage daughter…all because of one careless mistake.

 

Brody’s got no time for one hot woman who’s messing with his mind and his future. And Paige can’t afford to let one gorgeous man distract her from saving the residents of the island from her dad’s latest scam. All they both want is a life free from the past. Instead, they’re caught between the truth and true love…

 

This book includes a family-phobic heroine, a hunky hero whose luck—and love life—are about to change, lies, romance, chocolate chip cookies, nighttime shenanigans, a con-artist who swears he’s gone straight, and a battle-of-the-sexes secondary romance.

DEDICATION

 

This book is dedicated to Grace and Darlene, the best day-job buddies a girl could ever have.

 

Your friendship has brought me more joy than you’ll ever know, and your encouragement and support mean everything to me.

 

DEAR READER

 

Welcome to book one in the Caught Between series!

First off, I want to thank authors Linda Style, Susan Vaughan, Ann Voss Peterson, and Virginia Kelly for their patience during our two day search for the perfect island name. I started out with a really blah name for my fictitious Caribbean island, and with their help, ended up with one that totally rocks.

Serendipity Island…it was one of the very last suggestions, which meant I was getting pretty worried that I’d never find the ‘right’ name. At first, I discarded it. Although I can spell it, my tongue gets tangled up in all of those vowels and syllables.

And to be perfectly honest, I really didn’t know what it meant. So I finally looked it up in the Scrivener dictionary:

 

serendipity |_]ˌ[_serənˈdipitē[_|_]

noun

the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way: a fortunate stroke of serendipity | a series of small serendipities.

ORIGIN 1754: coined by Horace Walpole, suggested by The Three Princes of Serendip, the title of a fairy tale in which the heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”

 

It turned out to be the perfect word for the theme of this series. None of my heroes and heroines go looking for love. They’re too busy living life, dealing with family, and trying to stay sane in a world filled with complications. But when love falls in their lap…

Seriously, do you want me to ruin the story? Just turn the page and start reading already!

 

CAUGHT BETWEEN

a Lie and True Love

CHAPTER ONE

 

 

Paige Calhoun shrank down on the driver’s seat of her Mini, one eye on the gate of the Serendipity Island Ferry, the other on the humongous motorhome looming in her rearview mirror.

The driver—the Judge who’d sent her to juvie school fourteen years ago—surely wouldn’t recognize her after all this time, but she wasn’t taking any chances. The last thing she wanted to do was explain to her thirteen-year-old daughter how she’d screwed things up, then been booted to the curb by her grandmother.

Beside her, Starr slumped in the passenger seat like a rag doll, huffed out a dramatic sigh, and crossed her arms over her chest. “You forced me to leave town in the middle of the night. I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye to my friends.”

Paige inhaled deeply, then attempted to exhale her tension. It didn’t work. “It was six in the morning, not the middle of the night.”

“I’m old enough to take care of myself. You could’ve left me at home.”

“Not likely.” Paige remembered what it was like to be a teen and to be bad. She forced a smile and prayed her normally intuitive daughter didn’t notice the worry behind it. “Besides, I like having you with me.”

“What about what I want?”

What either of them wanted at the moment was insignificant. Her own instincts were never wrong. In fact, the one time she’d ignored them, she’d lost everything, including a future here on Serendipity Island.

The teen scowled. “You won’t ask her to come live with us, will you?”

Olivia Calhoun, Paige’s paternal grandmother, would never leave the island, but Starr didn’t know that. Paige couldn’t resist teasing the out-of-sorts teen. “You could share your bedroom with her and change her diapers.”

Starr tugged at the bill of her baseball cap, and turned her glare forward, all teenage attitude and misery. “Mom, that’s not funny.”

With her short dark hair stuffed under the baseball cap and an overlarge t-shirt hiding the beginning of feminine curves, the girl looked nine instead of thirteen. But behind that deceptively innocent demeanor was a budding con-artist.

The girl was too much like her grandfather for her own good.

As the ferry gate opened, a horn honked behind them, and Paige put the car into gear and turned her gaze forward.

Serendipity Island. Population 5263.

Starr sat a little straighter, her natural curiosity overcoming the teenage surliness. “Where’s Olivia’s house?”

“Don’t call her Olivia. She’s your great-grandmother.” Paige inched the Mini off the ferry, then turned onto Tranquility Drive. Along the edge of the highway, palm trees danced in the warm gentle breeze while the mid-day sunlight glinted off the distant ocean whitecaps. A few miles down the road, she took the first turn off the highway into town. “Gram’s house is only a few blocks from the beach. You’ll love it here so much, Starr, you’ll never want to leave.”

The teen snorted and slumped back on the seat. “Never going to happen, Mom.”

Paige breathed deeply, drawing in the familiar scent of coconut suntan lotion and mangoes. It reminded her of warm summer days spent lounging on the beach, and getting up in the morning to a bowl full of freshly picked fruit.

Starr’s voice intruded on her memories. “Why do the houses look so weird?”

“They’re constructed of concrete panels to withstand tropical storms. Plus the concrete keeps out the summer heat.” Turning onto Gram’s street, she pulled up in front of a blueberry toned two-story home that was trimmed with canary yellow, pulled the key out of the ignition, and the tightness in her stomach returned full force. “Here we are.”

As Starr grabbed the door handle and clambered out of the car, Paige’s attention drifted to the house next door. The house where Brody Jackson, her teenage crush, had lived.

He’d been long gone by the time she’d been arrested, snapped up by one of the national football teams on the mainland, living a life of fame and fortune, so far out of her league, she’d forced herself to forget about him.

The house had recently been repainted, the white so clean and bright, it nearly blinded her in the afternoon sun. She wondered if his parents still lived there, then decided it didn’t much matter. If she were lucky, she’d be long gone before they even realized Gram had company.

A movement down the street caught her gaze, and she saw the huge motorhome from the ferry barely roll to a stop before it cruised through the intersection and disappeared from sight.

“Mom, are you coming?”

In the distance, the ferry horn sounded the call to board the passengers and vehicles leaving the island, and she was suddenly overwhelmed by the urge to grab Starr, climb back into the Mini, and run before things went sideways. But she couldn’t.

She had one week till the ferry returned.

One week to find her dad.

One week to run him off the island before he pulled off his next score.

CHAPTER TWO

 

 

Paige forced one foot in front of the other, and followed her daughter past the red and yellow flowered hibiscus hedges bordering the property, into the front yard, and up to the front door.

The teen rapped loudly on the screen door, then turned, her smile false, her voice a deadpan drone. “Have I told you how incredibly thrilled I am to be here? Meeting your grandmother and all? I mean, it’s going to be the highlight of my spring break.”

Frowning, she tugged off Starr’s cap and smoothed down the teen’s hair. “I want you on your best behavior. No ruffling Gram’s feathers just because you’re bored.”

The teen snatched the cap back and jammed it on her head. “What if she tries to ruffle mine?”

“Oh, there’s no doubt she will. All I’m asking is that you be polite and mindful of your manners. Don’t give her a reason to turn us away.”

“I’ll try,” the teen muttered as the inner door swung open. In a stage whisper, she added, “But I’m not making any promises.”

Paige turned her attention to the elderly woman in the doorway.

Olivia Calhoun looked small and frail and so much older than she remembered. Steel gray had replaced the burnished copper hair. Her shoulders were stooped as though she’d carried too many heavy loads in her lifetime, and the blue and white checkered dress appeared two sizes too big.

With her heart lodged in her throat, Paige blinked at the moisture suddenly blurring her vision.

“Who’s there?” the fragile woman asked in a weak, wobbly voice, wariness clouding the blue-gray of her eyes.

Paige cleared her throat. “It’s me, Gram.” At the elderly woman’s blank look, she stepped closer to the screen door. “Paige. Your granddaughter.”

The old lady scowled. “Ain’t got no granddaughter that I recall.” Then with the agility of someone half her age, she disappeared behind the door, reappeared with a baseball bat locked and loaded on her shoulder, and in a voice that rocked Paige back several steps, screamed, “Help! I’m being robbed!

Feisty as ever, Gram shoved the screen door open and charged toward them as though she fully intended to take a swing at their heads.

Paige grabbed Starr by the back of her t-shirt and dragged her down the front steps to the sidewalk. “Gram, it’s me, Jeb’s daughter. You kicked me out and told me never to come back. Remember?”

Starr backed away with her. “She did what?”

Ignoring the teen, she kept her attention focused on her grandma who paused on the top step and squinted down at her, the fear on her face replaced by a stiffening of her jaw and a thinning of her lips. “Paige? What are you doing here?”

She let go of the breath she’d been holding. They might not be welcome, but at least they wouldn’t get clubbed—or arrested—she hoped. “We’ve come for a visit.”

Behind them, footsteps thundered up the driveway and a deep husky voice raised the tiny hairs on the nape of her neck. “Step back from the door.”

Brody Jackson.

For a heartbeat, Paige couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, couldn’t move, overwhelmed by the memory of teenage angst and first love. Then she got over herself and slowly raised her hands in the air, turned, and worked up what she hoped was a warm and confident smile. “Hello, Brody.”

He slowed, but kept on coming. A frown pinched his brows, confusion lit his gaze, and the intensity of his dark eyes swept down her body and warmed spots that hadn’t been warm in far too long. “Paige? Little Paige Calhoun?”

She ignored Starr’s snicker and lowered her hands. “In the flesh.”

His dark eyes returned to her face, warmer now. “You grew up.”

She took in the breadth of his wide shoulders, the six-pack abs visible beneath his white t-shirt, the biceps that looked incredibly huggable, and unintentionally, her voice turned all throaty and sultry. “So did you.”

Starr nudged her in the ribs and muttered, “Get a room, Mom.”

Heat flooded Paige’s cheeks, and as she heard Gram tsk, she turned away from the man who had once consumed her every girlish dreams, and faced her grandma.

The old lady appeared fixated on her great-granddaughter. “Who’s this? Your pigeon?”

Brody stepped up to her side, his broad shoulder bumping hers for one breath stealing moment. “Pigeon?”

She laid one hand on Starr’s shoulder and upped the wattage in her smile. “This is my daughter, Starr. Starr, this is your great-grandmother, Olivia Calhoun, and her neighbor, Brody Jackson.”

The old lady peered around them. “Well, well, well. You have a daughter. Where’s her daddy hiding?”

“I don’t have a dad,” Starr replied in the surliest tone Paige had ever heard her use.

Gram’s thin eyebrows rose, crinkling her forehead into a multitude of lines and deep grooves. She fixed her judgement on Paige. “Why doesn’t that surprise me? Ain’t proper for a mother to be without a husband.”

In the distance, the ferry horn blasted, announcing its departure, eliminating any chance to escape.

They were officially stuck here. Seven long days of being judged and found guilty, whether or not she really was. The guilt that normally consumed her whenever she thought of her grandma vanished, and she questioned her motives for coming.

Gram didn’t need her protection. She had Brody living right next door, and it was perfectly clear that the old lady was as feisty and unmovable as she’d been fourteen years ago. Nobody—not even Jeb Calhoun—would be able to take advantage of her.

Beside her, Brody’s phone chirped. He glanced at the screen, a frown settling across his brow, and his deep voice rumbled from his chest. “It’s Hope.” His gaze turned back to Gram. “If you need me to stay—”

He left the comment open ended as his gaze slashed to Paige. Despite the earlier warmth in his dark chocolate eyes, it was clear the man didn’t trust her any more than her grandma did.

Paige ground her molars together. “We’re family not axe-murderers.”

Grimness firmed the sensual curve of his mouth. “In some families, those are one and the same.”

She crossed her arms over her chest. His gaze dipped briefly, and when he looked back up at her face, there was interest there, which caught her off guard. Because Brody had always regarded her as the annoyance next door, too young for his attention, too irritating to be allowed in his presence.

Except when he’d helped her fix the old truck in Gram’s garage.

Heat spiraled low in her belly. Ignoring it—ignoring him—she peered up at her grandma. “May we please come in?”

Before Gram could answer, Brody’s phone chirped again and he backed down the sidewalk. “I’ll be by tomorrow to fix the kitchen faucet, Olivia. If you need me before that, just holler.”

“I will, Brody,” she replied with a wave and a smile.

As he turned and loped across the driveway to the house next door, Paige followed him with her gaze, taking in his broad shoulders, narrow hips, and long sure strides.

It had been a long time since she’d allowed herself to get physical with a man. A long time since she’d wanted to. But Brody Jackson was definitely off limits. He had heartbreak written all over him.

Gram’s voice interrupted her thoughts. “Too much like your mother, you are, liking men too much.”

Paige tore her gaze from Brody’s backside to the judgement on her grandma’s face, and felt her cheeks heat. “That’s not true.”

Beside her, Starr muttered, “Seriously not true. A boyfriend might get her off my back.”

Gram shook her finger. “I saw the way you ogled Brody and the way he ogled you back. You stay away from that boy. He has enough trouble on his plate without adding you to the mix.”

“Gram, believe me, I’m not here to get involved—”

“Darn tootin’ rights you’re not.” Gram yanked open the screen door and waved them inside. “Hurry up now, before people see you. You look like a couple of starving hobos begging for a handout.”

Relief swept through Paige. As she passed the older woman, she bent to give her granny a hug. “I missed you, Gram.”

The older woman’s back stiffened. She didn’t return the hug. “Sure couldn’t tell so by the amount of visits you made to me over the years.”

Paige released her and stepped back. “I wasn’t sure I’d be welcome.”

“The jury’s still out on that.” Gram eyeballed Starr as the teen schlepped past her into the house. “You don’t have any diseases, do you, girl?”

With a smirk, the teenager reached out and wiggled her fingers inches from the grouchy old lady’s nose. “Touch me and find out for yourself.”

Paige pushed Starr the rest of the way into the house. “Ignore her, Gram. It’s been a long trip. Usually she’s a sweetheart.”

Down the hallway, a buzzer beeped. Gram closed the front door, shutting out the heat and humidity, then pushed past them and headed down the cool narrow hallway to the kitchen in the back. As Paige nudged Starr forward, she inhaled the familiar scent of homemade bread and her stomach grumbled.

Gram grabbed oven mitts off the countertop, pulled open the oven door, and waved as a blast of heat hit her face. As she bent to pull the loaf out of the oven, Starr’s stomach rumbled noisily, and she fixed her great-granddaughter with a beady look. “You hungry, girl?”

Starr nodded once, the practiced teenage cool gone for a few blissful moments while her attention fixed on the food.

“Bathroom’s up the stairs at the end of the hall.” Gram turned her back on them, stood on tiptoes to pull three glasses and three small saucers out of the cupboard, then shuffled across the room to set them on the table. When she turned back, her gaze landed on Starr and her voice turned sharp. “Get going, girl. You’re not sitting at my table till you’ve washed those filthy hands.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Starr dropped her backpack on one of the kitchen chairs and took off like a shot.

The moment she was out of earshot, Gram’s mouth turned pinched and hard. “How much money do you want?”

Straightforward and blunt, reminding Paige of why they’d disagreed all those years ago. She crossed to the sink and squirted dish soap on her hands. “I’m not here for your money.”

Gram snorted and retrieved the small stepladder from the corner of the kitchen and set it in front of the cupboard. While Paige scrubbed her hands, she watched the older woman climb onto the top step, reach into the highest shelf, and push past boxes of cereal and cans of soup.

At last, she pulled out a restaurant sized mayo jar, the contents obscured by black paint on the outside of the container. Holding it against her bosom, she climbed down and unscrewed the lid. “You’re too much like your daddy, always looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”

Paige snapped the towel off the oven handle to dry her hands, and swallowed her annoyance, but a bit got loose. “That’s not true, Gram.”

“Too much like your mama, too. Liking men too much, you always did.” Her grandmother pulled out a fistful of bills from the jar and held it out to her. “Here, take it. Then be gone.”

Paige angled her head and saw that the jar was crammed full with money—ones and fifties and hundred dollar bills. “Why isn’t this in the bank, Gram?”

“Don’t trust no thieving banks. Robbers, all of them. Take my money. Do what you want with it. But never come back here again.”

Behind her, the kitchen door squeaked open. Paige turned and met Starr’s curious gaze.

The teen crossed the room to her side. “What’s going on?”

Gram grabbed one of Starr’s wrists and tucked the bills into the palm of her hand. “Take this money and be on your way. I washed my hands of your mother years ago. I don’t need more trouble in my life now.”

Paige gave a half-hearted attempt to defend herself. “Gram—”

“You don’t write. You don’t call. Suddenly, you have the urge to see your old granny?” With an angry mutter, Gram shook the contents of the jar onto the countertop, and along with the bills, coins tinkled against the hard surface. “Do you need more? In a day or two, my social security check will be here. You can have that, too. Take it all and then be gone. I don’t need your kind of trouble in my life.”

Paige glanced down at Starr’s upturned face. The teen’s eyes were wide with curiosity and something else…greed as she clutched the bills to her chest.

Somehow she had to convince Gram to deposit all that money into the bank before it disappeared. And disappear it would. If she knew one thing about her father, it was that nobody’s money was safe in his presence.

She nudged Starr on the shoulder. “Put the money back in the jar.”

For a moment, the teen resisted. Then she shoved her fist into the jar, opened her hand wide, and let go of the bills. While Starr glared at her great-grandma in defiance and Gram glared back at her great-granddaughter in disappointment, Paige picked up the bills and coins off the countertop, and stuffed them into the jar.

She twisted the lid on and set the jar in the cupboard, far back where someone snooping would never find it. “Gram, I’m not here for your money.”

The older woman’s mouth flatlined. “Then why are you here? Don’t lie to me. What kind of trouble are you in now?”

“No trouble.”

Olivia turned her back on them, shook the steaming hot loaf out of the pan, and cut a half dozen slices. She stacked them on the serving plate, her once nimble fingers bent with arthritis and old age. “I ain’t so old that I’ve forgotten what a lie looks like when it’s staring me in the face.”

Gram stomped away to slap the plate on the table, then sat down at her usual spot. Back straight. Expression like stone.

Paige eased onto the chair across from her.

The old lady glared at Starr and pointed to one of the chairs. “Sit.”

Starr slid onto the chair like she was sliding into first base, plunked her elbows on the table, and grabbed a slice off the tray. “I’m famished.”

The stiff upper lip on Gram’s face grew stiffer. “Ungrateful child. We give thanks in this house before we eat.”

Paige took the bread before Starr could cram it into her mouth, and set it on the plate in front of her daughter. “Elbows off the table.”

Then she bent her head and put her hands together. While Gram said a prayer, Paige snuck a look at her grandma.

It seemed that nothing about the old lady had changed. She was still outspoken, determined to be right, and righteous as only the eternally right could be.

Outside the window, the roar of a motorbike drew her attention, and she saw Brody steer the bike down the driveway next door and onto the street.

How she envied him his freedom. The wind blowing through his hair. No family responsibilities. No lies and secrets to protect the ones he loved.

“I have house rules,” Gram stated as she unfolded her hands and pointed a boney finger at her great-granddaughter who glared back at her with growing horror. “No lolly-gagging on the streets. Bedtime is at 8:30. And if you sneak out your bedroom window, I’ll nail it shut.”

All snarky, pissed off teen, Starr shoved to her feet, knocked over the chair, and addressed Paige. “Seriously? This is how you want me to spend my vacation? I’m gonna rot here.”

Pushing down the guilt for ruining her daughter’s spring break, Paige reached down and righted the chair. “Gram’s house. Gram’s rules.”

Without another word, the teen stomped out of the room, down the hallway, and out the front door.

Gram snickered into her hand. “One down, two to go.”

Paige focused in on her grandmother and the reason she’d returned to Serendipity Island. “Where is he, Gram?”

Her grandmother leaned forward, the cloudiness of her faded blue eyes now clear, and fixed Paige with a beady glare. “Your dad is trouble, girl. I’ve told you a thousand times to stay away from him.”

She’d be more than happy to keep her distance.

Unfortunately, Jeb Calhoun had the uncanny ability to sniff out the weakness in people.

And right now, Gram was the perfect target for his nefarious schemes.

CHAPTER THREE

 

 

Brody Jackson gunned the powerful engine of the Harley, leaned into the curve of the road, and tried to breathe through his anger and frustration.

After four months of being confined to Serendipity Island—four months of dealing with the never ending joys of parenthood—Brody was still reeling from the court’s decision to award him temporary custody of his daughter provided they set up house near her grandma.

And he wasn’t certain he’d ever get over it.

Discovering he had a thirteen-year-old daughter had blindsided him, but he’d tried to do the right thing by putting his football career on hold, buying his parents’ house, and returning to the island.

Yet the knowledge that he could walk away from it all any time he wanted consumed his thoughts. All he had to do was give up temporary custody and he’d be free.

Except he’d never really be free, not of the guilt or the obligation.

Approaching Serendipity’s main street, Brody slowed his speed, checked over his shoulder for oncoming traffic, and switched lanes, then pulled up to the curb in front of the Sheriff’s office and turned off the engine. He glanced at his daughter who stood next to the Sheriff, then had to look away.

She appeared way too comfortable with the consequences of her bad behavior, her cell phone in her hands, her thumbs flying over the on-screen keyboard, pretending to ignore him. But Brody knew she’d listen to every single word exchanged.

The Sheriff smiled. “Afternoon, Brody. I have your regular weekly delivery in custody.”

“Afternoon, Sam.” He braced himself and his anger. “What did she do this time?”

“I found her on top of the water tower doing a Picasso imitation.” The Sheriff squeezed the teen’s shoulder. “The water tower now has a new coat of non-approved, non-regulation graffiti, doesn’t it, Hope?”

The teen continued to ignore them.

For not the first time, Brody acknowledged that he was out of his depth. Way out. So far out, the smartest thing he could do was hand the girl over to her grandmother and walk away. “Sorry about that. What’s her punishment this time?”

The Sheriff studied the top of her head and scratched his chin. “Our new newspaper editor, Dane Weatherby, could use someone to deliver the daily paper. His carrier broke his foot and is out for the next few weeks.”

“Appreciated, Sheriff. Have Dane contact me and we’ll get things set up.” He flexed his stiff jaw and forced himself to look at his daughter. “Get on the bike, Hope.”

Gaze fixed on the phone, still thumbing the keypad with one hand, she hopped on behind him. In the snottiest teenage voice possible, she replied, “What’s the big deal, Brody? The paint’ll wash off next time it rains.”

He gritted his teeth. “Put on your helmet.”

Brody started the engine and waited, patience dissipated, until she tapped him on the shoulder. With a wave to the Sheriff, he checked over his shoulder for oncoming traffic, then steered the bike back onto the road.

Thank goodness for the roar of the engine because that meant they couldn’t talk.

The moment he pulled into the driveway at home, Hope hopped off the bike and loped toward the house. Brody knew he should stop her and deal with the situation, but he couldn’t right now. He was too mad, too frustrated, too far out of his element.

What did he know about raising a kid?

Less than he knew about those mysterious boxes of feminine supplies she hid in the back of the bathroom closet.

A movement on his front porch caught his attention and he dragged his gaze from his daughter toward the front door.

Matilda Hannibal, Hope’s grandma.

He didn’t want to deal with her right now, but she was already headed their way.

She was like a vulture waiting for him to drop and give up. If he didn’t show some level of parental authority, Matilda would have him by the balls, so he stepped into the fray.

“Stop right there, young lady,” he warned Hope as he followed her. Somehow he managed to get between his daughter and her grandmother. “You’re grounded until further notice. Give me your cell and go to your room.”

“What’s the big deal?” she asked in that snotty thirteen-year-old tone that could drive him around the bend in zero-point-two seconds.

He’d never spoken to his parents like that. Had he?

He ground his teeth together and prayed for an extra dose of patience. “Phone. Now.”

She stood there and stared back at him, her long brown hair wispy in the island breeze, her legs braced far apart in a stance that mirrored his own. The first time he’d seen her, way back when he’d been in denial that this girl was his daughter, it had been her physical mannerisms that had convinced him otherwise.

She sneered up at him. “There’s nothing to do on this island except watch the tide go in and out. I’m bored. I want to go back to the Mainland and my friends.”

And didn’t that just make two of them.

He wanted to go back to the Mainland too.

He wanted to return to the life he’d had before the responsibility of a daughter he’d never known about had been thrust on him.

He held out his hand and pointed toward the house. “Room. Now. We’ll discuss this later, after your grandma leaves.”

Before he could get possession of the phone, Matilda shouldered him aside and hissed, “Get out of my way, you big oaf. If she was living with me, she wouldn’t get into mischief and get arrested, and you know it. You’re unfit as a father and I’m going to take you back to court to prove it.”

Without a word in retaliation—because he couldn’t disagree with her—he let her push past.

Somehow she already knew about the misdemeanor. It seemed like she had eyes and ears in every aspect of Hope’s life, and his.

She swept Hope into her arms. “Darling, don’t let the mean man boss you around. He hasn’t got a clue that a child needs guidance and attention.”

Hope scrunched up her face and squirmed to escape. “Grandma, let me go.”

Matilda did so reluctantly and gave the girl a little push toward the house. “Go on, dear. Let me deal with your fa—” She choked on the word, then finished with gritted teeth. “—that man.”

Hope’s bottom lip protruded, and as she headed for the house, she dragged her feet. In those moments, she looked so much like her mother, he felt his heart pinch in his chest.

She had her cell phone in her hands, already texting the world to let them know about her latest misdeed. That cell phone was going to be the second thing to go. First, he had to get rid of the woman who’d made herself public enemy number one.

He’d had enough of Matilda’s interference during these last four months. The minute Hope was out of earshot, he leaned down and hissed, “Stop undermining my authority.”

Matilda leaned into his personal space. “What authority? You let her run circles around you.”

“Every time I try to discipline her, you’re there to interfere.”

“It’s your fault she acts up.”

Brody sighed, tired of the same old argument. “If I’d had her for the first thirteen years of her life instead of just for the last four months, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Although truthfully, he had no way of really knowing that. Maybe the fact that he’d only found out about Hope four months ago wasn’t the only reason he was a terrible parent.

Maybe he would have been a terrible parent anyway.

Matilda straightened and crossed her arms over her ample chest. “This is why she should be in my custody. I’d never let her get away with such behavior. She’d feel loved and secure and never want to be bad.”

“All teens want to be bad,” Brody said, and the memory of his own teenage badness filtered through his thoughts.

And suddenly he had a whole new set of parental worries to consider.

Boys.

Teenage boys.

Brody knew exactly what the number one thing on every teenage boy’s mind was—heck, every male past puberty—because even now, with Matilda breathing down his neck, Paige Calhoun popped unbidden into his thoughts, and his mind immediately headed south of his belt.

He wrenched his focus back to the woman shaking one gloved finger under his nose.

“I’m taking you back to court, and this time I’ll prove you’re an unfit father. You might as well start packing Hope’s things right now. Before the month is over, she’ll be living with me where she belongs.”

He scowled. “Hope doesn’t want to live with you any more than she wants to live with me.”

With a frustrated huff, the older woman shifted back. “You’re so thickheaded, you can’t see that Hope is miserable here. I swear, once I gain custody, I’m going to make you regret ever challenging me. You’ll never see your daughter again.”

The sound of movement at the end of the driveway brought their argument to an end, and Brody turned to see the Judge stroll up the driveway.

“Morning, Brody. Morning, Matilda.”

For just a moment, Matilda appeared flustered. Then she quickly regained control and opened her mouth to get one more word in. She leaned toward him and hissed, “I’ll be watching your every move.”

Then she turned and scurried down the driveway, giving the Judge a curt nod as she passed him before she headed across the street to her house.

For not the first time, Brody wished he’d never hooked up with her daughter one crazy night when he’d been high on himself and his football glory. If he’d been smart back then, he wouldn’t now be saddled with a daughter who didn’t like him any more than he liked her.

Which made him a really bad father.

He scrubbed his hand over his jaw.

More than anything else, he was ashamed of that.

He glanced toward the second-story window and saw the curtains in Hope’s bedroom flutter. She’d been eavesdropping on his conversation with her grandma.

He raked his fingers through his hair and debated the consequences of dealing with her now while he was still pissed and she was in one of her sulky moods, or leaving it till later after they’d both cooled down.

A blast of music filled the air, making his decision for him, and as he strode toward the house, the base vibrated through the cement beneath his feet.

Inside the house, the music rattled the pictures on the walls and the glass ornaments were in jeopardy of dancing off the shelving units.

Hope,” he yelled up the staircase, but of course she couldn’t hear him, and for the moment, he was relieved. Better to be cool and in control of himself when he confronted her.

Upstairs the volume of the radio turned up to ear-shattering levels.

Resigned to his fate, determined to be a good father—even if he failed at it every time he turned around—he headed toward the kitchen to prepare supper and stopped dead in the entranceway.

Hanging Judge Harry Malone stood in front of the fridge, the door wide open, drinking directly from the milk jug. The moment he saw Brody, he pulled the jug from his lips and set it back on the shelf. His mouth moved, the words smothered by the din coming from upstairs.

What?” Brody yelled.

The Judge raised his voice. “Is she gone?”

“Who?”

“Mattie.” The music turned down to a more reasonable level, and the Judge flushed as though caught with his hand in the cookie jar before turning his attention to closing the fridge door. “Matilda. Is she gone?”

“For the moment.” Brody shouldered the Judge aside, opened the fridge, grabbed the milk jug and closed the fridge door. He carried the jug to the sink and dumped the contents down the drain.

“Hey,” the older man protested. “What are you doing? I could’ve finished that if I’d known you didn’t want it.”

Brody didn’t bother answering.

This is what happened when men were bachelors for too long. They became selfish and self-centered. Brody could attest to that.

Then the Judge’s hand settled on his shoulder. “After tonight, son, your worries with Hope will be over.”

Brody eyed the older man, ever doubtful when it came to his daughter. “What’s happening tonight?”

The Judge rocked back on his heels and grinned, his chest puffed out. “The news will be all over town by tomorrow morning, so just wait till then.”

Whatever the Judge had in mind, Brody hoped it included a get out of parenthood free card.

CHAPTER FOUR

 

 

When Delores Peabody heard the sound of Brody’s motorbike turn onto the street, she’d lifted the edge of Matilda Hannibal’s living room sheers so she could ogle his manly form.

Soon you’ll be mine, she’d thought as she watched him dismount from the bike, his shoulders broad and tense, his large hands fisted at his sides as he’d faced down both his annoying teenage daughter and her even more annoying grandma. And when the familiar hum of sexual excitement tickled her stomach, she let the sheers drop back into place, and slumped down on her chair.

Nothing exciting ever happened on Serendipity Island. It was boring, boring, boring. Just like these stupid Ladies Society meetings. They were the most boring of all. She needed to escape to another life before she went crazy, and Brody was her ticket off this island.

Feigning patience, she waited for the current Madame President to make her appearance, and pushed the threat of insanity down deep where no one but her could sense it.

Delores fiddled with the charm bracelet around her wrist, squinted at the cobweb in the corner of the room, and wondered if the spider was dead. Or maybe just waiting to pounce on one of the ten other women seated around the widow’s neat and tidy living room.

Come on, Spidey, show yourself. This is borrr

A sharp elbow jabbed her in the side.

She jolted upright, caught the pad of paper before it slipped off her lap, and lifted her gaze to her hostess’s face, uncertain if she’d missed something important. “Matilda, I didn’t see you come in.”

The older woman tapped the crystal on her diamond-studded watch, her blue on blue eyes filled with sparks of annoyance. “Delores, are you daydreaming again?”

Old cow, she wanted to snarl. Instead, she forced an apologetic smile and sucked up. “Sorry. I appreciate you keeping me on task. Shall we get started?”

Matilda plunked her matronly form down next to her and bending her head, pointed at the pad of paper. “What’s first on the agenda?”

Delores stared at the multitude of blue-gray hairs mingling with the black on the older woman’s head, wondered why she didn’t color it, then turned her focus to the pad of paper. “Dearest Olivia. She has a request for the group and asked me to pass it on.”

Matilda discreetly glanced at her watch, making Delores wonder what she had to rush off to, then nodded once. “Go ahead, Delores, you have the floor. Of course we’ll do anything for one of our own.”

And indeed, that was the truth.

At eighty-seven, Olivia was the sweet old lady who lived across the alley from Delores’s house. They’d spent many an evening seated on Olivia’s back porch, exchanging recipes and gardening tips and watching the seasons change.

Although since Brody had returned to the island, Delores hadn’t had much time to spend on anything but plotting and planning ways to get him to pop the marriage question. He didn’t know it yet, but he was going to be walking down the aisle with her before the week was out.

Another poke in the ribs brought Delores back to attention, and she was ready to jab Matilda back, maybe with the pencil in her hand.

Maybe in the eye.

Maybe she’d close her eyes, take a jab, and surprise herself.

“Delores?”

She focused her thoughts, lifted her head—she didn’t need to check her notes—and glanced around the room. “Olivia’s son recently returned to the island and she’d like everyone to make him feel welcome.”

“Of course we will,” Matilda said with a warm smile, then with a glance at her watch—again—turned her smile on the other women in the room, deliberately meeting the gaze of each one, ensuring each woman would comply with the request. “We’ll welcome her son as if he was a member of our own family, right ladies?”

Everyone around the room nodded, including Delores.

She checked her notes and continued. “She says her son is an excellent handyman, but due to the downturn in the economy, he’s been out of work for quite some time now. So if everyone could find it in their hearts to hire him for a job or two, she would appreciate it.”

“Of course. Of course.” Matilda peered down at her watch, making Delores wonder exactly what the older woman was up to, and why it was important enough to keep watching the clock. As the owner of the sole real estate office on the island, Matilda had free reign over her schedule, and she never booked appointments to show houses on Tuesdays or Thursdays.

Something that Delores had always found oddly suspicious.

The older woman continued. “We’ll make Olivia’s son welcome. That’s part of being a member of the Ladies Society. When newcomers come to the island, we treat them as if they were our own family. Right, Delores?”

“Family,” she repeated and met Matilda’s gaze with a smile of her own. “I can do that, treat them like my family.”

It had been so easy. A shovel to the back of her mother’s head. A little e-coli in her dad’s meatloaf.

No one had suspected a thing.

If Olivia’s son didn’t treat her right, Delores would make him regret it, like she’d made her own family wish they’d treated her better.

Beside her, Matilda addressed the members of the Society. “I’m worried about Olivia living all alone in that big old house. If her son doesn’t stay, maybe we need to take some action of our own.”

Delores thrust her arm into the air and waved her hand to get Madame President’s attention.

Matilda nodded her head in that regal fashion that made Delores want to smack her and smack her hard. Because she hated when the older woman looked down her nose at her subjects.

“You have the floor, Delores.”

Everyone’s focus shifted her way, and for a moment she felt the thrill of being at the center of their attention. It turned her stomach in a deliciously wicked way, like those roller coaster rides that were on the east end of the island. Up and down, around and around, until she thought for certain that she was going to throw up.

She swallowed the nausea down, lowered her arm, snapped the elastic band on her wrist, and smiled at the women in the room. Strangely, they all gasped and leaned back. “It would kill Olivia to leave her garden and the longer she’s able to stay in her own home, the better. I volunteer to check on her every day to make sure she’s okay.”

“Morning, noon, and night,” Matilda interrupted, regaining the room’s attention. “Wonderful idea, Delores. If you need assistance, you can draw up a schedule and send out reminders each day so no one forgets.”

Delores did a mental eye roll.

Blah, blah, blah. How the woman went on. Oh, where was a shovel when she needed one?

Matilda smiled at the women in the room. “It’s unanimous then. We’ll check on Olivia three times a day and help her stay in her house as long as possible.”

Delores bent over the pad of paper on her lap and scribbled a note before the old bat could heckle her some more. Like she needed help to take care of her dear elderly neighbor. Olivia was her favorite person on Serendipity Island.

Well, except for Brody…and when it came to Brody, there was no doubt in Delores’s mind that Olivia had her back.

A ping of something desperate zapped Delores hard in the back of her neck. Gripping the pencil in her hand, the wood snapped in half. She stared down at it in surprise.

An age spotted hand covered her own, extracting the broken pencil from her grip. “Is everything all right?”

“Hunky dory,” she lied.

“Good.” Matilda squeezed her hand. “Is there anything else on the agenda.”

Delores wanted to squeeze back until she broke a finger or three. She pulled another pencil out of her purse, wet the tip against her tongue, and poised it above the paper, ready to write if needed. “No.”

Matilda cleared her throat. “Before we adjourn this meeting, I have one last order of new business. As you all know, our Mayor is unable to fulfill his term, and he handed in his resignation last night.”

A chorus of disappointed noises hummed through the room.

“Yes, it’s very sad, but we must move on and be prepared. I move that the Ladies Society enter the political ring, and nominate and support a Mayoral candidate of our own.”

Into the quiet that followed her suggestion, voices exploded around the room. Matilda held up her hands for silence and the yammering settled down. “The floor is open for nominations.”

Delores raised her hand and spoke before Matilda could acknowledge her. “Brody Jackson. He’s perfect for the job. Young enough to handle the demands long into the future. Smart, well-liked—”

Without looking her way, Matilda interrupted, her voice edged with steel. “Thank you, Delores. Anyone else?”

She stared at the other woman’s profile. The old bat had cut her off and was ignoring her on purpose. Delores lowered her arm, touched the elastic band around her wrist, and snapped it.

Hard.

Pain radiated through the bones in her wrist and hand, bringing her anger back under control.

Indignant, Delores crossed her arms over her chest and silently refused to record anything else until the old bat acknowledged Brody as a candidate.

But when no one else came forward with a nomination, Delores’s lips twitched into the beginning of a smile.

Beside her, Matilda clapped her hands together and spoke into the silence. “I recommend the group nominate Judge Harry Malone.”

Delores’s head snapped around.

Hanging Harry? What a laugh. Delores had seen him drive off the ferry with his brand new motorhome. Then he’d taken a roundabout route home as though he were sneaking the humongous unit past the island’s residents.

Everyone knew Hanging Harry was ready to retire. Everyone except Matilda, that is, who only saw what Matilda wanted to see.

Delores felt her hope die.

Half the women in the room blindly followed Matilda’s every whim. The other half were secretly crushing over the Judge. And since he spent most of his waking hours on the golf course, he was golfing buddy to most of the men on the island.

Brody would be no match for the older man.

But she had to try. The only thing better than being a star quarterback’s popular and much in demand wife would be reigning over the island citizens as First Lady.

She gritted her teeth and raised her hand, once again speaking without permission, determined to fight for her man. “Brody would be the better choice.”

Matilda turned, her face like stone. “We can’t have two candidates.”

“Why not? It’s a free country.” She turned to the other women in the living room, who had all gone silent. “The Judge is ancient, ready to retire. We need someone young, someone who will be in the position for many years to come.”

Matilda huffed out a sigh. “Fine, we’ll take a vote—”

Delores didn’t wait for her to finish. She stuck her hand in the air and asked, “All those in favor of Brody?”

Slowly, one by one, five of the younger women sided with her. Brody was, after all, one of the few single men currently living on the island, and Delores knew that she wasn’t the only one hoping he’d pop the question.

She did, however, plan to be the only one to get him down the aisle, no matter what it took.

Matilda grabbed Delores’s wrist and yanked it down. Then she gave each society member one of her steely-eyed glares, and raised her own arm. “Make the right choice, ladies. All those in favor of Judge Malone?”

Ten hands went up in the air, including those who had originally voted for Brody.

Matilda smirked and pushed to her feet. “The meeting is adjourned. All those in favor?”

Everyone raised a hand, including Delores. She pushed to her feet, intent on escape before she did something she’d later regret, like drill her fist into the manipulative bat’s nose.

But Matilda laid one hand on her forearm and stopped her escape. “I’d like to have a word with you.”

Teeth gritted, Delores counted off the seconds as the women filed out of Matilda’s house. In all that time, the old bat’s claws remained firmly around Delores’s wrist, pressing the tiny charms of her bracelet into the tender flesh.

The pain was almost exquisite.

As the last of the members departed, Matilda released her arm and pushed to her feet.

Delores met her gaze, ready to give her a resounding no.

“My dear, I have a huge favor to ask of you.”

Lips pressed together, she glared at her hostess.

Matilda’s eyes narrowed, magnifying the lines at the outer edges of her eyes. “I want custody of Hope and I believe you can help me with that.”

Delores exhaled. “What’s in it for me?”

“Brody. I know you want to marry him, and when that happens, you don’t want to have an annoying teenager underfoot, do you? One, I might add, that is sure to draw his attention away from you.”

“It’s as though you can read my mind,” Delores breathed, now totally on board with whatever the older woman suggested.

“One of my many talents,” Matilda said with a small smile, which made Delores want to gag. “All you have to do is steer Hope toward the idea of living with me. I promise I won’t breathe a single word of this to anyone.”

“That’s it?” Getting Hope to want to live with her grandma instead of trying to convince Brody to send the brat off to boarding school seemed a whole lot easier. For some strange reason, Brody seemed attached to the girl. Smiling, she bent to gather up her things. “I’ll do it. But if one word of this gets back to Brody, I’ll make you regret it.”

Delores escaped out the front door, slipped through Olivia’s yard, and crossed the alley into her own yard. In the quiet comfort of her home, she dropped her purse onto the dining room table, then threw herself face up on the couch, and squealed.

Mayor Brody Jackson had such a nice ring to it. An even better sound was First Lady Delores Peabody-Jackson.

CHAPTER FIVE

 

 

Hours later, Matilda Hannibal was still steamed over Brody’s refusal to give up all right to his daughter. But by the time she finished soaking in a tub full of milk bath to repair the damages of her youthful love for the sun, she’d cooled down…somewhat.

There was no point in thinking about him and Hope right now. No. She could think about them tomorrow, call her lawyer, and if necessary, call a PI to spy on him.

