An alienated son tries to find favor in his dying father’s eyes by the retrieval of an heirloom necklace cheated away years ago. Only one thing blocks his way–the cheater’s gutsy daughter.
The beach was deserted, except for a small yacht bobbing on the gentle waves close to shore. Heartened by her chat with David, Val remembered the fun she’d had in this place as a child running barefoot in the sand.
The isolation was tranquil, not lonely, an opportune time to reflect on the ring in her pocket and upon a fading relationship. She’d never realized until Sally and Jeff exchanged vows, how business-like Thomas had become. He’d probably find it difficult to show up for their wedding if he didn’t stand to gain something he wanted--a trophy wife.
Val deliberated over marrying the man whose ring had adorned her finger. She’d given into Thomas’ begging and accepted the huge diamond with a few misgivings. Sally hadn’t hesitated to give her opinion, vague though it was: "If it’s meant to be, it will feel right." Fat help that advice was. If she married Thomas, their marriage would satisfy a goal for each of them. On that level it seemed destined to take place, yet it didn’t feel right.
Thomas’ words darted through her mind: "Come on Val, you want kids. I need a wife and we get along well enough together. There’s no reason for us not to tie the knot."
He’d brought up the logic so many times it had begun to sound rational. They did get along well. She had strong feelings for him, which was why she’d given in. "But, Sally," she had pleaded during their chat, "there’s none of the glorious excitement I always expected with true love. And lately, he’s more interested in climbing the rungs of power than doing anything fun."
Though she longed for a family of her own, she longed more for what Sally and Jeff had displayed looking into each other’s eyes. The disclosure had been a startling one when she’d glimpsed the emotion so graphically illuminating them. She prayed she could get out of the engagement without either her or Thomas ending up an emotional wreck. Adrift in her thoughts, she didn’t hear footsteps fall in behind her.
Until he spoke.
"It’s peaceful down here on the beach, don’t you think?"
Val stopped short and turned. "Calum!" It might as well have been the devil standing in front of her. She glanced both ways along the shoreline. Nobody in sight. Stepping back two paces, she stared at him a few seconds, then tried to regain her composure by agreeing with him. "It sure is." Her heart pounded without mercy, her peace shattered with his presence.
Fast footwork slipped her past him. She intended to return to the reception--to Butch. Calum’s long strides were more than a match for hers; he caught up. She stopped again and faced him. Exasperated, she spoke without thinking. "I guess that saying is true."
"Which is?" He came to a halt closer than she preferred.
She hurried out her reply. "That there’s never a cop around when you need one."
Calum grinned. "I don’t think you need one. I’m safe to be around."
She didn’t know about that, but neither was she going to argue the point. Her best option would be a quick retreat.
"That’s my boat anchored there. Would you like to go out for a look, Valerie? I can carry you that short distance. The water is as calm as you’ll ever see it. You won’t get one drop of water on you."
She saw him glance at her feet. He’d be sure to notice how her toes had curled into the sand, prepared to propel into flight. Jittery, and fearing it showed, she was unsure whether to attempt leaving in a trail of smoke. "I don’t like boats or being away from land."
Her head down, Val started walking, picking up her pace, but he remained at her elbow. Why did I come here alone? Her eyes focused on the beach ahead. Keep yourself together. Don’t let him know you’re frightened. "You’ve rented the house on the bluff, haven’t you... the one that’s an old winery?" Her steps increased, almost to a run.
"Yes. Its panoramic view of the ocean is magnificent."
"Are the vats in the cellar still in use?"
"You’re familiar with the place?" His eyes gleamed with more interest than she thought the question warranted. What was going on behind his raised brow?
"I don’t know it well," she replied, then consciously forced her breath to a more regular flow. "I was in there once as a child. It’s spooky!"
He smiled. The tension drained from his face.
~ * ~
Slightly ahead of her, Calum stopped, pleased she stopped as well and didn’t try to go around him. He hadn’t intended for her to get this far from the yacht, but he’d lost himself in the pretended warmth of her conversation. He wished she were more relaxed in his company, but she didn’t know his plans so he couldn’t expect her to accept his suggestions with common sense. Calum didn’t want to get physical on the beach in case anyone chose to walk down here. He could follow plan B; it would be just as effective.
Calum pointed to his home. "Those wide-arched doors allow trucks to deliver the grapes inside for fermenting. Would you like to come in and sniff the aroma? You’ve got your camera; maybe you’d like to take pictures for an assignment."
"No. It’s getting late. I’m sure Butch will want to leave... how’d you know about my next assignment? I haven’t told Dad yet."
"I didn’t know you had another one. It was just a supposition, a coincidence, I guess." He watched her eyes become slits; her lips tightened. He knew she wasn’t buying his excuse, but she didn’t try to rush away, either. His brain numbed, stupefied at yet another blunder. He wasn’t accustomed to making mistakes. His biggest mistake was that he had miscalculated her wariness.
He had researched his scheme carefully and thought he could predict her actions, but she hadn’t taken the yacht or the winery bait. What was wrong with her? Dammit, she’s making shambles of my plans sending my time and effort down the tubes.
At a loss, he scanned the beach. They were still alone and near where she had parked her footwear. He walked over and snatched her shoes, one in each hand, rethinking his strategy.
"Come over to that large rock and I’ll help you put these on." He carried them closer to the winery, then stretching out both arms offered them as if tempting a skittery animal into a cage.
Valerie slowly walked toward him and sat where he indicated. He’d noticed her wearing stockings before, but she made no attempt to bring them to light from wherever she had stowed them. With painstaking gentleness, he slipped the shoes over her toes. She pulled her feet away before he could fasten the straps. Her frown made it clear she’d not tolerate more assistance. Once she buckled the straps around the ankles he admired, she moved to get up. He grabbed her hand and felt an electrifying charge at their point of contact. For a moment, he expected to see her bolt for the path.
He was ready if she did.
"Come this way, Valerie. It’s only a short trek back to the reception through this new shortcut I had the gardener cut." Depending on his soft, non-threatening tone, he strolled past her. The trail he referred to was wider and had less of a slope--easier to travel for anyone the least bit timid. Someone like her.
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