Today's writing. I don't have a title for this one yet, but it will eventually be a full novel.
Chapter 1 (of an unnamed story part of the Emerald Series)
Clare Shaw pulled into 110 Gulf View Drive twenty minutes after her scheduled appointment time.
She was never late.
Checking the visor mirror, she smoothed her hand over her ponytail then took a few seconds to dab powder over her cheeks in an attempt to hide the slight flush she’d worn since she’d left the doctor’s office.
She didn’t look sick. She didn’t feel sick. She just felt numb.
Inhale. Exhale. Slowly.
Clare flipped the visor back in place and exited her car. There would be time to think about her conversation with Dr. Duke later. Right now, she had an appointment with a special client—one she was determined to impress.
Shouldering her purse, Clare walked past the sleek Aston Martin with sparkling silver rims and a shiny black hood parked in the driveway, a display of Athen Kelley’s impeccable taste. In cars at least.
Clare wasn’t sure why that surprised her. Athen Kelley was a man whose reputation proceeded him. Rumor had it, he was devastatingly handsome, insanely wealthy, and possibly dangerous. She’d only seen the man once from a distance, an encounter that had left her sadly underwhelmed. She’d been meeting her ex-husband, Marshall, for a drink which they did every few months. They’d been determined to keep their relationship amicable for their daughter Erin’s sake, and they’d more or less succeeded. Marshall had been standing on the boardwalk down from the entrance to the restaurant deep in conversation with a man she knew to be Athen Kelley. Her glimpse of him, before she’d slipped into the bathroom, had revealed a man a bit too unkept for her tastes. He’d been dressed in baggy shorts and a T-shirt with cut-out sleeves with a faded graphic on the chest that looked like it had been purchased from a souvenir shop in the seventy’s. She’d expected more from a man who was practically a living legend. He’d looked more like a washed-up rock star.
By the time she’d come back out of the bathroom, Marshall had been waiting for her at their usual table, and Athen Kelly, along with his tacky tattoo and ponytail, was nowhere to be seen.
Walking up his driveway now, Clare saw a house much like the man she'd seen that day, unkept and badly in need of a makeover. The single story structure was dwarfed by the mansions that had sprouted up around it. Weeds were growing through the cracks of the pavers, and the two concrete planters by the front door were tinged with moss and held the remains of what she thought might have once been petunias.
If the information Clare had collected from Thomas Nelson, her closest friend, was correct, Athen had spent the last fifteen years living on his boat, this house all but forgotten. After working on a piece of custom art for Athen, Thomas had recommended her for the job of restoring life back into the house, a job Clare had been looking forward to.
Clare reached for the door handle and paused, trying to still the trembling of her hand. She had thought about canceling her appointment with Mr. Kelley, but decided the best thing for her to do was to stay busy and keep her mind occupied. Focusing on work was proving harder than she’d thought. Even as she pushed the door open her mind wandered to scheduling. She had a few jobs she would need to finish before she went in for surgery. Was it wise to take on another client with the future so unsure? The door wavered in front of her and the pavement shifted under her feet as though the world were moving on without her. Clare closed her eyes. Nothing had changed. Not yet. She willed herself to believe it.
Clare opened the door. She’d been instructed in their email correspondence to walk right in and make herself at home. Out of habit, she paused on the threshold, letting the first impressions of the house wash over her, wondering if she could trust them considering the news she just received. Feelings and first impulses drove much of her designs. She liked to let the client’s spaces speak to her and these walls were screaming mutely for attention. Three steps brought her through the foyer where the ceiling soared over an unfortunate sunken living room lacking a single piece of furniture. A quick glance to her right showed her the kitchen, and she quickly determined, though the initial mood of the house was one of stark neglect and loneliness, it wasn’t a complete loss. Most of what she could see was a blank slate. Clare could do a lot with a blank slate.
Then as if the sun were rising out of a cloud of ash her eyes rested on Athen Kelley. He was standing in front of a set of windows in the living room with his back to her, his hands deep inside the pockets of a pair of dark linen pants. His hair was pulled into an untidy bun at the crown of his head that should have come across as pretentious but was, in fact, charming with the few tendrils of loose hair curling at the nape of his neck. He turned as she stepped down into the living area and her low-heeled shoes clicked across the tiled floor. Her steps almost faltered under his unsettling gaze. Something churned in his steel-gray eyes, a billowing she felt in the air as though she were rushing headlong into a punishing wind.
In Clare’s experience, rumors tended to be grossly exaggerated versions of the truth. Not so in Athen Kelley’s case. Handsome didn’t begin to describe the man in front of her. Handsome was a word used to describe a gentleman. Athen Kelley, despite the fine clothes and cordial smile, was no gentleman. She’d never encountered another man like him, but then he wasn’t merely a man.
