Her Unexpected Match
by Lacey Baker
Book 1 in the Crescent Island Series
Travel writer Allie Sparks has one goal: to find the story that will save her career. So here she is, visiting her bestie on picturesque Crescent Island―with sun-warmed beaches, the briny smell of the ocean, and rumors of a secret astrologer-matchmaker who guarantees love. Of course, Allie doesn’t believe in any of that stuff. If anything, she’ll prove it’s a total scam.
Ryan Parker believes in love―just not right now. He’s focused on expanding his family’s barbeque business, finding investors, and keeping his too-big Great Dane puppy from jumping on everyone, including his sister’s pretty, whiskey-eyed best friend. Besides, falling for a tourist is definitely not in his astrological forecast.
Allie is doing everything she can to resist the charm of the town and its beauty, not to mention her attraction to Ryan. But there’s a lot more happening on Crescent Island than anyone knows…and when her story goes to print, this tiny, close-knit town might never be the same.
Her Unexpected Match
Book 1 in the Crescent Island Series
Her Unexpected Match
Did the air have a scent? Could she really smell relaxation and simplicity the moment she stepped off the ferry? The Crescent Island website, along with its corresponding brochure—which she’d stuffed into her purse a few moments ago—said those were the first things she’d notice once her feet hit the island.
Allison Sparks inhaled deeply and released the breath slowly. She was tired and grumpy from traveling via plane, car and then boat to get to this place that she wasn’t quite sure was what it proclaimed to be.
Salt water and…was that fresh bread? No, the smell was sweeter. She sucked in another breath, this time tilting her head back a little and closing her eyes to concentrate. Definitely a sugary aroma. Possibly a cake or cookies. Or maybe she was just hungry since she hadn’t eaten in hours—twelve hours to be exact. Since she’d grabbed the strawberry pop tart the second it jumped up from the toaster and run out of her condo at five o’clock this morning to make a mad dash to the airport.
It would seem that after years of traveling all over the world, she’d be a little more organized when it came to actually getting to the airport to begin her next voyage, but no, she’d overslept. And when she’d bounced out of bed, cursing the alarm on her phone for automatically going into a snooze mode—thus rendering it utterly useless—she’d run into the bathroom blaming her boss, Renee, for infusing this newest level of stress into her life.
“Subscription numbers are down,” Renee had said four days ago as Allie sat in one of the ivory leather guest chairs in her office. “We have to make a change.”
“Are you firing me?” Allie had immediately asked, because losing her job as the lead writer on the See, Eat, Travel blog wasn’t on her list of things to do this year.
Renee Timmons with her close-cut bronze curls, had tilted her head to one side and stared at Allie with those cool, assessing dusky blue eyes. Renee and her husband Tyson had created the blog five years ago and since that time it had morphed into a very lucrative venture, one which allowed the couple and their two sons to spend time at their beachfront home in Miami, as well as travel for pleasure instead of work.
“No,” Renee had replied. “At least not yet.”
Allie’s stomach plummeted in the way it often did when she was on a rollercoaster. She’d sat with one leg crossed over the other, her foot shaking because she’d been anxious to get the meeting over with so she could head out to her next appointment of the day. Not that she longed to visit her dentist, but it was a yearly necessity she’d rather get out of the way. With Renee’s words, dental tools suddenly felt preferable and she focused one hundred percent of her attention on Renee. “Are you serious?”
Renee lifted a stack of papers from her desk and shook them in the air. “These numbers are serious, Allie.”
“But my column is the most popular on the site,” she’d countered.
“It was the most popular on the site,” Renee corrected. “That was four years ago, when your critical reviews were sprinkled amongst the other content on the site. Now, with the state of the world steeped in one adverse event after another, people are growing weary of the pessimism. And when I say people, I’m mainly talking about some of our sponsors who no longer want to be linked to so much negativity.”
“People always act like they want honesty, then complain when you give it to them,” she’d snapped.
