Authors: Christie Ridgway
Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary, #Fiction
She powered up the computer on the desk in the office and checked the reservation log. “You were due to check in two days ago.” It was why she hadn’t expected him—he should have arrived before Skye left.
“I had a last-minute appointment,” he explained as she handed over the keys.
“Too bad you missed part of your getaway.” The computer screen said he was checking out Monday and it was already Wednesday.
“I hope to still get what I’m looking for.” His gaze met hers, and she felt another tug, a feminine quiver accompanied by a distinct inner whisper.
You woman, he man.
She dropped her lashes, surreptitiously checking out the rest of him. Dressed in a T-shirt and battered jeans, he had heavy shoulders, lean-muscled arms, a broad chest. You woman, he man?
I could figure that out for myself.
Her appreciation of his male form didn’t diminish when, after a brief goodbye, he turned around and left the office, dog at his side, keys in hand. The hem of his shirt brushed the rear pockets of his jeans, drawing her attention to the curve of his very male backside. Nice.
He man, you woman.
Be that as it may, Meg had no expectation of seeing him again, not until he checked out, anyway. So she proceeded with her day, making more progress on the railing, then returning home in the late afternoon to shower. The fog rolled in again, and she dressed in jeans, a sweatshirt and a pair of warm sheepskin boots.
By five, she was in the kitchen and opening a bottle of wine. Dinner hovered at the back of her mind, but she hadn’t decided on anything in particular. If she got lazy, she could take the one-mile walk up the beach to Captain Crow’s, a restaurant/bar situated at the north end of the cove. It had an expansive parking lot on the Pacific Coast Highway and was a popular spot year-round, thanks to an open-air deck that sat right on the sand. During inclement weather, plastic screens were unrolled to protect diners from the elements without obscuring the sights or sounds of the pounding surf.
Meg was holding up her glass, appreciating the glow of the garnet-colored merlot, when she heard a rap on the front door. A little surprised, she set down the drink and headed for the entry. With her hand on the knob, she paused, remembering her younger sister’s anxious expression when she’d warned Meg about locking up and staying safe. It niggled her now, just as it had then. Skye hadn’t seemed her usual buoyant self. She’d been dressed in what appeared to be their father’s castoffs, her hair bound in a tight braid, her face devoid of makeup. Yes, she’d been preparing for a six-hour drive, but still…
Another rap sounded against wood.
“Who’s there?” Meg asked.
She heard the jingle of a dog collar first, then Caleb McCall’s deep voice, identifying himself. Without anyone to witness, she didn’t bother suppressing the little shiver of awareness that wiggled down her spine. How had he found her? she wondered. Rex again, she supposed, pulling open the door.
Caleb was still in T-shirt and jeans. Still exuding that masculine confidence. “Sorry to bother you,” he said.
“What’s the problem?” She reached out to Bitzer, smiling when he licked her fingers.
“You should do that more often,” Bitzer’s owner said abruptly.
Meg blinked. “Do…?”
“Smile. You have a great smile.”
The compliment made her girlishly flustered. Which was ridiculous. She was twenty-nine and though she’d lost a lover long ago, there’d been men in her life since. Compliments. Even sex on occasion. But something about
man made her feel flushed and breathless and fidgety. “Uh, thanks,” she said, hoping her voice didn’t squeak. “Did you need something?”
“Sorry, yes. The oven doesn’t seem to work…or I’m not skilled enough to figure out how it should.”
“Hmm, I don’t think lack of skill is a problem you often encounter,” she murmured, then felt her face go hotter. Good God, that sounded like flirting!
He grinned at her. “All the same.”
The cottage he’d rented was just a hundred yards from her childhood home. When he unlocked the door, she smelled a touch of the citrus-scented cleaning products they used. And something else. Already there was a masculine spiciness in the air. Another clutch of awareness fisted in her belly. She pretended it wasn’t there.
In the kitchen, more good scents. Tomato sauce. Garlic. She saw a casserole on the stove and evidence of prep work on the cutting board, including a knife and strips of glossy, plum-colored skin. “You cook?”
He grimaced. “Learning. I think I make a decent eggplant parmesan, though,” he added, nodding at the dish.
