Shellwater Key Tales Series
Welcome to Shellwater Key, Florida where an abandoned dinner theater becomes the backdrop as some extraordinary women find a new path toward love, healing, and happiness.
Left Turn At Paradise
A Shellwater Key Tale (Book 1)
High-powered business executive Layla McCarthy has lost everything, but an abandoned dinner theater is about to usher in a brand new act in her life.
Layla McCarthy has spent most of her life trying to outrun the wild reputation of the mother who abandoned her. Raised by her grandmother – Dr. Barbara McCarthy, one of the first female surgeons in Florida – Layla puts all her faith in building a career, only to lose everything. Then, she learns her grandmother and great aunt have bought a run down dinner theater in her hometown of Shellwater Key, and Layla returns to make sure her relatives don’t lose their life savings.
Reviving The Paradise brings an unexpected romance with Grayson Kendall, the sexy and enigmatic theatre director brought in to produce the first show. But nothing will ever be the same when Layla’s long-lost mother returns, looking to make amends. Layla doesn’t think it’s possible to forgive or forget…Until she learns the truth behind her abandonment all those years ago, including the dark role played by her beloved grandmother.
In the end, The Paradise will become the backdrop as Layla opens her heart to love, and three generations of women find a way through past mistakes to a new life filled with hope and redemption.
I have a mortgage. A lease on a new luxury car. I am an unabashed shopaholic and like regular meals. I need a new job. A new career. A whole new life.
Layla McCarthy tried to quell the panic as she pictured the pile of bills waiting for her at home. Bills she had no way of paying thanks to her now empty bank account.
A human hurricane had struck her life, leaving her business, LM Concepts, strewn across the landscape. Her passion, her baby, the one thing that had never disappointed her…gone. All because Layla’s business partner had fallen in love and decided to abscond with him…and the company funds.
She really should have decked him.
The moment Melanie’s spray-tanned, Euro-trash boyfriend had used kissing the back of Layla’s hand as a cover for looking down her shirt, she should have decked him. As a green-eyed blonde with a body that screamed bombshell, Layla was used to leers and suggestive comments, even from her friends’ significant others. Usually, they tried to be discreet about it though. Julian hadn’t even made an effort.
For Melanie’s sake, Layla had restrained herself.
She’d wound up losing everything for her trouble. Whatever had been left after Melanie fled had gone to pay vendors, a private investigator who was still sending her invoices for what looked to be nothing more than internet searches, and an outrageously expensive bankruptcy attorney. Layla might have held strong and kept going, except her clients took a hike too, unwilling to stay aboard a ship that had Titanic written all over the bow.
She’d known this day would be difficult, but she hadn’t expected the gut-wrenching sense of loss. The soul-shattering knowledge that she was a failure at thirty. Failing was something Layla never did.
She walked to the window and looked down at the street. From this vantage she could see both downtown Miami and Biscayne Bay. Traffic flowed on Biscayne Boulevard, the cars looking like giant ants marching back and forth—all racing to get somewhere, while Layla’s life had come to a screeching halt.
“This is awful,” a voice said from behind her. “It feels like someone died.”
Something had died. Her marketing business, her reputation, and her sense of financial security had all been killed by a backstabbing partner and a playboy with orange-hued skin.
Layla looked over her shoulder at her secretary. Kelly had been crying ever since they’d arrived to gather what remained of the business and close up shop for good. She dabbed at her eyes and nose before crumpling up the tissue and tossing it in the garbage can.
Layla’s life seemed a lot like that Kleenex.
“I still can’t believe Melanie betrayed you,” Kelly said. “Betrayed everyone.”
Layla moved to the desk and emptied the last drawer into a trash bag. “I can.”
“Right,” Kelly said, rolling her eyes. “I forgot one of Layla McCarthy’s cardinal rules. Never trust anyone.”
Layla paused to wave her arms around the nearly empty office. “Hello? I should have known better, but I thought Melanie was too logical to lose her head over any man.”
Kelly sighed. “Julian was so gorgeous, I can almost – almost – understand. I don’t know how many times Melanie told me she couldn’t believe a man like him would want her.”
Layla slammed the drawer closed. “That’s no excuse.”
“No, but for someone like Melanie who’s never had men notice her that way—” Kelly glanced over. “Maybe you wouldn’t understand. Men always notice you.”
Layla heard the unspoken assumption that she had men falling to their knees. Why did no one consider that her looks were not always an advantage? That she’d had to work overtime to prove herself to coworkers and bosses who were convinced that an extra dose of cleavage meant all the brain cells had been sucked out of her head. It’s why she’d started LM Concepts in the first place.
She could have told Kelly all of that, but Layla didn’t have the emotional energy to fight the world’s misconceptions.
“No, I’m sure I wouldn’t,” Layla said.
An awkward silence descended as Kelly realized she’d stepped into a minefield. She swallowed and looked away. “So…what now?”
Layla took a deep breath, trying to ignore the hitch in her chest that spelled tears. She hated crying almost as much as failing. “We move on.”
“Right.” Kelly gave Layla a hug and then picked up her box of personal belongings. “I’ll see you.”
Layla waited till Kelly was gone before hanging her head. Her eyes stung, and she blinked to clear her vision.
What does come now?
Her cell chirped, and she glanced at the display. Gran.
Layla contemplated ignoring the summons. If she talked to her grandmother right now she’d break down completely. But if she didn’t answer, Gran would only call back again and again until Layla picked up. Barbara McCarthy could be relentless, and she could sense despair even over a couple hundred miles of digital wiring. There was a reason Layla had graduated valedictorian of her high school class, gotten a scholarship to Duke, and then blazed a trail up the corporate ladder until she’d decided to start her own business. And it could all be laid at the feet of her grandmother, the first female surgeon in Layla’s hometown of Shellwater Key, Florida.
Well, best to get it over with. She clicked the button to answer her phone. “Hi Gran.”
“If I know you, you’re staring at an empty office, feeling sorry for yourself.”
Layla sighed. “Got it in one.”
“It’s done then?”
Her throat closed. “Yep. Over. Finito.”
“Now, honey, you know that’s not true. This is only a bump in the road. You’ll land on your feet again. You just need some time to decide where you want your life to go.”
“I want it to go on running LM Concepts.”
Her grandmother chuckled and despite the ache, Layla’s heart lifted. “I know you do,” Gran said. “But I also know there is something even better for you out there.”
“I can’t imagine it right now.”
“I can. I even have an idea of that something.”
Layla gazed out at the bay. The cruise ships were in port, readying to depart on an exciting sea voyage. Maybe she could chuck it all and take off with them. Spend a couple weeks doing nothing but sipping cocktails by the pool. Parasailing, scuba diving, exploring old forts or a rain forest. It might blow the rest of her savings, but hard work and tenacity had left her with exactly nothing. A little partying might do the trick.
“Layla, did you hear me?” Gran said.
She shook off the errant thought. “Yes, of course. You said you had an idea for me.”
“I will never understand how you can repeat back what I say word for word when I know you weren’t paying attention.”
“It’s a coping mechanism I learned, to make it through agonizing business meetings,” Layla said, feeling her mouth stretch into a smile. The movement felt almost foreign. “What’s your brilliant idea for getting my life put back together then?”
Layla stifled another groan. She should have known her great-aunt was involved. Grace-Anne was her grandmother’s younger sister, and the two women could not have been more different. Barbara was practical, cynical, and bold. Grace-Anne was sweet, romantic, and biddable. Despite their differences, they were extremely close. Their bond had survived college—although only Barbara had gone—marriage, and the premature deaths of their husbands. It had grown even stronger with the raising of a child who’d been abandoned by her mother.
That would be Layla.
Grace-Anne was – to put it politely – a bit of a ditz. She was one of those people who’d turn over her life savings to any whack-job with a sob story about his family living in some dirt-floor hut back home and how he was working to bring them to the U.S. for a better life.
