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       Barefoot in Lace (Barefoot Bay Brides Book 2), p.1

           Roxanne St Claire
 
Barefoot in Lace (Barefoot Bay Brides Book 2)


  The Barefoot Bay Brides #2

  Roxanne St. Claire

  Dear Reader,

  Welcome back to Barefoot Bay and another romantic interlude with the Barefoot Bay Brides. These wedding planners might be quite skilled at creating picture-postcard nuptials on the beach, but not all of the ladies have found their own true loves…yet.

  But we know that’s going to change, don’t we? Read on to kick off your shoes and fall in love with Gussie McBain, a spunky stylist whose hiding plenty under her plumage, and Tom DeMille, the one man who know how to get under Gussie’s wig…and clothes…and skin.

  As is the case with every one of the (nearly forty!) books I’ve written, I had a team of breathtakingly talented professionals to help bring this story to life, and they all deserve umbrella drinks and close attention from the pool boy. My deepest gratitude to editor Kristi Yanta who guides me through the white water of every revision and makes sure I don’t drown. Also, much love and appreciation to copy editor and proofreader Joyce Lamb, a master at the art; cover artist Robin Ludwig, who captures my world in an image and layout; my assistants Marilyn Puett and Maria Connor who make sure my life is in relative working order; and, of course, my precious little family, who love and support and encourage me even when they are so sick of hearing about how hard it is to write a book.

  Special props to some research assistance on this one, too. Reader and friend Naomi Lahn gave me hands-on help on the French excerpts—merci, Naomi! Also, big efharisto to Anastasios G. Milios, who guided me through Greece (virtually) and introduced me to the gorgeous island of Karpathos.

  Like every book set in Barefoot Bay, this novel stands entirely alone, but why stop at just one? All of the books and series are listed in the back. There are plenty of opportunities to go barefoot and fall in love!

  — Roxanne St. Claire

  Newsletter Signup

  This book and the story of love it celebrates is dedicated to my dear friend Sonia Tsirambidis Fakatselis, who inspires me every single day when we meet on the street. My neighbor, my sister, and the owner of Portokali Sky Accessories…Sonia is as beautiful as the products she creates!

  *DPGROUP.ORG*

  Chapter One

  “Thomas Jefferson DeMille? You expect me to believe that’s your real name?”

  Ten feet away, the cashier’s question stopped Gussie McBain dead in her tracks, almost making her drop two liters of Diet Coke in the aisle of the convenience store. Thomas Jefferson DeMille? She stared at the back of a tall man, who swiped back a handful of dark hair while broad shoulders rose and fell with obvious frustration.

  Hadn’t she read somewhere that that was famed photographer TJ DeMille’s real name?

  “Clear the card,” he ordered in a sandpaper whisper.

  “No can do.” Charity Grambling, owner of the convenience store and undisputed Most Obnoxious Human on the entire island of Mimosa Key, tapped a credit card on the counter while she peered through bifocals to read what was in her other hand. “Because the name on this shiny black American Express does not match the one on this expired New York state driver’s license, so I won’t accept either one.”

  “What the hell are you talking about? Expired?” He leaned over the counter, the move pulling a white T-shirt tight, straining corded muscles and drawing Gussie’s eye to a tattoo script wrapped around his forearm. “It’s still me, whatever the date. See? TJ DeMille, right there.”

  Gussie bit her lip. It was him! One of the most talented and famous photographers in the world was standing in the middle of the Super Min.

  Charity remained unimpressed, raising a thickly drawn brow. “Thomas Jefferson, really? I wasn’t born yesterday.”

  “No shit,” he mumbled.

  “The hippie hair and devil’s paint are a dead giveaway.”

  Giveaway of what? Gussie took a few steps closer. Hippie hair? Hardly. More like handfuls of dark chocolate silk that fell carelessly over his neck and grazed his shoulders. Some strategically placed ink only added to his allure.

  “I use my initials for work, and that’s a business credit card.” He bit out each word, impatience rolling off him.

