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When a hurricane roars through Lacey Armstrong’s home on the coast of Barefoot Bay, she decides all that remains in the rubble is opportunity. A new hotel is just what Mimosa Key needs, and Lacey and her teenage daughter are due for a fresh start. And nothing, especially not a hot, younger architect, is going to distract Lacey from finally making her dreams a reality.
Love has already cost Clay Walker everything. And if he’s going to have any chance of picking up the pieces of his life, he needs the job as Lacey Armstrong’s architect. What’s not in the plans is falling for the headstrong beauty. Her vision of the future is more appealing than anything he could have ever drafted for himself. Will Clay’s designs on Lacey’s heart be more than she can handle, or will she trust him to build something that will last forever?
Table of Contents
A Preview of Barefoot in the Rain
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The kitchen windows shot out like cannons, one right after another, followed by the ear-splitting crash of the antique breakfront nose-diving to the tile floor.
Shit. Granny Dot's entire Old Country Rose service for twelve was in there.
Lacey pressed against the closet door, eyes closed, body braced, mind reeling. This was it. Everything she owned—a meager baking business, a fifty-year-old hand-me-down house, and a few antiques she'd collected over the years—was about to be destroyed, demolished, and dumped into Barefoot Bay by the hand of Hurricane Damien.
She stole a glance over her shoulder. Everything she owned, but not everything she had. No matter what happened to the house, she had to save her daughter.
"We need to get in the bathtub and under a mattress!" Lacey screamed over the train-like howl of one-hundred-and-ten-mile-per-hour winds.
Ashley cowered deeper into the corner of the closet, a stuffed unicorn clutched in one hand, her cell phone in the other. "I told you we should have evacuated!"
Only a fourteen-year-old would argue at a moment like this. "I can't get the mattress into the bathroom alone."
The storm was inside now, tearing the chandelier out of the dining room ceiling, clattering crystal everywhere. Pictures ripped off their hooks with vicious thuds and furniture skated across the oak floor. Overhead, half-century-old roof trusses moaned in a last-ditch effort to cling to the eaves.
They had minutes left.
"We have to hurry, Ash. On the count of—"
"I'm not leaving here," Ashley cried. "I'm too scared. I'm not going out there."
Lacey corralled every last shred of control. "We are. Together."
"We'll die out there, Mom!"
"No, but we'll die in here." At Ashley's wail, Lacey kneeled in front of her, sacrificing precious seconds. "Honey, I've lived on this island my whole life and this isn't the first hurricane." Just the worst. "We have to get in the tub and under the mattress. Now."
Taking a firm grip, she pulled Ashley to her feet, the cell-phone screen spotlighting a tear-stained face. God, Lacey wanted to tumble into Ashley's nest of hastily grabbed treasures and cry with her daughter.
But then she'd die with her daughter.
Ashley bunched the unicorn under her chin. "How could those weather people be so wrong?"
Good damn question. All day long, and into the night, the storm had been headed north to the Panhandle, not expected to do more than bring heavy rain and wind to the west coast of Florida. Until a few hours ago, when Hurricane Damien had jumped from a cat-three to a cat-four and veered to the east, making a much closer pass to the barrier island of Mimosa Key.
In the space of hours, ten thousand residents, including Lacey and Ashley, had been forced to make a rapid run-or-hide decision. A few tourists managed to haul butt over the causeway to the mainland, but most of the hurricane-experienced islanders were looking for mattress cover and porcelain protection about now. And praying. Hard.
Lacey cupped her hands on Ashley's cheeks. "We have to do this, Ashley. We can't panic, okay?"
Ashley nodded over and over again. "Okay, Mom. Okay."
"On the count of three. One, two—"
Three was drowned out by the gut-wrenching sound of the carport roof tearing away.
Lacey pushed open the closet door. Her bedroom was pitch black, but she moved on instinct, grateful the storm hadn't breached these walls yet.
"Get around to the other side of the bed," she ordered, already throwing back the comforter, searching wildly for a grip. "I'll pull, you push."
Ashley rallied and obeyed, sending a jolt of love and appreciation through Lacey. "Atta girl. A little more."
