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Jenna Davis stood at her bathroom vanity, mascara wand in one hand and note card in the other. What should have been a cursory rundown of stats and figures before tonight’s town board meeting was proving to be difficult as her mind kept reverting to simpler times. Of when she met her four best friends on the beach at Paradise Bay resort, of their crazy escapades that summer and the following five summers. Of poor Lily, now tragically gone.
Twenty-nine was just too young to die. Lord, she hoped her friend hadn’t suffered. As totaled as her car had been, Jenna hoped she was gone in a blink, before pain had time to even register.
Poor, sweet Lily.
Dragging in a shaky breath, Jenna tried for the umpteenth time to push this past weekend’s funeral from her mind. Makeup as done as it was going to get, she checked her reflection in the mirror one last time: auburn waves relatively tamed, freckled cheeks still…freckling. So far, no raccoon eyes. A bit puffier than usual, but Paradise Key knew the heartache she’d endured this past week. If they judged her on appearance alone tonight, then shame on them.
Ten minutes later, she stepped onto her second-story apartment’s covered porch and pulled the door closed behind her. A warm spring night like any other greeted her, the salty ocean breeze carrying with it the cry of gulls displeased by nearby fisherman calling it a day. Jenna crossed to the staircase that ran alongside the building and scanned the street below. A handful of cars trolled the island’s main drag, some easing into parking spaces at the town hall, others cruising right on by.
Of the cruisers, she was jealous. Jenna wasn’t a fan of being in the public spotlight, and she’d been dreading this meeting for two weeks. But cruising wouldn’t help secure approval for her proposed café expansion; only taking her place on the town commissioner’s hot seat could do that. What she could really use right now was a distraction, something to get her mind off the anxiety building in her chest.
She reached the ground level and peeked into the front window of A Piece of Paradise, the novelty boutique opened by her grandmother thirty years ago. It took up the entire first floor of her building. Although three decades had passed—and, more recently, ownership from Grandma Bernice to her—the wares hadn’t. Miniature stained-glass beach scenes dangled at even intervals from hooks by the window, casting rainbow shadows on the other Florida Key knickknacks and apparel neatly displayed within. She sold the same standard fare as every other beach town this side of the Gulf, but tourists had told her time and again it was her plentiful shell collection that kept them coming back time and again. Hopefully, they’d remember her shop for its expanded offerings soon, too.
Two steps from the curb, she got one in the form of a muffled beep sounding at her hip. Jenna dug her cell phone out of her purse and found a text message from Evie.
We need a distraction from all this crying. When do we get to meet him already?
Him? She frowned. Who on earth was ‘him’?
A circling gull cried out overhead, and clarity hit her like the slap of Florida humidity on a hot July day. ‘Him’ was the boyfriend she’d raved about to the girls in an online group chat just before Christmas, the one who had rescued her from depression after her last relationship had imploded. The one who was super sweet, romantic, loved to spoil her rotten, and…
Oh, how she wanted to kick herself. It wasn’t like her to lie. Even her driver’s license listed the correct weight, and who did that? Usually, she was happy with her lot in life. She had her own shop, a family that loved her, and a wonderful collection of friends both near and far. But after an incredibly difficult week, and message after message scrolling across the screen of Lauren’s successes, Sofía’s dreams, Evie’s upcoming projects, and Lily’s new home, Jenna found herself feeling…envious. Not usually one to daydream but desperate to distract herself, she’d typed up a silly story. One involving a fairy-tale boyfriend who had ridden in on his white horse and rescued the damsel in dating distress.
Oh yes, it had all been one big amusing inside joke…until that darned car horn blared outside her window. She’d jumped in her seat, sending the laptop falling to the floor. It had snapped shut in one direction, while the mouse skittered away in the other. By the time she’d powered the (thankfully unharmed) machine back up, a myriad of new messages awaited.
Her fake message, the one intended for her eyes only, had been sent.
The girls, of course, had pounced on her good news. They were so happy for her, wanted only the best for her, and were demanding the full scoop—details! Give us details!—that she didn’t have the heart to admit her blunder. So she’d indulged her friends, stretched the fib a little further, and gave them the story they wanted to hear.
The story she wasn’t living.
