The Sweetheart Secret

The Sweetheart Secret

by Shirley Jump

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Overview

The Sweetheart Sisters are ready for some good ol’ matchmaking…

Colton Harper, Rescue Bay’s resident physician, gave up his wild ways years ago, in exchange for a straight and narrow life. But then a one-night stand comes back to haunt him when the intoxicating woman he left behind shows up in Rescue Bay.

Once upon a time, fiery Daisy Barton was Colt’s wife—and still is, thanks to a paperwork glitch. Now she’s here in Rescue Bay, with a once-in-a-lifetime chance at a fresh start—renovating a crumbling B&B. The catch? The loan she needs requires her “husband’s” financial backing.

Colt wants to turn Daisy away, but when he sees her coax a smile from his cantankerous grandfather, Colt realizes maybe she can help him, too. It’s the perfect arrangement—until the sparks start flying. Suddenly Colt realizes he’s still head over heels in love with Daisy, and that he’ll have to risk everything…or risk losing her forever.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101607619
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/02/2014
Series: A Sweetheart Sisters Novel , #3
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 310,769
File size: 1 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Sweetheart Bargain and The Sweetheart Rules, Shirley Jump spends her days writing romance and women’s fiction to feed her shoe addiction and avoid cleaning the toilets. She cleverly finds writing time by feeding her kids junk food, allowing them to dress in the clothes they find on the floor, and encouraging the dogs to double as vacuum cleaners.

Read an Excerpt

Acknowledgments

One

There were days when Colt Harper swore Greta Winslow had been put on earth solely to test his commitment to the Hippocratic oath.

Greta was an eighty-three-year-old firecracker—petite and wiry, but determined to sneak bourbon into her morning coffee and avoid all things green and leafy. She disproved his constant healthy-living lectures by having the constitution of a thoroughbred mare. He always saved her appointments for the end of the day, because if he started a Monday with a visit from the stubborn Greta, he’d end up barking at everyone else who followed.

And this week, he definitely didn’t need the extra stress. His plan was to just get through the appointment, get out the door, and hope for the best when he got home tonight—to his other most frustrating patient.

Colt drew in a breath and refocused on Greta. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Winslow, what did you say?”

“I asked if it was possible to be allergic to someone.” Greta leaned forward and arched a thin gray brow. “As in the mere sight of his blindingly white head and ugly moon-pie face gives you the dry heaves.”

Colt bit back a laugh. No doubt, Greta was referring to her much-maligned neighbor, Harold Twohig. The feud between the two residents of Golden Years Retirement Village was part and parcel of Rescue Bay’s daily gossip chatter. The sleepy Florida coastal town had a vibrant senior population, which kept Colt busy in his practice, but also insured a little soap-opera-worthy drama from time to time. Especially when it came to Greta and Harold’s love-hate relationship. “As far as I know, that is not medically possible.”

“As far as you know. Which means there is still a possibility it could be true.” Greta sat back, crossed her arms over her pale blue sweater, and harrumphed. “Which means I need a prescription.”

He glanced down at Greta’s chart—hard copy today because his tablet had met with an unfortunate family accident yesterday. As had the tablet he’d owned before that one. And his laptop. And his iPhone. Colt either needed to stop bringing electronics home or buy better accidental breakage coverage. Either that, or find a way to stop every conversation with his grandfather from derailing into electronic shrapnel.

“Prescription for what?” he said to Greta. “You seem to be doing pretty well lately.”

“A prescription ordering me to stay away from Harold Twohig for my mental and gastrointestinal health.” Greta put out her palm, expectant. “Just write that out, Doc. I’ll sign it for you, save you some time.”

He chuckled. “All you need to do is turn the other way when you see him coming. He’ll get the hint.” Rumor had it that Greta had a soft spot for Harold, even if she professed the opposite.

Greta pshawed. “That man is as dense as a butternut squash. He’s got it in his head that he is in love with me. Lord help me, I think he’s delusional.”

“Nothing wrong with a man determined to be with the woman he loves.” As he said the words, they sent a tremor of memory through him, a little earthquake fissuring another break in Colt’s concentration. One woman, who had turned Colt’s life upside down twice, once fourteen years ago, and then again a few months ago, after a bad day had led him to a New Orleans diner and a chance meeting with his past.

All followed by a bottle of wine, a platter of blazin’ hot buffalo wings, and one night in a king-sized bed at a hotel on Bourbon Street. One misstep—but it was done, over, in the past, and he was moving forward, back on the prescribed, planned, straight path where he was simply Doctor Colton Harper, upstanding citizen of Rescue Bay.

Not Colt Harper, the motorcycle-riding dropout with a checkered past. No, not him. Never again.

That other Colt Harper had made a lot of mistakes, mistakes that haunted him to this day, hovered over what was left of his family like thunderclouds. Mistakes he was determined not to repeat.

Uh-huh. Then what had that been three months ago, if not a repeat of mistakes best left in the past?

“Doc? Did you hear me?”

Damn. Once again, he’d lost track of his thoughts. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Winslow. What did you say?”

“My goodness, you are distracted today. I said that Harold Twohig isn’t in love with anything besides his mirror.”

Colt bit back a laugh, then scanned the top sheet of the chart, double-checking he’d covered all the basics for Greta’s checkup. Doing so forced his brain back into work mode, into the world of medical tests, diagnoses, and practicality. He glanced at his watch, and did a mental calculation of the minutes until he was home. If Colt was lucky, things would go well tonight.

Okay, given the way the last six months had gone, well wouldn’t be a word to describe his evenings with Grandpa Earl. They were like two battering rams—with one of them being stubborn, uncooperative, and cranky.

And then there was Grandpa Earl, who was all that times two.

Maybe he should just face facts and find Grandpa Earl a bed in an assisted living home. Maybe living with his only grandson wasn’t the best choice. For either of them.

