Kindle   iBooks    Nook    Kobo   Google Play

Chapter One

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.”

“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.

MarkandJulia.

“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.

Kindle   iBooks    Nook    Kobo   Google Play

Chapter Two

Emma had to see the place. She wasn’t about to leave without at least placing her feet on the imported, cream marble floor or touching the posh furnishings or gazing out over the infinity pool that disappeared into the bay.

And don’t forget the beach-facing bedroom balcony or the stunner of a bathroom with a Jacuzzi the size of a small country.

All designed for fairy-tale romance.

The copy on page three of the Casa Blanca Resort & Spa brochure still danced in her memory, torturing her. Oh yeah. Fairy tale. Those were the words that sold people on villas that cost this much. Not, you know, real life. But then, advertising copy wasn’t real life…and who knew that better than the woman who wrote it?

Sniffing back some tears, she stepped in so she could fully wallow in her misery. Wasn’t that why she’d dragged her suitcases along the path, gulping great mouthfuls of humiliation with the desk clerk’s words still echoing in her head?

Oh, I’m sorry, that reservation was canceled by Mr. Kyle Chambers’s secretary. Would you like to see the cancellation number?

No, but, damn it, she wanted to see the villa.

She’d hoped to find a kindly housekeeper who might let her take a peek inside when she’d marched over here after her failed check-in attempt. She was totally prepared to use her six degrees of separation trump card to get inside. I’m with the ad agency that handles the resort… Well, she had been with the agency, before quitting in shame.

But a housekeeper was nowhere to be found, and the villa was locked tight.

That was when frustration, sadness, and the total unfairness of life had kicked Emma in the chest so hard, she’d dropped onto the patio step and gave in to the first real sobfest since her fiancé broke their engagement.

This guy must think she was a total loon. She glanced at him, already soothed by his baritone voice and commanding presence, and grateful that he hadn’t treated her like an unwanted piece of litter strewn outside his expensive accommodations.

She inhaled a quick breath as the impact of the place hit her. Here it was, in full three-dimensional living color, so much more beautiful than the photos they’d dropped into the brochure and on the website. The luxurious living area led straight to French doors that opened to a jaw-dropping, heart-stopping view of…that man.

No, no. He was not in the brochure, but could have been, easily. She’d know exactly what to ask the modeling agency to send, if they’d used a model: a gorgeous, confident man, maybe mid-forties, a little dusting of silver, a strong jaw, piercing blue eyes, and an air of authority and power. Yes, he’d be the perfect accent to the stunning villa.

Emma looked beyond her unexpected host to the turquoise waters of Barefoot Bay glinting in the late afternoon, warmed by pink clouds that heralded a spectacular sunset over the Gulf of Mexico.

At least, that’s how she’d describe it if she had to write copy for that postcard view. Throw in a happy couple walking hand in hand, barefoot, of course. They’d be laughing or caught in that split-second exchange of an intimate touch and…

A sob bubbled up, and she choked it back with a noise that sounded something like a cross between a strangled burp and a hiccup.

Great, Emma. Just great. She’d never been a delicate crier. Hell, she’d never been a crier.

“So, what exactly did you mean by ‘your villa’?” the man asked.

“I meant that it was supposed to be…” Ours. “Mine this week.”

A frown creased his brow. “I was told there was a cancellation and that’s why Lacey—the resort owner—put me in this, the last available villa. I would have taken a room in the main building, but that was booked, too.”

“There certainly was a cancellation,” Emma said. “A big, fat, nasty, embarrassing, gut-wrenching brutality of a cancellation.” She wiped her face, vaguely aware that she must look like a red-faced freak, but honestly didn’t care. “Can I see the bedroom?”

“Sure. It’s through that doorway, to the left.”

Maybe this was a little masochistic—okay, no maybe, this was truly self-inflicted torture—but she just had to see it. Taking slow steps to a vestibule outside a huge double-doored entrance, she peeked into the bedroom.

Yep. The photographer had nailed it. A king-size four-poster bed with a puffy white comforter and sheer drapes all around, giving it a secretive, seductive feel. The pale marble floors continued in here, warmed by expensive Oriental carpets and layers of lush window treatments.

And the bathroom. She had to see the bathroom.

She crossed the room to a space that led into the spa-like sanctuary, drinking in a vaulted ceiling and blue tile trim that captured the Moroccan feel of the whole resort. Light bounced off the shiny floor, blinding her.

Just like she’d been blinded by…dreams and hopes and empty promises.

“Oh, Kyle. How could you do this to me?” She sighed and turned around, taking it all in, especially the magnificent tub surrounded by candles and a view out to the bay.

A tub built for…two.

“Seen enough?”

She startled at the voice behind her, low and close and as alluring as the surroundings. Looking up, she caught sight of the man in the mirror, pinning her with a look that fell somewhere between amused and annoyed.

