Excerpt: Lie to Me
Book 4: The Pearl Island Series
Destiny was a real bitch, Luc decided as he drove his black vintage Porsche into the oyster-shell parking lot of the Pearl Island Inn. When his grandmother told him years ago that Chloe Davis’s future and his were entwined, he’d thought she meant romantically. He’d naturally scoffed at the idea, even though he’d never doubted her abilities as a fortuneteller in other matters.
He should have explained the improbability to her.
“Yeah, right,” he muttered to himself, something he’d been doing a little too much during the long drive from New Orleans. Like he would have told his grandmother, who had always thought he was perfect, that he was actually the school dork while Chloe had run with the popular crowd. The idea of “entwining” with Chloe had never done more than fuel some predictable adolescent fantasies.
Now, he was about to come face to face with the adult version of the girl he’d had sex with in his head more times than he could count.
“I can’t believe I have to do this,” he groaned, knowing he had to meet with her without allowing any of that to show on his face. Or affect his body.
Good luck with that, dude. He’d been struggling to scrub the images from his brain throughout the drive. Unfortunately, they kept coming at him in flashes, with vivid detail. Alternating with equally unwelcome memories of what his life had been like before he’d become a successful computer gaming entrepreneur.
He needed to stop thinking about all of it. He’d left the whole social nightmare of school behind more than a decade ago. In its place, he’d built a world where he belonged. No, he more than belonged. He thrived. That’s where he wanted to be right then; back in New Orleans, working on the newest version of Vortal, the alternate universe game that was his life’s work and his greatest escape.
Instead, here he was in Galveston, on a mission that would certainly have him entwining with Chloe Davis, not romantically but legally, over custody of the very object that lay at the heart of his grandmother’s prediction and the world he’d created for himself.
Which proved Destiny wasn’t just a bitch; she had a twisted sense of humor.
Finding a parking place, he climbed from the sports car and slammed the door, eager to put the ordeal behind him. Mid-day sun glared into his eyes, but a coastal breeze took the edge off the heat. It would be a perfect spring day if his gut weren’t churning like a storm in the Gulf. Tipping his head back, he took in the granite mansion that now served as a bed and breakfast. The inn’s website certainly hadn’t exaggerated its grandeur. The place looked like something straight out of a gothic novel, complete with a spire-topped turret. Gargoyles snarled down at him from the edges of the multi-pitched roof.
“Gargoyles?” he said, his interest piqued. “Cool.”
Under different circumstances, the whole place would have thrilled him. As the creator of Vortal, what could be more up his alley than stone beasts on a gothic mansion that had once welcomed pirates? Throw in the rumors of ghosts he’d read about, and oh yeah, he’d be all over this. Normally.
Lowering his gaze to the windows on the ground floor, he wondered if Chloe was inside. A shaft of dread shot through him, and he realized with disgust that it didn’t just come from facing a woman he’d fantasized about. It came from facing a woman who knew what a dork he’d once been.
You aren’t that kid anymore, he reminded himself. He’d systematically obliterated all external traces of geek.
Could this dread be the real reason he’d resisted making this trip? Since that shocking instant when he learned that Chloe, of all the people on the planet, had found his grandmother’s necklace, he’d tried to figure out a way to claim the piece without dealing directly with her.
Unfortunately, the circumstances surrounding her finding the necklace made the case so complicated, he saw no choice. She’d found it lying on the beach, so everyone believed it was a relic from a nineteenth-century shipwreck in the island’s cove, which meant it should belong to the state. However, beaches created a gray area in the law, so a judge had directed the Texas Historical Commission to award Chloe ownership on the condition that she agree to put the valuable necklace on permanent display in a museum.
For him to prove the necklace actually belonged to his grandmother meant fighting the state of Texas and the Historical Commission. The lawyer he’d hired insisted Chloe’s cooperation could make the process easier. Which meant talking to her in person.
Resigned, he thrust on a pair of sunglasses, then made sure he’d only half-tucked his polo shirt into his jeans, as depicted in the Style App on his phone. He’d developed the app a few years back to keep up with current trends and auto-order his clothes online. Much to his annoyance, he’d discovered that looking cool meant a guy had to update his wardrobe more often than his operating system.
On the up side, he clearly wasn’t the only single guy who needed help figuring out what to buy and how to wear it, since he’d earned a nice chunk of change off the Style App. Satisfied with his clothes, he raked his hands through his blond hair and realized he’d forgotten to have it cut. Again. As in the last six months.
“Dang it!” He should have taken care of that before leaving New Orleans.
Maybe he needed an app for that, too.
