Poor pitiful Harley, dumped by her high school sweetheart, left without a place to live, stuck in a dead-end job because she’d been an idiot and followed Asshole Tony to Nashville, where he’d been so certain he’d make it as a country songwriter. He hadn’t been bad, truly, but songwriters in that town were a dime a dozen. So were the girlfriends who supported their dreams by answering phones in an office and fending off too-friendly bosses. Naturally, once Asshole Tony started seeing some success, he celebrated by sleeping around.
So here she was, twenty-five and homeless. Sam had offered her a place to stay until she could figure out what to do next.
A fresh start. That’s how she’d look at this. The first step was going into the bar and facing her brother. She rolled her shoulders and stepped through the door leading in from the street.
She hadn’t been to his bar before, so when he’d told her it was an open bar, she hadn’t been sure what to think. What it was, was, well, an open bar. Ahead of her, across the weathered decking, were the beach and the ocean. Around the deck, space heaters were placed at measured intervals. To her left was a wood and tin structure where the main part of the bar was located. Bleached wood fronted the bar, painted in alternating colors one would see on beachfront houses, but the color had worn down so some of the wood was exposed. In front of the bar was a row of similarly painted barstools, and clear bulbs hung on strings from the posts in the bar outward over the seating area in a fan shape. Cute.
Behind the bar, however, looked like Sam’s old dorm room. The University of Alabama sports paraphernalia—elephants wearing red sweaters, cups and other things bearing giant scrolling “A’s”— littered the shelves in between the bottles, signs were hammered to the walls there, and on the wall to her right. It made sense—Sam and his college roommate Liam had played football with the Crimson Tide, and were of course in Alabama, where football was king. And the decor went with the flat-screen TVs mounted in shielded areas, both showing different sporting events. But seriously, these were two men, almost thirty, reliving their glory days?
Customers gathered near tall space heaters. Maybe her blood had thickened in her time in Nashville, because she wasn’t cold at all. She was, however, surprised the place was so busy on a Tuesday night in December.
Her brother’s voice carried cheerfully above the conversation and the sound from the TVs. She barely turned before he caught her up in a bear hug.
Instantly, she relaxed in her big brother’s arms. She’d heard horror stories of sibling rivalry, but had honestly never experienced it with Sam. Maybe because he was five years older, but he’d always been protective and she’d always felt safe with him.
It didn’t hurt that he was six three and in the Coast Guard Reserves.
He drew back to look at her, and his cheerful expression collapsed. “You look like hell.”
“Gee, thanks, what I love to hear.” She passed a hand over her hair. “Not so much sleeping going on lately. A lot of worrying.”
“Yeah, well, you don’t have to worry now. You’ve got a place to stay as long as you need it, while you figure out what you’re going to do next.”
God knew she would need time, because she had no flipping idea what she was going to do.
“Look, come say hi to Liam, then we’ll take off, I’ll get you settled in the house and then I’ll come back.”
Liam. She hung back just a bit. If she looked as bad as Sam’s reaction suggested, she did not want to face Liam. She’d had a major crush on him when he and Sam were in college. Of course she’d never said anything, because how childish was that? She’d been fifteen at the time, gangly as hell, and Liam was one fine specimen. Even now, she looked like something the cat dragged in. Plus, Jesus, if Sam told Liam her pathetic story, she may just as well go bury herself in the sand over there.
But Sam tugged, and she staggered forward to where Liam worked behind the bar.
If she’d hoped he’d gotten fat and bald in the few years since she’d seen him, well, she would have been stupid, that was for sure, because that would be a waste. But no, if anything, he’d gotten better with age, his face leaner, bristling with a bit of stubble. He still kept his dark hair almost military short, which only emphasized his blue eyes. Damn, he had pretty eyes. Right now they were trained on a blonde who was toying with a beer bottle and clearly in no hurry to leave the bar, but then Sam drew his attention and he focused his gaze on Harley.
Holy crap. “I love Alabama,” she whispered.
“What?” Sam asked, but she waved him off.
“Harley!” he greeted, and used the bar to lift himself up to give her a kiss on the cheek.
She didn’t know what she appreciated more, the way the muscles in his arms rippled when he lifted himself, or the brush of his stubble against her cheek. Suddenly, she felt tons better.
