Celia Langford lost her perfect life in the ultimate betrayal—not only was her late husband a cheat, he left her with a mountain of debt and no self-confidence. She poured her grief into cooking, determined to start new and heal by the sea. She meets Dax Smith, local dive shop owner, and pure-bred South Florida native. The wrong city girl left a bad taste in his mouth, so he’s stayed clear of all matters of the heart. His father is ill, her business is not going as planned. But their uncontrollable attraction toward one another makes anything seem possible.
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Celia arrived in the quaint little town by the sea just as the sun was rising over the ocean. The golden morning light gilded the summery beach cottages and condominiums along Ocean Boulevard. She’d driven all night, too cheap–no, frugal–to waste money on a flea-ridden motel.
The water sparkled turquoise and sea foam while pelicans soared like prehistoric aviators over lightly lapping waves against an ivory stretch of sand. She’d thought it the best place to heal when she’d closed on her outdated, fixer-upper condo last month.
“I need a damn miracle.” She pulled into the gas station on the corner as the final plumes of fuel sputtered to nothing. If she wasn’t mistaken, she’d gone the last twenty miles on a flat tire. Her bladder, full to bursting, demanded attention. What emergency to deal with first?
The car died in front of the pump, which answered one question. She opened the door of her new hybrid and slid out–getting half way before her legs cramped. Starbucks coffee cups fell to the pavement and she scooped them up, shoving them back inside and hoping nobody saw.
“We’re on empty, but we made it,” she told the car, giving the silver hood a pat. Her hand came away grimy and she looked at her palm in disgust. She took a blue paper towel from the dispenser by the pump, dunked it in the murky water, and washed the biggest smears off her hand. “Disgusting.”
She walked into the gas station and nodded at the dark-haired woman behind the counter. Dressed in an amber sari with gold accessories, the woman acknowledged her, but didn’t bother with a verbal hello.
“Do you have a restroom I could use?” Quick, quick.
“Is that your car?” The woman turned her head toward the lopsided vehicle. “A Prius?”
“Yes.” Celia had once owned an SUV Mercedes, and the smaller car, fuel and energy efficient at a quarter of the cost, took some getting used to–just like the rest of her life in the past year since Preston’s death.
“Right there. No need for a key.”
“Thank you.” Celia made her way between shelves of tampons and fig cookies, spying a can of Fix-A-Flat to her left. The gas station carried the basics, including an industrial coffee maker that brewed burnt French Roast. Not Starbucks, but she was too exhausted to be picky. Another cup would get her through the next hour.
Using the blue paper towel, she opened the door to the restroom. Single toilet, and a white porcelain sink. The mirror over the top was rusted–something that happened close to the beach.
Celia looked around for a toilet seat cover dispenser, but there wasn’t one. Hurry. She unbuttoned her Lily Pulitzer shorts and sat her ass down.
Just in time.
The three cups of coffee that had kept her up all night, driving toward salvation, raced through her. It wasn’t the relief of emptying her bladder that made her start to cry but the fact that she’d made it. Not to her condo just yet, but the gas station counted.
She sniffed, blowing her nose into the thin tissue, which just made more of a mess. Once finished, she stood in front of the mirror and assessed the damage from the all-night drive.
Splashing water onto her face, she patted her cheeks dry with the bottom of her lime green tee. There were no paper towels, and the hand dryer was broken. Celia quickly pulled her shirt back down after getting a view of her slightly pudgy stomach.
“The last ten pounds is a bitch,” she told her unsmiling mouth. Coming down from forty gained pounderoos, she didn’t linger on self-pity. Norwegian blue eyes, blonde, straight hair she kept at shoulder length and low-lighted with caramel streaks, and pale white skin that didn’t tan. She pinched her cheeks. “You, Celia, are okay.”
A knock sounded at the door. “Are you all right in there?”
Her neck flushed in embarrassment. “Yes,” Celia answered, shutting off the faucet and unlocking the handle. She went out, brushing past the curious female clerk.
“I thought I heard you talking?” The woman crossed her arms over her nicely toned midriff.
“A bad habit I’ve picked up, keeping myself company,” Celia explained with a chuckle, hoping the stranger hadn’t heard the tears too.
The attendant was not amused. “Are you going to fill up?”
