MUST LOVE MAYBE by Holly Cortelyou
A wounded man. A single mom. One summer love…maybe.
Get ready to swoon for Ben and Lily in the 5th book of the Cinnamon Bay Romances!
Here's a peek at the first two chapters:
WITH A PUFF of air, Lily Corwyn blew at the strand of hair tickling her nose. She twitched and wiggled, but still, the recalcitrant lock stuck. Ugh. By the tender, stiff feel of it, her nose and cheeks were burning in the strong July sunshine.
“Well, Leo, I should have worn a hat.” Lily nodded to the statue of Leo the Lionheart DeVane, the infamous pirate of the North Carolina coast. “I know better than to let the sun fry my skin.” Instead, her hair was piled in a loose, messy bun near the top of her head and unruly tendrils danced in the occasional breezes that squeezed between the tightly packed storefronts.
Her current pack of four dogs lay slumped at her feet in the midday heat with tongues lolling, but with their eyes busily tracking all the boardwalk’s activity. She let her gaze wander from each brightly painted shop along Cinnamon Bay’s oceanside boardwalk. The weather-worn wood planks squeaked and thunked under the weight of the shoppers, tourists, and beachgoers.
In the distance, under the Top This Pizzeria sign, her eyes locked on a pair of strong, manly shoulders encased in a sunny yellow Hawaiian-style shirt. He jumped straight up, extended a long, tanned arm, and captured a trio of pink balloons before they could escape into the summer sky. He’d just saved a child from suffering the misery of lost balloons.
It had been years since her girls had carried balloons down the boardwalk. She rather missed those simple days before the divorce, before the teenage years and boyfriend dramas, and way before the damn mall shooting stole the illusions of childhood from her oldest daughter. Lily willed her sorrow away. Wallowing in pity over the past would change nothing. She was lucky that Honor was alive and only had a lingering ache in her leg and in her heart.
At least Honor was relaxed enough to stroll through the shops of the seaside boardwalk with her little sister, Emmie, in tow. She envisioned her thirteen- and sixteen-year-old daughters arguing over which clothes to try on in the adorable Nature’s Way boho boutique behind her.
Lily shifted her weight from one hip to the other and wished the thin strap of the woven shopping basket wasn’t cutting quite so deeply into her arm. Two of the dogs at her feet yanked on their leashes, and the inquisitive Jack Russell terrier, Linus, jumped to his four paws at full alert as a group of noisy boys approached.
“Linus, sit,” she commanded, and the wiggling terrier whined a moment, then plunked his hindquarters down while the other three dogs tensed with perked ears and wide eyes. Lily motioned to Bella to lie back down and hoped it was enough to keep the rest calm. Bella was her dog, and she could trust the golden retriever to behave, but the other three were client’s dogs, and who knew if they truly had good manners.
The boys pushed and shoved at each other with laughs and a scattering of boyish curses. As if in slow motion, a flurry of ice cream cones and cups of soda pop flew through the air and landed on the wood planks in spectacular splashes and squelches.
A cold and gooey nightmare splattered across her legs and knees.
“Oh man!” Lily’s gaze fell to the colorful blobs now sliding down her shins.
“Jones, you jerk wad.”
Linus barked imperatively, and the pack of boys hustled off. The Jack Russell sat on his tiny haunches with a royal air while the other three pups sniffed at the blobs and puddles of ice cream and pop.
A wet dog tongue slurped along her leg.
“Gross, stop it.”
As if her words caught their attention, the rest of the dogs joined in to clean her legs of the sticky mess. Lily stamped her feet, but the canines persisted. She danced back and bumped into the outstretched arm of the Leo the Pirate.
A yellow shirt blurred in front of her, and a strong, muscled arm shot out and stopped her fall. Her gaze followed the muscled arm all the way up to a bright yellow shirt. Ah! The man from the balloon rescue.
A pair of twinkling, hazel eyes met hers, and a spark of recognition flared.
“Ben? Ben Aldaine?”
“In the flesh,” he said and flashed his charming lopsided, half grin.
Lily’s first instinct was to fling herself into the arms of her best bud from school, but with her arms and hands filled with leashes and shopping bags, that wasn’t happening. Darn it. Ben’s gaze roved over her as he smiled, and Lily cringed at what a train wreck she must appear. Her hair a rat’s nest and a hoard of beasts drooling on her legs. She only prayed that the humidity hadn’t smeared her mascara or left any damp spots on her tank top or shorts.