Right then the freight train of wind roared down the back hall, hurtling an antique mirror and shattering it against the bedroom door.
"It's coming!" Ashley screamed, freezing in fear.
Yes, it was. Like a monster, the storm would tear these old walls right down to the foundation Lacey's grandfather had laid when he'd arrived on Mimosa Key in the 1940s.
"Push the damn mattress, Ashley!"
Ashley gave it all she had and the mattress slid enough for Lacey to get a good grip. Grunting, she got the whole thing off the bed and dragged it toward the bathroom. They struggled to shove it through the door just as the wind knocked out one of the bedroom windows, showering glass and wood behind them.
"Oh my God, Mom. This is it!"
"No, this isn't it," Lacey hissed, trying to heave the mattress. "Get in!" She pushed Ashley toward the thousand-pound cast-iron claw-foot tub that had just transformed from last year's lavish expenditure into their sole means of survival.
In the shadows Lacey could see Ashley scramble into the tub, but the mattress was stuck on something in the door. She turned to maneuver the beast when the other window ruptured with a stunning crash.
Ducking from the flying debris, Lacey saw what had the mattress jammed.
Window blinds came sailing in behind her. No time. No time for unicorns.
With a Herculean thrust, she freed the mattress, the force propelling her toward the tub, but in her mind all she could see was the goddamn unicorn.
The one Zoe brought to the hospital when Ashley was born and Ashley slept with every night until she was almost ten. In minutes Aunt Zoe's uni would be a memory, like everything else they owned.
From inside the tub Ashley reached up and pulled at Lacey's arm. "Get in!"
This time Lacey froze, the mattress pressing down with the full weight of what they were losing. Everything. Every picture, every gift, every book, every Christmas ornament, every—
The bathroom door slammed shut behind her, caught in a crosswind, making the room eerily quiet for a second.
In that instant of suspended time, Lacey dove for the unicorn, scooping it up with one hand while managing to brace the mattress with the other.
"What are you doing?" Ashley hollered.
"Saving something." She leaped into the tub on top of her shrieking daughter, dropping the stuffed animal so she could hoist the mattress over and seal them in a new kind of darkness.
The door shot back open, the little window over the toilet gave way, and tornado-strength winds whipped through the room. Under her, Lacey could hear her daughter sobbing, feel her quivering with fright, her coltish legs squeezing for dear life.
And life was dear. Troubled, stressful, messy, not everything she dreamed it would be, but dear. Lacey Armstrong was not about to give it up to Mother Nature's temper tantrum.
"Reach around me and help me hold this thing down," Lacey demanded, her fingernails breaking as she dug into the quilted tufts, desperate for a grip.
Her arms screaming with the effort, she clung to the mattress, closed her eyes, and listened to the sounds of that dear life literally falling apart around her.
It wasn't much, this old house she'd inherited from her grandparents, built with big dreams and little money, but it was all she had.
No, it wasn't, she reminded herself again. All she had was quivering and crying underneath her. Everything else was just stuff. Wet, ruined, storm-tattered stuff. They were alive and they had each other and their wits and dreams and hopes.
"This is a nightmare, Mom." Ashley's sob silenced Lacey's inner litany of life-support platitudes.
"Just hold on, Ash. We'll make it. I've been through worse." Hadn't she?
Wasn't it worse to return to Mimosa Key a pregnant college dropout, facing her mother's bitter and brutal disappointment? Wasn't it worse to stare into David Fox's dreamy, distant eyes and say "I'm going to keep this baby," only for him to announce he was on his way to a sheep farm in Patagonia?
Pata-frickin'-gonia. It still ticked her off, fourteen years later.
She was not going to die, damn it. And neither was Ashley. She stole a look over her shoulder, meeting her daughter's petrified gaze.
"Listen to me," Lacey demanded through gritted teeth. "I'm not going to let anything happen to you."
Ashley managed a nod.
They just had to hang on and… pray. Because most people would be cutting some sweet deals with God at a time like this. But Lacey wasn't most people, and she didn't make deals with anybody. She made plans. Lots of plans that never—
A strong gust lifted the mattress, pulling a scream from her throat as rain and wind and debris whipped over them, and then part of the ceiling thudded down on the mattress. With the weight of saturated drywall and insulation holding their makeshift roof in place, Lacey could let go of the mattress. Relieved, she worked a space on the edge where the tub curved down to give them some air and finally let her body squeeze in next to Ashley.
