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Barefoot in the sand, p.1
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       Barefoot in the Sand, p.1

           Roxanne St Claire
 
Barefoot in the Sand


  Begin Reading

  Table of Contents

  A Preview of Barefoot in the Rain

  Copyright Page

  In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher is unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at [email protected] Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.

  For Deborah Brooks, my sister, my friend, my blessing.

  Acknowledgments

  It took a lot of effort and care from a group of talented experts and generous individuals to bring this book to publication. My deepest gratitude goes to all, including:

  Literary agent Robin Rue, who has an endless supply of humor, support, and great ideas; and also to her amazing assistant, Beth Miller, who gets 100 percent credit for the title!

  Awesome, insightful, and patient editor Amy Pierpont, whose influence can be felt on every page, as well as her equally awesome assistant editor, Lauren Plude, who apparently never sleeps. A special shout-out to the art, production, publicity, marketing, and sales departments at Grand Central/Forever, a professional team that leaves me awestruck every time.

  The ladies of Writer’s Camp—Kristen Painter, Lara Santiago, and Leigh Duncan—who encourage and inspire me every time we pitch our writing tents. Also, a hug of thanks to honorary camper Louisa Edwards, who is truly a contemporary romance goddess and world-class plotter.

  My beta readers rock! In particular, Barbie Furtado should win an award for the number of times she’s read this manuscript and left pink-tipped notes during the wee hours that made me laugh and cry the next morning. Thanks to all the lovely readers who suffer through early drafts and make me want to dive into a revision instead of off a bridge.

  And to the takers of some frantic research calls: Terry Galloway, brilliant architect and (not so) old college friend; and the lovely ladies at John R. Wood Real Estate in Naples, Florida. You shall all be rewarded with books, I promise!

  Finally, the home team: my dearest, most patient, most beloved husband, Rich, who does everything so that I can do this; my wonderful son, Dante, who was kind enough to go to college so I didn’t have to hear Family Guy in the den while trying to write romance; and my most precious daughter, Mia, who was not the inspiration for Ashley… except for the unicorn. You guys are my whole world.

  Chapter 1

  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.

  Ashley’s unicorn.

  Window blinds came sailing in behind her. No time. No time for unicorns.

 
Hurry, Mom!”

  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—

  “Mom!”

  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 in
surance 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.”

  Chapter 2

  Six Weeks Later

  He’s probably at lunch.

  He wouldn’t take a job this small.

 
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