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Fun and games. No strings attached.
That had been her and Nate’s mentality all those years ago. Faulty though it might have been.
Heart weighed down by sadness, Sofía Vargas stared across the street at the peeling paint and storm-damaged sign indicating Paradise Key Resort, once a significant part of her home away from home. She gripped her JavaStop paper coffee cup as memories sluiced over her like one of the daily summer rain showers they dealt with along this part of the Florida Gulf Coast.
Ay, the folly of youth and immaturity.
One thing life had taught her so far was that the fun and games eventually came to an abrupt halt. Oftentimes without any notice or warning.
Out of habit, she made a quick sign of the cross, pressing a kiss to her fingertips at the end and offering up a prayer for sweet Lily. Gone far too soon, leaving a gaping hole in their Fabulous Five-some.
Dios mío, none of the girls had ever thought they’d reunite in their old stomping grounds for one of their own funerals. Not this soon in life anyway.
Tears threatening again, Sofía sucked in a breath and stepped into the road to cross 2nd Street, unable to resist the resort’s pull.
No strings attached.
Those words haunted her. Or more like mocked her.
She had tossed them out without thinking when she and Nate had hooked up the summer before their junior year of high school. Years later, she realized it had been a defense mechanism on her part. Though a flawed one. Because despite her claim to the contrary and the miles that had separated them over the years, she’d never quite been able to cut all the threads that bound her to him.
Not that she’d admit it to anyone. Not even the girls.
A chica had to keep a secret or two buried. Locked away until they shriveled up and died. Hopefully.
Staring at the pale peach stucco facade of the resort’s main building, its grand arched entrance that had once invitingly beckoned the rich and on-the-cusp-of famous guests, now looking forlorn and lost, Sofía felt herself falling back into the bittersweet memories of her adolescence.
Oh, the naivety of first love. The pain of her first heartbreak, made worse by the swift kick of harsh reality.
Those two fun-filled, intense summers with Nate, the dalliances they’d shared in the years after…they all came crashing down on her as if the calm waters of the Gulf of Mexico had suddenly risen in a tidal wave of love, loss, and immature expectations.
The dilapidated resort had once been a symbol of deep ties and hopeful possibilities. Coming to Paradise Key each summer to stay with Tía Milagros was how Sofía had met her closest friends. Back then, they’d been the power of five. Today, because of Lily’s car accident, they were down to a forlorn four.
Sofía’s chest ached with the bitter loss that bound her, Evie, Lauren, and Jenna. A bond none of the girls wanted.
Getting the call about Lily’s death last week had knocked Sofía to her knees. Just days earlier, the two of them had spoken about Sofía coming up from Key West as soon as business slowed down. Why had she waited so long to visit Paradise Key?
Bueno, she knew why.
To avoid reminders of Nate.
Learning about Lily’s accident had been a horrific, life-changing moment. One that had dragged Sofía back to this sleepy beachside town that had been both her refuge and the catalyst for the fire that fueled her professional drive. Especially when others had expected, even predicted, her failure.
She stepped onto the cracked sidewalk, her eyes lingering on the blue and white for-sale sign hammered into the ground in the barren flowerbed. The large block lettering announced the date and time for the combined Historic Review Board and Local Planning Agency meeting interested parties should attend.
As luck would have it, the meeting was next week. If it could be considered lucky that she was in town for one of her best friend’s funeral.
A humid spring breeze blew Sofía’s hair into her face, and she tossed the dark tresses back. She squinted into the late afternoon sun, turning her gaze away from the resort to stare at the wooden pier extending into the Gulf waters off to the right. Tourists and locals strolled along the walkway, some stopping to take in the view. Others paused to sit on one of the wooden benches dotting the length of the pier, enjoying the crisp spring weather. Overhead, a flock of seagulls squawked their arrival. They glided through the air, crisscrossing and taking turns dive-bombing into the ocean for fish.
The familiar smells of sun, sand, and lazy surf brought a bittersweet smile to her lips as she thought of happier times. When she, Lily, Evie, Lauren, and Jenna had whiled away the hours sprawled on towels in the sand, tanning oil slathered on their skin. Bueno, except for Jenna. With her auburn hair and light skin tone, Jenna had spent more time under a beach umbrella complaining about the unfairness of DNA and envying Sofía’s Latina tan.
Ay, the fun their group had cooked up over the summers when they could all be together. Sofía had loved coming up from Miami to stay with her tía while her two younger brothers headed to Puerto Rico to spend time with their abuela. Evie and Lauren traveled down to stay at Paradise Key Resort with their families. Jenna and Lily, lucky girls, lived on Paradise Key year-round.
