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Authors: Christie Ridgway

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The Love Shack

BOOK: The Love Shack
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Return to
USA TODAY
bestselling author Christie Ridgway’s Crescent Cove, California, where the magic of summer can last forever…

Globe-trotting photojournalist Gage Lowell spent carefree childhood summers in Crescent Cove. Now that he desperately needs some R & R, he books a vacation at Beach House No. 9—ready to soak up some sun and surprise old friend and property manager Skye Alexander. Their long-distance letters got him through a dangerous time he can’t otherwise talk about. But when he arrives, the tightly wound beauty isn’t exactly happy to see him.

Skye knows any red-blooded woman would be thrilled to spend time with gorgeous, sexy Gage. But she harbors secrets of her own, including that she might just be a little bit in love with him. And she’s convinced the restless wanderer won’t stay long enough for her to dare share her past—or dream of a future together. Luckily for them both, summer at Crescent Cove has a way of making the impossible happen….

Praise for
USA TODAY
bestselling author Christie Ridgway

“Kick off your shoes and escape to endless summer. This is romance at its best.”
—Emily March,
New York Times
bestselling author of
Nightingale Way,
on
Bungalow Nights

“Sexy and addictive—Ridgway will keep you up all night!”

New York Times
bestselling author Susan Andersen on
Beach House No. 9

“A beach-worthy seaside contemporary...[with] an adorable retro beach setting and intriguing supporting characters.”

Publishers Weekly
on
Beach House No. 9

“Ridgway’s feel-good read, with its perfectly integrated, extremely hot and well-crafted love scenes, is contemporary romance at its best.”
—Booklist
on
Can’t Hurry Love
(starred review)

“Sexy, sassy, funny, and cool, this effervescent sizzler nicely launches Ridgway’s new series and is a perfect pick-me-up for a summer’s day.”

Library Journal
on
Crush on You

“Pure romance, delightfully warm and funny.”

New York Times
bestselling author Jennifer Crusie

“Christie Ridgway writes with the perfect combination of humor and heart. This funny, sexy story is as fresh and breezy as its southern California setting. An irresistible read!”

New York Times
bestselling author Susan Wiggs on
How to Knit a Wild Bikini

“Christie Ridgway is delightful.”

New York Times
bestselling author Rachel Gibson

“Sexy, smart, sparkling—say yes to
An Offer He Can’t Refuse.


New York Times
bestselling author Christina Dodd

Dear Reader,

Summer is winding down at Crescent Cove but the magic is still alive and well at Beach House No. 9. Songs about surfing carry through the air, the scents of coconut sunscreen and salty ocean mingle on the breeze. Walk barefoot through the sand and lift your face to the warmth beaming down...another romance is ready to bloom.

Skye Alexander isn’t looking for love, however, even when the man she’s been corresponding with for months moves into No. 9. Gage Lowell’s only here for some brief R&R before returning to photograph danger zones overseas—so there’s no sense in getting dreamy over ever-afters. Gage came to the cove eager to get to know his pen pal in person, but pretty Skye might be messing with his impending plans. He never stays in one place for long, but when he leaves Beach House No. 9, might he be leaving his heart behind? I hope you’ll enjoy watching these two people come to terms with their feelings and their futures.

How much pleasure I’ve had sharing with you a summer of love in this enchanting place. I hope you carry with you all its tears and laughter, all its sexiness and fun, for a very long while.

Here comes the sun!
Christie Ridgway

CHRISTIE RIDGWAY

THE LOVE SHACK

Also available from Christie Ridgway
and Harlequin HQN

Beach House Beginnings
(a prequel novella)
Beach House No. 9
Bungalow Nights

To my mom, for all those summers filled with books.

Beautiful dreamer, out on the sea,
Mermaids are chanting the wild lorelei;
Over the streamlet vapors are borne,
Waiting to fade at the bright coming morn.
Beautiful dreamer, beam on my heart,
E’en as the morn on the streamlet and sea;
Then will all clouds of sorrow depart,
Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me!
Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me!

