My latest book, LOVING LEXI, which will be out soon, sat on a back burner for more than a couple of years. Originally it was part of a five book anthology author arrangement. Eventually we decided to publish on our own. I’ve spent many hours changing character’s names, the town, etc., and rewriting the book.
I hope you enjoy the first two chapters.
“South Carolina?” Lexi Warner spun on one heel to face Ralph, her short-term boss. Her reflection darted back to the last time she’d been in South Carolina. “You expect me to travel to South Carolina in this heat?”
Lexi bit down on her lower lip and fired a hazel-eyed glare Ralph’s way. “Lexi. My name is Lexi. Remember? Please. Don’t call me Sugah—okay?”
“I’m aware of your name.” Ralph blew out a long breath, then saluted. “Fine. Lexi it is.”
Why she’d agreed to work for Ralph at The Whisper Rag escaped her for some oddball reason. He’d always gotten under her skin, and at five in the morning, the loss of sleep didn’t help matters. At all.
Oh yeah. She remembered why she’d taken the job with Ralph.
Her checking account had sadly dwindled after her mom had called and pleaded for a loan to make her mortgage payment. Again. Repeatedly, as she had now, her mom traveled out of town without her checkbook and often failed to pay her mortgage.
Who did her mom call? Right. Me.
Lexi missed not having siblings more than ever, especially in times like these. Even if she’d had siblings, the outcome probably wouldn’t have made any difference since her mom had always relied on and trusted her. Lexi had many regrets, but taking care of her mom wasn’t one of them. She loved her mom and protected her, so she made sure there was always enough left in her own account to cover her mom’s mortgage. Just in case. And there was always a just in case…and always a loan.
A loan? Yeah right. More like a gift, as usual.
Today, her checking account balance was close to bordering on bone-dry. She had reason for concern. She’d left her checkbook back home, and adding nine-hundred to her credit card balance was out of the question if she were to purchase the bedroom set she’d had her eye on. Her stomach tightened as much as her bank account had when she’d eye-balled her balance. Still, she’d transferred funds from her savings and sent an online check to her mother’s mortgage company, whose account was now listed as a permanent bill pay from Lexi’s account.
Hoping to keep her mother at home more often and with a bit of luck, occupied, she’d presented her mom with a laptop computer. Despite patience and persistence, Lexi had zero positive results teaching her mother simple tasks on the computer. The tech personnel visited her mom more than she did. She simply didn’t get it. Lexi had eventually given up until she could convince her mom to enroll in a beginner’s computer class. Not that she thought she’d take the suggestion in a positive manner. But if it were her mom’s idea, that would be a bird of another species.
Since Lexi was in Miami on assignment from the Corner Post News, in Owen Pines, Georgia, she’d taken the assignment at The Whisper Rag, to make ends meet. Lord knows the ends needed a boost. Then again, if she had requested, her editor would have wired the money to get home, or insist she use her expense account, but she was in no mood to discuss why she had so little money. Frankly, some things weren’t meant to be shared.
Her finances were her business. Well…more like hers and her moms.
Expense account? Lexi was tight with her own money and just as frugal with the mag’s money. The expenses would be legit, but she wouldn’t take advantage, especially since her tightened budget was her responsibility, not her employers’.
Lexi breathed in the scent of the print shop. Printing and that scent were in her blood.
“Lexi. Hello there!” Ralph waved a hand in front of Lexi’s eyes to get her attention. “What’s the difference whether you’re in Florida or South Carolina? It’s hotter than a grill chock-full of red-hot charcoal here in Miami.”
Louisiana, Florida and South Carolina’s weather were one and the same to her. She rolled her eyes and cast a dubious glance at Ralph. “Haven’t you been to South Carolina in the heat of summer? The humidity is more than mind-boggling. If you want an extra shower, you have only to step outside.”
“No, I haven’t, but I know the heat can be extreme. The season has nothing to do with the sensational story you’re going to cover. The trip will be worth your time, not to mention your bank account. Hideaway Harbor won’t be as harsh as you think, especially with the bay breeze. I might suggest you book a flight into Savannah, pack and be on your way today. That is if you can get a flight out.” Ralph pulled a card from his wallet. “Once your flight is confirmed, call Art, at Best-Rent-a-Car. He owns the franchise and always gives my reporters a discount.”
