Love at Last
Easy to love, easy to leave.
With her ex-fiance's words, "I'm in love with someone else," still ringing in her ears, Clare Franklin flies off on her would-be honeymoon alone. Resigned to the fact that not everyone gets a happily ever after, she's sworn off men. Until she gets tangled up, quite literally, with one very sexy veterinarian.
The only thing Dr. Deacon Montgomery is looking to share is his surgical expertise, but his instant attraction to Clare makes him wonder if he could be more than just a doctor and daddy to his twin two-year-old daughters.
Sun-filled days and hot, steamy nights only deepens the connection, causing them each to hope for something more. Until one phone call from home changes everything. But a love like theirs is hard to find, and definitely too hard to forget.
Clare Franklin stood alone before the full-length mirror set up in the bridal room. Her bridesmaids had just stepped out for wedding party photos. Her mom and aunt had gone to help the photographer with the flower girls—two of her cousins and one of her fiancé Adam’s—and she had a few more minutes before she needed to join them.
She smoothed a hand over her dark hair, pulled back tight and slick from her face and wound in a low bun at the base of her neck. Smiling, she pulled the long white veil around her shoulders, turned side to side. The day wasn’t about the dress, but she was happy with how she looked, even if she did have a slight fear she’d look bald in the wedding pictures. Heavy mascara that she rarely wore outlined her dark eyes and a swipe of blush added color to her fair, nearly translucent cheeks. She was just adding a fresh swipe of lip gloss when her cell phone rang.
Recognizing Adam’s ringtone, she searched through the menagerie of makeup bags, hair brushes, and hand towels. Damn it. She heard it but couldn’t find it.
He’d missed the rehearsal dinner due to a canceled flight. Midwest weather was awful in January. The ringing stopped just as she laid eyes on her phone.
She wasn’t worried, though. Adam had already arrived—her brother, Connor, had delivered the news earlier. Probably just wants to apologize again for last night. That would be just like him, she thought, smiling. That was just one of the reasons she was marrying Adam. He was consideration personified—and neat to the point of being obsessive. Maybe she wouldn’t mention that she’d lost her phone in an explosion of beauty prep.
She dialed him back and listened to it ring once. “Hey, you. Not calling to say you changed your mind, are you?” She waited for Adam to tease her back, adjusting herself on the edge of a plush club chair so she didn’t wrinkle the silk organza. “Adam?” Huh. She’d lost the connection.
She was just about to call him back when her cell buzzed with a text.
Hey. I want to see you.
Me too, she texted back. Not much longer.
They’d barely seen each other the past two months. Not only had he moved to Chicago ahead of her for a new job, but he traveled on top of that. Her phone buzzed again.
I need to see you now. We need to talk.
A shiver shot through her. Just wedding nerves. He needs me, that’s all. Probably lost something. Oh, God, what if he forgot the ring? She smiled. Adam Smith was a computer genius, but he would forget to wear socks if someone wasn’t there to remind him. His only flaw, really.
She looked down at his next text.
I’m on my way.
She forced herself to breathe deeply. Her relationships had ended before. She’d heard the words “we need to talk” before, but this wasn’t then. She was in her dress, for God’s sake.
There was a soft knock on the door, and she stood just as it opened. Adam looked nice in his tux. Not so different than he looked in the dark suits he wore to work, but really nice.
“Hi,” she said, smiling nervously. “You know this is bad luck, right?”
Adam didn’t say anything—or even smile back. In fact, he looked sick.
“Are you okay?” she asked, even knowing instinctively he wasn’t there for a Tums or anything else she might have in her bottomless purse.
“You look beautiful,” he finally said, though his gaze barely brushed over her.
He looked like he was about to pass out. “Clare?”
When his eyes finally met hers, she wished they hadn’t. He looked more than sick. He looked… tortured.
“What are we doing?”
“Uh… I thought we were getting married.”
His lips tightened like they sometimes did when she joked.
“Clare… why are we getting married?”
Is he serious? Are we really talking about this now? “Because you asked me,” she nearly shrieked. She was almost thirty. She’d put a lot of thought into her relationship with Adam, and he checked off all her boxes. Kind. Stable. Shared values. Wanted kids. “You asked me. I said yes, and here we are.” She flung her hands out just in case he’d missed the yards of white organza draping her body.
