Fallling for the Prodigal Son (24 page)

BOOK: Fallling for the Prodigal Son
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"You didn't answer my question," Sarah pointed out. "Is it really that terrible running the Inn?"

A month ago, he'd have blurted out "yes" without even stopping to think. It wasn't as bad as he'd expected, though. Most of the staff were being cooperative. Open-minded, even. Or maybe they just wanted to hang onto their jobs. Nothing wrong with that as motivation. Really, it was only Lucy who had caused him any problems. And while terminating her employment had solved that problem, it had created others in its place.

She was on his mind all the time. When he looked out the window first thing in the morning, he wondered whether she was in her kayak, out on the bay. Eating dinner in his office, he wondered whether she was being wined and dined by a date. Lying in bed at night, he tried not to imagine Lucy falling asleep in someone else's arms. And now, apparently, she was leaving town.

"Not as terrible as I imagined, I suppose. There are some things I enjoy, even," he replied, finally.

"I don't know why you don't offer her the job back," Sarah said.

"Offer who the job back?" Sterling asked, feigning ignorance.

"You know who I'm talking about."

"For the record, I did offer her the job back. And for the record, she said no." Sterling hadn't seen or spoken to Lucy since he'd dropped her off at her cottage Sunday evening. The bankers had been in town. He wanted to see her again. He'd wanted to see her again about five minutes after he drove away from her cottage.

He'd had a good time with her in Lost Cave. When the idea to go there had popped into his head, he wasn't sure how the trip might turn out. There had been a good chance that they would spend the entire weekend arguing and fighting. But it didn't turn out that way. There had been surprisingly little fighting. It was fun just driving around with her, seeing where she grew up, trying to piece together the puzzle that was Lucy.

Oh, and the look of disappointment on her lovely face when he'd handed her the separate room key at the Rt. 1 Motel had been priceless. He'd almost relented and snatched the key back from her. But he hadn't wanted sex to complicate the weekend. Or to consume the weekend, either. He knew that the next time he made love to Lucy, he'd want to spend long, slow hours in bed with her.

Would there be a next time? Maybe she would be unable to rent her cottage. It was late in the season, after all. 

"Do you need me to speak with her?" Sarah asked.

"No! No. You have to let me do my job here, mother. You can't undermine me by getting into personnel matters." He pushed the bowl of soup away from him. He'd been starving when he walked in here. Now he couldn't stand the thought of food. He wanted to get back to his office. 

"You overreacted when you let her go. Derrick Jones writes an article about the camp every year. It raises money."

"Money doesn't need to be raised anymore, does it? The bankers want that land used for paying guests. Their money is contingent on our doing that."

"Your father would have fought harder on that," Sarah said.

"I'm not him. You brought me back here to fix the mess he made of this place. That's what I'm trying to do."

Lunch with his mother had gone south fast. Sterling pushed back his chair, laid his bunched up napkin on the table and stood up.

"I've got to go, mother. I have work to do." He turned toward the sunroom's double French doors. Then he turned back.

"You know, I am going to make some mistakes here. Obviously, firing Lucy was one of them."

Every time he walked past her old office, he was painfully reminded of that mistake. If he hadn't fired Lucy he would have an excuse to see her every day. Not that he really wanted to see her in the office. He couldn't do to her what he desperately wanted to there. What he'd spent the past five days thinking about doing. 

"What other mistakes are you in the process of making?" Sarah asked.

Sterling threw up his hands. "You tell me, mother. Was it a mistake to tweak the restaurant menus? Should I replace the dated toiletries with a more upscale brand?"

"I'm not talking about the Inn now." Sarah eyed her son with a mixture of love and exasperation. "You were seen driving out of town last weekend with Lucy. You were gone until the next day."

Sterling looked at his mother, incredulous. He shook his head. "Spying on me?"

"No. I'm not spying on you, Sterling. But I know just about everyone in this town and someone mentioned it to me." Sarah folded her hands in her lap, the unasked question floating in the air between them.

Sterling shook his head. "We drove to her hometown in Virginia."

"Why?"

"Because I wanted to see it."

Sarah let forth a breezy laugh. "Are you seeing Lucy?"

"Don't be ridiculous. I can't date employees."

"She's no longer an employee."

Sterling rolled his eyes. "Rewind. Don't be ridiculous. I can't date former employees."

"Pfooh! Sterling, I'm your mother. I'm not an idiot, and I know you better than you give me credit for. You've been moping around ever since you let her go. You're in love with Lucy Wyndham."

 

His mother was right, Sterling admitted as he drove past Lucy's cottage that evening. He was completely, utterly in love with Lucy Wyndham. She haunted his thoughts, roamed through his dreams. He wanted to see her, wanted to cup her face in his hands and cover her soft pink mouth with his. And
then he wanted to do much more.

It was ten o'clock and he was cruising past her home like a lovesick teenager. But he couldn't help it. The light in her living room was still on. He slowed the car in front of the curb. Should he knock? Would she let him in? Was she alone, even? He gently tapped the gas and drove away.

Coward,
he berated himself. He drove back to his parents' house and sat in the driveway. He unrolled the car window. Outside, the night air was filled with the sound of crickets. He breathed in the sharp bay air.

Lucy had put her cottage up for rent. Maybe it wasn't too late to contest his father's will, he thought wryly to himself. He was in love with her, and she was leaving. But he would be leaving next year too, right? So what was the point of even going any further with Lucy?

