Small Town Love

by

Susan Meier

After her estranged father is indicted for insider trading, wealthy heiress and morning talk show personality, Evelyn Barclay, returns to Paradise Key. She takes a job with a friend, only to discover she’s now in charge of Paradise Key’s sexy mayor, Paxton James.

Pax wants nothing to do with the video Evie needs to produce for the town’s new website. But he can’t deny that every time he’s around her, sparks fly. Not only is she beautiful, but when Evie steps up to help his daughter, he sees another side of her.

Just as Pax and Evie grow closer, her dad’s appearance in Paradise Key threatens to send her into hiding again and ruin their budding relationship.

Enjoy an Excerpt →

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Philadelphia, Pennsylvania had a heartbeat.

Evelyn Barclay felt the pulse as she walked up the street to the Shutto Building, home of the offices of WKPP where she did a daily talk show. Taxi, bus, and car engines purred. High heels clicked. Conversations ebbed and flowed around her, as people bobbed along the sidewalk.

A few feet from her destination, she began inching to the right, easing out of the muddle of nine-to-fivers and into the cocooned doorway of her building. One quick push on the revolving door set it in motion. In three steps, she was in the lobby, waiting for an elevator with another group of people, this one quieter and impatient to get to their offices. The elevator came, she piled in, and the car began to ascend.

The woman beside her gave her a puzzled look, then her expression turned to one of recognition. Evelyn smiled at her. As the on-air talent for Philadelphia’s biggest talk show, she was on Live at Noon five days a week. Her picture decorated the sides of buses and the backs of park benches.

A man in front turned and studied her. Evie smiled at him, too. She served at the pleasure of her audience, and she knew it.

The elevator stopped at her floor. As she stepped out, an older man called, “See you at noon.”

Laughing at his use of the catch phrase for her show, she turned and winked. “See you at noon.”

Everyone chuckled as the elevator door closed.

She sucked in a long, happy breath, so glad to be home she was almost giddy from it. She’d spent the past few months arriving at the crack of dawn every Monday morning to tape a week’s worth of shows in one day before jetting back to Paradise Key, Florida and her childhood “posse” as they mourned the loss of their friend Lily.

She’d needed the time with them, but she’d missed Philadelphia. After being raised by a philandering dad, who’d sent her to boarding school and to Paradise Key for summer vacation, Evie had longed for a place to call home. A move ten years ago from Connecticut to Philadelphia had given her that home—and an identity she could be proud of. This was where she belonged.

WKPP took up three entire floors of the building, so the front desk was just beyond the elevator.

She walked up to the receptionist. “Good morning, Tilly.”

“Ms. Barclay!” Curly-haired Tilly Franklin bounced out of her seat behind the tall counter. “Good morning! I didn’t know you were coming in today. Nobody put it on my sheet!”

“I’m back for good now.” She paused and laughed. “Except for vacations.”

“It’s nice to have you home.”

“Thanks.”

With a quick toss of her blond hair, Evie straightened the navy-blue blazer over her blue flowered silk sheath and headed to her office. With the actual studios and dressing rooms on a private floor, the corridor led to a section that housed advertising and marketing, cubicles where producers and their staffs scurried to make every WKPP program memorable, and finally the corridor to the offices of executive staff.

She strode into her suite, entering her secretary Janine’s office. Janine came to attention. “Good morning!”

Evie picked up the stack of mail from the corner of her desk. “Good morning.”

“How was Florida?”

“Better this time.” She smiled at Janine. “My friends and I realized we were recovering from our loss. I promised to spend a week there every summer and a weekend or two every couple of months just for fun. Now I’m resuming real life. I won’t be going to Florida again until the first weekend in August.”

“You’re back for good?” Janine’s eye sort of twitched as she nudged her head in the direction of Evie’s office. The door was closed, but she’d assumed that was because she’d been gone all week.

“Yes. Why?”

Janine leaned across the desk and whispered, “Mr. Tanner is in your office.”

Equally quiet, Evelyn replied, “Really?” Excitement bubbled inside her. Marty Tanner loved giving good news. Reveled in it. The only reason he’d be in her office, waiting for her return, would be to welcome her back. Maybe to offer her a raise? Or maybe it was time for stock options? She’d worked hard. Hadn’t complained. Been a team player. Even taping her shows rather than doing them live, the ratings had gone up. She was the star of this network. She never took it for granted, but she sure as heck had worked hard to get here.