“I’d like it if you found a way to give them a little less honesty. Or at the very least, serve it with heaping spoons full of sugar simultaneously so it’ll be easier for them to digest.” Renee had given her a half grin, but Allie knew she was serious when that grin quickly faded and Renee slapped those papers back down on her desk. “Your next article needs to be more positive. Something uplifting and maybe softer.”
“I don’t do soft,” was Allie’s immediate reply. Her lips had clamped shut after the words fell free as if her body were somehow reminding her brain that shutting up was free.
But it was true. All her life she’d been let down by the concept of positive thoughts and being soft had never been allowed—although her younger sister Bella would’ve sworn Allie had that trait perfected. Allie’s entire childhood had been disastrous to her mental stability and in her adult years she’d fought valiantly to climb that hill to what finally felt like normal. Changing now seemed daunting.
“I want a heartwarming, family-friendly piece, Allie. One that doesn’t include an oversized mouse and his friends.” Renee raised her brow and continued, “Find a beautiful vacation spot for parents to take their kids now that school is out for the summer. Tell us all about the fun activities, the delicious budget-friendly food, give us pictures of all things wonderful and appealing.”
“What if a spot like that doesn’t exist?” Because if it had, why hadn’t her parents ever taken her and Bella when they were young?
“They do and you can find them, if you give it a try.”
“I find beautiful locations to report on all the time,” she’d argued.
“And then you rip them to shreds in your review.” Renee shook her head. “After giving some thought to the feedback from the sponsors, I started thinking about how worn out I am too by so much negativity. My kids are even coming home from school talking about this argument or that threat of violence they had to be sent home for.” She sighed. “I wish for a kinder, gentler world for them and everyone else. But the only place I really have control over some of that is this blog. So, my goal is to soften the tone of the space, add some inspiration and empowering articles. You’re among my top three columnists, Allie. And I don’t want to lose you, that’s why I’m giving you this chance to show me you can find the heart in this new destination and write about that, instead of giving your critical thoughts on the location. Every place has a heart if you’re open enough to see it.”
Staring through the tinted lens of her sunglasses now, Allie decided she couldn’t see anything on Crescent Island that resembled a heart. Not immediately anyway.
Sure, it was a brilliantly sunny early-June afternoon and the way the sun’s rays glimmered over the surface of the water reminded her of an expertly filtered postcard picture but looks could be deceiving. Her parents were a perfect example of that.
She walked on four-inch heeled sandals across the wood-planked dock that seemed to stretch forever. Actually, she kinda tip-toed over the planks because the last thing she wanted was a replay of a scene from one of her favorite movies, The Wedding Planner. Yes, she loved romcoms—books and/or movies—even though she’d never been brave enough to give love a shot personally. This particular movie, however, wasn’t her favorite because of the eventual hook-up between the main guy and main lady, because he was totally engaged when he met her and neglected to tell her that when they were sharing M&Ms in the park. Now, that scene was romantic, but still problematic considering the circumstances. But no, the real reason the movie was her favorite was because of the awesome meet-cute scene, where main lady had the heel of her shoe stuck in a manhole cover and main guy comes along and saves her from getting hit by a runaway dumpster.
The writers who’d come up with that had surely earned their pay. It was fiction at its best. Before she could allow herself to drift into that warm abyss of disappointment mixed with her trademark cynicism, she sighed and took the remaining steps until coming to the part of the dock that split off in three different directions. To her left was more of the thick wood-planked walkway and the red-shingled Ferry Office where she’d have to return at some point during this trip to schedule her ride back to the mainland. To the right was, again, more wood—as if this town had never heard of cement. The brochure boasted no malls and very few streetlights. It didn’t say no real streets.
Shaking her head, she tried to rid herself of the negativity Renee had expressly prohibited in this new article. If it rolled around in her mind there was a very good chance it would end up on page. So, for the last two days since she’d decided this was the place she needed to be to find the “heart” as Renee had commanded, she’d also been whispering to herself periodically to try and brighten her thoughts.
