Love Me Sweet (A Bell Harbor Novel)

BOOK: Love Me Sweet (A Bell Harbor Novel)
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Praise for
Tracy Brogan

“Heart, humor and characters you’ll love—Tracy Brogan is the next great voice in contemporary romance.”


New York Times
bestselling author Kristan Higgins

“Tracy Brogan is my go-to, laugh-out-loud remedy for a stressful day.”

—Kieran Kramer,
USA Today
bestselling author of
Sweet Talk Me

“With trademark humor, lovely, poignant touches, and a sexy-as-sin hero,
The Best Medicine
is Tracy Brogan at her finest. Charming, witty and fun.”

—Kimberly Kincaid, author of
Turn Up the Heat (A Pine Mountain Novel)

Other Titles by Tracy Brogan

Crazy Little Thing

Highland Surrender

Hold on My Heart

The Best Medicine

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

 

Text copyright © 2015 Tracy Brogan

All rights reserved.

 

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

 

Published by Montlake Romance, Seattle

 

www.apub.com

 

Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Montlake are trademarks of
Amazon.com
, Inc., or its affiliates.

 

ISBN-13: 9781477819630

ISBN-10: 1477819630

 

Cover design by Mumtaz Mustafa

 

Library of Congress Control Number: 2014912701

For Meredith.

Thank you . . . thank you very much.

Chapter 1

FOR A SUN-KISSED CALIFORNIA GIRL
like Delaney Masterson, frostbitten Bell Harbor was a ridiculous place to hide, which—naturally—made it the perfect place to hide. No one would look for her here. Not in this off-the-beaten-path lakeside town tucked somewhere between Central Nowheresville and Eastern Neverbeentheresburg. Certainly not in this teetering, tottering Victorian house with its lavender siding and crooked roof. Especially in the dead of winter.

It was January, after all.

In Michigan.

Seriously, in all her life she’d never seen so much snow. No wonder the whole damn state was shaped like a mitten.

“I’ll take it,” Delaney said, peering down at the fluffy-haired blonde by her side. Donna Beckett—her new landlord, as of that very instant.

The two of them were standing inside a sparsely furnished living room, having spent the last twenty minutes looking around eight hundred square feet of uninspired, shag-carpeted rental property. This was no plush palace. No urban loft. The ad on craigslist had been overly generous when listing the amenities, but it did have two bedrooms upstairs, a functional—if dangerously outdated—kitchen, a few pieces of plaid furniture, and it at least appeared to be clean. Clean-ish. Better than the last six places Delaney had looked at. None of those other houses were remotely acceptable—unless she’d been looking for something run-down, too small, or possibly haunted, which she wasn’t.

Here the smells of bleach and deodorizer mingled in the air, possibly masking an underlying aroma of crud, but the weather outside was frightful, like swirling, twirling snownado kind of frightful, and she was tired of looking for a place to live. The Bell Harbor Hotel was too expensive. She was on a strict budget now, and her money would only last for so long. And besides that, the hotel was crowded with far too many people who might recognize her. This house would have to be fine. It needed to be fine.

“Do you offer a month-to-month lease?” Delaney asked, adjusting the temples of her black-framed reading glasses. They were too big and kept slipping down her nose. She should have tried them on before buying them, but she’d been in a hurry at the store and grabbed the thickest, ugliest ones she could find. She’d grabbed a baseball hat and a box of hair color too. L’Oreal’s Utterly Forgettable Brown, #257. It wasn’t much of a disguise, but she’d worry about that later. So far Mrs. Beckett hadn’t shown any signs of recognizing her, which was a relief. Maybe this town was so small they didn’t have Internet.

Or cable.

Or tabloid magazines.

Or any sort of social media whatsoever, because Delaney’s face had been plastered all over the place recently. Impossible to miss.

Rotten paparazzi.

The petite landlady ran both palms down the front of her well-worn gray sweatshirt. It had the image of some kind of aquatic mammal on it. A walrus? Or a manatee? It was hard to see thanks to the thick reading glasses, but whatever it was, it wasn’t attractive. Delaney knew fashion, but it didn’t take an expert stylist to know that big, old shirts with big, old blobs on the front were not flattering in any way, on any shape or form.

“I’d prefer a twelve-month lease,” Mrs. Beckett answered, tugging at the banded hem of the sweatshirt and making the manatee shimmy a little. “But I suppose we could shorten it to six. Would six months work for you?”

