Finding Home AgainBrenda Jackson
First love. Second chances. In Catalina Cove, anything can happen…
Bryce Witherspoon’s heart races every time she sees Kaegan Chambray. Everyone in town knows they can’t stand each other, but the truth is, even though the man broke her heart ten years ago, she still feels that irresistible, oh-so-familiar jolt of desire.
When Kaegan returned to Catalina Cove to run the family business, he knew there’d be no avoiding Bryce. The woman he thought he’d one day marry was instead the biggest heartbreak of his life. But when Bryce lets slip a devastating secret, he discovers just how wrong he was to let her go all those years ago.
He knows they both still feel the spark between them, but it’ll take more than attraction to convince her. Kaegan will pull out all the stops to show Bryce he’s the man who can give her the future they once dreamed of—if only they give love a second chance.
First love. Second chances. In Catalina Cove, anything can happen... Bryce Witherspoon’s heart races every time she sees Kaegan Chambray. Everyone in town knows they can’t stand each other, but the truth is, even though the man broke her heart ten years ago, she still feels that irresistible, oh-so-familiar jolt of desire. When Kaegan returned to Catalina Cove to run the family business, he knew there’d be no avoiding Bryce. The woman he thought he’d one day marry was instead the biggest heartbreak of his life. But when Bryce lets slip a devastating secret, he discovers just how wrong he was to let her go all those years ago. He knows they both still feel the spark between them, but it’ll take more than attraction to convince her. Kaegan will pull out all the stops to show Bryce he’s the man who can give her the future they once dreamed of—if only they give love a second chance. Praise for Brenda Jackson “Brenda Jackson writes romance that sizzles and characters you fall in love with.” —Lori Foster, New York Times bestselling author “[A] heartwarming romance.” —Library Journal on Love in Catalina Cove “For true romance lovers, Forget Me Not will make your heart sing.” —Frolic “The only flaw of this first-rate, satisfyingly sexy tale is that it ends.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review, on Forged in Desire “[Jackson’s] signature is to create full-sensory romances that deliver on the heat, and she duly delivers…. Sure to make any reader swoon.” —RT Book Reviews on Forged in Desire “Brenda Jackson is the queen of newly discovered love… If there’s one thing Jackson knows how to do, it’s how to pluck those heartstrings.” —BookPage on Inseparable “Jackson is a master at writing.” —Publishers Weekly on Sensual Confessions Also available from Brenda Jackson and HQN Books Catalina Cove LOVE IN CATALINA COVE FORGET ME NOT FINDING HOME AGAIN The Protectors FORGED IN DESIRE SEIZED BY SEDUCTION LOCKED IN TEMPTATION The Grangers A BROTHER’S HONOR A MAN’S PROMISE A LOVER’S VOW For additional books by New York Times bestselling author Brenda Jackson, visit her website, www.brendajackson.net. BRENDA JACKSON Finding Home Again To the man who will always and forever be the love of my life, Gerald Jackson Sr. My hero. My everything. To my sons, Gerald Jr. and Brandon. You guys are the greatest and continue to make me and your dad proud. “And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” —Colossians 3:14 Contents PART 1 CHAPTER ONE CHAPTER TWO CHAPTER THREE CHAPTER FOUR CHAPTER FIVE CHAPTER SIX CHAPTER SEVEN CHAPTER EIGHT CHAPTER NINE CHAPTER TEN CHAPTER ELEVEN CHAPTER TWELVE PART 2 CHAPTER THIRTEEN CHAPTER FOURTEEN CHAPTER FIFTEEN CHAPTER SIXTEEN CHAPTER SEVENTEEN CHAPTER EIGHTEEN CHAPTER NINETEEN CHAPTER TWENTY CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE CHAPTER THIRTY CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN EPILOGUE EXCERPT FROM DUTY OR DESIRE BY BRENDA JACKSON PART 1 There are years that ask questions and years that answer. —Zora Neale Hurston CHAPTER ONE BRYCE WITHERSPOON MOVED around the party intent on enjoying herself, although the host was the last person she wanted to be around. However, she knew Kaegan Chambray felt the same way about her. Yet, as always whenever he hosted one of his acclaimed cookouts, he’d included her on the guest list. They both knew the reason why. Since moving back to town, their childhood friend Vashti Alcindor-Grisham, forever the peacemaker, had let them know she was best friend to them both and wouldn’t take sides. Nor would she allow either of them to pit her against the other. So whenever Vashti was invited to one of his cookouts, Kaegan sent Bryce an invitation, as well, to keep the peace. Vashti’s motto was There Are Things That Happen In The Past That Are Best Left There. Bryce figured she could make things easier on Kaegan by not coming, but then, why should she? He certainly didn’t try making things easier for her by coming into her parents’ café regularly. Kaegan would arrive every morning at the Witherspoon Café for blueberry muffins and coffee, knowing she would be there and, more likely than not, be the one to wait on him. It wouldn’t be so bad if she could forget what he once meant to her. It had been ten years since their breakup. She wasn’t twenty-two anymore. Since then she’d dated, but what she’d shared with Kaegan had been special. At least she’d thought it had been. He’d been her first in a number of things and on so many levels. That was why the pain of their breakup still managed to linger even after all this time. And it hadn’t helped matters when he’d returned to the cove four years ago with a chip on his shoulder, still believing he was the one who’d been wronged. She’d decided to show him that he wasn’t the only one who could carry around a chip, and at this stage of the game he could believe whatever he wanted about her. All those years ago she’d tried proving her innocence and he hadn’t wanted to listen to what she had to say, so what he thought now didn’t matter. Coming to his parties let him know she could be in the same room with him and feel absolutely nothing. She figured he was determined to prove the same thing to her, which was probably why he frequented the café every day. Okay, she knew there was another reason why he patronized the café. He might not like her, but he loved her parents and they loved him. He was good friends with her two older brothers. But they didn’t know the whole story. She’d never told anyone what had happened between them to end things. In fact, she’d only just told Vashti last year. One night when Vashti’s husband, Sawyer, was out of town, Bryce had stopped by her best friend’s home. Once Vashti had put her newborn son, Cutter, to bed, they’d opened a bottle of wine and put on a sappy movie, and Bryce had told Vashti everything. She could recall her conversation from that night like it had been yesterday... * * * “KAEGAN AND I decided we wanted to be more than friends while you were gone to that home for unwed mothers to have your baby, Vash. That’s when we became girlfriend and boyfriend.” Vashti nodded. “But he left here two years before we finished school and rarely came back. How did the two of you keep the relationship going?” Bryce took a sip of her wine. “You recall my mom’s youngest sister, Janice?” “The one who moved from Canada to live in DC?” “Yes. I would make the trip by catching the bus to see her and would spend time with Kaegan, as well, since he was stationed in Maryland.” Vashti seemed to mull over that admission. “I remember in our senior year how you would occasionally take the bus on the weekends to visit your aunt. I can’t believe you never told me what you were doing and where you were going,” Vashti said in an accusing tone. “I wanted to tell you, Vash, but you were in your own little world during that time. You were still grieving after losing your baby. The last thing I wanted to do was overwhelm you with my happiness when you were so unhappy...” * * * THAT SAME NIGHT she’d also told Vashti the reason she and Kaegan had broken up. Instead of the sympathy Bryce had expected, Vashti claimed she could see both sides and felt they were letting their stubbornness get in the way of them sitting down and talking through their issues. As far as Bryce was concerned, there was nothing to talk about. His lack of trust in her was unforgivable. Had he believed in her and known she could never betray him, none of this would have happened. A part of her wished the hurt he’d caused could somehow eradicate her attraction to him. It didn’t. Whenever she saw him she had to put up with seeing a man who turned feminine heads wherever he went. Including hers. Kaegan was part of the Pointe-au-Chien Native American tribe. He was ultrahandsome and the mass of silky black hair that flowed around his shoulders made him look wild, untamed and absolutely gorgeous. She recalled the times she would part his hair down the middle and braid it for him, making him look even more alluring. Usually he wore it in a ponytail, but not tonight. Bryce recalled telling him just what seeing all that hair flowing around his face did to her. How hot it made her feel. How so turned-on she would get. That had been years ago, but she, of all people, knew Kaegan never forgot a thing. That made her wonder if he’d worn it down purposely to make her remember. Over the years his features had matured. He no longer had the look of the cute boy she’d fallen in love with so many years ago. His eyes appeared to have darkened somewhat but were perfect for his brown skin tone. His high cheekbones had always been his most captivating asset. They still were. Even with that dimple in his chin that couldn’t be ignored. The dimple became even more defined whenever he smiled, which was rare when he saw her. She had a tendency to elicit his frowns. She would be the first to admit that a younger Kaegan Chambray had been a heartthrob, but the older version of that heartthrob was now just too breathtaking for words. Whether she liked him or not, she had to give him that. Deciding she’d both scowled at him and lusted after him long enough, she glanced around. Two years ago, Kaegan had torn down the house he and his parents had lived in to build this one. She knew the painful memories within the walls of his childhood home. His father had been an alcoholic. Most of the time, he managed to stay sober during the week to run his business. But on the weekends he would drink himself into a stupor. It was during those times Kaegan would use the small boat he kept hidden away in the underbrush of the bayou and escape through the swamps to a place he considered his hideaway, a deserted, uninhabitable island called Eagle Bend Inlet. Bryce had feared for his safety, worrying that one of those huge alligators was going to eat him alive. She continued to study his home. She’d never been given a grand tour, like a number of others, but she liked the parts she’d seen. It was right on the bayou, on land that had been in the Chambray family for generations. She could imagine waking up here every morning to such a gorgeous view. According to Vashti, due to the risk of hurricanes, Kaegan had built a home that could withstand up to four-hundred-mile-an-hour winds. And the tilt of the foundation, which wasn’t even noticeable, was a deterrence to flooding. She thought the place was huge for just one man but he’d always said that one day he would grow up and build a mansion...for them. Well, he had certainly built a monstrosity of a house, but it hadn’t been with her in mind. When he’d returned to town it had been quite obvious he hadn’t wanted her in his life any more than she wanted him in hers. “Here you are.” She turned to greet Vashti. “Yes, here I am on a Friday night. I could be somewhere else, you know, and would be if I thought for one minute that I wouldn’t hear about it from you tomorrow. One day you’re going to realize that no matter what you think, Vash, all Kaegan and I feel for each other now is contempt. Total dislike.” Vashti rolled her eyes. “If you say so. By the way, did you see Ashley? She looks great pregnant. Ray wasn’t messing around. Who comes back from their honeymoon pregnant?” Bryce took a sip of her wine knowing Vashti had deliberately changed the subject, but she was fine with her doing so. “A person who comes from their honeymoon pregnant is someone who’d intended to get pregnant. According to Ashley, they