From the age of pigtails through high school graduation, Sofía lived for those summers with the people she’d come to think of as her Paradise Key familia, by blood or by choice. One-on-one time with her tía. Frolicking with her best girlfriends. And, near the end, during those last two summers, Nate had shown up on the scene, ordered by his father to “learn the ropes” of the family business by working in the resort office, one of Hamilton’s smaller properties. Their forbidden romance—him in management, her a summer employee—had heightened their adolescent hormones. Until…
Shaking off the hurtful memories, Sofía turned back to the for-sale sign.
Dios mío, could she pull this off? Was she crazy enough to think she could get the financial backing to actually buy this place?
While she’d been busy clawing her way up the hospitality and hotel management food chain, currently overseeing several B&Bs in Key West, the resort had been left abandoned and forlorn. Storm-damaged, barely a shadow of its once-flourishing grandeur.
This place had been her entrance into her chosen field. Working beside her tía in housekeeping, and then later moving on to a lifeguard position and shifts as waitstaff in the pool area, had given her a taste of the industry. It was what led her to major in Hospitality Administration in college. And it’d been old man Hamilton’s condescending attitude during their one private conversation that had prepared her for the roadblocks she would face throughout her career.
Maybe old man Hamilton had been right—maybe she and Nathan didn’t belong together—but that hadn’t been his decision to make.
She might have only been nineteen, but she’d had a strong enough sense of self to throw old man Hamilton’s bribe back in his face. One of her proudest life moments had come when she’d made her last student loan payment a few years ago.
A seagull landed on a corner of the for-sale sign. Taunting…maybe encouraging her. Sofía hadn’t mentioned the idea to her girlfriends yet. But when she did, she imagined Evie and Lauren, having grown up in the world of the rich and entitled, would tell her to give the old man the finger, probably even join her in doing so. Jenna, always the peacemaker, would caution her to not dwell on the past, to not let it influence her decisions today. Lily, well, hopefully she was looking down on them all, ready to be their guardian angel.
Closing her eyes, Sofía took a deep breath, then slowly released it along with the doubts she refused to let crowd in on her.
If she could pull this off…no, when she pulled this off…when she became the new owner of Paradise Key Resort, she’d attain her goal of running her own place rather than someone else’s.
As a bonus, winning the bid would be like showing the egotistical former Paradise Key Resort owner Nathan Hamilton, II, his son Nate who had hurt her more than she cared to admit, and all those naysayers who had ever blocked her path that they’d been wrong to bet against her.
Si, definitely wrong.
Reaching across with her left arm, Sofía rubbed her fingers over the poker chip tattoo on the back of her right shoulder. No doubt about it, when it came down to it, she’d bet on herself to win any day.
Nathan Hamilton, III, eased his rental car into a parking spot on the corner of 2nd and C Streets, a couple of blocks down from Paradise Key Resort.
Travel weary after the flight from New York to Gainesville, Florida, where he’d picked up the convertible and immediately started the hour-plus drive west, he heaved a disgruntled sigh.
This was the absolute last place he wanted to be right now. But when Nathan Patrick Hamilton, II, gave an order, no one, including his namesake, disobeyed.
The days of Nate’s youthful indiscretions when he’d jumped through loopholes in his father’s edicts, fixated on having fun and stretching the lines of propriety, were long gone. Hell, he’d spent most of his adult life trying to live up to his father’s vision of a “real Hamilton man.” Towing the line at work. Swallowing his complaints when his recommendations fell on deaf ears or were passed along for his father’s latest lackey to pursue. Even going so far as to get engaged to a longtime family friend when neither he nor Melanie had really wanted it. But marriage would have been the “right” merger for their two families.
The fact Melanie had seen reason, breaking off their engagement a couple of months ago, while he’d been floundering with how to stand up to their parents on their behalf, still felt like sandpaper rubbing across Nate’s skin.
A little lost, a lot pissed off—at no one and everyone all at once—he’d spent several nights swimming in a pool of whiskey, before quickly realizing that wasn’t the solution.
His father, in his infinite wisdom, had given Nate his typical pessimistic pep talk, aka ultimatum—figure out how to close a deal as simple as a marriage or risk a demotion within the company.
Not that Nate needed his father’s money; he’d already aged into his grandfather’s inheritance and could go off on his own. But why create another rift in the family? One Nate knew would only hurt his mom.
When word had gotten to them that Paradise Key Resort, once a small gem in their resort jewel box, was back on the market, his dad had banished him down here on a fact-finding mission.