And then she could tell Harry she was nominating him for Mayor.

But right now, she was looking forward to getting rid of her frustration in a healthier fashion than taking it out with the chocolate fudge she still had left over from her Christmas baking spree.

As she dressed for the evening ahead, she realized that the women of her generation had the best of two worlds.

They had the freedom and right to demand the respect of being a lady.

They also had the freedom and right not to be a lady every Tuesday and Thursday night when the flavor of the month came knocking on their back door.

Which hottie Judge Harry Tyberious Malone happened to be doing right this very moment.

Matilda checked her appearance in the mirror, took a deep steadying breath to mask her excitement, and headed to the back door to let him in. Ten o’clock sharp. Dark enough to avoid any neighbors seeing him arrive. Early enough to still make good use of his time—and body—before he drifted off to sleep at eleven.

She pulled open the back door, saw him standing there waiting for her, a big goofy grin on his face because he knew without a doubt that he was going to get laid…and laid so fine.

The moment she opened the screen door to let him in, his gaze swept down her body, from the salt and pepper state of her hair that she tried to ignore, to her crimson red dress that suited her coloring so well, to the matching spiked heels she’d bought with Harry’s gratification in mind.

“Wow,” he said, his eyes glued to her feet.

“Do you like?” she asked as she preened before him, twisting one foot this way, then that way to show him the full effect of the shoe. The spiked heels slimmed her calves and the open toed style afforded him a glimpse of her freshly painted toenails.

“Oh yeah, baby, I like a lot.” He grabbed her by the hand and tried to tug her out of the house. “Come on, Mattie, there’s something I want to show you.”

“Wait. What? I just need my—” She stretched one way while he tugged the other way, but she managed to wrap her hand around her cell phone right before he pulled her out the door.

“I promise you, honey, you won’t need your phone tonight.”

“Always be prepared,” she said around a muffled laugh as he tugged her out the back gate and started down the back alley, which had her laughing softly at his boyish enthusiasm, and secretly thrilled at this unexpected change in their routine. But he was going too fast for her and she pulled back, finally extracting her hand from his grip. “For Pete’s sake, Harry. I’m wearing brand new four-inch heels and a bustier that’s squeezing the breath out of my lungs. Just how far are we going?”

He glanced back over his shoulder, concern for her instantly filtering through his warm gaze as he slowed his footsteps and sent her an apologetic lopsided grin that did something funny to the pitter-patter of her heart. Then his smoky hot gaze went down her body to her feet in those heels, and he stopped and pulled her hard against his body.

Oh my.

Mama had never told her that being naughty could be so fine. In fact, being naughty had been so forbidden, there were still tiny areas of her life where she hadn’t quite stepped over the line. But she was working on it. She might be pushing the upper limits of her middle age, but she was still woman enough to appreciate a man’s body sinking into hers.

“Geez, Mattie,” he started out with a soft laugh that he ended up sharing with her as he bent his head and claimed her mouth for a kiss that left her even more breathless than the fast walk down the alley.

When he came up for air, she had her arms looped around his neck, could feel the hard ridge of his desire against her belly, could feel her own body respond in a liquid rush of joy. Okay, maybe the discussion about Hope could wait until after they made love because it was sure to ruin the romantic mood.

A rustle in the bushes caught her attention and she huddled against him to hide. “Did you hear that?” she whispered against his neck while she peered into the darkness.

His arms tightened around her. “What?”

A gecko skittered out of the bushes and relief shot through Matilda. She was always so very careful to never get caught. Sleeping with Harry without the bonds of matrimony would ruin her pristine reputation.

She gave a soft laugh and smiled up at him. “Never mind. Harry, take me home and take me to bed.”

Again he laughed softly, then scooped her into his arms and continued at a faster pace than before because he no longer had to bother shortening his stride to match hers. “Hold that thought, honey.”

And then he slipped through the gate into his own yard, where in the moonlit darkness she could make out the hibiscus lining the side of the house and the pink roses climbing the archway connecting the back yard to the front.

Matilda realized that they’d never made love in his house and for a moment her insides stilled. This is it. A big step for him. An even bigger step for me.

But he strode past the back door, along the side of the house to the front yard, and stopped by the huge motorhome that was parked on the street.

He set her down on her four-inch heels, and as those delicate crimson heels sunk into the lawn, he reached into his pocket and brought out a ring of keys to unlock the door. The entire time she stood frozen and wondered what the blazes?

“I finally did it, honey.” He swung open the door and urged her inside, switched on a light, then closed the door quickly behind them before the night-flying critters could follow them in. He waved one hand to encompass the huge area. “It’s bought and paid for, so we won’t have any extra expenses. Gas, groceries, and fun money are all we need to worry about.”

“What?” was all she managed to croak out because the stupid corset was squeezing the breath from her lungs almost as much as the confusion over where he was going with this line of conversation.

He turned to face her, reached into his pocket as he dropped to one knee on the floor in front of her, and she couldn’t help but back up a step. For the first time, she noticed the adoration shining in his gaze and she wondered when that had happened. And why hadn’t she paid more attention so she could stop those feelings before they developed?

“Mattie, honey, marry me. I’m tired of hiding from the neighbors. Of sneaking over to your house after dark like a sixteen-year-old kid, then sneaking out before the sun rises. For Pete’s sake, I can’t even look at you in public for fear I’ll give myself away. Mattie, honey, come out of the closet and marry me.” He looked up at her with his beautiful eyes full of emotion, took her hand in his, and gently slipped the ring on her finger, scaring the bejeezus right out of her with this simple romantic gesture.

Even if it was a much better proposal than her first. Still, she’d accepted that one. But she wasn’t a stupid naive girl anymore.

She tugged her hand free, looked down at the huge sparkly rock he’d put on her finger, and let out a nervous laugh. “Don’t be an old fool, Harry.”

His dark brows lowered. “I’m sixty-six years old, Mattie, not ninety-two and senile.”

She backed up, teetered on the edge of the steps, and steadied her balance. “Get off your knees, Harry, and quit making an ass of yourself.”

In one swift move, he came to his feet. Even with her spiked heels, he towered over her, and made her feel tiny and delicate and sexier than she’d ever felt as a twenty-one year old newlywed. Except the sexy part was quickly fading in the trepidation overcoming her. “Come on, Harry, why spoil what we have?”

“We’re not spoiling it. We’re making it better.” He captured both her hands in his and leaned so close, all she could see was his beautiful eyes shining in the light of the moon streaming through the side windows. “Mattie, I adore you. I’ve adored you since the third grade and you still married that jackass Herbert. Well, he’s dead now and it’s my turn.”

“Harry, I’m not one of your groupies that you can just order around.”

His voice softened. “No, you’re a flesh and blood woman. I want to have the right to hold you in my arms in public. I’m ready to retire and you don’t have to work so hard anymore. I can take care of you. We’ll travel the Mainland, grow old together, and spend the next thirty or so years living in each other’s back pocket.”

Matilda felt her soul shrivel up.

Even though her late husband had been dead and buried for five years now, it seemed like she’d just escaped the shackles of one man. She snatched her hands out of his, tugged the ring off her finger, shoved it into his shirt pocket, and forced herself to ignore the warmth of his skin. “No.”

His happy smile turned into a glower. “Why the heck not?”

Could she really let him go? She squeezed his fingers and moved a step closer into his body heat. “Harry, I nominated you for Mayor today. You’ll make a wonderful Mayor. Handsome, distinguished, revered by all.”

He took a step back and pulled his hand from hers. “You shouldn’t have done that without talking to me first, Mattie. I’m leaving, and nothing is going to change my mind.”

Hope and desire shriveled up inside of her. With a frustrated huff, she planted her fists on her hips. “I thought you were different, Harry, but you don’t listen to me any more than Herbert did. I’ve told you repeatedly, after I get custody of Hope, I won’t be able to travel.”

The Judge shook his head. “You’re too old to be shackled to a teenager.”

“Too old?” Matilda stared at him. Sometimes men could be idiots, and right this very second Harry was the biggest idiot of them all.

He captured one of her hands in both of his and pressed it against his heart, the anger in his gaze evaporating, only to be replaced with something softer, more desperate. “You have to choose between Hope and me. You can’t have us both.”

But the look in his eyes suggested he already knew what her answer would be.

She tugged her hand free, stuck it behind her back and found the doorknob, giving it a twist, then a shove, and let the fresh evening air cool her off. “We’re done, Harry. Over. Complete. Totally finished. When you come to your senses and accept that one day Hope will be mine, we can resume our Tuesday and Thursday night ritual. But until then, I don’t want you to speak to me.”

Matilda descended the steps of the gigantic motorhome with as much dignity as she could, despite the four-inch heels that didn’t belong anywhere near a vehicle that took its occupants to a campground. No, indeed, not for her, she seethed with a shudder. If there was one thing she disliked, it was spiders and mosquitoes and the heavy smell of a fire lit in the campground next door.

She stomped off.

Part way home, she had to stop and yank off the toe killing heels, before she proceeded to storm the rest of the way home in her nylon covered feet. Until a loose rock on the sidewalk stabbed the underside of her foot. She huffed out an angry swear word her mother had never allowed her to use and limped the rest of the way.

Too old to raise a teenager.

The man wanted to marry her and he didn’t know a damn thing about her.

Men were pigs. She’d realized that the moment she’d said I do to her first husband, which he’d somehow translated into a belief that he owned her. And even though she’d thought Harry would be different, he wasn’t.

She slipped in and out of the shadows, and finally reached her house where she closed herself in with the darkness, and threw the new shoes into the back of the closet.

Out of sight, out of mind.

Now, if only she could forget the thrill of Harry in her arms with the same ease.

Matilda resisted the urge to grab the chocolate fudge out of the freezer and inhale it, instead taking her frustration out with a forty-minute walk on the treadmill.

No matter how much she might miss that old fool, she could get by without the inconvenience of those Tuesday and Thursday nights. All that prep took up too much of her valuable time anyway—time better spent coming up with new strategies to destroy the evil man who had her granddaughter.

Harry, the old fool, wasn’t worth another second of her time—time she’d wasted soaking and shaving and lathering her body in an attempt to hide the fact that she wasn’t young and fresh anymore.

All she had to do was remember that Harry wasn’t the only fish in the ocean.

She could find someone else to run for Mayor.

She could take care of her Tuesday and Thursday night releases on her own.

And if not, there were other men who would do the dirty deed.

CHAPTER SIX

 

 

Paige spent the evening getting settled, tiptoeing around Gram, being careful not to step on the elderly woman’s tender sensibilities. Except there was nothing tender about the old woman at all, especially when she turned off the lights at eight-thirty and like a military commander, ordered them all off to bed.

Without a word, Starr stomped up the stairs and slammed the bedroom door shut. Paige followed her up, then spent the next several hours sitting in the dark on the old armchair by the bedroom window, watching for her dad’s return.

He never showed, which gave her plenty of time to get distracted by the shadows moving around the house next door. And when a door opened in the bedroom across the way, and the hallway light illuminated the tall gorgeous man entering the room, Paige shrank into the armchair so Brody couldn’t see her.

In the semi-darkness, she watched him tug the t-shirt over his head, revealing six-pack abs and the hard body of an athlete. A moment later, he reached for the zipper of his jeans, and she caught her breath.

The crush she’d long forgotten in the busyness of her life returned, heating her body and wakening her with a powerful urge to climb out the window, sneak across the driveway, and join Brody in his bed.

Then he moved to the window and she froze.

Could he see her?

For endless seconds, Brody stood there staring across the distance at her bedroom window before he turned away and disappeared out of sight.

She leaned forward, covered her face with her hands, and breathed deep, refocusing on the reason she’d returned to Serendipity Island.

Jeb Calhoun was the ultimate conman, a regular shyster without a conscious, a man accustomed to shifting the blame for his nefarious schemes onto whatever unfortunate sucker happened to be standing next to him at the time.

This time, he’d brought his work to the one place he could do the most damage. Right into Gram’s backyard.

Whatever he was up to, she thought as she finally crawled into bed, he had to be stopped.

And she was the only one who could do it, because he’d taught her every trick in the conman’s book.

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

 

The next morning, Paige woke with a start and pried open her eyes. Before she could scream, the man standing above her clapped one hand over her mouth and leaned in close.

“Ssshhh, Buttercup. You don’t want to wake the neighborhood, do you?”

“Holy cow, Dad,” she growled as she pushed his hand away from her mouth and scrambled to sit up. “You scared the bejeezus out of me. Where have you been? Why are you here? What are you up to?”

He smiled, that warm and fatherly smile he’d used to placate her when she was young and in his care. When she had worshipped him like he was king of everything and she was his loyal subject.

Until everything went bad and he’d betrayed her.

“Paige, darlin’,” he began as he loosened the knot on his tie.

He was cold, calculated, and she no longer believed a single word that came out of his mouth. “Don’t darlin’ me, Dad. I’m not one of your pigeons.”

Something in his expression morphed into melancholy, and he crossed the room to the window and poked aside the drapes. “Can’t a man take a moment to rest and regroup?”

As Paige watched her dad gaze out the window, she couldn’t help but notice that he looked old and worn and tired. Despite her determination to stay far away from him, her guilt barometer spiked. “Dad—”

“No use trying to spare an old man’s feelings. I never wasted time sparing yours.” He rubbed the back of his neck, his thick bushy eyebrows drawn together in a frown as he turned back to face her, and held out his arms. “I missed you, Buttercup.”

How much was an act and how much was for real? Because she didn’t know, she gave a resigned huff and rolled out of bed.

Closing the distance between them, she moved into his arms and gave him a hug. The familiar scent of pipe smoke and aftershave clung to his clothes, and brought back the memory of other reconciliations, other warm embraces. Despite all of her distrust, he was still her dad.

As she pushed out of his arms, his defensive stance relaxed. “I’ve been thinking about the future a lot, Buttercup, thinking maybe I could settle down and retire here.”

She thought of Gram’s life savings in the jar in the kitchen, and her spine stiffened. “How much do you want, Dad?”

“Buttercup, I’m insulted.” The corners of his mouth turned down and he stared at her. With hopes he’d break, she stared back. But of course, he didn’t, and he smoothly changed the subject. “I peeked in on Starr. She must be twice the size since I saw her last.”

Paige froze. Her heart thudded in her chest. “You stay away from Starr.”

“Ain’t no reason why I couldn’t have paid you a visit and gotten to know my granddaughter.”

“Actually, there was. There is.” Her voice shook and she barely managed to hold onto her fear. “I don’t want Starr exposed to your line of work and I don’t want you to teach her any of your tricks.”

“What am I going to do? Corrupt her?” When she just glared at him, he shook his head and headed for the door, nonchalant and easy as though he didn’t have a care in the world, tossing thoughtless words over his shoulder. “You don’t have much faith in your daughter, do you?”

“I trust Starr. What I don’t trust is her smooth talking, scheming, double-crossing grandpa, whose every word is a lie.”

One hand on the doorknob, he faced her and smiled. “I’ve gone straight, Buttercup.”

His declaration stopped her.

Was it possible? Could he go a day without telling a lie or scamming some innocent bystander out of their life’s savings?

Hope blossomed where hope had no right to blossom, and she quickly squashed it down. The likelihood of that happening was about a zillion to one.

He drew an X over his heart. “God’s honest truth, darlin’.”

“Right.” The last thing she needed was for Gram or Starr to inadvertently get involved in one of his schemes, then end up the fall guy.

He’d done it before, probably way more times than even she knew about. There was no doubt in her mind that he wouldn’t hesitate to do it again and again and again to save his own worthless hide.

He pulled open the door, stepped out into the hallway, then turned back, and gave another tug on his tie. A guilty flush crept up his neck.

The old man couldn’t hide things as easily as he used to.

“I’m—uh—a little short of cash, Buttercup. Can you see your way to lending your old man five bucks for a cup of coffee?”

Worry and dismay ratcheted up her spine. “You’re that broke?”

He gave a nonchalant shrug. “I’ve been short of cash before, but things always have a way of turning around. I’ll get a job, I promise, a real one this time.”

She stared at him, saddened by the secrets they shared. “If Gram ever finds out what you do—”

“What we do—”

Her resolve hardened. “When Starr was born, I went straight. I’ve managed to support us through honest paying jobs instead of conning people out of their money.”

He quirked an eyebrow. “Honest jobs? Like that pole dancer job you took?”

“How did you—?” A flush started in her chest and moved up her neck into her face. But she refused to let embarrassment drag her down. “It paid the bills and got me through designer school. That’s all that matters now.”

The familiar cagey light in his eyes returned. “We made a good team, Buttercup. Maybe we could…” He must have seen something on her face because he shrugged and smiled. “Never mind, darlin’. I won’t ask again. Now, about that five dollars?”

She crossed the room, grabbed her jeans off the armchair where she’d dropped them last night, and pulled out a small roll of bills from the front pocket.

Jeb whistled and came to stand in front of her. “That’s quite the pile of cash, Buttercup. Rob a bank lately?”

She peeled a five-dollar bill out of the roll and handed it to him. “Promise you’ll stay out of trouble.”

“Now darlin’,” he said with a wink and a smile as he accepted the cash. “When did I ever get caught?”

As she tucked the money away, she made a mental note to find a new place to hide it. She’d have to convince Gram to hide her money too. As long as Jeb was in the house, nothing of monetary value was safe. Heck, he’d sell his own family out if he thought he could profit from it.

Jeb crossed the hallway and headed downstairs, and Paige followed in his wake, not trusting him any further than she could throw him. “Where are you going?”

“Out to meet a few of our kindly neighbors.” He smiled that old familiar smile that fooled everyone but her. “You worry too much, Buttercup. Didn’t I prove to you more than once that everything always works out in the end?”

As Jeb reached for the door handle, the doorbell rang. He opened the door to reveal Brody, who stood there with a tool pouch hanging off his lean hips.

The memory of him standing bare-chested at his bedroom window washed over her, heating her face and the rest of her body. Paige dragged her attention up to his face, and caught him doing his own survey, which made her wish she’d at least taken the time to wash her face and brush her teeth before coming down.

And maybe put on something sexy.

She gave herself a mental shake.

Sexy belonged in her fantasies.

Jeb barely gave the man at the door a cursory look before he started to shut the door. “Not buying any.”

Before the door slammed in Brody’s face, Paige jumped forward. “Dad, this is Brody Jackson, Gram’s neighbor. He’s here to fix the kitchen faucet.” She gestured for Brody to come in. “Brody, this is my dad, Jeb Calhoun.”

“Good morning, Sir.”

“Top of the morning to you, son.” As the two men shook hands, Jeb eyed the tool pouch. “Are you a handyman?”

“No, Sir, but in my college days I worked for a house builder, so I learned a thing or two about renovations.”

“Where would I buy one of those?”

Brody’s eyebrows hiked up and curiosity filled his gaze. “At the hardware store.”

Paige didn’t like the calculated expression on Jeb’s face. “Dad, don’t you have some place to be?”

He tore his gaze from the tool pouch and smiled. “Right. Talk to you later, Buttercup.”

He tipped his hat and as he sauntered out of the house, a taxi pulled up in front of the driveway. Jeb stopped, and when he turned back, his gaze was shuttered, but he couldn’t quite contain the guilt oozing out. “Buttercup, would you tell your grandma that I invited Lisa to stay for a few days?”

Horrified, Paige watched a woman wearing a wide brimmed sunhat and huge dark sunglasses climb out from the backseat of the cab. Her short dress clung to her voluptuous curves, and the four-inch heels on her feet drew attention to her ultra-long legs.

The woman waved at Jeb, then headed toward the trunk of the car where she directed the driver unloading her luggage. As suitcase after suitcase after suitcase got deposited on the curb, Paige grabbed Brody by the forearm, tugged him into the house, and slammed the door shut.

“Who’s that?” he asked.

Paige covered her face with her hands. “Don’t ask and I won’t have to lie.”

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

 

Paige leaned back against the door, squeezed her eyes shut, and wished she could grab Starr by the hand and disappear.

What was that woman doing here? Why would Jeb invite her back to the island? When Gram found out, she was going to be pissed.

Brody’s deep voice cut through her thoughts. “Someone you know?”

The door pushed and rattled behind her. Desperate, she pressed back against it to keep the past from getting in. “You wouldn’t have an extra bedroom I could borrow, would you?”

His curiosity morphed into pity. “That bad?”

“Worse than you can imagine,” she muttered as someone outside shoved against the door again. She gave in to the inevitable and stepped aside.

The door flew open and Starr rushed into the foyer. “Olivia, you have company.”

Paige glared at the woman coming through the open doorway.

The cherry red lipstick on her mouth looked almost ghoulish against the paleness of her face and the darkness of her hair. And when she smiled, her upper lip stayed frozen in place. Paige didn’t have to see her eyes to recognize the exact moment she fixated on Brody.

That cherry-red mouth turned sultry and she made a beeline straight for the poor, unsuspecting man. “Hello, handsome. I’m Lisa-Lee. And you are?”

Memories washed through Paige…that Marilyn Munroe voice, the cloying perfume, begging for her mother’s attention.

Brody stuck out one hand. “I’m Olivia’s neighbor, Brody Jackson. You look familiar. Have we met?”

Fear stole Paige’s breath and kept her frozen in place.

Lisa caught his hand in hers and gave a tug to draw him closer, her laughter deep and throaty. “No, I’d remember if we did. I’m a Karie-May consultant.” Holding tight so he couldn’t escape, she used her free hand to stroke her palm along his jaw. “Maybe I can give you a treatment while I’m here. And then you could give me—” She purred deep in her throat. “—something in return.”

Gram walked into the foyer, hands on hips. “This house is like Grand Central. What’s all the commotion about?”

She took one look at the latest arrival and stopped in her tracks.

The tall brunette released her grip on Brody, and her cherry-red mouth thinned. “Hello Olivia. It’s always a pleasure to see you.”

“No, it’s not.” Gram’s frown deepened. “I still hasn’t forgiven you for divorcing my son.”

Paige stepped backward until she encountered the staircase wall behind her.

Long ago, she’d wanted a mom more than anything in the world, someone to protect her, to keep her safe like she tried to keep Starr safe. But she’d gotten over it, gotten over the fact that she was alone in the world, save Starr.

Gram took one look at the stack of bags on the front step and went off like a military commander. “Girls, make yourselves useful and carry Lisa’s luggage upstairs.”

Brody stepped forward. “Can I help?”

The old woman’s gaze never left her newest houseguest. “No. Go home. We have it under control.”

He frowned. “What about the kitchen faucet?”

“Come back tomorrow. I’m sure it will still be dripping.”

With a shrug, he headed for the kitchen. “I’ll just take a measurement, then be off.”

Paige refused to look his way. Instead, she grabbed a bag in each hand and tromped up the stairs. Halfway up, she heard Lisa ask, “Who are those people?”

“Never you mind.” Gram tsked. “What are you doing here?”

And in the most plaintive voice Paige had ever heard, the other woman said, “I didn’t know where else to go and Jeb said you wouldn’t mind.”

She fled up the remaining steps and dumped the bags in the spare bedroom, then stopped when she saw Starr follow her in.

The teen dropped the suitcases in the middle of the room, a calculated expression on her face. “You know, there’s alternate routes off the island. We could dump the Mini and hire a plane or helicopter to take us back to St. Croix, then catch a flight home. It won’t hurt my feelings if we leave today.”

If only. But Jeb’s presence ensured that was impossible. “As much as I like your idea, we can’t go anywhere right now.”

Without a word, the teen turned and slumped down the hallway to her bedroom, and disappearing inside, slammed the door shut.

Intent on escape, even if it was only a temporary measure to give herself some breathing space, Paige headed to her room where she crossed to the window, slid it open, and climbed onto the rooftop. She sat down, pulled her knees to her chest, and focused on the view beyond Gram’s yard.

This had been her favorite place to go whenever she needed a quiet place to think. Thanks to the huge Mahogany tree which shaded the rooftop, it was a place where no one could find her either.

Somewhere in the neighborhood, a lawnmower roared to life, a dog barked, a child laughed.

Beyond Gram’s yard, over the rooftops of the houses across the street, she could see the beachfront properties, and beyond that, the crystal blue expanse of ocean water. The sun sparkled off the whitecaps, and the waves crashed into the shoreline.

As Paige formulated a plan of action to get her through the next few days, she chewed on her bottom lip.

Whatever her dad was up to, she’d have to stop it before the ferry arrived. Until then, she’d simply avoid Lisa. How hard could it be? It wasn’t as though the woman even remembered she had a daughter.

She frowned, ready to wallow in self-pity and hide until her mother left town. Except it didn’t seem like Lisa planned to leave any time soon. Judging by the suitcases, she was here to stay for a very long time.

If Gram ever found out what her former daughter-in-law did for a living, she’d kick her out in a heartbeat. Maybe she could casually mention it—

The front door squeaked open and squeaked shut, and every muscle in her body tensed.

“I thought I’d find you up there.”

Paige shifted her attention from the rise and fall of the ocean waves to the man standing at the periphery of her hiding spot.

Brody grabbed onto the lowest branch of the Mahogany tree and climbed up to the rooftop. As he sat down beside her, he set the tool pouch between them, then pointed to the side of her mouth. “I didn’t want to embarrass you earlier, but you—uh—have a little something stuck there.”

Ugg. She turned to wipe it off, and pictured how she must look. Bed hair. No makeup. Dried drool at the side of her mouth.

And her teenage crush there to witness the ugliness.

Cheeks heating, she hid her face in the crook of one arm. “Go away.”

He didn’t. “Not till you tell me who this Lisa-Lee person is and why she upsets you so much.”

She sat up straight and glared at him, not caring in the least if she looked or sounded bitchy. Or maybe bitchy was the best way to keep him away from her heart. “You go first. Tell me something so private, it embarrasses the heck out of you.”

As he regarded her, a gust of wind swirled across the rooftop and swept strands of her hair into the space between them. He reached out and tucked the strands behind her ear, his touch a soft caress that sent a shiver down her spine.

“I have a teenage daughter too.”

She leaned away from him, breaking the physical contact, and reined in her lustful thoughts before she did something stupid. Like kiss him. Or maybe suggest they get naked. “You’re married?”

“No. Just the kid. One that currently hates my guts because I grounded her.” He raised one masculine eyebrow in a challenge. “Your turn. Who was that woman you’re avoiding?”

Paige hesitated.

Okay, so he had a daughter. She did too. And he wasn’t married. Neither was she.

They’d never had this type of relationship before, equals in every way possible. The three-year difference in their ages had ensured Brody had always treated her like a little sister.

Way back then, three years had seemed like a lifetime. But now their age difference was insignificant. They were adults, well beyond the age of consent. Both free to pursue anyone they wanted. And after watching him stare at her bedroom window last night, she couldn’t help but wonder…

She sighed and gave in to the desire to talk to somebody. “My mother. She left on my fourth birthday.”

Pity softened his dark eyes. “That sucks.”

“Yeah, it did, but I’m over it, and now I’d really rather not discuss her.” She studied his solemn face. He was handsome in that drop-dead gorgeous movie star way, with the broad shoulders and hard body of an athlete. Too bad she was only here for a week. “So how did you get a teenage daughter?”

“Probably the same way you did.” Ear-shattering music screamed from the direction of his house and the edge of his mouth quirked up into a wry grin. “I didn’t know about her until four months ago when her mom died.”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

“It was one night. A teenage mistake. We weren’t together.” He shrugged, his gaze intense and focused on hers as the music next door turned up a notch. “It’s her way of showing she’s pissed at me.”

She let out a big breath. “I suppose it’ll take time for both of you to adjust.”

“That’s not the worst of it.” His gaze shifted and he pointed to the house across the street. “Her grandma wants custody. She took me to court and although the judge ruled in my favor, one of the stipulations was that I live within ten miles of her.” He shrugged, and his broad shoulders tensed and relaxed. “I don’t think anyone, least of all Matilda, expected me to man up, take responsibility, and move to the island.”

He wouldn’t have had to, which spoke volumes about his character. Paige stilled the tiny shiver of pleasure that wound through the core of her body and grabbed her heart. She liked men who put family first. “So why didn’t you move to someplace on the other side of the island?”

He released a heavy sigh. “I thought if we lived close, we could get to know one another and become family. I realize now that it was a stupid idea.”

She snorted. “If it’s family you want, I’ll give you mine.”

A strangled laugh escaped him. “What’s wrong with your family?”

“Everything you can possibly imagine and more.” A movement next door caught her attention. “You have company.”

Brody angled his head toward the house next door, then slowly pushed to his feet, the tool pouch in his hand. “That’s her. Matilda Hannibal, Hope’s grandma.”

Paige followed him up, and as he towered above her, broad shouldered and sturdy, she had the sudden urge to step into him and discover if his body was as hard and soft and comfortable as it looked. Instead she stretched to look over his shoulder, surprised by what she saw. “She’s trying to break into your house.”

He bent and grabbed onto the nearest branch. “I better stop her before she commits a crime that puts her in jail.”

“That would only happen if you pressed charges.”

“Tempting.”

She watched him climb down the tree and wished she could burrow deeper into herself. Not be so vulnerable. Not want to press her face into the crook of his shoulder and never come out. “Please don’t tell Gram or Starr about this spot. Gram will board up the window and Starr…well, she’s a teen and she has enough ideas to get her into trouble.”

He stopped his descent and chuckled softly. “It’s our secret. Remember, I have a teen too. I know exactly where you’re coming from.” Halfway down the tree, he stopped and looked up at her again. “Olivia still has that old Chevy in her garage. I want to buy it from her, but she refuses to sell it because it won’t run. Maybe we could get together while you’re here and try to get that old baby fixed up. Like old times.”

She hugged her arms around her waist and smiled. “Yeah, that’d be fun.”

“Catch you later.” Without another word, Brody swung down the tree to the ground, then loped across Gram’s driveway to his own yard.

Paige watched him until a movement down the street caught her attention. She shaded her eyes against the morning sun and saw her dad going from house to house.

What was he up to?

And how long would it take before he pulled one of his old tricks?

CHAPTER NINE

 

 

As Brody reached his yard, he resisted the urge to glance over his shoulder to see if Paige was still on the rooftop watching him.

The best thing he could do for his current situation was forget about her and the temptation to slide his hands into her hair and feel the softness of her mouth against his. Because she wasn’t the little kid from next door anymore. She’d grown into a beautiful, sexy woman, one that he wouldn’t mind getting to know better.

Except he already had his hands full with the women in his life. He didn’t need to add more trouble to the mix.

The music upstairs had gone silent, and he wondered where Hope was…or if she was still in the house.

By the time he reached the veranda, Matilda had one foot on the porch and one foot firmly inside his house. Somehow he kept the anger out of his voice. “Is there something I can do for you? Or should I call the Sheriff and have you arrested?”

The sixty-something-year-old woman froze, but if she felt any guilt for breaking into his house, she hid it well. Tucking a credit card into her purse, she stepped all the way inside and headed into the living room as though she owned the property. “I’m here to see my granddaughter.”

Brody followed her in. “Hope is grounded. She has to stay in her room until supper.”

“How dare you—”

Exasperation hit him square in the gut. He took a step toward her, effectively silencing her, hoping to intimidate her with his size, but she held her ground and looked at him stubbornly.

And darn.

He knew it. She knew it. Everyone on the island knew it.

She had him by the balls, squeezing so tight he was surprised he wasn’t yet a soprano.

Frustration rose in Brody’s chest. Despite the fact that she looked tighter than usual—tired, too, as though she hadn’t slept much the previous night, which made him want to ask, Are you okay?—he had to fist his hands at his sides to maintain control of his anger. “I don’t want to keep her from you, Matilda. I’m more than willing to compromise and let her come and visit you whenever it’s convenient for the two of you. But she’s my daughter, and it was wrong of your daughter to keep her from me.”

The air hissed out from between her ruby lips. “Don’t you dare speak of my daughter.”

“She’s dead, Matilda. You have to accept it. She made a few bad choices, but we don’t have to fight like this. Hope is lucky to have the two of us.” He frowned. At this point, being a father was still brand new to him and he wasn’t so sure the girl was lucky to be in his care.

And on top of his new responsibility, the determined-to-find-something-wrong-with-him woman who stood stubbornly in front of him was driving Brody nuts when all he wanted was peace between them.

And maybe her help to figure out this parent gig.

He stuck out his hand, willing to make the first move for what had to be the hundredth time since he’d moved back to the island. “Truce?”

She looked at his hand as though he’d pulled it out of the muck. The seconds ticked off on the big grandfather clock in the corner of the front hallway until, with a resigned sigh, Brody dropped his hand and any pretense of good manners. “Get out of my house.”

“Make me.”

The Judge’s angry hiss came from the kitchen doorway. “What’s she doing here?”

Matilda bristled and lifted her nose higher in the air. “My duty. Which is more than I can say for you.”

Then she spun on her heels, stomped toward the front entrance, and exited the house.

The Judge’s footsteps thudded across the hardwood floor, and he slammed the front door after her.

Brody raised one brow. It was like rush hour at the ferry terminal with people coming and going from his house as though they lived here instead of him. “Why are you mad at Matilda?”

The Judge headed across the living room and stopped in front of the liquor cabinet. “Now I understand why that weenie Herbert used to drink in the afternoon.”

Brody watched the older man reach into the cabinet and pull out a bottle of scotch. He took a step forward. “Harry, it’s not even lunch yet.”

The Judge grunted and stared at the bottle. “You don’t understand the way women think, son. You need to listen to me. If you want to be in control, you have to put down your foot. Otherwise, they’ll run all over your heart and stomp it into the ground.”

Brody felt both eyebrows raise.

The Judge set the bottle back in the cabinet and closed the door. “You’re right. This isn’t the answer.” With a heavy sigh, he let his shoulders slump and his chin drop to his chest. “Delores is in the kitchen. You better go check on her before she rearranges your cupboards. I’ll be along in a few minutes.”

The Judge was still staring at the liquor cabinet, but whatever battle he’d been fighting, he seemed to have won. The older man looked out of sorts, tense and annoyed. Exactly how Brody felt every time he had a run in with Matilda.

At least Delores was someone he could deal with. Worried about the other man, Brody reluctantly left him alone and headed for the kitchen where he found Delores stepping out of the pantry, a half dozen cans balanced in the crook of one arm.

From upstairs, music blared, and she pointed toward the ceiling. “Is Hope mad at you again?”

He raked his fingers through his hair and leaned back against the counter top. “I haven’t a clue what I should do about her. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Matilda informed me she’s taking me back to court.”

Delores smiled, and turned toward the stove and the pots on top of it. “The Judge and I have come up with a solution to all of your troubles.”

Harry walked into the kitchen, folded his arms over his massive chest, and leaned back against the cupboard. “I’m retiring, son.” Upstairs, the volume cranked up. The Judge raised his voice to be heard over the din. “I bought myself a motorhome so I can travel across the Mainland.”

“Retiring?” The music upstairs went silent, but without the Judge in his court, it didn’t matter. He lowered his voice so it wouldn’t carry through the ceiling. “How’s that supposed to get me custody of Hope?”

“It’s not. But our Mayor had to step down and the councilors have decided to fill the position immediately.” The Judge glared toward the front door. “Matilda and I have an agreement. You become Mayor and she’ll back off.”

Brody straightened, surprised.

It was almost too good to be true and yet, he had no reason not to trust the Judge. But that would mean both Hope and him would be stuck on this island for the next four years, something that he was certain neither of them would enjoy.

Delores jumped into the conversation. “You’re a shoe in, Brody. Everyone on the island loves you. Everyone thinks you’re wonderful to have taken on the responsibility of raising Hope alone.”

“Everyone except for her grandmother,” he grumbled. He eyed the Judge, reluctant to take his words at face value because it just didn’t make any sense. “I don’t get it. Why would Matilda agree to back off?”

The Judge’s glower deepened as he grabbed a string bean from the counter. “You leave that woman up to me. Besides, it’s already a done deal. We nominated you for Mayor today. All you have to do is sign the papers.”

One of Delores’s perfectly penciled eyebrows rose. “Hey, I wanted to tell him the news.”

“Sorry,” the Judge mumbled around the bean, not appearing sorry at all.

She held a pot of peeled potatoes under the tap and turned on the water. “So you’ll run for Mayor, right?”

Resigned to doing whatever he needed to do, he nodded his head. “If it means getting Matilda off my back and gaining permanent custody of Hope, then I’ll do it.”

“You’ll need a campaign manager. I’ve already started making the signs. It’s an island tradition, you know, and we want people here to think of you as one of us.” She set the pot on the stove, opened the fridge door, pulled out a dish of butter, and added a scoop to the pot. “Having the Judge on our team is a stroke of good luck. He has so much influence over the people here. But trust me. You do not want him running your campaign. Part way through, he’ll remember he’s retired and drive away in his motorhome, leaving you stranded.”

The Judge scowled. “I’m standing right here.”

Delores crossed her arms over her chest and faced him. “Well, what else should I think? You show up with that big monster of a travel-home—and don’t think people don’t notice these things—then make out like it’s not important.”

“It’s not,” he muttered as he focused on the signs on the kitchen table. “Fine. You can manage the campaign, Delores, but we run the show my way. Agreed?”

She opened her mouth. “But—”

He settled his glare on her, which totally silenced her. “Agreed?”

A bit of a sulk appeared on her face. “Agreed.”

The Judge nodded, a smug smile on his face. “Let’s get after this signage, shall we?”

As Harry bent over the table, Brody turned his attention toward Delores who puttered around his kitchen as though she belonged there. He kept his voice quiet so only she could hear. “Del, what are you doing?”

She gave him one of her big, reassuring smiles, the one he was pretty sure she practiced every day in the mirror. “Making sure you and Hope eat a well balanced diet.”

He gently took the can opener out of her hands. “It gives people the wrong impression.”

The hurt of his rejection was evident in the fading of her smile, but then she regathered herself—and the smile—and facing the sink, turned on the tap. The water came out steaming hot and she shoved her hands under the flow as though she didn’t even notice.

“Well, of course you’re right, Brody,” she babbled as she scrubbed her hands together under the near scalding water. “We’ve been friends for so long, it never occurred to me that people would see anything more than what’s at face value.”

He turned off the tap, grabbed a towel, and held it out for her. “I’m sorry, Del.”

“Sorry?” She took the towel from him and began to blot the water from her temperature-reddened hands as though she didn’t even notice that she’d scalded them. “Pish posh, you can’t help how other people perceive your actions.”

Brody smiled to take the sting out of his words. “You’re a good sport, Del.”

She turned back to the counter to set down the towel, then stopped cold and stared out the window. “Who is that on Olivia’s porch?”

Brody followed her gaze and saw Paige. He shrugged and turned his back on the window as though he didn’t care.

“Olivia’s granddaughter. What was her name? Patsy? Peony?” He eyed Delores’s death grip on the edge of the countertop. Her normally pale complexion had turned whiter than her blouse. “Del, are you okay?”

“Of course.” She blinked and released her grip, not quite looking at him. “Meet me down at the bakery tomorrow at two and we’ll get those nomination papers signed.”

“Sure.”

Pushing past him, she headed toward the table, her expression strained, her voice wobbling. “Harry, don’t you be changing any of those signs without talking to me first.”

The Judge grunted, his face sour.

Brody felt his spirits lighten.

For the first time since he’d returned to the island, he had hope that Matilda might be forced to give up on the custody battle for Hope.

Maybe there was a future for them after all.

If both the Judge and Delores said he was a shoe-in, then nothing could get in his way.

His battle with Matilda would finally be over, and she’d have to accept him into the family fold.

CHAPTER TEN

 

 

Matilda was steaming mad.

After her infuriating encounter with Brody—and the equally infuriating surprise of running into that jackass Harry Malone—Matilda had returned home to wander through her empty house with a dust rag in her hand, tidying, dusting, cleaning, until she inevitably ended up in her daughter’s bedroom. Memories of all that she’d lost swept over her and sadness claimed her.

Why had the courts awarded custody of her granddaughter to Brody? She’d been the better choice—the only choice—to raise the girl. For the umpteenth time that morning, she grabbed the phone and thumbed in the number to Hope’s cell, only to have the answering machine pick up.

Well, if she couldn’t talk to Hope, then how was she supposed to form a relationship with the girl? It was bad enough that her mother had kept her away, but now the courts and Brody were doing the same thing.

And yet, no matter how many times she broke into Brody’s house to look for ways to prove he was an unfit father, she always found the house clean, the fridge well stocked, the laundry done.

Even Hope’s room had been clean and tidy. And her report card showed improvement since her last one.

It was aggravating and maddening and worrisome, because if she didn’t dig up some dirt on that man, Hope would be lost to her forever.

When Matilda couldn’t stand being cooped up alone any longer, she headed outside to do some of the work that Harry used to take care of for her.

It was strange how she’d allowed him into her life when she’d intended to remain alone once her first husband had passed away. But she hadn’t really allowed him in willingly. He’d prodded and pushed and sexed her up until he’d become a regular part of her weekly routine.

In fact, he was the only man she’d ever let clean out her gutters besides her husband.

Pulling on work gloves, Matilda manhandled the large ladder out of the garage and leaned it against the front of the house. She climbed up to the gutter where she proceeded to scoop out the leaves while she mulled over Harry’s ridiculous request.

Give up her real estate office. Accept Brody as Hope’s legal guardian. Travel the Mainland in a motorhome for months on end.

The thought of living in the cramped quarters—although, she had to admit, Harry hadn’t scrimped on size, yessiree, everything about Harry screamed big—brought back memories of camping in a tent with her parents. With only the campfire as their cookstove, and no shower within miles, she’d spent the better part of her youth dreading their family vacations. Smoky and stinky and feeling as though the campground dirt had invaded every pore on her body.