Celia nodded, wishing she’d put on some lipstick or spritzed her hair. “But I have a flat tire.”
“The garage doesn’t open until ten.” She gave Celia’s wet shirt a glance, then frowned.
“I can buy a can of that spray stuff,” Celia said. “I live around here. Somewhere.” She pulled out her smart phone to open the map app. “I’m moving in this morning.”
The woman’s pierced brow lifted. “Where?”
“Caspian’s Nest,” Celia said, her smile automatic. “On Hibiscus?”
“I know the place,” the woman said. “Well, welcome to the neighborhood. I am Khanti Garcia. My husband Nino and I own this station and the garage.”
“Nice to meet you,” Celia said. She preferred to meet new people in the right setting. Not coming off a coffee high, rolling in on a flat tire and fumes.
She grabbed the can, carefully avoiding the cookies and candy, instead choosing an apple from a basket by the register. “Here. A coffee, too. I’ll take the regular unleaded for the car.”
Not anymore. “No. It runs fine on the other.”
Khanti hummed something under her breath, totaling Celia’s purchases while leaving the credit card open for the gas. “What do you do?”
Celia dropped her purse at the question. What do I do? What do I do? She cleared her throat, certain that Khanti would tell all of her friends that the new gal in town was a nutcase. “I am opening a new café. I’m a cook, a chef.”
An imposter. She waited for Khanti to start laughing at her, but the woman seemed interested. “What kind of food?”
Her stomach tumbled at the direct question. You did not need a degree to make delicious food or own a kitchen. So used to a world where degrees mattered, certificates pronounced competency, that cooking without a license felt like breaking the rules.
“Soups, sandwiches, salads. All organic and locally farmed.”
“Oh?” Khanti defrosted a degree or two. “Good thing you’re not another fish place. My cousin Sujay has a booth at the farmer’s market on Sunday. You should come, and I’ll introduce you.”
“Thank you,” Celia said, feeling as if she’d passed a test. “But I won’t officially be in business for another week.” And there was so much to do. Closing the cancer center had taken longer than she’d thought, delaying her arrival here by two weeks. She was behind, despite her lists and best intentions.
“What’s your name?” Khanti asked.
Celia bowed her head, kicking herself in the butt for being rude. She stuck out her hand. “Celia Langford. Proud owner of Ambrosia by the Sea.”
Khanti’s brown eyes glittered. “I love that name. Where will you be located?”
“Off of second, one block south of Commercial.”
She tapped her lower lip, the thin gold rings on her fingers flashing in the fluorescent light. “Hmm. That’s where the Greek restaurant is, and the fish house…”
Celia nodded. “Yes. I’m across from Deliciosa.”
“There’s a coffee shop down the block. Rhino’s.”
“Ambrosia won’t be direct competition,” Celia said. “I plan on offering teas, brewed by the pot.”
Khanti leaned her elbow on the counter. “I am so pleased to meet you. Right now on our little island you can get your java fix from this stainless steel monstrosity, or the coffee shop. Have you heard of a place without a Starbucks on every corner? Or even a Dunkin Donuts? Unreal, but the town planners want to keep it homey.”
Celia’s heart warmed. “It’s what drew me, from all of the towns I researched. The sense of community.”
“If you like to suntan,” Khanti gave Celia’s pale skin a roll of her eyes, “or fish, or dive, this is a piece of heaven.”
Celia sighed, back to worrying again. “I don’t do any of that. I sure hope my cooking will keep me voted on the island.”
Khanti pointed to a man with bleached-white curls wearing a thigh-length snug diving suit walking toward the station. “That’s Dax Smith, his family owns the dive shop. He swears he likes my coffee.” She shrugged. “I don’t like my coffee.”
The door opened with the jangle of a bell, and Celia turned toward the man who came in on a current of salt air and zinc. His black suit looked like lycra, but rubber, too. It fit him like a second skin, covering his chest, mid upper arm, torso, and down to his thighs. His feet, bare. She curled her toes in her sneakers.
His slow nod as he saw her, his expression lighting as if he knew her and they were great friends, left her speechless. They’d never met. She would have remembered the curly-haired surfer with tanned toes. His smile revealed a slightly crooked eye tooth. He was tousled perfection.
Dax held out his hand in greeting. “Is that your Prius out there? With the flat?”
