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The ocean washed in and out with the same shush-shush song that Lauren Webster remembered. Shells tumbled in the surf, dancing with the waves, pooling in the eddies. Seagulls circled the shore, waiting for a chance to nab a forgotten sandwich or an unsuspecting fish. Everything in Paradise Key was exactly the same as she remembered.
Except their group of five, once as inseparable and close as braided strands of hair, now broken and scattered. And down to four.
The shock and grief hit Lauren all over again like a sucker punch. She dropped to the sand and pulled her knees to her chest, holding tight until the pain in her lungs eased enough for her to breathe again. Lily—sweet, irrepressible, optimistic Lily—gone in an instant after some lawyer too busy texting missed a red light and slammed into her Prius.
This week, Lauren had gone to the funeral and said goodbye. Right now, none of it felt real, not being here, not hearing about Lily, none of it. If this was a job, Lauren would cover the whole thing with some kind of colorful ad campaign that made the entire awful event softer, easier to take, like a pretend Hollywood moment with a sunset and a few tears.
But it was real life. And real life sucked.
Lauren got to her feet, brushed the sand off her pants, then picked up her heels and made her way up the sandy path that led to the Paradise Key Resort. Loosely named, because the place had fallen apart in the years since her family used to vacation here. But still a prime destination along the Gulf of Mexico that just needed a little physical and marketing brush up to become something big.
And to become Lauren’s saving grace with a job that was in an even more precarious position than the wind and storm-battered resort. On the plane ride here from New York, she’d had a thousand ideas for how to capitalize on Paradise Key’s tourism, but now, being back here, smack dab in the center of her past, every one of those ideas had flitted away.
She needed to get a grip. Get back on track. Quit letting her empty life distract her. Once she had secured her position at work again, and proved to her father that she was committed to the company, it would all be fine. It had to be.
At the boardwalk, Lauren rinsed the sand off her feet, then slid on the black Louboutins. The navy Anne Klein suit fit a bit looser than it used to—stress made Lauren lose her appetite, not increase it—but wearing the one-button jacket and twill pants made her feel and look more powerful and commanding. A little self-marketing before her meeting with the tourism bureau in a few minutes.
In the car, Lauren touched up her eye makeup, checked her suit for sand one more time, then headed into downtown Paradise Key to a small office on the corner of 2nd Street, in the very back of the town hall. A sign outside the door in one-inch white plastic changeable letters said Paradise Key Tourism Bureau—or sort of said that, considering the sign was missing a D, E, and B.
This did not bode well.
Lauren pushed on the door, trying not to roll her eyes when the tiny silver bell above her head let out a happy tinkle. Inside the room, two green clunky metal desks leftover from the invention of the steam engine flanked either side of the wall. A faded “Come to Paradise Key” poster hung between them, the edges curling away from the pushpins holding it against the sheetrock. The dingy green tile flickered beneath sputtering fluorescent lights. The office to the far right read Gary Higgins, with a hand-lettered sign beneath that said On Vacation.
A long, lean man had his feet propped on the desk on the right, the chair tipped back at a precarious angle. His beard fluttered with his rumbling snoring.
Lauren took a step toward the man, about to wake him, when a short heavyset woman with a pouf of carrot-orange hair came bustling out of the back room. The scent of cigarette smoke hung heavy around her, no doubt caused by the half-empty pack of Marlboros peeking from the pocket of her bright red floral dress.
“Well, what do you know. A visitor!” The woman put out a hand. “I’m Eloise Josephs, head of the tourism bureau and official greeter for the town of Paradise Key.”
“Lauren Webster.” She shook with the other woman, then nodded toward the twin desks. Rip Van Winkle had yet to stir. “Not too busy today?”
“We’re never busy, but that’s okay. I don’t know what I’d do if it was busy. With Gary on vacation this week, it’s just me and Merle here.” She nodded toward the napping man. “And half the time, Merle is, well, Merle is…busy. He’s on the town commission, too. Doesn’t get much time to sleep, what with all he gives to the town of Paradise Key. I try to make him lunch every day. He hasn’t been eating right since his wife died, don’t you know, and we’re a family here, that’s what we always say, so I—”
“I work for a marketing firm in New York City,” Lauren cut in before Eloise started the next half of her verbal saga. “And I wanted to talk to you and the town commissioners about a marketing campaign for Paradise Key. Help put this little town on the map.”
