Love is the sweetest way home …
After a taste of Broadway stardom and a failed marriage, Francine Tanner is rebuilding her life back home on Cavanaugh Island. She’s done with acting—and anyone who isn’t genuine about real life and true feelings. But the mysterious newcomer who’s bought land outside her hometown of Sanctuary Cove is as down-to-earth as he is handsome … and he may be her second chance for the real thing.
Keaton Grace has had a crush on glamour-girl Francine Tanner for years. He can’t believe his luck that she lives in the same small town where he’s developing his new film studio. He just has to convince his favorite star to return to the spotlight. Yet the more time they spend together, the more he realizes the smart, funny, sexy woman she is in real life is far better than any role he envisioned.
Now what he wants most is to heal her pain—and prove their attraction could be more powerful than anything they ever imagined.
A Blackstone Audio production.
Release date: July 29, 2014
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Print pages: 400
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Pulling the hood of her raincoat over her head, she sprinted through puddles in the parking lot to the rear of the full-service salon and day spa. It took several attempts before she was able to unlock the door. Her mother had had the locksmith change the cylinder, yet it still jammed. She made a mental note to have him replace the entire lock. Pushing open the steel door, she flipped on the light switches and within seconds recessed and track lights illuminated the newly renovated salon like brilliant summer sunlight.
Francine had come in an hour before the salon opened for business to take down Christmas decorations and pack them away until the next season. After hanging up her raincoat in the employee lounge, she slipped out of her wet running shoes and turned on the satellite radio to one of her favorite stations. Hip-hop blared through the speakers concealed throughout ceiling panels.
She took a quick glimpse at her reflection along the wall of mirrors. A profusion of dark red curls framed her face, falling to her shoulders; it wasn’t the first time she realized she’d been so busy styling the hair of the salon’s customers that she’d neglected the most important person in her life: Francine Dinah Tanner.
Although she normally didn’t make New Year’s resolutions, she resolved she would dedicate this year to herself at the same time she pulled her hair off her face, securing it in an elastic band. Several wayward curls escaped the band, grazing her ears and the nape of her neck.
She needed a new look and definitely a new attitude but didn’t want to think about all the things she had to do to change her life as she pushed her sock-covered feet into a pair of leather clogs and walked to the front of the shop to check the voice mail. Five days a week Francine helped her mother manage the salon, cut and style hair, and occasionally fill in for the manicurist and/or aesthetician whenever they were backed up. The other two days were now spent helping her grandmother adjust to moving from her Charleston condo to living under the same roof with her son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter.
Eighty-one-year-old Dinah Donovan Tanner had protested loudly when her son insisted she give up living independently and move into a wing of his house on Cavanaugh Island. Frank Tanner had installed an elevator so his mother wouldn’t have to navigate the staircase, converted the west wing to include a bedroom suite with an adjoining bath outfitted for a senior, a living/dining room with a sitting area, and a state-of-the-art kitchen. Once the octogenarian saw her new apartment she reluctantly agreed to move to Sanctuary Cove. Even if Grandma Dinah had initially pouted like a surly adolescent, Francine secretly applauded her father’s decision to take control of his mother’s life because it meant she didn’t have to drive to Charleston to see to her grandmother’s physical and emotional well-being. And most nights she ate dinner with her. Dinah, who’d lived up to her reputation as one of the best cooks in the Lowcountry, had settled into a more laid-back life on the island, grinning nonstop because she got to see her only grandchild every day.
Now that her best friend, Morgan Dane Shaw, was married, they had curtailed their early morning bicycle outings from five days a week, weather permitting, to one or two. She and Morgan had been high school outsiders and had never cultivated close relationships with the other students living in Charleston or on Cavanaugh Island. Even when both left the island to attend out-of-state colleges they never lost contact with each other. She missed hanging out with her friend, but she was glad that Morgan had found her happily ever after with Nathaniel Shaw.
