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Author Katie Mettner

Chapter One ~ Before Love Had a Name ~Joyce DeBacco


Robin Decker didn’t think her day could get much worse. She was wrong. She’d been accepting condolences all afternoon at her father’s memorial service and wanted nothing more than a quiet place in which to fall apart. Before she found that place, however, Cameron Noble grabbed her arm and practically dragged her into the adjacent hallway.

“We need to talk,” he said through clenched lips.

“What’s wrong?”

“What did you tell your daughter about me?”

“What—what are you talking about?”

“She just asked me if I was her father.”

Robbie stared back. “I—I don’t know why she would say such a thing.”

“Well, straighten her out. I’m her uncle.”

“I will, but I don’t know how much it will help. She’s at that age where she thinks she’s got life all figured out.”

“Where is my brother, the big tycoon, by the way? Shouldn’t he be here for support?”

She lowered her gaze. “We’re not together anymore.”

“Why not? You’ve been in love with him since we were kids.”

“That’s not true, Cam.” I was in love with you first.

“You slept with him, you moved in with him, and then you had a baby with him. And you’re telling me you never loved him?”

“No, that’s not what I’m saying. I did—do—love him. But it’s over between us.”

His steely expression shouted skepticism. “After all these years?”

“It happens,” she said defensively.

“How come you never married him?”

“The arrangement we had worked for us—for a while. He was good to me and Kylie until he started devoting more time to work than to us. He was always off on business trips, and Kylie and I often went days without seeing him. And then . . .” She hesitated, not yet ready to reveal the cheating. “Then we separated.”

“And you’re okay with that?”

“Yes. It was coming for a long time.”

“Well, talk to your daughter and set her straight. And—and I’m sorry about your dad. He was my best friend, and I’ll miss him,” he said in a choked voice.

“I know,” she said softly. “Chris always envied your relationship with my dad.”

“Yeah, well, he got the girl, so . . .”

Her expression hardened. “Seriously? You want to do this now, on the worst day of my life?”

He hung his head. “No. Sorry. I’ll get out of your hair now.” Seconds later, he vanished amidst a sea of faces, some familiar to Robbie, some new.

Robbie watched him hurry off with a profound sense of loss. As kids, she and the Noble twins had been inseparable as they explored the islands, searching in vain for Gasparilla’s buried treasure. And now that developers had built multi-story hotels on those islands, no one else would find the treasure either. The unspoiled beaches and woods they’d once roamed at will were now populated with hotels, beach chairs, and cabanas. Miami Beach West, her father had disdainfully called it.

Twenty years earlier, Decker’s by the Sea was the only resort on their little island until Justin Noble, the twins’ dad, finagled to get his hands on several parcels of land and built his hotel. With her father holding tight to the remaining land, developers wanting to profit off the natural beauty of the area turned to nearby islands, subsequently building modern hotels with Internet access, onsite restaurants, and Olympic size pools.

Robbie recalled how her father had scoffed when she suggested he provide more amenities in order to be competitive. To his way of thinking, guests who stayed at Decker’s by the Sea weren’t there for things they already had at home. They came to walk hand in hand on the beach with loved ones, swish their feet in the mild Gulf waters, and fall asleep to the sound of palm trees gently swaying in the breeze.

And those features served him well for many years. But as guests who once frequented the cottages passed away, those idyllic times also passed. Occasionally, someone’s child, now grown with a family of his own, would pop in with fond memories of vacationing there. But when their children learned there was no Internet or Wi-Fi, they often didn’t return.

Despite his resistance to change, her father had introduced substantial improvements over the years. Nonetheless, the cottages could always use a tad more upgrading. Stubborn to the end, he said he’d done enough modernizing and wanted everything else to stay the way it had for decades. As if that were even possible.

“Honey, are you all right?” Nina asked. “You look completely worn out.”

Robbie slipped her arm around the woman who’d been her father’s long-time companion and the love of his life. “I’m toughing it out as best I can,” she said, forcing a smile to soften her somber expression. “What about you? This must be equally hard on you.”

Tears filled Nina’s eyes. “I console myself with the fact that it was a quick death; he didn’t suffer.”

A part of Robbie found comfort in that. Another part railed at the fates that allowed the accident to happen in the first place. Despite her conflicted feelings, she agreed with a nod.

Nina had always been her touchstone, there for her and her dad when her mom was off doing her thing. Even as a child, Robbie sensed she would become an integral part of their lives. But where she came from and what heartaches she’d endured prior to her arrival on their little island was a complete mystery. On impulse, she asked.