Well, too late to worry about it now, he decided as he looked for the entrance to the house. According to his research Chloe managed the gift shop, so she was probably inside. He spotted a path that led to the cove side of the house and decided that must lead to the main entrance. Originally, visitors to the island would have arrived by ship. Following the path around the turret, he found a few guests sitting in wicker chairs on a large veranda, enjoying a panoramic view of the island’s private cove.
Lush green lawn sloped down a long hill to the beach, where seagulls shrieked over the heads of three young boys splashing in the waves. A girl with long blond ringlets helped a dark-haired toddler build a sandcastle. A few yards away from the girls, a lone woman lay on a colorful beach towel with a magazine draped over her face—a woman with a seriously hot body wearing a dark pink bikini, he noted over the top of his shades.
“Wow,” he whispered as interest stirred. Then he reminded himself he had more important things to do than admire the view.
With a resigned sigh, he turned and placed his foot on the first step to the veranda, but stopped when a sense of awareness rippled down his spine. He hadn’t felt that particular buzz beneath his skin in years, but he recognized it instantly. Chloe. How could he have forgotten the way his body reacted when she was near?
They’d both attended the same private school, since everyone who lived in the inner city of New Orleans sent their kids to private school unless they absolutely couldn’t afford it. During his last years in the upper grades, he’d fantasized about her so often he’d developed a Pavlovian reaction to seeing her in the hall. Instant, embarrassing erection. After a while, he didn’t even have to see her. He’d get a tickle in the back of his neck and know she was there before he even turned. Feeling that now, he focused his senses, trying to locate the source of the hum. Was it coming from behind him?
He turned back toward the beach. Toward the woman on the towel.
No. That lean, leggy goddess couldn’t possibly be the tomboy he remembered, could it? He’d certainly glimpsed the potential for beauty, and even spent hours sketching the body he imagined he’d find underneath the ball caps and baggy clothes, but this woman surpassed his wildest imaginings. She didn’t have the exaggerated body of the gaming character he’d drawn, but her naturally proportioned curves could fuel a whole new era of fantasies. A man’s fantasies rather than those of an inexperienced boy.
His body tightened at the thought, letting him know there was no way in hell he’d get through talking to her without that hardwired response kicking in. He waited for the dread to wash back over him. Instead, he felt… intrigued. What would Chloe think of him now? After all, his clothes weren’t the only thing that had changed. Hours in the gym to counter all the hours he spent at his computer had transformed his body as well.
How sweet would life be if Chloe saw him now and her eyes sparked with admiration? Even lust? Okay, that was probably stretching things, but to have her look at him and see something other than a nerd? Yeah, that would be sweet. He probably had a one in five thousand, three hundred and fifty-six chance of succeeding without suffering renewed humiliation, but as Blade, his alter ego in the gaming world, would say, “No glory for the gutless.”
Embracing his inner Blade, he struck off down the trail lined in azaleas and crepe myrtle to the cove. When he reached the beach, the two girls looked up from their sandy architectural endeavors.
“Hello,” the older girl said with a bright smile. Thirteen at most, she already had a face destined to break hearts, combined with long, golden curls worthy of an angel.
“We’re building a princess castle,” the dark-haired toddler announced. Her big eyes and sun-kissed cheeks matched the blue and pink polka dots on her swimsuit.
“I see that.” He nodded.
“It’s beautemous!” The little cutie flung her arms open wide.
“Absolutely,” he agreed, moving past them toward his goal, the goddess on the beach towel.
She lay on her back, allowing the sun to wash over a wealth of bare skin. While the magazine hid her face, he gave the toned body the admiration it deserved, from the shapely legs to the taut stomach, to breasts the perfect size to fill a man’s hands. The tropical scent of suntan lotion teased his nostrils, making him long to slick her down with a fresh coating.
“Excuse me,” came a lazy female voice from under the magazine, a copy of Popular Photography, he noticed with mild interest, “but you’re blocking my sun.”
The adult timbre didn’t match the voice he remembered. This voice belonged to a woman, not a teenaged girl.
Before he could respond or step out of her light, a shriek from the young blond girl split the air. “Derrick, Rafe, don’t you dare!”
He glanced over his shoulder to see two boys–dark-haired, nine-ish, and obviously twins–charging toward the girls, one of them holding a wiggling fish. Screams ensued as the little girl took off running.
“You boys!” The older girl leapt to her feet. “Leave Nicki alone!”
The race continued along the water’s edge, with the little girl screaming as if pursued by an axe murderer. Luc cringed, wondering how a child so small and sweet-looking could emit a sound shrill enough to peel paint. He looked down, expecting the woman at his feet to jump into action. She didn’t even twitch.
As the screams turned to wails of distress, he saw the boys had caught the girl and dropped the fish down her swimsuit. The third, younger boy held his sides as he doubled over with laughter.