Now Lacey could think of something else besides survival.
After survival, comes… what? Facing the stark truth that everything was gone. What was she going to do with no home, no clothes, no struggling cake-baking business, and maybe no customers remaining on Mimosa Key to buy her cookies and cupcakes?
The answer was the thunderous roar of the rest of the second floor being ripped away as if an imaginary giant had plucked a weed from his garden. Instantly rain dumped on them.
Once the roof was gone the vacuum dissipated, and, except for the drumbeat of rain on the mattress, it was almost quiet.
"Is this the eye of the storm?" Ashley asked.
Lacey adjusted her position again to curl around Ashley's slender frame. "I don't know, honey. Hey, look what I brought you."
She fished out the unicorn from behind her and laid it on Ashley's chest. Even in the darkness she could see Ashley smile, her eyes bright with tears.
"Aunt Zoe's uni. Thank you, Mommy."
Mommy just about folded her heart in half.
"Shhh." She stroked Ashley's hair, trying to be grateful for the rare moment when her daughter didn't roll her eyes or whip out her cell phone to text a friend. "We're gonna be fine, angel. I promise."
But could she keep that promise? When the storm passed, the home her grandfather had christened Blue Horizon House would be little more than a memory sitting on a stretch of pristine beach known as Barefoot Bay.
But Mimosa Key would still be here. Nothing could wipe away this barrier island or the people who called this strip of land home. Like Lacey, most of the residents were the children and grandchildren of the first group of twentieth-century pioneers who'd built a rickety wooden causeway to take them to an island haven in the Gulf of Mexico.
And nothing could rid Mimosa Key of its natural resources, like magical Barefoot Bay with its peach-toned sunsets or the fluffy red flowers that exploded like fireworks every spring, giving the island its name. Nothing could stop the reliable blue moon that sparkled like diamonds on the black velvet Gulf every night.
If Mimosa Key survived, so would Lacey.
And there is such a thing as insurance, a pragmatic voice insisted.
Insurance would cover the value of the house, and she owned the land, so Lacey could rebuild. Maybe this was her chance to finally turn the big old beach cottage into a B and B, a dream she'd nurtured for years, one she'd promised both her grandparents she'd pursue when they'd left her the house and all the land around it.
But life had gotten in the way of that promise. And now she had nothing.
Instead of wallowing in that reality, she let the B and B idea settle over her heart once again, the idea of finally, finally seeing one of her dreams come true carrying her through the rest of the storm while Ashley drifted off into a fitful sleep.
By the time the howling had softened to a low moan and the rain had slowed to a steady drizzle, the first silver threads of dawn were weaving through the air space she'd made. It was time to face the aftermath of the storm. Using all the strength she had left, Lacey managed to push the soaked mattress to the floor.
"Oh my God." Ashley's voice cracked with whispered disbelief as she emerged. "It's all gone."
Yes, it was. A dilapidated old house that was more trouble than it was ever worth had been washed away by Hurricane Damien's clean-up campaign. Lacey's heart was oddly light in the face of the devastation. Buoyed, in fact, with possibilities.
"Don't worry," she said, gingerly navigating the debris, peering into the early morning light. "It's not the end of the world." It was the beginning.
"How can you say that, Mom? There's nothing left!"
A few drops of warm tropical rain splattered her face, but Lacey wiped the water from her cheek and stepped over broken wall studs wrapped in shredded, sopping-wet attic insulation.
"We have insurance, Ashley."
"Mom! Our house is gone!"
"No, the building's gone. The beach is here. The sun will shine. The palm fronds will grow back."
Her imagination stirred again, nudged alive by the reality of what she saw around her. She could do this. This land—and the insurance money—could be used to make a dream come true.
Beside her Ashley sniffed, wiping a fresh set of tears. "How can you talk about palm fronds? We don't even have a—oh!" She dropped to her knees to retrieve a muddy video-game remote. "My Wii!"
