Island Refuge (Wildflower B&B Romance Book 1) (12 page)

BOOK: Island Refuge (Wildflower B&B Romance Book 1)
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“Bring it on.” Zoe flashed white teeth.

A frenzy ensued that ended in fits of laughter and Zoe waving the white pillow case. “I surrender. I’m sorry I started it, even if it was accidental.”

He caught his breath and stopped mid-swing, struck by how beautiful she was when she smiled. Her entire face glowed. Granted the pillow fight had turned her cheeks pink, but it was more than that. She was gorgeous. He stepped closer and tucked a loose hair behind her ear, stopping himself barely in time from cradling her cheek in the palm of his hand.

Zoe’s questioning eyes searched his, her strawberry red lips parted.

He couldn’t take his eyes from her mouth. It begged to be kissed. He titled his head and inched toward her.

Stop!

He sobered and straightened. He ran his hand over his face. What was he thinking?

 

****

 

Z
OE’S EYES DIMMED
at Nick’s sudden retreat. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. But I think we made a mess of your bedroom.” He looked everywhere but at her.

She noted the tangled sheets on the floor, an overturned lamp, and a pillow that had seen better days and shrugged. “It won’t take long to clean. How about you take care of the kitchen while I work in here? I’ll also write that checklist for Olivia you asked for.”

“Perfect. Thanks.” He cleared his throat. “When we’re both finished I’d like to talk to you about the schedule.”

She nodded, and he left the room. Zoe closed the door with shaking hands and sat on the edge of the bed. “Whoa.” Nick had almost kissed her. But even more shocking than that was she’d wanted him to and was disappointed he hadn’t.

How could she be attracted to Nick when a few short weeks ago she was making plans to marry another man? Hadn’t she loved Kyle? She rested her head in her hands. What if she didn’t even know what love was and had never actually been in love?

A quick knock sounded on the door, and it swung open before she could move. “Zoe, I—”

She shot up. “What is it, Nick?”

His brows furrowed. “Are you okay? You look distressed.”

“Nothing. I’m messed up in the head.”

He chuckled. “Aren’t we all, at least a little bit?”

She had no idea, but he was probably right. “What did you need?”

“Uh, I don’t remember.” Indecision covered his face. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’m… fine.”
I’m just falling for you—no biggie.
“You know where to find me if you remember what you wanted.”

He rubbed the back of his neck. “About earlier. I—”

“It was nothing. No worries here.” She mustered her best smile.

After staring for a long moment, he nodded and retreated, closing the door behind him.

Groaning, she set to work. Could she trust Nick with her heart? Was he even interested in her heart? She’d thought so when he nearly kissed her, but then he pulled back. Maybe he’d been caught up in the moment and it meant nothing.

He seemed like a good guy, someone she could trust, but people often hid their true character. She pulled open her door and stepped into the kitchen.

Rag in hand, Nick stood on a stool scrubbing at the ceiling, muttering under his breath.

“What’s that you’re saying?”

Nick startled and the stool wobbled. His arms flung out.

Zoe rushed to his side and stabilized the stool. “Sorry.”

He stepped down, looking a bit flustered. “No harm done. How’s that?”

She peered up. “I think you got it.”

“Good. That was a pain. I should’ve cleaned it off first thing but had no idea how difficult dried egg is to remove.”

She probably should have warned him about that, but it was more than likely too late by the time she’d gotten home anyway. “You wanted to talk about the schedule?”

“Yes.” He pulled out a stool. “Have a seat.” Leaning against the counter he thrummed his fingers along the granite countertops. “You were right about weekends not being a good time for you to have a day off. How would you feel about taking off Tuesdays and Wednesdays instead?”

“That works, but what if there are guests? Will you still need me to make breakfast?”

“Maybe you could spend a couple of mornings with Olivia and teach her to make a few simple meals.”

Even though she wasn’t crazy about training the woman who probably was after her job, she respected Nick and didn’t want him to lose business due to less than desirable food. “Okay.”

“Thanks. Do you think you could plan a menu that includes teatime for the days you’ll have off? Something simple that Olivia couldn’t mess up.”

Zoe stifled a smile. “I’ll do my best.” She would teach Olivia how not to destroy a kitchen while making basic meals, but she wouldn’t share any of her special recipes. “May I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“When I first started working here, I overheard you on the phone. You said you needed a cook and housekeeper right away. Were you looking for my replacement or someone to work on my days off?”

