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Authors: Emilie Richards

Sunset Bridge

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Sunset Bridge
EMILIE RICHARDS
Sunset Bridge
 

With thanks to the art department at MIRA Books,
whose gorgeous covers for the Happiness Key novels
have been the next best thing to a Florida beach vacation.

chapter one

O
n Thursday afternoon, the first day of her Everglades canoe trip with her lover, Marsh Egan, Tracy Deloche fell overboard into rotten-egg-scented water. Unfortunately, her paddle lodged in a mangrove root. She stayed with the paddle, and Marsh stayed with the canoe.

On Thursday
evening
of their Everglades canoe trip, she discovered that their campground was a chickee, an elevated wooden platform above a channel that had turned to mudflats, and that the chickee came with no water, although it
did
come with two whining children and one portable toilet. The cheerful mom explained that this was a homeschooling field trip, and the children would be up and down all night recording observations in their journals.

Next to sleeping on a deflating air mattress, the children were no problem at all.

By Friday evening of their Everglades canoe trip, Tracy Deloche was pretty sure she and Marsh were not meant to spend their lives together.

“Don’t tell
me
about chiggers and no-see-ums! You think I need a biology lecture?” Tracy, perched on a fallen tree, was rolling up the legs of her jeans and spraying her calves with repellent as she spat out the words. Her ankles already felt like smoldering logs. Her arms ached from canoeing for hours through mazes of mangrove-lined creeks. Her head throbbed from wood smoke billowing up her nostrils.

“Here’s the deal, hotshot, unless you
also
want chiggers in places only I ever see, you’d better move over there.” Marsh pointed to one of two plastic coolers on the other side of the campfire, where an armload of salt-crusted driftwood was ramping up the smolder factor. “Chiggers thrive in dead wood.”

Tracy leaped to her feet, which were—not surprisingly—bare, since that morning she’d found a scorpion in the toe of her water shoes, and found it the hard way. Earlier she’d taken her chances with flip-flops, since her big toe had swollen to twice its normal size, but now even the flip-flops had run for cover.

“You know, we’re supposed to be having fun here,” Marsh said. “That’s why I’m with
you
instead of the rest of the Wild Florida gang. That’s why you’re with
me
instead of back at Happiness Key fixing up a cottage for Wanda’s daughter. Something going on I should know about? This whole weekend you’ve been wound tighter than a banjo string. The least little thing sends you screeching.”

“Little?” Tracy pointed to her legs, peppered with scarlet dots. “Is
little
redneckspeak for miserable?”

He squatted to take a closer look, running a finger along her shin before he looked up and smiled. “We’ll smear your legs with petroleum jelly. You’ll feel better, and I’ll get a little thrill.”

“And it’s the only thrill you’re likely to get on this trip, too.”

Marsh looked as if he was debating what to say to that. As always, he was dressed a lot more like the Florida Cracker he claimed to be than the pit-bull attorney who was director of one of Florida’s most effective environmental organizations. His sandy hair was pulled back at the nape in a short ponytail, and he needed a shave. His faded green T-shirt was ripped under one arm. His cutoffs needed a good trim, and his feet were happily bare. In fact, he looked like the embodiment of Wild Florida, whose success at stopping a wetlands shopping mall had been the motivation for this celebratory camping trip. Marsh was in his element.

Tracy was not.

“You said you wanted to come.” He sprang back to his feet without using his hands. “I told you it would be rugged.”

Tracy struggled to be fair. Knowing full well that this was not going to be a weekend at the Four Seasons, she had agreed to come along while Bay, Marsh’s ten-year-old son, spent a long weekend in California with his mother, Marsh’s ex. Some of Marsh’s staff were doing a more grueling version of the trip, but Marsh had given that up to plan this shorter one with Tracy.

Tracy had come a long way in the year-plus that she’d lived in Florida, from spoiled Southern California socialite to a woman who held her own in almost any setting. Only not this one. Apparently the Wilderness Waterway of the Everglades was just a tad beyond her capabilities, or maybe the problem was everything else in her life, rolled into one giant, torturous sandspur of complications.

Tears sprang to her eyes, so unusual that she immediately credited the campfire. She might be a lot of things, but never
a crybaby. She hadn’t shed tears on the day that her husband, CJ Craimer, told her that life as she knew it had ended and she was about to become the wife of a felon. Ex-wife, as it turned out, in a divorce she hadn’t cried over, either.

