Authors: Joan Hohl
|Breeze off the Ocean|
|Belgrave House (2011)|
Hotel mogul Wolf Renninger is used to getting everything he wants—in business and pleasure. But Micki Durrant slipped through his fingers six years ago after he had taken her innocence. Turns out she took his heart and he couldn’t get past his longing for her. But Micki was returning to the Delaware shore and Wolf didn’t intend to let her get away again…
Micki’s foot eased off the gas pedal as she drew alongside the toll booth of the Delaware Memorial Bridge. After tossing her coins into the exact-change catchall, she pressed down on the pedal to begin the climb over the high- twin span. Even though she had actually just begun her journey, as soon as she’d left the bridge and had driven onto Route 40 she had the feeling of coming home.
In her mind she checked off the names of the towns she’d drive through. Woodstown, Elmer, Malaga, Buena, Mays Landing.
The softly murmured name brought a curl of excitement simply because from there it was a relatively short hop on Atlantic Route 559 to Somers Point, then home. At the thought of the Point a small smile tugged at her soft, full lips. She had had fun at the Point, she and the group of kids she’d palled around with all those years ago.
One particular memory wiggled into her mind and her smile deepened. They had been playing a game of tag, she and seven other kids, when one of the boys— Benny Trent—had let out a loud yelp of pain and begun hopping around on one foot. They had all laughed and jeered at him until they saw his great toe become scarlet with blood. As they crowded around him, Benny had dropped onto the sand, twisting his foot to get a closer look at the wound. A deep gash, inflicted by a jagged, half-buried clam shell, ran diagonally across the pad of his toe, bleeding profusely.
One of the other boys, a college student a few years older than the rest, had taken a Red Cross first aid course and, after examining the gash, declared that it would definitely need stitches.
Off to the hospital they went, en masse, laughing and joking to keep the pale Benny’s spirits up.
“Boy, Benny,” Cindy Langdon, Micki’s best friend, had jeered. “How dumb can you get? Didn’t your mother ever tell you that you can get hurt if you go jumping up and down on a stupid clam shell?”
At the hospital Benny was led away to have the wound cleaned and stitched, and the rest of the kids had camped, noisily, in the waiting room, much to the obvious exasperation of the hospital personnel.
When Benny returned, his toe almost twice its size from bandaging, the taunts and jokes began again.
Micki shook her head ruefully at how callous they’d all been, then brought her attention sharply alert as she drove through Woodstown’s early afternoon traffic. After she left the town behind, the traffic was sparse and Micki allowed memory to have its way again.
She and the other kids hadn’t been altogether heartless, she thought with amusement. For two weeks they had slavishly waited on Benny hand and foot and that bonehead, as Cindy called him, loved every minute of it
That memory triggered off others and Micki laughed aloud on realizing Benny had usually been the target of their banter. In the case of Cindy, well, her gibes had been downright insulting. If, at that time, anyone would have told them that eventually Cindy would be married to Benny, they would all, Cindy included, have become hysterical. But, two years ago, that was exactly what had happened.
Micki had not been able to attend the wedding, as she’d been on the West Coast on a buying trip, but she had sent a lavish wedding gift, along with her surprised congratulations.
It would be good to see Cindy and Benny again, Micki mused, as she headed the little silver car straight as its namesake—Arrow—toward the coast. How many, Micki wondered, besides Cindy and Benny, had made their home there? Except for Cindy, Micki had completely lost touch with the rest of her gang.
There had been eight of them that traveled around together regularly. At intervals their number swelled, for beach parties and dances and the like, but the eight had remained constant from grade through high school. They were all of the same age, with one exception, Tony Menella, who had been two years their senior. It had been Tony who had advised Benny to have his toe stitched. Where was Tony now? Micki sighed. She simply didn’t know. A small smile curved her lips at the thought that she’d probably find out where they all were before too long. Cindy would know not only where they were but what they were doing, as Cindy had always kept tabs on all of them.
Memories, one after the other, kept Micki company as she made her way steadily toward the coast. Growing-up memories, many happy, a few sad, invaded her mind. Only one did she push away, refuse to recognize. That one particular memory she had not looked at for a long time; she had no intention of doing so now.
The miles sped by, even more quickly after she’d turned onto Atlantic Route 559, and as she drove through Somers Point she switched off the car’s air-conditioner and opened the window beside her. Excitement mounting as she crossed the Ninth Street Bridge, Micki passed the sign reading WELCOME TO OCEAN CITY and at that instant a breeze off the ocean told her she was home.
Just getting across the Ninth Street Bridge was a project. In mid-July the influx of tourists added to the going-home-from-work crowd to make traffic a late afternoon nightmare. Undaunted, Micki inched along serenely. She loved the sound, the smells, everything about her hometown, and the traffic, compared to the supper time crush around Wilmington, didn’t bother her a bit.
Drinking in the sights avidly, Micki observed the number of people, mostly families, on the sidewalks, obviously coming from the beach, lugging beach chairs, umbrellas, and other beach paraphernalia, and shepherding youngsters. Micki knew that most were headed to apartments or motels, some to prepare dinner, others to bathe and dress before going out again to dine at one of the city’s many fine restaurants or fast-food shops.
There were changes, of course, as there always were in a resort city, and Micki noted them automatically. At one place several well-remembered buildings had disappeared and at another a very classy new restaurant now presided. The changes did not fill her with dismay. On the contrary, she had grown up with changes and through it all the city basically remained the same. It was still a clean city. A city full of churches. A family-oriented resort city that was lovely to vacation in and equally lovely to grow up in. To Micki it would always be the same. Except for one brief visit, she had been away for six years, and yet it was the same. Home.
