Ask Me to Stay

Stand Alones
March 5, 2019
Montlake Romance

Ask Me to Stay

Author Liza Teller’s new book is something of a mystery. She’s been hired to ghostwrite the memoir of Ray Wallis, an elderly stranger eager to share a very personal and surprising life story. The moment Liza arrives on beautiful Haven Island off the South Carolina coast, she has to ask: out of all the semi-successful writers in the world with stalled careers, why her?

Kendall James, the dedicated ex-military man in Ray’s employ, has the same question. Why is this New Yorker in a frilly blue dress so important to Ray? But as protective and suspicious as he is, Kendall can’t help falling for the tempting outsider. And he isn’t falling alone.

As Ray’s life story unfolds, Liza and Kendall’s chemistry ignites. And all of it could be explosive. On an island this small, Liza soon discovers that there isn’t much room to hide—from the secrets of Ray’s past, or her desire for a man unwilling to give her the one thing she truly wants.

Praise for Ask Me to Stay

 

Liza Teller’s literary star was on the rise when her debut novel hit the best-seller lists, but ever since then her well of inspiration seems to have run dry. So she jumps at the opportunity to ghostwrite Ray Wallis’ memoirs. However, upon arriving at Ray’s home on South Carolina’s Haven Island, Liza discovers that, while Ray is quite cagey about some aspects of his past, he’s more than curious about Liza’s life story, and that Kendell James, one of Ray’s closest employees, seems particularly peeved at Liza’s presence. Osburn makes effective use of her breezy island setting and its charming small-town vibe, then pairs that with easily relatable characters in a story that will resonate with fans of Robyn Carr and Susan Mallery.

— John Charles
 

I highly recommend this hard to put down novel for readers that enjoy a romantic, mysterious and suspenseful story. ~ Linda’s Book Obsession 

If you’re looking for a character driven love story with engaging characters and believable plot, then you will love Ask me to Stay as much as I did. ~ Author Vicki Vaught

Ask Me to Stay is a tender hearted book that is a wonderful blending of family secrets, mystery and love. ~ Susan (Goodreads Reviewer)

 

Excerpt

Chapter 1

 

There must be a hundred places to hide a body on this island.

This morbid thought exemplified a lesser-known problem of being blessed with a writer’s mind—the overactive imagination that came with it. Standing beneath a weathered structure on the edge of remote Haven Island off the South Carolina coast, Liza Teller couldn’t help but wonder whether she’d volunteered for a ghostwriting gig or to be the featured victim on one of those overly dramatic true-crime shows.

“No one would find me out here,” she muttered, surveying the landscape.

Liza had seen beaches before, but Haven Island looked more like a forest with sandy edges. Rooftops peeked through the leaves in two or three places, but the rich green canopy dominated the view, seeming to float right up to the horizon line.

Even the salt-scented air smelled cleaner than any place she’d ever been. An entirely new experience for a city girl like Liza. A city girl with no survival skills to speak of and not a soul back home who would even notice she’d gone missing. Vanessa Dunsmore, her agent and only friend, would eventually miss her, but not before the dreaded deed was done and Liza’s mutilated body lay buried in some dark corner of this junglelike island.

A morbid thought yet a promising premise. Maybe this crazy adventure would pay off in more ways than one. She could complete the memoir she’d come here to write and go home with a suspense plot or two that her agent could hopefully sell.

As Vanessa had reminded her several times over the last six months, she couldn’t sell a product that didn’t exist. But after Liza’s debut work of fiction had leaped unexpectedly onto the bestseller lists nearly a year ago, her idea well had run dry, hence the no-product problem. Liza had never liked the term writer’s block, nor had she really believed in the phenomenon itself, but as the cliché went, karma was a bitch, because she was definitely blocked.

One would think that living in New York City would be enough to fill a notebook full of plots, but Liza had tried everything from read­ing the papers to people-watching several days a week. Still nothing. If only being a bestselling author equated to being a highly paid one, then she wouldn’t be putting her life in danger just to stay financially afloat.

