Barefoot in Lace
Barefoot Bay Brides #2
Kick off your shoes and fall in love in Barefoot Bay! Destination wedding planner Gussie McBain needs a man…specifically, a wedding photographer. Just her luck that the shutterbug she runs into is more used to snapping pictures of glamorous models in couture gowns than brides in white lace. But Gussie’s never been one to let bad odds stop her from a good gamble, so she asks for a favor she never dreams superstar TJ DeMille will actually grant.
Tom DeMille lives his life exactly as he pleases–always alone. In fact, he’s got that motto tattooed in Greek on his arm. But when Tom is suddenly saddled with guardianship of his twelve-year-old niece, he’ll lose more than his freedom if he can’t figure out how to take care of her. Then an alluring young woman with pink hair and a sassy mouth shows up at his door, and he agrees to do the unthinkable…photograph a wedding in exchange for some help with his niece.
As they work together, Tom begins to take down the walls Gussie has erected around herself to discover a truly beautiful and tender woman he knows he could love. But will his own heartache and refusal to lay down roots prevent him from giving Gussie the family life she craves…or could she be the one woman who can finally break his vow of solitude?
“Thomas Jefferson DeMille? You expect me to believe that’s your real name?”
Ten feet away, the cashier’s question stopped Gussie McBain dead in her tracks, almost making her drop two liters of Diet Coke in the aisle of the convenience store. Thomas Jefferson DeMille? She stared at back of a tall man who swiped back a handful of dark hair while broad shoulders rose and fell with obvious frustration.
Hadn’t she read somewhere that was famed photographer TJ DeMille’s real name?
“Clear the card,” he ordered in a sandpaper whisper.
“No can do.” Charity Grambling, owner of the convenience store and undisputed Most Obnoxious Human on the entire island of Mimosa Key, tapped a credit card on the counter while she peered through bifocals to read what was in her other hand. “Because the name on this shiny black American Express does not match the one on this expired New York state driver’s license, so I won’t accept either one.”
“What the hell are you talking about? Expired?” He leaned over the counter, the move pulling a white T-shirt tight, straining corded muscles and drawing Gussie’s eye to a tattoo script wrapped around his forearm. “It’s still me, whatever the date. See? TJ DeMille, right there.”
Gussie bit her lip. It was him! One of the most talented and famous photographers in the world was standing in the middle of the Super Min.
Charity remained unimpressed, raising a thickly drawn brow. “Thomas Jefferson, really? I wasn’t born yesterday.”
“No shit,” he mumbled.
“The hippie hair and devil’s paint are a dead giveaway.”
Giveaway of what? Gussie took a few steps closer. Hippie hair? Hardly. More like handfuls of dark chocolate silk that fell carelessly over his neck and grazed his shoulders. Some strategically placed ink only added to his allure.
“I use my initials for work, and that’s a business credit card.” He bit out each word, impatience rolling off him.
“Sorry.” Charity handed the AmEx and license back to him. “We do accept cash, however.”
He snapped the cards from her hands. “Where’s your ATM?”
“You’ll need to visit the Mimosa Community Credit Union, over at the corner of Harbor and—”
“Never mind!” He gave a push to a pile of magazines, nearly toppling a bottle of Snapple onto a jumbo bag of Fritos. He turned away and marched out the door.
“Charity!” Gussie exclaimed when the welcome bell dinged in his wake. “Do you have any idea who that was?”
“The list of possibilities is long, but I’m going with a prison escapee. Did you see those marks on his arms?”
“They’re called tattoos. Pretty mainstream these days.”
“And that little silver earring? I’m almost certain that’s a sign of an ex-con.”
Gussie glanced outside to spot him standing next to a small white sedan, thumbing a cell phone. Not the car she’d expect a man like him to drive, she mused, her heart rate increasing with each second she lingered over his delicious physique and chiseled, if angry as hell, features.
“I mean, just look at him,” Charity said.
“What else can you think about a man with all those…those…”
“Exactly.” She huffed. “Steroids, I’d bet my life.”
