Fallling for the Prodigal Son (10 page)

BOOK: Fallling for the Prodigal Son
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"Lucy! How's the conference?"

"Ugh. But I'll survive. What's up? When does the story run?"

"Part one runs this Sunday. But I've got bigger news."

"Oh yeah?" Lucy scanned her surroundings again, watchful. She imagined Elle had already phoned hotel security about a missing guest, maybe even phoned the city police and the FBI too. "What's that?"

"Simone Adkins just
finished up her current tour, and she is planning a campers' reunion for next month. She's personally booked the ballroom at the Chesapeake Inn and every room that was vacant. She's also going to do a fundraising concert at the park."

"But ... how many people are we talking about? There aren't enough vacancies in July for very many people."

"Well, that's a work in progress. Shawn Whitney and his wife are bunking as many people as they can at their summer home. Other people are driving in just for the reunion day itself. So far, about 300 people have committed to coming."

"Wow. We'll definitely need more accommodations than that, though. I can talk to Reverend Mike at the Episcopal Church and see if any of his parishioners are willing to host people."

"It'll work out."

Lucy groaned inwardly. One day, she was going to have tee shirts printed up that read, "Sometimes it doesn't work out."
Not in my life anyway.

"I don't know," she said cautiously. "What happens when Sterling gets wind of this? He'll almost certainly try to stop it."

"What's he going to do? Cancel people's room reservations? That would be even worse publicity."

Lucy rubbed at her temples. Spending all day in hermetically-sealed hotel rooms was not good for her. It dulled her faculties and made it hard to think clearly. She was used to being able to see the water, see the outdoors, from her office at the Chesapeake Inn. She liked the freedom to go for a stroll outside on her lunch break. She tried to get outside even in the winter, when the wind off the bay could be cold and biting.

She was having second thoughts about Derrick's ideas. She didn't want bad publicity for the Inn. Bad publicity for Sterling, yes, but not for the Inn at large. She feared this campers' reunion was going to be too large to contain the damage to just Sterling. It could easily spill over to the entire business.

This is either going to work or get me fired. Or both.

 

Half an hour later, Lucy stepped off the elevator and strode through the hotel lobby. After a shower and a change of clothes into jeans, sandals and a floaty coral-colored linen peasant blouse, she felt like a new person. She'd managed to slip Elle's clutches and she hadn't seen Sterling since the baggage carousel at SFO. She was beginning to feel like a free woman for the first time all week.

Her plans for the rest of the day were to walk around the city for awhile, tackle some of San Francisco's famous hills for a little exercise, and look for a quiet cafe to have dinner by herself. She had a brand new paperback tucked into her purse.

"Lucy! There you are."

She was twenty feet from the door. So close ... and yet so far. For a split second, Lucy entertained the idea of making a run for it, dropping into a mad dash for the exit. Instead, she stopped and waited for Sterling Matthew, who was walking straight toward her, looking freshly showered himself. His hair was still damp and curling behind his ears. He wore jeans and a black v-neck sweater over a grey tee shirt. His feet were bare inside tan suede loafers.

He looked good.

Lucy wanted her heart to sink in dismay. She wanted more than anything to be disappointed that her plans for a quiet evening were about to be thwarted by her boss. But she couldn't. He just looked so damn good, standing there in the middle of a fancy hotel lobby, washed in light from the giant crystal chandelier a full story above. Lucy desperately wanted the sudden image of a teenaged Sterling in faded, torn jeans and flip flops to exit her mind. He had been damned attractive back then and he was damned attractive still.

"I tried calling your cell."

Lucy pulled her phone out of her purse. "Sorry. I turned the ringer off while I was in the conference sessions." She flicked it back on. "Do you need me for something?"

"I thought we'd go on a field trip."

Of course you did.
"Where to?"

"Muir Woods."

Sterling made no attempt to hide the fact that he was frankly appraising her. His gaze dropped slowly from her face to her blouse, pausing there before sliding down to her hips, encased in her snug-fitting jeans.

"Muir Woods," Lucy repeated.

"The national park, named after John Muir. He was a famous naturalist."

"Yes, I know who he is." Lucy looked around the lobby.

Sterling frowned and his eyebrows drew together ever so slightly. "Are you meeting someone?"

"No. I was looking for Elle. She's usually the one lying in wait for me."

Sterling choked out a laugh. "She can be a little intense, huh?"

"That's an understatement."

"Well, it's part of why she's so good at what she does. But she's an acquired taste, to be sure." Sterling took her arm and started to head toward the hotel's brass-trimmed revolving doors.

"Aren't we waiting for her?" Lucy asked.

Sterling slowed his stride. "She's not coming with us. She went home for the weekend. But she's invited us up, after the conference ends tomorrow."

Lucy was confused. "Invited us up where?"

"Her boyfriend owns a B&B in Marin with his sister. Elle lives there, too, when she's not on a consulting job."

"But I thought ..."

"You thought what? That Elle and I are a couple?" Sterling laughed in amusement.

"Well, everyone in your family thinks you are."

"Like who? My aunt Elizabeth?"

"Actually, she thinks Elle is pregnant."

"That old bat. Gossip is her middle name." He laughed again and Lucy was struck by how sexy the sound was. Sterling's laugh was a low throaty rumble that rolled across the air. She couldn't remember hearing him laugh as a teenager.

