It Had To Be You
Some things were set in stone: the sun would rise every morning, the tide would come in and out without fail, and a girl needed to check herself out in the mirror before a date, no matter the obstacle. To that end, Ali Winters climbed up on the toilet seat to get a full view of herself in the tiny bathroom mirror of the lower shop where she worked. Ducking so that she didn’t hit her head on the low ceiling, she took in her reflection. Not bad from the front, she decided, and carefully spun around to catch the hind view of herself in her vintage—aka thrift store—little black dress.
Also not bad.
She’d closed up Lucky Harbor Flowers thirty minutes ago to get ready for the town’s big fundraiser tonight, where they were hopefully going to raise the last of the money for the new community center. Earlier, she’d spent several hours delivering and decorating Town Hall with huge floral arrangements from the shop as well as setting up a display of her pottery for the auction. She was excited about the night ahead, but Teddy was late.
Nothing unusual. Her boyfriend of four months was perpetually late but such a charmer it never seemed to matter. He was the town clerk, and on top of being widely beloved by just about everyone who’d ever met him, he was also a very busy guy. He’d been in charge of the funding for the new community center, a huge undertaking, so most likely, he’d just forgotten that he’d promised to pick her up. Hopefully.
Still precariously balanced, she eyed herself again, just as there was a sudden knock on the bathroom door. Jerking upright in surprise, she hit her head on the ceiling and nearly toppled to the floor. Hissing in a breath, she gripped her head and carefully stepped down. Managing that without killing herself, she opened the door to her boss, Russell, the proprietor of Lucky Harbor Flowers.
Russell was in his mid-thirties and reed-thin, with spiked blond hair bringing him to just above her own almost-but-not-quite, five foot five. He was wearing red skinny pants and a half tucked–-in red- and- white checkered polo shirt. These were his favorite golf clothes, though he didn’t golf, because he objected to sweating. He was holding a ceramic pot, filled with an artful array of flowers in each hand.
Ali took in the two arrangements, both colorful and cheerful, and—if she said so herself—every bit as pretty as the pots, which were hers too.
“What’s wrong with this picture?” Russell asked.
She let go of the top of her head. “Um, they’re all kinds of awesome?”
“Correct,” Russell said with an answering smile. “But they’re also all kinds of waste. No one ordered these, Ali.”
“Yes, but they’ll look fantastic in the window display.” An age-old argument. “They’ll draw people in,” she said, “and then someone will order them.”
Russell sighed with dramatic flair. The flower shop had been his sister Mindy’s until two years ago, when he’d bought it from her so that she could move to Los Angeles with her new boyfriend. “Sweetkins, I pay you to make floral arrangements because no one in Lucky Harbor does it better. I love your ceramic-ware and think you’re a creative genius. I also think that genius is completely wasted on the volunteer classes you give at the senior center, but that’s another matter entirely. You already know that I think you give too much of yourself to others. Regardless of that big, warm, heart of yours, you make the arrangements. I run the business.”
Ali bit her tongue so she wouldn’t say what she wanted to. If he would listen to her ideas, they’d increase business. She was sure of it.
“And speaking of the shop,” he went on, “we need to talk sometime soon. Um, you might want to fix your hair.”
She turned her neck and glanced in the mirror. Eek. Her wildly wavy hair did need some taming. She quickly worked on that. “Better?”
“Some,” Russell said with a smile, and put the flowers down to fix her hair himself. “Where’s your cutie-pie, live-in boyfriend?”
Two months ago, her apartment building had been scheduled for lengthy renovations, and Ali had needed a place to stay. Teddy had generously offered to share his place. He was like that, open and warm and generous. And fun. There hadn’t been a lot of that in her life. And then there was the pride of being in a real, adult relationship.
So she’d happily moved into his beach house rental, and suddenly everything she’d ever dreamed of growing up—safety, security, and stability—was right there. Her three favorite S’s. “Teddy’s late,” she said. “I’ll just meet him there.”