Stock options were definitely in order.

She sucked in a breath, straightening her shoulders. “Hold my calls.”

Janine gave her a thumbs-up signal.

Balanced on stilettos dyed to match the lightest flowers in her dress, she marched to her office door. With one quick twist of the knob, she opened it.

“Good morning, Marty.”

He stood with his back to her, staring out at the magnificent Philadelphia skyline. Short and stout, but with a bloodline as rich as her own, he turned from the window.

“Evelyn.”

His use of her full name and rough tone stopped her in her tracks. He motioned to one of the seats in front of her desk, then sat in the tall-back leather chair that had been in Evelyn’s family since her great-grandfather negotiated deals for coal and steel in the western side of the state.

Her good mood plummeted. So much for thinking she’d be getting stock options.

She ambled over, sliding the shoulder strap of her black briefcase down her arm and setting it on her desk.

“What can I do for you?”

He leaned back in her seat in the kind of power play that made her nerves jump. “We got word last night from an impeccable source that your dad is being arrested this morning for SEC violations.”

She sank to the chair in front of her desk. “What?”

“When the news breaks, we expect you’ll be hounded by everybody from the national news media to our own Charlie Johnson, who’ll want an exclusive by the way.”

Her head spun, a million things popping into her brain. After her mom and grandfather were killed in a plane crash, her dad had been the worst father in the world. He’d cheated, lied, and stolen from her trust fund. It didn’t surprise her that he’d violated SEC regulations. But she’d spent a decade distancing herself from him. What happened to her dad should mean nothing to her.

Did mean nothing to her.

“I’m not the one being arrested.”

“No. But you’ll be the story. Or at least a big chunk of it. And you know WKPP’s policy. Talent cannot be the story. We’ve already lined up replacements. You’re off the air until this thing clears. Either when he pleads guilty and stops being news, or at the end of his trial.”

Her heart plummeted. “The end of his trial? It could take a year for this to get to court!”

“And we don’t want you sitting in a hot seat every day with your fans phoning in questions about your dad rather than the city.”

“I could handle them! I could tell people I’m troubled by my father’s arrest, but remind them he and I are estranged. Then I’ll wish him well with the proceedings. And we’ll go on as normal.”

Marty shook his head as if he thought she was crazy. “This won’t go away with a wave of your wealthy Jones/Barclay magic wand. Your grandfather’s been dead for twenty years. His charisma might have lingered in the minds of the last generation, but it doesn’t mean squat to the new one. To them, he is a rich old guy who died and made you wealthy. And your dad’s arrest only reminds viewers you inherited your grandfather’s fortune and your dad was left almost nothing. Once that’s in everybody’s head, the reputation you built as being one of them goes flying out the window. It’s best to stay gone for another couple of months, so they don’t associate you with this mess.”

The reality of it washed through her. Once again, her dad had done something wrong, but she took the brunt of the punishment. “I shouldn’t be penalized for something my dad did.”

“And Monica Lewinsky shouldn’t have spent her whole life living down one mistake. That’s life in the limelight, Evie. Your name got you this job. The piece of your grandfather’s charisma you were lucky enough to inherit made you a star. Now, that same name is hurting you.”

She stared at him, numb but not really confused. This was what her dad did. Act without any thought for the consequences. Especially not to her.

“I think you should go back to that nice little town in Florida you’ve been visiting. No one found you in the months you flew back and forth from Philly. Drink some margaritas. Lay in the sun. If and when your dad’s situation resolves, we’ll welcome you back with open arms.”

Her pride wanted to tell him that if he kicked her off the show for even two weeks, she wouldn’t be back.

But she loved her show. Loved this city. She loved that she’d made something of herself after the prison of privilege she’d lived in since her mom and grandfather were killed.

She could no more tell him to shove this job than she could stop breathing. Working was her life. Having a place—a real place where people trusted her—gave meaning to what might have otherwise been a very shallow existence.

She rose slowly. “With any luck, he’ll plead guilty and be out of the news cycle in a few weeks.”

Marty hoisted himself from her family heirloom chair. “Exactly.”

Stupid tears pooled in her eyes. She blinked them back. Her father pleading guilty was about as farfetched as thinking he would admit that draining half her trust fund and then gambling it away had been wrong.

Marty strode to the door. “Let me suggest you get out of town before the news breaks and people start checking airline passenger lists, trying to figure out where you are. You might want to charter a private plane.”