Marsh looked perplexed, as if this Tracy Deloche was someone he didn’t know or care to.

“Look…” She sniffed. “I’m trying. Okay? So, you warned me. I thought I’d be fine. Just give me a moment to be miserable.”

He raised a brow. “I’m going fishing. We could use more firewood.”

She heard him. Go in search of mangrove and buttonwood debris for the campfire, and while she was gone, please get her act together.

Even more annoyed, she debated. All she really wanted was to crawl into the tent and pull the sleeping bag over her head, only it was too hot. They hadn’t waited until winter, when everyone else paddled the Wilderness Waterway. No, they’d come while the air was still warm and the bugs were frenzied, instead of simply omnipresent.

“I’ve got a great dinner planned,” Marsh added, as if taking pity on her. “You’ll feel better afterward.”

She supposed he was trying. Last night they had eaten sandwiches and shared an apple, so how petty would it be to point out that not even rack of lamb or crème brûlée was going to lighten her spirits, much less the chicken breasts marinating in a plastic bag in one of the coolers? She knew the menu because she’d peeked yesterday before they even slid the canoe into the water.

Yesterday, when she was still young, eager and looking forward to camping together.

“Has it ever occurred to you,” she asked instead, “that the only time we’re together, we could be mistaken for two good
ol’ boys swilling beer after an afternoon of cleaning spark plugs? When was the last time we did something that required a dress?”

“I don’t look that good in ruffles.” He leaned over and kissed her. “Don’t stray far. Those dark clouds don’t mean night’s coming earlier, but hopefully they’ll pass. Get a whole armload of wood, okay? If we can keep a good fire going, it will help with the bugs.”

“Bugs.” She shook her head so hard her ponytail flicked her cheek. “And I was
so
looking forward to more.”

She started down the beach and around the end of the tiny key where they’d made their new campsite. She supposed she ought to be glad that tonight Marsh had chosen a beach and not a Calusa Indian mound in the middle of the mangroves, or yet another platform. This site allowed campfires, and it had a portable toilet down the beach from their tent, while many sites only had instructions for waste management. Just for her, she supposed. Considerate to a fault.

She determined not to go back until her mood improved. Sure, she could make a case for ruining the evening, but the thought gave her no pleasure. She had come on this trip because she wanted to spend time with Marsh. As much as she enjoyed Bay, hours alone with his father were rare, and when the three of them were together, she and Marsh still promoted the illusion that Tracy was just a friend, despite their being lovers for two months.

Chalk up another problem.

Tracy was still barefoot, so she decided to stay close to the water. The sun was sinking fast, and already the sky was layered with violet and amber. Although dark clouds were moving in, the Gulf of Mexico was still relatively calm. Normally she was a fan of evenings on the beach, and normally she was able to tolerate a little discomfort as payment. But since the
moment she had helped Marsh drag the canoe into the water near Everglades City, she’d been out of sorts and miserable. She almost felt sorry for him. Almost.

She had dragged more than a canoe on this trip. She’d dragged problems that weren’t going away. She’d been feeling tired and out of sorts for weeks, unable to concentrate. Wanda Gray, who lived in one of the five cottages Tracy owned in a shabby development called Happiness Key, had warned her this might be the start of menopause, even though Tracy was only thirty-five. Her periods had become increasingly spotty and erratic, although at her last checkup, doctor had blamed her condition on a prescribed break from birth control pills. Thirty-five was young for menopause, but not unheard of. She had made another doctor’s appointment for next week, but she wasn’t looking forward to the diagnosis.

She had never really yearned for a baby, and she wasn’t sure she had much to offer one. Still, having the decision taken away from her by a whacked-out biological clock didn’t seem fair. Night sweats, facial hair, a libido on holiday? None of it appealed to her. Change of life? She had just begun to like the one she had, thank you very much.

When she’d called her mother, to see if such a thing ran in the family, Denise Deloche, with her usual level of maternal support, had cackled that maybe now Tracy would understand what it felt like to be over the hill
and
poor. Good old Mom had never gotten over the fact that Tracy’s ex had taken everyone in the family down on his way to prison for financial hanky-panky. Never mind that Tracy herself had lost everything along the way.