“Hey, you want a beer?” The words came at her like bullets. She’d forgotten how, er, energetic he was.
“I’m going to take her to my place and get her settled, and I’ll be back in a bit,” Sam said. “You got this?”
Liam gave a casual wave. “No problem. Sure you don’t want to have a drink first?”
“I’m sure,” she promised, backing away. The sooner she got to Sam’s and could hide, the better.
Only that wasn’t to be. If she thought Sam would just drop her off and head back to the bar, she was mistaken. Instead he took her to the two-bedroom bungalow where he lived, a little more than half a mile from the beach, a cute enough place for a bachelor—and a hell of a lot more than she had to her name. He showed her to her room, almost completely taken up by a full-sized bed, but she could see he’d made an effort to clean out his gym equipment and other paraphernalia to make room for her. The Coast Guard recruiting poster featuring him still hung in the room, grinning at her. Yeah, great. Big brother was watching.
He set her suitcase on the bed and hefted a hip onto the corner of the dresser.
“So, you know you’re welcome here as long as you need to stay.”
“You’ve said,” she said, stopping with the key halfway into the lock of her suitcase. Where was he going with this?
“I was just wondering why you wouldn’t rather go home. Especially since it’s almost Christmas.”
She braced her hands on top of the suitcase and met his gaze. “Okay, let’s say you were living with someone your parents thought was worthless, and you thought you knew better, that she was awesome, and it turned out your parents were right. Would you be in any hurry to come face-to-face with them? Christmas will be soon enough, and long enough, and then I’ll escape back here with you.”
He grunted, and she turned back to opening her luggage.
“I’m sorry I’m pretty clueless right now. Still reeling, though I should have seen it coming.”
“The offer to go kick his ass still stands.”
She sighed. That had been Sam’s answer for everything since she started dating. As satisfying as it might be... “I need to start kicking asses all on my own.”
“That is true.” He stood with a sigh and kissed her forehead. “There’s Diet Coke and lunch meat and stuff in the fridge. I got some bananas and M&Ms, too. Not sure which you might be in the mood for.”
She hadn’t been in the mood for much of anything, to be truthful, and had dropped seven pounds. Her jeans hung looser on her than they ever had. “You’re a good brother.”
“I hate to leave you, but I don’t want Liam to have to close up on his own.”
“I meant to ask, how are y’all so busy in December? People still come to the beach in December?”
“A lot of them, actually, because it’s off-season and cheaper. We get snowbirds, and locals, and more tourists than you’d think. Not as busy as we’ll be in March, and later. But we’re doing okay. You want to come back out tonight?”
“Definitely not. I’ll be fine, Sam. Go ahead and go. I’ll just watch some TV and hopefully get some sleep.”
“I’ll try to be quiet when I come in.” He leaned over and kissed her forehead.
“Look, Sam,” she said as he started out the front door.
He stopped and turned.
“I don’t want to cramp your style. If you want to bring someone back, don’t worry about me.”
He gave her a grin that she couldn’t quite interpret, and headed out.
* * *
It turned out she could fall asleep, but couldn’t stay asleep. She stared at the clock beside her bed, willing the numbers to change. Sam was asleep in the next room, or she’d turn on the TV to soothe herself. She checked the weather on her phone. Upper forties. Warmer than back home.
No, wait. There was no “back home.” She sighed and pushed herself out of bed, then peeked out the curtain at the quiet dark street. The beach wasn’t far away, and Starfish Shores was a small town. She’d go for a walk. Maybe the ocean air would kickstart her brain, or relax her enough to go back to sleep.
She dressed quietly in yoga pants, a T-shirt and a hoodie and crept out the front door, making sure she had a key to get back in. Sam would not like being awakened by her banging on the door. She tucked a couple of bucks in her pocket, in case she came across an open bakery or something. Not likely at barely five in the morning, but possible. At the last minute, she rummaged for a flashlight, tested it to make sure it worked, and put it in her hoodie pocket.
The chill in the air stole her breath for a minute, but as she walked briskly to the end of the street, she warmed up enough to unzip the hoodie. She could smell the ocean, and the lure of it increased her pace. She crossed the main street of the town, and stepped with more force than necessary on the wooden walkway that led over the dunes and to the beach.
