I am a rotten person.
Biting her lip, Cleo Alyssum painstakingly printed this fact into her journal. She thought the whole idea of a journal of emotions about as silly as it got, but if the counselor wanted honesty, that’s what he would get.
She would do anything to transform herself into the kind of mother Matty needed. Anything.
Of course, that’s how she’d got into this situation in the first place. Sitting back in her desk chair, she gazed out the sagging windowpanes of the old house she was restoring. She missed Matty so desperately, her teeth ached, but the court had set December as the deadline for his return—provided she danced to the steps the counselor called.
Matty needed security and stability, they said, and her sister provided it.
Cleo had tried suburban life with Maya, but she just couldn’t hack it. Trouble found her too easily in crowds. Out here on the island she could get her head together without too many people in her face. She was far less apt to jeopardize Matty’s return if she stayed away from people.
These last few years she’d learned to restore old buildings in her sister’s small town, turning decrepit dumps into useful, viable businesses and homes. She loved the satisfaction of seeing the visible results of her hard work. Too bad the difference she was supposed to be making in herself wasn’t as obvious.
The opportunity to buy a rural hardware store had opened up just as she’d run out of buildings to restore, and at the time, it had seemed ideal. She knew the business inside and out, loved the isolation of the South Carolina coast, and when she’d found this run-down island farmhouse for a steal, she’d known she’d found a home.
The beach cottage down by the shore might be beyond hope, but she hadn’t given up on it yet. Maya and the kids might visit more often if she could fix it up. In the meantime, she was diligently turning the main house into the home she’d never known. She hoped.
If she could only convince her federal supervisor she was a fine, upstanding citizen, she’d be free and clear soon, and almost in a normal world for the first time in her life.
Having a job she could do without hassles from any boss, and a home where she could lock the doors against the world, she thought she finally had a chance of living a civilized life.
At least now when Matty visited on weekends, she could give him her entire attention, and he seemed to be blossoming into a new kid with the change. Even Maya had noted how much happier he was.
Cleo ran her fingers through her stubby hair and returned to staring at the almost empty page of the notebook. She didn’t think she was capable of verbalizing all her conflicting emotions about her sister. Maya could have written an entire essay on how Cleo felt about her. Cleo would rather hammer nails.
If she compared her mothering skills to Perfect Maya’s, she was destined for failure.
The muffled noise of a car engine diverted her attention. A fresh breeze off the ocean blew through the windows in the back of the house, but the only things coming through the floor-to-ceiling front windows were flies. Thickets of spindly pines, palmettos, and wax myrtle prevented her from seeing the driveway entrance or the rough shell road beyond.
She didn’t encourage visitors. A lost tourist would turn around soon enough.
She returned to the blank page of her journal and printed: People are pains in the a. . . She struck out the “a” and substituted “butt.”
She crinkled her nose at the result. One word probably wasn’t any more polite than the other.
The smooth hum of the car’s powerful engine hesitated, and Cleo waited for the music of it backing up and turning around. Someone took good care of their machine. She couldn’t hear a single piston out of sync.
She rolled her eyes as the obtuse visitor gunned the engine and apparently roared past the four-foot blinking NO TRESPASSING sign. One would think a message that large would be taken seriously, but tourists determined to reach a secluded beach were nearly unstoppable.
Nearly was the operative word here.
Biting her bottom lip again, Cleo reread her two-line entry. She had to go into town and open the store. She didn’t have time for detailed expositions if that’s what the shrink wanted. It looked to her like a few good strong sentences ought to be sufficient.
Adding Men are the root of all evil struck her as funny, but she supposed a male counselor wouldn’t appreciate it. She left it there anyway. The counselor had said he wanted honesty. Of course, she was probably sabotaging all her efforts. She’d had enough therapy to acknowledge her self-destructive tendencies. Now, if she’d only apply that knowledge. . .
She lifted her pen and waited for the car engine to reach the next turn in the half-mile-long lane. The sound of waves crashing in the distance almost drowned out the wicked screech of her mechanical witch. Still, she heard the car tires squeal as they braked. The battery-operated strobe light was particularly effective at keeping teenagers from turning this into a lovers’ lane at night. During the day, well. . .
She shrugged and capped the pen. That was enough introspection for one day. The counselor ought to know she was a mucked-up mess. She shouldn’t have to lay it out in terms a first grader could understand. Another thought occurred to her, and she grabbed the pen again.