  “Sorry.” Charity handed the AmEx and license back to him. “We do accept cash, however.”

  He snapped the cards from her hands. “Where’s your ATM?”

  “You’ll need to visit the Mimosa Community Credit Union, over at the corner of Harbor and—”

  “Never mind!” He gave a push to a pile of magazines, nearly toppling a bottle of Snapple onto a jumbo bag of Fritos. He turned away and marched out the door.

  “Charity!” Gussie exclaimed when the welcome bell dinged in his wake. “Do you have any idea who that was?”

  “The list of possibilities is long, but I’m going with a prison escapee. Did you see those marks on his arms?”

  “They’re called tattoos. Pretty mainstream these days.”

  “And that little silver earring? I’m almost certain that’s a sign of an ex-con.”

  Gussie glanced outside to spot him standing next to a small white sedan, thumbing a cell phone. Not the car she’d expect a man like him to drive, she mused, her heart rate increasing with each second she lingered over his delicious physique and chiseled, if angry as hell, features.

  “I mean, just look at him,” Charity said.

  “No problem.”

  “What else can you think about a man with all those…those…”

  “Muscles?”

  “Exactly.” She huffed. “Steroids, I’d bet my life.”

  “You’d lose that bet,” Gussie said, squinting to get a better view of a body that looked more like he played rugby than pumped iron.

  Charity rolled her eyes, shoving his pile of merchandise to the side, obviously not as concerned with a lost sale as the possibility of stopping a hardened criminal. “I don’t trust a man who buys raspberry tea, Fritos, girlie magazines and”—she grabbed three supersized Milky Way bars—“more chocolate than a woman with PMS.”

  Maybe he’s feeding a starving model. Gussie’s attention slid to the top magazine, instantly recognizing TJ DeMille’s masterful ability to capture both an ethereal yet utterly honest expression on his subject’s face.

  “Vogue is a girlie magazine now?”

  “What kind of man buys it?” Charity demanded.

  “The man who shot the covers,” Gussie informed her. At Charity’s confused look, Gussie pointed at the picture. “The top-notch, well-respected, highly in-demand photographer responsible for that image.”

  For a second, interest flickered in Charity’s gray eyes, her weakness for local news and notoriety showing. “That explains the raspberry tea, then.”

  “How?”

  “He’s gay.”

  Actually, rumored dalliances with models would say differently, but Gussie ignored the gross generalization. “You should have given him the magazine and asked for his autograph.”

  “The only autograph I accept is on the credit card machine, as long as the card isn’t stolen and the license is valid. Despite my name, there’s no charity at the Super Min.” Charity pointed to the liters of Diet Coke. “Cash or charge?”

  “Cash.” While she reached for her wallet, Gussie took one more look at the man still standing in the parking lot. The unforgiving Florida summer sun poured light over him, making his hair glisten and emphasizing the shadows under defined cheekbones.

  “Ahem.” Charity knocked inch-long nails gleaming with a fresh coat of Charged-Up Cherry against her counter. “Would you like to stand there and drool all over the magazines so I can’t sell them to anyone now that Tommy Jefferson himself had his tattooed
palms all over them?”

  Gussie reached for the issue of Vogue, hardly aware that she stroked the glossy cover as she took one more look at the man who’d brought the image to life.

  “Oh, for heaven’s sake, pay for your soda.”

  Gussie tore her gaze from the parking lot to the beast in front of her. “Add the magazines,” Gussie blurted out. “And candy. And Snapple. And whatever else he was buying. I’ll take it all.”

  Charity’s eyes grew wide behind her bifocals. “And do what with them?”

  Help out a great talent. Great-looking talent. “None of your business.”

  She pffted out a breath. “Everything on this island is my business. Like, why do you wear different-color wigs every day? Someone asked me about it, and I assumed, you know, chemo or something.”

  Gussie almost laughed, because how else could you even respond to such rudeness? “So that’s what you told them?”

  “I told them I’d find out.” She leaned way off her little stool to peer hard at Gussie’s face. “And all that makeup. What’s the deal?”

