Best Beach Ever Excerpt
Nicole Grant Giraldi stood in front of a far-too-full-length mirror that hung on a wall of the too-small cottage where she, her husband special agent Joe Giraldi, and their twin daughters currently lived. It exposed two primary reasons women were not designed to give birth at forty-seven; lack of elasticity and surplus gravity. She closed one eye and shifted slightly, but the expanse of flesh did not become easier to contemplate.
Despite all of her fears and doubts, the body she was staring at had performed admirably. It had adapted and stretched to accommodate Sofia and Gemma. Against great odds, it had carried them full term, propelled them into the world nine months ago, and then provided sustenance. What it had not done was snap back into anything that resembled its previous shape.
Her eyes slid away. She forced them back. It was time to accept reality. Her breasts hung lower than seemed anatomically possible. Blue veins streaked across them no doubt to match the ones that now crisscrossed the legs she’d once been proud of. Stretch marks cut across the stomach that jiggled as she turned. Although she knew it was a mistake, she looked at her rear end, which had grown wider and had somehow been injected with cottage cheese. Most likely while she’d been sleeping. Or confined to bed-rest.
“Are you ready?” Joe called.
She sighed and turned her back on the mirror as she wriggled into a jogging bra, slipped her arms into a T-shirt, then began to pull the too-tight lycra up over her thighs. “Almost!”
“I’m going to put the girls in the stroller. We’ll be outside.”
Nikki tied her hair back into a low ponytail, donned a lightweight running jacket and laced up her shoes. Careful not to look at herself again, she left the bedroom and made it through the tiny cottage in a matter of seconds.
It was the second day of January. On the west coast of central Florida, that meant a vivid blue sky, butter yellow sun, and a cool salt breeze. She breathed in the crisp air as she stepped onto the concrete path that bisected the Sunshine Hotel property and nearly stumbled at the sight of Joe and the girls waiting for her.
Were they really all hers?
Tamping down a swell of emotion, she moved toward the stroller taking in the pink and white knit hats neatly tied beneath their chins and the streaks of sunscreen slathered over their cheeks. Sofia had her father’s dark hair, sparkling brown-black eyes, and sunny temperament while Gemma was auburn haired and green eyed like Nikki. Where Gemma’s oversized lungs and the will to use them had come from, was still under debate.
“All present, recently diapered, and accounted for. Requesting permission to move out.” Joe shot her a wink and saluted smartly.
Though he was closing in on fifty, Joe remained broad shouldered and hard bodied with a chiseled face and piercing dark eyes that too often saw right through her; a skill she blamed on his FBI training. They’d met when he’d used her to help him catch her younger brother Malcolm Dyer, whose three hundred million dollar Ponzi scheme had left Nikki and then-strangers Madeline Singer and Avery Lawford with nothing but shared ownership of Bella Flora, a 1920s Mediterranean revival mansion at the south end of the beach.
She saluted back and fell into step beside him. A few doors down they passed the two- bedroom cottage that Madeline Singer, her daughter Kyra and grandson Dustin had just moved into.
“It’ll be great having Maddie here, but it’s so strange to think of someone else living in Bella Flora,” Nikki said thinking of the house they’d brought back from the brink of ruin and that had done the same for them. After they’d first renovated Bella Flora Dustin’s famous father, mega-movie star Daniel Deranian, had bought it for Dustin and Kyra. It had become home to all of them when they’d needed one most, but Kyra had been forced to rent it out.
“Yeah,” Joe agreed as they wheeled passed Bitsy Baynard’s one bedroom, which the former heiress had taken in lieu of repayment for the money she’d put into their now defunct TV show. “When is Bitsy coming back?”
“I don’t know. She said she was going to stay in Palm Beach until she found someone who knew something about where Bertie is hiding.” Nikki grimaced. In her former life as an A-list matchmaker, Nikki had brought Bitsy, heiress to a timber fortune, and her husband together and had counted them as one of her biggest successes. Right up until last January when Bertie disappeared with Bitsy’s fortune and an exotic dancer who was pregnant with his child.