“Well, honey, it is on the map. Right there.” Eloise pointed at a map of Florida that hung above one of the desks. A bright yellow pushpin had been shoved in the general area of Paradise Key. “I don’t know what some fancy New York firm could do for us that we haven’t done for ourselves.”
“Tourism dollars for Paradise Key are down thirty percent over the last ten years. That’s a sizeable drop. By engaging in a marketing campaign—”
“Don’t buy anything she’s selling, Eloise. Lauren here can talk the pope into a bad decision faster than he can say bless you.”
Lauren stilled at the deep voice behind her. It couldn’t be. Not after all these years. He’d said he was leaving town, off to become some hot-shot banker. Leaving town. Leaving her. Leaving them.
She did a slow pivot, and there he was. Carter Malone. Six feet of man and mistake. “Carter?”
“Hello, Lauren.” He gave her the grin that had once melted her heart and made her believe in the impossible. “Small world to see you back here.”
Holy hell, he looked good. He’d grown taller, broader and a lot more muscular. He had on faded jeans and a pale green button-down shirt open at the collar. His dark hair swooped across his brow, a little long and almost hiding his coffee-colored eyes. She swallowed back her surprise, and affected a nonchalant air. “I could say the same for you.”
Eloise hurried into the space between them, like a mother hen separating her warring chicks. “Do you two kids want some snickerdoodles? I made them for Merle, but he said he can’t eat too many. Gives him indigestion, poor thing. And he forgot his Tums again. I keep meaning to run down to the CVS and buy him—”
“No thank you.”
“We’d love some,” Carter said at the same time, overriding Lauren’s words. “Two snickerdoodles and a cup of coffee between two old friends. We can sit down and catch up.”
Eloise clapped her hands, and hurried off to the back room again. Merle kept right on snoring.
“Since when have we been friends, Carter?” Lauren said.
“Since we’re eating Eloise’s cookies.” He leaned closer to Lauren and lowered his voice. “Eloise’s cookies are world famous. She must really like you to offer you some. Oh, wait, no she doesn’t, because she doesn’t like strangers who come in and try to fancify our little town with swanky New York ad campaigns. So I think the cookies were actually meant for me. Me, she does like. Because I’m nice.”
Lauren parked a fist on her hip. “For one, I’m not trying to fancify anything. I’m just here to help Paradise Key become all it can be.”
He scoffed. “I know you, Lauren. Better than you think. So don’t try to sell me like I’m some hapless teenage boy looking for the right cologne to make some girl in Algebra faint at my feet.”
The mention of the ad campaign she’d directed two years ago took her by surprise. Was it just a coincidence, or had Carter followed her career? “How do you know about that?”
“It’s on your LinkedIn profile.”
“Have you been keeping tabs on me?”
“Nope. Just doing my due diligence. Whenever there’s a shark rumored to be in the waters around here, I make sure to check it out.”
Lauren bristled. She was far from a shark. She was here to help the town, not hurt it. And, well yes, help her career, too, but not for some money-hungry reason. For a second, she’d thought Carter still cared. She’d been wrong. Good thing, because she didn’t care about him anymore. Not at all. “Since when are you the Paradise Key protector?”
“Since my father asked me to be.”
A shadow crossed his face. Lauren opened her mouth to ask what he’d meant, when Eloise came hurrying back with her impeccable timing and a tin of cookies. “Here you go. You kids help yourself to some coffee. There’s a little sitting area out back that me and Merle set up for when things are slow. You’re welcome to take a load off for a few minutes and just enjoy the sun.” Eloise patted Carter’s cheek. “I know you’ll show this girl some Paradise Key hospitality. Carter here is my advisor. Sort of the Hand of the King, if you watch Game of Thrones. Do you? Merle and I love it, though we weren’t too happy with what that terrible Cersei did last season.”
As Eloise prattled on and on, comparing a town with a population of less than a thousand with fictional medieval kingdoms, Lauren debated staying put and trying to sway Eloise, but the older woman seemed blissfully unaware that Paradise Key had hit a tourism hiccup. Merle had yet to wake from his hibernation, which left—
Carter sat back in the Adirondack chair. He propped his feet on the wooden crate that served as an ottoman, in the “sitting area” that Eloise and Merle had carved out of the few feet between the back of the town hall and the dumpster. The tin of snickerdoodles sat on one arm of his chair, a Styrofoam cup of crappy coffee on the other.
