Chapter Two

“You’re in a good mood.”

Ethan McAllister stopped whistling and looked up from his beer, into the eyes of one of his closest friends and the current bartender at The Thirsty Lobster. “Hm?”

“I don’t know,” Joe said. “You’ve gone from tapping your fingers on the bar to humming and now to whistling.” He replaced Ethan’s old beer with a fresh, cool mug. “Not to mention the grin. There is something…” Joe leaned forward and lowered his voice. “You got laid.”

Ethan rolled his eyes. But he didn’t correct his friend. Let Joe think what he wanted to think.

The truth was, he should be happy. Memorial Day weekend was right around the corner, and that would kick off tourist season, which would hopefully translate into copious drinks bought and lots of revenue for the businesses of Seaside Cove.

Total happiness. Except…

Today would have been his anniversary. His ten-year wedding anniversary. Ethan wasn’t sure how to feel about that. Getting divorced had been the right move; he had no doubt. But he wasn’t proud that he had a failed marriage under his belt. He also didn’t like thinking back on that relationship. So, he’d woken up with a clear goal of being positive today instead of moping around and questioning his life. Even if he didn’t fully feel that way.

“Who was the lucky lady?”

Ethan turned toward Stu, another friend and Thirsty Lobster regular, who was sitting at the bar, watching the baseball game and eating a hot dog. Stu apparently had no problem hearing over the noise of the bar, the TV, or anything else.

“There was no lady,” Ethan said.

“Sorry,” Stu said, holding his hands up in front of him. “Who was the lucky guy?”

“No guy, either.”

“I’m not judging. Man, woman—you do you, bro. We just want you to be happy.”

Ethan shook his head. “I appreciate that. Actually, today would have been my anniversary with Veronica,” he explained to Joe and Stu, and also Peggy and her sister, Wendy, the two older women sitting on the other side of him.

Peggy and Wendy owned the beauty salon across the street, and when they weren’t getting their gossip fix among the hair dryers and nail stations, they came over to the bar for even more. They were twins who had just turned sixty, and Ethan suspected they’d been gathering the gossip in Seaside Cove for most of those six decades. But, despite their rumormongering ways, he loved them. They never ceased to make him laugh.

Wendy waved a hand nonchalantly at Ethan. “That’s nothing to get worked up over. Today would have been my anniversary with my second husband, too.”

Peggy snorted. “No, it isn’t. You got married in April, not May.” She rolled her eyes. “You don’t even know your own anniversary date.”

“It’s hard when you have so many.” Wendy had been married three, or maybe four, times. Ethan wasn’t really sure. He just knew she liked to refer to herself as the modern-day Elizabeth Taylor, and he’d had to look that name up on Google to understand what she meant.

“I could always acquire a new anniversary date. Young men like you are in.” Wendy winked at Ethan.

He chuckled and winked back. “I don’t think I could keep up with you, Wendy.”

He wouldn’t mind getting married again someday. He would just be a hell of a lot pickier about the bride the second time around. He’d make sure he chose someone who actually wanted to get married, who actually loved him. Someone who wasn’t using him to get what they wanted.

“I’m not worked up about the date,” he explained to everyone. “Actually, I’m doing okay. I’m looking at the positive.”

“Good for you. Glass is half full. Speaking of…” Peggy said, waving her half-filled glass at Joe, who moved to top her off.

“I love an optimistic man,” Wendy said, practically licking her lips.

“Marrying my sister isn’t going to help anything. Trust me.”

“Rather than going straight to the altar with Wendy, why don’t you try dating again?” Joe suggested. “You know, dinner and a movie. Hanging out. You haven’t dated anyone in a while.”

“Hey. I date.” Ethan pulled the bowl of pretzels toward him.

“No, you don’t,” Joe said and refilled Stu’s beer. “I’m not talking about hooking up or casually seeing women. I mean actually forming a relationship. You haven’t dated anyone seriously since your divorce.”

Wendy grinned. “All you need is a good roll in the hay.” She pointed at Stu. “Like this one. I heard you’ve been sniffing around that Carson girl. The one who moved in with her cousin last year.”

Stu’s mouth dropped open. “What? How did you—”

“They always know,” Ethan supplied.

“You need to be careful with that Carson girl,” Wendy said. “She seems like the type who’s always going to want more. Pick someone else to get wet dreams over. You too,” she said directly to Ethan.

