The Secret Sister Brenda Novak Did she once have a sister? Has her mother lied all these years? Why?After a painful divorce, Maisey Lazarow returns to Fairham, the small island off the North Carolina coast where she grew up. She goes there to heal–and to help her brother, Keith, a deeply troubled man who's asked her to come home. But she refuses to stay in the family house. The last person she wants to see is the wealthy, controlling mother she escaped years ago.Instead, she finds herself living next door to someone else she'd prefer to avoid–Rafe Romero, the wild, reckless boy to whom she lost her virginity at sixteen. He's back on the island, and to her surprise, he's raising a young daughter alone. Maisey's still attracted to him, but her heart's too broken to risk…Then something even more disturbing happens. She discovers a box of photographs that evoke distant memories of a little girl, a child Keith remembers, too. Maisey believes the girl must've been their sister, but their mother claims there was no sister.Maisey's convinced that child existed. So where is she now? Did she once have a sister? Has her mother lied all these years? Why? After a painful divorce, Maisey Lazarow returns to Fairham, the small island off the North Carolina coast where she grew up. She goes there to heal—and to help her brother, Keith, a deeply troubled man who’s asked her to come home. But she refuses to stay in the family house. The last person she wants to see is the wealthy, controlling mother she escaped years ago. Instead, she finds herself living next door to someone else she’d prefer to avoid—Rafe Romero, the wild, reckless boy to whom she lost her virginity at sixteen. He’s back on the island, and to her surprise, he’s raising a young daughter alone. Maisey’s still attracted to him, but her heart’s too broken to risk… Then something even more disturbing happens. She discovers a box of photographs that evoke distant memories of a little girl, a child Keith remembers, too. Maisey believes the girl must’ve been their sister, but their mother claims there was no sister. Maisey’s convinced that child existed. So where is she now? Praise for the novels of New York Times bestselling author Brenda Novak (#ulink_ac1621cf-ecea-5f74-bbd4-d69a67af98f4) “[Home to Whiskey Creek] will grab you and not let go, even after the last page.” —Examiner.com “The past impacts the present with devastating but ultimately salutary results in this engrossing, character-rich story that takes a hard look at responsibility, loyalty, and the results of telling (or concealing) the truth.” —Library Journal on Home to Whiskey Creek “It’s steamy, it’s poignant, it’s perfectly paced—it’s When Lightning Strikes and you don’t want to miss it!” —USATODAY.com’s Happy Ever After blog “Realistic and gritty, this story grabs the reader by the throat on the first page and never lets go.” —RT Book Reviews on Watch Me “Gripping, frightening, and intense…a compelling romance as well as a riveting and suspenseful mystery… Novak delivers another winner.” —Library Journal on The Perfect Liar “Strong characters bring the escalating suspense to life, and the mystery is skillfully played out. Novak’s smooth plotting makes for a great read…” —Publishers Weekly on Dead Right “Well written, nicely paced, filled with appealing characters, and laced with a few surprises…” —Library Journal on Dead Right “Impressive! This is a sharp-edged, well-plotted story that showcases Novak’s superb storytelling skill.” —RT Book Reviews on Dead Giveaway Also by Brenda Novak: (#ulink_8e8aafae-684e-5722-b89a-a7ff33a52809) THIS HEART OF MINE* THE HEART OF CHRISTMAS* COME HOME TO ME* TAKE ME HOME FOR CHRISTMAS* HOME TO WHISKEY CREEK* WHEN SUMMER COMES* WHEN SNOW FALLS* WHEN LIGHTNING STRIKES* IN CLOSE IN SECONDS INSIDE KILLER HEAT BODY HEAT WHITE HEAT THE PERFECT MURDER THE PERFECT LIAR THE PERFECT COUPLE WATCH ME STOP ME TRUST ME DEAD RIGHT DEAD GIVEAWAY DEAD SILENCE EVERY WAKING MOMENT COLD FEET TAKING THE HEAT *Whiskey Creek Stories Look for Brenda Novak’s next novel A Winter Wedding available soon from MIRA Books NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR The Secret Sister Brenda Novak www.mirabooks.co.uk (http://www.mirabooks.co.uk) To my nephew, Travis. I loved having you come and stay with us so often as a boy. Some of my very best memories are of you, which makes it even more of a joy to see that you have grown into a man we can all be proud of. Contents Cover (#u3af89c63-781e-5b8b-9398-6a69ba87b9ed) Back Cover Text (#u07891f1f-5e04-5399-b06a-2a74309781bf) Praise (#ulink_36962251-7d9b-50e8-807b-cd9f8b64c9c4) Also by Brenda Novak (#ulink_a8013556-82c8-5010-9bdc-c4804708fa2c) Title Page (#u7f83a73f-5dd9-5cf2-81e1-3c611fe590c6) Dedication (#udf5c66db-5647-5d17-a070-72dacb9640ea) 1 (#ulink_c0753425-69a7-55e3-ac6f-45860de3c385) 2 (#ulink_8329fac8-b85e-5ee4-9a5a-fb648154353b) 3 (#ulink_f7715327-7552-562b-a62c-9939a92a372c) 4 (#ulink_aaa379c9-b6e7-534b-ab8d-dcd5c98c042f) 5 (#ulink_6ba5816f-45ec-561f-9dd9-7e6c2bac353b) 6 (#ulink_f3616a98-5243-5e8d-aa62-63fa3a8ebeb9) 7 (#ulink_bd861e5c-6399-5730-a24a-b12ad7993dc2) 8 (#ulink_7498c927-6091-59cf-bcfb-089a1dd64d2f) 9 (#litres_trial_promo) 10 (#litres_trial_promo) 11 (#litres_trial_promo) 12 (#litres_trial_promo) 13 (#litres_trial_promo) 14 (#litres_trial_promo) 15 (#litres_trial_promo) 16 (#litres_trial_promo) 17 (#litres_trial_promo) 18 (#litres_trial_promo) 19 (#litres_trial_promo) 20 (#litres_trial_promo) 21 (#litres_trial_promo) 22 (#litres_trial_promo) 23 (#litres_trial_promo) 24 (#litres_trial_promo) 25 (#litres_trial_promo) 26 (#litres_trial_promo) 27 (#litres_trial_promo) 28 (#litres_trial_promo) 29 (#litres_trial_promo) 30 (#litres_trial_promo) 31 (#litres_trial_promo) Epilogue (#litres_trial_promo) Author’s Note (#litres_trial_promo) Reader’s Guide (#litres_trial_promo) Questions for Discussion (#litres_trial_promo) Copyright (#litres_trial_promo) 1 (#ulink_61309776-3022-5f4b-9826-ce72c0cb3c42) MAISEY LAZAROW’S BROTHER met her at the ferry—alone. Part of her, a big part, was grateful her mother wasn’t with him. Even after ten years, Maisey wasn’t ready to confront the autocratic and all-powerful “queen” of Fairham, South Carolina. The fact that Josephine hadn’t deigned to come with Keith made it clear Maisey would not be easily forgiven. Only after her mother had punished her sufficiently would she be welcomed back into Josephine’s good graces. Although Maisey had expected as much, coming up against that reality nearly made her balk. What was she doing here? She’d sworn she’d never return to the small island where she’d been raised, that she’d never again subject herself to Josephine’s manipulation and control. But that was before, when she’d set off to build her shiny new life. And this was now, when that shiny new life had imploded on her. She was coming back to Fairham because her brother needed her but, truth be told, she needed Keith, too. At least her mother wasn’t currently married. The men Josephine chose were almost as bad as she was, just in different ways. What Maisey needed most was her father, she realized as she stood at the railing, peering through the passengers crowding the gangway. Breathing in the island air, smelling the salty ocean and wet wood of the wharf, it all reminded her of him. But Malcolm had died in a boating accident when she was ten. That was when her mother had grown even more overbearing. Without Malcolm, there was no one to soften Josephine’s sharper edges, no one to hold her in check. Not that the buffer he’d provided was the only reason, or even the primary reason, she missed him... “There you are!” Keith called across the distance, waving to make sure he had her attention. Grabbing the handles of her two suitcases, which contained everything she hadn’t shipped to the island in boxes, she stepped into the flow of people so she could disembark. It was too late to change her mind about moving home. She’d given up her apartment in Manhattan and depleted most of her savings, thanks to the exorbitant fees of the divorce attorney she’d had to hire. “You look great,” Keith told her as she moved closer. Maisey conjured up her best approximation of a smile—she seemed unable to smile spontaneously these days—and embraced him. “Thanks.” She was wearing an expensive white tunic with Jimmy Choo shoes and Chanel jewelry, but she’d never looked worse and she knew it. She hadn’t been sleeping or eating well—not since that day two years ago, the worst day of her life. It didn’t help that her brother was also going through a difficult time. Once she’d learned about his suicide attempt, she’d been so manic about selling her furniture and what she could sacrifice of her other belongings so she could return to Fairham to be with him that she hadn’t bothered to do much shopping or cooking, which had caused her to lose even more weight. Her color wasn’t good, either. But her brother didn’t look much better. Nearly six-foot-six with a set of broad shoulders that gave him a nice frame, he could stand to gain some weight, too. And he had dark circles under his eyes—the same blue-green eyes she possessed that always drew so much attention. “You look good, too,” she lied, and suppressed a wry chuckle. She was home, all right. The pretense was already starting. Her ex-husband’s frank honesty was one of the things that had attracted her to him, which made his actions at the end of their marriage seem especially ironic. “How was your trip?” Keith pulled her thoughts away from the past, where they resided far too frequently. “Not bad,” she replied. No way did she want to regale him with stories of how difficult she found it just to walk out of her apartment building. She’d spent weeks at a time holed up in bed, but he didn’t need to know that only the urgency of his situation had been sufficient motivation to get her on her feet again. “How’s Mom?” He shot her a look that acknowledged the tension any reference to Josephine created. “The same. She might not act like it, but she’s excited to have you home. She’s had a room in the east wing prepared for you.” The guest wing? The significance of that didn’t escape Maisey. If there’d been any doubt that she was to be treated with cool disdain until she’d done her penance, this proved it. The anger that flared up, making her stiffen, surprised Maisey. Apparently she wasn’t completely cowed and broken. The idea of walking into Coldiron House—named after Josephine’s father, Henry Coldiron, who’d owned most of the island before Josephine inherited it—brought back a hint of her old defiance. She couldn’t cope with living there, couldn’t submit, as she would have to submit, in order to regain her mother’s approval. “I won’t be staying at Mom’s,” she said. Keith had started to reach for her suitcases. At this, he straightened. “What do you mean?” “I mean I have to find somewhere else.” He measured her with his eyes, and she found them so hollow she grew frightened for him all over again. Was he doing as well as he claimed? He didn’t seem to be particularly robust—in body or spirit. “I understand it’ll be a bit uncomfortable for you at first.” He glanced away as if he could tell she was trying to see behind the front he was putting on. “But trust me. Mom will come around. You’ll piss her off if you don’t stay at the house, and that’ll only make matters worse. After a few weeks...” “No.” She broke in before he could get any further into his appeal. “I can’t do it.” He stared at her. “You’re serious. You’ve barely arrived, and you’re going to make her angry? She has too much pride to put up with the rejection.” “She rejected me first. And I don’t have a relationship with her, anyway,” Maisey said. “We communicate through email or her housekeeper, for crying out loud. I’ve spoken to her only a handful of times over the past decade.” And when they had talked, there’d been more silence than anything. There’d even been silence when Maisey had desperately craved consolation. “You need her,” he said. “We both do. And that means we’ll always be under her thumb.” Although she was secretly frightened that might be true, Maisey scoffed at it. “No. I’ll help you, stand by you. I just need to...to get back on my feet, and she can only hurt my ability to do that.” The thought of walking through those heavy doors, dragging her belongings behind her, almost gave her a panic attack. At least, if she didn’t stay at Coldiron House, she’d retain some autonomy, some independence. She had to protect the little peace of mind she had left. He rubbed his gaunt face. “So where will you stay?” “I could rent a room from someone in town.” She had enough money for that, didn’t she? Her reserves would last six months or so... “Here on Fairham?” Her brother shook his head, adamant. “That would provoke an all-out war.” He was right. To maintain some semblance of peace, she couldn’t cross certain lines. She couldn’t embarrass her mother by revealing that there was any strain inside the family. Appearances were everything to Josephine. They were Coldirons, even though their surname was technically Lazarow, and they needed to comport themselves as such. How many times had she heard that lecture? “What if I got an apartment in Charleston?” she asked, but decided against it almost as soon as the words passed her lips. Charleston would cost too much and, left on her own, she wouldn’t recover. Being sequestered in a cheap, unfamiliar apartment would be worse than living alone in New York with the furniture Jack hadn’t taken. “I don’t see...” he started, but she cut him off again. “Wait.” The solution had occurred to her, and it was so obvious she couldn’t believe she hadn’t thought of it before. “Why couldn’t I stay in one of the bungalows?” “The vacation rentals? They’re on the far side of the island!” “So?” Going back and forth to Coldiron House wouldn’t require a ferry, like it would from Charleston. And it was September, when the small influx of vacationers who visited Fairham each summer returned to their regular lives. One of the nine units should be available. “We’re talking ten miles if I take the bike path. I’ll buy a bike and ride over whenever you want me to. Or you can come hang out at my place.” Maisey felt that would be even better. Not only would living in Smuggler’s Cove enable her to avoid their mother, it would provide Keith a place to go occasionally, a place where he wouldn’t have to deal with Josephine—meaning he wouldn’t have to resort to drugs as his escape. “Most of them haven’t been refurbished since Hurricane Lorna last fall,” he said. “I could’ve sworn you told me months ago that Mom was hiring a contractor.” That was well before Keith’s last big blowup with Josephine, when he’d stormed off to “live his own life.” He’d disappeared for several months before ending up on another drug binge, which had culminated in the black moment that had brought him home again—the same black moment that had ultimately brought her home, too. “She has hired a contractor,” he said, “but she didn’t get around to it until I got back a couple of weeks ago. Construction’s just begun.” Her mother had waited a year to rebuild? “Why’d she wait so long?” He took her suitcase, and walked toward the sleek gray Mercedes he’d parked in the lot. It was their mother’s car. He no longer owned anything to speak of. Although he’d turned thirty-six in February, an age by which most people had managed to accumulate a vehicle and some furniture or other personal property, he’d sold everything for drug money. What he hadn’t sold, he’d given away while he was high or destroyed out of anger and frustration. “She was in another relationship with some off-islander, so she couldn’t be bothered,” he said in response to her question. “But I’m sure she’ll tell you the delay was all my fault. As you know, I haven’t made things easy on her—or anyone else.” Including himself... Keith had caused nothing but heartache. But it disturbed Maisey that her mother always had to assign blame. “The future doesn’t have to be a reflection of the past.” She touched his arm for encouragement. “We’ll get through the coming months together. It’ll be okay now that we have each other.” When he didn’t respond, Maisey wished she hadn’t questioned him about the delay in construction, hadn’t made him accept responsibility for it. He needed to look ahead—not behind. “I’m sure the bungalows will be ready by next summer, which means we only missed one tourist season.” He was putting her suitcases in the trunk, so she couldn’t read his expression. “That’s the goal,” he said. “Have you been out to see them recently?” she asked as they slid into the sun-warmed interior of the Mercedes and buckled their seat belts. “Mom’s sent me over once or twice, yeah.” “How bad are they?” “Pretty bad.” She cringed. “Structurally?” “Units 1 to 4 need structural repairs.” “What about 5 to 9?” They were set back off the beach, in the trees. Maisey assumed the wind hadn’t hit them as hard. “They’re sound, but they still need a lot of work.” Maisey hated that the bungalows had been damaged. Since the eighties, when her father’d had them built, Smuggler’s Cove had been a magical place for her, a place where she could find him, or some essence of him, even after he was gone. She had so many fond memories of tagging along to the rentals that, when he died, she’d wanted to scatter his ashes there on the