Barefoot by the Sea
Barefoot Bay - 4
Roxanne St. Claire
For Gena Showalter
My mentor, my friend, my spiritual sister.
The team kills it again! Many thanks to all of the people who make this job look so easy and fun, even on the days when it is anything but easy or fun. I have to call a few out for their outstanding contributions:
My partners at Grand Central Publishing/Forever, especially Executive Editor Amy Pierpont, who has proven she can perform magic on a rough draft, along with the entire team who gets the job done every single time (Lauren Plude, Michele Bidelspach, Bob Castillo, Jamie Snider, and Jihan Antoine are standouts!) and the talented folks in art (love this cover!), sales, marketing, and distribution. What an amazing group of dedicated individuals I get to work with every day.
Big love to literary agent Robin Rue of Writers House, who has my back and holds my hand, and assistant Beth Miller for keeping everything running smoothly.
Huge thanks to the awesome Ottawa Romance Writers Association, who showed me true Canadian love and a tour of the city that makes an all-too-brief appearance on these pages. In particular, I’d like to thank Malena Abel, who shared her British intelligence and helped me create a realistic background for the hero.
A very special hug to Elizabeth Brooks, who guided me through the Florida garden, taught me the fine points of harvesting sweet potatoes, and has become my very own Mema. More hugs to Miss Lib’s son, awesome Sonny Brooks, who let me drive his tractor and happens to be the finest bro-in-law ever.
My writer friends are the best in the business and I guarantee you wouldn’t be reading this without the moral support of a small but mighty group of women who know who they are and why I love them. Kristen, Kresley, Louisa, Laura, Leigh…I’m talking to you. In addition, I’m grounded spiritually by my amazing “quad”—Nina, Megan, and Jill—who aren’t writers but know exactly where the story comes from.
I’ve been overwhelmed by the readers who keep coming back to Barefoot Bay! I’m thrilled to have found such a loyal audience and love connecting with each and every one of you through our small cyber world. Thanks for inspiring me every day and major thanks to my Facebook followers who did the honor of naming Ian/John in this book. You all are amazing!
Of course, I have to acknowledge the home team, who loves me no matter how bad the writing is going, how late the book is, how knotted the plot, how certain I am that “this time I can’t do it” even though they know I will. My husband, Rich, our wonderful children, Dante and Mia, and our superdogs, Ginger and Pepper. You make my home and my heart so happy.
Finally, but never last, I thank my Father, the source of all my joy!
I suppose I could just walk up to a man and ask for sperm.” Tessa picked up her bottle to punctuate the statement with a sip of cold beer, but froze midway as she took in the reaction around the booth. “Guys, that was a joke.”
Her friends weren’t laughing. Although the evening out at the local dive was supposed to be a business strategy session, the conversation had, of course, turned personal. After all, the four women might be partners in the Casa Blanca resort, but they were best friends long before that, and no topic was off limits. Not even this one.
“No harm in asking.” Next to Tessa, Jocelyn leaned in to make her point over the din of the Toasted Pelican crowd. “They love to give that stuff away.”
“Absolutely,” Lacey agreed from across the table, her topaz eyes lit with enthusiasm instead of humor. “Knowing your donor takes all the guesswork out of it. What you see is what you get, unlike anonymous sperm.”
“Sperrrrrm.” Zoe made a disgusted face, her gaze drifting over the action in the bar. “Couldn’t man’s life force have a more inviting name? You know, like chocolate or Cabernet?”
“Baby juice?” Jocelyn suggested.
“Liquid gold,” Lacey added.
“Nature’s protein smoothie,” Tessa said dryly.
That made Zoe laugh, but she didn’t take her eyes off the crowd. “Says the organic girl.”
Tessa waved her beer bottle to prove that she could have plenty of lapses in clean living and to move the conversation along to a more comfortable subject.
“We have bigger issues than my baby needs,” she said, looking down at the paper Lacey had printed for them to read, the last line of the brutal review jumping off the page. “Did she really have to call the dining room ‘as lively as a morgue’?”
Lacey sighed and pointed to the printout. “We can weather one bitter blogger.”
“The Vixen of Vacation Vows is not one bitter blogger,” Jocelyn said. “Vix is the bitter blogger, with thousands of hits a month. No one plans a destination wedding without checking her snark-fest—er, I mean reviews.”
And what would those potential guests see when they searched Casa Blanca on Barefoot Bay? The words were still fresh in Tessa’s mind. This sweet homegrown resort might conjure up images of Bogie and Bergman, but brides will be lost in a desert of disaster.
The review had made them all a little sick and scared. Especially Lacey, who slumped her chin into her palm. “If we don’t hire a chef and start getting some positive buzz for Casa Blanca, the resort we spent the last two years of our lives building will never get in the black.”
“How long until those wedding consultants can come for a preview?” Tessa asked.
Lacey lifted her head and gave a slow smile. “Eight months until the wedding consultants can get us on their schedule, and by then you can be good and pregnant.”
“Or we can be good and out of business.”
Lacey closed her eyes at the punch that had to hit her, the resort owner, even harder than the rest of them, who’d just invested and worked there.
Jocelyn waved off Lacey’s blues. “Look, with the right chef, a few great events, and some powerful Internet reviews, this winter will have snowbirds flocking to Casa Blanca. When the wedding planners come next summer, we’ll be ready to knock their socks off.”
She paused long enough for the four of them to share a silent “We hope.”
