At the beach the rule is no shirt, no shoes. . .
NO STRINGS ATTACHED
“Blonde, metallic blue bikini, left side of the pier near the boogie board rental,” Mac James said in a low voice as he handed Dune a twenty-ounce cup of black coffee from Brews Brothers. The scent of Bakehouse doughnuts rose from a bakery box. “I’m betting Brazilian wax. She’s definitely a two-nighter.”
Dune Cates raised an eyebrow. “Brazilian?”
Mac blew on his coffee to cool it. “Women discuss boxers, briefs or commando on a man. I debate waxing.”
Dune shook his head. Mac was his partner on the professional beach volleyball tour. On court, they were as close as brothers and in each other’s heads. Off court, their lifestyles differed greatly. Mac was up for anything at any given time. Dune, on the other hand, was more conservative. He had foresight and weighed the pros and cons. He knew when and where to draw the line, whereas Mac had no boundaries. He saw life as a free-for-all.
Mac had dated more women than Dune could count. He’d recently parted ways with a waxing technician at VaDazzle Salon in Los Angeles. The salon was known for its pubic hair designs. Mac now played his V-games with the eye of an expert.
Dune had pretty much seen it all. His bed partners shaped their pubes into lightning bolts, hearts, and initials. One female surfer dyed her pubic hair pink. Another was striped like a Zebra. His most fascinating lover had been shaved and decorated with stick-on crystals. She’d sparkled like a disco ball.
His preference was, and always had been, a light bikini wax or totally natural. He didn’t need creative techniques to turn him on.
He leaned his forearms against the bright blue pipe railing that separated the boardwalk from the beach. He took a deep sip of his coffee. It was midmorning and the sun warmed his back right between his shoulder blades. The heat never bothered him. He’d grown up at the beach. The sand and shoreline were home to him. It was where he earned his living.
He looked toward the boogie boards. The blonde stood out. She was definitely Mac’s type. His partner loved long hair and legs that went from here to eternity. The woman’s hair skimmed nearly to her waist and her legs were sleek and toned.
Dune read women well. He knew who liked him as a person and who only wanted a piece of his action. He recognized the blonde as a woman who enticed men and enjoyed their attention. She made a theatrical production of laying out her towel, then rubbing on suntan oil. She was soon slick. Her entire body glistened.
Beside him, Mac opened the bakery box and offered Dune first choice. He selected a glazed doughnut. Mac chose one with chocolate frosting and sprinkles.
“Sweet cheeks near the volleyball net,” Mac said between bites. “Red one-piece, black hair, French wax. Nice walk. I’d follow her anywhere.”
Sweet cheeks was tall and slender, Dune noted. She moved with the slow, sensuous grace of a woman who knew her body well and owned the moment. The lady was hot.
Mac squinted against the sun. “Tattooed chic in a fringed camo thong bikini, third in line at the concession stand,” he said. “Is that a tat of a rattler coiled on her stomach?”
Dune checked her out. “Looks like one.”
She was a walking advertisement for a tattoo parlor. He saw just how much she liked snakes when she widened her stance. A python wrapped her left leg; its split-tongue darted out as if licking her inner thigh.
“Snake bite, dude,” Mac said. “Woman’s got venom. I bet her pubes are shaved and tattooed with a cobra.”
“She’s definitely into reptiles.”
Mac reached for a second doughnut topped with cinna-mon sugar. “Sex and snakes don’t mix. I’d go soft if I heard hissing or a rattle.”
“Major mood killer,” Dune agreed.
They drank their coffee and ate their doughnuts in companionable silence. All along the coastline sunbathers sought their own private space. That space was limited. The expanding crowd was an improvement from the previous summer when the economy tanked and one person had the entire beach to himself. It felt good to see his hometown thrive.
Mac nudged him, pointed right. “Check out the desert nomad at water’s edge.”
The woman was easy to spot. She was short and overdressed for the beach. She wore all white. White reflected the sun. A Gilligan bucket hat covered her hair. Her sunglasses were enormous, hiding her face. A rain poncho capped her shoulders and she wore waterproof pants tucked into rubber boots.
She walked slowly along the compact sand, only to retreat when a splash of foam chased her. It appeared she didn’t want to get wet. She bent down once, touched the water, then quickly shook the drops from her hand.
