Part One: Runaway Billionaire
The Story Begins
Pepper Thornton pulled her SUV into the private parking area at the side of Hibiscus House and, regretfully, turned off the air conditioning. She had hoped to get her errands done before the heavy heat of the day rolled in, but this was Central Florida. Heavy heat was a twenty-four hour occurrence. Still, she was glad to have those few things taken care of. Cilla Denbury, who worked part time at Hibiscus House, had offered to finish the cleanup by herself so Pepper could get out, get done, and get back before the sun broiled her on the sidewalk. Pepper was eternally grateful for the woman who had also become her friend. Cilla was recovering from a divorce that left her bank account flush but her life empty. The B&B filled a real hole for her, and she hung out answering the phone and enjoying the scenery even when she didn't have to.
She had moved from New York to recover from the aftereffects of the split and decided to stay because she loved the place. Loved Bayview. Loved Hibiscus House. Loved Pepper.
"You give the place class," Pepper told her often.
She had the kind of figure that looked good in whatever she wore, not slim, not chunky. Her face was heart-shaped and framed by straight black hair that swung easily in a smart cut. Pepper couldn't for the life of her figure out why the woman, at the prime age of thirty, hung around playing employee at Hibiscus House, but she was delighted with and grateful for the friendship. With Cilla she could be herself, and it gave her an ally in foiling her mother's projects.
"I'm back," Pepper called, lugging her parcels in through the kitchen door.
"And I'm finished." Cilla came in from the lobby, carrying a small stack of dessert plates, cups, and saucers. "Man, I thought that couple would never finish their muffins."
Pepper lifted an eyebrow. "The Massingills?"
"Uh-huh. They eat slower than cold molasses and about liked to talked my ear off." She rinsed the dishes in the sink and stacked them in the dishwasher.
"The new reservation check in yet?" Pepper asked.
Cilla shook her head. "He called yesterday to confirm but didn't tell me what time he'd be here. All he said was sometime in the morning."
"Did you tell me he's from Dallas?" Cilla had taken the original phone call.
"Uh-huh. But that's all he said."
"Wonder what he's doing in Bayview?" Pepper mused. "We don't get a lot of single men at Hibiscus House. And he's pretty far from Dallas."
"Maybe he's an artist come to paint the scenery. Or a writer looking to warm up his muse."
"Maybe, but I doubt it. They usually go farther south to Ft. Myers Beach or farther north to Sarasota."
"Maybe he's hiding from someone. It doesn't matter as long as his money is good." Cilla added soap and rinse agent to the dishwasher, pushed the door lock and the start buttons, then dusted her hands. "And that's the last of it."
"Fix yourself a glass of tea and take a load off," Pepper told her. "I'll join you as soon as I put this stuff away."
"You making more of those frosted biscuits?" Cilla asked. Taking her glass of tea, she seated herself on a stool at the island counter. "Guests sure do go for those."
"Uh-huh." Pepper began stacking things in the pantry. "I thought I'd try little apple bits on some and maybe chocolate in the other."
"Lordy. I think I put on five pounds just listening to you." She paused. "Uh, Pepper, your mama's been around this morning while you were out. She'll probably show up again any minute."
A year ago, the senior Thorntons had bought themselves a luxury motor home, declaring they wanted to see the country. When they weren't on the road, they set up at the mobile home park at the edge of Bayview. Pepper had taken over their suite in the bed-and-breakfast and given up hers for paying guests. Ever since then, her parents had been all over her case, insisting they were determined to sell the place and get her out in the world.
"Get a life," Maggie Thornton repeated.
"I have a life," Pepper always repeated.
So what if she hadn't had a decent date in, well, forever? Emphasis on the word decent. She'd even lost her appetite for looking. Men she met were mostly so full of themselves. Whatever happened to real men, sexy men, who knew how to show a girl a good time? Forget about trolling the waters for a husband. She wanted a guy who turned her on and treated her right.
But her mama seemed on a mission from which she would not be deterred. It might not be so bad if she hadn't gotten it into her head that the solution for Pepper's "life" was marriage to a local banker she'd handpicked for her daughter.
"She better not be bringing Judd Wallace with her," Pepper snapped, closing the pantry door. "God, what a smarmy greaseball."
Cilla laughed. "You speak so poorly of our esteemed local banker."
"Doesn't mean he's not a greaseball." Pepper took down a glass, added ice, and filled it with iced tea. "He's damn lucky the big bank that bought him out didn't have anyone in their arsenal who wanted to get stuck away in Bayview. For a man whose sole qualification is being the only choice, he sure is full of himself."
Cilla glanced out the big window to the side yard. "You might need something stronger than that tea, sugar. Your mama just pulled up and, if my eyes don't deceive me, that's the greaseball right behind her. They're walking in together and, man, do they look cozy."
"Pepper Thornton." Cilla grinned. "Such language from a refined young lady."
"You'll hear a lot more if she tries pushing him on me again."
"Get ready." Cilla nodded toward the front of the house. "Here they are."
No sooner had the words left her mouth than Pepper heard the tinkle of the wind chimes that played whenever the front door to the B&B opened.
"Damn, damn, and frosted damn." She grimaced. "Maybe I can put poison in Judd's iced tea or coffee."
"There you are, sweetheart." Maggie Thornton rushed into the kitchen, reaching out to hug Pepper.
The woman was a nearly identical older version of her daughter. Both stood about five four without heels, had the same deep-emerald-green eyes, lush curves, and wavy auburn hair. But where Pepper's hair was shoulder length, Maggie kept hers cut stylishly short. She also sported a Florida tan, acquired since she and her husband had given up running Hibiscus House.
"Hi, Mama." Pepper returned the hug.
"And see who I found in town." She reached behind her and dragged the man forward. "I told him to come right on over with me and you'd fix us some ice-cold tea with those tasty chocolate muffins you made. Right, Judd?"