Ben, on the other hand, looked the picture of perfection as if he’d just come from a photo shoot for one of those coastal living magazines. Glossy, dark brown hair, sun-kissed skin, and a gorgeous square jaw with the merest hint of the dimple that she remembered. Ben Aldaine had been handsome as the boy across the street during high school, but he had grown into a broad-shouldered hunk.
“Don’t mind, um, me,” Lily said with a gesture at the canines. “This is my normal life.” She hoped he hadn’t heard her voice squeak. How had he gotten so gorgeous?
“I wondered if you needed rescuing from the flying ice cream cones,” Ben said, “but I think the dogs have it handled. All except for one spot.”
He leaned closer, stretched out that strong, muscled arm, and caressed her cheek with a quick stroke of a fingertip. Her eyes half closed, and her thoughts turned to hazy mush.
“See?” Ben showed off a dollop of vanilla ice cream that he’d wiped off her face.
“Oh! Thank you.” Either this was the best day of her life or the worst. She hadn’t seen him in some twenty years, and their little reunion had to happen when she was having a dairy disaster of a day, and then she’d almost swooned into his arms. Must be the heat and the humidity. After all, it was the hottest day of the year so far, and the sun was baking down on her. That had to be the reason she had little beads of sweat dripping down her back. It couldn’t possibly be that this model-worthy man had merely brushed her cheek.
“For old time’s sake, right?” His voice broke through her mental ramblings.
“You have a knack for saving damsels in distress,” Lily said. “That was you snagging that bunch of balloons a few minutes ago, right?”
“Guilty as charged.”
“I think I remember you saving my butt a few times,” Lily said as memories of Ben helping her study for English tests and even coming to her rescue when stranded after a painful breakup with her longtime boyfriend back in the day.
“I think you always returned the favor,” Ben said. “I recall some math homework where you saved my bacon.”
“Shall we call it even?”
“Absolutely.” Ben smiled that half smile that seemed even more adorable than she remembered. “It looks like life has been good to you. I didn’t think to see you here.”
“That’s a long story,” she said, “but in a nutshell, I moved back to Cinnamon Bay to help out my uncle who had some health issues a few years ago, and we ended up staying. I fell in love with the coast all over again.” That was the vaguest summary of the century. It skipped over a cheating spouse, mountains of tears, starting a business, a half-a-thousand dogs and cats, and two growing daughters.
“What brings you to Cinnamon Bay?”
“I’m just passing through on my way to Miami.” Ben’s gaze flickered from the top of her head to her toes where Bella finished licking her ankle. “I’m glad I gave in to my instinct that said I had to come check out my old stomping grounds.”
“Hey, Mom! Can I have an advance on my allowance?” Her thirteen-year-old daughter, Emmie, flew through the door of the clothing shop. She stopped mid-step, gaped at Ben, and flushed instantly. The teenybopper looked poleaxed by the tall man in shorts and a pineapple-colored shirt. Lily rather agreed with her. Ben had grown into his looks. To perfection.
“Ben, let me introduce my youngest, Emmie,” Lily said. “Emmie, this is Ben Aldaine. He was one of my best friends in high school and lived across the street from the old house on Seashell Drive.”
“Nice to meet you.” Ben shook hands with a wildly blushing Emmie who’d gone momentarily mute, before finally managing to nod and stumble over a greeting.
“I have another daughter, but she’s still shopping.”
“Honor’s still trying on dresses,” Emmie said while watching the dogs lap up the last of the cola off the ground. “I saw a beautiful sage-green top. It’s so floaty and ruffly, can I please get it?”
“You haven’t earned last week’s advance yet. Instead, how about you grab my wallet and get us drinks from Brewed with a View?” Lily pointed toward the coffee shop. “Let’s get our visitor something, too. Ben, would you like something hot or cold?” What had she just said? Would the day’s embarrassments never end?
“I’m fine,” Ben said and gave her a conspiratorial wink.
“Surprise us,” Lily said as Emmie dove into her bag, fished out a green leather wallet, and made a beeline for the coffee shop.