"I like your aunt Elizabeth. I'm quite fond of her, in fact. And your uncle Frederick."

"They're probably more fond of you than they are of me. But let's go. We won't be able to see the redwoods in the dark. The valet is bringing my car around now."

Lucy slid into the front seat of Sterling's rental car, a two-door Lexus with leather seats.
As he deftly maneuvered the car through the city streets, Lucy did her best not to notice his tanned fingers resting on the steering wheel or the way his thigh muscles moved beneath his jeans when braked and accelerated. He seemed content not to talk, which was a relief to Lucy. They were not the sort of boss and employee who were also friends. In fact, Lucy and Sterling seemed unable to avoid arguing with each other in a most unfriendly way whenever they were together.

 

An hour later, Lucy was looking up at the deep grooved bark of a redwood. It was pretty impressive, she had to admit. No trees like this back on the east coast, that was for sure. She could barely see the top of the tree, hidden in the swirling mist of late afternoon fog. This was the biggest tree she'd ever seen, easily ten feet across. She'd seen those photographs where a car was driving through a redwood tree, but it was hard to appreciate the immense size of the trees from pictures.

Sterling was standing next to her, also looking up at the tree in awe. "Makes you feel kinda' small doesn't it? Says here that some of them live for two thousand years." He folded up a brochure and shoved it back into his pocket.

"Is that the business lesson I'm supposed to be learning from redwood trees? Some things are bigger and exist longer than other things?"

Sterling looked over at her, his brows knitted in consternation. "No lesson, Lucy Lou. I've never seen redwood trees before and thought maybe you hadn't either."

Lucy Lou. Hearing him say that stopped Lucy's heart. That had been his nickname for her. So he did remember. He just hadn't been letting on. The air around her got suddenly, startlingly, quiet. All she could hear was the thin whistling of the breeze through the tree leaves, many stories above.

"Why would you think that? Because I'm just a dumb hillbilly kid who hasn't seen  the world? Because I'm not some rich trust fund kid who can just go wherever he wants without any thought to money or having to work?"

Even as the words tumbled, uncontrolled out of her mouth, even as she fought to hold back the angry, ashamed tears that threatened to spill over her eyelashes, Lucy knew she was just as angry at herself as she was at Sterling. She was letting him turn her back into that hillbilly teenager, that skinny little girl with the big fat chip on her shoulder, the kid who used cockiness as a defensive weapon whenever she knew she was out of her league. Not even Josh had been able to do that, even when he was breaking her heart into a million pieces. Lucy had left the mountains of Virginia and not looked back. And now Sterling Matthew, of all people, was dragging her back there.

She turned to walk away from him. She wanted to get back to the rental car, to just sit and wait while he admired his majestic redwoods. Maybe she could hitch a ride back to the city. Her teenaged self would have done exactly that. She got no more than ten purposeful steps away when Sterling grabbed her shoulder and whirled her around.

"That makes zero sense, Lucy. Zero." He reached down and tipped her face up to look at him. "So you're a dumb hillbilly kid—your words, not mine—who has never seen a redwood tree. I'm a rich trust fund kid who has never seen a redwood tree. Seems to me like we're equal here."

"We're equal when you decide we are."

"No, we're equal when
you
decide we are, Lucy. I have never considered myself to be better than you are. I'm your boss and so I carry more weight on matters concerning the Inn than you do. But that doesn't make me better."

"It also doesn't make you more experienced. You know, your father didn't hire me off the street, nor did he hire me because I used to be camper. That was not my sole qualification."

"And just because I'm a rich trust fund kid doesn't mean I don't know how to run the Inn. I was practically raised by the Inn staff. I know better than probably anyone what the folks in guest relations do. I know how the kitchen operates, right down to the last teaspoon of flour in the pantry. I spent my adolescence being prepped by my father to take over the damn place. I know employees always think they know how to run the show, but I've been living in the show my entire life."

"If you knew how HR operates, you'd know you're not supposed to be venting to employees," Lucy pointed out.

Sterling threw up his hands in exasperation. "No. No, I'm not. But none of my other employees ..."

Before Lucy knew what was happening, Sterling's lips were on hers. She tried to step away but he slipped an arm around her waist and pulled her close. His kiss was surprisingly gentle, his lips tentatively exploring the softness of hers.
Whoa
. This was not the Sterling she remembered. That had been a mere boy, with very little experience in kissing a girl. This was a
man
who clearly knew his way around a kiss. He began to part her lips with his.
What am I doing?
She tried to pull away again and this time, Sterling let her.

"You're not supposed to be kissing employees either," Lucy spat out.

Sterling's gaze roamed over her face. Lucy struggled to look indignant, struggled to look as though she could breathe normally. The kiss had left her legs shaky. Her spine tingled from her neck all the way down to her hips. Her brain felt muddled, drunk. This was not how she wanted to feel.

"But you're not just any old em
ployee, are you?"

Lucy turned to walk away. She needed to get out of here. This was headed somewhere she didn't think she could navigate. It had been a long time since she'd been kissed. Even longer since she'd been kissed like
that.

Sterling reached out and turned her back. "We need to talk about this."

BOOK: Fallling for the Prodigal Son
6.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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