Christmas in Lucky HarborJill Shalvis
Table of Contents
A Preview of Always on My Mind
A Preview of Once in a Lifetime
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To another middle child, the middle sister, the middle everything. To Megan, the peacemaker, the warrior princess, the fierce, loyal protector of our hearts.
“I chose the path less traveled,
but only because I was lost. Carry a map.”
Maddie drove the narrow, curvy highway with her past still nipping at her heels after fourteen hundred miles. Not even her dependable Honda had been able to outrun her demons.
Or her own failings.
Good thing, then, that she was done with failing. Please be done with failing, she thought.
“Come on, listeners,” the disc jockey said jovially on the radio. “Call in with your Christmas hopes and dreams. We’ll be picking a random winner and making a wish come true.”
“You’re kidding me.” Maddie briefly took her eyes off the mountainous road and flicked a glance at the dash. “It’s one day after Thanksgiving. It’s not time for Christmas.”
“Any wish,” the DJ said. “Name it, and it could be yours.”
As if. But she let out a breath and tried for whimsy. Once upon a time, she’d been good at such things. Maddie Moore, you were raised on movie sets—fake the damn whimsy. “Fine. I’ll wish for…” What? That she could’ve had a do-over with her mother before Phoebe Traeger had gone to the ultimate Grateful Dead concert in the sky? That Maddie had dumped her ex far sooner than she had? That her boss—may he choke on his leftover turkey—had waited until after year-end bonuses to fire her?
“The lines are lit up,” the DJ announced. “Best of luck to all of you out there waiting.”
Hey, maybe that’s what she’d wish for—luck. She’d wish for better luck than she’d had: with family, with a job, with men—
Well, maybe not men. Men she was giving up entirely. Pausing from that thought, she squinted through the fog to read the first road sign she’d seen in a while.
WELCOME TO LUCKY HARBOR!
Home to 2,100 lucky people
And 10,100 shellfish
About time. Exercising muscles she hadn’t utilized in too long, she smiled, and in celebration of arriving at her designated destination, she dug into the bag of salt and vinegar potato chips at her side. Chips cured just about everything, from the I-lost-my-job blues, to the my-boyfriend-was-a-jerk regrets, to the tentatively hopeful celebration of a new beginning.
“A new beginning done right,” she said out loud, because everyone knew that saying it out loud made it true. “You hear that, karma?” She glanced upward through her slightly leaky sunroof into a dark sky, where storm clouds tumbled together like a dryer full of gray wool blankets. “This time, I’m going to be strong.” Like Katharine Hepburn. Like Ingrid Bergman. “So go torture someone else and leave me alone.”
A bolt of lightning blinded her, followed by a boom of thunder that nearly had her jerking out of her skin. “Okay, so I meant pretty please leave me alone.”
The highway in front of her wound its way alongside a cliff on her right, which probably hid more wildlife than this affirmed city girl wanted to think about. Far below the road on her left, the Pacific Ocean pitched and rolled, fog lingering in long, silvery fingers on the frothy water.
Gorgeous, all of it, but what registered more than anything was the silence. No horns blaring while jockeying for position in the clogged fast lane, no tension-filled offices where producers and directors shouted at each other. No ex-boyfriends who yelled to release steam. Or worse.
No anger at all, in fact.
Just the sound of the radio and her own breathing. Delicious, glorious silence.
As unbelievable as it seemed, she’d never driven through the mountains before. She was here now only because, shockingly, her mother’s will had listed property in Washington State. More shockingly, Maddie had been left one-third of that property, a place called Lucky Harbor Resort.
Raised by her set-designer dad in Los Angeles, Maddie hadn’t seen her mother more than a handful of times since he’d taken custody of her at age five, so the will had been a huge surprise. Her dad had been just as shocked as she, and so had her two half-sisters, Tara and Chloe. Since there hadn’t been a memorial service—Phoebe had specifically not wanted one—the three sisters had agreed to meet at the resort.
It would be the first time they’d seen each other in five years.
Defying probability, the road narrowed yet again. Maddie steered into the sharp left curve and then immediately whipped the wheel the other way for the unexpected right. A sign warned her to keep a lookout for river otters, osprey—what the heck were osprey?—and bald eagles. Autumn had come extremely late this year for the entire West Coast, and the fallen leaves were strewn across the roads like gold coins. It was beautiful, and taking it all in might have caused her to slide a little bit into the next hairpin, where she—oh, crap—
Barely missed a guy on a motorcycle.
“Oh, my God.” Heart in her throat, she craned her neck, watching as the bike ran off the road and skidded to a stop. With a horrified grimace, she started to drive past, then hesitated.
But hurrying past a cringe-worthy moment, hoping to avoid a scene, was the old Maddie. The new Maddie stopped the car, though she did allow herself a beat to draw a quick, shuddery breath. What was she supposed to say—Sorry I almost killed you, here’s my license, insurance, and last twenty-seven dollars? No, that was too pathetic. Motorcycles are death machines, you idiot, you nearly got yourself killed! Hmm, probably a tad too defensive. Which meant that a simple, heartfelt apology would have to do.
