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Return to Magnolia Harbor
By Hope Ramsay
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Jessica Blackwood is trying to make her architectural design firm a success, and she’s off to a great start, thanks to a recommendation that leads to the job of the century-designing a house for a wealthy but reclusive bachelor. The only problem? Jessica’s new client happens to be her old high school nemesis. The bigger problem? He’s no longer the cocky boy who once tormented her, and suddenly she finds herself intrigued by her new client.
Christopher Martin isn’t proud of his past behavior. He regrets nothing more than hurting Jessica all those years ago, and now that he’s back in Magnolia Harbor he finally has a chance to make amends. As the two work side by side, Topher begins to realize he wants more than a house. He wants forgiveness and a future with the woman he’s never forgotten. But can he prove to Jessica he’s truly changed?
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I was warned, before I started work on this story, that writing a Beauty and the Beast trope might be harder than I thought. I ignored this sage advice and ended up mired in a mess of my own making. And so I must acknowledge all of those who pulled me out of the quicksand, starting with the anonymous blogger at You Call Yourself a Film Critic (youcallyourselfafilmcritic.wordpress.com) whose wonderful blog about Beauty and the Beast finally helped me realize that my main character was a great deal more like Fiona from Shrek than Belle from the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast.
Also, many thanks to my longtime editor, Alex Logan, who had to read the first draft of this story, an experience that was probably quite painful for her, and stuck with me until we had fixed the problems. She once again helped me figure it all out as only she can do. Her advice is nothing short of brilliant.
I'd also like to thank my good friends and critique partners J. Keely Thrall and Carol Hayes for their thoughts about the hero as this project was first coming together and my writing pal Jamie Beck for listening to the whole plot line during a three-hour drive from New York to Vermont and for helping me brainstorm the ending.
Finally, my heartfelt thanks go to Elizabeth Turner Stokes for capturing my vision of a lighthouse and giving Return to Magnolia Harbor the best cover ever.
Jessica Blackwood patted down her hair, hoping the humidity hadn't frizzed it too much. Granny would probably comment on it anyway, even if she'd managed to smooth it into the most perfect pageboy in the universe.
She stood on the sidewalk outside Granny's house in the historic district of Magnolia Harbor. Built in the mid-1800s in the Georgian style, the house was a study in geometry and symmetry. The plants in the garden were set out in careful rows too. Granny would have it no other way.
Jessica hurried up the brick walk, fixing a proper Southern-lady mask on her face. She rang the doorbell and waited.
It was funny, she'd once called this house home, but now it felt more like the scene of a crime, where her parents had abandoned her and disbelieved her and then sent her away.
So she didn't love the house because she'd never been loved here. And yet, like a good girl, she came back every Saturday out of obligation. Granny lived alone now that Momma and Daddy had died.
When Granny finally opened the door, Jessica drew some comfort from the fact that, like her own hair, Granny's looked like a frizzy nimbus around her thin face. But that didn't stop Granny from frowning. The fold in the middle of her forehead could intimidate anyone, and frequently did. Granny had spent a lifetime frowning and had worn that groove deep.
"Darling," Granny said in a slow drawl, "you're late." And then the old woman inspected Jess. "Why do you insist on wearing that dress? The color isn't good on you."
The dress in question had been purchased at Daffy Down Dilly, the boutique that occupied the retail space below Jessica's brand-new office. It had a border of roses along the hemline in shades ranging from pastel to hot pink. Jessica loved the dress, but Granny had a thing about pink. Jessica should have remembered and worn something else.
Jessica said nothing because Granny didn't expect explanations or apologies. Instead the old woman turned away, and Jessica dutifully followed into the front parlor, which was furnished with Victorian antiques that had never been comfortable.
As if to punctuate the point, Granny's sister, Donna Cuthbert, who was about a hundred pounds heavier than Granny, perched precariously on the edge of the balloon-backed sofa. Aunt Donna looked as if she might slide right off that thing at any moment, and her purple jungle-print blouse clashed horribly with the sofa's red damask upholstery.
Granny gave her older sister one of her disapproving looks, with the eyebrow lowered just so. "Donna dropped in unannounced," she said. "I had to put another cup on the tray."
As if putting another cup on the tray was a major trial. Granny could complain about anything, even an unexpected visit from a member of her much-diminished family.
