IT WAS always beautiful in Mangrove. Even on gray, overcast days when it rained cats and dogs, even when the wind whipped through the trees and you could hear chimes ringing up and down the street, and even when nothing moved or stirred and it was simply a hot, sticky, humid mess, no one could look around and say the view wasn’t stunning. Having grown up in International Falls, Minnesota—before I moved to Boston for school and then to Buffalo to work—I appreciated the entirety of Florida but loved the sleepy little coastal town I called home. The days were warm, the nights were filled with stars, and I made sure to make time to watch the sun go down. Being outside should have made anyone happy, so hearing crying when I walked out my back door caught my attention.
Peeking over the side of the fence that separated my backyard from my new neighbors’, I checked to see who was doing all the bawling, and it was then that I saw the girl. She was sitting on her back steps, face in her hands, with sobs absolutely racking her slight body.
I didn’t want to be nosy, but when I turned away, she did the staccato breathing thing and began all over again. There had to be more from me than walking away. One did not leave a weeping, obviously needy angel.
“Hey,” I called over to her.
Her head snapped up and she almost choked on how much water she was producing.
“Are you all right?”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, her voice thick with tears. “I didn’t mean to bother you.”
She was adorable. Huge brown eyes, cute little button nose, dimples, and even though I couldn’t see it at the moment, I knew when she smiled that her face would light up rooms.
“Honey, you’re not bothering me,” I soothed. “I just wanted to make sure you were all right, is all.”
She nodded quickly.
I smiled. “Anything I can do?”
Quick shake of her head.
“No, but thank you,” she said, which was nice.
“Are you sure?”
She bit her bottom lip.
“Could I try, maybe?”
She thought about it for a moment.
“You can tell me whatever it is, I promise.”
She took a deep, shaky breath, deciding all at once. “Okay, so… my dad’s in Miami closing up his office all this week; my cousin Debbie who was supposed to be watching me until he got here just left because she got a part in a TV pilot in Los Angeles; my aunt Genevieve who Debbie thinks was on her way here to take her place is actually in London on business; my mother died six months ago; and I think I just started my period.”
Oh dear God.
I would not show any outward sign of concern, which would be no help at all, and now was not the time for sympathy. Crisis mode was needed. “Okay.”
“So—” She started crying again. “I don’t know what to do and I can’t even get in the stupid house ’cause Debbie closed the door on accident but she was in such a hurry to leave that she forgot to give me the key and… I have no money and”—she sobbed—“I have no idea what I’m supposed to do about the blood!”
But I, youngest of four with only sisters, that part I knew all about. After hopping the low fence easily, I started across her overgrown backyard with Benny, my black Labrador, trailing after me.
Upon seeing the dog, she instantly caught her breath.
“Oh,” I said, stopping, and Benny froze with me. “Do you not like dogs?”
She sniffled and shook her head, wiping at her leaking eyes. “No, I love them. My dog, Rounder, he died last year.”
Jesus Christ on a cracker. Poor kid was getting screwed coming and going.
I reached her, held out my hand, and she instantly took hold. “My name’s Hutch Crowley.”
“I’m Ivy Dodd.”
“Nice to meet you, Ivy Dodd,” I said, smiling at her.
She tried to smile for me, calming just a little.
“So I live right there, as you probably guessed,” I said, pointing to my back porch, which she could easily see. “And did you notice that you have a dog door?”
It was an odd change of topic, so she visibly had to process for a moment, but once she did, she whipped her head around and stood up so she could see the back door of the Craftsman bungalow.
Most of the homes in Mangrove were the same except for a few Victorians, summer cottage styles; some Tidewater designed ones; and one or two like mine that were Spanish colonials. So whereas Ivy’s home was a single story, mine was two.
“Oh yeah, I saw that when we moved in. My dad said we could get a dog first thing as soon as he got back.”
I waited for her to get it.
“It’s a big-ass dog door, right?”
“Mrs. Colby, who used to live there, had a Saint Bernard.”
She still wasn’t following me.
“His name was Chowder and I never really got that. Mike said it was because the dog was always eating, but that seems rude.”
Apparently she was no longer listening. She reached out for my dog, and Benny—a slave to any and all kinds of affection—bolted forward, up into her arms so she could pet him and hug him and he could shove his wet nose into her eye socket, under her chin, and into her ear. The giggling was instantaneous and made me smile.
“So?” I prodded as she leaned her head on my dog and just stood there, savoring the contact.
“Do you wanna maybe use the doggy door?”
She still wasn’t getting it and probably because she’d never had to crawl into a house by way of one of them, drunk, at 3:00 a.m. I did not have that luxury.