She played tag with the Gulf for several minutes before turning toward the boardwalk. She tripped over her feet and nearly fell near the lifeguard station. The guard on duty left his female admirers and took her by the arm. He smiled down at her. She dipped her head, embarrassed.
The lifeguard gave her an encouraging pat on her shoulder and sent her on her way. Her rubber boots seemed overly large and she stumbled two more times on her way to the wooden ramp. Sunbathers scooted out of her way.
The closer the woman got, the slower Dune breathed.
His heart gave a surprising squeeze. Sophie Saunders. He was sure of it. No one else would dress so warmly on a summer day. And Sophie was naturally clumsy.
Ten months had passed since he’d last seen her, although he’d thought about her often. They’d come together for a worthy cause: to boost the Barefoot William economy.
His younger sister Shaye had organized a local pro/am volleyball tournament to keep their town alive. He’d provided the professional players. The pros were auctioned to amateur athletes. Sophie had bid ten thousand dollars to be his partner. She wasn’t good at sports, but she had the heart of a champion.
Sophie of the brown hair and evergreen eyes had a high IQ but low self-esteem. She was a bookworm, shy and afraid of her own shadow. She feared crowds and the ocean, yet she’d powered through the sports event and made a decent showing. He wondered if she’d ever learned to swim.
Her image had stuck with him. He remembered things about her that he’d rather have forgotten. She had amazing skin, fair, smooth, and soft. Her scent was light and powdery: vanilla and innocence. Her hair smelled like baby
shampoo. She hid her curves beneath layers of clothing, yet her body gave off a woman’s heat.
She’d bought her very first swimsuit for the tournament. He could close his eyes and still picture her in the cobalt blue tankini. He could hear the male fans on the outdoor bleachers applaud and whistle their appreciation. Sweet Sophie had an amazing body.
Their team had fought hard during the event. He’d tried to shield her when they’d battled through the loser’s bracket. His best attempts hadn’t saved her, not by a long shot.
Sophie wasn’t the least bit athletic and had taken a beating. Opponents nailed her with the ball time and again. She’d gotten sunburned, bruised her knees, and eaten sand. Yet she’d never complained. Not once.
To this day he regretted not telling her good-bye when the weekend ended. Instead he’d watched her walk away. It had been for the best. She was a Saunders and he was a Cates. A century-old feud had separated the families back then.
The lines of hostility had blurred when Shaye married Sophie’s brother Trace. Both sides had eventually accepted their marriage. Only his Grandfather Frank had yet to come around. He was old-Florida, opinionated and stubborn, and set in his ways.
Dune figured everyone would forgive and forget once Shaye became pregnant. She and Trace wanted to start a family. Dune anticipated her announcement any day now. No one would want to miss the birth of the couple’s first child.
He absently rubbed his wrist. He’d played a big part in Barefoot William’s financial recovery, only to suffer for it later. Tendonitis was a bitch. Freak accidents occurred in all sports. Some were career-ending.
He’d taken a dive at the South Beach Open and fallen on his outstretched hand prior to his hometown tournament. He’d suffered a scaphoid fracture.
His orthopedist put him in a short, supportive cast and recommended that he not take part in the event. Dune refused to let his family down. He managed to serve and spike with one hand as well as others could with two. He’d played through the pain.
In retrospect, he shouldn’t have participated. He’d
aggravated his fracture further. Despite additional surgery and extensive therapy, he never regained full strength in his fingers and wrist.
He was a man of quick decisions, yet the thought of retirement left him feeling restless, indecisive and old.
Sophie was so young. She was twenty-five to his thirty-six. Their age difference concerned him. He’d dated sweet young things, all worldly and experienced. But Sophie was unlike any woman he’d ever met. She was sensitive, vulnerable, and made him want to protect her.
He preferred no strings attached.
Here she was now twenty feet from him, her head down, watching her steps so she didn’t fall. She made it onto the boardwalk without mishap. She visibly relaxed. Her sigh and small smile indicated she’d accomplished a great feat and was proud of herself.
Mac stared at her, too. “It’s Sophie. Damn, she’s cute. Let’s go talk to her.”
Dune hesitated. “Let’s see where she’s headed first.”
He removed his Suncats, a brand of sunglasses he’d recently endorsed on the tour. The lenses were small and oval with a dark olive tint. The sporty frame never slipped down his nose, even when he sweat or wore sunscreen. He hooked the sunglasses at the neck of his white polo.
