Child of Grace
Steeple Hill, 2011; ISBN 978-0-373-87649-5
After giving up a high-powered corporate job, Kelsey Anderson heads north to Michigan, settles into the lake house left to her by her beloved grandmother and follows her secret dream to open a quilting shop—all the while struggling with a traumatic secret. War-weary ex-Army doctor Luke Turner doesn’t want anything to do with the unwed pregnant woman next door. With scars and demons of his own after witnessing too much carnage in the Middle East, he intends to walk a wide circle around his neighbor, who clearly has problems. Besides, he’s only in town for a few weeks, to fulfill a promise he made to a dying comrade. But when he suddenly finds himself in charge of supervising his 17-year-old sister, life gets complicated. Clueless about how to deal with an adolescent girl, he’s grateful when she and Kelsey click. Unfortunately, that makes it harder for him to keep his distance. Especially when he discovers that Kelsey’s public relations background is just what he needs to make sure a young soldier is not forgotten. But can he pull off his plan without losing his heart to the beautiful mom-to-be?
Someone was on his beach.
Frowning, Luke Turner stopped halfway down the forty wooden steps that led to what was supposed to be a private beach on the shores of Lake Michigan. But the brim of a large, floppy hat peeked above the wide swath of tall grass between the base of the steps and the open sand. And it was low to the ground. Meaning the woman who owned it was sitting, not just pausing to admire the view while strolling by.
A definite breach of beach etiquette in this part of the world.
Stifling a sigh, he resettled the frame of his chair on his shoulder, took a sip of coffee from his mug and resumed his descent. He hadn’t planned to start his visit to Pier Cove with a confrontation. He’d seen enough conflict during his past ten years as an Army doctor to last a lifetime. Now that his enlistment was up, he just wanted some quiet time to reacclimate to civilian life, complete one final mission before heading home to Atlanta and the ER job that awaited him, and chill.
And he’d planned to do a lot of that chilling on his private beach.
At the bottom of the steps, he stopped again to take another sip of coffee. He didn’t want to make a scene. But he didn’t appreciate trespassers, either. When Mark had offered him the use of his place, he’d said the house next door, which shared the beach, had been unoccupied since the owner died last fall. Luke was well within his rights to tell the woman to move on.
And maybe this would be easy. It was possible she was a vacationer who didn’t know most Michigan beaches were private. If so, he could direct her to the public beach a short stroll away. Then he could enjoy this sunny Saturday morning in peaceful isolation.
Fortified by that little pep talk, he followed the narrow path through the swaying grass and stepped onto the sand.
The interloper was angled slightly away from him, seated in a beach chair, her long, shapely legs stretched in front of her, a pair of flip-flops askew in the sand beside them, as if she’d kicked them off. She was wrapped in a gaudy beach towel to ward off the morning chill Mark had warned him was common on the lakeshore even in mid-July, and her eyes were hidden behind sunglasses. Shoulder-length blond hair peeked beneath the brim of her hat, and her head was bent as she perused a book. Beside her, a thermos was stuck into the top of an overflowing beach bag, and she was juggling a mug of coffee in one hand.
In other words, she was settled in for the duration.
Bracing himself, Luke cleared his throat.
At the sound, the woman jerked toward him. The coffee sloshed out of her mug, and she yelped as the hot liquid splashed onto her skin.
Nice approach, Turner. Scare her half to death.
Luke took a step forward. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.”
Keeping a wary eye on him, she dumped the rest of her coffee into the sand and struggled out of the low-slung chair. The book slid off her lap as she rose, and the towel slipped from around her shoulders. She grabbed it…but not before he got a good look at her rounded figure.
She was pregnant.
And apparently unmarried.
Her empty ring finger was front and center as she readjusted the towel around her shoulders and clutched it in front of her.
So was the pink spot on the back of her other hand.
He took another step toward her, eyeing the burn. “Cold water will…”
She stumbled back, almost tripping over her chair on the uneven sand.
So did she.
But she scanned the beach, as if seeking…help?
Although he couldn’t see much of her face under the large hat, and her eyes were hidden behind the glasses, he was picking up fear. Not just leftover fear from being startled, but panic almost. She seemed poised to flee. As if she thought he might become violent.
Did he look that angry?
