The Sweetheart Secret (Excerpt)

Chapter One

There were days when Colt Harper swore Greta Winslow had been put on earth solely to test his commitment to the Hippocratic oath.

Greta was an eighty-three-year-old firecracker—petite and wiry, but determined to sneak bourbon into her morning coffee and avoid all things green and leafy. She disproved his constant healthy living lectures by having the constitution of a thoroughbred mare. He always saved her appointments for the end of the day, because if he started a Monday with a visit from the stubborn Greta, he’d end up barking at everyone else who followed.

And this week, he definitely didn’t need the extra stress. His plan was to just get through the appointment, get out the door, and hope for the best when he got home tonight—to his other most frustrating patient.

Colt drew in a breath and refocused on Greta. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Winslow, what did you say?”

“I asked if it was possible to be allergic to someone.” Greta leaned forward and arched a thin gray brow. “As in the mere sight of his blindingly white head and ugly moon-pie face gives you the dry heaves.”

Colt bit back a laugh. No doubt, Greta was referring to her much-maligned neighbor, Harold Twohig. The feud between the two residents of Golden Years Retirement Village was part and parcel of Rescue Bay’s daily gossip chatter. The sleepy Florida coastal town had a vibrant senior population, which kept Colt busy in his practice, but also insured a little soap-opera-worthy drama from time to time. Especially when it came to Greta and Harold’s love-hate relationship. “As far as I know, that is not medically
possible.”

“As far as you know. Which means there is still a possibility it could be true.” Greta sat back, crossed her arms over her pale blue sweater, and harrumphed. “Which means I need a prescription.”

He glanced down at Greta’s chart—hard copy today because his tablet had met with an unfortunate family accident yesterday. As had the tablet he’d owned before that one. And his laptop. And his iPhone. Colt either needed to stop bringing electronics home or buy better accidental breakage coverage. Either that, or find a way to stop every conversation with his grandfather from derailing into electronic shrapnel.

“Prescription for what?” he said to Greta. “You seem to be doing pretty well lately.”

“A prescription ordering me to stay away from Harold Twohig for my mental and gastrointestinal health.” Greta put out her palm, expectant. “Just write that out, Doc. I’ll sign it for you, save you some time.”

He chuckled. “All you need to do is turn the other way when you see him coming. He’ll get the hint.” Rumor had it that Greta had a soft spot for Harold, even if she professed the opposite.

Greta pshawed. “That man is as dense as a butternut squash. He’s got it in his head that he is in love with me. Lord help me, I think he’s delusional.”

“Nothing wrong with a man determined to be with the woman he loves.” As he said the words, they sent a tremor of memory through him, a little earthquake fissuring another break in Colt’s concentration. One woman, who had turned Colt’s life upside down twice, once fourteen years ago, and then again a few months ago, after a bad day had led him to a New Orleans diner and a chance meeting with his past.

All followed by a bottle of wine, a platter of blazin’ hot buffalo wings and one night in a king-sized bed at a hotel on Bourbon Street. One misstep—but it was done, over, in the past, and he was moving forward, back on the prescribed, planned, straight path where he was simply Doctor Colton Harper, upstanding citizen of Rescue Bay.

Not Colt Harper, the motorcycle-riding dropout with a checkered past. No, not him. Never again.

That other Colt Harper had made a lot of mistakes, mistakes that haunted him to this day, hovered over what was left of his family like thunderclouds. Mistakes he was determined not to repeat.

Uh-huh. Then what had that been three months ago, if not a repeat of mistakes best left in the past?

“Doc? Did you hear me?”

Damn. Once again, he’d lost track of his thoughts. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Winslow. What did you say?”

“My goodness, you are distracted today. I said that Harold Twohig isn’t in love with anything besides his mirror.”

Colt bit back a laugh, then scanned the top sheet of the chart, double-checking he’d covered all the basics for Greta’s checkup. Doing so forced his brain back into work mode, into the world of medical tests, diagnoses , and practicality. He glanced at his watch, and did a mental calculation of the minutes until he was home. If Colt was lucky, things would go well tonight.

