Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Love Finds You in Holiday, Florida - Prologue and Chapter 1

Love Finds You in Holiday, Florida

Summerside Press (November 1, 2009)


Cassie rounded the curve of the street and pulled into the driveway, and there they were! Those horrible, neon-pink flamingos, grinning at her from beneath the palm tree in the front yard. Just that morning, she’d deposited them in the trash receptacle, hoping that would be the end of them. Though something told her she would never be rid of them.

Oh, what a thought!

As she climbed out of the car and stalked toward them, the horror of it buzzed around her like a swarm of gnats. The picture was a vivid one: sitting on the back deck in her old age, sipping one of those terrible Southern beverages Zan was always experimenting with, her silver hair standing on end and frizzy from the Florida humidity. And poking out from beneath the dock…or peering at her from around the side of the house…or possibly standing tall in one of the large flowering plants…those eyes. Those gawking black eyes, just staring back at her, mocking her with their presence.

Cassie yanked the first one out of the ground, where its hard plastic spike anchored it to the front yard, and she tossed it on the grass behind her. Just as she wrapped both hands around the beak of the second one, Zan’s laughter taunted her from across the street.

She turned her head slowly toward him, narrowed her eyes, and stared him down, the distance between them bridged by a look her husband had come to know all too well.

“Hi, baby,” he called out to her, grinning as maniacally as those flamingos he loved so much. “Want some help carrying in the groceries?”

Lounging on the front step of Millicent’s porch with his faithful dog, Sophie, at his side, Zan could surely be spotted from the space shuttle in that colorful Hawaiian-print shirt. He waved his arms at her, and the old woman in the rocking chair began to wave as well.

“Hello, Cassie!”

Cassie planted both feet and faced him, with her hands on her hips. “Alexander Constantine, I won’t have these horrible things displayed in the front yard. What will the neighbors think of us?”

“Ah, come on, Mac. They’ll think we’re kitschy. Don’t you want to be known as kitschy?”

“I certainly do not.”

And with that, she turned her back on him and pulled hard on the beak of the second flamingo—so hard, in fact, that she fell right on her fanny when the bird’s spike broke free of the ground.

Zan jogged across the street, laughing the whole way, with Sophie trotting at his heels and pitching out happy little fragmented barks as if they were playing a wonderful new game.

Zan reached her in the next minute. “Come on, Mac. Have a heart. When in Holiday, do as the Holidaens do.”

Cassie leaned back into the grass on both elbows and looked up at him, taking in that horrible shirt, the shorts to his knees, and the unmistakable bright blue rubber flip-flops.

“I think you’re Holidaen enough for the both of us,” she remarked. “What were you conspiring with Millicent about?”

“You know she’s my favorite girl after you, Deb, and Sophie.”

“Yes, I do, and I’m not sure about the order we place, either,” she said, glancing at the orange-and-golden-haired collie standing over her. Sophie wiggled her big ears that flopped over at the tips and wagged her large plumed tail at some hilarity only dogs and her husband could sense. “So what were you charming out of Millicent this time, Zan? A recipe for a kiwi mint julep? Pink lemonade with pineapple chunks?”

Zan grinned as he stood over her, and he reached out for her hands. He planted a kiss on each one and then pulled her to her feet.

“Please let me toss the birds in the trash, Zan.”

“If you must.”


“Toss away, Mac.”

Cassie narrowed her eyes and stared him down. It was almost too easy. But she wasn’t going to pass up a golden opportunity if, by some miracle, he was feeling charitable about her animosity for those horrible pink flamingos-on-a-stick.

“Thank you,” she said.

A s she bent over to pick them up, Zan smacked her on the tush.
“Sophie and I will unload the car,” he told her, before waving his arms over his head at Millicent. “Catch you later, Millie!”

“Not if I see you first,” she teased.

Chapter One

4 ACROSS: Neat; tidy; organized

“I know you, Mom, and I wanted to talk to you before you started the whole house decorating thing.”