  A slow heat slid up her chest and onto her cheeks, which Charity probably couldn’t see because of all that makeup. She dug for the snappy retort about how Charity could benefit from a touch of mascara and a magnifying mirror so she could actually find her eyebrows, but doing her good deed for the day beat out the need to snark at the old lady.

  Reaching into her wallet, Gussie grabbed two twenties—those magazines were pricey—and slapped them on the counter. “I’ll take it all. His and mine.” She scooped everything into her arms, using the magazines to cradle his Snapple and her Diet Cokes.

  “What the—”

  “Keep the change,” Gussie called as she hustled away, not pausing to second-guess the impulsive decision. The bell dinged as she shouldered the door open, just as the sedan pulled out of its parking spot.

  “Don’t leave!” she called out to the back of the car. Seeing his right-turn signal flash, she ran that way, bolting into the intersection, almost right in front of the car. “Hey!” The move nearly cost her a forty-dollar armload.

  He slammed the brakes and jerked his head back in surprise, glaring at her with thick brows drawn together in incredulity.

  “I have your stuff.” She lifted her arms, rolling the Diet Cokes to a precarious angle on top of the magazines.

  He still stared at her like she was a complete and total lunatic. Which, right at that moment, would be a fairly accurate assessment.

  “Your…magazines,” she called through his closed window, angling her whole body so one of the soda bottles lodged between her elbow and boob. “And tea and candy. I bought them for you.”

  He stayed in the driver’s seat, clearly uncertain of the possible danger of a pink-wigged woman who’d spent way too much money for a stranger. Finally, he lowered the window.

  “Why would you do that?” he asked.

  She had no freaking clue, except she admired his work. And his body. So she’d either sound like a fangirl or stalker. “Just to be nice.” Oh, so lame. Her elbow braced the armload so tight that her muscles started to burn. “And I kind of hate that woman who owns this place.”

  That made him smile, just a little. Just enough to trip Gussie’s heart.

  “That makes two of us. Hang on.” He put the car in park and opened the door. Climbing out, he reached for the magazines and sodas, a lock of hair falling over his eye as he looked down at her. “Let me help you.”

  He reached for the Coke bottle as she moved to protect it from slipping so his fingers accidentally grazed her chest.

  He drew his hand back—not terribly fast—but she felt the tea slip right between the magazines and her stomach. “Oh!” She gasped, leaning into him to save the glass bottle from the fall, but it slipped and crashed to the concrete, making them both jump back as raspberry tea spurted all over her sandaled feet and his faded jeans.

  “Oh, I’m sorry,” she groaned.

  “It’s…okay.” He stepped back, shaking some liquid off his jeans.

  She lifted one foot out of the mess, and the heavy issue of Marie Claire toppled, followed by Vogue, both of them splatting right onto the puddle of Snapple. “Oh, God. So much for being a Good Samaritan.”

  “Just don’t drop the Fritos.” He gingerly plucked everything else from her hands. “’Cause then I will have to rob the convenience store.”

  She laughed. “She’s probably already called the cops.”

  “We could go all Bonnie and Clyde on her ass,” he joked, meeting her gaze with disarmingly blue eyes, about the color of the sky over Barefoot Bay on a balmy Florida afternoon. “Wanna go rogue with me?”

  Right about then, she’d have gone anywhere with him. “Tempting, but it would put a damper on my daily Diet Coke stop.” She couldn’t help but smile up at him. “I’m Gussie McBain, by the way.”

  “Gussie? You’ve even got an outlaw name and a cute disguise. I’m—”

  “Oh, I know who you are,” she blurted.

  “You do?”

  Regretting the admission that made her sound like some kind of crazed fan, she pointed over her shoulder. “I mean, I heard you tell Charity. Thomas Jefferson—or TJ—DeMille.”

  “Tom to my friends.” He threaded his fingers through his hair to push it off his face, studying her with enough amusement and interest to make her feel even warmer than usual in the summer sun. “And good-deed doers.”