She swallowed, then blinked, keeping hold of her purse. Something about him made her nerves jump. “Uh huh.”
“Got a spare?” He lowered his hand.
“Maybe?” Celia panicked, wondering if she could even find the owner’s manual, her car was packed so full. “I’ve only had it a few weeks.”
“I can look,” he offered. “It’s probably in the trunk.”
Celia’s stomach knotted. “I would have to take out the suitcases, and I just got here, and,” she took a deep breath, fighting the sensation of being overwhelmed. She couldn’t fail.
Khanti sniffed. “Leave her alone, Dax. She bought a can of Fix-A-Flat.”
Dax. What a fitting name, Celia thought. He seemed barely civilized. Gorgeous. Roman?
He ran a hand through his short curls. “Nah, don’t use that stuff. Let me take a look.” Then he turned to Khanti. “Why can’t Nino help the lady out? It’s obvious she isn’t from around here.”
Celia felt her face flame. Her lime green sneakers with the pristine white laces matched the print of her Lily shorts and tee. In spite of her designer beach attire, she stood out. Khanti had her own style, and Dax personified relaxed and laid back. Celia was anything but.
“This is our new neighbor,” Khanti said with a mischievous giggle. “Celia Langford. From–where did you say?”
“I,” Celia cleared her throat. “I didn’t. I’m from Ohio.”
“How’d you land here?” Dax asked, as if surprised anybody else might enjoy the oceanfront.
“Long story. Boring.” She wasn’t telling them her past, for heaven’s sake. She just met them. One thing she didn’t want was more gossip, like she’d left behind. This was a fresh new start. No more embarrassing moments-she’d had enough humiliation for ten lifetimes.
“Okay.” He shrugged in surrender. “I know when to shut up. Where is Nino, anyway?”
Celia lifted her sack off the counter and side-stepped closer to the door.
“Sleeping. He was out at the Hard Rock last night. Winning, he says. Do I see the money?” She shook her finger. “No.”
“He’s a good guy.” Dax stopped Celia with a hand on her arm, though she’d sworn he’d been looking at Khanti.
Celia froze in place. When was the last time a man had touched her?
“I can spray that tire for you. Good to do it before it gets too hot. Summer by the ocean is brutal.”
He was so close that she could smell his toothpaste. Mint. Celia lifted her shoulders. “No, thank you. I can do it.” There had to be directions on the can. So what if she’d never dealt with a flat tire? Something new to add to her list of things she’d accomplish on her own.
He held her gaze, his eyes a darker, warmer blue than hers. “Independent women. What’s a southern born guy to do?”
“Get your coffee,” Khanti suggested.
Confused, Celia wondered if she’d done something wrong. Then she shook her head and went outside to her car. Dax was right about her independence.
From her parents, to her husband, she’d never been alone. Now, she had to be.
Dax watched the walking advertisement for Women’s Golf Pro Magazine glide toward her car. Blonde, slick hair. Toned arms and calves, like she worked out-in in a gym. God knows that skin had never seen the light of day. It was like she had a book on her head, her back was so straight.
“A book on her head,” he muttered. “Or a stick up her ass.”
“Dax!” Khanti said his name as a laughing scold. “She seems nice. Plans on opening a café next week. I walked by the place yesterday, but it didn’t seem ready for business. I wonder if she’ll need help?”
“City girls never let you help them. Not even with a flat tire.” He was unable to tear his eyes away. “What is she doing?”
Khanti joined him at the window.
“Well.” She pressed her lips together. “It seems as if she’s putting a layer of blue paper towels on the ground.”
“Why?” He squinted, not sure he was seeing properly.
“So she doesn’t get her knees dirty?”
Dax burst out laughing. “She’s a priss. She won’t last long. People come here with their trust funds thinking they can retire in paradise without any effort.” He cringed as Celia gingerly knelt down by the tire and read the can. Even from so far away, he saw her resolute determination set in the stiffness of her spine.
“I wish I had this on video.” Khanti stood on tip-toe for a better view. “It would go viral. Look at her shake that thing!”
Dax groaned, torn between laughing and wanting Celia to stop. His gaze dropped to the curve of her breasts beneath the green t-shirt. She shook that can, and all he could think of was a hand job.
