It Might Be You
So, this was her new and exciting life in Florida?
Serina Spring sighed and tossed down her losing hand of cards. On a sunny Wednesday afternoon in one of Florida’s most beautiful cities, here she was, playing Michigan Rummy with a rowdy group of octogenarians.
“There she goes,” her spritely but aging Nana, called out triumphantly. “The girls and I are coming for you.”
‘The girls,’ were all widowed, and, at the moment, talking a lot of smack as they goaded one another over a pot full of pennies. Given their furrowed brows of concentration and groans of defeat, you would think they were playing for a new Cadillac.
She’d learned how to play the card game during her childhood visits to her great-grandmother’s home in Naples, Florida and often joined their lively game whenever she was in town.
The curly-haired Carolyn collected one of the larger pots of the day, drawing the winnings to her side of the table with a goofy giggle. “How long are you visiting us this time, dear?”
“Indefinitely! I’m relocating permanently.” Her news stirred up a round of excited squeals from the group and a cackle from Carolyn. “I’m rooming here with Nana, but I hope to have my own place soon, once I am settled in with work.”
“What will you do for a living?”
“The same as I did in Manhattan. Lucky for me, it’s a good time to be selling real estate in Naples.” That was true. Serina had done her homework before moving. “With houses for sale in excess of $40 million, Southwest Florida is the most expensive market in the country right now.”
These were the same figures she’d recited when her single friends and former colleagues told her she was crazy for leaving the thrill of New York City and her burgeoning career there to start anew. Sure, she was essentially starting over, but the prospect of a clean slate thrilled her more than it daunted. She was eager to start building her Naples portfolio and get a better lay of the land.
“Of course, the median sale is about $250,000, but hey, a girl could dream, no?”
“That’s right.” Nana beamed with pride. “She passed the Florida Real Estate Broker Examination with ease and tomorrow is her first day at a fancy agency.”
“Is your fella going to move down here too?” Nana’s friend, Helen Montgomery asked wistfully.
“Uh…” Serina fumbled for a response. She was still getting used to the idea that her fella preferred other fellas.
“That didn’t work out,” Nana broke in, gently patting Serina’s non-card playing hand, which was currently wadded into a fist.
Helen gasped as if she’d just lost her own boyfriend of three years. “But with your lovely rich brown hair and slender figure, you’re a dead ringer for your Nana here when she was younger. Lord knows she had to beat them away with a stick. Actually, I was just telling Junior that you look like a modern-day Natalie Wood.”
Serina always liked Helen the best out of Nana’s cronies.
The sour-faced Ann, on the other hand tutted. “Thirty and still single.”
Yup, she’d just turned thirty at the same time her boyfriend, Justin, had turned gay. Well, she supposed he had always been gay. He’d just finally had the guts to tell her.
Justin prided himself on being a wonderful gift-giver and his recent declaration was definitely the biggest birthday surprise she had ever had. It just wasn’t the kind of icing on her birthday cake she’d been expecting. No, she had foolishly expected an engagement ring to celebrate the occasion.
In hindsight, there had been signs. Serina even used to worry that he spent a little too much time at an all-male gym, was meticulously tidy, and that, maybe, just maybe, their relationship felt forced. Regardless, she needed space to cope with the revelation. Seven states of space, to be exact.
Plus, she was tired of the Manhattan rat race. She had worked non-stop at her agency during the day, answering her clients’ demanding calls and texts at all hours of the night. The mere thought of jumping back into the dating pool again in that cement jungle left her feeling exhausted. And with winter being in full swing, it made her decision to move south all the more appealing.
Looking out over the small lake beyond Nana’s screened lanai, Serina took a deep breath, soaking in the balmy seventy-five-degree weather. Sinking her body into the wicker chair, the tension left her tight shoulders immediately.
This is paradise.
Just yesterday, she’d spent the day kayaking at a national preserve and remembering why she had majored in environmental science in college. The selfie she posted on her social media account had even her most jaded friends up north commenting on how they wanted to plan a trip to see her, or rather the beach.
Yes, she was going to take full advantage of the weather while living in the Sunshine State. Maybe even get in touch with her passion for nature again. Nana had mentioned the Naples Botanical Gardens was looking for knowledgeable guides. Once she was settled in at her new job, she hoped to reach out to them and volunteer.
First, though, she had to get her career back on track and get established in Naples.
“What do you say Serina? Won’t that be lovely?” asked Nana, in her sweet as sugar voice. Serina turned from the swaying palm trees and back to the group of ‘girls’ who were all staring at her expectantly.
“Uh, sure,” she hedged, not sure what she was agreeing to or commenting on, but their delighted head bobs and smiles told her she had responded correctly.