“What’s Aunt Grace done now?” Layla asked.
“She’s bought a dinner theatre.”
Layla straightened, all thought of a Caribbean cruise chased from her mind. “I’m sorry. What?”
Gran sighed. “The Paradise Dinner Theatre.”
“Why would she do that? And where did she get the money? Did some swindler—”
“No, no…she still has the money Harold left her.”
“I’m surprised she has any left. She’s been trying her best to give it away to every hard-up Tom, Dick, and Harry in the state of Florida.”
“There are no swindlers involved. The couple that owned The Paradise retired and moved away several years ago. Now they’ve both passed, and their children didn’t want to keep it. The theatre was in danger of being shut down and turned into a fancy spa. Grace-Anne couldn’t bear the thought of that so she bought it. You know she has a thing about that place.”
A smile pulled at Layla’s lips despite her own misery. “Because of Derek the Wonderful.”
Derek, the struggling actor, who’d played a bit part in a long-forgotten production at The Paradise. He’d had a starring role in her great-aunt’s life, as Grace-Anne’s tragic first love. Growing up Layla had heard the tale of love and loss recounted more times than she could count.
“Yes, Derek,” Gran said, without a touch of wistfulness in her tone. “All these years later and that young man is still wreaking havoc in my sister’s life.”
Layla sighed. “It is crazy for Aunt Grace to sink her money into a business out of nostalgia, but what does this have to do with me?”
“Grace-Anne isn’t a business woman, and she hasn’t done any theatre since she was a teenager. I’m afraid she’s going to lose everything, and even Harold’s money might not be enough to cover it all. I thought maybe you could help.”
“How?” Layla’s head started to pound. “I don’t know anything about plays, either.”
“You do know about running a business, though. The Paradise has been closed up for so long that people have sort of forgotten about it, but with your marketing background you’d know just what to do.”
The pounding escalated to a jackhammer. “I can’t just pick up and leave Miami. I have to look for a job. What about my condo?”
“It wouldn’t be forever, and I’m sure you could find someone to sublease your place. That would bring in some money every month at least.”
Layla rested her head against the window. Return to Shellwater Key. To live. Going back was the last thing she wanted to do. If the bad memories didn’t kill her, boredom might. Shellwater Key gloried in its small-town hokeyness, having resisted the type of tourist gimmicks that had claimed most of the beach towns along Florida’s southwest coast. Unfortunately, she didn’t have many other options.
“I don’t know, Gran.”
“I’m helping as much as I can, but neither of us are getting any younger. I just don’t know if I have the energy anymore.”
Layla couldn’t remember her grandmother ever admitting to weakness. Never known her to complain. Even so, Layla couldn’t deny that her grandmother was getting older. If she didn’t go and something happened to Gran or Aunt Grace, Layla would never forgive herself. They had both sacrificed so much for her. Both tried to fill the void in a motherless child. Now it was Layla’s turn to make the sacrifices.
“Don’t you dare give yourself a heart attack or something, Gran. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“Thank you, Baby. We’ll get your room ready for you.”
Two and a half hours outside of Miami – and about a half century removed from the modern world – lay Shellwater Key. Layla took the exit off I-75, and soon she’d left anything resembling “city” behind. Another twenty minutes and she passed a brightly painted wooden sign, with the familiar snowy white egret that welcomed all visitors to “Florida’s Last Undiscovered Paradise”.
She was from a town that celebrated the fact that no one knew it existed. Ironic given her chosen career path in marketing where it was her job to make sure people knew things did, in fact, exist.
Her shoulders tensed, and she mentally told them to stop it and relax. The order didn’t work. She hated her own weakness. She was a grown woman. She’d started a business with only a few thousand dollars and a heap of determination. Faced off with intimidating CEOs eager to dismiss her as nothing more than a pretty face. She should be able to come home without breaking into a cold sweat.
Except, logical thinking didn’t seem to have any bearing on reality, and didn’t seem to care how old she was. Logic only knew she was returning to Shellwater Key as a failure. She may not have been guilty of pillaging LM Concepts herself, but she was guilty of trusting Melanie. And that was a lapse in judgment she simply could not forgive.
Added to the stench of failure was a mountain of guilt. She hadn’t been the only one hurt by Melanie’s betrayal. Layla’s failure had resulted in a lot of good people losing their jobs, too. Like Alana Barrett, Layla’s PR Manager. Alana was the single mother of an autistic son. Or Kelly, who helped pay for her grandmother’s care in an assisted living facility. Rick Fernandez and Alejandra Gomez, Layla’s creative team. Rick’s wife had been laid off earlier in the year, and Alejandra was four months pregnant.
They’d all counted on Layla, trusted her to run the company, and she’d let them down.
She shook off the disturbing thoughts and concentrated on the road. Drove past quiet, tree-lined neighborhoods and the town’s only high school. She reached Gulfview Park at the north end of The Strip, the affectionate name given to the two-mile long sliver of shops and businesses overlooking the Gulf of Mexico that made up downtown Shellwater Key.
She slowed to take in the brightly painted buildings, with their tropical colors of butter-yellow, salmon-pink, lavender, and mustard. Most of the stores were the same. Al’s Hardware (which was inexplicably owned by Fred Thomas), the grocery mart, First Shellwater Key Bank, the library that had once been a train depot, City Hall, and the sheriff’s office. The drug store with the original soda counter where you could still get a real root beer float made with homemade vanilla ice cream, Betty’s Beauty Bar, and Tropical Flare where the rare tourists who did manage to stumble upon Shellwater Key could buy five-dollar T-shirts and lamps filled with seashells. There were some new additions, too. A boutique named Rose’s Closet, a bookstore, a few restaurants with outdoor seating, and a cute bed & breakfast.
Across from The Strip was a boardwalk that started at the park and wound its way beside the water for about three miles. In the mornings, mothers with strollers mostly claimed the boardwalk. After work, the path was taken over by joggers and bike riders, and at sunset everyone stopped what they were doing to watch the glowing orange orb slip beneath the horizon.
Very idyllic. Very quaint. Norman Rockwell with a tropical twist. Of course, real life was never as simple as one of those paintings.
At the end of The Strip she turned right, heading back into residential neighborhoods. She took another right on Snowy Egret Avenue and then pulled into the third driveway on the left in front of a white, two-story, Key West-style house.
Layla hadn’t even gotten the key out of the ignition when the screen door opened and two older women walked out. The first was tall and angular, with graying hair pulled back in a tight bun on top of her head. A beaming smile was the only softness about Dr. Barbara McCarthy. A step behind was her polar opposite. Shorter by almost half a foot, Grace-Anne Carter retained a gently rounded figure even well into her seventh decade. Her blonde hair – which she refused to admit she colored – flowed to her shoulders in soft waves. Everything about Aunt Grace was soft and welcoming.
Seeing them, the last of Layla’s anxiety vanished. She got out of the car and was almost immediately pulled into Gran’s chest, where Layla was enveloped by the twin scents of scented body spray and mega-powered antiseptic. The first came courtesy of the gift she’d given Gran on her birthday. The second was due to Gran’s never-abandoned habit of continually washing her hands as if she was about to head into surgery.
Layla blinked back tears as her grandmother’s warmth invaded the ice encased around her heart. The protective coating that had kept her from losing it throughout the whole ordeal with Melanie and Julian.
Gran pulled back and framed Layla’s face between her hands. “We’ll make it better,” she said, with such conviction that Layla almost believed her. “I promise.”
Making it better had always been Gran’s promise. Unfortunately, her surgeon’s skills couldn’t repair damage of an emotional nature.
“My turn,” Aunt Grace said, shouldering her sister out of the way. She had to stand on her toes to reach Layla, who’d inherited her grandmother’s impressive height. “If I could find that French boy and string him up by his entrails for you, I would.”
