Chapter 1

         Sara Hanson hit the Save button on her laptop and waited for confirmation that the contract she’d been working on wouldn’t disappear into cyberspace. She’d spent the entire flight from New York to Florida making sure every “i” was dotted and every “t” was crossed on the document on the screen. One tiny error could cost her law firm’s client hundreds of thousands of dollars. It would definitely cost her the junior partnership she’d been working toward since she joined Hodgson & Wells almost six years before—and more than likely, she’d end up unemployed.
         She shouldn’t be going home. Especially not now. Not when the decision that could affect the rest of her life was being made this week in a boardroom more than a thousand miles away. And when the four other candidates for the partnership were there in the office, burning the candle at both ends to prove they were worthy. But she’d made a promise more than a year ago to be one of the bridesmaids in her cousin’s wedding, and one thing she never did was break a promise.
         The plane banked slightly to the right, and she looked out the window at the Florida Keys, a string of tiny islands dotting the turquoise water below. A soft smile tugged at her lips when she recognized Sandpiper Key, joined by an extension of the Overseas Highway to Key West and surrounded by powdery white sand. Butterfly Bay, the town where she’d grown up, lay nestled in one of the curves.
         She never tired of seeing the Florida coastline and the Keys from the air, and for a few seconds, she let herself relax, tucking her worries about her career and her future into the back corners of her mind.
         “You going to the beach, too?” a small voice asked.
         Sara turned away from the window to see the little boy who occupied the middle seat staring up at her.
         “We’re going to the beach,” he said, his eyes bright with excitement. His words were punctuated with nods, his poker-straight light brown hair bobbing with every movement. “And we’re going to stay in a big hotel that’s pink and we’re going to swim —”
         “Shh!” the woman in the aisle seat gently scolded. “You’re bothering the lady. She’s busy.” The woman turned to Sara. “I’m sorry. He’s so excited about this vacation. We’re visiting with family in Key West and then going to Disney World.”
         “It’s no problem,” Sara replied. She’d always liked children, had dreamed about having a whole houseful of them. She’d even had their names picked out. But that was back when she was a kid, young and believing in fairy tales and happy endings. Then her father died, and she realized that a husband wasn’t forever, that once she was an adult, she couldn’t depend on anyone else to take care of her financially.
         Now, it was almost too late to think about having a family, and with every birthday, it became riskier. Not that she had anybody to have a family with, but that was beside the point.
         The little boy turned to his mother. “I was just asking. You said if I want to know something I should ask.”
The boy had his mother there. Sara fought back a smile and gave her small carry-on at her feet a gentle shove to secure it under the seat in front of her.
         “That’s different,” his mother told him.
         He shifted in his seat to look back at Sara, the question still in his eyes.
         “No,” Sara said, giving him a smile. “I’m not going to the beach.”
         “Why not? It’s going to be sooo fun.” He clapped his hands, the seatbelt the only thing stopping him from bouncing right out of his seat.
         Fun. Sara could barely remember the last time she’d had real fun. Not since… She hated to admit it, but the last time she’d had real fun was in high school. In Butterfly Bay.
         Sure, she’d gone out now and then in college and when she was in law school and had enjoyed herself, but for the most part her evenings and weekends had been filled with studying and her part-time job at The Exchange, one of the campus cafes. There hadn’t been much time for fun, to really let herself go.
         She’d thought she could relax a little once she finished law school, but trying to have a private life and a career had cost her a partnership with the huge law firm where she’d gone to work after graduation. It had also cost her a personal relationship she’d thought would last forever.
         She’d learned her lesson. She’d quit that law firm, and when she was lucky enough to land a position at Hodgson & Wells, a boutique law firm in Manhattan, she was determined not to make the same mistake. Now, she put in eighty-hour weeks and was too exhausted when she got home in the evening to do much besides grab a burger at one of the neighborhood fast-food places or a TV dinner, soak in a bubble bath and go to bed.
         It had paid off, though. The partners had noticed her dedication and hard work and now she might become the firm’s next junior partner. She would hear the decision in person one way or the other within the next few days.
         “Where you going then?” the little boy asked.
         “To a wedding.”
         “Why? Do you have to?”