That shouldn’t have been such a difficult task, but after spending the first twenty years of her life holding in every opinion, observation and accusation she possessed, she’d promised herself that her adult years would be different. For starters, leaving Miami to attend college in New York had given her the opportunity to get away from her parents, which had offered a huge relief. And even when she’d returned to her home city, she’d still managed to limit her contact with her biggest critics, Douglas and Claire Sparks.
Just the thought of them and their displeasure with her career choice, her hairstyle—whichever one she had when they saw her—the clothes she wore, her condo—the list could go on and on—had her temples throbbing. She willed the thoughts to cease and sucked in another gulp of the deliciously scented air.
Her stomach churned and her eyes popped open as she recalled she was still hungry.
Turning to her left, she started walking again. If memory served from the brochure, she should’ve kept going straight toward Main Street where she could attempt to hail an island taxi. That was the only rideshare on Crescent Island. There were also no buses or other forms of local transportation. With her luck there was probably only one taxi driver and vehicle as well. Sighing and giving herself another mental reprimand about those pesky dour thoughts, she mumbled, “Look for the heart.”
That didn’t mean she couldn’t find the food in the meantime. Whatever smelled so good was calling to her and she drifted further down the dock already deciding that the moment she found it, she was buying and consuming it on sight.
After adjusting the strap of her tote bag on one shoulder, she switched her duffle bag from her right to left hand and looked around as she walked. Beyond the wooden railing was the beach. A few miles stretch of sand that reached out toward the ocean, waves lapping against the shore with vigor. As she suspected was the norm here during the summer months, the beach was full of chairs, umbrellas and people. Lots of people. There had to be an abundance of people on this island for the Written in the Stars author to foster the so-called love matches. Unions that had the blogger pulling in three times the subscribers as Allie’s column currently received. Not that she was jealous or anything like that, Allie was confident in what she had and how hard she’d worked for it. Coveting something another had worked for wasn’t her thing. Still, keeping abreast of the competition was. At least it had been since a few days ago when she’d learned her job was on the line.
Some might call it coincidence, but Allie didn’t believe in those either. No, finding the popular blog that featured snapshots of this picturesque island off the coast of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, was a result of Allie’s studious research. Imagine her surprise, when in addition to this seemingly beautiful locale, she also uncovered a very intriguing marketing ploy.
Crescent Island had been growing in popularity all because of the anonymous author of the Written in the Stars blog and the promise that love would always find a way for those who visited the island. There were easily fifty people on the beach at this moment, providing that possibly half of them were already married or in some other type of relationship, the remainder who weren’t children, were in line to fall in love. She didn’t believe it. No island, nor anyone on that island, could promise such a thing. Yet, every week—as it had seemed from the archived posts Allie had read online—supposed real-life stories of those love connections were detailed. And from those stories, the author of the blog boasted that tourism on Crescent Island had been increased 87% in the last two years.
“If there’s heart anywhere, it should be here,” she whispered. And as long as she had that requested component in the article, surely Renee wouldn’t squawk at a juicy tidbit about a debunked matchmaker as well. At least, she prayed her boss would see it that way.
Allie had worked long and hard to build a name for herself in the travel industry. She was proud of that success. She had to be, especially since her parents were still hating that she hadn’t become a lawyer like they’d planned. Not achieving all her goals on her terms would only prove that every narcissistic comment the Sparks’ had ever made to her were true and Allie just couldn’t accept that. Not anymore.
The fact that the island also happened to be the hometown of her best friend from college, Sofia Parker, wasn’t a coincidence either. It was good fortune and Allie had wasted no time making her reservations to stay at some place called Lazy Lou’s, before calling Sofia to let her know she was coming for a visit.
A bell sounded and Allie turned, just as a man riding a bike breezed by. He touched the bill of his orange and black Orioles cap and yelled, “Hi there! Welcome to Crescent!” as he rode past.