For all of her sweetness and light, Aunt Grace always stood ready to avenge the ones she loved in the most gruesome, horror-movie-death way possible. A tendency that was the result of a naturally dramatic nature coupled with way too many television shows featuring crime scene investigators. “Thanks. I’ll let you know if hanging is ever a possibility.”
She nodded, and then sent Layla a dazzling smile. “Oh, but we’re going to have so much fun. Wait till you see The Paradise. You’ll love it. She’s just weeping to be revived.”
“I’m not sure I want to work in a building that weeps,” Layla said. “In fact, if I start hearing sobs emanating from the walls I’m running the other way as fast as I can. I’ve seen those movies, and they usually end with some poor, terrified family fleeing for their lives.”
Aunt Grace chuckled and kissed Layla’s cheek. “I have missed your way with words.”
“Grace, let her go so we can get her things inside,” Gran said. “We’ve been holding off dinner so we’ll eat as soon as you’ve settled a bit.”
Layla wrestled three suitcases out of the trunk, up the steps to the wrap-around porch, and then individually dragged each one up the narrow staircase to her old room. Gran huffed while Aunt Grace fluttered the entire way, with both insisting they should help. Layla wasn’t about to let one of them break a hip, however.
She might be an unemployed businesswoman, but she’d be a well-dressed one, toting designer clothes.
Her grandmother and great-aunt continued to fuss until Layla told them as gently as possible that she’d be down for dinner in a bit. Aunt Grace opened her mouth to protest, but Gran must have sensed that Layla needed a moment to fall apart.
Gran grabbed her sister’s elbow. “We’ll go set the table.”
Layla heard them grumbling all the way down the stairs, and chuckled to herself. They hadn’t changed a bit. No two females loved each other more or drove each other crazier than Barbara McCarthy and Grace-Anne Carter. No two people had ever loved Layla more. They’d been her saviors her entire life. Her shelter in a storm.
Now they were out to save her again.
She should be past the point where she needed to be bailed out by her elderly relatives. She should be living in her twentieth floor condo overlooking Biscayne Bay, and preparing to roll out a new campaign for a client.
Instead, she was back in her old room, with a few suitcases and her battered pride. She sat down on the twin bed and stared at her new quarters. A battered, furless, stuffed dog lay in a place of honor next to the pillow. Layla picked up the toy and stared at it. Woo-Woo had been with her for as long as she could remember. Woo-Woo held a lot of secrets. He’d been a witness to her every heartbreak growing up and countless tears.
Layla hugged Woo-Woo to her chest and lay down, curling up into a ball.
Then the tears came.
Finding You At Christmas
A Shellwater Key Holiday Novella
She won’t make it to the blind date, but she will find her destiny this Christmas
After years of looking out for everyone else, preacher’s daughter Janie Worthy is ready to get a life of her own. A stalled car and a stranger on a motorcycle puts that plan in a tailspin…and leads to the best Christmas present she could ever find.
Janie grabbed her sweater and headed outside. Despite the calendar’s claim that Christmas was three weeks away, the weather remained warm in this part of southwest Florida, so at least the attempt to attract this divorced doctor with two first names wouldn’t lead to hypothermia. Jumping into her car, Janie drove towards the restaurant. She’d suggested a place outside of town. No sense alerting the gossip brigade of Shellwater Key about her date. The fact that Janie Worthy even had a date would be enough to send shock waves through her hometown.
Her ancient sedan rattled past the familiar welcome sign with the giant egret and soon she reached the highway. Five miles outside of town, she rounded a familiar curve. Her hands tightened on the wheel, and she concentrated on the road in front of her. Refused to look at the small patch of grass where her entire family’s life had changed in an instant.
Janie had just let out a sigh of relief when her car suddenly started to sputter. “What? No!”
She managed to guide her coughing, jerking, dying vehicle to the side of the road before the aging car gave up the ghost. She reached for her purse and rummaged around inside for her cell, thanking God and all the angels for whoever had invented mobile communications. With any luck she could get back to town, commandeer her father’s car, and still make her date.
Fighting a rising panic, Janie dumped the entire contents of the bag on the passenger seat.
A sudden image of her cell phone tossed onto Bianca’s bed popped into her mind.
Cursing softly – her mother would forgive a string of obscenities under these circumstances – Janie popped the hood and got out, slamming the door hard enough to make the car shimmy. She peered at the vehicle’s inner workings, with absolutely no clue what to look for.
“Don’t ruin this for me,” Janie muttered to the silent engine.
Apparently, said engine didn’t care if she died an old maid.
“Okay,” she said, taking a deep breath. “Calm down and think.”
Except thinking was getting harder to do. Janie peered down the road, but there were no cars coming from either direction. It was too far to walk back to town and besides she was wearing Bianca’s four-inch stilettos. Not only would she wind up with blisters the size of Montana, she could fall and break her neck. A body cast had to be on the list of ‘what not to wear’ for a blind date.
Issuing a desperate oath, Janie looked up at the dark sky. “Please. Help me out here. Come on.”
No sooner had the words left her mouth than a rumble sounded in the distance. Her mind registered motorcycle at the same moment the machine appeared.
Janie glanced up at the heavens again. “Really? This is what you send?”
For a split second she contemplated diving for the bushes. After all, the rider could be a serial killer or something. Janie had seen those movies where the too stupid to live bimbo got slashed to bits by a psychopath wielding a machete. And since she was dressed pretty much like those sad bimbos, Janie feared she might be in for a similar fate.
Of course, the biker could be a middle-aged insurance salesman out for a joyride, and who was she to judge when someone needed a little adventure in life? Wasn’t she trying to do the same thing?
Either way, she’d hesitated too long. A beam of light flashed across her face and then the bike veered off the road, pulling up in front of her dead car.
“Don’t think about dead things,” Janie whispered to herself. “Think accountant.”
The engine cut off and the abrupt absence of the motorcycle’s roar made the ensuing silence even more profound. The night seemed darker, too, even as the piercing beam of the bike’s headlight made her freeze like an animal awaiting the impact of an oncoming car.
Peering past the circle of white, Janie tried to get a glimpse of her rescuer, but could only make out a black silhouette of a man. He took off his helmet and came around the front. As he stepped in front of the headlight, Janie got her first look at the man who would hopefully turn out to be her savior and not a maniac killer.
Her panicked brain might be adding several inches to his height, but Biker Man seemed impossibly tall. He wore standard motorcycle attire that included blue jeans and a black leather jacket. At least Janie assumed them to be standard attire based on the movies she’d seen.
He came closer and when she finally got a good look at his face her mouth dropped open. Biker Man had chiseled features, with the makings of a very decent five o’ clock shadow, disordered black hair and piercing dark eyes that couldn’t be missed even in the dark.
“Okay, you’re forgiven,” she said, sending up a thankful prayer.
How could she be anything but grateful when such a delicious specimen of manhood had appeared to save her?
At least she hoped Biker Man planned a rescue and not a murder with a side of body stashing in the woods.
“Hi,” Biker Man said. “Car trouble?”
Nerves and frustration boiled up in one snappish outburst. “No, I like loitering on the side of the road hoping a sadistic killer will chop me up and leave me for dead on the side of the road. I’ve always wanted to be the breaking story on the evening news.”
Even white teeth flashed in the night. “Sorry I can’t help you gain immortality, but maybe I can help some other way.”
Hold it together, Janie. Do not insult the nice man who stopped to save your hide. Running off your angel won’t get you to the restaurant any sooner.
“Sorry,” Janie said. “I’m late for my first date in like a decade, and I’m nervous and dressed like a woman who wants to give you a good time. Now, my car has apparently decided I shouldn’t have a social life. Meanwhile, a divorced doctor with two first names is probably waiting for me at the restaurant, thinking I’ve stood him up.”
The stranger’s brow quirked. “What?”