“You’d lose that bet,” Gussie said, squinting to get a better view of a body that looked more like he played rugby than pumped iron.
Charity rolled her eyes, shoving his pile of merchandise to the side, obviously not as concerned with a lost sale as the possibility of stopping a hardened criminal. “I don’t trust a man who buys raspberry tea, Fritos, girlie magazines and”—she grabbed three supersized Milky Way bars—“more chocolate than a woman with PMS.”
Maybe he’s feeding a starving model. Gussie’s attention slid to the top magazine, instantly recognizing TJ DeMille’s masterful ability to capture both an ethereal yet utterly honest expression on his subject’s face.
“Vogue is a girlie magazine now?”
“What kind of man buys it?”Charity demanded.
“The man who shot the covers,” Gussie informed her. At Charity’s confused look, Gussie pointed at the picture. “The top-notch, well-respected, highly in-demand photographer responsible for that image.”
For a second, interest flickered in Charity’s gray eyes, her weakness for local news and notoriety showing. “That explains the raspberry tea, then.”
Actually, rumored dalliances with models would say differently, but Gussie ignored the gross generalization. “You should have given him the magazine and asked for his autograph.”
“The only autograph I accept is on the credit card machine, as long as the card isn’t stolen and the license is valid. Despite my name, there’s no charity at the Super Min.” Charity pointed to the liters of Diet Coke. “Cash or charge?”
“Cash.” While she reached for her wallet, Gussie took one more look at the man still standing in the parking lot. The unforgiving Florida summer sun poured light over him, making his hair glisten and emphasizing the shadows under defined cheekbones.
“Ahem.” Charity knocked inch-long nails gleaming with a fresh coat of Charged-Up Cherry against her counter. “Would you like to stand there and drool all over the magazines so I can’t sell them to anyone now that Tommy Jefferson himself had his tattooed palms all over them?”
Gussie reached for the issue of Vogue, hardly aware that she stroked the glossy cover as she took one more long look at the man who’d brought the image to life.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, pay for your soda.”
Gussie tore her gaze from the parking lot to the beast in front of her. “Add the magazines,” Gussie blurted out. “And candy. And Snapple. And whatever else he was buying. I’ll take it all.”
Charity’s eyes grew wide behind her bifocals. “And do what with them?”
Help out a great talent. Great-looking talent. “None of your business.”
She pffted out a breath. “Everything on this island is my business. Like, why do you wear different-color wigs every day? Someone asked me about it, and I assumed, you know, chemo or something.”
Gussie almost laughed, because how else could you even respond to such rudeness? “So that’s what you told them?”
“I told them I’d find out.” She leaned way off her little stool to peer hard at Gussie’s face. “And all that makeup. What’s the deal?”
A slow heat slid up her chest and onto her cheeks, which Charity probably couldn’t see because of all that makeup. She dug for the snappy retort about how Charity could benefit from a touch of mascara and a magnifying mirror so she could actually find her eyebrows, but doing her good deed for the day beat out the need to snark at the old lady.
Reaching into her wallet, Gussie grabbed two twenties—those magazines were pricey—and slapped them on the counter. “I’ll take it all. His and mine.” She scooped everything into her arms, using the magazines to cradle his Snapple and her Diet Cokes.
“Keep the change,” Gussie called as she hustled away, not pausing to second-guess the impulsive decision. The bell dinged as she shouldered the door open, just as the sedan pulled out of a parking spot.
“Don’t leave!” she called out to the back of the car. Seeing his right-turn signal flash, she ran that way, bolting into the intersection, almost right in front of the car. “Hey!” The move nearly cost her a forty-dollar armload.
He slammed the brakes and jerked his head back in surprise, glaring at her with thick brows drawn together in incredulity.
“I have your stuff.” She lifted her arms, rolling the Diet Cokes to a precarious angle on top of the magazines.
He still stared at her like she was a complete and total lunatic. Which, right at that moment, would be a fairly accurate assessment.
“Your…magazines,” she called through his closed window, angling her whole body so one of the soda bottles lodged between her elbow and boob. “And tea and candy. I bought them for you.”