She turned off Ninth onto Wesley and after several blocks the traffic thinned out considerably. Two more turns and there was hardly any traffic at all. And then there was the house she was brought to four days after her difficult birth.
How achingly familiar it was, with the lacy-leafed mimosa in the middle of the front lawn and the profuse banks of fuchsia and white azalea bushes on either side of the front steps. Although she could see that the awnings were new, they were of exactly the same pattern as those that had always shaded the windows and large front porch.
With an emotional lump closing her throat, Micki turned the car onto the short driveway that ran along the side of the house and parked the car in front of the one-car garage at the end of the drive a short distance behind the house.
The soft whooshing sound of the kitchen screen door being pushed open came as she pulled the key from the ignition.
“Micki!” Micki’s father, Bruce Durrant, called as he strode along the flagstone path that led from the house to the garage. “Welcome home.”
“Oh, Dad!” Micki flung the car door open and slid out into her father’s arms. “It’s so good to see you.”
“Let me get a look at you.” Grasping her arms, he leaned back, his eyes roving lovingly over her face. “You look more like your mother every time I see you,” he murmured. “You’ve grown into a beautiful young woman, Micki.”
“You wouldn’t be just a tiny bit prejudiced, would you?” Micki laughed tremulously, blinking against the sudden hot sting in her eyes.
“Not in the least,” Bruce denied firmly. “Your mother was an exceptionally lovely woman and you do look like her, maybe you’re even more lovely.”
Micki’s eyes had been busy also and she noted the gray that now sprinkled her father’s dark hair, the lines that radiated from his eyes, and the grooves from his nose to the corners of his mouth. Rather than distracting from his good looks, the signs of full maturity added character to his face and the silver among the dark strands of his hair lent a touch of distinction. Pleased with her perusal of him, Micki felt her smile widen.
“You look pretty good yourself, Mr. Durrant.” Somehow the smile stayed in place. “How are you feeling?”
The hands grasping her shoulders gave her a little shake. “What a little worrywart you are.” He chided softly. “I’m fine. Dr. Bassi assures me the ulcer is completely healed. I swear I haven’t had a twinge of pain in months.”
Micki’s startlingly bright blue eyes gazed deeply into her father’s dark brown ones. A sigh of relief escaped her lips at the happiness and contentment she found there. Happily Micki banished the memory of the panic and fear she’d experienced the night Regina had called her. God! What a horrible night that had been. Regina’s voice, tight with fear, waking her with the news of her father’s collapse with a perforated ulcer. Fighting the terror of the unknown, Micki had driven through the silent pre-dawn hours with a strangely icy composure. Thankfully, for Regina had been on the verge of falling apart, Micki’s composure had lasted through the following nerve-racking two days, but after Dr. Bassi had told them that her father was out of danger, Micki had gone to her old room and relieved her anxiety by sobbing into her pillow.
Now, satisfied with the obvious signs of his glowing good looks and well-being, Micki gave him another quick hug. With her absorption in the most important man in her life, Micki didn’t hear the repeated whoosh of the kitchen screen door.
“Are you two going to stand here in the driveway the whole two weeks of Micki’s vacation?” Micki’s stepmother, Regina, teased.
Micki’s entire body tensed at the sound of Regina’s velvety, throaty voice, then she made herself relax. What was past was past, she admonished herself sharply, and best forgotten. With unstudied grace, she swung her small slim frame out of her father’s embrace, one hand reaching out to take the pale one Regina had extended.
“Hello, Regina.” Micki was slightly amazed at the even tenor of her voice. “No need to ask how you are; you look great, as ever.”
It was true. At thirty-nine Regina was as exotically beautiful as she had been when she had married Bruce Durrant at twenty-five, the exact same age that Micki was now. Her glossy black hair, worn smoothed back off her face in an intricately curved twist, was completely free of silver. Her pale-complexioned, unbelievably beautiful face was completely free of any sign of encroaching age. And her tall frame was still willowy, completely free of any unsightly bulges. And that voice! Oh, the hours a very young, twelve-year-old Micki had spent trying, unsuccessfully, to emulate that voice. Even today, as then, Micki had no idea of how pleasing to the ear her own soft, somewhat husky, voice was.
“You do not look the same,” Regina returned easily. Then, to Micki’s surprise, she echoed her husband’s words of a few minutes ago. “You grow more like your mother every time I see you, and everyone knows how lovely she was.”
Micki managed to hide her startled reaction to Regina’s compliment in the general confusion of collecting her suitcases and getting them into the house.
Regina trailed behind Micki and her father as they lugged the cases to her bedroom and lingered after Bruce left the room with a promise of a pre-dinner drink for Micki as soon as she’d settled in.
Micki’s hand stilled in the act of unlocking her largest suitcase at the hesitant, uncertain note in her stepmother’s voice. Features composed, Micki turned to gaze at Regina.
“Do you suppose we could possibly be friends now?”
Regina’s tone had smoothed out, but an anxious expression still clouded her beautiful black eyes.
As soon as they were out of her mouth Micki wished the words unspoken. Why, she chided herself, hadn’t she simply said yes and let the whole sorry business remain buried?
“I would like to try,” Regina answered quietly. “I have always liked you.” At Micki’s slightly raised eyebrows, Regina stated firmly, ‘Yes, I have. And there is no reason now why we shouldn’t be friends. I think you’ll find I’m not quite the same person since your father’s near brush with death. It’s sad, but I nearly had to lose him to realize—well—just exactly how foolishly I was behaving.”