Cassie tapped the handset and turned serious. “What whole house decorating thing? Debra, I find it laughable that you think I’m so predictable.”

“Oh, come on.” Debra chuckled from the other end of the phone line. “Tell me you haven’t already gone up into the attic and pulled out the boxes of ornaments and garland, or that you haven’t been sitting at the kitchen table making your list for Christmas Eve dinner.”

Cassie set her coffee cup on the table with a thump and brushed aside the spiral notebook in front of her.

“I’m sorry, Mom. Zach is one of the wise men in the church play, and Jake is going to his seventh-grade dance with that little blond girl he’s had a crush on since the third grade. I just can’t make them miss any of it. Why don’t you come here for Christmas instead? You could see the play, and we could go shopping at the new outlet mall.”

Cassie smiled. “I’ve been wondering about doing something different this year anyway. Like maybe going down to the house in Holiday.”

Debra cackled. “Are you serious?”

“Yes. Why?”

“Well, Daddy talked about going down there for Christmas every year since I can remember, and you wouldn’t hear of spending the holiday in 80-degree weather.”

“Well, he loved to wear those horrible shorts when he went down to Florida,” Cassie explained, tucking her hair behind her ear. “I couldn’t spend the Christmas holiday with your father walking around in those plaid Bermuda shorts.”

“I can still hear him trying to talk you into it.” Debra chuckled. In her gravelly Zan impersonation, she added, “ ‘Come on, Mac. Just one Christmas out of all the others that we’ll spend in Boston.’ ”

Debra’s laughter was lyrical, and Cassie’s hand floated to her heart as a mist of tears glazed her eyes. With a sniff, she fought them back. Zan had called her Mac since the time they first met. She was Cassie MacLean then, but the only time he ever called her by her given name was on the morning they’d recited their wedding vows and then once each year on their anniversary. The rest of their lives, she was just Mac. She’d almost forgotten, but Debra’s casual reference to the nickname brought Zan flooding back to her.

“I’ve been thinking about selling the Florida house anyway. This will give me time to get it ready.”

“Selling it? Really?”

“Debra Constantine Rudolph, don’t you give me that weepy reaction to selling the Holiday house after all the years that have passed since you’ve been there.”

“I know, I just...” She trailed off, and Cassie smiled.

“I just, too. But it’s not practical. None of us ever go down there, honey, and the upkeep on a three-bedroom house in Florida that we never use anymore is just ridiculous. Your father was the one who really loved it anyway. I never shared his vision of walking the golf course on Christmas Eve or of draping colored twinkle lights on those awful plastic flamingos he put in the yard.”

“He was a character,” Debra commented.

“Yes, he was.”

“So you aren’t too heartbroken that we won’t be coming for Christmas, then?”

“Don’t be silly. You have your own family now, honey. You’ll make your own traditions. It’s the circle of life.”

Hakuna matata?” Debra laughed. “That’s very Lion King of you, Mom.”

“Besides, I’ve hardly given any thought to the holidays yet.”

“Thanks, Mom. I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Cassie set the handset on the table and leaned back against the metal scrollwork of the dinette chair. Sophie pattered across the kitchen floor with a section of silver Christmas tree garland in her mouth, dragging about three feet of it behind her. When she reached Cassie, she dropped the garland and sighed as she planted her chin on Cassie’s knee.

“Thanks for understanding, Soph.”

With another sigh, Cassie glanced down the hall at the traffic jam of cardboard boxes overflowing with Christmas decorations. She’d been in the process of sorting tree lights from outdoor strands when Debra had called.

I’m absolutely humdrum, she thought, snagging a quick glimpse of the notebook with an inward groan. I’m just as predictable as they come!

She looked down at the list.

Roasted turkey—at least twenty pounds
Chestnut stuffing—leave out the celery for Jake
Candied yams—get marshmallows for Zach
Green bean and mushroom casserole—will the kids eat pearl onions now?
She hadn’t had time to complete it before Debra had called and accused her of making it. Cassie drew a large X across the page and turned the notebook facedown on the table.