No, mostly amused. And he had pretty eyes. If they hadn’t already been that piercing sky blue that matched the villa, she’d have suggested the art department Photoshop them to exactly that color.

Then her gaze shifted to her own reflection, and she gasped. “Oh Lord.” She put her hand to her mouth, laughing softly, because what else could she do?

She so did not match the cool and beautiful villa. “I look like I was dragged through a mascara factory.”

He put a hand on her shoulder, slowly turning her to face him instead of the mirror. “Were you supposed to stay here this week?” he guessed.

She let out a breath and gave a weak nod. “Yeah,” she managed.

“Special occasion?”

“Just, you know, a honeymoon. Is that special?”

“Oh.” His eyes widened. “Usually, yeah.”

She tore her gaze from him to take another longing look around. “Except there was no, you know…”

“Wedding,” he supplied gently.

“No wedding,” she confirmed. She heard the hurt and bitterness in her voice and wished she could hide those feelings, but they were out now. “Just a lot of frantic phone calls and canceled florists and returned gifts and sympathetic friends, and oh, that bitch at the dress place would not refund my money. And I woke up this morning, maybe a little hung over because last night was, you know, not my wedding night, as planned. Then I realized today would have been check-in day. I called, and the reservation hadn’t been canceled, so I thought why not?”

“Of course,” he said, as if that made perfect sense.

“Well, they do that in movies all the time, right? The jilted bride goes on her honeymoon alone and has…” She swallowed and looked up at him.

“And has…?” he prompted.

Wild sex with a hot guy.

No, no, good God in heaven, no. Except…whoa. He was easy on the eyes. “And has a chance to heal,” she finished.

Silent, he searched her face for a moment, his gaze sharpening as if he read her thoughts, which would not be good. “You could use that wine.”

He left her standing in the oversize Moroccan tile bathroom staring at her ravaged face.

Yeah, wine. To calm her jumpy nerves and misbehaving libido. Wine from the wine god who happened to be the lucky recipient of Kyle Chambers’s cold, second-guessing heart. Now, this man—whoever he was—knew her history, had seen her at her worst, and still offered wine.

Could anyone really be that nice? She’d think he had an ulterior motive, but one look in the mirror and she knew it couldn’t be a hot seduction on the sand. Pity, more likely.

She closed the bathroom door and went to the sink, unwrapping some sweet-smelling goat’s milk soap—made locally, exactly as she’d written in the brochure—to wash her face completely clean. She still looked pale and wretched.

Glancing down to the drawer in the vanity, she thought of a line from the direct-mail piece. Every bathroom in Casa Blanca comes with all the extras, including a luxurious robe, fluffy slippers, and a supply of high-end cosmetics directly from our own Eucalyptus Spa.

She tugged on the drawer handle and, sure enough, there was a blue silk bag with the spa logo embroidered on the flap. Inside, she found a never-been-used brush wrapped in sealed plastic, which was like heaven in her hair. And some powder, fresh mascara, and a light peach lip gloss.

The note inside said, “Enjoy your stay in Barefoot Bay. Kick off your shoes and fall in love!”

Ah, yes, the clever and ridiculously optimistic tag line that came with the Casa Blanca account and had to be incorporated in every ad, brochure, and web design. Emma might kick off her shoes and enjoy the company of a handsome stranger, but she’d never fall in love again. Never, ever.

Love was for idiots and fools and losers who bought what advertisers were shoveling out. Love was a fabrication used to sell stuff. Who knew that better than an advertising copywriter?

She cleared her throat and took one more look in the mirror. Better. Still bitter, but better.

And she sure could use that wine.

* * *

Jilted.

Mark thought about the word, and the woman who used it, while he sat at the table for two on the patio, enjoying the sight of the tangerine ball of sun slowly falling into Barefoot Bay. When the French door opened, he turned and tipped his head in silent appreciation of another sight equally as attractive.

She’d washed, brushed, and pulled herself together. Quite nicely, too. Her hair cascaded like a chocolate waterfall over her shoulders, her eyes bright, her skin clear, especially considering the tears. Thank God there were no more tears.

She walked toward him, giving him a moment to admire a feminine figure he hadn’t really noticed in the middle of her crisis. Trim but curvy enough to appeal to him, with long legs in tight jeans, her bare feet adding a surprising kick of sexiness.

What kind of blind and stupid guy walked away from that before the wedding bells rang?

There might be more to that story. One thing he knew about romance gone south—and he did know plenty considering the business he’d been in for so many years—there were always two sides to the coin. Although this side was definitely fine.

“Feeling better?” he asked, pushing his chair back to stand as she approached.

A quick flash of her golden eyes told him the basic level of chivalry surprised her. So the ex was a dick in all areas, he surmised.