Way to play the crazy lady, Janie. So much for getting a hold of your emotions.
“A cell phone would be good,” she said. “I left mine at home.”
Biker Man’s lips quivered like he was trying not to laugh, even as he reached into a compartment on the back of his bike and pulled out a phone.
He handed her the cell, and Janie stared at the device. Whom should she call? Bianca had babysitting duties tonight since Janie’s sister and brother-in-law were out of town recovering from wedding fatigue. Beatrice was still on her honeymoon. Dad was visiting Mary’s family for the night and none of her other siblings lived within close driving distance. Besides, calling anyone in her family would be too humiliating.
Seemed there was no choice but to call John Peter so he could come get her.
Except he didn’t answer. After trying twice and going straight to voicemail both times, Janie gave up.
Could this night get any worse? She rubbed her forehead, trying to think of a solution.
“Problem?” a deep voice said from behind her.
Biker Man was a couple feet away when she spun around. Up close, he looked even better, which was a terrible thing to notice when she had a date waiting a few miles up the road.
Of course, John Peter wasn’t answering his phone. He might have already stood her up.
“I couldn’t get him,” Janie said.
“The guy with two first names?”
So Biker Man had understood at least part of her incoherent rambling. “Yes, it’s a blind date. My sister set it up. The two first names made me hesitate, but that’s not really his fault. Maybe his parents were trying to be cute.”
Biker Man’s eyes gleamed and his shoulders shook a little, a sure sign of suppressed laughter, so Janie shut up.
Suddenly, music reached her ears. A driving beat meant to get people up onto the dance floor. They both turned toward the sound.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“Must be coming from Deke’s,” she said. “It’s a honky-tonk bar on the outer limits of town. I never knew you could hear the music all the way out here.”
A speculative gleam entered his eyes. “It sounds close.”
“Close but so far,” Janie said, shaking her head. “There’s a river between us.”
“How big a river?” he asked, glancing down, as if figuring out which clothes to start removing.
If Janie weren’t so worthy she’d have let Biker Man strip and swim for it. If nothing else, she’d enjoy the show. After thirty-nine years of proper behavior, surely she deserved some kind of reward. But Janie was a good girl at heart, and she couldn’t put him in danger.
“It’s deep. Runs pretty swiftly, too,” Janie said. “I wouldn’t risk it in the dark. My stupid blind date isn’t worth you drowning.”
“So that’s out.” He stared down at her. “Look, I have an extra helmet. I could—”
“Are you kidding?” she said, waving a hand along her miniscule dress. “I can’t get on a motorcycle in this get up. I’d be arrested for indecent exposure.”
A lazy, visual tour of her get up ensued, and then the corners of his mouth tilted up in undisguised male appreciation. “I’d risk it.”
Coming Home To Paradise
A Shellwater Key Tale (1.5 – A companion to Book 1)
Thirty years ago, desperation drove Elizabeth McCarthy to do the unthinkable when she abandoned her infant daughter, Layla, to the care of her mother. Now, after years of trying to outrun the memories and the guilt, Beth has come home to Shellwater Key to make amends. She has survived deadbeat relationships, becoming a single mother, and cancer, but now faces the most difficult battle of her life…finding a way to connect with the legendary mother she was never able to please…and earning the forgiveness of the daughter who has every reason to hate her. She might even have a chance to find the missing piece of her heart when Layla’s father arrives in town looking for answers.
Coming Home To Paradise is a powerful story of a woman who never felt like she was enough, despite being physically beautiful. It’s the story of a woman who has been broken by life, and by illness, and who now only wants to make things right. A story about discovering that it’s never too late to find true love…or more accurately…find the true love that slipped away.
“You all right, honey?”
Elizabeth “Beth” McCarthy opened her eyes to find a short battleship of a woman, wearing a powder-blue, polyester dress and pink apron, tapping against her car window. The woman looked like Ethel Mertz in the episode where she and Lucy worked in the chocolate factory.
She sat up and tried to shake off the vestiges of sleep. Glancing up at the crystal-blue sky, she realized the sun was directly overhead. Which meant she’d slept longer than she’d intended. When Beth had pulled into the half-deserted truck stop off I-10, the sun hadn’t yet peeked over the horizon. She’d only meant to shut her eyes for a few minutes, but her body had had other ideas.
Driving through the night used to be easier. Peeling her sweat-soaked shirt away from her skin, Beth reflected that sleeping in a closed car would have been a better idea in January, too. She hadn’t wanted to risk leaving her windows open, though. A woman alone on the road couldn’t be too careful. Especially when that woman was on a vital mission to repair old baggage.
The waitress tapped on the glass again, and Beth finally rolled the window down.
“I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“I was coming off my shift and saw you sitting here,” the woman said. “We get lots of folks catching cat naps all hours of the day, but not many in a classic Beetle, looking like something the cat dragged in.”
The woman’s gaze flicked to the half-inch of dark fuzz on top of Beth’s head. She sighed at what had become a familiar gesture from nearly everyone she met. It had only taken Ethel five seconds to acknowledge the bold, bright sign that declared Beth a victim of cancer.
She tried not to be offended by the comparison to a dead bird or mouse or whatever else cats dragged home. The woman meant well.
“I’m fine,” Beth said.
“You sure? You’re looking mighty peaked.”
Beth forced a smile. Perhaps if she bared enough teeth the waitress would believe she wasn’t moments from death’s door. “I’m just tired. Long drive.”
The woman nodded, leaning down even further to rest her arms against the doorframe. “Uh huh. Where ya from, honey?”
There must be something in the DNA of people from small towns that made asking personal questions of complete strangers acceptable. Beth couldn’t remember the last time anyone had called her “honey”, either.
“Lots of places,” Beth said.
“Oh yeah? Army brat?”
Beth released a wry chuckle. “No, just a brat.”
Brat was probably the kindest word most people would use to describe her. Selfish, careless, heedless, cruel. Those were all much more accurate.
“You should come in and get yourself something to eat,” the waitress said, pulling Beth out of her pit of self-loathing. A hole so deep she could easily swim down forever and never reach the bottom.
“Thanks, but I’m not really hungry.”
The woman put her hands on her hips. “I’m not takin’ no for an answer.”
Another refusal was on the tip of her tongue, but Beth had a feeling the waitress wouldn’t stop harping, so she rolled up the window and climbed out.
“I don’t know why you’re being so nice,” Beth said as she followed the waitress inside.
Ethel glanced over her shoulder. “Pardon me for saying, but you look like a stiff breeze would bowl you right over. My sister, she struggles that way, too.”
“Your sister?” Beth asked, as awareness invaded her body.
Ethel gave a sad, but sympathetic smile. “Our whole family does the Breast Walk together every year. At least Tara is still here to do it, bless the Lord. We haven’t given up yet.”
There were precious few people who would thank God for her continued life, Beth thought with a pang. No reason they should care. You had to earn people’s regard, and she’d spent most of her life throwing away everything that mattered.
Ethel slipped behind the counter and grabbed the coffee pot. She paused to shout back to the kitchen. “Fred, bring a Number Two to the last booth!”
A smile fought its way to the surface as Beth sat at the indicated booth. Fred and Ethel. Perfect. She wondered if Ricky was back there, too.
Ethel poured coffee. “My sister is going through chemo now. Her second round.”
“I remember that phase,” Beth said, her stomach roiling at the mere thought. “Left me with this Brillo pad on my head.”
Ethel’s head tilted. “I’d say that’s your badge of courage. If you don’t mind my asking, how are you?”
“Okay. Scans are clean, anyway.”
Ethel smiled. “Good for you.”
“I hope your sister makes it,” Beth said, doctoring the dark brew with cream and sugar.
Ethel leaned against the red, vinyl seat. “You too, honey. No one deserves cancer. Terrible disease.”