Russell peered at her over the top of his square, black-rimmed glasses. “Don’t tell me that Hot Stuff you up again..”
“Okay, I won’t tell you.”
“Dammit.” He sighed. “The sexy ones are all such unreliable bitches.” He hugged her. “Forgive me for my complaint about the fabulous arrangements?”
“Of course. What did you want to talk about?”
A shadow passed over Russell’s face but he quickly plastered on a smile. “It can wait. Come on, I’ll take you to the auction myself. I want to get there before all the good appetizers are gone.”
“How do you know there’ll be good appetizers?”
Tara Daniels Walker ran the local B&B with her sisters, and she was the best chef in the county. Definitely worth rushing for.
Russell drove them in his Prius. Lucky Harbor was a picturesque little Washington beach town nestled in a rocky cove with the Olympic Mountains at its back and the Pacific Ocean at its front. The town itself was a quirky, eclectic mix of the old and new. The main drag was lined with Victorian buildings painted in bright colors, housing cute shops, and a bar and grill called The Love Shack, along with the requisite grocery store, post office, gas station, and hardware store. A long pier jutted out into the water, and, lining the beach was a café named Eat Me, an arcade, an ice cream shop, and a huge Ferris wheel.
People came to Lucky Harbor looking for something; some to start over, and some for the gorgeous scenery of the Olympic Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Ali was one of those looking for a new start. The locals were hardy, resilient, and, as a rule, stubborn as hell. She had all three of these characteristics in spades, especially the stubborn as hell part.
They parked at the Town Hall building at the end of the commercial row, and found the place filled to capacity.
“Look at all the finery,” Russell said as they walked in, sounding amused. “For that matter, look at us. We’re smoking hot, Cookie.”
“That we are.”
“Not bad for a pair of trailer park kids, huh?”
Ali had grown up in a rough area of White Center, which was west of Seattle. Russell had done the same but in Vegas, though he’d made himself a more- than- decent living in his wild twenties as an Elvis impersonator. About fifteen years ago, before he moved to Lucky Harbor with his sister. Ali actually hadn’t ever lived in a trailer park, but in a series of falling down, post WWII cracker-box houses that were possibly even worse. Lucky Harbor was a sweet little slice of life that neither of them had imagined for themselves. “Not bad at all,” she agreed.
They entered the hall to the tune of laughter and music and the clink of glasses. Ali caught a fleeting glimpse of Teddy working the crowd, gorgeous as ever in a suit and good-old-boy smile, which he flashed often. His light brown hair was sun-kissed from weekends golfing, fishing, hiking, and whatever other adventures he chose. Extremely active and fit, he’d try anything that was in the vicinity of fun.
It was one of the things that had drawn her to him.
He caught sight of her and smiled, and Ali’s heart sighed just looking at him. She called it the Teddy Phenomenon, because it wasn’t just her—everyone seemed to respond to him that way.
But then she realized he was smiling at the pretty server behind her, who then turned and walked into a wall. Ali shook her head and sipped her champagne. She got it. It was his job, pleasing the public. And he did have a way of making a girl feel like the most beautiful woman in a crowded room.
Mayor Tony Medina took the stage and tapped on the mic to get everyone’s attention. A financial advisor, he’d been mayor for coming up on two years now, having taken over when the previous mayor, Jax Cullen, had stepped down from the position to concentrate on his first loves—his family and carpentry.
“Good evening, Lucky Harbor!” Tony called out. “Thanks for coming! Let’s all raise our glasses to our very own Ted Marshall, who worked incredibly hard at raising the funds for our new community center.”
At that, the crowd whooped and hollered, and Russell nudged Ali. “You worked hard too. Where’s your credit?”
“I don’t need credit,” Ali said, and she didn’t. She’d assisted by, running car washes and other donation drives to help Teddy behind the scenes, where she was content to stay.