When the walkway split they wheeled the stroller toward the low slung main building, a mid-century gem that they’d renovated for what they’d hoped would be a new season of their TV show, Do Over. The sound of voices and the scrape of furniture reached them from the new rooftop deck, where tables and chairs were being set up. The pool area was quiet. The lifeguard would take his place on the retro lifeguard stand at noon when temperatures had risen and the rooftop grille started cranking out hot dogs and hamburgers.
By the time they wheeled through the opening in the low pink wall and onto the beach, Nikki was feeling slightly winded. Joe was not. Despite the weak morning sun and the breeze off the gulf, he pulled off his T-shirt and tucked one end into the waistband of his running shorts. His chest and abs were hard, his arms and legs muscled. Dark hair smattered with gray dusted his chest and arrowed downward. She considered his body with an unhealthy mixture of admiration and jealousy. And a devout wish that men carried the babies in our species.
“You know we don’t have to run,” he said when they reached the hard packed sand near the water’s edge. “It’s a gorgeous day just to be outside.”
“Definitely gorgeous,” she agreed admiring the dip and dance of sunlight on the slightly choppy water’s surface. A windsurfer skimmed by as she began to stretch, his brightly colored sail bulging with wind. “But I know you’re ready for a run.” She had to hold onto his shoulder as she reached back to grab her foot and stretch her quads. “And so am I.”
“All right.” When she’d finished stretching, he flashed her a smile and opened his arms wide, leaving their direction up to her. “Lead the way.”
To their right lay the historic Don CeSar Hotel and the northern half of St. Petersburg Beach. In the other direction… she shrugged as if it didn’t matter, but she could not deny the tug she felt. Without a word she pivoted left and broke into a slow jog, heading toward the southern tip of Pass-a-Grille. And Bella Flora.
Joe turned the stroller and fell in beside her. For a few heady minutes she simply gave herself up to the fresh air, the wash of water on and off the sand, and the caw of gulls wheeling through the sky. But it wasn’t long before her breathing grew uneven and her strides became shorter. She flushed with embarrassment when she realized that he had checked his stride to match hers. Her chin went up and she picked up her pace. She’d recently weaned the girls to formula and while nursing had helped her drop weight, she was going to have to do more than a crawl if she ever hoped to get her body back. “You worry about yourself and the girls,” she snapped careful not to huff or puff. “I’ll be fine.”
“Okay,” he said easily. “You’re the boss.” His movements remained fluid, but she could still feel him holding back. “There’s no shame in taking it easy, Nik. And walking is exercise too. A walk could be nice.”
“Right.” Surely that wasn’t her breathing that sounded so…labored. Or her legs that had turned into lead weights. She pinned a smile on her lips and focused her eyes down the beach. She’d run this distance a thousand times. There was no reason she couldn’t do it now. She would do it now. And if she felt a little uncomfortable, well no one had ever died from discomfort. Otherwise she would have expired early in her pregnancy. She picked up her pace another notch and ignored Joe’s look of concern. She was not going to whine or complain and she most definitely wasn’t going to walk. Breathing was overrated. And it was nothing compared to pride.
Shortly before her life imploded, Madeline Singer had decided to refurbish it slightly. Her nest had emptied and she’d hit the big five-oh. The time seemed right to take down a few metaphorical walls. Raise a few ceilings. Open things up.
What she’d envisioned as a minor renovation turned into a total gut job when her husband lost everything in Malcolm Dyer’s Ponzi scheme. The life she’d only planned to tweak got demo’d; blown to bits before her eyes.
There were casualties. Somehow she managed to drag her family clear of the rubble. Ultimately, those who were still standing constructed a new life; one that bore almost no resemblance to the original. Not exactly a ‘do over,’ but a chance to do and be more.
Today was January second. The first useable day of a brand new year and once again her life was under construction. Yesterday she, her daughter Kyra and her four-year-old grandson Dustin and Dustin’s new puppy Max, had moved out of Bella Flora into the newly renovated two bedroom cottage she stood in now. Soon Kyra and Dustin would go to Orlando so that Dustin could play his father’s son in Daniel Deranian’s directorial debut. At which point Maddie would be completely on her own. A fact that both excited and terrified her.