“Better on the outside,” she admitted. “And thank you again for letting a bawling stranger into your villa.”

“It was silence you or face charges,” he joked.

She smiled. “But you didn’t have to listen to my tale of misery or share your wine.”

He reached for the stemless bistro glass and offered it to her. “I have a soft spot for orphans and strays,” he said. “I also like a nice sauvignon at sunset. I had the owner order a case of my favorite for the week.”

She lifted her brows. “Fancy.”

He laughed and met her glass in a toast. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to rub it in.”

“It’s okay.” She took a sip and closed her eyes as the mix of oak and vanilla hit her palate just as it hit his. “The view is rubbing it in enough.”

“Please.” He gestured to the other chair. “Relax. I’m Mark, by the way, stealer of your villa.”

“Emma.” She sat down and gazed out to the view with a low, sad sigh. “And you can’t be held responsible for your good fortune and my bad choice.”

“Hello, Emma.” He tasted the name, like the wine, liking the feel of it in his mouth.

“Well, this place has lived up to its reputation, and I’m pleased about that,” she said. “I knew I’d love it here, just like I knew every word I wrote was the truth. For once, I wasn’t lying about the product.”

The product?

She gestured toward the water. “Panoramic views.” Then the villa. “World-class accommodations.” Then him. “High-end clientele.”

His confused frown deepened. “You lost me.”

She set her glass down with a rueful smile. “I wrote the advertising copy for this place. I’m a copywriter for an agency in New York, at least I was until I resigned two weeks ago. That’s when my boss, who was also my fiancé, walked into my office and said those four dreadful words no woman wants to hear when she’s on hold with her wedding planner to finalize the tulip delivery.”

Oh yeah, the guy was a monumental douchebag. “I don’t like tulips?” he guessed with a smile.

“‘We have to talk.’” She closed her eyes. “And you just know it’s not about the copy for next week’s new business presentation.”

“That sucks.”

She smirked at the understatement. “Anyway, Casa Blanca Resort & Spa is one of the agency’s top accounts. That’s how I knew about it and why I wanted to honeymoon here. This whole island is like a dream to me.” She gave a soft snort. “So was the wedding, come to think of it.”

“Oh man, now I feel even worse. You should have this place. You pulled strings and used your connections and—”

“No, no.” She held up her hand. “I didn’t. My ex pulled the strings, trust me. Including the one that canceled the reservation, except he hadn’t done it yet when I called or I would still be in bed in Brooklyn licking my wounds.”

“Didn’t you tell them at the front desk who you are?”

“Nah. I’m just the pen monkey in the bowels of the creative department who’d never been to a place like this and couldn’t stop thinking about it. For once in my career, I believed in what I was writing about. My other accounts? No, I didn’t care if a checking account earned more interest at Community Bank or if All Green fertilizer really improved the grass. I don’t believe that Colombian Cups coffee really has zero aftertaste. But is Casa Blanca Resort & Spa really perfection in paradise? Yes. And there’s something empowering about marketing the truth for a change.”

She finished her speech with a good slug of wine, and Mark couldn’t wipe the smile from his face. She was as refreshing as the sauvignon blanc and maybe as complex. And maybe, with the setting sun picking up flecks of gold in her hair and eyes, a little bit intoxicating, too.

“It was my fault, completely,” she said, dropping her head back a little and giving him a tantalizing view of the long, lean column of her throat.

“A broken relationship is never anyone’s fault completely.”

“Oh, it can be.” She peered at him through narrowed lashes. “But I meant assuming the reservation wouldn’t be canceled at the very last minute was my fault. Being left holding a Vera Wang gown and a truckload of embarrassment? All on his skinny shoulders.” She straightened her head and added a tight smile. “Sorry if I sound cynical, but I’ve spent the last two weeks realizing that the stupidest thing a human can do is buy into the dreams spun by marketing professionals.”

“Says the person who writes ad copy for a living.” He chuckled. “I imagine that could make you a little jaded.”

“Jaded, jilted, and jobless—that’s me.” Her smile loosened as she held up the glass. “I like a wine that brings out my alliteration skills.”

Laughing, he shook his head, enjoying this unexpected twist on his first day at the resort. “An alluring atmosphere for an afternoon of alliteration.”

Her jaw opened with her delight as she raised the glass in a toast. “A-plus!”

They both laughed and took a drink, the wine and sun warming him as much as the company. It made the whole concept of the event so much more bearable to be with someone. And not just anyone, but a woman with some…zing.

A woman who not only caught his eye, but made him laugh. So few had been able to do that since…well, since Julia.

She treated him to a wide, sweet smile. “Thank you for rescuing a massively crappy day.”

He nodded in acknowledgment, tempted to tell her the feeling was mutual, but she might take that the wrong way.