spent the entire time trying and it was all about a promise Ray had made her. They’ve been through a lot, and I’m happy for them.” A friend of theirs, Ray Sullivan, had married Ashley Ryan six months ago. Last month the couple shared the news they were having twins. A boy and a girl. They’d even selected the names. The boy would be named Devon and the girl Ryan. A smile touched Vashti’s lips. “I’m happy for them, as well. I love happy endings.” Bryce rolled her eyes. “You also love torturing your two best friends. Why do you put me and Kaegan through this every time he gives a party? I don’t have to be here and we both know that he doesn’t want me here. The only reason he invites me and the only reason I come is because neither of us want to hear you bitch about it.” “Hey, it’s not my fault that my two best friends fell in love behind my back.” Bryce rolled her eyes again. “That’s what you get for leaving us alone for those six months.” “Like I had a choice.” Bryce knew at the time her best friend hadn’t had a choice. Vashti had gotten pregnant at sixteen. Her parents had sent her away. While she was gone Bryce and Kaegan had grown closer, and all the love Bryce had secretly felt for Kaegan suddenly blossomed. She tried to recall a time when Kaegan hadn’t been a part of Bryce’s and Vashti’s lives and couldn’t. Neither could she recall a time she hadn’t loved him. K-Gee was what everyone called him. The descendants of the Pointe-au-Chien tribe mostly made their home on the west side of the bayou. Kaegan’s family’s ties to the cove and the bayou went back generations, even before the first American settlers. A few of the simpleminded townsfolk of Catalina Cove had never recognized the tribe, except when it was time to pay city taxes. Although Kaegan was two years older than her and Vashti, the three of them had hung together while growing up since Kaegan hadn’t officially started school until he was almost nine. Dempsey Chambray felt his only son was more useful working in the family seafood business and for years had claimed Kaegan was being homeschooled. When the Catalina Cove school board discovered otherwise, they presented the Chambrays with a court order that stated Kaegan was to be put in public school immediately. Kaegan was a supersmart and intelligent kid, and it didn’t take him long to catch up with the rest of the class. However, he couldn’t be put in his right grade because he began missing a lot of days from school to help his father on the boat. It was Mr. Chambray’s way of showing the school board that although they may have ordered that his son attend school, Kaegan was entitled to sick days. Most people knew that the days Mr. Chambray claimed Kaegan couldn’t come to school because he was ill, Kaegan was out on the water working in the family business. It was only when the school board threatened to file a lawsuit against Mr. Chambray’s business that he allowed his son to attend school without any further interruptions. When Vashti returned to town after her pregnancy, Kaegan had advanced enough in his studies to be placed in his correct grade, leaving them two grades behind. But he didn’t forget them. Although his school day ended half an hour sooner than theirs, he would hang around just to walk Vashti and Bryce home every day. It was one of the times he could be with her. He would reach Bryce’s house first and then cut through the woods to get to Vashti’s place. On some days before she got home, she and Kaegan would take the small boat he kept hidden over to Eagle Bend Inlet. It was there that Kaegan had taught her how to kiss and where they’d made love for the very first time. “You’ve gotten quiet, Bryce. What are you thinking about?” She glanced over at Vashti. Instead of answering, she asked a question of her own. “Where’s your husband? Shouldn’t you be with him instead of here pestering me?” Vashti laughed. “I am not pestering you and you know it. But to answer your question, Sawyer got a call and had to leave, so I’m going to need a ride home.” Vashti was married to the town’s sheriff. “No problem. Just let me know when you’re ready to go.” “Hmm, there might be a problem.” Bryce lifted an eyebrow. “What?” “After Kaegan’s parties, Sawyer and I usually stay behind and help him put stuff away and clean up. So that means...” Bryce frowned, having an idea where this conversation was going. “It means nothing. Kaegan can tidy up his own place. Besides, I’m sure that woman over there in the white top and jeans would be glad to stay back and help him. She’s been keeping her eyes on him the entire night.” “You noticed, I see.” “How could I not notice?” Bryce refused to consider the tinge of resentment she was feeling had anything to do with jealousy. She dated and so did Kaegan. They meant nothing to each other anymore. “I noticed you’ve been keeping your eyes on him a lot tonight, as well,” Vashti pointed out. Deciding not to give Bryce time to say anything, since it was obvious that she was in one of those bash-Kaegan moods, she said, “Now back to the issue of helping Kaegan tidy up. With the three of us working together it won’t take long to get his place back in order. You and I can pack up the food while Kaegan breaks down all the patio tables and tents.” “Why can’t he do it by himself?” Bryce asked. “Because we’re his friends and should help him.” “Speak for yourself, Vash.” “No, I’m speaking for the both of us, Bryce. Stop being difficult.” “I’m not being difficult.” “Yes, you are.” Okay, maybe she was, but when it came to Kaegan Chambray, she felt she had every right to be difficult. She’d told Vashti some of what had happened, but she hadn’t told her all of it. Bryce frowned at Vashti. “Honestly, Vash. There are times when you really do push the bounds of our friendship.” “I do not.” “Yes, you do.” “What’s the big deal, since you claim you’re over Kaegan?” Vashti quipped. “I am over him.” “Then act like it and not like a woman still carrying a torch after ten years.” Bryce didn’t say anything. Did she really act that way? That was the last impression she wanted to give anyone, especially Kaegan. “Fine, but I still plan to ignore him.” Vashti shook her head and smiled. “You always do.” * * * KAEGAN CHAMBRAY GLANCED around and saw that everyone had left. It had been another great party. The food was good and there had been plenty of it. The September weather had cooperated. Tents had been set up outside, and huge buckets of seafood—blue crabs, shrimp, crawfish and lobster—had been served, as well as ribs cooked on the grill. When he had a cookout, it was for his employees, although he always included his friends. He liked rewarding his workers whenever they broke sales records or if the company got a big business deal. He felt it was a good incentive. He also believed in giving his employees bonuses. That pretty much assured he was able to retain workers who were dependable and loyal. He turned to look out at the bayou, which was practically in his backyard. As far as he was concerned, there was no better place to live. Those who called the bayou their home had a culture all their own. The people were a mixture of influences, such as Spanish, French, German, African, Irish and, in his case, Native American. Those with predominantly French ancestry still spoke the language. Together all the various groups made up the foundation of the Cajun culture. “If you need help with anything, Kaegan, I will be glad to stay behind and help.” Kaegan turned to find Sasha Johnson. He thought she’d left. Her brother, Farley, worked on one of his boats. Sasha had moved to the cove a few months ago after a bitter divorce to live with Farley. Kaegan had invited both siblings to the party, but Farley was battling a cold. Sasha had come alone. “Thanks for the offer, but I can manage.” “You sure?” “Positive.” “It was a nice party, Kaegan.” “Thanks.” Landing the Chappell account had given him a reason to celebrate. His representative had been courting the huge restaurant chain for years, as Kaegan wanted to get in as their seafood supplier. Then out of the clear blue sky he’d gotten a call this summer. The Chappell Group needed more fresh seafood than their present supplier could provide and wanted to know if Chambray Seafood Shipping Company could deliver. Kaegan had said that he could and he had. It had taken a full week of long harvesting hours, but in the end he and his crew had delivered, and the Chappell Group had remembered. When their contract with the other supplier ended, they had come to him with an awesome deal. A flash of pink moving around in his house made Kaegan frown when he recalled just who’d worn that particular color tonight. He glanced back at Sasha. “Tell Farley that I hope he starts feeling better. Good night.” Without waiting for Sasha’s response, he quickly walked off, heading inside his home. He heard a noise coming from the kitchen. Moving quickly, he walked in to find Bryce Witherspoon on a ladder putting something in one of the cabinets. Anger, to a degree he hadn’t felt in a long time, consumed him. Standing there in his kitchen on that ladder was the one and only woman he’d ever loved. The one woman he would risk his life for and recalled doing so once. She was the only woman who’d had his heart from the time they were in grade school. The only one he’d ever wanted to marry and have his babies. The only one who... He realized he’d been standing recalling things he preferred not remembering. What he should be remembering was that she was the woman who’d broken his heart. “What the hell are you doing in here, Bryce?” His loud, booming voice startled her. She jerked around, lost her balance and came tumbling off the ladder. He rushed over and caught her in his arms before she could hit the floor. His chest tightened, and his nerves, and another part of his anatomy, kicked in the moment his hands and arms touched the body he used to know as well as his own. A body he’d introduced to passion. A body he’d— “Put me down, Kaegan Chambray!” He started to drop her, just for the hell of it. She was such a damn ingrate. “Next time I’ll just let you fall on your ass,” he snapped, placing her on her feet and trying not to notice how beautiful she was. Her eyes were a mix of hazel and moss green, and were adorned by long eyelashes. She had high cheekbones and shoulder-length brown curly hair. Her skin was a gorgeous honey-brown and her lips, which were curved in a frown at the moment, had always been one of her most distinct traits. “Let go of my hand, Kaegan!” Her sharp tone made him realize he’d been standing there staring at her. He fought to regain his senses. “What are you doing, going through my cabinets?” She rounded on him, tossing all that beautiful hair out of her face. “I was on that ladder putting your spices back in the cabinets.