Sophie was slow to move. It took her several minutes to catch her breath. Once she had, she entered Crabby Abby’s General Store. The cherry red door caught on her rubber boot heel. She shook her foot until it released.
“Let’s follow her,” Mac said, tossing his coffee cup and the bakery box into a trash receptacle. “I need my Sophie fix.”
Still Dune held back. “She’s working.”
Mac looked skeptical. “In that outfit?”
“She has a change of clothes inside,” he said. “Abby’s employees all wear shorts and a tank top.”
“What’s she doing on your boardwalk?” Mac asked. “Padding her trust fund?”
Dune shook his head. “She doesn’t need the money. According to my sister, Sophie’s trying to find her niche in the working world.”
“Her niche wasn’t Saunders Shores?”
“Not from what I understand.” Dune then shared what Shaye had told him. “Sophie’s shy and has struggled to fit in. She spent time at Trace’s office, The Sandcastle Hotel, several boutiques and bistros, but nothing appealed to her. She’s yet to settle on a career.”
Shaye had further mentioned that the elite businesses overwhelmed Sophie, a fact Dune chose not to share with Mac. Sophie was quiet, reserved, and avoided crowds wherever possible. She was drawn to couture, but found it difficult to outfit upscale clientele.
Food service was not her strong suit either. She’d messed up orders and dropped trays. She hadn’t been fired, but the owners were relieved when her ventures took her elsewhere.
Dune ran a hand along the back of his neck, blew out a breath. “My sister’s taken a special interest in Sophie,” he said. “Shaye suggested Sophie explore job opportunities on our boardwalk. Sophie refuses to be paid, so she’s volunteering.”
“She may like Barefoot William so much she decides to stay,” said Mac.
Sophie as a permanent fixture on his boardwalk made Dune uneasy. He hoped that wasn’t the case. He wasn’t certain he wanted her here full time. She was too nice, too naïve, and in need of a keeper. She’d prove distracting.
He wasn’t in town long enough to watch over her. Nor did he have anyone in mind to appoint to the task. No one he’d trust anyway.
He could easily understand her fascination with his hometown. The Cates’s northern cement boardwalk linked to a wooden pier that catered to fishermen, sun worshippers, water sport enthusiasts, and tourists who didn’t wear a watch on vacation.
Amusement arcades and carnival rides drew large crowds. The specialty shops sold everything from Florida T-shirts, ice cream, sunglasses, sharks’ teeth, and shells to hula hoops.
A century-old carousel whirled within a weatherproof enclosure. Its walls of windows overlooked the Gulf. The whirr of the Ferris wheel was soothing, while the swing ride that whipped out and over the waves sent pulses racing.
Neon lights flashed at night and music poured from many of the shops. People danced down the boardwalk, free and uninhibited. Many played black light volleyball on the beach. Glow-in-the-dark Frisbees were tossed along the shoreline. A few skinny-dipped near the pier after midnight. Barefoot William was as honky-tonk as Saunders Shores was high-profile.
Waterfront mansions welcomed the rich and retired in Sophie’s world. Yachts the size of cruise ships lined the waterways. Private airstrips replaced commercial travel. The wealthy were a community unto themselves. Forbes listed Saunders Shores as the wealthiest resort community in the country.
“So?” Max nudged Dune with his elbow. “Do we surprise Sophie or not?”
He shrugged, still reluctant.
Mac rolled his eyes.
Dune scanned the beach. A No Littering sign caught his attention. He’d played Big Word, Little Words as a kid, a game where the player made smaller words out of the letters of the longer one. He did so now to distract himself from the matter at hand. Littering: Let, get, ring, in, gin, it.
“You never told her ‘good-bye’ and you regretted it,” Mac persisted, interrupting his game. “It might be nice to say ‘hello’. You’re home for a month. You’re bound to bump into her.” He paused. “You know you want to see her.”
Dune did, but he didn’t. He and Mac could go together or Mac would go it alone. A part of him didn’t want his partner alone with her. Mac had a soft spot for Sophie. He teased her until her whole body blushed. She blushed more than any woman Dune had ever known. Mac could easily turn his teasing into hitting on her. That bothered Dune a lot.
“I’m in,” he finally agreed.
“What are you smiling about?” asked Dune.
“You know what I’m smiling about.”