And Lauren Webster standing eight feet away, pacing the small area like a panther waiting for a gazelle to come by. The Lauren he remembered had been lighthearted, fun, as ready to dash into the ocean as she was to kiss him under the boardwalk. This Lauren—this buttoned-up, stressed, clipped-tone woman—he didn’t know. When Jenna had mentioned the other day that Lauren was coming to town for the funeral, Carter had looked her up. Out of curiosity. Nothing more.
He’d expected Lauren would have settled down in some suburb with an accountant or something. She’d been so adamant about not wanting to work for her father when he knew her that it took Carter completely by surprise to see her listed as one of the “growing stars” at her father’s marketing agency in New York.
The woman he had met years ago had been quiet and intelligent, but with a spirit that was straining against the structure of her life. When she’d shrugged off her father’s rules for a few months that summer, she’d become someone he couldn’t resist. Fun, bright, daring.
Then she’d gone to work with her father, and the career he saw had been successful—but built on bold marketing campaigns that took her clients from tiny to blockbuster. She was talented, that was for sure, but also known for creating out-of-the-box ideas that grabbed attention. He had no doubt that was the same kind of thing she planned for Paradise Key. She’d do some crazy off-the-wall advertising painting little Paradise Key as the spring break party destination—a technique he’d seen with the neighboring towns, and with the New England towns Lauren’s firm had worked with over the years. Yes, the campaigns had brought in revenue, but also a higher crime rate that drove out the residents and left the town almost vacant in the off season.
That was the very thing he was helping the tourism board avoid. So that meant he didn’t need to help her at all. He was just there for the cookies anyway.
“Are you in charge of the tourism bureau?” she asked.
“Nope.” He pulled out the fattest, most cinnamony snickerdoodle in the bunch. Jackpot.
“A member of it?”
“Not officially.” Eloise, however, trusted Carter’s judgment, and often consulted with him. They’d started a charity project together a couple of years ago, and he’d been a de facto member of the tourism board ever since. Eloise had said more than once she liked that Carter’s vision for Paradise Key matched her own.
Lauren paced some more, her brows knitted and her lips pursed. Tense Lauren needed the cookie sugar rush more than he did, but he wasn’t inclined to share right now.
“Then why would I have to talk to you at all to get a marketing plan approved?”
He gave her a grin. “Because Eloise loves me. She and my father go way back, and she trusts my opinion when it comes to the town.”
Lauren rolled her eyes. “That’s not how a town is run. Or a tourism bureau.”
“Maybe not.” Carter took a bite of a snickerdoodle, then waved the cookie at Lauren. “You should have one of these. They’re amazing.”
“I’m not here for cookies, Carter. I’m here for business. This town needs to take advantage of the tourism dollars that flood Florida. The numbers are up three percent every year. In Broward County alone, tourists spent ten billion dollars. That’s billion with a B. Paradise Key should take its part of that giant pie. Kickstart things around here.”
“Why the hell would we want a kickstart?” Carter asked. “And why do you care what some teeny tiny town does for its marketing? Hell, you could walk into any restaurant in New York City and come out with a bigger advertising budget than we’d have in five years.”
“True.” She paused, clearly weighing her words before she spoke. “This would be a very small project, not exactly the kind McNally and Webster normally take on, but it’s a start. An entry into the Florida market, which we have not worked with before.”
Something didn’t ring true with Lauren’s answer, but Carter couldn’t pinpoint it. Either way, he didn’t want some big-city marketing agency putting their stamp on Paradise Key. “We’re happy being a sleepy little town,” he said. “One of those great unknowns.”
“We? Since when are you part of the we? Last time I talked to you, all you wanted to do was get out of this town.”
“I changed my mind.” A hell of a lot more had kept him rooted to Paradise Key, but he didn’t tell Lauren that. The days when she was his closest friend and the woman he loved had ended years ago. Albeit, at his choice. At the time, he’d thought he was doing the right thing for his life.
Lauren looked at the watch on her left wrist. No ring adorned her finger. Not that Carter cared. Well, maybe he did. A little.