There was no reason to keep debating the weather and pretending she wasn’t going to take the assignment. “Check.” Lexi tossed the card in her purse and flipped her shoulder length chestnut hair into a ponytail, then slid a rubber band from Ralph’s messy desk around the thick mass.
Ralph studied Lexi, then crossed his arms.
“Shouldn’t you tell me who to contact once I get there? Who and what is the story about? What makes it so sensational?”
“Of course, I’m getting to the details.” Ralph reached across the desk and picked up a long yellow envelope, then handed it to her. “You’ll want to read over this information before you get there. You may be there longer than expected, which should be a week, two at the most, so pack accordingly.”
“Why so long?” In her mind, Lexi was already throwing clothes in her bag. Most everything she’d brought to Miami was still in her suitcase, with the exception of hang-up clothes. Used to traveling on a shoestring, within an hour, she could shower, dress, pack, and be on her way to the airport and out of town, depending on when she could grab a flight.
“Do you remember the story in connection with Tate Hunter’s wife about a year and a half ago here in Miami? She met with a boating accident during an outing with Tate.”
Lexi closed her eyes and brought up headlines in her mind. “Yes. I do recall the story. Sad he lost his wife. I didn’t know him, but was relieved when suspicions of murder died down.”
“We were danged lucky to have someone give us a call who thinks he spotted Tate in Hideaway Harbor, South Carolina.” Ralph looked at her over black-rimmed glasses that sat at the end of his nose. “If indeed he is there, he won’t be pleased to see you. Especially, when he finds out why you’re there. So, prepare yourself accordingly.”
“Thanks for the heads-up,” she said, while twisting her chestnut ponytail tighter into the band. “Would you care to tell me why aren’t you covering the story yourself?”
“I may be wrong, but considering the circumstances, I think he’ll be more approachable if a female reporter is on the job. Besides, I don’t have the time to cover stories any longer.”
Lexi, frowned. “Why now? What’s the interest in Tate after so long? Shouldn’t you leave the poor man alone? He has lost his wife. Are you heartless or just snooping for that, ‘give the mag a push’, story?”
Ralph blew out a noisy breath as he eased a hip on top of the desk’s edge.
“Mr. Hunter left town and hasn’t been heard from since a few months after the drowning. His wife’s sister has still been on the guilty kick toward Tate even though no further evidence at the inquest was necessary to bring charges against him. Never-the-less, his sister-in-law’s on a rampage again. Tate worshipped his wife. Anyone who knew them would bear witness to their affection for one another.”
“Everyone except his sister-in-law.” Lexi rolled her eyes. “So why not look for him here first?”
“I’ve had someone on it already. While it’s unlikely Tate’s still in this area, rumor has it that he’s been seen in Hideaway Harbor. Maybe he’s settled down there, maybe not, but if he is, I want to be the first to break the story. I want to know what Tate’s been up to, or if he’s seeing anyone. You know, get the low-down on him. He was the best announcer WCJD ever hired. There must be some exciting news on him by now. Drop by the Hideaway Harbor times and speak with the owner, Garrett Webb. He may be able to give you a lead on Tate’s whereabouts.”
“Ralph. I don’t like being a part of creating distressing news and dragging someone through the mud, especially someone I don’t know.”
“Come on, Lexi. You’re a reporter. Get over it. Just bring me the story. We aren’t dragging Tate through the mud, as you put it, simply bringing him to the forefront. By the way, a company credit card is in the envelope. Use it for expenses.”
You can bet I will.
Though she wouldn’t abuse it, Lexi would have no problem applying Ralph’s card for her expense account.
None at all.
Ralph waved a hand toward the side of the room. “If you’d like to make some calls, you can use the corner office.”
As luck would have it, Lexi was fortunate enough to grab a flight at two in the morning. The flight should take about two hours and forty minutes. The drive from Savannah up the coast to Hideaway Harbor was about an hour and half, so allowing time to pick up a rental car, and what other incidental popped up, she should arrive between five-forty-five and six, give or take, in the morning.
Good. She wanted to get this trip and the story over with, and the sooner the better. She had a house to furnish, a mother to care for and deliver herself from her overbearing temporary boss. She and Ralph occasionally worked together and understood each other though, so she wasn’t burning any bridges. That was her expectation anyway.
Though leery about tearing into someone’s private life for no good reason, Lexi was ready to meet the extraordinary Tate Hunter, interview him and get back to her life.