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “Why?” “Because I was helping you tidy up after the party by putting things away.” She had to be kidding. “I don’t need your help.” “Fine! I’ll leave, then. You can take Vashti home.” Take Vashti home? What the hell is she talking about? He was about to ask when Vashti burst into the kitchen. “What in the world is going on? I heard the two of you yelling and screaming all the way in the bathroom.” Kaegan turned to Vashti. “What is she talking about, me taking you home? Where’s Sawyer?” “He got a call and had to leave. I asked Bryce to drop me off at home. I also asked her to assist me in helping you straighten up before we left.” “I don’t need help.” Bryce rounded on him. “Why don’t you tell her what you told me? Namely, that you don’t need my help.” He had no problem doing that. Glancing back at Vashti, he said, “I don’t need Bryce’s help. Nor do I want it.” Bryce looked at Vashti. “I’m leaving. You either come with me now or he can take you home.” Vashti looked from one to the other and then threw up her hands in frustration. “I’m leaving with you, Bryce. I’ll be out to the car in a minute.” When Bryce walked out of the kitchen, Kaegan turned to Vashti. “You had no right asking her to stay here after the party to do anything, Vashti. I don’t want her here. The only reason I even invite her is because of you.” Kaegan had seen fire in Vashti’s eyes before, but it had never been directed at him. Now it was. She crossed the room, and he had a mind to take a step back, but he didn’t. “I’m sick and tired of you acting like an ass where Bryce is concerned, Kaegan. When will you wake up and realize what you accused her of all those years ago is not true?” He glared at her. “Oh? Is that what she told you? News flash—you weren’t there, Vashti, and I know what I saw.” “Do you?” “Yes. So you can believe the lie she’s telling you all you want, but I know what I saw that night.” Vashti drew in a deep breath. “Do you? Or do you only know what you think you saw?” Then without saying anything else, she turned and walked out of the kitchen. CHAPTER TWO VASHTI SLID INTO the car and snapped the seat belt in place. Before starting the ignition, Bryce said, “I cherish our friendship, Vash, and I know why it’s important to you that me, you and Kaegan remain friends. After all, it was your idea that we do this,” she said, holding up her finger that bore the scar of the nick the three of them had made years and years ago. They had been in the first grade together. “But not even this matters to me anymore. I heard what he told you after I walked out of the kitchen. He deliberately said it loud enough for me to hear. It really wasn’t anything I didn’t know already. He does not want me to come to his parties, so let me go on record as saying that tonight will be my last time attending one of Kaegan’s parties, Vash. So please don’t ask me to ever come to one again.” Vashti didn’t say anything, and Bryce didn’t expect her to. Vashti knew her and knew when she’d reached her limit about anything. Tonight she had with Kaegan. There was no way she could stop him from coming into her parents’ café each morning as a customer, but she could continue to ignore him. And she would. “Okay, Bryce,” Vashti finally said when Bryce started the engine. “I honestly thought that being around each other would make you and Kaegan realize how much the two of you mean to each other.” “It did. It made us realize just how much we dislike each other.” “But it doesn’t have to be this way. You can tell him the truth about that night.” Bryce didn’t say anything for a minute as she put the car in gear. “I did. Or at least, I tried to.” “What! When? You never told me that.” No, she hadn’t, mainly because after telling Vashti what had caused her and Kaegan’s breakup, she’d been too emotionally drained that night to tell her the other part. “What I didn’t tell you was when I got that call from Kaegan letting me know why he was breaking up with me and that he intended to block my number, I used every penny I had in my savings account and caught the bus from college, all the way from Grambling. That meant crossing four states and enduring an eighteen-hour bus ride to reach North Carolina. And because he had blocked my number there was no way for me to let him know I was coming.” “What happened when you got there?” “Well, for starters, I couldn’t get on the military base. But the soldier at the gate checked his log and told me that Kaegan wasn’t on base anyway. That he was on a two-day pass and chances were he would be at the Mud Hole that night.” “The Mud Hole?” “Yes. It’s a hangout for the marines and located close to base. I checked into a hotel, freshened up, and that night I went to the Mud Hole.” Bryce paused a moment and then said, “More than anything, now I wish I hadn’t.” “Why? What happened?” Bryce tightened her hands on the steering wheel as she remembered that night. “Kaegan was there that night and he’d been drinking.” “Kaegan? Drinking?” Bryce knew why Vashti was surprised. Because his father had been an alcoholic, Kaegan had sworn never to touch the stuff because it turned fairly decent men into assholes. “Yes, he was drinking and had a barely dressed woman sitting in his lap. I approached him, and when he saw me, the look in his eyes was one I’d never seen before. He proceeded to say some not-so-nice things to me in front of the woman and the friends he’d been with. I tried to get him to go outside with me so we could talk privately, but he refused to do that and said he didn’t want to hear anything I had to say. He said his father had been right about me all along. He told me to leave and that he hoped to never see me again.” Bryce paused again, and then she said, “When I refused to leave, tried to make him listen to what I’d come all that way to say, he got mad and left...with her. That woman who all but had her hands inside his pants. He kissed her right in front of me and then they left together. I went back to my hotel room and cried the entire night.” “Oh, Bryce, I’m so sorry you went through that.” “I am, too. But even on the bus ride back to Grambling, I kept telling myself it wasn’t the Kaegan that I knew who’d said those awful things to me. It had to have been the liquor talking. I even convinced myself that I could forgive him for sleeping with another woman if he’d done so that night.” Bryce felt the knot in her throat when she said, “I loved him that much, Vash. I’ve always loved him. I told myself I could wait for him to come around. That he would regain his senses and would eventually call me. Days became weeks. Weeks turned into months. Months into years.” She was quiet for a moment, then continued. “I ran into Mr. Chambray at one of the festivals a year later and he accused me of being the reason Kaegan refused to come back to Catalina Cove, even for a visit. He said that I had hurt his boy and that he was glad Kaegan found out what a slut I was.” Vashti drew in a sharp breath. “Mr. Chambray said that to you?” “Yes.” “Oh, Bryce.” She could hear the trembling in Vashti’s voice and didn’t want her pity. “It’s okay, Vash. That day I finally accepted that Mr. Chambray probably had the same opinion of me that Kaegan had.” She pulled the car into Vashti and Sawyer’s driveway. When she brought the car to a stop, she turned to Vashti. It was then that Bryce felt her tears. She hadn’t realized until that moment that she’d been crying. “I’ve gotten over him, Vash—honest, I have. But it still hurts knowing he had so little trust in me after all we’d been through together. I had loved him so much, but I promised myself years ago that I would never let Kaegan hurt me again. And that’s a promise I intend to keep.” * * * KAEGAN MOVED AWAY from the window when Bryce’s car finally drove off. He rubbed a hand down his face, feeling frustrated. Hadn’t he made a vow when he moved back to Catalina Cove that he would not let Bryce destroy him any more than she already had? Each and every time she came to his house—the place that should have been their home—it took another bite out of him. Tonight had been the last straw when he’d walked into his kitchen and had seen her on that ladder. First off, he had been concerned for her safety. But then seeing her from behind had totally unnerved him. She’d always had one hell of a figure and she still did. Angry with himself for admiring her ass, he had snapped at her and then the confrontation had begun. Although he’d wished otherwise, Vashti had been caught in the middle. But then, she was the one who’d insisted he invite Bryce. In the past, it had been pretty easy to ignore her. But not tonight. It might have been her outfit, a pink shorts set with white sandals, that had been to blame. He’d always liked her in pink because he’d thought she always looked ultrafeminine in that color. He had tried not to notice her but he had. He knew every damn man who’d tried talking to her tonight, and each time one would approach her, his stomach would tighten in knots. It had been ten years, so why was he stressing over a woman who meant nothing to him? Absolutely nothing. An hour later he’d finished breaking everything down, at least as much as he intended to do tonight. Tomorrow was Saturday and after sleeping late he would wake up and do the rest. He began stripping off his clothes for a shower and for some reason his gaze went to a certain framed portrait on the wall. There was nothing special about the painting, but behind it was his safe, where his valuables were kept. He walked over to it and entered the combination, then opened the safe. He stared at the only thing inside. That damn little white box. He reached inside and pulled it out, asking himself for the umpteenth time why he still had it. He should have gotten rid of it years ago, but had convinced himself he needed it as a reminder of the time in his life when he’d been young, naive and gullible, and had allowed a woman to make a fool of him. He’d left Catalina Cove the day he’d graduated from high school. Together he and Bryce had mapped out a plan for their future. He would serve six years in the military. That would give her time to complete her last two years of high school and four years of college before they married. After she finished college they would marry. She’d been in her senior year of college and he’d come home over spring break. It had been a surprise visit with a purpose. He was going to officially ask her to marry him. Opening the box, he gazed upon the engagement ring he had saved his paychecks for almost a year to afford. When he’d first seen it in a jewelry-store window he had immediately known it was the ring he wanted to give Bryce. That was before he’d seen her in the arms of another man. He closed his eyes for a moment when memories of that night assailed him and ripped into him. That had been the night she’d shredded his heart. His father had been writing and telling him that he’d seen Bryce around town with Samuel Abbott whenever she came home from college. But Kaegan hadn’t believed him because his parents had never approved of his relationship with Bryce. They’d wanted him to be with a girl from the tribe. Kaegan had known Samuel from growing up in the cove. He was the son of wealthy parents who’d owned the only pharmacy in town for years. In high school Samuel had been a star athlete in practically every sport he competed in. He was what the girls had called a superjock and they would hang around him like lovesick puppies. Regardless of what his father had been telling him in those letters, Kaegan had trusted Bryce. He’d believed the plans they’d made for their future were solid and that some guy like Samuel wasn’t going to turn her head. He hadn’t cared they were attending Grambling together, which gave them every opportunity to be close. Bryce was his girl and that was that. Although it was close to two in the morning when he’d arrived in the cove that night, he’d immediately gone to Bryce’s house to surprise her. He’d been anxious to ask her to marry him and to give her the ring. Since her brothers had married, she had taken over the garage apartment at the back of her parents’ home. He had walked toward the garage when suddenly the door to the apartment opened and a man came out. She was walking him to the door and the man was Samuel Abbott. Kaegan had stopped and stared at them. Neither had detected his presence since he’d been in the shadows. In total shock, he watched Bryce lean up on tiptoes and wrap her arms around Samuel’s neck. Angry and hurt, Kaegan turned and walked away while pain had sliced through him. He left town that night without Bryce or his parents knowing he’d even been there. It had taken a week before he’d called Bryce. He’d even refused to take her call, the one she made to him every Sunday. When he did call her, he didn’t give her a chance to say anything. He told her of his surprise visit home the week before, although he didn’t tell her why he’d specifically come home that night. Kaegan told her about seeing her in Samuel’s arms on her doorstep at two in the morning. He’d told her he hoped to never see her again and that he would be blocking her calls. When he ended the call, he figured that would be that. She’d cheated on him and had been caught. There had been no one he could talk to about the pain he felt. Not even Vashti. She’d left town years earlier, the week after she’d graduated from high school, saying she would never return to Catalina Cove again. She had her own issues with the town and the people in it. He was left to deal with the pain of Bryce’s betrayal alone. He certainly hadn’t expected Bryce to show up in North Carolina a week later wanting to see him and tell him her side of things. There was nothing she could tell him. It hadn’t been about what his father had told him but about what he’d seen with his own eyes. He doubted he would ever forget seeing her in Samuel’s arms as they’d been about to