Paige Grant knew she wasn’t as wide as this window. But right now—with her butt on one side and her torso on the other—she was forced to recalculate.
She wriggled her hips one more time, stretching for the dusty wood floor she could almost touch with her fingertips, and then . . .
No. She pulled back. That’s the last thing she needed: to get stuck and die out here on top of Lavender Island’s highest mountain. Alone. Squeezed into a window. Undiscovered for days. Fingertips reaching along the floor for something that looked remarkably, embarrassingly, like a piece of cheese.
She pushed her hips back across the sill and bobbed her foot to find the toehold she’d just had on a rickety old bucket. She bounced her foot several times, almost panicking, but finally landed on it with a whomp. Relieved, she slowly squirmed over the sill.
Dang. Nothing like a tight window and a stuck butt to shatter a girl’s confidence.
She plopped back into the grass and brushed her hands together. She’d have to come up with plan B. Or C, really. Or maybe she was on D now. She’d already tried the front door, of course. She’d tried the back door to the kitchen. This was the living-room window—the lowest. Maybe she could try the kitchen window?
She stepped through the mud that had accumulated from recent May rains, her wellies making squishing noises as she rounded the tiny ranch house. Weeds and stalks of hardy annuals shot up through the ground to hug the weathered adobe walls, with clusters of green dappling the rest of the muddy, neglected yard.
She walked around to the dining-room window and wiped a circle of dirt from the panes to peer inside. All the furniture was gone—Gram’s couches, her Victorian chairs, her dining-room hutch, the blue delft porcelain pitcher she always had in the center of the dining table. All that remained was a dusty kitchen table and a few ladder-back chairs, one of which looked broken. The place had really been left to ruin. Paige had known that—her mother had told her—but seeing it in person made her shoulders slump.
She glanced to the north and instinctively ducked behind a tree. She had every right to be here, of course, but she still didn’t want anyone from the Mason family to see her. She took another look at the rented golf cart she’d driven up here—the only transportation allowed on the island—and found it to be adequately tucked behind some bushes. The Masons probably couldn’t see it from their adjoining property.
She didn’t have to worry about George Mason seeing her, of course. Paige had read about his recent death from a heart attack in the Lavender Island Gazette. And Grandpa Mason—at least that’s what the town called him—was long gone. One of the young sons, Noel, had flown off the island a year ago in one of the family’s famous red Cessnas and had never come back. But that still left Adam. The son Paige least wanted to see. His Cessna was tied right in front of the airport hangar on the far end of the property. Still here.
What did he look like now? She could still recall, in vivid detail, Adam’s looks of disdain throughout her awkward teen years. He was five years older and wouldn’t give her the time of day, despite her many attempts to put herself into his line of vision. She could remember every dismissive brush-off, every slight from him since the time she was ten. Of course, she hadn’t seen him since she was thirteen—the year her unrequited love was at its worst. The year he finally noticed her. And the year he laughed at her. She’d made a fool of herself and probably deserved it, but she still could never forgive him.
So out of sight, out of mind with Adam Mason was just the way she liked it.
Not that he’d been entirely out of mind, since she did ask about him from time to time. She’d heard he’d never married and didn’t even have a girlfriend. She’d heard he hardly ever came to town, and some islanders hadn’t seen him in years. All she could picture was some bent-over, flannel-garbed, wispy-haired, missing-toothed recluse, probably rotting away, becoming thin and wiry with age and isolation. Who lived on a mountaintop, on an island, away from people his whole life? A weird hermit, that’s who.
But despite her efforts to avoid him right now, she would eventually have to deal with him. She knew that. She just wanted to be better prepared.
Now that both his father and her grandmother were deceased, people were starting to come around and offer money for their side-by-side properties. Or, rather, his enormous property and Gram’s teeny-tiny corner that made up the final rectangle, like a small, uneven bite taken out of a sandwich. Despite the offers, Paige and her family had something else in mind. She just didn’t know how Adam was going to respond. Or . . . well, she could guess. And she was dreading it. But she needed to ask. Eventually. For now, she ducked farther behind the trees in case he had eyes and ears out on his property.
The kitchen window was higher than she remembered, and she had to go back and retrieve her bucket, position it carefully against a rock, then stand on top to peek inside.
Yes. This could work. Paige quickly got to work jimmying open one side. She freed it and got ready to hoist herself up on the sill, but then she stalled.
And came to her senses.
This was ridiculous. She wasn’t going to do this anymore. She’d go back down the mountain, verify which key was which, and behave like a normal human being. She was too old to be hoisting herself through windows—women approaching thirty didn’t do this, right?
A movement past her shoulder sent her slamming against the wall with a squeak-scream as a small, furry thing flew past her ear and landed on the sill. When she finally willed her eyes to open, she realized it was a kitten. An adorable little kitten, actually, that looked as if it would fit in a teacup. It glanced over at her from the sill, then playfully jumped inside. Paige peered in as it looked back at her from the dusty floor of the kitchen.