Now a quick glance at his Tag Heuer told Nate he was about fifteen minutes early for his appointment with Tyson Braddock, city commissioner and chair of the town’s Local Planning Agency. They’d arranged to meet at the JavaStop across the street from the resort. Nate planned to pick the guy’s brain to find out any inside info that would help Hamilton, Inc’s bid.
After checking his side mirror to ensure he wouldn’t take out a bike rider, Nate opened the driver’s side door and slid from his car. The late spring humidity instantly wrapped him in its moist embrace. Granted, it was a far cry better than the mid-summer cloying bear hug of humidity that had locals and tourists thankful for the ocean breezes.
He clicked the auto lock, then slid the keys in his front jeans pocket as he surveyed the area. A strange sort of comfort wormed its way through his chest.
The more things changed, the more they stayed the same.
The main drag of downtown Paradise Key still welcomed visitors with brightly painted shops and beach-themed displays. On the south side of the street, toward the beach one block over, he could see the corner of 1st Street, then Dock Street with its wooden wharf, where restaurants and the town bar, Scallywags, treated patrons to ocean views and killer sunsets.
If he took the time to stroll over, the white sand would tickle his feet, and the warm water would lap against his ankles while the briny air filled his lungs. If he closed his eyes, he’d probably hear her throaty laughter on the wind. One he’d often heard in his dreams when his defenses were down.
But he wasn’t here to meander the beach or give into distracting thoughts about what—whom—he’d given up.
Instead, he headed toward the JavaStop.
At the corner of Second and Depot, he checked his phone while waiting for a van to pass the intersection. He glanced up, the breath whooshing out of him when he spotted her.
Coffee cup in hand, Sofía Vargas stood on the sidewalk in front of Paradise Key Resort.
The wind ruffled her long black hair, and she tossed it back with a jerk of her neck. Nate’s gut clenched. How many times had he seen that same gesture, paired with a cheeky grin or a sexy smirk, aimed his way?
It’d been two years since they’d been together. Two years since she told him not to contact her again. And yet, he’d know that athletic, curvy-hipped figure anywhere. His fingers itched to touch her again.
Before he realized it, Nate had crossed the street toward her. As he stepped onto the sidewalk, she spun around to leave, inadvertently running smack into him.
“Oomph,” she grunted. The lid on her coffee popped off, the contents of her cup splashing dangerously close to the rim. “Ay Dios mío, I’m so sor—”
She broke off on a gasp, her shock at seeing him telegraphed in her wide hazel eyes.
“Hello, Sofía. It’s good to see you again.”
Her sleeveless light purple sundress hit her mid-thigh, leaving her tanned shoulders and shapely legs bare. Just like he remembered, she looked sun-kissed and amazingly beautiful. Definitely a welcome sight for his sore, bloodshot eyes.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, never one to beat around the bush.
He, despite the surprise of running into her, knew better than to reveal his cards when it came to business. Especially to an ex-lover with close ties to this town. Until he’d gleaned all the info he could from Braddock, and learned whether there were other players in the mix for the resort, he was simply passing through.
“Road tripping,” he answered. “Thought I’d swing by Paradise Key, take in the sights.”
Sofía’s narrow-eyed glare told him he’d laid the schmooze on a little too thick. He’d never been able to easily pull a fast one on her.
“Fine. You caught me. There’s a property in Sarasota the family’s interested in.” True enough. If this deal fell through, he’d be headed south to the other beach town. “I had a few days to kill, so I figured what the hell.”
He lifted a shoulder, letting it fall with a lazy shrug.
Sofía mimicked his gesture. “Sure, what the hell. For old time’s sake, right?”
Whether she intended to or not, her jab hit him like a cheap shot in the gut.
For old time’s sake.
That had been his line. One he’d used over the years whenever he’d given into the urge to see her again, and had shown up on her doorstep. Or convinced her to meet him somewhere for a weekend getaway.
Until he’d told her about his father’s demand he put a ring on Melanie’s finger—a smart business move for both their families. Until Sofía hadn’t asked him not to do it.
That’s when he’d finally understood that her “no-strings-attached” edict wasn’t merely something she flippantly tossed around. She meant it. The part of herself he’d felt she held back from him for some reason would always be a roadblock between them.
His gaze slid past her shoulder to take in Paradise Key Resort, the once-flourishing property now worn and dilapidated. Tired-looking.
Kind of how he felt lately. Questioning the decisions he’d made in trying to please his father. Keeping the peace like his mom in her delicate nature preferred.
