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Authors: Susan Connell

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BOOK: A Woman To Blame
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"Behave yourselves," Pappy warned. "The show's about to begin."

The show, Rick noted with pleasure, had begun in the late afternoon when the sun, ballooning with color, began drifting down to the water. Pappy's patrons assembled for the last act. The grand finale. Chairs scraped the rough plank floor as they were turned toward the west rail. And then, as always, there was a moment of silence when everyone seemed to hold a collective breath. Rick never tired of the dazzling spectacle, a mixture of gaudy melodrama and timeless dignity.

As the show continued, good-natured laughter and the clink of glasses filled the balmy, salt scented air. Over in another corner Tweed MacNeil lifted his guitar, perched himself on a stool, and teased the audience with a few familiar notes.

"Do it to me, Tweed," a local woman begged, and "Margaritaville" rolled out rich and mellow.

Miss Scarlett joined in, exclaiming in a gravelly voice, "Make a joyful noise!"

After a while Pappy showed up at Rick's elbow and slipped a basket of conch fritters in front of him. He followed the neat presentation by thunking down two full mugs of beer, their foamy heads sloshing over the tops and onto the table. "Think I'll join you."

"I'm going to miss this, Pappy," Rick said, palming the foam away from the table edge then flicking it over the rail.

"That's right," Pappy said, wiping his hands on his shorts before taking the chair next to Rick. "You're flying up to Philadelphia tonight to see Angie's folks. No wonder you're dressed like... you're dressed." He strained for a look at Rick's lap. "Didn't get any on you, did I?"

Rick gave the old man an easy laugh. "No. I've been coming to this place long enough to know when to move out of the way."

As Pappy's eyes met his, the old man's voice lost its bantering tone. "How long has it been since Angie —?"

"Five years," he said quickly, reaching for the beer and taking a sip. Five years since he'd been coming to Pappy's alone. Keeping his eyes straight ahead, he cleared his throat when he sensed Pappy was about to ask another question. Too soon he'd be bombarded by memories of Angie, and right now all he wanted was to enjoy his beer, Pappy's atmosphere, and one more gaudy-awful sunset. He eased back in his chair and looked around him.

Several tourists had balanced their cameras on the west rail and were snapping away in a manic move to capture the moment. Rick watched, keenly aware of their need to have a piece of the place to take away with them. He blew softly through pursed lips, hoping to ease the strange sensations in his chest. This wasn't
only sunset at Pappy's. Still, in the pinkish-gold tint bathing Malabar Key, he was never more aware of the earth rolling closer to twilight. Rick shifted in his chair, releasing his stranglehold on the worn wooden armrests. What the hell was he so uptight about? Unless there was a major hurricane about to hit the Keys, Pappy's Crab Shack would be here when he got back.

"My granddaughter's coming for a visit."

"I think you mentioned she was," Rick said, turning to his friend with a grateful smile. He was relieved to talk about something else. "Don't think I've met her. Have I?"

"Bryn? You'd remember Bryn if you met her. Come to think of it, she usually visits when you're up in Philadelphia." With a proud shake of his head, Pappy concluded, "She's a pistol."

"A pistol, huh?" Crossing his arms, he leaned them on the damp table. "Too bad I'll miss her."

Pappy lifted the front of his fisherman's cap and scratched his head. "Another time," he said, as the sun, accompanied by a trilling flourish from Tweed MacNeil's guitar, disappeared below the horizon.

"Another time," Rick said, reaching for his wallet. Pappy waved off Rick's motion. "Put your money away. It's on the house tonight."

"Take care, then," Rick said, knowing his grin was all the thank-you Pappy would accept.

A few minutes later he was headed north on U.S. Highway 1, fiddling with the satellite radio and already counting the days until he could return.




Chapter 1


One week later.


Rick Parrish was coming home.

Tugging at the knot in his tie, he loosened it a few more inches, then unbuttoned another button on his shirt. He couldn't wait until he stored these clothes, pulled on his cargo shorts, and started the yearly process of putting his memories of Angie a little further back in his heart. The annual visit with her parents never got easier, but at least this year's visit was finally over.

He strained for his first glimpse of the mile marker for Malabar Key, and stepped down on the accelerator the moment he saw it. Like a white bullet, his Jeep sped onto the last bridge before home. A week away from Malabar Key was one week too long.
And he was so close now, he could smell it.

The first thing he was going to do was have a frosty mug of beer at Pappy's Crab Shack. After that, he'd check on his marina. Life was beginning to feel normal again. Tapping out the rhythm of "Margaritaville" on his steering wheel, he drove from the bridge and onto the highway. That "almost home" feeling settled over him, as familiar and welcoming as his chair at Pappy's. He turned up the volume on the radio, and the smile that had been threatening to surface for the last two hours eased across his face.

Turning onto Marina Road, he hit his horn twice, announcing his return to the group he knew was gathered at Pappy's. A roiling cloud of dust followed him into Pappy's empty parking lot.

Rick's smile left his face before he had a chance to jam his foot on the brake. Yanking off his sunglasses, he waved away the dust billowing over him and stared slack-jawed through the windshield.

He was hallucinating.

He had to be, because Pappy's Crab Shack had been here a week ago and now it was gone. Or at least the peeling paint was gone, and being replaced with a second coat of banana yellow. He recognized the painter. Tweed should have been inside along with the two men who were hanging a new sign.