Okay, given the way the last six months had gone, well wouldn’t be a word to describe his evenings with Grandpa Earl. They were like two battering rams—with one of them being stubborn, uncooperative, and cranky.

And then there was Grandpa Earl, who was all that times two.

Maybe he should just face facts and find Grandpa Earl a bed in an assisted living home. Maybe living with his only grandson wasn’t the best choice. For either of them.

And maybe Colt was trying to restore a past that was beyond resurrecting. Too many years, too many hurts, just . . . too many everythings to put it all back to rights again.

Despite all the arguments and broken electronics, though, Colt still had hope that he could build a bridge, one that would get them past the painful wounds of the past and maybe, just maybe, give Grandpa a way to forgive Colt. Maybe then Colt could forgive himself.

Colt signed off on the bottom of Greta’s paperwork, then handed her the orange sheet, with an extra note scribbled at the bottom. “Good job on the walking. Same recommendation as last time—”

“Eat more vegetables, drink less bourbon.” Greta made a face. “You are a party pooper, Doc. You know, you really should try letting loose once in a while. Have some bourbon. Cheat at a game of cards. Not that I cheat, of course.”

“Of course not.” He grinned.

She flicked at his tie. “I just think you should loosen the reins. Step outside all those straight lines that do nothing but box you in.”

“Straight lines?” Colt scoffed. “I don’t know about that. I think straight lines keep you in order, which is a good thing.”

“How can they? Heck, lines aren’t even a shape, for goodness’ sake. In my considerable life experience, straight lines leave no room for fun, and we all need a little fun.” She leaned in and gave him a nod. “Some of us more than others.”

“I don’t know about that.” Since the day he’d entered medical school, Colt had done his best to never deviate outside the lines and columns and tidy spaces where he lived his life.

That day, he’d finally grown up, instead of leaving common sense in the exhaust fumes of a ’93 Harley Softail. He’d wiped his past clean, become a doctor, and buried all traces of the Colton Harper he used to be.

Until he’d found part of his past waiting tables in a diner in New Orleans, and upended his world. He wondered what Greta would say if she knew that three months ago her buttoned-up, straightlaced physician had done all the things he’d told his patients not to do. At the time, Colt had convinced himself he’d had a good reason to let loose, to have a little fun—

To take a trip down memory lane. More than a trip, more like an all-night journey.

“You are truly no fun, Doctor Harper.” Greta pouted.

“I’m your doctor, Mrs. Winslow. I’m supposed to be serious and attentive.”

“Serious and attentive, not the human version of War and Peace.”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Winslow, but I like things quiet and serious.”

As soon as he’d returned back to Rescue Bay, he had thrown himself into the predictable routine of shingles vaccinations, blood pressure checks, and glucose level tests, because the more he organized himself into straight lines, the further that one crazy weekend disappeared into his memory. The more he could tell himself it had been an aberration, nothing more. A crazy sidestep into a past he had left far behind him. A past filled with secrets no one here knew. Or ever would, if he had anything to say about it.

So he focused on his practice and his grandfather, and told himself he was happy. One day after another, following a predictable routine, with no surprises. Just the way Colt liked things.

“Okay, Mrs. Winslow,” Colt said, “don’t forget to make an appointment with Frannie for—”

The exam room burst open. Colt started to chastise his nurse—a new one, who had started just last week and often ran around like a harried chicken—and stopped himself when he saw who it was. Just like that, Colt’s mostly predictable, mostly perfect life turned upside down, the chart in his hands fluttered to the floor, the pile of multicolored papers scattering like leaves in the wind, scuttling beneath the swivel chair, the exam table.

In the doorway stood the last woman in the world he expected to see, the one woman he’d vowed never to see again after that night in New Orleans. Judging by the fury on her face, he wasn’t high on her friends and family list, either.

“What the hell is this?” She waved a manila envelope in his face.

“Daisy? How did you. . . . where did you . . . what are you . . . ?” His brain misfired and the words got lost in his throat.

