Coming back to Gulliver Island after a ten-year absence to take care of his father should have been simple. Emmett Deal would fix and sell the family home, and return to Cincinnati with his ailing father in tow. Yet something compels him to stay a little longer. The beautiful, bright eyes of Jaime Brown.
Ten years ago, traumatic events changed the course of Jaime's life forever, catching her in a small-town life she can't escape. Emmett's return stirs up the memories she wanted to ignore and dreams she had forgotten. Now she finds herself with a rare opportunitya second chance. Only this time, it's not just for love
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"But it isn't finished."
Jaime Brown pushed a lock of curly blond hair behind her ear, but it was so muggy on this May afternoon that the lock sprang right back to the side of her face to tickle the sensitive skin along her jaw.
"Isn't like your little party is tomorrow. There's time." The grizzled head of the renovation project scratched dirty hands over his scruffy chin.
Luther Thomas had sounded fatherly over the phone when she'd hired him. Competent. He might be good at his job, but after five days on the island he and his "crew" had put a few holes in the room walls downstairs and that was it. She'd found them drinking at the tavern, fishing on the docks and sitting under the big maple trees in the parking lot, but as far as actual work went she hadn't seen much.
Plenty of time. No, there wasn't. The reunion might still be six weeks off, but there were two complete stories of the old school building to renovate. Having the ground floor demo'd was a huge step in the whole process.
"We're knocking down walls, rebuilding a staircase and replacing old windows. That isn't just slapping up a new coat of paint." She pushed the long sleeves of her gray T-shirt up her arms, hoping for a little relief from the heat.
Damn the month of May, anyway. When she'd left her cottage on Gulliver's Island this morning it was a comfortable sixty-five degrees with a light breeze blowing in from the west. Perfect weather for lightweight-but-long-sleeved. But the crazy weather along this part of Ohio's Lake Erie struck and the breeze changed to a full-on wind, bringing in muggy air that didn't usually hit until after Memorial Day.
What she wouldn't give to pull the shirt over her head. The ribs on her left side twinged, as if the scars covering them were still raw, brown with dried blood and ugly. No chance she'd pull the shirt off, even if her sports bra covered more than the bikinis she used to wear on hot summer days.
"Don't worry about it," Luther said, beginning to sound like a broken record. Every time she asked about the teardown, the shape of the staircase and the windows she got either a "don't worry about it" or a "plenty of time" answer. Well, she wasn't taking that answer this time. The project might not be important to Luther, but it was important to her.
To the whole island community.
She folded her arms beneath her breasts. Through the fabric, her fingers instinctively sought out the scars that were now faint pink lines crisscrossing her ribs and one ugly, jagged mark that reached over her left breast. She'd rebuilt her life over the past ten years; she could deal with a lousy construction foreman.
"When we spoke on the phone you assured me this section of the building would be finished this week."
"The reunion isn't tomorrow or even next week." Luther didn't bother to look at her when he spoke and Jaime gritted her teeth. "We've got six more weeks to finish." He kept walking toward the door.
Jaime followed the tall, foul-smelling, dirty-jeans-wearing lunker of a man she would never have hired if she'd met him in person. But people could hide all manner of things over video chat, although it had never failed her before. Like breath that reeked of stale beer at nine-thirty in the morning. She wrinkled her nose and then swallowed. He picked up the hammer he'd left at the bottom of the staircase leading to the second floor of the run-down school house.
She had convinced her father and the rest of Gulliver Township's trustees that she would have it restored by July, in time for her high school class to host the annual Gulliver School Reunion.
"Six weeks to finish the job, yes, but you've been here nearly a week and aside from a couple of holes in a couple of walls nothing has been done." The man kept walking and Jaime hurried to keep up.
She waved her arms at the main floor, walls still dividing what were once the main office, cafeteria and gymnasium, broken window-panes hung at odd angles andshe tripped over her feetthe warped hardwood floor that might indicate a foundation problem. "This room was to be completely demolished by Friday. It's Thursday and you've barely made any progress since arriving on Monday. Your crew didn't even show up yesterday."
Luther tossed the hammer toward his toolbox where it clanged against other metal tools. "My crew handles jobs like this all the time," he said, a patronizing lilt to his voice. At least his words were no longer slurred like they had been yesterday morning when he'd insisted his guys would be back from the mainland by lunchtime. They hadn't returned by lunch or even been on the evening ferry. "The walls will be down next week. We'll take a look at the floor. It's Thursday. I need to catch the ferry so I can go home."
"The ferry doesn't arrive for another hour. And it's Thursday. One more day in the workweek."
"Not much I can do here on my own, anyway."
"All the more reason for your crew to show up for work on time."