“No one is going to kill me,” she said, as if speaking the words aloud might convince her brain to nix the ridiculous notion. Though she had to admit, “Woman Lured to Remote Island”—and stupid enough to actually go alone—had “Destined to Be a Movie” written all over it. Liza withdrew her phone to make the note for later cogitation.

Since her phone was out, she double-checked the arrival instruc­tions she’d received that morning. The original email said to locate the golf cart with her name on it and follow the enclosed map to her destination. Surveying the long line of carts parked down the narrow wooden walkway that extended from the covered landing, she consid­ered the chance that one might actually have her name on it.

But the revised instructions said to wait for her escort at the land­ing dock. Since she hadn’t received any new messages, Liza resolved to wait, resisting the urge to wave back the ferry that was quickly disap­pearing in the direction it had come. Not that they were likely to see her anyway.

Eyeing a fragile-looking bench, she left her suitcases where the boat captain had set them and settled in to wait. Though leery, she had to assume that if the bench could withstand a hurricane, as it surely had at some point in its life, it could sustain her 125 pounds.

Perching on the edge with a sigh, she mumbled, “Please, let this not be a mistake.” And she didn’t mean the bench or the murder fears. A journalism degree and one successful novel did not qualify Liza to write a memoir. The client, who Vanessa had assured her wanted his story told in narrative form, had insisted that Liza was the only person who could tell it.

Turning down the offer would have meant returning to her previ­ous career as a reporter, and chasing down stories in the hope that some internet news site might carry them hadn’t proved any more lucrative than writing fiction. If Liza’s contrary writer’s brain refused to cough up a workable idea, then writing someone else’s story was better than not writing anything at all.

Bright-white Keds, bought days before departing for this trip, tapped out a rhythm of impatience as Liza waited. The sun would set soon, and there were no streetlights in sight. She doubted the flashlight on her phone would penetrate far and didn’t want to think about the wildlife she might encounter. Birds were abundant in the distance, but what might be lurking in the brush was a mystery she had no desire to solve.

Maybe the first email had been the right one, after all, but the moment she considered checking the line of carts, the sound of a motor cut through the cacophony of chirps and caws echoing from the trees. A beige-and-green cart raced toward her, and through the cloud of dust, she could make out only the driver’s shape.

His very large shape.

Like a grizzly bear riding a tricycle, the driver looked ridiculous. Shoulders filled the width of the cart, which she was certain would accommodate two normal-size individuals, and he was so tall that his dark mop of hair nearly brushed the covering above his head. One of the few facts Liza knew about her client was his age. The giant racing her way was nowhere near ninety-plus years old.

“So this is how I die,” Liza mumbled, debating whether two years on her high school swim team had prepared her for a swim back to the mainland.

# # #

Great. His cargo had missed the boat.

Kendall James drove his cart to the end of the walkway and parked in front of the covered landing, hoping the guy hadn’t just missed the boat, but that he wasn’t coming at all. A memoir? What the hell was Ray thinking? After thirty years of making himself invisible, why would he want to put his life story on paper for all the world to read?

Stubborn old man.

He didn’t know much about this L. R. Teller guy, but Kendall didn’t plan to make him feel overly welcome. The writer was going to have Ray’s life in his hands. Literally. And there was a good chance that after the book was released, he’d also have his subject’s blood on his hands.

The ferry wouldn’t return for nearly an hour, and Kendall had no contact information to call and check on Teller. He could hope for the best, return to the struggle of fixing the nonrunning cart that was giv­ing him fits, and then come back again to see if the writer showed up.

A lot of back and forth, but better that than sitting here doing nothing. Kendall didn’t like doing nothing.

Swinging the cart to the left to turn around, he spotted a beautiful woman perched on a bench under the covering. She was staring off across the water, curls dancing in the wind and the hem of her dress fluttering along the top of her knees. The image could have been from a magazine ad or a postcard beckoning visitors to a tranquil location.

When she shifted, swinging her gaze toward the island, he noticed the divot between her brows. Concern? Confusion? The stranger looked down at her phone, lips tight as if she were trying to solve a mystery. When her eyes cut again to the horizon, Kendall recognized the expres­sion. Fear.

