Home To Stay

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Chapter 1

Willow Parsons had survived. She’d officially run Dempsey’s Bar & Grill, the signature restaurant of tiny Anchor Island, North Carolina, for an entire week on her own.

Hallelujah.

Named assistant manager the previous fall, shortly after proprietor Tom Dempsey’s heart attack, the owners, which included Tom and his wife, Patty, proved their faith in Will by letting her handle the reopening two weeks before returning from their winter break in the Florida Keys. Will had stressed for a solid month before the big day. Checking inventory, cleaning up the accounting system, and ensuring the staff was as sharp as ever.

And her attention to detail had paid off.

Dempsey’s was known for friendly service and the best seafood in the Outer Banks. It was important to reinforce that reputation with a strong opening week. On that front, she would not fail. She liked the Dempseys too much to disappoint them, or let their business take a hit.

The restaurant was already in recovery mode, which was why they’d closed for the winter in the first place. An infusion of cash from their son Lucas, a lawyer who’d recently returned to Anchor and set up his own practice, had kept them from closing the doors for good, but they’d need a strong tourist season to ensure Lucas’s investment wouldn’t be for naught.

To that end, Will would do all she could to help the family who had trusted her with their business.

Georgette, the waitress on duty, stepped up to the bar. “The checks are on the tables. As soon as I cash these out, we can start cleanup.”

“Sounds good to me,” Will said, unloading the empty bottles and glasses from Georgette’s tray. “I’ll run the register tape while we raise the chairs.”

Georgette headed back to the floor with her empty tray as Will dropped the glasses into hot, soapy water. She was tossing the bottles into the recycle bin when the front door swung open and Randy Navarro stepped through.

So much for Will’s good mood.

In the year plus that Will had been on Anchor Island, she’d avoided the giant of a man as much as possible. Which had gotten tougher to do in recent months since she’d become good friends with Randy’s sister, Sid. Upon arriving on the island, her initial reaction to the man large enough to deserve his own zip code had been fear.

Fear of history repeating itself.

But over the last six months or so, she’d been around Randy often enough to realize his sister’s description of him as a gentle giant might be accurate. At times, she even liked the friendly man with a quick smile and whiskey-brown eyes. Which was all the more reason to maintain the charade that he still frightened her.

Will’s current predicament made romantic entanglements a luxury she couldn’t afford. Getting romantic meant getting intimate, which led to sharing one’s secrets.

Will’s secret was too dangerous to share.

“Can we talk?” Randy said when he reached the bar.

Until that moment, he’d never attempted direct conversation, and they’d never been alone without Sid or other mutual friends between them. Will wasn’t sure how she felt about this new behavior but believed it best not to encourage it.

“Can’t. I’m busy.” Will dropped clean glasses into hot water and glanced up to see Randy giving the restaurant a once-over.

“Right,” he drawled, his deep voice laced with a hint of his Latin heritage. “It’s important to have lots of clean glasses for seven customers.”

The sarcasm was new.

“There are nine, actually. Two are in the poolroom.” Will gave her best smart-ass smile as more clean glasses hit the suds.

“Will,” Randy said, impatience in his voice. “I know you don’t like me, but—”

“Who said I don’t like you?” Not that she did like him. At least not like like him.

Great. Now she was thinking like a fourteen-year-old.

He settled his weight onto a bar stool, which creaked in protest. “No one had to tell me. I’m observant like that.”

She slung the rag over her left shoulder, shooting for unaffected. “What do we need to talk about?”

“Something that was announced at the Merchants Society meeting tonight.” Randy leaned back, draping an arm over the back of the stool beside him. What did a guy have to lift to get biceps like that, Will wondered. A tugboat maybe? “You have any green tea back there?” he asked.

Will retrieved a bottle from the small fridge under the bar, removed the cap, and tossed it into the can six feet away. “You don’t seem like the green tea type.”

“You’d have to talk to someone to know what type they are.”

Score one for the big guy. “So what happened at the meeting?”

After taking a drink, he said, “Thanks to Sam Edwards, Prime Destinations magazine is doing a feature article on Anchor Island.”

“That’s a national publication,” Will said, her spine straightening. “They’re coming here?”

“Yes, ma’am. A reporter named Rebecca King arrives early next week with a photographer.”

“A photographer?” Will’s voice climbed an octave higher. She cleared her throat. “So they’re going to take pictures?”

Randy narrowed his eyes. “Wouldn’t be much of a spread if they didn’t include pictures.”

So they’d want sand and water and boats. Not people. “Sounds like a good thing for the island. Here’s hoping it brings the tourists.” Switching glasses from the soapy water into the rinse sink, she asked, “But why do I need to know this?”

“Because they want to feature Dempsey’s. With Tom and Patty still in Florida, that leaves you for the interview.”

Will stared with what she could only guess was a look of horror. There was no question that she couldn’t do this. Her life literally depended upon not having her picture in a national magazine.

