Juli Cooke, hard-working and getting nowhere fast, marries a dying man, Ben Bradshaw, for a financial settlement, not expecting he will set her on a journey of hope and love. The journey brings her to Luke Winters, a local art dealer, but Luke resents the woman who married his sick friend and warns her not to hurt Ben—and he‘s watching to make sure she doesn‘t.
Until Ben dies and the stakes change.
Framed by the timelessness of the Atlantic Ocean and the brilliant blue of the beach sky, Juli struggles against her past, the opposition of Ben’s and Luke’s families, and even the living reminder of her marriage—to build a future with hope and perhaps to find the love of her life—if she can survive the danger from her past.
The Hammonds’ house glittered. Crystal, gold and silver reflected in the numerous floor-to-ceiling mirrors. The men wore tuxedos and the ladies, draped and fitted in their gowns and jewels, rivaled the decorations in the lavish rooms. It was the fanciest home Juli Cooke had ever seen.
Juli wasn’t glittery. She wove her way among the guests with a tray offering canapés. Her white shirt was already spotted with chocolate and red wine. The blotches were right smack in the middle where her black vest couldn’t hide them. Her feet hurt, bound in cheap black pumps. She was twenty-six and definitely not a decoration. She felt like a utility—faceless, graceless, and silent.
She paused as a guest chose a mushroom-capped hors d’oeuvre from her tray.
What were the Hammonds celebrating? It didn’t matter. It was the same for Juli regardless of the occasion—just another slice of unlived-in time spent trying to earn a buck because it was the bucks that kept her afloat, fed, and in her small apartment.
A hip brushed hers as Carla whispered, “What’s up with you and Frankie?”
“Frankie and me? Nothing.” Juli glanced around.
“Then you won’t mind if I ask him out?”
“Sammy’s watching. Move on. I’ll catch ya later.” Juli broke away and walked toward a group of people. Neither she nor Carla needed trouble from Sammy. As a boss, he was a tyrant. It paid to be alert if she wanted to stay below the trouble radar.
Nearby, a woman’s voice erupted in laughter and Juli turned to look. The woman was leaning toward a tall, thin man with her hand on his sleeve as she stared up into his face. Her body language was as revealing as his. Juli felt a little sorry for her. Even as the woman spoke to him, the man appeared to ignore her while he scanned the room.
He had a lean build, light brown hair and sharp features. The woman shrilled, “Luke, you are so…,” then the level of her voice dropped. He, Luke, was the one behaving differently from the rest of the group and should‘ve been the one who looked out of place but, no, he made the other partiers look superfluous.
Juli caught his stare. An unexpected pull, a subtle magnetism, drew her. A tingle raced up her spine. Had he sensed her eyes on him? His gaze passed over and through her and moved on.
That’s right, I’m nobody. It hit her like a punch in the gut. An invisible nobody going nowhere.
A knot of guests moved away and suddenly, she was reflected in a large mirror directly ahead. Unlike her own, muted reflection, everyone else captured in the mirror was sharper and more colorful. Humming began in her ears, growing louder as the room closed in around her. The warm air thickened with a fog of perfume and alcohol. A thousand unnamed scents threatened to choke her.
She tried to beat back the panic and failed.
In the midst of the laughter and glitz, Juli fled to the kitchen, but instead of exchanging the tray for a freshly filled one, she carried it straight out the door and into the night.
Luke Winters tuned out the hum of nearby conversations and looked beyond the flushed faces around him. Every man wore a black suit or tuxedo and they all seemed to have dark hair. There was nothing particularly distinguishing about Ben—other than his exceptional good nature—and that was no help here.
He’d told Ben not to come. There was no need. Marcel Hammond threw this party every year for business partners, clients, and friends.
Ben wanted to pretend everything was okay and he wanted everyone else to pretend with him. Ben was his cousin, his best friend and longtime business partner. Luke couldn’t pretend, he was a realist.
He gave his glass to a passing waiter and interrupted the woman who was speaking to him. “Please excuse me. I have to find someone. Very sorry.” He smiled in apology and gently detached himself from the small group.
Winding his way among the knots of people, nodding, waving or stopping for a quick, polite exchange before moving on, he traversed the room looking for Ben.
In the dimly lit hallway leading to the bathroom, two men stood close together. One was dressed as a waiter. Their hands moved quickly as they traded something—each having acquired an object that went directly into the new owner‘s pocket.
The action stopped Luke. He frowned, wondering at the boldness, or the need. They sensed him and looked up. Luke didn’t recognize either of them but the waiter stepped back, nodded and walked past him down the hall.
Was the guy smirking? The other man, a party guest, kept his eyes down and tugged at his suit jacket as he brushed past Luke.
Was it any of his business? No. He’d mention it to Marcel later, in case the incident was as unsavory as it seemed.
The bathroom door stood ajar. Luke pushed it open. No Ben. He returned to the main party room, again scanning the shifting bodies. A hand touched his arm.
“Luke? You look worried.”
Maia. He rubbed his temples. “I don’t see Ben anywhere.”
“Don’t hover over him. He’ll let you know if he needs help. In fact, he’ll ask for help a lot faster if you aren‘t suffocating him.”
She sounded fierce and it brought a sad smile to his face. “He’s sick, Maia. Don’t tell me you’re not concerned.”
“Of course, I am.”
He stared across the room. Sick was an understatement. Ben was dying. Not today or tomorrow, but within a few months. Neither of them wanted to say those awful words aloud. Luke looked down at Maia and touched her arm.
She stood straighter, adding a fraction of an inch to her petite stature. “Get back to work. Go talk to Amanda Barlow again. You left her broken-hearted. Take her a glass of wine.”
“Please, no.” Luke tugged at his collar.
“Please, yes. She’s interested in buying artwork to decorate her new home. Even forgetting your own business interests—if that’s what you want to do—please consider the artists who’d like to make the sales and those of us who work for you.”
She was right. Ben was an adult of sound mind. Luke was here this evening for the business opportunities. He had responsibilities.
He took the hand she’d placed on his arm and squeezed it. “Understood.”
“She’s over by the chocolate fountain.” Maia nodded. “And don’t forget to mention the Bingham hardwood reliefs. They’ll look outstanding integrated with Charlotte’s etchings in Amanda’s window room. She’ll love them.”
“On my way. And you?” He straightened his jacket and tugged at the ends of his sleeves.
“Well, I won’t be going back to the chocolate fountain, that’s for sure, or I’ll need a whole new wardrobe.” She laughed and her dimples deepened.
“Maia, in case I neglected to mention it earlier, you look lovely. You’re right, Ben’s an adult. Go have some fun. In fact, didn’t I see Ed Larson earlier?”
“Ed and I have been past tense for a long time. No worries, remember? Just take care of business.” She turned away.
“Sometimes we take you for granted.”
Her cheeks pinked up. “No problem. Now, go talk to Amanda about those etchings.
Grace Greene writes fiction with romance, suspense and inspiration, always with a strong heroine at its heart, and there’s a happily-ever-after ending–most of the time. Her next novel, Kincaid’s Hope, is scheduled for release in January 2012. In Kincaid’s Hope, Beth Kincaid finds that swearing off the Kincaid temper and creating the perfect life free from untidy emotionalism has its own dangers and can even get you killed.
*Remember* Whatever the season, it’s always a good time for a love story and a trip to the ‘Beach’!