beach. But her mother retained control of his remains, like she did everything else. His ashes were kept in a decorative urn on the mantel of the formal living room at Coldiron House. Not for any sentimental reason. But because it allowed Josephine to pretend he was her one great love, since she hadn’t been able to get along with anyone else—not for long, anyway. Every other relationship had fallen apart within two or three years. “I don’t mind helping with the cleanup and repairs, maybe doing some painting, that sort of thing.” There was a period when she and Jack, her ex-husband, had watched almost every do-it-yourself show on TV, and used much of what they’d learned to improve their small cabin in the Catskill Mountains. It had been sold, as stipulated by the divorce decree, but she’d always loved it there. Keith backed out of the parking space. “I’m not sure the contractor’s going to like having you in the middle of everything.” “I’ll stay out of his way.” She tucked her dark hair behind her ears. It was getting too long; she needed to have it trimmed. “Who’d Mom hire? Anyone from around here?” “Raphael Something. Can’t remember his last name. I didn’t ask where he was from. I know he’s done other work on the island, though, because I’ve seen his sign—High Tide Construction.” Maisey had never met anyone by that name or heard of the company. But then, plenty could’ve changed since she’d been gone. “Can we go to Smuggler’s Cove now, see if it’s even a possibility?” He hit the brake, stopping before they could exit the lot. “You’re not thinking of moving in without asking Mom...” Knowing that she had a viable alternative—if she did have one—would help her get through that daunting first encounter. “I can’t imagine she’d refuse to let me live in one of Dad’s bungalows. He’d turn over in his grave if she did.” They were something her father had created and paid for with the money he’d brought into the relationship. “Besides, I’m supposed to inherit the development, remember?” “If she follows his wishes.” Maisey had to acknowledge that the future of the cottages rested in her mother’s hands, since Josephine had inherited them first. “Well, you’ve heard the cliché—it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.” He pursed his lips. “Not with her.” The complexity of Keith’s relationship with Josephine accounted for a lot of his problems. Maisey wished he could get out on his own so he wouldn’t need Josephine’s help. Then he could also reject her advice and any unwanted intrusions into his life. But, so far, that hadn’t happened; he and Josephine were mutually dependent on each other. She provided financial support, and since she couldn’t be satisfied with any of her romances, he gave her companionship—when he wasn’t acting out. They loved each other but hated each other, too. But because Maisey was coming home with almost nothing, she wasn’t exactly the perfect example of how to get away, so she hesitated to say too much. “Come on, I’m on her shit list, anyway,” she said, pretending more indifference than she felt. He released a sigh. “Fine. Then why not really piss her off, huh?” 2 (#ulink_c467b7f3-14ee-5def-957f-b1307f6f7f9c) KEYS CROSSING WAS the island’s only town. It was also the only land not owned by her mother. As the marina, and the downtown streets with their various municipal services and private businesses—the small town hall with adjoining police station, the fire house for the even smaller volunteer fire department, the Sugar Shack, the Drift Inn, the various gift shops and the one grocery store in town, not to mention Love’s in Bloom, her mother’s flower shop—gave way to swaying palm trees, sandy beaches and lush vegetation, Maisey felt her heart begin to lighten. She’d been right to come here. She could sense it deep in her bones—now that she wasn’t heading directly to her childhood home. She closed her eyes, enjoying the hot sun beating down on her through the windshield. This summer she hadn’t spent nearly enough time outdoors... Keith interrupted her moment of tranquility. “Do you ever hear from Jack?” She and her brother hadn’t talked about the divorce for months. There’d been too many more dire things to focus on, most recently his attempt to take his own life with a bottle of sleeping pills. If the manager at the dumpy motel where he’d been staying in New Orleans hadn’t come into his room to kick him out for nonpayment, he’d probably be dead. “No, not a word,” she said. “He has no reason to contact me. Why?” “Just curious.” “Maybe the situation would be different if we still had Ellie,” she added, “but...now that she’s gone, our divorce really is goodbye.” Her brother didn’t say anything about her child. Like most people, he shied away from the grief a loss like that inspired. “What happened?” he asked instead. “Why’d he cheat?” She’d asked herself the same question so many times—and didn’t like any of the answers. She couldn’t help blaming herself for being unable to recover from Ellie’s death as quickly as he could, for being less of a woman than he wanted, for needing him when he wasn’t capable of giving her any solace. “He said he wasn’t fulfilled in our marriage. Whatever that means.” Keith shifted in the driver’s seat. “Have you met your replacement?” “Once. We ran into her on Fifth Avenue.” It was difficult not to hate Jack’s new girlfriend. She wasn’t particularly attractive, and didn’t seem to have anything else that should’ve been hard for Jack to refuse, which only made Maisey feel more inadequate. “After he left?” Keith asked. “Before. They went to high school together, so they’d known each other in the past. I believe that accidental run-in on Fifth Avenue is where the affair started. She must’ve contacted him on Facebook or emailed him afterward—or he contacted her, and...their relationship grew from there.” “Does it hurt to talk about it?” It hurt to even think about Jack. Maisey wasn’t sure she’d ever get over him. Her marriage was supposed to last forever. But Keith was fighting enough battles. She couldn’t expect him to prop her up. “No, I’ve put it behind me.” Her brother shook his head. “How’d we miss that he was such a douchebag?” Grateful for his attempt to lighten the conversation, she smiled ruefully. “You mean how did I miss it? If I remember right, you were never too fond of him.” “He hated me.” Jack hadn’t understood Keith’s volatile nature, and had no patience with it. “The funny thing is that I can’t blame Mom for the collapse of my marriage. I moved away so she couldn’t turn me into the person I become when I’m around her. I thought that would make it easier to be successful in a relationship, but even that didn’t change the ending.” “You gave it your best shot.” He gripped the steering wheel with both hands. “Believe me, there are no answers for some things.” “How are you doing?” she asked. “Okay?” “Taking it minute by minute.” “Have you been working at the flower shop?” Josephine had started the business four years after Malcolm died, following the demise of her next marriage. “Almost every morning.” “Is Mom there very often?” “Only when she’s lonely or bored. Lately that amounts to about three days a week, for an hour here or an hour there. She has Nancy now, who manages it for her.” “So you spend your afternoons...” “Going to my NA meetings. I hate having to catch the ferry for those. It all takes up so much time.” She could believe that. But they were an important part of his recovery. He wouldn’t want to spend all day at the flower shop, anyway. And it wasn’t as if he could find other work. The island had a population of only 2,500, so jobs weren’t easy to come by. His temper and drug use would preclude him from maintaining a steady job, no matter where he lived. He’d proven that in the past. “I’ll go to the meetings with you,” she said. “Give you some company.” “You don’t want to come.” He grimaced. “‘Hi, I’m Keith Lazarow, and I’m an addict.’ Why would you want to listen to that bullshit?” “Because I care about you, and I’m hoping that having a companion will make attending those meetings more...tolerable.” “What about your career? Don’t you have a new children’s book under contract?” Feigning preoccupation with the scenery flying past, she turned her face to the window. “My career’s on hold for the time being.” “On hold? You haven’t said anything about that before.” “Because it’s not a big deal. I’m just taking a break.” She couldn’t bring herself to tell him that she couldn’t do it anymore. That the drawing, the ideas, the words, the enthusiasm...it was all gone. She couldn’t come up with another Little Molly Brimble book, had no idea how she’d created her other books, since that kind of creativity seemed so out of reach to her now. To make it official and to escape the pressure she’d felt, she’d even fired her agent. “For the next few months, I’m going to figure out something else I can do.” He pushed aside the hank of dark hair that fell across his forehead. “Sounds to me like you’re giving it up.” “Not necessarily.” “You can’t quit creating, Maisey—not because of Ellie or Jack or me. You love what you do. You’re good at it. And famous!” She rolled her eyes. “I’m not famous.” “You were making a name for yourself. You were on your way.” Acutely conscious of the absence of her wedding ring, which had represented an important part of her identity for nine of the past ten years, she laced her fingers together in her lap. “Doesn’t matter. Molly Brimble is on an indefinite leave of absence.” She sounded more absolute than she’d intended. She didn’t want him to continue prodding her since she was suddenly struggling to ward off tears. Lazarows didn’t cry, especially in front of other people, and that included family. She’d only embarrass herself and make Keith uncomfortable. “It was Ellie who died, Maisey,” he said softly. Her child’s life had been so short, only six weeks... “You think I don’t know that?” she said. “You think I haven’t missed her every minute of every day since that terrible morning when I found her?” He set his jaw. “My point is that it was two years ago. You have to figure out a way to get beyond it.” She couldn’t look at him, not without losing her battle with those tears. Because of her relationship with Josephine, she’d let Jack talk her into burying Ellie not far from where he’d been raised in Philadelphia. But since she’d never lived there, and he was now out of her life, that felt so strange and far away. She wished she’d insisted on burying Ellie on the island, as she’d initially requested. “Get beyond it?” she repeated as if that was impossible. “Yes. Unless, of course, that only applies to me.” He was throwing her own words back at her. “No, of course not. I am getting beyond it in the only way I believe someone can get beyond something like that. I told you, I’ll do something else until I’m ready to start writing again.” She couldn’t fall apart after all the encouragement and advice she’d offered him. She couldn’t even admit how close to despair she really was. She had to stand tall and lead the way, set an example for him. They turned onto the narrow dirt road that led into Smuggler’s Cove and, about a quarter of a mile ahead, spotted a black pickup with a High Tide Construction placard on the door. It was parked outside the first bungalow on the back row—Unit 5. Maisey knew because of her familiarity with the cove; she couldn’t see the house through the trees that’d grown so much since she’d last been on the island. “Looks like Mom’s contractor’s hard at work,” she said. “Actually, he must be at lunch.” “How do you know?” Keith shrugged as he slowed to navigate the various potholes. “He lives there.” Maisey gaped at him. “Only for the duration of the project, though, right?” “Permanently—unless he decides to move. He told Mom he’d give her a heck of a deal on refurbishing the others if she’d sell him one. So she did.” A wave of resentment washed over Maisey. Her mother had mentioned other interested parties through the years but Josephine had always refused them. “The bungalows aren’t for sale. They never have been.” And if it was up to her, they never would be. Her father had told her they’d belong to her. “Since Dad’s gone, Mom’s in charge, and I have to admit that selling made sense.” As soon as they passed the black truck, which was loaded with lumber, and the curved drive came into view, Keith pulled to the far side of the road. “How do you figure?” she asked. “He’s going to maintain and manage the properties once he’s finished with the refurbishing. Maybe you’ll wind up with one less house, but they’ll be in good shape when you take over.” “And what does he get for staying on? Will he become one of her employees?” “Not really. He just won’t have to make house payments.” “That’s generous, considering the winter months are so quiet around here. Once he gets all the cottages fixed up, he won’t have much to keep him busy.” Keith put the transmission in Park but didn’t turn off the engine. “If I had to guess, I’d say it’s about cash flow. What she would’ve had to pay for the repairs she keeps as the down payment. What she would’ve had to pay for an on-site manager she keeps in lieu of a mortgage payment.” “She’s sacrificed a valuable asset!” “Sacrificed? It’s not a sacrifice if she receives fair compensation.” “Is she that tight for money?” Would she sell the others? Maisey wouldn’t put it past her. What her father had brought to the marriage paled in comparison to what Josephine had contributed, so she wouldn’t hesitate to do whatever she wanted, despite his promises to Maisey. “Not necessarily. It’s about being strategic.” He ducked his head to peer out her window. “Even if she was in financial trouble, unless it became so obvious we couldn’t miss it, we’d never know. She’s very private about her finances, as you know. Not only that, but she acts as if I’m too stupid to understand business.” He’d never shown any aptitude. Maisey couldn’t fault Josephine there. So she pretended to be too preoccupied to respond to that comment. “Why’d Raphael pick Unit 5?” “Mother wouldn’t let him have any of the first four. They’re closer to the sea, more in demand during the summer.” Thank God for small favors! Maisey glared at the contractor’s truck. She’d never shopped for a Ford F-250, but it looked big, rugged and costly. “A mortgage is only part of the cost of living. He’ll have other bills to pay.” She’d learned all about those other bills when they’d quickly drained her bank account... “I’m sure he’s got income. He still has his business, and Mom doesn’t care what he does as long as he keeps everything up around here. He probably plans to fold Smuggler’s Cove in with his regular work.” “I see,” she said, but gripped her purse tightly—as if she wanted to fling it out the window at that truck, which was impeding the limited view through the trees. “That’s okay, isn’t it?” Keith asked. “It’s not what I would’ve done.” “You’re sentimental. Mom is...less so. And that still leaves you with eight units.” She was upset that he didn’t seem to care, because she knew how he’d react if it’d been his inheritance Josephine had diminished. What if she’d sold the flower shop, which they’d both been told would go to him? He shifted the transmission and began to drive away. “Whoa, what are you doing?” Maisey asked. “We’re not going to talk to the contractor?” “I don’t want to interrupt the poor guy at home. I figure you should see what you’re getting into before we bother anybody.” “Won’t we need keys?” “Not to poke around a bit. You might take one look at the other bungalows and tell me to drive straight to Coldiron House.” “They’d have to be a lot worse than this. The little I can see looks fine.” What if this guy had his sights set on owning the whole development one day? And if she ever tried to make the property complete again, what if he refused to sell and she couldn’t get the bungalow back? “Unit 5 is in decent shape because he finished it right away, so he could move in,” Keith explained. “Now he’s starting on the seaside units. They have the highest priority since they go for the highest rents.” She peered through the trees, craning her neck to see the next unit. “I don’t like that he’s here—or that he might become a permanent fixture.” She didn’t want anything to change, not in this place. “You haven’t even met him.” “I don’t need to meet him.” When they turned in at Unit 6, she cursed under her breath. “Look at that.” “Told you. Not quite what you saw at the last cottage, is it? And it’s the best of the ones that are left.” This time he cut the engine, but she didn’t get out. She stayed in her seat, gazing at the buckled porch, the sagging and missing shutters and the all-too-obvious water damage, which had left a mark halfway up the walls. “Is it completely empty inside?” She hadn’t considered that... “Everything’s been gutted, so Raphael can do what he needs to do.” She began to worry that she wouldn’t be able to stay here, after all. “Where’s the furniture? Was it ruined?” “Not all of it. Mom had me help move everything. She insisted we throw out the drapes, bedding and towels, stuff like that. They needed to be replaced, anyway. Most of the furniture, even some of the mattresses, were salvageable, though. What’s left has been stacked in the last unit.” That was good news. Depending on what had been saved, Maisey could furnish whatever