kiss. Coming back to Catalina Cove to live was the last thing he’d planned to do. When he had returned home after his father’s death it was to find a seafood shipping company that was barely making ends meet. On top of that, the machinery and boats were in need of repair or replacement, and it had been weeks since the crew, shrimpers and oyster shuckers had been paid. He had made the decision to close down the company, pay the workers out of money he had saved and move his mother with him to Maryland, where he’d settled after his military career ended. He had a pretty good job working for NASA as a program manager. The plans to return to Maryland changed the day he was approached by Reid LaCroix, the wealthiest man in the cove. Reid had invited him to his home and had made Kaegan an offer that nobody in their right mind could refuse. Everyone knew Reid was a man who detested change. He believed family-owned businesses in the cove should stay in the family. As a result of that belief, he’d offered Kaegan a low-interest loan to do whatever was needed to bring the shipping company up to par, but only if Kaegan returned to the cove and ran things. Sensing there had to be some catch, Kaegan had asked his attorney and friend Gregory Nelson, back in Maryland, to review the contract. Gregory indicated it was a damn good deal and he could only assume the reason Reid LaCroix had made him such an offer was the man’s doggedness to keep the family-operated companies in the cove in business so there would not be a need to bring in any new ones. Gregory saw LaCroix’s generosity as a really good strategy if LaCroix was as anti-progressive as Kaegan claimed. Even with such a good offer, Kaegan had to decide if moving back to Catalina Cove was something he wanted to do. He’d weighed the pros and cons. Living in Maryland and working in DC meant dealing with congested traffic, which had begun wearing him down. Then there were the advantages of being his own boss, an idea that he liked. Returning to the cove for his father’s funeral had shown him how much the people in the town had changed for the better. The old sheriff, who’d thought he ruled the town, was gone, and there was a new man in charge, a man he’d liked immediately upon meeting him—Sawyer Grisham. For the first time since leaving he could see himself making Catalina Cove his home again. The only problem he saw impeding his return was Bryce. Since there was no way the two of them could ever get back together, he figured the best way to deal with her was to ignore her very existence. After much consideration, Kaegan had accepted Reid’s offer. With the injection of money, Kaegan was able to pay his workers their back pay, call back the men his father had laid off, buy four new boats and update every last piece of his machinery. Reid even gave Kaegan and his crew permission to farm for tilapia and catfish on a tract of land off the ocean that Reid LaCroix owned but never used. That turned out to be an added investment for them both. With numerous restaurants in the area needing fresh seafood daily, Kaegan’s business began booming immediately. It was still doing well and in two more years he would be able to pay off his loan to Reid. Kaegan had discovered that without his father making his life miserable, he actually loved being on the water with the men. And he felt he had a dynamic office staff. The one thing he did make clear to the townspeople was that he didn’t want to be called K-Gee any longer. He couldn’t forget it had been Bryce who’d first begun calling him that in first grade when she couldn’t pronounce his name. Once he’d settled back in the cove, he’d done a pretty good job of keeping his distance from Bryce and vice versa. The only time they would run into each other was when he went into her parents’ café, which he tried limiting. At least he did until he and Sheriff Sawyer Grisham became good friends. They’d bonded because they’d had a lot in common. They’d both been marines who’d served multiple tours in Afghanistan. They’d even figured they’d been in the area about the same time, although their paths never crossed. They’d enjoyed sharing war stories over beer in the evenings at Collins Bar and Grill, or in the mornings over coffee and blueberry muffins at the Witherspoon Café. A couple of years later Ray Sullivan relocated to the cove to work for Kaegan. Since he was new to town and hadn’t known anyone, they extended their friendship to Ray, and the three of them would start their workday by meeting at the Witherspoon Café. Bryce was a Realtor in town but often helped her parents out at the café with the breakfast and dinner crowd. Just like he didn’t want to have anything to do with her, she had the same attitude toward him, which he found crazy because she was the one who’d been caught cheating. He’d also discovered that although most people in the cove knew they were no longer together, no one, not even her parents and brothers, knew the reason why. He figured she’d been too ashamed to admit to anyone that she’d betrayed him and people had known not to ask him about it, so the reason remained a mystery to everyone. Even though he saw her more often because of his daily breakfast meetings with Ray and Sawyer at her parents’ cafe, he’d made it a point to ignore her. He’d done a pretty damn good job of it until Vashti moved back to town. She was determined to reclaim her two best friends and couldn’t understand why two people who’d once been so into each other could share so much animosity. Sighing deeply, Kaegan put the box back in the safe and drew in a deep breath. Seeing it was a reminder that long-term relationships weren’t for him and he never intended to trust another woman with his heart again. CHAPTER THREE “GOOD MORNING, SHERIFF. Good morning, Ray. The usual?” Bryce asked the two men when they sat down at one of the booths. “Yes, I’ll take the usual,” Ray Sullivan said, smiling up at her. “So will I,” Sheriff Sawyer Grisham chimed in, smiling, as well. Bryce walked off while thinking that Vashti and Ashley were two lucky women to have found two men who were such jewels. Maybe one day her luck would change. She recalled an article she’d read just last week in a popular women’s magazine. It stated women outnumbered men four to one. With so few men, she needed to get motivated and find her Mr. Right. She’d once had high hopes for Marcel, a guy she’d met at a real-estate seminar in Atlanta. They’d dated for almost eight months. When his ex-wife had reentered the picture, he’d dropped her like a hot potato. That had been four years ago, and although she dated occasionally, she hadn’t gotten seriously involved with anyone since then. “You okay, honey?” She glanced over at her mother and pasted on a smile. “Sure, Mom, I’m okay. Just had a busy weekend. I showed five houses on Saturday and one after church yesterday.” “How did that go?” “I think it went well. No buyers yet, but I think one of the couples are really interested in the Flemings’ place.” “That’s good. Hmm, I wonder where Kaegan is this morning,” her mother said. Bryce bit down on her lip, coming close to saying that she didn’t know, nor did she give a royal damn. Of course, she wouldn’t say that since the woman standing beside her was her mother, although she’d been mistaken for Bryce’s older sister a number of times. Her mom looked just that good for her age and her father wasn’t bad-looking for his age, either. Good genes. Years ago when her father, Chester Witherspoon, had graduated from Catalina Cove High School, he had fled to Canada to avoid fighting in the Vietnam War. It wasn’t that he’d been a coward or anything; he just didn’t feel the country needed to go to war. A few years later after the war had ended he returned with a Canadian-born wife and baby in tow. It was then that he’d decided to do his patriotic duty and enlist in the military for six years. During those years Bryce’s parents had another son, Duke. Four years after Duke they had their only daughter, Bryce. Both Ry and Duke lived in Catalina Cove and were partners with their parents in the family-owned café. Her brothers were happily married to wonderful women with two kids each. Although no one ever said it, if anyone cared to do the math, it would be quite obvious that Debbie Witherspoon had gotten pregnant before she’d married Chester. That fact never bothered Bryce. Her mother had adopted the philosophy that if you lived in a glass house you shouldn’t throw stones. That was the main reason why, unlike a lot of the other parents in town, the Witherspoons hadn’t bashed Vashti when she’d gotten pregnant at sixteen and refused to reveal the identity of her child’s father. The Witherspoons had stood up for Vashti and had been quite outspoken in saying it wasn’t anyone’s business what Vashti decided to do and whom she told or didn’t tell. “I think I’ll go help your dad and brothers in the back. Time to put my pies in the oven for the lunch crowd,” her mother said. “Okay, Mom.” Moments later, while Bryce was placing their orders in front of Ray and Sawyer, she felt heat behind her and didn’t have to look to know Kaegan had arrived. When he sat down she glanced over at him. “Your usual, K-Gee?” He glared at her and she wanted to smile but managed to keep a straight face. He hated that nickname and she’d only called him that to annoy the hell out of him. “Yes, my usual, Brycie.” She momentarily went still, not expecting him to retaliate by calling her that. Brycie had been his special name for her whenever they made love. Not able to deal with the memories right now, instead of saying anything she nodded and walked off to the kitchen. When she saw her mother busy mixing up her pies, she said, “Kaegan is here now, so you can stop fretting.” Her mother chuckled. “I wasn’t fretting. I’d just noticed he hadn’t arrived at the time he usually does.” It was no secret that Chester and Debbie Witherspoon always had a soft spot for Kaegan. In fact, very few people knew that it had been Bryce’s mother who’d gone to the school board and pushed for Kaegan to attend regular school and not the fake homeschooling his father claimed he was getting. It might bewilder some people as to how her parents could still be so fond of a man who’d obviously hurt their daughter. But she knew her parents. The one thing she could give them credit for was not getting involved in their children’s business. They accepted the fact that Bryce and her brothers were adults and treated them that way. They got along with their daughters-in-law, and whenever disagreements would come up, they didn’t take sides. She understood her parents’ feelings for Kaegan. He’d been a part of their lives just as long as he’d been a part of hers back in elementary school. They loved him like another son. Although her parents didn’t know all the details of their breakup, they believed it was something she and Kaegan would eventually work out. And just like the situation with her brothers and their wives, when it came to her and Kaegan, they refused to take sides. Her brothers weren’t as easygoing as her parents. All they knew was that Kaegan had hurt her, and in the beginning that had been enough for them to take sides. But when she refused to tell them what Kaegan had done, they soon took the same position her parents had. Kaegan was like a part of their family. Ry and Duke figured whatever had pushed her and Kaegan apart, they would either work it out or they would not. Her brothers made the decision to let her handle her own business when it came to Kaegan and not get involved, and she appreciated that. Placing hot blueberry muffins in the basket to take to Kaegan’s table, she wondered if his tardiness had anything to do with the woman who hadn’t been able to keep her eyes off him at the party. It appeared everyone had left the party Friday night, but that didn’t necessarily mean she hadn’t returned later for a weekend sleepover. Reminding herself that what Kaegan did wasn’t her business, she went to pour his coffee. * * * “YOU’RE NOT VERY talkative, Kaegan,” Sawyer said, stirring his coffee. Kaegan glanced up. “Not much to say this morning.” Ray chuckled. “Well, I have a lot to say, mainly about Friday night. That was a damn good party and the food was fantastic, as usual.” “Glad you enjoyed it.” And because he considered these two men his closest friends, he figured he needed