“Wait! No! Here, kitty . . .” She held her hand out, trying to coax the kitten back to her, but the little thing simply lifted its chin and looked the other way.
“Come here, sweetie.” Paige glanced back at her golf cart. Did she have some food she could lure a kitten with? She couldn’t just shut the window now and leave. She ran to the cart and shuffled through her backpack until she found some grapes and cheese. Did cats like cheese?
She returned to the window with the snacks. The kitten wasn’t immediately visible. Paige jumped up, leaned through the sill, and waved the cheese around.
“Here, kitty . . .”
Her voice came out strained as her belly pressed against the frame. She wriggled farther toward the sink counter, which she could aaaaalmost reach. Damn. She pushed herself forward on her hips another inch and stretched toward the inside. Aaaaalmost.
A few old tchotchkes—a cat soap dispenser and an old dish-drainer plug—skittered to the hardwood floor as she waved the cheese and threw her weight forward. She wouldn’t mind just toppling in at this point. She could break her fall. But her hips kept her from budging.
Damn. Was she just eating too many paninis these days?
Another curse word.
A new curse word.
She took a deep breath and thought about backing out. But no. She was too far in now. And she had to find the tiny calico. She could do this. She tried another hard squirm.
Her heart rate picked up a little, and she let it get to panic rhythm as she wondered who would come looking for her if she really got stuck. Her sisters didn’t even know she was here. Her mom knew she’d come here, of course, to start their plan, but wouldn’t think to send out a search team if Paige didn’t respond for a week.
Paige forced herself to be calm. She tried her old trick of summoning favorite femme fatales from her most beloved movies: Katharine Hepburn. Lauren Bacall. Those were always the movies she checked out late at night at the Hollywood Film Library after her part-time shift was over. She couldn’t get enough of her favorite leading ladies. She wished she could be more like them—strong, tough, knowing what they wanted and taking it. Unfortunately, that level of bravado and sophistication was becoming more and more elusive to her. The actress who most paralleled her life these days seemed more along the lines of Lucille Ball.
After another three minutes of panicking and wondering what Lucy would do, a snap of twigs outside had her jerking forward. Then the voice she figured she most didn’t want to hear came low over her shoulder, a man’s deep tenor.
“You going in or out?” he growled, from what could only be eye level with her behind.
Somehow, without looking, Paige knew exactly who it would be. It was the bent-over, flannel-garbed, wispy-haired, missing-toothed recluse.
Staring right at her bottom.
Just her luck.
Adam Mason took his sunglasses off, pushed his hat back on his head, and peered carefully at the mighty-fine female bottom wriggling its way through Helen Grant’s old kitchen window.
This would definitely fall under the category of one of his more interesting patrols, but he wasn’t here to enjoy the scenery, as nice as it was today.
“You need help?” he called.
He didn’t imagine this was a serious break-in—the golf cart badly hidden behind the bushes pretty much gave that away. It was probably some photographer who wanted scenic shots of an abandoned building against the pine trees. That had certainly happened before. But you never knew. Squatters had happened before, too.
“I’m, uh . . . stuck,” said the intruder. “Who’s that?”
“Adam Mason,” he barked.
The body stopped moving.
“Adam Mason?” The voice seemed to have grown smaller. She almost sounded like she recognized his name. But he ignored that and focused on how he was going to get to the bottom of this. A rusty smile escaped at his own joke.
“Yes,” he said when he finally got the smile out of his voice. “Now back out of there.”
“I, um . . . don’t think I can.” Another wriggle.
He tried to look away. Sort of. Normally his patrol wasn’t this amusing. Or curvaceous. But he always took full responsibility for keeping Helen’s old property safe, so he’d have to focus here.
He cleared his throat and tried to keep his eyes on the ground. “Would you like to go the other way?”
“Yes. Can you grab my feet and hoist me through?”
He caught hold of the muddy rain boots and gave the intruder—and her shapely, jean-clad legs—a gentle shove. She toppled to the floor, all arms and legs and softly uttered curse words. While she was still picking herself up and dusting herself off, he fished out the key to the kitchen door and pushed his way in with the handle shake and shoulder shove the back door always required.
Inside, the intruder had scrambled to her feet and was facing him with a stance and expression that didn’t seem warranted—as if he were the one intruding. Her mouth dropped open, and she stared for what seemed like an eternity. Then, suddenly, in a flurry of movement, her hands flew to her hips, her brown eyes flashed, and her honey-colored hair swirled about her shoulders. Despite the mud and dust covering her, she was too well dressed to be one of the vagrants he’d had in here before. Plus, of course, the golf cart. But she didn’t have a camera around her neck, either. And now she was throwing him a glare that had just enough familiarity at the edges to force him to rack his brain. It was a look that made him want to protect his balls for some reason. Had this woman kicked him there once? It was a distinct possibility.