As she tucked the lights and garland back into their boxes and sealed the flaps, Cassie counted down the days until Christmas on an invisible calendar before her. With almost three weeks stretched out between lunch with Rachel that afternoon and a lonely Christmas dinner, Cassie began to devise a plan.

A bold and unpredictable plan. Unpredictable was going to be the name of the game now. No more humdrum for this woman!

By the time Cassie met up with her best friend, Rachel, at the restaurant two hours later, she’d already made plane reservations, reserved a rental car, and made an appointment with Tameka, the lovely real estate agent she and Zan had gotten to know in Holiday. She’d sold them the house, and they’d had dinner a few times with Tameka and her husband, James.

“Are you ser–i–ous?” Rachel enunciated.

Cassie emptied a packet of sweetener into her coffee and stirred it with an ornate silver spoon as she grinned at her friend across the table.

“I’m serious.”

“You’re going to Florida for Christmas.”

“Well,” she said, tapping the spoon against the side of the cup and placing it on the saucer, “I’m going to Holiday to get the house ready to go on the market. That shouldn’t take more than a couple of weeks. I should finish just in time to spend one Christmas there like Zan always wanted to, say good-bye to the house and all its memories, and come back to Boston just after the new year.” “You’re serious.”

“Yes!” Cassie exclaimed, nodding her head at Rachel. “I’m serious, already.”

“I’m sorry, I just—” Rachel pushed her halo of ash blond curls back from her face and blinked her turquoise blue eyes at Cassie.

“Do you think you’re ready for this, Cass?”

Cassie reached across the table and took her friend’s hand between her own. “He’s been gone over a year now, Rach. I think I’d better be ready, don’t you?”

“There’s no clock timing you on this. You’ll be ready when you’re ready.”

Cassie wanted to reassure her friend. She wanted to declare that the time had indeed come, that she was more than…

Well, there was something to be said for stepping out in faith and pretending she was ready, wasn’t there? Letting go of Zan and their life together, and moving forward with this new phase, was just not something she could plan out like the rest of the details she was so adept at organizing. And Cassie was a little out of her element there since she felt she could always depend on a good plan when nothing else in life was certain.

“Oh!” she exclaimed, remembering the folded sheet of paper in her purse. “Look what I found.”

She dug into her bag, pulled out the paper, smoothed the creases, and laid the page flat on the table between them.

“It’s the crossword puzzle Zan gave me on our anniversary, just before he…” Their eyes met, and Rachel cocked her head slightly and tried to smile at her. “You know.”

“He was so good at that,” Rachel commented. “I’ll bet he made as much money selling his crossword puzzles as he did at teaching English lit.”

“Not quite,” Cassie replied. “But he sure did love to dream them up. Crossword puzzles, word jumbles, searches…Zan just loved words.”
“I always thought it was so romantic the way he would give them to you every year on your anniversary,” Rachel said on a sigh. “And they’d always describe the wonderful things he saw in you. Hey, let’s do it together. Do you want to?”

“I thought I’d take it down to Florida with me and work it there. But we could start it.” She looked over the clue list and landed on one. “What’s a seven-letter word for neat, tidy, and organized?”

Rachel paused and then grinned. “Cassie?”

“That’s six letters.”

Just once, she would have loved to come across a clue for a different type of Cassie.




“Orderly,” Rachel blurted. “The seven-letter word for neat and organized. It’s orderly.”

Orderly. Well, that figures.

Cassie’s spirits deflated. She folded up the puzzle and placed it back into the front pocket of her purse.

“I was Christmas shopping on my lunch hour the other day,” she said. “I came across the neatest little gift that I thought about getting for Debra, and now I find myself wishing I’d gotten it for myself.”

“What was it?”

“It’s called a ‘Surprise Yourself ’ box. Have you heard of it?”

“I don’t think so.”