"Ashley." Lacey reached for her, pulling her up to hold her close. "Baby, we have each other. We're alive, which is pretty much a miracle."
Ashley just squeezed her eyes shut and nodded, working so hard to be strong and brave.
"I know it hurts, Ashley, but this"—she took the broken remote and pitched it—"is just stuff. We'll get more, better stuff. What matters is that we've made it through and, you know, I'm starting to think this hurricane was the best thing that ever happened to us."
Ashley eyes popped open with an incredulous look. "Are you nuts?"
Maybe she was, but insane optimism was all she had right now.
"Think about it, Ash. We can do anything with this property now. We don't have to pay to remodel a sixty-year-old house; we can start from scratch and make it amazing." Her voice rose as the idea sprouted to life and took hold of her heart. "You know I've always dreamed of opening an inn or B and B, something all mine that would be an oasis, a destination."
Ashley just closed her eyes as if she couldn't even compute an oasis right then. "But if you couldn't figure out a way to make it happen when you had an actual house, how can you now?"
The truth stung, but Lacey ignored the pain. This time she wouldn't make excuses, that was how. She wouldn't be scared of not finishing what she started and she wouldn't let anyone's disapproval make her doubt herself. Not anymore.
"Old Mother Nature just handed us a 'get out of jail free' pass, kiddo," she said, giving Ashley's shoulder a squeeze. "And you know what? We're taking it."
Six Weeks Later
He's probably at lunch.
He wouldn't take a job this small.
He might refuse to come to Florida in August.
Lacey had plenty of reasons why she shouldn't press the Call button and ask to speak with Clayton Walker, president and CEO of Walker Architecture and Design. A trickle of sweat meandered down her back and trailed into the waistband of the cutoffs Ashley had pronounced too short for a mom to wear.
Too short? Too bad. She could walk around Barefoot Bay naked if she wanted to. Ever since the storm had ravaged the north hook of the island, she and Ashley had been alone out here at the beach. The insurance adjusters had come and gone, promising the rebuilding money, and the bulldozers had already leveled the storm-damaged house. Lacey's two neighbors, one to the north and one to the south and neither very close by, had bailed after settling their claims and promising to sell her their lots for a song.
The next step in her ambitious scheme didn't require age-appropriate attire, anyway. Her sweaty finger streaked the smooth glass of her phone, but before she dialed, she set the phone on the picnic table, one of the few items she'd salvaged from the storm.
What was stopping her from calling the architect?
Fear of rejection? Of course, an architect with Clayton Walker's outstanding credentials, reputation, and portfolio of glorious hotels and resorts might not want to design her beachfront bed-and-breakfast.
But he had responded to her e-mail personally. And he had said, "Call when you have the insurance money and I'll take a look at the property."
She swiped beads of sweat from her upper lip and scooted the bench closer to the table, trying to slide into the one slice of shade formed by the trunk of a royal poinciana that had survived the storm. Peering through humidity-drenched curls, she studied her daughter at the water's edge a few hundred feet of burning sand away. Madly texting, something she'd been doing more and more of lately, Ashley seemed oblivious to the squawking seagulls fluttering around her.
Ashley had rebounded remarkably after the storm, moving into Lacey's parents' house with a fairly positive attitude, probably since living down on the south end of the island put her closer to more kids she'd be going to Mimosa High with in a few weeks.
Most of the twelve-mile-long barrier island hadn't fared quite as poorly as the northern end, where Barefoot Bay was located. South of Center Street they'd lost only screens and roof tiles, and a few windows. Businesses were all open in town and life was nearly back to normal down there. Even still, Lacey's parents had decided to stay longer up north with her brother, giving Lacey and Ashley a place to live.
Good thing, because if Marie Armstrong were breathing down Lacey's neck right now, harping on the complete impossibility of these plans, Lacey would never have the nerve to make this call.
She angled the phone and eyed the architect's name, imagining the conversation with a man she considered a legend. She'd seen his picture on the company Web site and on the Internet. The guy looked like Colonel Sanders with all that white hair and a Southern-gentleman bow tie. How scary could he be?
Okay. It was time. She turned so the sight of Ashley wouldn't distract her, and put her finger on the phone.