—Stanza 2, “Beautiful Dreamer” by Stephen Foster

CHAPTER ONE

F
OR
THE
PAST
decade, Gage Lowell had lived on risk the way other people sucked down caffeine. It had been his morning fix, his noonday pick-me-up, his after-dinner beverage with dessert. So the anticipation building in his belly as he approached beautiful but tranquil Crescent Cove didn’t make much sense.

It was no Durand Line, that porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan where he’d braved danger that ran the gamut from Taliban bullets to half-wild bulls. The natives were certain to be less suspicious than the Syrian rebels he’d photographed the spring before. And though the house he’d rented was situated on the sand, just steps away from the Pacific Ocean, not for a second did he suppose this vacation would end like the one he’d taken some years ago—with Gage running for his life and high ground, holding his cameras overhead.

Of course, that tsunami had come out of the blue.

But he really couldn’t see how this holiday would hold any such surprise.

Still, expectation continued to hum through his veins. “Stop here,” he said to his twin as the car turned onto the narrow road that led off the coastal highway. They’d come straight from the airport. “I’ll hoof it to the property management office for the keys. You drive my stuff to Beach House No. 9 and I’ll meet you there.”

Griffin frowned over at him. “What, I’m your bellboy now?” Though the sarcasm was typical brother bullshit, there was something in his expression that tickled Gage’s spine.

“What aren’t you telling me?” he asked.

His twin braked the car but didn’t answer. Up ahead were the first of the fifty or so eclectic cottages that made up the beachside community where the Lowell family had spent every summer until he’d turned fifteen. The dwellings’ designs were a little bit funky and a lot colorful, nestled in lush vegetation—palm trees, hibiscus bushes and various other flowering plants—that had originally been planted so that the two-mile-long curve of sand could serve as a variety of backdrops during the silent movie era: deserted island, cannibal-infested jungle, ancient Egypt.

It had been paradise for Gage, Griffin and the rest of their posse of kids who’d run wild every June through September.

Rolling down his window, Gage breathed deeply of the salt-and-sun-laden air and dismissed his disquiet. He had a few weeks to rest and recharge before his next assignment overseas, and Crescent Cove was the best place in the world for that. “It’s still got that ol’ magic, doesn’t it?” he murmured, reaching for the door handle.

“Wait,” Griffin said. “Maybe I should go with you to collect the keys.”

Uh-oh.
Uneasiness kicked up again. “What’s going on?”

“Look. About Skye—”

“Don’t say any more,” Gage said, already irritated. The older by eleven minutes, Griffin often acted as if he were the much-wiser sibling. “I know her as well as you. Better than you.”

“You haven’t seen her since we were kids. You might be, uh, I don’t know, surprised by how she looks.”

“I don’t care how she looks,” Gage said, aware he sounded a little angry. What? His brother thought he had some shallow set of standards when it came to female companions? Okay, he supposed it could be true when it came to a certain kind of female companion, but that didn’t apply here.

“I’m not interested in her appearance.” Gage pressed his shoulder against the passenger door and pushed it open. “She’s not a woman to me.”

His brother might have mumbled, “Oh, hell,” but Gage was already on his way toward the footpath that would lead him straight to Skye Alexander.

He knew exactly where the property management office was, just as he knew all the cove’s other landmarks from his childhood explorations. Then, Skye’s father had been in charge, always dressed in his trademark khakis, wilted denim shirt and bush hat. Skye and her sister could often be found in his office, playing with paper dolls or with their shell collections, leaving Mrs. Alexander free to stay engrossed in her easel and paints.

Skye held her dad’s job now. Gage knew this, because they’d fallen into an accidental correspondence nearly a year ago. When planning his R & R a few months back, he’d thought of her and the cove and made a snap decision to rent the beach house where he’d spent those idyllic summers. To surprise his pen pal, he’d reserved it under a fictitious name.

He couldn’t wait for her reaction when she saw him.

His palms itched, and for a moment he regretted leaving his cameras packed in the car. His hands seemed too empty without them, though he hadn’t felt much like taking photos lately, which worried him a little.

A lot.

Maybe Beach House No. 9 would be the antidote to that, too.

Ahead was the simple clapboard structure that was the one-room management office. He slowed his approach, taking in the small yard enclosed by a white picket fence that was brightened by bougainvillea vines of varied colors: fuchsia, white, coral and red. The front door stood open, and a woman’s voice floated over the threshold, the notes snatched away by the cool breeze before he could make out the words.