Mac knew him as well as his own brothers. Dune had always considered Mac family. Mac was the bat-shit crazy cousin who pushed everyone’s buttons. And got away with it.
Approaching Sophie now gave Dune the opportunity to establish boundaries. He didn’t want hero-worship or fan girl from her, only a friendship. Keeping her at arm’s length worked best.
He braced himself as he walked the few feet to the general store. He hated the fact Sophie threw off his breathing. His chest hitched just as it always did right before the first serve in a volleyball game.
Anticipation wound him tight.
Sophie Saunders was on her hands and knees on the hardwood floor when Dune Cates and his partner Mac James pushed through the door. Dune. Her stomach dipped and her body went soft. The Windex spray bottle and cleaning cloth she was using to wipe down the glass shelves of the pharmacy counter slipped through her fingers. The bottle hit the floor and rolled just out of her reach.
She pushed her orange half-reading glasses higher on her nose, then peeked through the crack of the small wooden doors and watched the two men approach. She knew them both, but hadn’t seen either one since the previous summer when she’d partnered with Dune for the pro/am volleyball tournament to raise money for Barefoot William.
It had been the best three days of her life. They’d scored the winner’s trophy in the loser’s bracket. She cherished the small trophy, designed with a silver volleyball on a block of polished wood. It sat in a place of honor on the top shelf of her antique Barrister glass-front bookcase between her cloth-bound first editions of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Augusta Jane Evan’s St. Elmo.
The trophy was visible from all angles in her library. She would look up from reading, see the award, and smile. The trophy made her feel like a winner. It gave her strength and contentment.
Her inner peace vanished the moment she saw Dune. He made her jumpy and edgy and nervous. Gossip on the boardwalk had him coming home in June. It was only the middle of May. Sophie hadn’t expected him today.
Shaye had mentioned her older brother was taking a short break from the pro-circuit. His thoughts were centered on retirement, although he’d yet to make the formal announcement. He and Mac were to play in the Huntington Beach Classic the first weekend in July. After that it was anyone’s guess as to his future.
Sophie secretly hoped he’d be returning home. She’d had a crush on him ever since elementary school. Time had not diminished her feelings. She could still recall their long-ago meeting.
She’d been on her bicycle riding home from school when her backpack slipped off one shoulder and knocked her off balance. She was a chubby, uncoordinated seven-year-old, and when her bike tipped, she fell hard. Her glasses flew off and the zipper on her backpack split. Her books skidded over the pavement.
She had so many books to gather. Her last stop of the day had been at the library. With the weekend ahead, she’d stocked up on reading material. She wasn’t into sports, but found a great escape in fairy tales.
A horn honked and a car swerved around her. She looked up and noticed she’d stopped traffic. The more she hurried, the clumsier she became. Books dropped as fast as she picked them up. Her classmates passed her on their own bikes and snickered. She wasn’t popular. She had one close friend whose mother picked her up every day.
Dune had come to her rescue. He’d ridden up on a motorcycle that roared so loud she covered her ears. He’d cut the engine, set the kickstand, and removed his helmet. She’d stared at him, this older boy with the mussed blond hair and Lion King-gold eyes.
He’d climbed off his bike and collected her books. In a very short time he’d fixed the zipper on her backpack then doctored the cut on her chin with a Superman Band-Aid. She’d been good to go.
They’d exchanged first names, but neither had known they were sworn enemies back then. Cates and Saunders didn’t mix, yet he’d been nice to her. She’d never forgotten his kindness. Her mended childhood backpack still hung in a storage room in her garage. He’d made a lifelong impression on her.
She’d hero-worshipped him as a kid, then been awed by the man when she entered her twenties. Her biggest wish was to know him better.
She sighed softly. She’d hoped for the perfect moment to get reacquainted. Now was not good. She was stuck behind the counter on sore knees with the scent of Windex on her hands. She quietly rolled her shoulders and neck. She should’ve stood up the moment she saw Dune and Mac and made her presence known. As it was, she’d look like a Jack-in-the-Box should she pop up now.
She squinted down the aisle, studying both men. Mac was tall and rangy with shaggy dark hair, blue eyes, and an easy smile. He wore a gray tank top printed with I Win, You Lose, Game Over and black board shorts. He lived life on a dare and laughed easily. He charmed women out of their swimsuits with no more than a smile.