“It’s all set then, for next Thursday.” Helen clapped her hands in glee.
“Okay…” Serina hesitated, still not having a clue as to what was happening next Thursday, but she figured she could question Nana once everyone left.
After all, the girls were gathering their handbags and scooping their winnings into labeled plastic containers. Nana apparently had been the big winner this week as her reused margarine tub overflowed with pennies. Serina’s bucket, on the other hand, was practically empty.
Oh, salt in her wounds! Just another addition to her pity party for one.
Nevertheless, Serina stood and hugged the women goodbye and thanked them for letting her join their weekly game. The triumphant wink that Helen gave her as she departed set off silent alarm bells in her head.
As soon as the door closed behind everyone, Serina turned to question Nana. “What exactly is happening next Thursday?”
“Your date, of course.” Nana flashed an eager smile.
“My date?” Serina’s mouth fell open.
“With Helen’s grandson, Junior,” Nana informed her. “Do you remember him? You played together once when you were little.”
Racking her brain, she suddenly remembered an older boy with sandy hair. “Wait, didn’t he pull one of my pigtails and make me cry?”
“Yes, that’s him.” Nana’s musical chuckle filled the air. “But to be fair, you did toss his G.I. Joe off the pier first.”
Struggling to recall the incident, the hazy memory came to mind, and Serina laughed, too. “Well, he said the action figure was a deep-sea diver, so I thought it would be fine. Anyway, isn’t he a lot older than I am?”
“Just four years, but at the time I suppose it felt like more. Plus, he was quite tall even back then.”
Oh, my! How tall is he now?
Alarmed, she pictured a gawky giant of a man. Scrambling, she tried to think of a way out of the date she hadn’t meant to agree to in the first place. She did not want to be set up and especially not by her grandmother. How pathetic would that be, needing her eighty-two-year-old Nana to find her a date?
Ugh. She cringed. “He’s here full-time?”
“Yes, he moved from New York, too, a few years back. He now lives upstairs from Helen.”
“He lives with his grandma?” Serina groaned, unable to hide the horror in her voice.
“And what is wrong with that? You, missy, live with your Nana. And those in glass houses should not throw stones.” Nana’s former teacher’s tone was as pleasant as always with a slight hint of censure mixed in. It was just the right amount, since it always worked, especially on her.
“Yes, but this is different, it’s only temporary. Besides I’m not a guy.”
“Rina! Now that’s the biggest double standard I’ve ever heard.” The admonishment caused Serina to feel immediately contrite. She was fully aware she did not have a leg to stand on.
“Junior actually owns the entire row of townhouses and moved Helen into a downstairs unit. He even built an accessible entrance ramp for her with his own two hands. He’s quite handy, you know. He helps all of us out when we have something that needs fixing. What a dear boy.”
Okay, so he was a saint. But he still sounded like a freakishly tall grandma’s boy who pulled little girls hair for fun. Wisely, Serina kept those thoughts to herself.
“Besides he’s quite a looker.” A teasing wink-wink, nudge-nudge accompanied her grandmother’s assessment.
“Forgive me, Nana, if I don’t trust your judgment here. You think Dr. Phil is handsome.” A pointed look made the older woman blush and they both burst out laughing. “Besides, if he’s such a looker, why is he still single?”
“You’re a looker, and you’re still single, sweetie.” Softening the blow, Nana lovingly smoothed back a stray strand of Serina’s hair and tucked it behind her ear. “Like you, he’s probably been waiting for the right one to come along. In the meantime, Junior’s been quite busy with work, too. He used to be a stockbroker on Wall Street, and now he’s a financial consultant or advisor or something like that.”
Even worse! Serina recalled the stockbrokers she had met while living in Manhattan. They had been full of themselves and dull to boot. Granted, she couldn’t picture any of those particular men in their power suits fixing a leaky faucet for their grandmother’s elderly friends. It didn’t matter though, she did not want to go on a forced date with a stranger no matter what his profession or how nice he was to old women. End of story.
“Please, Nana, tell Helen to forget it. I don’t want to go on a date with anyone.” She winced at how childish her voice sounded.
Nana only smiled lovingly back, despite Serina’s whiny protest, and remained equally impassive on the matter. She couldn’t possibly ask her dear friend to cancel. It would surely hurt Helen and Junior’s feelings. “Besides, it will be nice for you to make friends around here with people your own age.”
Serina couldn’t agree more, but she would soon be meeting friends through work, at least she hoped she would. Although given the median age for Naples was sixty-one, most of the agency’s clients would likely be older and/or married. She feared that she would be getting set up with their kids and grandchildren, too.