He stepped over the low gate instead of chancing squeaky hinges that might give him away. Then he strolled up the path until he came to a stop on the small, stamp-sized doorstep. The midmorning sun was bright, the interior of the office dark in comparison. Feet planted on the concrete, Gage peered into the dim interior.

A woman was half-turned away from him, a phone pressed to her ear. “Sure, I can email you a scanned copy of Edith’s letter to Max. Yes, they are my great-great-grandparents. Sure. Fine.” She paused to listen.

For the life of him, Gage couldn’t figure out what Griffin’s warning was all about. Yeah, his recollection of Skye stalled on her at about eleven years old, but this grown-up version didn’t clash with his memory. She’d had that long, coffee-dark hair as a little girl. The woman before him was average height, he’d say, and looked slender, though she was wearing a pair of baggy jeans and a long-sleeved sweatshirt that could have been her father’s.

The phone conversation seemed to be winding down, and Gage felt another surge of eagerness. He couldn’t remember the color of her eyes or the shape of her nose, but any moment now she’d turn his way and he’d have a face to put with those letters that had become so vital to him during his hellish two-week ordeal in the middle of nowhere.

“I’m thrilled you’ll be featuring the cove in an upcoming edition of the paper. Thank you. If I can answer any more questions, Ali, don’t hesitate to call.” She clicked off the phone, but still didn’t glance toward the door.

Gage felt a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. He didn’t move or say anything for another long moment, while the ocean breeze played with the hem of his jeans and the tail of his thin white shirt. It was stupid, maybe, but he felt as if he was poised on the brink of something and he wondered, weirdly, if he should have brought flowers.

Then, rejecting the odd thought, he lifted his foot to enter Skye’s domain. The movement must have alerted her to his presence. She whirled to face him.

And screamed bloody murder.

September 15

Dear Gage,

Salutations from a childhood friend! Your missive to your twin reached me at Crescent Cove’s property management office. Thought you should know Griffin’s not expected at Beach House No. 9 until April. Loved the picture on the front of the postcard—one of yours? Over the years, I’ve noticed your photo credit lines in magazines and newspapers and remember the camera you carried every summer, strapped to your chest like a second heart.

Hope this finds you in good health, Skye Alexander

Skye,

Thanks for the info re: Griff. Are you still playing tea party at your dad’s desk in the Crescent Cove office? Because I can see you there in my memory. What summers we had! When it’s blistering hot here, I take off to the cove in my imagination and lie on the wet sand, letting the cool Pacific wash over my skin. When the temperature turns freezing, I remember our tribe of Cove kids playing beach soccer under a burning sun. Do shore crabs still make you squeal?

Gage

Skye Alexander’s friend and neighbor Polly Weber leaned close and whispered in her ear, “You didn’t tell me Gage Lowell was gorgeous.”

“You’ve become friends with Griffin. Since they’re twins, it should come as no surprise.” Skye didn’t even glance at the man seated at the head of their table on the open-air deck. Besides Gage, Polly and Skye, there were five more people attending the welcome dinner at Captain Crow’s, the restaurant/bar located at the northern end of the cove. Griffin and his fiancée, the twins’ sister, Tess, and her husband, and an elderly family friend were gathered close to the man of honor. Skye had chosen a seat as far from him as possible.

She was counting on distance to calm her heart—it had been beating with an erratic wildness since she’d looked up that morning and found a dark figure looming in her office doorway.

He was telling the story now, speaking up so that Rex Monroe, the nearly deaf nonagenarian who lived full-time at the cove, could hear him. “My ears are still ringing from her scream,” Gage said. “I meant to surprise her, not send her into a full-blown panic.”

“She’s been jumpy for months,” Rex said, shaking his head. “Nervous like a rabbit since March.”

“Really?” There was a new alertness in the younger man’s voice, and Skye sensed he was studying her over the plates and glasses.

She pretended an avid interest in the surface of her white wine and ignored the embarrassed heat crawling toward her cheeks. Good thing she was wearing a cotton turtleneck with her boy-styled black trousers.