And maybe Colt was trying to restore a past that was beyond resurrecting. Too many years, too many hurts, just . . . too many everythings to put it all back to rights again.

Despite all the arguments and broken electronics, though, Colt still had hope that he could build a bridge, one that would get them past the painful wounds of the past and maybe, just maybe, give Grandpa a way to forgive Colt. Maybe then Colt could forgive himself.

Maybe.

Colt signed off on the bottom of Greta’s paperwork, then handed her the orange sheet, with an extra note scribbled at the bottom. “Good job on the walking. Same recommendation as last time—”

“Eat more vegetables, drink less bourbon.” Greta made a face. “You are a party pooper, Doc. You know, you really should try letting loose once in a while. Have some bourbon. Cheat at a game of cards. Not that I cheat, of course.”

“Of course not.” He grinned.

She flicked at his tie. “I just think you should loosen the reins. Step outside all those straight lines that do nothing but box you in.”

“Straight lines?” Colt scoffed. “I think straight lines keep you in order, which is a good thing.”

“How can they? Heck, lines aren’t even a shape, for goodness’ sake. In my considerable life experience, straight lines leave no room for fun, and we all need a little fun.” She leaned in and gave him a nod. “Some of us more than others.”

“I don’t know about that.” Since the day he’d entered medical school, Colt had done his best to never deviate outside the lines and columns and tidy spaces where he lived his life.

That day, he’d finally grown up, instead of leaving common sense in the exhaust fumes of a ’93 Harley Softail. He’d wiped his past clean, become a doctor, and buried all traces of the Colton Harper he used to be.

Until he’d found part of his past waiting tables in a diner in New Orleans, and upended his world. He wondered what Greta would say if she knew that three months ago her buttoned-up, straightlaced physician had done all the things he’d told his patients not to do. At the time, Colt had convinced himself he’d had a good reason to let loose, to have a little fun—

To take a trip down memory lane. More than a trip, more like an all-night journey.

“You are truly no fun, Doctor Harper.” Greta pouted.

“I’m your doctor, Mrs. Winslow. I’m supposed to be serious and attentive.”

“Serious and attentive, not the human version of War and Peace.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Winslow, but I like things quiet and serious.” As soon as he’d returned back to Rescue Bay, he had thrown himself into the predictable routine of shingles vaccinations, blood pressure checks, and glucose level tests, because the more he organized himself into straight lines, the further that one crazy weekend disappeared into his memory. The more he could tell himself it had been an aberration, nothing more. A crazy sidestep into a past he had left far behind him. A past filled with secrets no one here knew. Or ever would, if he had anything to say about it.

So he focused on his practice and his grandfather, and told himself he was happy. One day after another, following a predictable routine, with no surprises. Just the way Colt liked things.

“Okay, Mrs. Winslow,” Colt said, “don’t forget to make an appointment with Frannie for—”

The exam room burst open. Colt started to chastise his nurse—a new one, who had started just last week and often ran around like a harried chicken—and stopped himself when he saw who it was. Just like that, Colt’s mostly predictable, mostly perfect life turned upside down, the chart in his hands fluttered to the floor, the pile of multicolored papers scattering like leaves in the wind, scuttling beneath the swivel chair, the exam table.

In the doorway stood the last woman in the world he expected to see, the one woman he’d vowed never to see again after that night in New Orleans. Judging by the fury on her face, he wasn’t high on her friends and family list, either.

“What the hell is this?” She waved a manila envelope in his face.

“Daisy? How did you . . . where did you . . . what are you . . . ?” His brain misfired and the words got lost in his throat.

Frannie, Colt’s receptionist/assistant/right-hand woman, squeezed past Daisy and into the room. Her florid face was blotched with red and her normally neat auburn chignon had come undone. “Doc, I’m sorry. I tried to stop her, but she was like a wildcat—”

Wildcat. That was the perfect word for Daisy Barton. She stood there, brunette hair cascading down her shoulders, a figure-hugging red dress that made the word hourglass seem like a sin, and full crimson lips that could tempt a man into doing things he knew he shouldn’t.

Colt knew that firsthand. He’d tangled with Daisy—willingly—twice. Even though he knew any encounter with her was bound to end with a fight and regrets, seeing her again made his chest tighten and those straight lines begin to curve. Damn.

He cleared his throat. “It’s okay, Frannie. I’ll handle this.” He returned his attention to Daisy. “Please wait outside. We can talk about this later.”

Daisy put her hands on his hips. “Talk? Honey, you were never interested in talking with me.”

Across from him, Greta’s mouth formed a surprised O. She glanced at Daisy, then at Colt. “Why, Doc Harper, it seems I have misjudged you. You have surprised me, and so few people do that at my age. No wonder you’ve been so distracted lately.”

Damn. If he knew Greta, this little encounter with Daisy was going to be all over the Rescue Bay gossip channel before the end of the day. That was the last thing he needed.

“I’m with a patient right now, Daisy,” he said, forcing a cool, detached, professional tone to his voice, when all his brain could do was picture her naked and on top of him, that wild tangle of hair kissing the tops of her breasts, and tickling against his hands. “Please wait for me in the lobby.”

She eyed him, her big brown eyes like pools of molten chocolate. “You’re going to make your wife wait?”

Oh, shit. Now he knew why Daisy had come in like a tornado.

“Hold the phone. Did you say . . . wife?” Greta kept glancing between Daisy and Colt, as if she’d just realized Big Foot and the Abominable Snowman were involved in a clandestine affair.

Colt could feel those straight lines dissolving into a tangled, messy web. He glared at Daisy. “Please. Wait. In. The. Lobby.”