Six months. Delaney wasn’t certain she’d be staying six weeks, much less half the year. Given her current set of circumstances, she couldn’t plan that far ahead, but she suspected a month-to-month place would be hard to find in the middle of Snowmageddon, and this little shack did have a certain charm to it. Maybe it was the lacy scrolled woodwork in the corner of the doorways or the thick crown molding. It was cute and cozy in its own antiquated way. And Lord knew Delaney Masterson could use a little cute and cozy right about now, because she knew opulent and extravagant came with a huge emotional price tag.

“Six months is OK, I guess.” She adjusted her fake glasses once more.

The landlady nodded. “Excellent. I have the leasing papers in my car. I’ll just need your driver’s license, a security deposit, and the first month’s rent.”

Driver’s license? Delaney’s heart plummeted faster than the sales of her dad’s last CD. She didn’t want to show her driver’s license to Donna Beckett. She didn’t want to show it to anyone. She pressed a thumbnail against her bottom lip, stalling for time.

“Right. OK. Here’s the thing, Mrs. Beckett. My wallet got stolen last week so I don’t have my identification with me right now. But how about if I pay you six months’ rent up front, in cash, and we call it good?”

It was a risk. Delaney might have to move out at a moment’s notice, and then she’d be out that extra money, but Mrs. Beckett’s expression lit up like a marquee when Delaney said
cash
. Everybody loved cash, and if spending a little extra now meant keeping her ID tucked deep inside the Louis Vuitton backpack currently slung over her shoulder, then it was worth it.

“Six months . . .
in cash
? When would you want to move in?” Mrs. Beckett’s voice was breathy now, livelier than it had been before. Yes, cash was definitely the way to go.

Delaney gestured toward the window. “Today. Now. All of my stuff is in the car.” Outside in the driveway sat the rusted yellow Volkswagen she’d bought a week ago from Ed’s Used Car Lot in Encino. Nine hundred bucks. Cash. No questions asked, making it worth every penny, but not a penny more.

“All your stuff is in that little thing?” Mrs. Beckett’s pale brows knit as she squinted past the icy window glass at the aging vehicle. Herbie the Love Bug it was not. And that wasn’t really
all
of Delaney’s stuff. It was about one one-millionth of her stuff, but it was all she’d managed to jam into her suitcase on her way out of town.

Delaney forced a smile, dialing it up to
extra bright
, a trick she’d learned from her supermodel mother. If you act perky enough, people believe you’re trustworthy. “I travel light.”

“I should say so. Where are you from?” Mrs. Beckett returned her gaze to Delaney’s face.

Delaney tugged down the brim of her baseball cap.

“Um, Miami.”

It was the first location that popped into her head, but she wasn’t from Miami. Of course she wasn’t. She wasn’t even from Florida. That was a stupid answer. Delaney tried to smile bigger to mask her mistake but her lips wouldn’t stretch any farther.

Donna Beckett scratched her head, giving her short hair a little extra pouf on one side. “Miami? My goodness. Why would you leave sunny Miami to come up here in this terrible weather?”

That
was an excellent question, and it needed a logical answer, but the truth was far from logical. Even Delaney realized that. She’d come here on a whim, an emotionally charged reaction sorely lacking in strategy. Still, she should have said she was from Fargo or Minneap
olis or someplace just as cold and snowy as it was here. Like Siberia or the South Pole. Duplicity was not a skill Delaney had
mastered. Maybe it would get easier with practice.

“I heard there was good skiing around here,” she answered.

Mrs. Beckett nodded. “Sure, I guess. Although for even better skiing, you’ll want to head up north.”

Up north? Seriously? How much farther north could she go before she hit the Canadian border? Sure, she was on the run and hiding out, but things hadn’t gotten so dire she needed to leave the country.

Yet.

“Great. I’ll keep that in mind. Up north,” Delaney said. “So do we have a deal?” She stuck out her hand for a shake. This had to work.

Mrs. Beckett’s gaze moved from the outstretched hand to Delaney’s face, peering intently. There seemed to be some indecision going on in the landlady’s mind. Delaney hiccupped. She did that when she was nervous.

“Six months
in cash
?” the landlady asked again.