Khanti too, from the way she snorted. “She’d put our town, this gas station, on the map.”
Suddenly Celia stopped shaking the can, frowning, and studied the nozzle on the tire. Her shoulders slumped, but she took the nozzle between her fingers and twisted. She pulled it off with a satisfied smile, then realized her fingers were now filthy. She sank back on her heels.
“She’s gonna come in now, just wait.” Dax crossed his arms, watching like it was reality television. “Say she can’t do it after all.”
“I don’t know,” Khanti said, wiping tears from her eyes. “She seems pretty intent.”
Celia adjusted her stance, kneeling on the blue paper towels, holding the can at the suggested angle pictured on the back. She bit her lip, concentrating. In spite of himself, Dax thought of the faces she might make during sex. Would she bite her lower lip? Half-close her eyes?
He’d had one frigid bitch in his life already–no way would he risk his serenity on another. High-strung women gave a man no peace.
She took off the lid.
Up, down. Up, down, repeat.
Khanti’s shoulders vibrated with laughter. “Why don’t I have my phone? I’m missing out on the million-dollar video.”
“That would be mean.” Dax moved closer to the window as Celia shook the can for all it was worth. Her entire body got into it–her shapely ass, her boobs, she worked it so hard even her helmet of blonde hair moved.
“But you being a pervert is okay?”
He elbowed his friend. “Makes you one too, Khanti.”
Neither of them budged as Celia finally depressed the lever on the can.
Without having it firmly affixed to the nozzle on the tire.
White foam sprayed into the air, startling her. Celia squealed and ducked her head.
“Let go of the can!” Khanti giggled, holding her belly. “She’s got to let it go.”
A mass of white foamed the air above Celia’s head like a dense cloud. Dax laughed so hard he fell into the window, catching Celia’s attention. She turned toward them.
“Oh shit,” he quickly sobered. “Here she comes.” Her eyes were huge, shimmering like a tide pool, her body rigid with indignation.
Celia marched into the store. Dax jumped back, his hands out to his sides.
White foam clung to her hair, but her jaw was set and her pert nose lifted with pride. “Are you two laughing at me?”
Khanti toned her giggles into snickers.
Dax gulped a chuckle that hurt his throat. “We, I,” he said. God, he shouldn’t have gotten carried away at her antics.
“I see. You are laughing at me.” She straightened her shoulders, her expression hurt as well as angry. “I did nothing to deserve being the butt of your jokes.” Her chin tilted at an impossible angle. “I find it rude, and hardly fitting with your friendly home-town vibe.”
Dax stepped forward, sorry. Damn, he was sorry. “Celia, here. Let me. You have something in your hair.” He pulled the blob of white foam free as Khanti hooted into the bags of potato chips.
Celia simultaneously burst into tears and pushed his arm away.
“Oh, God,” Celia said, her tone mortified. She sniffed, then patted the spot on Dax’s arm where she’d shoved him. A quick touch, as if she didn’t want any contact at all. “I don’t usually do that. I mean, go around and hit people. Or cry. I don’t usually do that either.”
“No worries. I have a sister who knows how to really punch.”
She frowned at him, uncertain. Her body gave off a frenetic energy that he knew he was partially at fault for.
“I feel bad for laughing,” Dax said. “How about you pull your car by the garage, so Nino can fix the tire when he comes in? I’ll take you home.”
She rubbed her hands together, then stopped as she realized she was making it worse. “I don’t need your pity.”
Dax stepped back at her sharp tone. “I’m just being neighborly. Where do you live?”
“I can call a taxi,” Celia said.
“Why would you do that? It’s a waste of money and time.” Dax swallowed his annoyance. He wanted to make things right.
Khanti, now under control, stood next to him. “Caspian’s Nest isn’t far, Celia. And it’ll be a few hours before Nino is able to fix your tire. Let Dax run you over.”
Celia eyed them both with faint suspicion. “I have luggage in the trunk.”
“Nobody will break into your car,” Khanti said. “Besides, I can see it from the window. Just take what you need. A change of clothes or something.”
Celia shifted from one foot to the next. After a full minute of silent deliberation, she released a held breath. Did she always take so long to make up her mind about stuff?
“Okay,” she said. “It might be nice to get settled.”
“Wait right here,” Dax said. “I’ll get my jeep.”