Claire Callahan’s fingers danced over the keyboard as the numbers popped onto the screen in front of her. The budget, the input of numbers that represented more money than she’d ever touch in her lifetime, was her responsibility. She gladly took it on. She was always the responsible one. The one who stayed the course, took the steady road. It had brought her the CPA controller position at Cypress Corners at the age of twenty-six.
It paid her a salary that let her put a steady amount toward her student loans and still put aside enough to gain some security in her life. Security she sorely craved.
Another Friday afternoon drew to a close. Some of the offices around her were already dark, their occupants off to start their weekends a little early. Claire didn’t begrudge them. At least they had something to do. Somewhere to go.
“Hey, are you still here?”
Claire turned to nod at Tammy. Tammy was one of the sales reps for the property, and she was all smiles and promises. Truth be told, she was also one of the reasons Claire had such big numbers to input. While separate custom builders and contractors worked on the property, the development itself earned a hefty percentage on land and home sales.
“Yes,” Claire answered. “I don’t want this waiting for me on Monday.”
Tammy tossed her head in answer, her shining black hair sliding over one shoulder of her expensive silk blouse. Claire knew the cost of things, since she had to balance her personal budget down to the penny. She’d like to be able to wear clothes like Tammy’s, but as much of her salary as she could manage went directly into her savings.
“Well, I’m off to the beach.” Tammy grinned. “Love this time of year. No kids around.”
Claire just smiled. Tammy took off, bound for her little convertible and her escape less than an hour away to the east. As for Claire, she’d had enough of the beach when she’d lived with her family on the east coast of Florida. It might still be pretty but it held more bad memories than good. So there was no escape for Claire.
An hour later, Claire shut down the computer and stood. She stretched her arms toward the coffered ceiling and let out a groan. She had to allow that her office was decorated beautifully, a nod to the developers who made Cypress Corners the successful project it was. Claire lived right here at Cypress too, in a modest house nestled in one of the more densely-populated villages that dotted the sprawling property. It was a two-bedroom bungalow with deep moldings and hardwood floors and the bare minimum of furniture.
Claire picked up her bag and turned. Rick Chapman, Sales Director for Cypress, looked at her expectantly.
“Hi, Rick.” She snapped off the light and shut her office door. “I’m surprised to see you back here.”
Rick shrugged and gave her that handsome grin of his. He held up a soda can.
“Harmony wanted a diet cola with lime and we’re out at home.”
Claire smiled. “Harmony’s a woman with very specific wants.”
Rick laughed. “Yeah. Good thing she still wants me.”
Claire couldn’t be surprised at that, really. He was gorgeous, big and strong and clearly devoted to his wife. And he was just as lucky to have her friend Harmony in his life.
Rick walked beside her as she left the building for the small parking lot set beside it. She listened to the sand crunch beneath their feet, ticking off the seconds before he made his move. She knew he’d ask. He’d asked every day this week despite her continued refusal. Tonight he waited until she reached her car.
“Are you coming on Sunday?”
Claire’s shoulders slumped. The barbeque. It’s all he and Harmony had talked about all week, and always conspicuously within her earshot. She had only her Sunday free, as usual. Tomorrow she’d be tied up with Cally like she was every Saturday. Her father took all of her energy on their days together. That was for sure. But Sunday? Oh, what the heck. What was she going to do instead? Stay in and watch movies on Lifetime?
“Yes, I’m coming. What do you want me to bring?”
Rick’s smile widened.
***Sunday couldn’t have come quickly enough for Claire. Yesterday Cally had been alternately pouty and cheerful. Something was definitely up with her father. She’d taken him out and they’d shared a meal at their favorite hotdog stand, and she’d listened as he’d reminisced about her mom and the life they had before she died five years ago. If only their life had really been as Cally described it. She’d worry about him later, though. God knew he would still be there later. He always was.
Rick and Harmony’s house faced the lakeside park, and was wrapped by a wide brick porch which held wicker furniture and wooden rockers. Claire felt the tension of Saturday evaporate as she climbed the few steps up to the front door. She could hear a child’s laughter from behind the house, and the sound was light and sweet and carried on the temperate breeze. Her belly clenched, as it always did when she thought of the child she’d love to have. Someday.
She shifted the plastic box in her hands and rapped on the wooden frame of the screen door.
“Hey!” Harmony held the screen door open for Claire. “I’m so glad you could make it. Come in, come in.”
