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       Sea of Love: A Bayberry Island Novel, p.1

           Susan Donovan
 
Sea of Love: A Bayberry Island Novel


  PRAISE FOR THE NOVELS

  OF SUSAN DONOVAN

  “Impossible to put down. . . . Susan Donovan is an absolute riot.”

  —Romance Junkies

  “Goofy comedy, white-hot sex, and ticking-bomb pacing.”

  —Publishers Weekly

  “Donovan proves that she will have serious star power in the years to come.”

  —Romance Reader at Heart

  “Donovan’s blend of romance and mystery is thrilling.”

  —Booklist

  SIGNET SELECT

  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 375 Hudson Street,

  New York, New York 10014

  USA | Canada | UK | Ireland | Australia | New Zealand | India | South Africa | China

  penguin.com

  A Penguin Random House Company

  First published by Signet Select, an imprint of New American Library,

  a division of Penguin Group (USA) LLC

  First Printing, December 2013

  Copyright © Susan Donovan, 2013

  Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

  SIGNET SELECT and logo are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

  ISBN 978-1-101-61842-4

  PUBLISHER’S NOTE

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Version_1

  OMG!—this book is for you. Thank you for showing me I could fly with a broken wing.

  ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

  This book would not exist if it weren’t for the long list of those who saved my life, prayed for me, got me strong again, and loved me back to health. My immense gratitude goes to the surgeons, physicians, nurses, technicians, and aids at University of Maryland’s Shock Trauma and Meritus Medical Center; my dear friends, family, readers, and neighbors; my agent; my fellow writers and their families; my physical therapists; my prosthetist; my guardian angels; and everyone else who had a hand in my continuing recovery.

  Since “thank you” doesn’t cut it—and since I’m a romance writer—I’ll just say this: I love you all.

  Contents

  Praise for Susan Donovan

  Title Page

  Copyright

  Dedication

  Acknowledgments

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Epilogue

  Letter to the Reader

  Chapter One

  “Is it true what they say about the mermaid statue?”

  “Yeah, like, can she really hook us up with some hot guys while we’re here?”

  Rowan Flynn’s eyelid began to twitch. She gently closed the cash drawer and smiled at her latest arrivals, grateful they couldn’t read her thoughts. But holy hell—this had to be the hundredth mermaid question of the day! At this rate she’d never make it through festival week without completely losing her mind.

  “And, like, where’s the nearest liquor store?”

  But wait . . . what if this were the opportunity she’d been waiting for, the perfect time to knock some sense into the tourists? Maybe these girls—two typical, clueless, party-hungry twentysomethings checking into her family’s godforsaken, falling-down bed-and-breakfast—would be better off knowing the awful, horrible truth about the Bayberry Island mermaid legend. And love in general.

  The thought made her giddy.

  Rowan was prepared for this opportunity. She’d rehearsed her mermaid smackdown a thousand times. The words were locked, loaded, and ready to zing! from her mouth and slap these chicks right on their empty, tanned foreheads, perhaps saving them from years of heartache and delusion.

  Yo! Wake up! she could say. Of course there’s no truth to the legend. Trust me—the mermaid can’t bring you true love. It’s a frickin’ fountain carved from a lifeless, soulless hunk of bronze, sitting in a town square in the middle of a useless island stuck between Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, where . . .

  “Uh, like, hell-oh-oh?”

  The girls stared at Rowan. They waited for her answer with optimistic, wide eyes. She just couldn’t do it. What right did she have to stomp all over their fantasies? How could she crush the romantic tendencies nature had hardwired into their feminine souls? How could she jack up their weeklong vacation?

  Besides, her mother would kill her if she flipped out in front of paying guests. The Flynns relied on the B and B to keep them afloat—a predicament that was 100 percent Rowan’s fault.

  So she handed her guests the keys to the Tea Rose Room, put on her happy-hotelier face, and offered up the standard line of crap. “Well, as we locals like to say, there’s no limit to the mermaid’s magical powers—but only if you believe.”

  “Awesome.” The dark-haired woman snatched the keys from Rowan and glanced at her friend. “Because I believe we need to get laid this week!”

  The girls laughed so hard they practically tripped over themselves getting to the grand staircase. Rowan cocked her head and watched them guffaw their way to the landing, banging their rolling suitcases against the already banged-up oak steps. For about the tenth time that day, she imagined how horrified her loony great-great-grandfather would be at the state of this place. Rutherford Flynn’s mansion was once considered an architectural wonder, a symbol of the family patriarch’s huge ego, legendary business acumen, enormous wallet, and enduring passion for his wife—a woman he swore was a mermaid.

  “Oh! Like, ma’am, we forgot to ask. Where’s our room?”

  Ma’am? Rowan was only thirty, just a few years older than these girls! Since when was she a damn ma’am?

  Oh. That’s right. She’d become a ma’am the day she’d left the real world to become the spinster innkeeper of Bayberry Island.