Initially, she’d thought, Hey, no harm no foul. It wasn’t like her fib was hurting anything other than her own ego. But now that Lily was gone, guilt weighed heavy on Jenna—she’d never be able to clear the air with her. And while she knew she needed to come clean with the others, now didn’t seem like the right time. They were all here to grieve Lily, not deal with Jenna’s failed dating life. Heck, she didn’t want to deal with it. Unfortunately, the mumbled excuses she’d made for delaying introductions at the funeral no longer seemed to be cutting it.
Headed into town hall meeting. We’ll talk later.
Jenna dropped the cell back into her purse, ignoring its subsequent buzz. Evie was assuredly accusing her of stalling, which was, of course, true. Yes, she eventually needed to face the firing squad at some point, or wiggle her way out of that lie with another, but what she needed to focus on right now was making sure her planned shop expansion would get a majority vote to proceed.
The door ahead swung open, held in place by the dashing Cody Clemente. Middle-aged and married or not, every female on the island had a mini crush on the town’s chief of police, Jenna notwithstanding. He smiled as she approached, white teeth practically glowing against his deeply tanned skin.
She returned his smile. “Evening, Chief. How are the girls?”
“Begging for you to come and babysit again already. Used to be, I took the wife out to enjoy some time away. Now we go to keep the kids happy.”
Jenna laughed. “Call me anytime, I’ll be there.”
“You know we will.” He grinned. “Saw you’re on the agenda tonight. This for your new café?”
“Yeah, I need them to approve my food service license. Hoping for minimal naysayer grenades to be tossed, though, since the planning commission already gave their blessing.”
His smile widened. It was no secret Tyson Braddock, the town’s greenest commissioner, tended to question all tourism projects, always angling to get the biggest bang for the town’s buck. She’d done her best to be prepared for his standard budgetary inquisition, but would it be enough?
Cody seemed to read her mind. “You’ll be fine. Just remember—majority rules.”
Jenna hoped it’d be that easy. Unfortunately, Tyson was like a Florida gator—once he sank his teeth into someone on the agenda, he didn’t easily let go. Hopefully, he had his sights set on some other unlucky soul tonight.
She moved on autopilot past the mini palm tree replica in the lobby and down the short, tiled hall toward the main meeting room, her thoughts reverting to the facts and figures she’d compiled to make her case. A Piece of Paradise was a local business. It’d been around for over a decade, and it was operating in the black. This new expansion could offer the island—
She whirled at the deep timbre resonating in the space behind her, and was greeted by a view that would never get old: sparkling blue eyes, sun-kissed butterscotch skin, and sandy-blond hair styled in a wavy, surfer kind of way. Add in the white tee peeking out from beneath a pale button-down shirt, fraying cargo shorts, and leather sandals, and it was the perfect combination for the owner of the town’s water sports shop, Zachary Taylor.
Yep, Zach was another of Paradise Key’s resident hotties, just ask any female in town with a pulse. Too bad he’d been her younger brother’s best friend since kindergarten, which made him practically family. It also meant he’d heard far too much of her dirty laundry aired over the years to ever consider as dating material. Aaron just wasn’t so good with keeping things on the down low.
Like, at all.
“Please don’t tell me you had nothing better to do than come sit through a town hall meeting,” she teased.
“Trust me, this is the last place I want be on a nice night like tonight.” His smile faded as he followed her into the second row of seats. “But if they don’t hurry up and fix that sinkhole in front of my shop, I’m gonna be in a world of hurt.”
They lowered onto adjacent metal folding chairs, and Zach’s clean, sandalwood scent momentarily scattered her thoughts. The guy always smelled amazing. Before she could swoon too much, the cool metal at the back of her knees brought with it some much-needed clarity.
“Sinkhole? When did that happen?”
“Friday night. Took out half the road. The sewer pipe broke, I guess. Washed the ground clean out from under the pavement.”
Like her, Zach lived in an apartment over his shop. He was lucky the sinkhole had formed in the street, and not under his building. Or under the sidewalk leading to his shop when customers were coming and going.
“That’s terrible! Did anyone get hurt?” When he shook his head, Jenna tipped hers to one side. “Wait…it happened Friday? How did I not hear about this before now?”
“It’s okay.” He offered her a sympathetic smile. “You’ve, uh, had a lot going on.”