“It’s a beautiful little cut-crystal box with a hinged lid,” she explained. “Inside are 365 cards, one for each day of the year. On the front is a scripture verse. And on the back is an instruction for that day. I think it’s about applying the Word to your everyday life because it will say something like, ‘Visit someone who’s sick’ or ‘Look for an undiscovered talent in yourself.’ ”

“What a great idea!” Rachel exclaimed.
“I’m sitting here thinking I should have that box. I’d like to do something to surprise myself—or to surprise others, for that matter. Rachel, I’m so predictable.”

“This from the woman who just made last-minute reservations to fly to Florida for Christmas.”

“The first unexpected thing I’ve done in twenty years.”


“I know! Let’s do something crazy now,” she suggested. “How about a slice of pie?”

“Want to split?”

“Nope. I want my own. And I’m having…pumpkin!”

“Whoa,” Rachel teased. “Let’s not go completely crazy too fast. At least forego the whipped cream.”

“Nope. I’m having pumpkin, and I want whipped cream.”

“All righty then.”

“Fasten your seat belt, Rach, because I’m having a cappuccino with it.”

The waiter stepped up beside them, and Rachel smiled at him. “You might want to call security. I don’t even know this woman. She’s absolutely…zany.”

Ooh, ZANY. There’s a word I wish Zan would have used in one of his Cassie puzzles.


Boston was dusted with snow, with temperature in the upper twenties, when Cassie got on the plane bound for Tampa International Airport. She’d had a hard time finding clothes to pack for a 50-degree difference in weather, but she figured she could pick up a few things once she arrived. And there was always the array of clothes still hanging in her Florida closet. If only she could remember what was there.

After collecting one suitcase and one dog at baggage claim, Cassie took care of her car rental and was on her way. Sophie claimed her spot in the back seat and lay down, her little front paws crossed in front of her, swiping Cassie’s hand with one affectionate lick as she belted her in. Sophie appeared just as prim and ladylike as a dog with floppy pointed ears could be, in that moment anyway.

Never mind the laps she’d taken around the backyard that morning, figure eights at 150 miles per hour, with her new plush reindeer toy hanging out the side of her mouth. Not so ladylike then. More like a commercial for doggie NASCAR.

At last Cassie climbed in behind the wheel and was on her way.

She took a wrong turn from the airport somehow and ended up driving miles out of the way and across a bridge above the deep green Gulf, eventually stopping in St. Petersburg on the other side.

A gas station attendant pointed her back again, in the direction of Tampa and across what he called the Howard Frankland Bridge, and he sold her a map that would lead her to Holiday from there.

She hadn’t been to Florida in such a long time, and Zan had always been the driver back then, so not much of anything looked more than marginally familiar all the way out to New Port Richey.

All that changed, however, when she rounded the curve of the road and finally saw the disfigured little sign that announced with no pomp or circumstance at all the entrance to Holiday, Florida.

Around the battered golf course, past the neighbor’s very memorable mailbox shaped like a large trout…then two bumps and a pothole later, she pulled into her driveway and turned off the ignition.

Oh, there they are, she thought, dropping her head back against the headrest with a laugh. Those ugly plastic flamingos, leaning sideways in the garden.

Zan had picked them up at a local grocery store and they’d argued all the way home about displaying them, finally agreeing to leave them in the backseat of the car until they could come to some understanding. The next morning, however, Cassie had taken her coffee out on the deck—and there they were, poking out of the enormous planters on either side of the wooden dock leading out to the Anclote River.

After that, the flamingos had become pawns in an ongoing game. Cassie had tossed them into the trash can at the side of the house one morning, and that afternoon they’d turned up on the front lawn. Once she’d hidden them in the shrubs at the back of the house, but the following morning at first morning light, there they were again, peeking through the bedroom window. On their last visit to Holiday, Cassie had noticed the horrible things poking out of the tall flowers in the garden as she and Zan pulled out of the drive and headed for the airport, just where the birds were still.

She’d just pumped the door handle and her feet hadn’t even flattened against terra firma when she heard it.

“Cas–sie? Hun–ny bunny? Is that you?”