He didn’t know about wet dreams, but it might be nice to go out to dinner and have some good conversation with a woman. The problem was that Seaside Cove wasn’t exactly swimming in young, single ladies. Fishermen? Yes. People his parents’ age? Absolutely.

Ethan rose and jumped up on the step that led to the door so he could face them all at once. “I know everyone in town. Where am I supposed to meet someone new?”

Peggy tapped a manicured finger against her lips. “I don’t know, Ethan. I just have this feeling that you’re about to meet the woman of your dreams.”

The door to the bar suddenly flew open as someone rushed in like their life depended on getting inside. In their effort, they slammed into Ethan, who almost fell off the step. He righted himself and turned to face the person. Everyone in the bar looked in that direction.

A gorgeous woman stood there. With the door open behind her, she was framed by orange and pink light from the setting sun. The colors did amazing things to highlight her hourglass figure and dark hair.

Ethan did a double take. It was an hourglass figure and dark hair that he knew very well. Or, at least, he used to.

“Holy shit,” he blurted. “Lauren Wallace. Wow, I haven’t seen you in years.”

“Ethan freaking McAllister.” Her hands went to her hips. “Funny running into you of all people.”

He took a step back. “‘Running into’ literally. First time opening a door, Lauren?”

She placed a hand over her heart and batted her long eyelashes. “What can I say? I’m just used to men opening them for me.”

His mouth quirked. Same old Lauren. He hadn’t seen her in ten, maybe fifteen years, and she immediately defaulted to her usual banter. Their usual banter.

Despite having basically gone to school together since kindergarten, the real connecting factor between Ethan and Lauren had been his best friend, Robbie. Also known as Lauren’s serious, steady boyfriend.

The three of them had spent most of high school together. Football games, movies, hanging out at Lauren’s grandmother’s coffee shop. From all outward appearances, it would seem like Ethan and Lauren were best friends. In reality, they’d spent more time bickering and antagonizing each other than anything else.

Looking at Lauren standing in front of him in his bar caused several new feelings to crop up. On the one hand, it was his default to be overcome with a certain annoyance. On principle.

Yet, the way his body was responding…well, that was something he didn’t want to think too much on.

Ethan gestured toward the bar. “Why don’t you come in and have a drink with a ‘real man?’”

She made a big show of looking all around the bar. “Good idea. I’ll go find one.” With a laugh and a pat to his arm, Lauren jumped down the steps and waved to their audience at the bar. “Hi, everyone,” she said sweetly.

“Huh, look at that,” Stu said in Ethan’s ear. “Peggy called it.”

“Called what?” Ethan whispered back as he watched Lauren.

“The woman of your dreams. That didn’t take long at all.”

Ethan snorted. Lauren Wallace as the woman of his dreams? “Not likely,” he said.

Stu stared at him. “Are you sure? Look at her.” He whistled long and low. “If you’re not going to go for it, maybe I will.”

Ethan slapped a hand on Stu’s chest as he took a step toward Lauren. “I don’t think so.”

Stu grinned. “That’s what I thought.”

Before Ethan could comment on that, his attention was diverted to the bar, where everyone was focused on Lauren.

“Well, well, it’s Lauren Wallace,” Peggy said, being completely obvious as she assessed Lauren from head to toe.

Not that he could blame her. Lauren had definitely been one of the prettiest girls in their school. But now, she was drop-dead gorgeous. Especially wearing those fitted jeans.

“When did you get back in town?” Peggy asked.

“About an hour ago.”

There was a long pause, during which no one seemed to know what to do. Then, the silence broke, and a million questions were flung at her in a matter of seconds.

Lauren turned her head quickly in the direction of each new question, looking from person to person like she was watching a tennis match.

Ethan held up a hand, even though he was just as curious about the answers to those questions as everyone else. “One at a time, guys. Let’s give her a minute.”

“Thanks,” she said with an ornery smile leveled at him. “But I do have the ability to multitask. And speak for myself.”

Point taken. He clamped his mouth shut.

“How’s Rose?” Wendy asked. “She hasn’t been in to get her hair done in a while. We should call her this week,” she said to her sister. Peggy agreed.

“Grams is good.” Lauren paused, cocked her head as if considering. “Well, she’s the same, anyway.”

Everyone nodded. The whole town knew Rose Josephs’s disposition. She would yell at you at the drop of a hat and never shied away from offering her opinion to pretty much anyone, in any position, at any time, but she was also a valued member of the Seaside Cove community. Everyone respected her. And feared her. A powerful combo.

“What about Brooke?” Stu asked. “Is she married?”