At five-thirty in the morning, Tate rubbed a hand down his scruffy beard, and then brought the plastic-covered, cardboard coffee cup to his lips. He’d been up since four-forty-five, gotten in his run, showered, and prepared for the day.
He threw away the wrapper from his blueberry muffin and drained the coffee cup. As he pulled away from one of Sally Cakes’s parking slots on Main Street, he watched Travis Turner kiss his girlfriend, Emma. Willie hugged her, then turned and jogged down the sidewalk toward the Bay, and down toward the Myra, a shrimp boat owned by his father, Leo.
Kind of early for a date, Willie.
Tate had an uncomfortable feeling about Willie. If his dad didn’t discipline him properly, he’d have his hands full…full of big time young man trouble. Tate had a soft spot in his heart for Willie and guided him in the right direction every chance he got.
Tate knew all about trouble. Since the age of six, he’d been tossed from one foster home to the other. Like any other child, each time a new family would visit the home to adopt; his hopes resonated high along with the other children’s anticipation, at St. Patrick’s Home for Children.
By the time he’d celebrated his ninth birthday, reality had set in. His dad was never coming back. Of course he’d resigned himself to that truth long ago, but in anticipation of his young state of mind, he’d still thought about and hoped his dad would show up one day. The second worst part was being shoved from one family to another. For one reason or another, about the time he got used to a family and their ways, he’d be jerked from that home and placed into another.
After a while, he’d soon become the kid no one would foster for a long period because of his unruly attitude. He’d hated being yanked around. Convinced he was doomed to live out his days at the home until high school graduation, he’d made sure he wasn’t chosen for another foster family. He knew all the tricks to avoid selection…and he was too old to be adopted. He’d learned the behaviors on how to deter a family from choosing him…and they’d worked. He totally knew how to deal with the bad stuff, people in charge, dished out. Tate fled the home on his eighteenth birthday and hadn’t looked back.
Tate dropped his hat in his lap, ran a hand through his sandy blond hair, and shook off childhood memories. Those days, and hopes of having his dad back in his life, were long gone. He’d made himself a promise. If he was ever blessed with a child, he or she would know love and the security of a home. No matter what.
Maggie nuzzled his shoulder and looked expectantly at him. He massaged her neck, then offered a snack. “Here you go, girl.”
Someone had abandoned the half-starved Maggie on the side of the road. Tate hadn’t hesitated to take her into his home. He’d seen the beauty that lay beneath the pitiful Chocolate Lab’s skin and bones. And he’d been right. A beautiful dog, Maggie had turned out to be a loving companion.
After he’d had Maggie, as he’d named her, checked over and cared for at Danielle’s Veterinary Clinic, two weeks had passed since he and the Vet had attempted to locate the owner without success. Maggie was now his. She’d taken to him right away and was a sweet comfort to him at night. They’d both needed someone, and now neither of them were alone.
As Tate pulled up in front of Danielle’s Veterinary Clinic, Maggie began to whine when she saw where she and her master were. “Don’t worry, little girl, I’m not going to leave you forever. Everything’s going to be all right. You like Dr. Danielle. Remember?”
Maggie dropped her head, lay down across the passenger seat, stretched her paws over Tate’s leg, and whined again. He scratched behind her ear, gave her a pat, and then encouraged her to climb out of the SUV. “Let’s go get you a bath and your nails done, girl.”
Maggie hesitated, then whined again as she slid inside the front door. Dr. Danielle grasped the leash Tate offered, and gave Maggie a treat while leading her to and around the exam room door.
Dr. Danielle turned to face Tate with a smile. “You’ve done an excellent job. Maggie’s full of energy and looking much healthier than when you first brought her in. She’ll be ready when you finish your work day. Remember we close at six, so don’t be late. Otherwise I’ll have to keep her overnight.” Dr. Danielle grinned at Tate. “And…that’ll cost you.”
“Of course.” Tate scrunched his nose and smiled back at her. “I’ll be here. I know you’ll give her the once over, but please check out that spot on her ear. I think it’s healing nicely, still you’re the doc.”
“I will. You’re such a worry wart when it comes to Maggie. Though I think it’s quite thoughtful, she’ll be fine once you leave.” Dr. Danielle grinned at Tate while running a hand up and down Maggie’s back. “Trust me. Maggie’s in good hands. Now get out of here or I’ll have you running to Sally Cakes.”
Tate snapped his fingers and turned on one heel while looking back over a shoulder. “I completely forgot. Be back in a sec.”
