By V. K. Sykes
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All Holly Tyler wants is a fantastic career, a not-too-committed relationship, and a city where there are no painful memories. Instead, she’s called back to her hometown of Seashell Bay to help with her family’s struggling general store. It’s a town where everyone knows everyone, and where one man could sink Holly’s careful plans.
Deputy Sheriff Micah Lancaster has wanted Holly for as long as he can remember. He knows she has a life on the mainland-and a boyfriend-and that there’s no real future with her. But now Holly is back and the attraction still flickers between them, a promise of something more. Their desire is stronger than any undertow . . . and once it pulls them under, it won’t let go.
Table of Contents
A Preview of Meet Me at the Beach
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Holly Tyler always looked forward to the ferry ride from Portland to the small island in Maine where she'd grown up. She loved stepping onto one of the gaily painted red-and-yellow boats, the stresses of her demanding job fading under the magical influences of sunshine, wind, and water. The boat ride was only forty-five minutes to Seashell Bay Island, the one place on Earth that served as a haven from her pressure-cooker existence in Boston. Even the simple ride over was way more relaxing than any high-end spa treatment or fancy massage that money could buy.
But on this unplanned and very unexpected trip, she suspected her hometown might turn out to be more of a minefield than a sanctuary.
Aunt Florence had suffered another panic attack last night—a bad one. It had landed her in the hospital in Portland, where Holly's other aunt, Beatrice, had spent the night with her. After racing up from Boston this morning and spending several hours with her two aunts, Holly had finally managed to catch a late-afternoon ferry to the island.
Now, as she stood on the upper deck, she inhaled deep breaths of the crisp sea breeze that swept across Portland Harbor. The crowded boat, full of shoppers and commuters, scythed through the deep blue water of Casco Bay, heading straight for the narrow channel between Peaks and Little Diamond Islands. Everything she saw was so familiar—every cove and inlet, every dock and marina, every cliff and beach. Since college, she'd returned to Seashell Bay for a vacation every August, and it was always a welcome retreat. Sixteen years after a semitrailer slammed into the rear of her parents' car in a sudden winter storm on I-95, instantly killing them both, the island still remained the only place where Holly felt completely safe and loved.
This year though, she'd told her aunts and her friends that she wouldn't be able to make it up to the island. She was in the middle of the biggest move of her professional life, leaving a successful firm of marketing consultants in Boston and moving to New York to partner with two hotshots in a new company with huge potential.
But life had thrown her a curveball, and here she was heading to Seashell Bay anyway. She absolutely had to be there for Florence. And Beatrice—the younger of her two aunts—was going to need Holly's help in running the Jenkins General Store until her sister was able to return to work.
Leaning against the ferry's starboard rail, Holly scanned the hundreds of lobster buoys that bobbed in the swells near an underwater shelf just offshore. Sure enough, she spotted her best friend Lily's orange-and-green colors a couple of hundred feet away. Nothing said home to her more than spotting those buoys. The Doyle family had been lobster fishing the waters around Seashell Bay for a couple of centuries, and Lily was one of a long line determined to keep that tradition unbroken for years to come.
As the boat approached the island, she could see thirty or forty people waiting on the big concrete dock, including a few construction workers from the new ecoresort, identifiable by their work boots and hardhats. Lily was there, along with Morgan Merrifield. And as soon as her friends spotted Holly, they started to wave like she was visiting royalty. Seeing their welcoming smiles made her heavy heart lighten.
Holly had grown up with Lily and Morgan, her two closest friends in the world. They'd bonded as little girls even before they attended the island's elementary school and were inseparable right through their years at Portland's Peninsula High. But after graduation, Holly and Morgan had headed off to different colleges on the mainland, while Lily began her lobster-fishing career on her father's boat.
Holly blew kisses to her pals and then let her gaze wander down the length of the pier. When she spotted the distinctive black-and-gold SUV of the sheriff's office parked at the end, her heart took a funny little skip.