Jenna swallowed hard and dug her fingernails into each palm. She’d vowed not to cry in public anymore this week, and she’d be darned if she was going to let the waterworks start back up now in front of Zach. Though, to be fair, he’d probably seen her cry more times over the years than most people.
“Anyway, with those obnoxious orange and white barricades everywhere, customers aren’t coming near my shop. To top it all off, my shower backed up this morning. I called the sewer department for an update, and they said they couldn’t do anything until the commission gave them approval to proceed with an emergency repair.” He shook his head. “What’s there to approve? It’s the sewer, for crying out loud. You can’t not fix it.”
“Huh, guess it’s a good thing you’ve got plenty of paddles at your shop. You know, in case it turns into a regular creek and all.”
Zach arched one brow. “You making jokes about my sewer situation?”
“Only you, Jenna.”
“Hey, just trying to lighten the mood. Goodness knows you’ve done the same for me a time or twenty.”
“Fair enough.” He tipped his head toward the commissioner’s table. “I’m just hoping these bozos will step things up and help get this repair ball rolling tonight.”
“Hopefully so. Though, I’m thinking your odds might be better if you don’t actually call them bozos.”
Her advice evoked a chuckle, the sound warm and inviting, and she settled back in her seat. Around them, the room began to fill with the town’s usual motley assortment of attendees: their mayor and vice-mayor, business owners there to keep a watchful eye on their precious slice of the world, and a smattering of nosy locals, mostly retired and all unrepentantly vocal and fond of penny-pinching.
As the commissioners filed in, took their seats, and called the meeting to order, an unexpected wave of melancholy washed over Jenna. Usually, she’d leave this meeting and call or text Lily, scrutinizing the small-town soap opera. But who would she do that with tonight? Aaron and his wife would be busy getting their twins ready for bed, and Grams would already be in bed. Maybe she would meet up with Evie and the others later, since they were still in town for the funeral.
When do we get to meet him already?
Or maybe not. Again, she wanted to kick herself over indulging the others with that stupid lie.
Zach stood, the unexpected movement bringing her back to the here and now. He gave his name and address, then half asked, half demanded they hurry up and approve the sewer and road repairs in front of his shop. In typical Paradise Key style, however, what should have been a cut-and-dry answer by Commission President Harold Merzdorf turned into a rambling discourse on careful bidder selection and potential contractor scheduling conflicts.
“Why put it out to bid?” Zach asked. “Can’t we just get the crews from Levy County to do the work?”
The gator at the table leaned forward, practically licking his lips at the challenge. “I’m afraid this is too extensive of a repair for Levy County’s MSD, Mr. Taylor. They have, however, offered to loan us one of their hydraulic pumps so we can avoid sewer service disruptions while we wait for the contractor to arrive. We hope to have it in place by noon tomorrow.”
“And the repairs? When do you expect to get your contractor here and started?”
Tyson Braddock shrugged. “Within the next week. Two at the most.”
“Two weeks?” Zach’s raised voice echoed off the room’s palm tree replicas. “What am I supposed to do in the meantime? Pick up my shop and move it over a few blocks?”
“Perhaps you could temporarily set up a tent on the beach. Your patrons are beachgoers, after all.”
Zach’s hand fisted at his side. “You know as well as anyone that to set up a tent, I’d have to pay for a vendor’s license.”
“A rather small sacrifice to keep your business running,” Tyson answered, leaning back in his seat. “Don’t you agree?”
Jenna frowned. What a greedy jerk. Judging by the shade of fuchsia Zach’s face was turning, he was thinking the same thing. She began to fear words far stronger than “bozo” were about to leave his mouth. That was when the proverbial light bulb flicked on inside her head.
Zach needed a storefront, and she needed a temporary fake boyfriend.
She had the extra space in her shop, and he wasn’t seeing anyone that she knew of.
Surely, they could make this work…
“And who do you suggest I make the check out to, Commiss—”
Jenna tugged on the hem of his cargo shorts. “Zach.”
His sparkling blues cut to her, a silent fury brewing just beneath the surface. “Kinda in the middle of something here,” he muttered.
“Let it go,” she whispered. “I have an idea.”
