Chasing Whispers - Paperback
Chasing Whispers - Paperback
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Sometimes love comes soft as a whisper, at the time when we least expect it …
There’s only one thing standing in the way of Effie Romeo’s success as an interior designer at the famed Oliver Hotel—Talon Chasing, the manager.
Not only is Talon dangerously handsome with his crooked smile and adorable dimple, but he also happens to be the oldest son of one of the wealthiest families on the East Coast. The more Effie tries to evade Talon, the harder he pursues her.
Effie is reluctant to get involved with Talon because of their work relationship and also because of the whispers of suspicion surrounding his ex-wife’s disappearance. The closer Effie gets to Talon, the more she starts to question his innocence.
A series of strange occurrences at the hotel make Effie fear that she might be the next to disappear.
Chasing Whispers will draw you in from the first page with its mystery and intrigue. The matters of the heart will leave a promise of hope that will stay with you long after the last page has been turned.
Welcome to Honeysuckle Island. A place where secrets abound. A place to find love, family, and belonging. A place to call home.
👇SCROLL DOWN TO READ AN EXCERPT AND THE FIRST CHAPTER
Read an Excerpt
Read an Excerpt
Madeline did the introductions in a crisp, no-nonsense tone. “Talon, this is Effie Smith, the interior designer in charge of the renovation. Effie, this is Talon Chasing, my oldest son and the manager of the hotel.”
A wicked grin flitted over his handsome face. “Pleased to meet you, Effie.” His voice hung on her name. It occurred to Effie that even his voice was sexy with its slight huskiness and combined musical lilt. He sauntered forward with the light, jaunty step of a panther who had his prey in his sights and was about to pounce. As he sat down beside her, his knee brushed against her leg, sending a bolt of awareness trembling through her. An expression her daddy often said tumbled through her mind. Good gravy, this was awkward!
He crossed his legs, resting his ankle on his knee. His foot was dangerously close to her leg, making her feel like he was encroaching on her personal space. How in the heck was she supposed to concentrate on doing her job with him here? His aura filled the entire room, giving her very little room to breathe, much less conduct herself in a professional manner. As discreetly as she could, she scooted to the opposite side of her chair. Her cheeks warmed when she saw the flick of amusement on his features. He knew she was trying to get as far away from him as possible. His humor turned his eyes a shade lighter, more like playful water shimmering in the noonday sun rather than the deep pools of indigo they were at the park. “Effie,” he mused, “is that short for Elizabeth or Spoilsport?”
“Just Effie,” she clipped.
“Good to know,” he murmured, his gaze lingering on hers. “And you didn’t even have to get drawn or quartered.”
She blinked several times as she averted her gaze to break the swift connection, gushing white water rapids through her. What was it about this man that had her in such a tailspin? Why did he have to be so darn handsome? Or so annoying! The heat in her face went from a simmer to a boil when Effie caught the puzzlement on Madeline’s face.
“Am I missing something here?” Madeline asked with a raised eyebrow as she looked from Talon to Effie.
Crumb! This was going from bad to worse. Effie needed to watch herself. She already had one strike against her where Madeline was concerned. She couldn’t let Talon provoke her into making a complete fool of herself. Redecorating The Oliver was the chance of a lifetime. She needed to remain focused on the task at hand and not think about the raw awareness she felt by merely sitting next to Talon. Her throat went dry as she glanced at his hand, resting comfortably on his thigh. His fingers were long and graceful. Would his hands be smooth or rough? In the park, Talon had struck her as more of a rough and tumble guy rather than the son of one of the wealthiest families on the East Coast. Now, however, he looked every bit the wealthy influential man that he was in black trousers and a crisp, navy-blue, button-down shirt. At least now she knew why he’d offered to buy her new clothes. The expenditure would’ve been a drop in the bucket for Talon Chasing.
A chill ran through her as her brain processed his first and last name, realizing the full scope of the situation. Talon Chasing would not only be her point person for the renovation, but worse, he was under suspicion—at least in the public eye—for his ex-wife’s disappearance. No way could Effie get involved with a man like that. Yep, no question about it—she had a knack for falling for the wrong type of guy. She made a vow to herself right then and there that regardless of how attracted she was to Talon Chasing that she wouldn’t fall prey to his boyish charm. He could be a murderer, for all she knew.
“Nope,” Talon answered pleasantly. “You’re not missing a thing.”
Read the First Chapter
Read the First Chapter
No expense had been spared for Lina Chasing’s twenty-fifth birthday party. Twinkling white lights festooned the enormous patio area of the venerable Oliver Hotel, which ensconced three gracefully designed pools. A string orchestra positioned off to the side played lively, upbeat tunes. Waiters in black tuxes meandered through the crowd of well-dressed people, carrying platters of gourmet appetizers.
His gaze moved to the dark shoreline of the ocean in the distance. Even amidst the babble of conversation and music, he caught the faint monotonic sound of crashing waves. The May breeze, perfumed with honeysuckles, carried a hint of salt in its playful fingers as it ruffled the hems of the ladies’ dresses and white linen tablecloths. For weeks, the entire island had been bubbling with excitement over the upcoming party. Anyone worthy of note was here tonight.