Frannie, Colt’s receptionist/assistant/right-hand woman, squeezed past Daisy and into the room. Her florid face was blotched with red and her normally neat auburn chignon had come undone. “Doc, I’m sorry. I tried to stop her, but she was like a wildcat—”

Wildcat. That was the perfect word for Daisy Barton. She stood there, brunette hair cascading down her shoulders, a figure-hugging red dress that made the word hourglass seem like a sin, and full crimson lips that could tempt a man into doing things he knew he shouldn’t.

Colt knew that firsthand. He’d tangled with Daisy—willingly—twice. Even though he knew any encounter with her was bound to end with a fight and regrets, seeing her again made his chest tighten and those straight lines begin to curve. Damn.

He cleared his throat. “It’s okay, Frannie. I’ll handle this.” He returned his attention to Daisy. “Please wait outside. We can talk about this later.”

Daisy put her hands on his hips. “Talk? Honey, you were never interested in talking with me.”

Across from him, Greta’s mouth formed a surprised O. She glanced at Daisy, then at Colt. “Why, Doc Harper, it seems I have misjudged you. You have surprised me, and so few people do that at my age. No wonder you’ve been so distracted lately.”

Damn. If he knew Greta, this little encounter with Daisy was going to be all over the Rescue Bay gossip channel before the end of the day. That was the last thing he needed.

“I’m with a patient right now, Daisy,” he said, forcing a cool, detached, professional tone to his voice, when all his brain could do was picture her naked and on top of him, that wild tangle of hair kissing the tops of her breasts, and tickling against his hands. “Please wait for me in the lobby.”

She eyed him, her big brown eyes like pools of molten chocolate. “You’re going to make your wife wait?”

Oh, shit. Now he knew why Daisy had come in like a tornado.

“Hold the phone. Did you say . . . wife?” Greta kept glancing between Daisy and Colt, as if she’d just realized Big Foot and the Abominable Snowman were involved in a clandestine affair.

Colt could feel those straight lines dissolving into a tangled, messy web. He glared at Daisy. “Please. Wait. In. The. Lobby.”

Daisy took a step forward, placed the envelope in his hand, then pressed a hard, short, ice-cold kiss to his cheek. “I’ll be outside, dear,” she said, with a slash of sarcasm on the dear. “But I won’t wait long.”

Then she was gone. The door shut, leaving behind the faintest trace of her dark, smoldering perfume. Colt jerked into action. He bent down, gathering the papers he’d dropped earlier, stuffing the envelope Daisy had given him to the back of the pile. He straightened, then let out an oomph when something—or someone—slapped him on the back. “What the—?

“How could you not tell me you’re married?” Greta asked. “And to a beautiful girl like that, too.”

“I’m not married. Well, technically, maybe I still am, but . . .” He pushed his glasses up his nose. What was he doing? Confiding in Greta Winslow? “I don’t share my personal life with my patients, Mrs. Winslow.”

“I think your personal life just shared itself, Doc.” Greta waved toward the closed door. “Where have you been hiding her anyway?”

“It’s . . .complicated.” Yeah, that was the word for it. Complicated. And crazy. And a mess he didn’t need right now. “I would appreciate it if this . . . incident stayed between us.”

She propped a fist on her waist and eyed him. “Are you going to give me a prescription to keep Harold Twohig away?”

“Are you blackmailing me?”

“I’m bargaining. That’s different.” She shrugged. “And legal.”

“Mrs. Winslow, I have no doubt you can handle Mr. Twohig on your own. You are a smart and resourceful woman.”

She snorted. “You’re the one with the fancy degree. And if you ask me, you’re a blooming idiot.”

“Mrs. Winslow—?

She hopped off the exam table and stood in front of him, hands on her hips, her chin upturned in defiant argument. “Women like that don’t come along every day. Heck, God doesn’t even make females that look like that every day. I don’t know what you did to let her get away, but you need to go get her, and keep her this time.”

“Mrs. Winslow, we’re in the middle of—?

“We’re done. I’m the last patient of the day. Don’t think I don’t know you save me for last.” She wagged a finger at him. “Now go after that girl and apologize for whatever you did wrong. She’s your wife.”