         That was a good question. Why was she going to spend a whole week in Butterfly Bay when her career was being decided back in New York? Because a promise was a promise. And it would be nice to visit with her mother and catch up with her friends and extended family. She hadn’t been home in over two years. Far too long. Still…nine days. Two hundred and—
         “I don’t like weddings.” The little boy’s voice burst into her calculations. “You have to dress up, and I don’t like to do that. And you gotta be quiet, too. You gonna be a bride?”
         Sara shook her head. “No.”
         “You wanna be a bride?”
         “Why not?”
         “Okay,” his mother interrupted. “That’s enough. Now sit quietly until the plane lands.” The boy slumped down in his seat and crossed his little arms across his chest, a scowl on his face replacing his earlier grin.
         The woman gave Sara an apologetic smile. “I’m really sorry. When he gets excited, he talks non-stop. Gets it from his father.” She ruffled the little boy’s hair, and it was obvious she adored her son, so the words didn’t sound like a complaint.
         “That’s all right,” Sara replied. “My mother tells me I was the same way when I was a little girl.”
         The plane’s landing gear thunked into position. Sara leaned back in the seat and closed her eyes, forcing herself to take deep breaths and not clench her fingers around the armrest. She didn’t like flying, didn’t like giving up control, but it was the most efficient means of travel so she suffered through it. Still, takeoffs and landings always made her heart race and her stomach feel a bit queasy.
         Breathe in—one, two, three, four. Breathe out—one, two, three, four. Breathe… She focused on the air going in and out of her lungs, and it wasn’t long before she felt the bump of the wheels hitting the runway and the brakes take hold. She opened her eyes as the plane slowed and the terminal came into view. She could breathe normally again.


         Sara waited until the passengers crowding around the baggage claim area scattered before she stepped up. Soon, her black suitcase with the purple ribbon on the handle rounded the carousel. She plucked it out before it disappeared back into the bowels of the airport.
         Once she had it on the floor, she pulled out the handle, set her carry-on on top of the suitcase and headed across the terminal toward the car rental counter.
         She spun around. For a fraction of a second, her brain didn’t register who was frantically waving at her and calling her name. Then, as they got closer, she recognized the group of women hurrying toward her—her friends, Jenna, Lianne, Carly and Teri.
         Sara’s eyes widened at the changes in Jenna’s appearance since she’d seen her last. She’d lost weight, and now, in a pair of cream capris and a dark green T-shirt that clung to her curves, she was stunning. Her auburn hair that she used to complain made her look like Little Orphan Annie’s twin now hung in waves past her shoulders, and the tortoiseshell glasses she’d worn as far back as Sara could remember had obviously been replaced by contact lenses.
         Before she had a chance to comment on the change in Jenna’s appearance, arms engulfed her and they all began talking at once.
         “I’ve missed you—”
         “Welcome home—”
         “It’s so good to see you—”
         “It’s about time—”
         Sara laughed, hugging them all back. These four women were the sisters of her heart. She’d known them since kindergarten and had missed them all so much.
“What are you doing here?” Sara asked when they finally released her.
         “We knew you were coming home for Tracy’s wedding but we thought you were getting in tomorrow,” Jenna said. “I ran into your mother at the market and she told me your plans had changed and you were flying in today instead, so we decided to come and get you.”
         Sara’s heart swelled. That her friends would take time out of their busy lives to welcome her home touched her deeply. Jenna had recently bought a small bed-and-breakfast that was pretty rundown. It needed quite a bit of work and it wasn’t open yet so it was easier for her to take time away, but it was harder for the others.
         “Did you see the pilot?” Carly asked. “Was he gorgeous like the pilots in the movies?”
         Sara chuckled. Typical Carly, thinking about whether a man was good-looking or not. When she wasn’t working as an ICU nurse at the Sandpiper Key Hospital, that was. When she was on duty, she was a different person—responsible, serious, dedicated. Outside of the hospital, though, she was fun and flirty, and never got seriously involved with any man.
         “Only if you’re attracted to men that are more like Shrek than humans,” Sara replied with a grin.