No way would she spend a single night in the motorhome. And no way was she giving up on gaining custody of her only granddaughter. She’d die lonely before she ever gave in to his request.

Scooping out a particularly unpleasant clump of leaves, she dropped them into the garbage can at the base of the ladder. As she scraped the mucky mess off her gloves, she peered across the street, trying to see movement in Brody’s house.

Nothing.

But she knew Harry was still over there. She’d have noticed when he’d left.

Okay, so she might miss Harry a little, but once Hope came to live with her, the girl would fill her house with laughter and cheer. She wouldn’t need Harry.

She didn’t need Harry now.

And although she was already missing what he used to do for her, both in bed and out, she’d always known their affair couldn’t go on forever. It would set a bad example for Hope and no matter how careful Matilda was, it wasn’t worth the risk of the girl finding out. Because if she knew her grandma was sleeping around like the town tramp, it would subliminally give the girl permission to do the same.

According to rumors, Matilda’s daughter had slept with the entire senior football team. No way was she going to let her granddaughter follow in her footsteps.

Harry could just find someone else to warm his bed and cook in his motorhome.

With a determined set of her mouth, Matilda shifted her attention back to the leaves in the gutter and off the man who rocked her world every Tuesday and Thursday night. As she stretched one arm to further her reach, and clung to the ladder so she wouldn’t topple off it into the flowerbed, she heard the sound of a foot scraping across the cement behind her.

She caught her breath and closed her eyes, giving a silent hallelujah as relief weakened her knees.

Harry was back.

He’d seen the error of his decision. He was here to clean her gutters and inform her he’d return that big, ugly motorhome.

Beneath her, she felt the ladder tip to the right. She snapped open her eyes and grabbed onto the metal gutter, feeling it give way to the pull of her weight and the ladder combined.

And then she felt a pressure against her butt—Harry’s familiar touch—and the ladder steadied and straightened.

With her heart thundering beneath her breast, she took a deep breath, willed her expression into a chilly unwelcome mask, glanced over her shoulder at the man standing below…and blinked.

The nice looking man with concern furrowing his brow wasn’t Harry at all.

“Excuse me, Miss, are you all right?”

Miss? She blinked again, momentarily confused, and glanced across the street toward Brody’s house. Disappointment warred with anger. Couldn’t Harry see her cleaning the gutters? He knew how much she hated dirt and heights.

“Do you need me to climb up there and help you down?”

Matilda forced the emotions down deep before they raged out of control. She stuck her gloved hand back into the gutter and mucked out another disgusting handful of leaves. “Whatever you’re here to sell, I’m not interested.”

“I’m not here to sell anything. You looked like you needed assistance, so I’m here to offer it. No strings attached.”

“I don’t—” She felt something caress her butt and realized the hand she’d thought was Harry’s was really a stranger fondling her ass. She stiffened and gave him her best glare. “Please remove your hand from my body.”

The man moved into her line of vision, smiled up at her, and she caught her breath. Dimples formed deep grooves on his cheeks and a warm amused light shone from his light blue eyes.

“It wasn’t deliberate, you know. I was seriously concerned that you might fall and hurt yourself.”

She turned her back on him and carefully stepped down the ladder, only releasing her breath when her feet were planted squarely on the sidewalk. She pulled off her gloves and dropped them beside the garbage can. “I’m quite fine. There’s no need for concern.”

“I see that now. I’m sorry to have bothered you.”

His voice sounded familiar too. Facing him, she realized she had to look up to see his face. He was almost as tall Harry and nearly as broad in the chest. “Do I know you?”

He reached out one hand. “Jeb Calhoun. I’m here to check on my mother.”

As relief swept through her body, he captured her hand, his palm whispering against hers, warm and soft and smooth. Desire pulsed through her body. “Oh my, Olivia’s son. The handyman. Where are my manners? I’m Matilda Hannibal.”

He gave a half bow over their joined hands, which was very sweet and gentlemanly and so old fashioned, she felt a tug somewhere deep inside. Her mama would have liked this man…right before she locked her daughter in her room.

As he straightened and gazed into her eyes, the hardness around her heart melted. “At your service, Ma’am.”

She laughed softly, and touched her throat with one hand while she extracted her other hand from his, and on shaky legs, backed up a step. “I owe you a huge thank you.”

“No need.” He grinned down at her, the dimples deepening. “Damsels in distress are my specialty.”

She almost giggled, but before she could embarrass herself further, a door in the house across the street opened. Without thought, she grabbed Jeb’s arm and pulled him into the alcove near the edge of the house.

“Someone you know?”

“What?” Realizing the movement must have seemed strange to him, she sent Jeb what she hoped looked more like an apologetic smile than a grimace. “Someone I don’t want to talk to.”

Matilda pushed back a cedar branch to get a better look at Brody’s house. Behind her, Jeb did the same.

“Do you always hide from the whole town or just a few select neighbors?” he whispered into her ear.

Matilda stemmed the shiver of pleasure that threatened to course through her body. Harry. If he’d bedded her before derailing her with his stupid motorhome, she wouldn’t be reacting like a weak-kneed trollop. “Shhhhh.”

As silence fell around them, Brody came out of the house and headed next door to Olivia’s.

Jeb sneezed. “Is it safe to get out of the trees now?”

Matilda sidestepped so she wouldn’t have to brush up against him, faced him, and felt her face heat. “I’m sorry. You must think I’m a total nutcase.”

“Attractive. Intriguing. Those are the words I’d use instead.”

She felt herself fall into his gaze, then when he gently took her by the shoulders to shift her aside, she blinked back to attention. “What are you doing?”

“Finishing those gutters for you. I’m not taking a chance that you’ll fall and hurt yourself.”

“There’s no need—”

He placed his index finger against her lips. “I wasn’t giving you an option.”

Matilda narrowed her eyes and watched him pick up the gardening gloves, pull them on, then climb up the ladder. For just a second, her gaze drifted across his back end, nice in a pair of jeans, before she jerked her attention to the back of his head, stepped forward, and grabbed both sides of the ladder. “I’ll hold this steady for you.”

Eat your heart out, Harry Malone, she thought with a delicious shiver. She hunched her shoulders and tried to peek over them to hide the fact that she was checking out Brody’s house. With any luck, Harry would come out in time to see he’d been replaced by someone who was handsome, refined, and knew how to treat a lady like a lady.

But Harry didn’t come out shouting in a jealous rage, and the silence fell over Matilda like a sodden blanket.

What was she supposed to do now? Had she made a mistake last night? Turning Harry down in a huff without taking time to at least discuss the situation like a rational person?

No. Harry wanted her to chose between him and Hope, and as far as Matilda was concerned, there was no choice to be made.

She turned her head away and lifted her chin so she could look up the ladder. She watched Jeb work and took note of the ease of his body movements, his obvious comfort with heights, his knowledge of what he was doing up on that ladder and in her gutters.

As the silence lengthened, she forced herself to make conversation. “How long are you in town for?”

“A few days.” He paused, swept some leaves out of the gutter, then added, “Maybe longer if there’s something to keep me here.”

Matilda felt the full weight of his look as she stood there ogling him before he turned back to the gutters and cleaned them out. The silence between them grew until the only noise was the sweep-sweep of the hand broom and the rustle of his plaid shirt against his shoulders and back. The silence became too much for her and she finally broke it. “So what kind of work do you do?”

“I’m retired.” He stopped sweeping and smiled down at her again. “If there’s anything else you need doing around here, just say the word.”

“Thank you. You’re too kind.” Matilda watched him work in silence for a while, then said, “Some people tell me I should retire, but it seems like I would lose my identity.”

“Always thought retirement would be sweet, but a man has to have a purpose. A reason to get out of bed in the morning.”

Matilda thought of Harry, whose noble purpose had once been upholding the law.

Now it seemed Harry’s only interests were golf and his new motorhome. For heaven’s sake, he’d probably park the beast at the Walmart shopping center, then leave her there to cook and clean while he spent his days on the golf course.

She snorted. As if.

“Obviously you don’t agree,” Jeb said.

Which brought Matilda out of her dark thoughts because she’d found someone to talk to, even if it was for a single afternoon. “Oh, I agree all right. It’s why I refuse to sell my real estate office. What am I supposed to do with my retirement? Sit in a rocking chair? Watch the grass grow? Grow old?”

“Precisely.” His smile reached his kind eyes. “I’m looking for a place to settle down and if I find the right woman, I could settle down here.”

“That’s nice,” Matilda mumbled, distracted by the living room drapes in Brody’s house. Had they shifted just the tiniest bit?

Delores came out of the front door just then, gave a quick look up and down the block, then met Matilda’s gaze across the street.

The guilty expression on her face alerted Matilda to something being rotten on the small island. She let go of the ladder and waved at her. “Yohoo, Delores. Can I have a word with you?”

As Delores started across the street, Harry came out of the house and paused in the middle of the front lawn. Matilda narrowed her eyes. The man was up to no good. “That’s good enough for today, Jeb.”

“Really, I’m in no rush.”

But she was.

In a rush to get rid of him before Delores arrived. In a rush to get rid of him so she could figure out what Harry was up to at Brody’s house.

She squinted across the street. What kind of sign was Harry pounding into the front lawn?

“Really, I insist,” she said. “If you’re looking for something to do, maybe you could come back tomorrow. I’d pay you for your time, of course.”

He backed down the ladder, pulled off the gloves and handed them to her, then stood on the sidewalk before her. “Would you like to have dinner with me sometime?”

She slashed a look across the street and forced a stiff smile. “I’m not looking for a relationship right now.”

“It’s just dinner, Mattie.”

She stiffened. No one but Harry had ever called her anything but Matilda, not even her undearly departed husband.

He sighed and looked away, down the street. “Then perhaps I could bother you for a reference as a handyman.”

She willed the stiffness out of her body. He had, after all, just finished cleaning her gutters. “Of course. I’d be delighted.”

By then, Delores was walking up the front sidewalk into her yard, a curious light in her eyes. “Hello.”

Matilda reluctantly made introductions. “Jeb, this is my friend, Delores Peabody. Delores, this is Jeb Calhoun, Olivia’s son.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you.” He held out his hand for Delores to shake and all the while, Matilda thought, Go, go, be gone. And as though he sensed her urgency, he turned to her and gave a half bow. “I’ll be over to finish cleaning the eaves troughs tomorrow, and mow your lawn. In the meantime, you can think about my other offer.”

As he left, Delores watched him go, curiosity shining in her eyes. “What other offer?”

“Nothing,” Matilda said because there was nothing to think about. She was not getting involved with another man ever again. She faced Delores. “Did you see Hope while you were at Brody’s?”

“No, she was hiding in her room the entire time.”

She forced herself to be casual while she kept her gaze focused on Delores and off the house across the street. “What are you and Harry and Brody up to?”

Delores shifted, looked uncomfortable for a second, then with a sigh, gave up the information. “You’re going to find out soon enough, so I might as well tell you. The Judge has convinced Brody to run for Mayor.”

“Mayor?” Matilda squeaked, otherwise speechless. Harry was conniving behind her back.

“And before you say anything, I’m just over there because I’m spying on them for you.” The younger woman glanced at her watch. “I have to get going. I have things to do.”

While Delores headed down the sidewalk, Matilda stared across the street at the man she’d let into her bed every Tuesday and Thursday night.

He’d betrayed her, gone over to the enemy’s side as though he didn’t care about what she wanted.

If Brody ran for Mayor—and won—it would prove to the courts without a shadow of a doubt that he was responsible enough to raise Hope.

There had to be some way to stop Harry, some way to force him to see that she was right, some way to bring him back under her control.

A tall, shapely woman with legs that went on forever stepped out of Olivia’s front door, and looked up and down the street. She wore dark sunglasses and shorts so short they were totally indecent. She waved at Harry, then she skipped down the steps, out the front gate, and jogged down the sidewalk, body parts jiggling in all of the right places.

And while that sap, Harry Malone, gazed after her with a lustful expression on his face, Matilda felt a part of her shrivel up and die.

How had they gotten to this point? Why did the man have to be so stubborn?

Once the brunette was out of sight, he set the stake in his hand against the ground and gave it a push. Matilda strained to see what was written on the sign.

Vote For Brody Jackson.

Sheer fury took over. She clenched the gloves in her hands, ready to cross the street and give him what for, when her gaze drifted across the hedge to the Calhoun residence and past. There she saw Jeb working his way down the street, knocking on doors, introducing himself.

And that’s when it hit her.

She turned her back on the man who she could have loved if he hadn’t been such an idiot, and faced her salvation.

Jeb Calhoun for Mayor.

Matilda started after him.

Eat your heart out, Harry Malone.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

 

By the time Paige ventured from her room, the house was quiet. Gram had dragged Starr out to the garden. Jeb hadn’t yet returned from his foray to meet the neighbors. And Lisa…

As far as she was concerned, Lisa could keep jogging right off the edge of the island.

Down in the kitchen, she set a pot of coffee to brew, then filled the sink with water so she could wash the breakfast dishes. It wasn’t like Gram to leave things in a mess, except during gardening season.

The jar full of money in the cupboard caught her attention. She shoved it behind the cereal boxes with hopes that Jeb wouldn’t discover it. If he was so broke that he didn’t even have five dollars for a cup of coffee, then he’d be desperate enough to steal from his own mother.

Behind her, the kitchen door swung open, and the woman who had tossed her away like an unwanted burger at a fast food restaurant staggered into the kitchen. The dark sunglasses remained on her face.

“Water,” she croaked as she shouldered Paige aside, thrust her head under the kitchen faucet, and turned on the cold water tap. The sigh of satisfaction she gave was almost as orgasmic as the tone she used. “That feels sooooo good.”

Paige barely managed a single step back before Lisa grabbed her by the shirt.

“Hand me a towel, will you, sugar?”

Pulling a tea towel out of the drawer, she set it in the woman’s outstretched hand. Gram wouldn’t like it, but then Gram didn’t like Lisa anyway.

As the other woman wrapped her hair in the towel and straightened, Paige noticed purple and yellow marks surrounding her eyes before the sunglasses shifted back to cover the bruises.

“That coffee smells good. Mind if I help myself?”

She refocused on the dishes and shrugged. “It’s a free country.”

For a few minutes, the only sound in the kitchen was the squeak of cupboard doors opening and closing, the tinkle of a spoon on a mug, coffee flowing into the cup.

Paige kept her head down, focused on the sink full of dishes, and prayed her mother would leave with her caffeine fix.

Except she didn’t.

No, she leaned one hip against the countertop, sipped at the steaming brew, and attempted to initiate a conversation. “I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Lisa, Olivia’s ex-daughter-in-law. And you are?”

The daughter you abandoned.

As she opened her mouth to give a scathing reply, she noticed that there was something so dejected, something so sad, about the other woman’s body posture that she almost felt sorry for her. Some of her harshness relented, and she asked, “What’s with the sunglasses?”

“I had a procedure.” Whatever she saw on Paige’s face made her scowl and with her middle finger, she pushed against the nose piece of her glasses. “So shoot me already. My line of work requires youth and constant physical maintenance. Nobody wants an old Karie-May consultant.”

Her voice broke on the last word and she turned her head to gaze out the window. But Paige saw her bottom lip tremble and she shored herself up against the pity that created havoc with her need for distance. It took all of her effort to keep her tone conversational. “There’s no need to lie to me. I know who you are and what you really do for a living.” She shrugged as though it didn’t matter. “So get out of the porn business and find another line of work.”

Lisa opened her mouth, and Paige waited for the lies to pour out. Instead, she hissed. “Another line of work. That’s ridiculous. I’m an actress and my agent has a job for me. It’s a big part and I’m up against Meryl Streep for the role.”

“Well, good luck with that.” Forcing herself to remain outwardly calm, Paige rinsed the dish in her hands, set it on the drain tray, and dried her hands on the tea towel. She headed for the back door, pausing to look back at the woman. “By the way, I’m Jeb’s daughter. You might remember me as the child you left behind.” She shrugged because she didn’t want to give the other woman the impression that she cared. “Or not.”

She pushed the screen door open and escaped before her mother could respond.

Outside Paige headed toward the garden, wishing she’d remembered to grab a cup of coffee. But no way was she going back inside while that woman was in there.

What she needed was some peace and quiet to regroup, and Gram’s garden had always been peaceful.

As she reached the garden, she saw Starr grab a bean and give it a yank. The plant came out with the bean and the teen held it out toward her great-grandma. “What do I do with it?”

Gram grabbed Starr by the wrist, pulled the plant from her hand, and tossed it into the far corner of the garden. “If you insist on helping, then do it without killing the plants.”

“I don’t insist on helping. You’re making me. There’s a humongous difference,” Starr muttered. She watched Gram for a moment, then mimicked her movements. Without raising her head, she asked, “Where have you been, Mom?”

She’d been hiding from them all, but no way would she ever admit that to her daughter. Ignoring the question, she bent at the waist and began to pick. “We need to discuss that jar of money, Gram.”

The old lady fixed her with a wary stare. “You’re not going to sell my house out from under me and stick me in a senior’s facility, are you?”

“What?” Paige realized the elderly woman was serious. “No, of course not.”

“Then what’s the problem? I told you I’d give all my money to you.” The old lady sat back on her haunches and glared. “Discussion over.”

Paige gritted her teeth. “I don’t want your money. All I’m saying is that it needs to be in a bank.”

Ignoring her, Gram turned to Starr. “How old are you?”

“Thirteen.”

“Ugly age.” The old lady stared at Starr who stared back with curiosity in her gaze. “What are you looking at, girl? It’s impolite to stare.”

“I never had a great-grandma before. How old are you?”

“Eighty-seven.”

Paige focused on keeping the conversation neutral. “Starr’s birthday is the same day as yours, Gram.”

“Don’t be thinking we’ll be celebrating together. You’ll be long gone by then anyway.” Gram eyeballed the teen. “Starr? What kind of name is that?”

The teen knocked back the bill of her baseball cap and eyeballed her great-grandma back. “Olivia? What kind of name is that?”

Gram stiffened and the crusty old face turned to stone. “It was my mother’s name.”

Pure teenage defiance rolled off Starr in waves. “It was my mother’s choice.”

Oh crap. It was almost better in the house with that woman than it was out here in the middle of whatever feud was going on between these two. So much for a peaceful moment in the garden. And they still had almost an entire week to get through before the ferry returned.

Paige sighed. “Okay, that’s enough, you two. Can’t you get along?”

Ignoring her, Gram contemplated her great-granddaughter as though she’d found her under a rock. “You don’t have any bad habits, do you, girl?”

Paige hastily shook her head. “No. Starr is very well behaved.”

Beside her, Starr burped and jammed an entire bean into her mouth. Around the bean, she said, “Bad habits? Like what? Talking with my mouth full? Never.”

Gram gave her the evil eye. “Do you steal? I don’t tolerate no hooligans.”

The teen chewed with an open mouth and kept her expression calmly neutral, her tone polite. “Only if I’m hungry.”

Paige gave up and sat back on the grass. She might as well let them fight it out. It would be okay, as long as it didn’t turn physical. Starr would be no match for Gram.

“Do you snore, girl?”

Starr looked disgusted. “Only men snore.”

“I snore.” With an evil grin stretching across her lips, Gram leaned right into her great-granddaughter’s face. “It’s hereditary.”

For one long moment, Starr stared at her, horrified. Then she turned to Paige. “She’s kidding, right?”

“Of course she’s kidding.” Paige fixed her attention on her grandma. It was like dealing with another teenager. “Gram, tell her you’re kidding.”

“Quit spoiling my fun,” the old lady complained before she straightened, her gaze fixed on the house next door. “Here comes another brat to ruin my day.”

Paige followed Gram’s gaze to Brody’s house where she saw a teenage girl climb out of the house through one of the upstairs windows. She shimmied down the tree next to the roof with the ease of someone who had used that escape route many times before. Then she slipped through the gate from Brody’s yard into Gram’s, and schlepped toward the garden.

Focused on the phone in her hands, she thumbed the tiny keypad as though her social life depended on it, which it probably did.

With hands on hips and an expression of disapproval, Gram watched her approach. “Aren’t you grounded?”

The teen didn’t even raise her gaze from the phone. “I escaped.”

Gram stomped toward the teen and grabbed the phone out of her hands. “You’ll fry your brain with that thing. Into the garden with you.”

“As soon as you—” The girl wrestled the phone back with determination, then tucked it into her pocket and muttered, “I hate it here. I hate my life.”

As Gram returned to the garden, she clucked her tongue. “That girl’s got attitude.”

Paige smiled down at the top of the girl’s head. “You must be Hope.”

The teen glanced up at her. “Did he tell you about me? I’ll bet that was fun.”

Hope must have seen Brody and her together on the rooftop talking. Choosing to ignore the surliness, she kept her smile firmly in place. “I’m Paige, and that’s my daughter, Starr.”

Starr looked up long enough to say, “Hey.”

Gram pointed to the garden. “Are you picking or a freeloader?”

“Picking.” Hope schlepped into the garden and crouched down next to Starr. “What crime did you commit that sentenced you here?”

Without looking up, Starr replied, “I was born.”

With a huff, Gram knelt down near the girls. “You two make a fine pair. One without a dad. One without a mom.”

The girls exchanged a glance, and some of the tension in Hope dissolved. “Is this your first time on the island?”

Starr nodded. “And hopefully the last.”

Hope glanced up at Paige. “Would it be okay if I showed Starr around the island?”

She nodded. “If it’s okay with your dad.”

“Oh.” The teen’s shoulders slumped, then she brightened and said, “If you talked to him, I’ll bet you could convince him to unground me long enough to show Starr around. I can tell he likes you.”

“He does?” Realizing what she’d revealed, Paige shrugged. “I’ll see what I can do.”

That seemed to satisfy the girl and as the girls picked, they chatted. Thankful that Starr had made a new friend, Paige let her mind drift.

Where was her dad? He’d been gone for hours now.

Gram pinched her arm just above the elbow and Paige yelped. “What did you do that for?”

The old lady got in her face. “If you’re living here again, you have to pull your own weight. Why aren’t you picking?”

Starr stopped in mid-pick. “You never said anything about moving here. When were you going to tell me, Mom?”

“We’re not. Gram’s mistaken.”

Gram smiled her toothless smile at Starr. “The old bat is confused. Off her rocker. Looney as only an old woman can get. Craziness is an inherited trait too, you know.”

A worried frown marred the teen’s forehead. “Mom?”

The old woman was playing with them both. As Gram returned to the row of string beans, Paige raised her voice. “Gram, we’re not moving back to the island.”

“Good. Because I don’t tolerate no free-loaders.”

Time to change the subject. Paige glanced toward the garage. “Brody mentioned you kept the old Chevy.”

“It’s still in the garage, if you want to take a look to see if you can get it going again. That boy wants to buy it. Maybe you can get it running for him.”

Starr jumped to her feet. “Can Hope and I see, too?”

Gram pointed at the garden patch. “No. What’s the point of free labour if they don’t freely labour?”

“I’ll show it to you later, baby.” Paige pushed to her feet. “Are you sure the girls are okay with you, Gram?”

“Of course. When we’re done in the garden, they can paint my fence.”

Starr let out a heavy sigh. “I’m supposed to be on vacation.”

Gram fixed her with a beady eye. “So?”

Exasperation filled the teen’s voice. “Vacation means sleeping in, going to the beach, and hanging out with my friends.” She glanced at Hope, who seemed unperturbed and kept picking. “Is it always like this here?”

Without looking up, the other girl shrugged one shoulder. “You get used to it.”

“Starr. Strange name,” Gram commented as she knelt next to Starr. “I think I’d rather call her Katie.”

Paige wondered what she’d done to deserve her family. “Of course you would, but she won’t answer.”

Starr glanced up. “I don’t much like your grandma.”

Gram snapped off a bean and dropped it into the bowl. “I’m old, girl, not deaf.”

Paige sighed. “I don’t think she likes us either.”

But that didn’t mean she was going to let Jeb take advantage of the old lady.

Leaving the girls with her grandma, Paige headed for the garage where she carefully pulled a tarp off the old truck.

This was the ’65 Chevy that she’d started work on in an effort to attract Brody’s attention. It had worked…sort of. When he wasn’t hanging out with his friends, he’d be under the hood, talking to her about school and football and future dreams.

And those were quite possibly the best memories of Serendipity Island that Paige had. Moments spent in his company, wishing he’d see her as something other than the little kid next door.

She opened the driver’s door, popped open the hood, then went to prop it open.

It had been her dream to fix up the truck to use around the island. And Gram had wholeheartedly endorsed the idea because she’d believed it would keep Paige out of trouble.

Except it hadn’t worked the way Gram intended.

No, she’d taken the rap for something she hadn’t done, then spent the next two years in a juvie school.

She didn’t have time to waste on memories of the past. There were more important things to be concerned about, she thought, just as a shadow went by the window.

A moment later, Jeb walked into the garage, whistling as though he didn’t have a care in the world.

CHAPTER TWELVE

 

 

Hands on hips, Paige regarded her dad with suspicion. “Where have you been?”

“Across the street helping that dear sweet woman with her eaves troughs.” He stopped in front of the truck and regarded the metal under the hood. “Wow, I can’t believe Ma kept my dad’s old truck all these years. Didn’t you use this as your project in high school?”

“That was a long time ago. I’d prefer to discuss what you’re doing today.”

After a moment, he pulled his gaze away from the vehicle. “I’ve decided to go into the handyman business.”

When she saw that he was serious, she closed her eyes and sought patience. “What do you know about being a handyman?”

“Enough to get by. Besides, Buttercup, it’s all in the presentation. Isn’t that what I taught you?”

Hands fisted at her sides, she clenched her teeth. “No. You are not pilfering money from the people in the town where Gram lives.”

He looked offended. “I’d never do that to your grandma. I’d do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.”

She’d learned she couldn’t trust him. “What’s the catch?”

“No catch.” He bent over the engine and fiddled with a bolt. “Like I told you before, it’s time I retired from the road.”

In all the years since she’d realized that what they did was wrong, she wondered how she’d been so unfortunate to be born into this family. She gritted her teeth. “It’s time you left town and retired elsewhere.”

“Are you kidding?” He smiled that charming smile that had once won her over, but now she saw it for what it really was…the smile of a snake about to swallow its prey. “Do you know how many widowed old ladies there are in this town?”

And here it came…

“They’re out cleaning their gutters, cutting down their trees, painting their houses. They should have a man do those jobs for them.” He straightened, reached into his back pocket, and pulled his wallet out. As he opened it, Paige noticed that it was slightly fatter than when she’d given him money that morning. He pulled out a five. “And to show you how committed I am, I’m returning your money. I swear, Buttercup, I’ll never have to borrow another dime from you.”

She reluctantly took the money, and as he started toward the door, a matronly woman stuck her head through the opening.

“Hello, Jeb. Do you have a moment?”

Jeb hurried to the doorway. “Matilda, it’s a pleasure to see you again. What can I do for you?”

She stepped into the semi-darkness of the garage. “I want to nominate you for Mayor of Serendipity Island.”

The expression on Jeb’s face turned calculating. “Excuse us,” he said over his shoulder. He placed one hand against the small of Matilda’s back and steered her out the door. “Let’s grab a cup of coffee and sit down and discuss this.”

Paige didn’t even have to hear his yes to know that Matilda’s request just opened the door to a pile of trouble.

Now what? Once Jeb got an idea, he was like a pit bull. Nothing could stop him, not even if his plan destroyed everyone around him.

As they disappeared, Brody sauntered into the yard and paused at the edge of the garden. He had a tool pouch slung around his waist, and Paige couldn’t help but think that he was totally delicious, totally drool worthy…and totally out of her league.

All six-foot-two-inches of temptation.

The smart thing to do would be to stay away from him, but all she could do was stare at him and imagine what it would be like to be naked in his arms.

Despite her determination to keep her distance, she acknowledged that she’d have to be dead not to notice how his t-shirt clung to his frame, or how his shoulders looked like the perfect invite to lay her head against, or how he smelled so good, she just wanted to climb into his skin.

As she watched him, she remembered what he’d told her about his relationship with his daughter.

She moved closer to the window.

His discomfort with the teen was obvious, and even though Hope appeared to be all prissy and superior and independent, she sensed something deeper there.

The girl wanted his attention. Needed his attention. She just didn’t know that she didn’t have to be bad to get it.

Maybe while she was here, she could do something to ease the relationship between father and daughter.

But she knew…no good could come of getting involved with Brody, not even for the short time she’d be on the island.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

 

 

Brody stood awkwardly at the edge of the garden. “What are you doing over here, Hope? Aren’t you supposed to be grounded?”

At which Hope replied, “I don’t have to listen to you. You’re not my dad.”

Before he could order her back home, Olivia stepped in. “The girl is fine here, Brody. I’ll keep her so busy there’ll be no time for mischief. Why don’t you go inside and fix the faucet?”

Brody nodded, but before he turned away, he said, “As soon as I’m done in there, Hope, you’re coming with me to town hall.”

She didn’t glance up. “What for?”

“The Judge and Delores have nominated me for Mayor. I want you there to show your support.”

She rolled her eyes. “Whatever.”

Olivia made a motion with her hands, shooing him away.

Before he stepped into the kitchen, he paused, one hand on the screen door handle, and turned to look at Hope in the garden.

She appeared comfortable there, chatting with their elderly neighbor and her houseguest, far more comfortable than she looked when she was around Matilda or himself. Smiling and laughing. Why couldn’t she be like that with him?

How could he create that kind of relationship with his daughter? It shouldn’t be this tough, which only made him wonder once again what he was trying to prove by taking on the responsibility of a teenager.

Brody finally turned his back on them and stepped into Olivia’s kitchen, where the woman slouched at the table took one look at him and smoothly came to her feet.

“Well, hello there, handsome.”

Paige’s mom. Despite the sunglasses hiding her eyes, it was clear she’d recently had a nip and tuck. The skin across her cheeks looked smile-proof tight, and her upper lip barely moved when she talked.

He nodded politely and remained where he was. “Sorry to interrupt. I’m here to fix Olivia’s faucet, but I can come back later.”

She closed the distance between them, and inches from him, proceeded to walk her fingers up the front of his t-shirt. “I’m in need of your…let’s just call it assistance.”

Brody resisted the urge to bolt. “What can I help you with, Ma’am?”

Shock cracked the tight expression and she grabbed a fistful of his t-shirt, her knuckles white. “Did you just call me Ma’am?” She breathed out the last word as though it were something dirty.

“Ummm, yes, Ma’am.”

She hissed out a breath and slouched her shoulders. “Ma’am? Why, I’m barely older than…you.”

Behind him, the screen door opened and Paige walked in. Her voice was droll, humorless. “And if you believe that, I have land for sale in the swamp.”

The shapely brunette drew herself up to her full height and pressed her heavily lipsticked mouth into a firm line. “A trick, I’m sure, your father taught you.”

“Perhaps if I’d had a mother who cared enough to stick around, I wouldn’t have learned that particular skill.”

The brunette’s lips thinned further and she faced Brody directly, her head at a regal angle. “Don’t ever call me Ma’am again. My name is Lisa.”

Then she grabbed the coffee mug and glided from the room.

Brody turned to face Paige who was staring after Lisa with a frown on her face. He headed toward the sink, unscrewed the faucet, and shook out the screen. “So you have both Mommy and Daddy issues?”

She crossed her arms over her chest and leaned one hip against the edge of the counter. “And that amuses you?”

Despite the small smile twitching at the edges of his mouth, he shook his head. “Misery loves company, you know.”

The stiffness in her body eased and she pushed away from the cabinet. “Well, unless you need help with something, I should leave you alone to work.”

“Stay.” The single word escaped before he could stop it. “Please, keep me company.”

She shrugged and as he crouched down to look under the sink, she crouched down beside him.

Comfortable silence hung in the air between them. Brody tried to ignore the sweet scent of her, and as he fumbled with the pipes, she moved slightly closer.

“I noticed your daughter calls you Brody.”

He shrugged, suddenly self-conscious. “You heard that, did you?”

“It’s those teenage years. Have you forgotten what they’re like?”

He grumbled, “I was never that annoying.” As she laughed, he realized that he liked her laugh, and grudgingly he added, “Okay, so maybe my parents thought otherwise.”

She was craning her neck to see what he was doing under the sink, and Brody could smell the sweetness of her hair. Their shoulders were touching too, and as he turned to look into her eyes, he saw her gaze dip to his lips.

She licked her lips as though anticipating his kiss and his body went hard.

It had been a long time since he’d been with a woman, four months to be exact, since before he got custody of Hope.

As Brody leaned toward her, the crash of metal against metal outside made them both jump.

Paige jerked to her feet and skirted around him, heading toward the back door, and Brody followed her.

He saw Olivia back her big Oldsmobile away from the tin garbage cans across the alley, then steer down the alleyway away from the house, Starr in the back seat. Hope must have returned home.

“I can’t believe she’s still driving.” Paige let out a breath. “By the looks of things, maybe I should see about getting her driver’s license revoked.”

He laughed, which brought her around to face him and the brush of her body against his was exquisite torture. His voice came out rough. “Good luck with that. Rumor has it that she bribes the driver examiner.”

Her voice softened. “I can’t thank you enough for all you’ve done for my grandmother.”

He shrugged, conscious of how close they stood, how good she smelled, like warm strawberries in the coolness of the afternoon shade. Desire brought him closer and giving in to the urge to touch her, he wiped a bit of grease off her cheek. “Everyone in town watches out for her.”

“Thank you. I wish there was some way I could repay you.” She set her hands against his abs. “You’re tense. You need to relax.”

“And how am I supposed to do that with a teenager that hates my guts and her vengeful grandmother watching my every move?”

She moved into him and wrapped one hand around the back of his neck. Her fingers glided into his hair. “Between the two of us, I’m sure we can figure out a way to release your tension.” She smiled and added, “And mine.”

Every inch of his body demanded he press against every inch of her body. He slid one hand under the silkiness of her hair and cupped the back of her neck. “Tell me this isn’t all one-sided. That you’re not coming on to me because you want to repay me for fixing Olivia’s faucet.”

“And other things.” She gazed up into his eyes, hers clear and bright and filled with naughtiness. “It’s not. I’m not.”

“This could get complicated.”

“It doesn’t have to,” she whispered back.

But he knew better. Any involvement with this woman—any woman—would be deemed inappropriate.

The Judge would have his ass.

Matilda would have his balls…and her granddaughter.

And yet, against better judgement, Brody lowered his head and brushed his mouth against the softness of hers.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

 

 

Delores stood in the coffee lineup, waiting her turn, tapping the pointy toe of her shoe against the tiles.

What was taking Brody so long?

She checked her watch for what had to be the hundredth time, then pulled her cell out of her bra and started typing on the small screen. Where are you? I’m at the coffee shop waiting. We need to get to town hall to sign those nomination papers.

“Hey lady, are you going to order or what?”

Glaring at the man who’d interrupted her, she shifted to the side, waved him past, then stepped back into line behind him and stared at the phone.

Counted off the seconds.

What could be holding him up? Brody was never late for anything.

Was he was worth it?

Maybe years ago, when they were together as Prom King and Queen, but now?

Now the stress of the wedding plans and the lack of the groom’s proposal were taking their toll, and she was almost tempted to walk away, find another way to either get off this island or raise her status in the community.

Except nothing was more exalted than First Lady of Serendipity Island.

Delores pictured the glory days ahead.

Leading the Fourth of July parade.

Waving from the backseat of her spiffy only-for-special-occasions Mustang convertible, as regal as the Queen of England.

Once she was the Mayor’s wife, she could oust that old bat, Matilda, from the presidency of the Ladies Society. The only reason the realtor still claimed that spot was because the previous Mayor didn’t have a wife.

Brody—and the Mayor’s chair—were hers.

Nobody else could have them.

Her phone buzzed and she glanced at the screen to read the message.

At Olivia’s fixing the kitchen faucet. I’ll be there in ten.

Fifteen minutes later, she forced another smile and waved yet another—and another and another, which was really starting to piss her off—patron past, even though there wasn’t anything to smile about today because she was still stinging from the rejection last night. And now to top it all off, she had a headache starting behind her eyes.

She did not like headaches.

She did not like people who got in her way.

And she did not enjoy being shoved into the background, not even for Olivia, who she adored and would do anything for.

Brody needed to get his priorities straight. The man needed to understand that she was his priority.

Delores smoothed a wrinkle from the skirt of her dress and waved yet another person by. The knot of tension in her stomach erupted into a burp and she covered her mouth with one hand to hide her unladylike behavior.

With only a few days to the wedding, there was still so much left to do. She’d left the cake as long as she could, but she had to order it today. She peered around the tall man in front of her at the display in the glass cabinet. There were single tier, double tier, and triple tier cakes to choose from, but she wanted something special. A cake to rival all other cakes—

A whisper to her right caught her attention.

Ten dollars on the Calhoun chit.”

No way. My bet is on the Peabody girl.”

Hold it a sec. I need to write this down.”

From the corner of her eye, Delores peered at the group huddled around the table in the center of the coffee shop area. There was old man Vaughan and his group from the senior’s center.

She leaned forward and tapped the man in front of her on the shoulder, the charm bracelet tinkling sweetly. “Did you hear that? What are they talking about?”

He glanced their way and shook his head. “Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention.”

He pulled out his wallet and Delores refocused on the seniors. But they were whispering now, and without losing her spot in the lineup, there was no way she could get closer.

Another ten minutes passed—ten long minutes of allowing one patron after another to bypass her to the front counter, ten long minutes of wondering why the seniors were pitting her against Paige Calhoun for Brody’s affection, ten long minutes of waffling between stomping out with her anger and the certainty that if she didn’t get this wedding cake ordered today, it wouldn’t be ready in time—before she heard the chimes of the front door and Brody’s voice as he greeted various people in the coffee shop.

As he came to stand beside her, he jostled her shoulder. “Sorry I’m late, Del. Forgive me?”

She shrugged and pretended to be busy perusing the menu, refusing to look at him. “What’s there to forgive? It’s not like we’re dating or anything.”

He didn’t reply, which was a good thing or she might have turned and hit him over the head with her purse. In fact, he appeared majorly relieved and clueless. She liked her men dumb. They were so much easier to control.

She forced a bright smile, determined to ease things between them, calm and cool on the outside while inside, her stomach formed another belch. “Since you’re here, I wonder if you’d do me a huge favor?”

He stuffed his hands into the front pockets of his jeans and peered down at her, casual and heartbreakingly handsome. “Sure, anything. We should hurry up though. Hope’s waiting outside, and I want to get the papers signed and make the official announcement before she gets bored and disappears.”

Swallowing back a swell of satisfaction—and another burp which she had to force back down her esophagus and into her stomach, hoping it wouldn’t threaten to come out the other end—she opened the binder in her arms. “I want your opinion on this wedding cake.”

He glanced down and studied the drawing, his eyes hooded, his facial expression…expressionless. Finally with a shrug, he said, “I know nothing about wedding cakes, Del.”

“It’s just, you’re a man, so I thought you’d know what the groom might like.” She tried to force a smile, but it felt more like a grimace, so she pressed her lips together and swallowed yet another burp.

With a frown creasing his brow, he peered down at her. “Is something wrong?”

Delores felt her heart stop in her chest, then begin to pound with frantic thumps. “No, of course not.”

“You’re squirming like a—”

She laid one hand on his bicep, which shut him up, and felt the muscle in his upper arm flex against her palm, strong and powerful and dominant. “What were you doing this morning that made you so late?”

Now his eyes hooded more. “Fixing the leaky faucet at Olivia’s.”

And suddenly she was overwhelmed with the sneaking suspicion that something else had happened. “Was Olivia home?”

His broad shoulders shifted and it was his turn to study the menu. “She was out in her garden with the girls.”

As casual as possible, she asked, “And her granddaughter?”

“Patsy?”

She gritted her teeth. “Paige.”

He shrugged. “She was out in the garage.”

Bingo. It was in the tone of his voice, the subtle flex of the muscle against her palm. As offhand as possible, she said, “Well, I’ll have to call and see if she needs help. You know how handy I am with a wrench.”

“You should do that, Del.” Then he turned his head and smiled down at her, a warm and intimate and oh-so-false smile that made her heart trip in her chest.

The memory of Paige’s over large bosom rose up like something x-rated, and as her stomach rebelled, Delores was forced to shift before a fart could escape.

Brody would never cheat on her, at least not on purpose. But he was a man, and men were driven by their baser instincts. Which meant she should be suspicious of his every move.

His gaze returned to the drawing. “Is that a Prom King and Queen on the top?”

Delores hugged his bicep tighter against her bosom, and leaned forward to draw his attention to the V in her starched white shirt. From his angle, he should have a lovely view of her modest cleavage and the Victoria Secret bra she’d put on that morning. Take that, you bitch. “Yes, it has special significance for the bride and groom.”

“I’m no expert, but if this is what your friend likes, then for her wedding day, she should have it.”

She smiled up at him, but instead of her smile drawing him forward, he took a step back. A frown settled between her brows. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” He took another step back, gently extracted his arm from her grip, and hooked a thumb toward the exit. “Tell you what. I’ll go find the Judge and meet you at Town Hall in thirty minutes.”

Before she could agree or disagree, he turned and headed for the door.

As she admired his broad shoulders and lean hips, she imagined how he’d look naked in bed on their wedding night. And how excited he would be when she greeted him in a floaty, frothy, almost sheer, virginal white nightgown. She closed her eyes, the fantasy so lifelike she could feel her insides start to quiver.

The guy behind her bumped her in the back. “Hey lady, it’s your turn.”

Delores stepped to the counter, handed the paper across to the teenage boy ready to take her order, and smiled. “I’d like to order this cake, but it must be ready by Friday.”

“No problem.”

The boy whipped out a binder, filled in her name, then took down her street address.