“Derrick, Rafe, you little beasts!” The older girl raced along the wet sand to rescue the girl she’d called Nicki. “AJ, this is not funny!”
Luc frowned at the supine figure on the towel. How could any adult hear such a ruckus and not react? He could see the little girl wasn’t in serious danger, but this woman had her eyes covered. “Are you even going to look and see if everything’s okay?”
“Is anyone bleeding?” she mumbled, as if half asleep.
“Are Nicki and Lauren asking me to help?”
“Then they can obviously handle it.” She yawned.
He scowled, knowing kids didn’t always ask for help, even when they could use some. Like the time the football team stuffed him into his gym locker.
“You’re still blocking my sun,” she murmured.
He studied how his shadow stretched across her body, molding to the curves, and felt a jolt of arousal as he imagined his actual body doing the same. “Just enjoying the view.”
The thickening of his voice must have finally woken her. She visibly tensed, then slowly lifted a corner of the magazine to peek up at him. Hazel eyes—Chloe’s eyes—widened with surprise.
“Oh, my God.” She sat upright. “I didn’t realize—” As if finally registering the noise she glanced around him toward the kids. “Lauren, is Nicki okay?”
Luc looked over to see the older girl throwing the rescued fish back into the water while the toddler scrubbed tears off her cheeks. The three boys were laughing as they headed for the pier.
“I’ve got her,” the older girl hollered as she hurried to comfort Nicki.
“I’m so sorry.” Looking up at him, Chloe pressed a hand to her chest as if to still a racing heart. “I didn’t know you were a guest. Um, hello, how can I help you?”
He wanted to say hello back, but his tongue felt tied as he stared at her incredible face. The fullness she’d had as a girl had vanished, revealing high cheekbones and a tapered jaw. Long, dark lashes surrounded eyes that looked bigger than he remembered.
“Are you checking in?” She smiled at him. The smile turned into a grimace, though, when he didn’t answer. “I can’t believe I was so rude. Forgive me. Long day.”
After glancing at his watch, he managed to untie his tongue. “It’s barely past noon.”
“When you work at a B&B, your day starts before dawn.” Laughing, she gestured toward the kids. “Add in these guys, and just getting to noon is a long day.”
As Chloe stood, Luc struggled not to drool over her body, clad in nothing but a string bikini, and her thick, sable hair that fell to her waist.
“If you need to check in, Rory or Chance should be in the office,” she said, reaching for a shirt lying on her beach bag. The gauzy orange fabric did little to hide the body beneath, while the color, combined with her pink swimsuit, brought to mind a juicy sorbet. One he’d dearly love to taste. “Unless they weren’t expecting you until later.”
“I’m not checking in,” he managed to say.
“You’re not? Oh. Then, how can I help you?” She gave him a smile so cordial he blinked in surprise. Chloe Davis, the girl who’d rarely given him the time of day, was smiling at him?
Because she didn’t recognize him.
The realization blazed into his brain. Followed by scenarios that started with a little flirtation, which led to a date and—eventually, hopefully—wild sex, then ended with her royally pissed when he told her who he was and why he was there. As much as he liked the middle part of that fantasy, it wouldn’t help him get his grandmother’s necklace back.
What if he didn’t take it that far, though? Would it hurt to postpone telling her everything for a bit? Just to see if she liked the new Luc Renard? Warming to the idea, he took off the sunglasses, hooked them in the neck of his shirt, and gave her his best smile.
Chloe’s friendly mood dimmed when the stranger went from staring at her to grinning seductively. That was when his physical appearance registered and she pegged him as the kind of guy she avoided like the plague, from the Versace sunglasses and cool dude clothes, down to the TAG Heuer watch. She’d known too many privileged rich guys through the years, from boys to men. Most of them thought they could have anything they wanted, whether it was illegal, unethical, or immoral, because rules didn’t apply to them. She would bet this one was no different.
He was gorgeous, she’d give him that, with a ripped body that would require hours in a gym to maintain. His face had a square jaw, strong cheeks, and yummy green eyes that would curl most girls’ toes. The hair, though, was what really marked him as a guy with too much style and not enough substance. He wore it slightly long and in layers that made it look naturally shaggy, like he just rolled out of bed and ran his hands through it, but she suspected it took a clever stylist to create a look that sexy.
What was he doing here, though? Men, gorgeous or otherwise, rarely came to Pearl Island without a wife or girlfriend at their side. Glancing past him, she didn’t see any signs of a woman. “Well, if you’re not here to check in, how can I help you?”
“Now, there’s an interesting question.” His smile shifted so it looked half amused, half embarrassed, but totally hot. Sheesh, she thought. Did he practice looking humble in the mirror to reel women in? “I don’t suppose we could go inside, out of this sun, to discuss it?”