  For a long, crazy, heart-stopping few seconds, they stared at each other. Gussie felt her chest tighten and her stomach flip at the instant, palpable, electrifying connection.

  “You’re blocking the entrance!” Charity’s grating voice broke the magic. “And look at that mess! You’ll give all my customers flat tires!”

  Charity shook her fried and dyed hair, pointing at him. “I know who you are now, mister. I made a few phone calls. Get on your way and take care of that mess your sister left behind. And you.” Her finger slid to Gussie. “Find a pink scarf and lose the stupid wigs. You’d be pretty.”

  Gussie felt her cheeks flush as Charity backed into the store.

  “We could take her,” he whispered, his voice so low and sexy it practically pulled Gussie closer.

  “And all the Fritos we can eat.”

  He gave a wry laugh, studying her again. After Charity’s rude comment, he was, of course, looking at her wig. She should have been used to it—and the misperception that she was sick—but he was so skilled at finding and photographing real beauty that the scrutiny nearly flattened her.

  “Here.” He handed her the only magazine that made it through the small disaster, Vanity Fair. “I owe you at least this much for your effort, Gussie McBain.”

  “For a broken bottle of iced tea and ruined magazines?”

  He gave the chips a noisy rattle. “You saved my Fritos and thus my backside. That’s good enough for a return favor in my book.” He stepped back to get in the car, but took one more moment, scrutinizing her again. “She’s wrong, you know.”

  “You’re not a criminal?”

  He shook his head. “You already are pretty. I have an eye for these things, you know.”

  I know.

  He slipped back into the driver’s seat and closed the door. Giving a casual wave, he drove off, leaving Gussie standing in the sun, speechless.

  * * *

  Gussie was still thinking about the encounter after running the rest of her errands and grabbing subs for herself and her two business partners. But thoughts of TJ DeMille—or Tom to his friends—disappeared the minute she got back to Casa Blanca Resort & Spa to find glum faces when she entered the Barefoot Brides offices.

  Ari Chandler sat at the small conference table, braiding and unbraiding her long black ponytail, the way she always did when she was upset. At her desk, Willow Ambrose had her chin propped on her palms, a phone to her ear, an expression of defeat as she listened to someone on the other end.

  “What’s up?” Gussie asked as she dropped the
bag of sandwiches on the table, along with the issue of Vanity Fair. “Did we lose a bride or something?” she asked.

  “Not yet, but we have trouble for the Bernard-Lyons wedding.”

  Gussie cringed, falling into one of the conference table chairs. “Really? Then you probably don’t want to know that I just saw the bride’s parents checking into the resort when I walked through the lobby.”

  “Ugh.” Ari dropped back and blew out a breath. “It’s only a matter of minutes until Rhonda Lyons is over here demanding a full status report.”

  No doubt about that. Rhonda was the quintessential control-freak MOB who’d been breathing down their necks for the last six months in preparation for her daughter’s wedding.

  “This universe has been frowning on this wedding from the beginning,” Ari mused. “Remember the snafu with the hundred-year-old save-the-date cards?”

  “Hey, we only mailed them. Not our fault she had them printed by a friend who typeset the year as 1914.” Gussie glanced at Willow, who now had a finger over her other ear and closed her eyes to concentrate on the call.

  “What’s the problem?” Gussie asked in a whisper.

  From her desk, Willow held up a finger as she took a breath to talk. “Well, I certainly understand that couldn’t be changed,” she said. “We will keep looking. Thanks so much.” She hung up, shaking her head as she looked at Gussie. “Dianne Stoddard found her husband with another woman,” she said.

  “She actually found him in the shower with another woman,” Ari added. “Not to put too fine a point on it.”

  Gussie’s jaw dropped. “Big Bill Stoddard? The guy who owns the hardware store? Gross.”

  “Apparently, screws are Big Bill’s specialty,” Ari deadpanned.

  “What does this have to do with the Bernard-Lyons wedding?” Gussie asked, spinning through all of the options. “Are we buying props from the store or something?”

  Willow shook her head. “Dianne left him and insisted her sister come along.”

 
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