In the kitchen, the lack of counter space forced her to work more efficiently and in less than fifteen minutes she’d assembled an egg souffle, slid it into the oven, and set the timer. The souffle was of the never fail variety, guaranteed to pouf in exactly sixty minutes. Unlike life, which came with no guarantees and often ‘poufed’ when you least expected it.
Soon the scent of melting cheese teased her nostrils and began to fill the air. She pictured it wafting down the short hallway to the second bedroom, slipping under the closed door, and crooking its finger. While she waited she put on a pot of coffee and puttered, unpacking and organizing the exceedingly compact kitchen. The cottage felt like a dollhouse after the castle-like Bella Flora, but Maddie felt oddly content. She lacked space and income and her resume consisted only of a brief and excruciatingly public stint on their renovation-turned-reality TV show. But the cottage belonged to her. And so did the new life that lay ahead.
A text dinged in and the face of William Hightower, the rock icon formerly known as William the Wild, appeared on the screen. A reminder that the life that lay ahead included a relationship with a man whose poster had once hung on her teenaged bedroom wall.
Mornin’ Maddie-fan. Hud and the fish send their regards.
Ha. She had discovered early on that the fish that lived in the Florida Keys had a nasty sense of humor. Despite Will’s efforts to teach her how to fly cast, she was no threat to the fish population and they knew it. Catch anything yet?
Nope. But the sun’s on the rise and it’s so beautiful down here this morning I’m not sure I care.
Liar. Will loved to be out on the flats around Islamorada above all things, but he did not like to be bested by anything covered with scales.
True. And Hud’s making me look bad. He and the fish want to know when you’re coming to visit.
They’re just looking for entertainment. Hudson Power, Will’s longtime friend and fishing guide, had taught her to drive a boat and been very patient with her ineptness at fly casting. But she was fairly certain she’d heard the fish laughing at her on more than one occasion.
True. He texted again. But I miss you madly, Maddie fan.
A warm glow formed in her chest and radiated outward. She did not understand why Will, who had finally won his own personal war on drugs and was once again topping the charts, had chosen her when he could have his pick of younger, prettier, and undoubtedly firmer women, but she’d finally stopped asking. Plus it was hard to argue with his physical reaction to her. Her cheeks flamed at the thought and despite her two left thumbs, she was very glad they were texting and not face-timing.
When are you coming down to Mermaid Point? They had met when their former network sent Madeline, Kyra, Avery Lawford, and Nicole Grant down to the Keys with instructions to turn Will’s private island into a Bed and Breakfast; an idea he did not appreciate in the least.
As soon as Kyra and Dustin leave for Orlando. Kyra, who’d met and fallen for the megastar on her very first film set, was not at all happy about the upcoming film. Or having to spend six weeks on set with Daniel and his equally famous movie star wife, Tonja Kay.
Can u tell me when?
In 2 weeks.
That’s 2 weeks 2 long.
She was still smiling when she heard the first sounds of movement from the second bedroom. By the time she’d finished setting the dinette table, pulled the orange juice out of the refrigerator, and cut up a bowl of fruit, there were only a few minutes left on the timer. A woof and the shake of a dog’s collar were followed by the creak of a bedframe. Despite the early hour, the souffle had worked its magic. She poured herself a cup of freshly brewed coffee.
Today was the first day of the rest of her life. Now all she had to do was figure out what to do with it.
In the small second bedroom of her mother’s cottage, Kyra woke to the scents of coffee and egg soufflé.
Dustin slept on the railed bunk bed above her. Max, the Great Dane puppy his father had unexpectedly and unaccountably given him for Christmas, stood next to her whimpering. She did not want to get up, but she definitely didn’t want to clean up another accident.
Max nudged her with his wet, cold nose and she threw off her sheets.
Today was not a good day. Today was the day a stranger would move into Bella Flora.