Evie was still furious when she arrived at the Paradise Key Bed and Breakfast a little before six that evening. She’d lost the skyscraper heels, sheath, and navy jacket, replacing them with jeans, a T-shirt, boat shoes, and the biggest pair of sunglasses she owned. As if it wasn’t bad enough she had to leave Philly, she’d virtually had to sneak out of town.

She carried her overnight bag across the wide front porch with white Adirondack chairs and a wooden swing, both decorated with plump orange pillows. Behind her, her cab driver hauled her two suitcases.

Taking off her sunglasses at the registration desk, she said, “Evie Barclay.”

Maggie Martin’s eyebrows rose, but she quickly looked away and began typing into the keyboard in front of her.

The news about her dad had broken around noon. She knew the bed and breakfast owner, just like everybody else in Paradise Key, would be aware her dad had been arrested. But no one would say anything. Paradise Key was a place to relax and lose the world, which was exactly why she was here.

Maggie handed her a key card. “It’s a pleasure to have you here, Evie.”

And that was the other reason she was here. The residents of Paradise Key were kind. Loyal. She might not be one of them, but she’d visited so often the past months that she was close. Like a second cousin.

“Thank you.” She turned and almost ran into Lauren Webster, Jenna Davis, and Sofia Vargas. Her friends. The group she’d run with when her dad had brought her to Paradise Key to spend summers when she was a kid. She wanted to hug them, but her pride stung too much.

She fell back on her trademark sarcasm. “Shouldn’t you be with your husbands?”

“Not husbands yet.” Dark-haired, dark-eyed Sofia flashed her engagement ring.

Evie gaped at the beautiful diamond and laughed. “He’ll be your husband soon enough.”

Auburn-haired Jenna took the overnight case from Evie’s hands. “Little breaks are good for relationships. Besides, we knew you’d need support.”

Stunning blonde Lauren glanced around. “Where’s the rest of your things?”

Evie pointed at the driver lugging her two big suitcases up the wide circular stairway. “I told him to make two trips. I know how heavy those cases are. But I think he wanted to prove he could handle them.”

She sighed and looked at her friends again. “My stay is indefinite.” She motioned to the stairs and Sofia, Jenna, and Lauren followed her, understanding she wouldn’t want to talk in the lobby where two tourists sat pretending to read the paper as they surreptitiously cast glances her way.

Unfortunately, the only suite was on the third floor. With no elevator, it was five minutes before they got to the room, paid the taxi driver, and closed the door behind them.

Jenna faced her. “How bad is it?”

“Thirty-two counts of insider trading and all the attendant counts of things that go along with it—like fraud.”

Lauren winced. “Wow.”

“I was lucky one of the news department’s sources got the story before it broke.”

“That’s shocking.”

Evie sniffed a laugh. “My dad’s a cheat. A thief. Nothing he does surprises me.” Pain pinched her chest. She might not be surprised, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t be hurt. He did everything without thought for anyone but himself. Once again, he’d taken a home away from her.

She glanced around the small sitting room with a huge window overlooking the ocean. To the right was a bedroom with a four-poster bed. To the left, a wet bar. A white area rug sat on dark hardwood floors. The big window had beige trellis-print curtains that could be drawn to keep out the sun.

Obviously trying to cheer her, Lauren said, “This is lovely. I like it.”

“I’m not even unpacking my suitcases. If I’m in Paradise Key indefinitely, I’m renting a beach house.”

Lauren nodded.

As Jenna headed to the bedroom with the overnight bag, Sofia said, “How does your dad getting arrested force you into a leave of absence?”

“WKPP has a strict policy that on-air talent can’t be the story.”

Lauren frowned. “How are you the story?”

Evie turned away from the ocean view. “When my mom and grandfather were killed, I inherited my grandfather’s fortune. My father got only my mother’s estate.”

Returning to the main room, Jenna said, “So? Everybody knows that.”

“Lots of people also think my getting the lion’s share of the money forced my dad to…steal. Or at least turn into something of a conman.”

Sofia shook her head. “Nobody forces anybody else to steal.”

“No, but my dad getting arrested for something that involves money puts me and my inheritance back in the news.” Evie paced to the big window again. “The station manager is afraid that seeing me live again would cause a free-for-all on my life. Even without being on the air, I’ve had a hundred and thirty-two calls from reporters asking for a comment. Marty wasn’t kidding when he said I’d need to hide out. Which is why I’m here.”