Kate, a middle-aged woman who lived a couple houses down from him, laughed. Realizing that she was expecting him to react, he forced a lighthearted chuckle. His cool, cultured demeanor belied the dark, wild currents of emotion pulsing through his veins. He threw Kate an obligatory smile as he inserted an inane comment into an appropriate slot in the conversation before glancing across the way to where Lina was standing, surrounded by a cluster of eager admirers who were holding glasses of wine and pawing at her. Lina was a bright ball of energy and fire who commanded attention wherever she went. Her crimson dress was scandalous, leaving little to the imagination. It cut low in the front and hugged her toned, lithe figure with perfection. Tucked around her arms, she wore a thin, gauzy scarf the same color as her dress. One of the men touched the small of her back and leaned in close to whisper something in her ear. Lina laughed as she tipped her head back, causing her long honey mane to cascade down her shoulders like fluid water. She lowered her eyes demurely before glancing up at the man, fixing him with such an adoring look that the poor sap nearly melted into a puddle at her feet.
A quiver of desire ran through him, followed by a hot shaft of molten anger. Did Lina really think she could outwit him? Her naivety was almost endearing. The two of them were cut from the same cloth. He understood her more than she understood herself. He’d let Lina play her pathetic cards before bringing down the hammer hard. As if sensing his eyes on her, she glanced in his direction. They caught gazes. Even from this distance, he could feel her indecision and fear as she fingered her wine glass. The power that flowed through him was intoxicating as he quirked a smug grin. You’d better be afraid! No one crosses me and gets away with it. Lina averted her eyes, breaking the connection, but still his bold eyes raked over her, drinking in her toned arms and willowy frame before running the length of her long legs.
Whether she realized it or not, she belonged to him. And soon, she would be powerless to escape.
The text should be coming through any minute now. No sooner had the thought passed through his mind when Lina handed her empty wine glass to the guy beside her before pulling her clutch purse from beneath her arm and opening it. Retrieving her phone, she slid her finger over the screen. He bit back a smile when her eyes bugged, and then her expression went rigid.
Victory swelled through him. Got you now!
* * *
Lina’s throat squeezed to the size of a toothpick as she swallowed to try and clear it.
“Are you okay?” the guy beside her asked with a note of concern.
She forced a smile. “I’m fine.” Her dress was suddenly too tight, making it hard to breathe. “Excuse me,” she mumbled as she dropped her phone back into her purse and quickly walked away. She’d almost made it through the double glass doors before a commanding voice stopped her cold.
“Lina, where are you going?”
Pulling her scarf tighter around her arms, she turned to face her former mother-in-law and eyed the intrusive woman with open disdain.
Madeline stepped up to her, lowering her voice to a whisper. “Were you drinking wine? You know that’s not good for the baby.” Madeline gave her a speculative look. “That says to me that either you’re not really pregnant, or you care less about your offspring than you do my son.”
“As if I have to explain anything to you,” Lina sniffed in a disinterested tone. However, inside, she was a nervous wreck. She had the impression that the very air was pressing in around her. She had to flee this place and these stuffy people so she could think.
Madeline raised an eyebrow, her dark eyes sparking with hard amusement. “Actually, I think you do.” A graceful smile draped her lips as her words fell like daggers through clenched teeth. “The only reason I’m holding this party is because Talon asked me to.”
A hard laugh riddled Lina’s throat. She’d hoped that was the case. When Madeline first extended the invitation, Lina had been thrilled, thinking that perhaps Talon was coming around. Unfortunately, that didn’t seem to be the case. “You’re holding this party because you want to silence whispers of any scandal. That way, you’ll come out looking like a hero in front of your friends.” Her voice took on a taunting, singsong quality. “The high and mighty queen of the island taking pity on her former daughter-in-law by welcoming her back into the fold.”
The scathing look in Madeline’s eyes could’ve burned rubber, but her features were frozen into wooden politeness that the social queen had down to a science. “What my son sees in you, I’ll never know. You think this pregnancy scam is going to get him back?” She grunted. “Well, get prepared to take a paternity test.”
There was a time when Lina would’ve given her right eye to garner the respect of the illustrious Madeline Chasing, but not anymore.
“Since you’re so desperate to keep our last name and reinsert yourself into this family, the least you can do is show a sliver of gratitude for all that we’ve done for you.” Even in the dim lighting Madeline’s eyes raged with a fury that cut through Lina, filling her with an acrid resentment. “I’m about to give you a toast, and you will be here to receive it with all the smiles and grace that your poor country upbringing can muster.”
A shaky laugh left Lina’s throat. It took a superhuman effort to keep her voice light. “You must have me confused with someone else. I didn’t grow up poor. I’m from Greenville, South Carolina, remember? My family is upper-middle-class.”
Amusement pinged through Madeline’s eyes. “That may be the story you tell the world, but I know people.” Her gaze lasered into Lina’s. “You’re a fraud of the worst sort. Had you owned up to your past, I would be okay with that. There are plenty of good people who grew up poor. There’s no shame in that. What bothers me is the loathsome creature that you are. No matter how much money you pump into your clothes or your appearance, you don’t have a cultured bone in your body.” A hard smile twisted her lips. “You see, true class doesn’t come from upbringing or money, it comes from within. And that’s something that you’ll never understand.”