Daisy took a step forward, placed the envelope in his hand, then pressed a hard, short, ice-cold kiss to his cheek. “I’ll be outside, dear,” she said, with a slash of sarcasm on the dear. “But I won’t wait long.”

Then she was gone. The door shut, leaving behind the faintest trace of her dark, smoldering perfume. Colt jerked into action. He bent down, gathering the papers he’d dropped earlier, stuffing the envelope Daisy had given him to the back of the pile. He straightened, then let out an oomph when something—or someone—slapped him on the back. “What the—”

“How could you not tell me you’re married?” Greta asked. “And to a beautiful girl like that, too.”

“I’m not married. Well, technically, maybe I still am, but . . .” He pushed his glasses up his nose. What was he doing? Confiding in Greta Winslow? “I don’t share my personal life with my patients, Mrs. Winslow.”

“I think your personal life just shared itself, Doc.” Greta waved toward the closed door. “Where have you been hiding her anyway?”

“It’s . . . complicated.” Yeah, that was the word for it. Complicated. And crazy. And a mess he didn’t need right now. “I would appreciate it if this . . . incident stayed between us.”

She propped a fist on her waist and eyed him. “Are you going to give me a prescription to keep Harold Twohig away?”

“Are you blackmailing me?”

“I’m bargaining. That’s different.” She shrugged. “And legal.”

“Mrs. Winslow, I have no doubt you can handle Mr. Twohig on your own. You are a smart and resourceful woman.”

She snorted. “You’re the one with the fancy degree. And if you ask me, you’re a blooming idiot.”

“Mrs. Winslow—”

She hopped off the exam table and stood in front of him, hands on her hips, her chin upturned in defiant argument. “Women like that don’t come along every day. Heck, God doesn’t even make females that look like that every day. I don’t know what you did to let her get away, but you need to go get her, and keep her this time.”

“Mrs. Winslow, we’re in the middle of—”

“We’re done. I’m the last patient of the day. Don’t think I don’t know you save me for last.” She wagged a finger at him. “Now go after that girl and apologize for whatever you did wrong. She’s your wife.”

“She’s not. She’s . . .” He let out a gust. How could he even begin to explain the push-pull that defined his relationship with Daisy Barton? “It’s complicated.”

“No, it’s not. You make it complicated. If you ask me, the secret to life is easy. Go for what makes you happy.” She gave him a light jab on the shoulder, which required quite the stretch from her five-foot-three frame to reach his six-foot-one height. “Even if it’s bourbon in your coffee. Take my advice, Doc. Before your life gets sucked into a whirling drain filled with crappy food and pesky old men.”

The door shut behind Greta. Colt stood there, the chart in his hands, all organized and tidy again. The rest of him, though, was a rat’s nest. What the hell was Daisy doing here? She could have simply signed the papers and put them in the pre-addressed, stamped envelope he’d included. Instead, she’d come all the way from Louisiana to Rescue Bay and dropped a bomb in his lap.

He’d never thought Daisy would return to Rescue Bay. He should have known better than to try to predict the very unpredictable Daisy Barton. She’d never done or said what he anticipated. When he’d been young and determined to flip off the world, he’d found that quality exciting. Intriguing. But now, today, as a man cemented in the community and in his job, he didn’t need surprises.

Especially a surprise like her.

He dropped the chart on the exam table, then exited the room. The lobby was empty, save for Frannie, who was still sputtering an apology. Colt waved it off, then exited through the side door, skirting the small brick building that housed his practice. He caught up to Daisy just as she was climbing into a dented gray Toyota sedan.

He put a hand on the door before she could shut it. Her perfume, dark and rich like a good coffee, wafted up to tease at his senses, urge him to lean in closer, to linger along the curve of her neck. He gripped the hard metal of the door instead. “What the hell are you doing here, Daisy? Why didn’t you simply sign the papers and mail them back to me?”

“Because I don’t want a divorce.”

The words hung in the air, six words he never expected to hear. Hell, he hadn’t expected to find out he was still married to her when he asked his lawyer to unearth a copy of the divorce decree. A mistake in the filing, his lawyer had said, and sent a new set of divorce papers off to Daisy. A quick, easy process, his lawyer had promised.

Apparently his lawyer had never met Daisy Barton.

“Daisy, we haven’t been together in fourteen years—”

“What was that back in June?”

“An . . . aberration.”

She snorted. “Is that what you call it?”

“We had one night,”—one crazy, hot, turn-a-man-inside-out night—“and that was it. It was wrong and when I realized that our divorce was never final, I sent you the papers. I don’t understand the problem, Daisy. We both wanted that divorce. Besides, we never had a real marriage to begin with.”

“Well we do now, my dear husband. All legal and everything. In fact, next month is our fifteenth anniversary. Maybe we should think of doing something.” The ice in her voice chilled the warm Florida air.

Was she insane? There was no way he was going to celebrate their anniversary or anything of the sort. He thrust the envelope of divorce papers at her, but she ignored them. “Just sign, and we can be done with this insanity. I’m dating someone else.” Well, technically, he wasn’t dating anyone, but Daisy didn’t need to know that.

“So sorry to put a crimp in your social life with our marriage.” She turned away from him, facing the windshield, her features cold and stony.

“A marriage that has been over since we were nineteen. A marriage that only lasted three weeks. A marriage we ended by mutual agreement years ago.”

“Mutual agreement? You walked out and never returned. I’d call that a one-sided decision on your part.”

He wasn’t about to retread all that again. He’d had his reasons for leaving, reasons she didn’t need to know. Telling Daisy wouldn’t change a thing. “Just sign, Daisy. We’ll be rid of each other once and for all. Isn’t that what you want, too?”

She bit her lip, and the gesture sent a fire roaring through him that nearly made him groan. Damn. This was why he didn’t want to be with Daisy. Because every time he got close to her, his brain turned into a pile of useless goo. “No, I don’t,” she said. “Not yet.”