“Since the spring, you say?” Gage spoke again to Rex.

Before the elderly man could reveal anything more, Skye felt compelled to offer a rationale. “It’s the off-season quiet that gets to me, what with the tiny number of full-time residents.” And if she didn’t find a way to control her persistent anxiety, she doubted she’d survive this year’s transition from summer’s bustle to autumn hush. “That’s all.”

She glanced up to judge how Gage took the explanation.

Mistake. Their eyes met. His turquoise-blue gaze shot another electric jolt to her heart. Its beat went crazy again, thudding heavy and uneven against her ribs.

“Fenton Hardy,” she heard herself say, her mouth so dry her tongue clicked against its roof.

“Yes, what was that about?” Jane Pearson, Griffin’s fiancée, asked. “When Skye told us that was the name of No. 9’s upcoming tenant, I recognized the literary allusion, but your brother knew right away that meant it was you.”

Skye tore her eyes from Gage and pinned Griffin with a stare. “You did?”

The man shrugged. “It was our secret identity name when we were kids. Fenton is the father in the Hardy Boys books. I figured Gage had a reason to be mysterious.”

“I told you, I wanted to surprise Skye...I was planning on surprising everyone, actually, but I didn’t realize she’d talk to you about who’d rented the place.”

“We were going over wedding details when it came out,” Jane said, and she grinned, clearly thrilled about her upcoming marriage to Griffin. “How handy that you’ll be the one we inconvenience when we say ‘I do’ on No. 9’s deck at the end of the month.”

Gage shook his head. “I’ve only known you a few hours, Jane, but it’s clear you can do better than ol’ Griff. I’d suggest myself—”

“I’m sticking with the twin whose globe-trotting days are over,” Jane said, emphatic.

“Gage would make a terrible husband,” a new voice put in. It was Tess Quincy, the older sister of Griffin and Gage. “He’s restless and selfish and likely doesn’t wash his clothes often enough.”

“Gee, thanks, Tessie,” Gage replied, and lifted his arm, pretending to sniff at the sleeve of his shirt. “Love you, too.”

“I’m just saying.” His sister’s eyes went suspiciously bright. “Think about it. Think about if you made some poor woman fall in love with you and then you fell off the face of the earth for over two weeks.”

An awkward silence descended, as Gage had been MIA for just that amount of time, troubling family and friends until he’d resurfaced a few days ago.

“You know communication is spotty where I was, Tessie,” he said, a new tension in his voice.

“Well, Griffin was very concerned. His twin sense was tingling.”

“He’s always been a worrywart.” Gage’s smile looked forced. “I’m here, aren’t I? Safe and sound.”

Skye couldn’t keep her mouth shut. She’d had the same sense that something was wrong when she’d gone too long between letters from him. Her apprehension hadn’t eased until Griffin let her know that Gage had checked in by phone—though she’d never in a million years expected him to show up at the cove. “But you’re late. Fenton Hardy was scheduled to arrive at the first of the month.”

This time it was Gage who didn’t seem to want to look at her. “Travel plans changed. Now, can someone tell me more about this upcoming wedding? I’m still having a hard time buying that anyone wants a lifetime with my brother.”

The atmosphere lightened considerably after that. Food was consumed. Liquor flowed.

At Skye’s side, Polly released a pensive sigh.

She glanced over at the other woman. “Okay, Pol?”

“Oh, I’m good,” she said, straightening in her seat. A burst of laughter from the head of the table drew their attention in that direction. “Like I said,” Polly reiterated, her gaze resting on Gage, “really, really gorgeous.”

Skye allowed herself a moment to study him. “Yeah.” She took in his rumpled black hair and tanned complexion. His cheekbones were chiseled, his jaw firm and beneath two dark slashes of brow were his incredible eyes. His beard was heavy enough that he had noticeable after-five stubble that only served to draw attention to his mobile mouth and white grin.

“No wonder you broke up with Dalton,” Polly said.

Startled, Skye jerked her head toward her friend. “I didn’t break up with Dalton because of Gage.” She didn’t want to think about why she’d broken up with Dalton. Crossing one leg tightly over the other, she rubbed at her upper arms with her palms.

BOOK: The Love Shack
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