“Hard to believe you’ve done all that for this resort and they couldn’t find you another room or villa,” he said instead.

“Apparently, the whole resort is booked solid.”

“It’s the high school reunion,” he said.

“Really? What kind of high school can afford this swanky place?”

“Mimosa High, the local one. The owner is a graduate, and shortly after she first opened this place, she hosted a high school reunion on the beach, I guess to drum up business.”

“Really? The business is booming, from what I hear.”

“I don’t know, but the idea caught on, and now she’s having another. And word got out that the place is great, and it hasn’t been here that long, so I guess that was enough to attract a lot of Mimosa High graduates.”

“Including you?”

“Including me.”

“So, you grew up on this island? You actually lived here?”

“Eighteen years before I moved away.”

She gave an envious moan. “Why would you leave?”

He shrugged. “Life. Work.” And too many memories to come back to.

She leaned closer, examining him. “What year reunion is it?” He could practically hear her brain doing the math on his age.

“All years, from five to fifty, since it wasn’t that big of a high school. And I’m—don’t drink before I say this now, or you’ll spew—I’m on the planning committee.”

She threw her head back and gave a hearty laugh, giving him another blast of attraction and maybe a little self-satisfaction that he’d taken her from sobbing to laughing in less than an hour.

“How’d you get dragged into that?” she asked.

“I’m still trying to figure that out,” he admitted. “I guess I felt sorry for Lacey, who was having a hard time scaring up men for her committee.”

“So I gotta ask,” she said, leaning forward, her eyes gleaming a little playfully.

Oh, here it came. The inevitable question. Where’s the wife? Followed by the conversation that would bring everything down. If only he had a wife handy, he wouldn’t have to constantly make excuses for not having one.

“What is it?” she asked.

“What is…what?” What was the reason he was alone? He hadn’t had enough wine to be that honest.

“The theme,” she said. “Every reunion has a theme. Memory Lane or The Way We Were or Remember When. Something cheesy that will be in glitter glue on the ribbons tied around the favors.”

He laughed with a combination of relief and genuine appreciation for her humor. “Damn, woman. You’ve done this before.”

“Twice. Cheesy phrases are my specialty. So, what is it?”

“Timeless.”

She leaned back and crossed her arms, nodding. “That’s good. I like it. Especially for an all-class reunion. Timeless has a lot of potential.”

“Glad the committee has your approval.” He winked, getting another smile in return. “Remind me to drag you along to the next meeting.” That would keep the vultures away from him.

“So that’s why the resort is sold out without so much as a closet in the housekeeping bungalow for me to rent, huh? It’s all Mimosa High’s fault.” She shook her head, then her eyes flashed. “Oh, I left my bags outside.”

“I put them in the living room for you.”

“Really?” She lifted her glass. “To gentlemen. A dying breed if there ever was one.”

He toasted but lifted his brow. “Hey, you sound bitter again.”

She sighed. “Can you blame me?”

“I don’t know. What happened with skinny-shoulder guy?”

She closed her eyes and gave in to a very slight smile. “Heidi happened.”

“Oof.” Mark shook his head and felt his lip curl. “Cheaters are the worst.”

“I agree, but he didn’t cheat. Oh, that would have just slayed me completely. No, Heidi is his sister. He spent a weekend skiing with her and came back with cold feet, and not from too much time in the snow. I guess they stayed up all night talking, and she made him really think I was not his professional equal or some such nonsense.”

“He told you that?”

“Not in so many words, but he danced around it enough for me to get the subtext. I guess I should never have dated my boss.”

“You can’t help who you fall for,” he said.

She tilted her head, thinking. “I don’t know if I would have described that as ‘falling’ as much as…sliding into it. Anyway, it was advertising,” she said, as if that explained it. “And you know advertising.”

“No, I don’t know advertising.”

“Built on lies. And affairs, though I’ve never had one. But it really is like Mad Men, only without the two-martini lunches.”

Mad Men?”

“The TV show.”

“Never heard of it.”

She drew back. “Where have you been for the last decade?”

“Mountains, rivers, cliffs, and deserts. Places that don’t have television.”

She eyed him for a moment. “I guess I can see that lifestyle on you. You’ve got that whole Ralph Lauren Goes on an Adventure vibe.”

“Ralph Lauren?”

“Talk about selling an aspirational image,” she said. “But, yes, advertising is an industry built on lies.”

“Why don’t you try your hand at something else now?”

“Because it’s what I know, what I do,” she answered. “Except…”

When her voice faded, he looked at her, silently inviting her to continue.

“According to my ex, I seem to be lacking ambition and skill because I’ve been in advertising almost fifteen years, and I haven’t made the management ranks yet.”

“The more you tell me about this guy, the happier I am for you.”