Then there was Dune. Sophie’s breathing deepened. At six foot six he wore a white polo, worn jeans and a lean masculinity. His hair was shorter than she remembered, which only sharpened his features. His shoulders were broad and his body toned. He was one fine-looking athlete.
He’d recently turned thirty-six, and photographs of his birthday celebration surfaced in a dozen sports magazines. She’d purchased copies of each one. Those pages featuring his sexy grin were dog-eared.
Mac had thrown the bash on Huntington Beach in Dune’s honor. The party was open to the public. Thousands had attended. Volleyball fans were loyal and loved to celebrate one of their own. Dune belonged to them.
Women surrounded him in the photos, standing twenty deep in string bikinis, all trying to claim his attention. Dune stood among them in a tropical pair of his designer swim trunks and a disarming smile. He’d had to hire a tractor trailer to haul away his gifts.
Dune was a champion in his sport. He’d won every tournament on the professional beach volleyball tour. Media followed him as closely as the cheering crowd. He was accessible to the press and never declined an interview.
There’d been no rise and fall to his career. He’d been a solid, dominant force from his first serve. His talent and sportsmanship were legendary. He’d received the coveted Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year Award. A top athletic honor.
Men wanted to be him and women wanted to do him. His female fans called him Beach Heat. He was that hot.
Sophie now watched as the two men approached the pharmacy. They walked slowly, as if they had all the time
in the world. She imagined her heart was pounding hard enough to draw their attention. She held her breath, afraid to exhale.
She’d hoped when she next saw Dune she would look more presentable. She was uncomfortable in her skin, and the more she covered up the better. The employee dress code at Crabby Abby’s was a red halter top and khaki shorts. She felt nearly naked.
Dune was used to women wearing next to nothing. The beach brought out their tanned, toned bodies in tiny bikinis. Sophie faced the sun in a hat, long tunic, loose slacks and rain boots. She layered on so much sunscreen, she looked like a ghost.
She watched as the men stopped before the shelves stocked with toothpaste and deodorant. Each selected his favorite brands before moving down the aisle toward feminine products and male protection. Sophie swallowed hard when Dune reached for a neon blue box on the top shelf.
“Night Light Condoms,” he read from the back of the box. “No need to reach for the light switch. These condoms glow in the dark.”
Mac rubbed his jaw. “Night Light fits tight, but I like Black Ice. Condom has a nice, easy slide.”
The two men turned toward the pharmacy counter.
And Sophie curled into a tighter ball.
Dune leaned his hip against the edge and cleared his throat. “Should we get boxes of two-fifty or order cases of one thousand?” he asked Mac.
Sophie gaped and her eyes went wide. One thousand condoms. They were planning on having a lot of sex.
Mac set the items he held onto the counter top. “I’d say the latter, but let’s ask Sophie.”
Could a heart stop? Apparently she wasn’t good at hiding. They’d known her location all along. She wished for a hole to open and swallow her. No such luck. She untucked just as Dune rounded the counter. She breathed him in. His scent was masculine and clean, hinting of lime and sunshine.
He offered his hand and she took it, pushing slowly to her feet. His grip was large, callused, and supportive. Her hand disappeared within the curve of his palm.
Having seen Dune through the cracks of the counter doors was one thing. Up close was quite another. He overwhelmed her. She held his hand until he loosened his grip. She would’ve loved to touch him a little longer, but that seemed inappropriate.
She faced him now, her eyes leveled on his heart. At five-two she was forced to look up. Way up. She did so, meeting his amber-brown gaze. Her composure slipped and kept on sliding. She blushed. She was as embarrassed by the heat in her cheeks as by her reaction to him.
She hated wearing her feelings on her sleeve when Dune wasn’t the least affected. He stared at her, long, hard, assessing. His smile was slight, his expression unreadable.
He crossed his arms over his chest and widened his stance, but didn’t say a word. Sophie couldn’t have spoken if her life depended on it.
Mac, on the other hand, was a man of action and affection. He pulled her to him and kissed her full on the mouth. A quick kiss, soft and tasting of sugar. “It’s been a long time, babe,” he said, still holding her close. “Have you missed us?”
Shyness overtook her and she dipped her head. She wasn’t good at banter. Flirting eluded her completely. Honesty was her policy.
“You’ve crossed my mind on occasion,” she admitted in a soft voice. Mac was easy to remember. He’d teased her throughout the volleyball tournament. His sexual exploits were as infamous as his spikes on the court.