“Fine, one date.” Her shoulders sagged in defeat. “But no more matchmaking. I’m happy being single.”
Did she just lie to her Nana?
The horrifying thought had her stomach twisting into a knot.
Serina glanced at the clock on her phone. The open house had been four long hours of standing on her feet and she wanted to go home.
Unfortunately, she still had another half-hour to go before the showing was officially over and they could start to clean and lock up. Even then, there were always last-minute requests and stragglers, so she likely had another hour before she could call it a day.
Despite her extensive experience in New York, she was back to being one of the lower agents on the totem pole. She and her equally professionally insignificant colleague, Amanda were stuck hosting open houses, dealing with lookie-loos and providing tours to other people’s clients. Sure, there was always the chance someone would come in without representation and one of them would gain a potential new client, but mostly it would be others at the firm reaping the rewards and not them.
It’s just temporary, Serina repeated the mantra to herself for the umpteenth time in the last week. She’d have to pay her dues and bide her time, she knew that, but liking it was a different story. Nor was liking Amanda part of the job description.
Her new coworker seemed to be using their open houses as her own private dating service, immediately stepping forward to escort the men around the rooms, even hanging on the arms of those three times her age. She was a gold digger, making the flashy gold spiked high heels that she wore all the more apropos.
From the moment they met, she’d pulled Serina aside, her pointed vampire nails, painfully digging into her arm.
“You know, according to the national census, Naples is one of the wealthiest cities in the United States, with the sixth highest per capita income in America.” Amanda had proudly recited the statistics as if she had memorized the city’s Wikipedia page.
“Yes, there are some beautiful homes here as a result,” Serina had hedged, not sure what else to say to Amanda’s boasting. Frankly, she had been surprised Amanda even knew what ‘per capita’ meant. She’d stupidly tried to reassure her. “Don’t worry, if we put in the hours and make the right contacts, eventually we’ll be working on bigger properties.”
“I plan on living in one, not selling them.” Amanda’s sharp eyes narrowed to slits. She didn’t have to say more, the warning was received, loud and clear.
Don’t get in my way! Serina had practically heard the unsaid words in her own head.
Now, she was left hearing Amanda’s grating giggle from somewhere inside the open house. If Serina had to suffer her fake screech of laughter one more time, she was going to pack up and leave no matter what the clock said.
As if on cue, the heavily perfumed, gold-digger appeared by her side. “This must be my lucky day.” A predatory smile set on her silicon-injected lips. She preened and ran a hand through her bleached blonde hair.
“Why? Do you have a solid lead?” Serina tried her best to tamp down her frustration.
“For the house? No, but hopefully for my next lover.” Amanda tilted her head to the front door, where the most handsome man Serina had ever seen, outside of a movie screen, had just entered. “Yummy, what a hunk!” Amanda licked her lips, in the manner of a hungry cartoon character.
Even she had to agree with Amanda for once. This man was fine. Not in the pretty boy sort of way, but the rugged, manly type. Not frighteningly muscular either, but definitely athletic and built. Probably six-feet-four she guessed, sizing him up as if he were a new MLS listing. His pale blue, short-sleeved Oxford shirt and khaki shorts, with brown leather driving shoes were right out of GQ Magazine. Natural highlights streaked his dark blonde hair, and a slight golden stubble enhanced his strong jaw.
Serina held her breath while the man pulled off a pair of tinted aviator sunglasses in slow motion as if he were posing for a Ray Bans commercial. Despite the distance, she noted that his eyes were a piercing blue-gray.
If she were an uncouth construction worker, she surely would have let out a cat call in reaction. As it was, she did her best not to gape, balling her hands into fists to keep from adjusting her pencil skirt and smoothing down her long hair, like Amanda was busily doing next to her.
She told herself to stop ogling the stranger but knew it would take a tropical storm, no, a category four hurricane to blow her gaze away from him. Unabashedly staring now, she observed the man intently scanning the room, searching for something.
No, make that someone. He seemed more attuned to the people milling around, than on the space itself. He definitely didn’t seem to be surveying the perfectly staged rooms around him. His scrutiny quickly hopped from person to person, not even pausing to take in the incredible infinity pool in the distance or the refreshment table, which is where most people made a beeline to first. Perhaps he was meeting someone, she reasoned.
A spark of jealousy stabbed her at the thought of him meeting his wife. Frankly, for once, she’d rather this stranger was meeting up with a competing realtor than a spouse, which surprised her. She didn’t know this man. Why should she care if he was single or not? She should be more worried about the possibility of a commission than his relationship status. Otherwise, she was going to be living at her grandmother’s house for longer than planned. Although, continuing to have Nana’s banana bread each morning cushioned the unpleasantness of a possible delay. Just maybe she could have her banana bread and eat it too!