Lina’s blood boiled. Before coming tonight, she’d promised herself that she wouldn’t let Madeline goad her into losing her temper. After all, tonight was her best chance of winning Talon back. She looked across the patio to where Talon was chatting with some thirty-something-year-old woman who was a newcomer to the island. As always, Talon was the picture of perfection with his dark hair, chiseled features, and cobalt eyes. His Italian suit had been custom made for his six-foot-two athletic frame. Before getting that wretched text, Lina had been optimistic about getting back together with her ex-husband. He was still furious about her indiscretions, but he seemed to be coming around to the idea that the pressures of fitting into his family had driven her into the arms of another man. Talon was responsible to a fault. She’d hoped that when he found out she was pregnant, he would give her another chance. “I’m leaving,” Lina harrumphed.
“You can’t leave. You’re the star attraction.” Madeline’s voice went silky soft with the hiss of a cobra encircling its prey. “That’s what you live for … isn’t it? To be the center of attention?”
Lina grunted. “Since you’re the queen of crap, I figure you can finagle some way to entertain the crowd in my absence.” It gave her a swift ping of satisfaction to note that Madeline’s face had gone pale. A snarky smile spread over Lina’s lips. “How’s that for poor country talk?” Madeline liked to pretend that she was a blue-blood, but it wasn’t true. Madeline had worked for Banks Chasing as his secretary. Only after marrying into one of the most prominent families on the East Coast did Madeline anoint herself as queen of Honeysuckle Island. How easy it was for her to sit on the lofty throne of her luxury hotel and pronounce judgment on Lina. There was plenty that Lina could’ve said to this haughty woman, but it would be a waste of breath. Also, things were tenuous with Talon, especially with Sylvia Laramie trying to get her hooks into him. It was better for Lina to refrain from saying anything to Madeline that could later be used against her.
She turned to go, but Madeline caught hold of her arm, digging fingernails into her flesh. “May I have everyone’s attention?” Madeline asked loudly as she looked around. The crowd quieted down and the orchestra stopped playing as all eyes riveted to Madeline and Lina. “Tonight’s a very special night.” Releasing Lina’s arm, she threw her a smile so warm and charming that Lina could’ve almost believed she was back in Madeline’s good graces. “It’s Lina’s birthday.” Delicate laughter trickled from Madeline’s throat. “As you know, she and my son have had their share of ups and downs, but they seem to be doing a good job of braving the storm.” She fixed her gaze on Talon. “Son, what I want most for you in this whole world is for you to be happy.” Her voice took on a slight quiver. “When Talon asked me to throw this party for his ex-wife,” she shrugged, “well … I simply couldn’t say no.”
Lina’s confidence took a hard knock when she saw the surprise on Talon’s expression. Just as she’d feared, he’d not instigated this party. It was all Madeline’s doing. Madeline glanced at a waiter standing nearby. As if on cue, he stepped up and handed her a glass of wine. He offered Lina one. She took it on reflex and then saw the surprised look on Talon’s face. It had been a mistake for Lina to drink the wine earlier. She’d been wound up so tight with everything that was happening that she drank one glass to help take the edge off her nerves. However, she certainly wouldn’t drink the wine now, with everyone watching and judging. All she could do at this point was stand here like a ninny and hold it. Madeline raised her glass. “To Lina. I hope you have a happy birthday.”
Lina faced the crowd with an unencumbered smile. Her lifelong dream was to become an actress. She’d gone to LA to try and get a foothold into the industry. When that failed, she’d slinked back home for a couple of years until moving to Summerhaven, the neighboring town to Honeysuckle Island, where she eventually met Talon. One thing Lina knew how to do was play a part. “Thank you, Madeline,” she said magnanimously, “for your kindness.” Take that dagger, you ice queen! Lina looked at the people surrounding her. There were several Chasings amongst the group. Notably, Banks, looking as distinguished and stern as ever with his silver hair and strong jaw. Arden, three years younger than Talon, was standing beside her father, her dark eyes shooting poison-tipped arrows at Lina. Even though she couldn’t see Josette, Lina figured that the old woman was lurking nearby, presumably sitting with her stooped shoulders and trusty cane, since it was too taxing for her to stand long periods of time. Josette liked to think that she was in control of everyone and everything.
Lina swallowed the tightness in her throat. “I appreciate y’all coming out tonight to celebrate this happy occasion.” She turned her focus to Talon as her voice grew tremulous. The trick was to exhibit some emotion without laying it on too thick. She’d worn the red scarf tonight, hoping that it would cause Talon to remember the good times. He’d given her the scarf on their one-year anniversary. “Thank you for never giving up on me.” Her voice hitched. “Your support means the world,” she finished quietly, hoping her speech would evoke Talon’s sympathies. Why couldn’t Talon understand that despite everything that happened, she still loved him more than she loved the air that she breathed? He was her soulmate, her reason for living. There was nothing she wouldn’t do to win him back. His expression was unreadable. Lina would’ve given anything to know what he was thinking. He’d been cordial tonight but distant. Had she gotten through to him with the pregnancy? She’d thought so at first, but now, she couldn’t be sure, with those dastardly rumors floating around of him seeing Sylvia Laramie. Resentment burned through her. Lina was sure that Banks and Madeline were thrilled about that little love fest. They’d had Sylvia picked out for Talon since they were kids. Not only were the Chasings and the Laramies tied together in business, but they were the best of friends.