Bolstering her courage, she got out of the car clutching her BlackBerry, ready to call 911 if it got ugly. Shivering in the unexpectedly damp ocean air, she moved toward him, her arms wrapped around herself as she faced the music.
Please don’t be a raging asshole…
He was still straddling the motorcycle, one long leg stretched out, balancing on a battered work boot, and if he was pissed, she couldn’t tell yet past his reflective sunglasses. He was leanly muscled and broad shouldered, and his jeans and leather jacket were made for a hard body just like his. It was a safe bet that he hadn’t just inhaled an entire bag of salt-and-vinegar chips. “Are you okay?” she asked, annoyed that she sounded breathless and nervous.
Pulling off his helmet, he revealed wavy, dark brown hair and a day’s worth of stubble on a strong jaw. “I’m good. You?” His voice was low and calm, his hair whipping around in the wind.
Irritated, most definitely. But not pissed.
Relieved, she dragged in some air. “I’m fine, but I’m not the one who nearly got run off the road by the crazy LA driver. I’m sorry, I was driving too fast.”
“You probably shouldn’t admit that.”
True. But she was thrown by his gravelly voice, by the fact that he was big and, for all she knew, bad, to boot, and that she was alone with him on a deserted, foggy highway.
It had all the makings of a horror flick.
“Are you lost?” he asked.
Was she? Probably she w
as a little lost mentally, and quite possibly emotionally, as well. Not that she’d admit either. “I’m heading to Lucky Harbor Resort.”
He pushed his sunglasses to the top of his head, and be still her heart, he had eyes the exact color of the caramel in the candy bar she’d consumed for lunch. “Lucky Harbor Resort,” he repeated.
“Yes.” But before she could ask why he was baffled about that, his gaze dipped down and he took in her favorite long-sleeved tee. Reaching out, he picked something off her sleeve.
Half a chip.
He took another off her collarbone, and she broke out in goose bumps—and not the scared kind.
“Salt and vinegar,” she said and shook off the crumbs. She’d muster up some mortification—but she’d used up her entire quota when she’d nearly flattened him like a pancake. Not that she cared what he—or any man, for that matter—thought. Because she’d given up men.
Even tall, built, really good-looking, tousled-haired guys with gravelly voices and piercing eyes.
What she needed now was an exit plan. So she put her phone to her ear, pretending it was vibrating. “Hello,” she said to no one. “Yes, I’ll be right there.” She smiled, like look at me, so busy, I really have to go, and, turning away, she lifted a hand in a wave, still talking into the phone to avoid an awkward good-bye, except—
Her phone rang. And not the pretend kind. Risking a peek at Hot Biker Guy over her shoulder, she found him brows up, looking amused.
“I think you have a real call,” he said, something new in his voice. Possibly more humor, but most likely sheer disbelief that he’d nearly been killed by a socially handicapped LA chick.
Face hot, Maddie answered her phone. And then wished she hadn’t, since it was the HR department of the production office from which she’d been fired, asking where she’d like her final check mailed. “I have automatic deposit,” she murmured, and listened to the end-of-employment spiel and questions, agreeing out loud that yes, she realized being terminated means no references. With a sigh, she hung up.
He was watching her. “Fired, huh?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
He accepted that but didn’t move. He just remained still, straddling that bike, sheer testosterone coming off him in waves. She realized he was waiting for her to leave first. Either he was being a gentleman, or he didn’t want to risk his life and limbs. “Again, sorry. And I’m really glad I didn’t kill you—” She walked backward, right into her own car. Good going. Keeping her face averted, she leapt into the driver’s seat. “Really glad I didn’t kill you?” she repeated to herself. Seriously? Well, whatever, it was done. Just don’t look back. Don’t—
He was watching her go, and though she couldn’t be certain, she thought maybe he was looking a little bemused.
She got that a lot.
A minute later, she drove through Lucky Harbor. It was everything Google Earth had promised, a picturesque little Washington State beach town nestled in a rocky cove with a quirky, eclectic mix of the old and new. The main drag was lined with Victorian buildings painted in bright colors, housing the requisite grocery store, post office, gas station, and hardware store. Then a turnoff to the beach itself, where a long pier jutted out into the water, lined with more shops and outdoor cafés.
And a Ferris wheel.
The sight of it brought an odd yearning. She wanted to buy a ticket and ride it, if only to pretend for four minutes that she wasn’t twenty-nine, broke every which way to Sunday, and homeless.
Oh, and scared of heights.
She kept driving. Two minutes later, she came to a fork in the road and had no idea which way to turn. Pulling over, she grabbed her map, watching as Hot Biker Guy rode past her in those faded jeans that fit perfectly across his equally perfect butt.
When the very nice view was gone, she went back to studying her map. Lucky Harbor Resort was supposedly on the water, which was still hard to believe, because as far as Maddie knew, the only thing her mother had ever owned was a 1971 wood-paneled station wagon and every single Deadhead album ever recorded.