She paused. It was darker out here than she expected, even with the lights from the condos that lined the beach. Ahead of her, at the edge of the water, she saw a few people with flashlights aimed at the sand, probably looking for shells. She pulled out her own, flicked it on and grimaced at the weak beam of light. But she was here, and the sand was calling to her. She toed off her shoes, scooped down to pick them up and stepped onto the sand.
Holy crap, it was cold! She did a little dance in the sifting grains before curling her toes into it. Again, she thought about heading back to the warmth of the bungalow, but no. She could deal with the chill.
She’d forgotten how hard it was to walk in loose sand, so staggered a bit toward the water, stopping a couple of times when small crabs darted past her crappy flashlight beam.
“It’s okay, little dude, I don’t want to step on you any more than you want to be stepped on.”
Finally she reached the packed sand, and like the people she saw around her, shone the flashlight in search of shells.
She was so engrossed in the search—and shells bulged in her hoodie pockets—that she was unaware of the sky lightening and more people joining them on the beach, some searching, some out for a run. Which had been her original plan, to run herself, she realized guiltily.
She heard pounding footsteps and moved out of the way, only to meet a wave coming in. Her shriek of alarm rang out along the quiet beach, drawing everyone’s attention and once more making her want to bury herself in the sand.
And then it got better. The runner whose path she’d been clearing caught her by the arms to steady her before she fell on her ass in the water, and she looked into the blue eyes of Liam Channing.
Of course she did.
His hoodie fell back and his eyes brightened when he recognized her. “Hey, you’re not wanting to go for a swim, are you?” Instead of letting her answer, he pulled her away from the water, placing himself between her and the waves. “It’s low tide, but it can still sneak up on you.” He released her and stepped back. “What are you doing out here so early?”
“Couldn’t sleep.” Good Lord, he’d said more words than she’d thought all morning.
“Yeah, well, good call. Nothing like a walk on the beach.” He pointed to her lumpy pockets. “Find anything good?”
“Um.” Yep, she was always so verbose around him.
“Let’s go get some coffee, and you can show me what you found. One time when I was out early, I found a sand dollar that was still alive.”
“Yep. You could see its little tentacles or legs or whatever sticking out the sides, as it tried to swim away. They’re darker than the shells, you know. It was cool.”
“Are you sure you need coffee?” she blurted. “You seem wide awake to me.”
He laughed, another sound that carried over the beach. “Believe it or not, it calms me down.” He tapped his temple. “ADD.”
“I never would have guessed. Do you sleep? I mean, didn’t you close the bar last night?”
“Sure, I did, and sure, I sleep. But I like to run on the beach, too, and this is the best time of day. So, coffee?”
“Sam will be wondering where I am.” She took a step backwards. “I didn’t leave him a note.”
Liam snorted. “He won’t see daylight for another four or five hours at least. Come on. We’ll get some coffee, then you can come fishing with me on the pier.”
Her stomach rumbled and he grinned, as if he’d already won. “The place I get coffee has great pastries, too.”
Even though she’d been thinking of pastries all morning, she resisted. “If I get pastries, I’ll have to start running, too.”
“Good, then I’ll have someone to run with. Sam is too competitive. Plus, he sleeps late.”
“From what I remember, you’re pretty competitive yourself.”
“Stubborn. Stubborn is what I am. So come on. Pastries and coffee sound really good right now.” He started walking up the beach and despite herself, she fell in step.
“Aren’t I holding you back from your run?”
He turned back as if to gauge the distance. “Nah, I did okay.”
“So you’re going fishing? Do you have your gear? And doesn’t that require, I don’t know, patience?”
He flashed a grin that made her knees wobbly. “I’m plenty patient. Again with the stubborn, see. I can out-wait just about anything.”
She didn’t know why she got a feeling he was sending her a message. Maybe it was just her sleep-deprived mind drawing lines where there weren’t any.
“So how long are you in town?” he asked as they continued down the beach.
“I don’t know yet.” She was sure Sam had told him the whole story, but she so didn’t want to go into it with him.
“Yeah, well, the reason I was asking is that once Sam goes on his annual training maneuvers, I’m going to need help at the bar.”
She stopped. “When he goes where?”