The bike was one of those beach cruiser ones in a soft green color. He wore plaid Bermuda shorts and a matching top and his smile had been one of the most genuine she’d seen in way too long. Belatedly she offered a tentative wave and muttered, “Thank you.” But he was already too far away to hear her.
Her attention went to the first of a row of shops on her right and she picked up her pace figuring whatever the sweet aroma that had lured her from the ferry had to be coming from one of these places. Strategically located, of course. It was a brilliant idea to have shops within walking distance the moment visitors stepped off the ferry.
Max’s Muffin Tops. That’s what the sign hanging from the cotton candy pink painted building read. And that’s precisely where that smell had come from. She was inside the establishment in seconds, but in her haste, she didn’t miss the replica of a blueberry muffin doorknob, or the rack of t-shirts right inside the doorway.
“There’s Nuffin like a Muffin from Max’s” and a larger version of the same blueberry muffin top doorknob was printed across the front of each shirt.
Again, clever. Perhaps she’d buy one to take home. But first, she stepped up to the counter and reviewed the menu on the wall. Twenty-two varieties of muffin tops and she went with the obvious choice. Another nod to the smart marketing.
“I’ll have a blueberry top, please.”
Seven minutes later that delectable treat had been consumed and the decision to grab three more for a snack to have later was made. Outside once more, but now with a partially full stomach, Allie picked up another scent—the ocean.
Not that she hadn’t found herself admiring the sight of the water while she’d been on the ferry, but it hit differently now as she stood on the dock looking out at the beach. Along the dock were wood ramps at measured intervals. Each ramp cut through calf-high mossy grass that led to the beach. About a half mile down, the stretch of grass met with swells of light-colored sand.
On impulse she started toward the closest ramp telling herself she should have her phone in hand to record her thoughts on the first sights she’d encountered on the island. She probably should’ve done that a while ago as she always started her articles with her first impressions of a location. In the distance, a bright blue frisbee soared through the air and a bikini-clad woman jumped up to catch it. Cutting through the wail of seagulls above, footsteps of people walking along the dock, chatting, and the blare of the ferry’s horn calling for passengers to board, the woman’s laughter seemed to trickle up to Allie and something in her stomach clenched. It was an oddly familiar sound that touched on a wound that had throbbed inside Allie’s heart for the last ten years.
With a heavy sigh, she reminded herself to focus on the now and perhaps give herself this time to just absorb things without documenting them. Or letting them take her back to a time and events she couldn’t change. Maybe if she allowed herself this small stray from her normal work routine, she’d be able to tamp down her forthright inclinations enough to keep her job.
Walking until she stepped onto the grass, she went up on the tips of her toes again, lest she get the heel of her sandals stuck in the soft ground below. It might be time to re-think wearing heels—no matter how cute the strappy royal blue sandals were—while on the island. But she wanted to see the beach first. The sound of the waves rolling and crashing onto shore called to her like she was some sort of mermaid longing for home—which was ridiculous by the way. Still, she inhaled the glorious scent of saltwater and continued her trek toward it.
She’d been born and raised in Miami, with plenty of pretty beaches, palm trees and sunny days, so this scene shouldn’t have struck her as anything new. Yet, there was a reluctant urge to acknowledge the feeling that nothing compared to this place. The water actually smelled saltier here, the air seemed warmer, but not nearly as sticky as in Miami. And there were so many vibrant colors here, from the natural sky and sealine, to flowers in the huge brown pots along the dock, and the storefronts of each of the shops that gave a cheery allure to the crayon-box scene.
The sun’s lovely orange and yellow hues bounced off the water in the distance, as sunset wouldn’t come for at least another two hours. She’d barely made the last ferry because her plane had arrived late and then she’d had to drive from BWI airport down to Ocean City, Maryland. Traffic on the Bay Bridge had been horrific and when she’d complained about it on the ferry ride over from the mainland, the lady who had two kids and a dog in tow, had replied, “That’s to be expected, hon. It’s June so everybody’s heading to the beach.”