to give them a reason for his solemn mood, even if it wasn’t the only reason. “I anticipate a busy week. I got another big order for the Chappell Group that needs to go out Thursday.” “I’ll be able to help,” Ray said, smiling. “Ashley’s parents are coming for a short visit. When it comes to her mother, I have to take her in small doses, so trust me, you’ll be doing me a favor.” Kaegan chuckled. “Was it that way before, when you were that Devon guy?” For a few years Ray had lost his memory. “It was worse. I think at times she’s trying to determine how much of ‘Devon’ is still in me. Her only saving grace is that I understand she’s happy and excited that I finally got her daughter pregnant. She’s always wanted grandchildren.” “And now you’re giving her doubles,” Sawyer said, grinning. “You’re going to love being the father of twins.” “Says a man who should know,” Kaegan said, also grinning. He was happy for these two. He recalled how just a few years ago the three of them had been single men, without a thought of a female in their lives. All of that had changed. At least for two of them things had. “I saw Farley’s sister at your party. She came without him?” Ray asked. “Yes. He wasn’t feeling well, and I guess she didn’t want to miss a good party,” Kaegan said, chuckling. “She’s a divorcée, right?” Sawyer asked. “Yes, that’s right.” “She’s pretty,” Ray said, looking at him over the rim of his coffee cup. He glanced at Ray. “Is she? I hadn’t really noticed.” In truth, he had noticed, but not enough to warrant his interest. She wasn’t his type. Not that he believed everything he heard, but on more than one occasion he’d heard his men whispering that she was into kinky stuff and that threesomes were her specialty. Personally, he wasn’t into sharing. He glanced up when a cup of coffee and a basket of blueberries were placed in front of him. When his and Bryce’s eyes met, something stirred deep within his gut and he immediately resented the feeling. He also resented that he was noticing how pretty she looked this morning. Could it be the hint of blush she’d added to her cheeks? Or that her lashes seemed a little longer than usual? In the past, Bryce only put on makeup when it suited her. Was there a reason she was wearing some now? Was there a man coming into the café that she wanted to impress? “Will there be anything else?” she asked him. He hated that his thoughts had been on a past that could never be rekindled. She was glaring at him and he automatically glared back. “From you? No.” He saw her bite down on her bottom lip, probably tempted to tell him where he could take the coffee and muffins and shove them. Instead she turned and walked off. He watched her leave and figured that even if he no longer cared one iota for her, he could still appreciate a good-looking ass in jeans. He kept his gaze glued to her backside until she disappeared behind the counter. He wished he didn’t remember a time he considered that ass and every damn part of her body as his. “Keep it up and one day you’re going to get hot coffee thrown in your face, Kaegan,” Sawyer said, breaking into his thoughts. He looked over at Sawyer. “If that happens, I’m sure you’ll be quick to arrest her.” Sawyer shrugged his shoulders. “Can’t say that I will. I might figure you had it coming.” “I will have to agree with him,” Ray added. “I don’t know what happened between you and Bryce years ago, but I’d think the two of you should—” “Continue to ignore each other,” Kaegan interrupted. “The two of you don’t ignore each other,” Sawyer said, after taking a sip of his coffee. “You antagonize each other. You do her and she does you.” Kaegan wished Sawyer hadn’t said that. Why did memories of him and Bryce together suddenly flash through his mind? Her naked beneath him while they made love. He had been her first and she had been his. He glanced at his watch. “I got to go. Marty called and one of his kids is sick, so he won’t be coming in. I’ll be helping with deliveries today.” Ray raised an eyebrow. “Where’s John?” “On vacation. He and his family left Saturday for Walt Disney World.” Ray nodded. “You know if you need me to pitch in I’m just a phone call away.” Kaegan knew that was true. When Ray had first arrived in town he had worked for him, first out on the boat and then in the office as a bookkeeper. The man had a way with numbers and in the end it was discovered why. He was a Harvard man with dual degrees in computer technology and finance. Even after Ray had started up his own company, Ray Tours, he would often volunteer and help out in any way he could, especially during audit time. Kaegan always welcomed the help. He still did, but knew Ray’s business had grown by leaps and bounds. Instead of one touring boat, Ray now had five. When Ray had gotten his memory back, it was discovered he was a very wealthy man. But Kaegan still appreciated that he hadn’t changed. He was still the laid-back man he considered a close friend. “I’ll keep that in mind,” Kaegan said, standing and leaving enough money on the table to cover his bill and a tip. He glanced over to where Bryce was waiting on another table. Why his gaze had been drawn to her, he wasn’t sure. He never was sure. “You’re still leaving, Kaegan?” It was then that he realized he had been standing there staring at Bryce. He glanced at his friends. “Yes, I’m still leaving.” He then turned and walked out of the café. * * * BRYCE WAS AWARE the moment Kaegan left because she no longer felt the heat of his gaze on her. Why did knowing he’d been watching her, was always watching her, fill her with a degree of satisfaction? She had taken extra time with getting dressed today. Although she’d told herself it hadn’t been for him, she knew it was at him. Maybe it was time for her to let him see what he used to have, but wouldn’t ever have again. One day he would regret believing the worst about her. “That will be all, Bryce.” She smiled at the Coopers, the couple whose order she’d just taken. Like Ray, Kaegan and Sawyer, the older couple were regulars. “I’ll be back with your tea.” As she walked off, she felt the cell phone in the pocket of her jeans vibrate. When she got to the hallway that led to the kitchen, she pulled the phone out of her pocket and saw the caller was Vashti. She clicked it on. “Good morning, Vash, and, no, I haven’t forgotten,” she said, before her best friend could tell her the reason for the call. Bryce had promised to cover for her at the inn for a couple of hours while Vashti took her son, Cutter, in for his regular checkup with the pediatrician. “Glad you remembered. What time will you get here?” “What time do you want me there?” Two years ago, Vashti had inherited the inn that sat on the gulf, Shelby by the Sea, from her aunt. She’d spent a year remodeling the place, not only bringing it back to its once glorious splendor, but also adding additional perks that made the inn one of the most sought-out places for newlyweds, couples celebrating anniversaries and writers needing a retreat to be inspired. Reservations were booked months in advance and Shelby by the Sea always had a full house. Most people checked in on Mondays and stayed until Sunday, and some stayed more than one week. Vashti was expecting at least six couples to check in today before noon, which was why she wanted to make sure Bryce covered for her. Bryce loved Shelby by the Sea and remembered spending a lot of time there with Vashti while growing up. When Vashti had reopened the inn, Bryce had agreed to be the inn’s assistant manager that first year to help Vashti while she got things off the ground. That meant she was familiar with how things operated at the inn and could step in and help out any time she was needed. “My appointment is at ten thirty.” “Then I’ll be there at ten. My first appointment isn’t until three.” “Thanks, Bryce. You’re a lifesaver.” “That’s what friends are for. I’ll see you in a few.” She clicked off the phone when a man walked in. Isaac Elloran. He’d graduated from school the same year as her brother Ry and had moved back to the cove last year. His wife—or ex-wife—had graduated with them, as well. According to Ry, the two had been high-school sweethearts who’d gotten married but had divorced a few years ago. Bryce didn’t know Isaac that well, but he seemed like a nice guy. And he’d moved back to Catalina Cove to start a new life for himself. She’d heard he was a technology expert who’d sold his business and was able to retire early. It was obvious the man was loaded, with that fancy hot sports car he drove around town and that huge house he’d purchased near the ocean. He was also handsome and had caught the attention of a number of the single women in town. However, she noted he didn’t date much, as if refusing to let any woman get too close. She’d also heard from Ry that he was still pining for his wife and the divorce had been her idea and not his. She grabbed a menu and headed in his direction when he sat down at a table. Although she was on the lookout for a nice guy, she wouldn’t put Isaac on her list. The last thing she needed in her life was another man who still loved his ex. CHAPTER FOUR KAEGAN GOT INTO his company’s delivery truck, glad to get out of the office for a while, mainly to breathe in some fresh air. For some reason he felt annoyed this morning and seeing Bryce hadn’t helped. But then, he saw Bryce most mornings at the café, so what made today any different? It could be because of the tiff they’d had Friday night, and then to see her this morning looking just as good, even better than she had on Friday, had annoyed the hell out of him. At the moment he was too mad to ponder why. Kaegan had time before his delivery to Shelby by the Sea, so he decided to take what he considered the scenic route, which went through the main section of town. He would be one of the first to admit that Catalina Cove was a beautiful place. Kaegan recalled resenting having to leave the security of the bayou to come to this part of town to attend school. He hadn’t liked it until he’d met Vashti and Bryce. Because he’d gotten little schooling before, they’d started him in first grade instead of third, where he belonged due to his age. The other kids ignored him but Vashti and Bryce hadn’t. It wasn’t long before they’d become his best buddies. Forcing his mind from that period in his life, he studied his surroundings as he drove through the historical part of the cove. The land the cove sat on had been a gift from the United States government to the notorious pirate Jean Lafitte for his role in helping the States fight for independence from the British during the War of 1812. Some believed Lafitte wasn’t buried at sea in the Gulf of Honduras like history claimed, but was buried somewhere in the waters surrounding Catalina Cove. For years because of Lafitte, the cove had been a shipping town. It still was, which was evident by the number of fishing vessels that lined the pier on a daily basis. That accounted for the fact there were a large number of seafood restaurants in town. The Moulden River was full of trout, whiting, shrimp and oysters. Tourists came from miles around to sample the town’s seafood, especially the oysters. The cove’s lighthouse-turned-restaurant was one of the most popular destinations in town. You had to make reservations weeks in advance to get a table. It wasn’t long before he pulled onto Buccaneer Lane, where Shelby by the Sea was located. It was a beautiful tree-lined street that ended at the ocean. He noticed the number of vehicles parked in the long winding driveway of the large mansion with the beautiful manicured lawn that sat on the gulf. He recalled hanging out here as a kid with Vashti and Bryce whenever Vashti’s aunt Shelby had something for them to do. When he pulled into the yard he was glad none of the cars blocked the lane that went to the back of the inn, where deliveries were made. Some people might find it odd that the CEO of a company would do such a task as he was doing here today, but he wouldn’t ask any of his employees to do something that he himself wouldn’t do. He didn’t spend all his time stuck behind the desk. Usually on Fridays he went out on the harvesting ships with his crew. As he got out of the truck to begin unloading, he could truly say that although he and his company were now taking on bigger clients, he still appreciated the local business owners who