Excerpt from Just the Way You Are
Book #1 of the Dunlin Shores Series
The beam of Cinnamon Smith’s headlights cut through the darkness and the misty rain, illuminating a painted sign. Oceanside Bed and Breakfast, it proclaimed in cheerfully scripted letters.
After five years of listening to Fran rave about the bed and breakfast she’d inherited, Cinnamon was finally here. Sighing with relief—she’d been on the road a good four hours since flying into Portland from L.A.—she drove her rented compact up the gravel driveway.
For the past four months she’d lived in a state of perpetual tension and misery. The last two weeks had been especially bad, and she could hardly wait to relax and unwind. As she neared the building floodlights blinked on, bathing the shingled house in bright light. She braked to a stop in the large guest parking area beside the garage. Aside from a battered red pickup, hers was the only vehicle.
Small wonder. Late January wasn’t exactly tourist season on the Oregon coast. The truck, she assumed, belonged to the man who Fran told her did odd jobs around the place. Why was he here after dark?
As the inn’s only guest, Cinnamon looked forward to cozy evenings with her best friend and much-needed heart-to-hearts. Fran was solid and down-to-earth, and Cinnamon needed her calming influence. All two weeks of it. Actually, thirteen days, but close enough.
Cold mist bathed her face as she exited the car and stretched for the first time in hours. Slinging the strap of her purse over her shoulder, she squinted past the bright circle of light for a glimpse of the ocean. It was too dark to see anything, but she smelled the sea’s salty tang and heard the gentle slap of the waves. She could hardly wait to walk the beach.
She was counting on the change of scenery to help her put the past behind her. Maybe then she’d be able to move on. She also needed to find a new job. Since resigning as a consultant at Sabin and Howe three days ago, which beat getting fired, she’d been at loose ends, aimless and scared.
Two months’ salary in savings wouldn’t last long. As she opened the rear door of the compact, the familiar panicky feeling—racing heart and nausea—threatened to overwhelm her.
She made herself take a deep breath. Much better. There were plenty of companies in the world as good or better than Sabin and Howe. Hadn’t she recently sent out emails to friends and colleagues in big consulting firms all over the country? Surely one of them knew of a job opening.
The thought filled her with hope, so much so that her stomach growled from hunger, a welcome change from weeks of no appetite. She retrieved her laptop and toiletries case, then swung those straps onto the other shoulder. Only the jumbo-size suitcase remained. She opened the trunk, grabbed the handle and tugged. Filled with a parka, clothing, shoes, and a pile of paperbacks she meant to read, it weighed a good forty pounds. No problem, she was strong. Still, she grunted with effort.
“I’ll get that.”
The large male at her side startled her. She hadn’t heard him approach.
Gently nudging her over, he reached for the suitcase, his big, warm hand closing over her cold fist. Taken aback and not about to relinquish her bag, she tightened her grip and shot him the intimidating look that’d helped hone her the reputation as shrewd and not easily pushed around.
“Who are you?” In the chill dampness, her breath clouded.
He released his hand and stepped aside. “My name’s Nick Mahoney. I work for Fran. I was on my way to the truck to head home, and figured you could use a hand.”
Thanks to the floodlights she noted his striking blue eyes. His straight nose and generous mouth also ranked at the top of the handsome scale.
“Fran talks about you all the time. Sorry I was rude.”
His gaze flickered over her, calf-length leather coat and all. Though still half bent over the suitcase, she sucked in her stomach.
The corner of his mouth lifted, charming her.
“I… I’m Cinnamon Smith,” she managed, suddenly wishing she’d combed her hair and freshened her makeup. She thought about shaking his hand, but decided against it and kept her fingers wrapped firmly around the handle of her suitcase.
“I know who you are. Fran’s been talking about your visit since last Friday.”
“Really. What did she tell you?” Cinnamon trusted her friend not to reveal the details of her messy life, but she was curious.
“That you two met in college and shared an apartment after, and that you haven’t seen each other since she moved here and you became a hotshot executive. She’s real excited about this visit.” He flirted with a grin as if he also looked forward to her being here.