“What do you mean—not yet?”

She blew her bangs out of her face and stared straight ahead, her hands resting on the steering wheel, key in the ignition. A tiny pair of bright pink plastic dice dangled from the ring, tick-tocking back and forth against the metal keys. “It’s complicated.”

He’d said the same thing to Greta. He laid his palms on the roof of the car and bit back a gust of frustration. “That’s the understatement of the year. Everything about you is complicated.”

She jerked her attention toward him, fire sparking in the set of her mouth. “There used to be a time when you liked that.”

“There used to be a time when we both liked each other’s faults.”

“Yeah, well we were young and stupid then. We were different people then.” She shook her head, then fiddled with the dice again, her keys jangling softly together. Her shoulders sagged a little and her voice dropped into a softer range. “Do you remember when we bought these?”

Remember? Hell, it was one of those memories that lingered in the back of a man’s mind like taffy. He started to lie, then let out a sigh and said, “Yeah, I do.”

“We were walking down the street in New Orleans, with what, ten dollars between us?”

They’d been too broke to even consider themselves poor, but hadn’t cared at all. They’d both been infatuated and naïve enough to think the world would work out just because they wanted it to. “Back then neither of us cared about how we were going to pay the rent or buy a winter coat. We lived every day by the seat of our pants.”

Impractical and spontaneous. Two words that no longer described Colt, but had always come attached to Daisy. There’d been a day when he thought that was attractive. Intoxicating even.

“I saw those dice in one of those tourist-trap stores on Bourbon Street, and told you I had to have them.” She fiddled with them some more and a smile stole across her face. “You asked me why and I said so that we always remember to take chances. Do you remember that, Colt?”

The memory hit him like a tidal wave. The crowded, busy street. The eager vendors hawking everything from beer to beads. And in the middle of all that, Daisy. He’d fished the last couple dollars out of his pocket, bought the dice, and dangled them in front of her. She’d let out a joyous squeal, then risen on her tiptoes to press a kiss to his lips, a honeyed kiss that had made everything else pale in comparison. He’d swooped her into his arms, then made the most insane decision of his life, all because of a pair of dice and a kiss.

They’d lasted three whole weeks together, three tumultuous weeks as filled with fights as they had been with wild, hot nights, until Colt called home and was hit by a hard, fast, and tragic reminder of where irresponsibility landed him. That day, he’d left Daisy and those crazy weeks behind. He’d started all over again, become a respectable, dependable doctor, a man with principles and expectations. Far, far from the Colt Harper he’d been in Louisiana.

Then this past summer, a medical conference had taken him back to New Orleans. The moment he’d seen Daisy, waiting tables at a cheesy diner near the convention center, he’d been standing there with the dice and the ten dollars all over again. Before he knew it, he’d invited Daisy back to his hotel, and for a few hours, it had been like old times. And ended like old times, too. With a fight, a promise to never see each other again, and one of them stomping out of the room. He’d thought that was it. He’d been wrong.

She looked up at him now, her eyes hidden by dark sunglasses. “What happened to you, Colt?”

“Nothing. I told you I had to go back to—”

“I didn’t mean that morning. I meant in the last fourteen years.” She reached out and flicked the navy satin tie he wore, as if it was a spider crawling down his shirt. “Look at you. All pressed and neat as a pin. You’re wearing a tie. Khaki pants. Khakis, for God’s sake. The Colt I used to know wore leather jackets and jeans and didn’t even own an iron.”

“I’ve changed since then.”

She dropped the sunglasses and let her gaze roam over him. “Well, at least you give off the aura of a respectable husband.”

“I’m not your husband, Daisy.” He tried again to get her to take the divorce papers. The last thing he needed to do was fall for that smile because of nostalgia. “So just sign this.”

She pushed them back in his direction. “I don’t want a divorce. I want a fresh start.”

“A . . . a what?”

“You owe me that much at least, Colt. I need to start over, and I have a chance here, in this town. But it turns out I need a little help to do that, and you know it pains me to even admit that. But I was hoping my husband would give me a little assistance. Then we can quietly get divorced.”

Twice in the space of ten minutes, he’d been blackmailed. To think he had once been head over heels for this woman. A mistake, of monumental proportions. “You want money? Is that it? How much, Daisy?”

“I don’t want any money. I want a name.” Her lower lip quivered for a moment and made him feel like a heel, then she blew out a breath and she was all steel and sass again. Whatever had been behind the comment was gone now, replaced by that impenetrable wall that made Daisy both infuriating and mysterious. “Give me a few weeks and then I’ll be out of your life.”

“Weeks? Why?”

She turned the key in the ignition and the car roared to life. “You don’t get to ask why, Colt. You gave up that right a long time ago.”

“You can’t come into this town and tell everyone we’re married. I have a life here, Daisy. A life that doesn’t include a wife.” People had forgotten about the Colt he used to be. The town had moved on, changed. Everyone here knew him only as a respectable doctor, not the headstrong teen who had run out of town, tossing aside school and his family, for what had amounted to a fling. An unforgettable fling, but a fling nonetheless.

“That life includes a wife now.” Daisy jerked the door shut, then propped an elbow on the open window and looked up at him. “Listen, I’m not here to make your life miserable. Maybe we can work out some kind of deal. Quid pro quo. Maybe there’s something you want—”

His mind rocketed back to that night in New Orleans. Daisy climbing on top of him, pinning his wrists to the bed—

Okay, that wasn’t helping anything. At all.

“There’s nothing I want. Except a divorce.”

“I can’t do that. I need you, Colt. Just for a few weeks. Please.” She bit her lip, and he sensed she hated having to beg. “There’s got to be something I can do for you. Something, uh, other than what happened in New Orleans.”