contracted with his company to provide all the seafood they needed. Shelby by the Sea was one such client. When he got everything loaded on the cart, he pulled it through the back and rang the doorbell. He expected Mrs. Livingston, the inn’s chef, to be the one to open the door for the delivery. Instead when the door opened, it was Bryce. Kaegan frowned. He’d seen her that morning. Once a day was all he could tolerate of her. “What are you doing here, Bryce? Where is Mrs. Livingston?” Bryce moved aside. “She had a run to make to the store and told me to watch out for someone from your company. I expected Marty or John. I wasn’t expecting you.” “Well, you got me.” The minute he’d spoken the words, it flashed through his mind that, no, she didn’t have him. Not in the ways that counted with him. “Fine. Just drop it here and leave it.” “That’s not how things work. You need to count the number of boxes before signing off on anything, and then I load them in the freezer for you.” She rolled her eyes. “I know how it’s done, Kaegan. Need I remind you that I used to be the assistant manager here?” Honestly, he didn’t need her to remind him of anything. “Why are you here?” Instead of answering him, she took her pretty little time scanning the invoice. All four pages. Then she glanced back at him. “Not that it’s any of your business, but Vashti had to leave for a couple of hours to take Cutter in for his checkup and asked me to fill in while she was gone. Anything else you want to know?” “Not if it’s going to take you forever to answer.” She glared at him and he ignored it and wished he could ignore her. She was wearing the same outfit she’d had on this morning. That same blouse. Those same jeans. Definitely a turn-a-guy-on sort of outfit. When she leaned over to read the labels on each box while checking the items off the invoice, he honestly wished she didn’t tilt her curvy ass up like that while bending over. He recalled the times he’d made love to her from behind and how much they’d enjoyed it. On weekends, when he could send for her to meet him halfway between her college and his military base, he would always arrive at the hotel first and they would spend an entire weekend together in bed. Kaegan knew he should have suspected something was up when she began canceling some of their romantic weekends, saying she was getting behind in her studies. He’d believed her and had begun feeling guilty that he was interfering with her schoolwork. He’d never suspected the real reason was because she was betraying him with another guy. “Everything’s all here,” she said, straightening up and signing the invoice. “Fine.” He took the paper from her, being careful not to touch her hand in the process. “Let Vashti know the delivery was made and on time.” He headed toward the freezer and began unloading the boxes. She didn’t say anything, but he could feel her standing there and staring at him. The same way he’d stared at her. The heat of her gaze was all over him—he could feel it. He started to say something about her standing there and watching him when the doorbell sounded. “That’s probably the Braziers. They’re the last couple Vashti expected to check in before noon.” He wondered why she was telling him that. Why was she still there at all? He didn’t get a chance to ask her before the sound of her heels clicking on the tile floor told him she’d left. With her departure, he drew in a deep breath, inhaling her lingering scent. He liked it, even though he wished he didn’t. Trying to put Bryce, her scent and how good she’d looked out of his mind, he continued to stock the boxes in the freezer. But he still thought about her and couldn’t understand why he was doing so. He tried to remember the last time he’d taken a woman on a date. A number of the women in the cove were aware he and Bryce had been sweethearts in high school and had even talked about marriage once she completed college. Many figured it would just be a matter of time before they got back together. Those women didn’t know how wrong that assumption was, but he was willing to let them think whatever they liked. He dated when he got the urge, and usually when he did there was a woman to take off the edge. As he was finishing up, he heard the voices belonging to Bryce and two others, and decided he wanted to be gone if Bryce returned. Seeing her twice in one day was enough for him. Nearly too much. He quickly finished what he was doing and left. * * * “THANKS FOR HELPING out today. Anything interesting happen?” Bryce glanced at Vashti. Had her friend known Kaegan would be making those deliveries and hadn’t told her? She would admit that Kaegan seemed as surprised to see her as she’d been at seeing him. “Anything interesting like what?” “Anything. Mondays are always interesting here at Shelby. Last Monday we had that dog deliver puppies on the roof of the gazebo. Not sure yet how she got up there. Then the Monday before that we had that paddleboat wash up on shore with clothes but no people. Sawyer is still working with the Coast Guard trying to determine if a couple who possibly went swimming skinny-dipping in the ocean were reported missing. So far no one has filed a missing-person report.” Bryce nodded. “The only interesting thing that happened around here was that Kaegan dropped by.” Vashti lifted an eyebrow in surprise. “He did?” So she hadn’t known. “Yes.” “Did he say what he wanted?” “He made the normal Monday deliveries,” Bryce said. Vashti nodded. “I know John is on vacation, since he mentioned as much a few weeks ago, but where was Marty?” “He was out today, as well.” Vashti came over to Bryce and looked her over. Bryce gave her a pointed look. “What are you doing?” “Checking for battle scars.” Bryce rolled her eyes. “You won’t see any. We were pretty cordial to each other.” “That’s a switch. Especially after Friday night.” “I’m trying, Vash. Of course, he was in his usual foul mood, but I’ve made the decision not to let Kaegan rattle me any longer.” “Good. And I hope he’s made that same decision about you.” “What’s that supposed to mean?” “Nothing. Did you see Reid’s wedding announcement in yesterday’s paper?” Bryce knew Vashti was deliberately changing the subject. “Yes, I saw it.” Reid LaCroix, the wealthiest man in the cove, was getting married. “I’m happy for Reid. Gloria is a beautiful soul and just what he needs. Of course, the girls are thrilled to death about it,” Vashti said. “And how are the girls doing?” Bryce asked Vashti about her daughters. “They love college and Sawyer and I are glad they decided to attend the same one. I’m looking forward to seeing them over the holidays since Kia will be spending Thanksgiving this year with us. Knowing Gloria and Reid, they will plan their wedding when they know the girls will be here to attend.” Bryce nodded. “Speaking of weddings, don’t forget that I’m attending a wedding this weekend. I’m flying out early Friday morning.” “I remember. You’ll have to tell me all about it when you get back.” “I will.” Bryce glanced at her watch. “Time for me to go. I have that closing at three and want to swing by the office to go over the paperwork before then.” A few moments later Bryce was on her way home, but she was still dwelling on her encounter with Kaegan at Shelby by the Sea. Same scent from that morning, when she’d gotten a whiff of him, and he still smelled good a few hours later. While watching him put those boxes in the freezer she had admired his broad shoulders and the way his backside fit his jeans. Suddenly she heard a pop and her steering wheel began shaking. A flat tire. Damn. She pulled to the side of the road and tugged the cell phone from her purse to call for roadside service when an SUV pulled alongside of her. “Car trouble, miss?” She glanced over at the handsome man. She figured he was in his midthirties, possibly a little older. “I believe I have a flat and was about to call for roadside service.” “There’s no need to call anyone. I can change it for you.” It was a little after the lunch hour and a steady stream of vehicles was on the road. Catalina Cove was a pretty safe town. Sawyer made sure of that. “I hate for you to bother.” “No bother.” When he pulled off the road to park his SUV in front of her vehicle, she noticed his license plate was for a rental vehicle. Was he visiting someone in the cove? She watched him get out of his truck and walk back to her car. In addition to being good-looking, he was tall and well built, dressed in jeans and a Western shirt. When he reached her car, he said, “You don’t have to get out. If you’ll just release the trunk, I can get out your spare and everything else I need.” “All right.” “My name is Jeremy Skinner, by the way,” he said. He smiled and offered her his hand through the open window. “Hello, Jeremy. I’m Bryce Witherspoon.” “Hello, Bryce.” “Are you from around here, Jeremy?” He shook his head. “No, I’m from Shreveport. I love to fish and heard this is the best place for it and rented a cabin near the water for a few days.” It didn’t take the man but a few minutes to change the tire. “You have a leak and will need to get it repaired. I got the spare on for now.” “Thanks, Jeremy.” “You’re welcome.” “What do I owe you?” “Not a thing. It was my pleasure to help such a beautiful lady.” His flirty words made her smile, and since he didn’t have a ring on his finger, she figured she could do a little flirting, as well. “I really would like to show my thanks. Here’s my business card. If you ever return to the area, please give me a call. Maybe we can get together for coffee.” He glanced down at the business card and then back at her, and a huge smile curved his lips. “Thanks, Bryce. I’ll do that.” CHAPTER FIVE “MORNING, KAEGAN.” Kaegan turned when Ray walked into the office. “Morning, Ray. What are you doing here so early? I take it your in-laws are still in town.” “Yes, they’re still here.” He’d gotten a call from Ray last night offering to do the audit this morning. Claimed doing so kept his mind sharp. “When will they be leaving?” “Not soon enough. At least my father-in-law is handling his wife better than I remember. But she’s still a pain in the ass. She told us yesterday that she doesn’t like the names we’ve chosen for the twins. Like we give a royal damn.” Kaegan chuckled and then headed toward his office. “By the way, I heard Bryce left town today.” Kaegan paused and then turned around, wondering why Ray thought he would care. “Did she?” “Yes.” “And how do you know that?” “She wasn’t at the café this morning.” Kaegan didn’t say anything. He’d deliberately stayed away from the café this week as much as he could. At least until he could figure out why he was hell-bent on lusting after the woman who’d betrayed him. “And?” “And I asked Mrs. Witherspoon where she was, in case she was sick or something. She assured me Bryce was okay.” Kaegan nodded. “That’s nice.” And because he figured Ray would know, he asked, “So where did she go?” “To California to attend a wedding. Some guy she went to college with who also grew up in this town. I understand his parents used to own a pharmacy here.” Kaegan almost choked on his coffee. “Hey, man, you okay over there?” Ray asked with concern. “Yes, I’m okay.” He placed the coffee cup down, not believing what Ray had said. Samuel Abbott, the guy she’d betrayed him with, was getting married and she’d gone to the wedding? He’d heard the Abbotts had moved to California. Bryce and Samuel must have remained pretty good friends after they split. He was suddenly filled with anger at the mere thought. “When is she coming back?” Ray glanced over at him. He must have heard the anger in his voice. “Why do you want to know, Kaegan?” Kaegan met his gaze. “So now you want to get quiet on me?” Ray shook his head. “No, I want to know why you want to know when Bryce is coming back. Especially with the tone of your voice. And please choose your words carefully.” Kaegan rolled his eyes. “I guess the next thing you’ll be saying is that you intend to beat the crap out of me if I don’t.” Ray nodded. “That thought has crossed my mind a number of times, to do just that when I see how you handle Bryce, but Sawyer wouldn’t let me.” “Whatever.” Kaegan leaned against a desk. “So are you going to tell me or not?” This time he tried asking in a calmer voice. “I guess I will. She’s coming back Monday, sometime before noon.” Kaegan nodded as he took another sip