"Hey, darlin'," Donna said, hopping up from her unsteady seat and giving Jessica a big, warm hug.
"What brings you to tea?" Jessica asked, sitting down in one of the side chairs.
Granny took a seat beside Donna. There was a faint family resemblance between the two sisters, despite the fact that one was rail thin and the other quite large.
"Gossip, my dear," Aunt Donna said in a conspiratorial tone.
Jessica didn't rise to the bait because she avoided gossip at all cost. She'd been scarred by the stories people had told about her over the years.
She turned her attention to the tea tray, filled with Granny's pride and joy: her Lenox china in the Cinderella pattern. Jessica picked up the teapot and started pouring. From the time she'd been ten years old, she'd been expected to manage a teapot without spilling, as if this ability was an indication of her worth as a human being.
"What gossip?" Granny finally asked, unable to resist the lure Donna had set.
"About Christopher Martin," Aunt Donna said.
The teapot jumped in Jessica's hand, and she sloshed tea into Granny's saucer. Christopher, who was widely known by the nickname Topher, had been a hometown hero ever since he'd led the Rutledge Raiders to the state football championship sixteen years ago.
"Oh, for pity's sake," Granny said, reaching for a cloth napkin to mop up the spill.
"Sorry," Jessica said in a tiny voice and carefully put down the pot. "What about Topher Martin?" she asked, picking up her cup and saucer, hoping that neither woman noticed the slight tremor in her hands.
"The poor man has shut himself up in Ashley's cottage," Donna said.
"Oh, the poor dear," Granny said.
Jessica looked up from her tea. The poor dear? Really? "What do you mean, he's shut himself away?" Jessica asked aloud.
"Oh, didn't you hear?" Donna asked.
"I don't gossip," Jessica said in a tight voice, although technically she was gossiping right this minute.
"Well, it's not exactly gossip. I mean, it's practically common knowledge," Donna countered.
"Maybe only to the members of the Piece Makers, sister," Granny said. The Piece Makers were the local quilting club. The ladies had been meeting for decades to make charity quilts while they discussed everything and everyone in Magnolia Harbor.
She didn't ask what the heck Granny and Aunt Donna were talking about. She refused to give them any encouragement. She simply sat and sipped her tea and tried, without success, to think about something that would change the course of the conversation.
"Christopher was horribly disfigured in a car accident about nine months ago," Granny whispered in the same tone she often used when talking about someone diagnosed with cancer or having a heart attack.
"I hear it's a challenge to look him in the face now," Donna said.
"So have I. Such a pity. He's still unmarried, and a Martin. A rich one, evidently, since he was the CEO or something for one of those hedge funds. They say he made billions," Granny said.
"It's such a shame, and after the way he led the Rutledge Raiders to the championship that time." Aunt Donna let go of a long sigh.
Jessica kept her expression impassive while her emotions churned in her gut. Just yesterday, Topher Martin had called her office and asked her to design a house for him out on a remote island in the bay. She'd refused at first, but he'd been very persuasive, offering her a fee that was twice her going rate.
He hadn't really explained why he wanted to build a house so far off the grid. But now maybe she had her answer. Maybe he wanted to hide. Maybe he'd become a monster.
Although in Jessica's book he'd always been one of the villains—a member of the football team that had started the vicious rumors about her sixteen years ago. Now maybe everyone would get over their hero worship and see him for who he truly was.
If her architectural firm wasn't desperate for new business, she would never have considered his commission. But she was trying to move on in her life. And a girl had to eat.
"Have you seen him since he was disfigured?" Donna asked, pulling Jessica from her thoughts.
Granny shook her head. "No. But he was such a beautiful boy once."
"Well, it's water over the dam now," Donna said. Her aunt placed her empty cup down on the tray. "The juicy bit is that I understand he's so disfigured that he wants to build some kind of hideaway on Lookout Island." Donna paused here for impact before turning her gaze on Jessica. "And I understand from the word on the street that he's hired you."
Jessica's face heated as the two old women stared at her. Granny glowered as if Jessica had been caught in a lie just because she hadn't rushed in to tell her that she had a new client. Aunt Donna leaned in ready for the next juicy morsel.
"I'm meeting with him on Monday to discuss the house he wants to build."
"So you've seen him?" Donna asked.