Meaning no sex. Not that he’d even considered that.

Liar.

What was with this woman? She turned him inside out and upside down in the space of five minutes.

“Think about my offer, Colt. I’m staying at the Rescue Bay Inn for a few days. Room one twelve.” She handed him a slip of paper. “My cell.”

He stepped back and she pulled away. A moment later, her car was gone. Three months ago, they’d been tangled in soft-as-butter sheets. She’d had her legs wrapped around his waist, her nails clutching at his back, her teeth nibbling his ear, and he’d been lost, in the moment, in her. Now they were exchanging numbers and making appointments, as if none of that had ever happened. That was what he’d wanted, how he’d left things three months ago. But it didn’t make words like quid pro quo sting any less.

A pair of seagulls flew overhead, squawking disapproval or agreement or the location of the nearest fish shack, Colt didn’t know. A breeze skated across the lot, making palm fronds shiver and the thick green grass yield. Daisy’s car disappeared around the corner with a red taillight flicker, and Colt stood there, empty, cold.

He started back toward his office, then stopped when he saw Greta Winslow, standing under the overhang on the corner of the building, out of earshot but still watching the whole thing. Great. Now this was going to be on the front page of the Rescue Bay paper: LOCAL DOC HIDING SECRET MARRIAGE WITH MYSTERY WOMAN.

“Here, Doc,” Greta said, marching up to him and thrusting a paper at his chest. “I think you need this more than I do.”

He glanced down at the orange sheet he’d handed her earlier. Beneath his signature he’d written: Doctor’s Advice: Embrace the things that scare you, from broccoli to love.

“That was just a joke, Greta. I didn’t mean—”

“Sometimes your subconscious is smarter than all those fancy medical degrees put together, Doc. And sometimes”—she laid a hand on his arm—“an old woman with eighty-plus years of life experience has a thing or two to teach her too-smart-for-his-own-good physician.”

“I appreciate the advice, Mrs. Winslow, I really do. But Daisy and I are just friends. Acquaintances, really. This whole marriage thing is a misunderstanding.”

She eyed him, her pale blue eyes squinting against the sun. “You should take a dose of your own medicine. Eat more broccoli, drink less bourbon, and most of all, don’t be afraid of love. Because in the end, it’s sure as hell better than the alternative.”

He arched a brow. “What’s the alternative?”

“Dying alone, drooling into your Wheaties.” She grinned, then patted him on the arm. “See, Doc? It could always be worse.”

Two

When Daisy Barton was five years old, her mother had enrolled her in kindergarten, dropped her off in front of the James K. Polk Elementary School, and told her to be a good girl. Daisy had gone inside the building alone, scared, and overwhelmed, wearing the hand-me-down red plaid jumper and white buckle shoes she had chosen with such care that morning. Before the heavy metal-and-glass door shut behind her, she heard the high-pitched squeal of tires against the pavement, and her mother was gone. Off to pursue needlepoint in the Ozarks or meditation in the desert, or whatever lark had captured Willow Barton’s attention that month.

Aunt Clara had been the one to pick Daisy up at the end of the day, to wipe away Daisy’s tears, and to mend the tear in Daisy’s dress. Aunt Clara had filled in as Daisy’s mother, in between Willow’s “adventures.” Aunt Clara, long married to Willow’s brother Lou, had been the closest thing Daisy had to a maternal figure, and when she’d moved away from Jacksonville and down to Rescue Bay for a few years, Daisy had felt as if her right arm was severed.

She’d called Aunt Clara regularly, and spent one summer here at the Hideaway Inn, but missed those family ties something fierce. Even from miles away, Aunt Clara had been the voice of reason and support, a steady foundation for Daisy to stand on when her life got too crazy. Which was like every other week.

So when Aunt Clara had asked something of Daisy in return, there’d been no doubt that Daisy’s answer would be yes.

The problem? Daisy had no clue how big of a task Aunt Clara’s request would be. Or how impossible it would be to bring to fruition. Or how Colt Harper would become the one monkey wrench she hadn’t expected.

Two weeks ago, Aunt Clara had laid in that big white hospital bed in Jacksonville, taken Daisy’s hand in one of hers, Cousin Emma’s in the other, and said, “I only ask one thing of you two girls. That you don’t let my family legacy crumble into the sea. It’s time I faced facts. I’m too sick and too old to get back to running the B&B, so I’m handing you girls the keys.”

And now Daisy was here in Rescue Bay, and hoping that if she got started, Emma would follow along. Turned out, though, that Aunt Clara’s “family legacy” needed more than just a spit and polish to get it back up and running. Nine years of being empty had damaged the wooden building housing the Hideaway Inn. The building had suffered serious storm and saltwater damage, along with plumbing and electrical issues, according to the contractor she’d had look at the place. Which meant money—something that wasn’t growing on trees or sprouting leaves in Daisy’s paltry wallet.

With Aunt Clara already financially strapped and Emma refusing to have anything to do with the inn, that left Daisy to come up with a miracle. For the first time in Daisy’s life, she needed someone else’s help to get what she wanted. Specifically, Colt Harper’s help.

If your husband signs off on the loan, the banker had said, I could get this approved without a problem.

The banker apparently didn’t know Colt. Or know that anything between her and Colt came wrapped with a double-knotted problem bow. Which was what had had her blasting into his office like a pissed-off hornet, because she’d seen the divorce papers and panicked.

Without a husband, she had zero chance at the loan. And without the loan, she had zero chance at fulfilling Aunt Clara’s wish. There was too much at stake to let that happen.

When she’d applied for the loan, Daisy had had no idea she was still married to Colt, or still connected via credit reports. It had taken her a good thirty seconds to process the words from the banker.

Your husband.