“It’s been—” Lily began as Ben said, “It’s been—”
“—a long time!” they said simultaneously.
She didn’t know whether to laugh or groan. Either they were totally in sync like they had been in the old days, or she was off-kilter and discombobulated. Lily couldn’t remember the last time she’d been awkward around a man. She’d become a pro at casual dates and idle chitchat. If she didn’t pull it together, Ben would think she’d lost her marbles.
“Where do you live now?” That sounded safe and unpresuming, if dull.
“I have a place in New York City, but I travel a lot,” Ben said.
“Do you travel for work or pleasure?” Lily smothered a groan and hoped she hadn’t emphasized the word, pleasure, too heavily. Could she sound any more awkward? Seriously, what was her problem? They’d been best friends once upon a time. They’d studied together, complained about parents and siblings, and even offered up dating advice to each other.
“Some of both, but mostly work. I’m a—” Whatever Ben was about to say was lost as Linus, the Jack Russell terrier, barked a greeting at a newcomer.
“Well, my stars, if it isn’t Benjamin Aldaine!” Hattie Calhoun said with a broad smile and her hands full of a cardboard tray with four coffee drinks perched inside.
Hattie, one of Cinnamon Bay’s trio of ever-present matchmakers, arrived with Emmie in tow. Her snow-white hair gleamed in the sunshine as she determinedly never wore a hat, despite her nickname. Lily shot a questioning glance at Emmie who only shrugged, slid next to her and tucked the wallet back into the small bag slung over Lily’s shoulders.
“How lovely to see you, Hattie,” Ben said and he glanced over Hattie’s shoulder. “Where are your two besties? I always remember you with Trixie and Birdie. I hope they’re well.”
“They’re peachy, and that’s so sweet of you to remember,” Hattie said with an airy wave of one hand as the drink tray wobbled in the other. “What brings you back to Cinnamon Bay? Are you on the trail of a hot new story?”
Lily studied Hattie with renewed attention as she handed out the drinks. From the sounds of it, she’d been keeping tabs on Ben over the years, and by the look in her eyes, she was far from surprised at seeing him. She’d probably spotted him talking to her and decided to join Emmie and come snoop and gather fresh gossip.
With the cup poised at her lips, Lily spotted the words, Café Amour, scrawled on Ben’s drink. Lily inspected her drink and found the matching words. The other two cups held pink berry smoothies. Would the old matchmaker ever give up trying to pair off people with the legendary love potion coffee mix? In all her years in Cinnamon Bay, she’d never once tried it.
Well, Hattie was off her mark today. Ben was only passing through, so there was no chance the fanciful and dubious concoction would hit her with a cupid’s arrow. Lily tipped back a swig of Café Amour as Ben did the same. She tasted cinnamon and something that held a little kick at the end. Delicious. She might have to make a habit of drinking it, and Ben seemed to like it, too, as that halfway, lopsided grin made an appearance as he took a second sip.
“Thank you for the drink. It’s tasty,” Ben said and added, “I’m here by chance. I’m road-tripping down to Florida on business, but I have an extra day, so I couldn’t pass up a chance to stroll down the boardwalk again. I had no idea I’d meet so many old friends.”
“I’m glad you’re here,” Hattie said as she handed both smoothies to Emmie and let her know the other was for Honor. She turned back to Ben. “We’ve missed you.”
“It’s a pleasure to see you again, Miss Hattie,” Ben said and landed a quick kiss on Hattie’s cheek. “I’ve missed Southern hospitality.”
“I saw your parents a few years back,” Hattie continued, “and got all caught up on you and your sister. They’re awfully proud of you both. You’re rather the celebrity, now, aren’t you?”
“Thank you for the compliment, but I’m hardly a red-carpet guy.” Ben ducked his head, and Lily thought she detected a hint of red on his cheeks. Celebrity? She was clearly missing out on something.
“I must run, my dears,” Hattie said with a pat on Ben’s arm. “If you stay a bit longer, Ben, you’ll have to stop by and have tea with me. I’d love to hear about all of your adventures. You know I follow your byline religiously.” She blew a kiss toward Lily. “Enjoy your drinks!”