Zachary Taylor stared down at his best friend’s sister in disbelief. Let it go? This was his livelihood on the line, and she wanted him to give up, just like that? No repairs so far had meant no income, and bills didn’t pay themselves. He needed sales, and he needed them now.
Had it been anyone other than Jenna, he’d have ignored her request and kept on going. But one glance at those pleading green eyes of hers, and he did what he always did when she stared at him like that.
Of course, he’d never admit that aloud. Thankfully, it’d been years since she’d given him a look like that. Jenna, Aaron, and Zach had been like the Three Musketeers back in the day. All for one, and one for all. Then high school happened for Jenna, and things between them…changed. She went off with her friends, leaving him and Aaron behind, both confused and resentful. In fact, unbeknownst to her, they’d even started a “We Hate JD” club, and they would throw darts at her picture on the board his dad kept in their garage.
That all ended the day Zach overheard her pick a fight with an upperclassman who was considering hijacking their bikes outside the town’s arcade. Tony Paxton—the guy was broad as a bus and about as smart as one. But Jenna stood her ground, said if he messed with their bikes he was as good as messing with her, too. Rumor had it, she had some dirt on him that would have jeopardized his spot on the football team.
Needless to say, Tony backed off, and when Zach told Aaron what he’d overheard, the “We Hate JD” club promptly disbanded. Apparently, she still cared; she just had a funny way of showing it. Or rather, doing everything she could not to show it. But that was years ago. They were just kids then. Clueless kids. Still, she’d re-earned their respect that day, and rekindled the crush Zach had struggled with up until she’d ditched them. A crush he’d never pursued.
Nothing good could come from dating his best friend’s sister, especially if things went south. And with both his and her luck with dating, the odds of that were pretty high. It was best to keep things purely platonic. In the years since high school, friendships had been healed and a new normal formed. Though, if this “better idea” of hers had only been a ruse to get him to sit down, the friend zone was about to get strained.
With a low growl, Zach took his seat. Harold Merzdorf cleared his throat and thanked Zach for sharing his concerns. Zach gave him and his bad toupee a nod, mentally flipped them all the bird, and leaned toward Jenna.
“This better be good.”
“It is, I promise. A little unconventional maybe, but it’ll keep your business open while all this is going on.”
Unconventional? Hopefully, her solution was better than Braddock’s. The guy had some nerve, suggesting Zach stake a tent on the beach. Heck, the guy probably hadn’t set foot on one of their beaches since before he came back from Harvard. Might ruin his Giacomettis…
Zach drew in a calming breath, and Jenna’s sunshine and something sweet but florally fragrance helped take his mind off designer shoes and the jerk who wore them. Jenna was good people—she wouldn’t lead him astray. Besides, the woman was sharp as a whip, always had been. Bernice had done all right with the little boutique on 2nd Street, but not until she’d handed it down to Jenna did the place begin to thrive…which meant if she had an idea that could help his business, he’d be wise to listen.
“I hope so, or it’ll be your shop I’m camping out in when I don’t have money to pay my rent.”
Mischief lit her eyes. “What, are you a mind reader now, too?”
Mind reader? Oh no, what had he just gotten himself into? Zach peered back toward the commissioner’s table. Was it too late to resurrect their discussion? Or would cornering Tyson Braddock outside after the meeting be a better option?
Commissioner Merzdorf’s voice cut through his thoughts, announcing Jenna’s food service license request. Her demeanor shifted as she stood, that natural confidence of hers waning to something much more hesitant. Even so, she kept her chin up as she fielded questions from the board about her proposed café expansion. The woman had brought her “A” game tonight, backing up each answer with marketing research she’d done on similar-sized shops in comparable communities serving baked goods and coffee-shop-style drinks.
“Baked goods,” Tyson grumbled. “As if we didn’t have enough sweets on this island as it was. And just how do you expect to run two shops and bake to replenish your café’s shelves each day, Miss Davis?”
“Actually, Commissioner, my grandmother volunteered to do the baking. She misses working at the boutique and is committed to making this expansion a success. She’s even promised to stock caramel pecan sticky buns. Rumor has it, they’re your family’s favorite.”
Oh, she was good. Zach watched with amusement as the politician’s face reddened. Okay, so maybe having to come here on a night when he’d rather be paddle-boarding wasn’t so bad after all.