Her potential financial anchor, too. Assuming, that was, that she could convince him to cosign for the loan. Considering the way she’d burst into his office today, she hadn’t exactly won him over with honey. She needed to try again, but in a calm, collected manner. Or something close to that, considering nothing about Daisy Barton had ever been calm or collected. Either way, before she disturbed that particular hornet’s nest again, Daisy decided to see firsthand what she was getting herself into.

Daisy left her car keys on the scarred, rickety wood laminate nightstand—that Toyota was on its last breath as it was—and changed into comfortable flats, then headed outside. The warm sun hit her like a wave, and she turned her face to greet it. She closed her eyes, and thought if heaven had a temperature, this was it.

She started walking, inhaling the sweet salty tang of the ocean air, marveling at the palm trees and bright flowering shrubs that lined the streets, the way everything was so green and bright and pretty. For the first time in a long time, Daisy was filled with hope. Hope that things could be truly different—that she would be truly different.

Oh, how she had missed this place.

Daisy hadn’t been back to Rescue Bay in more than a dozen years. Her one stay here—that wonderful, crazy, amazing summer she’d spent at the inn—had been the best summer of Daisy’s life. For a little while, her world had been perfect, normal, and she’d thought—

No, prayed, that it would last.

Then Willow had pulled up in her beat-up Lincoln to uproot Daisy like a dandelion hiding among the roses. Daisy had never returned to the Hideaway. The following summer, Uncle Lou had died and Aunt Clara had moved back to Jacksonville. The Hideaway had withered away, managed from afar by a woman who couldn’t face carrying on the business without her husband.

Despite all the time that had passed, Daisy still remembered the route to the inn. Her feet took the same streets, made the same turns. Even though the landscape had changed, populated with more houses and more businesses, the route felt as familiar as her own hand.

She rounded the corner onto Gulfview Boulevard. The Gulf of Mexico spread before her in all its glistening blue glory, enticing, warm, gently whooshing in and out against the sandy beach. To her left lay the boardwalk that made up most of the touristy area of Rescue Bay. An ice cream shop, bakery, coffee shop, and T-shirt store sat in squat, sherbert-colored buildings, their doors propped open to catch the ocean breeze.

Daisy turned right, passing a long line of tall palm trees, their fronds swaying like lazy hula dancers in the breeze. Around the next curve in the road lay the Hideaway Inn. Daisy stopped walking, tugged her phone out of her pocket, then dialed a number she knew as well as her own. A moment later, the connection was answered. “I’m almost to the inn. And I wanted to share the moment I saw it again with you, even though you’re not, well, technically here.”

Emma let out a long sigh. “We’ve had this discussion, Dase.”

“Come on, don’t you miss the place, just a little?”

“No.” Emma bit off the word, succinct and cold. There’d been a time when Emma had loved the Hideaway as much as Daisy. Then something had changed, something Emma wouldn’t talk about, a dark shadow she kept behind closed doors, and she’d never returned. Daisy had thought about coming to the Hideaway over the years, but knew it would never be the same, not without Emma.

Had Daisy made a mistake? She’d been so sure that if she just took the bull by the horns and came here, getting the renovation wheels spinning, so to speak, that Emma would follow.

“We used to have so much fun here, Em,” Daisy said. “Don’t you remember that summer we spent on the beach? The—”

“Daisy, I’m not interested in that place. I don’t know why my mother thinks I should be. It’s a family albatross. All it did was drag my grandparents down, then my parents when they took it over, and now it’s got you wrapped up in its tentacles.” She let out a low curse under her breath. “Why are you so intent on getting it up and running again?”

“Because Aunt Clara asked us to.”

Emma sighed. “I know that, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out why. You would think my mother would just let that place go after . . . everything.”

“What do you mean? Aunt Clara loves the Hideaway.”

Used to love it,” Emma said. “Now it’s just . . .”

“Just what?” Daisy sensed that shadow again, the closed door. She waited, but Emma didn’t explain.

“It’s just another disaster,” Emma said. “Do you know how much work it needs?” Daisy turned the corner and for a moment, she saw the old Hideaway Inn, the two stories of sky blue siding with soft white trim, the wide front porch that stretched from one end to the other, the lush green lawn, the gauzy kitchen curtains drifting lazily in the breeze. Then the mirage cleared and she saw the reality.

A faded building with broken shutters dangling like missing teeth in a welterweight’s smile. The lush lawn had gone brown and dead. The kitchen windows were boarded up, and the front porch sagged to one side.

“One hundred and ninety-two thousand dollars worth of work,” Daisy said and let out a sigh. She’d been hoping the contractor had been wrong, that maybe he’d overestimated, to scare her off from such a giant project. “I got an estimate.”

Though seeing the inn now, Daisy had to wonder if the contractor had instead underestimated. A lot. The vacation retreat she remembered from childhood had become a sad, rundown ghost.

“You did? When?”

“I called someone the day I left the hospital. I told you I was serious about this, Em.”

Emma laughed. “Dase, I’ve known you all my life. You’ve never been serious about anything. I’m the one who overanalyzes and overschedules and over-everythings. You’re the one who lives on the edge.”

Emma was right. Maybe it had been a part of being raised in an untraditional house. Maybe her mother had instilled some kind of wanderlust or need for spontaneity in her only child. Daisy had dropped out of school at seventeen, got her GED at twenty, but had flitted from job to job all her life. She’d never lived in one apartment long enough to celebrate two holidays. She didn’t balance her checkbook, didn’t bake cookies, didn’t make friends with the neighbors.

And yet, here she was, in a town as traditional as turkey on Thanksgiving. Trying to be a dependable, mortgage-paying, tax-filing grown-up.

“Even if we wanted to fix up the Hideaway, where are we supposed to get two hundred grand?” Emma asked. “That place has sucked my mom’s bank account dry. What money she had left from when she and my dad took over for my grandparents was wiped away in the years that she let it go.”