“I don’t think he is here to see the house,” Serina pointed out sharply, watching him crane his neck around to see past a couple gorging on the cheese platter.
“Who cares? God, I hope he is here to see me. I would gladly skip the house tour altogether and just show him around my body instead.” Amanda delivered a bawdy leer before confidently striding over to Serina’s dream man, swaying her hips so suggestively it was laughable. But Serina wasn’t amused as she normally would have been at the woman’s not-so-subtle attempt at seduction. Amanda’s alluring stride probably worked well for her, Serina conceded. Heck, even she was staring at it.
Sneaking a peek back at Mr. Gorgeous, Serina was surprised to see that his steely blue eyes were trained on her and not Amanda’s approach. His profile alone had been a sight to behold. But with his gaze and attention now focused solely on her, the air left her lungs in a whoosh.
She’d never felt such a strong reaction to any man, and she had no idea what to do about it. She simultaneously wanted to fling herself into his arms and flee the estate like a coward. His eyes drank her in hungrily. Chills ran along her body wherever his eyes roamed.
It was more than a little jarring, yet thrilling, to know a complete stranger could turn her on in public with just his perusal. Having it happen while at work was not acceptable, and yet, felt somehow inevitable.
Get it together, woman!
The smirk that pulled at his lush lips—once his frank gaze eventually returned to her eyes—helped to finally snap her out of her sex-starved trance. She could sense that he knew the effect he was having on her and enjoyed her reaction. His knowing look rankled. Stiffening her spine, she arched her left eyebrow in annoyance and challenge.
Shooting him her best ‘don’t mess with me’ glare—the one that normally had men in New York City bars backing away from her—did nothing but make him grin further.
She could hear his deep chuckle from across the room like a warm shot of whiskey coursing down her throat to the tips of her toes.
She wasn’t sure if she was thankful or irritated when Amanda eventually stepped in front of him, effectively blocking Serina’s view of the appealing stranger. Gathering her wits, she darted toward the open-space kitchen and re-stacked the listing flyers and her newly printed business cards. Knocking over an errant, uncapped water bottle in the process had her scrambling for the designer dish towel meant for display-only.
Dropping to her hands and knees, her bottom in the air, she tried her best to sop up the spilled liquid before anyone noticed her faux pas. The last thing she needed was a guest to slip and file a lawsuit or assume she was always this gauche and not want her to handle a sale. No, she had a job to do, and she refused to be mocked or distracted away from that goal despite her currently undignified display. She needed to build her client list and not look like a love-struck fool at an open house. She was going to finish straightening her mess and follow-up with the couple from Toronto who seemed genuinely interested in the residence.
That was her plan until she felt suddenly cast in shadow. Without turning, Serina knew the golden hunk stood directly behind her. His presence drew her to him like steel to a magnet.
Taking a deep breath, she did her best to focus on her work. Standing as gracefully as possible when coming up from being on all fours, she tugged her skirt back down and gradually rose to her feet.
She turned around purposefully, but only saw a broad chest that she itched to slowly explore with her hands and tongue.
Whoa, where did that come from?
“You’re wet.” The man’s deep voice shot a jolt of adrenaline straight through her.
Holy hell, how does he know? Serina gulped, her eyes going wide in horror while amusement danced in his. Thankfully, the half empty water bottle and soaked dish towel still clutched in her hand brought her back to reality.
“Just an accident,” she murmured, abruptly dropping the items on the counter as if they had burned her. Craning her head up to his handsomely rugged face, she asked as professionally and coolly as possible, “May I help you?”
The man of her dreams merely smirked at her clipped tone, a response that made her teeth grind. Why did he seem to be able to see right through her self-preservation techniques? The realization more than annoyed her.
“Yes, I think you can.” A sexy wink accompanied the comment.
That did it! “I beg your pardon? If you’d like a tour of the property, you’ll have to come back another time. Our open house is ending soon. However, I don’t think you are particularly interested in this home, are you?” She propped her hands on her hips.
“You’re right. It’s not the home I’m interested in,” he replied huskily.
She knew it. He was just wasting her time. “I thought so. I take it you already have a home then or a realtor?”
“Yes, I own a home here and some property in the Everglades.” His indifferent shrug accentuated the width of his broad shoulders. “As for a realtor though, I’m not committed to anyone, so I’m certainly open if you’re looking to take me on.”
What did he mean by that odd phrasing? She couldn’t figure out why he was toying with her.
