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Authors: Brenda Novak

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BOOK: The Secret Sister
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“You haven't even met him.”

“I don't need to meet him.”

When they turned in at Unit 6, she cursed under her breath. “
Look
at that.”

“Told you. Not quite what you saw at the last cottage, is it? And it's the best of the ones that are left.” This time he cut the engine, but she didn't get out. She stayed in her seat, gazing at the buckled porch, the sagging and missing shutters and the all-too-obvious water damage, which had left a mark halfway up the walls.

“Is it completely empty inside?” She hadn't considered that...

“Everything's been gutted, so Raphael can do what he needs to do.”

She began to worry that she wouldn't be able to stay here, after all. “Where's the furniture? Was it ruined?”

“Not all of it. Mom had me help move everything. She insisted we throw out the drapes, bedding and towels, stuff like that. They needed to be replaced, anyway. Most of the furniture, even some of the mattresses, were salvageable, though. What's left has been stacked in the last unit.”

That was good news. Depending on what had been saved, Maisey could furnish whatever unit she chose. She could always buy bedding. Perhaps she'd make her own drapes—or order them online if she couldn't come by a sewing machine.

But there was no denying that the bungalows looked worse than she'd expected. She'd been living in New York, newly single, when the hurricane hit, but she'd heard it was the worst Fairham had ever endured.

Now she could see that was true.

Keith opened his door. “Should we check the inside?”

She nodded, and they got out. But the bungalow was locked, as she'd predicted. They were trying to look through the windows when they heard the sound of an engine and turned to see the same pickup they'd noticed in front of Unit 5.

The driver parked behind the Mercedes. Maisey couldn't see much of him, though, until he started toward them.

Then her breath caught in her throat. Not only did she recognize this man, she'd once had sex with him!

3

“O
h, God, that's Rafe,” she breathed, her voice low enough that the man approaching wouldn't hear.

“Who?”
Keith said, but there was no time to explain.

“Rafe” Romero wasn't just someone she'd once slept with. At sixteen, she'd lost her virginity to him, rather unceremoniously, in the back bedroom of a party she'd been forbidden to attend (because there would be riffraff like him there), and she'd done it to spite her mother. She might've continued to sleep with him. The fact that he was four years older, reckless and without “prospects,” as Josephine would say, made him an appealing choice for her purposes—especially since all that “unsuitable” came in such an appealing package. But once he'd learned she wasn't eighteen, like she'd said, he wouldn't have any more to do with her. Even when she'd told him she was a Lazarow, thinking that might make the difference, he'd narrowed his eyes as if he had no respect for her family name or her money. He'd said that just meant she wouldn't understand anything about the real world. She could
still
hear him laughing when she'd stomped off.

As he closed the distance between them, Maisey hoped he wouldn't remember her. She'd had eighteen years to realize how self-destructive and ridiculous her behavior had been, and was embarrassed by it. Particularly when she recalled how brazen she'd been...

Pretend you don't have a clue who he is and maybe he won't recognize you
, she told herself. He'd been so drunk that night she thought she had a chance—until their eyes connected and he hesitated midstride.

He definitely recognized her.
Shit...
“Something I can help you with?” he asked.

“There is if you have the key.” Grateful that he didn't immediately give away their previous involvement, she pointed at the door.

“You're Josephine Lazarow's daughter,” he said.

She nodded politely but indifferently. “Yes. My name's Maisey. And I'd like to see this unit.”

He smiled at Keith. “Good to see you again.”

“You, too. Sorry to come by out of the blue. We didn't want you to think there was anything going on when we passed your place. It's just that my sister's considering moving into one of the bungalows for—”

Maisey felt certain he was about to say “for some strange reason,” and jumped in to finish the sentence for him. “The next few months.”

When Rafe's golden-brown eyes returned to her, Maisey noticed that the acne he'd had as a teenager was gone. Other than a five-o'clock shadow, his skin was smooth and clear and almost as golden as his eyes. He'd also added quite a bit of muscle, mainly in the arms and shoulders, which made him look powerful. His dark hair, although shorter, retained a bit of curl at the ends, and thick black lashes framed his eyes.

The years had been kind to him, and he'd had more in the looks department than most men to start with.

“You mean after they're rehabbed?” he said.

“No. Now,” she clarified. “I understand they need work. But as long as the place isn't going to fall off its stilts or give way under my feet, I can make do. Or would you suggest another unit?”