“I’m working on getting a loan, Em. We can get it up and running, just like it was before. Don’t you remember how much fun we had here? How for a little while, everything was”—Daisy took in the depressing sight before her, and tried her best to remember the way the inn used to be—“perfect?”

“Daisy, you’re living in a fairy tale. Nothing is ever perfect.” Emma’s voice held low, sad notes. “Not one place, not one person.”

“Emma—”

“I can’t do this. I’m sorry,” Emma said. “I . . . I just can’t.”

The connection ended, leaving Daisy with silence. She stared up at the inn, seeing the bright, cheery building that had once housed two girls on the brink of being women, two girls who had believed in fairy tales and princes on white horses. The inn held a special magic, Daisy had always believed, and if she could restore it to its former glory, maybe Emma would find that magic again, too.

That meant Daisy needed that loan. And if the money wasn’t going to come to her, she was going to go get it. No matter what it took. Or who it meant asking.

Three

“You . . . are gonna . . . kill yourself. Or . . . me.” Nick Patterson bent at the waist and heaved in a few deep breaths. Sweat poured from his brow, plastered his faded gray T-shirt to his chest. “Jesus, Colt, what’s . . . with you . . . today?”

“Nothing.” Colt stepped back, aimed his shot, and let the ball fly toward the netless hoop. It missed its target, pinging off the battered orange rim and bouncing outside the chalked foul line. Colt’s concentration had been zero all day, ever since Daisy came storming into his office, disrupting his life. He’d hoped a few rounds of hoops with Nick would ease this tension in his gut, but so far, the frustrating game was having the opposite effect. “Damn it.”

Nick jerked to the right, grabbed the ball on a rebound, but didn’t shoot. His childhood friend stood a few inches taller than Colt. On the court, Nick had the height advantage, but most days, Colt moved faster, which made for nicely competitive games. On the days when Colt’s mind was on basketball, that was.

“Nothing’s wrong? Bullshit.” Nick tucked the ball under one arm. “Is it your grandpa again? My grandpa’s been asking about Earl. Said something about missing him at the card games lately.”

“It’s not my grandpa.” Colt put out his hand. “Just throw me the ball, Nick.”

“I will when you tell me why you are turning a friendly game of one-on-one into a death match.”

Colt swiped off the sweat beading on his forehead, then crossed to the sidelines and grabbed a bottle of water out of the cooler. He twisted off the top, handed it to Nick, and grabbed a second for himself. The two men sat on the old, faded bench and faced the pockmarked basketball court that had long ago been forgotten by Rescue Bay’s teenagers.

He and Nick had been coming to this court for twenty-plus years, to shoot a few hoops and talk, in the way that guys talked—between beers and points. Of all the people in Rescue Bay, Nick was the only one who had known Colt all his life. They’d suffered through the same parochial school in a nearby town, lived on the same block, and fished the same lake with their grandfathers. And when Colt had needed a friend, needed someone who wouldn’t judge him or condemn him—

Nick had been there.

Colt took a long swig of water and waited for the cool liquid to slide down his throat. “It’s Daisy.”

The water bottle popped out of Nick’s mouth. “Daisy? As in . . . Daisy? Holy shit. Now there’s a blast from the past.”

“And apparently a blast into the present, too. She’s in town. I found out when she came roaring into my office earlier today when I was with a patient. Pissed off as all hell, and ready to rip me a new one.”

Nick chuckled. “Sounds like your entire marriage. As short-lived as it was.”

Colt snorted and took another swig of water. “You can say that again.”

“Well, that sure as hell explains why you’re killing yourself on the court. Working off a little frustration?”

“Just a little.” Understatement of the year. Seeing Daisy again had woken a beast inside his gut, the same one that had sent him straight to her bed when he’d seen her in New Orleans. There was something about Daisy Barton. Something irresistible. Exactly why he should try to avoid her. Quit thinking about her. And most of all, talking about her.

Yeah, and look how that plan was going so far.

Colt got to his feet, picked up the ball, went to line up his shot, then stopped. All he saw in his head was Daisy’s curves, Daisy’s lips, just . . . Daisy. He shook his head.

“Damn it. I don’t want to think about her,” he said more to himself than to his friend.

Nick put down the water bottle and crossed in front of Colt. He bent at the knees, and fanned out his hands, shifting his weight back and forth, playing defense, waiting on Colt’s next move. “Give me one good reason why any straight man with a pulse wouldn’t think about Daisy in some seriously unholy ways.”

“Because we’re not getting involved again. Or ever.” Colt dribbled a few times, stepped right, lined up again. Focus on the ball, on the shot, instead of on one horrific day fourteen years ago. A day when Colt realized what happened when he put himself ahead of those he loved. He wouldn’t do it again. “Daisy and I are like iron pills and milk. The two don’t work well together. At all.”

Nick swiped the ball out of Colt’s hands, pivoted, then sent the ball sailing through the basket. “Only you would turn a conversation about Daisy, who is, I have to say, one of the hottest-looking women God ever put on earth, into a lecture about multivitamins.”

Because if Colt thought of Daisy in terms of RDAs of ferritin and calcium, maybe it wouldn’t make him drive over to the Rescue Bay Inn and finish what they had started back in New Orleans. Wouldn’t make him want to tangle himself again with the one woman on earth who drove him crazy, in more ways than one. The one woman who made him forget his responsibilities and his promises. No. Never again.

“I already learned my lesson,” Colt said. “I married her, remember?”

“So? Doesn’t mean you can’t do it better now that you’re older, wiser.” Nick grabbed the rebounding ball, made another three-pointer, as easy as tossing pennies into a pond. “More experienced.”

“Apparently not wiser. Turns out”—Colt stepped in, grabbed the ball, and pivoted in front of Nick—“I’m still married to her.”

