Morello Cove #2
Dreams of Home
by Jannie Lund
Austin Harris spent years in the Army fighting for and dreaming of home. And of Fleur Walker. Now he’s out—home in Morello Cove—and it’s nothing like he thought it would be. Dark thoughts keep him from finding out who the civilian version of himself is, and he’s not at all convinced the light shining brightly in the woman he’s always loved from afar is enough to save him. It might very well be that the darkness inside of him will destroy her instead.
It’s not easy loving someone who doesn’t want to be loved. Fleur Walker has learned that the hard way. It’s not even easy to keep your self-respect while trying to balance one-sided love and the art of compromising. Things were supposed to get easier when Austin came home, but they get more and more muddled, and even the most patient woman has her limits.
Both fighting inner battles, Austin and Fleur can’t also fight temptation. So they give in to it. The result is not something either of them can live with, but they have very different solutions on how to fix the little four-letter problem called LOVE.
Release Date: September 6, 2016
Genre: Contemporary Romance
White Satin Romance
Austin sat up, stretching his aching back, and wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand, knowing he’d probably leave a trail of dirt. Another one. No sounds but the chirping of birds and the low hum of the bluegrass playlist he had playing on the porch reached his ears. It should have calmed him down, eased his frayed nerves, but it didn’t.
He wiped his forehead again. Only fools chose hard physical work on one of the hottest days of the year when they didn’t have to. Reaching for his water bottle, he winced when he felt how warm it was. It was better than nothing, though, so he emptied it greedily. He was frying like an egg on a griddle on the roof of the house he’d just bought with a good chunk of his hard-earned savings, but he’d rather be frying on his own roof in quiet, peaceful Morello Cove, California, than anywhere else in the world.
Throwing the bottle down on the overgrown lawn beneath him, he got back to work. The roof didn’t fix itself, and neither did the rest of the house. His sister had wrinkled her nose at it when she’d seen it the first time, and while he knew he had his work cut out for him, nothing could quench the satisfaction of finally owning the house he’d been dreaming of for so long. Sure, it might have looked nicer in his dreams, but he’d get it there.
As he worked, his thoughts drifted to the past where everything had been simpler. To Afghanistan and heat worse than the one scorching his exposed back as he repaired his leaky roof. To a woman across town with the most amazing smile and the touch of an angel: beautiful Fleur with her blonde hair and dreamy, blue eyes. A million truths had revealed themselves to him the previous Saturday when he’d seen her walk down the aisle at his sister’s wedding. As the bride, Danielle had made sure she outshone everyone, of course, but the image of Fleur in her sky blue dress had ingrained itself permanently in his mind. She was everything he’d ever wanted, and she was everything he could never have.
Austin worked out his frustration with the hammer, sweat rolling off him as the sun did its worst. He was a fool. Not just for working in the heat when he didn’t have to, but for thinking that coming home and transforming back into a civilian would be easy. Easy, ha. He sneered. After everything he’d seen and done, he’d seriously expected something to be easy. If he’d been that naïve in the Army, he would have been killed years ago.
The sound of a car coming down the tree-lined lane—his lane—made Austin look up. He wasn’t expecting anyone, and he didn’t particularly like the idea of someone showing up uninvited. Well, except if it was Jake with pizza and an ice-cold six-pack. Not a fan of people in general, and especially not at the moment, Austin much preferred a no trespassing sign over a welcome mat on the porch.
It wasn’t his best friend arriving with beer, however. Jake would never have been able to pull off the high-heeled, strappy sandal contraptions on the sinfully long legs appearing from the open car door. Fleur got out, waving hesitantly when she spotted him on the roof, before bending over to reach for something inside the car. She sure was something to look at. And if it had been hot before, it felt a hell of a lot hotter now.
Austin groaned and let the hammer fall down onto the roof with a thud. It didn’t matter how many times he saw her, and he’d seen her a million times. The way his heart jumped, and had jumped since one day when he was seventeen and looking at a fifteen-year-old Fleur Walker as if for the first time, never changed. There had been a time when he’d thought...well, when he’d thought it all as far as Fleur was concerned. He’d been young, in love, full of ideals, and so painfully naïve. Now he knew better. Fleur was a friend. His sister’s best friend and business partner. That was all.