A sad smile crossed the older woman’s face. “Oh, honey, my life began the day I met you and your dad. Now,” she said, adroitly changing the subject, “did your father ever speak to you about his will?”

“No. Why? Is there something I should know?”

“He left everything to you, me, and your mom.”

“My mom?”

“She was his first love, honey. And you never forget your first love. But you already know that, don’t you?”

Robbie’s gaze shifted to Cam. “Yes,” she said in a whisper. “I do.”

“It’s not too late, you know.”

She shook her head. “Cam doesn’t want anything to do with me now. I’ll settle for just being friends again.”

“I saw Kylie talking to him earlier. I don’t know what she said, but he seemed a bit shaken afterward.”

Robbie clamped her lips together. “He was. And I need to speak with her about that. Where is she, by the way?”

“I saw her leave a little while ago.”

“Oh, no, not again.” Robbie groaned. The girl had a worrisome habit of sneaking off to her Grandfather Noble’s hotel a mile down the beach. She claimed she went there to tap into their Wi-Fi or to play games in the arcade, but Robbie suspected the main attraction there were boys.

And she understood that, having been a thirteen-year-old herself once upon a time. As children she and the Noble twins often went off in the morning and didn’t come home until nightfall. Nobody gave it a second thought because the world was a kinder place for children then. It was a different story now.

“Okay,” Robbie said, giving Nina a hug. “Let me go find her before she takes off again.”

* * *

Nina watched Robbie run off in search of her daughter with a deep sense of relief. Although she’d meant what she said about her life beginning the day she met Robbie and her father, her life before that was not something she cared to talk about—ever.

She was only twenty-five when she stood rooted to the courtroom floor awaiting the jury’s verdict. When the jury forewoman finally delivered it, she gasped. Not guilty? Did she hear that right? Had she, in her anxious state, heard the word not before guilty? But if that were so, why was the courtroom abuzz? And why was her attorney hugging her?

“Did she say . . . ?”

“Not guilty, Nina! You were found not guilty. It’s over.”

A timid smile softened her dazed expression. “Over?” she whispered.

“Yes, honey, over.”

Stunned, she allowed that to sink in. Over. Before she could fully grasp its significance, her attorney whisked her out a rear door, avoiding the horde of reporters gathered out front. After stopping at his office to sign papers, he drove her home, wished her well, then left.

Over. The nightmare was over, she told herself. A jury of her peers had acquitted her of murder. But how was that possible? She’d admitted to killing her husband. How could any sane person find her not guilty?

At loose ends, she wandered through her empty house. Any friends she may have had before the trial were her husband’s friends as well. In the days after her arrest was made public, not a single one of them called or visited.

Determined to start a new life somewhere else, she cleaned out what was left in her bank account and traded in her older model Ford on a brand new ’85 model. And though she and her sister-in-law had never been close, she signed over the deed to the Connecticut estate that had been in her husband’s family for years. With ties cleanly severed, she packed her car with clothes and personal items and took off for parts unknown. Three days later, she found herself on a ferry to one of many nondescript little islands off the southwest coast of Florida.

As the ferry plied its way slowly through the vast turquoise sea, she breathed deeply of the tangy, salt air. Turning her face toward the cool mist off the water, she imagined it washing away the tension and stress of her months-long ordeal. Straight ahead, profiled against the afternoon sun, a family of dolphins leapt out of the water; overhead, gulls and pelicans dive-bombed into the water for a quick meal; and when she reached the ferry landing, an impressive display of crimson bougainvillea greeted her. It was almost as if Mother Nature knew her spirits needed a lift and had put on a special show for her.

As she drove along the island’s main road, she came to a small colony of cottages with a vacancy sign out front. Decker’s by the Sea looked like just the place to restore her bruised and battered soul. Needing a place to lay her head for a few nights—or months—she pulled into the crushed shell parking lot and headed for the cottage marked office. A smaller sign tacked above the office sign had the word “Love” painted on it. Nothing else, just love.

Inside, a man and a little girl who appeared to be his daughter were arguing. Upon spotting her, the man gave a nod to the child, and she ran off.

“I want you home by dark,” he called after her.

“Sorry. It seems I caught you at a bad time,” Nina said.

“No, not at all. Sorry about that little scene. What can I do for you?”

“Your sign out by the road says you have a vacancy?”

“Yes, we do. It’s slow this time of year. Not many people want to put up with our summer heat and humidity.”

“I don’t mind it.”