“She’s not. She’s . . .” He let out a gust. How could he even begin to explain the push-pull that defined his relationship with Daisy Barton? “It’s complicated.”

“No, it’s not. You make it complicated. If you ask me, the secret to life is easy. Go for what makes you happy.” She gave him a light jab on the shoulder, which required quite the stretch from her five-foot-three frame to reach his six-foot-one height. “Even if it’s bourbon in your coffee. Take my advice, Doc. Before your life gets sucked into a whirling drain filled with crappy food and pesky old men.”

The door shut behind Greta. Colt stood there, the chart in his hands, all organized and tidy again. The rest of him, though, was a rat’s nest. What the hell was Daisy doing here? She could have simply signed the papers and put them in the pre-addressed, stamped envelope he’d included. Instead, she’d come all the way from Louisiana to Rescue Bay and dropped a bomb in his lap.

He’d never thought Daisy would return to Rescue Bay. He should have known better than to try to predict the very unpredictable Daisy Barton. She’d never done or said what he anticipated. When he’d been young and determined to flip off the world, he’d found that quality exciting. Intriguing. But now, today, as a man cemented in the community and in his job, he didn’t need surprises.

Especially a surprise like her.

He dropped the chart on the exam table, then exited the room. The lobby was empty, save for Frannie, who was still sputtering an apology. Colt waved it off, then exited through the side door, skirting the small brick building that housed his practice. He caught up to Daisy just as she was climbing into a dented gray Toyota sedan.

He put a hand on the door before she could shut it. Her perfume, dark and rich like a good coffee, wafted up to tease at his senses, urge him to lean in closer, to linger along the curve of her neck. He gripped the hard metal of the door instead. “What the hell are you doing here, Daisy? Why didn’t you simply sign the papers and mail them back to me?”

“Because I don’t want a divorce.”

The words hung in the air, six words he never expected to hear. Hell, he hadn’t expected to find out he was still married to her when he asked his lawyer to unearth a copy of the divorce decree. A mistake in the filing, his lawyer had said, and sent a new set of divorce papers off to Daisy. A quick, easy process, his lawyer had promised.

Apparently his lawyer had never met Daisy Barton.

“Daisy, we haven’t been together in fourteen years—?

“What was that back in June?”

“An . . . aberration.”

She snorted. “Is that what you call it?”

“We had one night,”—one crazy, hot, turn-a-man-inside-out night—“and that was it. It was wrong and when I realized that our divorce was never final, I sent you the papers. I don’t understand the problem, Daisy. We both wanted that divorce. Besides, we never had a real marriage to begin with.”

“Well we do now, my dear husband. All legal and everything. In fact, next month is our fifteenth anniversary. Maybe we should think of doing something.” The ice in her voice chilled the warm Florida air.

Was she insane? There was no way he was going to celebrate their anniversary or anything of the sort. He thrust the envelope of divorce papers at her, but she ignored them. “Just sign, and we can be done with this insanity. I’m dating someone else.” Well, technically, he wasn’t dating anyone, but Daisy didn’t need to know that.

“So sorry to put a crimp in your social life with our marriage.” She turned away from him, facing the windshield, her features cold and stony.

“A marriage that has been over since we were nineteen. A marriage that only lasted three weeks. A marriage we ended by mutual agreement years ago.”

“Mutual agreement? You walked out and never returned. I’d call that a one-sided decision on your part.”

He wasn’t about to retread all that again. He’d had his reasons for leaving, reasons she didn’t need to know. Telling Daisy wouldn’t change a thing. “Just sign, Daisy. We’ll be rid of each other once and for all. Isn’t that what you want, too?”

She bit her lip, and the gesture sent a fire roaring through him that nearly made him groan. Damn. This was why he didn’t want to be with Daisy. Because every time he got close to her, his brain turned into a pile of useless goo. “No, I don’t,” she said. “Not yet.”

“What do you mean—not yet?”