I hear Brody has been doing double shift at the Calhoun residence ever since that pretty Paige girl arrived yesterday. Olivia is going to get a lot of extra work done.”

Delores hissed and leaned forward. “Did you hear that?”

He shrugged and kept writing. “I never pay them any attention. They’re just old men entertaining themselves.”

“With a bet that involves me and…and…?”

As the voices of the seniors rose over the din of the other coffee shop patrons, she straightened to see them in the mirror above the counter.

“…if the boy can keep his mind on repairs and off other temptations. That Paige Calhoun was trouble back in the day.”

Everything she’d ever wanted was within reach. There was no way she’d allow Brody to slip through her fingers this time.

Right now she was the favorite to win. And she’d do anything to make sure it stayed that way.

Besides, it was just old men entertaining themselves. There was probably no meat to their suspicions.

Still, she wasn’t so foolish to—

“Anything else, Ma’am?”

As she glanced back at the teenager, her gaze swept across the array of ice cream beside the till, then landed on her reflection in the mirror behind the counter.

Neat, trim, tidy.

Physically, she could afford to drown her worries in some food. “Give me a gallon of the Rocky Road Fudge and a large cup of your house blend coffee with triple cream and triple sugar.”

The boy went into the back and Del glanced at the old men.

Why would they even think Paige would be competition? She’d barely been in town for twenty-four hours. Did they know something she didn’t?

She hissed out a pent up breath.

Maybe she’d played it too cool when she’d decided to let Brody settle into the dull routine of island life before she pursued him.

Maybe, just maybe, she was an idiot for even worrying.

Besides, what could the other woman possibly have that Delores lacked?

As she turned back to the counter, she caught her reflection in the mirror again.

Well, for starters, Paige’s bust was double-Playboy-centerfold material.

But last night, when she’d asked Brody about who was visiting Olivia, he’d been totally disinterested.

She placed the palm of her cold hand against her hot forehead, so confused she desperately needed a pig out session to give herself time to think.

She glanced at her watch. She had twenty minutes till she met Brody and the Judge at Town Hall. There was a place she knew in the park, one where she could hide with her ice cream and think without interruption.

The kid came back with the ice cream container, interrupting her thoughts, and handed it over to her, then a few moments later, handed her a steaming cup of triple-triple coffee. While she paid for her purchases, she mulled over everything she knew about her competition.

The year Paige had moved in with Olivia, she’d been a wallflower. Three years younger, she’d been the little girl next door. Brody had barely noticed her.

Hadn’t he?

No, of course he hadn’t. Paige had been so young, way too young to interest a man like Brody.

And despite the rumors that had swept across the island—rumors that her dad was occasionally on the wrong side of the law, that her mom was some two-bit Hollywood actress—Paige Calhoun had remained a wallflower, always staying under the radar, which meant Delores hadn’t paid her much attention either.

But she certainly would now.

She took the change from the kid, then slid a quarter tip back his way. As she turned from the counter, the ice cream container clutched in the crook of her arm, the hot coffee cup in her hand, she heard the old men again.

My bet is on the Calhoun girl.”

You’re out to lunch. The bets are in favor of Delores. Fifty-to-one says she’s going to marry Brody. Who else is in?”

Delores’s irritation spiked. She marched across the coffee shop, slammed the to-go cup on the table, not caring in the least when it spilled over and made a mess, and pulled two tens from her purse. “I’m in.”

With doubt etched into the cavernous lines on his face, old man Vaughan peered up at her. “Do you know what we’re betting on?”

Plunking the tens down on the table, she gave a smile, which for some reason made the table full of old men all lean back slightly. Weird, just like Brody. She reached into her purse, pulled out another thirty dollars, and slapped it on the table in front of him. “I’m a shoo-in, so I want in on the action.”

He scooped up the cash before she could change her mind.

As if.

But she wouldn’t underestimate the enemy. If she did, she had no doubt that she’d lose the prize.

She pulled out her cell, and juggling her triple-triple coffee and the container of ice-cream, set an alarm to ring on the hour.

Spynet in progress.

The bet—and Brody—were all hers.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

 

 

Matilda sent out a single email to enlist the backing required to push her Mayoral campaign into high gear, and thanks to the tireless efforts of the Ladies Society, word of her candidate—and apparently his eligibility—had spread across the island like a wildfire. By the time she arrived at Town Hall, Jeb at her side, droves of the island’s women had arrived to check him out.

As she moved aside to give her candidate room to work his special magic on the women lined up for his attention, her bosom swelled with pride.

Everyone appeared to love him, which meant their path to the Mayor’s seat would be a cakewalk, with Jeb beating the pants off Brody. Then the awful man who held her lovely granddaughter hostage could crawl back into the hole he’d crawled out of and disappear from her life forever.

Yet despite her joy at the thought of Hope finally coming to live with her, a shred of doubt wormed its way into her thoughts.

What did she really know about the man she was about to nominate beyond the fact that he was Olivia’s son? Did he love Serendipity Island enough to protect it like a child in his care? Could he grow the population gently while still maintaining the island’s charm? Would he chose the population’s needs over his own?

Halfway through her rumination, something ugly caught her attention.

Harry’s motorhome.

It lumbered down Main Street like an oversized blowfish, taunting her like a mistress flaunted in front of the entire town, bringing a flush to her cheeks and a heaviness to her stomach. Then it turned into the Town Hall’s parking lot, maneuvered around vehicles and curbs and light posts with all of the grace of a hippopotamus, before it jerked to a sudden stop, hogging six parking stalls.

A homemade banner stretched from the doorway to the back bumper.

Campaign headquarters: Vote Brody Jackson for Mayor!

The eyesore instantly reminded Matilda of Harry’s stubbornness, his foolish extravagance, and his stupid proposal.

Yet when the big lug stepped out of the driver’s side, his shoulders broad and firm, a Vote For Brody sign in his large hands, she had to turn away.

Goodness gracious, she thought as she blinked away the moisture in her eyes, how she missed that man. It seemed that every moment she wasn’t otherwise occupied, her traitorous mind dredged up memories of those Tuesday and Thursday nights spent in his arms..

Why did he have to go and ruin things when they were so darn perfect?

Steeling herself against the desire to feel his strong arms holding her close, she refocused on her mission and pushed through the crowd until she reached Jeb’s side. Grabbing his arm, she wormed their way through the women.

“Excuse us,” she said, over and over and over again as the circling piranhas from the over sixties club continued to capture his attention. “Excuse us, please. Jeb needs to sign the nomination papers to make this all official.”

As they cleared the crowd and made their way across the courtyard, one of the Ladies Society members stepped into their path. Matilda stopped and pasted on a fake smile. “Susie, we’re in a little bit of a—”

The other woman ignored her, grabbed Jeb’s hand, and with a blush and a giggle, clasped it between her breasts. “Mr. Calhoun, I’ve heard so much about you from Matilda. If you want, you can pound a sign into my front yard.”

Matilda faked gagged. “Seriously, Susie? Why don’t you just come out and say that Jeb can pound into—”

Jeb caught her elbow and smoothly interrupted her. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Susie, and I appreciate your support. Mattie’s in a bit of a rush to get the paperwork signed, so if you’ll excuse us, we need to get moving.”

Mattie? Matilda glared at the man beside her.

“Of course,” Susie sighed as she released his hand. With a wink and a wave and an overly naughty waggle of her eyebrows, she added, “I’ll be waiting for you to take me up on my offer.”

As Jeb guided Mattie the rest of the way to the entranceway, he leaned in close, his voice soft, his breath tickling her neck. “I’ve already been offered five handyman jobs, and we haven’t even started to campaign yet. We’re a shoe-in, Mattie.”

She gritted her teeth. Even though he was warm and jovial and agreeable, and so opposite the opinionated excuse-for-a-man she’d just dumped, she couldn’t allow him to get that familiar.

Matilda stopped, one hand on the door handle, the other caught by the man at her side. A slow simmer started deep down low and threatened to boil to the surface. She’d only ever allowed Harry to call her by the shortened form of her proper name, and that was over and done with. “Don’t call me Mattie. My name is Matilda.”

He studied her face, and obviously seeing that she was serious, his eyebrows rose. “I apologize if I offended you.”

Something in the tone of his voice deflated her anger and made her want to offer an apology of her own. She glanced away from his probing gaze and studied the lettering on the doorway. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to offend you, but since I’m nominating you and leading your campaign, it’s best if we keep our interaction professional. If people hear you call me Mattie—” This time when she gagged, it wasn’t fake. “—they’ll assume there’s more to our relationship than what they’re seeing.”

He nodded, serious now. “Of course, we need to protect your reputation.”

“Thank you,” she said softly, and then the doubt crept back into her thoughts. Was she doing the right thing, nominating a total stranger? “Jeb, I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t know anything about you and people are bound to be curious. Do you mind if I ask you a few personal questions before we head in?”

“Not at all.” He folded his hands together in front of him and kept his gaze steady on hers. “What would you like to know?”

He looked so open and honest that guilt rushed in, and she very nearly retracted her request. The only thing that kept her from doing so was that it was her duty to protect Serendipity Island and the people on it.

She cleared her throat and plunged forward. “You’ve been married, correct?”

“Yes, only the once. We were young and impetuous, and mistook lust for love.” He leaned into her space and lowered his voice. “We’re divorced, you know, in case that changes your mind about our dinner date.”

He was so close she could smell the scent of the soap he’d used and the man beneath. It threatened to obscure her thoughts, so she laid her hand on his chest and nudged him back.

He smiled down at her, but didn’t say a word.

“Children?”

“Only one. Paige, my daughter from my marriage. I believe you met her years ago when she stayed with my mother during the school year.”

“Oh, that’s right.” The girl had gotten in trouble with the law and had left town in a hurry, but her disappearance had quickly been overshadowed when Matilda’s daughter informed her she was pregnant with Brody’s baby.

“She’s back on the island too. Did you know that?” As she shook her head, he smiled that warm, affable smile that eased the tightness in her stomach. “I have a granddaughter. Have you met her yet?”

She thought of Hope and shook her head. “No.”

“I’ll bring her over one day soon. Sweet kid. Kind of shy.”

Relief banished the last of her concerns, and this time she smiled back. “So you’re a family man.”

“Family man?” He broke eye contact, and reached for the door handle, covering her hand with his. “Yes, family is important, the sweet nectar of life.”

Her bosom swelled with pride.

She’d been the once to introduce him around town. She’d been the one that convinced him to run for Mayor. She’d be at the heart of his successful campaign. And he would take care of their island as if it were his only child. “Jeb, you should bring your daughter and granddaughter on the campaign trail. Introduce them around town. Let people get to know the real you.”

He pulled open the door. “Great idea, Matilda.”

As she stepped into the coolness of the air-conditioned town hall and led Jeb to the front counter to wait for a clerk, a movement in her peripheral vision caught her attention. She turned slightly and saw Harry enter the building with Brody and Hope in tow, and right behind, the crowd of women from outside pushed in.

Another pang of loneliness hit her square in the chest and banished her easy mood.

She shouldn’t be lonely, not with Jeb’s campaign to keep her busy, but she missed Harry. Missed his jovial laugh, his wicked teasing, the way he looked at her when they were alone. It set butterflies afloat in her stomach and caused her to do things she hadn’t even done with her late husband.

Was it too late for them to reconcile? Could she convince him to give up his stupid motorhome and settle down with Hope and her?

She snuck a look at the good looking man beside her.

Jeb didn’t clean the gutters with the same thoroughness that Harry did. In fact, he was kind of sloppy, like he’d never done it before, and she couldn’t help but wonder if he’d be sloppy at other things too.

Doubts about the campaign assailed her again, but she shoved them aside so she could focus on more important things, like stomping Brody into the dirt and building a relationship with her granddaughter.

As the men headed toward them, Hope slipped off to the side. Then Delores breezed into the building, a huge to-go coffee cup in one hand, a chocolate covered key in the other, and a smear of chocolate on the edge of her mouth.

The younger woman was usually so fastidious about her appearance, but if she thought she could sell out to the other side without retaliation, then she was in for a huge surprise. Matilda would never, not in a million years, point out the smudge.

As Brody headed to the front counter, he nodded politely. “Good morning, Matilda.”

She snubbed him—surely to goodness the man had to have known she would, which made her wonder what kind of idiot would keep coming back for more rejection—but then Harry stepped into her line of vision.

His gaze flicked from her to Jeb, and as his chest puffed out and he seemed to grow two inches, he thrust out his hand. “I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Judge Harry Malone.”

Jeb accepted the handshake. “Jeb Calhoun, at your service.”

Harry’s loud voice carried into every crevice of the building. The man was big and loud and totally obnoxious. “What brings you to Town Hall today, Jeb?”

“Matilda has nominated me for Mayor.”

Silence greeted his announcement. Brody was the first to respond. With a ready smile that pissed her off, Brody said, “I’m Brody Jackson, your opponent. Good luck to you, Sir. May the best man win.”

Harry sidled up to her and hissed in her ear, “Mattie. A word.”

“Stuff it.” She jerked away from him and turned back to the counter. “Where is that clerk? We don’t have all day to register.”

There was silence behind her, then in her peripheral vision, she saw Harry slap Brody on the back.

“You’ll make a great Mayor, son, the best Mayor this town has ever seen. Just like you make a great dad, the best dad I’ve ever seen.”

His words instantly fueled Matilda’s anger.

Yes, if she wanted custody of Hope, she had to destroy Brody at all costs—and if she took Harry down in the process, so be it.

Needing to put some distance between her and the man she couldn’t get out of her thoughts, she headed across the room toward her granddaughter.

Hope had her head down, playing on her iPhone, and didn’t notice her approach. She placed her arms around the girl’s shoulders and hugged her tight. “I’ve missed you, honey. How are you?”

The girl squirmed. “I’m fine, Grandma.”

Harry’s big voice boomed through the room again. “Stop smothering her, Matilda. Can’t you see she doesn’t want to be hugged by you?”

Matilda released her, her face flaming hot as she turned away to hide her embarrassment. She felt every eye in the room on her, including Hope’s.

Harry, the asshole.

He strode toward her, his angry gaze holding her hostage, and when he leaned in close, she felt a wickedly delicious shiver take over her body.

“How do you know Jeb?”

Perfect.

She looked him square in the eye. “He’s cleaning my gutters now.”

And the implication of her statement was there in the response in Harry’s expressive eyes.

He thought she was sleeping with Jeb.

Hallelujah.

Maybe she should. Maybe it would take care of the itch Harry wasn’t around to scratch.

Except the satisfaction she should have experienced felt cold and empty.

He grabbed her by the elbow and tugged her into a private corner.

“So I’ve been replaced already.” He laughed harshly and shook his head. “If I recall, after your husband died, it didn’t take me long to get you into my bed, Mattie. Ever thought you might be too easy?”

Matilda barely managed to contain the urge to launch herself at him and scratch out his eyes. Instead, she hissed, “What are you doing? Brody’s not Mayor material.”

Harry shot the two men a glance before he turned his full attention on her. His eyes burned with anger. “Something I should’ve done a long time ago. I’m going to prove Brody is capable of raising Hope.”

“By getting him elected Mayor? All you’ll prove is that he can manipulate people into voting for him.” She stuck her nose in the air. “Besides, shouldn’t you be on the road by now?”

“I’m postponing my road trip to run his election.”

Fury hit Matilda. “You’re an old fool.”

“I may be an old fool, Mattie, but that makes you even more of a fool for sleeping with me.”

“Shush.” She glanced around to make sure no one had heard, but it seemed everyone was ignoring them. Harry may have drawn the battle lines, but that was no reason for her to air their dirty laundry in public.

She unclenched her fists, relaxed her shoulders, and stomped toward the counter, grabbing Jeb by the arm as the clerk slid forms across the counter. “Let’s fill these in, then get out on the campaign trail.”

Behind her, Harry’s big voice boomed again. “Vote Brody Jackson for Mayor. He’s the best man for the job.”

Jeb touched her shoulder. “I noticed you let Harry call you Mattie.”

If he’d heard that, what else had he overheard? Matilda gripped the pen in her hand. “Harry Malone is an ass. Mark my words, Jeb, he can’t be trusted. He’ll pretend to be your best friend one moment, then the next, he’ll stab you in the heart.”

“You mean, in the back.”

She huffed out a snort. “Yeah, sure, whatever.”

But that’s not what she meant.

Matilda’s shoulders sagged.

Harry’s betrayal felt like a piercing to her heart. She sucked in a breath, tuned out his loud familiar voice, and focused on the sheet of paper before her. The letters squiggled and jumbled across the page, and she had to blink back tears to stop them from spilling over.

Jeb nudged her shoulder. “Are you okay, my dear?”

She steeled her backbone, resolution in the firm tone of her voice. After all, she’d survived worse things than Harry’s betrayal, like the loss of her daughter and husband. “Never better.”

As they finished up the paperwork, handed it to the clerk, and turned to leave, Harry’s voice boomed across the small entranceway. “Brody has my support, Mattie, which means he has the support of everyone I know.”

She lengthened her stride, knowing the man at her side could easily match it. “Jeb, if you want to win, we’re going to need a wicked campaign. You make sure your family is there to support you every step of the way, including shaking hands and kissing babies.”

Her footsteps didn’t falter as she hurried to get away from the man who’d claimed her heart during those Tuesday and Thursday night romps in her bed.

Harry knew everyone in town. They all loved and respected him, and would follow his lead.

But they loved her, too, and with the Ladies Society backing her, they’d put up a good fight.

And they’d win.

Out of the corner of her eye, she watched Harry’s gloating turn to dust, his glower permanently etched into her thoughts.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

 

 

Paige busied herself in the front yard, watering Gram’s flower pots, her attention split between pinching off finished blossoms and Brody’s return home.

The kiss they’d shared had stunned her into silence, so that when he received the text message from Delores and rushed out to sign the nomination papers to run for Mayor, she’d missed her chance to warn him about Jeb’s bid for Mayor.

Even now, all she could seem to think about was the kiss.

The memory of the taste of him, the feel of his hand cupping her bottom as he pulled her into the hardness of his body, sent a rush of heat to her lower abdomen. It had been so long since she’d felt desire of this magnitude that she almost didn’t know what to do with the feeling.

Over the tall hedges of the front yard, she finally saw the top of his head as he strode down the sidewalk. She sprinted down the driveway, rounded the corner of the hedges, but when she saw Brody with Delores, her footsteps faltered and she semi-hid behind the cover of the hedges.

Her attention fixed on Brody first, the confidence in his stride, the way his white shirt hugged his body, the casual way he interacted with the tall blonde at his side.

She pushed aside the memory of Brody’s hard abs and rough hands, and focused on the perfectly poised, perfectly put together blonde woman.

Delores looked great, which made Paige suddenly wish that she’d changed into something more feminine than her t-shirt and sweats. The other woman was dressed in a crisp white shirt and a form fitting black pencil skirt. Black high heels clicked against the sidewalk, finishing the ensemble with class, while her long shapely legs were tanned and sans nylons.

Back in school, she’d always admired Delores’s ability to look so put together, and it seemed that nothing had changed…including the way the other woman looked at Brody as if he were a cherished possession.

She backed away with hopes she could disappear behind the hedges before they saw her, but Delores spotted her and froze. For just a moment, there was something dark in the blonde’s eyes, something big and scary, something that warned Paige to be cautious, or else.

Paige shot a glance toward Brody, and as their eyes met, his jaw flexed and his gaze heated.

Oh yeah, it wasn’t all in her head. He’d been involved in that kiss too.

Before she gave herself away, she refocused on the other woman.

Delores recovered quickly. A smile blossomed across her mouth, and she rushed forward, hand outstretched. “Paige Calhoun. Why, how many years has it been? Last time I saw you, they were taking you away in handcuffs. How have you been?”

“Good.” Paige forced a smile and shook her hand. “You haven’t changed a bit, Delores. You still look amazing.”

“Why, thank you.” The other woman blushed and beamed as though she’d just won a much coveted prize. Before she could say anything more, the tune Girls Just Want To Have Fun rang out from her pocket, and she pulled out her cell, glanced at the screen, and turned to Brody. “I’ll catch up with you later and we’ll start getting those signs put up. I have some business I need to take care of first. How about if we meet in an hour?”

Hands in his pockets, he nodded. “I promised Olivia I’d clean her eaves troughs. How does two hours sound?”

“Great.” She gave Paige a little wave, but her eyes were frosty. “It’s so nice to see you again, Paige. We should get together before you leave.”

“That would be great.” As the other woman headed off, cutting through Gram’s yard, Paige turned to Brody and the reason she’d needed to talk to him. “Matilda convinced my dad to run for Mayor. I’m so sorry. I’ll try to get him to withdraw, but when he gets his mind on something, he’s impossible to deal with.”

“No worries. I ran into him down at Town Hall.” He closed the distance between them, tucked an errant lock of hair behind her ear, then settled his hand around the back of her neck. “So I guess this means Starr can’t be friends with Hope anymore, huh?”

She sighed and repressed the urge to lean into him. He was so close she could feel his body heat. “Maybe we can leave the girls out of this. They’re just hanging out together. It’s not like they even have an interest in the election.”

“Deal.” His gaze remained steady on her face. “What about us?”

“Us?” She almost said there is no us, except she really wanted there to be an us. With a shrug, she stepped back. “It won’t do your campaign any good if you’re seen with me.”

His brow furrowed. “What if I don’t care?”

“I care,” she said softly as she took another step back. “I’m only here temporarily, but this is your home now, Brody. You and Hope.”

As his frown deepened and he shoved his hands into his pockets, a lone figure came out of Matilda’s house and headed across the street toward them.

Jeb.

As he reached them, he grabbed Paige by the arm. “Is this young man bothering you?”

“No—”

He tugged her away. “You shouldn’t be consorting with the enemy.”

With an apologetic glance toward Brody, Paige tugged free of her dad’s grip and followed him up the driveway. “Brody isn’t the enemy.”

“He’s my opponent. That makes him the enemy, at least in public.” He slid a calculated look her way. “You like him, don’t you?”

She shrugged, suspicious of where he was going with that question. “He’s okay.”

“Men always liked your mother.” His gaze skimmed across her face and down her body. “You take after her, so I’ll bet he likes you too.”

Paige felt her face heat and her temper rise, but she forced herself to remain calm and focused. “What you’re doing is wrong, Dad. The people here deserve someone vested in the island’s future.”

Reaching the back door, Jeb held it open for her and continued as though she hadn’t said a word. “Maybe you could distract him, Buttercup. You were always good at that.”

“You are not conning these people,” she hissed as she walked into the kitchen where Gram and Starr sat at the kitchen table snapping the ends off some string beans.

Behind her, Jeb jovial voice filled the room. “Start making signs, girls. It’s official. I’ve signed the papers and I’m running for Mayor.”

Gram grabbed the last bean off the table. “You can’t put a sign on my front lawn. I already told Brody I’d support him.”

Jeb glared across the room at her. “Traitor.”

Starr pushed up from the table. “Hope told me that if Brody doesn’t win the Mayor’s race, she’ll have to go live with her grandma.”

Paige plunked down at the table next to her grandmother. “This won’t end well.”

Her dad puffed out his chest and smiled. “Have faith, Buttercup. I’ll make a great Mayor. All you have to do is play the part of a supportive and loving daughter.”

Paige slumped back on the chair.

Brody’s chances against Jeb were pretty slim. Her dad exuded charm like it was second nature. He could fool anyone into anything.

Starr headed for the back door. “I’m going to Hope’s.”

Gram picked up the bowl of beans and carried them to the sink. “Not till you help me weed the garden.”

The teen grabbed her ball cap and jammed it onto her head. “I want to go home.”

Before Paige could reply about the impossibility of returning to the Mainland until she stopped Jeb, Gram said, “Go ahead, girl. I’ll even pack you a lunch, help you run away.”

Gram.” But the older woman ignored her and followed the teenager out of the house. She’d have to deal with the two of them later because she could only handle one fight at a time.

As Jeb made a move to leave the kitchen, she stepped in front of him before he could escape. He kept one wary eye on her and crossed his fingers over his heart. “This is on the up and up, honest, Buttercup.”

She didn’t believe him. As far as she was concerned, he lied about everything. “You know what it’s like in the public eye, Dad. People dig for dirt. Aren’t you worried that sooner or later the truth about your past will get out? What happens when they do a background check on you? When the truth comes out, Gram’s reputation is going to be ruined.”

“You worry too much, Buttercup. My Jeb Calhoun name is clean. All my other—” He glanced over his shoulder at the back door, then lowered his voice. “All my other business is under a different name.”

She tried another tactic. “It’s not just Gram. If what Starr says is true, then you’re impeding Brody’s chance to gain custody of his daughter.”

His gaze fixed on her, the one that he used when he was determined to get his way. “What if I told people the truth about your grandma?”

Page frowned. “What truth?”

He loomed over her, dark and dangerous, so unlike the affable man of a moment ago. “Your grandmother is the one—”

The kitchen door banged open and Lisa jogged in. “Water,” she gasped.

Jeb straightened and smiled, the darkness gone, and with a one fingered salute toward his ex-wife, he said, “Start making Vote for Jeb signs, darlin’.”

And then he hustled past Paige and headed for the front door, leaving her alone with everything in a mess.

Like he always did.

Ignoring the woman who’d interrupted them, Paige spun on her heels and stormed out the back door.

Behind her, Lisa panted, “Was it something I said?”

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

 

 

At home, Brody found Hope playing through the messages on the answering machine.

“Grandma called,” she said. Punch, beep, delete. Punch, beep, delete. “Like about ten dozen times. It’s your turn to call her back.”

Their dislike of Matilda was the only thing they really had in common. He knew he shouldn’t encourage Hope’s bad behavior toward her grandma, but the old bat had given him no other choice.

Brody snagged a piece of paper and started writing out a list of chores. “It’s never my turn to call her back.”

“Why not?”

“Because she’s your grandma.”

“But she loves to hear your voice.”

He stopped writing and raised his gaze, noting the sweet tone of her voice, the even sweeter smile she gave him. Sweet and phony. “Right. That’s why she hangs up when I answer the phone.”

A dejected, “Lucky you,” was all she said as she returned to the messages. Punch, beep, delete. Punch beep, delete.

A movement outside the window caught Brody’s gaze, and his attention drifted from the dejected teen to the house next door, where he saw Paige headed for the garden.

The kiss they’d shared had stolen the breath from his lungs, and something else…his mind. He shouldn’t be thinking of all the ways he could seduce her, not when he had so many other concerns, like keeping custody of his daughter and winning the election.

Brody turned his attention back to his daughter and handed her the list. “Here, this is for you.”

She reached out reluctantly and took it from him. “What is it?”

“Your list of chores. Now that you’re grounded, you’ll have plenty of time to get them done.”

She studied the list for a minute, the frown on her forehead deepening. “Paint the fence. Mow the lawn. Weed the flowerbeds. And that’s only the good stuff.” Her gaze turned calculated. “Grandma wouldn’t ground me.”

“Then go live with your grandma,” he muttered, then noticing the crestfallen expression on her face, instantly regretted his words. He needed to remember that she was still just a kid, still getting to know him, and sensitive to everything that came out of his mouth. “Hope, you know you’re better off living here with me.”

She stared at the list. “So what will you be up to while I’m slaving away doing all your work?”

“I’ll be out on the campaign trail.”

She made a face and tucked the list into the pocket of her hoodie. “Grandma must hate that.”

“Too bad for her.” The fact that he even knew it was called a hoodie must mean he was learning something about being a parent. Didn’t it? Or was he just grasping at straws? “Would you like to help me campaign?”

“Only if you protect me from Grandma’s hugs.” With a fake shudder, she stepped away from the answering machine and grinned up at him, one of the few times that she was totally on board with him whereas usually they were on opposite sides. It was the one thing he could thank Matilda for. “Can I go hang out with Starr before I start all of your work?”

He narrowed his eyes. With Hope, there was always a hidden agenda behind her friendliness. “Have you forgotten already that you’re grounded?”

“I had hoped the grounding could start tomorrow and I could have one last day of freedom from parental oppression.”

“You know some pretty big words.”

“Does that mean you’ll give me two days of freedom?”

“No, but tell you what. I’m headed over to Olivia’s to check her eaves troughs and you can come. If we run into Starr, you can keep her company.”

She grunted and turned back to the machine. Punch, beep, delete. Punch beep, delete. Matilda had been extra persistent today.

“Do you know what, Brody.”

After four months in his care, she still refused to call him dad. “What?”

“You’re at the top of my list.”

“Of favorite people?”

She didn’t look his way, just gave him a thumbs down.

He repressed a sigh. “I’m your dad, Hope. You’re not supposed to like me. Not at this age, anyway.”

“But wouldn’t it be easier if I liked you just a little? And I might like you if you let me go to back to the Mainland on the next ferry to see my friends.”

Bingo, there it was. He’d thought it odd that she was being nice.

“You should have thought of that before you decided to become Picasso.” When she gave an over exaggerated sigh, acting all drama queen like her mother, Brody relented. “Come on, Pumpkin. You can help me carry the ladder next door.”

Hope pushed to her feet and followed him through the back porch toward the garage. “I wish you’d stop calling me that.”

“What?”

“Pumpkin.” She paused and kicked at a pebble on the driveway. “I mean, it would be okay if I was five, but now it’s just embarrassing.”

“What do you want me to call you, then?”

She hopped across the driveway using the hopscotch game she’d drawn on the cement last week. Sheer boredom had driven it to her.

No big fancy mall to hang out in.

No friends.

“Actually, I’d prefer it if you didn’t acknowledge me in public. It’s not that I’m embarrassed by you. It’s just so not cool to be seen with one’s parent.”

She turned backwards, still hopping about as though playing the game. Brody appreciated these rare moments when Hope reminded him of the little girl she might have been if he’d known her way back when.

Innocent, dependent, sweet. He was all that stood between her and a lifetime in purgatory living with her grandma. He had the most important reason in the world to stay out of trouble. Paige and the temptation of pursuing her were definitely off limits.

Unless they could somehow keep it a secret.

He mentally gave a shake of his head and refocused on his daughter.

“It’s not like I walk around wearing gumboots and chewing tobacco,” he pointed out, just to continue their conversation, since they so rarely had real conversations where they communicated with words that mattered. As of late, their conversations consisted of Hope bitching and him grunting. Although sometimes it went the other way, with him bitching and her grunting.

She crooked her head and studied him. “You could use a cooler pair of sunglasses.”

He blinked. “What’s wrong with these?”

“Those mirrored things went out with the stone age.”

“I was born in the Stone Age, remember?”

She turned to face forward again. Hop, skip, hop, skip. “Exactly. You come around us and my friends get all stiff and leave.”

“I thought you didn’t have any friends.”

“I don’t.”

“Maybe it’s because of your sparkling personality.”

She stopped at the end of the chalk markings and faced him. “So are you serious about kissing babies, giving out handshakes, and running for Mayor?”

“More serious than you know.” A puzzled expression flitted across her face. Brody didn’t want to send her fleeing in the opposite direction, but she had to know he was serious about gaining permanent custody of her. “Hope, I’ll do whatever it takes to make a home for you.”

Without a word, she turned her back on him and sauntered into Olivia’s yard, leaving him behind to retrieve the ladder.

The moment he stepped through the gate opening into the yard next door, Starr loped his way.

“Can Hope be ungrounded long enough to show me around the island? Please, pretty please?” She appeared so earnest he had to repress the urge to laugh. “Afterwards, I promise I’ll come over to the dark side and help her with her chores.” Over her shoulder, she sent a grimace toward the garden. “It can’t be any worse over there than it is here with Olivia-the-slave-driver.”

Brody hesitated. Hope needed a friend and Starr seemed like a pretty good kid. Finally, he nodded. “Sure. But chores first. Beach second.”

In unison, the girls jumped and whooped, then raced past him and disappeared through the gate. When he turned back, Paige was headed his way.

She waved him toward the garage. As she passed him, he could smell the slight scent of the perfume she wore. Setting aside the ladder, he followed her into the garage where she turned to face him, hands on hips.

“We can’t allow my dad to win, Brody.”

“We?” At her nod, he suddenly felt better just having her on his side, but then he got suspicious. “Why?”

She sighed and looked away. “Let’s just say he doesn’t have the island’s best interests at heart.”

He filed that information away to mull over later, and closed the distance between them. “There’s something I need to tell you. It will probably piss you off, but I want you to hear it from me before you hear it from anyone else.”

“What?”

He brushed the tips of his fingers along the softness of her jaw, then tilted her face up to his. “The old men in town have a bet going about who’s going to win my heart. You or Delores.”

Paige walked her fingers up his shirtfront, and stepped into him. “Tell those old men I’m not interested. Delores can have you. All I want is your body.”

And then, she stood on tiptoes, leaned all the way in, and pressed her mouth against his.

Brody forgot about the Mayor’s race, Hope and the bet, and got lost in her kisses.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

 

 

Delores edged the curtain away from the dining room window and saw Brody step into the garage with Paige.

With a snort of outrage, she let the curtain fall back into place and she crossed the neat-as-a-pin room to the couch. Throwing herself down on the plastic covered surface, she opened the bride magazine and flipped through the pages until she found the perfect wedding dress.

The one she had on order.

She closed her eyes and pictured the crowd in the church, oohing and ahhhing as she made her way up the aisle toward the groom.

But somewhere in her musing, the image of Paige wearing the gown filtered into her thoughts and she realized the other woman would fill out the bust to overflowing, while Delores’s own chest would barely make an imprint.

She hated being in the background, forgotten and invisible.

She forced her eyes open, slammed the magazine shut, and threw it behind the couch.

Good riddance, she thought as she pushed to her feet and took a peek out the front window.

Down the street, she spotted a Vote For Jeb sign, then another and another. And beyond that she saw Matilda with Jeb. The smooth operator was shaking hands and kissing babies, and all the old ladies like Matilda seemed to really like him.

Fools. She had a plan and she’d allow nothing—nobody—to get in the way.

She turned from the window and headed for the kitchen.

There was something stinky about Jeb Calhoun. Something stinky about his daughter too. She needed to get Brody away from that little slut before he did something idiotic, something that he couldn’t come back from.

After she grabbed a frozen casserole dish out of the freezer, she headed toward the back door, pausing only to check her appearance in the mirror. The brand new jeans and brand new t-shirt made her look young and sexy, as if no time had passed since high school.

With a final tuck of the t-shirt and a final check to ensure the creases in her jeans were perfect, she headed outside and crossed the alley to Olivia’s yard.

A bad feeling twisted her gut.

What if she caught Brody doing the dirty with that woman?

She tiptoed into the yard, careful to stay out of Olivia’s line of vision, and sidled up to the side door of the garage where she paused and listened.

Silence. All she heard was the rustle of leaves overhead, and the sound of her neighbor humming in the garden as she picked and pruned.

Delores slipped into the garage. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust from the bright sunlight to the dimness of the light coming in through the tiny side window. “Hello? Is anybody here?”

Paige poked her head around the hood of the truck, then shifted toward the workbench. “Delores, what an unexpected surprise.”

The younger woman had a grease mark across one cheek, another one down the front of her t-shirt, and yet another down one pant leg.

Delores stepped forward. “I thought I saw Brody come in here with you.”

“You did.” Paige picked up a dirty old rag and headed back under the hood. “He ran home to get a tool. He should be back any moment.”

“Oh.” She held up the casserole. “I brought this for you as a sort of welcome to the neighborhood meal.”

Paige raised her head, her gaze going from the casserole to Delores. A warm smile stretched across her mouth. “Thank you. Just put it on the workbench and I’ll take it in with me later.” She stuck her head back under the hood. “Would you mind handing me the rubber-headed sledgehammer?”

Delores moved to the workbench, set the casserole on the counter, and picked up the tool.

The handle felt mucky and greasy. Annoyance replaced the bad feeling in her gut. Hefting the tool in her hand, she eyed the woman under the hood. One bang on the head—well, maybe it would require a dozen or so because of the rubber head—and her problems would be over.

Paige glanced up just then, curiosity in her gaze. “Did you find it?”

She blinked, closed the distance between them, and passed over the tool. “Here you go.”

“Thanks.” Taking it from her, Paige leaned back inside the hood and banged on something.

Delores glanced around the garage.

Now what? Did she wait for Brody to reappear, or did she go looking for him? Probably best to stay put in case he decided to return via an alternate route.

She brushed at the sweat beading on her forehead, and too late remembered the grease on her palm. Without thinking, she wiped her hand down her pant leg, then glared at the stain on her brand new jeans. Annoyance morphed into anger. She’d have to deal with the stain later.

Raising her head, she forced a smile. “Olivia must be so happy to have her family all home.”

“Can hardly tell, what with her sassing us all off.” She raised her head and met Delores’s gaze. “Thank you for being so kind to her over the years and keeping a watch on her. She told me what a wonderful neighbor you’ve been.”

Delores shrugged, and her stomach bubbled with giddy pleasure. “I love her like she’s my own grandmother.”

Which was the truth. Her grandmother had been an angel, sneaking her cookies and ice cream at night, and never tattling on her bad behavior.

The other woman bent back under the hood. “She’s lucky to have you for a neighbor.”

“Thank you.”

Silence drifted between them, the only sound in the garage the clatter of steel against steel. Delores set one hand on the edge of the hood and it shifted beneath the pressure of her hand.

Interesting.

“Here, can you hold this?”

Delores took the dirty tool, and calculated the distance between the hood and the woman below. She’d have to wiggle around between Paige and the wall so she could reach the hood stand and knock it out of the way. Then she’d have to make it back to her place without being seen.

The casserole dish caught her eye. She gauged the distance to the door.

After the dirty deed, it would take precious seconds to wiggle back out between her victim and the wall, retrieve the casserole, and sneak silently past Olivia. The older woman had the ears of a bat.

She sighed and discarded the idea. For now. Still, it might be better to get rid of the competition and be done with the worry.

She glanced toward the door again.

Maybe Paige was wrong and Brody wasn’t coming back. Maybe he’d grown sick and tired of the pesky younger woman already. Maybe Delores didn’t need to perform the dirty deed.

As she watched Paige work, she forgot about the hood and the grease and Brody. Because Paige actually looked like she knew what she was doing.

“Hope and Starr are all set up to paint. I’m back with the tools you need,“ Brody said as he walked into the garage, then stopped dead in his tracks. “Del, what are you doing here?”

There had been comfort in his voice and something else. Something that Delores didn’t much like. Something very close to admiration and affection.

Something that didn’t bode well for Delores’s wedding plans.

“Delores has been helping me while you’ve been gone.” She laughed and looked her way. “Proof that women don’t really need men, am I right, Delores? It’s a rumor that men started so they’ll have someone to do their laundry and cook their supper.”

Delores silently agreed with her and for a moment, she almost forgot that she didn’t like Paige Calhoun.

Until she looked Brody’s way and saw the stupid smile lighting his face as he gazed at the other woman with open adoration.

Delores looked up at the ceiling and sighed. What had she been thinking, that Paige wasn’t a rival for Brody’s affections? God help her to avoid boys in the throes of a crush. Surely to goodness he’d snap out of it soon.

She fisted her hands at her sides.

He had better snap out of it soon because their wedding was at the end of the week. She was going to need help…or a miracle.

“Funny,“ Brody said as he walked past the other woman, and reached out to give her ponytail a tug before he stopped at Paige’s side. “Glad you could stop in, Del.”

She unclenched her hands and folded them strategically in front of her to hide as many of the grease stains as possible. “We need to get out on the campaign trail. Matilda and that man are already knocking on doors.”

Paige straightened from under the hood and headed for the door. “I’ll leave you two alone to discuss this.”

Delores watched her rival leave. She really hated women who looked beautiful in grease and dirt.

She turned back to the man who was hers.

“We can’t let Jeb Calhoun win. He’s a stranger to this town, Brody. So what if he was born here. He doesn’t belong in that seat. You do.” A moment of sheer panic washed through her as her fantasies of marriage and life as First Lady vanished. She shook off the doubts, her mind working furiously. “There’s something odd about him.”

Brody slid her a sideways glance. “You picked up on that too?”

Ah ha, confirmation from someone other than her crazy inside-her-head people. Now all she had to do was prove it.

And get rid of one rival for Brody’s affections.

Delores spied the casserole and went to pick it up. “I’m going to put this in Olivia’s fridge, then go home and get changed.” Again.

As she left the garage, she passed Hope and the Calhoun brat coming into the yard.

“Hey, girlfriend,” Delores said with as much cheer in her voice as she could manage, especially considering that all she wanted to do was strangle the first person she saw.

“Hello, Mrs. Peabody,” Hope said with barely a glimmer of a smile.

Delores shoved the casserole into the Calhoun brat’s hands. “Here, this is for you.”

Then she turned, and with a wave at Olivia so her elderly neighbor wouldn’t think her rude, she scurried across the alley into her own yard. Huffing up the steps to the back door, she spied a large package wrapped in brown paper. Careful not to touch it with her greasy hands, she nudged it over with the toe of her sandal, checked the return address and squealed.

Finally.

Delores hurried inside and scrubbed her hands until she was satisfied that she’d removed every bit of grease. By the time she retrieved the package, set it on the couch, snipped away the tape, and carefully pulled back the brown paper to reveal the wedding shop’s exquisite box, her stomach was a knot of excitement interspersed with worry.

This was it, her dream wedding gown. What if she’d ordered the wrong size? Or worse, what if she put it on and looked like one of Cinderella’s ugly step-sisters instead of a princess?

As she slowly lifted the lid, revealing the white taffeta wedding gown, it puffed up and spilled from the box, and a sigh of unrequited love escaped her.

Delores ripped off her clothes, dropped them on the floor at her feet, and with shaking hands, pulled the gown out of the box. Wrapped in clear plastic, it sparkled white in the early morning sunlight.