“Great. We have three cottages available right now. They all sleep six, and you can have your pick of them.”

“Are they all the same? Because it’s only me, so I won’t need anything spacious.”

“There are minor differences, like one has a futon for extra people instead of a convertible sofa. Otherwise, they’re basically alike.”

“Then I’ll take the one with the futon. Save the other two for people with families. May I ask what your rates are?”

“They change from season to season. Right now they’re low. We have weekly rates, monthly rates, and six month rates.”

He handed her a handwritten chart with the rates printed in crayon. For some reason, its childlike simplicity brought a smile to her face. “I see you put your daughter to work,” she said, admiring it.

He frowned. “What do you mean?”

Realizing she may have insulted him, she attempted to backtrack. “Oh, I’m sorry. I thought your daughter printed this. I saw the crayoned letters and assumed . . .” She was still stumbling over an apology when he interrupted her.

“Sorry,” he said with a crooked grin. “I couldn’t resist. Yeah, she did print them up, and I think she did a good job.”

“Yes, she did. How old is she?”

“Robbie’s nine going on eighteen.”

“At that precocious age, huh?”

“You don’t know the half of it. I can’t imagine what it’ll be like when she’s a teenager.”

His smile spread until it encompassed his entire face. For the first time Nina took a good look at him. Tan with a slender build, he was dressed island style, with cut-off jeans and a tank top that revealed a sculpted chest and arms to match. His sandy brown hair, shaved close to his head, matched the light growth on his face.

Tearing her eyes away, she focused on the crayoned chart. “I’ll take the three month rate.”

“And how will you be paying?”

“Do you take credit cards?”

He reached under the counter. “Sure do. Just signed up last month. Got my little thingamajig right here.”

She passed her card to him. He glanced at it, and then swiped it through. “Here you go, Ms. Brewer,” he said, completing the transaction by handing her a key. “You’re in Friendship Cottage.”

“Thank you.” She started to leave when she abruptly wheeled around. “Uh, how do I find Friendship Cottage?”

“To the right. We only have eight cottages for guests, and they’re all named, so you can’t miss it. It sits back a bit from the beach, but you’ll still get the benefit of sea breezes.”

She smiled her thanks, and then gathered her bags from her car. When she realized how far she had to carry them, she winnowed them down to the most essential ones. Then she started hiking.

* * *

Robbie ran up to her friends. “Sorry I’m late,” she said. “I had a fight with my dad.”

“What about? Nah, never mind,” blond, blue-eyed Cam said as he hoisted his shovel over his shoulder. “Let’s just get this show on the road.”

His fraternal twin Christian, older by two minutes, echoed his brother’s words. “Yeah, we were going to keep the whole treasure to ourselves if you didn’t show up.”

“You’ll never find it without me,” the little girl said as she led them through the jungle-like tangle of vines and weeds. Fifteen minutes later, after trudging through brush so dense they couldn’t see beyond the next step, the children stepped into a clearing.

“Here it is,” she said. “And you have to pinky swear that you won’t reveal this spot to anyone. Deal?”

The boys hooked their pinkies with hers. “Deal. Now where is this spot?” Chris asked.

She directed them to the far corner of the clearing to a section of disturbed ground. “Now we can’t make too much noise or the ghost pirate will hear us. So dig quietly.”

The children stuck their shovels in the ground and started pitching sand and dirt left and right. A half-hour later, Cam threw down his shovel. “You lied, Robbie. There isn’t any treasure here.”

“No? Then how come the ghost pirate chased me away the last time I was here?”

With dark eyes and hair, Chris was the complete opposite of his brother. And though the boys seldom saw eye to eye on anything, on this they agreed. “There’s no such thing as a ghost pirate,” he said, backing up his brother. “You made that up.”

“Well—well,” she stammered. “I don’t know if he’s a real ghost or not, but he sure looked like a pirate to me.”

The boy cupped his hands to his mouth and yelled into the brush. “Okay, pirate! Come and shiver me timbers if you’re real!” The boys enjoyed a raucous laugh at Robbie’s expense until an animal-like grunt interrupted it.

Frozen in place, the children stared at each other, their eyes as large as golf balls.

“It’s the ghost pirate,” Robbie whispered. “He’s mad because we’re digging up his booty.”

With typical twelve-year-old bravado, Cam shouted into the woods. “Show your face, pirate!”

Green eyes flashing, Robbie grabbed at his arm. “Are you crazy? You’ll make him mad.”

“There’s no such thing as ghosts, Robbie. Grow up,” Chris said.