“This one's in the best shape,” he said. “I'd say you're in the right place as far as that goes. But there's nothing inside any of them.”

She ignored his bemused expression. “Keith tells me there's furniture in the end unit. He'll help me retrieve what I need. The utilities are on, aren't they?”

“They were off until I had them turned back on last week. I figured I'd need power and water for the construction work. But—” Rafe motioned toward his own bungalow, even though they couldn't see it for the distance and the trees “—it only took me two weeks to fix mine up. Wouldn't you rather give me a chance to get this ready for you?”

“That's okay. My mother wouldn't want me to distract you from the seaside cottages. And I'd prefer not to wait. As long as you don't mind a slight change of plans, I'd be happy to do some of the work myself—cleaning and painting and small repairs. None of which will affect your contract.”

He seemed at a loss as to why she'd be willing to do that. “If it's what you want.”

He had to be wondering why she wasn't moving into Coldiron House. Most people would expect her to stay in her family home. There was a certain cachet that went along with being a Lazarow and living in the mansion her grandfather had built. But the townspeople who envied her didn't realize how difficult Josephine was, and that money and family history could only make up for so much.

Fortunately, Rafe didn't come right out and ask why she preferred a water-damaged bungalow. He seemed to be a man who knew when to keep his mouth shut.

She gestured at Unit 6. “Would you mind letting us in?”

“Not at all.” He withdrew a ring of keys from his pocket and led them up the steps to the front porch, where they waited while he unlocked the door and swung it open. “Here you go.”

The turpentine and other chemicals that'd been used so far wafted out. “Smells clean,” she said.

“I sprayed for mold and mildew.”

“Clean?” Keith wrinkled his nose as he walked in. “It stinks. Are you sure you wouldn't be more comfortable at the house?”

Maisey followed her brother. “Positive.”

Rafe brought up the rear, then stood off to one side while they wandered around. It wasn't until Keith went down the hall to the bedroom, and she was in the kitchen taking stock of the appliances she'd need and whether the stove and microwave still worked, that he approached her. And then, thank God, he lowered his voice.

“You've grown up.” His smile reached his eyes, which suggested romantic interest and took her off guard. She hadn't had a man smile at her in quite that way for some time. Or maybe she'd just been too caught up in the pain caused by her divorce to notice.

“And I've learned a few things along the way.” She stepped into the opening to make sure Keith wasn't coming back yet. Then she took a deep breath. “Look, I'm sorry for how I behaved when we met. I was...unbelievably forward.”

“I'm not holding that against you,” he said. “We've all done things we wish we hadn't.”

She let her breath out slowly. “Thank you for understanding.”

“Of course.” His expression turned to one of chagrin as he rubbed his neck. “I was a little out of control myself back then. Being a punk and rebelling against the world.”

“You seem to have recovered nicely.”

His smile slanted to one side. “I like to think I've matured.”

“That makes two of us who've matured. We're different people these days. So...if you're willing, I say we forget the past. Agreed?”

“The
way
we met might be hard to forget,” he teased. “But I understand you have a reputation to uphold. I won't breathe a word of it. I'd never do that to you, anyway.”

She smoothed her tunic. “I'm grateful.”

“No problem. Maybe we can just...start over.”

What did
that
mean? Start over how? “Excuse me?” she said.

He slid his hands in his pockets and leaned against the counter. “You're not with someone, are you? I don't see a ring...”

Once again, she felt the absence of the gold band that had resided on her wedding finger for so many years. “No, not anymore.”

“Then will you let me take you to dinner sometime?”

The way his shoulders lifted slightly seemed endearingly boyish, as if he really didn't want her to say no. But she hadn't expected this and wasn't prepared for it. “That would be impossible,” she said. “I appreciate the offer, though.”

When she rejected him so quickly and unequivocally, he looked a little deflated. “Are you
that
sure you won't like me?”

She scowled. She'd been “off the market” for so long. Even after Jack had moved out, she'd been sequestered in her own home, working—or trying to work—for over a year. That left her feeling socially clumsy. She almost gave in just to avoid sounding like a bitch, but she wasn't ready to start dating, especially someone like Rafe. “I'm not going to be your next conquest,” she said.

He raised a hand. “Whoa! I said
dinner
.”

After checking the hall again, she decided her brother must be in the bathroom. “I heard you, but let's be honest. No man wants to make an investment without some kind of return.”