The unsettling sensations she got whenever she saw Micah tugged at her stomach, this time intensified by a magnitude of about ten. Micah was one of her oldest friends, but something between them had changed last summer, and she'd been thinking for months about what it would be like the next time she came home.
Thinking about him so much over the past year seemed wrong, given that she was already in a relationship—sort of.
Micah emerged from his cruiser, his eyes hidden as usual by aviator sunglasses. He started strolling down the dock, shaking hands with some of the men and ruffling kids' hair as he passed. He towered over almost everyone, an awesomely brawny man with the demeanor of a friendly giant to his friends and neighbors, and that of an intimidating, take-no-prisoners cop to anybody who dared threaten the peace and security of the island.
And Holly couldn't take her damn eyes off him. Yes, she'd always known on some level that he was a truly hot guy, but it had never affected her before. Not since last summer, and surely not like it did now.
She was one of the first passengers to disembark once the deckhands had secured the gangway to the pier. Lily and Morgan politely hung back to stay out of the way of the throng. As soon as Holly reached them, they pulled her into a tight, three-way hug that went on for what must have been a full minute.
"Hey, sweetie, we sure missed you," Lily murmured in her ear. "But you're home now, and we're going to take care of you."
"I missed you guys too," Holly choked out through a tight throat. She knew how true it was that they would rally around her, and Florence and Beatrice too. Island people looked after their own.
Though Holly hadn't seen Lily in months, her friend looked exactly the same—lean but incredibly fit and sporting a gorgeous tan from working long days on her boat. She wore soft, faded jeans, a white T-shirt, and flip-flops. As usual, Morgan looked way girlier, her blond beauty showcased by her pretty white-and-green polka-dot sundress. Holly had last seen her beautiful, blue-eyed friend in January when Morgan and her hunky fiancé, Ryan Butler, spent a weekend in Boston doing a little sightseeing and taking in a hockey game. Morgan, a substitute teacher in Portland, also ran the island's B&B with her younger sister, Sabrina.
"How's Florence doing?" Morgan asked. "We're so worried."
"She's resting comfortably, thanks to the medication," Holly said. "It looks like they'll keep her in the hospital awhile because of her age and medical history. It was a pretty bad panic attack. It did a bit of a number on her heart."
Micah suddenly loomed up behind Lily, his tall, muscular body casting her friend's slender form in shadow. He was a bit like the granite cliffs that lined the island's southern coast—formidable, rugged, and potentially dangerous, at least to Holly.
"The law has arrived," Morgan commented drily. "Why am I not surprised?"
"Stow it, you two," Micah drawled in his deep voice, "or you'll be spending the night in a cell." He took off his hat and pushed his shades on top of his head. His short black hair was suffering from what Holly thought was a cute case of hat head.
"Hi, Holly. Welcome home." His warm smile softened the edges of his oh-so-masculine mouth. His dark gaze as he scanned her was even warmer. "Morgan told me you'd be on this boat."
"Hi, Micah," Holly said.
Okay, she sounded totally lame, but these days he made her feel like a tongue-tied teenager. Not surprising, given how hot he was. Micah had looked like a grown man since he was about fourteen or fifteen, way ahead of every other boy his age at school. Now he was almost thirty-three, two years older than she was, and maturity certainly sat well on him. An avid boater and outdoorsman, good at sports, good with tools, and always ready to lend a hand, Micah Lancaster was truly the walking definition of a man's man.
She fixed her eyes on his gold badge, a seven-point star that he wore just above his heart. Holly remembered all too well what was underneath his brown uniform shirt. She'd seen a lot of him last summer as she recuperated on the island from foot surgery. Micah had volunteered on more than one occasion to push her wheelchair around the quiet island roads to give her some much-needed fresh air. One sunny and very hot day, Micah had stripped off his shirt and draped it over Gracie Poole's mailbox, saying he'd pick it up on the way back. Naked from the waist up and with his khaki pants riding low, he'd looked nothing like the image he was careful to maintain when he was in uniform. And while he looked fantastic in his deputy duds, he was utterly, mind-numbingly sexy without a shirt. Holly had come way too close to saying to hell with the danger and giving in to the insane desire to lick every salty drop of sweat from his sculpted chest and washboard abs, and then going on from there.