Millicent headed across the street toward her, toddling at a speed that defied her seventy years, reflecting the sun with her neon-pink bike shorts and matching visor and the fanny pack around her waist plop-plop-plopping against her hip with each eager step.

“Hi, Millicent.”

“Oh, hunny bunny!” the woman exclaimed. “It’s been such a long time.” Inching her arms around Cassie’s waist, Millicent rocked her from side to side to side. Squirming her way out of the embrace reminded Cassie of peeling out of a tight, wet bathing suit.

“We were all so sorry to hear about Zan,” she said as Cassie popped open the trunk.

“Thank you.”

“Are you all right? Doing okay? I stopped Frank Mitchell a few weeks ago when he was over here doing the yard work for you, but he said he didn’t have any idea what your plans were or when you’d be coming back. We were all so worried, hunny. It was such a loss, wasn’t it? He was such a prankster, your Zan. I’ll just never forget him.”

“Thank you,” Cassie managed, reaching into the back seat and releasing Sophie from the belt.

“Sophie!” Millicent sang as the dog leaped out of the car. Sophie excitedly circled the old woman twice and then ran for a patch of grass. Once she’d done her business, Sophie kicked up some sand from the grass and started to run. As usual, she looped around the palm tree and back again, mapping out one large figure eight across the lawn. What was it about that dog and the number eight?

“Sophie’s very excited to be back,” Millicent observed as they watched her.

“I think the dog is a little loopy, if you want to know the truth.”

Millicent chuckled as Sophie tore off across the yard again, pausing at the top of her 8-curve to fly into the air and twist around for no apparent reason, as if catching some invisible Frisbee.

Yanking the suitcases from the trunk and snapping up the handles, Cassie said, “It was a long trip, Millicent. Could we catch up tomorrow?”

“Oh, of course we can. Of course. I’m on my way to meet the girls for miniature golf, but can I bring you over some supper a little later? Something you can just heat up? You won’t feel like going out to the market.”

“That’s so sweet of you, but I thought I’d just order a pizza.”

“Oh, you know they don’t make pizza down here like they do up North,” Millicent objected, wrinkling up her nose and shaking her head. “You don’t want a local pizza.”

“I really do,” Cassie said and laughed. “Call me crazy, but I’ve actually been looking forward to it.”

“Well, if you’re sure. Are you sure, bunny?”

“I’m sure. But thank you, Millicent. It’s nice to see you again.”

The woman didn’t move a muscle to leave, so Cassie pulled the suitcases along behind her and headed for the front door.

“We can give you a ride to church on Sunday, if you’d like,” Millicent called after her. “There’s a scrambled egg breakfast in the rec hall after.”

Cassie nodded. She’d almost forgotten the sweet little church on the border of town. She and Zan always looked forward to visiting. The pastor was young and enthusiastic, and he had a hand in providing his congregation with a more active social life than an A-list Hollywood crowd, minus the drugs and alcohol, of course. But Cassie hadn’t been too interested in attending church in the last year. Something about walking in alone and sitting there with that big scarlet W on her chest.

Widow. The strangest word in the English language.

Cassie turned the key in the lock and then waved at Millicent.

Sophie flew past her as she tugged the luggage inside, and the collie had sniffed her way through every room in the house before Cassie even closed the door behind them.

Frank had promised to stop by that morning to air out the house.

A lovely cross-breeze between the large window in the living room and the open, screened-in glass doors leading out to the deck told her he’d kept his word. Cassie sighed as she stood in front of the screen and looked out toward the river beyond the wooden dock. She felt a bit like she was standing in the middle of a spot she’d only dreamed about once upon a time. Her home in Boston, her administrative job at the law firm, learning to manage on her own: these had become the things her life was made of. The Holiday house was foreign to her now and yet strangely familiar and comforting at the same time.

A brown anole lizard glided across the deck and stopped at the other side of the screen door, the reddish sack beneath its little reptilian throat pumping. She took an instinctive step back from the screen and then chuckled. Cassie recalled when she’d come to Florida and seen one of the creatures for the first time. She’d screeched when it sped across the patio floor near her foot, and the ruckus drew out several of the neighbors. She’d been mortified when they explained to her that an anole was as common in this setting as a lightning bug would be up North.