Holy moly, the man had a dimple in his cheek. Fran had never mentioned his looks. Was she blind?
“Are you going to let go of that bag, or would you rather carry it yourself?”
Her face felt hot and she knew she was blushing. “You go ahead.” She released the handle and straightened. “Thanks.”
“My pleasure,” he drawled.
Fran hadn’t mentioned he was a flirt either. Cinnamon was less than skilled at the art, and anyway, she was through with men. For a while, at least. When she did decide to date again, she intended to find an upwardly mobile, career-focused, marriage-minded male. This time, single. Not a handyman, no matter how attractive he was.
He extracted the heavy suitcase as if it were as light as a sea breeze, and nodded toward the bed and breakfast. “The front door’s on the ocean side of the house.”
He strode forward. Cinnamon trailed him around the building. Seemingly heedless of the winter chill, he wore no coat over his long-sleeved T-shirt and jeans. He was a big man with big limbs. Not heavy, but muscled and solid.
“You must be freezing,” she said. “Where’s your coat?”
“Left it in the truck.”
Despite being in excellent physical condition—she jogged three days a week—Cinnamon was slightly breathless, and not from the climb. She snickered at that.
She was here to pull herself together, and look for work with a new employer in a big city. She didn’t need or want the distraction of any man.
Her gaze dropped to his rear end and powerful legs. My, oh, my…
Stop that. Any woman with eyes would lust after the gorgeous male leading the way.
Although it felt like ages since she’d noticed. She hadn’t had sex, let along looked at a man, since Dwight had dropped her cold four months earlier. This after repeatedly assuring her that his divorce was imminent and he wanted to marry her. Instead, he’d stunned her with the news that he and his wife had reconciled.
The lying rat. His change of heart had pretty much ruined her reputation at Sabin and Howe. Determined to weather the scandal, she’d powered on. But her client load shrank and she understood that if she didn’t resign she’d be terminated.
And there she was, all tense again. Another deep breath helped. That was in the past now. Starting this very minute, she would forge ahead toward a new and better life.
With her chin raised, she followed Nick up the steps.
Cinnamon liked the tiny white lights along the hand railing leading to the Oceanside’s front door. “This is charming.”
“Wait till morning when you see the ocean view from the deck off the dining room,” Nick replied with a nod toward the darkness beyond.
The front door was painted a warm purple. The whimsical pelican-shaped metal knocker and the decorative heart wreath woven of sticks were so like Fran that Cinnamon smiled.
Nick wiped his feet on the thick mat, also purple, and opened the door. “Cinnamon’s here,” he called out, gesturing her inside.
The aromas of roast beef and baking bread filled the air, making her mouth water. Fran strode into the room, her thick braid swishing over her shoulder just as it had five years ago. Shoeless, she wore a bright yellow I Heart Dunlin Shores, Oregon bib apron over a sweater and jeans. Her socks matched the apron. The love of bright colors hadn’t changed either.
Even without shoes she stood a few inches taller than Cinnamon, who was exactly five-six—five-eight in the heeled boots she was wearing.
“Hey, you.” Wearing the grin Cinnamon knew and loved, her eyes sparkling, Fran opened her arms.
It seemed ages since anyone had welcomed, let alone hugged, Cinnamon. Her eyes filled and she returned the embrace with equal warmth.
No tears, she sternly ordered herself. Crying was for pity parties, and hers was over. “It’s so good to see you,” she said, the words muffled in the hug. “Thanks for inviting me. I know you must be busy getting ready for Valentine Weekend—you’re having a full house, right?—and the tourist season after that.”
Fran pulled back to study her. “I am busy, but we’ll have our evenings together. Don’t worry, you’ll find plenty to do during the day. I’m so glad you’re here. Facetiming several days a week isn’t enough.” She sobered. “How’re you doing?”
Cinnamon had plenty to discuss with her friend, but not in front of Nick. He had to have heard the concern in Fran’s voice and noticed her troubled expression. “I’m managing,” she said.
Her friend nodded. “Thanks for bringing that bag in, Nick. You two introduced yourselves, I assume?”
“We sure did.” His voice was teasing and ripe with innuendo.