“I’m sure your sister doesn’t deserve it. As for me—” Beth shrugged.
Ethel let out a sound of dismissal. Apparently the shared solidarity over cancer in the family must have triggered an instant bond in her mind because she plopped down in the booth.
“Now, honey, God don’t work that way,” Ethel said. “We all got regrets. Things we wish we could take back. Lord knows I was some kind of trouble in my day. It’s a wonder my parents didn’t turn their backs in shame.” She laughed, as if the memory of whatever she’d done was nothing but a faint ripple.
How could you do this to me? How many times did I warn you? I have a reputation to uphold.
Beth shuddered, and wondered if the coffee she’d just sipped might come back up. “Uh huh.”
“We had to work awful hard to mend all the hurts we put on each other. It can be done, though.”
“Can it?” Beth wasn’t so sure. Some things might be unforgivable.
Ethel reached across the table and took Beth’s hand. “I’ve found that even the bad things in life are often what take us down the road we’re supposed to be on. The bad, it’s just to get us moving in the right direction.”
“I think mostly I’ve moved in the wrong direction when bad happened,” Beth said, before she could censor herself.
Ethel laughed. “That is true, too. But that’s when you give it all up to a higher power. We’re stubborn folk, and it takes runnin’ right up to the edge of the cliff before we stop and admit what a mess we’ve made.”
“Amen,” Beth said.
Did people know an honest to goodness philosopher was serving blue-plate specials at a truck stop off I-10? Ethel should start charging for doling out therapy along with pancakes and hash browns.
Fred arrived with the Number Two then, and Ethel heaved her sparkplug-shaped body out of the booth. Delicious smells of bacon, steak, and eggs drifted up Beth’s nostrils. Her stomach gurgled loud enough for the whole place to hear.
Ethel grinned. “What did I tell you? Breakfast will do you a world of good.”
“I didn’t realize I was hungry.”
The woman chuckled and patted Beth’s shoulder. “It should get you the rest of the way on your journey.”
She hoped so. She’d driven halfway across the country, but the last few miles were going to be the longest of her life.
Falling For You At Christmas
A Shellwater Key Holiday Novella
Pregnant, single and alone at Christmas, Cassie Stevens decides to take a holiday vacation in
Shellwater Key before her baby is born. But then her reservation is lost and she finds there literally no room left at the inn. Thankfully, single innkeeper, Jared Latham, offers to let Cassie stay with him and his young daughter. She won’t have to sleep in a manger, but being in such close proximity to the gorgeous and caring Jared might be more dangerous to her piece of mind…and heart.
Cassie Stevens knew she’d chosen the right place to stay the minute she spotted the trio of plastic flamingos decked out in Santa hats on the front lawn. Daddy, mommy, and baby sported a jaunty, red cap with a white pom-pom dangling over one eye. It almost looked as if they were winking at her.
“Come in for a visit.” they announced. “We’ll give you all the Christmas cheer you can stand.”
Since Cassie needed a lot of Christmas cheer this year, she welcomed the invitation. She pulled into an empty spot in the parking lot of the “Original Inn on the Strip”. The “Original” part of the sign was slightly above and at an angle from the “Inn on the Strip” portion, looking as if it had been tacked on at a later date for some reason.
Cassie got out of the car and took a deep breath, enjoying the slight tang of salt air filling her lungs. She swore she could hear the waves crashing on the beach. Of course, the water was past the two-lane road in front of the inn, a boardwalk, and then a wide expanse of sand, so the sound might have been more her imagination than reality, but she didn’t care.
To either side, the wide boulevard was lined with shops, restaurants, and businesses as far as she could see. In honor of Christmas, the old-fashioned street lamps were decorated with festive wreaths and big red bows. The inn’s website had said The Strip stretched for two miles along the Gulf of Mexico. The boardwalk across the way was a popular gathering spot to watch the sunset at night, a ritual Cassie fully intended to take part in.
Yes, she had definitely chosen the right place.
She shut her car door and started up the walkway toward the inn, and with each step her excitement grew. There were beautiful poinsettias planted in the garden, and a thick, red ribbon weaved along the top of the railing, which framed the front porch. Two gigantic wreaths hung on the double doors and to the right was a three-foot Santa-slash-Butler with a tray where someone could presumably place a calling card.
If one had a calling card to leave, obviously.
Cassie would have taken more time to drink in the sights except for the fact that she had to pee. Of course, the urge to seek a restroom was always with her these days. She needed to find the facilities ASAP.
She quickened her steps and swept inside, nearly barreling into an older lady, with silver hair and a kind smile.
Cassie yelped and just managed to avoid crushing the lady’s foot. “Excuse me.”
“Not to worry,” the sweet-looking woman said. “I’m fine.”
“I’m sorry. I was running for the bathroom and—”
The lady chuckled and held up a hand. “Say no more. I remember my sister telling me she once resorted to carrying around an empty milk bottle in case she couldn’t make it.”
Reflex had Cassie putting a hand over her extended stomach. “Thankfully, I haven’t had to resort to that.”
The woman’s gaze drifted down. “Pardon my rudeness, but you look like you’re about to pop. When are you due?”
Four weeks until Cassie’s life changed forever. Well, it had actually changed when the little stick turned blue. So many changes. So many disappointments and losses. Changes that had brought her to the doorstep of the Original Inn on the Strip in the sleepy town of Shellwater Key, Florida four days before Christmas.
The silver-haired lady tilted her head, making her look like a curious dog. “Oh honey, I’m not sure you’ll make it that long.”
Cassie’s hands tightened across her stomach, as if to keep her child safe. “Are you psychic?”
“No,” the lady said on a tickling laugh. “I’m a retired labor and delivery nurse.”
“Oh…well…” Cassie swallowed down the bolt of panic. “I’m sure I’ll make it. I’m not due till after the holidays, and I’ll be home by then. My doctor is there. I’ve done the tour of the maternity ward. Plus, the paperwork and insurance forms are already filled out.”
Cassie had dotted every ‘I’ and crossed all the ‘T’s’. She’d already messed up the most important part of her child’s future, and she was determined to do everything right from now on.
The woman chuckled again. “I’m sure you did, but you’ll find kids do everything on their own schedule. My sister is a control freak, and it used to drive her nuts.”
“Well, I’m trying to go more with the flow,” Cassie said, trying to edge past the woman. “Right now, I need to go to the bathroom before I flow all over the front entry.”
“Oh, of course. Sorry to hold you up.” The woman patted her shoulder. “I’m sure we’ll run into each other again. I’m staying here, too.”
“That’s great…” She gave an apologetic smile. “Sorry, I didn’t get your name.”
“Cassie Stevens, and now I really have to go,” she said, before running full tilt through the lobby. “Bathroom?” she called out to the wide-eyed man standing behind the check-in desk.
His mouth dropped open as he pointed to the left. “That way.”
“Thanks! I’ll be right back,” she said, without slowing down.
“Hey!” he called up, but Cassie couldn’t stop now.
Once in the bathroom, she did her business with a sigh of relief. As she was finishing up, she heard a door open outside the stall.
“Hello? Ma’am?” a young voice called.
“Yes?” Cassie answered.
A moment of awkward silence and the voice spoke again. “Um…my dad sent me in to make sure you’re okay?”
Cassie unlocked the stall door and walked out. A girl around ten with long, straight, brown hair and dark eyes stood next to the sink, her toes twisting into the tile as she waited for confirmation on Cassie’s state of health.
The moment Cassie emerged from the stall, the girl grinned. “You really are having a baby!”
“Pretty soon, yes.”
“Wow…that’s cool.” She drifted closer, gaze glued to Cassie’s stomach. “My friend Gina’s mom is having a baby. It’s her fourth. Gina wants a sister this time. She says her two brothers are a big pain.”