“Who are you?” he finally asked.
“Adam, it’s Paige.” She looked disgusted with him and turned toward the kitchen.
His hand shot out to keep her from moving. It was just instinct. But she looked shocked, and her disbelieving eyes met his.
“It’s Paige,” she repeated.
His mind backflippped into his past as the flash of her eyes struck a memory. But he couldn’t quite place her. He squinted and took her in again.
“Paige Grant,” she said with rising irritation.
He blinked. Paige Grant? Damn.
He’d forgotten one of the Grant girls was named Paige. Was she the youngest one? There were two young ones he remembered who seemed like twins. He’d wondered when one of the Grant women would get here—assumed it would be the mother, Ginger. Now that his father had passed and offers were starting to come in for the fifty-acre mountaintop property, he figured the Grants would be getting offers, too, to complete the last five-acre corner. He’d always wondered whatever happened to his almost-stepmother, Ginger. Though most of the time he chose not to remember her at all—she hadn’t exactly been his favorite person.
The only Grant he ever saw anymore was the oldest daughter, Olivia, sometimes in town on Lavender Island. He remembered her always being pleasant, though quiet and almost too shy to talk to.
This must be the surly little sister who had always shot him glares through her goth eyeliner. She’d been about thirteen, as he recalled.
Although, honestly, she looked nothing like he remembered her.
“You don’t have a key?” he asked, trying to reach for some logic to put all these pieces together. Why the hell was she crawling through the window, making him come investigate when he had a million other things to do?
Her shoulders seemed to relax, and—if he wasn’t mistaken—a slight smile formed at the corners of her mouth.
“I like a challenge,” she said.
Just his luck.
Adam Mason—or this attractive person who claimed to be him—was not at all what Paige had expected. He wasn’t flannel-garbed. He wasn’t missing-toothed. And he certainly wasn’t thin or bent over. Instead, his muscular body loomed in the doorway, much taller than she remembered, his shoulders wide and his hands hanging low on his hips. The wispy, wheatlike hair she recalled from their teen years was now trimmed and pushed thickly away from his face, giving him a mature air while still making him seem windblown somehow—as if he’d just flown in from the sky. His eyes had aged beautifully, too—not a lost-boy cloudy blue anymore, but a deep, storied blue, the color of the sky before a storm. And dark eyebrows made them look more intense. Even wise.
The only thing that was the same from her memory was the scowl.
“You’re here,” she said absurdly, not quite able to reconcile everything at once, not quite able to admit how unjustly handsome he was.
“Yes.” He shifted his weight in his cowboy-sheriff stance. “I was going to say the same thing.”
His voice was deep and smooth, kept in a low tenor that seemed to strive for tolerance. He glanced over her shoulder, as if he wasn’t sure she was alone, and then waited patiently for her to say something. Finally, as if he’d tired of that, he readjusted his stance. “What are you doing here, and why are you breaking in?” he asked.
Paige scrambled to get her thoughts in order. She had planned to approach him and launch into a carefully rehearsed speech: They wanted him to wait to sell, for three more months. And, further, they wanted him to loan them certain areas of his land to put on a huge wedding for the old-time movie star Dorothy Silver. It was a crazy request. Paige suspected he wouldn’t go for it. He wouldn’t have the best memories of either Paige or her mom. And a hermit like him wouldn’t want the hoopla of a huge Hollywood wedding happening up here on his tiny mountain. But her mother had insisted she at least ask. This could be a big boon for their wedding-planning business.
But Paige hadn’t intended to meet him, and make the request, like this—muddy boots, butt in a window, twigs in her hair, with him barely remembering her. And damn, why did he have to look so good?
He seemed to tire of waiting for an answer and turned to take in the surroundings: the tchotchkes on the floor, the neglected wall paneling. He glanced toward the window and pulled the curtain back with an index finger. “I assume you’re here to talk about the offers we’re getting?”
She willed her heart to beat normally. “Yes.”
She didn’t know what was wrong with her—it felt like raw, animal fear. She didn’t know if it was from his being nothing like she expected or from her being launched right back into her thirteen-year-old self: stomach jumping, hands shaking, words turning to cotton on her tongue. He smelled like wild grass and whittled wood. And took up so much space in this kitchen. And looked amazing in that hat and those jeans. She took another deep breath and had a strange, nagging thought that if she could get out of this room, she’d regain some of her sanity. Maybe being on Mason-Grant land again was part of the problem.
“I’d like to talk to you but would like to talk somewhere else,” she said, willing her voice to stay steady.
He turned and gazed at her. “What’s there to talk about? I’ve almost made my own deal, but you’re free to do as you please.”
“Yes.” She swallowed. “I’d just like to talk to you about a few things.”