When he didn’t say anything, she sat again, no longer caring about wrinkles. “What are you saying, Adam?”
“I’m sorry.” He looked at his feet, and she knew, just knew, she would not be getting married today.
Twenty-four hours after leaving Saint Simon’s Catholic church, Clare sat alone in the back of a cab, watching the Dominican Republic landscape fly past in a blur. She hadn’t left the church in her wedding dress under a flurry of tossed rose petals but in the leggings and sweatshirt she’d arrived in. Instead of a limo with her groom, it’d been a Prius with her best friend, Jess, driving away from the scene like they’d just robbed a bank. She felt robbed.
The cab slowed, and the hot air blew through the open window as the driver slowed, pulled off the narrow two-lane, then stopped at a security gate. From where the car sat on the gravel road, no one would ever know a five-star, all-inclusive resort sat somewhere on the other side.
A man in khaki shirt and shorts came out of the minuscule guardhouse with his clipboard. He spoke to the driver briefly in Spanish then took her name, checked his sheet, and waved the cab through. The change was immediate: gravel road to paved and dry, wild brush to lush, manicured landscaping.
An ornate concrete fish sat in the center of a pond on her right and sent a glittering mist of water twenty feet into the air. A rolling green golf course played peek-a-boo through the foliage, and a walking path skirted the edge of the road then disappeared behind flowering trees. It was everything she’d envisioned for her honeymoon—all-inclusive, adults only, and warm.
When the cab came to a stop under the portico, Clare paid the driver and had barely stepped out of the car before three staff members dressed in the same khaki uniform greeted her. One accepted her luggage from the driver, and another offered a tray with a warm towel and a pink drink in a champagne glass.
“Welcome,” he said, holding out the drink. “Amor a-mosa, señora.”
He smiled. “Amor—a love drink.”
“Ah, thank you,” she said, accepting the drink. What the hell? I am thirsty.
With drink in hand and her flip-flops slapping the shiny tile floor, she followed the third greeter through the open-air lobby to the registration desk.
“Hola. Welcome.” Malaia, as her name tag read, smiled warmly. “Your name?”
“Clare… um… it’s booked under Adam Smith.” Her stomach tightened with hurt and betrayal, but that was the name on the reservation.
“Muy bien. Smith for two. Booked seven nights in our beautiful honeymoon suite, yes?”
“Yes,” she said tightly, getting out her passport. “I am.”
“Muy bien.” She pulled out a brochure and opened it to a map of the resort. “And Mr. Smith?”
Running low on that bold, independent initiative that had kept her going so far, she bit her lip. “He’s not here and, um…” Her gaze fell to her passport lying on the desk. She straightened it, flipped it over, and straightened it again. “He’s not coming.”
If the HONEYMOON banner draped across the door of her suite like a pageant queen’s sash wasn’t enough of a reminder, the towels set among scattered red rose petals, folded to look like kissing swans, did the job.
She ignored the champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries artfully arranged on a tray on the coffee table—very wedding fare. No thanks.
She wanted the beach. The stiff wind. The roar of the ocean. A cleansing or a least a muting of her jumbled-up feelings. A white noise to drown out Adam’s words.
I met someone.
After that she only heard every other word or so. Feel horrible. Didn’t mean for it to happen. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.
She brushed aside the red rose petals that dotted the white bedspread and plopped her suitcase on the bed, then she dug through her mostly new honeymoon clothes for her bathing suit. Tossing aside the new suit she’d bought for the trip—green, Adam’s favorite color—she went with her favorite black two-piece.
After a quick change, she swept her hair up and donned her sunglasses and wide-brimmed hat. Then with her beach bag on her shoulder, she followed the paved path, weaving her way through a tunnel of tropical foliage toward the beach.
The resort looked exactly like the photos on its website, all lush green with bursts of exotic-looking hot-pink and red flowers. The foliage gave way to a sparkling blue pool and brown thatched roofs over the towel hut and swim-up bar. Latin music with a sexy salsa beat played softly from hidden speakers. The wide, hammock-style swings were made for two. But so what? She liked the beat, and who didn’t like extra room in their hammock?
She rounded the end of the pool and a row of waterbeds with bright-blue tiles lying just beneath the surface. She walked past couples of all shapes and sizes, all ages and skin tones. Some sleeping or reading in sun or shade. Others socializing at the pool bar.