Before she could challenge him on that, a loud thrashing sounded from the brush. Then, before their startled eyes, a bearded, long-haired man in shabby clothes jumped out at them.

“What are you kids doing? Get outta here before I feed your carcasses to the wild boars.”

The children took off running, their frightened shrieks muffled by the dense canopy of vines and trees. Scrambling over each other, they tore through the woods, not stopping until they reached the relative safety of the beach.

“What was that?” Cam asked in a breathless whisper.

“It was the ghost pirate, dummy,” Robbie said. “I told you he was real.”

“What about our treasure?” Chris asked.

Cam and Robbie exchanged glances. “It’s all yours, Chris,” Cam said. “I ain’t going back in there.”

“Yeah.” Robbie laughed. “Yours for the taking, if you dare.”

“Come on, guys,” Chris said. “Don’t be chicken. It’s just an old bum, not a ghost or a pirate.”

With a disgruntled Chris trailing behind them, Robbie and Cam headed home. “I don’t care what he is,” Cam said. “If there are wild boars in there, I’m out. Besides, I don’t think a real pirate was ever in these parts, which means there isn’t any buried treasure either.”

Robbie faced him down. “Oh, yeah?” she said, hands on hips. “What about Gasparilla?”

“Ah, forget it, guys,” Chris said, catching up. “We’re not going to find any treasure today. Why don’t we go catch minnows instead?”

As the children passed the cottages, a woman weighed down with a suitcase, a duffle bag, and a pair of shoes in her hand approached. “How far to Friendship Cottage?” she asked.

“You passed it,” Robbie said. “It’s behind Trust Cottage.”

“Oh, that’s right. The man at the desk did say it sat back a bit from the beach. Thank you.”

The children continued on their way until the woman called them back. “Hey, hold up, kids. How would each of you like to earn a dollar?”

Robbie and the boys exchanged excited glances. “Sure,” they said in unison.

“Here are the keys to my car. It’s the only blue one in the parking lot. Unlock it and bring me the rest of my things. I didn’t realize I had to walk this far.”

The children took the keys and ran back. As they removed the woman’s bags, Robbie’s dad came running out of the office.

“Hey!” he yelled. “What do you kids think you’re doing? Get out of that car!”

“It’s okay, Dad. The lady is paying us to bring this stuff to her cottage.”

“She is?” He took in the amount of belongings sitting beside the car and the amount remaining inside. “Okay, take as much as you can carry, and I’ll get the rest.” He climbed inside and started handing things out to the children. When he came across a newspaper stuck between the seats, the headline caught his attention.

“What is it, Dad?” Robbie asked when he stopped handing out bags.

“Nothing.” He tucked the paper back between the seats. “If you’ve got all you can carry, get going. Oh, and give me the keys so I can lock it up again. Not that we need to lock our doors around here, but our guests don’t know that.”

* * *

Nina spent a whole two minutes inspecting her one-room cottage. Then she dropped to the slip-covered couch and brushed the sand off her feet. Footsteps approached, and she rose, surprised to see the proprietor of the cottages with a few of her belongings.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “If I’d known how much stuff you had, I would’ve talked you into a closer cottage.”

“That’s okay. I needed the exercise. After sitting behind the wheel for three days, I was getting a little flabby.” His warm brown eyes swept over her body, and Nina wished she’d anticipated how such a remark might be received.

The children trooped inside and set down their bags. “Whew,” Robbie said. “You got a lot of stuff, lady. How long are you staying?”

“I’m sorry. Here, let me pay you.” She opened her purse, extracted three one dollar bills, then pulled out three more. “A bonus,” she said, handing over the money.

The children’s eyes widened at their unexpected windfall. “Hey, thanks.”

With payment in hand, the children ran out, leaving Nina alone with the proprietor. She surveyed the room brimming with everything she thought she couldn’t live without. “Well,” she said, overwhelmed by the task ahead of her. “I guess I should start unpacking.”

“Where are you going to put all this stuff?”

“I don’t know. I might need to find a storage unit. Are there any nearby?”

He laughed. “Are you kidding? We’re lucky to have a small general store on the island. If we need more than they carry, we have to go to the supermarket on the mainland.”

“I hate to think of lugging half of this stuff back to my car, but I just might have to.”

He nodded toward a shopping bag full of sweaters. “You probably could’ve gotten along with only one sweater down here. And those furry boots, uh-uh.”

“I guess I’ll have to pare down my wardrobe.”