“He didn’t tell you? He’s got annual training coming up starting this weekend. He’ll be gone until just before Christmas.”
“Why wouldn’t he tell me that?”
“I don’t know. Maybe he was waiting until you got settled in or something. Don’t worry about it. You’ll have the house to yourself when he goes.”
But she didn’t know a soul in Starfish Shores, didn’t have a thing to do. But what had she wanted, really? Him to babysit her? Entertain her?
And technically, she did know Liam. Working at the bar might give her something to do, though that meant working beside Liam. She’d have to think about it.
Finally Liam turned and started hiking toward the road. Harley was slightly gratified to see that he had as much trouble walking in the sand as she did. Still, he reached out to steady her when she staggered, his hand hard and warm.
She should not be noticing what his hands felt like. She’d just ended a long-term relationship, and Liam was her brother’s best friend. The fact that he was smoking hot should not weigh on her consciousness at all. Still, she felt her face heat as she pulled away, breaking contact.
Once they reached the wooden walkway that would take them over the dunes—a different walkway than she’d used to come down to the beach—the sun was peeking over the horizon, and the shorebirds were making a racket as they soared overhead against the high clouds. Liam touched the small of her back to guide her forward, though she could now clearly see the coffeehouse in front of them. She should move away. She really should. But that might send him the wrong idea, that his touch affected more to her than it should. So she let his hand ride on the small of her back and ignored the tingles of awareness shooting through her body.
For God’s sake, she’d just broken up with Tony. Was she any better than him, if she was turned on by Liam’s touch? She gave a little skip to outpace him, and broke contact.
The aroma of coffee reached past the sidewalk, and she disguised her move as eagerness to get to it. She pushed through the door to find the shop dark-paneled and cozy, the menu and prices written in looping script in different colored chalk on a chalkboard on the back wall. The other side of the L-shaped counter contained a few sample cakes and a fancy binder with the title, “Wedding Cakes.” A few small tables were scattered about, but this wasn’t a restaurant. At this early hour, the place was quiet except for the sound of the brass coffeemaker behind the counter. When Harley crouched to inspect the variety of baked goods behind the glass counter, a redhead with her curls tucked into an unruly ponytail popped out from a doorway that led to the back, presumably the kitchen. Her eyes brightened when she saw Liam. She wiped her hands on her apron and hurried forward.
“Liam, you’re running a little late. Want your usual?”
Harley straightened and the redhead jumped, her hand on her heart.
“Oh. Hi. I didn’t see you there.” But her smile definitely dimmed.
“Brenda, this is Harley Blume, Sam’s little sister,” Liam said easily. “Harley, Brenda Wesley, the best baker in Starfish Shores.”
The wattage turned up a bit, and Brenda slid a flirtatious look in his direction. “The only baker.”
He leaned on the counter. “Doesn’t mean it isn’t good. Give me the usual, plus a bear claw for Sam, and whatever she’s having.”
Her mouth was watering, the first time she could remember wanting to eat in weeks. “That cupcake, and a mocha.” She pointed to a cupcake swirled with rich chocolate icing.
“A cupcake for breakfast?” Liam asked as Brenda moved to select it for her.
“How is that worse than a doughnut?” She pointed to the powdery confection Brenda had put on a plate for him. “And you don’t need to buy me breakfast. I brought money.”
“You get it tomorrow.” He placed a bill on top of the counter.
“If you eat like this every day, no wonder you need to run.” She took her cupcake and turned toward one of the small tables. Okay, she’d not thought this through. She’d be sitting in this small coffeehouse at a small table, and eating one of the messiest foods. She knew of no graceful way to eat a cupcake.
It didn’t matter, though. She didn’t need to impress Liam. He was Sam’s friend, was all. And she might be working with him if he was telling the truth about Sam’s yearly training. Why would he lie?
But then, why wouldn’t Sam tell her?
Brenda brought their coffee to their table, along with a bag with Sam’s bear claw. Then, to Harley’s surprise, she pulled up a chair and sat down. That was probably good, to distract Liam’s attention from her.
“So where are you from, Harley?”
“Originally, Oregon. More recently, Nashville.”
“So, visiting Sam for a few days?”
“A few weeks, I think. Not sure how long I’ll stay.”