“To be honest, maybe both. I wasn’t sure about you at first. But recently you haven’t disappointed me. I’m impressed.” He chuckled. “Especially after today.”

She grinned. “Thanks. That makes me feel a lot better. I think I’ll head outside for some fresh air.” She’d had plenty of that today, but the effect of being in such close quarters with Nick was disconcerting. She needed space to think.

Without waiting for a reply, she glided out the back door and sauntered to the edge of the grass where the property looked out onto the Sound. The million-dollar view drew her like fondant to cake.

A head poked up over the top of one of the chairs and she stumbled but caught herself. Maybe a walk would be better. The head turned—Rachel.

“Hi, Zoe. Want to join me?”

“Um… sure.” She sat in the other chair and gazed out onto the water. The ferry motored in the distance, and several kayakers paddled not far from the shoreline.

“I missed you at tea this afternoon. The new girl is definitely not you.”

Zoe’s heart warmed. “Thanks. You wouldn’t believe a conversation I had today.” She told her about Autumn and what the townspeople were saying.

Rachel’s face grew pensive.

“What is it? Did I say something wrong?”

“No, of course not. But I figured if I kept to myself people wouldn’t talk about me. I didn’t anticipate them making things up when they came up empty.”

Zoe patted the younger woman’s arm. “Hey, don’t stress about it. Autumn knows none of it’s true.”

Rachel’s eyes widened. “You didn’t tell her about—”

“Absolutely not. Your secrets are safe with me.” She nodded toward Rachel’s middle. “You realize though, at some point you won’t be able to hide the package you’re carrying?”

“I know. And I’m actually becoming okay with it. But I want to find the ring before I get big and can’t look in small spaces.”

“You have me for that.” Zoe shot her a grin. “So you haven’t found it yet huh?”

Rachel shook her head. “Now that the B&B is looking better and guests are flocking here, it’s been more difficult to sneak into the rooms to search.”

Zoe caught her breath. “You mean you were snooping in guests’ rooms? When? How?”

“Not when anyone is staying there. I search when a room is vacant.” Her face tinged pink. “I swipe a key from the reception desk.”

Zoe shook her head. “You realize I’ll need to tell Nick to secure the keys better?”

Rachel frowned. “I don’t see what the big deal is. I’m not bothering anything or any of the guests.”

“Anyone could’ve walked in and done exactly what you did. That’s a security risk.” Rachel had no business taking anything from the reception desk, much less room keys. What was done was done, though. “I’ve been keeping an eye out for the ring when I clean. I really wish you hadn’t snuck the keys. How many rooms have you searched?”

Rachel’s faced turned as red as the flesh of the watermelon Zoe planned to serve with breakfast the next morning. “All the rooms upstairs, yours, and the sitting room.”

“It’s good to hear you finally admit you were in my room.”

“Sorry. I should have been honest from the start.” Rachel stared at her hands for a moment then looked up again. “By the way, what did Nick say about helping me find the ring?”

“I forgot to mention it to him.”

“What ring?” Nick stood behind the women.

Zoe spun around. “How long have you been standing there?”

“A few seconds. I was about to say hi when I heard my name.” He stepped between the chairs and plopped down onto the grass facing them. “What’s going on?”

Zoe looked at Rachel. “Do you want to tell him or should I?”

Rachel’s eyes widened with fear.

“I will.” Zoe told him everything, and by the time she was finished, Rachel’s hands shook. Zoe reached out and grasped her hand giving it a gentle squeeze. “It’s okay. Nick’s a good guy.”

Nick’s surprised gaze met hers. “Thanks.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “First of all, I wish you both would have told me sooner. I could have been helping you look. Secondly,” he directed his attention to Rachel, “I don’t approve of your methods. I will be locking up the room keys from now on. I probably should have done that from the beginning, but being new at this, I didn’t think of it. I’ll do everything I can to help you locate the ring, but it would be nice if we had a clue where to look. It’s a huge house, with plenty of hiding places. Still, I have a few ideas where it might be.”

Rachel straightened, her gaze hopeful.

“That’s right, you were an eight-year-old boy once.” Zoe grinned. “I didn’t even think of the advantage you’d have over us.”