“Why would you have property in the Everglades? There are laws against dredging or building on it.” With more heat, she couldn’t resist adding, “Did you know as much as fifty percent of the wetland habitat has been destroyed by construction and related drainage projects?”
The idea made her ill. Although not part of the Everglades, Naples was less than an hour away from Everglades City. So, she’d read up on the zoning laws for swamps and preserves and knew there were protections set forth against building there, yet people still managed to get around them by buying land elsewhere and agreeing not to build upon it.
The wilderness waterway had always intrigued her. And she still remembered the thrilling swamp boat ride she took with her family there as a kid. Especially spotting the alligators that lurked in the murky brackish waters, and tossing marshmallows to get them to chomp down and show their fierce teeth.
“I wouldn’t dream of building there.” His grin faded abruptly. “I serve on the Naples Advisory Council for the Everglades Foundation. I bought the property to protect the ecosystem and the many endangered species in the Glades.”
“Oh.” She dropped her hands from her hips and cast her gaze to the floor. Ashamed for having jumped to conclusions, she was now at a loss for words.
The awkward moment stretched on. Recalling a related fact from her school days, she brought her head back up and blurted out, “Believe it or not, the Everglades is actually a river that’s constantly moving.”
Her statement apparently surprised him. The slow smile that spread across his face again reflected his approval. “I know. A river of grass,” he said reverently.
“Any other questions before we have to lock up?” Amanda’s agitated voice barked from directly behind them. Serina jumped. Her colleague was obviously perturbed that Mr. Gorgeous wasn’t talking to her, otherwise, she wouldn’t be kicking him out so rudely.
Not even bothering to glance back at Amanda, the man in question leaned forward to scoop up a business card with her photo on it from the counter-top behind her. His arm brushed against her bare arm along the way and brushed back again as he slowly slipped her card into the front pocket of his shirt.
“I’m Grayson, by the way. It’s nice to see you, Serina,” he said jovially without even glancing at her card. “I believe I am in desperate need of a realtor, after all. I’ll see you around.”
She felt strangely bereft standing there in his wake as he strolled out the door. She decided to think about the man’s strange effect on her later, not here. For now, she chose to simply enjoy the view as he left, and wonder if Grayson, man of mystery, would call.
After a week of tedious open houses, Serina had only one potential lead. She’d just finished giving a tour of a fixer upper near Downtown Naples to the prospective client. She needed to sleep on it, the older woman had said afterward.
Now, Serina had over an hour to kill before her dreaded blind date. Not enough time to head to Nana’s and back, but enough free time to wander aimlessly on 3rd Street in Downtown Naples, eyeing the glamorous boutiques.
She stopped briefly to admire the window display of Cleopatra's Barge Fine Jewelry shop where she’d bought her grandmother’s Christmas present last year. Her Nana adored the gold medallion necklace with the historic Naples Fishing Pier etched on the surface.
Admiring a new concept car parked between a Tesla and a Rolls Royce, she snapped a photo of the unknown vehicle from her phone to send to her brother-in-law. He obsessed over cars like she did houses and handbags. And while she didn’t know the first thing about luxury cars, she couldn’t help but be impressed with the stunning vehicles of the glitterati that lined the downtown streets during peak season.
After hitting send, she debated stopping for gelato across the street, but decided not to ruin her appetite, since she would soon be having dinner with Junior at the local landmark Ridgway Bar & Grill. She hoped for a table on the restaurant’s front patio, so she could people-watch in case the date was a bust. She had only been to the popular spot for cocktails once before at their outside courtyard bar. All the same, when Nana had confirmed the location for her arranged date, she suddenly wasn’t as ambivalent, even if she couldn’t stop thinking about someone else.
Gorgeous Grayson, as her imagination had nicknamed him, had been continuously on her mind since the open house earlier in the week. Sadly, he still hadn’t called to talk about viewing properties, or anything else, for that matter. And the fact he didn’t weighed on her mind over the last few days.
Go figure. The first guy she’d been attracted to since Justin, and she only knew his first name. Sighing, she felt like the befuddled Prince in Cinderella, desperately racking her brain for clues so she could decipher a way to find, identify, and contact Grayson. Sadly, he hadn’t signed the guest book at the open house. Making sure all attendees signed in was Amanda’s responsibility. Serina mentally cursed her coworker, who had turned downright malicious ever since Grayson’s slight.
Soon, she reached the end of the street, where gigantic estates sat along the ocean front. One day, she would be the listing agent on one of these beauties and hit pay dirt. In the meantime, she kicked the white sandy dirt at her feet in frustration and plopped herself down on an empty wooden bench, with her back to the sand dunes.