“But your baby dreams are as important as our resort dreams, Tess,” Lacey continued. “It took you months to scour all those applications to find a surrogate who meets your exacting standards. What if she gets scooped up by someone else?”
“I hope she doesn’t. I’ve put a deposit down and the clinic has scheduled a house visit and interview. Once they do the psych evaluation…” She paused, knowing that was where the process had fallen apart once before with her ex-husband, and it was the reason she’d never tried again. “I’ll meet her and make a final decision. Obviously, I want the perfect surrogate mother as much as I want the perfect sperm donor.”
“No one’s perfect,” Lacey shot back.
“You know what I mean.” But did they know? None of these women had any idea how gut-wrenching and grueling infertility had been. “And the baby won’t be perfect because these are my eggs, which I harvested already.” Defensiveness lifted Tessa’s voice as she raised her beer bottle. “Or else I wouldn’t be drinking this.”
“But you need to line up a donor,” Lacey insisted.
“I’m thinking about that. I keep reading these horror stories about donors who lie or have six hundred kids running around and—”
“Didn’t I tell you to stay off the Internet on this subject?” Lacey asked.
Tessa ignored the comment and took a sip of beer. “I just haven’t made a decision how to handle that when it comes test-tube time.”
“Ugh, test tubes are so clinical.” Jocelyn groaned. “I still think you should try the old-fashioned way.”
Of course they’d all think she should. Her best friends were falling in bed every night with the men they loved. Lacey had a baby, and Zoe’s was due in five months. No doubt Jocelyn would be next.
“I tried the old-fashioned way for ten years with my ex-husband.” Tessa fought to keep any bitterness out of her tone but might have failed. “And now he’s the father of two kids, and I’m…” Alone. “Obviously not capable of getting pregnant by traditional methods.”
“But Joss is right,” Lacey insisted. “Maybe your infertility was Billy’s fault.”
Tessa angled her head and gave a “Get real” look. “Tell that to his children. Both of them.”
“I’m only saying maybe you should try the traditional way,” Jocelyn said. “There is such a thing as being inhospitable to certain sperm. It’s an acid and pH-balance thing.”
“I know all that.” Tessa halted the conversation with a flat hand. “Billy and I were experts on the subject of fertility.” Or futility, as he sarcastically called it. “I think the conversation was the only thing that kept us together so long. Once we gave up trying, our marriage fell apart.”
Zoe pulled her gaze from the bar to give a cynical choke. “Yeah, ’cause it had nothing to do with him boning a twenty-two-year-old yoga instructor.”
Well, there was that. Tessa studied the moon on her beer label but Jocelyn nudged her arm. “Tess, you need to make history, not change it.”
“Ah, the life coach speaks.”
“The life coach is correct,” Lacey said. “When was the last time you had a date? Gave a guy a chance? When was the last time you even thought about getting intimate with a man instead of a test tube?”
“I’m going to assume that’s a rhetorical question.”
“How long?” they asked in unison.
“Obviously, I think about sex, since I have a pulse. But a date? No. Not since I found out Billy was doing more than the downward dog with a fertility goddess. So, three years at least.”
They shared a suitably pitying look, further irritating Tessa. “Guys, we’ve been a little busy building a resort and I’ve started a functioning farmette from nothing.”
“None of us has been too busy to fall in love,” Jocelyn replied. “And, trust me, some of us did not have it on the to-do list.”
Lacey leaned forward, tightening her grip on Tessa’s hands. “She’s right. Look at the three of us. We’re living proof that love can happen when you least expect it.”
Tessa looked to the ceiling and breathed a sigh, mining for patience. She didn’t begrudge them their happiness, not one single bit. Since they’d met in college and especially since life and love had brought them all together in Barefoot Bay, these women had been sisters to Tessa. Their joy was her joy.
But staring all this love in the face every single day wasn’t easy. And think if they did succeed in making Casa Blanca a premier destination-wedding resort. All the guests would be lovestruck, too. Oh, kill me now.
“We want you to be happy,” Jocelyn said.
“And pregnant,” Lacey added.
The din of Mimosa Key locals blowing off steam competed with an old Fleetwood Mac song on the jukebox, but none of it was loud enough to drown out Tessa’s well-meaning friends. Or the truth.
“I don’t believe the guy exists who could make me happy or pregnant,” she finally admitted.
Lacey shook her head. “You don’t know that. Someone amazing could be right around the corner.”
“Someone amazing is right around the corner,” Zoe whispered, pointing to the bar. “And I’ve been studying him for the last twenty minutes. Let me tell you, if that man right there can’t make you happy or pregnant, then he can certainly make you scream for mercy. Probably a couple times a night.”
Jocelyn swung out of the booth to peer into the crowd. “Whoa. Is that a scorpion tattooed on his neck?”
“Lovely.” Tessa took a deep drink, refusing to look.
Lacey popped up to look over the back of their booth. “You mean that guy with the long hair and…damn. Those are some serious biceps. And triceps. And”—she squinted—“all ceps.” She slowly dropped back into her seat. “Speaking of smokin’-hot bad-ass sex gods.”
Tessa rolled her eyes again. “Excellent, since ‘smokin’-hot bad-ass sex god’ was at the top of my donor checklist.”
Jocelyn took another look, and then turned back to face the booth, her eyes wide like she’d seen something unspeakable. “He certainly looks like he’d make a potent…protein smoothie.”
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