“I guess they can be.” Truthfully, right about now Cassie would have killed for any kind of sibling. Someone who would be thrilled that he or she was about to have a niece. Heck, she’d settle for mild interest from a second cousin once removed.
The girl finally dragged her gaze up. “So, you’re okay then? My dad was worried you might be having a baby in here or something.”
Oh, now wouldn’t that be lovely? She might wind up on the news for such a feat. Cassie sighed. “Not yet, but thank you for coming to check on me. What’s your name, sweetie?”
“Nice to meet you, Tara.”
“You too.” Tara nodded. “Well, I’ll go tell Dad you’re fine.”
“Sure. I’ll be right out after…” Cassie pointed to the sink.
Tara giggled. “Sure thing. See you in a sec.”
When Cassie walked out of the bathroom a minute later, she spotted the man who’d been behind the desk, pacing a few feet away. She hadn’t paid much attention to him earlier, but now she did and…wow!
Tara’s dad – it couldn’t be anyone else since he was wearing a groove in the wood floor with his frantic pacing – was drop-dead gorgeous. Men’s magazine cover-worthy hotness. He was tall, with tousled dark-blond hair falling over his forehead. Cassie’s gaze swept down, taking in the light-blue work shirt and molded jeans encasing a butt that was as close to perfection as she’d ever seen.
Her baby girl jumped in apparent excitement at the sight of the most beautiful male specimen she’d encountered in some time. So did Cassie’s heartbeat.
She rubbed her stomach. “Down girl,” Cassie murmured. “He doesn’t belong to us.”
No doubt Tara’s dad had an equally gorgeous wife somewhere. Probably waiting around the corner to make sure no predatory females tried to poach her delectable man.
Mr. Gorgeous stopped pacing and swung toward her. She was confronted with eyes the color of the summer sky on a clear day. Cassie almost shielded her own eyes lest the brilliance of those blue orbs damage her retinas or make her fantasize about things she had no right thinking. Not with a baby coming in a few weeks…and not when there had to be a Mrs. Gorgeous lurking in the shadows.
Right now, his beautiful eyes were staring at her with a mixture of panic and horror, which worked to break the haze of attraction. Right. Tara’s dad thought she’d been about to give birth in the bathroom stall.
“There you are.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I’ve been out of my mind.”
“I’m fine.” Cassie fought the urge to smooth his hair back into place. Or tousle it some more. Any excuse that would allow her to touch him. “No babies on the way yet.”
“Babies?” His gaze slid down to her belly. “You’re not having…”
Gah! Did she look like she was carrying multiples? Cassie felt as big as a horse these days, but she hoped that was mostly in her own mind.
“No, there’s only one,” Cassie said. “Unless Baby Girl Stevens is hiding a twin somehow.”
“Cool!” Tara appeared at her dad’s elbow. “You’re having a girl?”
“Do you have a name picked out yet?”
Cassie wrinkled her nose. “No.”
The name problem continued to plaque her. She’d been wracking her brain, reading baby name books, looking online, going through the Bible and every book of classic literature she could find, but so far she was stuck. Cassie had decided she’d probably have to wait until her daughter arrived and hope a name would come to her then.
Tara’s dad took a few steps closer. “Well, if you’re sure everything is fine, why don’t I get you checked in? I’m sure you want to go to your room and rest for a bit.”
Seriously? First, she was the size of a barn door, and now pale and sickly? The one quick glance in the mirror a moment ago had assured that her long dark hair still mostly remained in the bun she’d created this morning. Yes, she had purple smudges under her brown eyes, but nothing too alarming.
“Do I look like I’m about to keel over?” she asked, with a growing irritation. Here she was practically drooling over Mr. Gorgeous, and he thought she was a fat, tired-looking old hag.
“No, you look beautiful.”
The words seemed ripped from his mouth, and they hung in the air for a moment like a downed power line sizzling in the street. Mr. Gorgeous’ blue eyes went even wider, and he swallowed. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry,” Cassie said. “I’ve been feeling like a beached whale for the last couple months. It’s nice to know I’m not totally hideous.”
His lips stretched into a grin that seemed connected to his eyes. “Definitely not hideous.”
Oh, he needed to stop doing that. A grinning Mr. Gorgeous threatened to fry all her brain cells, making it almost impossible to resist jumping him, something Mrs. Gorgeous might object to.
Straight On Toward Paradise
A Shellwater Key Tale (Book 2)
Emma Bertram’s life is a recipe for disaster, but she’s about to discover that love and forgiveness are the perfect ingredients for a happy ending.
At fifteen, Emma Bertram’s perfect family splintered when her father left her mother for another woman. Anger and bitterness, along with the demands of being a professional chef, have kept Emma apart from her father and his new family for years. Then her father and stepmother are killed in a car accident. Returning to her childhood home of Shellwater Key, Emma learns she has become guardian of her two half-sisters.
What Emma knows about raising children could fit on a restaurant napkin. So when her mother offers to stay and help with the girls, Emma can’t say no. She also can’t say no to her childhood friend’s job offer to be the head chef at the old Paradise Dinner Theatre. Renovating the dilapidated kitchen may be even more challenging than dealing with her half-sisters. Then there’s her father’s law partner, Reece Casings, who has no trouble telling Emma what she’s doing wrong. The buttoned-up, so-wrong-for-her, but oh-so-handsome lawyer makes Emma’s blood boil. Or is it heart race?
In the end Emma will have to learn how to forgive her father…and herself…and trust in love and faith again if she ever hopes to serve up a happily ever after for everyone.
“What would it take to put you on my entrée list?”
Emma Bertram almost jumped out of her skin as a thick, hairy arm draped across her shoulders. She nearly dropped the tray of hors d’oeuvres she’d slaved over for the last hour. The sour smell of alcohol and cigars wafted across her face as the man leaned closer. Emma twisted, trying to put the tray between her and Thaddeus P. Coltrane, III.
Already, Emma regretted the decision to leave the galley. Fresh ocean air wasn’t a strong enough reason to walk into the path of lechers.
“I’m not on the menu, sir,” Emma said, keeping her voice toneless.
Any show of outrage generally made dirty old men like Thaddeus more determined to bring her to heel. Dirty old men with more money than God could make a lot of trouble for her. His type rarely had to hear the word “no” and didn’t take it well when they did.
“Thaddeus, you lecherous old goat, leave my chef alone,” a sultry voice intoned from behind Emma’s back.
Emma and the “lecherous old goat” turned as Isabella Barrett-Toulouse, owner of the floating palace christened Queen’s Ransom, moved toward them. Isabella’s sapphire-blue designer gown fluttered in the evening breeze, making it seem as though she sailed above the deck. To look at her, no one would guess Isabella had celebrated her seventy-first birthday two months ago. Her skin seemed as smooth as a baby’s bottom. Of course, she was worth an estimated $3.5 billion, and people with that kind of wealth could afford to acquire wrinkle-free skin by any means possible.
Thaddeus withdrew his hand. “I was merely trying to inquire about the recipe for those decadent chocolate tarts Chef Bertram served at dinner last night, Isa.”
‘Isa’ rolled her eyes. “Don’t try to fool me, Thad. Go on now.” She shooed him away with the flick of her hand.
Thaddeus threw one more glance toward Emma before sauntering away.
Isabella sighed and turned back. “Excuse my guests, Emma. They often forget themselves.”
“Don’t worry, I’m all right.”
Being hit on wasn’t anything new, though Emma continued to be surprised by each new proposition. Since joining the crew of Queen’s Ransom as Master Chef five months ago, she’d been on the receiving end of every bawdy proposition, lewd suggestion, and crude pick up line ever invented. For reasons unknown to her, the insanely wealthy guests who sailed on the yacht were attracted to her like bees to a honeycomb.
Perhaps it was the chef uniform. Maybe rich playboys had role-playing fantasies and thought it would be exciting to play in the kitchen—slather each other in oil and roll around on the floor like they were starring in a porno movie. There was certainly nothing about her five-three, tomboyish frame, honey-colored eyes, and wild mane of caramel-tinted curls to garner such attention.