Dune was an equally gifted athlete, yet he was far more serious in his outlook on life. He was definitely more distant. His departure the previous summer without so much as a good-bye had laid Sophie low.
She’d paid big bucks to be his partner. He hadn’t owed her anything beyond a weekend of his time. That was all he’d given her.
The final image she had of him was drinking a beer on the beach in the middle of the celebration while she stood alone on the boardwalk. Her heart had hurt for six months afterward.
“Hello, Sophie,” Dune’s deep voice rolled over her, more formal than friendly. He raised his hand and ruffled her hair, as if she were a child. Her jaw slipped, and the air in her lungs hitched like a hiccup.
Eleven years separated them. Age didn’t matter to her, but it apparently did to him. To add to her embarrassment, Mac burst out laughing, a gut-busting laugh that only confused Sophie further. Was she the butt of their joke?
Dune cut Mac a look, so sharp and significant Mac stopped laughing. Mac went on to straighten the strands of her hair that Dune had mussed. He then squeezed her shoulder, which shored-up her confidence.
“I’m surprised to see you guys,” she finally managed.
“We saw you on the beach,” said Mac. “You were dressed for a trek across the desert.”
“I didn’t want to get sunburned.”
“No chance of that,” he assured her.
Dune stared at her. “You were at the water’s edge, skimming the waves with your fingertips.”
She bit down on her bottom lip. “The Gulf scares me,” she admitted. “I still don’t swim, but I’d love to wade ankle deep someday.”
“I was a lifeguard one summer,” Mac said. “I’d be happy to teach you how to swim. You won’t earn an Olympic medal, but most everyone can dog paddle.”
“Sophie isn’t everyone,” Dune said. “She’ll conquer her fear in her own good time.”
“Maybe she’d like to skimboard,” Mac suggested.
“Or maybe not,” said Dune.
Definitely not, Sophie thought, agreeing with Dune. She didn’t have the coordination to run along the shoreline, toss the rectangular board, then hop on and ride the breaking waves. She’d fall flat on her face. She’d be buried in the sand at high tide.
Mac wrapped his arm about her shoulders, tucked her against his side. She didn’t protest. He liked women; the
closer they were the better. His body was warm, his stance relaxed. “How long have you worked here?” he asked.
“Two weeks,” she said. “I volunteer part-time.”
“Is Abby crabby?” asked Mac.
Sophie shook her head. “Not in the least.”
“You’re on my boardwalk.” Dune drew a line in the sand between the Cates and the Saunders.
Teasing or a taunt? The neutral tone of his voice made it hard to tell. “Shaye issued me a work permit,” she said.
He came back with, “My sister no longer runs Barefoot William Enterprises.”
Sophie scrunched her nose. She wasn’t about to argue the point. Dune’s grandfather had removed Shaye from her duties when she married Trace. The older man went on to appoint Kai Cates as president.
Kai might be the overseer, but Shaye was the primary consultant. Her advice and direction kept the town in the
black. Family and friends might not approve of her husband, but no one disputed her authority.
Sophie was certain that Frank was aware of Shaye’s involvement, but he let it ride. He and Shaye had once been as close as father and daughter. Sophie hoped they would be close again someday, once Frank accepted a Cates had married a Saunders.
Until then, the century-old dispute still lingered. Sophie loved history and had researched both families. Shaye and Trace shared a stack of journals, dating back to the turn-of-the-century. Each yellowed page spelled out the disagreements and distrust between the founding fathers of the Gulf community. Sophie found their lives fascinating.
For a heartbeat of seconds she turned back time and recalled depth and insight of the entries, the long passages outlining the two writers’ dissatisfaction and differences. William Cates’s documentation dated back to nineteen hundred and six. The very day he left Frostbite, Minnesota. He’d been a farmer broken by poor crops and a harsh, early winter. He’d sold his farm and equipment, then hand cranked his Model T and driven south. He had no destination in mind. He sought warmer weather and lots of land.
The trip was long and hard, yet he pushed on until the Florida sunshine thawed him out. On a long stretch of uninhabited beach, William rolled up his pant legs and shucked his socks and work boots. He walked the shoreline with the egrets and horseshoe crabs at low tide. The salt water was crystal clear. Once he experienced the warm sugar sand between his toes, he vowed never to wear shoes again. He put down roots, married, and named the fishing village Barefoot William.