They stepped into the warm sunshine and Jaime breathed a sigh of relief. Out here the air felt ten degrees cooler than inside. Most of the downstairs windows were so warped they didn't open, and the windows upstairs had been installed as solid panes. Leaving the front and back doors open created a slight cross breeze but not enough to keep the interior of the ancient school building cool. Maybe she should consider investing part of the budget in an air-conditioning system, after all.
The goal for the school renovation was to create a tourist attraction on the island and at the same time to provide the island with a space for events like the upcoming reunion.
Technically it was her class's ten-year so they were in charge of food, drinks and party planning, but everyone who graduated from Gulliver's Island School was invited and most of them would come.
Gulliver needed this space. She wanted a project that would keep everyone focused on the present and not the past. No way would she allow this jerk of a construction worker to ruin everything just because he'd thought working on the island would be a breeze. She might not have a degree in construction, if there was such a thing, but she knew how contracts worked.
"You assured me the walls on the main floor will be down today and that the replacement windows will have been ordered. Have either of those things been completed?"
Luther opened the door of his dusty red truck and slid in behind the wheel. "Lady, I know how to run a construction project, and I know what my obligations are. I've been on this damned island for four days straight and I need a break from no cable television, watered-down beer and AM-only radio, okay?"
Jaime caught the door before Luther could slam it shut. "You're here to work, not have a vacation."
Luther narrowed his eyes before pulling the door out of Jaime's grasp. It slammed shut and she winced. "The school will be ready by July one, until then I'll run the project as I see fit. And, today, I'm running it to the dock so I can catch the morning ferry and go home." He twisted the key between his grimy fingers and the truck engine roared to life. Before Jaime could demand he stay to at least order the new windows, he tore out of the parking lot, leaving her in a cloud of dust.
Jaime coughed and sputtered, waving her hands before her face until the dust cleared. Jerk.
Her cell phone blared out a hit from Florida Georgia Line; the song a favorite of her best friend and cochair of the reunion committee, Maureen Ergstrom.
"Mo, if one more thing has gone wrong I'm going to light a match and burn this damn building down."
"Calm down, there, Firebug. No need to commit arson before eleven. Luther strikes again?" Laughter filled Maureen's voice.
Jaime sat on the concrete step leading into the school. As with everything else about the old building it was off, leaning crookedly against the building with one side a full two inches lower than the other. She felt like she was sitting on a warped teeter-totter.
"Luther just walked out. Says he's tired of our boring little island and wants to go home."
Something banged over the phone line. Probably Maureen's kitchen chair pounding into the counter. "He can't do that." She sounded panicked so Jaime kept her voice calm.
"From our walk-through yesterday morning I don't think any new work has been done since his crew left on Wednesday." Jaime shoved her hand into her hair. What was she going to do? All the local firms were already booked for the summer. Getting the Cleveland crew had been a miracle so late in the season. "And before you ask again, I don't know where we would find another crew. I think we're stuck with Luther and the no-shows."
"Maybe it's a sign."
"Of my complete ineptitude? Thanks."
Maureen made a shushing sound over the phone. "A sign that this year we skip the reunion. Our class is so scattered no one will mind"
"We're not skipping it. The reunion is a tradition."
"A stupid tradition. Clara dumped the planning in your lap at the last minute and after everything that happened before graduation I think everyone would be happy with a fish fry on the beach."
"We are not turning the annual reunion into a fish fry, Mo." Her stomach tightened just thinking about dropping this particular ball. Yes, Clara had dumped the reunion on her with no notice. Yes, the past couple of months of their senior year had been horrific for Jaime.
She gripped the phone more tightly in her hand.
"Come on, what town needs an island-wide reunion every summer? Our class was never big on these kinds of things, anyway."
Jaime cleared her throat, pushing the panicked butterflies out of her stomach. She would not be the victim. Not again. Not when she had worked so hard to put her life back together. "We aren't skipping. It's our turn to host and that's final."
The reunion would not be canceled; not because Jaime hired a shoddy construction firm. She would not give the islanders another reason to act as if she was wounded.
"I'll meet you at the diner in fifteen and we'll go over the early RSVPs and start thinking about the actual planning," she said and hung up before Maureen could really get going on the cancellation conversation. If Luther and his crew were going to milk this job until the last minute, she would be prepared to use each of those final seconds to make sure the reunion went off without a hitch.
Her ribs twinged again.
It was ten years ago, for Pete's sake. She was over it. Six more weeks and she could completely put it out of her mind and in the meantime she had the school to renovate, the reunion party to plan and her job at the winery. Plenty of work to keep her mind occupied and fully in the present, where she preferred to be. There was no reason to keep living in the past. Wasn't that what her therapist told her? She was still cured.