Not until Hattie disappeared into the flow of shoppers and tourists did Honor slide up next to her sister. She didn’t like the older woman and her managing ways. Probably because she had tried to get Honor to go out with one of her relatives and the boy had the audacity to raise prize pigs as a hobby, which was not at all to Miss Honor’s city-sophisticated liking.
“Honor, I’d like you to meet Ben Aldaine, an old friend of mine. We used to live across the street from each other when I was about your age.”
“Did Miss Hattie say that you’re famous?” asked Emmie with open-mouthed awe.
“Don’t be rude.” Honor threw a withering look at her sister.
Emmie shrunk back, and her cheeks flamed all over again.
“I’m a journalist,” Ben said without hesitation. “Mostly, my stories show up in newspapers, but sometimes I have spots on TV news.”
“I know you.” Honor’s eyes widened with shocked recognition. “You’re that reporter who got blown up in some desert country. We saw it all in my social studies class in May.”
Good heavens. So much for good manners. Leave it to a teenager to blurt out something awkward. Lily waited for a large, gaping crevice to open up and swallow her, the dogs, and especially, her children.
Of course, it made sense that Honor would pay attention to an attack on a reporter when she too had been the victim of a random shooting. He would surely cut and run from such a display of manners and tact. She waited for his reaction.
All eyes turned to Ben. He flinched, and all the color drained from his face.
A SHARP, QUICK memory hit Ben in the gut, and his lungs fought for a gulp of air. He closed his eyes and focused on the quiet darkness behind his eyelids. He was nowhere near that roadside bomber in Sudan.
He was standing on an American seaside boardwalk on the Atlantic Ocean. He was free and clear of danger.
Ben opened his eyes and with relief realized that he’d only shut them for a microsecond and none of the three ladies in front of him noticed a thing. Lily, his old high school crush, and her two daughters gazed up at him expectantly. Even the four dogs riveted their attention on him. He needed to say something. Anything.
“Well, kudos to your social studies teacher,” Ben said as he untensed his shoulders and reminded himself to breathe smoothly. He laughed to release the knot in his belly. “It’s not always easy to cover all the wars and conflicts going on throughout the world.” He reached into his pocket to search for a cigarette, but he only found a damn mint and wished for the fifth time that day that he hadn’t given up smoking last year.
“That must have been terrifying,” Lily said. “How terrible. I hope you weren’t injured.” Her gaze flicked over her older daughter before reconnecting with him.
Honor chewed her lip and fiddled with the straw of her iced mocha drink. His reporter’s instincts whispered that there might be a story hidden beneath the surface, but this was hardly the moment to play twenty questions and root out a nugget of information.
“I’m fine, for the most part,” Ben said. “I spent some time in the hospital, and I’ve got a nice scar to show for it all on my leg.” Ben decided to skip over the tiny wounds from sharded glass and shrapnel and not even begin to mention his recurring bouts of stress nightmares and barely controlled panic attacks around loud noises. He was getting better, and no one wanted to hear about PTSD, least of all a lovely trio of ladies on a charming summer afternoon.
“We know a little something about—” Lily started to say, but stopped upon receiving a scalding-hot look from the green-eyed Honor. Lily cleared her throat and lifted her chin and looked Ben in the eye. “I’m relieved that you’re well after such an ordeal. It can’t have been easy.”
“All in a day’s work for a war correspondent.” Ben smiled at the three women and hoped it relieved any lingering uneasiness. “I’ve been hit with tear gas, rubber bullets, and even dodged some Molotov cocktails. I roll with it.”
Lily chuckled as he’d intended, but young Emmie glowed with incipient hero worship. He’d best quit talking before he sounded like a complete arrogant TV personality. He’d said similar words at an elegant soiree in London, but here in small-town Carolina, it sounded ridiculous. Two different worlds.
A buzzing erupted from Lily’s wristband and a frown of concern passed over her face. “Emmie, honey, would you please take the leashes?” she asked, and her daughter absently gathered all four leashes between her hands and sat on the base of the pirate statue. “Excuse me for a second. My office manager only sends SOS texts.”
Lily dug out her cell phone and devoured whatever message had just come in. Her life was as hectic as his when he was on the job. He idly watched a wisp of her dark brown hair tickle at her nose in the faint breeze. She wiggled her nose, but to no avail. It was still a shapely nose with a sprinkling of freckles and a hint of a growing sunburn dusted across her cheeks.