“As you know,” Tony went on, “the town council promised to match the funds raised tonight. So without further ado, we’re adding a total of fifty thousand dollars to the pot tonight.”
Teddy hopped up onto the stage with the mayor, hoisting a very large aluminum briefcase. He’d worked damn hard at getting this rec center built for the town, and it was within his sights now. Looking right at home, he smiled. “The build is an official go,” he said into the mic. He opened the briefcase and showed off the fifty thousand, neatly stacked and wrapped in bill bands. Obviously it’d come straight from the bank for the reveal, but the crowd ate it up anyway.
After the ceremony, Ali went looking for Teddy. She needed a ride home, not to mention it’d be nice to see her boyfriend. She circled the large room twice to no avail, and then finally headed down the hallway to the offices to check there. She could see the light under Teddy’s door, but to her surprise it was locked. Lifting a hand to knock, she went shock still at the low, throaty female moan from within. Wait…— that couldn’t be…—
And then came a deeper, huskier moan.
Ali blinked. No. No, he wouldn’t be with someone else…in his office….
“Oh, babe, yeah, just like that…”
It was Teddy’s sex voice, and Ali got really cold, and then really warm, and she realized she had far bigger problems than finding a ride home.
Ali woke the next morning, alone. A sympathetic Russell had driven her home. In the dark, she’d paced the big house for a while, steam coming out her ears.
When Teddy hadn’t shown up, she’d called her very soon- to- be ex-boyfriend, twice, but there hadn’t been a return call. She did, however, now have a waiting text:
Babe, this isn’t working. It’s not you. It’s all me. I just need to be alone right now. FYI, our lease ended on 5/31. So no worries, you’re free to 99e right away.
Ali stared at the words in shock. She hadn’t had caffeine yet so her brain wasn’t exactly kicking in, but she was pretty sure he’d just broken up with her—by text—and that he’d also rendered her homeless.
Ali pulled up the calendar app on her phone. Yep. Yesterday had been May thirty-first. Flopping back on the bed, she stared up at the ceiling, trying to sort her tumbling emotions.
He’d beaten her to the break up, and after last night, hearing him in the throes and calling someone else “babe,” she’d reallyneeded to be the dumper not the dumpee. “Damn,” she whispered, and sat up.
You’re free to leave right away.
Magnanimous of him. And also a vivid reminder. Men came and went.
That was the way of it for the Winters’ women. She’d nearly forgotten that it was a lifetime goal of hers to not perpetuate this pattern, that she needed to be more careful.
She’d remember now. And while she’d like to lie around and plot Teddy’s slow, painful death, and maybe wallow with a day in front of the TV and a huge bag of popcorn, she had work to do. She had to get back to Town Hall and take down the floral designs and collect whatever ceramics hadn’t sold at the silent auction.
Then she apparently needed to figure out her living situation.
Still stunned, she showered and dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt for loading up boxes and then headed out. The rental house she’d shared with Teddy was high on the cliffs on the far north face of the harbor. It was isolated and not easy to get to, but she didn’t mind the narrow road or being off the beaten path. The house itself was old and more than a little creaky, but full of character. Ali loved it, and loved the view, and after a childhood of city noises, she loved sleeping to the sound of the waves hitting the rocks.
Normally, early mornings were her favorite part of living in Lucky Harbor. Cool and crisp, the sun was just peeking over the rugged mountains, casting the ocean in a glorious kaleidoscope of light. Beyond the surf, the water was still, a sheet of glass, perfectly reflecting the sky above. A brand new beginning. Every single morning.
Never more so than this morning…
She parked in front of the Town Hall. The place was locked, but Gus the janitor let her in. Mumbling something about getting back to his work, he vanished, and Ali began lugging the heavy floral arrangements out of the building, down the steps, and into her truck by herself. Then she carefully packed up the pottery that hadn’t been sold and took that out as well. With every pass she made, she had to walk by Teddy’s office, and each time her emotions—mostly anger— coiled tighter and tighter. Her mom and sister had the quick fuses in the family. Ali had always been more of a slow burn, but today she’d gone straight to red-hot ticked-off.