He chuckled. “Yes, I was once a child. And to tell you the truth, I don’t think being male gives me an edge over you ladies. But since my apartment has always been the living quarters for the proprietor, it makes sense that the ring might be there. I’ll do some searching tonight before bed.”

“Can we help?” Rachel asked.

Zoe held her breath. It was one thing to help, but an entirely different matter to open his private quarters to them.

“Not tonight. It’s a bit of a mess.”

“I’ve seen enough messes for one day.” Zoe stood and offered Nick a hand. “See you later, Rachel.”

He pulled up, and they strode side-by-side toward the house. “I’m disappointed you didn’t tell me Rachel’s secret sooner considering this is
my
house.”

“I know it sounds crazy, but I forgot.”

“Um-hmm. I’ve been hearing that a lot from you.”

“Will I ever live down the overbooking?”

He smirked. “Unlikely.” He gave her shoulder a squeeze. “Sorry. I’ll try not to tease anymore.”

“You sure you can stop? It seems to come naturally.” She tried to ignore the tingling his touch had caused, but couldn’t. Why did Nick have such an effect on her? She’d come outside to escape him, but apparently the yard wasn’t far enough.

CHAPTER TWELVE

 

A
FEW DAYS LATER,
N
ICK SAT
on the porch swing lightly pushing himself back and forth with his foot. He had a perfect view of Zoe talking with some woman in the front yard. Zoe waved her arms about, clearly unhappy. He frowned. She had been acting weird for several days, and now this. It was not normal for Zoe to have visitors, much less act so disturbed. What was going on?

Zoe had looked pleased to see the woman at first, but the longer they talked the more animated the stranger became and the more agitated Zoe appeared. Enough—he stopped swinging and stood. Going down the porch steps he called out, “Zoe! May I have a word with you?”

She glanced over her shoulder with a startled look. “Can it wait?”

“No.” One way or another he’d get to the bottom of her odd behavior.

Zoe jogged toward him. “What’s up? My friend’s here, and I don’t want to be rude.”

“That woman is your
friend
? I’m concerned. You look upset.”

“Oh.” She shifted to her other foot. “Autumn is…” She glanced toward the woman, clearly at a loss for how to describe her.

“Yes…?” He lowered his voice when she didn’t reply. “I consider you a friend, Zoe, and I care about you. I hope you know you can trust me—no matter what the problem is.”

“Really?” Doubt laced her voice.

“Excuse me?”

“Sorry. That didn’t come out right. I appreciate your concern, but this isn’t something I care to talk with you about.”

“Why? Don’t you trust me?”

“I trust you, at least as much as I can when I haven’t known you for long.” She glanced away then returned her focus to him. “Look, some things have happened in my life that make trusting people difficult. Suffice it to say, my trust radar was blown to smithereens shortly before I came here.”

“Okay. I get it. I was just concerned.”

“I’m fine—really.” Zoe reached out and put a hand on his forearm. “Thanks for caring.” She smiled then turned and jogged back to her friend.

He would never understand women, but he was thankful for the peek into Zoe’s past. That was the first hint he’d had of why she’d come here. It looked like she was running from something, or maybe someone. There was a lot of that going around.

He went back inside and spotted Rachel at the top of the stairs. He waved, and grinned when she waved back. He’d finally adjusted to having her around the B&B all the time, and it would be odd when she finally moved on. She almost felt like family—the little sister he never had. He adjusted a game on the shelf then stepped back, satisfied the stack looked neat and tidy enough.

Hopefully one of them would be able to locate the ring Rachel was searching for. He’d given the ladies permission to search the other guest rooms, but they’d turned up nothing. He was beginning to think the ring didn’t exist or someone had found it years ago.

The latter was probably more than likely the case. After all, who would miss a seemingly discarded ring?
Discarded
—that gave him an idea.

 

****

 

Z
OE RESTED HER
hands on her hips. “Let’s agree to disagree.”

Autumn flipped her long espresso-colored hair over her shoulder and narrowed her eyes. “Fine, but you’re making a mistake. You said yourself that you get two days off a week here, and you’re done working by early afternoon when you do work, so you could easily work the dinner hour at the restaurant.”

BOOK: Island Refuge (Wildflower B&B Romance Book 1)
5.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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