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Authors: Christie Ridgway

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Beach House Beginnings

BOOK: Beach House Beginnings
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Christie Ridgway invites you to a special place of sun, sand and romance in her new series, Beach House No. 9. Enjoy this prequel novella and meet the people of Crescent Cove…

Two miles of magic. That’s how Meg Alexander remembers her childhood home of Crescent Cove on the California coast. But Meg doesn’t believe in magic anymore—not since heartbreak made her leave at nineteen and kept her away for ten years.

Yet Meg can’t say no when her sister asks her to temporarily step in as the cove’s property manager—and she can’t deny her instant attraction to handsome guest Caleb McCall. He sparks a desire that Meg hasn’t felt in a long time. But even as their incredible, incendiary kisses tempt her into a short-term fling, her head tells her to pull away.

Can Caleb convince her to give love a second chance?

Return to Crescent Cove in
Beach House No. 9, Bungalow Nights
and
The Love Shack,
coming soon from Christie Ridgway and Harlequin HQN.

BEACH HOUSE
BEGINNINGS

A Beach House No. 9 Novella

Christie Ridgway

Dear Reader,

I want to take you away! I have a special place for you to visit, with sun and sand and magic. Not the hocus-pocus kind of magic, but the kind of alchemy that occurs when two strangers meet and know instantly the moment is a game-changer. Their hearts beat faster and there’s an exuberant lift in their bellies and even if they don’t want to feel like this, they just…do.

Three full-length romances are ahead,
Beach House No. 9
,
Bungalow Nights
and
The Love Shack
. But for now I hope you’ll enjoy this first look at Crescent Cove as the sunshine breaks through the coastal fog to reveal a gem of a setting and a man and a woman who are about to uncover treasure…in each other. Both Caleb McCall and Meg Alexander have fractures of the heart that only the act of committing to each other can fully mend. I hope you’ll root for them and return for more Beach House No. 9 books.

Here comes the sun!

Christie Ridgway

This world, after all our science and sciences, is still a miracle: wonderful, inscrutable, magical and more, to whosoever will think of it.

—Thomas Dekker, English writer and dramatist

Chapter One

T
wo miles of magic.

Trudging through soft sand, Meg Alexander remembered that’s how she’d thought of her childhood Neverland, Southern California’s Crescent Cove. Even after ten years away, she recalled how lucky she’d felt growing up here.

Meg’s great-great-grandfather had purchased the land as a location to make silent movies such as
The Courageous Castaways
and
Sweet Safari
, and the tropical vegetation he’d trucked in for authenticity in 1919 continued to thrive at the cove today. The buff-colored bluffs rising up from the beach were made more colorful by the bright green fronds of date palm trees and the salmon and scarlet flowers of bougainvillea that nestled beside the native sagebrush. Closer to shore, floppy-leaved banana plants, chunky Mexican fan palms and colorful hibiscus shrubs surrounded the fifty eclectic cottages, most of which had been built during the 1920s through 1950s.

Each of the beach houses at Crescent Cove was different, their form-following whims now long forgotten. Their paint schemes were as varied as their shapes and sizes, though the colors selected blended well with the landscape of sand, earth and vivid flora. The single similarity was that in every one, windows peered oceanward.

Meg didn’t dare look in that direction, herself.

Growing up, her mother had told Meg and her little sister, Skye, that merfolk lived in those waters off shore, protecting the cove with their supernatural powers. Growing up, Meg had believed in that, just as she’d believed that sand dollars were the merpeople’s currency and sea glass the discarded pieces from some mysterious merchildren’s board game.

But Meg didn’t believe in magic or mystery anymore.

“Good morning,” an elderly male voice said.

Startled, Meg looked up. “Hey, Rex. Good morning, yourself.” Rex Monroe, ninety-some years young, was the only full-time resident at the cove other than Skye, who had managed the property since their parents’ move to Provence, France. Yesterday, for the first time in a decade, Meg had met up with the nonagenarian as he walked along the sand. Like now, the clouds had been low and damp, the typical gloomy “May Gray” weather conditions. “Getting in your daily constitutional?” she asked.

Rex patted his belly, covered in a flannel shirt tucked into soft chinos. “It’s not just you ladies who have to watch your figures. Are you settling in okay?”

“Oh, sure,” Meg said, waving a hand. It was actually weird being back in her childhood bedroom, ten years after leaving the cove at nineteen, but her sister had been invited to the out-of-town wedding of a former college roommate. How could Meg have refused to step in? Memorial Day weekend was the kick-off of the Crescent Cove summer season. Someone had to be on hand to pass out keys to the bungalows and handle minor crises.

Even if it was a major crisis, in Meg’s mind, to be back here.

“I see you have a satchel of tools,” Rex said, pointing to the canvas bag she carried. “Something need fixing already?”