“I’d love to. Except…” She shrugged. “I can’t right now. I’m babysitting.”
“Babysitting? Then I take it none of these are yours?”
“Heavens no.” She laughed.
“Glad to hear that.” Relief flashed across his face.
She started to mentally roll her eyes as she waited for him to hit on her, but stopped herself. For the past few years, working at the Pearl Island Inn, she’d felt like the lone single person at a never-ending, all-couples dinner party. Now that fate had dropped an obviously interested guy in front of her, didn’t she owe it to herself to give him a chance? Maybe this time well-dressed and gorgeous didn’t equal conceited jerk.
But before she could do something radical, like flirt back a little, one of the children screamed her name.
She turned to scowl at Lauren. While she genuinely adored the kids, couldn’t they stay out of trouble for five minutes?
Lauren pointed toward the end of the pier. “Stop AJ!”
Chloe glanced in that direction but saw no sign of the little rascal. Instead she saw her cousins, Derrick and Rafe, standing at the end of the pier staring into the water. Which meant AJ must have jumped in. AJ could swim like a fish, but Lauren’s little brother had a knack for turning the simplest outing into a life-threatening adventure.
“He’s trying to swim to the shipwreck!” Lauren screamed. “They dared him!”
“Oh, no.” Chloe took off across the sand like a sprinter off the starting block. By the time she reached the pier, her heart pounded as loudly as her feet against the wood.
The twins jumped with guilt when they saw her charging toward them. “We didn’t think he’d do it.”
Without breaking stride, she dove straight into the water, angling down for a fast descent. The saltwater stung her eyes, but she didn’t dare close them. Swimming hard, she continued down until her lungs ached. Just when she feared she’d reached the point of no return, she spotted AJ swimming back up, his eyes frantic. Grabbing his arm, she turned and kicked for all she was worth. The burn in her lungs threatened to engulf her by the time she broke the surface, where she sputtered and gasped for breath. The silence beside her drove her panic higher.
With one arm wrapped about AJ’s now limp body, she kicked for the pier. The second she reached the ladder, a pair of big hands reached down to grab the boy and hoist him out of the water.
She scurried up the ladder to find the blond stranger kneeling over AJ, his mouth covering the boy’s. The other children hovered in a circle. Little Nicki clung to Lauren, both girls crying, while the twins stared with wide eyes. Her mind raced with a million nightmarish thoughts, each one ending with AJ dead. It would all be her fault. She was supposed to be watching the children. She’d never forgive herself.
The instant the man lifted his head and pressed a hand to AJ’s diaphragm, the boy spewed water from his mouth. The man rolled him to his side so he could expel water all over the pier.
As AJ convulsed in a fit of coughing, Chloe scrambled over on her hands and knees. “Is he okay?”
“He’s fine.” The man laid a hand on her shoulder to hold her back. “Just give him room to catch his breath.”
“Oh my God. Oh my God!” Her whole body shook as she watched the boy struggle to breathe.
Finally, AJ rolled to his back and let his arms flop to his sides. Blond curls stuck to his face as his narrow chest rose and fell. He managed a laugh through labored breathing. “Wow, that was sick.” AJ’s way of saying something was super cool.
“You brat,” his sister Lauren said through her tears. “I’m telling Mom.” Lifting a sobbing Nicki onto her hip, Lauren marched up the trail toward the inn.
Chloe looked at the twins still shaking with fear. “You two are toast when your father hears about this.”
“It wasn’t our fault,” Derrick insisted, the picture of innocence. “AJ’s the one who bet us he could swim to the shipwreck. Honest. All we did was say no way.”
“So you dared him?” She wanted to strangle them.
“We didn’t think he’d actually do it,” Derrick said.
“When has he ever not taken you up on a dare?” she demanded.
“We didn’t dare him. Honest.” Derrick crossed a finger over his heart.
“Never mind,” Chloe said. “Everybody up to the inn. Now.”
AJ struggled to stand on wobbly legs, so she hoisted him onto her hip. Not an easy feat, since he’d passed fifty pounds.
“Need some help?” the man asked.
“No, I’ve got him,” she said, wanting to groan. What a way to make a good impression, right when she’d decided that’s what she wanted to do. “Just don’t go away. I’ll be right back.”
She hurried after the twins, who were stomping toward the inn like defiant prisoners. Halfway up, she glanced back at the handsome stranger and found him frowning. What was she thinking, telling him to stand in the sun and wait for her?
“Actually,” she called, “come up to the inn. I’ll make this fast and be right with you.”
Turning, she resumed herding her cousins. At least this interruption gave her a little time to decide if she had the guts to flirt with a total stranger who looked like he’d left a trail of broken hearts and broken promises in his wake.