I arched an eyebrow for her. I knew I did it well because my brows had a natural tilt to them to begin with, which I always got lots of comments about. People just assumed I was a smartass.
“Benny,” I addressed my pet.
He stopped mauling my new friend and looked up at me.
After slipping around the girl, he bounded up the stairs and entered the house through the dog door. I did a slow pan to her.
“Oh.” She drawled out the word. “Duh, I see.”
“Okay,” I said as Benny came loping back since neither of us was in the house and he bored easily. “This is what you’re gonna do. You’re gonna go inside, wash your face, change your clothes, grab some paper towels, and make a pad out of them.”
She was listening intently, which was kind of cute.
“Then you shove that in your underwear, come back out here, and I’ll walk you to my store and we’ll get you what you need, all right?”
Her brows furrowed.
“Now, if you want, I’ll call the police, and one of the two deputies will come over and either follow us in their car or walk with us. I don’t want you to be scared, but again, I am your neighbor and my dog just slobbered all over you.”
“Yeah, he did.”
“And I’m saying we’ll go for a walk; I didn’t invite you over.”
“I don’t want you in my house anyway.”
“Why not?” She sounded a bit offended.
“’Cause it’s a mess right now,” I said honestly. “My cleaning lady only comes Monday and Thursday.”
She seemed surprised. “You’re a grown man—you can’t clean your house by yourself?”
“I could,” I assured her. “I just don’t want to.”
“That’s a little bit lazy, isn’t it?”
“Why don’t you mind your own business?”
“You didn’t mind yours.”
She had a point.
“Okay, so, what, are you coming or not?”
“Yeah, okay,” she agreed, getting up.
“Don’t do me any favors,” I groused.
“Aww, c’mon. I didn’t mean it.”
I grunted. “So do you want Benny to go with you back in the house?”
She gave me a real smile. “How come you named him Benny? That’s not a dog’s name.”
“People always say that kind of stuff to me. Like pets are supposed to have names like Fluffy and Spot and crap like that. But tell me Benny doesn’t look like a Benny.”
She scrutinized my dog, and he tipped his head sideways because she stared so long without doing anything else. When she laughed, he barked and I felt my chest untighten.
“Yeah, he looks like a Benny.”
They crawled through the doggy door one after the other, and once they were inside, I heard her scolding him. First there was “Ohmygod, Benny, don’t eat that!” followed quickly by a command for him to get off her bed, and “Put that pillow down!” They were going to be friends, I could tell already.
I waited, and fifteen minutes later she came back outside in jean capris, a Lionel Messi T-shirt, and white Keds.
“I like him too,” I mentioned, gesturing at her shirt as she met me on the stairs.
“Yeah? You watch soccer?”
“I watched the World Cup,” I told her. “My best friend, Mike, is really into it, and he made me sit there with him day after day and explained the rules.”
“It’s different when you get it, huh?”
“Yeah, it really is,” I agreed. “So I find myself turning it on all the time now. Is he your favorite? Messi?”
She nodded. “Yeah. Most of my friends are all about Ronaldo, but I like Messi better.”
“Do you play?”
“I used to, back in Detroit, but I couldn’t get on the team at my new school in Miami and now that we had to move again—I mean, does Mangrove even have a girls’ soccer team?”
“Of course,” I told her. “What kind of backwater burg do you think this is?”
She gasped. “That was so patronizing.”
“Oooh, big word.”
And she laughed.
It was a good sound.
I WALKED her the fast way to my store, the Green Grocer, and gave her a quick rundown, promising to take her back by Cuppa Joe for an iced latte after we picked up her supplies.
“Mike always just has coffee in there. Don’t you think that’s weird? Like the people who stand in line at Starbucks just to have regular coffee?”
“You’re such a snob.”
“And who’s Mike? You talk about him a lot.”
I did not. “I do not.”
“You said you guys watched the World Cup together.”
“And you smiled when you were talking about him.”
“No, not hardly,” she corrected, “like really. You smiled.”
“Yeah, so what? Talking about your best friend, thinking of them, should make you happy. Don’t you get that way when you talk about yours?”
She thought about it for a moment. “Yeah, okay, I guess that’s sound logic.”
“Well, I’m so glad my thinking meets with your approval.”
“Kinda sarcastic, aren’tcha?”
I ignored the question.
“And for the record, I’m a girl, and I don’t talk about my best friend as much as you talk about yours. Just so we’re clear.”
“I’m liking you less and less,” I assured her, but the sound of her scoffing made me chuckle.
“Doesn’t matter, you’re stuck with me now.”
The confidence was good.
I showed her Wick and Wand, the store where she could get special teas, tarot cards, and spells and amulets.