If he were anywhere but St. Caroline, he could just entertain himself for the next year by having an affair with her. But that wasn't going to fly in St. Caroline. People here liked Lucy better than they did him. That probably extended even to his own mother.

And then there was Lucy's loyal henchman, Douglas, to consider. 

If he hadn't fired her, he could have planned for the two of them to attend lots of business conferences over the winter. Earlier in the week, he received a mailer for a conference in Hawaii. That wouldn't have been bad. He could have spent days lying on soft sand beaches next to Lucy in a skimpy swimsuit, and nights sating his appetite for her body.

Lucy was attracted to him. That time in the sauna had proved it. When they made love in the hotel, that could be chalked up to too much wine and sambuca or impulsivity or just simple curiosity. One time could always be explained away. But a second time? Especially the way she had dared him, had teased him until he
couldn't resist a minute more.

There was chemistry to spare between them. But her physical attraction to him wasn't enough to keep her in St. Caroline. She was leaving and he didn't know where she was going or what she was planning to do.

Sterling pounded a fist lightly against the leather steering wheel. He didn't want Lucy to leave. He rubbed hard at the headache throbbing behind his temples. Why hadn't he realized this earlier, before she'd made her decision to go? Would she reconsider—if he offered more? A woman like Lucy deserved more than just physical chemistry. Could he offer her more than that? If he put a commitment—and his feelings—on the table, would she be willing to negotiate?

Chapter 25

 

 

Sterling's headache was still pounding away at his skull the next morning. He spent four hours in his office, trying to concentrate and get some work done. It was useless. He was useless in this state. Fresh air, that's what he needed.

Outside, the noontime air was hot and close, a typical Eastern Shore August day. He rubbed his toe in the drying lawn. Patches of grass were going yellow in the heat. He'd reduced the number of days the Inn ran its lawn sprinkler, to save money. They wouldn't be able to get away with that every year, though. Guests expected a lush, emerald green lawn—even when it hadn't rained for weeks.

He heard shouts and splashing from the direction of the waterfront. He took his well-worn path toward the camp, to that big old oak tree at the top of the hill. When he was a child, he'd thought of that tree as a friend. His only friend, really, in St. Caroline unless you counted the Inn staff. And even as a child, he'd known that adults—especially adults employed by your parents—didn't really count as friends.

He leaned against the rough bark of the tree. It was Monday, and a new crop of campers had been bussed in. Douglas and the counselors were running the kids through the usual first-day swimming tests. It wasn't unusual for half of the campers to be unable to swim at all when they arrived here.

One camper caught his eye. A girl, tall and skinny, with short choppy hair bleached white with blue tips. It was eye-catching, he had to give her that. But also ugly as sin. He watched her lope around the edge of the water in her rash guard and surf shorts. She had attitude to spare.

She reminded him of Lucy Lou. She'd had that dukes-up all the time attitude, too. Always ready for the world to land a hard uppercut on her chin. And that haircut, so in-your-face, up-yours ugly. He'd been surprised to feel how soft Lucy's hair was now, grown out. He had half-expected it to feel like the dried out straw he'd touched as a teenager.

The girl waded into the water, stopping at the sudden, unexpected chill of it, then continuing on until she met up with one of the counselors and another camper. There was a second counselor evaluating several other kids, the better swimmers, a few dozen feet away. Douglas was sitting on the edge of the dock—that brand new dock, Sterling noted—writing down scores on a clipboard.

Sterling wondered how Lucy had done on her swim test here. Clearly she could swim now. She wasn't the sort of person who was foolish enough to go kayaking without being able to swim. Lucy was definitely a safety first kind of person. She was probably safety first when it came to her emotions, too, he thought. She wouldn't be the one to go first, to lay her heart out for examination. She'd stand back, watching, taking the lay of the land, making sure no one was about to ambush her first. Problem was, they were both that kind of person when it came to feelings. Sterling knew he played things close to the vest, as well. And now he and Lucy had played themselves into an impasse. 

Maybe he should take her to George Adams' boathouse some evening. Go all the way back to the beginning and start over. Could they sneak in now, as adults? Possibly, Sterling considered. George Adams was getting up there in years. He might not notice two people tiptoeing along the edge of his property line. He hadn't noticed two hormonall
y-charged teenagers back then.

Sterling looked out over the water in the direction of the boathouse. You couldn't see the boathouse from the camp; it lay just around the bend in the shoreline. Sterling stared absentmindedly at boats bobbing on the bay. A movement in his peripheral vision brought his attention closer to shore. He shook his head out of the past and looked. Nothing. Douglas was showing a camper how to tread water. The counselors were busy with campers, too.

There it was again. No, he didn't see anything. He stared at the spot in the dark water. A flash of white broke through the surface of the water then went under again. It was the choppy-haired girl. Sterling glanced at Douglas and the counselors. Everyone had their backs to her. Sterling began running toward the water.

His father had said to him over and over that drowning people usually don't look like they're drowning. It's only in the movies that they flail wildly and shout. Sterling took a running leap up onto the dock—good thing they had this dock—and dove into the water. He launched his arms into sure, strong strokes, pulling himself toward the girl.

He remembered Lucy pulling him out of the water after his ill-fated kayaking adventure at her house, barking directions at him, telling him how to get back into the kayak without capsizing it again. And then he was picturing a younger Lucy, with choppy hair, struggling to stay afloat, to get out of Lost Cave, to put her life together after her divorce ... Sterling swam harder.

BOOK: Fallling for the Prodigal Son
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