“Smells like it,” Meg said, then turned the dials of the stove. No preheat light came on. She pulled open the door and there wasn’t a hint of warmth. With a little sigh, she played with the dials again, trying different combinations: Bake, Broil, Roast. Nothing woke up the uncooperative oven.
Frowning, she glanced at him over her shoulder. “Can you ‘fridge that food? I’m sure I can get this fixed tomorrow. For tonight, we’ll pick up your dinner tab at Captain Crow’s, or anywhere else you’d like to eat. Just bring me the receipt tomorrow and I’ll reimburse you.”
“What were you planning for dinner?”
His smile was charming. “I could bring the casserole to your kitchen. Use your oven. Feed us both.”
Bitzer pushed his nose into her hand as if he thought it a good idea as well. “I don’t…uh…” More girlish flutters in her midsection embarrassed her.
“I could use a critique of my recipe,” Caleb said. “You’d be my first.”
Her eyebrows rose.
“To eat my home cooking,” he clarified, a laugh sparking glints in his dark eyes.
It was the laughter that got to her. Meh Meg needed a little more of that in her life, especially now. Especially at Crescent Cove. Caleb could be the distraction she needed.
So that’s how she found herself pouring a second glass of merlot as the delicious scent of herbs, onion and tomato sauce filled the air at the house where she’d grown up. They took the wine to the front porch and the pair of generous-size chairs that sat side-by-side. Bitzer collapsed at their feet with a happy sigh.
Meg slid a look at Caleb. His expression gave nothing away beyond a simple contentment with the moment, not unlike the dog’s. “So…what exactly brings you to the cove?” she asked, working herself up to what she knew needed to be addressed, now that they were sharing a meal. It likely wasn’t mere serendipity that brought Peter’s cousin to this particular stretch of beach.
Caleb’s long legs stretched out, then crossed at the ankle. “Needed a break. The thought of here, it sort of…came to me.”
“So you’re familiar with Crescent Cove?”
He turned his head, a rueful smile curving his lips. “I didn’t think you noticed me then.”
Then? Suddenly she recalled earlier that afternoon, when they were at No. 9 and he’d asked if she remembered him. The question hadn’t processed, rocked as she was by that moment of mistaking him for his cousin and by the sound of her former first name on his lips. “You…you were here before?”
“I was the skinny kid who came to visit my aunt, uncle and cousin a couple of weekends that summer.”
She had the vague memory of a flop of hair and baggy board shorts. “That was you?”
“I’ll take your surprise as a compliment.” He smiled again. “I grew a lot in my early 20s.”
“And now you’re…?”
Just a few months older than Meg.
They exchanged more life details then. He had spent the last four years with a cell phone app start-up, working insane hours but enjoying himself immensely. Meg realized he didn’t live far from her in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she worked for a large accounting firm that sent her out to smaller companies for independent audits.
“So you left Southern California?” Caleb asked.
“First time I’ve been back in a decade,” she said lightly, and explained about her parents relocating to Provence and her sister attending a wedding in Arizona.
Caleb slowly straightened in his chair, then shot her a considering look. “What happened here a decade ago—losing Peter—that was a tremendous blow.”
A fatal blow to Meg’s heart. Still, even now, something inside her chest gave a painful, ghostly squeeze. Resisting the urge to rub the spot, she turned her thoughts to Peter’s family. They’d lost someone vital to them as well. “Your aunt and uncle were devastated, I know.”
“They were,” Caleb agreed. “Me, too. Peter was the big brother I never had. I missed him so much that his parents gave me Bitzer.”
At the sound of his name, the dog raised his head. Caleb fondled a soft ear, his gaze on his pet. “We’ve been good company for each other, haven’t we, boy?”
Then his eyes shifted to Meg’s face. “How did you get through your grief?”
By running from that summer and from this place.
But no one wanted to hear those kinds of truths. “One day at a time,” she said instead. Noting the sober look in Caleb’s eyes, she hastened to add more, not wanting him to think she was mired in the past. “It was ten years ago. Of course I’ll always feel sad about it, but I’m not pining away.”
“Good,” he said softly. “Good to know.”
“I’m not even that same person anymore.”
“Hence the Meg.”
She nodded. “Starr still had stars in her eyes. When I left the cove, I felt like I was different, more of a down-to-earth woman than that sentimental, romantic girl.”