When she was finally finished, she searched out Gus again, finding him indeed very busy—kicking back in the staff room watching a ball game on his phone. In his thirties, six-feet four and big as a tank, Gus hadn’t shaved since sometime last year. He looked like a tough mountain man who belonged on a History Channel show hauling logs—except for the tiny kitten in his big palm.
“Aw,” Ali said, softening. “So cute.”
At her voice, Gus startled, and with a little girl-like squeal, fell right out of the chair. Still carefully cradling the unharmed kitten, he glared at Ali. “Christ Almighty, woman, make some noise next time. You scared Sweetheart here half to death.”
Sweetheart had her eyes half closed in ecstasy. “Yes, I can see that,” Ali said wryly, reaching out to pet the adorable gray ball of fluff. “I can also see how very hard the two of you are working back here.”
She couldn’t tell if Gus blushed behind the thick, black beard, but he did have the good grace to at least look a little bit abashed as he lumbered to his feet. “I wanted to help you,” he said, “but I had Sweetheart in my pocket, and the boss told me twice already not to bring her here. But she howls when I leave her home, and my roommate said if I didn’t take her with me today, she was going to be his Doberman’s afternoon snack.”
“Sweetheart’s secret is safe with me,” Ali said. “I just need to get into Teddy’s office for a minute.”
Gus scratched his beard. “I’m not supposed to let anyone into the offices.”
“I know,” Ali said, “and I wouldn’t ask, except I left something in there.” She’d made Teddy a ceramic pot. It was a knotty pine tree trunk that held pens and pencils, and sighed it with her initials. There was no way she was leaving it in his possession. He didn’t deserve it. “Please, Gus? I’ll only be a minute.”
He sighed. “Okay, but only because you guys are always real nice to me. Teddy knows about Sweetheart, and he didn’t rat me out.” He set the sweet little kitten on his shoulder, where she happily perched, and then led the way to Teddy’s office. There he pulled out a key ring that was bigger around than Ali’s head, located the correct key by some mysterious system, and opened the office door. “Lock up behind you.”
“Will do,” Ali said, and as Gus left her, she went straight to Teddy’s desk.
No knotty pine pot with the little heart she’d cut into the bottom. She turned in a slow circle. The office was masculine and projected success, and the few times she’d been here, she’d always felt such pride for Teddy.
That’s not what she was feeling now. In fact, she sneezed twice in a row at some unseen dust, annoying herself as she looked for the pot. She finally located it. in the credenza behind the desk, shoved in the very bottom beneath a bunch of crap. It was the shape of a Silver Pine tree trunk, every last detail lovingly recreated down to the knots and rings around the base. For a minute, Ali stared at the pot she’d been so proud of, shame and embarrassment clogging her throat. Swallowing both, she grabbed it, locked the door as she’d promised, found and thanked Gus, and left.
In her truck, she drew in a deep breath and drove off. It was a Winters’s gift, the ability to shove the bad stuff down deep and keep moving. Teddy wasn’t even a five on the bad stuff meter, she told herself.
As always in Lucky Harbor, traffic was light. At night, strings of white lights would make the place look like something straight from a postcard, but now, in the early light, each storefront’s windows glinted in the bright sunlight.
Things stayed the same here, could be counted on here. She thought maybe it was that—the sense of stability, security, and safety—that drew her the most.
Her three S’s.
At least until last night…
She put in her shift at the flower shop, worrying about how light business was. She brought it up to Russell at lunch, gently, that she felt really had something to offer here, the very least of which was a website. But Russell, equally as gently, rebuked her; Like his sister Mindy before him, was a Ludditetechnophobe. Hell, even the books were still done by hand, despite their bookkeeper’s urging to update their system. Grace Scott, a local bookkeeper, had given up on changing Russell’s mind, but Ali was still going to bash her head up against his stubbornness, convinced they would make a great partnership.