Micah remained rooted in place, staring down at her and apparently forgoing the usual hug he gave her whenever she came home. That seemed to make her feel even more awkward. Besides—and she would die before admitting this—she'd been secretly waiting for his bear-hug greeting.
"What, no hug for your old pal?" she finally prompted in a teasing voice.
A flush seemed to glaze his tanned cheekbones, but his lips curved into a smile. "You bet there is."
His relieved look told her he hadn't been sure of his welcome. He probably thought she'd stay in touch after he'd been so considerate and helpful last summer. While Holly felt about two inches tall for practically ignoring the man all these months, the obvious crush he'd developed on her over the past couple of years made her worry about giving any sign that she'd be up for something more than friendship.
Because she wasn't, and if she told herself so enough times, she'd surely believe it, right?
Lily stepped out of the way, and Micah drew Holly into his brawny embrace. On her tiptoes, Holly air-kissed his cheek, her lips barely grazing his deeply tanned skin. Though he was always clean-shaven, his stubble was getting a little heavy by this late in the day. She breathed in the familiar, faint scent of aftershave and leather and told herself to dial it back. It would be so easy to get lost in the comfort of his protective embrace.
She forced herself to give his broad back a couple of awkward pats, hopefully sending a signal that she was ready to break the clench. Micah relaxed his grip and took a slow step back.
"Holly, I'm really sorry about Florence." He flipped his sunglasses back down, hiding the emotion she thought she glimpsed in his dark gaze.
"Hey, guys, it's broiling out here. Let's walk as we talk," Morgan intervened. She made a grab for the wheeled suitcase.
Micah had other ideas, taking the suitcase before Morgan's hand reached it. "I've got this. And I'll take your computer case too, Holly."
"The sheriff's office lives to serve," Morgan said wryly.
"I was pretty worried about Florence," Micah said as he matched his normally long stride to Holly's. "I got there right after the EMTs. Poor old gal was looking grim."
Holly fought back a surge of guilt. "I just wish I could have been here—for Beatrice's sake as much as Florence's. It was really hard on her too."
Micah nodded. "I thought about going in the rescue boat but figured I could be of more use by sticking close to Beatrice until we knew what was going on."
She gave him a grateful smile. "She told me you took her over to Portland in your boat and saw her safely to Maine Med. That was so kind of you, Micah. She was really touched that you'd do that, and so was I."
He gave an embarrassed little shrug. "That's my job."
Holly knew better. She doubted there were many cops who would go to the lengths Micah did for the people of Seashell Bay.
The four of them halted beside Morgan's red pickup truck, a Toyota of indeterminate but advanced age. "Beatrice told me she was sure it was the news of Night Owl applying for a building permit that sent Florence over the edge. Do you really think it's going to finally happen?" she asked Lily.
Lily would have more news, if anybody did, since her maternal grandmother, Miss Annie Letellier, scooped up information like a gigantic NSA satellite dish.
"If the town grants the permit, then yes," Lily said with a sigh. "The good news is that the company said they're only interested in the vacant lot beside the post office. I can see why, since there's no other property big enough and close enough to the landing for their standard-sized store. If the town selectmen say no to that location, I think that'll be the end of it."
That gave Holly a glimmer of hope.
Micah stowed Holly's suitcase in the truck bed and then leaned against the frame. "I guess you didn't expect to be back at all this summer, did you?"
Guilt twisted her gut into a tangle. "Well, I'd hoped for a couple of days in September, maybe. My New York partners and I have a business to set up, with some tight deadlines. I want to be there for my aunts, but it's going to be really hard for me to stay for any length of time."