Baring my soul is not my style.
There. That ought to be letting it out enough for one day.
Her head shot up as the car engine drew closer, evidently bypassing the scowling witch. Stupid bastard. What was she supposed to do, dump a load of pig turds on him to get the message across that this was a private drive? That might work if they were in a convertible.
They usually were.
She despised the arrogant, self-confident yuppie asses who thought the whole world was their oyster. Didn’t Private Property mean anything to them?
Apparently not. The car engine zoomed right past the pop-up sign she’d rigged in the middle of the lane. Forgetting to turn off the system before she’d left for work, she’d driven around the sign one too many times herself, and the dirt bypass was clearly visible. She’d plant a palmetto there tomorrow.
Slamming the notebook into her desk drawer, she picked up her purse and donned her sunglasses. She hadn’t quite perfected the mechanism to shut the swinging post barrier on the access road. She hated the idea of erecting a fence across there. The moron would simply have to drown if he insisted on using her beach. A bad undertow past the jetty made this a dangerous strip for swimming, but she supposed the NO SWIMMING signs wouldn’t stop the nematode either.
Maybe she could rig a siren to a motion detector. There wasn’t any law out here for it to summon, but tourists wouldn’t know that.
Pulling out her truck keys, she almost didn’t hear the purr of the engine turning into her drive, but the shriek of a hidden peacock warned of the intrusion.
Damn. Did the jerk think the house deserted? Admittedly, she hadn’t bothered painting the weathered gray boards and the sagging shutters, but she kind of thought them picturesque. And it wasn’t as if she’d not littered the place with warning signs.
If the town council insisted on encouraging film crews to work here, she’d be prepared to keep them out. She hadn’t traveled an entire continent to have that California lifestyle follow her.
She waited as the barking guard dog yapped through its entire routine. A real dog would scare the peacocks, but the tape recording was usually effective. Amazing how many people were frightened of barking dogs. The mailman had quit delivering to the door after he’d heard it.
Cleo sighed as the driver shut off the car engine instead of turning around. Determined suckers. Only Maya and Axell ever got this far past her guardians. She could slip out the back way, but curiosity riveted her to the window. She knew she was far enough back not to be seen, but she had a partial view of the walk and porch. She couldn’t wait to see how her intrepid guest reacted to her burglar alert system.
A pair of long-legged, crisply ironed khakis appeared beneath the porch overhang. A man. She should have known. Men had to prove themselves by showing no fear. It didn’t seem to matter if they showed no intelligence while they were at it.
The lean torso decked in a tight black polo appeared next. She was sick of looking at fat slugs with pooching white bellies and hairy, sunken chests cluttering the view from the beach. At least this ape strode tall and straight and. . .
My, my. She stopped chewing her fingernail to relish the loose-limbed swing of wide shoulders and a corded throat topped by a long, angular face with more character than prettiness. He was all length—arms, legs, nose, neck—but they all fit together in a casual sort of package. He had his hands in his pockets as he gazed up at her mildly eccentric porch, so she couldn’t see his fingers, but she’d bet they were a piano teacher’s dream.
Tousled sable hair fell across a tanned brow, and she was almost sorry she’d left the security system on. If he was selling insurance, she wouldn’t mind listening to his pitch just to hear what came out of a package like that.
The aviator sunglasses were a downright sexy trim for this parcel.
“You are under alert!” The loudspeaker blared as soon as the intruder hit the first porch step. She’d used an army drill sergeant for that recording. It would scare the pants off any normal person. This one halted and removed his sunglasses now that he was in shade, but his gaze traced the bellowing voice with curiosity and not fear.
“Turn back now. This is your only warning!”
Cleo bit back a sigh of exasperation as the jerk bent over to examine the step for wires. Did he think her an idiot to put wires where someone could cut them?
“Your location has been verified, and you are now under surveillance. Put up your hands, or we’ll shoot.”
The man straightened and seemed to be whistling as he craned his neck and surveyed the underside of the covered porch from the step.
Shaking her head, Cleo reached for the off switch, but she waited for his reaction to the final performance. Sure enough, her visitor disregarded the warning and fearlessly breached the porch gate. Sirens screamed, strobe lights flared, and a fedora-hatted skeleton dropped down between him and the front door.
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