She carefully removed the plastic, climbed into the dress, then hurried to the hallway mirror. Twisting and turning, she examined the gown, looking for flaws and seeing nothing but perfection.

Fifty tiny buttons decorated the back. Delores frowned as she thought of those buttons and her wedding night. She wondered if Brody would have the patience to carefully extract each button from its delicate loop. Or if he’d tear through the buttons, scattering them to the four corners of their honeymoon suite.

As her breath hitched in her throat, and she hoped impatience won out, she reached around behind her, contorting her arms and upper body so she could fasten the buttons.

At last Delores straightened and smoothed a shaking hand over the front of the skirt. “It’s perfect. I’m perfect.”

It was all within her grasp. She just needed a wee bit more patience—

A dark smudge of something on the skirt caught her attention and she raised her hands palm up to find a grease spot on one hand.

How was that possible? She’d washed and washed and washed till her hands were raw and spotless.

Fury snagged her by the throat, choking the breath from her body. She kicked the full skirt out of her way, stomped back into the living room, and spied the black grease on her new jeans.

With a scream of outrage, she flounced down on the white carpet, the skirt of the wedding gown billowing out around her like a marshmallow swelling in the microwave.

Getting married shouldn’t be so darn hard.

All she had to do was get her dream man.

But first she had to figure out a way to get rid of one Paige Calhoun.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

 

 

The next morning, Paige sat at the kitchen table, torn between the desperate desire to pursue this thing with Brody, and the equally desperate desire to escape the island and her family.

But Jeb wasn’t going anywhere any time soon.

A movement out the window drew her attention, and she saw Delores exit the house next door with Brody close behind.

Dressed in a suit and tie, he was the yummiest thing she’d ever seen in her life. She shouldn’t allow herself to be distracted by him—and she shouldn’t distract him—but it was hard to think about anything else, especially when she fell into his arms so easily.

As they disappeared from sight, she turned her attention back to the kitchen and her family.

Gram bustled around the kitchen as though she were ten years younger, and Paige found herself wondering about what Jeb had been about to tell her. The elderly woman always looked innocent…except when she was giving Starr a hard time. It was like she lived for those moments—

Lisa walked into the kitchen, interrupting Paige’s thoughts.

The middle-aged woman had pushed the dark glasses on top of her head, and the bruises around her eyes had already faded to a pale yellow. With any luck, that meant she’d be long gone before she had time to work her way through those suitcases.

Lisa’s man-eating gaze swept the room, and when she didn’t spot anyone to proposition, her attention settled on Starr. “Well, who do we have here?”

With a dark look at his granddaughter, Jeb muttered, “A blackmailer.”

Paige went on mommy alert and she leaned forward. “What’s this?”

Starr slid onto the seat next to her. The teen’s smile was filled with innocence and sweetness, which upped Paige’s suspicions. “Grandpa hates it when I beat him at chess.” The teen turned the same sugary smile on Lisa. “Hello, Grandma.”

Lisa reared back as though she’d been slapped. “What did you call me?”

“Grand—”

Lisa covered her ears and turned to Paige, her lush green eyes desperate. “Tell that girl to call me Lisa.”

Paige bit back a smile and tapped Starr on the shoulder. “You heard your grandma.”

As Lisa hissed out a breath, she dropped her hands and grabbed a cup of coffee. To Olivia, she said, “It’s your fault she’s like this.”

Sticking her hands in the soapy dishwater, Gram said, “Maybe if her mother had stuck around to teach her some manners, she might be more respectful.”

Silence filled the kitchen, heavy and depressing like an early morning fog. Lisa slipped past Gram and out to the back porch where only the squeak-squeak-squeak of the old rocker gave away her agitation.

Gram snickered.

It occurred to Paige how often she’d seen her grandma manipulate people. Her dad had been about to tell her something about the elderly woman, maybe something that could implicate her in something bad.

Well, why not? No one else in her family was normal.

She turned to Jeb. “Dad, can I have a word with you in private?”

“No can do, Buttercup. I promised to meet Matilda so she could introduce me to more people today.” He pushed to his feet and slid a glance toward Starr. “Want to join me on the campaign trail, kiddo?”

“May I, Mom?” Starr asked. “Please, please, please?”

Paige gazed at her dad. How much trouble could her daughter get into on the campaign trail? It wasn’t like Starr didn’t know right from wrong. Plus, Matilda would be right there. “I suppose. But if he tries to talk you into anything that doesn’t sound on the up and up, you come right back here.”

Starr’s eyebrows shifted upward.

Jeb glared, but as he held the kitchen door open for Starr, he said, “Remember what we talked about yesterday, Buttercup. You were going to distract a certain someone.”

“No I wasn’t,” she muttered as she pushed up from the table. Finally alone with her grandma, she went to help the old woman with the dishes and turned on the charm. “I’m really glad we came to visit you, Gram.”

The feisty old lady turned on her, suspicious. “I’m old, girl, not stupid. You’ve been skulking around here all morning, watching me as if you expect me to disappear like a magician’s assistant. Spit it out. What’s on your mind?”

Oh yay, no trying to wheedle the info out of her. Channeling Starr’s innocent expression, she asked, “How did you support yourself before you married Grandpa?”

Gram plunged her hands into the soapy dishwater. “Why do you want to know?”

Paige sighed. Might as well be direct about it. Gram always sensed when someone had a hidden agenda. “Because Dad implied that you have an unsavory past.”

“He did, did he?” She washed the cup in her hands, rinsed it off, silent and contemplative. As she put it on the dish rack to drip, her voice turned quiet. “We all do things we’re ashamed of. Have you told Starr about your teenage escapades?”

“No but—”

“Some things are better left in the past. I suggest you leave mine alone.” Gram drained the sink, ignoring the dirty dishes at the bottom, and pulled off her apron. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an errand to run.”

Paige finished the dishes by herself, then headed out to the back porch where she encountered Lisa. The dark sunglasses covered her eyes and she had her head back as though she were sleeping. But when Paige tried to tiptoe past, Lisa’s voice stopped her.

“I always wondered about your grandma too.”

Paige eyed her mother, who had pulled the glasses down on her nose so she could look over them, and noticed an intelligence there that she’d failed to see before. Maybe there was more to the woman than big breasts and naked screen shots. “Did you ever learn anything?”

“Only that her past starts the moment she arrived on this island with your grandpa.” She shrugged, and lifting her face to the sun again, closed her eyes. “If you’d like, I could do some digging. No one pays attention to me anyway.”

It took only a second for Paige to make her decision. She shook her head. “Gram’s right. Sometimes the past is best left alone. Thank you anyway, Lisa. I appreciate your offer to help.”

As Paige headed out to join Jeb and Starr on the campaign trail so she could keep an eye on her dad, she realized that this woman who’d given birth to her had feelings too.

And like the rest of them, quite possibly regrets for some of the decisions she had made.

CHAPTER TWENTY

 

 

Brody was out on the campaign trail, Harry and Delores flanking him as though at any moment, they expected him to bolt.

Hope had refused to come, playing the I’m grounded card, which was totally unfair. He kind of wished he had someone to ground him too, so he could stay at home and hide in his bedroom.

But he couldn’t because right now, someone was asking him where he stood on outside business development on the island. And he realized that he hadn’t given it a single thought, but maybe he should.

Delores poked him in the ribs with her very sharp elbow. “Brody?”

How did he feel about the tourist industry growing and possibly ruining the natural beauty of the island?

More importantly, how did the people who lived here year round feel about it?

The Judge pounded him on the back, which sent him rocking up on his toes, then back on his heels. “Sorry, folks. Brody’s been working on his campaign non-stop.”

Delores jumped in. “Lack of sleep must have finally caught up with him.”

Brody knew that wasn’t true, and judging by the skeptical expressions on the faces of the people around him, they knew it too. They all knew that he’d been dealing with Hope and helping Olivia and trying to make a place for himself on the island.

What they didn’t know was that Paige’s arrival had distracted him from everything, and he hadn’t given a single thought to the election.

The Judge cleared his throat. “Let me tell you where our candidate stands.”

Brody put his hand on the Judge’s shoulder and interrupted. “I can handle this, Harry.”

He turned to the crowd, studied the faces filled with expectation, and knew he couldn’t lie. “To be completely honest, I haven’t given it any thought.”

A collective gasp of disappointment and shock came from the small gathering.

He spoke slowly, formulating his thoughts. “I know I haven’t been back on the island for very long. But you all know I grew up here. We’ve kept our gates closed to tourism, but being away, then coming back, I see it has slowly infiltrated the island anyway.”

Several people in the crowd nodded in silent agreement.

He leaned slightly forward. “And that’s the way of our future, whether we like it or not.”

The Judge grabbed his elbow, warning him with a squeeze. Brody ignored him. “If we don’t accept it and grow with it, soon all of our children will have left the island for more exciting opportunities. And we’ll be left to die alone.”

A shocked gasp came from the small crowd.

“We can’t ignore what’s coming. We have to embrace the future and the changes.” He hesitated, taking a minute to make eye contact with each one of them. “And if you vote me in as your new Mayor, I’ll ensure that the island’s beauty and integrity are what’s most important to any business we allow in.”

A murmur went up from the crowd, and then they started clapping.

The Judge relaxed his hold on Brody’s elbow.

Delores let out the breath she’d been holding.

Several of the island’s residents moved closer to shake his hand before they headed off down the street. He was happy with his choice because he knew it was the right one. He even had a brief moment to wonder if it would make a difference to Hope’s future, and if Matilda would think more of him for his stand.

On both accounts, he hoped so.

Delores gave him a sideways hug. “They loved you. Congratulations.”

The Judge pounded him on the back again. “Good job, son. Couldn’t have said it better mysel—”

The sound of clapping from behind interrupted the Judge.

Brody turned around and came face-to-face with Jeb, Matilda, Starr, and Paige.

As Jeb grabbed his hand and shook it, Matilda grabbed Delores by the elbow, dragging her off a few feet to have a whispered conversation.

There was a challenging glint in the older man’s eyes. “I see I underestimated you. I’ll need to step up my game.”

The Judge shouldered his way between them. “Don’t talk to my candidate.”

Jeb shrugged easily. “Last I checked, it’s a free country.”

It was as though the two men were in a standoff. Brody’s instincts told him it had nothing to do with the Mayor’s race, and everything to do with the woman who had made it her mission in life to drive him nuts.

Was it possible Matilda had a boyfriend war going on?

Starr sidled up beside him. “Great speech, Brody.”

“Thanks kid. How’s it going?”

“Boring.” She grinned up at him. “Can Hope show me around more of the island today?”

He liked this kid. As he spotted Paige, he acknowledged that he liked her mother a lot too. “Sure. Tell her I said it was okay.”

“Thanks. Will you tell my mom where I’m going?”

“You bet.” As she dashed off, he headed toward Paige and stopped at her side so he could watch the dynamics of the group around them. “Your kid is off exploring the island with my kid. I hope I didn’t overstep my boundaries by telling her it was okay.”

“It’s nice to see the girls hanging out together.” She slanted a look at him. “I liked your speech.”

“Surprised the heck out of me too.” He smiled down into her eyes and tuned out everyone but the woman standing shoulder-to-shoulder with him. “And it was one hundred percent from the heart. Take that, Matilda Hannibal, and shove it where the sun won’t shine.”

She smiled back at him. “I hear they’re taking a poll. This should put you into the forefront running.”

“Let’s hope so.” He bumped her shoulder with his, lowered his voice, and kept his gaze on everyone so that they wouldn’t be interrupted. “Tell Starr she can sneak over and keep Hope company tonight. I’ll pretend not to hear them.”

Paige laughed, and the husky sound of it did funny things to his insides. “Who have you been taking parenting lessons from?”

“It’s called manipulating them into being good when they really think they’re being bad.” He lowered his voice further. “I miss you. I wish it didn’t have to be like this, you on one side of the campaign, me on the other.”

Her lush gaze settled on him and there was something there he wanted to explore further. “Maybe when this campaign is over and you’re sitting in the Mayor’s chair—”

“Buttercup?” Jeb stood a few feet away, his even gaze fixed on his daughter as though Brody wasn’t standing right next to her. “Ready to go and bend a few more ears?”

As Brody watched Paige wander off, Delores sidled up to him. “What was that all about?”

His gaze landed on Hope’s grandma. “Maybe I should ask you the same thing. What were you and Matilda talking about so secretively? Have you turned into a traitor, Del?”

And when he turned his head toward Delores, she was stomping off in the opposite direction.

Brody’s gaze returned to Paige.

After today’s little speech, he might start to believe the Mayor’s chair was a no lose situation.

But what would he have to give up to win the position?

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

 

 

At nine o’clock, Paige stopped in the doorway of the living room and surveyed her family.

Gram was nodding off in front of the TV, Starr was beating her grandpa at another round of chess, and Lisa had vanished up to her room to do whatever she did when she was alone.

She yawned, hoping no one would notice the phoniness. “I’m heading up to bed now.”

“Night, Mom.”

“Don’t let the bed bugs bite, Buttercup.”

Starr screwed up her face. “Uggg, Grandpa, that’s gross.”

From the chair, Gram stirred long enough to say, “Not as gross as you.”

Paige left them all behind, knowing full well that Starr could hold her own among this family. As she entered her room, she left the light off and peered out the window at Brody’s house.

What was he up to tonight? She was worried about him.

After supper, Starr had slipped out to visit with Hope, then returned a few minutes later, only saying that the other girl wasn’t home and Brody didn’t have a clue where she’d gone.

Maybe they should have made plans to get together tonight, find something to do that didn’t involve…well, didn’t involve the two of them doing the naughty. She could have taken his mind off his problems with his daughter.

Just then, his bedroom door swung open, the light came on, and Brody strode into the room and slammed the door shut.

He stood there, glaring at the wall to his left, his shoulders tense and square, his hands clutched into fists, looking like the ultimate frustrated and annoyed male.

And then music blared from elsewhere in the house and Paige grimaced.

Hope.

They’d probably had another argument. Would Brody ever learn that there were times to pick his battles and times to walk away?

On impulse, she climbed out the window, slid down the roof tiles on her butt, and shimmied down the Mahogany tree. Glancing around to make sure no one else was around, she sprinted across the driveway, slipped through the gate separating the two properties, and shimmied up the tree next to the rooftop.

By the time she reached the bedroom window, Brody was still in the same position, frozen and glaring at the wall.

She tapped on the window, but the music was so loud, he obviously couldn’t hear her.

Paige tried the window to see if it was unlocked. Jackpot. It slid up and she climbed inside.

She closed it behind her—better to keep the majority of the racket inside—and when she turned around to face him, he was staring at her.

Well, glaring was more like it.

His mouth moved. What are you doing here?

As the music thumped in her head, she moved toward him, smiling at the frustrated look on his face.

When she was close enough that he might hear her, she yelled, “What did you do to make her mad?”

He shook his head, his upper lip curling into a snarl as the volume turned up another notch. And then with his large hands, he cupped his head, and showed her that his head was exploding.

The song screamed to an end, and Brody’s head swiveled so he could glare at the wall again. Another more familiar song took its place, a tune that rocked in a much more pleasant manner.

Paige grabbed the front of Brody’s t-shirt to get his attention and yelled, “Let’s dance.”

She let go of his t-shirt and began to move to the music. At first, he just stood there and glared down at her, and finally in desperation, she resorted to silly dance moves like the Chicken Dance, the Monkey, the Hully Gully, and finally the Twist with hopes of getting a smile out of him.

Only when she did a slinky shimmer against his body did his anger and frustration begin to fade.

Heat pooled in his gaze.

He grabbed her by the shoulders, forcing her back a couple of steps so there was space between them. As they stared at each other, frozen by whatever was between them, the music crashed to a stop, and silence contracted the air around them. A moment later, a door crashed open, and footsteps pounded across the hallway, down the staircase, and out the front door.

Brody made a move and Paige grabbed him by the biceps. “Leave her be.”

He gritted his teeth. “She’s supposed to be grounded.”

Releasing him, she raised her arms above her head, let her gaze sweep down his body, and swayed her hips to the rhythm of the music in her head. “You need to learn to pick your battles.”

Jaw working, he eyed her, and she turned her back on him and shimmied around him in a circle. When she finally faced him again, all the fury was gone from his gaze, and there was only heat there.

“What are you doing?”

She shimmied again and gave him her most winsome smile. “Distracting you. Cheering you up. Is it working?”

The frown between his brows deepened along with the tone of his voice. “Be careful, little girl.”

Her eyes opened wide. Little girl? Is that how he thought of her? Or was it his way of keeping his distance?

Well, she’d show him once and for all that she wasn’t a little girl any longer.

She grabbed him by the t-shirt and gave a yank so they stood belly to belly, thigh to thigh. “I like to live dangerously. Don’t you?”

Unafraid of the ferocious expression on his face, not breaking eye contact, she shimmied down his body again, then back up. When she stopped, she was pressed flush against him, and his hands were on her butt holding her there.

She could feel his hard body against hers, leashed power in all that masculine glory, and her body reacted in a rush of heat and dampness.

“I’m not marriage material.”

“Neither am I,” she whispered against his mouth.

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

 

 

Brody had never reacted to anyone’s kiss like he did Paige’s. Everything in his body stood up at attention and it scared the heck right out of him.

As she grabbed a fistful of his hair, she deepened the kiss, and every thought but one evaporated.

He wanted her like he’d never wanted anyone before.

She teased him, and fascinated him, and made him want more from a relationship than a one night stand. But he knew there was no future for them, not as long as she planned to leave and he was tied to the island.

He shifted his hands from her awesome butt to the indentation of her waist, and gently eased back. Eyeing her kiss-swollen lips, he asked, “What are you doing, little girl?”

She growled deep in her throat. “Proving to you I’m not a little girl anymore, so stop calling me one.”

“Fact duly noted.” He backed up a step and she stayed with him without hesitation. He set his hands on her shoulders to keep her put while he backed up another step. “If we do this, we can’t go back.”

She scowled up at him and stuck her hands on her hips. “Back to what? You thinking I’m a little girl. Well, hurrah for that.”

“You’re leaving in less than a week. I’m not.”

“So?”

“I have a reputation—”

Setting one hand against his chest, she smiled, all sexy soft kitten, and shoved him backward. “Stop trying to protect me. I’m a big girl. I have been for a long time now.”

The back of his hips hit the dresser and his escape route was closed off. Relaxing back against it, he let his gaze drift down her body. “Yeah, there’s no doubt in my mind that you’re all grown up.”

She leaned into him, letting her body relax fully against his so they were all but joined hip to hip, thigh to thigh.

Brody went harder than he’d ever gone before.

Maybe it had something to do with being abstinent for the last four months.

More than likely, it was all due to his inability to ignore one very sexy and very irresistible woman. “Fine, but don’t say that I didn’t warn you away.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, just shut up and kiss me again.” Then she grabbed him by the back of the head and urged him closer.

This time Brody dove right in.

He’d deal with the fallout tomorrow.

Same way that he’d deal with Hope.

No more running and hiding.

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

 

 

Delores smiled.

Everything was going according to plan. Brody was in the lead and he was sooooo very thankful for her support and assistance. He was hers and the Mayor’s job was theirs.

And Paige and her dad were out of the picture.

To boot, the senior’s poll between her and Paige was definitely in Delores’s favor.

As she headed off to bed for the night, she peeked out the dining room window and saw a shadowy figure slip out of Olivia’s house to the house next door.

Delores yanked the drapes shut, and leaned back against the nearest wall.

No, it couldn’t be. Brody had promised to stay away from Paige and her family. He’d promised to do it for Hope…and for her.

He would never ever cheat on her.

And that’s when she realized that all the blame for Brody’s wandering eye was on Paige’s shoulders.

With a mad dash, she raced to her bedroom, and yanked on black tights, a black sweatshirt, and a black hoodie. She tucked her blonde hair inside so it wouldn’t give her away under the moonlight, then slipped on black sneakers. In the drawer by the front entrance, she found black makeup leftover from the previous Halloween, and smeared it on her face.

Then she ran outside, raced across the alley under the cover of darkness, and slipped into Brody’s back yard.

Heading around to the side of the house, Delores grabbed on to the trellis. She wasn’t sure what she was going to do if she caught them in there, but surely she’d come up with some bright idea to make them stop.

Maybe something like a house fire. Brody could come live with her, and Hope could go live with that old bat Matilda.

And Paige? Well, she could burn.

Testing her weight on the bottom of the trellis, she gingerly started climbing up it.

Once she reached the window, she glanced around to see if she was visible, but the humongous Mahogany tree beside the house hid her from the street. In the dark, with her black clothes to camouflage her, she should be okay. Someone would have to be looking this way to even catch a glimpse of her.

She peered through the window.

The bedside lamp illuminated the room and what she saw nearly made her tear out her hair in fury. There was Brody trapped against the dresser against his will, while it was obvious Paige had coerced him into the position.

Every breath you take, every move you make, I’ll be watching you.

Delores had to cover her mouth to stop the scream of rage.

She pushed back from the house, fell on her butt, and nearly rolled off the roof, barely managing to grab onto a tree branch to save herself. As she scrambled to her feet, she felt a tug on her wrist. Giving a vicious yank, whatever she’d been caught on let go, and she hightailed it down the trellis, out the back gate, across the alley, and into her own yard.

Reaching the safety of her house, gasping for air, she headed straight to the bathroom where, without turning on any lights, ripped off the black clothes, stuffed them into the bottom of the clothes hamper, then washed the black off her face before she dove into bed and under the covers.

Minutes ticked by, and she tried to forget that she’d seen Brody with his hand up Paige’s shirtfront. Except the memory had been seared into her brain like one of those horror movies she had never been able to watch as a teenager because if she did, she’d wake up screaming in the middle of the night.

Thirty minutes later, her heart had stopped pounding. No one had come knocking on her door to accuse her of spying. No one had come to apologize for cheating on her either.

She rolled out of bed and headed straight for the freezer where she pulled out a pail of vanilla ice cream—and discovered only a couple of tablespoons remained in the bottom of the pail.

This evening’s shock required something stronger to soothe her nerves. Yanking on the closest clothes, she headed into the garage where she pulled the keys out of her pocket, jumped into the car, and took off.

It was a good thing the supermarket was open 24/7, Delores thought as she gazed at the variety of ice cream flavors in the cooler. Her stomach rumbled greedily and she rubbed it with hopes of quietening it down while she scanned the aisle and tried to listen for random voices headed her way.

Fortunately, late evening wasn’t a busy time in the store, so all was quiet. She didn’t expect to run into anyone she knew as she turned back to look at the selection.

Butterscotch ripple?

Had that last week.

Chocolate fudge?

She’d be up all night and in the morning, would have dark circles under her eyes.

Plain vanilla?

Borrrrring.

Kiwi, lime, and apple crispy crunch?

Who thought these flavors up?

A stir at the top of the aisle caught her attention. She opened the freezer door and stepped in behind it, pretending to make her choice while she tried to see who it was through the rapidly fogging glass door.

“It’s true,” the person said, the clatter of the store buggy nearly obliterating the words. “Paige and Brody had a high school love affair. I’ll bet Paige’s daughter is their love child. And now they’ve resumed their affair—”

Lies, all of it. Paige had been barely out of her training bra. Brody would have never paid her a bit of attention or Delores would have known about it.

She grabbed the nearest container of ice cream, and sprinted down the aisle before they came closer and recognized her. But when she reached the till, there was a line up of other customers ahead of her.

The boy bagging groceries glanced from the ice cream in her hand up to her face, a smirk on his mouth as if to say Loser.

He might as well have stood on the till itself and shouted it through the PA system. As he went back to bagging the groceries, she felt even more conspicuous than before.

She held the ice cream container in the crook of her arm and pressed it against her stomach, growing miserable at the freezing temperature and the damp melting through her shirt as the checkout girl price-checked yet another item. When more people came up behind her and the line grew from three to seven, she ducked her head and tugged a clump of hair over her face.

“Does she have one red and one green sock on?”

Oh no, please don’t let it be me, she prayed.

But when she looked down, she not only saw she’d mismatched her socks, but she’d done the same to her sneakers.

She did a quick inventory of how she looked and came up with a list of infractions: hangnails, chipped nail polish, t-shirt untucked with a smear of chocolate across the front.

“No wonder Brody went for the other one. Just look at her.”

Before Delores started screaming, she pushed through the crowd and ran for the door, intent on getting home where she could close her curtains tight, and hide for the rest of her life.

As she sped through town, the sound of sirens reached her ears. She stepped on the gas, but when she turned into the alley leading home, the cop car turned in right behind her, lights flashing.

Only a few feet from her driveway, Delores had no choice but to stop because the cop car was so close, he was nearly in the trunk of her car. If she’d been a wee bit faster, she might have been up her driveway and safely behind the garage doors.

She rolled down the window and watched the deputy’s feet hit the pavement as he climbed out of the cop car. With an exaggerated swagger, he approached her car, leaned down, and aimed the flashlight in her eyes before he scanned the interior of the car with the light. “Evening, Del. Received a complaint that you’d run out of the supermarket without paying for your purchase.”

“What?” Flustered, she followed the beam of the flashlight, shocked when it illuminated the pail of Triple Fudge ice cream on the seat beside her. “Oh gosh, Harley, I didn’t even realize. I’m so sorry.”

“I still have to arrest you. Theft, unless you can produce a receipt from the store.”

“I can’t.” She looked up into his eyes and manifested pleading in her own gaze. “I didn’t do it on purpose. I received some shocking news and left without thinking. If you let me go, I promise I’ll stop by the store first thing tomorrow morning and pay. You know I’m good for it.”

He rapped his knuckles on the top of her car and noodled his tongue as he eyeballed her. Then with an affirmative nod of his head, he straightened and returned to his car, calling over his shoulder, “If you don’t, I know where you live.”

In her rearview mirror, Delores watched him back down the alley and finally drive away. As he disappeared around the corner, a lone figure climbed out Brody’s bedroom window and stole across the moonlit darkness to the house next door.

Oh Brody, how could you cheat on me?

Shaking, she parked her car in the garage, gathered up the pail of ice cream, and headed inside where she sat at the dining room table so she could watch the houses across the alley. Tearing the lid off the pail, she used her key as a spoon to shovel the rich chocolate flavor into her mouth.

She’d gotten off lucky tonight. Next time she might not.

Grabbing her wedding scrapbook, she opened it to flip through the pages.

Brody and her in all their glory. She couldn’t let Paige ruin everything when it was all within reach. There had to be something she’d missed.

As she sat there shoveling ice cream into her mouth, searching her brain for something, she noticed that her charm bracelet was gone. Then remembered getting tangled up in the tree under Brody’s window.

She eyed the light shining from his bedroom window.

Once he was asleep, she’d have to grab a flashlight and go back to look for the bracelet.

As she sat there waiting for the bedroom light to turn off, she thought of the DVD she’d hidden between her mattresses, the one she hadn’t watched since before Brody’s return.

The one with Lisa’s face and barely covered breasts on the cover.

What had the porn star been holding in her hands?

Delores shoved another chunk of ice cream into her mouth, and as she experienced a brain freeze like no other brain freeze before, she remembered.

She’d been holding a dildo. And the size of it had made Delores drool with envy.

Paige’s mom was a porn star.

A porn star.

If that bit of information didn’t stop them all in their tracks, then she’d have to dig into the family crypt a little deeper.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

 

 

The next morning, Paige woke up to the memory of making out with Brody, and a different kind of heat from the previous evening washed through her body.

Embarrassment.

Things between them had quickly turned hot and heavy, and then Hope had slammed into the house, which sent Paige fleeing out the window and onto the rooftop. She’d barely managed to duck out of sight before the girl stormed into Brody’s room without knocking. Fortunately his untucked t-shirt had covered the part of his anatomy that would have given away his aroused physical state.

Brody’s gaze had connected with hers briefly before he’d turned to the teen and said, “I’m not doing this anymore, Hope. If you want to live here, you obey my rules or get out.”

Last night, he’d given Hope the ultimate teenage challenge, and it had taken all of Paige’s willpower not to climb back into his room and give them both a parental lecture. This morning, she knew she’d made the right decision to stay out of their relationship. The best thing she could do for them was keep her distance, her mouth shut, and convince her dad to withdraw from the Mayor’s race.

Then, when the ferry returned to the island, she’d pack up Starr and return to the city where they’d resume their old life, sans Brody and Hope.

With that depressing thought to start out her day, Paige climbed out of bed. Something sparkled on the bedside table, and she focused in on the delicate charm bracelet she’d found on the roof next door.

What was it doing outside of Brody’s bedroom?

Who did it belong to?

She tried to remember if she’d seen Lisa wearing a bracelet, but she couldn’t because she’d ignored the other woman as much as possible.

With the bracelet fisted in one hand, she dressed and headed out of her room, distracted by the scent of warm vanilla and sugar and chocolate.

Somebody was baking something delicious. Paige followed her nose all the way to the kitchen, and when she stepped inside the usually neat and tidy room, she stopped. An explosion of dirty dishes spilled over the edges of the sink and onto the countertop where they were scattered from one end to the other.

The oven timer buzzed, the screen door swung open, and the culprit stepped into the kitchen.

Lisa spotted Paige and froze. “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize anyone else was up. I’ll just get out of your wa—” Her gaze slid toward the messy countertop, and it was as though someone had stuck her blow up body with a pin. Her shoulders slumped, her ribcage caved in, and she shrunk by almost four inches. “Never mind. If you can’t stand to be in the same room as me, then you’ll have to leave.”

Lisa grabbed the oven gloves off the countertop, swung open the oven door, and pulled out a tray of cookies. They looked like chocolate chip, and they smelled delicious.

As the other woman straightened and closed the oven door, her normally pale skin was rosy from the heat. She twisted her neck slightly and, with one exquisite eyebrow raised, stared at Paige. “Well, then, good morning.”

Almost too late, Paige remembered to be annoyed. She narrowed her eyes at the other woman and held out the bracelet. “Is this yours?”

Lisa set the oven timer and put the sheet of cookies down on the cooling rack. Removing the gloves, she took the bracelet from Paige and studied it. “Where did you find this?”

“On Brody’s rooftop.”

One exquisite brow quirked up. “What were you doing up there?”

Heat filled her cheeks, but she kept her gaze steady on her mother’s face, searching for any sign of guilt. “None of your business.”

“It belongs to Delores.” Lisa tucked the bracelet into her pocket and turned away. “I’ll return it. She doesn’t need to know that you were on Brody’s rooftop too.” She tsked. “The man gets around, doesn’t he?”

While Paige watched her mother bustle around the kitchen, she silently acknowledged the fact that Brody wasn’t getting around as Lisa had suggested. He was doing nothing more than trying to be a good father, build a relationship with his daughter, and change the reputation he’d earned on the football field and off.

When the coffee pot gurgled and the scent of the rich dark brew mingled with the delicious scent of the cookies, she grabbed a cup from the cupboard, filled it, then forced her feet to take her back the way she’d come. As her palm hit the swinging door, the clatter of a plate reached her ears, and Lisa’s melodic voice stopped her.

“Would you like a cookie? Fresh from the oven is the best way to eat them. The chocolate chips are still gooey and, well, I’m just saying you can join me if you want.”

Temptation filled her nose, and she wondered if a cookie or two could temporarily alleviate the tension between her and this woman who’d given her life. The annoyance she usually reserved for her mother seemed to have vacated, replaced by a tolerance that would no doubt only last for a cookie or three. Making her decision, she turned on her heel and beelined toward the table where she set down her coffee cup and slid onto the nearest chair.

Lisa set down a plateful of the fresh baking right in front of her.

Mouth watering, Paige attempted to make polite conversation before she dove in. “You’re up early today. I thought it was Gram down here.”

“Couldn’t sleep.” Lisa bustled around the kitchen, preparing another batch of cookie dough for the oven. “Are you always up at this time?”

Paige poked at a cookie and wondered if it would taste as good as it smelled. “Usually. I like to be up before the heat of the day hits.”

“Not me. I prefer to sleep till noon, but Olivia doesn’t tolerate that, and since I’m in her house—” Lisa’s voice drifted off and silence filled the kitchen.

Paige picked up the cookie and took a tentative bite. It actually tasted good…good enough for a second and a third. As if reading her mind, Lisa stopped what she was doing to set another couple on the plate.

Paige frowned at the cookies. “I never pictured you as the domestic type.”

“I’m usually not, but this seemed like a cookie day.”

There was something in the older woman’s voice that caught her attention, a wistful sadness that usually wasn’t there, and she found herself asking, “Did something happen?”

The timer buzzed again and Lisa pulled open the oven door, exchanged cookie sheets, closed the door, and set the timer. She filled a second coffee cup, topped up Paige’s cup without asking, then took a seat across from her.

Elbow on the table, chin resting on the palm of her hand, she pinned Paige with her straightforward gaze. “Are you sure you want to hear about my problems? I didn’t think you were interested in my life.”

She wasn’t, but the rudeness she normally felt for the woman who’d given her life had softened in the face of all those chocolate chip cookies. “You look like you need to talk to someone, and I guess I could be that someone today.”

Her mother focused on the coffee cup and fiddled with the handle before she let out a dramatic sigh. “I fired my agent today.”

Paige felt her eyebrows wing up. “You have an agent?”

With an annoyed huff, Lisa straightened her shoulders. “Of course I do. I am an actress.”

Paige barely swallowed the cookie in her mouth without choking on it. But as Lisa stole a cookie off the plate, and nibbled on it, a thoughtful expression on her face, she released another wistful sigh.

Steeling herself against the sudden urge to cut and run—and the fear of too many details—Paige asked, “So what’s wrong? Why did you fire him? Or is it a her?”

The wistful expression turned troubled. “He refused to make an appointment for an audition. He said I was too old. Can you believe it? Too old?”

Her mother barely looked older than Paige, and as she sat there contemplating the other woman’s appearance, the reason behind Lisa’s actions finally made sense. “Is that why you’ve been working out and dieting? And the nips and tucks?”

Lisa nodded and slumped down on the chair. “I have to work twice as hard to maintain my looks and my figure. It’s starting to get old, like I am.”

Even slumped, even over fifty, she was an attractive woman. Paige bit into another cookie, and as the taste exploded in her mouth, she said, “Your agent is a fool.”

Lisa blinked and sat up straighter. “You’re right. He is.”

Resting her forearms on the table, she leaned closer. “You could do something else, you know.”

There was a stillness around the other woman now, and suspicion made her squint. “Like what?”

“Well.” Paige frowned and wished she’d thought this through before taking their conversation in this direction. Although what else could they talk about. Hey, Lisa, why did you abandon me? She tried to remember some of the things her dad used to tell her. The only thing she could come up with was, “You used to write, didn’t you?”

Lisa flushed, her hands tightening on the coffee cup. “Oh, but I never sent anything out.”

Leaning against the back of the chair, Paige shrugged. “Maybe it’s time you did.”

The oven timer beeped. Lisa pushed back from the table to attend to the cookies, silent and thoughtful. After switching out the cookie sheet in the oven with a fresh one, she turned and leaned her hips against the countertop. “Maybe I am getting too old for the porn business.”

Paige pushed to her feet. “It’s a good reason to move on.”

“I’ve been wanting to spread my wings for a while now, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.” She looked thoughtful, contemplative, and then she fixed her gaze back on Paige. This time, there was optimism in her eyes. “Maybe after I’ve had some time to think about it, we could sit down and talk again.”

She sidestepped toward the door before she had to commit to anything. “Yeah, sure.”

“It’s such a relief to get this off my chest. I’m very thankful to you for listening to me.” The other woman hesitated, a vulnerable light in her eyes. “Paige? Would you like to call me mom?”

Never in a zillion years. The words nearly popped out of her mouth before she could catch them back. Instead, she politely managed, “No thanks. I’ll stick with Lisa.”

A smidgen of some emotion crossed her mother’s face, but before Paige could figure out what it was, the kitchen door swung open and Gram stepped into the kitchen. The elderly woman froze in the middle of the doorway.

Lisa straightened, hands pressed against her ample chest, all guilt and drama, and turned toward the messy countertop. “I’m sorry, Olivia. This is my mess. I’ll clean it up right now.”

Gram stomped toward the back door. “Darn rights you will. I ain’t nobody’s housemaid.”

As Gram disappeared outside, Lisa silently plunged her hands into the soapy dishwater and started washing.

Paige crossed the room, picked up a tea towel, and began to dry. “The mom thing? I’m sorry if I hurt you.”

“It’s okay. I understand your feelings.” Lisa chewed on her bottom lip as she continued to wash, then finally broke the silence with a nervous laugh. “I’m not quite sure what I would have done if you’d said yes.”

The tightness around Paige’s heart eased just the slightest. “You’d probably run screaming in the opposite direction.”

As the oven timer went off again, a small smile escaped the older woman. She wiped her hands on the edge of the tea towel and met Paige’s gaze, gratitude in her eyes. “Thanks for the advice.”

“You’re welcome,” Paige said. “Thank you for getting out of the porn business.”

As Paige turned to leave, Starr ran into the kitchen, Hope right behind her, like two peas in a pod, which was really cute. When Starr spied Lisa, she snickered. “Good morning, Grandma.”

Lisa gave Paige an imploring look. “Please tell her to quit calling me that.”

And as the older woman swung open the oven door and pulled out the last tray of cookies, then headed out of the kitchen, leaving the remainder of the mess behind, Paige acknowledged that she wasn’t quite ready to totally forgive her mom, although she was closer than she’d ever been before. For now, Starr could continue to torture Lisa by calling her grandma.

She turned toward her daughter and watched the teen dump a bag full of envelopes onto the table. “What have you got there?”

Starr picked up one of the envelopes and turned it into the morning sunlight streaming in the window. “Looks like people are sending Grandpa cash in the mail. Isn’t that illegal?”

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

 

 

Paige headed toward the table, picked up one of the envelopes, and muttered, “Not nearly as illegal as what your grandfather did to get it.”

“What?”

Realizing what she’d potentially revealed, she blinked up at her daughter. “Starr, go tell your grandpa I’d like to have a word with him.”

The kitchen door swung open and Jeb walked into the room. “Are you looking for me?”

With her dad peeking over her shoulder, Paige sorted through the envelopes. “What are these?”

“They’re all addressed to me.” He reached around her, picked one up, and opened it. Two twenty-dollar bills floated out of the envelope and drifted to the floor, followed by a sheet of white paper. Jeb gathered it all up and scanned the note. A grin creased lines around his mouth. “Donations.”

Her heart skipped a beat, then started up double time. “For what?”

“My campaign.”

Horrified, Paige gaped at him. “Dad, have you been asking people for money?”

He straightened to his full height. “It was Matilda’s idea.”

Hope leaned one elbow on the table and poked at the pile of envelopes. “You mean, you just walk up to people and ask them for money so you can be Mayor?”

Starr flopped onto a chair. “Can we help?”

He switched his attention to the girls, the familiar cagey expression taking over. “It’s not that simple. There’s a certain tone of voice, and it requires a flair that’s—”

“Dad,” Paige warned, cutting him off. She sighed. Dealing with her dad was like dealing with her daughter. The two of them were always scheming. “Who is giving you money?”

Gram walked into the kitchen, grabbed her purse off the counter, and eyed the envelopes. “Widows with too much money and too little brains.”

Jeb grabbed another envelope, tore it open, and pulled out two fifties. He handed one to Starr, the other to Hope. “Go treat yourselves to something nice, girls.”

Paige snatched the bills away from the girls. “You have to return it.”

“What? Why?”

This was bad, really, really bad. She gathered all the envelopes off the table and shoved them at her dad. “This is just another one of your scams.”

“Scam?” Starr and Hope parroted in unison, reminding Paige that she had two impressionable teens present.

She turned to her grandmother. “Gram, could you please take the girls with you?”

Starr groaned. “But we were going to the library.”

Gram smiled at her great-granddaughter. “Today we’re buying groceries. You two can push the cart, then carry all of the bags.”

Jeb dumped the envelopes back on the table, regaining her attention. “I never asked for the nomination or this money, Buttercup. It was all given freely. No coercing. Besides, I need it for my campaign.”

“Yeah, Mom,” Starr piped up, clearly unwilling to leave the conversation. “What’s the big deal if people offer you money and you take it?”

Paige faced her directly. “The big deal is that we don’t take money from strangers.”

Starr shrugged, her attention once more settling on the growing pile of cash. She reached out to fiddle with the pile. “They’re not strangers. They’re Olivia’s neighbors.”

Paige frowned at Starr. “Young lady, go with your great-grandma. I want to have a word with your grandpa.”

Hope stayed where she was, her gaze fixed on the cash. “We’ll go to the library when you get back.”

Paige pointed toward the kitchen door. “Aren’t you supposed to be painting the fence for your dad?”

The teen shrugged. “We’re not talking.”

With a sigh, Paige relented. “Fine, go with Gram and Starr. Just stay out of trouble.”

Starr slumped toward the back door. “Olivia has me slaving away from sunup to sundown, and my own mother doesn’t even care.”

Gram snickered. “I’ll bet I can beat Brody’s list of chores for Hope.”

As the three of them headed outside, Paige glanced at her dad who had sat down at the table, opening envelopes, stacking the money in neat piles in front of him. This was quite possibly the most lucrative job he had ever undertaken and it was just a matter of time before it blew up in his face. Then who would he divert the blame to?

She sat down across from him. “You have to give it back.”

He glared at her like a four-year-old about to throw a tantrum. “If I agree to return the money, then will you believe that I’m on the up and up?”

“Maybe.” Paige stared at the stacks of money and the discarded envelopes. “Did you at least record how much came from each person?”

He shoved the money and envelopes across the table at her. “Why would I do that?”

