When widower Mark Solomon arrives in Barefoot Bay for his 30th high school reunion, he’s not quite prepared for the onslaught of memories or the attention from interested single women who’ve gathered for the annual event on the beach. He’s ready to ditch the whole thing and resume his life as an adventure-seeking world traveler until he discovers a woman sobbing on his doorstep…and has an idea.
By her own admission, advertising copywriter Emma DeWitt is jaded, jilted, and jobless, but she goes over the edge when she learns that the resort villa that was supposed to be the site of her romantic honeymoon is occupied by a single man. But when the sexy silver fox who’s staying in the villa surprises her with an irresistible offer to pose as his fake fiancée, Emma sees a way to have her week in paradise and begin healing her broken heart.
Mark believes every person has only one soulmate…and he’s met, married, and buried his. Emma believes that love is a marketing concept created to sell fairy tales and expensive weddings. What if they are both wrong…and completely right for each other?
Mark Solomon had one question pounding in his brain as he strode across the lobby of Casa Blanca Resort & Spa. And not just the obvious one, which would be: How in the name of all that was holy did he get roped into being on a freaking high school reunion committee?
Because he knew how that had happened. The woman who owned this elite jewel in Barefoot Bay had tracked him down while he was parasailing in New Zealand. She’d offered some new breathtaking scenery and caught him in a rare moment of weakness. The straight whiskey kind of weakness. Oh, he’d said no at first, but then…
He reached into his pocket and thumbed the class ring he’d found in a safe-deposit box just two days after he’d gotten that call. That’s how he ended up back on Mimosa Key for a high school reunion, arriving a week early to boot, to be at the final planning committee meetings. Because he never ignored his most trusted adviser.
Nor was he asking himself how thirty years had passed since he and a handful of eighteen-year-olds had ditched the prom to sneak booze into the only theater on the island for the opening of Top Gun. He didn’t look, feel, act, think, or tire like a man at the high end of his forties. He could pass for ten years younger, even though his thick hair had plenty of salt in the pepper. His age certainly hadn’t stopped him from skydiving, hang gliding, snowboarding, or climbing Kilimanjaro. And the only “tire” he knew was usually squealing under him during a competitive Porsche street race.
No, the question plaguing Mark before he reached the conference room where he and a bunch of other graduates from years gone by were gathering, was short, direct, and usually posed by a woman with clingy claws.
A widower? Why haven’t you remarried?
Most often, it was followed by some inane comment about a “silver fox.”
God help him. Someone had better help him get through this reunion, because this was the one place where everyone once knew him not just as “Mark Solomon, quarterback, valedictorian, and all-around hot shot,” but also as Mark of MarkandJulia, named Couple Most Likely to Last Forever.
Until “forever” got cut short.
But he hadn’t been part of that power couple for sixteen long and adventure-filled years now. During those years, he’d figured out the ideal way to escape the past, and yet, here he was. In the middle of an island that was nothing but the past.
The doors to one of the conference rooms popped open, and a man walked out as Mark approached.
“I hope to hell you’re going in here,” the guy said, notching his head to the room behind him. “We need to balance the testosterone levels. There’s only one other dude, and he’s the strong, silent type.”
“Mimosa High reunion?” Mark asked.
“That’s it.” The man offered his hand for a strong shake, his smile easy and
natural. “Law Monroe,” he said. “Class of…holy shit.” He frowned and took a closer look. “You’re Mark Solomon.”
“Law…Lawless Monroe?” He felt his own smile pull at the recognition of the troubled youth who’d been thrust onto the football team Mark’s senior year. He’d been expected to mentor the kid who’d never once been called by his real name of Lawson. But “mentoring” meant calling Law before practice to make sure he wasn’t in the saddle of a motorcycle with a chick’s thighs pressed against him.
Lawless was, what, three years younger than Mark? In amazing shape for forty-five, though. Plenty of ink on a tanned, buff body, but a good-looking, rugged guy with a spark in intense bottle-green eyes.
“You’re not in the slammer?” Mark asked. “That’s a miracle.”
Law threw his head back and laughed heartily. “Not for lack of trying, trust me. Damn, I never expected to see you here. And at the planning session, too. Did Lacey Walker have compromising pictures or something? Why the hell would you be on the planning committee?”
“Two words: beachfront villa. How’d she get you?”
The other man lifted a sizable shoulder, shiny gray hair brushing his collar. “She gave me full responsibility for the food.”
“Food’s my thing. I’m a sous chef at the Ritz-Carlton across the causeway in Naples.”
Whoa. “Impressive. And I’ve gotta be honest…not what I expected.”