“Why does ‘down-to-earth’ sound like a synonym for pessimistic?”
Meg swiveled on her cushion to face him. “I’m not. I just don’t believe in fairy tales anymore.”
Before he could reply, the oven timer dinged. They got to their feet and trooped to the kitchen. Bitzer padded behind, exuding enthusiasm. “Still likes to eat, huh?” Meg asked.
“Likes to be part of the crowd. I even take him to the office.”
As they dished up the eggplant parmesan, Meg discovered that the start-up Caleb worked for was actually
start-up, and the apps his company developed were software products used by the triathlete crowd, from route analyzers to workout logs. As they sat at the kitchen table, plates accompanied by a bowl of tossed salad, the wine and a pitcher of water with a second set of glasses, she again sized up his broad shoulders and lean-muscled torso…for informational purposes only, naturally.
Ignoring the little heated pulse of reaction she experienced just looking at him, she picked up her fork. “Triathlons, huh? I take it that’s your competition of choice.”
He glanced up from his serving of casserole. “I’ve cut back, actually,” he said. “I’m trying for a…tamer lifestyle, I’d guess you’d say.”
Tamer? A man like this, self-made, self-possessed, flat-out sexy, didn’t have a tame bone in his body. Not even his pinkie was domesticated. Not even his little toe.
He laughed. “You look like you don’t believe me.”
“I don’t believe you.”
He laughed again, and at that moment, they both reached for the pitcher of water. Their fingers tangled somewhere above the handle. And for a woman who no longer believed in magic, there had to be something else to account for the hot thrill that rushed like pinpricks up the tender inner flesh of her arm. Biology? Chemistry? A reason both logical and objective, likely involving pheromones as well as adrenaline, because two conflicting compulsions were at war inside her: to get closer to Caleb, and to run very far away from him.
Really, she should have paid more attention in her science classes, she decided, because she’d feel better with a solid explanation for why her skin felt hot, why her blood ran itchy through her veins, why her nerves were speed-dialing messages to random parts of her body.
Her belly tensed.
Her toes curled.
Her fingers clutched at his.
“Meg.” His quiet voice made her shift her gaze from their joined hands to his eyes. There was heat in them, and a curious kind of humor, too. “Are you seeing someone?” he asked.
The question gave her the impetus to slide her fingers from his. “No.” She watched him fill her water glass, then his, without spilling a drop. If the pitcher had been in her hand, it would have wavered all over the place. “I had a man in my life a while back, but he wanted marriage and that’s not for me.”
“Really?” Caleb asked, one brow rising.
“Really,” she said, finding his skeptical tone irritating. All women—even those approaching the supposedly dreaded 3-0—weren’t focused on white lace and promises. So she tossed her hair over her shoulder and said the first flippant thing that came into her head. “I’m more into short-term, for-the-physical-release-only affairs.”
Then she thought of how that sounded. Tackiness aside, some might construe it as an invitation. Her fingers tightened on her fork. “I mean, I…”
She had the distinct impression he was laughing again, though his mouth was closed as he chewed a bite of the eggplant dish. He swallowed, wiped his lips with his napkin, then gave her an encouraging smile. “You mean…?”
“I don’t know what I mean,” she mumbled, once again feeling out of her depth. It was infuriating, really, this nervous, edgy feeling. Meg never felt nervous in that way. Men didn’t put her on edge.
“It’s okay,” Caleb said, his gaze shifting to his plate. “I’m a little unsteady myself.”
She didn’t press for clarification of that, though she didn’t believe for a second that he was anything less than rock-solid. He appeared cucumber-cool as he continued calmly with his meal, eliciting more information from her—that she belonged to a book group that read nonfiction only; her favorite recent film was an award-winning documentary about the Great Depression—and offering up some additional details about himself—he had two nieces that he took to Disneyland by himself every year; his favorite movie was the latest blockbuster adaptation of a best-selling fantasy series.
Even as he laughed when she admitted she’d once sabotaged the book group’s secret ballot process so they didn’t pick as their next read the best-selling, but looked-long-and-boring biography of an obscure former president, and she laughed at the recounting of his determined quest to hunt down the Magic Kingdom’s Cinderella to obtain for his nieces a coveted photo—”I began to think the princess was like the fabled but elusive unicorn”—that edgy, breathless feeling did not abate.