Micah's eyebrows rose for a long moment, as if something had surprised him. But then his expression went carefully blank. "Well, let me know if there's anything I can do to help out with your aunts," he said. "See you at dinner tonight."
Holly cast a quick glance at Lily as Micah turned and strode off. Lily had invited her and Morgan to dinner—it was something of a tradition whenever Holly made it back to Seashell Bay. And this time, of course, Lily's husband and Morgan's fiancé would be there too. But Micah?
"You don't mind that I invited the deputy tonight, do you?" Lily asked sweetly. "Aiden and Ryan practically insisted."
"Of course not," she said, forcing a smile. "Why would I?"
She'd avoided Micah for almost a whole year, but her reprieve was coming to an end.
All Micah could think about was Holly. When she stepped off the boat, tall and elegant and more beautiful than ever, he'd wanted nothing more than to sweep her into his arms and carry her off, as if they were in some goofy romantic movie. Of course, what he'd wanted to do to her next was considerably more X-rated, so playing it cool had taken some doing.
He had to admit though that she'd looked a little worn out, which was hardly surprising given the circumstances. Her deep brown eyes had lacked their usual sparkle, and that made him even more determined to find something he could do to help both her and her aunts. He knew how much Holly had appreciated the things he'd done for her last summer, and the pleasure of her company had made it more than worth it to him. Helping her out was no chore.
Not that he hadn't been frustrated on more than one occasion, having to throttle back his lust to manageable levels. But the last thing he wanted to do was screw up their friendship, so he'd done what he had to do.
Before he could call it a day, Micah still had work to do, retrieving an Easter Island statue that Daisy Whipple had lifted from Peggy Fogg's front yard. Daisy, the island's seventy-year-old kleptomaniac, remained the object of bemused tolerance and even grudging affection, at least from the old-timers. Micah had long ago lost count of the number of times he'd had to recover some item she'd stolen. Not that she was a break-in artist. No, she simply plucked whatever she fancied from people's yards when they weren't around, or sometimes even when they were. That was always good for a laugh, although some of the newer residents weren't really down with the joke.
Micah spotted the statue as soon as he stepped out of his Chevy Tahoe. The two-and-a-half-foot-high gray resin sculpture now occupied pride of place in one of Daisy's raised garden plots, butted up next to her tomato vines. She probably put it in that strategic spot in the vain hope that it might frighten marauding deer away from her vegetables. It was sure ugly enough, but in his experience, nothing deterred the deer short of an electrified fence.
Micah picked up the little statue, brushed some dirt and a curled-up worm off the bottom, and deposited it in the trunk of the cruiser.
"Do you think it's right to just up and take whatever you want, Micah Lancaster?" Daisy shouted from her half-open screen door. Short and round with steel-gray hair tied back in a ponytail, Daisy wore a cardigan over her dress in spite of the warm day. "How many times have I told you that you can't just waltz right in and steal my property?"
"Actually, ma'am, it's Peggy Fogg's property," Micah said politely. "She paid good money for it."
"Her property? Well, so she says," Daisy grumbled.
"I'll ask Peggy to show me a bill of sale before I let her have it," Micah said. Sure I will.
Daisy made a loud sniffing noise. "Well, you'd best see that you do."
Micah and Daisy had gone through this routine so many times that they didn't need a script. He tipped his hat to her and went to get back in the cruiser.
"Are you in such an all-fired hurry that you can't take time for a glass of lemonade, Deputy?" she called after him.
Micah smiled as he turned to face her. "Well, you do make the best lemonade in Maine, Daisy."
She nodded and then trundled into the house, returning moments later with a tall, iced glass of lemonade. They sat together on her creaky porch swing and talked about the weather and the deer problem for ten minutes before Micah decided he'd better get moving.