The kitchen door swung open, and Gram stepped into the room and froze, her gaze darting back and forth between Paige and the piles of money in front of her. “So you’ve decided to join him again, have you? Didn’t you learn your lesson?”

“No. I mean, yes, Gram. We’re giving the money back.”

“Good.” The stiffness in the old lady’s posture relaxed and she crossed the room to the cupboard. “Forgot my keys. When you’re done here, that woman is on the front lawn doing exercises.”

“What woman?” Paige pulled aside the curtains and peered out the window, not terribly surprised to see Lisa dressed in a pair of short-shorts and a skimpy exercise bra that showed off her figure. Every time she stretched to touch her toes, Paige held her breath for fear the oversized bosom would pop free.

Neighbors were gathering across the street to witness the spectacle.

Gram headed back toward the door. “By the way, Brody is stopping by this morning to put up a Vote For Brody sign in my yard.”

Jeb muttered, “Traitors, both of you.”

He shoved to his feet, stomped out of the back door, and disappeared into the yard.

Paige followed Gram toward the front of the house where Starr and Hope were climbing into the backseat of the car.

As Gram sidled past the porn star, she said, “You’re embarrassing everyone.”

Lisa straightened, then stretched to the other side. “And a good morning to you too.”

Paige thought she heard her mother add you old biddy, but she couldn’t quite be sure. “Do you have to do this where everyone can see you?”

As if she hadn’t noticed before, Lisa glanced across the street. “It’s good for drumming up business. Maybe this will help Jeb’s campaign.”

“Or land him in jail,” Gram shouted over her shoulder as she opened the car door. She addressed the girls in the back seat. “Your grandma is a real piece of work.”

“Don’t call me that!” Lisa stopped and hands on hips, glared after them. “Ohhhh, I hate that woman.”

“She’s not too fond of you either,” Paige said as she watched Gram climb into the car and put the key in the ignition. The elderly woman couldn’t even see over the steering wheel. Tucking the info away for another confrontation, she faced her mom. “Really, doesn’t this embarrass you?”

“No.” Lisa raised her arms above her head, stretched to one side, and pinned Paige with an intense look. “Does it embarrass you?”

“Yes, most definitely.”

The other woman returned to an upright position and gave a tug on the skimpy bra. All the while she kept her gaze focused on Paige. “Well, in that case, I suppose I could do it in the house. With the drapes closed,” she added quickly, as though she anticipated the objection. “Would it be okay if I still went jogging outside every morning? I prefer it to the treadmill inside.”

Paige was still processing the fact that the other woman had been so quick to compromise, so she quickly nodded. “You might want to wear a little more coverage though. Despite the nude beach on the other side of the island, the people here are pretty conservative.”

“Nude beach?” A smile blossomed across Lisa’s face. “Let’s go sometime. You look like you need to relax, and I find walking around in one’s birthday suit is so relaxing.”

She shook her head. “No thanks.”

“Oh Paige, you and Olivia always worry too much about what other people think.” She began to jog in place. “I need to go for a run. Then I think I’ll check out the nude beach. If you change your mind, let me know.”

And as her mom jogged down the driveway and out onto the sidewalk, Delores came around the corner of Gram’s house, and breaking into a sprint, managed to block the older woman’s path.

Delores was always perfect, always neat and tidy and made up, while Paige was usually in a state of disorganized chaos, harried, a mess. But this morning, the other woman had huge puffy circles under her eyes like she hadn’t gotten much sleep. And her clothes looked like she’d slept in them.

Delores smiled, brittle like plastic. “Boy, are we going to use this in our campaign.”

Yes, Lisa’s overt sexual image could do serious damage to Jeb’s bid for Mayor, which meant hurray for Brody’s team.

It could also damage Gram’s reputation.

Lisa continued to jog in place. “Would you like to join me this morning, Delores? You look like you could use some exercise.”

The younger woman sneered. “I know who you are, and it’s not a Karie-May makeup consultant.”

Lisa turned her head and smiled at Paige. “Amazing what you can learn about people without even asking a single question.”

Then with a small wave, Lisa resumed her jog down the street.

Delores looked over at Paige, confused. “What did she mean by that?”

“Nothing. She has a weird sense of humor.” Paige resisted the urge to smile, and instead pointed at the sign in Delores’s hand. “Is that for Gram?”

Delores rudely shoved the sign at Paige. “I’m on to you. I know what you’re doing. You think you can distract Brody so that your dad wins the Mayor’s race. Well, I won’t allow it. I’m watching you.”

And as the other woman stomped away, Paige set the sign in the middle of the front lawn, and prayed that the signage worked in Brody’s favor.

Down the street, Gram navigated the car, barely avoiding the other vehicles parked along the street. At the corner, the signal light blinked, and as the vehicle turned too sharply and hit a light post, there was a crunch of metal.

The car backed up, tried the corner again, and made it this time.

Poor Starr. Poor Hope. The girls deserved a reward for their bravery.

Paige sighed and turned toward Gram’s house.

What had she been up to again?

Right, she needed to convince her dad to return those envelopes of money.

She went back into the house and found Jeb back at the kitchen table, opening envelopes and stacking the cash. He took one look at her face and began to gather up the money. Disappointment filled his voice. “Where do you want to start, Buttercup?”

“It doesn’t matter, as long as it all goes back.”

“Make you a deal.”

Suspicious, she kept her eyes on him to make sure he didn’t slip any of the money into a pocket or two. “What?”

“If no one agrees to take their money back, you’ll accept that I’ve gone straight, and you’ll support my campaign for Mayor.”

Feeling pretty confident that at least one person would take back their hard earned cash, she returned his charming smile. “It’s a deal.”

Hours later, Paige’s feet were sore from stomping from house to house. No matter how much she needled her dad, she couldn’t break his charming mood, and the widows in town lapped it up.

Nobody would take their money back.

And she realized that these women were serious in their attempt to help Jeb become Mayor.

Which didn’t bode well for Brody at all.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

 

 

By the time Matilda joined Jeb on the campaign trail, he’d already been shaking hands and kissing babies for the better part of the day. The man definitely had charisma, and as she watched him engage with the people in town—especially the women, young and old—she couldn’t help but puff up like a peacock.

She’d been the one to introduce him to everyone. And for some reason, out in this element, he was even more attractive than he’d been on her stepladder while he cleaned the gutters.

His daughter had joined him and he was busy introducing her to everyone, bragging about her wedding gown designs, and talking up his granddaughter’s grades in school.

It was clear the younger woman didn’t want to be there, and Matilda couldn’t blame her. Even though Jeb’s popularity continued to grow—he was now even in the polls with Brody—the residents of the island remembered Paige’s teenage attempt to scam them out of their hard earned cash, and now they treated her with barely disguised distain.

Fortunately for Jeb, they didn’t hold her crime against him.

Movement across the street caught her attention and she saw Brody approach. Delores lagged behind, while Hope was nowhere in sight, which proved to her once again that Brody didn’t care about his daughter.

Which was fine with her because once she got custody, she intended to include her granddaughter in every facet of her life. They’d shop together and cook together, and every Friday and Saturday night, they’d pop a huge batch of popcorn, then curl up on the sofa and watch the Discovery channel together.

Mere seconds later, Matilda’s gaze tripped past Jeb’s competition, and she found herself scanning the crowd for Harry.

Had he abandoned his candidate like he’d abandoned her? Left the island in his motorhome to explore all those places Matilda had once dreamed of visiting before the responsibility of real life—marriage, family, her real estate office—had intruded?

Envy burned in her heart and she pushed it away.

Then a tall woman wearing dark sunglasses and a beach towel slung over her shoulder drew Matilda’s attention. She wormed her way through the tightly packed crowd, waving and calling Jeb’s name, and as the residents parted to allow her through, they fell silent.

Displeasure soured Jeb’s expression, while Paige appeared extraordinarily pleased for the interruption.

But like the professional he portrayed, Jeb put on his game face and turned to Matilda. “Matilda, I’d like you to meet my ex-wife, Lisa. Lisa is Paige’s mother.”

Matilda felt dowdy in comparison. Lisa was beautiful and very well endowed. She wore a halter-top that barely covered her enormous breasts and narrow midriff. Skin tight, short-short shorts finished off the ensemble, showing off her long tanned legs. She was jogging in place, her huge melon breasts bobbing up and down, unmindful of the stares she received.

Stuffing her jealousy down deep, she shook the other woman’s hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Lisa stopped jogging long enough to accept the handshake. “Matilda, you have such beautiful skin. I’m a Karie-May consultant. I’d love to introduce you to our products and give you a free facial.”

Matilda didn’t want to appear rude, but the woman made her feel totally inferior. So she gave a small nod and a vague reply. “Yes, that would be lovely. I’m terribly busy right now but—”

The other woman’s gaze suddenly veered past Matilda. Her eyes widened and she purred deep in her throat. “Wow, who’s the hunk and can I get an introduction?”

Matilda barely glanced over her shoulder. She had no doubt in her mind who Lisa referred to. “That’s just Brody Jackson. He’s running for Mayor against Jeb.”

“No, not Brody. I’ve already met him and while he’s very yummy, he’s already taken.” She slid a glance Matilda’s way and smiled. “Who’s the guy with him? I saw him the other day, but didn’t have the opportunity to introduce myself.”

Matilda turned to see whom Lisa was referring to, and her heart shriveled in her chest.

Harry.

She was talking about Harry.

Matilda looked back at Lisa’s bobbing breasts and felt something heavy settle in her stomach. Before she could say a word, the other group reached them, and Jeb made the introductions.

When Harry shook Lisa’s hand, he held on a little too long. “Nice to meet you, Lisa. You look familiar. Have we met before?”

Lisa laughed and gently drew her hand out of Harry’s, sliding a look toward her family before turning back to the Judge. “Maybe you’ve seen my website with a link to the Karie-May products online.”

Paige stepped up beside her mother and took her by the elbow. “Lisa, don’t you think you should finish your run before you cool down completely?”

“Of course. I’ll see you all back at the house.”

And with a wave, she was gone, stopping only once to hand something to Delores, whose eyes got big. Then she jogged down the street, leaving everyone behind to ogle her nicely shaped back end.

Even wearing a girdle, Matilda couldn’t get close to that shape.

Behind her, Jeb had asked Brody what he thought of an old bylaw still on the books which gave residents the right to tie their horses to the parking meters. It surprised Matilda that he even had that much knowledge of the town bylaws. And by the look on the other faces surrounding her, they were surprised too.

Before she knew it, Jeb and Brody were in a discussion of the bylaw, asking the voters for their input on the matter.

And somehow, Matilda found herself standing next to Harry, who was still staring after Lisa, his eyes all but bulging out of his head.

She wanted to slap him upside the head. Instead, she gritted her teeth and hissed, “I thought you’d be gone in your motorhome by now.”

He continued to stare after the other woman. “I told you, I’m sticking around to run Brody’s campaign.”

She raised her chin in the air and clung ferociously to her pride. “You’re wasting your time. You should see how everyone is taking to Jeb.”

This got his undivided attention. “What do you know about him, Mattie?”

“Enough.” She straightened her spine. “Don’t call me Mattie anymore.”

It was as though he hadn’t even heard her. “You don’t know anything about him, do you?”

“I know that he’ll make a far better Mayor than Brody.” Behind her back, she crossed her fingers.

“Well, it’s your bed, isn’t it?”

And just like that, he crossed his arms over his massive chest and shut down his emotions.

No matter how much she needled him, Harry remained cool, calm, disinterested. As they prepared to leave, Matilda felt desperate to get a rise out of him, determined to prove to him—and to herself—that she was more than just a Tuesday and Thursday night fixture in his bed.

Without thought, right there in front of the whole town, she grabbed Jeb by the shoulders and kissed him.

She thought she heard Harry make a noise like he was being strangled, but when she broke off the kiss and turned around, he was gone.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

 

 

After supper, Brody headed out of the house toward the alley, a bag of trash in hand. The bang of Olivia’s screen door caught his attention.

He dropped the bag into the garbage can and peered over the fence to see Paige sit down on the porch swing, a thick pad of paper in her hands.

Desire hit him square in the gut.

Last night, she’d totally caught him off guard with her appearance in his bedroom. Her attempt to lighten his mood and draw him out of his funk had worked so well, he’d found himself kissing her like a drowning man seeking air.

Only Hope’s return home had saved him from taking advantage of what Paige had offered. He would willingly have made love to her, and afterward…

…afterward she’d leave the island.

The thought of her departure dampened his mood like nothing else could.

Getting involved with her would cause a boatload of heartbreak, at least on his end. Because he liked her.

Really liked her.

In fact, he liked her so much, he’d begun to wonder if he could convince her to stay on the island to see if they had a future together.

Olivia’s door banged again and Jeb came out of the house, bag in hand, and headed toward the alley.

Their discussion that afternoon had shown him how much his opponent knew about the island’s bylaws and how painfully little Brody knew. Which might explain why the polls showed Jeb creeping into the lead.

Add in the man’s natural magnetism—especially with the women who lined up in droves to talk to him and giggle while he shook their hands—and Brody’s bid to win the Mayor’s race and permanent custody of his daughter seemed about as unlikely as Hope ever calling him dad.

Especially after last night’s argument with the teen.

He could almost hear Matilda’s victory shout.

He kicked at a rock, reluctant to go back to the house to face his sullen teenager. Then he realized Hope had been less sullen and more agreeable since Starr’s arrival.

It was good that she’d made a friend, but what would happen when Starr left at the end of the week?

“Evening, neighbor,” he said as Jeb entered the alley.

The other man tossed the trash bag in his hand into the can, then secured the lid and nodded his head politely. “Brody.”

“Hot tonight.”

“Sure is.” The other man pulled a handkerchief out of his shirt pocket and wiped the back of his neck. “Seems like the humidity climbs every day. I’d forgotten what it was like on the island.”

Across the alley, a door banged, and Brody turned to see Matilda leave Delores’s house.

“Women,” Jeb muttered, and unable to disagree, Brody turned back and replied, “Women.”

Jeb eyed him with calculated interest. “Where’s Hope’s mother?”

“Car accident a few months back.”

Jeb’s gaze sobered and he shuffled his feet. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s been hard on Hope and Matilda. Hope lost her mother and Matilda lost her daughter.” All the more reason why he had to stick this thing out, and reconcile grandmother and granddaughter. Brody wiped at the sweat gathering on his forehead, then watched Jeb’s attention drift after Matilda. “If you don’t mind me asking, what’s up with you and Matilda?”

“Am I that obvious?” Jeb’s face darkened and he dragged his gaze back Brody’s way. “Mattie says she wants me, but she really wants someone else.”

Mattie? He remembered the Judge had called her Mattie, too. Curious, Brody prodded. “What’s between you and Matilda anyway?”

“Nothing. She’s in love with someone else.”

“She is?” He couldn’t imagine the woman having any feelings beyond bitterness and hate. “Who?”

“Not my place to say.” Jeb shuffled his feet and zeroed in on Brody’s face. “What are your intentions toward my daughter?”

The question caught Brody off guard. He thought they’d been discreet. “Sir?”

The other man’s glower deepened. “Everyone else in this town may be blind, but I’m not. You like her, don’t you?”

“Sure. What’s not to like? She’s funny and she’s a great mom.”

“What about love?”

“Love?” His voice squeaked like an adolescent boy and he had to clear his throat.

Jeb gave a tug on his tie. “The heart recognizes love before the brain does.”

Brody raked his hands through his hair. Over the top of the fence, he could see Paige’s concentration on her work. “It’s complicated. Matilda’s breathing down my neck, looking for any excuse to take my daughter away from me.”

“Tell you what, boy, let me take care of Mattie so you can court my daughter. You’re just the type of man I’d like her to settle down with.” The man’s glower deepened. “Although that doesn’t mean I’m handing over the Mayor’s office to you.”

“Of course not, Sir. Thank you, Sir.” He scratched the back of his neck. “It’s just, Paige isn’t interested in settling down on the island, and I can’t afford to be interested in anything else.”

“Don’t let her feed you a load of bull, boy. My daughter loves it here. It’s my fault she was chased away from the only home she ever wanted.” Jeb shifted, guilt oozing thick and dark from his posture. His gaze slid to the porch, then back to Brody. “I better get going. I promised Matilda I’d visit a few more of her kindly neighbors tonight.” He turned to leave, then turned back. “She won’t wait forever, boy. If you want her, go after her. But remember this. If you hurt her, you’ll have to face me.”

“Yes, Sir.”

As Jeb retraced his steps to the house, Brody realized that he liked the other man. Too bad they were opponents in the race for the Mayor’s chair.

What would it be like to spend the rest of his days with Paige at his side, raising their two daughters together? Would she even consider such a proposition? They barely knew each other—

Except Jeb was right. The heart knew what it wanted and Brody’s heart was shouting loud and clear.

As he made his way toward Olivia’s back porch, it suddenly occurred to him that maybe Paige had already made her choice. That she knew if Jeb won the Mayor’s race, the residents of the island would accept her as one of them.

In which case, was she being nice to him because of the Mayor’s race? If it was a ploy to distract him, then it was working and that really sucked. There was no way he was taking advantage of anyone, no way he was going to let anyone take advantage of him.

She was working with her head down, pencil moving across the pad of paper. But as he approached the porch, she glanced up, and warmth infused her gaze. “Hi Brody.”

“Hi yourself.” His feet took him closer, up the porch steps until he stopped in front of her. “What are you doing?”

“A new wedding gown design.” She nudged the pad so it angled toward him. “I don’t think I mentioned that I design wedding gowns, did I?”

“No, but then we haven’t had a lot of time to get to know each other.” Stuffing his hands in his pockets so he wouldn’t touch her, he studied the drawing. “I’m impressed.”

She shifted on the rocker and the neckline of her shirt gaped, affording him a nice view of her lacy bra and the upper swell of her breasts. “Thanks.”

Brody forced his gaze up to her face.

Was her dad right about her? Was it possible she wanted to settle down right here on this island? If so, the odds were suddenly stacked in his favor.

She was staring down at the drawing, her brows furrowed, a critical slant to her very kissable mouth. As her unique scent drifted to his nose, he inhaled and his brain turned to mush. “What’s wrong?”

With a shrug, she set down the pencil and pad on the little table next to the rocker, pushed to her feet, and hands in pockets, faced him. “So what’s between you and Delores Peabody?”

“Delores?” He studied her expression and realized that she was jealous of the other woman, which eased the pinch in his heart. “She’s my campaign manager.”

Her lips pursed, setting off a chain reaction that hardened several of Brody’s body parts. “How long have you been sleeping with her?”

That instantly cooled him down. “What?”

She stuffed her hands deeper into the front pockets of her jeans. Her gaze dropped to the front of his shirt. “I found her charm bracelet on your roof last night.”

He blinked, feeling kind of stupid. “You did?”

Her gaze returned to his face, evaluating. “Was she up in your bedroom too? I mean, I know of your reputation. I just thought you’d changed.”

“No,” he objected. He ran his fingers through his hair. “I mean, yes, I have changed. I’ve known Delores since we shared the same crib before our first birthday.”

Her eyebrows rose and humor lit her eyes. “Ah, so you have slept together.”

Brody forced the tension to leave his shoulders. No point in feeling guilty over something that had never happened. “Only till we were three. That’s when I pulled down her training pants and her parents banned me from their house.”

A look of surprise crossed over her features. “No way.”

He grinned. “Yeah way.”

She tilted her head and narrowed her eyes. “Okay, but you didn’t answer my question. How long have you been attracted to her?”

“That wasn’t your original question.” When she just stared at him, he relented. “Then there was that incident when we were five.”

“Hey, you’re avoiding my question.”

“I’ve been taking lessons from the master.” That shut her up. “Her parents’ cousin married my parents’ cousin and they decided we’d make a lovely ring bearer and flower girl. But right before the wedding started, Delores and I decided to elope.”

“No.”

“Yeah. We made it all the way to the playground where we discovered a pool of rainwater and mud. And before either of us could say I do, we were buried elbow deep in goo, tossing mud balls at each other.”

“Your parents must have been furious.”

“Only till the first dance. They’d managed to scrub us clean, and while we weren’t wearing our bridal attire, they did manage to get me dressed in a suit and Delores into a frilly dress. We led the bride and groom up for the first waltz, stole the spotlight, and were forgiven for our indiscretion.”

“Okay, okay, I want to rephrase my question.”

“Fire away.”

“When was the first time you and Delores kissed?“

“Ah, now we’re getting to the juicy part.”

She raised one perfectly shaped brow, and her chin shot up. “You don’t have to go into too much detail. Just a time and place will do.”

“Actually, I’ve never kissed Delores. I’ve kissed a lot of other girls, but never her.”

“Why not? I get the distinct impression that she’d like it to be more.”

He frowned and stepped into her personal space because actions spoke louder than words. “This is why.”

He hauled her up against him and claimed her mouth, and every cell in his body clamored that this woman was the one he wanted to wake up to for the rest of his life.

At first, she was stiff against him, unyielding, but as he deepened the kiss, he felt her relent, soften…join in.

And then he remembered his conversation with Jeb. He broke off the kiss, stepped back, and released her. “Are you playing me?”

She blinked up at him, lips swollen from his kiss, cheeks flushed, eyes glazed with desire. “Excuse me?”

“Because if you are, I’m warning you now that you’ll break my heart.”

He left her there to think about what he’d said, and as he headed home, he remembered Jeb’s words.

It’s my fault she was chased away from the only home she ever wanted.

What had the older man meant by that?

As Brody stepped into the house, the music upstairs went silent. He pulled plates and glasses and utensils out of the cupboards and drawers. And wondered if he was foolish to think Paige might change her mind about staying.

Behind him, he heard a sound, and Hope entered the kitchen like a ghost.

She sidled up to the counter, picked up the knives and forks, and took them to the table. “Are you afraid of her?”

Brody wasn’t sure what conversation his daughter wanted to have, but he was willing to go along with it if it meant they could stop fighting. “Who?”

“Grandma. Are you afraid of Grandma?”

Relief speared him in the gut and he crossed his arms over his chest. “Darn right I am.”

“But you’re twice her size.”

“And she’s twice as mean.”

A tiny smile tugged at her mouth, brief and quickly fading to the sulky pout she normally wore. “It doesn’t matter where I live, you know. With you or Grandma. It’s all the same.”

“No, it’s not,” he countered, but she’d pulled out her cell and was staring at the screen. Brody sighed. It was times like this that he felt the most lost, when he couldn’t read what she was thinking or feeling. “Is something else bothering you?”

She plopped down onto one of the chairs at the table. “I want to go back to the city.”

“You know we can’t. It’s part of the custody deal.”

“This island sucks. I’m bored. There’s nothing to do.”

“What about your friends?”

“What friends? Starr is going back to the Mainland at the end of the week.”

And wasn’t that the root of why she wasn’t settling well? She had nothing…no one. And the only family she had left were at war with each other.

“What if Grandma gets custody of me?” Her voice was small, almost a whisper, and Brody felt his heart squeeze in his chest.

“She won’t,” he promised, and silently reaffirmed his decision to do anything to make that promise come true. But there was something else on her mind, something she was obviously hesitant to bring up. “You know you can tell me anything you want, don’t you?”

Without looking his way, she asked, “Have you ever done anything you regretted?”

He folded his arms across his chest and wondered where this conversation was going. “Plenty of times. Unfortunately, it’s part of maturing. Why?”

She shrugged her narrow shoulders, the downward slope of her mouth sad. “I wish my mom had told you about me.”

His answer surprised him. “Me too.”

She thumbed the cell, and silence filled the air between them. Then she raised her head and looked at him. “So what’s my punishment for leaving the house without your permission last night?”

He sighed and sat down across from her. Whatever was on her mind, she wasn’t ready to talk about it yet. “I’m getting tired of punishing you.”

“No you’re not. It’s one of the few joys parents have.” Without looking at him, she shrugged. She looked miserable, downtrodden and sadder than when they’d first come here to live. “Or at least that’s what Mom always said.”

Brody’s heart squeezed in his chest. He wanted the freedom to hug his daughter, but he feared she’d push him away. “I don’t think I ever told you that I was sorry you lost your mom.”

Silence filtered through the kitchen. Outside, a vehicle roared down the street, and the sound of children laughing in the distance reminded him that he’d never heard Hope laugh. In the four months they’d been together, she’d barely even smiled.

She glanced up from the tiny screen. “I hear Starr’s mom is a good kisser.”

He quirked one brow. “And that would mean?”

“That she’d be an excellent wife. Men like good kissers.”

Brody narrowed his eyes at her profile. “How do you know that?”

She slanted him a look. “I am thirteen, Dad.”

Dad.

She’d finally called him Dad. Even though she’d said it while she was wearing that teenage pout, she’d said Dad. Brody stemmed the urge to pull her into his arms and cry like a baby. “Thirteen is way too young to be kissed.”

“How old were you when you kissed your first girl?”

“Tell you what, Pumpkin.” When she scowled at the use of his pet name for her, his grin widened. “I have a plan to win the heart of the last girl I ever want to kiss, and I sure could use your help. In fact,” he hesitated briefly, assuring himself that he had her undivided attention. “Maybe you could get Starr to give you some tips on what I need to do to win her mom’s heart.”

The smile blossoming across her cherished face speared Brody’s heart with love.

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

 

 

Delores straightened the doily on the dining room table, hummed the Wedding March, and daydreamed of her life as First Lady.

She’d host afternoon teas and monthly book clubs, and shop online for the most fabulous clothes. And everyone on the island would revere her fashion sense and her ability to throw the best parties.

She spotted a brown leaf on the hibiscus plant near the window overlooking the back yard. As she plucked it out, brushed a bit of dust off the window ledge, then with the tip of her index finger, moved the sheer drapes aside so she could see outside, she made a mental note to add brick to the outside of Brody’s house.

Or maybe he could come live at her house. It was, after all, the better choice for the First Lady of Serendipity Island. More stately. Better equipped to handle the steady stream of visitors they’d receive at their door.

Across the way, she saw Hope shimmy down the trellis and race over to Olivia’s. Did Brody know his daughter had escaped the house? Or was he ignoring her escape so he didn’t have to deal?

Once they were married, she was shipping that girl off to a boarding school, preferably somewhere across the country. The farther away, the better.

Her elderly neighbor opened the door and let the annoying teen inside. As much as Delores loved Olivia, she hated the old lady’s granddaughter. She’d lost Brody once because of a floozy like Paige—Matilda’s daughter, the bitch—and nearly lost the Prom Queen status too. No way would she let it happen again.

“Del, get a grip,” she breathed out as she forced herself to drop the edge of the curtain, blink away the dizziness, and put her hand to her chest. Beneath her palm, her heart pounded, and while she watched Olivia’s relatives leave the house for the day, she focused on calming thoughts—sparkly wedding bells and a dozen bridesmaids in rose taffeta lined up to attend her every request.

And Brody all fine in his tuxedo, standing at the front of the filled-to-the-rafters church, anxious to put a ring on her finger and make her his.

All the while, she made a mental note of the things she still needed to do before the big day. Nails manicured, hair color touched up, cake to pick up, hall to book. Maybe she’d even get a Brazilian wax for the honeymoon.

And get Brody voted in as Mayor.

At last, everyone had left except for the porn queen. Delores turned away from the window, and as her gaze landed on the gown hanging in the center of her living room, butterflies erupted in her stomach. Brody was devoted to her and only her. There wasn’t room in his life for any other person.

Except that her conversation with Brody—the one she’d had last night in her dream—kept rolling around in her brain.

How long have we been friends, Brody?”

Practically since before we were born.”

I’ve never interfered in your life.”

But you’re going to start now?”

She’d wanted to strangle him. Instead, in her dream, she’d forced herself to be calm, caring…a fricking friend.

She’s going to break your heart, Brody.”

My heart wasn’t exactly involved when you walked in here, Del.”

With only a few days to the planned wedding date, the lack of cooperation of the groom was starting to grate on her nerves. It shouldn’t be so hard to get him down the aisle. Maybe all she needed was a little leverage.

And Paige out of the way.

Sweaty and panicky, she stopped to check her appearance before heading out of the house. Her reflection stopped her cold.

The sweat shirt and sweat pants she’d been forced to wear this morning, because her own clothes suddenly didn’t fit, were wrinkled and unwashed. She’d pulled them out of the back of her closet, not bothering to check their condition.

The sweats weren’t even the worst part of her appearance. She’d foregone her morning shower, finger combed her unwashed hair, and now it hung lank and dull around her pale, makeup-less face. She licked her palm to smooth down the unattractive cowlick on the top of her head.

Delores shifted closer to the mirror. Was that a cold sore forming on her upper lip?

She gasped and reared back. In a last ditch attempt to control herself, she yanked the mirror off the wall and stuffed it in the back of the hallway closet.

Karie-May consultant, my ass, Delores thought as she grabbed the DVD from under her mattress, and left the house without locking the door. She stomped through the backyard, across the alley, past Olivia in her garden, and pounded on the back door.

After several long minutes—minutes which had driven Delores to the point of raging madness—the very svelte porn actress answered the door, her narrowed gaze sweeping the length of her guest, one perfectly shaped eyebrow arched. “Delores. Always a pleasure. Can I help you with something?”

She held up the DVD so the actress could clearly see the cover. “You tell Paige that if she doesn’t leave Brody alone, I’ll show this to everyone in town.”

“Go ahead.” Lisa studied her fingernails and smirked. “Of course, you realize the one you’ll hurt the most will be Olivia. I say, go for it.”

“Olivia?” Delores clasped the DVD to her chest and backed up a step. “I didn’t think of what it would do to Olivia.”

“Of course not,” the other woman said smoothly as she looked down her long elegant nose at her, as though Delores were lower than pond scum. “Was there anything else?”

And when Delores didn’t say a word, the bitch banged the door closed in her face.

Delores stumbled backward down the steps, across the sidewalk. And that’s when she saw the gate between Olivia and Brody’s house.

If Matilda discovered the porn DVD mixed in with Finding Nemo and Dumbo, she’d flip. The straight-laced old bag would have Hope out of the house so fast, it would make Brody’s head spin.

And then Delores could move right in, and any repercussion on Olivia would be Matilda’s fault.

Why didn’t she think of this plan in the first place?

She slipped through the gate into Brody’s yard, found an unlocked window, and shimmied through the narrow opening.

She tiptoed into the living room. Even though she was positive there was no one home, she couldn’t take the risk of being caught.

A car horn beeped outside and she jumped, then hurried to plant the DVD right between the G rated movies. Retracing her steps, she shimmied back out the window.

By the time she rolled onto the grass, she was panting and sweating and cursing stupid men—Brody in particular—for being blinded by lust. So when the cell phone in her bra vibrated, she nearly jumped out of her skin.

Delores thrust her hand down the top of the sweat shirt, dug out the sweat covered phone, and punched the talk button. “Hello?” she whispered into the mouthpiece, in case anyone was out in their yard.

“Delores, this is Reverend Vail. I just want to confirm that you’ll be free to play the organ for the Voss Peterson’s baby christening this Saturday.”

“But my wedding.” She hissed out a breath of air. “I’ll be right down there and we can straighten this out in person.”

She thumbed the disconnect button, shoved the cell back into her bra, crouched down to slip along the side of the fence, and stomach-crawled her way into the back alley. Huffing and puffing, she stopped at her house to toss her purse over her shoulder, then jogged down one street after another, until she finally reached the church.

By the time she scaled the half dozen steps leading to the front door, she wanted to sit down and cry. Her legs felt like lead, her lungs were ready to explode, and the entire way there, she’d felt the jiggle of her belly with every step she took.

She clung to the stair railing, bent at the waist, and drew in a deep breath, blew it out, and repeated it until she could feel her strength return.

At last, she pulled herself up the stairs and entered the church through the front doors.

It was dark and cool inside, and she felt a shiver move quickly through her body. As she entered the main church, she froze.

Reverend Vail stood near the pulpit with Matilda and the Judge. The three of them were staring at her, mouths open.

Delores took a deep breath and channeled sleek, svelte, and pulled together. She strolled up the aisle. Smile. “Hi everyone.”

Matilda snapped her gaping mouth closed while disapproval claimed her features. “Delores, you look a fright.”

“Sorry,” she apologized, but what she really wanted to do was scream shut up, you old bat. “I was moving some bushes in the yard and didn’t stop to change because this sounded urgent.”

“Oh, well.” Matilda glanced toward the minister. “George, Delores would love to play the organ for the christening.”

Gritting her teeth, Delores moved up the stairs toward the minister. “Reverend Vail, may I speak with you privately.”

The Reverend took a step back before he seemed to catch himself. He clutched his bible to his chest and shook his head. “Whatever you have to say, child, you can say it in front of Matilda and Harry.”

Delores realized this was the perfect opportunity to out everyone. She could take care of the wedding details in private later. She turned her back on the Reverend, and faced Matilda and the Judge. “I lied. I really wasn’t moving bushes. I’ve been concerned about Lisa’s influence on Hope and this morning I finally realized where I had seen her before.”

“I’ve seen her too,” the Judge muttered.

The Reverend nodded. “Me too, but I can’t quite place her.”

Power built up in the cavity of her chest and she announced, “She’s a porn star.”

Silence ensued. The Reverend and the Judge blushed. Matilda pinned both men with a gotcha look, then turned to Delores. “And how would you know this?”

“Oh—well—” In a moment of panic, she blurted, “I saw her on the cover of a porn movie in Brody’s DVD collection.”

Matilda crossed her arms over her matronly chest and tapped the toe of one shoe against the floor. “You knew Brody had a porn collection, yet you didn’t bother to tell me?”

Oh, so not the way she meant for this to go. She thought fast and reacted on instinct. “I just saw it this morning. I went by your house to tell you about it, but you weren’t home.”

“Delores, you’re lying to me. If your daddy was here, he’d be so disappointed.”

The anger she’d pushed down all those years ago while she’d buried her daddy beneath the rose bush in the corner of her yard burst free. “Oh, shut up, you old hag. Don’t you bring my daddy into this conversation. Especially in this church where he used to sit every Sunday, pretending to be pious and pure, while what he was really doing was planning how he was going to screw his neighbors that week.”

As Matilda’s mouth thinned into a narrow line on her ugly old face, Delores rounded on the two men. “Reverend Vail, I booked the church for a wedding this Saturday and I will not change my plans for anyone. You will march over to your phone right now and inform those people that the christening can wait a week. And if they don’t like it, they can go to your competition.”

As the Reverend gasped, Delores turned to the Judge. “And you—you are going to man up, quit sucking up to this old bag that you think you love, and help me prove that Jeb Calhoun is a fraud.”

Delores didn’t wait for any of them to reply. She stomped out of the church and headed toward the coffee shop, in desperate need of a gallon of ice cream, like a junkie on crack.

As she stood in the line up waiting her turn, she studied the menu over the counter. Blueberry and pineapple and strawberry combined. Maple and bacon and chili peppers. The insatiable desire for the taste of homemade butterscotch-walnut ice cream hit her right in the tastebuds.

Fortunately, she’d always been able to eat like a horse and not gain a pound.

Confident in her ability to eat anything, she patted her trim waist and encountered the bulge of fat above the waistline of her sweats. It stopped her cold, and when the boy behind the counter asked for her order, she gave in to vanity and ordered a sugarless, cream-less cup of java, then headed for the nearest table.

Ugg. She hated black, unsweetened coffee. But as she slid onto a chair, she felt the elastic waistband cut into her stomach and knew that she had no choice.

If she kept being a glutton, by Saturday, the wedding gown wouldn’t fit.

The image of how she’d looked in the gown filled her mind.

It had been perfect, pushing up her breasts to make them appear fuller, nipping her waist to give her that 1950’s look. If she half closed her eyes—just so—she could tune out the din in the coffee shop and envision how she’d look as she walked up the aisle of the church into Brody’s waiting arms.

Wow, she never realized before how much she looked like Jackie O when she married the first time and became First Lady.

Delores envisioned the upcoming Fourth of July parade. She’d bring out the convertible, put down the top, and while Mayor Brody sat behind the steering wheel, she’d wave to her screamingly loyal subjects.

First Lady.

She sighed, satisfied that everything was going according to plan.

And that’s when she heard old man Vaughan’s announcement drift through the coffee shop.

“The Calhoun chit is neck-in-neck with Delores now. Who wants to up their bet?”

Delores saw Jeb Calhoun pull a roll of bills out of his pocket, peel off a few, and toss them onto the table in front of old man Vaughan. As he turned, he caught her eye and winked.

The panic morphed into something wicked and familiar—red hot fury—and Delores jumped to her feet, dumped the sugarless, cream-less java into the garbage container, and ignoring the looks that came her way, shouldered her way to the front of the line, grabbed the kid behind the counter by the shirt front, and got in his face. “Give me a gallon of Rocky Mountain Triple Fudge ice-cream with a side order of whipped cream.”

As he hurriedly retrieved the bucket and shoved it into her arms, her fat cells belted out a rousing chorus of Hallelujah.

From the far corner of the coffee shop, old man Vaughan’s thin reedy voice rose above the banging and clanging of people and cups. “It’s official. The Calhoun gal is now in the lead and it’s 50 to 1 in her favor.”

Delores stomped across the coffee shop muttering, “I need another plan. Maybe a lynching…” She snapped her fingers. “Or better yet, a candidate debate.”

She’d throw a party for the Mayoral candidates and make her special pound cake, just like she’d made for her daddy and husband, then feed it to that man-stealing bitch, Paige.

And if that didn’t bring Brody around, she’d poison him too.

Calm as calm could be, Delores sat down at the nearest table, tore the lid off the ice cream container, grabbed a spoon off the table beside her, and dug in. While she indulged her sweet tooth, she opened her purse, pulled out a pen and her wedding journal, and made a quick note beside the wedding gown pasted to the front page.

Get rid of the bad seed before it takes root and flourishes.

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

 

 

Matilda couldn’t believe it. Harry was in still love with her?

No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t get Delores’s declaration out of her head. So she alternated between flying high and hitting rock bottom. Because, after all, what was the point of Harry still loving her if he still intended to pack up his stupid motorhome and head off for parts unknown?

So she focused all of her energy on the race for Mayor and her granddaughter.

According to the latest coffee shop poll, Jeb was beating the pants off Brody. Smug, Matilda left the coffee shop and walked the short distance home. Once she reached her street, she decided to rub Brody’s nose in the numbers. But as she entered his yard, walked up to his front door, and raised her hand to knock, Hope’s voice came through the screen door.

“Grandma left a bunch of messages. Again.”

Brody voice drifted on the breeze. “You should call her back.”

You call her back.”

“She’s your grandma. She doesn’t want to talk to me, she wants to talk to you.”

The sound of messages being deleted from the answering machine was clear as a bell. “She’s always trying to get me to try on my mom’s old clothes.”

“Why not do it? You’d make her happy.”

“Not interested, Dad.”

“She’s your grandma, Hope. She misses your mom. You’re all she has left.”

“She smells funny, too.”

Matilda let her arm drop to her side. She took a single step back, then another, until she stumbled down the steps and around to the driveway where she stopped and forced herself to breathe.

Hope had called that man Dad. While Matilda had been busy trying to get Harry’s attention, her granddaughter had formed a relationship with the man who’d destroyed Matilda’s daughter. How long would it take for him to destroy her granddaughter?

Across the alley, she saw Delores open her back door to let in the morning breeze, and she headed that way.

They’d had an agreement and Delores wasn’t holding up her part of the bargain. She was supposed to convince Brody that he didn’t want his daughter.

As she reached the door and grabbed the handle to let herself in, the younger woman marched regally up and down the hallway, head held high to support the a bridal headpiece and veil pinned into her hair. She was muttering what sounded like, “The moment I marry Brody, Hope is going to a boarding school.”

Matilda stopped breathing and pressed her ear to the screen door.

“I don’t care what that old bat Matilda says. She’s too old to take care of a girl Hope’s age. Besides, Brody would never let her have the twit. But I’m sure I could get him to agree to boarding school.”

Matilda backed down the steps, careful not to make a sound. She scurried home, ran into her house, and slammed the front door shut behind her. Leaning against the cool wood, she let the tears fall.

She’d trusted Delores and Delores had played her for a fool. Somehow, she’d make her pay, but first she had to focus on Hope.

A knock on the door interrupted her pity party. She swiped at the tears, checked her face in the mirror, and decided she didn’t look any different than she normally did. Old and decrepit. Ready to be retired to the pasture with the other old cows.

Maybe Harry was right.

Pulling open the door just the slightest bit, she peeked around the edge and saw Jeb on the other side of the screen.

“Good morning, sweet thing. I brought you coffee. Double cream. Double double sugar.”

“Go away.”

He leaned his head closer to the screen, squinting as though to get a better look at her. “Is something wrong?”

“Nothing.” She released a breath and let her shoulders sag. “Just a little family problem.”

“I have a good ear, Matilda, and a strong shoulder to lean on.”

The tears welled up in her eyes again, and she looked away, blinking furiously to hold them at bay.

The screen door squeaked open. “Let me in. Talk to me.”

She backed up and allowed him entrance. She did need someone to talk to, someone to tell her side of the story to, someone who would support her.

Even if he thought her idea was perfectly idiotic.

It should’ve been Harry offering her solace, but the man had proven he was selfish and a jackass.

She took the cup from Jeb’s hand and led him to the couch, where she sat down and sipped at the strong, sweet brew.

Jeb handed her a tissue. “Tell me what happened, honey.”

“Oh, Jeb,” she sighed. She leaned forward, opened the drawer in the coffee table, pulled out two coasters, and set them side by side on the wood surface. Setting down the cup in her hands, she took a moment to wipe at her eyes and blow her nose. With another sigh, she peered at him from the corner of her eye. “I must look a mess.”

“You look beautiful, even when you cry.”

He was so sweet and gentle and kind.

She tucked the used tissue in her dress pocket and leaned back against the couch.