He stayed in the driver’s seat, clearly uncertain of the possible danger of a pink-wigged woman who’d spent way too much money for a stranger. Finally, he lowered the window.
“Why would you do that?” he asked .
She had no freaking clue, except she admired his work. And his body. So she’d either sound like a fangirl or stalker. “Just…to be nice.” Oh, so lame. Her elbow braced the armload so tight that her muscles started to burn. “And I kind of hate that woman who owns this place.”
That made him smile, just a little. Just enough to trip Gussie’s heart.
“That makes two of us. Hang on.” He put the car in park and opened the door. Climbing out, he reached for the magazines and sodas, a lock of hair falling over his eye as he looked down at her. “Let me help you.”
He reached for the Coke bottle as she moved to protect it from slipping so his fingers accidentally grazed her chest.
He drew his hand back—not terribly fast—but she felt the tea slip right between the magazines and her stomach. “Oh!” She gasped, leaning into him to save the glass bottle from the fall, but it slipped and crashed to the concrete, making them both jump back as raspberry tea spurted all over her sandaled feet and his faded jeans.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she groaned.
“It’s…okay.” He stepped back, shaking some liquid off his jeans.
She lifted one foot out of the mess, and the heavy issue of Marie Claire toppled, followed by Vogue, both of them splatting right onto the puddle of Snapple. “Oh, God. So much for being a Good Samaritan.”
“Just don’t drop the Fritos.” He gingerly plucked everything else from her hands. “’Cause then I will have to rob the convenience store.”
She laughed. “She’s probably already called the cops.”
“We could go all Bonnie and Clyde on her ass,” he joked, meeting her gaze with disarmingly blue eyes, about the color of the sky over Barefoot Bay on a balmy Florida afternoon. “Wanna go rogue with me?”
Right about then, she’d have gone anywhere with him. “Tempting, but it would put a damper in my daily Diet Coke stop.” She couldn’t help but smile up at him. “I’m Gussie McBain, by the way.”
“Gussie? You’ve even got an outlaw name and a cute disguise. I’m—”
“Oh, I know who you are,” she blurted.
Regretting the admission that made her sound like some kind of crazed fan, she pointed over her shoulder. “I mean, I heard you tell Charity. Thomas Jefferson—or TJ—DeMille.”
“Tom to my friends.” He threaded his fingers through his hair to push it off his face, studying her with enough amusement and interest to make her feel even warmer than usual in the summer sun. “And good-deed doers.”
For a long, crazy, heart-stopping few seconds, they stared at each other. Gussie felt her chest tighten and her stomach flip at the instant, palpable, electrifying connection.
“You’re blocking the entrance!” Charity’s grating voice broke the magic. “And look at that mess! You’ll give all my customers flat tires!”
Charity shook her fried and dyed hair, pointing at him. “I know who you are now, mister. I made a few phone calls. Get on your way and take care of that mess your sister left behind. And you.” Her finger slid to Gussie. “Find a pink scarf and lose the stupid wigs. You’d be pretty.”
Gussie felt her cheeks flush as Charity backed into the store.
“We could take her,” he whispered, his voice so low and sexy it practically pulled Gussie closer.
“And all the Fritos we can eat.”
He gave a wry laugh, studying her again. After Charity’s rude comment, he was, of course, looking at her wig. She should have been used to it—and the misperception that she was sick—but he was so skilled at finding and photographing real beauty that the scrutiny nearly flattened her.
“Here.” He handed her the only magazine that made it through the small disaster, Vanity Fair. “I owe you at least this much for your effort, Gussie McBain.”
“For a broken bottle of iced tea and ruined magazines?”
He gave the chips a noisy rattle. “You saved my Fritos and thus my backside. That’s good enough for a return favor in my book.” He stepped back to get in the car, but took one more moment, scrutinizing her again. “She’s wrong, you know.”
“You’re not a criminal?”
He shook his head. “You already are pretty. I have an eye for these things, you know.”
He slipped back into the driver’s seat and closed the door. Giving a casual wave, he drove off, leaving Gussie standing in the sun, speechless.