She lifted her chin and extended her hand, hoping it didn’t tremble. Hoping he had no way to detect the sudden thudding of her heart. “Mr. Kelley, I’ve kept you waiting. I’m terribly sorry.”
“Please,” he said, engulfing her hand in his and the sparkling heat in his eyes seemed to extend to his fingers as a shot of warmth traveled up her arm, “call me Athen.”
Her smiled wavered as he held her hand longer than was strictly decorous, the tilt of his chin speculative as he methodically assessed her with a pair of eyes that made her think of late afternoon summer storms, the kind of storms that sprung up sudden and unannounced, violent in their intrusion into an otherwise clear day. The touch of his hand lent her an odd comfort and seemed to steady her in a way she hadn’t known she needed. Her conversation with Dr. Duke played over in the background of her mind and Clare clung to Athen’s hand as though his touch had the power to change the doctor’s prognosis.
“Clare Shaw.” Her gaze tripped over his finely shaped lips and she felt a renewed flush rise in her cheeks. Beauty was her business. Standing in its presence had never flustered her before and she wouldn’t let it now. She took a fortifying breath and steeled her spine.
“It’s nice to meet you, Clare.” Her name covered in his voice reminded her of the rumbling of distant thunder, and her gaze flicked momentarily to the skies beyond the windows as though looking for the thunder’s source, but the sky remained startlingly clear.
Finally, he dropped her hand, leaving Clare adrift in a sea of uncertainty. She should say something, but words failed her. She wasn’t even sure what she was doing here.
“I understand our daughters are friends.” As of sensing her discomfiture, Athen maneuvered them onto common ground, comfortable ground. “Caris tells me Erin’s in college now. She’s doing well, I hope?”
“Yes. Erin’s doing very well. The change has been good for her.” Her response sounded wooden to her ears. The mention of Erin brought Clare’s recently diagnosed condition into sharp focus, and she experienced a wave of regret. Erin had been through so much already, more than any nineteen-year-old should have to endure. Clare wished there was a way to spare her further grief and worry. She wanted to spare Marshall. Clare hadn’t been prepared to stumble onto such personal ground with a man that was a virtual stranger.
“That’s good to hear.” He held out his arm, the firm bones of his wrist and hand tempting in their strength. “Where would you like to start?”
“What?” Clare shook her head, momentarily confused. What was wrong with her? Where had she just gone? He’d asked her a question and she had no idea what is was.
“Are you all right?” The gentleness in his tone surprised her and damned if she didn’t feel the slightest urge to open up to him, this man whom she knew by reputation only. She’d been prepared to dislike the man, look down her nose on him with haughty superiority, but standing here with his slivered-eyed gaze on her, she felt stripped bare and slightly intimidated. Oddly invigorated for a potentially dying woman.
“Yes. I’m fine.” Clare couldn’t seem to disengage her gaze from his, and her next words escaped before her mind could check them. “I received some unsettling news before I arrived.”
“Nothing serious I hope.” The sincerity in his voice tore at something inside her and the concern in his eyes seemed genuine.
“Me too,” she heard herself say then gave herself a mental shake. This wasn’t like her. She wasn’t easily distracted. She’d never lacked the ability to remain professional, but then she’d never been told she had cancer before.
“We can reschedule if you like?” he offered, and she resisted the urge to take him up on the promise of compassion in those eyes.
She was being ridiculous and Athen was being remarkably patient. She wasn’t going to die today, for goodness sake. She had work to do. She loved to work.
“We’ll start with a walk through of the house and you can share any thoughts or ideas you might have.” Clare headed straight for the spacious though outdated kitchen, setting her purse on the dingy gray Formica counter top. She pulled out her iPad and forced her mind to get in the game and into the here and now. It was all she had after all.
“I’ll be honest,” he began, “I’m hoping you’ll just go with it and not require much input on my part. Thomas said you were good and I trust his judgment and yours. I’m hopeless with this kind of stuff.”
Clare appraised the kitchen with a practiced eye. The layout was workable. The breakfast nook had a clear view of the beach. All the important parts were in the right place, so Clare didn’t see any need to rework the plumbing or wiring. She made a few notes and, thankful her mind was more or less functioning properly again, she followed Athen down a short hallway, drafting in his scent, a heady mixture of outdoors and an unaccounted for freshness she could almost taste on her tongue. The man didn't smell unkept. He smelled downright edible.
Athen paused in the doorway of the master bedroom, letting her enter in front of him. He leaned in the doorframe while she walked the room and bathroom, making her silent observations. The master bath would need to be gutted, and the shower sized doubled, all the fixtures replaced. New paint on the walls and new floors, and she assumed that was true for the whole house.