  “Turn right at the top of the stairs.” Rowan heard the forced cheerfulness disappear from her voice. “It’s the second room on the left. Enjoy your stay, ladies.”

  “We are so going to try!”

  As the giggling and suitcase dragging continued directly overhead, Rowan propped her elbows on the old wood of the front desk and let her face fall into her hands. So she was a ma’am now, a ma’am with three check-ins arriving on the evening ferry. She was a ma’am with one clogged toilet on the third floor, twenty-two guests for breakfast tomorrow, four temporary maids who spoke as many languages, and eight hellish days until the island’s annual Mermaid Festival had run its course. Oh, and one more detail: The business was twenty-seven thousand dollars in the hole for the year, losses that absolutely had to be made up in the coming week or bankruptcy was a distinct possibility. Which also was this ma’am’s fault, thank you very much.

  And every second Ro
wan stayed on the island playing pimp to the mermaid legend was a reminder of the lethal error she’d made while visiting her family exactly three years before. She’d dropped her guard with that fish bitch just long enough to leave her vulnerable to heartbreak, betrayal, and the theft of what little remained of the Flynn family fortune. It was hard to believe, but Rowan had been happy before then. She’d studied organizational psychology and had a career she loved, working as an executive recruiter in the higher-education field. She had a great apartment in Boston and a busy social life. So what if she hadn’t found her true love? She’d been in no rush.

  But she’d returned for the Mermaid Festival that year and met a B and B guest named Frederick Theissen. He was so charming, handsome, and witty that before she could say, “Hold on a jiff while I check your references,” Rowan had fallen insanely in love with a complete stranger determined to whisk her away to New York. Her mother and her cronies insisted it was the legend at work and that Frederick was her destiny.

  As it turned out, her charming, handsome, and witty stranger might have loved her, but he also happened to be a Wall Street con man who used her to steal what remained of her family’s money. Destiny sucked.

  Of course, her mother wasn’t entirely to blame for her downfall. Rowan should have known better. But she still had the right to despise anything and everything related to the frickin’ mermaid until the day she died.

  The familiar putt-putt of a car engine caught her attention, and Rowan raised her head to look out the beveled glass of the heavily carved front doors. She watched the VW Bug plastered with iridescent fish scales come to a stop in the semicircle driveway. Since it was festival week, the car was decked out for maximum gawking effect, with its headlights covered in huge plastic seashells and a giant-assed mermaid tail sticking out from the trunk. Her mother got out of the car and strolled through the door.

  “Hi, honey! Everything going smoothly? How many more are due on the last ferry?”

  Rowan gave Mona the once-over and smiled. Like the car, her mother was in her festival finery, in her case the formal costume of the president of the Bayberry Island Mermaid Society. Mona’s flowing blond wig was parted in the center and fell down her back. She wore shells on her boobs, sea glass drop earrings, and a spandex skirt of mother-of-pearl scales that hugged her hips, thighs, and legs. The skirt’s hem fanned out into a mermaid flipper that provided just enough ankle room for her to walk around like Morticia Addams. Unlike Morticia, however, Rowan’s mother wore a pair of coral-embellished flip-flops.

  “Hi, Ma.” Rowan checked the B and B reservation list. “Two doubles and a quad—parents and two kids.”

  “Will you put the family in the Seahorse Suite?”

  “No. I’ve already got a family in there. I’m putting the new arrivals in the Dolphin Suite.”

  Her mother approached the front desk, leaned in close, and whispered, “What’s the status of the commode?”

  “I’m hoping it’ll get fixed before they check in.”

  One of Mona’s eyebrows arched high, and she tapped a finger on the front desk. “You’d better do more than hope, my dear. The Safe Haven Bed-and-Breakfast has a reputation to uphold.”

  Rowan held her tongue. Some might argue the establishment’s only reputation was that it had seen better days and was owned by the island’s first family of cray-cray.

  “But why worry?” Mona waved an arm around dramatically, a move that caused one of her shells to shift slightly north of decent. “The evening ferry might not even make it here. Did you hear the forecast?”

  This was a rhetorical question, Rowan suspected, but she could tell by the tone of her mother’s voice that the news wasn’t good. “Last I heard, it was just some rain.”

  Mona shook her head, her blond tresses swinging. “Ten-foot swells. Wind gusts up to forty-five knots. Lightning. The coast guard’s already issued a small-craft advisory. And the island council is meeting with Clancy right now to decide if they should take down the outdoor festival decorations—a public safety concern, you know. We wouldn’t want that giant starfish flying around the boardwalk like back in 1995. Nearly killed that poor man from Arkansas.”