Their shoulders touched.

Desire, urgent and distracting, raced through her body. She ignored it as best she could. “I stopped by the coffee shop this morning, heard you were up in the polls, and wanted to share it with you. Instead, I found myself at Brody’s front step.”

He laughed, a soft soothing rumble that jumbled her insides and threatened to scatter her thoughts. “You went there to gloat, didn’t you?”

Her face heated. “You must think I’m a terrible person.”

He set his coffee cup down and clasped one of her hands in both of his. “I think you’re adorable.”

Her skin tingled where her hand made contact with his. Some instinct told her to pull away and break contact, but the pleasure of making body contact with someone else silenced the little voice in her head, and she stayed where she was.

“Before I could knock, I heard Brody and Hope talking. She doesn’t want anything to do with me.” Her voice grew small. “And she thinks I smell.”

Jeb leaned into her, pressed his nose against her neck, and inhaled. His breath whispered across the bare flesh. “You smell pretty good to me. What’s that perfume you’re wearing?”

“I’m not wearing perfume.”

“Ah, eau de Matilda.” He inhaled again and shivers of delight washed over her body. Then he straightened, still maintaining contact with their hands. “She’s a teenager, Matilda. They don’t like anyone over the age of twenty-one.”

“She called him Dad.”

“And so she should.”

“But—”

With a gentle tug, he pulled her into his arms and she let him. She needed human contact because she’d never felt so alone as she did right now.

As she snuggled against Jeb, Harry popped into her thoughts and she couldn’t help but compare the two men.

They may have been comparable in size, but where Harry was hard because he worked out daily, Jeb was soft. In the shoulders, in the chest, in the arms.

But he was here, right now when she needed him. She knew he was attracted to her. She knew it wouldn’t take much to convince him to take their relationship to the next level.

Did she want that? Would it feel like a betrayal to Harry?

Yet when Jeb caressed one hand down her back, she couldn’t suppress the shiver that arched through her body.

He whispered in her ear. “Am I being too forward?”

Harry was a neanderthal in comparison. He would never have asked for permission. Instead, he would have stormed her defenses, overcome her objections, and kissed her until she screamed yes.

Jeb, on the opposite side of the scale, was thoughtful and considerate. He’d probably make sure she was sexually satisfied before he sought his own release.

She turned her face into his neck and kissed a path toward his mouth. “Make love to me, Jeb.”

He inhaled sharply, obviously surprised by her response. His arms tightened around her briefly, then he relaxed and turned his head and met her mouth with his own.

Their breaths mingled, and greedy with desire, she pressed closer. And then he laughed softly, breaking the tension and their kiss in one smooth move.

“Slow down, honey. We have all day.”

“It’s been a long time.”

His eyes turned to liquid lava. “For me, too. I’ve wanted you since I saw you standing on the ladder, raking those leaves out of your gutter. I’ve thought of little else but getting you naked and into bed.”

She squeezed her eyes shut, and the image of Harry, naked and hard and poised for entry, washed through her thoughts and heightened her desire.

But she was with Jeb now and she was pretty sure he wouldn’t appreciate her fantasizing about another man.

Without looking at him, she grasped his hand and pulled him up after her, leading him across the living room, down the hallway, and into her bedroom.

The drapes were closed—thank goodness—and the glow of the sun in the sky illuminated the window and gave the room just enough light so they wouldn’t have to operate blindly.

Reaching the bed, she turned to face him, meeting him eye to eye as she popped open the buttons on her blouse.

As the material opened into a wide V, his gaze skimmed down her face, past her neck, toward her chest.

She closed her eyes, unable to watch him look at her, and then she felt the warmth of his hands through the material of her bra.

“You’re so beautiful,” he whispered.

She felt his hot mouth against her neck, and when he nipped lightly at her shoulder, she had to swallow back the scream of desire working up her throat.

“Oh, Harry,” she whispered instead. The moment the words were out of her mouth, she froze and forced her eyes open to meet Jeb’s gaze. “I’m sorry. I know it’s you here with me.”

He brushed his hands down her arms, then began doing up the buttons on her blouse. “You’re not ready for this, Mattie.”

This time she didn’t correct the use of her name because she couldn’t say a word in defense.

As she watched him turn and walk out of the bedroom, straightening his clothes as he departed, she swallowed back the urge to scream for him to come back and finish with what they’d started.

Darn you, Harry Malone.

Because of him, she’d just insulted the only man who’d been willing to keep her company.

CHAPTER THIRTY

 

 

Paige inhaled the sweet fragrance of the long stemmed pink roses in the exquisite crystal vase, and studied the card that had simply been signed “B”.

Something was up.

Ever since yesterday, Brody had been in whispered conversations with Starr and Hope and Jeb and Lisa. Even Gram was involved, and whatever was going on had taken the starch out of her normal testiness.

There were mouthwatering smells coming out of the kitchen, with Lisa and Gram working in—almost—harmony.

But no matter how much Paige poked and pried at her family, not a single one of them would spill the beans.

And in-between all the not-quite-secret preparations, Lisa had been busy typing at the kitchen table, using the old manual typewriter that she’d found up in the attic. Paige desperately wanted to ignore her, like Lisa had ignored her for years, but she was curious.

Had her mother really taken her advice? Was she really writing?

Somehow, despite the growing activity in the kitchen, the older woman managed to slip in and out of writing mode, and the pages began to pile up on the table beside her.

Paige stopped behind her.

Lisa covered the paper in the typewriter with both hands, and laughed nervously. “Oh, you don’t want to read this. I’m just vomiting on the page.”

She moved around so she could see her mother’s face. “Vomit on the page?”

“It’s a technique I read about. Whatever’s in here—,” she pointed to her head, then held her hands up in the air and wiggled her fingers. “—is coming out here. Which is why I decided to use this old typewriter instead of a computer. No going back to fix anything.”

“I wondered about that.” Paige glanced down at the sheets of paper turned facedown. “Since everyone refuses to talk about what’s really going on around here, can I at least read what you’ve written?”

Lisa covered her heart with one hand. “I would be honored if you would, but let me finish first. That way if you tell me it’s awful, I won’t be tempted to burn the pile.” She squinted down at the papers. “Maybe. I dunno.” She buried her face in her hands and whispered, “It’s awful, Paige, I know it is. What was I thinking? I don’t know the first thing about writing a story.”

Paige patted the other woman’s shoulder, then went to get a cup of coffee. “Just keep at it. I’m sure it’s not as bad as you think.”

“I hope not.”

There was silence behind her, but this time it was a comfortable silence. The kind of silence that friends and confidants shared. Feeling pretty good about the change in her relationship with the woman who’d given her life, she turned to go outside to see if she could find Gram and Starr. “I’ll leave you alone so you can get back to work.”

“Wait.”

With one hand on the doorknob, Paige stopped.

Lisa pulled the sheet of paper from the typewriter roll and placed it upside down on the pile with the others. “You’re a good mom, Paige.”

“Thank you.”

As she rolled in a new sheet, she sighed heavily. “I’m a terrible mother. From the moment I discovered I was pregnant, I knew I would be. I’m selfish and inconsiderate, even though I try so hard not to be. But Brody is proof I’m a terrible person.”

Confused, Paige stared at her mother. “What are you talking about?”

Lisa tapped her long fingernails on the edge of the table and raised her gaze to Paige’s face. “I want to apologize for flirting with Brody. If I’d realized you were in love with him, I never would have put the moves on him.”

In love with Brody?

Smiling gently, Lisa pushed to her feet. “Do you want to talk about it?”

Aghast, Paige backed up a step. “No. There’s nothing to talk about. I’m not in love with Brody. You’ll be happy to know, all I’m hoping for is a fling with some really good sex.”

As her mom stared at her, disappointment in her gaze, Paige shook her head just for good measure.

No.

She definitely wasn’t in love with Brody…was she?

Lisa shrugged and plopped back down on the chair. “Besides, what am I doing going after a man who’s almost thirty years younger than I am? I’d be better off with a guy like Harry. He’s a little old for my tastes, but he’s still a hunk.”

Relief hit Paige in the solar plexus, but she couldn’t let Lisa see. She squared her shoulders and smoothed out her voice. “Harry’s a great choice. But I’m still not in love with Brody. If you want him, go for it. He’s ignoring me anyway. He’s probably lost interest already.”

“I won’t, I promise.” The other woman swung her long slim legs back under the table and sighed. “I told my agent that I wasn’t doing another porn movie.” There was a tapping of keys, then another sigh. “I’m writing now, decision made, and I love it.”

But Paige could hear the sadness in the other woman’s voice, and wondered if there was something she could do.

Before she could offer, feet pounded across the upstairs hallway, down the steps, and into the kitchen. Starr and Hope rushed in.

“Mom, we have a surprise for you, but you have to come with us now.”

With a huge smile, Lisa straightened. “Is it time?”

Suspicious, Paige eyed them. “Now will you tell me what’s going on?”

Hope grabbed her arm. “You’re going to love it.”

Starr exchanged a glance with her new friend. “Well, we hope you’re going to love it.”

Lisa pushed her out of the kitchen. “Go with the girls and don’t ask questions. I have things to prepare.” She glanced around. “Has anyone seen Jeb?”

“Right here, darlin’,” he said as the front door swung open and he entered the house. He glanced up the staircase, where the girls were pushing Paige up one reluctant step at a time. “Better get moving, Buttercup. Don’t want to be late for your—”

Lisa’s sharp voice rang out. “Jeb.”

“Okay, okay. My lips are sealed.”

An hour later, Paige was showered, dressed in a lacy short sleeved top and skirt. The girls had urged her to put on makeup, blow her hair dry, and look pretty.

They’d even brought her some of Lisa’s extra sultry perfume to dab on. Except that she’d refused to do so until someone told her what was going on. Only the girls had both looked so tragic, she’d finally dabbed a little behind each ear, at the base of her throat, on her wrists, and—eyeing the pink roses and chasing the girls out of the bedroom—a few other special spots too, just in case she got lucky.

She let the girls back into the room. “Well?”

Starr glanced at the clock, then over to Hope. “I really thought it would take her longer.”

Hope plunked down on the big armchair, pulled out her cell phone, and typed something on the screen.

A moment later, Starr’s phone beeped. She glanced at the screen, giggled, and typed.

Paige sat down to wait, and silently watched them go back and forth with the messages.

Forty-five minutes later, with the heady scent of food wafting through the house, Paige’s stomach rumbled noisily and she pushed to her feet. “I need some food. When you two are done playing games, you’ll know where to find me.”

Starr slipped across the room, barring the doorway. “You can’t leave, Mom. You’ll spoil the surprise.”

Hope typed furiously, then stopped and waited. This time, Starr just stared at her phone. A minute later, both teens’ phones beeped.

“Now?” Paige asked, and was rewarded with a loud cheer from the girls.

Starr pulled open the door. “Follow Hope.”

She watched Starr head for the window. “Where are you going?”

But a very tightlipped Starr was already climbing out the window and disappearing into the darkness of the evening.

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

 

 

Paige accepted Hope’s outstretched hand and the girl smiled shyly.

“You have to close your eyes.”

Returning the smile, she shut her eyes. “Now what?”

“Follow me.”

The teen guided her carefully down the staircase and across the front foyer to the dining room, and as Hope slipped her hand out of Paige’s grip, another bigger, warmer hand took her place.

Brody’s deep voice washed through her senses. “You can open your eyes now, Paige.”

Slowly, she opened her eyes, and as she did so, her gaze drifted up the soft white material of his shirt, past the strong column of his neck, over the shadow of his beard, until she gazed into his dark eyes. And all of her girl parts gave a happy sigh.

As Hope slipped away and disappeared behind the kitchen door, Paige waggled her eyebrows at Brody. “Did you enlist my family’s help so you could get lucky? Because really, it wasn’t necessary.”

“No. This is a date.” He raised her hand to his lips and kissed the back of it, sending tingles up her arm straight to her heart. “Although truthfully, getting lucky has crossed my mind a time or two.”

“Only a time or two?” she teased. A laugh escaped her. “So we’re definitely past the little girl part?”

“More past than you can even guess.” He shifted, set one large hand on the small of her back, and guided her toward the table where he pulled out a chair. “Sit. Please. Dinner is about to be served.”

As she sat down, she glanced toward the kitchen. “Who’s cooking?”

“Lisa.” He took the chair next to her and leaned toward her, brushing the hair away from the side of her neck. “Turns out she’s a gourmet cook.”

She barely contained the shiver coursing through her body. “You have to try her chocolate chip cookies. They’re delicious.”

You’re delicious, and you smell good too.” He buried his face against the spot behind her ear, inhaled deeply, and his voice turned husky. “I missed you.”

“You do know flowers and dinner aren’t necessary, don’t you?” Paige tilted her head to the side to give him better access. “All you had to do was crook your little finger and I would have fallen into your bed.”

A huff of warm laughter slipped over her skin, down her neck, and into the curve of her top. “Where’s the challenge in that?”

The kitchen door swung open and Brody straightened.

Jeb walked into the dining area. He was dressed in an old tux and had a bottle in his hands. “May I start you out with the house wine, Ma’am?”

“Yes, thank you.” She watched him pour the sparkly liquid into the two glasses on the table. Then he set the bottle down on the table and turned to leave. Bemused, she turned to Brody. “How did you convince him to agree to this?”

“He wants you to settle down with a nice guy.”

“And he thinks you’re the one?”

“Maybe. I think he even likes me.” Brody shrugged, a sheepish grin on his lips, and picking up her glass, handed it to her. He touched his glass against hers. “Here’s to the beginning of a relationship of the forever kind.”

Her heart thumped in her chest. “Forever?”

The grin vanished, replaced by a frown. “Am I going too fast?”

She leaned forward and cupped her hand against the whiskers on his chin, and lowered her voice so she wouldn’t be overheard. “This isn’t necessary, you know. A quick fling and—”

He covered her hand with his and interrupted her. “What if I want more?”

More?

Hope and fear raced through Paige, but before she could reply, the kitchen door swung open and Starr appeared. She had a pad of paper in one hand and a pen in the other.

Paige withdrew her hand from Brody’s face and sat back.

Starr stopped between them. “Good evening, Sir. Miss. Has anyone given you the specials of the evening?”

Brody took Paige’s hand in his and held on. “No.”

“Tonight we’re serving a lettuce salad with the house dressing, spinach lasagne, and for dessert, the chef’s world famous peanut butter and dark chocolate cheesecake.” Starr leaned forward and lowered her voice. “Between you guys and me, I’ll throw in a couple of homemade chocolate chip cookies. I hope you remember that when you’re figuring out the tip.”

Paige met Brody’s gaze. “This is going to be an expensive date.”

He kissed her fingertips. “Whatever it takes to win your heart, sweetheart.”

As Starr retraced her steps back to the kitchen, Hope came through the door and set plates of salad in front of Paige and Brody. The green leaves glistened with dressing and Paige’s stomach rumbled noisily. With a flourish, the teen shook out the napkins, and set them on their laps.

“Bon Appétit,” she said before she returned to the kitchen.

Paige picked up the salad fork. “Let’s eat so we can get to the good part of the evening.”

Beside her, Brody quirked one eyebrow. “Am I boring you already?”

“No, it’s just been forever since the—” She slid a look toward the kitchen door, leaned toward him till their shoulders touched, and lowered her voice. “—since the S-E-X part of my life.”

Brody chuckled deep in his chest. “I should be able to take care of that for you.”

Paige looked deep into his dark eyes. She wanted to push aside the food and straddle his lap. With a blink to break eye contact, she refocused on the food and attempted to put some distance between her and the man determined to woo her.

Through the three course meal, they made small talk, and by the time Paige pushed back the empty dessert dish and coffee cup, she asked, “Are you nervous about the debate?”

He caught her hand, his gaze on her face, and kissed her fingertips. “Yeah. I hope it doesn’t show.”

“When you’re up there on the stage, just remember that my dad is a smooth talker. He can convince anyone to do anything.” She grimaced as she told part of the truth. “He lies. A lot.”

“My whole reason for going into this was to get custody of Hope. Now I’m not so sure it will make a difference.”

“You can’t give up, Brody.”

“I won’t.” He caught her by the back of the neck and pulled her close until their foreheads touched. “So what happens after the election? What happens to you and me?”

Her stomach did a somersault and she closed her eyes against the intense look in his.

She was putting her heart in danger, and as much as she’d wanted to deny it, she couldn’t.

She was falling for this man, falling fast and hard.

As she opened her eyes and met his gaze, everything in her stilled.

There was heat there and something more. Affection. Trust.

Paige experienced another moment of panic.

One wrong move, one whispered confidence, and her world could come crashing down around her. She could lose everything. Her daughter. Her freedom. Brody…

And then hope blossomed, because once Jeb lost the Mayor’s race, his con would be over. He’d leave town and take their secrets with him. Maybe then she could feel safe enough to settle here with Starr.

He interrupted her thoughts, his tone serious. “Do you want the truth?”

“All I want from you is your body,” she said, but that was only half of the truth. She may have thought Delores could have Brody, but she’d been lying to herself.

She wanted to be part of his life, part of this community, part of the island. As impossible as it all seemed, she wanted this man to know her truth.

“It’s my fault Hope’s mother is dead. My fault Hope doesn’t have her mother. And every day, I fear she’ll find out.”

There was so much pain and sorrow and regret in his voice. Softly she asked, “What happened?”

“She tried to blackmail me. I knew she was unstable. I wasn’t thinking of Hope’s welfare. All I was thinking about was how an ugly court battle would affect my career, my reputation, my endorsements. I’d have advertisers pulling their contracts, fans booing me off the field. I was such a jerk.”

He rubbed his knee and grimaced. Paige grabbed hold of his hand and squeezed.

“When I picked Belinda up, it was dark and raining, and the roads were wet and slippery. I’d decided the simplest thing to do was pay her off, keep her and the kid—who incidentally, I wasn’t even sure was my kid—out of the news and my life. But the moment the offer was out of my mouth, she changed the game. She wanted more than money. She wanted marriage, respectability, and me on my knees begging.”

Silent, Paige tightened her hold.

“She was drunk and argumentative. I don’t know why I didn’t notice it till just that moment. Too wrapped up in myself,” he said in disgust. “I was driving too fast, frustrated and angry, and then out of the blue, she grabbed the wheel.”

He gave a self-depreciating laugh and absently rubbed his knee again. “I guess I’m lucky to be alive. I think she wanted to kill us both.”

“If she couldn’t have you, no one else could.”

He smiled sadly at her. “And then I saw Hope. One look at that kid, and I knew she was mine. I couldn’t turn my back and walk away. I figured, how hard could parenthood be? So I jumped right in and decided to sink or swim.” His gaze was steady on her face. “I want you to know the real me. I can be a selfish bastard, but I’m working on changing. I’m learning to be a good dad. I know I can learn to be a good husband too.”

God, how she loved this man.

Paige pushed to her feet, pulled him up with her, and looped her arms around his neck. “Do you think they’ll miss us if we disappear? Or is that sending the wrong message to our girls?”

As he lowered his head to kiss her, she tightened her hold, and gave herself over to the feel of his mouth against hers.

Was it possible to hide her past forever and make a fresh start here on Serendipity Island? Wake up every morning for the rest of her life in his arms and in his bed?

Yeah, she wanted his body.

But she wanted his heart too.

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

 

 

Just as Delores put the final touches on the party food—a sprig of peppermint here, a leaf of parsley there, a dash of paprika on the deviled eggs, some rat poison on the special pound cake she’d baked for Paige—the guests for the debate began to arrive. She glanced into the polished metal of the fridge door, wiped a smudge of something off her cheek, fixed the smear of lipstick on her front tooth, and headed out of the kitchen.

Smile, she reminded herself. You’re having fun.

And by the time she crossed the gymnasium, she was confident she looked like the perfect hostess. Relaxed, calm, and thrilled to have her guests arrive.

“Matilda, Mr. Calhoun, you’re the first to arrive,” she trilled and she hastened them away from the entrance so they wouldn’t clog up the main door.

Matilda glanced around, her nose in the air, her voice cool. “The decorations are lovely, Delores.”

Colorful bunting filled the stage and the wattage of her smile turned real. “Thanks, Matilda.”

With a grand gesture, Jeb handed her a small bottle. “Something special for our lovely hostess. You should tuck this away and save it for later. After all your hard work to arrange the evening, I’m sure you can use something to relax afterwards.”

Reluctantly, she accepted the bottle, squinted at the label and saw it was expensive champagne. She looked up into the clearest, bluest eyes ever, and recognized the cunning in his soul. “Are you attempting to buy my vote, Mr. Calhoun?”

“Call me Jeb. And would it work if that was my plan?” He winked and Delores realized for an older guy, he was still good looking. Charming too. No wonder the old biddies in town loved him.

It was a bad, bad combination that could very well get him elected Mayor. Maybe she should offer him some of her special pound cake too.

“Thank you so much, Jeb. I appreciate the gesture.” She hugged the bottle to her chest and watched Jeb put his arm around Matilda’s shoulders and give the older woman an intimate smile. Delores filed the info away for future use and let her gaze swing over to Matilda who, in the process of shrugging his arm off, gave Delores a strained smile.

“I came by your house yesterday—”

“Wonderful,” she interrupted while her heart beat a rapid staccato and her stomach refused to stop turning somersaults.

Killing people always upset her stomach…

A sound at the entranceway rescued her from the boredom of listening to whatever the older woman wanted to say. She shoved the bottle into Matilda’s hands. “Help yourself to some coffee or punch and something to eat. We’ll start the debate at seven sharp.”

Delores hurried to the entranceway where she spent the next thirty minutes greeting the steady stream of neighbors and friends. Directing people toward the food and drinks. Urging them to mingle and talk. Watching—waiting—for Brody to arrive.

And Paige, of course. After all, what was a diabolical scheme without a victim?

Brody finally arrived with his entourage, which had grown considerably since the day before. This time, not only were Hope and the Judge at his side. Paige and her bratty daughter were there too, escorting Olivia through the crowd.

It was the first time she’d seen Brody and Paige together since the night she’d caught them making out in his bedroom, and something had changed. For the first time since he’d returned to the island, he seemed calm, at home, comfortable in the sea of islanders who clamored for his attention.

And even though Paige, her grandma, and the two teenage brats were hanging outside of his circle, every once in a while Brody’s attention turned in their direction.

There was affection in his gaze.

Affection and possession.

Affection and possession and love.

Delores clasped one hand against her stomach and drew a sharp breath.

The open display of emotion sickened her. It was one thing to keep a floozy on the side, in secret, out of the public eye. Every great First Lady had to be ready to ignore the alpha tendencies of her man to conquer and possess the beautiful women who threw themselves at him.

But really, the least Brody could do was wait till after the wedding before he got all snug and cozy with his whore.

And yet, they looked so much like a real family, it brought tears to Delores’s eyes.

She turned her back on them, and while she tried to recapture her breath, her gaze fell on the Judge.

For the first time, she noticed how handsome he was. A flutter of something wicked started in her womb and pulsed lower.

Delores gasped.

First Jeb. Now the Judge. It was as if overnight she’d developed the hots for older men.

Except this one had an ever growing glower on his face as he mumbled his way through the crowd. “Look at her, making a fool of herself.”

Delores followed his gaze to where Matilda was serving Jeb a piece of pie. Jealousy was such an unattractive emotion, and it effectively killed the desire she’d felt for the man.

At seven on the dot, Delores stepped up on stage, the line of her skirt straight, her posture perfect, her smile firmly in place. She stood to the side of the podium so everyone could see her fabulousness, and introduced the candidates and explained the rules.

As the debate started, she went through the motions, directing questions, yet tuning out the actual words. What was said between the two men wasn’t important, at least not to her.

Soon she’d be in her rightful place, First Lady of Serendipity Island, and President of the Ladies Society.

By the time the debate was over and she began to mingle with the crowd consuming the food and drinks she’d slaved over, she had her attention zeroed in on Paige. Delores made a beeline for the kitchen and retrieved her special pound cake. As she carried it through the gymnasium, she had to deny several people who wanted a piece.

Inches away from Paige, Delores stopped, shoved the plate under her nose, instantly garnering her attention. “I’m so glad you made it tonight, Paige.”

The younger woman grimaced. “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

And as Paige turned her gaze toward Jeb, Delores couldn’t help but see the animosity Paige had for her own daddy.

Interesting.

She wondered if Paige ever thought of getting rid of Jeb, maybe smother him in the night with a pillow. Although rat poison was her own favorite blend.

She shook the thought away and refocused on the tray in her hands. “You must be starving. Have a piece of cake and some coffee.”

Paige glanced at the plate, but instead of selecting a piece, she leaned forward and lowered her voice. “I know you wanted Brody to shine tonight, but he’s no match for my dad. I warned you, but you wouldn’t listen to me.”

Delores leaned slightly back so Paige wouldn’t be quite so in her face, but she kept the plate up so the sweet scent would drift toward the other woman and tempt her to take a few bites. That’s all it would take. “Brody is the favored opponent.”

“Not after tonight. Did you hear the crowd?”

Worried now, anxious to get this bit of the evening over so she could talk to Brody and the Judge about the debate, Delores held the plate inches from Paige’s mouth and tried not to beg. “Take a piece, please. You’ll die when you taste my pound cake.”

Delores saw Paige lift her hand toward the plate. She held her breath, anticipation blooming inside of her. But when Paige merely pushed the plate aside so she could lean closer, Delores blinked stupidly.

How dare she not cooperate. Delores pressed back, but Paige was oblivious to the tiny resistance.

“Weren’t you paying attention, Delores? My dad ate him up.”

Delores froze, her hand in midair, the tray now out there for anyone to grab as she focused her full attention on Paige. “But everyone loves Brody.”

“Sure they do, but on the lips of everyone tonight is Jeb For Mayor, and we can’t let that happen.”

A hand darted into Delores’s line of sight and grabbed for one of the tiny cakes, but she was faster. She pulled the tray back to her chest as Matilda and Jeb joined their circle.

Matilda reached for the tray again. “Come on, Delores, you know those are my favorite. Tonight I don’t care about the calories.”

Panic infiltrated her. Things were not going as planned at all. Brody was supposed to come out on top of the debate. And by now, Paige should be on the floor writhing in pain.

Matilda managed to get her hands on one of the cakes. Delores grabbed her wrist, ready to tussle for it, if necessary. But with the cake an inch from her mouth, the old bat said, “Brody is going down and it’s all thanks to you, Delores. Your idea to hold the debate was absolutely brilliant.”

She looked to Paige for one final confirmation. Sure enough, the other woman had a frown of contention on her forehead as she frowned back.

Delores let go of Matilda’s wrist, offered her the plate again, and thought, Die Bitch.

Then she turned and stomped off to the kitchen where she dumped the remains of the cake down the garbage disposal to hide the evidence.

Pulling her cell phone out of her bra, she dialed the number of the FBI, and was immediately put on hold. But she had patience galore for what she was about to do. When someone finally picked up the phone, she said, “Yes, I’d like to report the whereabouts of a criminal on Serendipity Island.”

New plan.

Same result.

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

 

 

Matilda swallowed the last mouthful of Delores’s deliciously wicked pound cake and watched the other woman scurry away to the kitchen where she dumped the remainder of the cake down the garbage disposal unit.

Strange.

There was something off about the younger woman tonight, something more off than usual.

Someone bumped into Matilda from behind and she turned on her heel to greet them, only to come face to face with Harry.

For a moment, she stared at him and he stared back, and she had the sudden urge to offer a truce. After all, Jeb had creamed Brody in the debate. Plus Harry and her had been so good together. Just because their affair was over didn’t mean they couldn’t part friends.

But then the big lug opened his mouth.

“Your boyfriend hasn’t got a chance, Mattie.”

“Stop calling me Mattie,” she breathed as her stomach cramped in pain. “And he’s not my boyfriend.”

Harry sneered down at her. “He’s a loser. He can’t even get a decent job. He’s no better than a janitor—”

“You’re a snob, Harry Malone.” She lifted her chin as a flash of sweat covered her body. “Jeb does good work. All of the widows love him.”

One masculine brow winged up, and Harry leaned forward, getting into her face. “How’s he in the sack, Mattie? Better than me?”

Along with the increasing cramps, she had the sudden urge to slap him. She fisted both hands against the pain in her stomach and refused to back down.

But as she opened her mouth to lie through her teeth, his gaze flickered away from her, and he straightened and whistled.

“Well, I don’t need you any more either, Matilda. There are other women in town.” His derisive gaze dropped to her face, flickered down her body. “Sexier women.”

And with her stomach cramping double-time, and sweat oozing out of her pores, she watched him brush past her.

He went to Lisa, and kissed her hand, and Matilda recognized his flirting smile because it had been directed at her so often.

She felt heartsick, dowdy, and depressed.

Alone, she headed toward the buffet table with hopes of eating something to settle her stomach. As she moved along, she saw Brody and Hope together, shaking hands with the townspeople, united in their quest to win Brody the Mayor’s chair.

And she realized that somewhere along the line, they’d become united against her.

She stood there in the buffet lineup, sweating and nauseous and utterly lonely.

Maybe she should find her escort and ask him to take her home.

With the pain in her stomach increasing, she glanced around the room for Jeb. Surrounded by widows, he was the man of the hour, the toast of the town.

She decided to leave and once outside, she sucked in a deep breath of fresh air. In the next moment, she doubled over in pain.

Matilda made her way to her car and drove herself to the hospital, sad and sick and lonely, knowing full well that not a single person at the debate party would even miss her.

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

 

 

Matilda spent the night in the hospital, weak and nauseous. As a result of the food poisoning, she’d had her stomach pumped. She dozed off and on, letting herself drift in and out of sleep, not wanting to think about Jeb and Harry, and Hope and Brody.

There was a commotion at the door, then she heard Harry’s commanding voice.

“I don’t care that I’m not family. You’re going to let me in or I swear, I’ll make such a ruckus, you’ll have to call the police.”

A thrill went through her, momentarily alleviating her upset stomach, and with steel willed determination, she kept her eyes shut, her breathing even.

Harry was worried about her. He still cared.

A dourness pulled at her lips.

More than likely, she was dreaming, hallucinating. The man was as stubborn as they came.

The swish of the door broke the silence and his footsteps sounded across the room. When he reached the bed, he took her hand in his and whispered, “Mattie, it’s me, Harry.”

Matilda opened her eyes and looked into the clear depths of his worried gaze. She wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of emotions that consumed her—sorrow, regret, love—and she found herself wanting to get lost in his gaze, wanting to give in to his request.

With an effort, she pulled her hand from his. “What are you doing here?”

“I was concerned about you. I had to see for myself that you were okay.”

“I’m no longer your concern.”

He straightened his back and glowered down at her. “That’s right. You’re seeing Jeb now. Kissing him. What are you doing with him? What do you know about him?”

“I know he’s kind and gentle, and he doesn’t object to me raising Hope.”

“He’s a fool. You’re a fool too.”

She gritted her teeth. “Out.”

He took a deep breath and she knew him well enough to know that when he raked his hand through his hair like that, he was attempting to control his anger. “I see you’re not ready to listen to reason yet.”

“Get out of my room, Harry. I don’t want to see you ever again.” She raised her voice. “Nurse.”

“Fine,” he growled as he backed toward the door. “But don’t come running to me when he’s done with you.”

And then he was gone, leaving her alone and lonely like they’d just broken up.

She sank against the bed, exhausted.

The nurse came in to check on her, fussing until Matilda wanted to scream at her to get out. When she was alone again, she let the tears come.

How she missed that man. He might be an ass sometimes, but he was her ass.

Tuesday and Thursday nights were hardest. He was like a bad habit that needed breaking.

Right or wrong, she was holding fast to her resolve to out-stubborn him.

Outside the room, Brody’s quiet voice rumbled through the closed door. “Get in there, Hope.”

The ultimate whiny voice of the teen carried clearly through the door. “I don’t like hospitals and I don’t like sick people.”

“Neither do I, but this is what we do for family. We do things we’re not always crazy about doing and we do them without complaining.”

His words surprised Matilda. He surprised her. After all she’d said to him, all she’d done.

She squeezed her eyes shut and held her breath, straining to hear.

“Fine, have it your stupid way. I’m sick and tired of being grounded.” A moment later, Matilda heard the girl schlep into the room, stop by the bed, and whisper, “She’s sleeping. Can we go now?”

Matilda opened her eyes and the girl froze.

Beside her, Brody, looking uncomfortable, gave her a not quite real smile. “How are you doing, Matilda?”

She kept her voice steady. “Improving. They pumped my stomach and said I’ll be back to normal in a few days.”

“Good.” He glanced down at the top of Hope’s head. “Hope’s been worried about you, haven’t you, Hope?”

Bless his soul. Matilda wanted to hug him for his effort to be kind.

With a shuffle of her feet, Hope shrugged. “Sure, what he said.”

Brody’s expression turned pained. “If it’s okay, I’ll leave you two alone so you can visit.”

“Thank you, Brody,” Matilda said. As he quietly left the room, her gaze centered on her granddaughter. She was beautiful, like her mother had been, and it made Matilda’s heart squeeze in pain. “Thank you for coming, Hope.”

The girl shifted. “Dad made me. I don’t like hospitals.”

“I don’t either.” Matilda glanced toward the chair in the corner of the room. “Why don’t you bring that closer and make yourself comfortable?”

The teen hesitated and Matilda could practically read her thoughts. If she sat down, that meant she’d have to stay for a while.

Matilda gave her a shrug and a disarming smile. “Or not. You can stand if you’re more comfortable that way.”

Hope relaxed a little and leaned one hip against the edge of the bed. “So you’re not going to die or anything?”

“No. I’m going to be around for a very long time, dear.”

“Oh goody.” She almost sounded disappointed.

Matilda kept her dismay at bay. “You’ve been a busy girl. What have you been up to?”

Hope picked at the top sheet and shrugged. “Delivering newspapers. Hanging out at the beach.” Her head popped up and she looked at Matilda with concern. “Don’t tell Dad. I’m supposed to be grounded.”

“Sneaking out behind his back, eh?” Matilda grinned. “I used to do the same thing whenever my mom grounded me.”

Hope studied her with doubt. “Really?”

“Believe it or not, I’m not so old that I don’t remember what it was like to be young.” But the girl didn’t respond, simply went back to picking at the bed sheet. Matilda squished back a sigh. Kindly she said, “I’m sure your dad—” Calling Brody Dad slipped out without any effort. “—is wearing a hole in the linoleum. You should probably go before he gets too impatient and leaves without you.”

The teen perked up and smiled her first real smile since she’d entered the room. “Really? That’s okay with you? Are you sure you don’t want me to stay longer?”

She was already backing toward the door. Matilda gave a weak smile. “I don’t want you to stay if you don’t want to be here.”

“It’s not that, Grandma—”

“Never mind. No apologies necessary.” She gave a wave of her hand toward the door, but just before her granddaughter disappeared through the opening, she called her back. “Hope?”

The teen froze, her escape cut short. “Yes, Ma’am?”

“If you come visit me again, I won’t make you try on your mother’s ugly clothes.”

“Oh, that’s not why—”

Matilda cut her off before she could make up some lame excuse. “In fact, I’ve decided it’s time to give them away to someone who needs them more than you do. Would that be okay with you?”

The girl straightened. “Sure, that’s a really good idea.”

Maintaining what she hoped was a nonchalant tone, she said, “Sometime when you have nothing better to do, perhaps you’d like to come over and help me pack up the things. You know, in case there’s something in your mother’s belongings that you’d like as a keepsake.”

All of the stuffing seemed to go out of the girl. “I’d like that, Grandma, I really, really would.”

“Then it’s a date,” Matilda said.

She watched Hope back out of the room and disappear. Something in Matilda’s insides eased and the tightness in her stomach started to go away.

The first thing she’d do when she got out of the hospital was stop by Brody’s house to say thank you. It was the least she could do to make amends for her bad behavior.

And then she’d see if it was too late to get Brody elected to the Mayor’s chair. After all, if the man intended to raise her granddaughter, then he needed a good job to keep him on the island.

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

 

 

On the morning of the election, Paige woke with a heavy heart and a bad feeling in her gut.

After last night’s debate, Brody didn’t stand a chance against her dad, not unless she came up with a plan to reveal Jeb’s true character. And with the islanders heading to vote in record numbers—or at least that’s what Mr. Vaughan’s poll had revealed—she didn’t have much time.

She rolled out of bed, yanked on a flowered sundress, and headed down the hallway to enlist Starr’s help. Second to Jeb, the teen was the best schemer she knew.

But when she knocked on the door and opened it, she discovered a very empty and very neat room. Even the bed had been made exactly like Gram made her beds, and if she hadn’t already seen the teenage mess her daughter had made of the room, she could have sworn that nobody had inhabited the room for the past week.

The bad feeling in her stomach grew worse. By the time she reached the kitchen, she’d realized two things.

Unless she found Starr within the next few minutes, any chance she had to help Brody win the election would be gone.

And with Jeb in the Mayor’s chair, any chance to move to the island permanently had been stolen right out from under her.

Entering the kitchen, she found Gram at the table with her money jar, counting each bill and coin, then recording the amount in a large ledger book.

“Morning, Gram.” Paige headed for the coffeepot and filled a cup with the dark, rich brew. “Have you seen Starr?”

“Saw her in the garden with the other brat.”

Paige went to the screen door and glanced outside, but the back yard was empty. As she turned around, she saw Gram reach under the table, lift another money jar onto her lap, then dump the contents on the table.

Paige crouched down to peer under the table and saw another dozen jars scattered on the floor at Gram’s feet. “Gram, you need to put your money in the bank, especially if Dad is going to be around the island for a while.”

The old lady tsked and began to separate the bills and coins. “Ballots aren’t even counted yet and already the election is lost. I didn’t raise you to be a cup-half-empty girl.”

“No, you didn’t.” She’d learned early on that just when life appeared promising, it tossed another wrench into her plans. She sighed. “Seriously, you need to put all of your money in the bank where it’s safe from him.”

The elderly woman huffed out a breath. “Maybe if you decide to stick around a little while longer, I’ll let you help me.”

“Maybe I will.” Paige didn’t really mean it, but as she crossed the kitchen and slipped onto the chair across from her grandmother, and eyed the hefty totals in the ledger book, she acknowledged that her grandmother was getting old, and she did need someone nearby that she could trust to help her make the right decisions. With Jeb on the island scamming the islanders out of their hard earned cash, someone needed to protect these people…and just maybe that someone needed to be her.

Even if it all blew up in her face again. This time, she could stand up for herself. This time, she wouldn’t take the blame for her dad’s crooked actions.

Gram made another notation in the ledger, then raised her beady gaze to look Paige up and down. “If you don’t hurry up and get changed into something respectable, I’ll be late to vote. I don’t know why you want to come with me. You’re not a permanent resident, so you can’t cast a ballot. At least your dad was smart enough to keep up his permanent resident status, even if he shouldn’t be running for Mayor.”

“I want to be there to support Brody,” she explained. “Did Starr say where she was going?”

Gram picked up a piece of paper from the pile and with a frown, studied it. “No. But she thanked me for the gardening lessons.”

“Thanked you? That’s odd.”

“Odd isn’t the word I’d use. Never thought that girl would amount to a hill of beans in the garden, but it appears she inherited my green thumb.” Gram waved the slip of paper in the air. “Her disappearance could have something to do with this.”

Paige took the paper from her grandmother’s outstretched hand and recognized Starr’s handwriting.

Dear Olivia, IOU $50. Thank you for not sicing the police after me. Your beloved—and may I respectfully remind you that I’m your only—great-granddaughter, the Brat.

Gram pushed to her feet, set the ledger into the top cupboard, then proceeded to shove the jar under her arm in behind it. “From the moment that girl set foot in my house, I knew she was headed for trouble.”

Paige sighed. “I’ll make sure she pays you back.”

“With interest.”

“Of course. I’m sorry, Gram.” It seemed she was always apologizing. “I didn’t mean to cause you more problems. I caused you enough when I lived here. I apologize for that too.”

Silence filled the kitchen, broken only by the shuffle of Gram’s slippers against the floor as she retrieved another jar, the sound of coins clinking against the glass surface, and the thump as the older woman set it in the cupboard beside the first.

Paige pushed to her feet to help her, and without a word exchanged, they set the jars away. When they were done, Gram caught her by the hand to stop her from leaving.

The faded blue eyes were filled with tears as she gazed up at Paige’s face. “There’s something I should have told you ages ago.”

“What?”

“I knew you weren’t the one who pulled that scam on the good folks of Serendipity Island.”

Paige felt her eyebrows raise. “You did?”

Gram bit her lip and nodded.

“Then why didn’t you say anything in my defense? Why did you let me get arrested and take the rap for it?”

Gram released her hand and turned her back on her, then pulled a tissue from her pocket and dabbed at her eyes. “Your daddy, well, he may be my only child, but I know he’s no innocent. You needed to learn a hard lesson about standing up to him, and about right and wrong.”

“Seriously?” Paige couldn’t help it. As a laugh escaped her, she bent to give her grandmother a hug, then was rewarded when the old lady squirmed around in her embrace and hugged her back. “I love you, Gram, and I owe you a huge thank you because I learned those lessons loud and clear.”

“Better to learn as a juvenile than end up in the big joint with all those criminals.” Gram pushed out of her arms, the tears dried up, the twinkle back in her eyes…the twinkle Starr had inherited. “I love you too, girl, always have. And you’re welcome.”

With another laugh, Paige pulled the cereal boxes in front of the jars and closed the cupboard doors. “Come on. I’ll take you down to vote. Maybe Hope and Starr are hanging out at the voting station needling the voters.”

Gram rubbed her hands together. “Maybe I’ll help them.”