Brenda widened her eyes. “So you don’t work?”
“I recently left my job. Just wasn’t what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. What about you? Do you own this place?”
“I wish. No, I’m just the baker, and during the off-season, also waitress and cashier. It’s a great job if you don’t like sleep.” She cast a wistful glance at Liam. “Or going out. I haven’t been to The Pit in ages. I heard you have a new band playing Friday nights.”
“They’re pretty good. You should try to come out.”
“One beer and I’d fall asleep. I swear, I’m worthless after eight, since I wake up around four. How is it?” She pointed to Harley’s cupcake.
Since Harley had bitten into it, the icing had streaked her nose and she was trying to wipe it away discreetly before Liam noticed. She sent a mental gee, thanks to Brenda when Liam grinned, leaned over and wiped the errant frosting with his thumb. Brenda’s eyes narrowed at the casual gesture.
“It’s good,” Harley managed.
“Are you looking for a job in Starfish Shores?”
“Harley’s going to work at The Pit,” Liam said.
“Harley has not said she’s going to work at The Pit,” Harley countered. Harley doesn’t know what she’s going to do. But tending bar, or waitressing in her brother’s bar, did not seem to have any more of a future than answering phones and dodging her boss’s hands. “Harley has never waitressed before.”
“Nothing to it. And you can make some decent tips.”
Right. Tips were going to help her start over. But to look at it another way, it might show her what she didn’t want to do. It might give her the motivation to figure the rest of her life out. She looked at Brenda. The woman was probably her age, maybe younger, and had a career. Liam and Sam had careers, hell, were business owners. How had she missed out on knowing what she wanted to be when she grew up?
She polished off the cupcake, picked up her paper cup of coffee and the bag with the bear claw. “Thanks for breakfast. I’ll see you.” And she bolted out the door.
* * *
Harley sat on the corner of Sam’s bed with a bounce, waking her brother, who grunted and tugged at the covers before rolling onto his back and opening his eyes. She made a show of reaching into the white bakery bag and tearing off a piece of the bear claw, and shoving it into her mouth.
“When were you going to tell me you were leaving?” she demanded around the pastry.
He climbed on his elbows until he was in a sitting position. “Where have you been?”
“On the beach.”
He blinked, coming awake. “You ran into Liam.”
“More or less. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You had enough going on, and I thought you might think I wouldn’t want you here when I was gone, and I knew you didn’t want to go home to Mom and Dad, so I waited. I was going to tell you today.”
“You’re going to leave me in a place where I don’t know anyone, alone, for two weeks.”
“You know Liam. And who do you know back in Oregon anymore, anyway? It’s just two weeks, and when have you ever lived on your own? This will be a good experience.”
All the benefits, none of the risk, she supposed. “When are you leaving?”
Saturday. Three days away.
“Do Mom and Dad know? Will you be back for Christmas?”
He grimaced. “Christmas Eve. I won’t make it up there in time. But hey, you weren’t going to go, either, remember.”
Because she’d been going to spend Christmas with Asshole Tony’s extended family, in a lake house in Minnesota. The idea had seemed so romantic and cozy, something straight out of a Christmas card. Now she was going to spend the Christmas season on the beach. Not Christmasy in any way. But she wasn’t ready to tell her parents what had happened, not yet.
“Liam wants me to help out in the bar while you’re gone. I don’t have any experience with that.” She didn’t have much experience with anything, come to think of it.
“You don’t have to do anything for two weeks. Just get your life sorted out. Now, give me that.” He reached over and snatched the bakery bag.
* * *
Truth was, there wasn’t much to do in a coastal town in December, not when one was avoiding the bar and the bakery after making a fool out of oneself. Sitting around the bungalow feeling sorry for herself wasn’t working, either.
She found herself at The Pit the following night. Again, the place was surprisingly busy. Probably more people like herself who didn’t want to be home alone. She didn’t let Sam know she was there, just kept to the back and watched he and Liam work side by side behind the bar, joking with each other and the customers as a hockey game played on the screen overhead. Something tugged at her, and she was reminded of how she felt at Tony’s gigs, watching him with the band, him a part of something he loved, she on the outside. It was the same thing with Liam and Sam and their neighbors, only this time she’d been invited in. She had a feeling it wouldn’t take her long to get to know the people of Starfish Shores if she worked here.