unit she chose. She could always buy bedding. Perhaps she’d make her own drapes—or order them online if she couldn’t come by a sewing machine. But there was no denying that the bungalows looked worse than she’d expected. She’d been living in New York, newly single, when the hurricane hit, but she’d heard it was the worst Fairham had ever endured. Now she could see that was true. Keith opened his door. “Should we check the inside?” She nodded, and they got out. But the bungalow was locked, as she’d predicted. They were trying to look through the windows when they heard the sound of an engine and turned to see the same pickup they’d noticed in front of Unit 5. The driver parked behind the Mercedes. Maisey couldn’t see much of him, though, until he started toward them. Then her breath caught in her throat. Not only did she recognize this man, she’d once had sex with him! 3 (#ulink_05183f6e-18f9-51ee-aac4-bdcc0215c5f7) “OH, GOD, THAT’S RAFE,” she breathed, her voice low enough that the man approaching wouldn’t hear. “Who?” Keith said, but there was no time to explain. “Rafe” Romero wasn’t just someone she’d once slept with. At sixteen, she’d lost her virginity to him, rather unceremoniously, in the back bedroom of a party she’d been forbidden to attend (because there would be riffraff like him there), and she’d done it to spite her mother. She might’ve continued to sleep with him. The fact that he was four years older, reckless and without “prospects,” as Josephine would say, made him an appealing choice for her purposes—especially since all that “unsuitable” came in such an appealing package. But once he’d learned she wasn’t eighteen, like she’d said, he wouldn’t have any more to do with her. Even when she’d told him she was a Lazarow, thinking that might make the difference, he’d narrowed his eyes as if he had no respect for her family name or her money. He’d said that just meant she wouldn’t understand anything about the real world. She could still hear him laughing when she’d stomped off. As he closed the distance between them, Maisey hoped he wouldn’t remember her. She’d had eighteen years to realize how self-destructive and ridiculous her behavior had been, and was embarrassed by it. Particularly when she recalled how brazen she’d been... Pretend you don’t have a clue who he is and maybe he won’t recognize you, she told herself. He’d been so drunk that night she thought she had a chance—until their eyes connected and he hesitated midstride. He definitely recognized her. Shit... “Something I can help you with?” he asked. “There is if you have the key.” Grateful that he didn’t immediately give away their previous involvement, she pointed at the door. “You’re Josephine Lazarow’s daughter,” he said. She nodded politely but indifferently. “Yes. My name’s Maisey. And I’d like to see this unit.” He smiled at Keith. “Good to see you again.” “You, too. Sorry to come by out of the blue. We didn’t want you to think there was anything going on when we passed your place. It’s just that my sister’s considering moving into one of the bungalows for—” Maisey felt certain he was about to say “for some strange reason,” and jumped in to finish the sentence for him. “The next few months.” When Rafe’s golden-brown eyes returned to her, Maisey noticed that the acne he’d had as a teenager was gone. Other than a five-o’clock shadow, his skin was smooth and clear and almost as golden as his eyes. He’d also added quite a bit of muscle, mainly in the arms and shoulders, which made him look powerful. His dark hair, although shorter, retained a bit of curl at the ends, and thick black lashes framed his eyes. The years had been kind to him, and he’d had more in the looks department than most men to start with. “You mean after they’re rehabbed?” he said. “No. Now,” she clarified. “I understand they need work. But as long as the place isn’t going to fall off its stilts or give way under my feet, I can make do. Or would you suggest another unit?” “This one’s in the best shape,” he said. “I’d say you’re in the right place as far as that goes. But there’s nothing inside any of them.” She ignored his bemused expression. “Keith tells me there’s furniture in the end unit. He’ll help me retrieve what I need. The utilities are on, aren’t they?” “They were off until I had them turned back on last week. I figured I’d need power and water for the construction work. But—” Rafe motioned toward his own bungalow, even though they couldn’t see it for the distance and the trees “—it only took me two weeks to fix mine up. Wouldn’t you rather give me a chance to get this ready for you?” “That’s okay. My mother wouldn’t want me to distract you from the seaside cottages. And I’d prefer not to wait. As long as you don’t mind a slight change of plans, I’d be happy to do some of the work myself—cleaning and painting and small repairs. None of which will affect your contract.” He seemed at a loss as to why she’d be willing to do that. “If it’s what you want.” He had to be wondering why she wasn’t moving into Coldiron House. Most people would expect her to stay in her family home. There was a certain cachet that went along with being a Lazarow and living in the mansion her grandfather had built. But the townspeople who envied her didn’t realize how difficult Josephine was, and that money and family history could only make up for so much. Fortunately, Rafe didn’t come right out and ask why she preferred a water-damaged bungalow. He seemed to be a man who knew when to keep his mouth shut. She gestured at Unit 6. “Would you mind letting us in?” “Not at all.” He withdrew a ring of keys from his pocket and led them up the steps to the front porch, where they waited while he unlocked the door and swung it open. “Here you go.” The turpentine and other chemicals that’d been used so far wafted out. “Smells clean,” she said. “I sprayed for mold and mildew.” “Clean?” Keith wrinkled his nose as he walked in. “It stinks. Are you sure you wouldn’t be more comfortable at the house?” Maisey followed her brother. “Positive.” Rafe brought up the rear, then stood off to one side while they wandered around. It wasn’t until Keith went down the hall to the bedroom, and she was in the kitchen taking stock of the appliances she’d need and whether the stove and microwave still worked, that he approached her. And then, thank God, he lowered his voice. “You’ve grown up.” His smile reached his eyes, which suggested romantic interest and took her off guard. She hadn’t had a man smile at her in quite that way for some time. Or maybe she’d just been too caught up in the pain caused by her divorce to notice. “And I’ve learned a few things along the way.” She stepped into the opening to make sure Keith wasn’t coming back yet. Then she took a deep breath. “Look, I’m sorry for how I behaved when we met. I was...unbelievably forward.” “I’m not holding that against you,” he said. “We’ve all done things we wish we hadn’t.” She let her breath out slowly. “Thank you for understanding.” “Of course.” His expression turned to one of chagrin as he rubbed his neck. “I was a little out of control myself back then. Being a punk and rebelling against the world.” “You seem to have recovered nicely.” His smile slanted to one side. “I like to think I’ve matured.” “That makes two of us who’ve matured. We’re different people these days. So...if you’re willing, I say we forget the past. Agreed?” “The way we met might be hard to forget,” he teased. “But I understand you have a reputation to uphold. I won’t breathe a word of it. I’d never do that to you, anyway.” She smoothed her tunic. “I’m grateful.” “No problem. Maybe we can just...start over.” What did that mean? Start over how? “Excuse me?” she said. He slid his hands in his pockets and leaned against the counter. “You’re not with someone, are you? I don’t see a ring...” Once again, she felt the absence of the gold band that had resided on her wedding finger for so many years. “No, not anymore.” “Then will you let me take you to dinner sometime?” The way his shoulders lifted slightly seemed endearingly boyish, as if he really didn’t want her to say no. But she hadn’t expected this and wasn’t prepared for it. “That would be impossible,” she said. “I appreciate the offer, though.” When she rejected him so quickly and unequivocally, he looked a little deflated. “Are you that sure you won’t like me?” She scowled. She’d been “off the market” for so long. Even after Jack had moved out, she’d been sequestered in her own home, working—or trying to work—for over a year. That left her feeling socially clumsy. She almost gave in just to avoid sounding like a bitch, but she wasn’t ready to start dating, especially someone like Rafe. “I’m not going to be your next conquest,” she said. He raised a hand. “Whoa! I said dinner.” After checking the hall again, she decided her brother must be in the bathroom. “I heard you, but let’s be honest. No man wants to make an investment without some kind of return.” When he realized she was serious, his playfulness evaporated. “I wasn’t asking for a commitment to sleep with me, for God’s sake. Dinner’s...dinner. How else am I supposed to get to know you?” He’d lost that rangy, lone wolf aura that had made him seem so unpredictable and dangerous when he was a younger man. It’d been replaced with a strong sense of purpose but, in some ways, that made him more of a threat. There weren’t many men who had the confidence to go after a woman so directly, and that scared the hell out of her. “Trust me, we wouldn’t be well-suited. I’m doing you a favor.” “I can look out for myself.” “There’s no need to waste any time or money. Like I said, I’d be a bad investment.” He hesitated for a second. Then he said, “Are you afraid I can’t afford it? I don’t come from money so I’m not good enough for you?” “Stop it! No. Of course not.” “Because we never really got to know each other,” he said. “And, for the record, I’m embarrassed about that night, too. If I’m remembering correctly, it wasn’t my best performance.” Sex with Rafe had lasted all of about thirty seconds. There’d been a brief flash of pain as he’d pushed inside her, some frantic movement while she’d stared at the water stain on the ceiling and a moan as he’d climaxed. Then he’d rolled off her and passed out. She’d had no idea why the other girls talked as if he was so good in bed. She hadn’t been impressed. But she could hardly blame him for the disappointment she’d experienced. She’d offered herself up to be used; it wasn’t as though he’d come on to her. “It has nothing to do with your...performance. I deserved what I got.” He winced. “It wouldn’t have been so bad if I’d had any clue about sex,” she clarified, “but you know how the movies romanticize everything. My expectations were too high, that’s all.” “Wait a second.” He stepped closer, close enough that she could smell his cologne. “Are you serious?” he whispered. “That was your first time?” “We’re talking about the distant past,” she said. “None of it matters anymore.” He raked his fingers through his hair. “I honestly don’t remember you telling me you were a virgin.” Why were they even discussing this? “Because I didn’t,” she said, her voice as hushed as his. “I was too busy trying to act experienced—like I was eighteen. Anyway, you were so drunk I’m surprised you remembered me at all. I was actually hoping you wouldn’t.” “Well, shit,” he said. “Now I wish you didn’t remember me, either. I don’t want to be the guy who ruined your first time. No wonder you won’t go out with me.” “I ruined my first time. I was hoping for too much.” “Somehow that only makes it worse,” he said dryly. The toilet flushed, and she sent him a warning look. “Keith’s coming back.” “Am I doing something wrong?” She shook her head. “I don’t want him badgering me about getting out and dating again. I’m not interested in...in a relationship,” she said, and went back to inspecting the kitchen. After that, Rafe seemed pensive, but he waited patiently for her to finish roaming through the house. “This isn’t too bad,” she told Keith when she returned to the living room where he’d been chatting with Rafe. “I’m sure I’ll be fine.” There’d be real peace here and not the memories she’d experience in her mother’s home. She needed a “cave” to crawl into, a neutral place to call her own. Even better if that place had the positive associations of Smuggler’s Cove. “Maisey, come on,” Keith said. “You can’t be serious.” “I’m absolutely serious. I could throw a few rugs on the floor, use the bar near the kitchen window to eat and put a mattress and a chest of drawers in the bedroom. I won’t need much to get by.” Keith rolled his eyes. “Just come home and get it over with. You won’t last two weeks here. Why would you want to be by yourself, anyway, after everything you’ve been through? You were by yourself in New York. If that’s what you wanted, you could’ve stayed there.” She preferred not to include Rafe in anything too personal, but Keith didn’t seem to have the same reservations. “This is different from the city. I can hear the sea, which reminds me of all the times I played here as a child. And, despite the hurricane damage, Smuggler’s Cove seems...safe in a way no other place does.” She turned to Rafe. “Mr. Romero, would you mind if I moved in? I could fix it up to the best of my ability until you’re ready to start on it. And then I could relocate to a different unit.” “I’m sure we can work something out,” he said, but his words were clipped and he was no longer smiling. “See?” She looked at Keith. “Mr....” “At least call me Rafe,” he broke in. “Okay.” Thanks to the humidity, she was beginning to perspire. She pulled her hair up to get it off her neck. “Rafe here says he can work around me. So...Mom won’t be able to launch that argument.” “She can launch any argument,” Keith grumbled. “Watch her.” When her brother walked out onto the porch and leaned on the railing, Maisey glanced at Rafe. “I really won’t be any trouble,” she murmured. “I’m sure you won’t,” he said, but she couldn’t tell if he was being facetious. “As soon as you tell me you need to be in here, I’ll get out.” “Right. If we’re careful, we can avoid each other indefinitely.” She wanted to tell him that wouldn’t be necessary. She saw no reason they couldn’t continue to be civil if they happened to bump into each other. But she was afraid to start another conversation along those lines with Keith in such close proximity. “I’ll grab my bags from the car. I might as well leave them here while we go over to the house.” Keith watched from his spot on the porch as she wrestled her heaviest suitcase out of the trunk and dragged it over to the porch steps. He wasn’t happy she was staying, so he didn’t offer to help. Instead, Rafe came down and insisted on carrying her luggage into the cottage. She kept trying to tell him she could manage. It didn’t seem polite to let him do her a favor on the heels of her refusal to go out with him. But he acted as if he didn’t hear her. “That’s it, then,” she said to Keith when her things were stowed in the otherwise empty bedroom. “We might as well head over to see Mom.” She couldn’t put it off any longer. “Fun,” he muttered, and started for the car. She stood on the porch, watching her brother’s retreating back as Rafe locked up. “Should I bring over a mattress and a few other necessities, like a fridge, and have them here for when you get back?” he asked. “No, I’ll do that myself.” She had no idea how she’d move something as heavy as a fridge. But she hoped that, between Keith and her, they’d manage. She didn’t want to be a nuisance to Rafe Romero, didn’t want him complaining to her mother. Having to take that into consideration at all bothered her. It was part of the reason she resented the fact that he was living here. She didn’t feel she should have to answer to anyone—not at Smuggler’s Cove. “It could be dark when you get back to this side of the island,” he said. She checked her phone—nearly two. “The sun won’t set for another five hours.” She certainly hoped she wouldn’t have to stay at Coldiron House that long. “I was under the impression you’ve been gone from Fairham for quite a long time.” “I’m afraid it hasn’t been long enough.” His expression was inscrutable as he removed a key from his ring and handed it to her. “This will get you in here. Stop by later, and I’ll take you over to Unit 9.” “Why don’t you give me that key, too? I can put it under your mat when I’m done, if it’s too late to disturb you.” “Sorry, I’ll need it this afternoon. I’ve stored a lot of my construction materials there.” “I see.” “But I’ll slip the key under your mat when I finish up if you’d rather not come to my place.” “That’ll be ideal. Then I won’t have to interrupt your evening.” “You wouldn’t want to need anyone,” he said, and went down the stairs before she could respond. Maisey followed more slowly and joined her brother in the Mercedes. “What was that all about?” Keith had the air on—thank goodness, because the humidity was even more oppressive than usual for this time of year. “What?” she replied, preoccupied with Rafe’s last comment. She didn’t want to need anyone. Everyone she’d known had let her down. Her mother had never been someone she could lean on, not emotionally. Her brother didn’t have the strength to keep himself on a productive path, never mind anyone else. Her father had died. And her husband had abandoned her when she needed him most. “Oh, God, that’s Rafe,” Keith said, mimicking her words from before. As Rafe’s truck disappeared around the bend, she said, “I’ve met Mom’s contractor before. At a party a long time ago. I didn’t recognize his name because we called him Rafe and not Raphael.” “Did he remember you?” “Once I reminded him, yeah.” “That’s it? You met him at a party years ago and you were that distressed to see him again?” “I wasn’t distressed,” she lied. “I was surprised.” Keith looked at her more closely. “Were you two friends?” “Not at all. He’s four years older. I barely knew him.” “Did he go to Fairham High?” “He did. If you hadn’t been away at boarding school, you would’ve been a freshman when he was a junior and probably would’ve known him a lot better than I ever did. He seems nice enough now, though. Is he a good contractor?” Their tires crunched over the pebbles in the road. “Mom checked him out pretty thoroughly. He comes highly recommended.” He turned onto the paved street. “Speaking of Mom, are you nervous about seeing her?” She shrugged, pretending she wasn’t, but her heart began to pound faster and faster with each passing mile. It seemed like only seconds later that they were winding their way to the highest point on the island. “Pippa’s still there, isn’t she?” Maisey asked. “I doubt Mom’ll ever let Pippa go,” Keith replied. “She needs her too badly, and they get along quite well. But we have a new groundskeeper.” “Since when?” “Since Jorge retired and moved to San Diego three years ago. The new guy’s name is Tyrone.” She hadn’t kept up. Three years ago, she’d been too busy, if not too happy, to stay in touch. And once she’d lost her family and her ability to write and illustrate, she’d been too miserable. They stopped outside the decorative iron gates surrounding Coldiron House. Then Keith pushed the button that made those gates grind open, and she saw the mansion where she’d grown up—with its columns and double-story verandas, hanging flowerpots and carpet-like lawn—for the first time in ten years. Nostalgia warred with anxiety. So much for her great escape, she thought. She’d just made a perfect circle. 