Island Refuge (Wildflower B&B Romance Book 1) (4 page)

BOOK: Island Refuge (Wildflower B&B Romance Book 1)
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Zoe switched off the stand mixer then grasped a large knife in one hand and a cucumber in the other.

“What are you doing?”

“Thought I’d serve cucumber sandwiches along with scones and whipped cream for tea this afternoon.”

Nick stifled a sigh. He’d specifically told her to keep it simple. “It sounds delicious, but unnecessary. I think Mrs. Narrelli will be leaving and our other guests departed an hour ago. I’m closing reservations for the remainder of the week.”

“What about Rachel?” Zoe brushed a loose strand of hair from her face with her arm, but it fell right back over her eye.

He forced himself to keep his hands by his side. It’d be so easy to tuck the strand behind her ear, but definitely not appropriate. There was something about Zoe that brought out the protector in him. She was a puzzle he couldn’t figure out. Why he felt this way stumped him.

She spread her hands out over the food. “What should I do with this?”

“Set a small plate out for Rachel and her mom, and we’ll eat the rest. I skipped lunch.”

Zoe chuckled. “I made too much.” She motioned to a platter piled with miniature sandwiches and freshly baked scones that smelled of fresh berries.

“Ah, so you did. No matter, we’ll have them for dinner. The scones and whipped cream will make a nice dessert.”

“Scones and tea sandwiches for dinner?”

He laughed at the incredulous look she gave him. “I know it’s not five-star dining, but we can slum for one night.” Since Zoe had arrived he appreciated the simple but exquisite dinners she made for the two of them. The kitchen in his apartment went unused, which was a good thing since he was a horrible cook. His apartment still had a slight burned odor from when he’d attempted to make a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch the other day. Come to think of it Zoe had started leaving dinner out for him after that.

A grin settled on his face. He didn’t know what he’d do without the woman. He’d thought Kat was indispensable, but she had the personality of a porcupine compared to Zoe, who always managed to put a smile on his face even when he was in a sour mood.

“Whatever you say. But in light of our lack of guests, I think I’ll make the rest of this into a cucumber soup.”

“Sounds good.” Angry voices drew his attention toward the door leading to the dining room and beyond.

Zoe set the knife down. “What do you think is going on?” Her brow furrowed, and she seemed to shrink. He’d never thought her small. Not that she was overly large, but she was at least five foot eight or nine and sturdily built. But right now she appeared a mere shadow of her normal self.

He stepped toward her. “Are you okay, Zoe?”

She shook her head. “No. I mean… yes, I’m fine, but shouldn’t you see what the commotion is about?”

He took a bracing breath. “I suppose.” He rested a hand on her trembling shoulder. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

A door slammed, and Rachel shouted something to her mother.

Zoe jumped. “Hurry!”

Nick spun on his heel and strode through the dining room and down the hall until he spotted Rachel looking out the picture window in the sitting room.

She swiped at her face and sniffed. “My mom won’t be returning, but you’re stuck with me for the remainder of the summer. Don’t worry about the construction. I can work as easily on my laptop from a picnic table in a park as I can from my room.”

He nodded. “Is there anything I can get for you, Rachel?”

Her face flushed bright, and she shook her head. “Thanks, but I’m tired. I think I’ll go lie down.”

“Okay. Zoe made enough cucumber sandwiches to feed a small army. Would you like her to bring you a plate later?”

“That would be nice. Thank you.” She turned and hurried past him to the stairs.

He shook his head and returned to the kitchen. Zoe stood pale-faced exactly where he’d left her. He strode to her side and guided her to a barstool. A kettle on the stove whistled. He clicked off the burner and poured the boiling water into a pot Zoe had prepared for tea. He surveyed her, noting her wide eyes and trembling hands.

He allowed the tea to steep then poured a cup and slid it in front of her. “I’m actually a pretty good listener if you care to talk.”

Zoe blinked and sipped the tea. “Thanks. I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me.” She drew him in with her soulful eyes.

Every instinct in him wanted to comfort her and tell her it would be okay, but he knew better. “Whatever it was, it upset you. I’d like to help.”

She gazed into the cup and spoke barely above a whisper. “It’s not worth talking about.” She met his gaze. “Thank you for caring. If it’s all right, I’d like to take a walk.”