She smiled. “I liked my job enough, even though it was fairly low level. I liked the creativity. And I guess the late nights working on client crises.”

“Late nights at work? Who likes that?” he asked.

“A single woman.” She gave him a sad smile. “Then, after holding firm until I was thirty-eight years old, I fell for the mother of all marketing ploys: love.”

He didn’t know whether to laugh or reach over the table and shake some sense into her. “Love isn’t a marketing ploy,” he said.

She looked skyward with a cynical eye roll. “It is a ‘key message,’ as we say, used to sell long white dresses, overpriced flowers, dreamy honeymoons at places like this.” She shook her head. “Truth is, I was perfectly happy before I got sucked into all of that, even though they have names for nearly forty-year-old women who’ve never been married.”

“Smart, independent, self-sufficient, and able to set her own course in life?”

She put her hand on her chest as if his words had touched her heart. “Yeah, that’s the spin we single girls like to put on it. Beats old maid who missed the boat because she was too…afraid to commit. Finally did, and wham, slam, good-bye, ma’am.”

Laughing at her clever phrases, he stood to go to the wet bar and get the chilled wine. “Well, I’m really sorry I added to your mess by taking the last villa in Casa Blanca.”

“It’s not your fault,” she assured him. “I don’t blame you. I envy you the fine accommodations, but I don’t blame you.”

From the wet bar, holding the bottle, Mark studied her as she took in the view. For a second, he imagined that she belonged right there, on his villa patio, drinking, talking, and laughing. A sharp stab of longing hit.

Forget bringing her to a meeting. How nice would it be to have someone charming and smart and funny to take to the events this entire week? Someone who could help him ward off the hungry sharks. Someone who would make sure no one even asked about Julia. Someone…like her.

“Emma.” He slowly crossed the space, holding the wine as an idea took shape. “I have an offer for you.”

“An offer.” She gave a tentative smile. “That sounds interesting.”

“It might be. You want to stay here, right?”

“You giving the place up?” she asked.

“No.” He sat down and held the bottle over her empty glass. “But I’ll share it.”

Her eyes widened, and she made a little grunt, putting her hand out to stop him from pouring. “I think we’ve had enough wine, cowboy.”

“I’m serious.”

She puffed out a breath. “Listen, you’re gorgeous, with the whole silver fox thing going on, but—”

“I don’t want to sleep with you.”

She tipped her head and lifted a brow. “Just a platonic share, huh? You and me in the king-size bed with Scheherazade drapes and candles in the bath? Yeah, right.”

Actually, the idea didn’t pain him in the least. The more he listened and watched, the more he liked her and wanted her company. But what he needed was a woman to stop the questions he wouldn’t be able to avoid all week. No one would bring up Julia with another woman in the picture. But it would have to be a woman who people believed was permanent, not a casual date.

He hadn’t told a single person here whether or not he was single. He worked so hard to avoid the question that he’d completely succeeded.

“I don’t want to sleep with you,” he repeated. “I want to marry you.”

Kindle   iBooks    Nook    Kobo   Google Play

Chapter Two

Emma had to see the place. She wasn’t about to leave without at least placing her feet on the imported, cream marble floor or touching the posh furnishings or gazing out over the infinity pool that disappeared into the bay.

And don’t forget the beach-facing bedroom balcony or the stunner of a bathroom with a Jacuzzi the size of a small country.

All designed for fairy-tale romance.

The copy on page three of the Casa Blanca Resort & Spa brochure still danced in her memory, torturing her. Oh yeah. Fairy tale. Those were the words that sold people on villas that cost this much. Not, you know, real life. But then, advertising copy wasn’t real life…and who knew that better than the woman who wrote it?

Sniffing back some tears, she stepped in so she could fully wallow in her misery. Wasn’t that why she’d dragged her suitcases along the path, gulping great mouthfuls of humiliation with the desk clerk’s words still echoing in her head?

Oh, I’m sorry, that reservation was canceled by Mr. Kyle Chambers’s secretary. Would you like to see the cancellation number?

No, but, damn it, she wanted to see the villa.

She’d hoped to find a kindly housekeeper who might let her take a peek inside when she’d marched over here after her failed check-in attempt. She was totally prepared to use her six degrees of separation trump card to get inside. I’m with the ad agency that handles the resort… Well, she had been with the agency, before quitting in shame.

But a housekeeper was nowhere to be found, and the villa was locked tight.

That was when frustration, sadness, and the total unfairness of life had kicked Emma in the chest so hard, she’d dropped onto the patio step and gave in to the first real sobfest since her fiancé broke their engagement.

This guy must think she was a total loon. She glanced at him, already soothed by his baritone voice and commanding presence, and grateful that he hadn’t treated her like an unwanted piece of litter strewn outside his expensive accommodations.