He was back in a flash with a box and a chuckle. “I wasn’t sure what you liked so I bought a mixed dozen of muffins and scones. Whatever you don’t like, offer them to your customers. The orange scones and blueberry muffins are scrumptious. They’re my favorites.”
“Thanks so much, Tate. You may have saved my life. I’m famished.” She pulled a blueberry scone from the box and savored the first bite. “Umm…just what I needed.” She turned back to Maggie, then tilted her head toward Tate. “Don’t forget six is closing time. On your way out, grab yourself a cup of coffee.”
“Now that I will do. I won’t forget. See you at six.”
Tate relaxed for a few minutes while he took in the morning, then checked his watch. It was a little after six. He downed the remainder of his coffee Dr. Danielle had so graciously offered, dropped the cup in a holder, cranked the SUV, then headed downhill to the bay.
The sun had begun to rise over the bay, its rays peeking through a mist that added shimmers across the water’s ripples like thousands of diamonds. He listened to the hypnotizing, soft laps against the shoreline and welcomed the breeze that floated up from the bay. Tate’s opinion was that morning remained the best part of the day, for him anyway. He drew in the scent of salty sea air and knew today would be a good one.
Tate maneuvered around town for a few minutes toward the marina, and since he had a few extra minutes, stopped for gas and checked his oil. He grabbed a bag of chips, a candy bar, and a couple of sodas for lunch on the boat, then paid his bill. As he whistled a happy tune while he headed out of the station’s shop, a car pulled up to the pump behind his vehicle.
He jerked his head toward his SUV when a loud thump stopped him in his tracks. The car hadn’t rested until his SUV brought it to a standstill.
The bump wasn’t hard enough to hurt the driver, but these days you never knew what claims drivers could, or would create.
Just what I needed so early in the morning. He stepped toward the car and peeked inside the car. “Are you okay, lady?”
A swirl of chestnut curled around a lovely face that peered out from the window. She raised her eyes, which were glazed over, and nodded. “I’m fine.”
Tate stalled momentarily while he drew in a lungful of air as he stared into wide hazel eyes. “Uh…I’m glad you aren’t hurt. What are you doing pulling so close to my car?” Tate threw the bag full of snacks in the car, then slammed the door. “Didn’t you see my vehicle?”
The lady backed up the car, then jumped out with a hand placed over her heart. “I’m so sorry.” She bent over to get a look at the damages, then straightened up and placed hands on her hips. She leaned against her car door and raised her eyes to meet his. “Yes, I saw you. My sandal snagged on the gas pedal.”
He drew in a ragged breath and gazed at her. “Lady. Who taught you to drive?”
“You needn’t be so nasty. It was, after all, an accident. I’ve already explained the gas pedal caught my shoe.”
Tate shoved his hat tight against his ears, while he looked down at thin strips of leather wrapped around her feet. “You might consider losing the shoes, at least while you drive.”
Lexi glanced down at her sandals. “I think not. The problem is they’re my favorites.” She delivered him a wilted nod, all the while digging through her purse, when she came up with her phone. “I’ll call the police so they can write up a report.”
“Hold on. Don’t be so hasty. Let’s check the damage first. If your car isn’t damaged, I’m willing to overlook whatever damages you did to my SUV and let it go.”
“Really?” Lexi bit down on her lower lip. “Let it go?” A frown crossed her face, once what he’d said seemed to sink in. “Why would you do that?”
Tate checked his watch. “I really don’t have the time to deal with an accident. A charter of six are most likely waiting for me right now. I have fifteen minutes to get there and take them out.”
Lexi gasped. “Take them out? Out where? Oh Lord, are you a killer?”
Tate laughed at the confusion that crossed her face. “Take them out fishing. On my boat, Hap’s Catch.”
“Oh. So you live here then.” She breathed a sigh of relief and offered a handshake. “Lexi Warner.” She dug around her purse again. “Here’s my card.”
Lexi met Tate’s eyes. He could barely drag his eyes away from her wide hazel eyes. His fingers fumbled with his wallet as he withdrew a card, then bent down to examine damages to both vehicles.
“You can see for yourself there’s no more than a small scratch on my bumper. Yours is barely there. I think it can be buffed out, or repaired easily enough. If you have time, I’ll call Ed at the auto shop to see if he can get to it this morning. I’ll also have him pick up the car for you…if that’s agreeable.”