4 (#ulink_f89e2d74-455c-5848-9e9c-ff48145bfb78) HER MOTHER, DRESSED in a highly tailored burnt-orange skirt and jacket with matching pumps, was expertly made up and coifed. She was even wearing lip-liner with her lipstick. But just because she appeared to be on her way to Love’s in Bloom, or somewhere even fancier, didn’t mean she’d be leaving the house. Josephine always looked as if she belonged in the pages of a fashion magazine, and she never seemed to age. She did everything she could to prevent it. As a child, Maisey had been proud of her. When Josephine walked into a room, people noticed, especially men. And the way she carried herself, so regally, helped her win over anyone her beauty might not have captivated. It wasn’t until Maisey grew older that she began to perceive her mother’s vanity—and the many hours she spent getting Botox and other treatments—as more desperate and self-indulgent than admirable. But she didn’t want to see through that carefully prepared veneer. She wished she could still be under Josephine’s spell, like almost everyone else. “Hello, Mother.” She nodded respectfully as she stood at the threshold of the drawing room where her mother waited to receive them. She wished she was one of those daughters who could fall into her mother’s arms and sob out her pain, but she knew Josephine wouldn’t truly welcome her. “You’ve arrived.” Although her mother put down the small dog she’d been holding in her lap and got to her feet, her smile was cool. “Come in. You must be hungry and tired. I’ve ordered tea.” Maisey was grateful when her brother preceded her. She needed another moment to compose herself, another moment to prepare that aching, empty spot inside her for a fresh jolt of life as a Lazarow. Here we go, she thought. Focusing on the dog, which looked like a Yorkie, she gathered her courage, marched toward her mother and gave her the requisite air kiss on each cheek. She knew she’d be criticized if she didn’t perform this family ritual, although it meant nothing. When she breathed in the scent of her mother’s perfume, the memories of her childhood began to assault her. “You look lovely, as always.” “If only I could lose a few pounds,” her mother responded with an air of lamentation. Josephine murmured something similar whenever she received a compliment. Not because she truly believed she needed to lose weight; she considered it gauche not to avoid the appearance of conceit. Annoyed by the pretense, Maisey nearly grimaced. She felt as if she was playing the magic mirror in Snow White. Magic mirror, in my hand, who’s the fairest in the land? My queen, you are the fairest in the land. “What a beautiful outfit,” her mother said. Maisey was tempted to indulge in the same game her mother did by saying, “What, this old thing?” But knowing Josephine would easily figure out that she was the brunt of that joke, Maisey overrode the impulse. “I’m glad you like it.” “Keith’s been so excited about your arrival. How was the trip?” They hadn’t seen each other for ten years, and yet it was Keith who was excited? Keith had visited her several times in New York. He’d last seen her at Ellie’s funeral. Fortunately, he’d also come earlier, when she was born, or no one in Maisey’s family would ever have met her baby. But Josephine could never admit to needing or missing anyone who’d dared to question or criticize her. Or maybe she really hadn’t missed Maisey... “Not too bad. Still, I’m glad it’s over.” Josephine scooped up her little dog. “This is Athena.” “She’s darling.” Cuddling her dog, Josephine stepped to one side and peered into the entry. “Where’s your luggage?” Maisey hadn’t wanted to break the news that she’d be staying elsewhere so soon. But now that the question had been posed, she had no choice except to answer it. “I, um, stowed it over at Smuggler’s Cove.” Her mother’s eyes flashed with an emotion she quickly suppressed, and she put her dog down again. “Why would you leave it there?” “I’ve decided to move into one of the bungalows. I like the idea of being so close to the beach.” She mustered a smile as if she couldn’t feel the torrent of her mother’s displeasure. “It reminds me of Dad.” The mention of her father didn’t distract Josephine for a second. “But the bungalows aren’t ready for occupancy.” “Unit 6 isn’t so bad,” Keith said, obviously trying to smooth the way. “And I can manage until your contractor gets around to the rehab,” Maisey added. There was a protracted silence. As a child, Maisey would’ve caved in and said something to relieve the tension, something like, “But I’ll stay here, if you’d rather.” She’d always been a pleaser. Even as an adult, it required determination not to succumb to her mother’s powerful will. “You’d rather move into a damaged shack than return to Coldiron House?” her mother asked. “I’d hardly call the bungalows shacks, Mother,” she said, choosing to skirt the real issue. “They’re structurally sound and will be quite cozy once they’re restored. In all honesty, I’d like to assist with the restoration if I can. I enjoy do-it-yourself projects.” “Since when?” Josephine demanded. “Since I married Jack,” she replied coolly. There was a slight pause. “Yes, Jack brought out a lot of things in you I didn’t know existed.” Maisey almost reacted to her sarcasm by saying, “You mean like a backbone?” But her mother was still talking. And, determined to maintain the peace, Maisey stifled that rejoinder. “You’re no contractor,” Josephine was saying. “And I’m already paying Raphael Romero. Why would you get involved?” “Because I think I’d find it...therapeutic.” Her mother waved her words away. “Therapeutic how?” Was she serious? “It’ll give me something to concentrate on to get my mind off...the recent changes in my life.” “Surely you have better things to do,” her mother said. “Why impinge on your writing time?” Now wasn’t the ideal moment—if there could ever be an ideal moment—to tell Josephine that she hadn’t been able to produce more than a few words, which she’d edited right off the page. She hadn’t been able to draw, either. Not for months. “I’m sure I can fit everything in.” These days she had nothing but time. “At least you get paid for writing. You’ll get nothing in exchange for working on the bungalows.” “I’m not expecting anything.” Josephine’s chin went up as she sank back into her seat. “Except free rent.” She just had to make Maisey acknowledge the financial help she’d be receiving. Her mother had inherited a fortune from her father, who’d inherited it from his father. Yet she acted as though she’d earned every penny. “I’m willing to pay rent,” Maisey said. “How much would you like to charge me?” Josephine grimaced. “Stop.” “You’re the one who mentioned it.” “It doesn’t make any sense to go there when you could stay here for free. That’s all.” “How could my moving into the damaged bungalows cost you any more than having me move here? They’re empty, aren’t they?” Maisey regarded her mother expectantly. Putting Josephine in a position where she’d have to state her objection in order to get her way was the only effective tool Maisey possessed. “If that’s what you want, it’s of no consequence to me,” she said, right on cue. After a quick glance at Keith, who was standing by the hearth, Maisey sat down and pretended to take Josephine’s words at face value. But she was more convinced than ever that staying at Smuggler’s Cove, even with Rafe Romero living next door, might just save her sanity. There was a slight clatter in the doorway, and a girl in her late teens carried in a tray of small sandwiches, deviled eggs, cookies and tea. “Thank you, Clarissa.” Josephine slid forward to pour. Maisey waited until Clarissa had left to question the girl’s identity. “I see you have someone new on staff.” “Clarissa is Pippa’s niece. She’s helping out until Pippa’s well enough to resume her duties.” Maisey shot Keith another look. If Pippa was sick, why hadn’t he told her in the car? Pippa, her mother’s most recent housekeeper, had started the year Maisey left, so they didn’t know each other well. They had, however, communicated now and then over the past decade—usually when Pippa sent out invitations to Josephine’s annual Christmas party and Maisey replied with a note expressing her “regret” at being unable to attend. Pippa would invariably follow up with a Christmas card and an interesting summary of all that’d happened on Fairham that year. Although Pippa never revealed anything Josephine wouldn’t want her to, Maisey had always considered that update a kind gesture. Pippa had even sent a gift when Ellie was born. “She’s ill?” “Not seriously,” Josephine replied. “She has a bronchial infection, so, for the past week, Clarissa’s been filling in.” She put down the teapot. “I might keep the girl on. There are times Pippa could use the extra help.” “I’m sure Clarissa would be grateful for the work.” Because there was so much that stood between them, and Maisey had lost faith that they’d ever be able to breach the gap, she felt it was better to discuss the daily running of the estate than anything personal. “She should be. She has no other prospects,” Josephine said. Maisey twisted around to make sure Clarissa wasn’t in the hall, but her mother didn’t seem to care whether she heard or not. In the rare moments when Josephine chose to be honest, she could be brutally so. “Tea?” Her mother gestured at the tray. As Maisey picked up her cup and saucer, Keith walked over and popped two cucumber sandwiches into his mouth, one right after the other. “At least put your food on a plate!” Josephine snapped at him, her voice harsh enough to send Athena skittering backward. “Or did you do that just to upset me?” “I did it because I’m hungry,” he replied, sounding equally irritated. “And who else is here to see me? I’m supposed to impress you and Maisey? She doesn’t care.” Maisey opened her mouth to agree. She didn’t want something as minor as eating cucumber sandwiches the wrong way to make this tea more uncomfortable than it already was. It didn’t take much to set off either her mother or her brother. But Josephine didn’t give her the opportunity to react. “I care!” she cried. “Have some respect.” Josephine turned back to Maisey, but now there were pink stains on her cheeks. “Since you’re here, I take it you and Jack haven’t reconciled,” she said. Those words proved that Josephine was no longer on her best behavior. Had she thought about it for even a second, she would’ve known that Maisey didn’t want to talk about Jack. But whether or not the recipient would be pleased by the topic she chose had never stopped Josephine before. “No.” “You don’t think you will?” Maisey clenched her jaw but forced it to relax so she could answer politely. “He’s with someone else.” “Already?” Josephine knew this. She had to know it. Maisey had kept in touch with Keith and, more loosely, Pippa, even if she hadn’t maintained direct contact with her mother. No doubt they’d shared the basic facts of her life—and more information had probably come from Keith than Pippa. As close as Maisey felt to Keith, as loyal as he tried to be, he’d never been particularly adept at keeping his mouth shut. The fact that Josephine claimed not to know about Jack strained the bounds of credulity, but allowed her to act innocent while Maisey writhed. “Jack was involved with another woman before he moved out,” Maisey explained. Was that what she wanted to hear? Did Josephine enjoy making her say it? “I see.” Her mother had warned her that Jack, who’d been working as a lifeguard at the public beach in Keys Crossing when she met him, would be unlikely to support her “in the lifestyle to which she was accustomed.” He came from decent, middle-class folk and had a business degree but no connections to help him get a start in the world of finance, which was his goal. Ironically, once they’d moved to New York, he’d managed to land a good job at Merrill Lynch simply by interviewing and had turned out to be quite talented with money. Josephine must’ve been aware of that, too. It was something she would’ve questioned Keith about whenever he came back from New York. Where do they live? What kind of rent do they pay? Is their apartment big? Yet those two words—I see—sounded suspiciously like, So I was right. And you dared question me... “Then your marriage is really over,” Josephine added, driving the knife deeper still. “Yes.” Maisey wanted to point out that Jack had failed in a completely different area than the one Josephine had predicted. But, once again, she bit her tongue. What did it matter? Jack was out of her life. Josephine’s cup clinked as she returned it to her saucer. “What’s on the horizon for you now?” Maisey didn’t have any official plans. She just wanted to help support Keith’s recovery. Someone had to step in. He couldn’t continue the downward spiral that had led him to attempt suicide. And why not come here? She hadn’t been doing anyone any good in Manhattan—including herself. “Maybe I’ll change things up, get a job.” She had to create some income unless she wanted to fall into the same vulnerable position as Keith and be dependent on Josephine for everything. It wasn’t as if she was getting any alimony. She’d been making as much as Jack when they split. Granted, there were still some royalties coming in, but that wouldn’t happen for another few months—and wouldn’t amount to all that much. Josephine paused with her cup halfway to her mouth. “What do you mean? What kind of job? There’s nothing on the island that would suit you—nothing but menial labor.” “Menial labor would keep me busy at least.” Even washing dishes would demand she maintain a schedule. She needed structure, some reason to keep moving so she could escape the inertia that had struck her down in New York. “Writing and illustrating will do that, won’t they?” Following Josephine’s cucumber-sandwich rebuke, Keith had gone back to his place by the mantel. Maisey could feel the weight of his stare. He was probably wondering if she’d tell their mother what she’d told him in the car, but she couldn’t face the backlash the truth would create. “I’ll put in a few hours here and there.” Or make the attempt, if and when she could bear to try. “That’s the beauty of what you do.” Josephine brought her cup to her lips. “You can work from almost anywhere.” Maisey realized she’d been drinking her tea without any sweetener and added a sugar cube with the silver tongs that had been in the family since before her grandfather had emigrated from France and purchased the island. Selling her children’s books to a traditional, well-known publisher was one of the few things she’d done right, according to Josephine. Josephine liked the respectability that went with being successfully published, and she liked the accolades Maisey’s books had received. That was what Keith had told her, anyway. Her first book was published when she was twenty-seven, married and living in New York. “That’s one of the benefits,” she agreed. “But, at the moment, I don’t have any pressing deadlines. So...for the next few weeks, until I can find a job, I’ll concentrate on fixing up my little bungalow.” Her mother wrinkled her perfectly formed nose. “As I said, doing anything with the