“It’s part of the fabric of Southern living,” Zan had assured her.

“Nothing to be afraid of.”

That might have been comforting if the news that evening hadn’t highlighted another aspect of Southern living with a story about a three-foot lizard of some kind standing guard on a local’s patio. Cassie recalled that she hadn’t been able to sleep all night.

When the lizard on the other side of the screen door suddenly sprinted into action, Cassie jumped, her distant memories shattering as she backed away from the door. Even reminding herself that she was fifty-five years old—not five—and she probably looked like Godzilla to the tiny thing, she still couldn’t shake off the shiver that ran up her spine and tingled the top of her head. Little lizards running around wherever they wanted to go, well, that was just wrong somehow. Like so many other things about Holiday, Florida, it made the place seem like a primitive foreign country to her, and Cassie was quite certain she would never adjust to it.

She grabbed the handle on her suitcase and tugged it behind her down the hall and into the master bedroom. The moment she stepped through the doorway, the past was there to meet her once again, engulfing her like a torrential wind and carrying the whisper of Zan’s laughter around her into a spun shell of memories. Cassie folded in half and collapsed to the edge of the bed, still gripping the pull handle extended from her luggage.

Sophie hopped up on the bed beside her.

“No, Soph. Get down.”

The dog reluctantly jumped to the floor but cozied up to Cassie’s leg and planted her chin on her knee. The way she looked up at Cassie, those big golden brown eyes wide and glassy, it sort of seemed like Zan’s dog was missing him at that moment, too.

She pulled Sophie’s favorite toys from the zippered pocket of her suitcase and tossed them toward the large round doggie bed in the corner. Sophie chased them and moved from one to the other. She couldn’t seem to decide between the reindeer, the squeaky ball, and the floppy dog.

Cassie shook the nostalgia from her head, nudged the suitcase toward the closet, and popped to her feet. “Dinner,” she said out loud.

Sophie grabbed the ball with the corner of her long, pointy collie mouth and then tucked the reindeer into the other side, squeaking them both incessantly as she hurried down the hallway and into the kitchen in pursuit of Cassie. Cassie was scanning the business cards anchored to the freezer door with funny little ceramic magnets. She plucked off the brightly colored mermaid Zan had bought at the Weeki Wache Springs mermaid show, a bizarre little roadside attraction that drew curious patrons from far and wide, and she took down the card it anchored.

A Pizza Holiday was a little hole-in-the-wall at one of the strip malls on the edge of the small town—a place she never would have considered frequenting in Boston—but Zan had insisted on it the afternoon they closed on the Holiday house. At the local establishment, they’d discovered an unexpected chef specialty called “The Popeye,” a concoction of spinach, feta cheese, mushrooms, and sausage that had them coming back for more every time they returned to Florida.

“A Pizza Holiday, where every meal with us is like an Italian holiday. How can I help you?”

“That’s a mouthful to have to say when you answer the phone,” Cassie commented.

“Yeah, my dad owns the place. It’s not like I have a choice,” the girl returned grimly.


“Yes? And who’s this?”

“This is Cassie Constantine, Vanessa. The last time I saw you, you were folding napkins at the counter and your feet didn’t even touch the floor. How old are you now?”

“I’m sixteen,” she replied. “Are you guys down for the Christmas break? You haven’t been in for a long time.”

You guys. Cassie’s heart pinched.

“Well, I am. My husband passed away.”

“He did? I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”

“Thank you,” she replied. “I think I’d like to get a pizza delivered.”

“The Popeye?”


“Large with extra sausage?”

“Oh, no. Small, please. With extra spinach.”

“And would you like—”

“Vanessa, hang on, please.”

The earsplitting grinding of metal against wood, not to mention Sophie’s insistent barking, forced Cassie to the screen door, where she peered outside just in time to see a large pontoon boat take off the end of her dock.