         “Come on.” Lianne tucked her hand into Sara’s elbow and dragged her a few feet. “We promised your mom we’d get you home as soon as you landed,” she said, “and          I do need to get back to the store. You know how my mother is…”
         Sara nodded. Lianne’s mother was so protective of her since she’d come to live with them after her divorce, a temporary move that had somehow dragged out for far too long. She’d taken over the administration side of her parents’ outdoor shop to fill her time and now it was a full-time job.
         “Oh…” Sara stopped. “I’m sorry, but I have a rental car waiting for me. If I’d known…”
Lianne hugged Sara again. “Well, it wouldn’t have been a surprise then.”
         “It was the best surprise,” Sara assured them.
         Teri smiled. “I can’t stay anyway, so I’m glad you’re not driving to your mom’s with Lianne. Now I won’t miss any news you have.”
         Teri had gotten married two years before and now had six-month-old twin boys. She and her husband, Nick, ran a bakery now, so she couldn’t leave unless she had someone to take over for her. They didn’t see her as much as they used to, but she made sure she was there for anything important that was going on.
         “I’m surprised you had time to come,” Sara said. “I can’t wait to meet the babies.”
Teri smiled. “They’re the best thing that ever happened to me.”
         “I’m sure they are,” Sara said. “I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you all, and I’ll see you tomorrow and we’ll catch up, okay? I want to hear all the latest news and gossip.”
         Jenna’s eyes widened. “Tomorrow? We thought later today or tonight—”
         Sara chuckled. “I know. I want to spend time with you, too, but I haven’t seen Mom since last year so I want to spend the rest of the day with her. You understand, right?”
         Through the muttering that went on at Sara’s question, she knew they did understand.
         After saying their goodbyes, Sara took care of the paperwork for the car rental, and fifteen minutes later, she was on her way home.

Chapter 2

         Ryan Brady chugged down a full bottle of water and then pulled up the front of his gray T-shirt to wipe the sweat running down his forehead into his eyes. It was still early April but Mother Nature had skipped spring—or what passed for spring in the Keys—and gone straight to summer. For the past week, the only time of day that was cool enough to be comfortable outside was early morning and late at night.
         He tugged the T-shirt over his head and tossed it over the front porch railing. Duke, the dog he’d found wandering along the beach the day after he moved back to Butterfly Bay, lifted his head and sniffed. He raised one brow to check on Ryan’s whereabouts, and, deciding there wasn’t anything worth using up his energy for, let out a half-sigh and dropped his head back onto his paws.
         The dog had had a collar with his name on it when Ryan found him, but nothing else. Ryan had put up posters around town and even called the local radio station to try to find the dog’s owners, but there’d been no response.
         He had no idea what breed of dog Duke was, and when he’d taken him to the vet to get checked over, the closest Doc Simpson had been able to guess was that he had some German Shepherd in him.
         Ryan didn’t care what breed Duke was. The dog had stolen Ryan’s heart that first day, and if he were being honest, he was glad no one had come to claim him. Duke had barely left his side since. At least not yet.
         A vision tugged at his memory…his mother on her knees in the garden planting yet another rose bush beside the house. The next evening, she went out, supposedly to go to the market for ice cream. That was the last time he saw her.
         He shook his head as if he were trying to dislodge the memory and send it back where it belonged. So what if she’d left them? So what if his father was now living hundreds of miles away. He was fine by himself. He didn’t need anyone else. He had Duke.
         Ryan picked up the shovel and with more force than he needed to, he rammed it into the ground near the stump of a dead cedar tree beside the house.
         The roots were stubborn, running deeper than he expected. Straightening, he leaned the shovel against the wall and headed to the garage for the chainsaw to cut the roots out.
         He’d have to tackle the garage soon, too. He’d dumped quite a few boxes in there when he’d moved in the week before, though he doubted he’d ever need anything in them. The smart thing to do would be to call one of the junk removal companies and just get rid of it all.
         But nobody ever said Ryan was smart. He’d done some pretty stupid things in his life, things he still regretted. But now wasn’t the time to walk down memory lane. He needed to keep his head in the present and think about what he was going to do with the stacks of boxes piled roof-high in the garage. He’d have to clean it out one way or the other if he ever planned on using it to restore the sailboat he’d bought. Why he’d bought a boat, he had no idea. He wasn’t much of a sailor, even though the few times he’d been out on a sailboat he’d enjoyed himself. Sailing his own boat was a whole different thing, and more than likely, it would end up at the bottom of the Gulf.