As Gram grabbed her purse, footsteps clomped up the back steps. A moment later, Brody pulled open the screen door and stepped into the house. “Morning, ladies. Is Hope here?”

“Gone with the brat.” Gram glanced at Paige and smirked. “I wish the others would take the hint.”

Paige smirked back at the old lady, suddenly realizing that the crustiness was all an outer defense. “You know, Gram, I’m beginning to think you don’t really mean that.” She turned her attention to the man at the door. “We think the girls are down at the voting station heckling the voters.”

He grimaced. “Well, I guess it won’t matter since I’m down in the polls anyway.”

Gram tsked. “Another half-empty-glass. Well, at least together you make a full cup.”

Brody grabbed Paige’s hand, kissed the palm, then tugged her toward the back door. “You coming, Olivia?”

“Let me just grab my purse.”

As the telephone rang, Paige reached for the receiver, her heart lighter than it had been in forever. “Hello?”

A sweetly concerned voice came over the line. “Olivia? This is Mary Style. My Social Security check arrived in the mail today and I wanted to give your great-granddaughter some more money for her sick puppy.”

Paige’s gaze settled on Brody. “More?”

“Yes. Those sweet little girls were so sad. It was all I could do not to cry along with them.”

Her voice cracked. “Them?”

“Hope Jackson, Matilda’s granddaughter, was helping her raise money.” Mrs. Style sniffled. “I know the first one-hundred dollars won’t go far at the veterinary clinic, and now I can afford to give her another one-hundred.”

“Mrs. Style, Starr doesn’t have a puppy.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’m so sorry, but I’m afraid Starr lied to you.”

“Lied?” There was a gasp of outrage. “If those girls don’t return my money, I’m calling the police.”

“No, please don’t involve the police. I’ll take care of this, make it ri—” But Paige was talking to a dial tone. She hung up the phone and faced Brody with the ugly truth. “Did Hope take her backpack with her this morning?”

“Yeah, as a matter of fact, she did.” He frowned. “I had the weirdest phone call from Agatha Vaughan.”

“Did she tell you she wanted to give Hope another one hundred dollars for her friend’s sick puppy?”

“Yeah, how did you know?”

Paige grabbed him by the arm and tugged him out of the house. Over her shoulder, she said, “Gram, don’t go anywhere without me. While you’re waiting, maybe you could do some damage control.”

Without even being told what was going on, Gram grabbed the receiver. “On it, girl.”

Brody tugged back, slowing her progress. “What’s going on?”

She let go of his arm and trudged forward, knowing full well that he would follow her. “I’m afraid Starr might have gotten Hope into trouble.”

“Trouble is Hope’s middle name. If anything, it’s the other way around.” He tugged on her hand, pulling her around to face him. “What’s really going on?”

She took a deep breath and jumped into the deep end of the truth. “There’s something I need to tell you about my family.”

“Okay.”

“We’re con-artists.” At the look of shock on his face, she quickly backtracked. “Well, not anymore, of course. When I was a kid, I worked cons with my dad.” She crossed her fingers behind her back in case the next part of her statement wasn’t totally true. “My dad has since retired from the game.”

There was doubt on his face now. “Are you trying to tell me that Starr and Hope conned Mary Style and Agatha Vaughan?”

“Yes. I’m afraid Starr comes by it naturally.”

Brody appeared to take the news in stride, which was a good thing, because she was freaked out enough for the two of them.

“So the girls were going around town trying to get money for an imaginary sick puppy? Why? What do they need the money for?”

“Not only have they taken money from other people, but Gram found an IOU for fifty dollars in one of her money jars.”

“Two hundred and fifty.” With a snap of his fingers, he grabbed her hand and dragged her along with him. “Come on. If we hurry, we can still catch them. The ferry leaves in ten minutes.”

Paige stumbled after him. “The ferry?”

Brody sighed heavily. “Hope has been begging to return to the city and her friends. A ferry ticket back to the Mainland for a youth is $125. I think Starr decided to help her new friend.”

“I’m sorry. This would never have happened if we hadn’t come back.” She tugged him to a stop. “Have you voted yet?”

“No.”

“You should go and do that. I can’t vote anyway, so let me take care of this. I promise to bring Hope back.”

His expression hardened. “I’m not leaving you to deal with this on your own.”

And as she turned her back on him, she realized that the longer her and her dad stayed around town, the worse it would get for Brody and Hope.

“It’s not Starr’s fault. It’s not even Hope’s fault,” he said as though he could read her mind. “It’s my fault. Hope has been unhappy since we moved here. I should have listened and at least taken her back to the city for a visit.”

Paige squeezed his hand. “Matilda and the court order didn’t give you much choice.”

“Screw Matilda. Hope is my daughter.”

By the time they reached the ferry, it was pulling away from the dock. Paige swallowed back the urge to cry and glanced at the man standing shoulder to shoulder with her. “Now what?”

But his gaze wasn’t on the ferry. In fact, there was relief on his face. He directed her attention along the shoreline. “Look.”

Starr and Hope sat together on a park bench under the shade of a palm tree. They looked dejected, sadder than Paige had ever seen anyone look. As if they too knew there was more at stake than their own happiness.

As they approached, the girls looked up, and pushed to their feet, guilt etched into their expressions.

Starr opened her mouth first. “Mom, I can explain—”

Paige put up her hand for silence. “We’ll discuss this when we return to Gram’s.”

Hope raised her gaze to her dad’s face. “I suppose now I’ll have to go back to calling you Brody.”

“Come on, Pumpkin,” he said. “Let’s go home.”

They walked in silence, and as Brody and his teen veered off toward his house, Paige followed her own daughter up the sidewalk toward Gram’s front door.

The teen turned to her as though she was going to say something, so she gave her what she hoped was her sternest look. “Don’t say a word, young lady.”

“But Mom.”

“Don’t but mom me. What you did was inexcusable and you know it. How could you involve Hope in your scheme? When Matilda learns of this…” Paige shook her head and took a deep breath, so angry she was ready to cut and run before they could cause more problems for Brody and Hope. “You know what you’ve done, don’t you? When Matilda learns about this, she’ll take Hope away from Brody.”

Starr’s gaze deepened with concern, and she hung her head. “I’m sorry, Mom.”

“Why would you do something so despicable? Why would you cheat people out of their money?”

“Hope wanted to go home,” she whispered sorrowfully, and Paige realized that she was as much to blame for this as anyone else.

But still, it was inexcusable, and Starr needed to be punished.

“This is Hope’s home now. Here with Brody, her grandma close by.”

Starr raised her head, her eyes bright with tears. “What about us?”

The front door swung open and her dad loomed in the open doorway. “Buttercup—”

“What have you been teaching her, Dad?” She pushed Starr the final few feet into the house, then slammed the door behind them. To keep out the rest of the world. To keep their private business private. “Now two innocent bystanders are going to get hurt.”

His face darkened as he glared at Starr. “Those two girls aren’t as innocent as they look.”

She crossed her arms over her chest and faced him. “And what do you mean by that?”

They blackmailed me.”

Her arms dropped slack to her sides. “What?”

“That’s right. The moment your kid found out I wasn’t really a handyman, she came after me like an All Star conman.”

Gram shuffled into the front entrance, her face plied with makeup, her large purse slung over one arm. “Well, what did you expect? The girl hasn’t done anything that others in the family haven’t already done.”

“That doesn’t make it right.” Paige crossed her arms over her chest. “You are going to work off your debt to Gram and Mrs. Style.”

Gram snapped her purse closed, her keys in one hand. “So you decided to stick around for a while and make sure I deposit my money into the bank?”

Jeb swung around to face the older woman. “You have money?”

Paige ignored him. “We’ll be here only long enough for Starr to work off her debt, but while we’re here, we’ll take your jars down to the bank.”

Her dad glanced around. “Jars?”

She gritted her teeth. “Forget it, Dad.”

He held up his hands, giving her the innocent look that he’d perfected long before she was born. “Okay, okay, don’t get into a snit.”

Gram headed toward the front door, her heels tap-tap-tapping against the shiny hardwood floor, her mouth thin. “Well, we better head to town. Don’t want the new Mayor to be late for his own acceptance speech.”

That turned Paige’s attention elsewhere and she glanced at her watch. “You mean it’s over?”

“Yep.” Jeb took a step toward the front door, then turned back. “I realize now that Matilda only nominated me for Mayor so Brody would fail.”

“Then you’ll withdraw?”

“It’s too late for that.” He suddenly reared back and glowered. “If you should be mad at anyone, it’s Matilda.”

“Matilda has been nothing but nice to me.”

He took a step closer. “I never meant for you to be hurt.”

She looked away, to the side. “That’s what you always say.”

“I don’t care about myself, but it breaks my heart that you’re in love with Brody, and that means that Brody’s failure will break your heart.” His glower deepened. “If it’s the last thing I do, I’ll set that manipulating woman straight.”

“Forget it, Dad. As soon as Starr works off her debt, we’ll be gone.”

And it broke her heart to break her daughter’s heart.

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

 

 

Delores stood in the empty church, her wedding gown squeezing her abundant curves while she scarfed down an ice cream bar to settle her pre-wedding jitters.

An hour later, she was still alone, the half-empty box of bars clutched in her arms, the wrappings strewn about her like dead, beached fish.

Her stomach gurgled, uncomfortable, and the longer she waited, the heavier she felt. She was bloated, gassy, and gross, no way to be on her wedding day or wedding night

And it was all Paige’s fault.

Why had the woman come back to town now? A week later, and it would’ve been too late because Delores would have been Mrs. Brody Jackson.

For the thousandth time, she glanced at her watch.

By now the vote was over, the ballots counted, and Brody and his opponent—that cunning shyster who had bedazzled everyone in town—should be on the stage at Town Hall. The polls hadn’t been going in Brody’s favor, so she feared Jeb would be their new Mayor.

It was all Brody’s fault for focusing on his bratty daughter and Olivia’s whore-of-a-granddaughter instead of on the Mayor’s race.

If the FBI had come sooner, the ugliness ahead could have been avoided. Instead, on what should have been the happiest day of her life, there would now be chaos.

First Lady

She felt something wet on her bosom and she looked down to see vanilla ice-cream and chocolate smeared across the bodice of her beautiful gown. Appalled, she dropped the box onto the floor, and tried to scrub away the telltale signs of her gluttony.

The stain spread, and anger consumed her.

Brody was late for their wedding and the longer she waited, the more she ate, the heavier she felt, the more pissed she got. And then it occurred to her…she’d been so focused on getting rid of Paige that she’d forgotten to tell Brody what time to show up at the church.

With the heel of her hand, she slapped her forehead. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

The door at the back of the church opened, and two men in suits and dark sunglasses stepped out of the sunlight and into the shade. As the doors swished closed behind them, they stood there, sunglasses in place, apparently letting their eyes adjust to the dark. When they spotted her, they headed her way.

“It’s not too late. It’s not too late,” she whispered. There was still time to prove that Paige and her family were frauds. Still time for Brody to see the error of his choice, still time for him to get down on both knees to beg for her hand in marriage—and she wasn’t going to make this easy, the man would definitely have to beg—and then she’d be standing up on the stage with him.

First Lady.

Of course, it upset her that in the process, she would hurt Olivia. But there were always casualties in every war.

“Mrs. Peabody?”

“That would be Ms. to you.” She licked her sticky fingers, reached down to pick up the ice-cream bar box off the floor, and grabbed another bar. Unwrapping it, she pierced them with a narrow eyed look. “You two with the FBI?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

She hated being called Ma’am. It made her feel dowdy and old and bitchy and uncooperative. “You were supposed to be here yesterday.”

“It took longer to clarify your information than expected.” They peered around the empty church, then back at her wedding gown. “Have we come at a bad time?”

“Every moment around here is bad.”

“Where is our prisoner?”

She gulped down the last of the bar, crumpled the wrapper in her hands, and tossed it to the floor with the rest.

As the next First Lady, she’d be revered by the islanders. “Come on, I’ll take you to the man you want to arrest.”

CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

 

 

Brody stood to the side of the stage as Jeb gave his acceptance speech, and feared his world was about to crater.

Since Matilda had come on stage, she hadn’t looked at him or Hope once. He imagined she was gloating big time, and if he could see her face, he wouldn’t like what he saw.

Beside him, Hope slipped her small hand into his. “I’m sorry, Brody.”

He glanced down at her, sorrow squeezing his heart. “What happened to Dad?”

She shrugged and looked away, but not before he saw tears in her eyes. “If I have to go live with Grandma, I’m sure she won’t let me see you. We’ll be strangers again.”

He cursed under his breath and squeezed her hand, hoping to reassure her that everything would turn out. It had to. “I’m not giving you up, Hope. You are my daughter. I know we’ve had our differences, but I’d do it all again. My only regret is that I missed the first thirteen years of your life. I’m not missing the rest.”

She gave him a wobbly smile, and as he turned his attention back to the podium, his gaze landed on Matilda.

The older woman was watching them, probably gloating about her win. But there was something unrecognizable in her gaze. Something that almost looked like compassion.

She whispered in Jeb’s ear, then headed their way. With a loving gesture, she brushed the back of her hand across Hope’s cheek.

Brody felt Hope’s hand in his tighten, and he tightened his grip back.

But Matilda came to stand beside him, not saying a word as she joined the crowd in clapping at something Jeb had just said.

Out the corner of his mouth, he said, “I don’t want to, but I’ll fight you every inch of the way. Hope should be with me and if you weren’t only thinking of yourself, you’d know that.”

And then Matilda did the only thing she could to surprise Brody. She turned to face him and apologized.

“I sorry to the both of you. I promise to be a better grandma to Hope and a friend to you.” She started to babble, but Brody was so surprised, he’d stopped listening.

Finally, he tuned back in as she said, “I guess I missed my daughter so much, I wanted to make up for being a failure as a mother, and I thought I could do that with Hope. I know I probably sound silly, but it feels so good to let it all out.”

She took a deep breath, leaned closer, and lowered her voice. “I’ve been in love with Harry for quite some time now. I didn’t want to admit it to anyone else, but there it is. And I’ve been so stupid about it. He asked me to marry him, but I turned him down.”

Brody tried to contain the hope awakening in him. “What are you saying?”

“If he’ll still have me, I’m selling my house so I can travel across the Mainland with him.” She shifted her gaze from Jeb, to Brody and Hope. “Please forgive me for being such an idiot.”

“Of course,” Brody and Hope answered in unison, and they smiled at each other, so perfectly in unison that it gave Brody hope for their future together as father and daughter.

“I hope you’ll let me see my granddaughter on occasion.”

Brody nodded and squeezed Hope’s hand. “You bet, Matilda. I’d like Hope to spend time with you and get to know you. And then maybe we can all become the family we should have been in the first place.”

The tense expression on her face relaxed and she leaned toward him until they were touching shoulders. “I wish I had been on your side, Brody. You would have made a wonderful Mayor, probably even better than Jeb.”

“It’s okay,” he replied softly. “I did it all to prove to you that I was good enough to raise your granddaughter.”

They exchanged smiles, and with a nod in Jeb’s direction, Matilda left the stage and headed through the crowd toward the Judge’s motorhome.

“Wow,” Hope said beside him, and all Brody could say in return was, “Double wow.”

But a few minutes later, a commotion in the crowd caught his attention.

Brody watched Delores push her way to the front, two men in dark suits and even darker sunglasses following close behind. She was wearing what used to be a white wedding gown. There was chocolate smeared across the top, and the bottom of the skirt was coated in a layer of street dust.

As she raised her arm to point at Jeb, Brody got a bad feeling in his gut.

“That’s him,” she called out. “That’s the man you want to arrest. He’s scammed half the old ladies on the island out of their retirement funds.”

And while the FBI jumped onto the stage and handcuffed their prisoner, Delores hitched her skirt up to her knees, and in a very unladylike, totally un-Delores-like move, clambered onto the stage and headed for Brody.

“He’s a conman, Brody, which means that you’re Mayor by default. I’ll be a very good First Lady for you.” She paused and smiled, obviously pleased with herself, then with a sour tilt of her mouth, hooked a thumb at Hope. “But she has to go. I have a boarding school all picked out.”

In a flurry of bedraggled skirts, she turned, hopped down off the stage, and headed for Paige.

Hope tugged at his hand, her eyes wide open. “Do something, Dad, or I swear, I’ll step up my badness, rob a bank, and start calling you Brody again.”

Holding tight to his daughter’s hand, Brody headed off the stage.

They were in this together—Paige and Starr and Hope and him—for better or worse.

And it was about to get much worse.

CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT

 

 

As Matilda worked her way through the crowd, she heard a commotion behind her, but she didn’t turn around. She was focused on getting her man, and she was letting nothing—nobody—interfere.

Earlier she’d seen Harry escort Lisa into the motorhome, and she hoped she wasn’t too late.

Lisa was a nice woman, even if she was a porn star, and Harry was obviously infatuated with her. She couldn’t blame either of them if she lost Harry to Lisa. It would be her own fault.

But she was going to fight for him and prove that she was the woman he really wanted. It was all she could do now.

As she approached, the motorhome door swung open, and Lisa stepped out. She was wearing high heels, a short skirt that showed off her lethally long legs, and a halter-top that sagged at the cleft between her breasts and left little to the imagination. No doubt, she’d had Harry’s tongue hanging out of his mouth.

Matilda’s steps slowed. How could she compete with that?

A pang of grief hit her hard in the chest, robbing the breath from her lungs, and the starch from her matronly shaped body. She forced herself to put one foot in front of the other.

Do…or die alone.

Lisa zigged and zagged around the people in the crowd, pushing her way toward the stage, but when she spotted Matilda, she zigged her way, closing the distance until the two women stood face to face.

With a curl to her upper lip, the shapely porn star said, “Harry asked me to join him on his tour of the Mainland. But all I’m interest in is sex, Matilda, and you know what?”

Fear clogging her throat, Matilda barely squeaked out a response. “What?”

“When I got naked in the motorhome, that man hoed and hummed, and began to make excuses. And then he turned me down.” Surprise sparked in the lush green of her eyes. “I’ve never had a man turn me down before.”

Relief bowled through Matilda, and hope replaced the panic in her stomach.

“And that’s when I realized, all Harry wants is you. Just like Brody…all Brody wants is Paige.”

Matilda put her fingers to her lips and breathed out a single, “Oh.”

“Will you forgive me? I betrayed our growing friendship and I’m so sorry.”

“Of course I’ll forgive you.”

“I was a poor substitute.” She laughed, this time a little shrilly. “Can you believe it? I’ve never been a poor substitute in my life.”

“I’m sorry, Lisa. I’ll tell Harry he owes you an apology.”

Lisa waved one hand through the air. “No need. Because of my friendship with you, I’ve decided to be celibate for a while. See how life is without sex.”

Matilda thought of her Tuesday and Thursday nights with Harry, and felt her lips stretch into a smile. “You’ll miss it.”

Lisa shrugged, then hooked a thumb over her shoulder. “Harry’s leaving for his trip alone unless you have the courage to admit that you’ve been wrong.”

Matilda reached for the other woman and dragged her into a warm embrace. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. That’s what friends do for each other.” Lisa released her, started to turn away, then turned back, regret claiming her features. “This visit made me realize what I missed out on when I walked away from being a mom.”

“Motherhood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It’s not all good times and roses. And when you make a mistake…” Her voice drifted off. Really, there wasn’t much more to say.

Lisa nodded, as though she understood. “My daughter is a wonderful mother. She certainly didn’t learn how to be one from me.” She put her hands on Matilda’s shoulders to look her square in the eyes. “Brody and her are awesome to watch with the girls. Have you seen them?”

“Uh, no.” She’d been too busy trying to prove Brody was a bad father that she hadn’t noticed his parental skills.

“You should pay attention. You’re in for a pleasant surprise.” Lisa started to turn away, but then she turned back. “And Matilda? Give Brody a chance with Hope. You’ll make both of them very happy.”

“I already have,” Matilda said, but Lisa was already winding her way toward the stage, leaving Matilda alone to stare across the parking lot at the closed motorhome door.

“Just do it, Mattie,” she whispered, and once she got her feet moving, she began to hurry.

She still didn’t like the idea of campfires and mosquitoes and bears lumbering into the campground for a midnight snack, but with Harry at her side—in her bed every night of the week—it would be worth the discomfort.

She knocked on the door and let herself in.

Harry sat with his elbows on the table, his face buried in his hands. When he looked up and saw her, there was a sudden light in his eyes—surprise and delight—before he quickly masked it with a dour expression. “What are you doing here?”

She risked a single step closer and stopped. “You were right, Harry. I’m an old fool. If you can find it in your heart to forgive me, I’d love to marry you.”

His dour expression turned suspicious. “And you’ll come travel with me?”

“Yes, wherever and for as long as you like.” Her throat closed up. “I love you, Harry.”

He bounced to his feet, almost as agile as he’d been at twenty, closed the distance between them, and swept her into his arms. “I love you, Mattie. I’ve always loved you.”

And then he kissed her and she melted against his body, experienced the thrill of the feel of him, hard to her soft. From here on out, they were no longer limited to Tuesday and Thursday nights. She could make love with Harry whenever and wherever she wanted.

Before they got carried away, she pulled back. “I just have one thing to do and then I’m all yours. For tonight, tomorrow, forever.”

Giving Harry one more kiss, putting all of her love and the promise of their future together in that kiss, she headed out of the motorhome and saw the furious mob of islanders heading out of the Town Square.

CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE

 

 

Paige stared at Delores bearing down on them and the possibility of a future on Serendipity Island crumbled. “I can explain,” she started, but the roar of the crowd drowned out her words. She glanced at the faces around her.

Angry faces.

Furious people.

A mad mob.

Not knowing what else to do, Paige grabbed Starr by the collar and backed away. Her gaze landed on Brody.

He stood at the edge of the stage, his gaze fixed on her as he jumped down and began to push his way through the crowd toward her, Hope in his wake. Before he could reach her, before the mob turned violent, she bolted, urging Starr and Gram toward the car.

Jeb had lied to her, and she had foolishly wanted to believe him.

“Does this mean we have to leave?” Starr shouted above the noise of the crowd, her expression more downcast that Paige had ever seen.

“I don’t know.” All she knew was that her chance to give her daughter the home and family life Paige had always longed for had been ruined.

She thought of Gram, all alone in that big old house with no family nearby.

She thought of Hope, who was like the sister Starr had always wanted.

She thought of Brody and the way he looked at her in the moonlight, like he wanted her more than his next breath.

Could she drag Starr away and leave the life they both loved behind? All because Jeb couldn’t keep his itchy fingers away from other people’s money?

But what choice did she have?

This time Paige didn’t remark about Gram’s erratic driving, and by the time Gram pulled onto the street, all she could focus on was the FBI agents who were already parked in front of the house, walking Jeb up the front steps.

And then she noticed that instead of slowing down, the car seemed to be accelerating. She leaned forward and braced one hand on the dash. “Gram, what are you doing?”

The feisty old lady gripped the steering wheel, her knuckles white, and pressed down on the accelerator. “Hold on tight, girls.”

Paige pressed one arm across Starr’s chest and braced for the impact.

The big boat of a car plowed into the FBI’s vehicle and jerked to a stop. Gram shoved the gearshift into park, a satisfied smile blooming across her mouth. “There. That’ll delay their departure.”

Thankful for Gram’s quick thinking—even though she would never admit it out loud—Paige spilled from the car, Starr on her heels, and raced up the sidewalk toward the house. As she passed by one of the agents who was headed to check out the damage, she muttered, “It won’t hurt my feelings if you take away her license.”

Jeb stood on the porch. Guilt shone in his faded blue eyes.

She skidded to a stop in front of him, hands fisted at her sides. “How could you lie to me? You promised this time would be different.”

“Buttercup, I lie to everyone.” He smiled sadly, and his gaze shifted to his granddaughter. “I don’t suppose she could…you know, like you did?”

Paige gasped. “Take the rap for you? No way. How can you even ask?”

Starr leaned into her, a disapproving expression on her face. “Grandpa, that’s low.”

He looked sheepish. “I’m sorry. I hope you’ll forgive me someday.”

Starr crossed her arms over her chest and turned her back on him.

Paige watched him close the distance between them, the remaining FBI agent on alert.

“If it’s any consolation, Buttercup, when I got elected, I really did intend to go straight.” He held up one handcuffed hand as though he were on the witness stand. “God’s honest truth.”

And as Paige stared at him, into the blue depths of his eyes that had begun to cloud over with the growth of cataracts, she discovered that she believed him.

Maybe she shouldn’t, but when it came to the man who had raised her, she was weak.

Although thanks to Gram, she was no longer stupid about it. She could love him despite his tendency to be bad.

With a sigh, she stepped into his arms and held on, memorizing the familiar warmth of his arms as he hugged her back. “I love you, Dad.”

“I love you, too, Buttercup. I’m sorry I wasn’t the father you deserved. I’m sorry I couldn’t settle down and give you the life you deserved.”

She patted him on the back, then stepped out of his arms. “It’s okay. I turned out not too bad despite your attempts to corrupt me.”

And she realized that she believed her words. She had turned out fine. She’d learned to be independent, resourceful, and honest. She slid a glance toward the FBI agent, but he didn’t seem to be in any rush to drag her dad off to jail. “I’ll send you pictures of Starr and Gram, maybe even bring them to visit you.”

His chest swelled and he released a deep, shuddering breath. “You’d make an old man very happy.”

From down the street, voices swelled, and she turned to see the crowd that had been at the town square headed their way. Way out ahead of them was Lisa, jogging in her too short skirt and high heels, outdistancing the crowd without any problem. Not even breathing heavy, she sprinted up the front steps and stopped beside Paige. “Am I too late?”

Jeb smiled at his ex-wife. “To say goodbye? I’m sure this kind gentleman will give me adequate time to say a proper goodbye to my family and friends.”

Somber and silent, the FBI agent crossed his arms over his chest.

Lisa swung her attention to Paige. “Honey, if that crowd wants to tar and feather you, you and Starr and Olivia can come live with me in L.A. You’re all more than welcome for as long as you want to stay.”

“Thank you,” she said, for the first time ever, appreciative of Lisa’s efforts to be supportive. While Lisa and her would never have a mother-daughter relationship, the other woman would make a good—and interesting—friend.

As Lisa turned her attention from Paige to the agent, her expression morphed from almost mother-like to pure, outright sultry. She leaned in close, the front of her top gaping open, and in a loud stage whisper said, “Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to take my ex upstairs and give him a nice going away present.” Wink, wink. The agent’s expression remained immobile. Lisa sighed and straightened. “In case you didn’t understand my subtle remark, I want to take Jeb upstairs and give him some going-to-prison sex.” She waggled her eyebrows and grinned. “You can even watch, if you want. You know, so he doesn’t escape.”

Paige glanced down at Starr, who rolled her eyes and groaned. “Gross, Grandma.”

The edges of Lisa’s mouth quirked up and instead of admonishing Starr for calling her Grandma, she winked at her granddaughter before turning her attention back to the taller man. “Well?”

The FBI agent smirked, then with a shake of his head said, “Sorry, Ma’am, I can’t allow that.”

“Your loss,” she said breezily, then leaned in to hug her ex.

Paige turned her back on them to give them a private moment, and that’s when she saw the crowd on the street swarm past Gram’s car and into the front yard. They looked even angrier than before, and they had every right to be.

Starr leaned into her. “You can leave if you want, but if you don’t mind too much, I’d like to stay here with Olivia. They already know the worst about our family. Maybe it’s time to show people that we’re different from Grandpa.”

She frowned down at her. “What about the sick puppy scam you pulled?”

Starr looked sheepish. “Hope and I…we didn’t spend the money. We’ll give it back and beg for forgiveness. Maybe even volunteer to mow lawns or wash windows to make up for our bad behavior.” She smiled with certainty in her eyes “Things can only go uphill from here, right, Mom?”

Her daughter, it seemed, was much braver—and smarter—than she’d been at that age. It made her proud.

Before she could answer, she spotted Brody. He was pushing his way to the front of the crowd, Hope close behind him. As he reached the bottom of the steps, his gaze flicked from her to Jeb.

“I’ll take care of your family while you’re gone, Sir. And when you get out, if you decide to return to town and go straight, you’ll have a home and a handyman job waiting for you.” He grinned and with a sweep of his hand, indicated the crowd behind him. “And since you’re so popular with the people here, maybe even the Mayor’s position.”

Tears welled in Jeb’s eyes. “Thank you, son.”

And then Brody turned his gaze up to Paige. “You’re not leaving me, are you?”

She looked past him into Hope’s eyes.

Past Hope to the angry crowd.

Past the angry crowd to where Gram was reluctantly handing her driver’s license over to the thin-lipped FBI agent.

Beyond the agent to the ocean waves sparkling in the distance.

Then back at Brody.

Only a few days ago, she’d driven onto Serendipity Island, reluctant to face the past and the lie that had been her life.

And now, everything she ever wanted was right here in front of her.

Love. Acceptance. The truth. And a family for her and Starr.

With a smile tugging at her lips, she stepped down to Brody’s level and into his arms. “You’ll have to make an honest woman out of me.”

“Baby, consider it done.”

As he captured her mouth in a kiss that curled her toes and warmed her from the inside out, the chants of the crowd finally worked their way into her brain.

Free Jeb. Free Jeb. Free Jeb.”

They were home at last.

CHAPTER FORTY

 

 

Delores followed the angry mob—and Brody—from the town square to Olivia’s house, where she assumed the FBI must have stopped so Jeb could pick up his personal belongings. She stood on her tiptoes so she could see what was going on, but she’d long discarded her heels, and in bare feet, she was too short.

She felt sorry for her dear friend Olivia. But once Paige and her no good family were gone, Delores would make it up to the elderly woman. Maybe paint the shutters of her house or something.

The chants of the crowd finally infiltrated her thoughts.

Free Jeb. Free Jeb. Free Jeb.”

Delores stared at the people closest to her, confused, unable to believe what she was hearing.

Why weren’t they happy that Brody was Mayor?

She raised her fist in the air and shouted, “Mayor Brody. Mayor Brody. Mayor Brody.” But her shout got lost in the noise, and she lowered her arm to her side and gave up.

What did it matter anyway? Soon she’d be First Lady of Serendipity Island and she’d have the power to make them all pay.

Up ahead, she caught a glimpse of Brody near the front porch. She shoved her way through the crowd, elbowing people aside, uncaring whether she jostled them to the ground or whatever.

Because she had to stop Brody. If he reached his floozy, her dream to become First Lady would be lost.

But by the time she got near enough to the house to see Brody kiss Paige, Matilda and Lisa had roadblocked her way.

It was time to reveal her secret weapon and embarrass the old bat. Delores knew all about the President of the Ladies Society’s secret rendezvous with the Judge. And the porn queen…well, she wasn’t even worth her time.

But before she could evade them, or open her mouth to shout out the truth, the two women looped their arms through hers, forced her to turn around, and led her back to the street.

The crowd parted for the two women at her side as though they were royalty, and the power Delores had felt upon waking that morning diminished even further. The islanders had never, ever treated her with such respect and dignity.

Before they got all the way through the crowd, she pulled back once to look over her shoulder, hope rising in her chest that Brody had spotted her and dropped Paige like yesterday’s fling.

But he was still kissing the other woman.

As she turned away, her stomach began to burn.

No way could she allow it to end here. She needed to focus on her mission. First Lady of Serendipity Island. Madame President.

The pound cake had failed and she was all out of rat poison, which is why Matilda had probably lived despite her reputation as a pound cake pig.

She could wait for the next moonlit night, when she was sure to see Paige try to sneak from Olivia’s house over to Brody’s. A shovel to the back of the head, and all of her problems would be over.

Finally through the crowd and on the street, she saw Olivia’s car blocking the FBI’s exit. And as they stopped in the middle of the street, Matilda and Lisa surrounded her.

The old bat took in her appearance and tsked. “Look at you.”

The porn queen clucked. “Poor thing.”

Delores followed their gaze down her dirty wedding dress that nipped tightly at her waist and exposed the new roll of fat around her stomach and hips. The anger she’d kept bottled up escaped. “It’s Paige’s fault. She should never have come back. Brody was mine. Brody is mine. Brody will be—”

But as the shocked expression on the two women’s faces filtered through her anger, she realized that she’d gone too far.

Sometimes it was better to shut up and pretend to go along with things. There would always be another day to fight the good fight.

Matilda smoothed one hand down her arm and caught her hand, then with a tight expression, took a moment to inspect Delores’s chewed to the quick fingernails. “Everything will be okay, honey.”

Lisa patted her arm. “We’ll help you lose weight and find a man of your own.”

She choked back her response. She wanted Brody and only Brody.

In the next breath, she realized that if she couldn’t have him, she didn’t want another man to complicate her life and smother her freedom.

While Matilda and Lisa continued to chatter, and make plans for diet and exercise and who knew what else, Delores tuned them out.

What she really wanted was to be First Lady of the island. Or barring that, Madame President of the Ladies Society.

She tuned back in to hear Matilda say to Lisa, “Of course, I’ll be on the road with Harry.”

Lisa stroked one hand down the flair of her hip. “And I need to get back to L.A. to start making my new movie.”

Delores rarely missed a good opportunity and she jumped into the conversation. “If you want me to leave Brody and Paige alone, then appoint me Madame President of the Ladies Society.”

Matilda exchanged a worried glance with Lisa before fixing her apologetic gaze back on Delores. “Well now, honey, you know the Mayor’s wife is always Madam President.”

She fisted her hands at her sides and leaned forward, ready to give the old bat a taste of her own attitude. But when both women gasped and stepped back, Delores realized they were frightened of her.

Even if it was only a little bit, it was something.

Power surged through her chest. “Change the rules. Isn’t that what you always do to suit yourself? I swear, if you don’t, I’ll make so much trouble for Paige and Brody that they’ll never be able to show their faces on the island again.”

Matilda recovered first and placed one hand on Delores’s forearm. “How about if we start with Acting Madam President and take it from there?”

All of the anger and fight went out of Delores, and she smiled up at the woman she’d always aspired to be like. “Really?”

After all, the world wasn’t conquered in a day.

EPILOGUE

 

 

One month later…

 

As Paige stood beside Brody, her hand in his, she watched the motorhome that had followed her off the ferry and onto the island all those weeks ago.

Brody and her had gotten married only a few days ago. Nothing fancy. Just a few friends, which—at Gram’s insistence—happened to include almost everyone on the island. While she’d missed Jeb giving her away, Gram and Lisa had stepped into the role and gladly handed her over to Brody.

Because of Jeb’s incarceration, Brody had become Mayor by default, and although he wasn’t yet accustomed to the role, he was adjusting just fine. Everyone in town loved him, and she suspected he would have a long career guiding and shaping the future of the island.

And best of all, he had full custody of Hope.

Matilda had accepted Harry’s proposal, and in the days after the election, had withdrawn her case to win custody of her granddaughter, and instead had begun preparations for her trip to the Mainland.

Paige smiled as Matilda came out of her house with another armload of stuff just as Harry came out of the motorhome. The distinguished older gentleman met the love of his life halfway, and with an affectionate growl, he grabbed Matilda by the shoulders, gave her a quick kiss full on the mouth, and said, “You’re driving me nuts, woman.”

“And you love it,” Matilda responded with a sunny smile as she shoved the items into his arms, then turned back toward the house to bring more.

Harry grunted, love shining in his eyes as he stared after her. “The woman is packing the entire house.”

Beside Paige, Brody laughed. “You had your chance to escape.”

The Judge grunted again, then turned toward the motorhome. “You know I wouldn’t give her up for the world.”

And as he disappeared inside, closing the door behind him, Starr and Hope came running from across the street. They each held on to a dog leash. As a wedding present to the girls, Brody and Paige had given them each a border collie from a local pet owner, and the girls were more thrilled about the puppies than they were about the wedding.

Hope skidded to a stop in front of her dad, concern framing her young face as she stared at the closed motorhome door. “Are we too late?”

Brody ruffled her hair. “No. Grandma is still inside packing.”

Starr nudged her step-sister. “Let’s go see if she needs help.”

And then the two girls were racing toward the front door, the puppies barking with excitement.

Paige gazed after the girls as they disappeared into the house.

Starr’s sassy attitude had vanished the moment she discovered they were setting down permanent roots. And they were attached forever…to Brody and Hope and this island. It was a good feeling to finally be home, and living next door to Gram was an added bonus. It gave Paige the opportunity to check up on her grandma every day, while Gram still enjoyed the comfort of living in her own home.

In fact, Gram and her no longer disagreed on every little thing…although Gram was still looking for her car keys and, Paige suspected as she watched the wily old woman from across the street, her grandma was Googling how to hot wire a car just in case she never found the keys.

Delores appeared from Gram’s back yard, and stopped to speak to the older woman, and for a moment, Paige felt the trepidation of running into the woman who had schemed so deviously to become First Lady of Serendipity Island. But as Brody squeezed her hand, she relaxed.

Ever since election day, when Matilda and Lisa had taken Delores under their wings, she seemed like a new woman. And Paige no longer had to fear her.

In fact, it seemed to be the other way around.

Whatever the two women had said to Delores caused her to be wary of Paige. Delores, if at all possible, would cross the street to avoid Paige, which was actually kind of funny, yet sad at the same time. Since that day, Paige had made every effort to bridge the gap between them. Now that she was starting over, she wanted a clean slate between them.

And it seemed to be working, she thought as Delores crossed the street, sidled up to Paige, and leaned close to her ear.

“Did you hear the good news?”

Paige smiled at her. “Tell me.”

“For the next few months, Matilda has put me in charge of the Ladies Society meetings.” She slid a glance toward the house and lowered her voice. “It’s only on a trial basis, of course, but I plan to do an outstanding job, so it’s sure to become permanent.”

Delores without a plan was lost.

Paige felt her smile widen. “I hope you’ll allow me to become a member.”

The other woman gave her a sweet smile. “Of course. I’ll need a new secretary.”

Brody nudged her in the shoulder, drawing her attention.

“You realize that the Mayor’s wife is always President of the Ladies Society, don’t you?”

Paige turned her gaze back to Delores and smiled. “Not this Mayor’s wife.”

And Delores looked so relieved that it squeezed Paige’s heart.

Now that all of her secrets were out in the open, Paige no longer had to run and hide.

Lisa was back making films, but this time she was behind the camera, writing, directing, and finding backers—she was an outstanding schmoozer—to pay for the movie. Even Harry and Matilda had invested in the film, mostly because Harry was a big fan, and because Matilda claimed the screenplay read less like a porn movie, and more like a quirky, sexy, indie film, and the world could never have too many of those.

Brody squeezed her hand again, drawing her attention back to his beloved face.

“What are you thinking, wife?”

“That I’m the happiest person alive.”

“And I’ll spend the rest of my life making sure you remain that way.” He leaned down and kissed her. Against her mouth, he said, “I love you.”

Beside her, Delores gagged and scurried away.

Playfully, Paige walked her fingers up his shirtfront. “Do you think anyone will notice if we leave? I have the sudden urge to show my new husband just how much I love him.”

Brody’s naughty grin was all the answer she needed.

 

THE END

 

Turn the page for more books by Sheila Seabrook!

Look for these other books by Sheila Seabrook!

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CAUGHT BETWEEN SERIES

Caught Between a Lie and True Love

Caught Between an Oops and a Hard Body

Caught Between a Rock and a Hunka Man

Caught Between the Mob and a Hot Cop (coming early 2017)

 

ROCKY MOUNTAIN SERIES

Always Remember

Terms of Surrender

Book 3 (Mike’s story, coming late 2016)

 

STANDALONE NOVELLAS

Wedding Fever

The Valentine Grinch

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Sheila Seabrook writes love stories with heart and humor from her home on the beautiful Canadian prairies. Her romantic books are filled with smart, sassy women, hot men who love them, and a wild assortment of family members guaranteed to try to steal the show.

When Sheila’s not writing, she can usually be found in her favorite chair doing research (code for reading romance books) or devising multiple excuses to avoid cooking, laundry, housework, and shoveling the snow. She does, however, love to shop for flowers in the spring, and spends copious hours digging in the dirt to plant them…although her marriage contract clearly stipulates that the man of the house must pull the weeds.

Her mission in life is to give readers emotional romantic stories and unforgettable characters, a relaxing treat for the end of the day. And if she can help them escape the laundry pile, she’s totally on board.

Find out more about Sheila at sheilaseabrook.com and make sure to join her monthly newsletter to receive exclusive updates, free short stories, and more!

Chat with Sheila on [+ twitter @sheilaseabrook ] and on [+Facebook]. Or drop her an email at [email protected].

COPYRIGHT

 

Caught Between a Lie and True Love

 

Copyright © April 2015 by Sheila Seabrook

 

ISBN #978-0-9877069-6-6

 

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the work of this author.

 

This eBook is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 


Caught Between a Lie and True Love

Paige Calhoun knows how to avoid trouble. But when her dad returns to Serendipity Island, she has to make a choice. Turn her back on the grandma who raised her and the island she once called home, or jump head first into her dad’s latest scheme. Brody Jackson always plays to win. Until his one careless mistake drags him back to Serendipity Island and into a battle for permanent custody of his teenage daughter. Brody’s got no time for one hot woman who’s messing with his mind and his game. And Paige can’t afford to let one gorgeous man distract her from staying one step ahead of the family business. When fate brings them back together on Serendipity Island, the life they each though they wanted isn’t the one they get. This book includes a family-phobic heroine, a hunky hero whose luck—and love life—are about to change, lies, romance, chocolate chip cookies, nighttime shenanigans, a con-artist who swears he’s gone straight, and a battle-of-the-sexes secondary romance.

  • Author: Sheila Seabrook
  • Published: 2016-08-06 23:35:29
  • Words: 70820
Caught Between a Lie and True Love Caught Between a Lie and True Love