When Lexi smiled at him, the dimple on the side of her upper lip was hard to miss. Tate had a thing for chestnut and dimples. This gorgeous chestnut haired woman, with dimples.
“That’s a generous offer. I’d appreciate it. This is a rental car and I’d rather not turn it back in damaged. I can imagine how much my insurance would sky-rocket and that’s one thing I don’t need right now.”
Tate shrugged. When he did, the muscles on his chest left an impression on a thin T-shirt that read, Hap’s Catch. He’d caught her staring.
“And…I’d rather not deal with my insurance company. It’s such a minor incident. I’m more than happy to be of assistance,” he said.
Lexi averted her eyes from his chest. “You’re kind to offer and I’m relieved not to have to deal with the rental company and their insurance company either.”
Tate had a hard time keeping his eyes off Lexi. Something about her drew him to her and brought old memories to the surface. He checked the name again on her card, then slid it inside his wallet “Like I said, I’m happy to do what I can. May I call you Lexi?”
“Sure. No problem. You’d probably like to be on your way. If you can direct me to a motel, I’ll get settled.”
Tate thumbed his hat up an inch or so. “Unfortunately the motel is small, besides it’s probably filled. Fishermen, flood the town this time of year. The Willows is a bed and breakfast, about three blocks from here. I highly recommend it, and I’ve no doubt you’ll be happy staying there. Mrs. Romy Stone owns the place and will treat you right. Romy is dedicated to the business she fought to buy. A neighboring land-grabber had the chance to purchase the property, tear down the Victorian home and build a motel. But, Romy wasn’t having any of that.” Tate grinned. “Do you mind if I call ahead and reserve a room, if she has one available?”
“Thank you. I’d like that. I must say, dealing with someone who just damaged your vehicle, you’re being terribly considerate about the whole ordeal.”
Tate no longer listened to Lexi, but raised a hand and covered the phone with the other. “Not a problem. Hang on.”
Tate spoke kindly over the phone, thanked the person on the other end, then slipped his phone in a pocket. “You’re all set. Romy at The Willows has a room and is waiting for you.”
“Thanks. Give me directions and I’ll be on my way. My cell phone number is on my card. By the way, should I call you when I’m settled?”
“Absolutely. Call my cell. The number is listed on my card. If I don’t answer right away, I’ll return your call. I may be busy on the boat, and it’s hard to hear over the chatter and waves sometimes.” Tate turned to leave. “Ed will call you this morning. Keep your phone handy. I hope you don’t mind that I give Ed your number?”
“Not at all. How else is he to contact me? Thanks for your help and understanding.”
Tate tipped his hat, slid onto the seat of his SUV, then drove into the misty morning, toward the marina with a captivating woman and a dimple running through his mind.
Tate’s thoughts rested on Lexi as he pulled into a parking space at the docks, the softness of her voice, the natural smile, and that dimple.
Lexi was a gorgeous young woman…Too gorgeous. He wondered what she was doing in Hideaway Harbor. With his luck, she was only passing through.
No stranger to a woman’s charm, he found himself in hopes that her passing through wasn’t the case. He didn’t care for the feeling he got when he looked at her, but admitted she definitely had the attributes to draw him back into a woman’s clutches.
His dead wife’s beautiful face materialized in his mind. He brandished Lexi’s smile and the scent of her from his head.
Am I ready to plunge into something my heart has for so long resisted and couldn’t accept?
Foolish thought. He wasn’t so sure about this woman. This charming woman who’d sent his head and heart into a tailspin.
I should’ve known I’d meet a woman like Lexi at some point in my life. It was bound to happen.
She was the first woman who had come close to shattering the grip he’d maintained on his emotions. Only…he wasn’t ready for her and the changes that were sure to come his way, should he lose all resistance, and wander down that path again. He doubted if he would ever be fully prepared.
We’ll see, old man. We’ll see.
Tate gritted his teeth. He thought himself as a tough guy, but losing in love hurt. And then there were the scars he carried around as proof. Lexi Warner was a one-chance meeting for which he wasn’t equipped to deal. He’d also had no plans of putting his heart out there again. Now, depending on Lexi’s plans to remain in Hideaway Harbor, his plans could well receive a sharp turn-around.
There was something about her he couldn’t quite shake. But…she probably wouldn’t be here long enough to get to know her anyway.
Lexi Warner just might be the one to upend his plans if she stuck around long enough.
Lord help me.