“I think I might need to cleanse the house of Debbie,” she told me.
“We’ll pick up some sage to burn,” I promised.
She was excited over that idea, as evidenced by the way she took hold of my hand and squeezed it. I was surprised when she didn’t let go.
“So what does your dad do?” I asked, to make conversation.
“My father’s a fireman,” she explained. “Your chief retired and my dad is taking over.”
I squinted at her. “Your father was a fireman in Detroit?”
“He was a lieutenant and he had his own firehouse.”
“I know what you’re thinking.”
I chuckled. “Do you?”
“You’re thinking, ‘What is her big-time father doing in this tiny town?’”
She sighed deeply. “My parents were divorced for three years before my mom died, but when she got sick, he moved back in with us to help take care of her.”
“That’s really nice,” I murmured. “They must have been very good friends.”
“They were. Even after she told him he was gay, they were all right.”
I stumbled, and she turned to look at me, though she didn’t let go of my hand.
“Yeah, fine, good.”
She nodded before continuing. “Dad had a really nice boyfriend for a while, his name was Seth. But he didn’t like that Dad wouldn’t tell people they were together, and then when Dad moved back in with us, he left.”
Her father would kill her if he knew she was sharing his life story with me.
“I felt bad because I could tell my dad really liked him, but I mean, if he loved him, he would have told people about him, right?”
I cleared my throat. “I can’t speak for your father, sweetie.”
Her face lifted. “What should I do?”
“Everything,” she whimpered. “Did you even listen to what I told you before?”
“Well, yeah,” I said, making sure I was condescending, for her benefit. “Dad’s stuck, cousin’s MIA, aunt is late, Mom’s dead, and you just got welcomed to womanhood. I was listening. I always listen.”
She stopped walking and just stood there staring at me for a long moment.
“Should we maybe get to my store so we can take care of at least one of your issues?” I asked as I started walking away.
“Yeah,” she agreed, moving quickly to remain at my side, slipping her hand in mine again. I would guess that normally, being as she was a teenager, hand-holding with an adult was not her deal, but at the moment, she needed comfort.
As we turned onto Sunset, she let out a snort of laughter.
“What kind of name is Sunset for a street?”
“I think it’s pretty good. Ever hear of the Sunset Strip?”
“Well, yeah, of course, but this ain’t that,” she said snidely.
“How do you know? It could be just as exciting.”
She scoffed. “Yeah, right.”
“You’re awfully cynical for, what, thirteen?”
“Fourteen,” she corrected. “And wouldn’t you be?”
“Yeah, okay,” I admitted. “Now come on, let’s get in there.”
“So which store… is… holy cow!”
She, like most people, figured that a town like Mangrove, with a year-round population of only 11,200 people, was too small to have the supermarket I’d made. “You thought what? That I was taking you to a farmer’s market or something?”
“Well, yeah,” she said, clearly in awe as the automatic doors whooshed open and we entered a tropical rainforest. She did a slow turn and then walked forward, deeper into the floral department, where one of my employees greeted her and welcomed her to the Green Grocer.
“Thank you,” she murmured, clearly amazed.
After the walk in from the parking lot, the floral department at the front of the store offered cool air for your skin and a treat for your nose. All the flowers smelled fantastic. When I’d redesigned the space after I bought it, it was one of the first things I’d changed.
As we moved through the produce section, she took off her oversized bedazzled sunglasses and put them on top of her head. I loved the scalp-trimmed black hair; it looked great on her, made her resemble a pixie. “This place is amazing, Hutch,” she sighed. “You’ve got a soup bar and a hot bar and sandwich depot—how cute is that—and ohmygod, cheese!”
We passed by the olive bar/olive oil station, the fresh-made hummus in every flavor you could want, the meat section with the fresh catch of the day, and the salad bar that was simply ridiculous. It ran the length of an entire aisle.
“I’m a vegan,” she squealed happily. “This is fantastic.”
I chuckled as I pointed out the bakery.
“That whole thing is the bakery?”
“Is that cherry?” Her voice wobbled as she looked in the case. “My mom made cherry.”
I tugged on her hand to get her moving, not wanting any more tears.
“Is it okay if Benny is in here?”
“Benny’s my dog,” I explained. “I allow Benny and service animals. It says so on the sign outside.”
“It does not say Benny.” She laughed.
“Oh yes it does. I’ll show you when we leave.”
She beamed at me. “That’s awesome.”
I pointed to the health and beauty aids. “Now you go get what you need, the bathroom’s in the back, and—”
“How do I know what to get?”