“I’m sorry,” she said into the phone. “I’ll have to call you back.”

Cassie closed her phone and set it on the table behind her before rushing outside and jogging halfway down the dock, her barking dog at her heels. Cassie had forgotten how colorful everything was in Holiday, including the residents. But her immediate reminder stood at the edge of the boat in the person of Georgette Hootz, with her shocking orange hair and lipstick to match, shielding her eyes with a fuschia golf-gloved hand as she waved at Cassie with unusual vigor.

“Cassie? Is that you? George, look, it’s Cassie Constantine.”


“Zan’s wife.”


“Oh, you old coot.”

Georgette hoisted herself over the side and scaled the broken dock before taking off at a full waddling run toward her. Sophie met her at the end of the dock and sniffed at her knees the whole way up the platform.

“Hi, little Sophie. How have you been?” As Georgette headed for Cassie, full steam ahead, she exclaimed, “So sorry about your dock! George has to have cataract surgery next month, and he just can’t see like he used to.”

“Is anyone hurt?” Cassie asked her.

“Oh, we’re dandy. It’s just the dock that needs a medic.”

Cassie swallowed a gulp of unspoken retort just as Georgette reached her and hugged her so tightly that her air pushed up past her ribs and forced out a groan.

“We were so sorry to hear about Zan,” she cried, as she shook Cassie from side to side. “He was such a good man. I asked George, ‘Whatever is Cassie going to do without him?’ Are you doing all right, dear? Have you got things in order for yourself?”

“I’m working on it.”

Over Georgette’s shoulder, Cassie watched as a lean but muscular man with sun-kissed chestnut hair—definitely not George Hootz!—stepped up from the pontoon over the broken edge of the dock. He was wearing knee-length khaki linen shorts and a bright blue knit shirt, tan deck shoes, and dark, rectangular sunglasses. After a moment, he turned back to the boat and offered a hand, pulling George up to the dock alongside him.

Cassie lost her breath again, but not because Georgette had squeezed it out of her.

“Who’s that with George?” she asked as the man leaned over and tickled Sophie on top of her head.

Georgette released Cassie and turned around with a smile. “That’s Richard,” she said. Then she cranked up that frantic wave of hers. “He bought the Kleinbeck place a few blocks over from us a couple of years ago. Widower, addicted to chasing those tiny white balls around on the golf course. Naturally. I suppose no man comes to Florida without golf on his mind. Oh, and he’s a ballroom dancer like you wouldn’t believe.”

“Sorry about your dock,” George offered, scratching his silver head as he approached with Richard. “Seems a little farther out into the canal than I remembered.”

“George Hootz, that dock did not move since the last time we were out here,” Georgette chastised him. “You old coot.”

“Hen,” he returned, and Georgette waved him off with a sour grimace.

“Richard Dillon, meet Cassie Constantine.”

He lowered his glasses to reveal blue eyes that actually sparkled.

His chiseled features narrowed at the jawline, and he had those charming Dennis Quaid sort of parentheses on either side of his grin, making it seem like his entire face smiled right along with his lips. Cassie thought it odd that those simple parentheses made her heart beat a little faster.

“Pleased to meet you.”

“Is everyone all right?” she asked as she shook his hand.

“Well, my bursitis has been acting up this week,” George replied.

“Usually means we’re looking for some rain in the forecast.”

“That’s not what she’s asking, George. She means from the collision with the dock.”

Richard caught Cassie’s eye, grinned, and then replaced his sunglasses.

“Oh, that,” George answered back. “It was just a little tap. That dock hadda be pretty rotten to crumble the way it did.”

A strange sucking sound drew their attention just then, and they all turned back toward the canal. Just about the time Cassie realized that the boat seemed lower, it rocked back and forth and then moved lower still.

“What in the world—?”

Sophie raced to the edge of the dock and let out a few concerned barks, but before any of the humans could say another word, the pontoon boat with the bright yellow striped awning disappeared beneath the water with a belch.

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