In Allie’s world, it was June, so the start of summer vacation season. Up until earlier this week she’d had four trips planned through early fall and the remainder of her time would be spent in her condo writing. She was a travel blogger who’d never possessed the need to vacation from a job she loved. Not to mention the fact that she had no one to vacation with. There was no doubt traveling could be done solo, but then, wasn’t that just work for her? That was her opinion and she was sticking with it, so outside of work, the “social” part of her life consisted of sitting on her couch watching romcom movies while enjoying her favorite snacks—just about anything sweet accompanied by orange Crush soda. Some people did yoga, some meditated or took long luxurious baths to relax, Allie went straight for the sugar rush and indulged in watching the fairy tale of love play out on screen instead of dreaming she’d ever take part in the facade personally.
A warm breeze lifted the ends of her long, dark bronze hair and she smiled. Perhaps this island view could replace movies and snacks for the next couple of weeks without any complaints from her. She wobbled her way down the slope and giggled when she made it to the flat sandy surface without taking a nosedive.
Accepting that success as a sign she should quit while she was ahead, Allie figured she should definitely find the B&B and then get some real food into her system. What was the place called again? Lazy Lou’s or Lovely Lou’s? She reached into her purse in search of the brochure she’d studied just as much as the town’s website. Her entire life was in her purse, at least that’s what Renee often joked. It was partially true, hence the reason she carried the huge leather tote bag instead of something smaller. Being prepared was her key to remaining composed, although, as her search continued, she feared she might be losing that battle today.
“Oh, come on, I know you’re in here somewh—”
Her words were cut off seconds after her legs took a hit and buckled in response. With a yelp that was neither cute nor dignified, Allie felt herself going down and there was nothing she could do to stop it. The one saving grace was that the sand cushioned her fall in a way the wood planks she’d been on previously wouldn’t have. Still, she hit with a thump, her head resting only a second before her eyes adjusted on the huge tongue being dragged across her nose.
And then her cheek, and then…
“Whoa, hold on Optimus. Sit! Sit!”
That was a man’s voice, but Allie was certain that wasn’t a man’s tongue on her face. At least she prayed it wasn’t.
“Sit Optimus! Sit!”
More yelling from the man, but the dog…yes, she was sure it was a dog now because its big floppy ears swished over her damp face when it decided to turn and listen to who she supposed was its owner.
Her fight or flight instinct kicked in at that moment and Allie lifted her arms to push the dog completely away from her before grabbing her sunglasses that were now half on and half off her face. She could hear the dog panting behind her when she planted her elbows in the sand and attempted to push herself up. The duffle bag and purse were like anchors holding her to that spot and she grumbled with the next attempt to get up.
“I apologize.” The guy blurted out as she continued to struggle. “Is it okay if I take your hand to help you up?”
Asking for consent was always a good thing, but presently she just wanted to get up from what now felt like quicksand and avoid any more of the embarrassment that engulfed her. “I can do it.” This time she planted her hands and feet in the sand before trying to push herself up.
It didn’t quite work the way she’d expected because of those bags again, but before she could fall all the way back, the guy grabbed her purse and duffle bag. The bags remained hooked on her arms, but he held them in front of her and took a step back, pulling while she pushed forward.
The action—while successful in getting her in an upright position—was full of momentum and before either of them had a chance to correct that, they were colliding into each other, her duffle bag and purse the only things keeping their chests from touching.
Nothing stopped her head from tilting back so that she was now looking up into warm brown eyes. There was probably a more distinct name to describe the color of his eyes, but at this moment all she could think was how warm and inviting they appeared.
She stepped away just as he was saying, “Sorry.”
“I think it’s your dog who should be apologizing.” Holding her sunglasses in one hand, she brushed sand from her arms with the other.