She asked me like I should have known, and by all rights, I shouldn’t have, but I did because I had sisters. All three of them were older, and I’d spent my entire childhood with them in every nook and cranny of my life, prying and oversharing, dragging me places, dressing me, smothering me with love and devotion. That had made coming out a nonevent in my house, and yes, I knew about times of the month. My sisters had informed my life. They explained the birds and the bees and sat with me, all three of them, when I told my parents I was gay. And they hugged my parents, just as hard as I did, when Mom and Dad said, yes, fine, whatever, gay was great, as long as I was happy, and did I know about protection? God. Of course I knew—I had sisters.
“Sorry,” I said softly, feeling suddenly sentimental. “I need to call my family.”
“No, not right now.”
“So, then, will you come with me?” she asked in a small voice.
We went down an aisle I was truthfully never on, and I grabbed what I thought was best. She had questions and I answered, and then I sent her off to the bathroom while I waited at one of the tables in the café. Benny sat politely beside me, tail thwapping the floor, happy to see everyone walking by.
My employees started wandering over one by one, and I greeted them, smiled, laughed, and finally my assistant manager, Mike Rojas, came swaggering up and flopped down in front of me, giving me the blinding grin he’d just started showing off lately.
When I first hired him a year ago, he was quiet, reserved, and sullen. He’d lost his wife in a car accident two years before while he was out of town on business. He never got to say good-bye. It haunted him, and he left his job as a day trader in San Francisco, sold his home in Pacific Heights, packed up his life, and drove around from place to place—crisscrossing the United States—and finally ended up in Florida. I met him when he was sitting on the back deck of Blue Days. I’d gone to take my friend Takeo, who owned that particular bed-and-breakfast, a case of snail egg caviar he’d ordered from me. Takeo shoved me out the back door to the patio and told me his newest guest needed a job.
Mike was stunning, drop-dead gorgeous, but that wasn’t what I noticed first—instead it was the pain etched on every part of his face.
“Hi,” I blurted.
“I’m in need of an assistant manager at my grocery store, and Takeo seems to think that you want to stay here in Mangrove. Any experience in retail?”
I could tell he was going to thank me and say no, but I crossed my arms at that exact moment and squinted, waiting.
“I don’t want to waste your time,” he said softly.
“Then don’t,” I said flatly. “Just tell me what you can do.”
He had to think.
“Is there anything?”
“I’m not sure,” he answered honestly, his voice cracking.
“Start at the beginning.”
So he did.
And I sat.
We talked the afternoon away. Takeo fed us, and I had no idea why, but every time I said he didn’t have to, he hushed me, patted my shoulder, and left.
“He’s a weird guy,” Mike—never Michael, because that was who he’d been to his wife—said, watching Takeo retreat into the house. “I feel like he’s trying to read my mind.”
“He probably is,” I agreed, “and has. He tries to take care of everyone.”
“My wife, Janey, was just like that.”
He went on and told me his whole life story. He needed to tell it and I wanted to hear it. About midnight, when Dwyer, Takeo’s husband, came out to tell us he was taking the help to bed and that we had to be quiet and get our own damn coffee from then on—Takeo had never brought out any alcohol—I turned and offered Mike a job.
He promptly accepted. A week later, I offered him my guesthouse until he found a place to live, and after a year, he was still there.
“Seriously? Are you listening at all?”
Returning sharply to the present, I looked into the mahogany-brown eyes that had just recently started to sparkle and shine. I loved watching women, the same ones who had been looking at the man for the past year without really seeing him, suddenly swivel around and stare. The trudging walk had become a fluid, rolling stride; there were dimples under the beard that had been shaved off; and his smile was simply traffic-stopping. His laugh was infectious, a deep, rumbling thing, and more than anything, he spread warmth from one end of the store to the other. Every person adored him and I was thrilled, because that meant I had more time to work on my new project to supervise the renovations on the community center. It was my baby, my gift to Mangrove, and now that the store had Mike, I could really focus my energy on that gift.
“Yes,” I teased as he petted Benny. “I am absolutely paying attention.”
He shook his head.
“Your builder,” he said with so much annoyance that I had to work really hard not to laugh, “had the mayor’s car towed this morning.”
I scoffed. “I’m sorry?”
His sigh was long and pained. “You know how he insists on parking that boat he drives in front of the gate where the construction crew goes in and out?”
It was also where all the deliveries of building supplies were made. “I do, yes.”
“Well, this morning Leya had enough and she had the car towed.”
“Wait. The tow-truck operator—”
“Alicia Davis,” he interrupted me.
“—yeah, Alicia, she moved his car?”
“But she works for him.”
“I mean, for the city, so technically, she works for the mayor.”