He showered Cinnamon with a long, slow look that made her forget her troubles. Her gaze flitted from his mesmerizing eyes to his chin, where a long, pale scar ran along his jaw, only noticeable in the bright light of the entry. Somehow it added to his attractiveness. Not that she was attracted. She was merely observing.
She untied the belt of her raincoat and shrugged out of it. Or started to.
Nick set her suitcase down and helped, the perfect gentleman now—as if he sensed his effect on her.
For the second time she felt herself blush. He handed her the coat, his grin blooming again and the dimple winking. So full of himself. Not that different from Dwight.
She narrowed her eyes at him, but he’d already turned away to get her a hanger.
“I’ll take your bags to the room and then I’m off,” he announced, grabbing the suitcase, laptop, and toiletries case. He glanced at Fran. “The Orca Suite?”
“That’s on the third floor,” Cinnamon recalled. A veteran planner, before arriving she’d studied the layout of the Oceanside posted on the website. “The Oceanside’s only suite. According to the description, luxurious.”
“You’d better believe it,” Nick commented. “Private bath with a whirlpool tub big enough for two, a sitting room, fireplace, and a balcony overlooking the ocean. Takes up the whole floor. You’ll like it.” Whistling softly he headed up the carpeted staircase.
When he was out of sight, Fran leaned toward her. “Isn’t he adorable?” she whispered.
“I was thinking more along the lines of hot and sexy. You never mentioned his looks.”
“Oops. My bad.”
“Well, he’s not my type. Right now, no man is.” Bruised feelings, dangerously close to the surface, threatened to spill out in a hot rush of tears. Not now, not now.
Cinnamon glanced around the brightly lit foyer and beyond to the blazing fire in the other room. “So that’s the wonderful great room you rent out for weddings and parties. As I recall from the website, ‘The main level’s open floor plan allows guests easy access between the great room, dining room, and kitchen.’ I can’t wait to see everything.”
Amusement twinkled in Fran’s eyes. “You memorized that?”
“No, I pored over the website. That’s known as attention to detail.”
“Attention to detail.” Her friend laughed. “That’s so like you. And the reason you’re such a good consultant.”
“Used to be a good consultant, you mean.”
The humor faded from Fran’s expression. “You’re still the best. We all make mistakes.” There was no judgment or condemnation in the words or in her expression, only compassion and love. “Ease up on yourself.”
Fresh tears filled Cinnamon’s eyes. Jeez, she was sensitive tonight. She blinked furiously. “Can we please talk about something else?”
“Of course. How about a quick tour after Nick leaves?”
They both heard the thud of his footsteps on the carpeted stairs and his tuneless whistle.
“Speak of the devil,” Fran quipped.
His lips quirking, Nick glanced from one woman to the other. “Are you two talking about me?”
By his confident stance and heavy-lidded eyes, he assumed he was the topic of conversation. “You wish,” Cinnamon said.
“Ouch.” Laying his hand over his heart he gave her a mock-wounded frown that lightened her mood a fraction.
“I’m sure you’ll live.”
“Thanks for taking the bags up, and thanks for your hard work today, Nick,” Fran said. “See you tomorrow?”
“You bet.” He saluted, his fingers flirting with his overlong hair. “As soon as I drop Abby at school.”
He had a daughter. Probably a wife too, though Fran hadn’t mentioned that. Yet here he was, flirting with her. Men! She gave him a dirty look, but he was focused on Fran.
“I have a dentist appointment first thing in the morning, and a long town council meeting after that, so I may not be around,” Fran said. “Cinnamon will let you in.”
“I’ll look forward to that. You two have fun tonight. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, but if you do,” he aimed yet another suggestive look at Cinnamon, “think of me.”
Cocky, trite, and married. Cinnamon could hardly stand him, yet at the same time the attention felt really good. How pathetic was that?
In a blink his expression turned solemn and wary, as if he understood she was an emotional wreck. She never had been good at hiding her feelings.
“What’d I do?” he asked, his contrite tone totally devoid of flirtation.
“It’s not you,” she said in a voice clogged with emotion.
His kind, sympathetic expression snapped her shaky control. She burst into tears.