         He’d bought the boat at a charity auction a few weeks before. The boat was still stored at the seller’s house, but he couldn’t leave it there much longer. One of his friends, Ross Michaels, had offered to help him to restore it, but if he didn’t hurry up and get the boat out of the seller’s garage and into his, Ross would be too busy working at the marina to have any spare time.
         Until the night he’d gone to the charity auction for the local hospital and bought the boat, he’d wondered if he’d made a mistake giving up the life he’d worked for in Phoenix. If coming home to stay in Butterfly Bay would be one more regret to add to the list of regrets he already had. But something had happened to him when he’d seen the photos of the boat, something that had finally made him realize that this was where he was meant to be. He was happy to be home.
         It took him ten minutes to find the chainsaw among all the tools and lawn-care equipment his father had left behind when he’d moved out four years before. The tenants who’d lived in the house in the meantime hadn’t touched any of it, and it hadn’t been used in years. He wasn’t even sure any of the tools and gadgets would work, but it was worth a try.
         As he reached the garage, a car stopped in front of the house next door and began backing into the driveway. From where he was standing, he couldn’t see the driver’s face. He waited, his fingers around the handle of the chainsaw. The car door opened and a pair of long shapely legs ending in strappy sandals slid out, followed by…Sara!
         The country song blaring through old Mr. DeWalt’s open window three doors down faded away. The four boys riding their bikes in circles on the road down the block blurred in his vision. Even his own heartbeat stilled.
         He swore under his breath.
         She looked good! Better than good. She’d always been the prettiest girl he’d ever seen, but now…now she was downright gorgeous. Her hair, the long, wavy blonde hair he remembered, was pulled away from her face into a tight bun perched on the top of her head, but it only emphasized the eyes he knew shifted from gray to blue depending on her mood.
         She’d gained a little weight since he’d seen her last, and those extra few pounds had filled her out in all the right places.
         She’d always dressed like a librarian, and it looked as if at least that hadn’t changed. Still, the dark blue slacks and the blue and white pin-striped blouse clung to curves that hadn’t been there the last time he’d seen her.
         She still had that same ski-jump nose he’d always teased her about, too, and the same lips he hadn’t been able to resist. One night had changed everything. One night near the end of their senior year of high school.
         She’d gone from being his best friend’s little sister to a woman he wanted more than he’d thought possible.
         He’d fallen for her. Fallen hard. They’d been inseparable all that summer, until he’d come to his senses and realized what a mistake it was.
         He’d hurt her. He knew that. And he hated himself for the pain he’d put her through, but he’d really believed it was the right thing to do.
         Lord knew he’d tried to put her out of his mind in the years after he left Butterfly Bay. He’d gone to college, graduated, found a great job in a well-respected investment firm, worked his way up the corporate ladder, even gotten married. And discovered that with all he had, he was still miserable. And he still hadn’t forgotten Sara.
         He hadn’t seen her in… He did the math. Almost twenty years. Since the night of the final baseball game of the season.
         The game was over. The ballpark was empty, the lights turned off. Only he and Sara were left. Somehow, they’d ended up under the bleachers, hidden from view of anyone who might come by.
         Their kisses that night had been filled with feelings and sensations he’d never felt before. And by the way she’d responded to him, he knew she felt the same way he did.
         But common sense had hit him just in time, and he’d called on every ounce of self-control he’d been able to muster. Like a jerk, he’d left her standing alone under the bleachers and walked away. Two days later, he’d hightailed it out of town like a coward.
         He’d known it was only a matter of time before he’d run into her again, especially now that he was living right next door to the house she’d grown up in. Her mother had told him she was coming home for her cousin’s wedding, but he was sure her mother had said she wasn’t due until the next day. He’d thought he’d have one more day to figure out how to handle their inevitable reunion.
         But like anything else that could be uncomfortable or weird, it was better to get it over with instead of stewing about it.
         He set the chainsaw down on the porch step and wiped his hands on his jeans. Moving to the porch, he slid the T-shirt back over his head. “Stay put, Duke,” he told the dog.
         Then, sucking in a deep calming breath, he crossed the yard toward her.


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