Pencil in hand, Francine activated the voice mail feature and jotted down appointments in the book spread out on the reception desk. There were messages from regulars who wanted a myriad of services. Then she went completely still when she heard the last two messages. The nail technician and one of the stylists had called to say they were experiencing flulike symptoms.
Two weeks after Thanksgiving influenza had swept across the island like wildfire. Hardly anyone was left unscathed. Classroom attendance in the schools in the island’s three towns—Sanctuary Cove, Haven Creek, and Angels Landing—was drastically reduced when students, faculty, and staff alike succumbed to the virus. The local health department had declared a health emergency, forcing the schools’ superintendent to issue an order to close the schools four days before the onset of the Christmas recess. Under another set of circumstances students would’ve applauded extending the holiday recess, but most were too sick to celebrate.
The waiting room in Dr. Asa Monroe’s medical practice had been standing room only. The island’s resident doctor sent his patients home to limit the spread of the virus and made house calls instead. Dinah refused to let Dr. Monroe give her a flu shot, declaring she didn’t like doctors or needles, opting instead to take an herbal concoction guaranteed to offset the symptoms of colds and flu. The elderly woman declared proudly that she was healthier than many half her age because of the herbal remedies that had been passed down through generations of Donovan women. Francine and her parents took the shot and were fortunate enough to avoid the full effect of chills, fever, and general lethargy. However, her mother, Mavis Tanner, like most of the merchants in the Cove, closed the Beauty Box for a week because of a rash of cancellations. She’d used the time to have repairs made to the adjacent space that was now the Butterfly Garden Day Spa.
Francine disassembled the lifelike artificial tree, putting it and the ornaments in a large duffel bag on wheels. Coming in early had its advantages. She could listen to her favorite stations on the radio before some of the elderly customers gave her the stink eye about her taste in music. They’d grumbled constantly to Mavis until Francine told her mother she wouldn’t be opposed to listening to a station featuring songs spanning the sixties, seventies, and sometimes the eighties because she’d grown up listening to the music from her parents’ youth.
She’d just wheeled the duffel into the storeroom when the rear door opened and her mother walked in. “We’re down two this morning, Mama.”
“Who are they?” Mavis asked as she hung her jacket on the wall hook.
“Candace and Danita have come down with the flu. Don’t worry, I’ll cover for both,” Francine volunteered.
She watched as Mavis shook the moisture from her shoulder-length twists. Physically she and her mother were complete opposites. Mavis, petite with a dark complexion, claimed the distinctive broad features of her Gullah ancestry, while Francine had inherited her paternal grandmother’s fair complexion, red hair, and freckles. However, the special gift she’d been born with to discern the spirit had come from her maternal grandmother.
Mavis slipped into a black smock with her name and Beauty Box embroidered in white lettering over her heart. “How many customers does Candace have?”
Francine put on her own smock. “Three. She has two cuts and a color. We can’t afford to turn anyone away after losing a week’s receipts.”
“We’re going to fare a lot better than some of the other shop owners who rely on folks coming in from the mainland to keep them out of the red until the spring and summer.”
The Beauty Box, the only salon on the island, boasted a thriving year-round business because many residents didn’t want to drive or take the ferry into Charleston to get their hair and nails done, while most mom-and-pop stores in the Cove and the Creek weren’t as fortunate. They relied on an influx of tourists during the spring and summer months to sample the cuisine, buy local handicrafts, and tour the antebellum mansions and plantations.
“You’re right,” Francine agreed. She stared at Mavis as she took a large envelope filled with cash out of her tote. Although the salon accepted credit card payments, some of their customers still preferred using cash. “You’re past due for a rinse, Mama.” The neatly twisted hair was liberally streaked with gray.
Mavis’s dark brown eyes met a pair of shimmering emerald green. “Your mama is fifty-nine. And that means I’m old enough to have gray hair and at least one grandbaby.”
Francine rolled her eyes. “Please, let’s not start in on grandbabies again, Mama. You don’t hear Grandma Dinah talking about becoming a great-grandmother.”
