Charleston, S.C.: Three-and-a-half months later
"Claire, if you handle a man with as much finesse as
you're using on that swizzle stick, it's no wonder you
Tucked in a corner of her bustling restaurant kitchen,
Claire surrendered the pitcher of mint juleps to her
sister before she sloshed ice onto the counter. "Swizzle
stick? Either you're more innocent than you let on or
you've just insulted some poor guy in a big â€” or would
that be little? â€” way."
"Guilty as charged," Starr answered ambiguously as she
assumed control of the fragrant mixed drink, sprinkling
fresh mint leaves on top before passing it over to a
Claire picked through her herb garden in the open window
while stifling the urge to blurt how she'd handled one man
a little too well three-and-a-half months ago. Now, she
had a permanent reminder of that weekend-long sensual
feast last January.
Her hands shook as she snagged the empty bowl for parsley
sprigs. "I'm too busy for a love life."
Today in particular, she had enough on her plate feeding
the Beachcombers Bar and Grill Saturday lunch crowd while
prepping for the packed week of catering events. Even with
the help of her two foster sisters, co-owners in the
business, soon she would be busier still with a baby on
her hip. Not that she intended to let that information
leak to the kitchen full of staff clanging pots and
She had to tell the baby's daddy first.
And she would â€” after this week passed and she could
compose herself with a long bubble bath. She'd only been
delaying telling Vic out of practicality. Right? Ever
reasonable, she always made the practical decision.
Except for once, and that whopper had landed her in the
same shoes as her pregnant unwed mama. However, unlike her
mama, Claire was blessed with resources and choices. No
one would force her to hand over her child.
Starr rolled silverware inside napkins with lightning
speed, pouring more of that frenetic energy into swaying
along with beach music thrumming through the sound
system. "Who said anything about love? I'm only talking
about you getting out more, dating. Pencil in some fun
time on that perfectly ordered daily agenda of yours."
Even Starr's dark hair snapped with energy, curls
straining to pop free from the constraining long braid
while Claire felt more like one of the wrung-out rags in
the industrial sink.
"I am enjoying life since I love my work." Huffing a lank
wisp off her forehead, she scooched closer to the counter
to make way for a waiter balancing a corn-bread-stuffed
Her hand drifted downward. She stopped shy of her stomach,
shooting a quick glance at her younger foster sister.
Starr's eagle eye missed nothing, a skill gained from her
time on the streets before she landed in the same foster
home as Claire and their other foster sister, Ashley.
Claire eyed the swinging door with longing. If only she
could dash out of the humid kitchen, away from too-
discerning questions. But she couldn't risk leaving for at
least an hour since Vic Jansen had parked his fine butt in
her dining room for lunch.
"Work," Starr snorted. "Work won't sizzle you with a look
or have you ready to climb out of your skin after a kiss."
Do not think of Vic. Vic's kiss. Vic's hard-muscled body
under her hands, his tall strength covering her with such
seductive gentleness and utter confidence in every deep
Uh-oh. Hormone alert.
Claire clipped a fistful of chives, ran them under the
faucet and fanned them along the butcher block. "Cooking
is relaxing." Order in the middle of chaos. "I had a blast
decorating that baby shower cake last night, listening to
the spring rain patter."
Until she'd fallen asleep in her frosting. Claire whacked
Work might not launch her hormones into overdrive, but it
also didn't confuse her like the man eating in the next
room. She needed reliability in her life, especially now.
Even with its shoestring budget, her business provided
more stability than any man with broad shoulders that
screamed to her fingers explore me...
A crash echoed from the narrow hall.
Claire winced at the clatter of shattering china.
Superstitious Starr snatched a saltshaker from the counter
and pitched a pinch over her shoulder.
Another reason to keep quiet about the baby. Claire
refused to let anyone label this pregnancy the latest in a
gosh-awful string of bad luck alongside a leaky roof. A
broken water pipe. A rotten board giving way on a porch
she could have sworn was in pristine condition. All
expensive repairs she could ill-afford if she wanted to
keep the business.
Jeez, some days she almost wondered if somebody was out to
ruin her â€” or her house.
Not a chance would she let that happen. This historic old
wreck was the only real home she'd ever had. Her
biological mother had skipped from apartment to apartment,
shelters sometimes too, depending on her finances. Tina
McDermott had tried her best to provide for her daughter,
but as a seventeen-year-old single mother booted out by
her parents before graduation... well, options sucked.