Max began to circle and sniff the floor. Kyra sat up, careful not to hit her head on the upper bunk. She was debating whether she could make a run to the bathroom when Max’s whimper turned more urgent. “Got it. Hold on!” She grabbed him and raced for the door, holding him out in front of her.
“Good morning.” Maddie moved to throw open the door.
“Um-hmmm.” She sniffed appreciatively as they passed the oven that held the souffle. Madeline Singer was the mother everyone deserved but didn’t necessarily get. She’d created a home everywhere they’d landed from the initially uninhabitable Bella Flora to Max Golden’s neglected Deco home on South Beach to the rickety houseboat tethered to William Hightower’s dock.
While Max anointed the grass and the nearest bush, she lifted her cell phone and roused it. The first six months rent had been released from escrow and deposited into her account, but the sight of all those zeros didn’t make her anywhere near as happy as it should have. It meant there was not going to be a last minute reprieve. The tenant would move in today. For the next six months he/she/or them would have the run of Bella Flora and the option to stay on for six more months after that.
Which meant she and Dustin and Max could be sharing a bedroom in Maddie’s cottage for an entire year while a stranger lived in the house they’d poured their hearts and souls into and that was ‘home’ in every way that mattered. She’d been a fool to believe that everything would somehow magically work out when she’d taken the loan to finance the Sunshine Hotel renovation and their own version of Do Over.
Max woofed happily as she pulled a plastic bag from her pocket, picked up his ‘offering,’ then dropped it in a nearby trashcan. She’d changed Dustin’s diapers easily enough but she’d known the day would come when he could toilet on his own. Unless they moved into a rural setting Max was never going to be able to dispose of his own droppings. She did not want to think about how big Max was going to get, or what size plastic bag he would one day require.
Inside, she found Dustin sitting at the dinette drinking a cup of orange juice and chatting with his favorite person. That person held out a cup of coffee.
“Thanks, Mom.” She swallowed a long sip, let the warmth slide down her throat. “The money’s in my account.”
“That’s a good thing, Kyra. That will definitely take some of the pressure off.”
“I know. But …”
“Come eat.” Three plates containing souffle, buttered toast, and fresh fruit were on their way to the table. Within minutes Kyra was seated. She picked up her fork, but her appetite had fled.
“Kyra, you need to let go of the worry. It’s done. Bella Flora’s only on loan. She still belongs to Dustin and you. Emotionally she’ll always belong to all of us.”
“It’s just….” Kyra took a bite of souffle, but her usual bliss over the cheesy wonderfulness was missing. She needed to see the tenant for herself. Needed to make sure he wasn’t some Atilla the Hun of houses, bent on destruction. Or someone fronting for Daniel Deranian and Tonja Kay for some nefarious reason she’d yet to figure out. She took another bite of souffle then washed it down with another long pull of coffee.
John Franklin was meeting the tenant at eleven to hand over the key. She stole a glance at her phone. It was early. There would be plenty of time after a leisurely breakfast to shower and dress and discover that she’d left something at Bella Flora that they couldn’t possibly be expected live without.
Avery Lawford did not want to get out of bed. Not now. Not ever. She clutched the pillow more tightly to her chest and kept her eyes shut. It would take a crowbar to pry them open. A tow truck to move her.
Something warm passed under her nose. It smelled dark and steamy before it moved just out of range then back again. The lovely fog of sleep that had enveloped her began to dissipate. She closed her eyes tighter and wished she could shut her nostrils, but Avery braked for coffee. She drank it for the protection of others and had the T-shirt to prove it. She burrowed deeper into the cocoon of blankets but her nose betrayed her.
No. She would not be ruled by coffee. She was stronger than coffee. The smell retreated. She’d begun to relax back into sleep when the crinkle of paper sounded near her ear. There was movement. A new scent joined the first. She sniffed, a reflex nothing more. She was only human. Sugar.
“Avery?” Chase Hardin’s voice was warm and seductive.
“There’s nothing you could say or do that would make me get out of this bed right now.”