On her break she used her smartphone to fill out as many online applications for apartments as she could find. By six o’clock, she was back at the beach house, hoping not to run into Teddy. She didn’t, which was good for his life expectancy. Even better, the front door key still worked. Bonus. She had a roof over her head for at least one more night.
In the kitchen, she tossed her keys into the little bowl she’d set by the back door to collect Teddy’s pocket crap. Out of curiosity, she poked through the stuff there: a button, some change, and…two ticket stubs, dated a week ago for a show in Seattle.
A show she hadn’t gone to.
She stared at the stubs, then set them down and walked away. Something else niggled at her as she headed into her bedroom, but she couldn’t concentrate on that, because she was realizing that Teddy had been working 24/-/7 for weeks. And before that, he’d been sick and had slept in a spare bedroom. They hadn’t actually slept together in…she couldn’t even remember.
Which meant that Ali had been very late to her own break up.
At this, her heart squeezed a little bit. Not in regret. She tried really hard not to do regrets. It wasn’t mourning either, not for Teddy, not after hearing him cheat on her. It was the realization that she’d really loved the idea of what they’d had more than the actual reality of it.
She stripped down to her panties and bra before it occurred to her what the niggling feeling from before. Reversing her tracks, she ran barefoot back to the large living room.
The house had come fully furnished, but Ted had always made the place his own. thanks to the messy, disorganized way he had of leaving everything spread around. Running shoes hastily kicked off by the front door. Suit jacket slung over the back of the couch. Tie hanging askance from a lamp. His laptop, e-reader, tablet, smart phone, and other toys had always been plugged into electrical outlets, and when they weren’t, the cords hung lifeless, waiting to be needed.
Not now. Now it was all gone, even his fancy, highfalutin micro-brews from the fridge. Everything was gone, including her iPod.
How she’d missed that this morning, she had no idea, but facts were facts—Teddy had moved out on her like a thief in the night.
Lieutenant Luke Hanover had been away from the San Francisco Police Department for exactly one day of his three-week leave and already he’d lost his edge, walking into his grandma’s Lucky Harbor beach house to find a B&E perp standing in the kitchen.
She sure as hell was the prettiest petty thief he’d ever come across—at least from the back, since she was wearing nothing but a white lace bra and a tiny scrap of matching white lace panties.
“You have some nerve you…you rat fink bastard,” she said furiously into her cell phone, waving her free hand for emphasis, her long, wildly wavy brown hair flying around her head as she moved.
And that wasn’t all that moved. She was a bombshell, all of her sweet, womanly curves, barely contained in her undies.
“I want you to know,” she went on, still not seeing Luke, “there’s no way in hell I’m accepting your break-up message. You hear me, Teddy? I’m not accepting it, because I’m breaking up with you. And while we’re at it, who even does that? Who breaks up with someone by text? I’ll tell you who, Teddy, a real jerk, that’s who— hello? Dammit!”
Pulling the phone from her ear, she stared at the screen; and then hit a number before whipping it back up to her ear. “Your voice mail cut me off,” she snapped. “You having sex in your office while I was in the building? Totally cliché. But not telling me that you weren’t planning to re-sign the lease? That’s just rotten to the core, Teddy. And don’t bother calling me back on this. Oh, wait, that’s right, you don’t call—you text!” Hitting END, she tossed the phone to the counter. Hands on hips, steam coming out her ears, she stood there a moment. Then, with a sigh, she thunked her forehead against the refrigerator a few times before pressing it to the cool, steel door.
Had she knocked herself out?
“It’s just one bad day,” she whispered; while standing in the perfect position for him to pat her down for weapons.
Not that she was carrying—well, except for that lethal bod.
“Just one really rotten, badass day,” she repeated softly, and Luke had to disagree.
“Not from where I’m standing,” he said.