“That’s because she’s already a grandmother,” Mavis countered. “Adding great to grandmother is just a formality. I’m the only woman in the Chamber of Commerce’s Ladies Auxiliary who’s not a grandmother and that is something Linda Hawkins is quick to bring up every chance she gets.”
“That’s because she’s still pissed off that you took Daddy from her.”
Mavis glared at Francine. “I didn’t take him from her because she couldn’t lose something she never had.”
“That’s not what she tells anyone who will stand still long enough for her to bad-mouth you.”
“And you know I don’t entertain gossip or lies.”
“I know and so does everyone on Cavanaugh Island,” she mumbled under her breath at the same time she took the envelope from her mother. “I’ll put this in the cash register for you.”
She did not have to be reminded of her mother’s pet peeve; beauty salons were usually breeding grounds for salacious gossip, and because of this Mavis had a hard and fast rule that if any of her employees were caught gossiping with the customers or repeating something they’d overheard it would be grounds for immediate dismissal. Mavis ran her business with the precision of a Marine Corps drill sergeant much to the satisfaction of those who frequented the salon. If someone had an appointment for two, then they were guaranteed to be sitting in a chair at that time or within fifteen minutes.
Francine knew if she didn’t put some distance, if only temporarily, between herself and her mother, Mavis would invariably bring up the topic of her not dating some of the men who’d expressed an interest in her. Although Mavis claimed she didn’t entertain gossip Francine knew she’d overheard talk about her daughter being linked with David Sullivan.
The attractive Charleston-based attorney had become a very eligible bachelor once his girlfriend ended their five-year relationship because of his inability to commit. Although she and David were seen together at the annual Island Fair, she was aware their friendship would never become more than that. David was a wonderful catch but not for her. Francine knew her mother’s wish to become a grandmother was overshadowed by her need to see her daughter married to someone with whom she could spend the rest of her life.
When she married Aiden Fox, Francine believed it would be forever. But, sadly, her fairy-tale marriage didn’t end with a happily ever after. Deceit and mistrust had reared its ugly head once she realized the man who’d declared his undying love had only used her to further his acting career. What had shocked her more than Aiden’s duplicity was that she hadn’t seen it coming. Although she could see someone else’s future in her visions, she could not do the same with her own. She still believed in love and happily ever after, although it appeared to have passed her by. She wanted all of the things she and her best friend, Morgan, had talked about when they were teenage girls. They’d wanted to fall in love and marry men who would love and protect them, who’d become the fathers of their children, and with whom they would grow old together. She hadn’t given up on love, and she was still hopeful she would be given a second chance at finding her own happiness.
Tapping buttons, she entered the passcode on the electronic cash register, placing the bills in the drawer and then closing it. Staring through the front door’s beveled glass, Francine smiled when she saw pinpoints of sunlight coming through watery clouds. The downpour was letting up. Maybe with the sun her mood would improve. Last night she’d had a vision wherein she heard angry voices; the sound grew louder, reverberating in her head. She then saw gaping mouths from which spewed expletives and threats. What she couldn’t see were the faces of the people in her vision. She knew it was in Sanctuary Cove because she recognized the marble statue of patriot militiaman General Francis Marion atop a stallion in the town square. The vision had vanished quickly, but the uneasiness that had gripped her persisted. This was the second time the vision had come to her. The first was on Christmas Eve, when she’d returned from Charleston after a day of last-minute shopping, and Francine hadn’t thought much of it until now.
She made a mental note to talk to her mother about it. Mavis, who’d grown up with her own mother talking about dreams and visions, had taught Francine how to interpret her visions, but this one puzzled even her. It was on a rare occasion that she didn’t or couldn’t see the faces of the people in the images and because of that it was more than disturbing. Who, or what, she mused, had set neighbors against one another?