“Nothing?” The bed dipped as he sat on its edge. “You mean you don’t want this Dunkin Donuts coffee or glazed donuts?” He waved each item as he mentioned it. His voice grew muffled as he took a bite of donut and chewed appreciatively. “Ummm, that’s good.” He bent over and kissed her with warm lips sticky with sugar. This was what came of sleeping with a man who knew your weaknesses.
She opened her eyes. A large Styrofoam cup of coffee sat on the nightstand.
Chase finished off the donut, licked his fingers and grinned. “I don’t remember the last time I spent almost two days in bed.” His blue eyes glittered. Dark stubble covered his cheeks and his hair stuck up in a variety of directions. “I thought we needed sustenance.” When she didn’t make a move, he drew a donut out of the bag and placed it on a napkin next to the cup of coffee.
She’d known Chase since childhood, much of which she’d spent crushing on him. They’d grown up on their fathers’ construction sites, gone their separate ways. She’d become an architect. He’d taken over Hardin Morgan Construction. He’d been a royal pain in the ass the whole time he was helping them renovate Bella Flora. And then one day he wasn’t.
“Your cupboards are bare,” he said. “A man cannot live on sex and Cheez Doodles alone.”
“This woman can,” she replied stung that he would disparage the snack that in the darkest of times could help make life worth living.
“I give that donut and coffee about fifteen seconds.” He looked at her knowingly.
She wanted to argue. And she really, really wanted to be asleep. She could resist if she wanted to. She could. But what would be gained by rejecting a warm, gooey glazed donut and a steaming cup of coffee?
“If you were looking at me like you’re looking at that donut right now we could spend another two days in bed.” He stretched and scratched his chest. “I owe my sister big time for having Dad and the boys up for the week.” His blue eyes turned dark and steamy. They were a magnetic force. The siren call of coffee and donuts grew softer as a shiver of anticipation snaked up her spine. They’d been in bed since New Year’s Eve and today was… “Oh, no!” She sat up.
“What day is it?” She ran her hands under the covers but her phone wasn’t there.
“Are you sure?”
He nodded without hesitation.
“But that means it’s…”
“… January second,” they said simultaneously. But it was just a date on the calendar to him. She began scooting out of bed.
“What time is it?”
He glanced down at his watch. “It’s .…ten forty.”
She took one bite of donut, swallowed it whole, and grabbed the cup of coffee. “How far away did you park?” She moved toward the bathroom very glad the cottage was so tiny.
“You didn’t park here at the Sunshine, right? I told you I didn’t want anyone to know that we’re…you know…” She nodded toward the bed, which looked like it had been struck by a hurricane. Or lifted by a tornado and tossed around for a night or two.
“Everybody knows, Avery. There’s no reason to keep it a secret that we’re back together.”
“But we’re not back together.” She raced into the bathroom, turned on the shower, raced back to retrieve the donut. “Having sex doesn’t mean we’re back together. It just means we’re still attracted to each other and spent a couple of days in bed to celebrate the New Year.”
Their relationship had foundered during his youngest son Jason’s meltdown and rebellion. Jason was doing better now and repeating his senior year of high school, but Avery could still remember exactly how it felt to be pushed away when things got rough. Other than Maddie, Nikki, and Kyra, the Hardins were the closest thing to family she had yet Chase had completely shut her out when Jason had gone off the rails. Out of the family and out of Hardin Morgan Construction.
That they were dating again was due to his abject apologies and powers of persuasion. She enjoyed his company and the sex was spectacular, but she didn’t intend to open herself up to that kind of hurt again any time in this millennium. And she was not prepared to tie her career to his.
She devoured the donut in a few hungry bites then stepped into the now hot shower. Ten minutes later she was running a comb through her short blond hair and pulling on a pair of jeans and a Do Over T-shirt. She could almost hear her mother’s ghost hovering above her and sighing over her lack of makeup, but she was a wash and wear kind of girl. And though she no longer hid the Dolly Parton sized bust that was too large for her height in oversized clothes, she had not yet reconciled to the big blue eyes and Kewpie Doll features that caused strangers to deduct IQ points before she even opened her mouth. “Are you staying here or coming with me?”