“Trust me, I was well on my way to exactly what you expected. But someone threw me in the kitchen of a restaurant about ten years ago, and I got my act together. How ’bout you? I remember you had an Air Force ROTC scholarship. Did you end up going overseas?”
He nodded. “Kuwait during the first Gulf War. Then I had a business, sold it, and now I travel the world.”
Law gave his hand a la-di-da shake. “Nice. And…” His expression changed just enough for Mark to know exactly what was coming next. “I thought I heard that…”
He saved Law the awkward question with a quick nod. “Yeah,” he said, sliding his hands into the pockets of his khakis. “I lost Julia about sixteen years ago. Cancer.”
“Sorry, man.” Law put a hand on Mark’s shoulder. “I’d heard you guys got married right after graduation, and I always said if anyone would have made it, it would’ve been you two.”
“Thanks. I’m sure we would have.” He and Julia could have easily dodged the divorce odds, but not the long-shot odds of a thirty-two-year-old woman having a fatal allergic reaction to chemotherapy. Time to change the subject. “Did someone manage to tackle my best running back and make an honest man out of him?” he asked quickly.
Law puffed a noisy breath. “Your best running back, my ass. Your biggest headache, more like. I’m single. Chef’s hours suck. That’s the other reason I took Lacey’s offer and cashed in on a long vacation. I needed a break.” He threw a look over his shoulder. “Although I’m not sure sitting around a room with a bunch of women bickering over whether or not the theme should be a sundial or an iWatch to represent the past and the present was the break I needed.” He pointed in the other direction. “I was on my way to check out the kitchen. Wanna come?”
Mark shook his head. “I should—”
The door opened behind Law, pushed by a tall man wearing a tight-fitting regulation fire department T-shirt and a semiserious expression of warning.
“Men, do not enter without full protective gear,” he said, holding up his hands with authority. “Or someone will volunteer you for something like flower arrangements which, God help me, I think I just signed up for.”
“Why the hell would you do that?” Law asked.
The other man just shook his head. He had close-cropped hair and a dusting of gray around his temples contrasting with tanned skin that didn’t look weathered enough for him to be much over forty. “Red sweater. Tight jeans. Brain fail.”
“Red sweater?” Law frowned. “Wasn’t her last name Endicott, as in, you know, money?”
“Yeah, that’s Bethany Endicott.” He half exhaled the name as if even saying it was too much for him. “I’m Ken Cavanaugh, by the way,” the man said, extending a hand to Mark. “Class of ’91.”
“Mark Solomon, ’86.”
“Eighty-six?” Ken drew back.
“Graduating class, not my age,” Mark joked.
“Still puts you five years ahead of me and three ahead of Law.” He turned to gesture to the door. “Age before beauty, old men.”
“And brains,” Law shot back. “Since yours got fried into flower arranging.”
“Point taken,” Ken conceded. “In fact, there are exactly three men on a planning committee of about fifteen, so we gotta have each other’s backs this week. It could get ugly. Uglier.”
“How ugly?” Mark asked.
“Let me put it this way,” Ken said, “I left when they were talking about something called the Dance of the Decades. With us as male dancers.”
“Whoa.” Mark inched back. “That’s ugly.”
“They keep saying how happy they are to have men on the committee,” Ken said. “It’s like an estrogen bomb explodes every time Law or I say a word.”
Law gave Mark a wry once-over. “Place is going to go up in flames when you walk in.”
“It’s okay,” Mark said, putting a hand on Ken’s shoulder. “We have a firefighter. Let’s go. Remember, volunteer for nothing, ignore what they throw at us, and, for God’s sake, no one is dancing.”
“He won’t last ten minutes in there,” Law whispered to Ken as they followed Mark.
“No shit,” Ken replied. “Ten bucks says he’s on the tablecloth subcommittee by two o’clock.”
The two of them shut up when he opened the door, and so did the chatter inside—much of it loud and higher-pitched—from about a dozen or so women around a large conference room table.
The second or two of silence could have been awkward, but Mark crossed the room to an empty chair at the head of the table. “Ladies.” He stayed standing and leveled a commanding look at women of all ages, sizes, and ethnicities. Not one looked remotely familiar, but it wasn’t as if Mark spent time in high school looking at any other girl besides—
“Julia…” One of the women on his right stood, her word echoing the very name that hung on the edges of his brain.