Should she call him Mr. Walker? His e-mail seemed so casual, at least for an architectural genius. So maybe he wouldn't want—
A voice floated up from the beach. A male voice.
Lacey glanced over her shoulder, inhaling a quick breath at the sight of a man five feet away from Ashley. A half-naked man, wearing nothing but low-hanging board shorts and sockless sneakers. Shaggy hair, big muscles, and, dear God, was that a tattoo on his arm?
Was he a tourist? A surfer? More likely one of the many debris scavengers who'd popped up all over the island since they'd reopened the causeway, ready to make a buck off the misfortune of others.
Ashley laughed at something he said, and he turned just enough for Lacey to get an eyeful of sweat-glistening chest and abs and—wow.
Ashley flipped her hair and the man took a step closer.
Okay, stop right there, buddy. Lacey launched forward, driven by primal instinct, forgetting the call and ignoring the fiery sand singeing her bare feet.
They both turned at her words, Ashley's body language screaming disgust as she rolled her eyes. But Lacey barely saw her. Her gaze was locked on the predator, preparing her counterattack in full mother-lioness mode, quickly assessing his danger level.
His danger level was… hot.
He stunned her with a blinding smile. He disarmed her with a shake of his honey-colored locks, revealing a handsome, tanned face and a tiny gold hoop in one ear. Then he stopped her in her tracks by stretching out his hand.
"I'm Clay Walker."
"Are you Lacey Armstrong?"
"No. I mean, yes. But…" She froze, completely thrown, her brain short-circuiting at his words.
Colonel Sanders he was not.
He looked nothing like his picture. No white hair, no bow tie—no shirt! He absolutely couldn't be Clayton Walker because, well, he was gorgeous.
"What are you doing here?" she demanded, not caring that she was a sweaty mess of venom-spewing, short-short-wearing, almost-thirty-seven-year-old mom staring at his washboard abs. Or that she still held the phone that she was just about to use to call him. Well, not him. Colonel Sanders.
"I told you I'd check out the property."
"Oh, I expected someone…" Older. Dressed. Not gorgeous. "… after I called."
"I didn't want to wait," he said. He kept his hand out and she had no choice but to take it, her hand instantly lost in big, calloused, masculine fingers. "I was too intrigued by the idea of building here."
"So am I." Intrigued, that was. Intrigued and wary.
"I hope you don't mind." He gave a cursory glance to his naked torso. "It's hot as hell here."
"It's no problem," she lied, extracting her hand and forcing her eyes off his body and onto his face. Like that was any less stupefying. "But there's been a mistake."
Dark brows shot up, revealing eyes just about the color of the water behind him. "A mistake?" he asked.
"You're not Clayton Walker."
"I go by Clay." He smiled, kind of a half-grin that crinkled his eyes and revealed straight white teeth. "Got ID in my truck if you want me to get it."
The hint of a drawl fit him as well as the shorts that hung off narrow hips. "That's not necessary because I've been to the Web site and I've seen Clayton Walker, and he's not…" Sexy. "You."
"Don't tell me." The smile turned wry. "You were expecting Clayton Walker Senior?"
Senior? Like his father? "I was expecting the owner of the firm." The man who designed some of the most stunning hotels in the world, who probably didn't have hair to his shoulders or an earring or a tattoo of a flame-encircled star on a sizable bicep. "The Clayton Walker. That's who I e-mailed."
"Actually, you e-mailed me," he said simply.
"I got the contact off the Web site."
He shrugged a brawny shoulder. "I guess my name's still there. It wouldn't be the first time someone's made the mistake."
"Do you work for him?"
"No, I don't have anything to do with my father's business anymore."
"Oh. That's a shame." Disappointment dribbled in her stomach and mixed with some other unfamiliar tightness down there.
"But I am a contractor," he said, an edge taking some of the smoothness out of his voice. "And a builder."
"But you aren't the Clayton Walker."
He laughed softly, a rumbly, gritty, sensual sound that reverberated through Lacey's chest down to her toes. "Look, I've been checking out this property for a couple of days and, based on that e-mail you sent, I'm totally capable of doing this job for you."