“Not really. Just trying to keep busy.” Anything to prevent her from thinking of the last summer she’d spent at the cove. “I’m going to scrape the deck railing at Beach House No. 9. I understand that Griffin Lowell has been staying there the last couple of months, but since he’s away for a few days, Skye hired a contractor to take care of the blistering paint while he’s gone.”

Rex gave Meg a piercing look that reminded her he was a former war correspondent, one who’d won a Pulitzer during World War 2. “What? The man Skye hired doesn’t have some sort of electric paint-removing machine?”

“Uh, well…” Meg glanced at the simple metal scraper at the bottom of her bag, sitting beside a few other basic tools and her bottle of water. “You know what they say about idle hands. I thought I’d do the work myself.” An idle mind was even more dangerous, Meg had decided. She had to stay busy to avoid thoughts of that last summer. Of Peter.

Rex nodded as if he understood all she didn’t say aloud. “You come visit me if you’d like some company, all right?”

“Thanks, I will,” Meg said with a bright smile, though she knew she wouldn’t. She didn’t want company. Company might bring up Peter. Company might ask her why she’d run away from her childhood home and never returned. Company might make her admit how much she’d lost, including the happy-go-lucky girl she’d once been.

Meg was too smart to allow that to happen.

“Enjoy your walk, Rex,” she said, and then continued down the beach.

The south end of Crescent Cove was bounded by a sea cliff that pushed into the Pacific. Though the top of it was wide and flat, there were steep trails snaking up its side that led to various outcroppings from which, she remembered, daredevils used to launch ocean jumps. Skye had posted warning signs against the practice, but from the look of those clearly defined routes, it remained an enticement. The last cottage in the cove snuggled next to the bluff, a two-story, brown-shingled building with blue-green trim and a large deck extending over the sand.

A driftwood sign was tacked to the outer railing, words painted in the same color as the trim.
Beach House No. 9
.

Meg mounted the steps that led from the sand to the surface of the deck. She dropped her bag on the umbrella-topped table and took in the rest of the patio accessories: single chaises, a double lounger, a stack of extra chairs and a barbecue.

Everything looked in order. Though the current resident was gone for a few days, he’d return for the month of June. After that, No. 9 would have different occupants in July and August. Skye had said almost all the cottages were booked up for summer. That was good, because those months were when Crescent Cove paid its way. It would quiet in the fall and the rentals would be mostly vacant throughout the winter and spring.

Meg frowned at the peeling rails. Her sister was right to be annoyed that the paint hadn’t stayed tight to the wood. Maintenance was accomplished in the off-season and a company had been out in February to refurbish, but their efforts hadn’t lasted.

On the plus side, it gave Meg something to do, besides think of—

No one. No one was on her mind.

Yanking a hair tie from her front pocket, she gave another frown at the blistered railing as she bound her mass of caramel-colored hair. Then she consciously relaxed her facial muscles. “Watch it,” she murmured to herself. “You don’t want to groove permanently grumpy lines.”

Then again, she
was
a twenty-nine-year-old accountant. Grumpy might already be permanent.

Ignoring that unpleasant thought, Meg tackled the task she’d assigned herself, starting at one end of the railing. Paint chips flew until they covered her feet in their rubber thongs and were scattered over her hands and forearms. They drifted onto her jeans and T-shirt, too, almost obscuring the word blazoned across her chest: Meh.

Which kind of summed up how Meg had been feeling about herself and her life.

Meh. Meg. Just one letter off.

Contemplating that made her thirsty again. She’d nearly drained the puny little bottle of water she’d brought. The May Gray was locked in battle with the sun, and though right now gray was winning, it had definitely warmed up. With the last drop in her still-parched throat, Meg decided to dig through her bag for the cove’s master keys, and dash inside No. 9 to refill her water at the kitchen sink.

Since No. 9’s occupant, Griffin Lowell, had summered in this very bungalow as a kid and they’d been friends back in the day, she didn’t think he’d object. Although according to Skye, Griffin barely resembled the devil-may-care boy who had vacationed with his family at the cove. Now a journalist, he’d spent a year embedded with the troops in Afghanistan and had come back to the beach a loner who wanted nothing more than to be left to himself. Meg hoped he’d find what he was looking for here, though her own return to Crescent Cove had yet to bring her peace.

The sliding door leading from the deck to the living room was heavy, so she left it open as she hustled inside, leaving her paint-chipped footwear behind. It only took a moment or two to replenish her bottle and twist on the cap. As she hurried back out, her bare soles slid on the hardwood floor. She felt herself going down and dropped the container to catch her balance on a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf. Steady again, she saw the plastic cylinder of water rolling toward the sliding glass door. Rolling toward shoes.

Shoes?

As she looked up, the sun won the war, breaking from behind the clouds. The light dazzled, and made the figure in the doorway a dark silhouette. A male silhouette, with a big, shaggy-haired dog at his side.