“I’m Mark Solomon.” He turned to her, not recognizing the woman with dark hair with one thick streak of gray running down the front and a serious, sad expression.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Julia was a good friend of mine and seeing you…” She sighed and extended her hand. “Allison McMurphy. My maiden name was Breyer.” She held out her hand. “Do you remember me? Julia and I were co-captains of the cheer squad. I saw you last at her, uh…”
Memorial service, which passed in a blur. “Of course I remember you.” He reached to give her a hug, a jolt of a memory rushing through him.
Coming to Mimosa Key was probably not the smartest move he’d ever made. He’d gone sixteen years without Julia, and each year had gotten easier and easier. He’d long ago numbed the pain of her loss and left the last stage of grief in an underwater cave dive in Sardinia.
But embracing a woman his late wife had called one of her best friends put some pressure on the tough skin of that scar. He hugged tighter.
“So good to see you,” she said. “When Lacey told me you’d agreed to be on the planning committee, I admit I was stunned. I’ve heard you lead quite the jet-setter life now.”
Is that what people called a life of freedom and adventure? “I was able to retire early, so I travel a lot,” he acknowledged. “And I have time for…things like this.”
“And I shamelessly begged.” A red-headed woman with a bright smile and dancing eyes – Lacey Walker most likely – stood at the other side of the table. She offered a friendly salute in greeting. “We are so happy you—you three guys—are here.” She gestured to the other men who’d found seats. “We have to have some representation from the boys in our classes, and it wasn’t easy bribing, er, finding you.”
The three men obviously had their reasons for accepting those bribes, and Mark’s was a small ring in his pocket.
He laughed softly at Lacey’s joke. “I don’t think we qualify as boys anymore.”
“No, you’re definitely men.” This came from a blonde he hadn’t noticed, sitting on his left. She stood slowly, crimson lips curling up. She wore white, Mark noticed, so she wasn’t the object of Ken’s attentions. Though the woman was attractive in that Palm Beach big-money kind of way that usually meant high heels and high maintenance.
“Mark Solomon, I’ve heard of you. Libby Chesterfield, class of ’89.” She gave a secret point to her generous breasts. “Also known as Chesty Chesterfield,” she added with a playful wink. “Oh, those Mimosa High nicknames do haunt you for the rest of your life.”
The school had a weird tradition of awarding everyone a nickname. He’d been…he drew a blank. Of course, there must have been another nickname, but he remembered only the couple he was once part of.
“Libby, sure. Nice to see you.” Although, to be honest, he didn’t remember Libby or her chest.
“So you two were in the same class?” Libby asked, looking at Allison, the first woman who’d greeted him. “Wow. I mean, you look good, Allison, but…wow.” She raked Mark up and down and up again. “Now that is what I call timeless.”
He managed a smile.
“That’s it!” Lacey gave a quick clap and brought all the attention to the other side of the room. “Timeless! Forget clocks, watches, and sundials.”
“Thank you,” Mark muttered, making Chesty give a throaty chuckle and place a hand on his shoulder.
“I’m with you on the sundials,” she whispered. “It’s like we graduated during the Roman Empire, for heaven’s sake. It was just the eighties, right?”
“There is no time,” Lacey continued. “When we get together for the annual all-class Mimosa High reunion at Casa Blanca, time disappears and we’re all young again.”
“You’re still young,” Chesty whispered to Mark, adding a squeeze, even though her gaze had shifted across the table…directly to Law.
“Timeless is perfect!” one of the other ladies said.
“I love it!” a few others agreed.
A petite brunette came around to where Mark still stood, since he’d been flanked by females and hadn’t even sat down yet. “You are a genius. What is your name again? Mark? I don’t think we’ve ever met, but then, this is only my fifteen-year reunion.” She sidled in closer and pushed a wayward lock over her shoulder. “I’m Fiona, by the way.”
Ah, man. Law was right. He wasn’t going to last ten minutes. He had to get out of here.
“So, how can we bring the timeless theme to life?” Lacey asked.
“Don’t look at me,” Mark said, stepping back before he was forced into a chair and someone climbed on his lap. “I did my part.”
In all fairness, he hadn’t said a word, but he wanted to escape before the questions he didn’t want to have to answer were asked.
Are you married, Mark? Still a widower? Why haven’t you—
“Are you married, Mark?” Fiona whispered.
“Speaking of time, I’m out of it. Ladies.” He nodded to the table, then looked at Law and Ken. Law was talking to one woman, but sneaking eye contact with Chesty. And Ken was trying hard to look like he wasn’t staring at…a woman across the table in a scarlet sweater.
So much for manly solidarity.
“Great to see you all, and Lacey, you have my number. Call me in time for the next meeting.”
“I will,” she agreed. “But, Mark I have to tell you—”
He pulled his phone out of his pocket and looked at it, despite the fact that it hadn’t rung. “Really sorry, but I have to take a call.”