“Where are we going?” He grabbed the bag of donuts.
She grabbed the keys to the mini-Cooper and headed for the front door.
Nikki and Joe sat at their favorite picnic table at the Paradise Grille overlooking the white sand beach and the gulf that it bounded. A stream of beachgoers passed in both directions. A jovial game of corn hole played out in the soft sand nearby.
Sofia and Gemma snoozed happily in the stroller, their faces smeared with the remnants of a scrambled egg breakfast. Seagulls eyed the crumbs left on their plates but so far no dive-bombing had occurred.
“God they’re adorable when they’re asleep,” Nikki said looking at the girls’ angelic faces. “Not that they aren’t adorable when they’re awake, but…”
“… you’re too busy trying to keep them happy to notice.”
Nikki looked at Joe. “You don’t even bat an eyelash when Gemma goes on a screaming jag. Or one of them projectile vomits all over you.”
“I may have ended up in the financial crimes unit, but I do have hostage negotiation training,” he said wryly. “I know how to look like I’m not panicking even when I’m scared shitless.”
“So when do you think you’ll be able to actually start negotiating with them?”
“Well, we know from personal experience that it doesn’t work on pregnant women,” he said. “I can’t remember convincing you of a single thing while you were carrying them. So while I don’t know that there’s a lower age limit, it’s clear rational thought is necessary. And probably the ability to speak or at least understand and process language are too.”
“Great.” Nikki slumped. Every morning she vowed this would be the day that she’d become competent and un-harried. The kind of mother who loved her children so much that she never resented the endless demands that created the near constant state of exhaustion.
“I’ve got another ten days or so and then I’m going to have to start traveling again.”
Her heart sunk further. “Oh?”
“Yeah. Which is why I really think we ought to hire someone to help you.”
“No. I’m their mother. Taking care of them is my job.” Not a job she’d ever imagined for herself. But it wasn’t one you could resign from.
“Nik, they’re too much for the two of us a lot of the time. I can’t leave you alone.”
“I won’t be alone,” she said trying to keep the panic out of her eyes and her voice. “Maddie will help. And…Avery and Bitsy will be nearby.” Neither of them mentioned that Bitsy had fallen down on the job the night Nikki had gone into labor.
“Kyra and Dustin will be leaving for Orlando in two weeks. And Maddie won’t have a reason to stay here. She’ll be free to travel. Or spend time with Will. Or whatever she feels like. And Avery and Bitsy have no experience with children and aren’t looking to acquire it. Plus they’ll both be working.
“I can do it,” she said. “End of conversation.”
“But, Nikki. I…” His face smoothed out. She saw him relax his features, his shoulders. Hostage negotiation training her ass. “Ready to head back?”
She’d barely made it this far. In fact, about halfway there she’d been doing more of a brisk walk than a slow jog.
“I was thinking maybe I could run back to the cottage and come pick you all up in the car.” He looked at her face. “You know, in case you’d like to just chill here for a while.”
“Don’t think I can make it back?” she challenged though she wasn’t totally sure she could. She only knew she was not going to appear too tired or too overwhelmed or too anything in front of him.
“No, of course not. I just thought you might want to get back more quickly. It’s getting close to eleven.”
“Eleven?” She sat up.
“I wouldn’t mind walking a little further. There’s really no rush to get back is there?”
“The girls love the jetty. And the fishermen on the dock.”
He gave her a long look. “Sure. Why not?” He busied himself gathering the paper plates and cups and was gentleman enough not to say anything when she took her time getting to her feet.
“That was one of your best egg soufflés ever, Mom. Right Dustin?” Freshly showered and dressed, Kyra strode back into the living room/kitchen where Dustin stood on a stool ‘helping’ his grandmother wash the dishes.
“D’licious,” he agreed waving his hands, which were encased in a pair of too-large rubber gloves. Max was under the table licking up the bits of egg that surrounded Dustin’s chair.