“Hey, Blondie,” he called over his shoulder and climbed down the ladder. It wasn’t until he was almost down and heard her gasp that he remembered he was shirtless. He quickly jumped down and picked up the T-shirt he’d discarded before climbing onto the roof.
Austin popped his head through the garment and willed the images that appeared in his mind away. “Nothing.” Nothing he wanted to tell Fleur, anyway. The shrapnel from the exploded IED had disfigured the skin on his back and still caused a nightmare once in a while. Fleur, who was everything good and pure in the world, didn’t need to hear about the ugliness he’d seen. Danielle, either, which was why he’d never told his sister he’d been hurt. The last thing they’d needed was another reason to worry about him when he’d been deployed, and the last thing he needed was their pity.
“We both know that’s not true.” Fleur’s lips parted, looking like she wanted to say more. But she didn’t. Austin was part disappointed, part relieved. If you dug deep enough, she had a temper that spoke to his Italian heritage, but he’d only experienced it a few times. And he didn’t need it right now. The past was better left alone.
He looked up at the roof, not knowing what to say. The silence grew. Things hadn’t always been awkward between them, but it was easier when Danielle was around to do most of the talking.
“I brought you a casserole,” Fleur finally said. “And some bread freshly baked this morning. I figured you probably had a working oven.”
“Thanks.” Austin accepted the wrapped dish with the bread on top. He had no idea if the oven in the wreckage he called the kitchen worked or not. The only thing he’d done in there was plug in the new fridge and coffee machine. Cold beer and hot coffee were two of the three things he’d decided he needed for his new home. The third was an air mattress.
Fleur looked around. “It looks...nice.”
He grinned, more at ease now. “Liar. It looks like a nightmare with a leaky roof, which is exactly what it is.”
“It’s got potential,” she bravely defended his house.
“That it does.” He didn’t tell her it looked as broken as he felt, which was why he’d bought it. Or that he was more optimistic about the house healing than himself doing the same. She always looked so perfect, so balmy cool on even the hottest days. There were days, when his mood was bad and his day ruined by the nightmare that had woken him up at night, that he barely felt worthy to be in her presence.
“The front porch is nice, just needs a little work. Imagine when you get the rail back up, the broken boards replaced, maybe some paint. A hammock, pots with brightly colored flowers. Wind chimes.”
“Wind chimes?” he parroted. She’d painted a fine picture with her words, a picture of a home.
“Yes. That front porch is begging for wind chimes, Austin.”
“Right.” His mind was more occupied with the uses for the hammock.
“Mama says this house used to be really beautiful. Some award-winning reporter retired here to write a novel when she was a kid, but he spent more time on carpentry and landscaping than actually writing. He never finished his book.”
“No offense to your mom and her age, but that was a long time ago.”
“Yeah.” She sighed, probably caught up in a dream of the past where everything was beautiful. Fleur had always been a dreamer. “It looks sad now.”
Sad. Broken. A back injury in the making. His new house looked like a lot of things, but none of it mattered. It was his, unlike the woman beside him.
The silence hung heavy between them again. It hadn’t always been like that, but since Austin had left the Army behind and come home, knowing all his plans and dreams were dust in the wind, he hadn’t known what to say to Fleur, or how to act. And Fleur had always been shy. Often he’d learned more about her just by looking into her eyes than he had when she spoke. She had the most expressive eyes, endlessly blue and full of compassion for everything and everyone. If angels existed, she was one.
“Well, I guess I should get back. It gets busy at Annata with all the tourists coming in to browse and Danielle being away on her honeymoon.”
Wanting to ask her to stay and anxious for her to leave, Austin nodded. He knew that once she left, even a sunny California day couldn’t prevent the light from leaving, too. “Thanks for the food.”
Her smile was like a sunrise. “You’re welcome.”