She inhaled a quick breath as the impact of the place hit her. Here it was, in full three-dimensional living color, so much more beautiful than the photos they’d dropped into the brochure and on the website. The luxurious living area led straight to French doors that opened to a jaw-dropping, heart-stopping view of…that man.

No, no. He was not in the brochure, but could have been, easily. She’d know exactly what to ask the modeling agency to send, if they’d used a model: a gorgeous, confident man, maybe mid-forties, a little dusting of silver, a strong jaw, piercing blue eyes, and an air of authority and power. Yes, he’d be the perfect accent to the stunning villa.

Emma looked beyond her unexpected host to the turquoise waters of Barefoot Bay glinting in the late afternoon, warmed by pink clouds that heralded a spectacular sunset over the Gulf of Mexico.

At least, that’s how she’d describe it if she had to write copy for that postcard view. Throw in a happy couple walking hand in hand, barefoot, of course. They’d be laughing or caught in that split-second exchange of an intimate touch and…

A sob bubbled up, and she choked it back with a noise that sounded something like a cross between a strangled burp and a hiccup.

Great, Emma. Just great. She’d never been a delicate crier. Hell, she’d never been a crier.

“So, what exactly did you mean by ‘your villa’?” the man asked.

“I meant that it was supposed to be…” Ours. “Mine this week.”

A frown creased his brow. “I was told there was a cancellation and that’s why Lacey—the resort owner—put me in this, the last available villa. I would have taken a room in the main building, but that was booked, too.”

“There certainly was a cancellation,” Emma said. “A big, fat, nasty, embarrassing, gut-wrenching brutality of a cancellation.” She wiped her face, vaguely aware that she must look like a red-faced freak, but honestly didn’t care. “Can I see the bedroom?”

“Sure. It’s through that doorway, to the left.”

Maybe this was a little masochistic—okay, no maybe, this was truly self-inflicted torture—but she just had to see it. Taking slow steps to a vestibule outside a huge double-doored entrance, she peeked into the bedroom.

Yep. The photographer had nailed it. A king-size four-poster bed with a puffy white comforter and sheer drapes all around, giving it a secretive, seductive feel. The pale marble floors continued in here, warmed by expensive Oriental carpets and layers of lush window treatments.

And the bathroom. She had to see the bathroom.

She crossed the room to a space that led into the spa-like sanctuary, drinking in a vaulted ceiling and blue tile trim that captured the Moroccan feel of the whole resort. Light bounced off the shiny floor, blinding her.

Just like she’d been blinded by…dreams and hopes and empty promises.

“Oh, Kyle. How could you do this to me?” She sighed and turned around, taking it all in, especially the magnificent tub surrounded by candles and a view out to the bay.

A tub built for…two.

“Seen enough?”

She startled at the voice behind her, low and close and as alluring as the surroundings. Looking up, she caught sight of the man in the mirror, pinning her with a look that fell somewhere between amused and annoyed.

No, mostly amused. And he had pretty eyes. If they hadn’t already been that piercing sky blue that matched the villa, she’d have suggested the art department Photoshop them to exactly that color.

Then her gaze shifted to her own reflection, and she gasped. “Oh Lord.” She put her hand to her mouth, laughing softly, because what else could she do?

She so did not match the cool and beautiful villa. “I look like I was dragged through a mascara factory.”

He put a hand on her shoulder, slowly turning her to face him instead of the mirror. “Were you supposed to stay here this week?” he guessed.

She let out a breath and gave a weak nod. “Yeah,” she managed.

“Special occasion?”

“Just, you know, a honeymoon. Is that special?”

“Oh.” His eyes widened. “Usually, yeah.”

She tore her gaze from him to take another longing look around. “Except there was no, you know…”

“Wedding,” he supplied gently.

“No wedding,” she confirmed. She heard the hurt and bitterness in her voice and wished she could hide those feelings, but they were out now. “Just a lot of frantic phone calls and canceled florists and returned gifts and sympathetic friends, and oh, that bitch at the dress place would not refund my money. And I woke up this morning, maybe a little hung over because last night was, you know, not my wedding night, as planned. Then I realized today would have been check-in day. I called, and the reservation hadn’t been canceled, so I thought why not?”

“Of course,” he said, as if that made perfect sense.

“Well, they do that in movies all the time, right? The jilted bride goes on her honeymoon alone and has…” She swallowed and looked up at him.

“And has…?” he prompted.

Wild sex with a hot guy.

No, no, good God in heaven, no. Except…whoa. He was easy on the eyes. “And has a chance to heal,” she finished.

Silent, he searched her face for a moment, his gaze sharpening as if he read her thoughts, which would not be good. “You could use that wine.”

He left her standing in the oversize Moroccan tile bathroom staring at her ravaged face.