She watched the waitress wheel about the crowd in tight jeans, tray held high, balancing half a dozen drinks or more without spilling them. Could she learn to do that?
She moved forward, and Liam spotted her. His grin split his face and he waved her over to the end of the bar.
“What’s your pleasure?” he asked, leaning over to hear her answer.
Was he ever in a sour mood? Just once, she wanted to see that. “If you ask all the girls like that, no wonder you’re so busy.”
He winked. “Missed you on the beach this morning.”
She’d actually slept last night, something like seven hours straight. That was part of the reason she’d come out. She could function again without exhaustion dragging at her.
“I’ll take a beer.” She pointed to the sign with her preferred brand. “So how long did it take her to learn how to do that?” She gestured to the waitress, who was loading up another tray.
“Cindi? Few days. Why? You going to come work for us?”
“Better than sitting home alone, I guess.”
His grin widened. “I can get Cindi to start training you tonight.”
“Er, I’d really rather do it when there weren’t so many people around watching me make a fool of myself.”
“All right,” he said. “Come in tomorrow around three. I’ll be in early to get things ready for Sam’s going away party. You can get some practice in then.”
Surprisingly, now that she’d made the decision, she wasn’t so jittery. “I’ll be here.”
She stayed at the end of the bar, invisible, watching. The girl on the other end of the bar flirting with Sam might be a tourist, but the guys joking with Liam were local, as was the group of girls, including Brenda from the bakery, watching Liam from one of the tables on the deck.
Harley had grown up in a city and moved to another city, but she thought she could get used to living in a small town.
“Heading out already?” Liam asked when she slipped off her barstool.
She jolted and bumped into the next barstool. She hadn’t realized he’d been paying attention.
“I’m not quite ready to close the place down.”
“Okay. Three o’clock tomorrow, then. Or come find me on the beach in the morning. I’ll be there.”
She didn’t know what to do with that invitation, so just waved and ducked out.
* * *
She didn’t make it out to the beach, even though she was awake and tempted. She didn’t want Liam to think she was following him around like some lovesick girl. Instead, she did the thing she’d been dreading since she walked out on Tony.
She called her parents.
“Hey, Mom,” she said as brightly as she could, channeling Liam and his blasted perpetual good mood. “What’s new?”
That was probably the wrong thing to say, since her mother went on forever about the new neighbors who had three adorable children and often needed a babysitter, and the new alarm system that kept going off at all hours, and the unseasonably warm weather.
“What’s new with you?” her mother finally asked.
“Funny you should ask.” Harley missed the days of phone cords that she could twist when she got anxious. “Tony and I broke up.”
Then she listened to another five minutes about Tony and how her mother had always known and had warned Harley. Because that’s what every daughter likes to hear. “I told you so.”
“So what happened?” her mother finally asked.
Harley considered lying after that diatribe. Instead, she took a deep breath. “He cheated on me. A lot.”
This tirade was shorter, about his wandering eye and his big ego, followed by, “I’m so sorry, sweetheart. He had no idea what he had. I’m sorry he hurt you.”
“Well, the plus side is, I’ll be home for Christmas.”
Silence on the other end. Holy cow, her mother was never silent.
“Sweetheart, since you and Sam weren’t planning to come home for Christmas, your dad and I made other plans with some friends from the neighborhood. The group of us are going skiing in Aspen. I’ve always wanted to go at Christmastime, and we were able to get a good deal. It’ll be like a second honeymoon.” Hesitation. “You could come with us, if you’d like, and sleep on the pull-out bed.”
Right. Just what she wanted to do, crash her parents’ second honeymoon. But wow, that was unexpected. She wasn’t sure how she felt—disappointed, or glad she didn’t have to go home and listen to more “I was right about him” lectures. “I’m good here.”
“You could come stay in the house, though I’m afraid it’s not really Christmasy.”
“I’m staying at Sam’s for now. I quit my job in Nashville. I’m going to work at The Pit while he’s gone to his training, help out a little.”
More silence. Then, “Oh, that’s good. And then what are you going to do?”
“I haven’t figured that out yet. Maybe my Christmas miracle will be ambition of my own.”
One could only hope.
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