Francine was six when she realized she was different from other children. A week before she was to enter the first grade she could describe what the school’s new first grade teacher looked like. When Francine recounted the frightening incident to Mavis she reassured her that Francine had been born with a special gift just like her grandmother, but that the gift would have to remain the family’s secret. The second vision didn’t appear until she turned ten, and then they became more frequent as she grew older. Morgan was the only person aside from her family that knew she had psychic abilities.
Francine unlocked the front door and turned over the sign to indicate the Beauty Box was open for business. Francine returned to the lounge and found Brooke Harrison, the shampoo girl, and Taryn Brown, the aesthetician-masseuse, brewing coffee and setting out an assortment of sweet breads from the Muffin Corner for the staff. The space contained a utility kitchen with a microwave, cappuccino-espresso machine, refrigerator-freezer, half bath, and a table with seating for six as well as a seating arrangement to accommodate eight. It was where the employees came to relax between customers and take their meals. A cleaning service came in twice a week to keep the salon and spa spotless. Mavis spared no expense when it came to creating a relaxing environment for her customers and employees.
“The coffee smells wonderful,” Francine said as she tuned the radio to a cool jazz station. Brooke smiled and the skin around her robin’s-egg-blue eyes crinkled with the gesture. They teased each other, saying they were sisters from different mothers, because both had red curly hair.
“It’s a hazelnut blend.”
Brooke, a recent cosmetology graduate, had offered to assume the responsibility for brewing coffee. She still worked part-time as a Starbucks barista. “Candace and Danita have called in sick, so we’re going to be a little tight today,” Francine informed the two women.
“Do I have any cancellations?” Taryn asked Francine.
“No. You’re good.” Taryn, who’d worked at a spa in Atlanta for more than fifteen years but wanted a more laid-back setting, had applied for the position of masseuse when she’d read that the Beauty Box had expanded to include a day spa. Offering spa services had attributed to a steady increase in the salon’s overall profit margin.
The chime on the front door echoed and Francine went to greet their first client of the day.
Keaton Grace knew he couldn’t meet with his attorney and business manager looking like the Wolfman. He hadn’t shaved in more than two weeks and hadn’t cut his hair in four. He’d spoken to Devon Gilmore, who’d arranged to meet him in Sanctuary Cove so he could sign the necessary documents to dissolve the partnership between him and his investment banker slash brother-in-law. At forty-one, he now wanted complete control of his projects: writing, directing, and producing. The dissolution had caused a rift between Keaton and his sister Liana, but he was willing to risk their close relationship in order to control his own destiny.
Opening the binder on the boardinghouse’s bedside table with listings of shops and services on Cavanaugh Island, he perused it. Reading the advertisement for the Beauty Box, he noted the hours of operation. He smiled. They welcomed walk-ins and that was exactly what he was going to be this afternoon.
Keaton had spent the past week cloistered in his suite at the Cove Inn because of the rainy weather. He’d ordered room service instead of eating with the other boarders because he’d found himself in the zone when revising a script. His first visit to Cavanaugh Island had been last summer, to survey the region. At that time he’d checked in at a Charleston hotel and drove to the island under the guise of tourist when in reality he was looking to purchase property.
Cavanaugh Island was one of the many Sea Islands ranging from South Carolina to Florida that Keaton had explored. Either the price of an acre of land on some of the better known islands like Hilton Head, Myrtle Beach, and Jekyll was exorbitant or the zoning laws wouldn’t permit him to erect a movie studio, or both.
Once he’d found the perfect property on Cavanaugh Island, he knew this time he intended to stay. Keaton had arranged a proxy purchase of a twelve-acre lot with an abandoned farmhouse because he’d been unable to leave Los Angeles. He was involved in wrapping an independent film that was already well over the initial budget and it was important that he remain on the West Coast to complete the project. He planned to live in the renovated farmhouse and utilize ten of the twelve acres to build a studio and soundstage for Grace Lowcountry Productions. Thankfully Sanctuary Cove’s zoning laws did not have the restrictions he’d encountered on many of the other islands.
