Page 4 of Hot Mess

“That would be great, thanks.”

She picked up the plates and disappeared. I sighed into my hand and looked out at the water. I still needed a place to stay. Charity was the only person I could think of to ask—she seemed like she was the kind of woman who knew just about everything about everyone in town, so if there was a place to stay, she’d know.

“Here ya go, darlin’.” She put a cracked leather wallet on the table in front of me. “Whenever you’re ready.”

“I do have a question,” I said hesitantly.

She held up one finger and looked around the diner. Seeing there was nobody else who needed her, she sat down in the chair opposite me with such warmth in her face I wanted to cry. “What can I do for ya?”

“This is a really long shot, but I have nowhere to stay. Do you know if there are any hotels or bed and breakfasts or something with any vacancies?”

“Whew, child.” She blew out her cheeks and shook her head. “Second weeka June? You’re askin’ for a miracle there.”

“I figured as much.” I grimaced. “No worries.”

“How long you lookin’ for?”

“As long as possible, but I’ll take anything at this point. It’s gotta beat sleeping in my car.”

She tilted her head to the side and studied me for a moment. A tiny wave of discomfort washed over me, and I got the feeling that Charity knew exactly who I was.

More than that, she knew what I was running from.

“Hey, Theo!” She turned in her chair and looked in the direction of the British man and his daughter.

“Yes?” He did the same, craning his neck to look over his shoulder. “What did I do this time?”

“Nothin’ yet,” she replied. “You’re in the business of giving people a place to sleep. You know anyone with a room in town?”

“You make it sound like I’m running a warehouse full of sleeping bags,” he said dryly. “I doubt anyone in town has a place right now. Why?”

“Elle here needs a bed for the night. You reckon old Harry has space?”

Theo shook his head. “No chance. He’s running his Scrabble competition this weekend, isn’t he?”

“Dad,” Arielle said. “We have the beach house.”

Charity’s face lit up. “You do!”

“The beach house is in the middle of renovations,” he said as if he’d said it a thousand times. “There’s half a kitchen, hardly any flooring, half the wallpaper is peeling off, and—”

“The bloody bath is still leaking,” Charity said in a poor imitation of a British accent that made Arielle crease up laughing and me hide a smile. “Yes, child, we all know. But it’s livable, isn’t it? There’s running water, the shower works, it’s warm, and cooker works.”

“It’s not insured.” His jaw tensed. “I can’t rent it out to a tourist.”

“Does she look like a tourist to you?” Charity said before I could say a word. “She’s been sleepin’ in her car. Don’t you have a heart?”

“Yes, but it’s too busy keeping me alive to deal with the crap from you and my daughter.”

“Dad! Come on. It’s not like she’s just anybody,” Arielle said, practically begging now. “She’s—”

“Yes, I know who she is. You’ve squealed it no less than six times in the last twenty minutes.” Theo’s eyes flashed to me. “I’m sorry. The house is just not fit for renting.”

“I can pay you,” I said. “Even if it’s just for one or two nights until I can find somewhere else.”

“It’s not about the money.”

“I promise not to sue you if a bit of wallpaper falls on my head.”

Arielle grinned.

“Look, I—”

“She’ll help you get the renovations moving,” Charity offered. “For someone who lives next to the house, you’re not getting on with it, are ya? She can supervise that damn cowboy plumber and make sure he gets it done, and any old joe can paint.”

Why did this feel like I was entering an agreement with the mafia?

Ah, what the hell?

“Sure,” I said. “I can decorate, and I’ve even laid flooring before with my dad. And I can supervise a cowboy builder.” I glanced at Charity. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”

“Please, Dad, please!” Arielle clasped her hands together in the prayer pose and leaned so far across the table her hair almost went in her food. “Pleeeeeease!”

He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Why do I feel like I’m fighting a losing battle?”

“Because you are,” Charity said brightly. “That’s settled, then! Elle will take the beach house.”

“Jesus bloody Christ,” Theo muttered, dropping his hand. He met my eyes. “Do you know your way around town?”

I shook my head.

“Right. Well, if you don’t mind waiting on us to finish eating, you can follow my truck to the house.”

“I don’t mind,” I replied. “I really appreciate this.”

He pressed his lips together, and with an indiscernible glint in his eyes, nodded his head, then turned back toward his meal and his bouncing daughter.

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