Jessica shook her head. "No. We had a phone conversation. And it would be an exaggeration to say that I'm his architect. I have no idea, really, what he wants to build. He hasn't signed any paperwork, either. We're meeting for a site visit. That's it for now. And since he might be paying me a lot of money to design a house for him, I'm not going to gossip about him." Although, way back in her mind, it struck her that maybe there was justice in the world. Let the old biddies of Magnolia Harbor gossip about him all day long. She hoped all that talk would make him miserable, and then he'd realize what he'd done.
Jessica leaned over and picked up the teapot. "Seconds, anyone?" she asked, hoping to change the subject.
"You know," Donna said, holding out her cup, "I've heard Ashley, Sandra, and Karen talking about Topher. His cousins definitely don't want him to build this house."
"No?" Jessica asked.
Donna shook her head. "I gather he's been deeply injured too. Has a problem with his leg."
"The poor dear. He has no business moving out to that remote island," Granny said, turning toward Jess. "You should tell him no."
"You shouldn't help him, my dear," Granny repeated.
"Because it wouldn't be right."
Jessica bit her tongue and just barely stopped herself from asking Granny the age-old question: Who elected her to be the arbiter of right and wrong, anyway? Because she was a really bad judge.
"It might not be," Donna said.
Jessica stared down at the stupid Cinderella teacup. Here was the exit door. She could walk through it if she wanted. She could tell everyone that she refused his commission because he had no business building a house in a remote location.
So maybe doing the wrong thing was exactly what she needed to do. She didn't care. Let him go live a miserable life in a drafty old lighthouse. It would serve him right.
The thought warmed her in some weird and unacceptable way. She looked up from the teacup and right into her grandmother's judgmental stare.
"I really don't care whether it's right or wrong, Granny," she said. "I need a client; he has money. And that's the end of this discussion."
* * *
The only berth available for Topher Martin's newly purchased, forty-foot Caliber sailing yacht, Bachelor's Delight, was way at the end of the Magnolia Harbor pier. When he'd first returned to Magnolia Harbor three weeks ago, he'd planned to live on the boat. But the long walk from the berth to the nearest convenience store had proved impossible for him.
So he'd thrown himself on his older cousin's mercy. Ashley Scott, the owner of Howland House, the five-star bed-and-breakfast in town, had allowed him to rent Rose Cottage for the next six months, through March.
The long walk from the parking lot reminded Topher that his earlier plans had been half-baked. He was annoyingly winded, and his bad leg ached by the time he reached the berth.
Isaac Solomon, at the marina office, had fueled up the boat and stocked the small refrigerator in the galley with drinks and box lunches. Topher hobbled down the ship's ladder and snagged himself a bottled water and gulped four ibuprofens.
Maybe that would take the edge off the pain.
But even if it didn't, he would endure it. He'd done that before when he'd torn up his knee between his freshman and sophomore years at Alabama. That injury had ended his NFL dreams and taken months and months of recovery time.
But that old injury was nothing in comparison to the pain that lanced through his leg with every step. He loved and hated the pain. It was a reminder of the alternative he'd narrowly escaped when he'd wrapped his Ferrari around a barrier when he'd swerved to avoid a deer on a blind man's curve. At the same time, he often wondered why his life had been spared and reduced to this living nightmare.
He dragged himself back above deck and sat down in the cockpit behind the ship's wheel. He checked his watch. He'd left himself plenty of time because he didn't want Jessica Blackwood to see him winded and limping down the pier. Hell, if he could have dealt with her entirely by telephone or text, he would have.
But how on earth would she ever design him a house if he refused to go with her to the island? If he left her to her own devices, he'd get something ultramodern like the house she'd designed for Yoshi Akiyama.
Yoshi was one of his investment clients, and his new beach house was amazing. The technology was cutting-edge, and it had been built out of recycled and locally sourced, sustainable materials. But it was also avant-garde and looked a great deal like a bird taking to flight.
Topher didn't want an ultramodern house. On the other hand, he wasn't sure exactly what he did want. Just a place to escape to. Beyond that he had nothing.
He checked his watch again and rolled his neck, easing the tension. If he was scrupulously honest, he'd admit the truth. He was dreading the moment when Jessica Blackwood would give him the stare. She'd focus over his right shoulder and avoid eye contact. No matter how many times it happened, he'd never get used to the fact that people found his newly rearranged face disgusting and disturbing.