Her heart squeezed. If she couldn’t figure out a way to get out of the pickle she was in, then all of her work to get back into Talon’s good graces would be for naught. Her acting career was going nowhere, thanks to Wesley’s lies. It had been stupid of her to trust Wesley. She wouldn’t make that mistake again. All she had left was the hope of rekindling her relationship with Talon. No, she didn’t even have that, not with the threatening text hanging over her head.
She looked around, wondering who’d sent it. She had her fair share of adversaries. It could be any number of people. Beads of perspiration broke over her nose. Someone knew the truth. Someone was out to get her. Lina had known this time would eventually come, but she’d hoped to be in so tight with Talon and the Chasings that it wouldn’t matter. However, that wasn’t the case. If only Talon hadn’t found out about the affair. She’d been so careful to cover it up. To this day, Wesley swore he’d not told a soul, but someone had found out and sent incriminating photos to not only Talon, but worse, Banks and Madeline Chasing. After that, Lina’s marriage fell apart. Had the text she received tonight been sent by the same person who sent the photos to the Chasings? A shiver slithered down her spine. The text had demanded that she go to the Pembrooke Lighthouse tonight at midnight or else the person would go public with the dirt they had on her. There had to be a way out of this. She needed to go somewhere quiet to think!
Madeline turned to Lina as she continued, her buoyant voice carrying through the space. “May you gather the fortitude to truly become the upstanding woman that my son once believed you to be.”
The wind left Lina’s lungs. She couldn’t believe Madeline had actually said that in public. The gloves were now officially off. Understanding registered through her brain with a hard punch. That’s why Madeline put together this party—so she could humiliate Lina. And like an idiot, Lina had fallen right into her trap.
“Happy birthday!” Madeline’s voice rang jubilant as she floated Lina a disarming smile.
Heat stung Lina’s cheeks as shocked murmurs ran through the crowd. She had to fight the impulse to rush at Madeline and claw the wretched woman’s eyes out. Everything was going so terribly wrong. Madeline and Banks Chasing had never believed that she was good enough for their precious son. They’d turned Talon against her. Talon had loved her once. He said he might be willing to give her another chance, but only because of the baby. Even if Talon did give her another chance, his love was bound to wax cold in the wake of the opposition from his parents, but she wouldn’t give up on him. She couldn’t. Her love for Talon was the only thing that mattered. Lina pasted on a cheerful smile as she nodded and spoke to those who offered stilted words of congratulations. All the while, they eyed her with pity.
Lina had wondered if Talon might come to her side to offer a show of support, but he didn’t. She was left alone to face the wolves. Finally, she was able to steal away. She went through the lobby of the hotel and out the front, where she walked briskly across the parking lot to where her modified golf cart was parked. The only cars allowed on Honeysuckle Island were police and utility vehicles, hence the assortment of lavish electric golf carts lined up in neat rows.
As she pulled away from the hotel, her desperate brain worked feverishly to find a solution to the problem. Finally, an idea began to take shape—an outlandish idea that just might be crazy enough to work. It would be risky, and while Lina didn’t relish going against such a powerful adversary, her situation left little choice. She reached for her phone and dialed a familiar number. The man on the other end answered on the second ring. Her words rushed out in a breathless ball, “Officer Allen, this is Lina Chasing. I need your help with something … I’ll make it well worth your while and give you the information you’ve been wanting.”
After ending the call, she drove to Talon’s mansion, which was located two miles from the hotel, overlooking one of the most pristine stretches of beach on the island. She could only hope that Talon hadn’t moved the spare key or changed the security code. She went around to the side of the house and looked underneath a flowerpot. She dug her fingers into the moist earth. Exultation flowed through her when her hand grasped the metal key. Hastily, she went back around the front and unlocked the door. Her heart in her throat, she punched in the code to disarm the alarm. It worked! A giddy relief circled through her as she rushed to Talon’s library. The fresh pine scent of home sent a pang through her. She and Talon had been happy here, at first. Sugar, Talon’s golden retriever, bounded up to greet Lina, but she pushed the wretched dog away.
She went to the wall adjacent to Talon’s desk and removed the painting to reveal the safe behind it. She could only hope that Talon hadn’t changed the code. If he had, she’d be sunk. She hated taking money from Talon, but he had so much of it. She hoped that all would go well tonight and that Officer Brent Allen could help her deal with this threat in exchange for valuable information that she would give him. However, she needed the money in case anything went wrong and she had to lay low for a while.
Holding her breath, she pressed the buttons in the proper sequence. As with the alarm code, it worked. She could’ve kissed Talon for not changing the codes. The neat stacks of money flooded her with a delicious sense of security as she reached for them.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
She froze. A second later, she turned slowly, a single word falling from her lips like the last petal of a dying rose. “Talon.”
One Year Later …
Effie stood on the upper deck of the ferry and rested her body against the railing as she turned her face to the wind, welcoming the cold rush of movement. The ferry lobbed up and down as it moved through the water towards Honeysuckle Island. Effie couldn’t believe her good fortune of not only securing her first job as an interior designer at Kelly Masi Designs but also, she’d been assigned to work directly with Madeline Chasing on a large-scale project to update the lobby and other main areas of The Oliver Hotel. It was a dream come true. A rush of gratitude went through her as she thought about how drastically her life had changed over the past four years.