Lauren smiled and rolled her eyes at the same time. “I see you haven’t changed, Stu. Still lusting after my sister?”

He grinned and saluted her with his beer mug. “Hell yeah.”

“Sorry to tell you that Brooke is engaged.”

Stu dramatically clutched at his heart and collapsed onto the bar, making Lauren laugh. A sound that made Ethan suck in a breath, just like it had back in high school.

Peggy circled her. “I don’t see a ring on your finger.”

“I’m not married,” Lauren said, attempting to back away from Peggy. “Or engaged.”

“Got a boyfriend?”

Lauren narrowed her eyes. Just slightly, but Ethan noticed. “Occasionally.”

“Do you have one right now?” Wendy asked from the bar.

“Nope, not at the moment.”

Peggy slapped Ethan on the back. “Great news. Because we want you to get Ethan out of his dating slump.”

Ethan choked as everyone at the bar nodded and voiced their agreement. These people were supposed to be his friends.

“Oh really,” Lauren replied with a twinkle in her eyes. “Having trouble finding a woman? Hm, I’m not surprised.”

Ethan gave her a hard look. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I seem to remember that you never could hold down a serious girlfriend in high school.”

“That’s because I was too busy playing the field.”

“That was one lonely field,” she quipped. “Who was your prom date again? Oh right, you didn’t have one. Julie Winster dumped you the night before.”

Ethan growled under his breath. That was one of his least pleasant memories from high school. “Julie Winster missed out.”

“But Robbie and I didn’t, since you had to tag along with us to prom.”

“You can’t deny you were impressed by my dance moves.”

Lauren’s lips twitched. Everyone in town knew Ethan loved to dance even though he was absolutely horrible at it. He was a local legend.

“You don’t have to marry him or anything,” Wendy said to Lauren. “You could just, you know…” She shimmied her shoulders and winked.

“Wow,” Lauren said, patting his arm again. “That’s so sweet that you have the good people of Seaside Cove pimping you out.”

“Ethan’s a catch,” Peggy said.

Ethan had had enough. He cleared his throat. “Okay, that’s fine. You’ve all had your fun. But let’s table any further discussion of my dating life. I’m sure Lauren would rather sit down and enjoy a nice, quiet drink.”

Before any of the troublemakers could protest, he put a hand to Lauren’s back and lightly led her to the end of the bar, leaving a couple empty seats between them and the nearest customer. “Let’s get you away from the heathens that like to frequent this place.”

“Love you, too!” Peggy yelled.

Lauren was laughing at the whole situation. He wanted to be irritated by it, except she looked even more beautiful when she laughed. She always had.

He held out a stool for her. Lauren took her time sitting down, placing her tiny purse on the bar.

“What can I get you?” He gestured to the bar, unable to keep his smile under wraps.


“Fine choice. There’s a variety.”

Joe appeared at that moment with a fresh beer for Ethan.

“Can I please have a gin and tonic? And if you wanted to go light on the tonic, I really wouldn’t mind,” Lauren said.

Ethan raised his eyebrows in a silent question even as he sat back comfortably.

“Grams,” Lauren answered.

“Some things never change.” He said it casually, but he put his hand on top of hers and squeezed as he did.

Back in high school, the two of them had thrived on ribbing each other. Verbally sparring with Lauren was one of his favorite hobbies, much like watching baseball games, fishing, and dreaming of traveling.

But you couldn’t razz someone the way he did Lauren without getting to know them. How else would you know what to tease them about?

He was aware that she’d had an antagonistic relationship with her grandmother. He didn’t know why the two of them were at odds. For the most part, he sensed Lauren enjoyed it. But sometimes it seemed deeper, almost hurtful. Like now.

Lauren sat next to him, stiff as a board. Her posture was rigid, and she was staring straight ahead.

“Want to talk about it?” he asked.

She shrugged. “Oh, you know. Same old. Were you aware that Grams wouldn’t have cut her hair if it looked like mine?”

“I wasn’t, but I feel like it was the piece of information missing in my life.”

The side of her mouth twitched. “Or that my jeans are way too tight?”

Ethan glanced down. “They look just the right amount of tight to me.” He winked, and she batted a hand at his chest.

“Shut up.” She chewed on a fingernail for a moment before continuing. “Grams also said I should have picked up my sister on the way home. But Gabby didn’t want me to pick her up. I tried, dammit.” She slapped a hand on the bar and then fidgeted in her chair. “I mean…ugh. Gabby shouldn’t even be coming back here, in my opinion.”