Except he wasn't capable because he was too young and too inexperienced and too… shirtless. "Are you an architect?"
"Technically, it depends on how you define architect. I am, but not completely licensed, so not officially." He fried her with another smile, taking a step closer, giving her a better look at his really remarkable blue eyes. Not that she was looking for remarkable eyes on her architect. Which, by the way, he wasn't. Not officially.
"Why don't we take a look at the site and go over some ideas I have?" he suggested.
"How could you have ideas when I haven't even told you exactly what I want?" She didn't mean to sound snippy, but she couldn't possibly trust this young man with her dream. She'd have to get rid of him and find out how to get to the real Clayton Walker.
"Maybe we want the same thing." His gaze dropped ever so quickly over her, a stark reminder that she wore far too little today. And it was hot out here.
Oh, no. No no no. Don't you dare go there, brainless hormones. This guy was twenty-nine on a good day, at least six or seven years younger than she was. The son of the man she wanted, not a man she wanted.
"When were you here?" she asked. Since the storm she'd been up here almost every day. "I haven't seen you." Because she sure as hell wouldn't have missed him.
"A few days ago." He finally tore his mesmerizing gaze from her and focused on the property behind her. "This is a truly legit location for a resort."
Legit? He sounded like Ashley's friends. Maybe he was even younger than she'd thought. "No resort," she corrected. "Just a little B and B is all I have in mind."
"Really? I'd dream bigger than that, Miss…" He inched imperceptibly closer, a smile lifting the corner of his mouth. "It is 'Miss,' isn't it?"
Was he hitting on her? "Miz," she said, a little edge in her voice. "And this isn't a dream, it's a plan for my—our—future. My daughter's and mine." Did he get the emphasis? "I have very specific plans." But they don't include you. "And I was hoping to meet—"
"My dad, I got that. He's not who you want for this, trust me."
Trust him? Not likely. "Your father's a legend in his field."
"But he's in North Carolina, and I'm here," he drawled with one more brain-numbing smile. "And I already have a couple of ideas for the kind of place you could put here."
"Well, I have ideas, too. A… vision, actually." And a bedroom-eyed, not-yet-thirty not-officially-an-architect wasn't part of it.
"God, Mom, just give him a chance."
Ashley's voice startled her. She'd forgotten her daughter was there, taking in the whole exchange, and, of course, having an opinion. "Honey, this isn't your concern. And, Mr. Walker—"
"Clay. The younger one."
"I have to be honest with you," she said with a sigh of resignation. "This is obviously a huge commitment for me, and I had my heart set on the man who designed Crystal Springs and French Hills, which, as you probably know, were built by Clayton Walker. The Clayton Walker. I'm sure you're very good at what you do, but I want someone with more experience."
His expression grew tight and cool. "Sometimes experience can work against you and what you need is"—he ran a hand through sixteen different shades of caramel hair, leaving it just a little more tousled, a lock falling to one eye—"a fresh perspective."
Behind him, Ashley was staring at his backside perspective.
No. Yeah. Wow. This guy had to go. "I'm really sorry, but I don't think there's any reason to pursue this. Good-bye."
He half laughed in disbelief. "Good-bye?"
"And thank you."
He took one step backward. "I'd say you're welcome, but I have a feeling you don't really mean that."
"Well, I do mean good-bye."
With his head at a cocky angle that somehow managed to say "You will regret this," without saying a word, he tipped a nod to Ashley and turned to jog off in the opposite direction.
"This first installment in the new Barefoot Bay series from award-winning author St. Claire (Killer Curves) features steamy sex in warm gulf waters; readers will be delighted."
"St. Claire writes books that keep the reader engrossed in the story form cover to cover."
"On the fast track to making her name a household one."
- St. Claire, as always, brings a scorching tear-up-the-sheets romance combined with a great story: dealing with real issues starring memorable characters in vivid scenes. Best of all, since this is book one in the Barefoot Bay series, there's more to come."—RT Book Reviews
"With Roxanne St. Claire, you are guaranteed a powerful, sexy and provocative read."
- "Pack this one in your beach bag and get ready for nonstop fun."—Susan Mallery
- On Sale
- Apr 24, 2012
- Page Count
- 384 pages