“If you want, the next time I go to the mainland I can take some of this and drop it off at the donation bin.”

“Oh, thank you, but I don’t want to impose.”

“No problem. I’m going over tomorrow anyway. So give me a buzz or stop at the office, and I’ll come get whatever you want to get rid of.”

“Thank you,” she said, returning his kindness with a timid smile. “I’d, um, offer you a cold drink for all your troubles but my fridge is empty at the moment. Where did you say the general store was?”

“Main road, turn left. You can’t miss it.” He reached for the screen door. “They close at nine, though, so don’t wait too long. And if you need help carrying your groceries back to your cottage, stop and get me. Or grab Robbie. And you don’t have to pay her this time. She can do it out of the goodness of her heart.”

“Like you?” she asked.

He grinned. “Exactly.”

After he left, Nina pondered the friendly man she just met. For months, nearly everyone she came in contact with believed her a monster for killing her husband. Those who were nice to her usually wanted something. Like the journalist who promised to give her story of domestic abuse and ultimate acquittal a human interest angle. The story was exactly as promised but did little to change people’s minds about her. As far as she was concerned, all it did was boost the journalist’s credentials when her story bumped Claus von Bulow’s trial for attempted murder to the second page.

But this man was nice to her without expecting anything in return. At least she didn’t think he expected anything. Still, past experience had proven she wasn’t the best judge of people. She’d certainly misread the character of the man she married.

* * *

After a busy day, Lee Decker finally had a chance to sit and relax. His thoughts turned to the newspaper in his newest guest’s car and the headline that shouted out the story of the day in bold type: Nina Brewer Acquitted of Murder.

According to the little he’d read, she was an abused woman who killed her husband in self-defense. And though no evidence of prior abuse was brought up during her trial, she must have painted a convincing story for a jury to find her not guilty. Because he also had a hard time picturing the woman in Friendship Cottage as a cold-blooded murderer, he figured they probably made the right call.

Then again, what did he know about women? He’d married Jordan, a woman with no love in her heart for him or their daughter. If she had, she wouldn’t have abandoned them. At the very least, she would have kept in contact more, if not with him then with Robbie. But after two years with minimal contact, he had to face the fact that she was out of their lives forever. Which made it clear to him his judgment was and always had been slightly off-kilter.

With that in mind, he believed it prudent to keep an eye on the attractive brunette in Friendship Cottage. And with her clear blue eyes and shapely figure, that wouldn’t be hard at all. No, sir, not hard at all.

He was still pondering his newest guest when the headlights of her car swept across the wall on her return from the store. Jumping up, he stepped outside as she approached. “Let me help you with that.”

“Thank you, but I can manage. I only picked up a few things to tide me over until I can get to the mainland for a larger shopping trip.”

“No, I insist. It’s getting dark and you could trip. Or you might cross paths with an alligator.”

“An alligator! I didn’t think alligators came this close to the Gulf.”

“They usually don’t. But we have some in ponds across the road, and occasionally they wander over here.”

Her pace quickened and she handed over one of her bags. “Your daughter must be in bed by now. Aren’t you afraid she’ll wake up and be scared to find you gone?”

“She knows I sometimes have to fix things for the guests. If it’s not a stopped up drain it’s something else. The repairs never end with these aging cottages.”

They walked on, and when they reached her cottage, he relinquished her grocery bag.

“Thank you,” she said. “I appreciate it.”

“No problem. Good night now.”

She started to go inside, then stopped. “Wait. I don’t even know your name.”

“It’s Lee. Lee Decker.”

“Thank you, Lee.”

Returning home, Lee confirmed his initial opinion of Nina Brewer. If she really was a psychopathic killer, she gave a damn good impression of normal.

Copyright Joyce DeBacco

About The Author

After reading women's fiction for many years, I finally decided to take the plunge and write my own stories. One of my books, Serendipity House, was named best indie romance for 2011 by Lynn of Red Adept Reviews. As the mother of four grown daughters, I'm familiar with the problems women face finding love, raising children, and stepping back when necessary. That's why
family dynamics play a large part in all my books. Sibling rivalry, drug abuse among teens, and problems with spouses figure prominently in all my stories. Of course, there's always a touching love story threaded through the pages. Who doesn't love a good love story? I can be found most days secluded in my office creating new worlds and people to populate them. When I'm not taxing my brain with plot, structure, and grammar, I like to sew, particularly quilts. When I really want to rest my brain cells, I sprawl out in front of the TV and usually fall asleep. 

Please visit my website, for more information about my books.

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