“Sure. Do you want company? I promise to zip my lips.” He drew his fingers across his pursed mouth.

She spared him a smile. “If you’d like.”

He wasn’t sure if he’d “like” or not, but he was concerned for her well-being. The last time he saw that look on someone’s face they didn’t live to see darkness fall. He didn’t believe Zoe would harm herself, but in good conscience he couldn’t leave her alone either. At least no new guests were expected. He strode to the front door and locked up, making sure to place the closed sign in the window.

Zoe strolled into the reception area with a large brimmed hat in her hand. “Ready?”

He noted the color had returned to her face, and her hands had almost stopped shaking. “Let’s go out through the kitchen. We can take the path down to the water from there.” He adjusted his long gait to match Zoe’s.

“Any idea what Rachel and her mother were arguing about?”

“Not exactly, but I can guess. Her mom was unhappy about the renovations I’m having done this week and wanted to leave. Rachel refused to go with her.”

“Maybe she has a good reason.”

Nick dipped his head to look under the brim of Zoe’s hat. “Sounds ominous. Do you know something I don’t?”

“No. Just saying you never know.”

He stroked his chin with his thumb and forefinger. “True.”

 

****

 

Z
OE LACED HER
fingers behind her back and kept her focus forward, but she was acutely aware of Nick and his masculine scent, a mix of spice and musk. She’d fall for his nice guy act if it wasn’t for the fact she knew he was simply biding his time until he could find a suitable replacement for her. However, it was becoming more difficult with each passing day to accept that her days here were numbered.

“Forgive me, Zoe, but I can’t help myself. You looked like you’d seen a ghost back at the house. I’d like to understand what happened.”

She kicked at a rock along the path as they came to the shoreline. “Rachel and her mom brought up a bad memory. Nothing to worry about. I’m fine.” She fixed her gaze on the Sound. Water lapped the shoreline, causing ripples in the calm water.

“If you say so.” He squatted and picked up a rock then flung it into the water. It skipped three times before sinking.

It wouldn’t hurt to tell Nick about that day, but she didn’t want his pity. Since he was a doctor, he’d probably heard and seen worse. No matter, he didn’t need to know. She pursed her lips and sat on the rocky shoreline with her knees tucked to her chin. “There’s something about Rachel that bothers me.”

Nick plopped down beside her and rested back on his elbows. “How so?”

“I can’t name it, but something is off with her. For example, have you noticed that she rarely came out of her room until her mom showed up? Or that when she did, she was very nosy? Of course, I was always cleaning her room when she was out and about, but I did observe her looking under a lampshade once.”

“Maybe she was looking for the switch to turn it on.”

Zoe shrugged. “And there was the time I heard her vomiting in the bathroom.”

“It’s not a crime to get sick.”

“Of course not, but I’ve heard her getting sick more than once.” She flicked a glance at Nick and noticed his scowl. Maybe she’d said too much. They were finally on good terms and she didn’t want to remind him he was trying to replace her.

She pushed up to her feet. “I think I’ll head to the house.”

“What’s your hurry?” He looked up at her from his seated position.

“Can’t sit still for too long. I might fall asleep.”

“I’ll come with you.” He shifted to get up.

“No. Stay. No reason for you to return. There’s only work waiting.” She winked then strode toward the B&B. She slipped in through the kitchen door and noticed her bedroom door ajar. Hadn’t she closed and locked it? She grabbed the rolling pin from the cupboard and raised it above her head as she tiptoed to her room. Ever so slowly she nudged the door open and poked her head inside, looking from side to side. The blinds hung askew and the pane stood open. She rushed to the window. The screen lay on the earth below.

Her heart hammered, and she spun around. Nothing appeared to be missing, but who had been in her room and why?

CHAPTER FOUR

 


I
’M TELLING YOU,
N
ICK, SOMEONE WAS
in my room.” She stood with a hand on her hip talking into her cell.

“I’m almost back. Is anything missing?” His heavy breathing puffed through the line.

“Not that I can tell. I think I surprised whoever it was because they left through the window.”

The door flew open. “Zoe!”

Zoe stepped from her doorway further into the kitchen.

“You okay?” Nick rushed to her.

“Yes, but I haven’t checked the rest of the house.”

“Stay here while I investigate.”

“No way! I’m sticking with you. I don’t want to be here alone.”