After thanking Daisy for her hospitality, he got into his car and headed back down the semi-overgrown path to Island Road, braking when he heard a rattling roar approach from his right. About a second later, a familiar golf cart buzzed by on the main road.
Rocket Roy Mayo—at it again.
Micah heaved a sigh and bumped up onto the road, turning on the cruiser's light bar. He flipped the siren on too, since Roy never bothered to look in his rearview mirror. Then again, he knew the siren might have no effect, since the old guy tended to shun his hearing aids, and the straining cart motor made as much noise as the average jetliner. Fortunately, about a hundred yards down the road, Roy figured it out and stomped on the brakes. The cart screeched to a stop and ended up with two wheels on the sloped grass verge.
Micah put on his hat and pulled his sunglasses down. He strolled up to the cart and bent down a little to look at Roy. "Hell, Roy, is Miss Annie dying? Because that's the only good excuse I can think of for driving this thing like some idiot teenager."
Miss Annie was Roy's live-in girlfriend and the widowed matriarch of the Doyle clan. She and Roy seemed to have found a crotchety sort of happiness in each other's company.
Roy peered up with startling blue eyes that made Micah think of the North Atlantic in winter. Tall and wiry, he looked at least ten years younger than his chronological age. "Well, there's no excuse for harassing a ninety-year-old man either, Lancaster. Not when the only thing I could hit on this goat track is a deer, and the island would be a damn sight better off without both me and the varmint if I did."
"Roy, I have it on good authority that you're ninety-two. But never mind, because you could definitely pass for ninety."
The old dude bared his teeth or, more accurately, his dentures. "Ha, ha. I've always said you'd make a better comedian than a cop, and you're not even funny."
Micah laughed. "Be that as it may, here's the deal, Rocket Man. No more free rides. One more speeding offense and I'll have to finally confiscate your keys."
Roy gave him a pretty credible sneer. "Just try it, sonny, because I'll sue your ass off. And you know what else? I'll file an age discrimination complaint with the government too. Just watch me."
Both of them knew the exchange was mostly in fun. Despite some locals griping about Roy's driving habits, the old guy wasn't much of a threat to life and limb. While Roy often drove the cart too fast, he remained an efficient driver who slowed to a crawl whenever he neared the school or the busy areas around the ferry dock.
"Nothing like a litigious old codger to ruin my day," Micah said with an exaggerated sigh.
"There you go again. Ageism, plain and simple," Roy retorted.
"Yeah, yeah. So, how's Miss Annie?"
Roy shook his head, sending his wispy white hair flying around. "Right now she's got her knickers in a twist over that Night Owl store they want to build. Says it'll ruin the Jenkins sisters for sure."
Micah's mood went south just thinking about it.
"I figure most of our people should stay loyal," Roy went on, "but the frigging tourists and day-trippers won't give a damn what happens to Florence and Beatrice."
By our people, Roy meant the island families who'd founded Seashell Bay and lived there for generations—the Doyles, Flynns, Mayos, Letelliers, Coolidges, and dozens more. Micah wasn't sure he'd be included in Roy's cut. While he'd lived on the island all his life, his parents had moved here shortly before he was born, barely a blip in time by local standards, and his mom was now gone, living in Arizona with her second husband. The only Lancaster in an island cemetery was his lobsterman father, dead more than twenty years. Micah planned on being the second someday—way in the future, he hoped.
Micah propped a foot up on the cart's wheel well. "The Night Owl news had to be what sent Florence over the edge. When they applied for a building permit, it must have felt like a knockout punch."
"Yeah, but Florence is tough. And, hey, I hear Holly's on her way home now to help out." Roy gave Micah a sly grin. "I don't blame you for being sweet on that filly, Lancaster. Hell, if I was twenty years younger…"
Sweet on her.