Whatever she was afraid of, he couldn’t leave her there to fend for herself. After locking the brake and cutting the motor, Kendall spoke to the dog in the back seat. “Stay here, buddy.” Exiting the vehicle, he pasted on what he hoped was a neighborly smile.

His heavy work boots thudded on the weathered planks, and he noticed the woman’s grip tighten around her phone. Though she was smiling, she couldn’t hide the suspicion in her intelligent blue eyes. Not wanting to spook her, Kendall stopped near the edge of the covering.

“Hi there,” he said, keeping his body loose so as to appear less threatening. Not an easy task for a man his size. “Welcome to Haven Island.”

Honey-blonde curls framed her slender face. “Thank you.” Her eyes cut away as she exhaled, but her shoulders didn’t relax.

Normally, Kendall didn’t pry into other people’s business, but this case clearly called for further investigation. Tourists weren’t provided escorts from the landing, so she had to be a guest of one of the locals.

“Are you waiting for someone?”

Her nod was nearly imperceptible. “Yes.”

To ease her tension, Kendall let her know why he was there. “I was expecting someone on the ferry, but I guess he must have missed it. Did you see anyone on the other side when you boarded?”

“There was no one else waiting when we left the dock.” She lifted a large purse from the seat beside her and hugged it to her chest. “How often does the ferry run?”

“Top of the hour on the other side. On the half hour over here. Unless there’s no one waiting, and then they wait for a call.”

“So there’s a way to call them back?”

If he didn’t know better, Kendall would think this visitor didn’t want to stay. Odd, since someone must have been waiting for her.

“You can, yeah, but this time of day, they run pretty much on schedule.”

Leaning his shoulder on a post, he considered who she might be visiting. On such a small island, everyone knew everyone else, and he hadn’t heard mention of any impending company. The tourists came through regularly but always with plenty of provisions, since Haven lacked any sort of store or restaurant. A quick check of the area revealed two purple suitcases but no groceries or beach supplies.

If she was a tourist, she was going to starve.

Her eyes cut back to the distance, and Kendall dragged the phone from his pocket to appear distracted. From beneath his lashes, he assessed the stranger. She looked close to his age, which put her around thirty. A bit prim, based on the set of her lips and the way she held her shoulders. Feet flat on the floor, back stiff, and that tiny dimple still hovered between her brows.

“You been to the island before?” he asked, his voice casual.

She nearly jumped when he broke the silence. Kendall was big, but he wasn’t that scary. This woman really needed to relax.

“No, this is my first time.” Pulling the purse tighter against her chest, she looked ready to jump over the side of the landing to get away from him.

Taking the hint, Kendall shifted to his full height and slid the phone back in his pocket, planning to drive on up to the Welcome Center, where he could keep an eye on her without causing her any more stress.

“I hope you enjoy your visit.” He spun to head back to the cart, but she stopped him with a question.

“You’re certain the ferry will come back?”

“It’ll be back,” he replied, “but didn’t you just get here?” No one boarded the ferry without their name showing up on the list, so she couldn’t have made the crossing by mistake.

“I did, yes.” Chewing the inside of her cheek, she scanned the distance. “But it’s late, and the person picking me up doesn’t seem to be coming. Maybe I should go back to the other side and try again tomorrow.”

This was an easy enough problem to solve. “Who’s supposed to pick you up? Do you have a number to call them?”

A white-tipped thumbnail slid between her teeth as she hesitated to answer. Surely she knew who would be looking for her.

“I’m not sure who is supposed to meet me, and I don’t have a number.”

This was not how the island worked. Tourists were sent pages of information before arriving, about everything from transportation to garbage disposal. And Kendall doubted any of the residents would bring someone in without providing at least a contact number.

“Do you have any name at all?” he asked.

The blonde glanced down to her phone. “I’m here to see Ray Wallis.”

Kendall’s jaw tightened as realization dawned. His cargo hadn’t missed the boat. He was the wrong damn gender.

a As she contemplated her escape options, the inquisitive islander’s expres­sion changed. The casual demeanor vanished, and his hands landed on his hips.

“Are you L. R. Teller?”

He said her name as if it tasted rotten on his tongue.