He checked his watch yet again, like someone with a compulsion. Anxiety clutched at him. Maybe he should call her and—
He looked up from his Rolex and caught sight of Jessica coming down the boardwalk. She was wearing a pair of sensible army-green camp pants, a plain white T-shirt that molded to her slender form, and a pair of boat shoes. With an Atlanta Braves baseball cap on her head, she looked like the epitome of the plucky girl next door. The one least likely to end up in trouble with the town's most notorious bad boy.
As she approached, memories tumbled into place. Damn. He remembered now. She'd been a lifeguard one year at the yacht club pool. She'd even saved a kid who'd hit his head on the diving board.
She hadn't been his type at all, and yet he remembered that summer, finding her attractive in spite of the fact that she wasn't stacked or blonde, but because of her heroism that day, hauling that kid out of the pool and giving him mouth-to-mouth until he coughed up a bunch of water.
He'd become fascinated with her for a time—enough to wonder why she hung out with Colton St. Pierre. He vaguely remembered telling her that Colton was bad news.
And he'd been right about that. Colton had ended up in jail. And Jessica had been sent away. Well, everyone made mistakes. Clearly, she'd straightened her life out.
And she still wasn't his type. But then, no woman in her right mind wanted him now, except maybe for his money. He certainly had enough to buy companionship. But who the hell wanted that?
As she approached, he swiveled on the captain's chair, the morning sun hot against his scarred face, a trickle of sweat inching down his back between his shoulder blades. He braced for the stare, but she was wearing sunglasses.
He didn't know whether to curse or praise God. Being not very religious and consigned to a body that no longer worked right, he chose not to thank God.
"Good morning," she said in a falsely bright voice that conveyed her disgust. Damn those sunglasses—he would bet his fortune that she was looking over his shoulder. He turned his head to the left so she would only have to see his good side.
"You're late," he growled.
"I'm sorry, but it was a long—"
"Untie the mooring lines," he interrupted. He hoped to hell she knew what that meant because he'd be damned if he had to do it himself. Climbing up to the dock and back would hurt. And, of course, it would display his weakness.
She put her hands on her hips and cocked her head. "I'm not your crew, you know."
Great. She didn't know what a mooring line was. "Fine. I'll do it—"
"No. All you have to do is ask nicely," she said with another big, phony smile.
"Please," he muttered, semi-embarrassed. What the hell? He didn't want to scare this architect away. She was the only one who hadn't laughed at him when he'd said the words "Lookout Island."
She dropped her big tote into the cockpit and scampered down the dock to the big cleat where the mooring line was tied. She moved like a sprite, light on her feet. She was fun to watch.
Clearly she knew something about sailboats because she handled the mooring lines like a pro and even hopped from the pier to the gunwales without looking intimidated or out of her element.
"So you know your way around a sailboat," he said as he fired up the diesel engines.
"My grandfather was once a member of the yacht club. He had a J-22 we used to sail when I was a kid," she said as she stepped down into the cockpit and then perched on the portside bench.
He studied her as she looked up at the mast where the wind vane indicated a good breeze blowing from the southwest. Topher judged it at maybe eight knots or so.
"So we're not sailing?" she asked as he guided the boat into the channel.
"No," he growled, annoyed by her question.
He'd been sailing all his life, and the yacht had all the technology money could buy. It might be forty feet long, but it was rigged to be single-handed. Topher could manage it even without his good health.
But he didn't want to embarrass himself in front of this woman. He didn't want to display his disabilities; otherwise she might join the chorus of people in his life who thought he was crazy to want to live alone on a deserted island.
* * *
Topher turned his head so that only the unmarred side of his face was visible. It was as handsome as ever. But Jessica was hard-pressed to recognize the man sitting behind the ship's wheel.
He wasn't the same clean-cut, letter-jacket all-American she remembered. He'd lost the roundness of youth and now had a tough, sinewy look to him. He was dressed like a beach bum, in a garish purple Hawaiian shirt featuring palm trees and bright-orange sunsets, faded jeans with holes in the knees, and a pair of dirty Vans.
The late-August sun highlighted strands of blond and gray in his shoulder-length hair. A bushy beard hid a tracery of scars on his left side, which he tried to keep hidden from her view. The way he turned his head might have broken her heart if she'd had any pity for him.