bungalows makes no sense. My contractor can handle it.” “I know. I met Raphael while we were there—” she certainly wasn’t about to mention that she’d met him before “—inspecting the damage caused by the hurricane. He seems perfectly capable, but he said he wouldn’t mind my help.” “You don’t think you should’ve asked me what I thought of the idea first?” Maisey took a sip of her tea. “I didn’t want to bother you with something so...trivial.” “Maisey’s going to my NA meetings with me,” Keith piped up. “That should make the ferry ride a bit more pleasant, wouldn’t you say?” “I’m grateful for anything that’ll keep you on track,” Josephine said. “Good Lord, what you’ve put me through!” She clicked her tongue. “Maybe she’ll spend a few hours at the flower shop with you every week, too, so you can finally grasp the art of arranging. She was the best arranger I had when she was in high school. But you only ever do one-tenth of what I need.” When the color drained from Keith’s face, Maisey flinched. He could’ve used some encouragement instead of yet another insult. “It’s been so long since I worked at the flower shop, I’m sure he’d have to teach me a thing or two.” Maisey could tell her brother was offended by what their mother had said. She could feel his dark mood from where she sat. But at that point, the conversation took a less emotional turn, giving her hope that they’d weathered the worst of this meeting, and that she’d be able to cajole him out of his resentment after it was over. They talked about Josephine’s many cousins, who mostly lived in Charleston these days, and how they were coping with the death of Josephine’s half-brother on her mother’s side; he had been the patriarch of that part of the family. Then they discussed the renovation of the east wing, following which her mother mentioned that Maisey was too thin (of course!) and needed to have her hair trimmed (which she already knew). As the minutes passed, Maisey grew more convinced that the worst was behind her. Her mother had pointed out every flaw, touched on almost every sensitive subject. What could be left? But just as Maisey was beginning to feel less anxious, Josephine looked up with a hint of challenge in her eyes. “And what about little Ellie?” she asked, drawing her eyebrows together and lowering her voice as if she was trying to be gentle with the razor-sharp sword of her mouth. Apparently there was one subject left. But it was so sensitive Maisey hadn’t expected anyone to bring it up—not even her mother. “What about her?” Maisey held her teacup so tightly she thought it might shatter. “Ellie’s dead. I called you when it happened.” “You said it was SIDS...” “It was SIDS.” “The doctors are convinced? They’ve confirmed it?” “I wouldn’t have told you so otherwise.” “But...it’s hard to believe a perfectly healthy baby can go to sleep at night and...and not wake up in the morning with nothing occurring in between.” Maisey hated that she was beginning to tremble. “It happens. It happened to Ellie.” “I’d think there would’ve been some sign, that’s all.” Some sign she’d missed? As usual, her mother was trying to assign blame, make her feel responsible for every bad thing that had occurred in her life. “I have no idea what you’re getting at.” Josephine’s lips pursed. “It’s strange. That’s all,” she repeated. “Why are we even discussing it?” Maisey asked. Hearing the rancor in her voice, Josephine bristled. “Well, if you want me to be frank, I’m merely letting you know that the way you handled the whole thing—keeping me out of her life—wasn’t right. I never even got to meet my grandchild!” Placing her cup on the tray in a very deliberate movement, Maisey came to her feet. “You’re not going to blame me for the fact that you never got to meet Ellie, Mother. We contacted you when she was born. You could’ve come then. Keith did. But you were too busy trying to punish me for marrying Jack without your blessing, for leaving Fairham and daring to live a life that didn’t include you.” Her mother set her chin—an expression Maisey knew all too well, and used to fear as a child. “That’s. Not. True!” Maisey would not let her revise history like this. “It is true,” she insisted. “You barely spoke to us when we called. You didn’t ask one question, not how much Ellie weighed or how my labor went or whether she was healthy.” “You informed me you’d just had a child, and then you hung up. You gave me no chance to say anything!” Rage welled up, dark and forbidding and threatening—and yet somehow welcome as an outlet for all the pain. “Forgive me. I thought dead silence suggested you weren’t interested. You could’ve called back but you didn’t. We emailed you a picture and got no response.” “I was supposed to thank you for taunting me with what I was missing? I wasn’t going to force my way into your life if I wasn’t wanted. I know Jack never liked me.” Conscious of her brother’s unrest, Maisey felt a brief desire to rein in her emotions for his sake. But she was too far gone to stop. “For good reason!” she cried. “You didn’t want me to marry Jack, and you made your opinion very plain.” Josephine sneered at her. “Now that he’s shown his true colors, it’s funny you should bring that up. You could’ve avoided a lot of heartache had you listened to me.” Maisey wasn’t willing to tolerate any more. “Don’t ever mention Jack or Ellie to me again,” she said, and stalked out. “Maisey!” Keith hurried after her, but she refused to stop or turn around until she was well clear of the house. And by then she was breathing so hard she had to bend over to keep from passing out. She heard Keith behind her, but he didn’t speak again. He stood there as if he didn’t know what to do. Once she’d overcome her dizziness and straightened, he kicked at the tufts of grass on the lawn. Had they been like most families, he might’ve gathered her in his arms. That was what she needed. Maybe he needed it, too. But neither one of them knew how to reach out for that kind of comfort. “I’m okay.” She took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to get into it with Mom, didn’t mean to put you through that.” What good would she do him if she only caused more upset and pain? “It’s not your fault,” he said. “She had no business saying half the things she did, especially about Ellie.” Maisey wiped the sweat from her upper lip. “She always has to place blame—but never accepts responsibility for her own actions.” “It’s that damn pride of hers,” he said. “Are you sorry you came back?” She shook her head. “I knew what to expect.” She might’ve hoped for more, but past experience had never allowed that hope to fully blossom. “Will you tell me something?” “Of course.” “Why haven’t you said anything about Ellie? I mean, other than telling me I need to get beyond it. You came to her funeral but you never asked about her death. You never asked what it was like for me to find her, either.” He shrugged helplessly. “Because I know how much you loved her. And I know how hard it was to lose her. There’s nothing anyone can say to make that better.” “God, I miss her.” Squeezing her eyes shut, Maisey wished she could go back in time. She missed Jack, too, but she would never admit it. So maybe she’d inherited more of her mother’s “damn” pride than she cared to acknowledge. Fortunately, Keith didn’t try to compensate for his inability to comfort her with the typical clichés—that she’d get over Ellie’s death, that time heals all wounds, that the loss of her baby was no one’s fault. She’d told herself those things plenty of times, and he was right. They were a waste of breath. The pain she felt didn’t respond to logic. “Will you give me a ride back to Smuggler’s Cove?” she asked. “I’ll need to get the truck. You can’t stay there without furniture, and we can’t fit a fridge in the back of the Mercedes.” Maisey nodded and he went to grab the keys. But he didn’t have good news when he returned. “Tyrone’s in town with the truck. He’s getting some fertilizer and trees he plans to replace. We’ll have to wait until he’s back.” “I can’t wait.” It was too hot and humid to stand outside, and she wasn’t going back into the house. “Can you take me now, in the car? And bring the truck over whenever it’s available?” He rubbed his forehead. “I’d like to say yes, but I have no idea when we’ll be able to use the truck. Maybe Tyrone has other errands he didn’t mention to Clarissa. I can’t leave you over there in an empty house.” “Trust me, I prefer to be there,” she said, and stalked to the car. “I’m afraid that by encouraging you to come back, I’ve dragged you into the same quicksand that’s pulling me under,” he said. “I’m not sure I can take it.” “Everything will be fine,” she said, tapping the roof of the car for emphasis. “That’s what you think,” he muttered as he got in the other side. It wasn’t until they were backing out of the drive that Maisey saw the curtain in the drawing room move and knew her mother had been looking out at them. 5 (#ulink_24e5c474-8756-5e88-ac57-f801e7b91d1d) MAISEY HAD RETURNED to Smuggler’s Cove only an hour and a half after she’d left it, so it wasn’t any surprise that the key to Unit 9 wasn’t under the mat. Keith drove her around the bungalows, looking for Rafe. Although they didn’t have a truck yet, they thought they could move a few smaller items in the car. But Rafe wasn’t around. They could see where he’d been cutting up a tree limb that’d crashed through the roof of Unit 4, so he hadn’t been gone long. She figured he must’ve run to town for a new saw blade or something. Without any way to get into the unit that contained the furniture, there wasn’t a lot they could do. So they sat on the porch steps and talked for forty-five minutes. Keith said she should leave the island, get out while she could. But she said she wouldn’t abandon him, that she wouldn’t be defeated so easily. Slowly his mood seemed to improve. He might still have been brooding when he went to get the truck, but he was no longer ranting about Josephine. As relieved as Maisey was that they’d be together more and she’d be able to offer advice and support, she was also relieved to be alone for a while. Not having to put any further energy into smiling or listening or saying the right things allowed her to relax for the first time since she’d set foot on the island. That also gave her ample opportunity to mull over the meeting with her mother, which still made her angry. But she told herself to take her own advice and quit letting Josephine upset her. “You can’t give her that much power,” she’d told Keith. Easier said than done, but they both had to try... Maisey had no idea when her brother would be back—if the truck was even available—so she changed into shorts, a T-shirt and sandals and went down to the beach. She’d seen the seaward bungalows briefly when they’d gone looking for Rafe; she knew that Unit 1 sat crooked on its pilings, Units 2 and 3 had lost their porches and Unit 4 had that hole in the roof from the tree limb Rafe was removing. But the damage seemed even worse now that she was examining it up close. Rafe had plenty of work ahead of him. Would he be able to finish before the next major storm? She wondered about that as she went to the water’s edge, took off her sandals and waded in the surf. The rhythmic slap of the waves proved calming. She imagined her father standing at her elbow, gazing out across the water, and wished he was really with her. Although Maisey would’ve liked to stay at the beach all afternoon, she didn’t dare linger. Because of her long day of travel, the battery in her cell phone was dead. She’d plugged in her phone before leaving the bungalow, but she didn’t have it with her and didn’t want to make Keith come searching for her once he returned with the truck. So, after about thirty minutes, she went back. When she caught glimpses of a black vehicle through the trees, she hurried out of the woods. She had no idea what color truck her mother had purchased to help maintain the estate. But she didn’t see any sign of her brother. It was Rafe Romero with his Ford F-250. He was up on her porch, putting the key under the mat as promised. She wished she could duck back into the shelter of the trees until he was gone, so she wouldn’t have to confront him again. But her movement had drawn his attention. “Back already?” he asked. She walked toward him, carrying her sandals in one hand. “It was a short visit.” He glanced up and down the road. “Where’s Keith?” “He must still be at Coldiron House, trying to get the truck.” “But he’ll be coming?” “Any minute.” She spoke with enough confidence that he nodded, told her the key was under the mat and left. Maisey was sure Keith wouldn’t be much longer. But when another hour passed, and she still hadn’t heard from him, she began to worry. Where could he be? Her cell was now charged, so she tried to reach him. The call went straight to voice mail. She texted him afterward but didn’t get a response that way, either. Had he and Josephine had another of their famous screaming matches—about her, or what Josephine had said about Ellie, or even that comment about Keith’s work at the flower shop? Anything was possible. When it came to Keith and Josephine, it didn’t take much to cause a fight, especially on a day like today when one or both were on edge. And if they had argued, Keith might’ve left the island instead of coming to her aid. It didn’t matter that she’d moved here to help him, or that she needed his help to get settled. If he was upset, he wouldn’t think twice about taking off on another bender until he’d exhausted what little money he’d been able to earn or pilfer from the house and flower shop. Keeping an eye on the road beyond her windows, Maisey paced for several more minutes. Then she went out to sit on the front steps and stare down the drive. “Please come,” she whispered, but he didn’t. Another hour passed and still...nothing. At that point, she broke down and called the house. Fortunately, Josephine didn’t answer. “Coldiron House. This is Clarissa speaking.” “Clarissa, it’s Maisey. I was there for...for tea earlier.” “Of course. I remember.” “Is Keith around?” This question was met with an uncomfortable pause. Then Clarissa said, “Not at the moment.” Maisey was beginning to feel ill. Surely, if he’d run off, he wouldn’t do what he’d done before, with those sleeping pills... “Do you know where he is?” “No, ma’am.” “He didn’t mention where he was going?” “Not to me.” “Did he take the truck?” He might be on foot. The ferry wasn’t more than three miles from the house—a walkable distance. Or if he’d really wanted to piss Josephine off, he could’ve taken the Mercedes and left it at the wharf for her to collect later. “I’m afraid I don’t know that, either, Miss Lazarow.” “You can call me Maisey. Would you mind checking?” “On the truck?” “Yes. I need to use it.” “Um, okay.” She seemed surprised by the request but reluctant to say no. “If you’ll hang on a moment...” Maisey was massaging her temples, cursing herself for being so misguided as to think she could help someone as volatile as her brother, when Clarissa came back on the line. “Tyrone said your brother did take the truck.” Was there any chance he could be on his way over? If so, he’d answer his phone, wouldn’t he? Unless he’d lost it or forgotten it somewhere... “Do you know when he left?” she asked. This time there was no hesitation before Clarissa answered. “It’s been nearly two hours.” Then he wasn’t coming to Smuggler’s Cove. He could’ve driven around the entire island at least twice in two hours. She wanted to find out whether he’d left in a rage, but she doubted Clarissa would know—or confirm it if she did. Josephine trained her staff well. They would protect the family’s privacy, or they’d be sued for breach of contract and no longer have a job. Clarissa knew the time of Keith’s departure, which suggested he’d given her reason to notice it. That was about the only indication Maisey felt she was going to get. Poor Clarissa. If there’d been a scene like one of the many Maisey had witnessed in her lifetime, the girl had probably felt like cowering in a corner. “Do you have any idea when he might return?” By this point, Maisey thought the question was futile, but had to ask. “We aren’t expecting him anytime soon,” she replied. “Is he safe?” she asked in a small voice. “Excuse me, miss?” “Never mind. Thank you.” After she disconnected, she slid her phone halfway across the porch; she could no longer bear to look at it, after that news. “What the hell am I going to do now?” she asked aloud. The possibility that Keith might try to harm himself terrified her. But she couldn’t help him if she didn’t know where he was. At the moment, she wasn’t in a good situation herself. She didn’t have so much as a blanket or a pillow. And it was growing dark. * * * The beach was cold and damp, but there was nowhere soft enough to lie down in the bungalow, and nothing to cover up with. Hugging herself, Maisey tried to go back to sleep. She wasn’t ready to wake up, was exhausted in a bone-deep way. With dawn breaking, she hoped it would get warm quickly and she’d be able to nap for a couple of hours before she had to face the day. “Maisey? Is that you?” Startled to realize she had company, she came more fully awake and squinted at the man standing over her. He looked like a giant amorphous shape surrounded by a halo of bright sunlight. At