“What do we say to Grandma?” Kyra asked Dustin as she stole a glance at the clock on the wall then turned her gaze to the coffee table where the car keys typically ended up.
“Thank you Geema!” Dustin crowed.
“You’re both very welcome,” Maddie said hiding her smile at the speed with which Kyra
located and pocketed the car keys.
“If you don’t mind keeping an eye on Dustin, I… I have a couple of things I need to take care of.” Kyra didn’t quite meet her eye as she laid a kiss on Dustin’s head and moved toward the door.
“Things?” Maddie asked.
“Dustin wanna do things too!” Dustin clambered down from the step and held out his arms. Maddie peeled the large yellow gloves from beneath his armpits and down his arms.
Kyra checked the clock again.
“It’s ten-fifty,” Maddie said. “Where exactly are you going?”
“Oh, you know. Here and there. Not far,” Kyra babbled. “I won’t be gone long.”
Her daughter looked up as if she’d been caught with her hand in the cookie jar.
“I really don’t think this is a good idea.”
“I … don’t know what you’re talking about,” Kyra protested.
“It would be better to just stay away,” Maddie said gently.
“Stay away from what?” Kyra adopted an expression of surprised confusion, but any mother worth her salt could read a daughter’s face like a roadmap. It would take more than feigned indignation to make Maddie believe she was headed out to run errands.
“Fine.” Kyra sighed. “It’s not like there’s any chance of keeping a secret when we’re living on top of each other like this anyway.”
“If you’re going, we’re going with you.” She picked up the leash and attached it to Max’s collar then handed Dustin his sweatshirt.
“Where we going Geema?” Dustin asked as his mother pulled open the cottage door.
“If I’m not mistaken, I think we’re going to Bella Flora to get a look at the person who’s going to live there.”
Kyra breathed deeply as she drove south on the narrow two lane road, but each breath carried its own little dart of panic that sent her fear of who and what she’d find at Bella Flora shooting through her. She turned on to Gulf Way, her thoughts jumbled and her gaze slightly unfocused. The familiar scenery rippled and shimmered before her eyes giving the mom and pop hotels and expensive new homes on her left and the low wall and crossovers that bordered the beach on her right, a fun house vibe.
The blocks were short and the avenues that stretched from the bay to the gulf were even shorter. At The Hurricane Restaurant her foot eased further off the gas pedal so that the minivan passed Eighth Avenue, Pass-a-Grille’s ‘main street,’ at what could only be called a crawl. The closer they got to Bella Flora the slower she drove and the sharper and more pointed the panic became. What if the tenant was Daniel Deranian or Tonja Kay or one of their emissaries? What if he/she/they were trust fund babies with no respect for other people’s property? What if they looked unstable or had a herd of children who would abuse Dustin’s mini-Bella Flora playhouse? The number of things the new tenant would be free to do in/and/or to her home bombarded her. How could she let some stranger sleep in her bed? Hang their clothes in her closet? Lie on their couch? Mix drinks in the Casbah Lounge? How on earth could she have let this happen?
“We can still turn around,” Maddie said. “It’s not too late.” She hesitated. “No one will ever know we even thought about doing this.”
But though she was driving as slowly as any newly arrived retiree, Bella Flora’s gravitational pull was simply too strong to resist. So was Kyra’s urge to protect her even though it was far too late for that.
They passed a couple pushing a jogging stroller. That couple was Nikki and Joe. So much for a lack of witnesses.
And then she came face to face with Bella Flora. Rising out of the low walled garden. A pale pink wedding cake of a house with banks of windows framed in white icing trim and bell towers that topped a multi-angled barrel-tile roof and jutted up into the brilliant blue sky.
“We going home?” Dustin asked uncertainly.
God, she wished they were only coming home from a trip to the grocery store or some other mundane errand and not about to watch some stranger move in. Eyes blurred with tears, Kyra pulled into a parking space. The blue Mini-Cooper in the next spot belonged to Avery Lawford.