“It could be that you seem so aloof,” Isabella said, with a thoughtful frown. “An island unto yourself. Perhaps they want to poke through that mystique.”
“Oh, they want to poke something, but I doubt it’s my mystique,” Emma said, in a dry tone.
Isabella chuckled. “You know what I mean, my iron chef. You with the hollow eyes and air of tragedy swirling about you.”
Emma suppressed the urge to roll her eyes at her employer. Isabella might be more casual than your average multi-billion-dollar heiress, but she demanded nothing less than absolute respect.
“There is no air of tragedy,” Emma said. “I’m trying to be professional. No one wants an emotionally unstable female chef. Only male chefs are allowed to be egomaniacal jerks in the kitchen.”
“My dear, you positively drip with tragedy,” Isabella said. “Why else would you leave one of the most acclaimed restaurants in San Francisco and take a job on my yacht?”
“I wanted to see the world.” Emma fought to keep a tremor out of her voice. Tried not to think of the heartbreak she’d fled a few months ago, and the life she’d known and lost years before that. “I’ve never been to Asia.”
“Neither had I. Vincent promised to sail away with me for my seventieth birthday.” Isabella grew silent, and Emma allowed her to fall back into memories. A past life filled with a beloved husband and only son.
They both had reasons to avoid home.
Isabella seemed to shake off her trance. “Now you’ve made me melancholy.” A smile pulled at her lips. “This sailing is a celebration for me. For you, I think it’s been an escape, but my dear, soon the world will come calling and drag you back.”
With those parting words, Isabella continued on, moving to speak to her guests. Emma stared after the retreating woman and shivered. Nonsense. No one was about to beg her to come home. She didn’t even have a real home anymore. Fighting off her own sudden bout of melancholy, Emma instead focused on the dark sea, which stretched around out beyond the yacht like an undulating blanket. A full moon had risen, and the light caressed the water with a silver-tinted beam. Behind her, smoky jazz music played, accompanied by the buzz of voices from Isabella’s guests.
Emma took several deep breaths, focusing on the amazing fact that she was able to enjoy magnificent scenes like this, every day.
“Emma!” a strident voice called out.
She whirled around to see one of the assistant stewards running toward her.
The younger woman huffed as she reached Emma’s side. “You have to come quick.”
“Why?” she asked in instant alarm. “Is there a fire in the galley? Has someone been hurt?”
“No. It’s your mother.”
“The captain came looking for you,” she said, pulling on Emma’s arm. “The call was patched through to him. Your mother is waiting for you.”
Fear lodging her throat, Emma took off at a run. Her mother wouldn’t contact her like this unless it was a dire emergency. She called every other week, mostly to assure her mother she was still alive.
She and Kylie raced up the two narrow flights of stairs to the bridge. The Captain turned as they stumbled inside.
“You said my mother was trying to contact me?” Emma burst out, her chest heaving from both the sprint and panic.
The Captain pointed to the radio, and Emma snatched it up. “Mom? I’m here.”
“Emma, finally,” her mother said, the voice sounding thin and far away. “I couldn’t reach your phone.”
“We’re in deep water. No reception. What’s going on?”
“Oh baby…” There was a pause and when her mother spoke again, Emma was certain her mother was crying.
“Mom…what’s wrong?” Emma cried, her alarm growing by the second. “Are you sick? Hurt?”
“No, it’s not me. Emma, it’s your father.”
Every muscle in her body froze. “Dad? What happened?”
“There was an accident. He and Mona…”
Again, her mother’s voice trailed off. Emma’s heart was pounding so hard each pulse actually hurt. “Mom! Are they all right?”
“No…baby, they’re both gone. Another car lost control and hit them head on.”
Sound rushed through Emma’s head and she had to catch herself on the back of the captain’s chair. “How do you know? Are you sure?”
“Your father’s law partner. He called here because he couldn’t get in touch with you.
Emma’s legs went numb, and she slid to the floor. “What about the girls? Imogene and Paige?”
“They weren’t in the car with them. Emma, you have to come home.”
“Who’s taking care of the girls?”
“I assume Mona’s mother—”
Static blasted her ear, and she held the radio away. “Mom…Mom!” The line went dead, and Emma could only stare at the radio in her hand.
Then somehow Isabella was there. She knelt by Emma’s side and took the device. “Oh honey, I’m so sorry.”
“They’re dead,” Emma said, barely hearing Isabella’s words of comfort. “My dad and stepmother are dead.”
“I know,” she said, eyes filled with compassion. “Is there anything I can do?”
Isabella had been right about the world dragging Emma back.
She took a deep breath and looked up into the older woman’s eyes. “Can you help me get home?”
Last Stop At Paradise
Shellwater Key Tales (Book 3)
Scandal has turned Callie Dalton’s life upside down. Going homeagain will teach her that the curtain hasn’t set on her own
“For a while I thought maybe I was supposed to help all the lost souls wandering the halls of The Paradise,” Noah said, with self-deprecating humor…
“They’ve all told me how much you’ve counseled them,” Callie said. “There’s a reason everyone thinks you’re an angel.”
“Yes, but now I realize it wasn’t just about them.” His gaze centered on her. “I think maybe I was supposed to wait for something else. For someone else.”
When Callie Dalton’s charismatic, televangelist husband falls into disgrace, Callie goes down with him. Now he’s dead, leaving Callie to face the wrath of the public alone. With nowhere else to go, she takes her two young children and escapes to a place she’s spent most of her life trying to forget.
Shellwater Key holds memories of sweet childhood friendships…and the tragic death of her mother. Most everyone is horrified when Callie moves back in to the same house where her mother died, but after the scandal her options are limited. Except that same house now comes with a bonus…a handsome “pool boy” with changeable eyes, a killer smile, and shoulders wide enough to carry every one of her burdens.
Noah Johnson isn’t actually a pool boy. He’s the carpenter and resident “angel” at The Paradise Dinner Theatre, now owned by her friend, Layla McCarthy. After a disastrous and humiliating job hunt, Noah helps engineer a position as House Manager at the theatre. A chance to start over is an answer to prayer, but every instinct warns that proximity to the sexy and enigmatic Noah could be the most dangerous complication to Callie’s life…and her wary heart. But when she learns the truth about Noah’s story and his former occupation, she’s ready to run again. It will take a willingness to face her tragic past and embrace the possibilities of tomorrow for Callie to find the love that will finally set her free.
I’m about to move into a haunted house.
Callie Dalton stared at the home where she’d spent the first ten years of her life. She didn’t actually believe in ghosts — at least not the “boo” kind — but there were other kinds of spiritual disturbances. Call them the Ghosts of Upended Lives and Shattered Dreams or the Specters of Agony and Loss. Those kinds of ghosts were all too real, as she well knew.
Moving back into this house, in the sleepy town of Shellwater Key on Florida’s southwest coast, carried its own special brand of the macabre. Of course, her entire life had become one big train wreck so what was a little more pain? Only six months ago, she’d been the first lady of one of the country’s largest televangelist empires. She’d stood as the silent queen behind her charismatic preacher husband, Austin Dalton, who’d founded the Glory Gospel empire.
That was before the arrest and the litany of Federal charges against Austin for multiple counts of fraud and tax evasion. Within weeks, the Feds had seized everything they’d owned. Then came the shocking end to the scandal when Austin died of a sudden heart attack.
These days, Callie was the most despised woman in America. The fact that she was a widow now only garnered outrage that the person responsible for ruining so many lives had died before he could pay for his crimes.
So, what was living in the same house where her mother died compared to national shame? Compared to months of Federal agents breathing down her neck? Learning to ignore icy glares and even threats to her life? At least when she’d been a child everyone had felt sorry for her. Now, Callie knew many would not care if she were to join Austin in a premature death.