“Are you here by yourself?” Behind her, a familiar deep voice ripped her from determined thoughts of how she would market and stage the mansion.
She snapped her head up so fast, she feared she might have whiplash. With a hand shading her eyes from the setting sun, she looked up at the man. A long way up.
“Yes,” she answered automatically, caught off guard by Grayson’s unforeseen presence. Had her thoughts somehow willed him here?
“Pathetic,” he mocked.
Serina gasped at his rude observation. She would never have thought it was possible to want to kiss and smack a man at the same time, but she did. She stood up with her hands on her hips to face him. Still, dwarfed by his height, her sad attempt at intimidation failed, well, pathetically.
Briefly glancing around him and not at his now familiar smirk, she retorted, “Are you here alone?”
“Yes,” he admitted with a big smile.
“Pathetic,” she echoed his mocking words, before laughing despite herself.
“What brings Naples’ newest resident to sit here alone on a bench, when our city’s gorgeous beachfront is only a few measly steps away?”
How does he know I’m new here? Naples isn’t that small. Do I have that new car smell?
“If you must know, I’m meeting someone for dinner shortly and I don’t want to be late or get sandy.” She primly adjusted the folds of her yellow sun dress.
“Come on, live a little. You’re on Florida time now. Take off those sexy sandals and wiggle your toes in the sand,” he urged. “Let’s take a walk on the beach. I promise to have you back in time for your hot date.”
He could have suggested they go skinny dipping and she probably would have agreed. Slipping off her shoes and letting the straps dangle from her fingers, she followed him down the well-trodden path and beheld the gulf.
This view will never get old.
Lifting her face up to the sun, she was glad she’d remembered to apply SPF to her fair skin earlier. “It is gorgeous.”
“You can say that again,” Grayson said warmly, close to her.
Smiling, she turned to look at him, only to find he was staring at her and not at the view. Swallowing the lump in her throat, she held his intense gaze. His dark blonde hair looked even sexier when ruffled by the wind, but she managed to catch herself from reaching out to smooth it back.
“By the way, what makes you think it’s a hot date?” she asked, recalling his earlier comment. “I could be meeting a client.”
“A beautiful woman like you?” Grayson shrugged. “I just assumed. Am I wrong?”
Beautiful? She was secretly delighted by his compliments, but she didn’t know him well enough to be certain of his sincerity. For all she knew, he doled out praise to every woman he met.
“I’m not sure,” she evaded.
“You’re not sure if you’re going on a date or not?” he teased.
“No, I’m not sure if it’s a hot date or not. It’s a blind date actually, so I don’t know much at all.”
“Oh, really?” he asked with obvious interest, as he headed closer to the waterline. “What do you know about this guy? You don’t sound too excited.”
“Ugh, I’m not,” she vented, following him to the shore. “All I know is that my Nana thinks he’s handsome, which isn’t saying much and that he lives with his grandmother. Oh, and he works in finance and is freakishly tall.”
He chuckled at her lackluster description of her date. “And you hate numbers and grandmothers, I suppose?”
She laughed under her breath, looking down at their bare feet walking along the damp sand as the sea rolled over them with each gentle wave. Serina was thankful for the slight bite of cold to the water at this time of year. It helped to keep her from overheating and not because of the setting sun. No, she could feel the heat coming off Grayson’s body simply walking alongside the man.
“Well, I do hate math. But no, I don’t hate grandmothers, of course not. I actually am currently living with mine. My Nana that is.” She warily eyed his reaction to that awkward admission, but he seemed to take her living arrangement in stride.
“Then what’s the problem?” He bent down to pick up an empty Florida fighting conch shell the size of her fist. Surveying the spiral shell, he dipped it in the water, washing away the sand that clung to it, before handing it to her in offering.
She thought the gesture was impossibly sweet, better than receiving a handpicked flower even. Shyly thanking him, she slipped the pretty shell into her purse, before remembering that he had just asked her a question.
“Honestly, I don’t know what my problem is,” she admitted. “I haven’t been on a date in a long time and getting set up by my Nana was not the way I imagined jumping back into the dating pool.”
He nodded but didn’t ask any further questions and, for some reason, it made her want to disclose more.
Soon, Serina was sharing more with him during this leisurely stroll than she had with her best friends, and she couldn’t understand why. She even briefly explained her breakup a few months ago and the embarrassing circumstances around it. That revelation got them both talking about New York, where Grayson had also lived at one time.
“In a city of over eight million people,” he shared “I felt surprisingly alone.”
Shocked, she sucked in a big breath of the salty air. It was exactly how she had felt even when she was with Justin.