first she had no idea who he was. But after she blinked the sleep from her eyes, she saw that it was only Rafe, wearing jogging clothes and a pack-like contraption strapped to his back that made him appear larger than he was. Maisey’s face grew instantly hot. She was wearing several layers of clothes—almost everything in her suitcase. She must look like some kind of homeless person. Which, in fact, she was... Scrambling to her feet despite the restriction caused by all those layers, she started brushing away the sand clinging to her cheek, hair and clothes. “Sorry. I—I didn’t mean to alarm you. I didn’t expect anyone to be on the beach this early.” “I’m just glad you’re breathing,” he said. “I had a terrible feeling I’d discovered your...never mind.” The glare of the sun made it hard to interpret Rafe’s expression. She couldn’t see his face clearly, but his tone conveyed surprise. Once she shaded her eyes, she was surprised herself. The contraption on his back was a child carrier, and there was a child in it—a girl, who had to be five or six, with blond pigtails and sunglasses. Why was he carrying such a large child? And on a run? Most people found it challenging to exercise without the extra weight. But...he looked stronger than a lot of men. Maybe that was how he’d gotten to be so muscular. Maybe he liked to push himself. “Why are you down here?” he asked. He didn’t add, “Looking like that,” but she heard it in his voice. “Did you lose your key? If you couldn’t get in, you should’ve come to my place. I would’ve helped you.” She cleared her throat. “No, I’ve got the key.” He gestured at the indentation her body had made in the sand. “Then what’s this about?” Maisey was relieved when the child spoke, because it saved her from having to come up with an answer. She wasn’t sure what to say. Her mother was so private, and Rafe worked for her mother... “Who is it, Daddy?” Daddy? Yesterday, when she first saw Rafe, Maisey hadn’t even considered the possibility that he might have children. Had he ever been married? “It’s our new neighbor, sweetheart,” Rafe replied. “Our neighbor?” the child echoed. “We have a neighbor?” “We do now. Her name is Maisey Lazarow.” Wrinkling her nose, the girl rolled her head back; she seemed to be looking at the sky instead of at Maisey. “She doesn’t sound like Mrs. Lazarow.” “Because she’s not,” he said. “This is her daughter.” “Silly!” she said with a laugh. “She doesn’t have a daughter.” He adjusted the pack. “Maisey moved away a while ago. And now she’s back.” Curiosity lit her face as she sobered. “How old is she?” The way they were talking—as if Maisey wasn’t right in front of them—seemed odd. If those sunglasses made it difficult for the child to see, why didn’t she remove them? “Thirty-four,” Maisey volunteered, but that was an unexpected question. Generally, to a child of that age, an adult was an adult. But this girl acted as though she had no frame of reference. “How old are you?” Maisey asked. “Five and three-quarters.” Almost six. Maisey had guessed correctly; this wasn’t a toddler. “Nice to meet you. What’s your name?” “Laney,” she announced, and wrapped her arms around her father’s neck in an impulsive and exuberant hug. Maisey shifted her eyes to Rafe. “I would’ve told you,” he said. “You didn’t let me get that far.” “I see. Well, you certainly don’t owe me any explanations. Congratulations on having such a beautiful daughter.” That wasn’t an empty compliment. Although the girl acted a little...different from other kids her age, she was exceptionally pretty. Maisey could see a lot of her father in her. Her hair was lighter than Rafe’s, but she had his smile and bone structure. It wasn’t until Maisey noticed the collapsible cane dangling from the child carrier that she realized the sunglasses weren’t the reason Laney couldn’t see. The girl was blind, which explained why Rafe was carrying her, even on a run. He probably couldn’t leave her alone when he worked out. “Are you exercising, too?” Laney asked. Out of habit, Maisey shook her head. Then, feeling silly since the child wouldn’t be able to tell she’d responded, she followed up with, “No. I—I was sleeping.” “On the beach?” She giggled. “Daddy, I want to sleep on the beach!” Rafe’s gaze swept over Maisey. “I’m pretty sure it’s too cold this time of year.” “It wouldn’t be if you had some blankets,” Maisey said. Laney swung her legs to show her enthusiasm for the idea. “We have blankets. We could take them from our beds!” Feeling awkward and self-conscious, Maisey rubbed her arms, even though the adrenaline that had shot through her at being startled awake had done a great deal to ward off the chill. “How long will you be visiting, Laney?” Laney rolled her head back again. “Visiting who?” “How long will you be staying with your—” Rafe broke in. “She lives with me.” “Oh.” Maisey combed her fingers through her hair and encountered several tangles that told her she must look as unkempt as she feared. “Then you should have plenty of chances to camp on the beach.” “With our blankets,” Laney added. “You wouldn’t want to go without them unless you had to,” Maisey said. “Why did you have to?” Rafe asked. “I ran into a little...trouble last night, but I’ll get everything worked out today.” She started to back away, toward the road that led around to their units. “See you later. Have fun, Laney.” Raphael’s daughter waved. “I like your voice. You seem nice. She’s a nice lady, isn’t she, Daddy? Do you like our new neighbor?” Maisey spoke before he could respond. “There’s no question that you’re nice,” she said, then turned and ran. 6 (#ulink_fe5f314d-296f-5493-a6d0-88337c3c5e5b) MAISEY TRIED CALLING Keith as soon as she got back to the house. He didn’t answer, so she left another voice mail and sent another text. Seriously? You won’t answer my calls? Are you okay? I’m not mad. I swear it. I just want to know that you’re safe. She stared at her phone for several seconds. Then she called Coldiron House. Clarissa answered again. “Is Keith there?” This time she didn’t need to identify herself. Clarissa recognized her voice. “No, Miss Lazarow. We haven’t seen him since yesterday.” “Really, you can call me Maisey,” she said. “Yes, Miss... Maisey.” “There you go. No formality required when dealing with me.” She left all that to her mother, who loved her lofty station in life. “Keith hasn’t called?” “Not that I know of. Maybe Mrs. Lazarow has heard from him. Would you like to speak to her?” Maisey considered that, but decided against it. If Keith and Josephine had argued, Josephine would be the last person to know where he was. And Maisey didn’t want to hear their mother blame this latest setback on her. Josephine would undoubtedly claim it happened because she’d walked out on their tea yesterday and “upset” everyone. “No, thanks,” she said, and disconnected. After that, she wandered from empty room to empty room, trying to figure out if she’d be smarter to grab her suitcase and ask Rafe to drive her to the ferry so she could return to New York. Maybe yesterday when Keith had suggested she go back, he’d done it because he knew he wouldn’t be capable of maintaining the relationship she expected them to have... In light of his recent actions, that made sense. But it was too late to bail. She’d seen it that way on the ferry, and she saw it that way now. Coming to Fairham had been a last-ditch effort to save herself as well as Keith. Besides, it wasn’t possible—financially or emotionally—to undo everything she’d done to get here. And there were so many memories in Manhattan, memories she’d rather forget. She didn’t have work to go back to, anyway, not if she couldn’t write or illustrate. Even if she was capable of creating more children’s books, she could do that here, as her mother had pointed out. There was nothing to bring her back to New York. The life she’d lived there felt as if it had burned to the ground. Only ashes remained. Closing her eyes, she forced herself to stop her frenzied pacing and thought of her father. His kindness. His smile. His comfort. She liked it on this side of Fairham, where she felt close to him. She should stay here. But what about her mother and brother? Could she handle living so close to them? They were both difficult, for different reasons. Jack used to say her brother was worse than her mother. At least her mother was strong, determined, driven. In Maisey’s mind, though, “strong, determined and driven” couldn’t make up for being narcissistic and insufferable. That was what she normally thought, anyway. Right now “weak” and “unable to cope” frustrated and disappointed her just as much. Opening her eyes, she kicked her suitcase. She must’ve been remembering Keith in a far more favorable light when she’d raced back to Fairham. But that didn’t mean she could bear to see him hurt... With a sigh, she checked her phone again. Still nothing. Which meant she couldn’t save her brother if he was in trouble again; she had no way to track him down. With the friends he found online, playing interactive video games and gambling, he could be anywhere. No one had guessed he’d wind up in New Orleans the last time. She could only pray he wouldn’t do anything like what he’d tried there... She could also get herself situated, so she wouldn’t end up sleeping on the beach again. Last night, after she’d realized she was stranded, she’d gone over to Unit 9 to see what, exactly, was there and found only large furniture, all of it stacked up and too heavy to move alone. That included the mattresses propped up on their sides, squeezed in behind all the furniture. But she had more time, energy and sunlight today. She could pick out exactly what she wanted and then see if Rafe would help her move it, even though she’d told him she didn’t need his assistance. She planned to use the internet on her cell phone to look up the number for Smitty’s in Keys Crossing. The store sold groceries, fishing paraphernalia and sundries, and the goods they carried were eclectic enough that she’d probably find bedding, towels and washcloths. Maybe she could order what she needed and pay one of Smitty’s baggers to deliver it—if they still had baggers and those baggers had vehicles. Not everyone on the island drove cars. Most preferred scooters. One way or the other, there were solutions. She just had to be determined and creative. But...first things first. After sleeping on the beach, she desperately wanted a shower. She was standing under the spray, reveling in the simple luxury of hot water, when she heard someone banging on the front door. Hoping it was her brother, she rinsed the soap from her hair and jumped out. She had to use one of her skirts to dry off. She didn’t have any towels, which gave her a new appreciation for terry cloth. Her skin was still damp, making it a challenge to pull on a pair of cutoffs and the tank top she normally reserved for yoga class. But if Keith had come back, she didn’t want to miss him. “Let it be him,” she mumbled, and hurried to the door. It wasn’t Keith; it was Rafe. He kept turning up—but then that was to be expected. They were living next door to each other and were currently the only occupants of Smuggler’s Cove. There was bound to be some interaction. Besides, she couldn’t consider his appearance a bad thing. Since she’d have to humble herself and ask for a hand with the furniture, this would give her the perfect opportunity. She just wished he’d come fifteen or twenty minutes later. She’d scrambled out of the shower so fast she hadn’t put on a bra or combed her hair, which was sopping wet. Cracking open the door, she stood in the gap. “Hello.” He was freshly showered, too—but further along in the process. Although his hair was still wet, it was combed, he was fully dressed in a pair of faded jeans, a T-shirt and work boots and, once again, he smelled as good as he looked. “You never returned my key last night,” he said. “Oh, my gosh! I’m sorry!” Because she’d been afraid he’d catch her on his porch and come out, she’d decided to wait until he was more likely to be asleep. She hadn’t wanted to talk to him for fear he’d ask how the move went, didn’t want him to know that Keith had left her in such an impossible situation. Then she’d become so absorbed in her own misery she’d forgotten. And, as luck would have it, he’d caught her sleeping on the beach, anyway. “Here, I’ll get it.” She opened the door wider and started to turn, then hesitated. If she was planning to ask for his help, she had nothing to gain by putting it off. “Actually, if you’re on your way there now, would you mind if I tagged along?” He scowled as he looked past her, into the house. “You don’t have any furniture yet?” “No, not yet.” When she didn’t elaborate, he said, “Don’t tell me you’re planning to get it by yourself...” She could hear the skepticism in his voice. “Maybe, if you have the time, you and I could lift the heavier stuff into your truck?” A bemused expression appeared on his face. “Didn’t I offer to do that yesterday?” “Yes. And it was very nice of you.” “Even though my offer was rejected, along with my invitation to dinner.” She ignored the dinner part. “Something came up for Keith that...unexpectedly took him away.” He scratched his head. “Must’ve been pretty important, since he left you stranded.” “Oh, it was. He wouldn’t have abandoned me unless...unless he had to. Anyway, I appreciate you helping me out. I’ll try not to hold you up.” “No problem.” “Great.” She wished she had time to dry her hair, but she hated to make him wait. He had to be on his way to work, or he wouldn’t have needed the key she’d forgotten to return. “I’ll just grab my shoes.” He took hold of her wrist and, when she frowned up at him, lowered his gaze to her chest. “Unless you want me to drive into a tree or something, you might want to change your shirt, too.” She looked down at where her hair had soaked her tank and realized why he’d made that suggestion. “Oh. Of course.” He’d let go almost as soon as he touched her, but he didn’t glance away, and he didn’t try to hide the fact that he liked what he saw. A sexy smile curved his lips as Maisey quickly folded her arms to cover herself. Apparently he enjoyed throwing her off balance. “I can’t believe you’d point that out and embarrass us both,” she said. He raised his eyes to meet hers. “I’m not sure embarrassed would be the right word for me.” She was more flattered than offended, and that took Maisey by surprise. So did the warmth pouring through her. She hadn’t been aroused since before Ellie died. Not that she was willing to admit to being aroused. Surely it couldn’t happen that fast or that easily with someone she barely knew, not after she’d struggled for months to fulfill her husband’s sexual needs without feeling so much as a twinge of desire. “I mean...most men would simply pretend they didn’t notice.” “Have you ever tested that theory?” he asked dryly. “Because I’m guessing those would be men who’ve made love to a woman far more recently than I have.” She hadn’t managed to shame him, which told her she should drop the subject and go change. But she couldn’t resist a comeback. “What’s it been—a whole week?” “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” He reached down and picked up a box of cereal, what was left of a gallon of milk, a bowl and spoon he must’ve set on her porch before knocking. “Anyway, hate me for having a sex drive if you want, but I brought you breakfast.” She was tempted to refuse the food and figure out some other way to get her furniture. She didn’t think it would be wise to continue to associate with Rafe. As nice as he’d been—to carry her luggage, offer to help her move, bring her food—there was something about him she found threatening. And it wasn’t hard to guess why. After what had happened before, when they were younger, they were too sexually aware of each other. There was no forgetting the past, regardless of any pact they might have agreed to along those lines—perhaps because that incident had been so unsatisfying. Rafe hadn’t been interested enough to make it anything more. But the last thing she needed was to spoil her fresh start by sleeping with her neighbor, especially if it was only to prove she could finally capture his full attention—or that she was attractive and desirable and her husband should never have thrown her over for someone else. “Really? You have to think about whether you’ll accept my food?” He shook the jug to cause the milk to slosh. “That says something, doesn’t it? Since you’re obviously not in the best of circumstances.” “No, I want it.” She couldn’t refuse. She was too hungry. She hadn’t eaten since the oatmeal she’d cooked early yesterday morning before leaving for the airport, and that cup of tea at Coldiron House. She’d been too tense to choke down a sandwich. “I should be more leery of you, though,” she added to show that her acceptance was a grudging one. “Trust me, you’re leery enough,” he said. “Merely trying to learn from my past mistakes.” He tucked the cereal box under his arm, as if he might not give it to her, after all. “Did I hear you correctly? You’re insulting your only source of help? Is that what happened yesterday with Keith?” “You’re tough. You can take it.” She felt a smile tug at her lips as she jerked her head to invite him in. “Any chance you could carry that into the kitchen while I change?” After putting on a bra and