“That’s not going to work,” she said, returning to the glasses.

Randy hesitated with the bottle of tea halfway to his lips. “Excuse me?”

“It’s not a good idea, that’s all.” It was the worst idea. “They’re welcome to feature Dempsey’s, but I won’t be giving an interview.”

“I already talked to Joe about it. He says it’s a go.”

The other Dempsey offspring, Joe, ran a charter fishing boat business and helped at the restaurant from time to time.

“Then he can do the interview. Problem solved.”

Randy crossed his arms, an incredible feat considering the size of his chest. “I realize this island doesn’t mean as much to you as it does to the rest of us.”

That statement halted the glass washing. “Who said I don’t care about this island?”

Ignoring her question, Randy continued. “We have businesses here. Our families are here.” That one hit like a blow. No, Will didn’t have family on Anchor. Or anywhere else. “If we don’t get tourism back up, there are people on this island who will lose everything. That might not mean much to you—you can serve drinks anywhere you want—but it means something to us. It means something to your bosses, and the least you can do is answer some questions for a reporter.”

Anger flared in Will’s blood. This man didn’t know her. Didn’t know what he was asking. She cared about this island and the people on it. More than she could afford to, in fact.

“Are you done?” she asked, employing extreme patience to keep her voice steady.

By the look of him, puffed up like some bullfrog calling his mate, he was just getting started.

“I may not own a business on this island,” Will said, leaning forward. “And no, I don’t have family here. But I do have friends, and I do care about this island. Not that I have to explain any of that to you.” She pulled the rag from her shoulder and dried her hands. “Feel free to take your tea and go.”

Randy remained silent. It wasn’t in Will’s nature to be outright rude to people, but she was not going to be chewed up one side and down the other by this pissy giant who didn’t know a damn thing about her.

And to think, she’d begun to like him.

He broke his silence with a statement she should have seen coming. “Whatever big guy screwed you over in the past must have been a real asshole.”

The statement was more accurate than he’d ever know.

“My past is none of your business,” she said through gritted teeth. “And it’s the asshole in my present that’s giving me a headache tonight.” A muscle twitched along his jaw, but he kept his mouth shut. “This conversation is over,” Will added.

The two parties that had been seated in the dining room were leaving. Will called to Georgette, “Go back and let Mohler know we’re closing. I’ll start on the chairs.”

As Will rounded the end of the bar, Randy cut her off. “Do you need help setting up for the party tomorrow?”

The abrupt change of subject, together with the lack of distance between them, jerked Will to a halt.

“Joe and Beth will be here around five to hang the decorations in the poolroom. You’ll have to ask them if they want help. I think you know my answer.”

Beth, who was engaged to Joe, and Will had a surprise birthday party planned for Sid for the next night. Will had known Randy would be there but hadn’t counted on him wanting to help.

 

Georgette returned from the poolroom and joined them at the end of the bar. “Milo says we’re gonna be in a magazine.” Milo was Georgette’s husband, who worked for Randy at his water adventures business. “Is that true?” she asked Randy.

“Anchor Island is,” he answered. “I’m not sure about you and Milo.” The man was in full jerk mode this evening.

“Aren’t you a comedian tonight,” she said, dropping her tray on the bar and untying her apron. “Put this man out of his misery, Will, and go out with him already.”

Will’s head jerked to Randy, who looked less than happy with Georgette. The waitress stuck her tongue out as she walked away, saying, “Be a smart-ass with me, will ya?”

“What is she—” Will began.

“She’s just yanking my chain.” Randy withdrew his wallet and dropped three ones on the bar. “I’ll be here at five to help set up.” Will opened her mouth, but he interrupted again. “Relax. This asshole will be sure to stay out of your way.”

With that, Randy exited the restaurant, leaving Will staring after him. Georgette’s joke might have been funny if it hadn’t hit so close to home. Three years ago, Randy would have been exactly the type of guy Will would go out with.

“You mind if I don’t stay to help with the chairs?” Georgette asked, dragging Will back to the present. “Milo made me a late supper, and I’m dying to get off my feet. Three months off has made me soft.”

“No,” Will said, clenching her jaw to hold back the questions. The clenching didn’t work. “About Randy—”

The waitress waved a hand in the air. “I was only messing with him,” she said, stuffing a small wad of cash into her back pocket. “I mean, I’ve caught him looking at you a time or two, but Randy has never pursued a woman as long as I’ve known him.” The waitress lifted one shoulder. “Theory around the island is that some chick did him bad, but no one knows for sure. If anyone’s going to break through his walls, it might as well be you. Give it a shot if you’re interested.”

“I’m not interested,” Will said. Especially not after tonight.

Someone else would have to knock down the big lug’s walls. Will had enough to worry about with this magazine coming to town. If her face found its way into those pages, she’d have to find a new place to hide. And that would mean good-bye Anchor Island.