A sweaty hand tugged on her skirt. “Mommy, are we goin’ in? I’m hungry.”
Callie jerked back to the present, forcing herself to focus on the two most important things in her life. Seven-year-old Leanne looked up, her faintly tilted dark eyes narrowed in confusion. Seeing her daughter’s wide, gap-toothed smile, it was sometimes hard to remember the child had spent the first nine months of her life in a Chinese orphanage. When Callie and Austin had first adopted Leanne, she hadn’t allowed anyone to hold her, and had eaten like she didn’t trust that the next meal would come. Now, she was a healthy, happy girl who loved tea parties, dolls, and all things pink.
“Yes, we’re going inside, baby,” Callie said. “Mommy just wanted to look and remember.”
“Remember what?” Six-year-old Stephen asked, without looking away from an ant that was attempting to carry a crumb back to its buddies. Stephen had spent the first few months of his life in an orphanage, too, only his had been in the Ukraine. Callie’s wiry and curious little boy pushed a chunk of blond hair out of his eyes, reminding her that he needed to visit the barber ASAP.
“Things I really should forget,” Callie said, struggling to stay in the moment and not think about her past or her future.
Stephen lost interest in the ant and glanced up, blue eyes twinkling with mischief. “Why?”
“Because Mommy likes to torture herself.”
“I don’t know.”
Leanne put her hands to her skinny hips. “You should stop,” she said, with an emphatic nod.
Out of the mouths of babes. “I’m sure you’re right,” Callie said, tweaking her daughter’s nose.
If only she knew how to stop. If only she could cut off the pangs of guilt and shame. If only she knew what her next step would be. She’d been running on a fuel of panic and doubt for so long. Now that the worst was over and Callie could take a deep breath, she almost didn’t have enough energy to put one foot in front of the other.
“Excuse me…” a woman called out.
Instinct had Callie clutching the children closer as she turned. Over the last six months, she’d come to expect the worst from public encounters. She’d been cussed out and even spat upon. Now, Callie braced for the first brush with her new neighbors. Would they recognize her? Would people connect the scandalous figure from the news to the little girl who’d once lived here? And would they remember the tragic events that had driven Callie and her father away from Shellwater Key in the first place?
She would soon find out. A tiny, rotund woman with a head of tight, graying curls was marching toward them with great purpose.
“No way,” Callie muttered in shock as she recognized the woman. “She’s still here.”
Mrs. VanDorn had lived across the street when Callie was a little girl. The woman used to spend hours tending to her rose bushes. No one had been able to escape a conversation with Mrs. VanDorn without hearing all about the latest grafting methods or how she’d done in some gardening contest.
She’d always been nice to Callie, but of course, she’d been a child then. Now, she was Public Enemy Number One, and so she braced for a confrontation.
Leanne looked up, her brows puckered together. “What’s wrong, Mommy?”
“Then why are you holdin’ on so tight?” Stephen asked, squirming to get away.
Because she’d learned to expect abuse from anyone who approached her. Even sweet, little old ladies. Especially the sweet, little old ladies. They were often the most vicious.
Mrs. VanDorn got within ten feet. “I’m sorry if I startled you, but I couldn’t help noticing you’ve been standing in front of this house for a long time. I wanted to make sure you weren’t lost or—”
She stopped in mid-sentence and her dark eyes widened with recognition. “Well, as I live and breathe.”
Callie pasted on her Sunday-morning-meet-and-greet smile. “Hello, Mrs. VanDorn.”
“Never thought I’d see the day.” The older woman blinked and looked around, probably wondering if she was seeing things. “I surely never did.”
“Neither did I,” Callie said.
Mrs. VanDorn’s gaze flickered lower, and Callie put a hand on top of each little head. “These are my children, Leanne and Stephen.”
She jerked her head up and down. “Yes, I know.”
Of course she did. Callie’s children had been part of the Dalton Family Picture of Domestic Bliss. Two orphaned babies rescued by the noble Pastor Austin and his angelic, God-fearing wife. It was a heartwarming story that never failed to bring tears to the eyes. Too bad Callie hadn’t known they were all playing roles as cast by the good Reverend Dalton. That their mega-church house of cards would come tumbling down around them thanks to her now deceased husband’s lies.
Leanne held out her hand immediately, just as she’d been taught. “Hello, ma’am.” Then she elbowed her brother in the ribs. He responded with a glare, but then he too stuck out a hand. “Hello, I’m Stephen Dalton, and I’m six.”
There were times when Callie wondered if Austin hadn’t secretly fathered their youngest child. Her son had picked up every nuance of his father’s act…err…personality.
The older woman’s frown transformed into a smile. “Well, aren’t you a complete gentleman?” She turned back to Leanne. “And what a proper young lady you are.”
“Thank you,” Leanne and Stephen responded in perfect unison.
She glanced up at Callie, a thousand questions in her eyes. “Whatever are you doing in Shellwater Key?”
“I’ve moved back.”
Now, Mrs. VanDorn’s gaze went past Callie’s shoulder to the house. “You’re not thinking of—” She seemed to swallow the thought.
Callie nodded. “We are. My father never sold the house.”
The older woman reared back a little. “I didn’t know that.”
Indeed, Mrs. VanDorn not being privy to information relating to the neighborhood must be a huge shock. Along with her role as Cultivator of the Rosebushes, she was also Keeper of the Gossip. The woman had always known everything about everyone.
“Until he died, I didn’t know my father still owned this house either,” Callie said. “He left me the deed in his will.”
Mrs. VanDorn frowned again. “And you’re going to live in the house where your mother—”
“Yes, that’s right,” Callie jumped in. Her gaze darted back to the children, hoping her old neighbor read the silent warning. The children didn’t need to know the whole dark truth about her childhood home yet.
Mrs. VanDorn did seem to be clairvoyant because she paused, jerked her chin down once, and then pasted a smile on her face again. “I bet you two are hungry,” she said, addressing them. “My grandchildren were supposed to visit today, but they’ve come down with the flu. Now, I’m stuck with a plate of the most delicious chocolate chip cookies you can imagine, and there’s no way I can eat them all. I think there’s a full pitcher of lemonade, too.”
Both kids looked up, expressions eager. “Can we Mommy?” Stephen asked. “I love chocolate chips.”
Callie hesitated, wondering if the vicious jab was still to come. “Are you sure?”
Mrs. VanDorn stepped closer. “There’s no reason for you to have to go in there yet,” she said, lowering her voice so the kids couldn’t overhear.
Leanne stared at her former neighbor in shock. How was it possible to receive such a warm welcome from a woman who hadn’t seen her since she was ten? She couldn’t remember the last time she’d experienced such kindness. Certainly, it was much longer than the six months she’d endured as America’s Most Hated Wife.
Her eyes filled with gratitude. “Thank you,” she whispered, barely able to get the words past the lump in her throat.
Mrs. VanDorn’s eyes gentled even more, and she reached for Callie’s hand. “You bring your sweet children inside and have a cookie, and then we’ll see about tackling that old house, along with everything else, all right?”
“I don’t understand. Why are you being so…” She couldn’t get the words out past the giant vise squeezing her voice box.
The old lady squeezed Callie’s cold fingers. “We take care of family here in Shellwater Key.”
“I haven’t been family in years.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Mrs. VanDorn’s curls vibrated as she nodded. “You’ve come home, where you belong.
Callie would never make fun of Mrs. VanDorn’s obsession with roses again.
Mrs. VanDorn moved away and took a small hand in each of hers. “Come on now, those cookies will be getting cold.”
Callie watched them go, her heart seeming to lift with each step they took.
Mrs. VanDorn turned to look back. “You too, dear. Like I said, there’s time to deal with everything.”
Yes, there was. All the time in the world to fix the mess that was her life.