  “Absolutely.” Rowan pretended to tidy some papers on the desk as she forced her chuckle into submission. They both knew the real public safety risk was that council members could come to blows deciding whether to undecorate for what might be just a quick-moving summer squall. She didn’t pity her older brother Clancy. Tempers were known to flare up during festival week, a make-or-break seven days for anyone trying to eke out a living on this island, which was nearly everyone. And that didn’t count the latest twist. A Boston developer’s plans to build a swanky marina, golf course, and casino hotel had split the locals into two warring factions. About half of the island’s residents preferred to keep Bayberry’s quaint New England vibe. The other half wanted increased tourism revenue, even if it meant crowds, traffic, noise, and pollution. And the Flynns were at the center of the dispute, since their land sat smack dab in the middle of the mile-long cove and was essential to the development plans. Much to the dismay of every other property owner on the cove, both Mona and Frasier were listed as owners, and Mona forbade Rowan’s father to sell the land. This meant that one little, middle-aged, spandex-clad mermaid was holding a major real estate developer, every other cove landowner, and half the population of the island hostage.

  Rowan had come to view the conflict as a kind of civil war, and like the more historically significant one, the conflict had pitted family member against family member, neighbor against neighbor. The weapon of choice around here wasn’t canon or musket, though. It was endless squabbling, ruthless name-calling, and an occasional episode of hair pulling or tire slashing.

  Rowan might not be thrilled about running from Manhattan with her life in shambles, but one thing could be said for her place of birth. It wasn’t dull.

  “Well, Ma, I’m sure Clancy will handle the situation with tact and diplomacy. He always does.”

  “That is so true.” As Mona’s gaze wandered off past the French doors and into the parlor, a faint smile settled on her lips. Rowan was well aware that her mother was enamored with her two grown sons—Clancy, a former Boston patrol officer who was now the island’s chief of police, and Duncan, a Navy SEAL deployed somewhere in the Middle East. As the baby of the family, Rowan had grown up accepting that her mother was unabashedly proud of her two smart, handsome, and capable boys. Of course Mona had always loved Rowan, too—but enamored? Not so much. Exasperated was more like it, especially starting in about fifth grade, when Rowan began talking about how she couldn’t wait to escape the island and start her real life.

  “This is your real life,” her mother would say. “Every day you’re alive is real. And if you can’t be really alive here on Bayberry Island, you’ll never be really alive, no matter where you go.”

  God, how that used to piss Rowan off. It still did.

  Mona adjusted her shell bra and returned her attention to her daughter. “I told Clancy to come over here after the meeting and help you with the storm shutters. God knows your father is useless when it comes to that sort of thing, if he cared enough to check on the house in the first place.”

  Rowan ignored the jab. She’d adopted a hands-off policy when it came to her parents’ ongoing power struggles, including their opposing positions on the development plans. “Only a few shutters are in good enough condition to make a difference, and besides, Clancy’s got more important things to do right now.”

  Mona didn’t like that response, apparently. Her brow crinkled up. “Who’s going to help you, then? Has a handsome and single handyman managed to check in without me noticing?”

  “Not possible, Ma.”

  “It’s not possible that such a man would want to visit Bayberry Island?”

  “No—it’s not possible you wouldn’t have noticed.”

  “True enough.” Mona giggled. “It is my job, you know.”

  Rowan’
s eyes got big, and all she could think was, Dear God, not this again. Her mother was the retired principal of the island’s only school, but she’d just alluded to her other “job”—that of Mermaid Society president and keeper of all things legend related. It was a wide net that Mona and her posse used to fish around in other people’s love lives.

  Her mother glanced down at Rowan and put her hands on her scale-covered hips. “You look like you have something facetious to say.”

  “Nope. Not me, Ma. I’m totally cool with the legend. Love is a many-splendored thing . . . all you need is love . . . back that ass up and all that shit.”

  Mona gasped. “Rowan Moira Flynn!”

  Just then, the tap-tap of quick footsteps moved through the huge formal dining room and headed toward the foyer, which was enough to divert Mona’s attention.

  “Imelda!”

  The petite older woman clutched her chest in surprise, then cut loose with a long string of Portuguese-laced obscenities. “You’re gonna give me a heart attack one day, Mona.”

  “I was just happy to see you.”

  Imelda Silva, who had once been the family’s private housekeeper and was now the B and B’s cook, shook her head and marched through the foyer on her way to the staircase. “I’ve been working for your family for twenty-five years. You and I both know you’re not happy to see me. You just want me to do something for that fruity mermaid group of yours and the answer is still não! I’d rather fix the toilet in the Dolphin Suite! And you, Rowan.” Imelda pointed an accusatory finger in her direction. “Stay out of the butter pecan ice cream. It’s the topping for tomorrow’s waffles.”

  Mona looked hurt as she watched Imelda trudge up the grand staircase. “What is wrong with everybody this year?” She sighed loudly. “Everywhere I turn, it’s just one bad attitude after another! What happened to the joy and delight of the biggest week of the whole summer season? Why aren’t people filled with excitement?”

 
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