As if by mentioning it, she’d somehow given it permission to pop up from its sitting position, the spotted grey dog lunged for her again. This time, the owner leaned forward and snapped a leash onto the dog’s collar before pulling it back from her.
“Sit, Optimus.” The guy directed his dog again.
“Perfect name,” she said. “He’s a semi-truck just like the leader of the Autobots.”
Guy with the warm brown eyes chuckled. “You watch the Transformers?”
She shrugged and looked down to wipe the sand off her jeans. “My neighbor loved them since he was a kid, I guess, and was always quoting something from the movies at our HOA meetings. Eventually, I watched the movies out of curiosity over all his hype.”
“Cool. Did you like it? The movie, not the neighbor?”
Her head shot up and she saw that he was smiling. A really great smile, a perfect spread of his medium-thick lips which also drew her attention to the even line of his low-cut goatee and heavily creamed-coffee complexion. “I did like the movie,” she replied abruptly since her wayward thoughts had gotten the best of her. Then offered as an aside, “My neighbor’s an arrogant jerk.”
His smile never wavered. Although she kinda wish it had or maybe that he’d frowned after hearing her negative thoughts about her neighbor. Maybe then his wavy black hair and strong shoulders wouldn’t seem so enticing.
Totally off-kilter now by this very unexpected encounter, she frowned down at his dog, attempting to give herself a moment to get control of these ridiculous thoughts.
“You, Optimus, need to learn some manners,” she scolded and the dog sat as if she’d given him the same command his owner had to give multiple times before getting a result. His mouth gaped open, that tongue which she’d unfortunately been personally acquainted with lolling to the side, as his pretty ice blue eyes stared up at her adoringly.
“He’s a Great Dane?” Glancing up, she figured it was more polite to look at the guy again and not the dog who appeared to want something else from her. Because letting him trample her and lick her face obviously wasn’t enough.
“Yeah, eight months old.”
“Really?” She didn’t bother masking the shocked tone in her voice. “He’s huge.”
“Seventy-one pounds and growing every day. The breed is known for its big gangly size. But I’m betting you didn’t come to Crescent to talk about dogs.”
She also hadn’t come to Crescent to ogle great looking guys, but here she was. “No,” she said, glancing at the dog that was bordering closer to adorable than rude as she’d originally thought, again. “I’m uh, I didn’t. I should be going.” She never stammered and the realization had her snapping her attention back to the guy in an attempt to prove that this time she’d have zero reaction to him. The attempt failed dismally.
“Where’re you headed? Maybe I can direct you?”
“No thanks.” She shook her head vehemently, then turned to look in the direction from which she’d come. “I’ll find it once I get back on the main road.”
“Ok, well, let me help you.” He stepped close to her again, extending his hand as if he expected her to accept it.
She didn’t. Partly because she didn’t know him, but mainly because she wasn’t sure she wouldn’t like his touch. For whatever reason she was having the weirdest reaction to a total stranger which was clearly another reason she should be on her way.
“I’ll just be going. Bye, Optimus. Have a good evening, sir.” She turned and started back toward the slope before he could reply.
She was taking wide exaggerated steps, being sure to plant her foot soundly in the sand before taking the next step. The last thing she needed was to fall in front of this guy again. And she wasn’t taking off her shoes. She should be able to walk in the sand with shoes on. Except her shoes didn’t have a sturdy rubber sole like his.
“Enjoy your time on Crescent Island, ma’am.” He yelled the words just as Allie had made it up the slope and came to stand on the grassy turf.
She almost turned around and yelled she was only thirty-three which wasn’t anywhere near “ma’am” classification but noted that probably wasn’t a good start to the less-critical thought process she was supposed to be adopting. Instead, she just kept walking until she finally made it back to the ramp, shaking her head the moment her heels clicked on the level planks. That action sent sand flying from her hair and she sighed. Then whispered, “This better be the best story of my career.”