One couple shared a raft, lying side by side with their lower bodies in the water. They each held a drink, the fingers of their other hands twined together. Their faces turned toward one another, they smiled dreamily like no one else existed in all the world. That was the fairy tale. That was her dream. Not castles or horses or rescues. Just that.
But how? How did they all get that?
Eyes burning, she bit her lip and forced herself to look away. She reached the beach and smiled as the warm, gritty grains of sand slid into her flip-flops. Sunlight danced through palms so tall she had to crane her neck to see the top. They rose intermittently, reaching for the sky between thatched-roof huts that cast shade just big enough for two.
She hitched the handles of her bag up tight on her shoulder and turned left, hoping to find a vacant spot in the front. To her right, the beach stretched out in a blinding blanket of white before meeting water so blue and clear, it hardly looked real. On her left, more couples lounged under the shaded huts, reading, talking, or sleeping.
She found her own little piece of shade for one, dropped her bag on one lounger, then spread her towel on the other before lathering on the SPF 50. She might have some Italian in her ancestry, but there was enough Northern European thrown in to doom her to skin nearly as white as the sand.
This, she thought, stretching out. This is what I needed. Sun. Warmth. No sound other than the pounding ocean and the soft rustle of the grass hut over her head.
She pulled out her phone and texted Jess, her brother, and her parents to let them all know she’d arrived. She told her mom again that she was sorry, and again, her mom told her not to worry about a thing. God, she felt guilty, thinking of the time and money her parents had spent. And although her dad would never say it, she knew he was disappointed he hadn’t walked her down the aisle. A cancer scare last year had made them all fear he might not get the chance.
High school sweethearts and married right out of college, her parents were the epitome of old-fashioned and traditional. She knew they wanted to see their only daughter secure in marital bliss. She’d never minded. She’d also wanted the bliss.
She sighed. Maybe I should be a nun. But no, she wanted children. Maybe a sperm bank. Choosing a sperm profile could be fun. Or adoption. Or both. Why not both? Adoption could take years.
She put her phone away and pulled out her book, read the first page three times before she gave up and simply stared out at the water. Her eyes were gritty after little sleep. Between talking to Jess half the night and catching a predawn flight, she’d barely gotten an hour of sleep.
She felt like she should cry. There was pressure in her chest and a clogged feeling in her throat, but the tears wouldn’t come. Just a hollow ache.
Easy to love, easy to leave.
A young couple splashed playfully in the clear azure water. An older couple walked slowly, like they had all the time in the world. She wondered what kind of life they’d had, how long they’d been together, and how they’d met. The water slid up and wiped away their footprints almost as fast as they could leave them.
Adam hadn’t been fireworks. Adam had been safe.
Nope. Wrong again.
The tropical breeze tossed her hair, and the sun warmed her toes. The sea before her appeared endless and restless. Over and over, it crashed in, rushed up the sand, then swept back out. Up and back. Coming or going. Did it want to make a dash up onto the hot sand or retreat safely into itself? She watched it for a long time, willing the sound and repetition to suck the tension from her body.
She came from a nice, normal, middle-class family. No abandonment issues or emotional scars. She wasn’t the prettiest, and she knew it, but she wasn’t the ugliest. Not a genius, but she did well in school, made friends easily. She’d tossed around a few majors in college before settling on education, and she loved her job and was good at it.
But in the love department, she struggled. That happily ever after she’d trusted she would find remained elusive. Too many times, she’d thought she’d found it. But something was always missing, or she was missing something.
With Adam, she’d simply missed that he didn’t really love her. And maybe she’d missed that she didn’t really love him, either.
Clare woke to a setting sun and lengthening shadows. A beach attendant smiled at her as he straightened chairs and collected discarded glasses. Groggy from the nap, she dragged herself up and shuffled back to her room. An hour later, after a hot shower with body wash that smelled like oranges, followed with vanilla-scented lotion, she thought to hell with it and went for the strawberries.
With her balcony door open to the breeze and the long curtains billowing softly, she licked chocolate off her fingers and chased it with champagne. Single women didn’t have to share chocolate-covered strawberries. Score one for the single ladies.