Max gave a happy woof as they joined Avery and Chase on the sidewalk. A minute later Nikki and Joe arrived, the twins sound asleep in the stroller. Kyra was trying to decide who looked the most embarrassed when a lone figure walked up the path from the jetty. Gatsby style pants fluttering lightly in the breeze, a mint green vest buttoned over an oxford shirt, Ray Flamingo, former designer to the stars, walked up to them. “Beautiful day isn’t it?”
“Don’t even try to pretend you were just out for a stroll,” Avery said.
“Who me?” Hands in pockets Ray turned to face Bella Flora. “I didn’t realize a house could send a distress signal until today.”
“You know that whoever is renting Bella Flora has spent a lot of money to live in her,” Joe said gently. “There’s every reason to expect that person will treat her well.”
John Franklin’s Cadillac pulled up in front of Bella Flora at exactly 11:00AM. The car was a classic, like its octogenarian owner and driver. Kyra’s father, Steve, who now worked at Franklin Realty and had been responsible for finding Bella Flora’s mystery tenant, was with him.
With Max straining against his leash they trundled over to meet them.
“You all look a little more like a lynch mob than a welcoming committee.” John Franklin had a ruff of white hair around an otherwise bald scalp and a long face dominated by the droopy brown eyes of a basset hound. Those eyes looked worried as his hands tightened on the handle of his cane. “Is there a problem?”
“That depends,” Kyra said.
“On what?” her father asked.
“On whether the tenants look as if they can fully appreciate their luck in getting to walk through Bella Flora’s front doors. If they don’t, I might need help stringing them up from the Reclinata Palm out back.”
Chase and Joe laughed. Maddie, Avery, and Nikki exchanged worried glances.
“We don’t necessarily have to deliver a welcome basket,” Ray said in a conciliatory tone. “But I don’t think we need to be contemplating violence, either.”
“Neither do I,” Maddie said. “In fact, I’m not altogether sure we should be here.” As usual her mother seemed intent on keeping the peace. And preventing Kyra from committing a stupid act. If only that had happened before Kyra took the loan out against Bella Flora. “But clearly we’re all curious to see who’s moving in. So I think we should at least act like a welcoming committee. Plus we can let them know that we’re nearby if they have any questions about the workings or idiosyncrasies of the house.”
They milled relatively quietly until a car turned off of Pass-a-Grille Way onto Beach Road, passed the Cottage Inn and pulled into Bella Flora’s brick driveway. The car was low, sleek and silver with tinted windows that revealed little.
They inched closer, stopping just short of the garden wall as John and her father walked up the driveway. Kyra wasn’t the only one holding her breath as the driver got out of the car. Through the palms and tall bushes she could see only slices at a time; a lone male head of blond hair atop a body that seemed tall and well formed. There was a flash of blue jean and some kind of dark jacket or blazer. He moved with a confident stride that Kyra chalked up to arrogance. Did that mean he would be careless with other people’s possessions? Or did it mean that he was used to nice things and would take care of theirs?
She moved in an attempt to get a better look, but everyone was jockeying for position. Between the bushes and trees John and her father’s backs were the only things clearly visible. Her father froze briefly. John Franklin’s normally hunched shoulders went stiff. Murmurs of what sounded like surprise reached them.
Heart pounding, knees pressed against the concrete, she leaned over the garden wall in an attempt to see more. The tenant cocked his head and she sensed him peering between John and her father as if looking for something or someone. Dustin dropped her hand and moved toward the driveway. A prickle of unease raised the hair on the back of her neck, but she knew from the blond head and build that it wasn’t Daniel Deranian. Was it another movie star? A famous athlete or musician?
“Lookit Mommy. Lookit who’s here!” Dustin shouted as he ran up the driveway.
Kyra detached herself from the wall and the group to race after him. The breath caught in her throat as the tenant stepped around the two Realtors and reached down to pick up Dustin. She blinked rapidly trying to make sense of what she was seeing.
Best Beach Ever Reviews
“[A] readable, beachy Florida ride.” – Booklist
“The lives of the characters [in Best Beach Ever] are interwoven, yet readers will still get to know each one intimately…readers can easily find at least one character to connect with.” – RT Book Reviews