Perhaps aware of his scrutiny, Lily looked up through her lashes and smiled a halfway, lopsided grin. It was the same shy, but joyful expression she used to throw at him when they’d discovered a sea turtle nest on the beach, or she’d tell him of a precious dream for the future.
Her smile turned wistful as if she too remembered lazy summer days ambling along the sandy dunes and sharing hopes and plans for the future. As friends did. Indeed, that boyhood crush of his had been sweet, but that world was long gone. She had her life, and he had his, but it was sweet to remember the old feelings. For a moment.
Lily glanced back at her phone, and her expression turned to disappointment.
“Girls, we’ve got to run,” Lily declared. “I’m so sorry, Ben, but two of my employees have called in sick, so I’ve got to get back to cover for them.” She fiddled with the thin gold chain around her neck with twin round cut gems in garnet and blue topaz. Probably her daughter’s birthstones.
A gift from her husband? He examined her left hand for a telltale wedding band, but in her blur of movement he detected about four or five rings scattered about her fingers, but there did seem to be a plain band on her fourth digit.
“No worries,” Ben replied. “It was great seeing you.” So much for that long-ago boyish crush on Lily Mitchell. As always, someone had beaten him to the punch.
“I wish you were staying longer,” Lily said right as Ben began to ask about her husband and her married name. “We’d love to have you over for supper. For old time’s sake.”
“I ought to be leaving right about now if I want to make my hotel before dark.”
“It was wonderful to see you again.” Lily threw her arms around him and the pair of shopping bags on her arms smacked against his back.
Her lean, bare arms slid around him, and the fresh scents of lavender and roses filled his senses. She always had smelled like a warm summer garden. Comforting and luxurious all at once. A tug of attraction pooled near his heart.
With a brief brush of her lips across his cheek and the press of her curved breasts against his chest, Lily sprung back, grabbed the dog leashes from Emmie, and scooped up her drink cup.
“Goodbye.” Ben said the two words and wished he could bite them back.
With friendly waves, Honor and Emmie turned and followed their mother and the four dogs ambling along at Lily’s side. He had the sensation that he was letting something go. Like abandoning a good book without ever knowing it’s ending.
Ben sipped his iced coffee and savored the hints of cinnamon and chocolate. A memory pinged. Wasn’t there some legend of a cinnamon coffee brew that had magical powers? Super strength? Or good business dealings? Ben studied the colorful, painted statue of Lionheart the Pirate standing guard over the boardwalk.
If the pirate had anything to do with the magical brew, it was either good luck in battle or lucky in love. One of the two for sure. Ben took a long swig of the drink and let the chill beverage take the edge off the midafternoon heat. For the life of him, he couldn’t remember why he needed to leave so soon.
He supposed he should head back to his car and find his way back to the interstate. Miami wasn’t getting any closer, not that he’d make it that far tonight. He strolled to the end of the boardwalk and found an empty bench at the grassy entrance to the beach dunes.
Just a few minutes more wouldn’t hurt anything, so he soaked up the briny air and watched a few seagulls peck over the remains of a hot dog bun.
His phone hummed and vibrated in his shorts pocket. A text from Andy Mendez in Miami.
“No go on Tommy interview. Spooked. He flew out this morning. Trail is cold as a frozen cod.”
That sucked. Without Tommy, they had no other leads on the human trafficking ring. Back to square one in finding another potential informer. His interest in Miami in July was about zero. The heat was oppressive even if the food was delicious, but he couldn’t find his enthusiasm. It was Mendez’s territory, and he was just along for the ride.
“Let me know of any new developments. I can be down there with a day’s notice,” Ben texted.
Time to head home. The idea held little appeal, but he strolled back to his car. He tossed his phone onto the passenger seat and dumped his empty cup into the small garbage bag behind his seat.
The phone rang, and for an instant, he thought of ignoring it. He was done for the day. All he wanted was a cold adult beverage and a plate full of seafood and hush puppies.
It was his agent. She never called, but he had sent some roughed-out chapters of a fiction novel.
“Hey, Justine, what’s new?”
“Are you serious about the chapters you sent me?” she said in her normal quick-clip voice. She was a no-nonsense, wheeler-dealer, big-city agent. She was the busiest person on the planet if you asked her. Her tone didn’t bode well for his first foray into an epic thriller novel. He’d better stick to his nonfiction exposés.