Claire’s friend had her curly golden hair up in a ponytail, looking half her age as a smile curved her lips. Claire felt a tingle of apprehension mixing with the happiness at seeing her friend. Uh oh. She’d seen that smile before. Harmony was up to something.
“Rick didn’t make it easy to keep saying no,” Claire said.
She handed Harmony the container of home-baked cookies. Baking was one of Claire’s few escapes. She bought ingredients in bulk and searched out new recipes to try.
Following the recipes to the letter and presenting the perfect treats gave her a useful application of the math she adored.
Harmony lifted the box to peer through the plastic. She gave a little moan. “God, I love your chocolate-chocolate chip.”
Claire smiled at the compliment and followed her into the house. Pitchers of iced tea and lemonade along with plastic cups were set on the granite counter closest to the French doors leading out to the patio. Harmony stole a cookie before setting the box beside a plastic tray of obviously store-bought brightly-colored and heavily-frosted cupcakes.
Claire regarded the supermarket treats. “What’s with all the sugar?”
Harmony shook her head. “Those are Rick’s brother’s idea of the perfect treat for a three-year old boy. If Nick eats one of those I’ll never get him to sleep tonight.”
Claire honed in on one thing Harmony said. Rick’s brother was here. The elusive Jake she’d heard about. Thrill-seeking, globe-hopping Jake Chapman. Claire now knew what Harmony’s smile had meant. She smelled a set up. Wasn’t that just great?
There was a gilt-framed mirror hanging beside the French doors, and Claire couldn’t resist taking a quick glance in it as she went outside. She was no Tammy, but she was no slouch, either. Her strawberry-blond hair was thick and wavy, her skin clear if dotted with more than a few freckles. She looked tired, though. And certainly not as young as Harmony did even though Claire was a few years younger. Oh, well.
She stepped out onto the patio and froze as she glimpsed the finest butt she’d seen in a long time. With a strong back above and long legs beneath, this guy had a body Claire could look at for hours. He wore his dark hair a little long but it looked thick and glossy.
“Jake!” Harmony called.
The guy straightened and turned. Claire’s belly clenched again. God. He was a god! The tan on his face and a dusting of dark stubble on his square jaw made his blue eyes sparkle like the small gold hoop in his left ear. Ooh, he looked like a sexy pirate. He was tall like his brother, but Jake Chapman was a bit leaner, his muscles more defined beneath his soft-looking t-shirt. Claire stumbled over her Keds as she stepped off the patio onto the grass.
“Hey, watch out,” Jake said. He picked up a large toy truck on the grass right in front of her, one of several parked on the lawn. “Nick’s got himself a whole fleet out here.”
Claire swallowed as he stepped closer and held out his hand.
She shook his hand and quickly released it. His touch was perfect. Firm and warm and sure. He smelled fresh and hot, like a day at the lake on a summer afternoon.
“Claire Callahan,” she managed to say.
His brows shot up. “You’re Claire?”
Was that disappointment in his voice? Or interest? Claire wasn’t going to try to guess right now.
“Rick and Harmony told me about you.” Jake winked. “You’re the money mind of Cypress.”
She inwardly winced. God, how boring that sounded.
“Yeah,” she said, forcing a smile. “That’s me.”
She turned and sat on a lawn chair. Any second now the hot Jake Chapman would turn his attention from the boring “money mind.”
“Lemonade, Claire?” Harmony asked from inside.
Jake stared at her a little longer, and Claire shifted uncomfortably. She fingered the collar of her pretty embroidered camp shirt, an end-of-season splurge she’d picked up at the outlet center in Orlando. She crossed her legs, and her khaki shorts suddenly felt a little too short as he dropped his gaze slowly to her feet. Then Jake let out a shout as Nick grabbed his legs from behind.
Jake tumbled to the grass, reaching behind to catch his nephew to his chest. He hugged the little boy, and the two of them laughed as they rolled around on the lawn.
That was the sound Claire had heard before. It was light and irresistible and made her stomach flip.
She took the glass of lemonade Harmony handed her and traced her fingers over the condensation dripping down the sides. She watched Jake and Nick. This guy was a thrill seeker? A risk taker? Right now he looked like a stable family man, but that couldn’t be right. She eyed his perfect profile and model hair. Maybe an advertiser’s idea of a stable family man, then.
She took a long sip of the tart, sweet drink as her mind worked around the puzzle of Jake Chapman. She was a smart girl. There wasn’t a puzzle she couldn’t decipher.
She hid a real smile behind her glass.
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