Even after he was elected mayor, William walked barefoot through city hall, as did the other town officials. Back then, life existed on a man’s word and a solid handshake. William’s journal was a personal pledge to his family and long-time friends. He gave his word that expansion along the Gulf coast would be slow and selective. There was no rush to build beyond the long pier and short boardwalk.
For two decades, the fishing village remained small and laid-back. Welcoming. Until the day Sophie’s great-great-great grandfather Evan Saunders disrupted the peace. It had been a sad day for the Cateses. Sophie’s sympathy lay with William.
She knew from the journals that Evan was a capitalist with big-city blood. He wore three-piece suits, a bowler hat, and polished brown oxfords. She’d seen a black-and-white photograph of Evan. The man looked pretentious. It was rumored he defied the heat and never broke a sweat even in summer. He dared the sun to shine.
Evan set his sights on real estate. His journal was filled with predictions and diagrams for growth. He contacted Northern investors and, within six months, the Saunders Group began to buy up land. Evan wanted to citify the small town. He sought to turn Barefoot William into a wealthy winter resort.
After reading the journals through nineteen hundred and fifty, Sophie discovered the sordid truth. Her ancestors had dominated, at times, through deception. By back-stabbing and being underhanded, too.
She’d learned about Evan’s payoffs and bribes.
Money was his mistress.
William Cates’s wealth came through family. They were close-knit, and he protected his own. He fought for his town. He battled zoning and expansion. He believed in squatter’s rights.
Evan was a developer and wanted the very best. He built his own boardwalk, yacht harbor, and extravagant beach house. He snubbed the barefoot mayor. Animosity flared between the men. They sparred for sixty years.
On an overcast day with thunderheads roiling, the conservative and the capitalist drew a line in the sand, which neither crossed during the remainder of their lifetimes. The line later became Center Street, the mid-point between Barefoot William and Saunders Shores.
On a sigh, Sophie mentally closed the journals. The two towns had historical roots that ran deep. She hoped the day would come when everyone stepped out of the past and got along.
She was a Saunders; there was no denying the fact. She was born to a life of privilege. She’d grown up quiet and content with a trust fund that would last her indefinitely. Only recently had her soul stirred and she’d become restless. She wasn’t the person she wanted to be. She needed to overcome her shyness and find her purpose, however small. She needed to step outside her comfort zone.
She’d gone to Trace and Shaye and sought their guidance. They suggested she work in several shops until she found a business that truly appealed to her. Crabby Abby’s was her second venture.
The boardwalk stretched long and inviting. Each shop was filled with excitement. She’d find her niche. She was sure of it.
“Sophie, babe, you’re drifting on us.” Mac snapped his fingers before her eyes. “You’ve got two of the biggest names in volleyball offering to take you to lunch and you’re lost in space,” he teased.
She blinked, blushed, embarrassed by her attention lapse. “Sorry,” she said.
The corners of Dune’s eyes creased and his lips twitched. He was amused. “How soon are you free?” he asked.
She glanced at her watch. It was eleven forty-five. “I’m done with my shift at noon.”
“You’re volunteering,” said Mac. “Can’t you leave whenever you want?”
“I promised Abby four hours,” Sophie said.
Respect lit Dune’s gaze, fleet yet discernable. “Some of us are more dedicated than others.”
“I finish what I start,” said Mac.
“No, you don’t,” said Dune. “You recently left a promotional shoot for volleyball a half-hour early.”
Mac pulled a face. “How many times did the photographer want me to serve the freakin’ ball?” he asked.
“More than once,” returned Dune.
“The guy should’ve gotten the shot with my first spike,” Mac argued.
“It wasn’t a spike,” Dune said. “You bounced on your toes like a girl, then underhanded the serve.”
“Don’t believe a word he says,” Mac said to Sophie. “I was cooperative.”
Dune ran a hand down his face. “You behaved badly.”
“I gave you more camera time,” said Mac.
“The shoot wasn’t about me,” Dune reminded him. “It was about partners in sports.”
Mac cut him a hard look. “How long do you plan to be my partner?” he asked.
All fun and baiting subsided. The question hung in the air unanswered. Sophie watched as Dune rotated his wrist, flexed his fingers, then fisted his hand until his knuckles turned white. He unclenched his hand and shrugged, a man uncertain and subdued. “Time will tell,” he said.