Well, almost everything. She
had
ended up with Happiness Key. Which was yet another problem.

Fifteen minutes later, hauling branches behind her, she was back at the tent. Charcoal-hued clouds blanketed the horizon so thoroughly that if the sun had already slipped behind it, she was none the wiser. But darkness was falling quickly, and Marsh’s fire had already petered out.

In the distance, she could see him about ten yards from shore, submersed up to his hips, contentedly casting a line into water that was growing choppier as she watched.

She was filthy. She could wade out and splash off the worst of the dirt and sweat, but Marsh wouldn’t appreciate her scaring away all hope of a catch. Instead, she decided to fill a bowl and take a sponge bath with some of their limited store of water. Marsh had assured her he’d brought enough for that along with cooking and drinking.

The guy was all heart.

She dug a metal bowl and hand towel from a pile of supplies by the tent flap, and found a bar of soap in her own small day pack, the only thing she’d been allowed to bring in the crowded canoe. The pack contained little more than a few clothes and some toiletries, but she’d hidden her secret stash of power bars and chocolate inside her sleeping bag. Just in case Marsh got lost in the maze of mangrove trails, and their three-day trip morphed into a spectacular rescue.

She decided to change her T-shirt after she washed. Maybe a clean T-shirt wasn’t exactly dressing for dinner, but she probably owed Marsh that much. Soap, water and a fresh coat of bug spray. She might feel almost human again.

Squatting, she threw open the tent flap and leaned forward to grab her shirt. From inside the tent a hissing ball of fur launched itself in her direction.

By the time Marsh got to shore, Tracy’s screams had dwindled to whimpers.

 

“How’re you doing?” Marsh asked an hour later, approaching Tracy warily, as if he fully expected her to propel herself at his throat, hands squeezing in anticipation. She was sitting beside the fire, staring at the flames, and for a moment she didn’t look up.

“I’m fine. I really am. It’s just…I just wasn’t expecting a raccoon scrambling over my chest to freedom.”

“That’s why we don’t leave food in the tent. They’ll steal anything that’s not tied down, even eat right through water jugs. That’s why I slung ours from that tree a little while ago.” He inclined his head toward a spot just above their tent. “We don’t want to encourage them. They steal eggs from nests and generally wreak havoc on bird life.”

She crooked a brow and hoped the message wasn’t too subtle. If Marsh continued the lecture, she was going to kill him, or swim back to Everglades City and take her chances with gators and sharks.

“I guess you don’t need to hear that right now, huh?” He smiled a little. “You need some cheering up?”

“I’m supervisor at the rec center, remember? I don’t sit at a desk all day. I took the older kids camping in June. I’m not some kind of lightweight prima donna. I can build a fire, erect a tent, even lead a rousing chorus of ‘Kumbaya’ if I’m forced to.”

“Let’s hear it.”

She glared at him.

“Or not,” he said quickly. “Okay, I’ll admit this trip’s a little more grueling than I let on.”

“Yeah, about that…”

“I just wanted to get you to myself, Trace.”

She sighed. How could she stay angry? Marsh had only
recently begun calling her Trace, as if he was welcoming her into his little family with its cute geographical nicknames. Marsh and Bay, now Trace. He’d explained that a “trace” was a path through uncharted territory, which, to her, seemed a fitting description.

“And I wanted you to
my
self, too,” she said. “I’m just not at my most adaptable right now.”

“Let me get you some wine. And I’ve got something special to go with it.”

Now she was sure she was stressed, because a glass of wine really didn’t sound good. Her stomach was still roiling from the raccoon encounter. Nevertheless, the man had hauled a bottle of wine in the crowded canoe just for this moment. She’d disappointed him enough for one trip.

“Great,” she said. “Need help?”

“Let me take care of you.”

She smiled in thanks and relaxed a little. The clouds hadn’t yet produced rain, and there was enough sky still visible to enjoy the few stars willing to shine. Best of all, a strong breeze was blowing off the Gulf, and between breeze and campfire, a percentage of mosquitoes had zoomed off to find easier prey. She had managed to wash up, and except for paw prints, her T-shirt was clean. Surely she would survive.

He came back with a glass, which she cradled in her palms; then he left for a minute and returned with a plastic plate and held it out to her. At first, by the flickering light of the campfire, she wasn’t sure what he was offering. Then her stomach dived to her toes.

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