She blew her bangs out of her face and stared straight ahead, her hands resting on the steering wheel, keys in the ignition. A tiny pair of bright pink plastic dice dangled from the ring, tick-tocking back and forth against the metal keys. “It’s complicated.”

He’d said the same thing to Greta. He laid his palms on the roof of the car and bit back a gust of frustration. “That’s the understatement of the year. Everything about you is complicated.”

She jerked her attention toward him, fire sparking in the set of her mouth. “There used to be a time when you liked that.”

“There used to be a time when we both liked each other’s faults.”

“Yeah, well we were young and stupid then. We were different people then.” She shook her head, then fiddled with the dice again, her keys jangling softly together. Her shoulders sagged a little and her voice dropped into a softer range. “Do you remember when we bought these?”

Remember? Hell, it was one of those memories that lingered in the back of a man’s mind like taffy. He started to lie, then let out a sigh and said, “Yeah, I do.”

“We were walking down the street in New Orleans, with what, ten dollars between us?”

They’d been too broke to even consider themselves poor, but hadn’t cared at all. They’d both been infatuated and naïve enough to think the world would work out just because they wanted it to. “Back then neither of us cared about how we were going to pay the rent or buy a winter coat. We lived every day by the seat of our pants.”

Impractical and spontaneous. Two words that no longer described Colt, but had always come attached to Daisy. There’d been a day when he thought that was attractive. Intoxicating even.

“I saw those dice in one of those tourist-trap stores on Bourbon Street, and told you I had to have them.” She fiddled with them some more and a smile stole across her face. “You asked me why and I said so that we always remember to take chances. Do you remember that, Colt?”

The memory hit him like a tidal wave. The crowded, busy street. The eager vendors hawking everything from beer to beads. And in the middle of all that, Daisy, sweet and spicy, all at the same time. He’d fished the last couple dollars out of his pocket, bought the dice and dangled them in front of her. She’d let out a joyous squeal, then risen on her tiptoes to press a kiss to his lips, a honeyed kiss that had made everything else pale in comparison. He’d swooped her into his arms, then made the most insane decision of his life, all because of a pair of dice and a kiss.

They’d lasted three whole weeks together, three tumultuous weeks as filled with fights as they had been with wild, hot nights, until Colt called home and was hit by a hard, fast and tragic reminder of where irresponsibility landed him. That day, he’d left Daisy and those crazy weeks behind. He’d started all over again, become a respectable, dependable doctor, a man with principles and expectations. Far, far from the Colt Harper he’d been in Louisiana.

Then this past summer, a medical conference had taken him back to New Orleans. The moment he’d seen Daisy, waiting tables at a cheesy diner near the convention center, he’d been standing there with the dice and the ten dollars all over again. Before he knew it, he’d invited Daisy back to his hotel, and for a few hours, it had been like old times. And ended like old times, too. With a fight, a promise to never see each other again, and one of them stomping out of the room. He’d thought that was it. He’d been wrong.

She looked up at him now, her eyes hidden by dark sunglasses. “What happened to you, Colt?”

“Nothing. I told you I had to go back to—?

“I didn’t mean that morning. I meant in the last fourteen years.” She reached out and flicked the navy satin tie he wore, as if it was a spider crawling down his shirt. “Look at you. All pressed and neat as a pin. You’re wearing a tie. Khaki pants. Khakis, for God’s sake. The Colt I used to know wore leather jackets and jeans and didn’t even own an iron.”

“I’ve changed since then.”

She dropped the sunglasses and let her gaze roam over him. “Well, at least you give off the aura of a respectable husband.”

“I’m not your husband, Daisy.” He tried again to get her to take the divorce papers. The last thing he needed to do was fall for that smile because of nostalgia. “So just sign this.”

She pushed them back in his direction. “I don’t want a divorce. I want a fresh start.”

“A . . . a what?”

“You owe me that much at least, Colt. I need to start over, and I have a chance here, in this town. But it turns out I need a little help to do that, and you know it pains me to even admit that. But I was hoping my husband would give me a little assistance. Then we can quietly get divorced.”

