The One Real Thing Page 26

I leaned on the railing beside her. “You don’t think Hartwell has its charms?”

“Of course I do.” She grew serious. “But not to someone like him. Vaughn Tremaine treats me like an uncultured country bumpkin, like I’m less of a person because I’m a townie who lacks ambition. I admire people like you, Jessica. You’ve worked for a long time and worked hard to become a doctor. But I never wanted a fancy education or to live anywhere but here. For me this is all I’ve ever wanted.” She gestured to the sea. “I believe it’s the simple things in life that make it great. My inn. My ocean. My family. My friends. I don’t appreciate someone telling me that all the things I admire the most about my life are things to be sneered at as simple and folksy.”

I nodded, understanding now. I’d be mad at Vaughn Tremaine, too, if he’d made me feel that way about my life. Gazing out at the water, I found myself envious of Bailey. All the things she thought made her life special were the things I didn’t have.

“I just don’t get why the smug bastard wants to be here. Why stay somewhere when he so obviously finds it provincial? He won’t tell anyone. And I don’t like it.”

I grinned at her. “He didn’t seem so bad.”

“Oh, don’t be fooled by his suave, cultured manners. That there is a wolf in Armani.”

Funny, his expression had struck me as wolfish, too. “Maybe you’re right,” I murmured.

“He’s worming his way in. I think he may even have Cooper softening up to him. Asshole.”

I laughed.

“Speaking of Cooper, how did it go? With Sarah’s letters?”

That pall from earlier threatened to return. “It didn’t, really. He said the family had already guessed Sarah was being abused and they tried to help. He said she had choices and she made the wrong choice. I didn’t find him very compassionate. At all.” I shrugged sadly.

And that was just so crappy because even without realizing it I’d built him up in my head to be this . . . I don’t know . . . someone I had really liked a lot from our one encounter. I hated that the second time around he wasn’t who I’d hoped he’d be.

“You sound disappointed.”

“I don’t know the guy, so I wasn’t expecting a reaction either way,” I lied nonchalantly.

“But you didn’t expect him to be so black-and-white about things.”

No, I really hadn’t.

Bailey contemplated me. “Let me buy you an ice cream cone and I’ll explain a few things.”

“An ice cream cone?” I grinned. I hadn’t had an ice cream cone in years.

“From Antonio’s.” She pointed down the boardwalk to the Italian pizzeria that stood next to Paradise Sands Hotel. “But there’s no Antonio—it’s owned by a couple named Iris and Ira.”

Antonio’s décor was very 1950s diner, with black-and-white-check flooring, red leather booths, and high round black tables with red-leather-topped chrome stools. Every inch of the white walls was covered with black-and-white photographs of Hollywood stars and musicians. All the frames were red or black. It was sleek and it sparkled, it was so clean.

The restaurant itself wasn’t so busy at that time of day, but the ice cream counter had a small line of people at it.

A man with a full head of dark gray hair, a beaming white smile, and a stocky build was manning the counter. He cheerily scooped up ice cream for his customers and as soon as Bailey and I stepped up to the counter that smile went full wattage.

“Sweetheart!” he boomed, lifting the countertop to come out and hug Bailey. “Iris!” he yelled in Bailey’s ear, making her flinch and then giggle like a little girl. “Bailey girl is here!” He turned back to her. “How are you doing? Cooper says you’re run off your feet at the inn. That you need some help. Remember Kevan? Iris’s nephew’s son? He’s in Hartwell. He needs work.”

“She’s not hiring Kevan.” A small, trim woman wearing jeans and a plaid shirt appeared. Her gray hair was cut into a perfect bob that swung as she moved in to hug Bailey. “He’s a buffoon.”

Bailey laughed. “Yeah, I need less buffoon in my life.”

“Who else is a buffoon? Tom?” The woman frowned.

Bailey gave her a look. “No, Iris, not Tom.”

Iris harrumphed at that before turning to me. I wondered what her problem with Bailey’s boyfriend was. “Who’s this?”

I held out my hand and opened my mouth to speak, but Bailey beat me to it. “Dr. Jessica Huntington. She’s a guest at the inn and she’s wonderful like me so of course we hit it off.”

I laughed and shook Iris’s hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“Ira.” The man shook my hand as soon as I let go of Iris’s. “Iris’s husband.”

“Pleasure.”

“So what brought you to Hartwell?” Iris said with curiosity sharp in her eyes.

I decided to give the less complicated explanation. “I work in Wilmington. I wanted to go on vacation but not too far away from work.”

“Hmm. Workaholic,” she pronounced and then swung her hand to the wall behind the cash desk. “Our daughter, Ivy, is just the same.”

I stepped closer to take a look at the photographs. One in particular caught my eye. A gorgeous brunette wearing a floor-length ivory evening gown stood on a red carpet. Standing next to her, his arm around her waist, was a handsome older man in a tux.

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