That was one way to put it, though that old-fashioned expression hardly captured the way Micah felt about Holly. He wasn't sure exactly when he started looking at her as more than simply a good friend he'd known all his life. Growing up, he'd always figured he'd never have a chance with the willowy, auburn-haired girl who had drawn boys like flies to honey. He wasn't the smartest kid, and he wasn't one of the athletes who got a lot of notice. With his size and strength, he always made the team but never in one of the star positions.
Basically, he'd never thought he was good enough for Holly Tyler, so he hadn't even tried.
Later, she'd gone on to marry a hero—an army helicopter pilot—while Micah had become mired in an ultimately hopeless four-year relationship with another cop, which in retrospect should have been over in four weeks.
Micah snapped out of his brief reverie. "Holly got in half an hour ago," he said.
Now why the hell did I say that?
"Ha!" Roy cackled. "You were waiting for her boat, huh? Hell, I can't say as I blame you. That girl reminds me a little of Rita Hayworth. Not that a young buck like you would know who Rita was."
"Famous movie actress and dancer in the forties and fifties. I'm not a complete moron," Micah said. "Anyway, just go a little easy on the pedal, okay, Roy? And give my love to Miss Annie."
Holly quickly unpacked a week's worth of casual clothes. Her room was still a step back in time to her teen years, since her aunts refused to change anything. They wanted the old two-story clapboard house to always feel like home, even though she'd told them dozens of times to change whatever suited them. But if keeping the faded rosebud wallpaper and braided carpet made them happy, Holly was fine with that too.
The only significant changes since high school were the curtains and the counterpane, the eye-searing pink shades of her teen years giving way to the earth tones she'd later picked out herself. But the old furniture remained the same. The four-poster bed with its well-scuffed corners and its matching side table still faced the large window with its amazing view of the bay. The chest of drawers—a gorgeous oak antique—had come from her parents' bedroom. That old dresser had been handed down in her mother's family since the late nineteenth century. Mom had told Holly many times that she wanted her to have it after she was gone and, hopefully, pass it on to her own children. She'd thought about moving the historic piece to Boston but figured it somehow belonged in Seashell Bay, in the place her mother had loved so much.
The top of the dresser was bare except for a pink jewelry box where she kept a few pieces for her island visits, and a photo of Drew in a pewter frame. Her husband was posed in front of their Boston town house with his classic 1956 Harley, his proud grin as bright as the bike's polished chrome. She'd captured the image on his thirtieth birthday, less than a year before the Taliban shot down his Black Hawk in Afghanistan, killing him and every single soldier he was transporting on a rescue mission.
She had the same picture in a larger frame in Boston, and also a few casual shots of the two of them on the island. There were no pictures of her husband in uniform, even though a few of her friends thought that was kind of strange. But Holly hated looking at him in his army gear. While she would always be proud of his service to his country, she didn't want the daily reminder. She didn't need pictures, because the memories of his ultimate sacrifice were lodged deep inside, in blood and bone. Some days the pain was as real as it was four years ago.
And that wasn't the way she wanted to remember him.
She picked up the photo and kissed it for what had to be the millionth time.
Turning away from the heartbreaking image, she forced herself to focus on the present. Job one right now was getting the store in shape, which meant getting her aunts to agree to her ideas. Holly desperately wanted them to let her inject some actual cash into renovations too. She could afford it, while her aunts didn't have a dime to spare.
The old gals had always refused her previous offers of help, but things were different now. The doomsday clock was ticking, thanks to Night Owl. Now it was a matter of how quickly they could transform the general store into a business that would survive and prosper, instead of fading away to nothing more than a few photos preserved in the archives of Seashell Bay's historical society.
Holly knew she could do it if they'd let her. After all, saving businesses was basically what she did for a living.
The first thing she had to do was make a brutally honest assessment of the current state of affairs. She knew the store was in pretty rough shape, but until she got her eyes on the place—and especially on its financials—she wouldn't know the true depth or urgency of the problem.
- On Sale
- Feb 23, 2016
- Page Count
- 260 pages