He hustled out of the room, a low-grade resentment seething in him. Not against the women. Technically, he was fair game. And they all seemed…nice. Probably really good women. And he liked a good woman as much as the next guy.
But here, on Mimosa Key, Florida, he was profoundly reminded that none of those women was his soul mate, and once you’ve had that, all the lesser attachments were just…lesser.
He bypassed the lobby and took a side door out to the beach, the late spring sun blasting over the wide, white sands of Barefoot Bay. Gulls screeched, children ran in the surf, and vacationers lounged under the cheery yellow umbrellas along Casa Blanca’s private Gulf of Mexico beach.
He kicked off his Docksides and held the shoes in one hand, oblivious to the heat of the sand or the occasional shell that stabbed his foot. Pain didn’t bother him. He’d spent years on risky adventures that were rarely comfortable, and he’d yet to be inflicted with any physical pain that was close to the agony of losing the only woman he’d ever loved.
He shook off the unexpected punch of mourning, the feeling unwelcome and unfamiliar.
He didn’t come to this island or this reunion to stroll down memory lane and cry into his beer because he’d lost his wife in the prime of their lives. He was here to chill out, to check out the changes in the town, and because…
Julia wanted him to come.
The truth, a small whisper in his brain, hit as hard as his foot on the stone path he took to get to Blue Casbah, the villa he’d checked into this morning. He rounded a thicket of flowering plants, the sickeningly sweet fragrance of honeysuckle mixing with salt air, and then he paused at the sound of a sigh. No, that was…what was that? An animal being strangled?
Very slowly, he inched past the hedge to peek at the walkway and small stone patio in front of the villa. A woman sat there, a roller suitcase and oversize bag next to her, her head in her hands.
Weeping. A full-out, shoulder-shaking shudderfest of misery unfolding on his porch.
Well, this was embarrassing. Mark looked left and right, dreading a resort guest passing by, then he took a step closer, dropping his shoes to make some noise louder than the gurgling and moaning coming from her throat.
But she didn’t even look up, choking on the next sob.
“Excuse me,” he said loudly.
She kept her face in her hands. “Go away!” she mumbled.
“But I…” Want to get to my villa…where you’re crying. “Are you all right?”
“No. I am not all right.” The words were garbled, teary, and spoken into hands that covered her whole face. “Give me five minutes before you drag me off, okay?”
Drag her off? “Okay.” He took a few steps closer, trying to make sense of the scene. All he could see of her was long dark hair falling over narrow, hunched shoulders, jeans, and a white shirt.
“Would you, uh, like to cry inside?” Before someone got a very wrong impression.
Her head shot up. “Yes,” she said softly. “I would very much like to cry inside. Inside that villa.” She turned and pointed at the front door painted deep orange and trimmed in white. “In fact, that’s the whole reason I’m here, a thousand miles from home, completely alone on what was supposed to be the happiest…” She grunted and stopped herself.
Brown eyes flecked with topaz and rimmed in red stared up at him, her cheeks little more than rivers of running makeup. Her face was shredded from tears, and her deep-brown hair spilled around her as if she’d combed it with a rake, the remnants of pink lipstick smeared around her mouth.
She’d almost be comical if she wasn’t so…miserable.
“I swore I wasn’t going to tell a soul my story,” she finally said.
“Well, out here you’re telling every soul.” He pulled out his card key. “So you might as well come inside and weep.”
She blinked at him. “You’re not with resort security?”
He shook his head, then eyed her. “Should I be?”
“You’re not going to take me in there and…rob me, are you?”
“It’s my villa, with all my stuff in it. Maybe I should be the one worried about being robbed.” But he was pretty sure the only thing she’d steal of his was some peace and quiet, and tissues. Lots of tissues.
“Your villa?” she asked.
“Well, this week anyway.”
“Your villa for this week?” She choked the words, kicking the stone paver with her loafer. “Well, that’s just perfect. I suppose you’re here with your wife for a…” She narrowed her eyes at him, sizing him up. “Oh, I know. An anniversary in paradise?”
“No,” he said simply. “I’m here alone.”
He gingerly bypassed her on the step and walked to the door, sliding in the key card.
As he opened the door, he turned to find her watching him over her shoulder, distrust and uncertainty in those golden-brown eyes. She shuddered on the next pathetic inhale, and he held out his hand.
“Come on and make that noise inside. I have tissues. And wine.”
A slight, unsure smile lifted the pink-stained corners of her mouth. “I like wine.” Very slowly, she took his hand and let him pull her up, leaving her suitcases on the step.