Mac’s stomach growled. “Damn, I’m hungry. Let’s head to Molly Malone’s. Dune’s buying lunch.”
“I can afford-” she was about to offer.
“No, you can’t,” Dune said. “Mac eats for ten men. He’s always hungry.”
Sophie liked Molly Malone’s. The corner diner had the best food on the boardwalk, along with a spectacular view of the vintage carousel. Locals and tourists alike stood ten deep at the door, waiting to be seated. The restaurant was known for generous portions and homemade pie. Sophie’s favorite flavor was chocolate chiffon.
Dune placed a tube of Crest, a small bottle of mouthwash, and his box of condoms on the glass counter top. “Ring me up,” he said.
Sophie glanced at the Night Lights. She remembered his earlier comment. “Did you want to order a case?” she forced herself to ask.
Dune stared at her.
Mac grinned. “Sophie, babe,” he said, lowering his voice. “Dune’s active, but not that active.”
“Enough on my sex life,” Dune said sharply.
Mac ignored him. “Two cases would work nicely for me.”
Sophie reached for a pen and paper.
“Don’t write down his order.” Dune placed his hand over hers, stopping her. “He’s playing you.”
His palm was warm and covered her entire hand. She wanted to turn her hand over and lace her fingers with his. Just for a second. That second ticked by. Dune released her before she made a fool of herself.
He hadn’t shown any interest in her. It would be unwise to make the first move. He might reject her.
Her hands shook as she rang up and bagged his items. She was so nervous she gave him a dollar too much in change, which he returned.
Mac came next. She had his order ready to go in half the time. She then excused herself to change clothes.
She enjoyed working at the general store. Abby Cates had given her a small closet in the storeroom to hang several outfits. She had her nomad layered beachwear, two hats, a windbreaker, several tops, and a pair of navy cropped slacks.
She kicked off her flip-flops then slid off her red tank and khaki shorts, down to her gray lace bra and high-cut panties. She loved feminine, romantic underwear. Satin felt intimate and pleasurable against her skin.
She’d never been more excited. She was about to have lunch with Dune. Mac was the perfect buffer. He’d keep the conversation going. He talked enough for three people. Sophie never had much to say.
It took her only six minutes to dress. She felt comfortable in her pale pistachio silk blouse and cropped pants. On a whim she’d bought a pair of blue-and-green striped Keds. She found them fanciful. She wore them now.
She grabbed her brown leather hobo bag and left the storeroom. Her heart slowed along with her steps in the short hallway. What a difference a few minutes could make.
She’d left Dune and Mac alone by the counter; as she returned, she found the men surrounded by women near the magazine rack. Six to be exact.
All wore inviting smiles and string bikinis.
All touched and flirted and wanted more than autographs.
The men didn’t seem to mind. Not one bit.
Dune leaned against the wall. His smile came easily, warm and welcoming.
Mac openly loved the ladies. He curved his arms over the shoulders of the two closest to him, grafting them to his side.
“The Blue Coconut, tonight,” she heard Mac say. “Bring your friends.”
Sophie had heard of the peanut bar, but had never been invited to party. Beer for a quarter brought in an early crowd. Customers ate unshelled peanuts and dropped the hulls on the floor. Darts, pool, and a juke box rounded out the night. Fun for some, Sophie guessed. She, on the other hand, preferred a good book.
Her insecurities took hold and she felt suddenly out of place. Her clothes covered her from neck to knee, whereas the beach babes flashed cleavage and flossed their butt cheeks.
Sadness settled on her chest. Disappointment turned her toward the back door. She could sneak out and take to the alley. Dune and Mac wouldn’t miss her. They had six willing women available for lunch and much more.
She tripped over her feet in her retreat, banging her shoulder against the wall. Another bruise, she sighed. She wished she were more coordinated.
Her hand was on the doorknob when the masculine scent of sunshine and lime warned of Dune’s approach. “Running out on us, Sophie?” he asked, drawing out the words. “Mac won’t be happy.”
Mac wouldn’t be pleased, which meant Dune didn’t care one way or the other.
Sophie sighed and her shoulders slumped.
She decided she wasn’t hungry after all.
*** Hope you enjoyed the first chapter! And would like to read further. Preorders for No Strings Attached are appreciated. ***