“Be that as it may, my family alone can’t keep your business operating in the black. In fact, I’m not entirely certain our town can support two such businesses.”
Jenna’s lips drew into a tight smile. A new shop had opened the prior summer on the island’s east side, a franchise that specialized in fancy coffees and pre-packaged pastries. The tourists seemed to like the place well enough, if its perpetually full parking spaces were any indication. But in the off-season, locals had stayed to the western side of the island, choosing to support hometown eateries instead. If Bernice started baking again, Zach had no doubt Jenna’s shop would do just fine through the off-season. Most of the commissioners in the discussion that followed agreed. When the vote was finally taken, it passed four votes to one. Braddock, of course, had been the one.
“This isn’t over,” Tyson muttered to Jenna as he passed by after the meeting.
It was all Zach could do not to deck the bastard. Jenna, on the other hand, just shrugged it off.
“He hates getting overruled.”
Zach snorted. “Don’t we all?”
He held the door open for her and watched as the warm evening breeze ruffled her auburn waves. She pushed them aside absentmindedly and angled for his truck parked a short distance away. Zach followed, anxious to hear this grand idea of hers and how it was supposed to keep his business running while the town found someone to repair his road. When she still hadn’t spoken by the time they reached his Silverado, his patience had run its course.
“You gonna spill about this better idea of yours, or keep me guessing all night?”
She glanced up, the confidence she’d wielded inside now reduced to a sheepish grin.
“Just…keep an open mind, okay?”
“Sure. Lay it on me already.”
She arched a brow, and he swallowed hard. Okay, so maybe that hadn’t been the smartest thing to say as it took his mind down an entirely different path. A very off-limits, never-going-to-happen path.
“All right, so business is down because customers can’t get to your shop. Yes?”
“And we have no idea when the sewer and road will be repaired.”
He sighed. “Yes. You heard them in there, same as me.”
“I did. I also have extra space in my shop now that the wall between it and the old smoothie shop has been removed.”
“Well, I haven’t started renovations for the plumbing and appliances yet, was waiting on the board to approve my license. Which means I have plenty of room for a friend in need to, oh, I don’t know, maybe temporarily set up shop until his road is restored.”
Zach felt his jaw fall slack. She was going to delay her shop expansion…for him?
“Wow, Jenna. I…don’t know what to say.”
“Just say yes.”
A prime location for his shop? Heck, he’d get more exposure in her place than he ever got over on D Street. But prime real estate always came at a price.
“How much you gonna charge me for rent?”
Free? Did such a thing even exist anymore? Zach counted his lucky stars for having a best friend whose sister had a heart of gold. Unable to contain himself, he reached out and pulled her into a bear hug. “You’re the best, you know that?”
He drew in a deep breath, savoring the moment as her sweet sunshine scent wrapped around his senses. All too soon, though, she squirmed in his arms.
“Although, I do have one tiny little favor to ask for in return.”
Always a catch. Darn it, he should have known better. He released her and stepped back with a frown. “What favor?”
“Drop the scowl; it’s no big deal. Should be totally painless. Mostly.”
“Mostly? What, you have a gator in your grandmother’s pool again?”
She laughed. “No, no, nothing like that. At least, I don’t think it’ll be nearly so difficult.”
“Man, I hope not. It took all day to corral that beast. Still don’t know how it got past her fence.”
“Yeah, no gator this time.” Jenna hugged her midsection. “Though, this favor might take a little longer than that one.”
She fell silent, and curiosity began to kill the cat. It wasn’t like her to be anything but forthcoming. Zach leaned in closer.
“You in some kind of trouble, Jenna? Someone bullying you? Please tell me there isn’t another one because so help me, if there is, I will find the guy and string him up by his—”
“No!” She reached out to put a hand on his bicep, then withdrew with a sigh. “That’s not the kind of pickle I’m in.”
He missed her touch as soon as it was gone. Yeah, probably for the best they didn’t spend much time together alone now that they were all grown up. It was much easier to keep his imagination in check when there was a city block between them. He silently reaffirmed his age-old vow to keep his distance then asked, “So what kind of pickle are you in?”
She drew in a deep breath, released it slowly, then unleashed the full power of those beautiful green eyes on him.
“I need a pretend boyfriend for the next week or two.”
End of Excerpt