Living at the Cove Inn suited Keaton’s daily needs. His furnished suite had a private bath, minibar, TV, and radio, and his laundry was done on the premises. He’d had little contact with the other boarders because he coveted his time. Relocating from Los Angeles to the small island off the coast of South Carolina was definitely a culture shock. He didn’t have to deal with traffic jams, bright lights, smog, and wailing sirens. And then there was nightlife. It was virtually nonexistent. The exception was the Happy Hour, a nightclub in Haven Creek. The quietness and slower pace were things he hadn’t known before and had come to look forward to. It was as if everything around him was slower, serene, and at times it appeared surreal.
Pulling on a bright yellow slicker over his sweatshirt and jeans, he picked up his keys and left the suite, closing the self-locking door behind him. Taking the back staircase, Keaton walked to the parking area. The cars and SUVs in the lot bore license plates from as far away as Michigan. His BMW sedan with Pennsylvania plates was parked between two minivans from Illinois.
Snowbirds. He’d discovered many of those at the boardinghouse were spending their winter in South Carolina to escape the snow and frigid northern temperatures. If they thought him a snowbird Keaton wasn’t about to correct their perception. He’d come from L.A. to Sanctuary Cove via New York and Pittsburgh, which many of his family members still called home. In his heart he was still a son of the Steel City and a rabid Steelers’ fan. He’d joked to a reporter during an interview that if stabbed he wouldn’t bleed red but black and gold.
The rain had slackened to a drizzle and after starting up the engine he turned the wipers to the lowest setting. Although he’d heard some people complain about the incessant rain, he didn’t mind the inclement weather. Keaton discovered years ago that he did his best work with the sound of rain hitting the windows; he’d always found it soothing. It was akin to being in a cocoon where he was able to shut out reality to escape into a world of his own choosing.
He’d also noticed there were no posted speed limits, traffic lights, or stop signs on the island, prompting him to drive slower than twenty miles per hour when he saw other motorists driving slowly, as if they didn’t have a care in the world. The adjustment hadn’t been easy after years of zipping along California’s freeways. However, the topography was something he never wanted to get used to. The primordial swamps and forests teeming with indigenous wildlife, ancient oak trees draped in Spanish moss, the fanlike fronds of palmetto trees, the stretch of beach and the ocean were unlike anyplace he’d ever lived. The rain had stopped completely when Keaton entered the business district and maneuvered into an area behind rows of stores that had been set aside for parking.
Leaving his slicker in the car, he set out on foot for a leisurely walk along Main Street, while glancing into the quaint shops so integral to the viability of everyone living and working in the small town. Shopkeepers were cleaning plate-glass windows and sweeping up the palmetto leaves littering the gutter. Keaton smiled. It was as if the island were waking up from a weeklong slumber. He noticed the woman in the Parlor Bookstore placing a sign in the window indicating a 15 percent discount on best sellers, and a couple of doors down a man in the Muffin Corner was filling a showcase with trays of muffins and doughnuts. His stroll ended when he pushed open the beveled glass door to the Beauty Box.
When he saw the woman at the reception desk, a line from one of his favorite films popped into his head: Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine. But he wasn’t the Humphrey Bogart character referring to Ingrid Bergman, and the Beauty Box wasn’t Rick’s Café from Casablanca. What were the odds he would walk into a hair salon in a town on a remote sea island and come face-to-face with Francine Tanner?
Dark red curly hair framed a face he could never forget. The last time he’d seen her she’d been on an off-Broadway stage basking in thunderous applause as she took an infinite number of curtain calls. He’d been living in New York City, working as a scriptwriter for an Emmy Award–winning daytime drama, while completing a graduate degree in theater at New York University. When not working or studying he’d spent all of his free time going to Broadway and off-Broadway plays or catering parties.