She was now part of a large family and had a good relationship with her daddy and his wife, Birdie, who was one of Effie’s closest friends. Oh, and there was also Zoe, her half-sister, to whom Effie talked on the phone nearly every day. Effie had grown up as the only child of a single parent. Her mother, Naomi, didn’t tell Effie who her father was until shortly before she died of cancer. Those were dark times. Effie had been so consumed with anger toward her father, Knox Romeo, especially when she moved to Franklin, Tennessee, and realized that he was the patriarch of such a close-knit family. Effie soon learned that Knox never even knew that she existed. When he was at a low point in his life, he’d had an affair with Effie’s mom. It was tough for Effie to learn that she’d been conceived out of deceit. And yet, deep down, she wasn’t all that surprised. She knew there had to be a reason why her mom would never divulge the identity of her father. Still, suspecting that she was conceived from an affair and being hit with the knowledge square between the eyes were two different things. On some level, Effie was still dealing with the blow. It was a scar that she’d carry for the rest of her life. Her mother had carried her deep sadness like a stagnant vapor that permeated everything.
On the bright side, Effie absolutely loved Birdie, Knox’s wife. She’d become like a second mother to Effie, helping to ease some of the pain that Effie felt from losing her real mother. Her daddy Knox Romeo was a wealthy ranch owner and real estate developer in Tennessee. He’d tried hard to mend his relationship with Effie. When he learned that her dream was to become an interior designer, he readily agreed to pay her way to the prestigious Savannah College of Art and Design, or SCAD, as it was frequently called. Effie had grown up poor. Not for one minute had she taken her education for granted. She worked hard and graduated at the top of her class. Her portfolio was impressive enough to secure her a job at one of the top design firms in the nation. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Birdie Romeo was an acquaintance of the owner, Kelly Masi. Birdie had put in a good word for Effie, saying, “I was able to get you a foot in the door, but the rest is up to you.”
Effie and Kelly had hit it off from the get-go. The fact that Kelly would trust Effie with such an important project spoke volumes. The Chasings were akin to royalty. Admittedly, Effie was a bit intimidated to be given such a monumental project right out of the chute, but she was thrilled. She vowed to do her utmost so the Chasings would be pleased with the result. Since learning that she’d gotten the project, Effie had spent days pouring over blueprints of The Oliver Hotel. Also, she read up on everything she could find about the Chasings. She felt like she had a firm grasp of the family’s background. As with many notable families, there was a fair amount of scandal. The most recent being the disappearance of Lina Chasing, the former wife of the Chasing’s oldest son. There were whispers that Lina had been murdered, perhaps by Talon Chasing. However, Lina’s disappearance remained a mystery and no charges had been brought against Talon.
Effie felt the vibration of her phone against her hip at the same time she heard ringing. She’d selected a purse that she could wear over her shoulder, so she wouldn’t have to carry it. It was hard enough to manage her suitcase and computer case without adding something else to the mix. The neatest part about her new project was that she’d be staying at the hotel while the renovation was taking place. She smiled when she saw the name on the screen. “Hey, Zoe,” she began brightly.
“Hey. I just wanted to check in to see how the first day on the new job is going.”
“So far so good.” Effie chuckled. “Although, that’s easy to say right now. I haven’t gotten to the island yet. I’m on the ferry now.”
“Wow, you’re taking a ferry to start work on The Oliver Hotel? How long is the ferry ride?”
“That’s so romantic,” Zoe sighed. “I’ll have to live vicariously through you while I’m running after Mayla to keep the little stinker from going into the street.”
Effie laughed. “Give my little angel a hug from me.”
“I will. She misses you.”
“I miss her too.” Mayla was Zoe’s youngest child and a bundle of energy. Her two older siblings spoiled her rotten because she was so darn cute.
“I don’t know if angel is the right word for Miss Mayla,” Zoe countered.
A smile curved Effie’s lips. Zoe talked tough, but Mayla was the apple of her eye.
“Daddy told me that you’ll be staying at the hotel during the renovation?”
“Yep, my boss, Kelly, wants to have someone on the grounds the entire time to be her eyes and ears. That’s me.” She heard the touch of pride in her own voice. In many ways, Effie felt like her life was starting anew. “Kelly’s giving me some latitude to present my ideas to Madeline Chasing, providing that I get her approval first.”
“Who’s Madeline Chasing?”
Effie’s eyes widened. “You mean, you’ve never heard of the Chasings?”
“Nope,” Zoe chimed back.
“They’re one of the wealthiest families on the East Coast and maybe even the US.”
“How did they make their money?”
“Banks Chasing, the patriarch of the family, owns a hedge fund.”
“Boring,” Zoe said drolly.
Effie grinned. “Spoken like a true sculptor.” Zoe ran a gallery where she showcased her own work as well as that from other sculptors, artists, and photographers. “Madeline, Banks’s wife, runs the hotel.”
“A hotel is something I can get excited about,” Zoe boomed.
“Me too. You and Briggs should come and visit while I’m here.”
“We might just have to do that. That is, if I can get Mama and Daddy or Briggs’s mom to watch the kids.”
“The kids could come too,” Effie offered.
“Nah, it’ll be a good opportunity for Briggs and me to get away.” Several comfortable beats passed before Zoe continued. “Hopefully you can find time to soak up some sun while you’re there. You work too much.”