of his coffee, satisfied he had the information he wanted. He intended to see Bryce for himself on Monday. There was one question he had to ask and then for him there would finally be closure with her. He’d always wondered why she and Samuel Abbott broke up all those years ago. “Bryce is a wonderful woman. Not sure what problems the two of you had to break up, but I hope they can get worked out,” Ray said, breaking into Kaegan’s thoughts. “Nothing can get worked out between me and Bryce. It would take a miracle,” Kaegan said. Then he tossed his empty coffee cup into the trash can. Ray shrugged. “Considering how close I came to death that time and what has happened in my life the four years since, I happen to believe in miracles, Kaegan. Maybe you should, too.” * * * BRYCE SAW KAEGAN the minute he walked into her parents’ restaurant. Automatically, he zeroed in on the area where she stood and their gazes connected. Why today, of all days, did he have to come into the café for dinner? A late dinner at that. She had arrived back in town earlier that day and had told her parents she would pitch in this evening. The restaurant would be closing in an hour, and since things had gotten slow and she hadn’t expected many more customers, she had convinced her parents to go home and that she and her brothers would close the restaurant. Since her folks had been there since four that morning, they’d quickly taken her up on her offer. Her brothers were in the back, and since Kaegan was her only customer, that meant they were virtually alone. She hadn’t seen him for a while. Not since that day he’d made those deliveries to Shelby by the Sea. He had not come to the café and she’d refused to ask Sawyer or Ray about him. Pasting a smile on her face, she said, “Evening, Kaegan. Any particular place you’d like to sit?” “I’ll grab that table by the window.” She nodded. That was where he normally sat whenever he came in alone. No need to remember even when they were in high school that he would sit there to wait for her to leave the restaurant so he could walk her home at night. “And what would you like to drink?” she asked, walking over to the table to put down a place mat and eating utensils. “A cold beer would be nice.” “One cold beer coming up. Here’s the menu,” she said and made a move to walk off. “I don’t need a menu. I talked to your mom earlier when I dropped by for lunch. She promised to put aside some of her lobster stew and corn bread for me.” “My parents have gone for tonight, but I’ll see if Mom mentioned anything about it to my brothers,” she said before walking off. Her mother had indeed told Duke and Ry about it. After getting Kaegan a beer, she went behind the counter to wait for Duke to get the meal together. As she wiped down the counter she could feel Kaegan’s gaze on her, but refused to say anything to him or look his way. Why did he have to look so darn good today? Of all days? Being at Samuel’s wedding and seeing how happy he was had made her wonder if there was a man somewhere out there for her. She hoped so because she definitely wasn’t getting any younger. She was thirty-two and never had a ring on her finger. And she did want kids one day. She loved her nieces and nephews but they were just that—her nieces and nephews. She wanted to have children of her own. A pain settled in her chest when she recalled how she would often lie in bed and visualize how her kids would look. They were kids she thought she’d have one day with Kaegan. They would take on more of his prominent features. Her son would be strikingly handsome and her daughter would be eye-catchingly gorgeous. They would have their father’s long silky black hair and that hawkish nose that she used to love rubbing hers against. Her son would grow up with his father’s rugged good looks, chiseled jaw and those dreamy dark eyes. She would have to work hard to keep the girls from him. Duke rang the bell for her to pick up the food. She carried the dishes over to where Kaegan sat watching her with those dark eyes. Why did he still have to be, after all these years, the work of impossible male beauty? She knew then that she needed to meet someone and get involved real quick-like. She didn’t do casual sex but her vibrator had seen its useful days. She hadn’t shared a bed with anyone since Marcel and that was close to four years ago. Kaegan didn’t say anything when she placed the food in front of him on the table. She was about to walk off when he said, “You’re usually not here on Monday nights, Bryce.” How would he know that? And why did he have to say her name in that deep, husky voice that could still send shivers of desire down her spine? “You’re right—usually I’m not. I was away this weekend, so I thought I’d pitch in so the folks could leave early.” He nodded. “Today your mom mentioned that you’ll be taking a six-week class at a university in New Orleans.” She wondered why he was holding a conversation with her when all those other times he’d come into the café he’d acted like he could barely tolerate her presence. “Yes, that’s right. I’m taking the class so I can become a licensed Realtor in other states. Very few people are leaving the cove and selling their homes, so I need to expand my horizons if I want to continue to make money.” She wondered why she’d told him all that. It wasn’t like he was interested in knowing any of it. “I’ll let you get to your meal now.” Bryce walked away, and like before, she could feel his gaze on her. She wondered if, like her, he was remembering how things used to be between them. Every time she saw him, she was reminded of how close they used to be. How incredibly close, both in and out of bed. Each time she looked into his face, studied his lips, she couldn’t help but remember how he’d taught her to kiss that first time and all the times after that, and just how much she enjoyed doing so. Kaegan had taught her a lot of things that she’d rather not think about now. Bryce decided to wipe down the counter and restock supplies so her parents would have less to do in the morning. Anything to keep her concentration elsewhere and not on Kaegan. She moved from table to table, filling up the napkin dispensers and straw holders. Afterward, she wiped off the laminated menus and placed them back in the rack. When she saw Kaegan’s beer had gotten low, she asked, “Would you like a refill?” He glanced over at her, as if considering her words. Instead of giving her an answer, he asked one of his own. “Why did you and Samuel Abbott break up, Bryce?” His question was like a blow to her stomach. She actually felt the sharp pain, which was why her hand suddenly covered the lower part of her abdomen. Honestly, she wasn’t ready for this. In a flash, anger replaced the pain and she had a mind to go get that pitcher of beer off the counter and pour it on his head. But why waste good beer over a brutal hard head? The one still filled with untruths about her. She crossed the room and stood beside his table with her hands on her hips. “I’m going to tell you the same thing I tried telling you ten years ago,” she said, trying to hold back her anger and failing miserably. “There was never anything going on between me and Samuel Abbott. It was lies your father made up. Lies you chose to believe.” His jaw tightened and his dark eyes flared. “I saw the two of you together, Bryce. He was leaving your house at two in the morning. The two of you were hugging on your front porch. Do you deny that?” She tossed her hair back from her face. “No, I don’t deny it. It was a friendly hug that you tried making into something dirty.” “I tried making into something dirty?” he said, as if incensed with what she’d said. “Don’t you dare blame me for what you did to us.” Bracing her hands on the table, she leaned in closer, almost right in his face. If he wanted a good fight, she would give him one. “I am blaming you, Kaegan, for not believing in me when you should have. For your lack of trust in me. I’m also blaming you for sleeping with another woman to spite me when you thought I had wronged you.” She drew in a deep breath and backed away from him, trying to get her anger under control, but she couldn’t. “And as far as Samuel is concerned, he’s living in California and I went to his wedding this weekend.” “So I heard.” Had her mother told him that, too? Was that the reason he’d asked why she and Samuel had broken up? “It was a beautiful wedding.” “Must have been pretty damn awful for you to be at the wedding. Seeing the man you once loved marry someone else,” he sneered. She lifted her chin. “No, it wasn’t awful at all. In fact, I am very happy for him. Samuel deserves to be happy and I believe Matthew will make him extremely happy.” “Matthew?” he asked, as if to make sure he’d heard her right. “Yes, Matthew. The reason Samuel and I spent so much time together is because he needed a friend. He was having a hard time coming to terms with his sexuality. Since we both attended Grambling, whenever he came home he would offer me a ride back here. And he was in a number of my study groups on campus. That’s when we became close and he would confide in me.” Kaegan glared at her. “You should have told me.” “And you should have trusted me,” she snapped, glaring back. “That night when you thought you saw us in some kind of passionate embrace, I was giving Samuel a hug of encouragement because he’d made the decision to tell his parents the truth. He was tired of living the lie he had lived all his life and wanted to come out. And before you say I should have told you that, too, I tried telling you after I got that call from you, ending things between us. Just think of how different things would have been had you listened to me. Instead, you hung up on me and then blocked my number so I couldn’t call you back.” She drew in a deep breath, remembering that day like it was yesterday. “But I didn’t let that stop me, Kaegan. I was determined that you knew the truth. I used every penny I had to buy a bus ticket, and I rode that bus for eighteen hours all the way from college to see you. And what did you do? Instead of listening to what I had to say, you treated me like shit in front of some brazen hussy.” “Bryce, I—I’m sorry—” Without saying anything else, she crossed the room and headed straight for the kitchen, ignoring Kaegan calling out to her. Duke and Ry looked up when she walked into the kitchen and snatched off her apron. “Kaegan’s still here but that’s it for me tonight,” she said, refusing to let her tears fall. “I’m done here and going home.” She grabbed her purse out of one of the cabinets, walked out the back door, got in her car and drove off. * * * KAEGAN SAT STUNNED at Bryce’s words. And then, like he’d been stung by something, he bolted out of the booth and charged into the kitchen. He looked at Bryce’s brothers, who both stared at him. “Where’s Bryce?” he asked them. Ry answered in an angry voice, “She just got in her car and left, obviously upset, Kaegan. What’s going on? What the hell did you do to her?” Kaegan wanted to go after her but knew that wouldn’t be a good idea. Not tonight, anyway. He had a lot to think about. A lot to take in. What she’d just told him had shocked the hell out of him. It had been like an enormous kick in his gut. How could he have been so stupid? So fucking stupid? How could he have been so wrong about her? For ten fucking years he had believed the worst about her and he’d been wrong. So damn wrong, and she was right. He only had himself to blame. He’d been more than stupid, more than a moron, worse than an ass... “Kaegan? Dammit, what did you do to Bryce?” Duke asked, raising an angry voice. Bryce’s brothers had every right to be angry, but this was between him and their sister. “Bryce and I had an argument.” And that was all he intended to tell them about it. “I left the money for my dinner and beer on the table.” Then he turned and walked out of the kitchen and left the café, feeling at the lowest point he’d ever felt in his entire life. He felt sick. His guts felt twisted with remorse. He had a feeling Bryce would never forgive him for what he did, and at that moment he doubted if he would ever forgive himself. CHAPTER SIX “HEY, BRYCE. WHAT’S UP?” Bryce adjusted her cell phone in her hand as she sat down at her kitchen table. She was still trembling, inside and out. “It’s about Kaegan, Vash.” “Kaegan? What about Kaegan?” Bryce