Yeah, wine. To calm her jumpy nerves and misbehaving libido. Wine from the wine god who happened to be the lucky recipient of Kyle Chambers’s cold, second-guessing heart. Now, this man—whoever he was—knew her history, had seen her at her worst, and still offered wine.

Could anyone really be that nice? She’d think he had an ulterior motive, but one look in the mirror and she knew it couldn’t be a hot seduction on the sand. Pity, more likely.

She closed the bathroom door and went to the sink, unwrapping some sweet-smelling goat’s milk soap—made locally, exactly as she’d written in the brochure—to wash her face completely clean. She still looked pale and wretched.

Glancing down to the drawer in the vanity, she thought of a line from the direct-mail piece. Every bathroom in Casa Blanca comes with all the extras, including a luxurious robe, fluffy slippers, and a supply of high-end cosmetics directly from our own Eucalyptus Spa.

She tugged on the drawer handle and, sure enough, there was a blue silk bag with the spa logo embroidered on the flap. Inside, she found a never-been-used brush wrapped in sealed plastic, which was like heaven in her hair. And some powder, fresh mascara, and a light peach lip gloss.

The note inside said, “Enjoy your stay in Barefoot Bay. Kick off your shoes and fall in love!”

Ah, yes, the clever and ridiculously optimistic tag line that came with the Casa Blanca account and had to be incorporated in every ad, brochure, and web design. Emma might kick off her shoes and enjoy the company of a handsome stranger, but she’d never fall in love again. Never, ever.

Love was for idiots and fools and losers who bought what advertisers were shoveling out. Love was a fabrication used to sell stuff. Who knew that better than an advertising copywriter?

She cleared her throat and took one more look in the mirror. Better. Still bitter, but better.

And she sure could use that wine.

* * *

Jilted.

Mark thought about the word, and the woman who used it, while he sat at the table for two on the patio, enjoying the sight of the tangerine ball of sun slowly falling into Barefoot Bay. When the French door opened, he turned and tipped his head in silent appreciation of another sight equally as attractive.

She’d washed, brushed, and pulled herself together. Quite nicely, too. Her hair cascaded like a chocolate waterfall over her shoulders, her eyes bright, her skin clear, especially considering the tears. Thank God there were no more tears.

She walked toward him, giving him a moment to admire a feminine figure he hadn’t really noticed in the middle of her crisis. Trim but curvy enough to appeal to him, with long legs in tight jeans, her bare feet adding a surprising kick of sexiness.

What kind of blind and stupid guy walked away from that before the wedding bells rang?

There might be more to that story. One thing he knew about romance gone south—and he did know plenty considering the business he’d been in for so many years—there were always two sides to the coin. Although this side was definitely fine.

“Feeling better?” he asked, pushing his chair back to stand as she approached.

A quick flash of her golden eyes told him the basic level of chivalry surprised her. So the ex was a dick in all areas, he surmised.

“Better on the outside,” she admitted. “And thank you again for letting a bawling stranger into your villa.”

“It was silence you or face charges,” he joked.

She smiled. “But you didn’t have to listen to my tale of misery or share your wine.”

He reached for the stemless bistro glass and offered it to her. “I have a soft spot for orphans and strays,” he said. “I also like a nice sauvignon at sunset. I had the owner order a case of my favorite for the week.”

She lifted her brows. “Fancy.”

He laughed and met her glass in a toast. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to rub it in.”

“It’s okay.” She took a sip and closed her eyes as the mix of oak and vanilla hit her palate just as it hit his. “The view is rubbing it in enough.”

“Please.” He gestured to the other chair. “Relax. I’m Mark, by the way, stealer of your villa.”

“Emma.” She sat down and gazed out to the view with a low, sad sigh. “And you can’t be held responsible for your good fortune and my bad choice.”

“Hello, Emma.” He tasted the name, like the wine, liking the feel of it in his mouth.

“Well, this place has lived up to its reputation, and I’m pleased about that,” she said. “I knew I’d love it here, just like I knew every word I wrote was the truth. For once, I wasn’t lying about the product.”

The product?

She gestured toward the water. “Panoramic views.” Then the villa. “World-class accommodations.” Then him. “High-end clientele.”

His confused frown deepened. “You lost me.”

She set her glass down with a rueful smile. “I wrote the advertising copy for this place. I’m a copywriter for an agency in New York, at least I was until I resigned two weeks ago. That’s when my boss, who was also my fiancé, walked into my office and said those four dreadful words no woman wants to hear when she’s on hold with her wedding planner to finalize the tulip delivery.”

Oh yeah, the guy was a monumental douchebag. “I don’t like tulips?” he guessed with a smile.

“‘We have to talk.’” She closed her eyes. “And you just know it’s not about the copy for next week’s new business presentation.”

“That sucks.”