“Do you plan on living here full time?” she asked as they made their way back through the center of the house and into the living room again.
“Part time at most. I’m feeling the need for something more permeant, a place with some roots.” He took his previous spot at the window and allowed her to tour the rest of the house on her own. She walked through two more bedrooms, each with their own bath, and a dining room. The house wasn’t big—around twenty-five hundred square feet by her estimation.
Athen had said he wanted roots which meant he wanted a home, something comfortable he could share with the important people in his life. Clare wondered, as she finished making her notes, who those people were. His daughter certainly by the softening in his eyes at the brief mention of her. Thomas had shown her the portrait of Caris Athen had commissioned from him. To Clare’s shame, his obvious affection for his daughter made him seem more human.
“So what’s the verdict?” he asked as she met him back in the living room. "I don't have to tear the whole thing down do I?"
"Not hardly. Unless you want to." She'd been involved with projects like that before, where the land was worth more than the house that stood on it, as was probably the case here.
"I'd rather not. My parents were born here. This was their house."
Clare digested that little nugget of information. He hadn't said it was the house he'd grown up in. Clare wanted to delve deeper, but his demeanor had changed to one more guarded at the mention of his parents, and she knew her prying would be unwelcome.
“Obviously the sky is the limit as far as what could be done. The question is, how much do you want to spend? You’ll be happy with the work whether you decide to go all out or choose to be more conservative or fall somewhere in between. You’ll incur the biggest expense on the kitchen and the master bath, depending on the materials we decide on.”
Hugging her iPad to her chest, Clare walked over to the windows free of any blinds or curtains that might obstruct the view of the beach. The color palette should would use was right outside this glass. It would simply be a matter of expanding those colors to include the inside of the house.
“How about we shoot for a budget somewhere in between? I like nice things,” he said, looking down on her. “But I don’t put the same value on some items others do. Money can only buy so much.”
Hadn't she heard that before? Money couldn't buy happiness. It couldn't buy health either. She couldn't help wondering if she possessed either.
“I’ll work up a rough plan and get back to you in a few days with some numbers then. And if you think of anything you’d like to add, feel free to call or email me anytime.”
“I’m not in any hurry,” he said, his gaze focused on the emerald-green water some fifty yards away.
She might be though. Burying the morbid thought, she said, “I’d like to walk through the house again if you don’t mind.”
“Of course. Stay as long as you like.” Athen pulled his shirttail from the waistband of his pants and, starting at the top, began unbuttoning his shirt. He cocked his head and a sly smile spread over his face, an unapologetic smile that did wicked things to her insides. “Sometimes she’s impossible to resist.”
“She.” His eyes sizzled over her, shooting a current that raised the hairs on her arms. He nodded toward the beach. Mesmerized, she watched him open the back door, inviting in a blast of salty air before walking out onto the patio and closing the door behind him. He tossed his shirt on the ground and pulled his hair loose from the confining bun. The sun hit his hair and it was like watching fireworks on the 4th of July, the sliver strands falling around heavily muscled shoulders.
He'd stripped himself of any refinement right in front of her as though he’d been holding on to it too long and he couldn’t bear another second of it. The tattoo emblazoned over his shoulder and down his arm, the fingers of lightning gripping his biceps. Once again she looked for a storm that wasn’t there. Those silver-gray eyes sparked with an unseen energy and she realized he was the storm. The transformation was remarkable, and she had to force herself not to stare at his bare chest. Had to force herself not to watch as his hands went to his belt, and he unabashedly undid the buckle, his fingers deftly working the buttons and zipper of his pants until they too were on the ground.
The man that faced her now, dressed only in a pair of silky boxers, was more like the man she’d glimpsed at a distance, untamed and more than a little dangerous. He flashed a lethal smile and even with the glass separating them, Clare took an involuntary breath and stepped back. Athen’s smile broke into a full-fledged laugh, and she wished she were outside so she could hear it clearly. She continued to stare after him as he made his way down the beach, his stride purposeful and impossibly elegant considering the uneven sand.
She wondered what it would be like to live a life of instinct, to heed an impulse without thought, without apology. The wildness of it, the wildness of him, spurred her imagination to life, causing her to long for things she’d never known she wanted.
As though in a trance, she watched Athen make his way to the shoreline, the foamy waves breaking around his hips. She expected him to dive into the oncoming surf. Instead, he turned and looked back at the house as if he knew she was still watching. Though she couldn’t be sure, she thought he smiled. Then he disappeared into the churn of the waves.
She pressed one hand to the glass while her doctor's prognosis reverberated through her mind. She waited for Athen to resurface, unexplainably desperate for one final glimpse. Unexplainably desperate for the chance to say, Take me with you. Take me away from this.
He never did.