Meg’s heart shot high, fueled by pure exhilaration as she recognized the masculine outline. Her fingers tightened on the bookshelf. Peter.
Peter!

In one single moment she experienced all the blazing joy of that summer ten years before when she’d met a twenty-two-year old recent college graduate. She’d fallen for him, fallen so deep that there’d been barely a splash, and he’d been equally smitten. The feeling had held all the thrills and enchantment her mother had promised about that thing called love, as happy-ever-after-ish as Meg had fantasized since she was a little girl swooning over the Disney version of
The Little Mermaid
. Peter Fleming had been her prince.

That summer, she’d thought she’d met her future, and they could have fed the entire world’s energy grid from the unending pool of their mutual bliss.

And here he was! Again! Her heart raced, thrumming against her ribs. Peter…

Did she say it out loud? Because the dark figure shook his head, then stepped into the room. The dog followed, his nails clicking smartly against the floor. “I’m Caleb,” the man said. “Caleb McCall.”

She stared at him blankly, her racing heart braking to a screeching halt, her brief joy subsumed by the grief she’d experienced that summer, too. Her body began to tremble, an aftereffect of shock.

As she watched, the man swooped down for the bottle, then paced toward her, holding it out. “It looks as if you could use this,” he said.

She released the bookshelf to take it from him, her senses still working at recovery. Of course this man wasn’t Peter. Peter had been gone for ten years, drowned by a rogue wave, it was presumed, when he’d gone out kayaking one afternoon at the end of August.

The stranger might look a little like Peter had he lived, though. Same golden tan, same sandy brown hair—though cut short when Peter’s had been long. The man—Caleb, he’d said—was gazing at her with narrowed brown eyes, concern written across his handsome features.

Now that she was breathing again, she felt a little visceral tug in her mid-section. Handsome? He was more than that. The way he held himself radiated a confident sexiness, as if he understood his place in the world and liked it as well as he liked himself.

“Are you going to be okay?” he asked. His voice was low, a deep sound that suited him.

“Sure. You just…startled me. I—” Tensing, Meg broke off, suddenly aware she was alone, at the nearly deserted cove, with a man—albeit a good-looking one—whom she’d never before met. Her sister had admonished her to take precautions with her personal safety. The water bottle was a crappy weapon, but she did have her cell phone in her pocket.

“Rex told me where I could find you,” Caleb said.

The tension in her shoulders eased. “You know Rex?”

The handsome stranger shook his head. “I just met him on the beach. But when I told him I wanted to check into the cottage I rented, he said you’d be here.”

“Oh. Sure. Right.” Though Meg had thought no one was expected today.

The dog chose that moment to whine. Meg glanced down, noting Caleb soothing him with long, masculine fingers, but when her gaze shifted from the man’s hand to the canine’s bicolored eyes, her heart took another jolt.

She knew those eyes.

She knew this dog.

Her fingers tightened on the water bottle, causing the plastic to make a snapping sound. “Who…who are you?”

“I said. Caleb McCall.” His eyes were serious and trained on her face. “I’m Peter’s cousin. Do you remember me, Starr?”

* * *

Starr.

The name pierced her chest, triggering a sharp ache in its empty cavern. Starr was listed on her birth certificate; Starr was what she’d been called from infancy until nineteen, but nobody had used it in years. She’d made sure of that.

Once she could breathe past the pain, she hastened to correct the man still staring at her with a steadfast gaze. “Call me Meg,” she said. “I’m Meg now.”

The second thing she did was drop to her knees to pet the dog. Her palms stroked over his rough-soft fur. “Bitzer.” She glanced up, Caleb’s quick nod confirming it
was
Peter’s dog. He’d been a one-year-old when his master had gone missing, and now had a muzzle that was nearly gray.

She pressed her cheek against it. “Bitzer,” she repeated. It was Aussie slang for a mixed-breed dog—”bits of this and bits of that”—and since he looked to be some bit Australian shepherd, Peter had thought the name fit. The animal wiggled his hindquarters and seemed a pleased recipient of her affection, though she didn’t expect he actually remembered her.

With a last fond pat, she stood. Clearing her throat, she glanced at Caleb again. “If you’ll follow me back to the property management office, I’ll check you in.”

The walk up the beach was quiet. Meg was grateful the man didn’t try to chat, because she needed the silent minutes and the cool breeze to pull herself together. Those milliseconds when she’d mistaken him for Peter had shaken her, taking her back to that time when she’d been a naive nineteen-year-old who never anticipated gathering clouds on the horizon. Caleb’s use of that old name, Starr, had been yet another painful reminder of the girl she’d been.

But she was all grown up now. More important, she was
Meg
, a completely different person. A practical, common-sensical, reality-grounded woman who had moved on from that ten-year-old tragedy. A little sadder, yes, but a lot wiser, too.

Completely free of romantic fancies.

BOOK: Beach House Beginnings
9.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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