a dry shirt and combing her hair, she found him leaning against the wall. “It’d be nice if there were somewhere to sit in here,” he said. She handed him the key she’d retrieved when she changed. “Yes, it would.” “So...why isn’t there? What could be more important to your brother than making sure you have a bed to sleep in and the other stuff you need?” She released an exaggerated sigh. “It’s a long story.” “Which is the short way of telling me you’re not going to explain.” “Wouldn’t want to bore you,” she said as she opened the Frosted Flakes and poured them into her bowl. He lowered his voice. “I get that you’re a proud person. I’m even beginning to think you might be the kind of proud that drives everyone nuts for no good reason. But...” “Excuse me?” A slight quirk to his mouth told her he was teasing, but no one wanted to be thought of as being “the kind of proud” that drove everyone nuts. That made her sound like her mother. “You don’t know anything about me!” “I know you’re a Lazarow,” he said. She hesitated before adding milk to her bowl. “What does that mean?” “Who else would sleep out on the beach rather than go to a neighbor for help? If you weren’t so determined to keep up appearances, you could’ve slept on my couch. Saved yourself a lot of needless misery. We are old friends—sort of.” “One sexual encounter—a long time ago—doesn’t make us friends,” she pointed out. “And you should be thankful I didn’t come knocking at your door. You don’t want a needy neighbor.” “Is that so?” he said. “Because it looks like I’ve got one whether I want it or not.” He opened several of the cupboards and left them that way. “You have no furniture, no blankets, no food. What’s going on? I can see why you might not want to come to me. But what I don’t understand is why you didn’t stay at the house where you were raised. Where you could eat to your heart’s content. You could’ve slept in a nice, warm, expensive bed, Princess Lazarow, instead of huddling alone, out on the beach, where anything could’ve happened to you.” There was so much of what he’d said that she wanted to address—the comment about her mother and brother and the “princess” reference that suggested she considered herself too good for regular people (like him, no doubt). But all of it was painful and convoluted and something she’d been trained not to discuss with outsiders. She couldn’t imagine he’d want to hear the dirty details, anyway. In many respects, she’d been blessed with more than most people. The rest of the islanders certainly viewed her that way. Complaining would only make her look ungrateful and spoiled. So she skipped over everything except the least personal part of what he’d said. “Stop being so dramatic. Except for a few mosquito bites, nothing bad happened while I was on the beach.” “It could have. Fairham doesn’t have a lot of crime. But shit happens everywhere. No point in creating the perfect opportunity.” Her spoon clinked against the bowl as she took her first bite. “Where’s your daughter?” she asked instead of continuing to argue with him. “We’re not talking about Laney right now,” he replied. “I’m curious.” “Where do you think she is? I work. Someone has to watch her.” She brought another spoonful of Frosted Flakes to her mouth. She would never have chosen a prepared cereal with so much sugar—she wouldn’t have chosen a prepared cereal at all—but she had to admit it tasted better than the usual healthier choices. There was something cathartic about drowning her sorrows in what she used to eat with her father on Saturday mornings—while Josephine slept in and wasn’t there to voice her disapproval. “You have a sitter at the house or...” “I take her to my mom on weekdays, when my mom’s arthritis doesn’t make it too hard for her.” “Where’s her mother? She can’t help?” “No.” He didn’t answer her question about Laney’s mother, didn’t offer anything else. Figuring that might be a sensitive subject and feeling she had no business sticking her nose in his private business, she let it go. “So your mother babysits for you.” “Yes. And I pay her. That way we both benefit.” “She’s never remarried?” “No, after my father died, she might’ve dated here and there, but not for some years, at least not to my knowledge.” “I don’t think I ever learned what happened to your father.” “He was a dietician and personal trainer. He’d just quit his job to open his own gym when he was robbed and stabbed only a few feet from the warehouse space he’d rented for his new business. That’s why my mother came here. She wanted to get away from the crime, out of the big city.” “How old were you when he died?” “Four.” They’d both lost their fathers young. “That’s sad.” He lifted his shoulders as if to say it was in the past. “She really should’ve remarried.” “She still lives on the island, then?” “Hasn’t moved since she brought me and my brother here.” Maisey didn’t remember either of the Romero boys from elementary school or Fairham High. They’d both graduated before she entered ninth grade. But she’d heard of them. They’d been popular in high school, especially with the girls. Then there was the trouble they caused—partying, ditching school, getting in minor scrapes with the law. Rafe’s reputation was part of the reason she’d been so interested when she finally met him. That he was sinfully good-looking didn’t hurt, either. “How long has your mother had arthritis?” He gave her a look that suggested he was finished answering her questions. “How is this turning into a conversation about me? You’re the one who slept out on the beach.” Maisey had no intention of discussing how she’d spent the night. “I’m curious, like I said.” “About my mother?” “More about your daughter. I saw her this morning, and I still can’t imagine you as a father.” He frowned. “Why would I be any different than other men? Do you think I eat children for dinner?” It felt odd to smile. Her mouth was so out of practice. And yet, since he’d come this morning, she found herself smiling quite often. “Maybe not every night.” “Great,” he responded with a grimace. “In your mind, I’m not only a failure in bed, I can’t be trusted with a child.” “You told me you’ve changed, grown up.” She slid down the counter to get out of the sunlight streaming through the window. She was also trying to avoid the scent of his cologne. She thought that might be what was wreaking havoc with her mind. She didn’t like when a man used too much, but there was just a hint of it on Rafe and, otherwise, he smelled so clean. “I’m willing to take your word for it.” “You wouldn’t have to take my word for all of it.” She paused with her spoon halfway to her mouth. “And that means...” She saw a devilish expression on his face. “Not if you’ll go put that wet T-shirt back on.” She could tell he didn’t expect her to take him seriously. He meant to shock her, make her uncomfortable—teach her a lesson for insulting him. But she felt more tingly and breathless than outraged. That was the real shock. Forcing her gaze away before he realized she was more susceptible to that suggestion than she cared to admit, she said, “You had your chance eighteen years ago.” “When I was drunk off my ass and wasn’t expecting to be propositioned? Especially by an underage virgin who told me she was eighteen?” “That was a pretty detailed recap,” she retorted. “So much for forgetting...” “You haven’t forgotten,” he said. “You’re still holding me accountable for that night, assuming I haven’t changed or couldn’t have changed enough to suit you. I’m trying to tell you it was hardly a fair test of my ability.” “Don’t act like I didn’t give you another opportunity,” she said. “I approached you the following week, remember? And you turned me down.” Hooking his thumbs in the pockets of his jeans, he crossed his ankles. “You were too young.” “And you had too many other girls throwing themselves at you.” “Who were older,” he said, as if any guy would’ve made the same choice. She took another spoonful of cereal. “You didn’t want me. Admit it.” He studied her for several seconds. “You expected the world to bow at your feet. That’s hardly an aphrodisiac.” “Ah, the Lazarow thing again. You’re intimidated by my name.” “I’m not intimidated in the least. Well, maybe a little,” he conceded. “You are one of the ‘untouchables.’” She chuckled. “Well, for the record, you were right to reject me. I was angry and acting out, had no clue what I was doing.” “You’d never make that mistake now...” “No.” “Because you’re the one who isn’t interested in me.” Unsure where he was going with this, she stopped eating. “True.” “Bullshit.” She forced down her last swallow. “You don’t believe me?” “I think I can tell when a woman finds me attractive. You look away whenever I catch your eye, which is a pretty reliable sign. You’ve just changed, lost the moxie you once had, that’s all.” She wished she could laugh, scoff at him. This was an outrageous conversation. She wasn’t even sure how she’d fallen into it, or how it had progressed so far so fast. She’d seen Rafe for the first time in years only yesterday. But he was right: she was as attracted to him as she’d ever been. And she’d felt so little of anything positive in the past two years she didn’t know how to handle the sudden influx of hormones. She did, however, know better than to let on. “Don’t tell me you’ve already been through all the other women on the island.” “A womanizer like me?” He scowled facetiously. “I went through them years ago.” “You wouldn’t want to quit too soon. You’re bound to find a glutton for punishment here and there.” He lifted one eyebrow. “A glutton for punishment?” She should’ve heeded the warning in his voice. But he’d started this little battle. She felt she should be able to give as good as she got. “Women who don’t mind a man who can only last thirty seconds or so.” Assuming she’d landed the coup de grâce, she smiled sweetly. No way could he outdo that. But she shouldn’t have taunted him, shouldn’t have taken it so far. The look that entered his eyes as he stepped forward and boxed her in made her realize she’d thrown out a challenge he was more than willing to meet. “We’ve talked about the special circumstances of that night,” he murmured, his face just inches from hers. “That’s true. And—” growing a bit nervous, she cleared her throat but would not allow herself to be intimidated into backing down “—and I promise I won’t tell anyone how badly it went. Your secret is safe with me.” She stopped laughing when he took her bowl and set it on the counter. “How about you let me make it up to you instead?” he said, and lowered his head to kiss her. Maisey knew she should push him away. He was being assertive, going after what he wanted. But the way he was pressing his lips to hers so gently, coaxing her to respond with the barest slip of his tongue, gave her plenty of opportunity to refuse. If only she wanted to refuse. Desperate to push the recent past as far away from her conscious mind as possible, if only for a moment, she was suddenly more than eager to let Rafe make her feel something else, something good. Sliding her hands up his arms, she found the soft, curly hair at his nape and closed her eyes as she sank into the kiss. He seemed surprised when she parted her lips. She realized then that he hadn’t taken her capitulation for granted. It had been a risk for him—one he wasn’t convinced would work out—and, for the first time, she felt a measure of hesitation. Would he withdraw? Maybe lift his head to ask whether she was really okay with what they were doing? She hoped not. That would only yank her back into the real world and ruin everything. To make sure he didn’t, she became more aggressive. Instead of just permitting him to kiss her, she clenched her hand in his hair and kissed him back. “God, I haven’t felt anything like this in so long,” she muttered against his warm, pliant lips. She wasn’t aware that she’d spoken aloud until he caught her face in his large hands and made her look at him. “How long?” “Years,” she admitted. “That’s even longer than me.” She didn’t ask how long it had been for him. She didn’t want any more conversation, or she’d have to make sense out of what he said and how she replied, what she was doing. She couldn’t justify this, which was why she didn’t want her conscience to intercede before she could get what she craved. So she moved his hands to her breasts. He seemed startled, as if he couldn’t believe his good fortune. Then he reached around and unsnapped her bra, staring into her eyes the whole time, testing her to see if she’d stop him. When she didn’t, when she let him slip his hands up under her shirt and touch her, she heard him suck in his next breath. “This is going too well. You won’t even go out with me,” he said as he flicked his thumbs over the tips of her breasts. Obviously, he wanted her to convince him, not change her mind. But she could offer no explanation for her behavior. Where was this sudden recklessness coming from? She’d been so sad for so long, it was almost as if all the needs that had gone unsatisfied during that time were welling up at once. “Are you going to let that stop you?” she asked, and stood on her toes to reach his lips. When he met her tongue, she groaned and gave everything she had to that kiss, even bit his lip and felt him nip at hers. “Holy shit,” he moaned, closing his eyes as her mouth moved down his neck and her hands traveled up under his shirt. Feeling strangely gratified that he was already trembling and breathless, she ran her fingers over his arousal. “Is this for me?” He turned her face back up to his. “Let’s go to my place,” he said. She didn’t protest when he scooped her into his arms and carried her there. 7 (#ulink_74a5680e-3bfd-58f0-842e-116197f3c796) MAISEY KNEW SHE was too thin, but Rafe didn’t seem to notice or care as he stripped off her clothes. He looked at her as if she was the most beautiful woman in the world and that was all that mattered because it was exactly what she needed. His bed smelled like he did. Maisey held a pillow next to her face and breathed deeply, thinking how much she liked that scent as he ran his hands over the curve of her hips. “Wow,” he said. He still had his pants on, but she’d pulled off his T-shirt as soon as he’d deposited her on the bed, which meant she could feel the smooth skin of his chest. Until this moment, she hadn’t realized how much she’d missed some of the things she’d taken for granted during her marriage, like the opportunity to curl up beside her husband, warm skin to warm skin. When Rafe’s mouth found her breast, she dragged in a gulp of air and closed her eyes. But as soon as he moved lower, she tried to stop him. She’d always been too self-conscious for that kind of lovemaking. Jack had told her many times that she was hard to reach, hard to connect with, even during sex, because she could never fully let go. She felt that resistance now, and stopped Rafe as he reached her navel. She assumed he’d abandon the attempt, move on to something that didn’t require so much trust on her part, as Jack had always done. But Rafe seemed more determined. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “That makes me feel too...vulnerable. I can’t do it.” “Sure you can,” he said, but he didn’t press her. He watched her intently, reading the expressions on her face while he used his fingers instead. “That’s good,” she whispered. “Really good.” She felt him kiss her thighs, but she was so focused on his fingers that she didn’t mind. Then, when she was so lost in the moment she would’ve let him do almost anything, he pressed her legs apart. “Relax,” he murmured, and when she complied, he settled his mouth on her. The movement of his tongue made her cry out. She couldn’t remember ever vocalizing what she was feeling quite like that. But she wasn’t herself right now, or she wouldn’t be having sex with an acquaintance from her past. She was pretending to be someone who might do something like this, someone who could cast off all inhibition without worrying about the consequences. So she dug her fingers into the thick muscles of Rafe’s shoulders and arched into him as the pleasure grew into an intense wave that ripped through her. He must’ve felt her body jerk, because when he lifted his head, he gave her a grin that said, “Take that if you think I’m a bad lover.” He’d done what he’d set out to do—vanquished the specter of the last time they’d been together. But he wasn’t finished yet. Caught in the blissful aftermath of that powerful release, Maisey could barely think as he removed his pants—but she forced herself to speak up when he got a condom from the nightstand. “You don’t have to worry about that,” she said. “My doctor put me on the pill six months ago to regulate my periods.” Her doctor had also said she needed to gain some weight, which she hadn’t done. “That’s a relief.” Tossing it aside, Rafe kissed her collarbone, her neck, her jawline. “To be honest, those condoms are so old I was almost afraid to rely on them.” She wasn’t ready to return to her senses, to Sad Maisey, so she was grateful when he made it clear that he wasn’t in any hurry to finish up. His hands delved into her hair, forcing her to look up at him as if he enjoyed staring down at the love-drunk sight of her. “Those big eyes of yours, so green...they take my breath away,” he said. “I’ve never seen a prettier pair.” She didn’t get the chance to respond to his compliment. He didn’t seem to need any thanks. His own heavy-lidded eyes revealed that he was feeling as swept away as she was. By the time he pushed inside her, she was so sensitive she gasped. “Oh, boy,” he said, and lines of concentration appeared on his forehead, giving her the impression that he wanted to stretch out every sensation for as long as he could. Rafe was built differently from Jack. Maisey noticed that immediately. She told herself it was tacky of her to compare them, but Jack was the one left wanting, and that somehow seemed deserving, after what he’d done. “Let’s take it slow,” Rafe said. Maybe it really had been a long time for him, because he didn’t want this to end too soon. But she was feeling the same mounting tension she’d enjoyed a few minutes earlier and craved the same powerful release, which made her urge him on. Gripping his buttocks, she let him know exactly how much she liked having him inside her and, with an exclamation on his part, the rhythm increased. Every now and then he’d have to pause in order to regain control. He was trying to hold off so she could get all she wanted. But she had the impression that he was reaching his limit. When her climax hit, his whole body tensed as he struggled to stop his own orgasm. “You get one more,” he said grudgingly enough to let her know he was teasing. But she wasn’t convinced he’d be able to fulfill that promise. His breathing was too ragged. As it turned out, it was only a few seconds later when she heard him groan and felt his body shudder. But she couldn’t complain. She felt more satisfied than she’d been since she and Jack were first married and nothing in the world seemed to matter except the two of them. “You have to admit that was some damn good sex,” Rafe said as he dropped, exhausted, beside her. Reluctant to inflate his ego, she grinned at him. “Except you promised me one more.” He cradled her against his body. “Maybe later.” * * * When Maisey woke up, she was alone. Judging by the sun streaming through the windows, it was midafternoon, suggesting she’d slept for several hours. She was slightly disoriented, which confirmed it had been a while. She blinked sleepily as she looked around, trying to remember why her surroundings were so unfamiliar—and then it all came back to her. “Oh, jeez,” she whispered, and shoved up on her elbows. She’d done exactly what she’d told herself she wouldn’t do—and made love with her neighbor. Was Rafe still around? She couldn’t hear anyone in the house... She was about to get up so she could check when she saw a note on the nightstand. Had to work. Make yourself comfortable and eat whatever you’d like. Be home around six, after I pick up Laney. We’ll grab your furniture and get you situated then. —R Another day without furniture. They were almost on their way to the unit; instead, she had to reveal how desperate she’d been for a man’s touch, so they’d gotten distracted. And now he was at work. What had she been thinking? She obviously hadn’t been thinking. She’d been reacting to the damage the divorce had done to her self-esteem—and, on a more primitive level, she’d been trying to find the same physical satisfaction she’d known when she was married. It was tough to go without the love, pleasure and comfort she’d enjoyed with Jack. But Smuggler’s Cove was her place of last resort! She couldn’t make it impossible, or even uncomfortable, to live here. Why create new obstacles to make life hard when she was already struggling to overcome old ones? Going to bed with Rafe was a stupid move. But he’d been telling the truth when he’d said he could do a lot better than he’d done eighteen years ago. She wasn’t sure she’d ever experienced anything like the hour or so they spent together, starting with that very first kiss. Jack just hadn’t approached lovemaking in the same way. He’d been too practical, almost...mechanical, at times. But Rafe was all about the moment—every moment—and that created such intensity. Now that he’d satisfied her, however, she was embarrassed to have gone after what she’d wanted so aggressively. She couldn’t imagine what he had to be thinking. Maybe she hadn’t changed much since she was sixteen... Or maybe he wasn’t thinking anything. Maybe he was just happy that he’d managed to get lucky. For some men, it could be that simple, right? And, over the years, he must’ve had a lot more sexual experience than she did, at least with different partners. Another one-night stand couldn’t mean that much to him. Feeling slightly better once she’d assured herself of this, she checked the digital alarm clock next to his note. It was three, so she scrambled out of bed. If there was any chance of pretending this had never happened, she couldn’t be here when he got home. Besides, she was anxious to check her phone to see if Keith had called, and she’d left it at her place. The image of Rafe carrying her off, Tarzan-style, entered her mind as she finished dressing. She covered her face in embarrassment, even though there wasn’t anyone around to see her. Supporting her weight had seemed natural and easy for him. There’d been something primal in his ability to do that with such ease, and it had made her excitement skyrocket. But Jack would never have attempted it. He wasn’t capable of carrying anyone; he put his back out if he lifted a heavy suitcase. So she told herself she didn’t care what he’d think of her and Rafe. She had to quit seeing everything that happened in her life through her ex’s eyes, quit evaluating her actions and choices as if his opinion still mattered. Because it shouldn’t, even if it did. Once she was dressed, she decided to leave Rafe a note. It seemed the polite thing to do. She wanted to put some sort of official end to what they’d done, and a hastily written thank-you provided the added benefit of allowing her to escape this uncomfortable situation without having to deal with him directly. Using the pen she found not far away, she turned over his note and wrote on the other side. “Sorry I made you late for work. I hope you had a great day.” No, that last part sounded odd. He’d probably connect that to what they’d done, so she crossed it out and tried again. I hope the repairs are coming together for you. Don’t worry about the furniture. I’m sure your daughter needs your time more than I do. You work hard enough as it is. I’m going to see if my mother will send her caretaker over with the truck. She’d had no business asking Rafe to help in the first place. Why should he have to fill in for Keith? She was just being stubborn. Yesterday, even while she shivered on the beach, she’d sworn she’d do anything before going to her mother. But approaching Josephine was suddenly preferable to relying on her new neighbor. Should she end her note with some reference to the sex? Maybe include a thank-you? Tell him she’d had a nice time? No. She couldn’t do that without sounding dismissive or shallow—or glib. Come to think of it, there wasn’t much point in writing what she’d just written, since he had the key to the cottage where the furniture was stored. If she managed to wrangle other help, he’d know about it long before he got home because she’d have to get the key. “So much for that.” Somewhat relieved and yet disappointed at the same time, she wadded up the note and tossed it in the trash can in Rafe’s bathroom. While she was there, she was tempted to go through his medicine cabinet to see what he wore that smelled so good. She was ready to blame everything that’d happened today on his cologne. It was certainly easier than blaming herself... Going through his medicine cabinet was intrusive, like searching through his drawers, so she refused to abuse his trust in that way. But she couldn’t help glancing around his house as she left. Rafe’s bungalow was much neater than she would’ve expected. The furnishings weren’t expensive or particularly tasteful—nothing that would meet with her mother’s approval or show up in a decorating magazine—but they weren’t tacky, either. For a guy who’d had so little growing up, she thought he’d done quite well for himself. If she had to describe his decorating style, it would be “sensible and comfortable.” His bedroom, although slightly more Spartan than the rest of the house, followed this theme. So did his living room, which contained a large flat-screen TV, along with an overstuffed sectional and chaise, a recliner with an accent table nearby and a coffee table in the center. He hadn’t hung much on the walls, though. It wasn’t as if improving that space could benefit Laney, since she couldn’t see. And Maisey guessed he didn’t care enough about art to bother. Or perhaps he’d get to that with time. She had to remind herself that he hadn’t lived in Smuggler’s Cove for very long. Jack would want his space to “show well” should anyone see it. But Jack was a different kind of man—very fastidious and driven. Maisey was almost at the door when she spotted a pile of children’s books on the coffee table and had to stop. She loved books, all books, but especially children’s books, even if it was only to look through them to admire other people’s work. Half hoping she’d discover a Molly Brimble story, she sorted through the stack. None of her books was there, but she hadn’t seriously expected to find one. If Rafe knew she’d written and illustrated several children’s books, he would’ve mentioned it. He had no reason not to. Instead of Molly Brimble, she found a lot of Dr. Seuss, Guess How Much I Love You—she had to smile at that one—and Shel Silverstein’s hugely popular collection of poems, Where the Sidewalk Ends. In a second pile was a collection of books on kittens and dogs, and Chica Chica Boom Boom, which taught kids the alphabet. It looked as though he read to Laney quite often. He obviously loved his daughter very much. Maisey was happy for him—happy for them both—but she found it bittersweet that he had his daughter and she didn’t have hers. As petty as that flare of jealousy was, her gut twisted as she fingered Laney’s books. She knew Rafe and Laney had their challenges, and they’d face more in the future, but Rafe ending up with a child to raise seemed so random and unlikely—not that he’d have a child, necessarily, but that he’d turn out to be such a responsible parent. How had Laney come to live with him? What’d happened to her mother? Maisey was curious about those things—curious enough that, after stacking the books in their original piles, she headed back down the hall to Laney’s room. When she’d passed it earlier, she hadn’t even paused. She’d been too busy telling herself she had no business snooping, that she needed to get out of Rafe’s house and forget about anything else. But knowing she might never have another opportunity, she decided to take a quick peek to see if she’d find a picture of Laney’s mother or something else that would reveal some clue as to why Laney was living with her father, whether or not she had any contact with her mother or her mother’s family and what had caused her blindness. Laney had a tall, four-poster bed with lots of frilly pillows and the usual assortment of stuffed animals and toys. Or maybe the assortment wasn’t so usual. All the toys appealed to the sense of touch, or they made sounds when certain levers or bars were pushed or when various shapes were put into the corresponding holes of a ball. An electric piano stood under the window. The keys were well worn, suggesting that it received considerable attention. But, surprisingly, since the walls in the rest of the house were mostly bare, there were things to see in here—stars on the ceiling, a big mirror over the dresser and a large picture of Laney as an infant being held by her father. There were no other pictures, no cards propped on the dresser, no letters on the small nightstand next to the Disney princess-themed lamp, no Mommy Hearts Laney T-shirts tossed on the ground—nothing, in other words, to indicate who Laney’s mother was or whether she had any involvement in Laney’s life. Maisey moved closer to the photograph of Rafe holding Laney. His hair had been cut differently five years ago, and he looked lighter overall, less muscular. But besides the tenderness on his face, she saw a determined set to his jaw that led her to believe he was thinking something like, “Don’t worry. I’ve got you. I’ll be there for you no matter what.” His expression—that smile for the camera—couldn’t quite hide the protectiveness he felt, and that made it almost impossible for Maisey to look away. She wished she could have a copy of that photograph. It reminded her of the love she’d felt from her own father, of how powerful a father’s love could be. She thought of the pictures taken of Jack and Ellie. He’d had no reason to assume that Ellie’s life would end the way it had, so the look in his eyes was never quite as fierce. But why had that love not been stronger? Once Ellie was gone, Jack had seemed willing to move on, which was partly why Maisey’s recovery had been so hard. It was almost as if she’d been left to mourn for both of them. He hadn’t even kept any of the pictures of him and Ellie and, much as Maisey was tempted when she got rid of his other stuff, she hadn’t been able to make herself throw them out. They were in a box marked Attic, and had been sent, along with Ellie’s other pictures, to Coldiron House, where they’d stay until Maisey could bear to reclaim them. If that day ever came... She chastised herself for being so rude as to poke around. She’d told herself she wouldn’t. It felt like an invasion of Rafe’s privacy just to see this photograph because it laid his heart so bare. With a final glance, Maisey left Laney’s room, locked the house behind her and hurried over to her own bungalow. She was intent on finding her phone. She could hear it ringing as she came through the door. Was it Keith? Finally? Or Josephine? Maisey doubted her mother would lower her pride and try to make amends. Still, Maisey ached for that olive branch, for Josephine to show enough love and concern to forget how wronged she felt and, just once, let the past go without forcing Maisey to assume all the blame. The little contact they’d had since Maisey left Fairham had been her doing. She’d never forget how cold and uninterested her mother had acted when she received news of Maisey’s pregnancy—and that didn’t change when Ellie was born. The morning Ellie died, her mother had been the last person Maisey had wanted to speak to. She’d instinctively worried that Josephine would make her feel as if she deserved what she’d gotten. And yet she’d needed her mother that day. So she’d swallowed her own pride and, out of the depths of her despair, called Coldiron House. That unforgiving reception had cut the deepest. She couldn’t reach out afterward. She didn’t have the emotional fortitude it required. But she’d have to now, to ask for a truck so she could move some furniture. Surely she could approach her mother for something as simple as that. And if it was Josephine on the phone, she’d have her chance. The call wasn’t from anyone she might’ve expected, though. Maisey felt her jaw drop as she recognized the number. She’d deleted this person from her contacts list, so there was no name attached. But she recognized those ten digits more quickly than she would’ve recognized the number attached to her own phone. It was Jack. 8 (#ulink_b015393e-339d-5b59-b291-d068949bfdc3) MAISEY TOLD HERSELF not to answer it. She had nothing to say to her ex, especially after she’d acted so inappropriately with a man who was nearly a stranger to her. Considering how long she’d yearned for Jack to regret tossing her aside, to want her back, it was quite the coincidence that he was calling her now. What could he possibly want? When the call went to voice mail, she waited to see if he’d leave a message. If he had a legitimate reason to get in touch, wouldn’t he say so? It could be that some stock or other asset he’d failed to list on their separation agreement had sold and, instead of keeping all the proceeds for himself, he’d decided to do the right thing and pay her half. But considering how hard he’d fought for every dime, including some of the proceeds of her books, it was more likely that he’d heard she’d left Manhattan and wanted to find out what she’d done with his personal belongings. When he moved out, he took only what he could carry that day and had never come back for the rest. Was there something he still wanted? If so, it was too late to recover anything except the pictures she’d saved in the dark attic of Coldiron House. She’d hawked her wedding ring and donated what he’d left behind to Goodwill. She’d figured the move was the perfect time to get rid of each and every item that reminded her of the man she’d loved so deeply, because they now reminded her of the day she’d gone to Chicago to surprise him on his business trip and encountered him walking off the elevator, holding hands with the woman they’d bumped into on Fifth Avenue. She saw that she had a voice mail, so she tried to listen. But all she heard was three or four seconds of silence, as if he’d contemplated leaving a message but changed his mind. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/brenda-novak-2/the-secret-sister/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. 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