Effie wrinkled her nose. “Nah.” Design was her passion. The home Effie had grown up in was shabby. She’d been embarrassed for her friends to come visit. There was something healing and redeeming about helping people with their homes and businesses. Little by little, it was helping to fix some broken part of her.
“You never know,” Zoe quipped. “You might even meet the one.”
“Listen to you, Miss Hopeless Romantic.” Effie rolled her eyes. “Don’t count on it. You know I have rotten luck with men.” That was an understatement! First, there had been Travis from her hometown of Marshall, Texas. While he was easy on the eyes and charismatic, he turned out to be an egotistical, controlling jerk. Then, there was Logan, whom she met at SCAD when they had a class together. Logan was fun to be around but couldn’t make a commitment to save his life. Effie had dumped him after catching him making out with one of the girls who lived in her dorm. After that, she swore off dating and poured herself into her studies. Her persistence had paid off and was now reaping dividends.
“Don’t give up on men just because you haven’t met the right one yet,” Zoe admonished.
“It’s too bad they can’t all be like Briggs.”
“Yeah, too bad.” A smile sounded in Zoe’s voice. “There’s only one Briggs McAllister. The greatest husband ever.”
The gooeyness in Zoe’s voice rippled a pang of longing through Effie. Zoe and Briggs had one of those storybook romances. Effie wanted to eventually find someone, but she’d learned the hard way that it was better to be alone than to be shackled with the wrong person. Maybe she was the problem. After all, she’d grown up without a father. She’d given everything she had to her first relationship with Travis, only to have it blow up in her face. After that, she’d become guarded, parsing out only so much of herself so she wouldn’t get hurt again. She changed the subject to get herself off the hot seat. “How’s the fam’?”
“Crazy as ever, but good. Jaxson and Lemon have their hands full with their triplets.” Zoe let out a wicked chuckle. “Jaxson’s boys are living proof that we all have to eventually pay for our raising. Imagine what the world will be like with three little Jaxsons running around.”
“That’s a scary thought,” Effie joked. It had been a shock for Effie to learn that she had six half-siblings. Now, however, after being around them for several years, it felt normal. Effie was the youngest, which is probably why she had such a soft spot for little Mayla, who was the youngest of Zoe’s kids. Zoe was the oldest Romeo sibling, with Jaxson being the second oldest.
A trickle of excitement ran through Effie when Harbor Village came into view. The architecture of the town had a quaint, coastal feel that gave the impression of stepping back in time. The buildings were painted a pallet of gleaming white, intermingled with pops of happy pastels—blue, yellow, and salmon. Pembrooke Lighthouse stood prominently in the background. The marina was filled with an impressive array of sailboats and yachts. “So this is how the other half lives,” she murmured.
“Huh?” Zoe asked dubiously.
“You should see this place,” Effie breathed. “It’s incredible.”
“Be sure to take lots of pictures.”
“Are you going straight to the hotel?”
Zoe was the quintessential older sister, always mothering her younger siblings. “Are you afraid I’ll get lost somewhere between the harbor and the hotel?” Effie joked. While she often teased Zoe about being overprotective, she appreciated her older sister looking out for her. After only having her mother and no other family while she was growing up, it felt good to know that people cared.
Not the least bit bothered by Effie’s jab, Zoe came back with, “Yeah, you may be a highfalutin’ designer, but you’re not the greatest at directions.”
“True,” Effie conceded with a giggle. “I’ll admit that I’m directionally challenged.” Her brain did a quick run-through of her schedule before speaking aloud. “My appointment with Madeline is not until one pm.” It was now eleven am. She figured it would be better to get to the island early and wander around the town of Harbor Village, maybe grab something for lunch before heading to the hotel.
“Mama mentioned that there are no cars on Honeysuckle Island, only modified electric golf carts. Is that true?”
“Yep,” Effie answered as she looked at the line of golf carts making their way through the town.
“That could be a pain.”
“I think it’s kinda cool.”
“How many people live on the island?”
Effie searched her brain, trying to recall the stats. She chewed on her lower lip. “If my memory serves me right, I believe there are around two thousand private residences with six hundred living on the island year-round. The hotel brings in a steady crop of tourists. Also, there’s an inn on the island and a few bed and breakfasts.”
“Are those owned by the Chasings too?” Zoe asked dryly.
“I’m not sure. I guess I’ll find out soon. I’ve gotta let you go. The ferry’s docking.”
“Be sure to text me when you get settled into your room.”
Effie smiled. “Yes, ma’am,” she sassed. “Hey, would you please let Daddy and Birdie know that I’m here?”
“You bet. Good luck. I hope all goes well today. Love you.”
“Thanks. Love you too,” Effie said as she ended the call and dropped her phone back into her purse. She lifted the handle of her suitcase before heaving her computer bag atop it.
Butterflies fluttered in her stomach, in a good way, as she stepped off the ferry. It was great to know that she finally had her life on track. Never before had she felt so optimistic about the future.