Adam crossed his heavy forearms and fixed his attention on her. “What things?”
Her heartbeat continued to escalate, but she told herself to breathe deeply. She wasn’t going to let this guy intimidate her. Their families had had long, messy involvements with each other—the Masons and the Grants were like two wild vines, weaving in and around each other’s thorns over the generations, sometimes strangling the other vine and sometimes caressing it. The Masons had continued to be nice and polite to Helen, but there was certainly no love lost on other generations, especially her mother, Ginger—Adam definitely had reasons for hating her. And many of the Masons were probably already suspicious of Paige—the next generation of complication.
She would just have to be firm. And convincing. Greta Garbo . . . Joan Crawford . . .
She squared her shoulders. “Maybe we could meet this evening in your family’s lobby?”
His family resort would be the impersonal, removed space she could use. Plus it would give her enough time to clean up and look somewhat like a professional, like her mother had begged her to do. At least she could dust the dirt off her face and run a comb through her hair. She pushed her hair back now and tried to face him with an expression of confidence. She knew she must look like a crazy person.
Adam hadn’t moved an inch—his legs were spread in a gesture of obstinacy, his jaw set. The only movement that gave away the fact that he was still breathing was his jaw muscle.
“I don’t think there’s much to talk about,” he murmured. The hardening of his eyes clued her in that memories were starting to come back to him.
“Let’s meet anyway. For old times’ sake.” She tried to keep her voice light.
Adam, however, didn’t look amused. Instead, his face hardened even more, if that were possible, and he glanced out the window.
“My staff doesn’t know all the details,” he said in a deep monotone. “I’d rather not meet in my lobby.”
His lobby? Damn. It really hit her for the first time that Adam was the new patriarch of this place—all this land, the ranch, the airport, the orchard, the pond, the resort. She’d been told that, of course. But it was a different story viewing it firsthand—seeing how much property this was, how much work this was, and how pulled together he was at only thirty-four. She’d been selling him short, thinking he was up here wasting away. He was up here hanging on to an empire.
She tried to meet his eyes, but too many emotions were making it hard—shame that she’d misjudged him, embarrassment that he might remember too much from that summer, anger that he didn’t remember her at all, and a frustrating chemistry that was making her blood race in a way that apparently her body hadn’t been able to shake for sixteen years.
He shifted his stance. “If you insist on talking, let’s meet at the Castle this afternoon,” he said. “Do you know where that is?”
“Of course I know where it is. I’ve only spent a million summers on the island.” She looked away. Facing Adam Mason again also caused a regression to her snappish, nervous thirteen-year-old self, too.
But everyone who lived here knew where the Castle was. It sat at the very top of Castle Road, the steepest of the five main roads leading out of Carmelita and into the unpopulated interior of Lavender Island. It was where island visitors went to catch romantic panoramas, and where locals went if they didn’t want to be seen.
She took a deep breath and tried to pull herself together. When she glanced back up, he was studying her carefully. She squinted at him. “You do remember me, don’t you?”
He waited too many beats to answer, but he finally gave a slight nod.
She didn’t believe him. He didn’t remember her specifically. He remembered her family—probably Olivia, definitely Ginger—but he didn’t remember her. Story of her life. He hadn’t paid any attention to her then, and he was probably looking right through her now. But that was fine. She needed to make this deal. And memories and feelings would just get in the way. It was like her mom always said: Don’t play the fool, in business or in love.
Paige’s mom—along with Dorothy Silver and probably Gram in heaven—was counting on her. She needed to keep her wits about her.
Paige motioned with her hand toward the door. “Thanks for letting me into Gram’s place, then. I’ll meet you at the Castle. What time?” As soon as she saw how badly her fingers were shaking, she snatched her hand back and put it on her hip.
“How about two?”
Paige nodded. That would give her a chance to clean up a little. And run that comb through her hair. And get her feelings in check. And remember what decade her hormones belonged in.
A movement to her left caught her eye. “There you are!” She leaned down to get the kitten to come toward her, but it stalled in the living-room doorway. “She jumped in here and I didn’t want to close the window on her.”
“That’s Click.” Adam bent down and scooped the kitten up in one swift move.
Paige tried to ignore how easily the cat went to him. And how sweet his enormous hand looked cradling it. He’d been half terrifying her here—looking huge and scary and much too controlled. But seeing him holding that kitten reminded her of the boy he’d once been, the one she’d crushed on, the one with the vulnerability softening his edges. She cleared her throat when the man met her eyes.
He stared at her, waiting another five uncomfortable beats—three of which seemed to be him contemplating whether she really was who she said she was—then maybe another two where his brain seemed to be registering a few more memories. Finally, he strode toward the door.
“See you, Calamity June,” he said, with his usual note of dismissal.
Paige’s back stiffened.
He did remember.