Maybe. More than one medic had told him he was intimidating—especially when aggravated. Plus, at six-one, he usually had a height advantage in any confrontation. And today he had a big one. The woman across from him couldn’t be more than five-three, five-four. But he wasn’t that mad about her being on his beach.
He forced his taut features to relax and summoned up a smile. “I’m not in the habit of…”
“This is a private beach.”
At her accusatory tone, his smile faded. “Yes, it is. My beach, as a matter of fact.”
Her brow wrinkled. “No, it’s my beach. Maybe you got turned around coming through the grass.”
“Maybe you did.” He gestured toward the top of the bluff with his mug. “I’m staying at Mark Lewis’s place. I got in late last night.”
The creases marring her forehead deepened. “I live next door.”
Luke didn’t try to hide his skepticism. “Mark told me the owner of that house had died and the place was empty.”
The muscles in her throat contracted as she swallowed. “The owner was my grandmother. She passed away in October. I inherited the house and moved in four months ago.”
Although the woman still seemed nervous, she tipped up her chin and held her ground.
Spunky little thing.
Luke took a sip of his coffee as he mulled over her claim. Mark had been out of the country for months, on an oversees assignment for his company. It was possible he wasn’t up-to-date on his neighbors. And this woman didn’t appear to be lying. Nor did she seem to be any happier about sharing the beach than he was.
He surveyed the strip of sand. It was narrow, but wide. They ought to be able to make this work.
“I’ll tell you what—why don’t we start over, seeing that we’ll be neighbors for a few weeks?” Once more he tried out a smile. Setting his mug on the sand, he moved toward her and extended his hand. “Let me introduce...”
Her grip on the towel tightened, and she took another step back.
Flummoxed, he stopped a few feet away, his hand still extended. What was with her, anyway? Maybe they hadn’t gotten off on the best foot, but he hadn’t done anything threatening.
As she secured the towel around her shoulders, his gaze dropped to the pink spot on her hand. It was turning red, and he suspected a blister would soon form.
He dropped his hand and nodded toward hers. “You need to put that under cold water. And it would help to cover it with sterile gauze. Cutting off the air will ease the discomfort and protect the skin. I have some if you need it.”
“Thanks. I’ll be fine.”
She worked her feet into her flip-flops, then retrieved her mug and book and shoved them into the beach bag—all the while keeping tabs on him. Slinging the canvas tote over her shoulder, she folded up her chair, tucked it under her arm and started toward the stairs.
The thought of her trying to navigate the steep, narrow steps in her condition while juggling the chair and tote sent a chill down Luke’s spine.
“Why don’t you let me help you with some of that?” He fell in behind her.
Throwing an alarmed glance over her shoulder, she picked up her pace. “I can manage. I do this all the time. Thanks.” The expression of gratitude was tacked on, like an afterthought.
He fell back, watching as she plunged into the tall grass and followed the faint path, holding his breath while she labored up the wooden steps. When she took a quick look back toward the beach from the top, he raised a hand in farewell.
She ignored him.
Five seconds later she disappeared, heading toward the small bungalow tucked among the trees that he’d noticed from his bedroom window this morning.
Talk about strange encounters.
Shaking his head, he picked up his mug and moved farther down the beach, near the edge of the property line. As far away from the pregnant blonde’s spot as possible. They might have to share the beach, but it was big enough for both of them. Better yet, his privacy should be safe. His neighbor didn’t strike him as the warm, friendly, talkative type.
As he unfolded his chair, Luke tried to look on the bright side. If he had to have a neighbor, at least she wasn’t part of some large, noisy family with a passel of kids who would disrupt his coveted and much-anticipated beach time.
Of course, it was possible his aloof beach mate had a husband or boyfriend or kids stashed in the bungalow. But some sixth sense told him she was here alone.
So where was the baby’s father? Why wasn’t he here to help her carry stuff up and down the steps?
Not your problem, Turner.
Determined to put his solitary neighbor out of his mind and enjoy the expansive view of the sparkling lake, Luke settled into his chair. He’d spent the past ten years caring about people in distress. Sometimes too much. Combat medicine was brutal, the injuries grievous, the mortality rate high. Eventually, the loss of life ate at your gut. He was here to heal. To keep a promise. To move on.
The last thing he needed was one more person to worry about.