Effie milled around the town, going into a couple of shops. The clothing boutique was nice, but it didn’t hold a candle to Birdie Romeo’s boutique in Franklin, Tennessee. When Effie first moved to Franklin to learn more about her father, she took a job working for Birdie at the boutique. Effie hadn’t told Birdie or anyone else who she really was. Everything came to a head, and she learned the hard way that honesty was the best policy. After all the difficulties, great things came out of Effie working at the boutique. Effie had always wanted to be an interior designer, but her dream had felt impossibly far out of her reach after she’d lost her mom to cancer. The doctor bills had been enormous. Effie had barely scraped together enough to cover her mom’s funeral, much less pay for college. Then, her daddy, Knox, offered to foot the entire bill for her education, housing, books, food, and even clothes. In retrospect, Birdie had as much influence over Effie as her instructors at SCAD. Birdie had a natural knack for decorating and taught Effie little tricks along the way—the practical application gems that can only be learned by experience.
Growing tired of wheeling around her luggage, Effie stepped into a sandwich shop to grab lunch. She ate slowly to kill as much time as she could. It was noon. She still had an hour before her appointment. Had she not been meeting with Madeline Chasing, she might’ve given in to the temptation to leave her luggage with one of the shopkeepers and explore the island on foot. She’d spotted several wooden walkways meandering along the edges of the marshland. However, she’d be a sopping mess of sweat if she did that. Also, she’d have to change out of her strappy heels, which would entail opening her jam-packed suitcase and rummaging through everything to find her tennis shoes. Her curly hair felt like it had drawn up several inches in length since she’d stepped onto the island. In another hour, it would probably be a bush from the humidity. Even though it was mid-May, the air was thick and heavy, making her sticky all over. The plan was for her to go to the hotel and meet with Madeline, and then she would be shown to her room. Effie wished it was the other way around. She was regretting her decision to wear white linen pants. What had she been thinking? It was hard to keep smudges off her clothes while riding the ferry and walking around town. So far, so good, but she needed to be careful. At least her pink cotton blouse was cool. However, with her nerves working overtime, she was paranoid about getting perspiration stains on her armpits. She’d worn a super duty anti-perspiration deodorant and hoped it would do its job. A sense of horror overtook her. She couldn’t go meet with Madeline Chasing with large, embarrassing sweat stains. She glanced at her armpits, relieved to find them dry. Laughing inwardly at her idiocy, she made a point of holding her arms out as she ate so she could keep the air flowing.
After finishing her meal, she ordered a large frozen yogurt parfait topped with fresh strawberries drenched in a tangy syrup. She took one bite and decided it was well worth every calorie. It was such a pretty day outside that she didn’t want to stay inside. She spotted a picturesque park not far from where she was. It would be a good place to eat the parfait. The sun warmed her face as she readily soaked in the vitamin D. She thought but couldn’t be sure that she detected the delicate sweetness of honeysuckles in the briny air. She’d read up on the history of the island, curious as to why it was called Honeysuckle. The founder, Oliver Chasing, had an affinity for honeysuckle bushes. He planted them all over the island. Effie loved the smell of honeysuckles. When she was a kid, she loved sucking the sweet nectar out of the flowers.
She’d hang out at the park for twenty or so minutes before sidling over to the hotel shuttle located near the marina, where a stretched limo golf cart would take her to the hotel.
It was tricky to balance the parfait while pulling the suitcase. Finally, she made her way over to a park bench. Not wanting to sit directly on the wood, she spread out the bundle of napkins she’d gotten at the sandwich shop. There were a handful of kids on the playground. Across from where she was sitting, she spotted a group of chatty mothers. A couple of them had strollers parked beside them and were holding babies on their laps. They were the picture of soccer moms, with their chic hairstyles and preppy designer clothing. There was a time, before being welcomed into the Romeo family, that Effie might’ve felt envious of the women and their seemingly charmed lifestyles. Now that Effie was coming into her own and more comfortable with who she was, she could simply appreciate the women for what they were, realizing that everyone was blessed in different ways.
While eating her parfait, Effie’s thoughts turned to her upcoming meeting. Today would be a fact-finding mission where she would get a feel for Madeline’s vision for the renovation. They would discuss contractors, deadlines, and budgets. “Madeline Chasing may be made of money, but she wants to feel like she’s getting the best value for her buck,” Kelly warned. “Remember that people often know what they don’t like, but they sometimes have a hard time figuring out what they do like. Madeline likes straight shooters, so look her in the eye and be precise. If she asks you a question that you don’t know the answer to, don’t scramble to make something up. Tell her that you don’t know the answer but that you will talk to me and get back with her.” On and on Kelly went, giving advice. By the time she was done, Effie felt like she was trying to collect Niagara Falls with a spoon. She felt hot all of a sudden as her gut seized. Did she have what it took to do this? Effie wished that Kelly had accompanied her on this first meeting. However, Kelly had been called away to work on a project in the Bahamas. However, she assured Effie that she would keep her phone handy. A prayer went through Effie’s mind. Please help me to be calm and concise. Please help me to come up with a good design that Madeline and her team will like. One that will stand the test of time and be a good fit for the hotel. Please help me to remember my schooling and to portray confidence, even though I’m petrified.