“Couldn’t you tape the shows like you’ve been doing?”

Evie laughed. “The audience would go nuts. They could accept me taping shows while mourning the loss of a friend, but shows taped so I didn’t have to answer questions about my dad would just stir everything up. Turn the situation into something it isn’t.” She didn’t mention that if her absence lasted long enough, the audience could grow to love her replacement hosts, or the whole mess could flare up on her return. Those were things she wasn’t yet ready to think about.

Sofia put her arm across Evie’s shoulders. “If there’s a silver lining in this, it’s that you’re with us.”

Lauren agreed. “We can have a good time. Make it a party.”

“I don’t want a party. I was ready to return to work. I’m still ready to go back to work. What am I going to do for months that might turn into a year?”

“Sit in the sun?”

“Read?

Evie shook her head. “I’ve been sitting in the sun. I’ve been reading. You guys forget that all the weeks I’ve been traveling back and forth, you’ve had jobs. I’ve been bumming around. I was ready to jump back into things again. I need something to do.”

Lauren brightened. “If you want to work, you could take a job with me.”

“With you?” Evie’s hopes built. “At the PR firm?”

“Yes, I’m in charge of the town’s website, but I’ve gotten two new clients and need someone to take that over for me.”

When Evie groaned, Laurel added, “It’s already set up. Basically, all you have to do is produce the weekly video on town events for the next seven days, read the emails, update the ‘happening this week’ page, and make sure the live boardwalk camera is working.”

The idea suddenly tempted her. Not because it was something to do, but because she would be producing a video. Not exactly a talk show, but close enough to fill a need. “I don’t know.”

“It’s sufficient work to keep you busy and not so much to make you crazy.” Lauren’s voice softened. “You’d be doing me a huge favor.”

Evie pulled in a breath. She did need something to do, and this sounded easy. Plus, it was more than busy work, so she wouldn’t go insane or be in any of her three friends’ way. It also touched on the work she loved.

The only problem was Paxton James, Paradise Key’s mayor. She knew he was the star of the video…and why not? The man was gorgeous with his dark hair and green eyes. Her heart had actually stuttered when they’d been introduced at Lily’s funeral. She didn’t like the way she felt around him. Not weak, but silly. Goofy. Evelyn Jones Barclay did not do goofy.

Of course, working with him might be the perfect way to discover he had feet of clay like every other man she knew. If he had a fault, making a weekly video would certainly bring it out.

Which would be the perfect way to stop all but swooning around him.

“Okay. I’ll give it a try.”

Her three friends sighed with relief, and Evie realized just how worried they were about her.

She batted a hand. “This will be fun.”

Sofia smiled. “We’ll make it fun.”

Jenna said, “We all love having you here.”

Lauren laughed. “Yeah, and maybe with this longer stay, we can convince you that you belong here in Paradise Key with us.”

“Not on your life. I worked too hard to find a home. I’m never leaving Philly.”

Evie loved her friends dearly, but it had taken her a decade to make a place for herself. She didn’t want to think about how long she might be in Paradise Key or how crazy she might be driven worrying about her show, if her exile went on too long. She just prayed her dad did the right thing, pleaded guilty today, took his punishment, and let her go home again.

She internally rolled her eyes at her optimism. Still, she wouldn’t let herself get down. Her dad might not plead guilty today, but if his lawyers were worth their salt, he could plead guilty sooner rather than later.

Not wanting to end the conversation on a negative note, she faced her friends. “If you guys have the night off from your men, maybe we should do dinner then find ourselves some margaritas. My treat.”

They eased down the three flights of stairs, through the sedate, homespun lobby, and stepped out into the Florida sunshine, heading up the street to their favorite bar/restaurant, Scallywags.

Two feet away from the entrance, Paxton James approached them, six feet of good looks and downhome charm, not to mention a syrupy Southern accent that seriously made Evie want to swoon. Which was why she’d all but avoided him. Two failed affairs and a very bad father had taught her she and relationships didn’t mix.

He nodded once as he passed them. “Ladies.”

Everybody greeted him except Evie. That wonderful voice of his had made her stomach tumble.

It was stupid.

Juvenile.

And she would get past it, because she didn’t want to lose the job that might preserve her sanity for the next God-only-knew-how-many months.

End of Excerpt

This book will begin shipping May 22, 2018

Small Town Love is currently available in digital format only:

ISBN:

May 22, 2018