“Yes,” she replied, more anxious than before. “But I go by Liza.”

The brute shoved a hand through his hair as an audible growl crossed his full lips. He was obviously her escort, yet she was not the person he’d expected. Seconds passed as he glanced from the inlet, to his cart, and back to her. Liza feared he might leave her there, but then he muttered a curse and pointed to her suitcases.

“Are those yours?”

“Yes, they are.”

The stranger snatched the hard-shell cases and stormed back to his cart without inviting her to follow. How amazingly rude. Having lived in New York City for the last eight years, Liza was well acquainted with the most hostile of their species, but grumpy New Yorkers had nothing on this . . . Neanderthal.

Though he’d been nice enough before learning her name.

Loading up her purse and laptop bag, one on each shoulder, Liza strolled off after him, only to stop dead several feet from the cart.

“What is that?” she asked, feet frozen to the sandy path.

The man tossed her suitcases onto the back of the vehicle. “A golf cart.”

He could shove the smart-ass reply where the sun didn’t shine. “I mean the beast in the cart.”

Deep-brown eyes looked her way. “That’s Amos. He’s a dog. Don’t they have dogs where you come from?”

She didn’t dignify that with a reply.

Liza had never lived with any dogs, nor did she seek them out. When she’d inherited her grandmother’s tiny apartment in the Bronx, she’d been relieved to find herself in a no-pets building. It wasn’t that she didn’t like them, necessarily. She’d simply lacked the dog-loving gene that compelled normal human beings to canoodle with every canine that crossed their paths.

“He won’t hurt you,” the dog owner said as he squeezed his stocky frame into the cart. Muscles bunched, pulling the stained gray tee tighter across his shoulders. When Liza didn’t move, he leaned his elbows on the steering wheel, his full lips flattening into a line. “What are you waiting for?”

“An animal-free option.”

“You allergic?”

“No.” Unless fear could be categorized as an allergy.

“Then what’s the problem?”

Stalling, she said, “Where am I supposed to sit?” Even if the black-and-white pit bull hadn’t been occupying the entire back seat, tongue hanging to the side like a slobbery pink noodle, the driver’s broad shoul­ders and denim-clad tree-trunk thighs left little room in the front.

Moving his right leg one inch to the left, he nodded toward the minuscule patch of stained white vinyl beside him. “Right here.”

Unconvinced, Liza crossed her arms. “I’d rather walk.”

“It’s too far to walk. Now get in. Ray is going to wonder where we are.”

The dog barked as if to back up his owner, and a flock of birds burst from the trees at the same moment Liza nearly leaped out of her skin.

“Quiet, Amos.” The words were said with kindness, the gentle tone calming woman and beast.

Telling herself the sooner she climbed into the cart, the sooner she could climb back out, Liza approached the vehicle anticipating a growl, though she couldn’t say from which occupant. Pulling her shoulder bags in front of her, she edged one butt cheek onto the seat, careful to keep as much distance as possible between herself and the Goliath who still hadn’t bothered to introduce himself. A woodsy scent carrying a hint of sweetness filled her senses as heat radiated from his big body. A quick glance to her left and the scent changed to dog breath, so Liza locked her eyes straight ahead.

“You in?” he asked.

Grasping the chrome pole with one hand, she locked the bags onto her lap with the other. “Yes.”

Without another word, her driver hit the gas and made a hard right turn, sending Liza crashing against his side. She’d never been hit by a truck before but imagined the sensation would be similar. As the wind whipped through her hair and hot breath filled her left ear, she prayed whatever hut they’d put her name on wasn’t far away.

# # #

Where did this writer get off being a woman?

Kendall was supposed to drive to the pier, find the writer guy, and take him back to Ray’s. The last thing he’d expected to find was a woman—especially a beautiful one who looked as out of place sitting on that bench as a prairie dog would popping up through a manhole in Manhattan. In the weeks since Ray had shared this foolish idea, Kendall had toyed with a plan to intimidate the writer into backing out. A plan that was now dead in the water.