She heard a dog bark and turned to look. It snapped through her brain that a dog was running full force at her. Before she could so much as react, the dog jumped up on her. She let out a shriek as she drew back. The parfait spilled down the front of her blouse and all over her pants. Had she not been so fighting mad, Effie might’ve burst into tears. The dog stood in front of her, panting loudly and wagging its tail. A guy came jogging up behind the dog. “Sugar! What did you do?” he scolded. “Bad girl!” The dog lowered her tail and ducked her snout. The guy’s eyes shot open wide when he saw the spill on Effie’s clothes. He tightened his hold on the empty leash. “I’m so sorry. She got away from me.” In a quick motion, he hooked the metal part of the leash onto the dog’s collar.
Effie’s eyes burned with tears that were threatening to fall as she blinked several times. Her head felt like it might split in two. “Your dog ruined my clothes! This is a disaster.” She’d have to change now. Her brain raced, trying to think of a presentable alternative that wasn’t wrinkled. She’d had so much time to kill. Now, every precious second was ticking away. She couldn’t be late for her meeting!
The dog stepped up and began licking the yogurt and strawberries from off Effie’s pants.
A startled chuckle issued from the guy’s throat, sending Effie’s anger soaring. “Sugar, don’t do that,” he said in an indulgent tone.
Incensed, Effie pushed the dog away. “Get off me!” She let the now-empty plastic cup fall to the ground as she turned her venom on the guy. “How could you let your dog do this?” she seethed as she looked down at herself. “My clothes are ruined!”
“It’s nothing that a little stain remover and elbow grease can’t take care of,” he drawled in an easy tone.
The nerve! “Excuse me?” Her voice went shrill. “This is all your fault and now you’re making fun of me? Unbelievable!” She glared at the man. For a split second, her anger took a backseat to her surprise as a jolt of attraction raced through her. He was strikingly handsome with rugged features and a lean, athletic frame. His biceps were impressive. The definition of cut pecs and abs were visible beneath his mid-tone blue polo shirt. His dark, almost black hair had a slight wave to it. A strand of hair flopped over one eye. With a fluid, unconscious movement, he pushed it back with his fingers as a crooked grin slid over his lips, revealing an adorable dimple on his right cheek. Talk about a heartthrob! His eyes were a fascinating deep blue. She guessed him to be around her same age or slightly older.
“Actually, it’s Sugar’s fault.” He patted his golden retriever on the neck as his voice went soft like he was talking to a child. “You’ve got some explaining to do, girl.” Sugar lobbed her head from side to side as she wagged her tail. With her tongue sticking out and saliva flying, Effie got the impression that Sugar was also laughing at her.
She didn’t have time to stand here shooting the bull with this insensitive moron who thought the attack was a big joke.
Curiosity simmered in the guy’s eyes as he looked at her luggage. It was unfair for a man to be so appealing. He probably thought he could charm his way out of anything. She glanced at his ring finger, pleased to note that it was bare. Wait a minute! What was she doing? The last thing she needed to be doing right now was standing here, ogling this jerk. He was going to cause her to make a terrible first impression on Madeline. That wouldn’t sit well with Kelly. Her job could be on the line.
“Are you visiting?”
“None of your business,” she shot back, straightening her spine.
He bunched his brows. “I don’t know why you’re getting so upset. It was an accident.”
“An accident that could’ve been avoided if you’d keep up with your dog.”
Amusement flickered over his features. “Wow, you’re an angry elf.”
She felt her eyes bug and had to bite back the incredulous laugh building in her throat. Was this guy for real? He’d quoted the movie Elf.
“I don’t have time for this,” she growled.
He let out a long breath as he rubbed his neck with his free hand. “Where are you headed? Let me help you. We can go into one of the shops, and I’ll buy you some new clothes. How’s that?”
A hard laugh rose in her throat. “No thanks.” She needed to leave this instant.
“Come on,” he urged, “don’t be such a spoilsport.”
“Excuse me?” Her voice went shrill. The women across the park glanced in her direction, but Effie didn’t care. There was a time when she would’ve just taken the insult because she was too intimidated to fight back. Not anymore. Her time spent with her siblings had emboldened her, making her realize that she didn’t have to be a doormat as she’d been to her first boyfriend, Travis. She had a voice that was worthy of being heard. “I was minding my own business when your dog attacked me, and now you’re accusing me of being a spoilsport?” She leaned forward, eyes narrowing as she punched out every word with a vengeance. “You, sir, are way out of line.” She was mad enough to chew through metal. “Someone needs to keep you and Cujo in check.” She threw his dog a dark look.
Amusement lit his eyes as he threw her a challenging look. “Are you volunteering?”
Heat stung her cheeks. “Not hardly,” she scoffed as she reached for her luggage, keenly aware and embarrassed by the fact that she was attracted to him. In a flurry, she turned in the direction of the sandwich shop and began stalking towards it.
“Are you leaving so soon?” he called glibly. “I didn’t even get your name.”
She spun back around. “And you won’t!”
“Aw, come on,” he drawled, “don’t be that way. Just tell me your name.”
She jutted out her chin as she gave him a blistering look. “I wouldn’t tell you my name if I was drawn and quartered.”
“It doesn’t have to come to that.” He pressed his lips together, shaking his head. “I guess I’ll just have to call you Spoilsport.”
She didn’t skip a beat. “In that case, I guess I’ll have to call you Idiot.”
Amusement colored his features. “I’ve been called worse.”
“I don’t have time for this,” she growled as she hurried away, not daring to look over at the group of women who’d been watching the whole wretched thing.
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