“I’m doing well,” Ben said with deliberate cheerfulness. She wasn’t big on social niceties unless it involved dirty martinis at her favorite watering hole. “Thank you for asking. North Carolina is beautiful this time of year, if muggy.”
“What? Oh, of course. All that. I thought you were in Miami. And how’s your leg?”
“The leg is improving. And what about those chapters? I didn’t think they were too bad, but by the tone of your voice, I think I’d better scrap the whole idea.”
“Dear God, no. I want to love them. Adore them.” Justine paused dramatically. “But before I fall for them, I need to know if you’re serious and if you have any more written. You’re a bestseller in nonfiction, and I think we could go huge with this.”
“You had me worried there. I didn’t think my chapters were crap, but I’m no judge of my own stuff.” Ben tamped down on the grin threatening to engulf his face.
“Did I read your email right that you started this as journal entries for your PTSD therapy?”
“Yup,” Ben said, relieved that Justine had no qualms about therapy or neuroses. Heck, she’d probably had her own therapist and all her own issues, too. “The hypnotherapy is working like a champ, but writing diary entries made me feel like an anxious thirteen-year-old. It just seemed more interesting to make up some stories about what happened out there in the desert.”
“You have more of it done?”
“I’m about half done now.”
“Sweet Jesus, I’m in love with you and want to have your children.” Justine’s words tumbled out in a sing-song chant. “Send me what you have. I have a brilliant plan.”
“I’ll take that as a good sign.”
“Gotta go. Send it to me tonight. Okay?”
“Now, finish the damn book. Stat.” Justine disconnected with no further chatter. She was direct and without much small talk when she was on a mission.
Ben ran his hand through his hair. Perhaps his priorities had just changed. He smiled. Those traffickers in Miami would have to wait. He knew a hot lead when he stumbled over one. If Justine was flopping around like a balloon losing all its air, he’d better pay attention.
Plan change. Check. New plan? Finish novel. How hard could it be? He had two completed books on the war in Syria and the corruption and unrest in Venezuela. He needed peace and quiet if he was to complete this manuscript.
A seagull zoomed past the windshield and drew his attention to the sand dunes and waving grasses. He could go home to his small apartment in New York City, or he could stay here in this sleepy little burg. Cinnamon Bay was the bird in the hand, and he even knew a few people so he would be able to socialize a little, but not too much.
Decision made. Next up, find a place to stay. Hadn’t Hattie suggested he stop by for some tea? She’d know everything about everyone in town and where to get a room or a studio.
An image of Lily popped into his mind, with a pair of dogs licking ice cream off her silky, tanned legs. Maybe old Hattie would know where to find Lily. Maybe he’d take Lily up on that offer for a family dinner.
An hour later, Ben knocked on the door of Hattie’s shingled beachside cottage.
“I’m so glad you called,” Hattie said as she ushered him into her home. “It’s a bit late for tea, but I do have some lemonade or sweet tea.” She plopped her hands onto her generous hips and angled her head to one side.
“Come on out to the back veranda,” Hattie said. “I’ve got the fan going, and it’s all screened in so the mosquitos won’t eat us alive.” She ushered them through the house with its plethora of oak trim and brilliant teal accent walls out to a screened-in back porch heavily shaded by a towering magnolia tree.
“May I help with anything?”
Hattie waved him off, so Ben settled down on a peach-and-pink flowered cushion in a dark, woven rattan patio chair.
“Spiked or plain lemonade? Hattie asked, flourishing a little flask. “Or perhaps my signature cocktail? It’s my little evening luxury.”
“I’ll have what you’re having, please.” Hell, he was on vacation, so why not take a chance?
Hattie whipped up a blend of what looked like vodka, orange liqueur, and a splash of sparkling soda water from her tidy outdoor bar. They toasted, and Ben savored the taste of pure summer sunshine.
They chatted about Hattie’s family, and she asked gentle questions about his family, his sister’s successes as a therapist, and his adventures and recovery from his accident.
“I hadn’t expected to see you again so soon although I’m delighted that you’re here,” Hattie began. “Have your plans changed, perhaps?”
“The story I was pursuing in South Florida kind of fizzled out, so I’m going to st