"Tweed!" Rick shouted, switching off the ignition. "What the hell's going on?"

Gesturing with his paintbrush, the man on the ladder said, "Plenty. And you're not going to like any of it." Tweed winked. "Well, maybe a bit of it. But you go inside and find out for yourself."

Rick vaulted out of the Jeep. His momentary shock was turning into an uncomfortable tingle across his shoulders. What was Pappy Madison up to? Striding across the parking lot and onto a newly laid, petunia-lined brick walkway, he felt a growing sense of apprehension.

When his foot landed on the first step, he hesitated, then slowly tested the next step. The creak was gone. A disgusted snort left his nostrils. The entire staircase had been replaced. So had the shaky handrail. Taking the steps two at a time, he crested the top one, stepped inside the bar, and choked back a groan.

It was worse than he could have imagined. The beer-stained floor had been sanded clean, the rickety tables removed, and the naked mermaid mural blotted out with more of that banana-yellow paint.

What horror was next? he wondered, scanning the room.

The ultimate insult struck him like a boom in the chest. The dark pine captain's chair, which everyone on Malabar Key knew to be his, his poker chair, the chair that held him while he bragged about his fishing, the chair he'd passed out in a few too many times, was splattered with yellow paint and shoved in a corner like a piece of discarded history. His heart sank, then rebounded to its rightful place, bringing with it a need for an explanation... and a burning desire for retribution against the perpetrator of the blasphemous act.

"Pappy, get your sorry ass out here before I—" Rick's words blended with those of a willowy redhead who was backing through the kitchen door with an armload of cloth napkins.

"All deliveries through the back entrance, please," she was saying. "And could you—oh!"

He'd startled her, but no more than she'd startled him. In that swelling moment of silence Rick took her in, front and back, with the aid of a new wall mirror. She was sleek yet curvy, with an aura of sophistication he sensed instantly. Hell, her trendy hairstyle alone could have told him that. The feathery fullness of it appeared to defy gravity, framing her shocked expression with what looked like curvy auburn sunbursts. He wasn't surprised when she blinked first. Under the weight of her thick, curly lashes, it was a wonder her eyes hadn't closed before he took note of their clear amber color.

"Pappy's not here," she said regarding his empty hands with cautious interest. When she let go of the napkins, most of them fell into a basket at her feet. "I'm his granddaughter, Bryn."

His gaze followed her ladylike yet provocative stoop near his feet. As she gathered up the napkins from the floor, he watched her cropped top move up and down her back. He'd seen hundreds, maybe thousands of women in skimpy bathing suits, but this peekaboo view of her flesh was different. Every movement was an invitation to touch her right
at the base of her spine. Each time she reached, he dug his nails into his palms and hoped it was the last time. He gave himself permission to breathe after she tossed the last napkin into the basket she now had perched on her hip. Rising, she smiled and extended a hand as if nothing had happened.

And nothing had. Yet.

Rick had seen her type at his marina. Just brimming with gracious enthusiasm until sea spray dampened her makeup or the first stiff breeze destroyed her hairdo. Take-your-breath-away beauty or not, he told himself to expect much of the same from this one. He was never wrong about these things.

Then she touched him.

Her perfectly manicured hand slipped into his, her fingertips wrapping around the side, before gripping him in a capable hold. She gave one solid shake that told him his theory didn't apply to her. No dead fish here. This was a live one. With each passing second her touch sent him more disconcerting messages. Confident. Competent. Assertive. Challenging. Threatening.

Threatening? Where had that idea come from? Where had any of those ideas come from? He knew nothing about her except that Bryn rhymed with win, and that she smelled like cool cream and cinnamon. "I'm Rick Parrish," he said, in a raspy voice he didn't recognize as his own. He cleared his throat.

"Is there something I can help you with, Rick?"

He was sure there was something, but he couldn't remember what that something was. He was far too busy trying to figure out why her spirited handshake and blended scent were still knocking him off his center. That dead-calm center he guarded with his life. The reason had to be more than Bryn Madison's confident smile and the self-assured way she jutted her hip to brace the basket. His gaze strayed to the mirror behind her, giving him a periscopic view of the way her short skirt curved so lovingly around her hips. Slim, firm hips that made his palms itch. She reminded him of Pappy's mermaid mural. In fact, she could have been the model for the mural.

Rick fought the temptation to totally immerse himself in the mirror's stolen view of her backside. Of course, he wasn't breaking any law by looking. Even so, he knew he was asking for trouble if he didn't quit it—right after he compared Bryn's backside to the mermaid's. Turning toward the wall, he bit down and exhaled sharply. He'd been staring at Bryn's body for so long, he'd forgotten that the mermaid mural no longer existed.

With that thought burning in his brain, he looked back at her.
was the cause of this. And the reason adrenaline was roaring through his body. He watched her as she riffled through the whites and pastels in the basket, and followed her to the bar.

"If you're looking for a job bartending or as a cook, I'm afraid we're not—"

"I'm not looking for work. I want to know what's going on. And where's Pappy?" he asked, losing the battle to keep his voice all business.

She stopped her riffling and looked up at him. Her lips lifted at the corners into a proud grin that made his stomach flip-flop. Damn it to hell. If he wasn't going to fixate on her perfectly curved behind, neither was he going to get hung up on her mouth. Her lush, red mouth smiling in a way that was adding confusion to his growing list of complaints.

BOOK: A Woman To Blame
4.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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