But it was the eye patch over his left eye that gave him the appearance of an anti-hero from an action movie. Looking into the endless blue of his right eye was more unnerving than the lack of symmetry in his face or his incredibly rude manner.
She settled back into the cushion and waited. Last Friday, when he'd set up this meeting, he'd been so insistent about her dropping everything, including her bid for the new City Hall project, in order to do this site visit. She expected him to have a lot to say as they sailed out to the island.
Clients usually had more ideas than could ever be incorporated into a single design. It was her job to winnow out the important things at initial meetings like this.
But minutes rolled by and he remained silent. Evidently, he expected her to get the ball rolling. "So, about this house," she said, "are you planning to restore the lighthouse, or did you want to build additional structures?"
Instead of answering the question, he turned that blue eye on her and asked, "Do you think I'm crazy?"
"It's a simple question. Do you think I'm crazy to build on a remote island?"
Oh boy. Obviously the man knew what the gossips were saying about him. She could stop this right now. But she suddenly didn't want to. If the man wanted to hang himself, she was happy to supply the rope.
But she wasn't rude, either. She simply sidestepped his query. "Building on an island will be difficult," she said.
"That didn't answer my question."
He was no fool, was he? "Well," she said, leaning back on the bench and looking away from his too-intense gaze, "you have to be a little crazy to want to build off the grid."
He barked a laugh. "So you think I'm crazy."
"Yes," she said as irritation mounted. The man obviously didn't know one thing about polite conversation.
"Maybe we should turn around," he said through his teeth. His gaze pinned her.
"Maybe we should. We're only here because you insisted." She forced herself to stare right at him, daring him to come about.
His mouth twitched, and he looked to the left, hiding his scars. He didn't turn the boat around, but he didn't say anything, either. The silence stretched out, punctuated by the wind whipping against the ties on the furled mainsail. She pressed her lips together, determined not to smooth over what had just been said, and watched the seabirds above them.
Ten minutes later, he spoke again. "My grandfather talked about building a big house on the island. I think he wanted to oust the Martin family get-togethers from Aunt Mary's. It galled him to have the Martin family reunion at Howland House. There was once a time when the Martins were as important as the Howlands."
So this was about family ego? Really? She wanted to hurl over the sides, but she continued her silence. She had nothing nice to say about his vision.
"What's going on in that head of yours?" He barked the question into the wind.
That did it. If he wanted the truth, she'd give it to him. "So basically you want to build a monument to your family's name, then."
He laughed without any mirth. "Yes." And then a moment later. "I loved my grandfather."
The longing in his voice yanked her back and reminded her that she was here for the purpose of moving on. Maybe she should quit being so angry and try accepting that he was a human capable of loving someone.
And she could understand loving a grandfather. She'd adored PopPop.
"I understand," she said, fighting to maintain emotional distance from the man who had ruined her life.
Did she understand?
No way. She was whole, and beautiful, and…He didn't know what the hell word to use to describe her. She wasn't intimidated by his anger, and the way she pointed her face at him suggested that she wasn't giving him the stare.
He wanted her to understand about Granddad. But what the hell. It didn't matter if she understood. What he wanted was impossible. The dream of a family compound had died with his grandfather. His cousins were scattered around the country these days, and besides, who would want to bring their kids to visit a man whose face made babies cry?
No, he was alone, and likely to be that way for the rest of his life. So what he needed was a place to hide. But saying it out loud wasn't easy.
He tore his gaze away from Jessica and focused on the compass heading. Not that he needed the direction. He could see Lookout Island off the port bow, the old lighthouse rising up, seemingly from out of the bay itself.
"Maybe I should just restore the lighthouse," he muttered, feeling the need to say something.
"Well, that's an option. But are you ready for tiny-house living? A lighthouse usually doesn't have much square footage."
- "Ramsay paints a quaint portrait of Magnolia Harbor and its earnest, salt-of-the-earth denizens, but she doesn't shy from drama and drops in a few deliciously hateable villains to liven up the tale. This cozy small-town romance will please Ramsay's fans and should attract new ones."—Publishers Weekly
- "Every story by Hope Ramsay will touch a reader's heart."—Brenda Novak, New York Times bestselling author
- "Happiness is a new Hope Ramsay series."—Fresh Fiction
—Publishers Weekly on Summer on Moonlight Bay
- On Sale
- Jun 23, 2020
- Page Count
- 336 pages