“Cash,” Delaney answered, adding a jaunty little tilt of her head with the next hiccup, and patting the backpack. “Unfortunately my checkbook and debit cards were stolen along with my wallet, but the good news is I stopped at the bank before leaving home and got some money.”

Yes. She had, and it hadn’t been easy. Turns out banks weren’t very enthusiastic about giving customers their money
back
. Especially customers who wanted thousands of dollars, and double especially when they wanted it in tens and twenties.

“How did you get money from the bank with no identification?” Twin creases of suspicion deepened between Mrs. Beckett’s brows, but Delaney gave a fast roll of her shoulders, a subtle shrug meant to evoke nonchalance—a nonchalance she certainly didn’t feel—and the lies just kept on rolling out.

“Oh, that was no problem. They know me at the bank. In fact, I used to work there. When I was in college. In Miami. I worked at the bank in Miami during college.”

Delaney nodded, agreeing with herself and hoping the power of repetition and suggestion was on her side. Like a Jedi mind trick.
These are not the droids you’re looking for.
Still, a bank teller? In Miami? She’d never been a bank teller. And she’d never finished college either. She was a celebrity stylist in Beverly Hills, just like her two sisters, and occasionally she helped out in their mother’s luxury soaps boutique.

Delaney adjusted the backpack on her shoulder, feeling the strap gnaw into her skin. Thousands of dollars in paper money was physically heavy, and heavier still when you considered the possibility that you might be making the biggest mistake of your whole, stupid, irrelevant twenty-seven-year life.

Mrs. Beckett wiped her palms again and glanced at the backpack. “Well, I suppose if you pay it all up front, it would be OK, but I will need you to sign a lease before you bring anything in. And I’d still like a copy of your driver’s license just as soon as you have it.”

Relief washed over Delaney at the apparent ease of this transaction. She was in, and she could stall on producing a license indefinitely. With any luck, by the time she finally offered it to the landlady, she’d have the woman thoroughly convinced she was not
that
Delaney Masterson.

“Sure thing. No problem.” Hiccup.

Mrs. Beckett smiled. “I guess we have a deal, then, but I should mention that my husband, Carl, will be doing some repairs over here in the next few days. He needs to fix the leaky showerhead in the bathroom. And the back door doesn’t always lock. You need to give it a little extra tug, not that you have to worry much about locking doors in this town. Bell Harbor is the safest place around.”

Safest place around? Good. Delaney sincerely hoped that was true. She also hoped it was a place where people minded their own business and wouldn’t butt into hers. Privacy was what she craved above all else. The chance to be completely and totally unobserved, with no one snapping a photo or sifting through her trash. It was time for her to fade into the mist like . . . well, like mist.

Fifteen minutes later Delaney scrawled an illegible signature on the leasing contract in front of her. She and Mrs. Beckett had moved into the linoleum-floored kitchen and were now seated at the square dinette table. Its dingy white-and-gray-speckled top was surrounded by a scarred metal rim. The chairs were metal too, with cracked red seat cushions. Old enough to be retro but so dinged up they just looked old.

Delaney slid the papers back to her new landlord, her pulse thrumming right under her skin. “Here you go, Mrs. Beckett.”

“Oh, you can call me Donna,” she said, picking up the lease agreement and bringing it close to her face. Her eyes narrowed, her gaze directed at the spot where Delaney had signed. Donna’s cheeks flushed a little, and the paper crackled as she gripped it tighter.

Delaney held her breath. This jig might be up. Her fingers tapped restlessly on her thighs as she wondered if she should have just thrown herself on the mercy of this manatee-loving woman and admitted who she was.

Five seconds stretched into an endless ten.

At last Donna chuckled and shook her head. “This is awkward. I should have brought my reading glasses because I can’t quite make out your signature and I’m afraid I never asked your name. Does this say . . . Elaine Masters?”

Elaine Masters?

Delaney’s heart skipped a beat. The jig was still firmly in place—and here was her chance. Her chance to remain anonymous. Her chance to create a whole new
her
, even if it was only temporary. She’d never thought of using an alias, but the idea was brilliant. Irresistible.

The decision took no longer than a blink.

“Yes, it does,” she said, offering up the first genuine smile she’d shared with anyone in weeks. “My name is Elaine Masters.”

BOOK: Love Me Sweet (A Bell Harbor Novel)
4.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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