He watched her leave, long, slightly tanned legs eating up the ground between him and her car. There was a time when they’d have hugged. Austin still remembered the last time he’d had her in his arms, how good she’d felt, but that had been a welcome home hug. He’d been careful not to touch her since. And now they were just awkward around each other. Austin felt the tension in his muscles release when the car disappeared out of sight between the trees. He already knew time and distance did nothing to dissolve the knot of feelings inside of him with Fleur’s name on it, but it was the only thing he could come up with. He’d have to stay away from her. Looking down at the casserole in his hands, he frowned. And she’d have to stop thinking she needed to feed him. Even if it did smell delicious.
* * * *
At the top of the lane, Fleur sat in her car and tried to get her breathing under control before she drove back to Annata and all the issues that came with being the only owner of the vintage style dress and jewelry boutique who was not on her honeymoon. It was amazing how many details Danielle handled on a daily basis. But for now, Fleur needed a few minutes to herself.
She didn’t know why she’d cooked for Austin. It wasn’t like he couldn’t take care of himself or that he’d indicated that he might appreciate her stopping by uninvited. Quite the opposite, in fact. It was just that when it came to Austin Harris, she didn’t know what was good for her. She’d been in love with him forever. That’s what it felt like. There had even been a time when she suspected he might have more than semi-brotherly feelings for her, but lately, especially since he’d gotten out of the Army, he gave off a stay-away vibe. In many ways, they’d been closer when they had been on opposite sides of the country or even the globe, emailing and talking on the phone. Whatever hopes she’d had that he returned her feelings were crushed, her heart bleeding a little every time she saw him. Yet, she sought him out. Fleur was, she admitted to herself pathetically, an idiot.
It wasn’t her feelings for him that had her ruffled, however. Whenever she closed her eyes, she could see the marred skin on his back. Austin had gotten hurt, most likely on deployment, and he hadn’t told her or Danielle. It shook her to the point where she felt chilled in the summer heat. And beyond the marred skin, Austin was broken. The quick smiles, the boyish charm he’d known how to use to his advantage to get whatever he wanted rarely ever made an appearance now. He looked like the world was on his shoulders, like pain was eating him from the inside. And he didn’t want any help. Not that she knew what she could do, but if he’d let her, she’d sure as hell try. It burned inside her like whatever had hurt Austin’s back.
Fleur eventually drove back into town. People swarmed the boardwalk, and she imagined every business owner in town was thrilled about the weather and the number of tourists. Personally, she couldn’t quite muster up the energy for excitement. She missed Danielle, not just around the boutique, but having her best friend there to talk to when you found out something shocking. Like Austin getting hurt without telling them. But Danielle and her new husband, Scott, wouldn’t be home from their honeymoon for another two weeks.
The thought of Scott and how happy he’d made her best friend cheered Fleur up a little as she parked and walked into the back of Annata. Hopefully no one would notice her right away. She needed something cold to drink and a moment to herself before putting on her business owner hat.
“Fleur. Thank God, you’re back.” Trish, one of their employees, ambushed her the moment she stepped through the door. “I’ve got two customers waiting to talk to you about custom designs, and the plumber called. He can’t come until tomorrow afternoon.”
“We need water before that.” Fleur wasn’t the least bit surprised that everything from the plumbing in the bathroom to the alarm on the front door had started acting up the second Dani had left for her honeymoon. It was karma. Usually it was her who handled practical matters and Fleur who dealt with the books and the paperwork from the safe confines of her office. “I’ll call Jake. He’s good at fixing things, plus he gets all manly annoyed when I tell him I’ve tried to fix something on my own.”
So she did, only to learn that he was in Monterey and busy at his garage there.
“I can be there after closing if you don’t mind waiting around for a bit,” he told her.
Figuring it was the best offer she could expect under the circumstances, she agreed. “Thanks, Jake. I really appreciate it.”
“No sweat. See you in a few hours.”