He wasn’t sure what to say to that. Or what was even going on.

Joe set a glass with clear liquid and two lime wedges in front of her. He also grabbed a fresh bowl of pretzels and a bowl of nuts and placed them next to her. “I’m Joe. I grew up in Chesterfield.”

“Nice to meet you,” she said. “I’m Lauren. I went to high school with this loser.” She chucked a thumb in Ethan’s direction.

“Nice,” he said drily.

Joe grinned. “We were just kidding about you dating Ethan. Although, Ethan does need a woman, if you know someone.”

She faced him, her eyebrows going straight up. “Oh, really?”

Ethan rolled his eyes. “Don’t listen to him. Joe is recently married, and he only wants everyone to be as happy as he is.”

“Is that such a bad thing?” Joe asked.

Lauren smiled big at Joe, and Ethan almost fell off his barstool. That smile of hers lit up her entire face. It made her blue eyes sparkle. And she had these two tiny dimples that winked. It used to undo him as a teenager. Now, high school came rushing back in bold, vivid colors.

Lauren had been that rare teenage girl who was popular because she had friends of all shapes, sizes, personality types, interests, groups, you name it. She’d always made the extra effort to talk to people, say hi to the new person, include the loner. And everyone loved her for it.

Then there was Ethan.

It wasn’t that the two of them had a contentious relationship. It was more of a yo-yo situation. What they now called frenemies.

They’d lost contact over the years, though. Ethan sat back in his chair and racked his brain. He tried to stay in touch with friends from high school the same way the rest of the planet did…through social media. But he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen anything about Lauren in his feeds.

While Joe showed her some of the wedding photos on his phone, Ethan pulled his own phone out of his pocket and opened an app. He scrolled through his friend list and didn’t see Lauren there. That was odd. Maybe she’d left social media.

“What are you doing for a living?” Joe asked.

“I’m a social media strategist.”

Well, there went that theory.

“Basically, I help people strategize how to market their businesses while utilizing social media,” she said in answer to Joe’s blank stare.

“Do you work with large companies?” Ethan asked.

“I have a couple of big ones on my roster. But to be honest, I work more with mom-and-pop places and solopreneurs.”

Lauren leaned toward Joe, and those dimples shone again. “You wouldn’t happen to have any french fries, would you?’

“We sure do. You want to see a full menu?”

“No, thanks,” she said. “Fries will do it for me.”

“I’ll put that order in right away,” Joe said, then left them alone. Finally.

Ethan took a pull of his beer. “How long are you in town?”

She lifted her drink to her lips. Perfect heart-shaped lips painted a light pink. Those perfect lips pressed together in a narrow line. “I’m not sure. I have some family stuff to deal with.” She glanced around the bar slowly with a faraway look on her face.

Ethan followed her gaze. The people, the pool table and dartboards in the back corner. He was proud of this place. He’d rescued it from Old Man Henry Monroe, who’d owned The Thirsty Lobster for decades.

Once Ethan took over, he’d tried to preserve the dive-like quality that the locals loved, while also updating it with touches he knew young people and families would appreciate. He’d found a pinball machine and placed it in a special spot in the corner. He’d spent a little too much buying TVs, but they looked good mounted around the walls. Plus, he was able to play a variety of sports and other shows, so everyone was happy.

The old wooden bar had been about to collapse, so Ethan had saved as many pieces of it as he could. Then he mixed those pieces with reclaimed wood from an old fishing boat. He expanded it into a large U shape, offering much more seating.

Lauren was now examining all of the dining tables on the other side of the room, half of which were full of people who didn’t want to cook on a Sunday. That was something else he’d been working on—updating the menu. He wasn’t going to remove any of the fun bar foods, but he did want to offer some family-friendly food and healthy options.

Joe reappeared. “You two ever date back in high school?”

“Each other?” Lauren asked incredulously as Ethan choked on his beer.

“No way,” Ethan insisted.

“Did you hate each other or something?” Joe wasn’t able to wait for the answer because he got called to refill a drink order.

Ethan turned to Lauren. “Hate is kind of a strong word. And not exactly the best way to describe our relationship.”

Tilting her head, Lauren appeared thoughtful. “You’re right.”

“It was more of a dislike.”

Lauren shook her head. “Nope, that’s not it.”

“Okay, if you’re so smart, what was it, then?”

“Well…” She bit her lip. “Back in high school…”

“Yes?” he prodded.

She leveled an intense stare at him. “I kind of had a thing for you.”