According to the lawyer’s papers, the resort was made up of a small marina, an inn, and an owner’s cottage. Filled with anticipation, Maddie hit the gas and steered right… only to come to the end of the asphalt.
She eyed the last building on the left. It was an art gallery. A woman stood in the doorway wearing a bright pink velour sweat suit with white piping, white athletic shoes, and a terry-cloth sweatband that held back her equally white hair. She could have been fifty or eighty, it was hard to tell, and in direct contrast to the athletic outfit, she had a cigarette dangling out the corner of her mouth and skin that looked as if she’d been standing in the sun for decades. “Hello, darling,” she said in a craggy voice when Maddie got out of her car. “You’re either lost, or you want to buy a painting.”
“A little lost,” Maddie admitted.
“That happens a lot out here. We have all these roads that lead nowhere.”
Great. She was on the road to nowhere. Story of her life. “I’m looking for Lucky Harbor Resort.”
The woman’s white eyebrows jerked upright, vanishing into her hair. “Oh! Oh, finally!” Eyes crinkling when she smiled, she clapped her hands in delight. “Which one are you, honey? The Wild Child, the Steel Magnolia, or the Mouse?”
Maddie blinked. “Uh…”
“Oh, your momma loved to talk about her girls! Always said how she’d screwed you all up but good, but that someday she’d get you all back here to run the inn together as a real family, the three of you.”
“You mean the four of us.”
“Nope. Somehow she always knew it’d be just you three girls.” She puffed on her cigarette, then nearly hacked up a lung. “She wanted to get the inn renovated first, but that didn’t happen. The pneumonia caught her fast, and then she was gone.” Her smile faded some. “Probably God couldn’t resist Pheeb’s company. Christ, she was such a kick.” She cocked her head and studied Maddie’s appearance.
Self-conscious, Maddie once again brushed at herself, hoping the crumbs were long gone and that maybe her hair wasn’t as bad as it felt.
The woman smiled. “The Mouse.”
Well, hell. Maddie blew out a breath, telling herself it was silly to be insulted at the truth. “Yes.”
“That’d make you the smart one, then. The one who ran the big, fancy production company in Los Angeles.”
“Oh.” Maddie vehemently shook her head. “No, I was just an assistant.” To an assistant. Who sometimes had to buy her boss’s underwear and fetch his girlfriend’s presents, as well as actually produce movies and TV shows.
“Your momma said you’d say that, but she knew better. Knew your worth ethic. She said you worked very hard.”
Maddie had worked hard. And dammit, she had also pretty much run that company. May it rot in hell. “How do you know all this?”
“I’m Lucille.” When this produced no recognition from Maddie, she cackled in laughter. “I actually work for you. You know, at the inn? Whenever there’s guests, I come in and clean.”
“Well, business hasn’t exactly been hopping, has it? Oh! Wait here a second, I have something to show you—”
“Actually, I’m sort of in a hurry…” But Lucille was gone. “Okay, then.”
Two minutes later, Lucile reappeared from the gallery carrying a small carved wooden box that said RECIPES, the kind that held 3x5 index cards. “This is for you girls.”
Maddie didn’t cook, but it seemed rude not to take it. “Did Phoebe cook?”
“Oh, hell, no,” Lucille said with a cackle. “She could burn water like no other.”
Maddie accepted the box with a baffled “Thanks.”
“Now, you just continue down this road about a mile to the clearing. You can’t miss it. Call me if you need anything. Cleaning,
organizing… spider relocation.”
This caught Maddie’s attention. “Spider relocation?”
“Your momma wasn’t big on spiders.”
Uh-huh, something they had in common. “Are there a lot of them?”
“Well, that depends on what you consider a lot.”
Oh, God. Any more than one was an infestation. Maddie managed a smile that might have been more a baring of her teeth, gave a wave of thanks, and got back into her car, following the dirt road. “The Mouse,” she said with a sigh.
That was going to change.
“Don’t take life too seriously. After all, none of us
are getting out alive anyway.”
Turned out Lucille was right, and in exactly one mile, the road opened up to a clearing. The Pacific Ocean was a deep, choppy sea of black, dusted with whitecaps that went out as far as Maddie could see. It connected with a metallic gray sky, framed by rocky bluffs, misty and breathtaking.
She had found the “resort,” and Lucille had gotten something else right, too. The place wasn’t exactly hopping.
Dead was more like it.
Clearly, the inn had seen better days. A woman sat on the front porch steps, a Vespa parked nearby. At the sight of Maddie, she stood. She wore cute little hip-hugging army cargoes, a snug, bright red Henley, and matching high-tops. Her glossy dark red hair cascaded down her back in an artful disarray that would have taken an entire beauty salon staff to accomplish on Maddie’s uncontrollable curls.
Chloe, the twenty-four-year-old Wild Child.
Maddie attempted to pat down her own dark blond hair that had a mind of its own, but it was a waste of time on a good day, which this most definitely wasn’t. Before she could say a word, a cab pulled up next to Maddie’s car and a tall, lean, beautiful woman got out. Her short brunette hair was layered and effortlessly sexy. She wore an elegant business suit that emphasized her fit body and a cool smile.