Fleur put away her phone. She and Danielle often had reason to be grateful for Jake and his handyman powers. As Austin’s best friend, he’d stepped up to the plate and looked after Danielle, and Fleur by proxy, ever since Austin had left to join the Army. Mostly by checking in once in a while and helping them out when they needed it. He was a good friend.
Putting on a professional smile, she went out front. There were customers waiting, and although she’d have preferred talking to them in her own office, she felt she needed to make more of an effort to show her face in the boutique when Danielle wasn’t around. It wasn’t her favorite part of being a business owner, though. She’d rather be on her own creating the jewelry she’d always had a passion for. There were times for sucking it up, though, she told herself sternly.
One of the waiting customers wanted her to create a necklace with an heirloom emerald, and the other talked her ear off for half an hour without Fleur ever finding out what she wanted. Her ears were still ringing when she went back to her office and work area to get some work done. Noises from the bathroom made her take a detour. It sounded like Jake had managed to come by earlier than expected.
It wasn’t Jake kneeling on the bathroom floor in a wet T-shirt, however.
“Hey, Blondie.” Austin glanced at her over his shoulder. “Jake called and asked me to come over and take a look.”
He didn’t look pleased about it, either, which was to be expected given the dirty task. But Fleur had a feeling it was more than that. He hadn’t looked the least bit pleased to see her earlier, and he didn’t look pleased to see her now. Her ego took another hit even as she forced herself to smile. “I appreciate you coming in here. The plumber isn’t available until tomorrow afternoon.”
“I’m no plumber, but I’ll see what I can do.”
Fleur looked at his turned back. It was like he was angry with her, and for no apparent reason. Go away, she told herself. Austin was immersed in his work, and so should she be. Because concentrating on the new floral design she was matching with some gorgeous moonstones while Austin was working ten feet away in a wet T-shirt was going to be easy. She blew out a breath. “I’ll be in my office if you need anything. There are water and sodas in the fridge,” she said to him.
Austin just grunted.
Fleur didn’t lock herself in her office like she wanted to. She left the door slightly ajar, signaling to both her employees and Austin that she was available if they needed her. It sucked being the boss. Usually it was Danielle’s door that was left not just ajar but wide open. Perhaps it was healthy with a little forced human contact, Fleur told herself as she got out the piece she was working on. It was so easy just shutting the door and letting Danielle deal with people. It worked, though, and had worked ever since the day the two of them had launched their dream. Danielle’s dresses and Fleur’s jewelry, all in a vintage look, were not only a great match but also a smashing success. For months they had been hiring new employees every other week or so. Fleur knew the next step was for her to get an apprentice or an assistant, but she wasn’t comfortable with the idea yet. Maybe once the tourist season was over. Or so she told herself.
Although occupied with thoughts of Austin so close by, Fleur managed to finish the moonstone ring with the floral setting. She was quite pleased with the result and knew it would go great with the dusty green dress Trish was working on. Danielle had only recently started to let Trish create her own things, and the result had been a surprise to everyone. It was as if Danielle and Trish shared a brain when it came to matching styles.
Rolling her head back and forth to ease the tension after sitting in the same position for too long, she let out a satisfied sigh when she felt the hints of a headache release its hold on her skull. She swirled in her chair when she heard someone clear their throat.
Austin stood in the door, hands buried deep in his pockets, looking sexier than sin and all kinds of awkward. Strange combination, but he wore it well in her opinion. “Plumbing’s fixed, but have the plumber take a look to make sure I haven’t missed anything.”
She rose from her chair. “Thank you, Austin. I really appreciate it, and I’m sorry it took you away from your roof this afternoon.”
“That’s okay. I’ll...I’ll just head out. See you around.”
“Yeah, see you.” But not anytime soon if he had anything to say about it. Of that she was sure. She watched as he picked up his toolbox and left. For every time she saw him, the pain in his eyes got more and more obvious. It hurt her to see.
Fleur went in to clean up the bathroom but found it already clean. She smiled to herself. Of course he’d cleaned up after himself. Whatever haunted him and made him act like he didn’t like anyone around him, nothing could change the fact that Austin Harris was a good man.