He gently took the rolling pin from her hand and raised it above his own head. If this wasn’t so serious she’d snicker. But an intruder was no laughing matter.

They slinked into the dining room—nothing out of the ordinary—then through the reception area and into the sitting room. Everything looked untouched.

“Where’s Rachel?” Concern for their sole guest nibbled at Zoe.

“Right here.”

They both whipped around.

Rachel stood at the bottom of the stairs with a perplexed look on her face. “What’s going on?”

Nick tucked the rolling pin behind him and nudged it into Zoe’s hand.

“Did you hear anything unusual down here?” Nick stepped toward Rachel.

“No. Why? What happened?”

“Zoe believes someone was in her room.”

Alarm swept across Rachel’s face, but quickly disappeared. “I’m sure you imagined whatever you think you saw. I’ve been here the whole time and didn’t hear a thing.” She offered them a smile and rubbed her stomach. “You mentioned sandwiches. Are there any left?”

“Plenty.” Zoe ignored the niggling unease in the back of her mind and swept past Rachel. “I’ll prepare a plate for you and leave it on the dining table.”

“Thanks.”

Zoe filled a kettle with water and placed it on the gas burner then made quick work of stacking a few sandwiches and scones on a delicate white plate. She pulled the whipped cream from the fridge and scooped a large dollop into a clear glass dish. Five minutes later the table was set and ready for their guest.

Rachel strolled into the room with Nick by her side. “Thanks for this.”

“It’s our pleasure.” Nick looked to Zoe. “Perhaps once the roof is finished Zoe will prepare a special dinner as a thank you for putting up with the noise.”

“I’d love that.” Rachel beamed a smile at him.

Zoe’s stomach knotted. Something wasn’t right with that woman. She forced a pleasant expression onto her face. “I look forward to it. Excuse me.”

Low voices from the dining room filtered past the closed door. What could they be talking about? Part of Nick’s job as host was to converse with his guests, but until today he had kept to himself for the most part. Maybe he was finally adjusting to the life of a B&B owner.

Zoe poured a cup of tea for herself and sat on a barstool. Someone had broken into her room, but took nothing. Clearly she’d surprised the person. Her mind drifted to a Tuesday evening seventeen years ago. The shouts and sounds of glass breaking—the gunshot that sent her fleeing to the neighbor’s house. Why couldn’t her life be peaceful?

“Hey, there.”

She jumped, sloshing tea over the side of the cup and onto the counter.

“Sorry.” Nick ripped a paper towel from the roll and handed it to her. He rested a hand on her shoulder. “You have that look again. Please tell me what’s wrong.”

The intense compassion on his face nearly destroyed her resolve to keep quiet, but she shook her head. “It’s nothing worth talking about.” She nodded toward the door leading to the dining room. “Is Rachel—”

“In her room. She said she’d leave the dishes outside her door.”

Zoe nodded. “What do you think about her?”

He reached for a sandwich and plopped the whole thing in his mouth, chewing slowly. “I don’t.” He tossed another mini sandwich into his mouth. A few seconds later he reached for more. “These aren’t bad for girly food.”

She wadded the paper towel and lobbed it at him. “It’s your own fault for not telling me sooner that we wouldn’t have any guests. I would have made man food.”

“I’m not complaining.” He lifted a hand. “About Rachel, maybe you could reach out to her woman-to-woman since you’re concerned about her.”

Zoe’s stomach flinched. “Maybe.” It wasn’t like they had to be best friends, goodness knows, she never wanted one of
those
again. But as the older of the two, and likely more experienced in whatever Rachel’s issue was she probably could help her.

Nick lifted a brow. “It’s up to you.” He placed three scones onto a plate and a handful of sandwiches then scooped out a generous helping of whipping cream. “See you in the morning. Oh, and before I forget, my brother and nephew are taking the first ferry over and will be here for the rest of the week. Don’t worry about preparing a big meal for them. Aiden is five and prefers kid cereal to eggs and toast, and my brother eats like his son.” Without a backward glance he unlocked his apartment door and disappeared inside.

Zoe stared at the closed door and contemplated her boss. There was more to the man than met the eye, but she had no desire to dig deeper. Her track record of late was sorely lacking when it came to discernment.

BOOK: Island Refuge (Wildflower B&B Romance Book 1)
3.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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