The businessman inside him recognized the property’s state of disrepair as good news. It would drive the price lower. Make his offer to take the blighted property off the city’s hands to bring it back to its old glory an even sweeter deal for the city commissioners. It’d be a bid they couldn’t refuse.
He needed this to go smoothly if he wanted his dad off his back.
More importantly, it would help him get his head back in the game.
“She’s not the same, is she?” he said.
Sofía’s brow creased in a moment of confusion before she angled her body to look back at the resort. “No, it’s kind of sad. Though inevitable, I guess, after the owners bailed on her.”
“We had some great times there, didn’t we?”
The words slipped out before he could stop them. Damned memory lane and the potholes he couldn’t manage to swerve around, even in his mind.
Sofía’s chest rose and fell on a heavy sigh. She ducked her head, her curtain of black hair draping to shield her face.
The urge to reach out and tuck her hair behind her ear, cup her cheek, lean in for a kiss, was stronger than his need to breathe. But he didn’t have the right to do that anymore.
She’d taken that away from him when she’d asked him not to contact her again.
Right after his engagement with Melanie had hit the business news ticker.
“Yeah, we did, but—” With her trademark hair toss, Sofía straightened to stare back at him. Determination sparked in the golden hazel depths of her eyes. “But that’s in the past. And it does no good to go there. Not for me anyway.”
“Always looking ahead, aren’t you? Eyes on the prize,” he answered.
When it came to her career, she’d been laser-focused since they’d started college—him at Harvard, her at the University of Florida. Their first spring break, she’d planned to spend the week working on summer internship applications. He’d had to practically drag her to Daytona Beach for a few days of fun together.
“That’s me. No rest for the weary,” she countered.
The heavy note in her voice drew Nate’s attention away from the property’s for-sale sign.
Several cars made their slow drive past them, probably tourists cruising the main drag, peering in the windows at the wares and offerings in the tiny shops and businesses. The chime of a biker’s bell tinkled a greeting, and the rider rolled by them.
But Nate’s focus stayed on Sofía and the faint circles shadowing the skin under her expressive eyes.
Despite the “back-off” vibe her stiff posture exuded, he knew her well enough to tell that something was wrong. If there was one thing he’d never been able to ignore when it came to Sofía Vargas, it was his desire to always look out for her. Put her needs before his. Even if that need was a distance he didn’t want.
“Are you doing okay?” He placed a comforting hand on her forearm. “You want my help with—”
“No! I’m good.” She took a hasty step back, and Nate let his hand fall at his side. “Look, I gotta go. I’m meeting the girls at Scallywags in a few. Good luck in Sarasota.”
She slipped past him, ready to walk out of his life. Again.
“Hey,” he called.
She turned around, one eyebrow arched in question.
“Tell Evie, Lauren, Jenna, and Lily I said hello,” Nate offered. “I hope they’re doing well.”
A pained expression passed over Sofía’s face. Her lips opened and closed as if she struggled for words. When she finally spoke, her voice was a husky whisper. “Thanks, I-I’ll pass that along.”
He watched her walk away, her shapely legs eating the distance between her and the friends who were more like family to her. For those two summers he and Sofía had shared here, he’d been a part of the Fabulous Five-some’s insider group. Beachside picnics, bike rides, and sand volleyball games.
“Nate. Hey, Nate!” Tyson Braddock’s call tugged Nate away from his remember-whens.
Across the street, Braddock stood in front of the JavaStop, right arm raised in greeting. Dressed in khaki slacks and a short-sleeved Oxford, with a pair of polished penny loafers, the guy hadn’t changed much since they’d been at Harvard together. Based on the cheek-splitting grin on his face, Braddock appeared just as eager to get on Nate’s good side, still determined to run with the “in” crowd.
Nate flicked one last glance in Sofía’s direction. By now, she’d followed the curve onto Dock Street, the flash of her light purple sundress barely visible in the distance.
With a shake of his head, Nate turned back to the JavaStop and the business at hand.
If all went well, he’d close this deal quickly and be on his way.
Thoughts of Sofía Vargas and what could have been finally relegated to the past.
Reaching Braddock, Nate held out his hand in greeting. “Thanks for meeting me this afternoon. I’m looking forward to working with you.”
The worried frown creasing Braddock’s brow clued Nate in that the situation might not be as simple as he’d thought. The commissioner’s next words confirmed it. “Actually, there’s been a development since we spoke earlier this week. Looks like there’s another party interested in bidding on the property, but I haven’t gotten all the details yet.”
End of Excerpt