“Since when are you the career-driven girl?” he said. “Last I remember, you were going to drop out of school and live here.”
“That was a foolish dream by a teenage girl who believed the lies her boyfriend told her.” Lauren’s face held less emotion than her words. “We all make promises we can’t keep when we’re young and stupid.”
Touché. He couldn’t blame her for the dig. After all, he had broken her heart. “I guess we’ve both changed since that summer.”
“We’ve spent enough time out here,” she said. “I’ll go in, tell Eloise I had a bunch of cookies, and then get her to sit down and talk about what my agency can do for the town. If it’s at all possible, I’ll get Merle Van Winkle there to come out of his coma and join in the conversation.”
“You can’t.” He waved another cookie at her. “You haven’t tried the cookies yet.”
She rolled her eyes again. “I’m not eating the damned cookies.”
“They’re really good.” He took a bite. Another. “Better than my mom’s, and that’s saying something. Remember her chocolate chip cookies?”
“Your mom made some incredible cookies.” Lauren stopped pacing, and her gaze lit on him for a moment. “I remember that time she packed a picnic lunch for us. We took it down to the beach and—”
He knew why she’d ended the sentence. Because what came after that afternoon on the beach had changed everything between them. Carter and Lauren had gone from friends to lovers—not very good lovers, considering it had been the first time for them both—and their vacation romance suddenly got very, very real. And very, very serious. At least on Lauren’s end. She’d begun to talk about leaving home and staying with him in Paradise Key. Ditching the college and the career and life her father had laid out for her practically since birth. Carter had been eighteen and scared as hell of any kind of binding tie. So he’d chosen what he thought would make him happy.
He’d been wrong.
For a while, Carter had everything he thought he wanted. A corner office and a promise of a promotion to CFO. A Mercedes. A penthouse apartment in Chicago. A fiancée who was as driven and serious about her career as he was. He was, as they put it, living the dream. Then he’d come home to Paradise Key to take care of his father. It’d made him realize his priorities had been backward for a long, long time.
The fiancée had stayed a week, then said she couldn’t be with a man who thought like a small town. The job went to someone else who was willing to put in the hours and sacrifice the weekends. The apartment, furniture, and life ended up with the fiancée and her new husband. And Carter had stayed here, working in his father’s store, settling into this town, and finally seeing what was most important.
It wasn’t apartments or cars or titles. It was family and roots. The same things he had once run from, but now embraced with the maturity of someone who nearly lost it all. Seeing Lauren again made him think of that summer, of how she’d told him that she’d never felt at home until she’d come to Paradise Key. Was that woman still in there?
Carter pushed out of the chair and held the cookie up. She remained stony, still. “Take a bite, Lauren. Just one.”
“I need to—”
He’d seen a flicker of the Lauren he remembered when she talked about the picnic. The Lauren he’d never forgotten. The Lauren he missed, more than he had realized until she popped back into his life. He searched her green eyes, waiting for the glint of a tease, the hint of desire. The playfulness that had kept him captivated that summer. Nothing. Just a cold flatness. “What happened to you?”
She blinked. “What do you mean, what happened to me? Nothing.”
“You used to be fun. Spontaneous. Daring. Now you’re all suited up and ready to go to war with a tourism bureau made up of a couple of retirees who spend their days knitting and napping.”
“I’m doing my job, Carter.”
“Killing two birds with one stone? Making the trip a tax write-off maybe?” What was in it for her? What could Paradise Key possibly have that Lauren wanted so badly?
“What do you care?”
“I care because one of your friends died, and you haven’t once brought it up or wondered if I knew. You weren’t the only one who was shocked at Lily’s death, you know.”
Tears welled in her eyes, and the icy cold dropped from her gaze. Damn. He’d gone too far. Pushed her too much. Taken his frustration and disappointment out on her instead of telling her what was really bothering him. “Lauren, I’m sorry. I—”
“I’ll come back and talk to Eloise another time.” Lauren fished her car keys out of her purse. “I didn’t come back here to do this dance with you again.”
“Then why did you come here?” He took a step closer. “The real reason.”
“That, Carter, is no longer any of your business.” Lauren disappeared through the back door, leaving him alone with a whole lot of questions and a handful of snickerdoodles.
End of Excerpt