The ball pinged off the rim and back into Nick’s hands. He didn’t dribble, didn’t shoot. Just stared at Colt, mouth agape. “What the hell? Still married? How’s that?”

“When we got divorced, someone didn’t finish filing the paperwork.” Colt shrugged.

“Someone . . . like you?”

Colt gave a half nod. He’d always prided himself on being organized and detail oriented, but when it came to Daisy, all those little charts and checklists flew out the window. They’d been in a rush to get married, and he’d been in a rush to get divorced. Apparently such a rush that he hadn’t made sure the paperwork got to the courthouse. Some psychologist would probably call it a Freudian desire to stay attached to Daisy or something, but Colt would disagree.

“I was young and stupid then,” he said, echoing Daisy’s words.

It was more than that, but Colt didn’t want to talk about it. He never talked about the day he returned to Rescue Bay, and found the family he had left behind, the family he had been in such a rush to leave, irreparably destroyed. Because of one foolish decision. Because of Colt’s selfish choices.

Will you be here, Colt, when I get back?

Of course. I’m always here for you, buddy.

A grin, then a light jab to his arm. You’re a good big brother.

You’re not so bad yourself, for a pesky little brother.

Laughter, always laughter. When Colt’s thoughts wandered to Henry, they were filled with the merry sound of Henry’s laughter. Then, just as quickly, that laughter evaporated and a hollow, aching pain filled the spaces in Colt’s heart.

Because Colt hadn’t been there. He’d broken his promise, and Henry had been the one to pay the price.

He’d thrown himself into making amends from that day forward, but it hadn’t been enough. Would never be enough. He sucked in a breath, but it didn’t ease the searing pain in his heart. Damn it, why did Daisy have to come back here? Just seeing her reopened a wound that had never healed.

“You’ve never been someone who missed a paperwork deadline, or had so much as a file folder out of place,” Nick said, dragging Colt back into the present. “How did you miss something as important as your divorce?”

Colt reached for the ball. “Come on, we gonna play or what?”

Nick circled the ball around to his back. “I think you’ve got some subconscious desire to stay with Daisy.”

The last thing he needed was Nick playing pop psychologist. “Of course not. It was a mistake, plain and simple. I was busy then. It was right after—”

Nick’s features softened. “Yeah. I forgot it was at the same time. No wonder you forgot to file.”

Colt shrugged, and let out a long, slow breath, until his chest stopped aching and he could pretend he wasn’t affected by any of it anymore. “Either way, I thought I was divorced all these years. Then I ran into her a few months ago—”

“Whoa. Hold on, cowboy. You never told me you saw her a few months ago.”

Okay, so maybe he hadn’t shared everything with his best friend. “I was at a medical convention, and she was working at a diner I stopped at. One thing led to another and . . .” Colt reached for the ball, but Nick whisked it away again. “Anyway, when I got home, I realized I never did get a copy of my final divorce decree, so I called my lawyer and found out I hadn’t filed way back when.”

“Why would seeing Daisy make you think of your divorce decree? Oh, wait, I know.” Nick held the ball out of Colt’s reach, half taunting him. “Because you were dating Maryanne.”

“And considering marrying her.” Until Maryanne had broken up with him to move back to Tulsa and date her high school sweetheart. At the time, Colt had been more relieved than disappointed, which surprised him. He’d always thought Maryanne would be the perfect doctor’s wife. Tidy, good-natured, organized.

And not a woman who lit a fire in his belly or made him forget details. Made him lose focus. Just the fact that seeing Daisy in that diner had put Maryanne far from his mind should have been a clue that the quiet, introverted insurance adjuster he’d been dating wasn’t Miss Right. Maybe that was what the night with Daisy had been about—a test for him to see if he was making the right choice with Maryanne.

When the answer was already there before he’d even walked into Nero’s and said hello to Daisy.

Nick mocked a yawn. “Maryanne is a nice woman and all, but if you ask me, it’d be like an eighteenth-century marriage. All tea and embroidery and how was your day, dear.”

“And what’s wrong with that?”

“What’s right with that? Who wants to come home and stare at each other every night? What you want is a woman who makes you break the land-speed record to get home. A woman who drives you crazy, in a good way.”

Colt snorted. “And have you met any women like that?”

“Hell no. Which is why I’m still single.” He raised his hands and gave the ball an easy push, up and over and into the net. “And still beating your ass at basketball.”

“Lucky shot.” Like the first ten shots had been. And the five before that.

Colt had a lot on his mind, that was all. With any luck, Daisy would leave town by the end of the week, and he could get back to focusing on his patients and his grandfather. On getting all those straight lines back into alignment. Uh-huh. As long as he stayed at least one state away from Daisy Barton, maybe that would work.

“Just admit it.” Nick stepped forward, retrieved the ball, gave it a bounce, and aimed at the basket again.

“Admit what?”

“That you still like Daisy.” Nick shot an easy layup that swooshed through the hoop. “Heck, maybe still love her.”

“When did I ever say I loved her?”

Nick arched a brow. “When you ran off and eloped with her?”

“That was the insane decision of a couple of teenagers. It wasn’t about love.”

“If you say so.” Nick caught the ball again. “All I know is that your game is off and your mind is somewhere else. I’d bet a year’s salary that somewhere is with a gorgeous brunette. Either way, the ball is now in your court.” He pressed the ball into Colt’s hands. “Don’t waste the last good shot you have.”

Four

“What on God’s green earth is that?”

Esther glanced up from the pile of brown yarn in her lap and gave Greta a quizzical look. Esther’s purple polka-dotted granny glasses perched at a precarious angle on the bridge of her nose, as if they wanted to swan dive into the bodice of her neon paisley housedress.

“What is what?” Esther asked.

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