“Here I was, at the height of my success in the city that never sleeps, and I wasn’t sure what I was even working toward or why, so I quit.” Grayson shrugged his powerful shoulders. “Now, I’m living on my own terms and I’m near family again, which is really important to me.”
“Wow, good for you,” she said astonished by their shared experience. She almost left it at that. Unable to hold back though, she boldly confided, “I couldn’t agree more. Despite all the subway trains passing by filled with people with purpose, I felt alone there, and I’m glad I’m able to reconnect with my Nana and rediscover what is important to me.”
He nodded, giving her a crooked smile of what she hoped was approval. Why she wanted his approval, she was afraid to consider. She just did.
Somewhere along the walk, they must have doubled back. She belatedly realized they were now nearing the path where they had started their stroll. Glancing at her watch, she was also surprised to see that she only had a few minutes before her real date.
“Gotta run?” he questioned, obviously, catching the movement of her wrist.
“Yes,” she sighed with a reluctant nod.
“Be open to fate, Serina. You might just be surprised,” Grayson advised.
Fate seemed quite cruel at the moment. How she wished she was having dinner with him and not going on some lame setup.
Escorting her back to the bench from before, Grayson bent forward as she sat down to slip into her sandals. With gentle swipes of his hand, which felt very much like a caress, he brushed the sand off of her feet. She, meanwhile, was quite proud of herself for not collapsing into a puddle at his. After she hooked her sandals back on, he continued to walk with her up 3rd Street until they reached the restaurant.
“This is my stop.” She gestured to the front steps, flanked by blooming, bright pink geraniums, desperately hoping he would ask to see her again, but this time on purpose. She was tempted to offer him her phone number, but she knew he already had it and had chosen not to call her.
“This is actually where I have dinner plans, too.” He walked up the steps and into the restaurant to the hostess station. “Good luck,” he called out, walking to the back without as much as a proper goodbye.
What did I expect? A kiss? They hadn’t been on an actual date, after all, despite how comfortable and easy their conversation had been. He was probably the one with a hot date tonight.
Doing her best to push Grayson from her mind, Serina checked in with the hostess, who informed her that she was the first of her party to arrive. The chic woman then escorted her over to a table for two.
After ordering a champagne cocktail, Serina attempted to look at the menu, but failed to absorb a single detail. She was too consumed with trying not to analyze why it felt like she had lost something that had never been hers.
She refused to swivel around in her seat to locate Grayson and spy on his dinner companion. No doubt the woman is a beautiful, she thought glumly, remembering Grayson had referred to her that way only an hour ago.
Ugh, why do we both have to be dining at the same restaurant on the same night? Now, she was going to have to pretend to be happy and enjoying herself, no matter how bad her blind date went because there was no way in hell she was going to let Grayson think otherwise.
Folding her hands in her lap, she resolutely stared towards the front of the restaurant, waiting for her date to appear. Presumably, she was looking for a tall stranger who in turn would be looking around for an unfamiliar face.
Maybe he won’t be that bad?
Be open! She repeated Grayson’s words of advice, hoping she’d be brave enough to take them.
Suddenly, a strong hand appeared from the corner of her eye only to grab a lock of her silky dark hair, giving it a gentle tug. Gasping, she turned toward the unknown assailant hoping it was a certain person. To her shock and delight, Grayson hovered over her with a mischievous grin.
“Excuse me, miss,” he said clearing his throat. “Are you Evelyn Spring’s granddaughter? If so, I believe this seat is for me.” He slid smoothly into the empty chair before she could regain her composure.
Grayson crossed his arms over his chest in an almost protective gesture. Almost hesitantly, he added, “It’s a pleasure to officially meet you again after all these years, Serina. And I have to say, my grandmother wasn’t lying. You are a ‘lovely young woman.’”
“But—you’re Junior? Helen Montgomery’s… It’s you?” She shook her head, trying to comprehend.
“Yes, the freakishly tall grandma’s boy in the flesh.” Laughter sparkled in his grayish-blue eyes. “My father is Grayson Montgomery, Sr. and he lives over on Marco Island.”
Still trying to put the pieces together, Serina asked, “Wait! Why were you at my open house?”
“Because, like you, I wasn’t too eager to be set up by my grandmother,” he confessed. “So, when I heard you were doing an open house, I figured I’d sneak over and check you out. No harm, no foul. I wasn’t planning on actually speaking with you, but then again, I wasn’t expecting that electrifying connection the moment our eyes met across the room. Despite the years, it was as if I instantly recognized your face. As if I would have known you anywhere. Honestly, I couldn’t help but walk over to you. And then, you got even cuter all riled up and mad at me for wasting your time and distracting you from your work,” he recalled with a slight chuckle.