When he went to see the play in which she’d played one of the lead characters, Keaton had sat close enough to the stage to see the vibrant color of her emerald-green eyes. He knew it was rude, but he couldn’t pull his gaze away from her beautiful face. What, he mused, was she doing in Sanctuary Cove? And why was she working in a hair salon?
“May I help you, sir?”
Her beautifully modulated voice, with traces of a Southern drawl, shattered Keaton’s reverie. “I don’t have an appointment, but I’d like a haircut and a shave.”
Francine smiled. “You don’t need an appointment. Please, Mr.…”
“It’s just Keaton,” he supplied.
“Mr. Keaton, please have a seat in the second chair.”
“No. Keaton’s the first name,” he corrected in a quiet voice.
He sat where she’d directed him, the salon’s sleek black-and-white color scheme reminding him of the upscale establishments in tony New York and L.A. neighborhoods. The mirrored walls, track lighting, white marble floor, and soft jazz were sophisticated as well as inviting. Keaton’s eyes met Francine’s in the mirror when she draped a black cape around his neck and over his shoulders and chest. The scent of her intoxicating perfume wafted to his nostrils, and he thought the scent perfect for her.
“How short do you want it?” she asked, running a wide-tooth comb through tightly curling hair sprinkled with flecks of gray.
Keaton couldn’t stop the smile finding its way over his features. “I want it cropped close to my scalp.”
Francine rested her hands on his shoulders over the cape. “I’m going analyze a few strands before I cut it. After the cut I’ll wash your hair and condition your scalp because it looks a little dry. I’d like to warn you that you’ll have to sit with a plastic cap on your head while I shave you. Do you have a problem with that?”
Smiling and exhibiting a mouth filled with straight white teeth, Keaton shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
A slight flush suffused Francine’s face. “I said that because there are some men who don’t want to be seen sitting in a salon wearing a plastic cap.”
He smothered a chuckle. “I’m not one of those men.” And he wasn’t. If there were two things Keaton was secure about it was his masculinity and his work.
Settling back in the chair, he succumbed to the touch of the woman who had him intrigued the second he recognized her. Rather than stare at her, he closed his eyes and crossed his arms over his chest under the cape. Keaton remembered Francine’s performance in the off-Broadway play Sisters; he had been profoundly disappointed when she hadn’t been nominated for an Obie. Years later he’d recalled her acting ability when he wrote a script with her in mind. He contacted her agent, who told him she’d left the business. The news stunned Keaton, because he didn’t want to believe someone of her incomparable talent would walk away from a career to which she’d been born. He opened his eyes when someone tapped his shoulder.
“You’re new around here, aren’t you?”
Keaton stared at an elderly woman with white hair set on a profusion of tiny multicolored plastic rollers. She stared back at him over a pair of half-glasses, dark eyes in an equally dark face narrowing slightly. There was something about her face that reminded him of his grandmother, but knew his prissy relative would never be so forward as to approach a stranger to ask a question without first being introduced.
“Yes, I am.”
“Are you keeping company with anyone?”
Francine returned from the back, where she’d analyzed several strands of Keaton’s hair. She knew he wanted it cropped, but she had to cut it short enough for the strands to lay flat. Her steps slowed when she saw Bernice Wagner engaged in conversation with him. She didn’t want Keaton, as a first-time customer, to get the wrong impression about her mother’s establishment. Miss Bernice, a former seamstress, had been an incurable gossip for as long as Francine could remember. There was never a time she came into the salon that Miss Bernice didn’t start up a conversation with someone. And there were a few times when she’d become embroiled in a verbal confrontation and ended it only before it escalated into something short of a physical altercation.
“Miss Bernice, let me check and see if you’re dry.”
“There’s no need to check,” the older woman snapped angrily. “I was under that dryer so long it’s a wonder I didn’t smell my hair burning.”
Affecting a smile she didn’t feel at that moment, Francine counted slowly to five. She loved doing hair, but there were times when the folks who came into the Beauty Box tested her patience and she had to bite her tongue to ke. . .
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