Two years before she'd been a borderline agoraphobic afraid to leave the island. Sometimes afraid to leave her cute little cottage on the west side of town. The first two sessions with Dr. Laurer were held via video chat. For the following four months Dr. Laurer brought the ferry to Gulliver twice a week to meet with her at the cottage or at the diner. The day she took the ferry to his office for a session he'd declared her cured. She'd celebrated with her parents at a nice restaurant on the waterfront.
The fact that she hadn't been off the island since that day was beside the point. She was over the past. Over the attack. No need to keep bringing it up.
Maybe if she'd gone to the mainland with Maureen for a girl's day, or even to go to the movies with her mom once or twice she would not have thought twice about driving to Cleveland to meet with Luther before hiring him. There were always reasons to skip an impromptu shopping or movie trip, though. After a while people stopped asking her to do things off the island and until the excitement about the upcoming reunion started she didn't think twice about all the ways she had become complacent about her life.
That stopped now.
Canceling the reunion, letting the school project founder, would bring the past up in a big way. Would stress out her parents, who deserved so much more than constantly worrying their daughter would freak out and never leave her house again. The whispered conversations would start. The pitying looks. She loved the island and she loved the people on it, but they had to stop treating her like she was broken.
She was healed. Maybe if she kept telling herself that it would actually be true.
Fifteen minutes later Jaime sat in her favorite corner booth at the Gulliver Diner watching out the big plate-glass window and stealing glances at a booth in the back to a stranger with broad shoulders and a tight T. His black hair that was short enough to look tidy but long enough to look just a little bit dangerous. He looked interesting. At least from the back.
But Jaime didn't leave her bench seat to covertly check him out on her way to the bathroom. It was enough to watch the economical movements he used to cut into his eggs Benedict.
She shifted in her seat and the cracked purple vinyl sighed with the movement. The Formica-topped tables were chipped, and the black-and-white-tiled floor was scuffed and scarred beyond repair, but the Gulliver Diner was a mainstay on the island. Funny, though, Anna, the diner's only waitress for as long as she could remember, usually paid a lot more attention to tourists, and she'd barely flirted with the hot guy in the corner. Maybe the view from the front negated the pulse-pounding view from behind, she thought.
Finally, Maureen pulled up in her little blue golf cart and hurried inside. She wore skinny jeans and Converse sneakers with a striped sailor top in navy and white. Her hair in a ponytail, quilted backpack slung across her torso, she looked pulled together. Jaime shrank back against the seat as her outfit would never be mistaken for fashionable.
Anna brought over a tall, frosted glass and a pitcher of iced tea. She topped off Jaime's glass, filled Maureen's and set the pitcher on the table for them. "You girls want a sandwich?" She waved her hand toward the kitchen. "Hank's making triple-decker clubs for lunch today. I just served the last of the Benedicts to him," she said, pointing to the corner booth. Jaime's gaze came to rest on the back of the stranger with broad shoulders and dark, dark hair. She couldn't see his face but her tummy did a little flip-flop.
Which was silly. She didn't do the flip-flop thing any longer. Especially not in grubby work clothes. She should have taken the time to change before meeting Maureen for lunch.
They each ordered sandwiches and Anna disappeared behind the counter.
"Listen to this one." Jaime tucked the strand of blond hair behind her ear, determined to ignore the discomfort weighing on her narrow shoulders. Before she could begin reading from the questionnaire in her hand Maureen interrupted.
"I think we need to seriously consider not having an island-wide reunion this summer." She held up her hand and Jaime bit back the protest that immediately sprang to her lips. "The school reno is a huge project, and it's more important than the reunion. The reno will bring tourists back here year after year. Having all our old classmates come in and seeing the old-timers who moved off-island years ago is great. What the island needs, though, is a steady stream of tourists. Newcomers. Old residents."
"And they'll come, but the reno doesn't trump the reunion."
"Maybe it should." Maureen reached across the table to pat Jaime's hand. As she and so many others had so many times over the past decade. She was sick to death of their patronizing. "The reno was a last-minute fix to the location problem when the winery said no to hosting the main reunion events. That is on our class. The pranks we pulled still make people see us as a bunch of bored kids"
"All the more reason to prove to them that we've all moved on from the idiots we were in high school. We can do both and put all the gossiping to rest."
"I just think we should seriously consider pulling back. Finish the reno in style and do a big opening for the reunion next summer." Jaime blinked. Waited another moment. "Is that all?"
"Good. Motion denied."
"You didn't bring it before the committee." Maureen beetled her brows.
"The reunion 'committee' consists of you, me and Clara. Clara dropped all of her responsibilities in my lap a month ago, so her vote goes to me. That makes it two to one for the reunion."
Maureen made a face. "You always have an angle."