Embarrassed, Serina didn’t know what to say, so she remained silent for a moment longer, replaying the memory in her head. She knew she should probably be angry at him for deceiving her.
But she burst out in laughter instead. She would have done the exact same thing if she’d had the opportunity to sneak a glance at Junior ahead of time.
Most of all, she was relieved and thankful that it was Grayson here now. That her hot mystery man and blind date were one and the same.
Her stomach did a somersault when he gave her a look of relief and laughed, too. Reaching across the table, he threaded his fingers through hers and her heart gave a funny lurch. Damn, but Nana had been right, too. Helen’s grandson was quite a looker and thankfully very un-Dr. Phil-like in appearance.
“May I help you?” Grayson asked in an aloof tone, with an over exaggerated arched eyebrow.
It took her only a second to figure out what he was about. She paused and then laughed. “Stop it! You’re messing with me.”
Grayson’s smile turned wolfish. “Mmm, I have a feeling that if you and I were messing around it would be hard to stop.”
She rolled her eyes at his twisting of her words. “No, it’s just that, you’re doing me.”
“I beg your pardon? I’m doing you?” A devilish smile danced across his mouth.
How did he keep doing that to her? Her cheeks heated with embarrassment as she reassessed her word choices. “I, uh, meant that you were mocking me. Those were my first words to you at the open house, right?”
“Yes, but I definitely like your suggestions better.” His wicked smile grew wider as his thumb rubbed the underside of her palm, turning her brain into mush with each sensuous swipe. “I also enjoy teasing you. I just can’t seem to stop myself.”
“Well, you’re good at it.”
He beamed, not looking the least bit repentant. Not that she was really mad to begin with. In fact, staring at the way his inviting lips were tugged upwards into an amused smile, she was tempted to lean across the table and do a little tugging of her own…with her teeth and tongue.
Serina wasn’t sure how long the intimate moment stretched on, but neither seemed eager to break it. And before she could take the words back, she admitted quietly, “I’m glad it’s you. Something was telling me it might be you, but I thought it was just wishful thinking.”
“Me too. Very glad.” He brought her hand to his mouth and brushed his warm lips against her fingers. “Thank goodness for pushy grandparents.”
On what might have earned awards as the best blind date ever, Serina and Grayson stayed at the table eating, talking, drinking, and casually touching until long after the remains of their Sautéed Snapper Piccata and Chocolate Almond Torte had been removed. Ignoring the exasperated looks from the staff around them who were eager to call it a night, it took hearing the vacuum start in the next room to finally get them moving.
“Let’s get out of here,” Grayson whispered huskily, as he stood and pulled out her chair for her. “Have you ever walked on the Naples Pier under the moonlight?” he asked, placing his big, warm hand on the small of her back, guiding her to the exit.
Serina was so caught under his spell, it took all of her concentration to shake her head no. Walking hand in hand, they headed the few blocks from the restaurant to the water.
Illuminated by the full moon, the historic wooden pier at night felt magical to Serina, especially while holding Grayson’s hand. The slightly orange tinted lights from the pavilion lit the wooden planks in a warm glow, like candlelight, effectively setting the romantic mood. The sound of the waves lapping beneath the elevated boardwalk was more entrancing than any love song, Serina mused, wistfully not wanting this time to end.
“Right here. This is the spot,” Grayson said, lightly grasping her shoulders and pulling her to an abrupt stop.
“Excuse me?” she asked, off balance from both his warm touch and the sudden halt to their leisurely stroll.
“This is where you murdered Joe,” he said gravely.
“What?! Oh, your doll, you mean,” she said with a relieved giggle.
He flashed an amused smirk. “Doll? My G.I. Joe was a deep-sea diver action figure,” he corrected. “It was at this very wooden piling where he was flung out into the Gulf of Mexico by your cruel little kid hands, never to be seen or heard from again.”
Laughing, Serina peeked out over the pier to the dark ocean and then back to Grayson. “I am so terribly sorry for your tragic loss suffered by my insensitive and childish actions,” she teased. “Whatever can I do to make it up to you?”
“I have a few ideas,” he said in a husky, suggestive voice that made Serina laugh happily.
Pulling her into his embrace, there under the stars with the sea-swept air brushing back her long hair, Grayson delivered the single most perfect kiss of Serina’s life, driving all thoughts out of her mind except the desire to get even closer.
Eventually wrenching his mouth away from hers, he firmly lifted her chin, so she would look up at him. “I feel like I've been waiting for you all of my life,” Grayson said.
Nodding her head at his mesmerizing words and reverent stare, she replied, “I know. All of my life.”