“Not anymore,” he informed me. “Now she works under Farley.”
Farley Porter, our chief of police. “But he also reports to the mayor.”
“No,” he corrected me. “By the new town charter, Farley reports to the town council now. The chief of police and the new fire chief, who just got hired, both report to the city council.”
“When was this decided?”
“Last night at the town meeting,” he answered, yawning. “We were going to walk over there together after dinner, but you got that call you didn’t want to tell me about.”
“Yeah, I know.” I grimaced.
“Oh, now you have to tell me.”
Leaning forward, I dropped my voice to a whisper. “The new lawyer, Britton Lassiter, he invited me out for a drink.”
Mike squinted at me. “Wait. I thought I saw him with a woman.”
“But he’s gay.”
“Wasn’t he married before, too?”
“So he got a divorce… why?”
“Because he’s gay.”
“Just forget it,” I directed, raking my fingers through my hair, pulling it out of my face. I needed a haircut fairly soon. “It’ll give you a headache.”
“No, let me get this straight.” Mike reached out and took hold of my wrist so I couldn’t sit back. “He divorced his wife because he was gay and then got a new girlfriend who he just broke up with because—still gay.”
“She was his beard with his parents.”
“And did she know she was a beard or did she think it was real?”
“Okay.” Mike grinned, his thumb sliding back and forth over the underside of my wrist. “So what now? Does he plan to date more women here or is he going to come clean with his folks and be out and proud?”
“I think since he’s so far away from them now that he can be what he wants.”
“Good,” he murmured, letting go of my hand only to slide his chair over close. “So what were you two doing that you couldn’t make it to the town-hall meeting?”
I wasn’t sure I understood the insinuation until I saw his lifted brows.
“Were you sleeping with him?”
“How is that your business?”
“Because I live with you,” he said tersely.
“Does a 700-square-foot guesthouse on my property count as us living together?”
“It does, yes.”
“We just talked,” I assured him. “He has a lot to work out.”
“And did you explain that town-hall meetings are mandatory for business owners?”
“Miranda told him that he didn’t have to attend since she was going.”
“I think it would be weird since she always sits with Coz and Kelly, and since Kelly and Britton slept together—”
“Oh? When was this?”
“Ten years or so ago.”
“I’m just telling you what I know.”
“So Kelly slept with Britton Lassiter ten years ago.”
“Okay, so did Britton not know he was gay then?”
“He was confused.”
“I see.” Mike nodded. “And you know all this from your talk with Britton last night.”
We were silent a moment.
“So did you bail on me thinking you were going to get laid?”
“I did, yes,” I replied honestly.
He chuckled. “Well, I understand.”
“You’re my best friend. You have to understand!” I said flatly. “It’s not a question.”
“So,” he prodded.
“Was there screwing?”
I shot him a look that I hoped conveyed my annoyance.
“Where’s the explanation? He’s your type.”
“Your type,” he repeated. “Tall, handsome, that’s your thing. He’s not as muscular as I normally see you drool over, but he’ll do.”
“It’s better than saying spring wood over.”
I shook my head.
“So what? How come you’re not making it with Britton Lassiter?”
There was friendship, and there was oversharing. In the course of talking to the lawyer, I understood very quickly that Britton Lassiter wanted—needed—to bottom, and since I shared his desire, us being lovers was not workable.
“Just—it’s not in the cards.”
“Okay.” He shrugged. “Keep your secrets, but you need to tell me who the cute kid belongs to.”
“My new next-door neighbor, the new fire chief’s daughter.”
This was new. “And? Why does this matter?”
He shrugged. “No reason. I just never thought they’d hire a black man to do that job.”
“What?” I glowered at him. “What did you just say?”
“Oh, give me a break,” he said dismissively. “I don’t see color any more than you do.”
“Then what’s with the whole ‘she’s black’ comment?”
“All I’m saying is that the town council is made up of elderly uptight white people, so I wouldn’t have thought that a man who wasn’t would have a shot.”
I shook my head at him.
“Just because you’re from San Francisco does not give you the right to look down on us.”
He snorted. “Oh yeah, right, like this town should be on a poster for cultural diversity.”
I opened my mouth to argue.
“And just because you have one of everything here does not make this a United Colors of Benetton ad.”
I gave up. “You’re hopeless.”
He was chuckling when Ivy joined us, looking the best she had all morning.
“So are you hungry now? Because by now Benny and I are usually eating.”
“Yes, please,” she said, beaming at me.
“This is my assistant manager, Mike,” I said, making the introductions.
It was funny to watch her turn and notice him and nearly swallow her tongue. Clearly, she was smitten. Not that I didn&rsq