The Department of Social Services had removed Claire at
age eight, after discovering Tina was leaving her child
alone to work the midnight shift at a truck stop. The
Department of Social Services had placed Claire in the
care of a kooky, wonderful old woman with a dilapidated
antebellum mansion, no money, and a half dozen foster
daughters. Many more came and went, placed with permanent
families. All but Starr, Ashley and her. When "Aunt" Libby
died just over a year ago, she'd left the house to the
three of them. Starting a restaurant together was a near-
impossible dream, but one they held tenaciously.
Starr passed a basketful of rolled napkins to a busboy
before turning back to Claire. "Maybe I'm being a little
pushy today because I'm worried about you pulling off all
these parties. No offense, but you look like hell."
"Not a problem. You're talking to me. Remember?" She
picked up her knife and resumed chopping. "The Queen of
Anal Retentive. Who wouldn't look like hell during a busy
She couldn't control the exhaustion of her pregnancy, but
she prided herself on her organizational skills, a matter
of survival when she'd been living with Tina.
Claire chopped faster. Multiple orders echoed up to the
high ceiling, along with the familiar clamor of clanging
dishes, shouted calls for another pitcher of sweet tea.
Vic drank her sweet tea by the gallons.
Argh! Claire stared down at the pulverized chives.
Couldn't she go at least ten minutes without thinking
about the guy? Kind of tough to manage with an ever-
present reminder of him in her belly frothing up morning
Morning sickness quickly segued into afternoon sickness,
thanks to a lack of sleep and the clam chowder steaming
aromas and heat from a ten-gallon stainless steel pot. No
wonder she looked like hell. She felt like hell.
Starr grabbed the saltshaker.
Claire made a beeline for the door before the new waiter
destroyed every dish in the place. She would just stay
well clear of Vic. He had no reason to seek her out since
a month after their encounter in his fishing boat, she'd
told him she wasn't pregnant. Which she'd genuinely
believed after a spotting episode.
A trip to the doctor for her stomach flu shocked the
dickens out of her, then scared her silly because did
spotting mean her baby was in danger? And suddenly the
baby wasn't an accident or burden, but rather a little
person she wanted so very much.
Sprinting for the hall, Claire hollered back over her
shoulder, "Call Ashley and tell her we need help after
she's done with classes, please."
Their reclusive younger sister preferred to hover in the
background, but she wouldn't stay secluded in her dorm
while their business went under.
Claire dodged a busboy with a tub of dirty plates on her
way through the kitchen into the hall. A quick mental
floor-plan check assured her Vic would be safely out of
sight since he always chose the same corner table, number
She screeched to a halt inches away from a mountain of
broken china mixed with fried okra and baked chicken.
An overwhelmed waiter with a smooshed corn muffin in hand
stared up at her. "Table eight needs to place an order."
And the bad luck just kept coming.
Where was a shaker full of salt when a down-on-her-luck
girl needed it?
"Pass the salt, will ya?" Vic asked his brother-in-law,
wondering how many more times he would have to come here
before Claire finally talked to him. Face to face, and not
in some terse little voice mail message...
No need to worry. You're off the hook. I'm not pregnant.
Great news. Back to his rootless existence living on his
sailboat, as different from his old North Dakota prairie
world as possible. Totally free. Except he had these two
And one of them was walking across the packed dining room
of the best-loved new restaurant in Charleston. Right
toward his table.
Claire. Her name whispered in his mind like the spring
breeze drifting through the open windows, rustling the
fishing nets tacked to whitewashed walls. She looked so
pretty and fresh in her loose jean dress cinched tight by
an apron. Ceiling fans clicked overhead, lifting a strand
of her caramel hair free from her gold hair clamp.
She'd been the only thing keeping him going through that
other regret. Until he'd messed it up by sleeping with
her, then letting his commitment-phobe mindset show.
Claire glided to a stop, her dress swishing a gentle
caress against his leg that sparked a not-so-gentle jolt
of desire straight to his groin conveniently camouflaged
by a tablecloth.
"Good afternoon, gentlemen, welcome to Beach-combers," she
drawled, molasses-sweet tones sliding over his hungry
senses. "What can I get for you this afternoon?"
How about a plate of forgiveness?