Twice in the space of ten minutes, he’d been blackmailed. To think he had once been head over heels for this woman. A mistake, of monumental proportions. “You want money? Is that it? How much, Daisy?”

“I don’t want any money. I want a name.” Her lower lip quivered for a moment and made him feel like a heel, then she blew out a breath and she was all steel and sass again. Whatever had been behind the comment was gone now, replaced by that impenetrable wall that made Daisy both infuriating and mysterious. “Give me a few weeks and then I’ll be out of your life.”

“Weeks? Why?”

She turned the key in the ignition and the car roared to life. “You don’t get to ask why, Colt. You gave up that right a long time ago.”

“You can’t come into this town and tell everyone we’re married. I have a life here, Daisy. A life that doesn’t include a wife.” People had forgotten about the Colt he used to be. The town had moved on, changed. Everyone here knew him only as a respectable doctor, not the headstrong teen who had run out of town, tossing aside school and his family, for what had amounted to a fling. An unforgettable fling, but a fling nonetheless.

“That life includes a wife now.” Daisy jerked the door shut, then propped an elbow on the open window and looked up at him. “Listen, I’m not here to make your life miserable. Maybe we can work out some kind of deal. Quid pro quo. Maybe there’s something you want—?

His mind rocketed back to that night in New Orleans. Daisy climbing on top of him, pinning his wrists to the bed—

Okay, that wasn’t helping anything. At all.

“There’s nothing I want. Except a divorce.”

“I can’t do that. I need you, Colt. Just for a few weeks. Please.” She bit her lip, and he sensed she hated having to beg. “There’s got to be something I can do for you. Something, uh, other than what happened in New Orleans.”

Meaning no sex. Not that he’d even considered that.

What was with this woman? She turned him inside out and upside down in the space of five minutes.

“Think about my offer, Colt. I’m staying at the Rescue Bay Inn for a few days. Room one twelve.” She handed him a slip of paper. “My cell.”

He stepped back and she pulled away. A moment later, her car was gone. Three months ago, they’d been tangled in soft-as-butter sheets. She’d had her legs wrapped around his waist, her nails clutching at his back, her teeth nibbling his ear, and he’d been lost, in the moment, in her. Now they were exchanging numbers and making appointments, as if none of that had ever happened. That was what he’d wanted, how he’d left things three months ago. But it didn’t make words like quid pro quo sting any less.

A pair of seagulls flew overhead, squawking disapproval or agreement or the location of the nearest fish shack, Colt didn’t know. A breeze skated across the lot, making palm fronds shiver and the thick green grass yield. Daisy’s car disappeared around the corner with a red taillight flicker, and Colt stood there, empty, cold.

He started back toward his office, then stopped when he saw Greta Winslow, standing under the overhang on the corner of the building, out of earshot but still watching the whole thing. Great. Now this was going to be on the front page of the Rescue Bay paper: Local Doc Hiding Secret Marriage with Mystery Woman.

“Here, Doc,” Greta said, marching up to him and thrusting a paper at his chest. “I think you need this more than I do.”

He glanced down at the orange sheet he’d handed her earlier. Beneath his signature he’d written:Doctor’s Advice: Embrace the things that scare you, from broccoli to love.

“That was just a joke, Greta. I didn’t mean—?

“Sometimes your subconscious is smarter than all those fancy medical degrees put together, Doc. And sometimes”—she laid a hand on his arm—“an old woman with eighty plus years of life experience has a thing or two to teach her too-smart-for-his-own-good physician.”

“I appreciate the advice, Mrs. Winslow, I really do. But Daisy and I are just friends. Acquaintances, really. This whole marriage thing is a misunderstanding.”

She eyed him, her pale blue eyes squinting against the sun. “You should take a dose of your own medicine. Eat more broccoli, drink less bourbon, and most of all, don’t be afraid of love. Because in the end, it’s sure as hell better than the alternative.”

He arched a brow. “What’s the alternative?”

“Dying alone, drooling into your Wheaties.” She grinned, then patted him on the arm. “See, Doc? It could always be worse.”

 

The Sweetheart Secret

The Sweetheart Secret

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