She blew her hair dry until it hung smooth around her shoulders and chose white capris and a silky blue, off-the-shoulder top that gathered with a wide band of beading across her chest.
She dug through her suitcase for a strapless bra, tossing aside offensive wedding shower lingerie as she went. She’d rather sleep in her old and worn I’m Nacho Father T-shirt Connor had given her for Christmas ten years ago. Black with Darth Vader’s face depicted in broken triangle-shaped chips, it never failed to make her smile. Adam had hated it, but then he wasn’t a Star Wars fan.
The second her fingers reached the bottom of her suitcase, it hit her. She hadn’t packed her strapless bra because she’d left it in a heap on the bridal room floor, along with the wedding dress she shucked like a corn cob.
“Ah, screw it,” she said aloud and as she turned felt the pleasant buzz of champagne. She didn’t have that much up top anyway, and with the gathered fabric, she could get away with no bra.
With that same screw-it mindset, she strapped on her new brown heels with wraparound ties at the ankle, swiped on some lip gloss, and was out the door to eat alone. She left her phone—she didn’t want to talk to anyone or answer any more questions. She couldn’t stand any more condolences. Good Lord, even Adam had texted he was sorry three times.
Tired of thinking, she grabbed her paperback and headed out. She wanted a drink, some decadent, fattening food, and an escape into someone else’s fictional life.
She walked alone along the winding manicured paths toward the restaurants and found herself trailing a couple dressed for dinner. They walked shoulder to shoulder, holding hands, their heads dipped close together. She felt an ache in her chest when she heard the man’s deep voice followed by the woman’s soft laugh just before she slipped her arm through his and leaned into him.
Not just lovers but friends.
She and Adam had been friends for years, spending time together in groups, then sliding into more without much of a blip. A ride home. A walk to her car. There hadn’t really been a first date that she could point to. No ground-shaking moment of love realized.
A kiss on the cheek eventually turned into a kiss on the lips. A year later, Adam had turned to her at a stoplight on the way to dinner. “We should get married,” he’d said, and she’d said, “Okay.” Just like that.
She was almost thirty. She wanted a home and a partner. She wanted to be a wife and a mother. She didn’t want to spend her life alone.
So what if there weren’t rockets and sparkle? It was staid and steady. But just because she wanted it didn’t mean it was real. If it had been, she wouldn’t be walking over this uneven cobblestone in heels with no one’s arm to hold on to, no one to whisper to and laugh with over some secret something.
She followed the signs leading to the Asian-fusion restaurant and slowed when she reached a wooden walkway bisecting a water garden. Lights strung from the cover above reflected off the water. She paused to lengthen the distance between herself and the happy couple then waited as two more laughing pairs left the restaurant and walked past her.
She had no problem going to dinner or a movie alone, but it hit her now that she was very much out of place—and very much alone.
I shouldn’t have come, she thought on a surge of panic. Should be back in the States getting my life in order. Unpacking boxes that had already been shipped to the Chicago apartment—but no. That wouldn’t work because Adam was there now. Moving his things out. Moving to Seattle for another promotion. And maybe for the someone else he’d met and loved more than he loved her.
While the couple checked in with the hostess a few yards away, Clare waited, feigning interest in the shallow pond at her feet. Slow-moving koi swam in circles just inches below the surface, searching for something… or maybe someone. Like she’d been searching. She wondered if they ever felt as hopeless as she did.
She glanced at the now-vacant hostess stand, considered turning back and ordering room service. She sighed. She hadn’t used a blow-dryer for nothing.
Turning from the water, she took two steps toward the restaurant before the pointy heel of her right shoe caught between the boards. Off balance, she stepped back with her left foot. Her heel came loose, but not before she was flailing, hands reaching back for a railing that wasn’t there. She tensed for the fall and imminent splashdown. Hoped she didn’t kill an innocent fish.
“Whoa,” a deep, male voice said just as a thick arm caught her around her lower back, bringing her chest hard up against his.
“Sorry,” she breathed out against his wide chest.
“No problem. Wouldn’t want you joining the fish.”
“No. Me neither.” A second passed, maybe two, as her heart pounded against a stranger’s and her hands held to his hard upper arms. She looked up, way up, at the man who’d just yanked her back from the brink. He smiled, making small crinkles at the corners of chocolate-brown eyes, and she lost what breath she had left.