sighed deeply. “He knows the truth about Samuel.” “How did he find out?” Bryce closed her eyes and fought back more tears. Why was she still crying? Why was she crying at all? Hadn’t she sworn years ago she wouldn’t shed any more tears for Kaegan Chambray? That he didn’t deserve them? “Kaegan came into the café for dinner and I waited on his table. When he asked why Samuel and I had broken up, in anger I blurted about Samuel and Matthew and their wedding this weekend before I could stop myself.” She heard Vashti’s sharp intake of breath. “So now the entire town knows about Samuel, as well as knowing why you and Kaegan broke up?” “No, Kaegan and I were the only ones in the restaurant. It was late, near closing time. My brothers were in the kitchen, but they didn’t hear anything, either.” “I bet he feels bad about how he’s been treating you all these years. Did he apologize?” “Good, let him feel bad. All he had to do was listen to me ten years ago. I tried telling him about Samuel then, but he refused to listen. Instead he wanted to lash out at me. Break my heart with another woman to my face. He succeeded, Vash. And as far as apologizing, I didn’t want to hear his apology.” Bryce paused a moment and then added, “As my friend, I’m going to ask that you don’t try to change my mind about how I feel about him. I respected your wishes years ago about your baby’s father, and I’m asking you to respect mine now about Kaegan.” Vashti didn’t respond for a long moment, and then she said, “Okay, Bryce, I will respect your wishes. Do you want me to come over? I could bring some ice cream.” “Thanks, but I just want to be alone right now. I’ll talk to you later. Love you. ’Bye.” She clicked off the phone. Before she could put down the phone and go into the bathroom for her shower, both Ry and Duke called. She assured them she was fine but told them she wouldn’t be coming into the café tomorrow morning as usual. Although Kaegan hadn’t come into the café any mornings last week, she couldn’t risk seeing him. She needed time to pull herself together before she saw him again. That was the only way she could move on with her life and one day find a man whom she could love and who would love her in return just as much. * * * “I WONDER IF Bryce didn’t get back yesterday as planned,” Ray commented when another waitress filled their order. “She got back,” Kaegan said, staring into his coffee. He had arrived at the café early that morning after a sleepless night, only to find out from Mr. Witherspoon that Bryce had decided not to come in that day because she had a lot of things to do. A part of him knew that was just an excuse. She was avoiding him, and he’d been hoping to do just the opposite with her. He had wanted to see her. Apologize again. More than once last night, he’d been tempted to get out of bed and drive over to her place to see her. But each time he would talk himself out of it when he remembered the look on her face when she’d said, “Don’t you dare blame me for our breakup. You can only blame yourself for not believing in me...” Again, he could only ask himself how he could have been so fucking stupid. He had spent all those years wanting to hate her. Despise her. Believing she had betrayed him, and as a result, he’d thought all sorts of mean things about her when she’d been innocent of all of it. Totally innocent. Instead she’d been being Bryce. The person who was always a champion for the underdog, the girl who would give you the shirt off her back, a person who was that friend when you needed one. “And you know this how?” He glanced over at Sawyer. For him to ask meant he hadn’t heard anything. That didn’t necessarily mean Bryce hadn’t told Vashti, because he had every reason to believe that she had. It only meant Vashti hadn’t told Sawyer. “I know because I saw her yesterday evening when I came in here for dinner.” “Oh.” That “oh” had come from Ray. Kaegan moved his gaze from Sawyer to Ray. He might as well level with the two men who were the closest things to brothers he would ever have. “I fucked up.” There. He’d said it. He’d spelled out his torment in three words. Words he felt all the way to his gut. “Would you care to tell us how?” Sawyer asked quietly. So he did. He told them everything. About his father’s lies. About what he thought he’d seen that night he’d planned to ask her to marry him. About how he’d treated her when she showed up at that club near the marine base. “For ten years I believed Bryce had an affair with another man and last night I found out it had all been a lie. A fucking lie. I’ve been trying to hate her when I could have been loving her.” For the longest time the table was quiet. Neither Ray nor Sawyer said anything. Then Sawyer spoke up. “The first step is admitting you were wrong.” “And the second step is making the wrong right,” Ray added. “I recall when I fucked up with Ashley and you guys came looking for me. It was one of those you-better-get-your-ass-in-gear moments and I took heed. Grudgingly, but I did it.” Kaegan didn’t say anything as he remembered that day. It had taken all he and Sawyer could do not to toss Ray off his boat into the water to wash some sense into him. “I’ve had one of those moments myself with Vashti,” Sawyer said. “When she tried to tell me about what had happened at the hospital. I didn’t want to listen or accept it. I refused to believe her and accused her of all sorts of things.” Kaegan was hearing what his best friends were saying, but they’d had the sense to straighten things out with their women within hours. He’d let things fester for ten years. Ten long damn years. He took a drink of his coffee and said, “Getting things straightened out in less than twenty-four hours doesn’t compare to ten years.” “True,” Sawyer said. “But a man has to start somewhere and usually it begins with an apology.” “I tried to apologize but she walked off like she didn’t want to hear it.” “And you’re going to settle for that?” Ray asked him. No, he wouldn’t settle. He would apologize again, a thousand times more if he had to to show her how sincere he was. He had messed up, and if it took the rest of his life, he would show her just how much he regretted doing so. A few hours later, Kaegan turned his SUV onto the street where Bryce’s real-estate office was located. He had passed by the place several times since returning to the cove. Had even done so at a time she had come outside to get into her car to leave for the day. He’d seen her but she hadn’t seen him. At the time, just looking at her had elicited anger. Now he knew whenever he saw her that he would only feel regret. Regret for being such a stupid ass for believing the BS his old man had been feeding him. But then, he couldn’t rightly place all the blame on his father. It was also what he’d thought he’d seen with his own eyes. During his sleepless night, he had come to terms with how wrong he’d been. There had never been anything going on between Bryce and Samuel, and he owed her an apology. Hopefully she would find it in her heart to accept it. He parked next to her car, unhooked the seat belt and got out of his vehicle. He took the steps two at a time, then sprinted toward the front door of the building and went inside. A young woman who looked to be in her early twenties sat behind a desk. She smiled when she saw him. “May I help you?” He nodded. “I’d like to see Bryce... Ms. Witherspoon.” The young woman nodded. “And what’s your name, sir?” “Kaegan Chambray.” “Just a moment, please, Mr. Chambray.” He glanced around when she picked up the phone to announce him. This was the first time he’d ever been here and he liked how Bryce had transformed the Cajun house into her workplace. A door opened and Bryce walked out of it. His breath caught, as it usually did whenever he saw her. She was professionally dressed in a pair of black slacks and a short-sleeve printed blouse. Her hair flowed around her shoulders and he could tell from her reddened eyes she’d been crying. A lot. He felt a kick in the gut. He’d been the cause of her pain. Without acknowledging his presence, she said to the young woman sitting at the desk, “You can leave for lunch now, Pia.” The young woman nodded. “Thanks.” She got her purse out of the drawer and stood. Before walking out the door, she glanced over at him and smiled faintly. He figured it was her way of warning him that her boss was not in the best of moods today. When the door closed behind the young woman, Bryce turned to him with narrowed eyes that were shooting daggers at him. “What are you doing here, Kaegan?” He shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “I came to see you.” She crossed her arms over her chest. He wished she hadn’t done that. That drew emphasis to a pair of perfect breasts. That was the last thing he needed to think about now. “Why?” “I said it last night and I felt the need to say it again today. I’m sorry, Bryce.” Her spine stiffened and the glare in her eyes deepened. “I don’t want your apology, Kaegan. It doesn’t matter. I stopped caring how you felt about me that night you walked out of that club with that other woman. Please leave.” He could tell her that woman hadn’t meant anything to him. That the two of them hadn’t slept together that night. But that couldn’t erase the other women he’d slept with over the years. Women he’d used to eradicate Bryce from his mind and heart. “Bryce, I—” “No. Today is not a good day, Kaegan. Maybe one day I’ll be ready to forgive you. But not now. Not today.” At that moment, although she didn’t say it, the words not ever hung between them. He wasn’t given a chance to ask because she turned toward her office, went inside and closed the door behind her. He had been dismissed with a finality that he felt all the way to the bone. * * * “YOU LOOK LIKE crap, Kaegan.” He rubbed a hand down his face. Of all people, he didn’t need Vashti to tell him that. Besides, he had news for her—he felt like crap, as well. When he left Bryce’s office, he’d come here to Shelby by the Sea. He needed to see Vashti because she was one of his best friends. Always had been. More than anything, he knew he owed her an apology. Since returning to the cove and finding out about his and Bryce’s strained relationship, Vashti had, on more than one occasion, tried intervening. Now he wished more than anything that he would have heeded her advice. Hell, he wished she would have knocked some damn sense into him. “I owe you an apology and you can go ahead and say ‘I told you so,’ Vashti.” She looked at him over her shoulder as he followed her to her office. “Apology accepted. You have to admit I tried.” “Yes, but now I wish you could have been a little more forceful with it.” Vashti went over to the chair behind her desk and sat down. “It’s not easy being best friends with both you and Bryce. I felt like I was caught in the middle and at times I thought that I was the only sane person in the room. I was convinced the two of you were trying to drive me crazy.” Kaegan could only imagine. “How could you even put up with me, knowing what you knew?” he asked, taking the chair across from her desk. “That’s just it. I didn’t know everything. I knew about what happened with Samuel, but until just recently I didn’t know that she’d traveled all the way to that marine base to see you and tell you everything. In fact, it was the night of your party when the two of you had that little tiff. That’s when she told me. You don’t know how hard it was for me to even talk to you after that. If you noticed, I didn’t for a week.” He’d noticed. “I’ve been such an ass.” “Yes, you have.” She paused and then said, “She’s hurting and I believe you’re hurting, as well, because of the pain you know you’ve caused her. Just so you know, I promised Bryce I wouldn’t intervene on your behalf, no matter what. I guess you know what that means.” Yes, he knew. He’d gotten himself into this mess and he was the only one who could get himself out of it. He met Vashti’s gaze. “I intend to earn back her trust and love.” Vashti nodded. “Good luck. You are definitely going to need it because it’s not going to be easy. But then, I have a feeling you know that.” He nodded. “Yes, I know it, but I am a determined man.” “I believe you. I love you both, you know.” “Yes, I know. Any words of advice?” Vashti didn’t say anything for a minute. Then she said, “Ten years is a long time, Kaegan. Earning back her love so