In the eight years since he’d returned from the service, Kendall had never given two thoughts to the size of the golf carts he drove every day. With Liza Teller pressed along his side, he might as well have been driv­ing a little red wagon. The frilly blue dress fluttered in the wind, reveal­ing enough skin above her knees to be more than a little distracting.

Maybe Francine was right. He’d been living like a hermit for far too long.

Not that women never showed up on Haven Island, but Kendall rarely paid them much attention. The majority were either newlyweds or moms hoping for some peace and quiet while their husbands enter­tained the kids in the sand. The locals were all married, and on the rare occasion single women stepped off the ferry, Kendall made a point to keep his distance.

No sense in starting something that was always guaranteed to end.

“You know, most people wouldn’t do this,” she said, raising her voice to be heard above the wind.

Kendall looked over, but her eyes remained on the path. “Do what? Ride in a golf cart?” He’d had the misfortune of riding in a New York City cab. There was no way this cart was more dangerous than that.

She turned his way, one brow arched high. “Step onto a remote island and get into a cart with a stranger the size of an NFL linebacker. You could kill me, and I wouldn’t even know the name of the man who’d turned me into fish food.”

He considered listing the myriad ways he could kill her, but feared she’d leap out of the cart and run back to the pier. Then he’d have to explain to Ray why the ghostwriter had changed her mind before she’d even met her subject. A conversation that was bound to go poorly.

Instead, he shared his name, hoping the info would allay her fears and they could go back to riding in silence.

“Kendall James. And I haven’t killed anybody in nearly a decade.” A true statement, but one he had no intention of elaborating on.

With annoyance in her smoky voice, she said, “Is that a joke?”

He met her dark-blue eyes. “Nope.”

“Right.” She faced forward again. “I feel much better now.”

As he’d hoped, the conversation died, though he continued to assess his passenger. A blush emphasized her high cheekbones, and she held her chin in a regal way, like a queen out for a ride to visit the peasants.

They cleared the trees, running headlong into the wind off the salt marsh. Loose curls whipped across her face, forcing his passenger to release her hold on the chrome post. And because Kendall was too busy looking at her to watch the road, he had to make a hard left turn at the last second.

Physics took over. In a matter of seconds, her scream cut through the air as her body was nearly flung from the cart. Kendall caught her in time, pulling her tight against his side and clamping his arm around her shoulders to keep her there.

“Hold on!” he yelled as he made a hairpin right before pulling the cart to a stop in a small patch of grass beside the trail.

Hair still covering her face, the writer’s body remained rigid beneath his touch as they sat in silence for several seconds. As if to remind them that they weren’t alone, Amos barked, snapping his owner back to reality.

Shrugging off Kendall’s arm, his passenger cleared the hair from her eyes and stepped out of the cart.

“Who taught you how to drive this thing?”

Did she really think there was a golf-cart driving school?

“Get back in. It’s getting dark and Ray is waiting.”

Hugging her purse and what looked like some kind of briefcase to her chest, she shook her head. “I’m not going through that again. I’ll wait here until you send someone else.”

She’d been the one to let go. How was that his fault?

“There is no one else.” Not technically true, but Kendall couldn’t leave her standing out here while he hunted up Francine or Larimore. Bruce could show up at any minute, and then she’d really be running back to the ferry. “Get in.”

The stubborn woman took a step back. “Give me directions and I’ll walk.”

Ray would kick his ass if Kendall obeyed that order. Instead, he turned to the back seat. “Come on, Amos. Up front.”

The dog hopped over the seat, filling the vacant spot.

“Good boy,” his owner said before returning his attention to the pain-in-the-ass writer. “Now you can sit in the back. Put the bags between your feet, and hold on to this bar.” Kendall tapped the chrome handrail that ran along the top of the seat.

Accepting this new arrangement, she followed his suggestion, securing the bags between her ankles and locking a death grip on the bar. “Okay, I’m ready. But if you throw me out again, I’m not getting back in.”

He hadn’t thrown her out at all. “Fair enough.”

Kendall stepped on the gas, grateful to have her out of his line of sight. Now he could concentrate on reaching their destination without thinking about pale thighs, honey-gold curls, and whether her skin would feel as soft as it looked.

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