When he realized she was serious, his playfulness evaporated. “I wasn't asking for a commitment to sleep with me, for God's sake. Dinner's...dinner. How else am I supposed to get to know you?”

He'd lost that rangy, lone wolf aura that had made him seem so unpredictable and dangerous when he was a younger man. It'd been replaced with a strong sense of purpose but, in some ways, that made him
more
of a threat. There weren't many men who had the confidence to go after a woman so directly, and that scared the hell out of her. “Trust me, we wouldn't be well-suited. I'm doing you a favor.”

“I can look out for myself.”

“There's no need to waste any time or money. Like I said, I'd be a bad investment.”

He hesitated for a second. Then he said, “Are you afraid I can't afford it? I don't come from money so I'm not good enough for you?”

“Stop it! No. Of course not.”

“Because we never really got to know each other,” he said. “And, for the record, I'm embarrassed about that night, too. If I'm remembering correctly, it wasn't my best performance.”

Sex with Rafe had lasted all of about thirty seconds. There'd been a brief flash of pain as he'd pushed inside her, some frantic movement while she'd stared at the water stain on the ceiling and a moan as he'd climaxed. Then he'd rolled off her and passed out. She'd had no idea why the other girls talked as if he was so good in bed. She hadn't been impressed. But she could hardly blame
him
for the disappointment she'd experienced. She'd offered herself up to be used; it wasn't as though
he'd
come on to
her
.

“It has nothing to do with your...performance. I deserved what I got.”

He winced.

“It wouldn't have been so bad if I'd had any clue about sex,” she clarified, “but you know how the movies romanticize everything. My expectations were too high, that's all.”

“Wait a second.” He stepped closer, close enough that she could smell his cologne. “Are you serious?” he whispered.
“That was your first time?”

“We're talking about the distant past,” she said. “None of it matters anymore.”

He raked his fingers through his hair. “I honestly don't remember you telling me you were a virgin.”

Why were they even discussing this? “Because I
didn't
,” she said, her voice as hushed as his. “I was too busy trying to act experienced—like I was eighteen. Anyway, you were so drunk I'm surprised you remembered me at all. I was actually hoping you wouldn't.”

“Well, shit,” he said. “Now I wish you didn't remember me, either. I don't want to be the guy who ruined your first time. No wonder you won't go out with me.”


I
ruined my first time. I was hoping for too much.”

“Somehow that only makes it worse,” he said dryly.

The toilet flushed, and she sent him a warning look. “Keith's coming back.”

“Am I doing something wrong?”

She shook her head. “I don't want him badgering me about getting out and dating again. I'm not interested in...in a relationship,” she said, and went back to inspecting the kitchen.

After that, Rafe seemed pensive, but he waited patiently for her to finish roaming through the house.

“This isn't
too
bad,” she told Keith when she returned to the living room where he'd been chatting with Rafe. “I'm sure I'll be fine.” There'd be
real
peace here and not the memories she'd experience in her mother's home. She needed a “cave” to crawl into, a neutral place to call her own. Even better if that place had the positive associations of Smuggler's Cove.

“Maisey, come on,” Keith said. “You can't be serious.”

“I'm absolutely serious. I could throw a few rugs on the floor, use the bar near the kitchen window to eat and put a mattress and a chest of drawers in the bedroom. I won't need much to get by.”

Keith rolled his eyes. “Just come home and get it over with. You won't last two weeks here. Why would you want to be by yourself, anyway, after everything you've been through? You were by yourself in New York. If that's what you wanted, you could've stayed there.”

She preferred not to include Rafe in anything too personal, but Keith didn't seem to have the same reservations. “This is different from the city. I can hear the sea, which reminds me of all the times I played here as a child. And, despite the hurricane damage, Smuggler's Cove seems...safe in a way no other place does.” She turned to Rafe. “Mr. Romero, would
you
mind if I moved in? I could fix it up to the best of my ability until you're ready to start on it. And then I could relocate to a different unit.”

“I'm sure we can work something out,” he said, but his words were clipped and he was no longer smiling.

“See?” She looked at Keith. “Mr....”

“At least call me Rafe,” he broke in.

“Okay.” Thanks to the humidity, she was beginning to perspire. She pulled her hair up to get it off her neck. “Rafe here says he can work around me. So...Mom won't be able to launch
that
argument.”

“She can launch any argument,” Keith grumbled. “Watch her.”

BOOK: The Secret Sister
10.1Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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