She smirked at the understatement. “Anyway, Casa Blanca Resort & Spa is one of the agency’s top accounts. That’s how I knew about it and why I wanted to honeymoon here. This whole island is like a dream to me.” She gave a soft snort. “So was the wedding, come to think of it.”

“Oh man, now I feel even worse. You should have this place. You pulled strings and used your connections and—”

“No, no.” She held up her hand. “I didn’t. My ex pulled the strings, trust me. Including the one that canceled the reservation, except he hadn’t done it yet when I called or I would still be in bed in Brooklyn licking my wounds.”

“Didn’t you tell them at the front desk who you are?”

“Nah. I’m just the pen monkey in the bowels of the creative department who’d never been to a place like this and couldn’t stop thinking about it. For once in my career, I believed in what I was writing about. My other accounts? No, I didn’t care if a checking account earned more interest at Community Bank or if All Green fertilizer really improved the grass. I don’t believe that Colombian Cups coffee really has zero aftertaste. But is Casa Blanca Resort & Spa really perfection in paradise? Yes. And there’s something empowering about marketing the truth for a change.”

She finished her speech with a good slug of wine, and Mark couldn’t wipe the smile from his face. She was as refreshing as the sauvignon blanc and maybe as complex. And maybe, with the setting sun picking up flecks of gold in her hair and eyes, a little bit intoxicating, too.

“It was my fault, completely,” she said, dropping her head back a little and giving him a tantalizing view of the long, lean column of her throat.

“A broken relationship is never anyone’s fault completely.”

“Oh, it can be.” She peered at him through narrowed lashes. “But I meant assuming the reservation wouldn’t be canceled at the very last minute was my fault. Being left holding a Vera Wang gown and a truckload of embarrassment? All on his skinny shoulders.” She straightened her head and added a tight smile. “Sorry if I sound cynical, but I’ve spent the last two weeks realizing that the stupidest thing a human can do is buy into the dreams spun by marketing professionals.”

“Says the person who writes ad copy for a living.” He chuckled. “I imagine that could make you a little jaded.”

“Jaded, jilted, and jobless—that’s me.” Her smile loosened as she held up the glass. “I like a wine that brings out my alliteration skills.”

Laughing, he shook his head, enjoying this unexpected twist on his first day at the resort. “An alluring atmosphere for an afternoon of alliteration.”

Her jaw opened with her delight as she raised the glass in a toast. “A-plus!”

They both laughed and took a drink, the wine and sun warming him as much as the company. It made the whole concept of the event so much more bearable to be with someone. And not just anyone, but a woman with some…zing.

A woman who not only caught his eye, but made him laugh. So few had been able to do that since…well, since Julia.

She treated him to a wide, sweet smile. “Thank you for rescuing a massively crappy day.”

He nodded in acknowledgment, tempted to tell her the feeling was mutual, but she might take that the wrong way.

“Hard to believe you’ve done all that for this resort and they couldn’t find you another room or villa,” he said instead.

“Apparently, the whole resort is booked solid.”

“It’s the high school reunion,” he said.

“Really? What kind of high school can afford this swanky place?”

“Mimosa High, the local one. The owner is a graduate, and shortly after she first opened this place, she hosted a high school reunion on the beach, I guess to drum up business.”

“Really? The business is booming, from what I hear.”

“I don’t know, but the idea caught on, and now she’s having another. And word got out that the place is great, and it hasn’t been here that long, so I guess that was enough to attract a lot of Mimosa High graduates.”

“Including you?”

“Including me.”

“So, you grew up on this island? You actually lived here?”

“Eighteen years before I moved away.”

She gave an envious moan. “Why would you leave?”

He shrugged. “Life. Work.” And too many memories to come back to.

She leaned closer, examining him. “What year reunion is it?” He could practically hear her brain doing the math on his age.

“All years, from five to fifty, since it wasn’t that big of a high school. And I’m—don’t drink before I say this now, or you’ll spew—I’m on the planning committee.”

She threw her head back and gave a hearty laugh, giving him another blast of attraction and maybe a little self-satisfaction that he’d taken her from sobbing to laughing in less than an hour.

“How’d you get dragged into that?” she asked.

“I’m still trying to figure that out,” he admitted. “I guess I felt sorry for Lacey, who was having a hard time scaring up men for her committee.”

“So I gotta ask,” she said, leaning forward, her eyes gleaming a little playfully.

Oh, here it came. The inevitable question. Where’s the wife? Followed by the conversation that would bring everything down. If only he had a wife handy, he wouldn’t have to constantly make excuses for not having one.

“What is it?” she asked.

“What is…what?” What was the reason he was alone? He hadn’t had enough wine to be that honest.

“The theme,” she said. “Every reunion has a theme. Memory Lane or The Way We Were or Remember When. Something cheesy that will be in glitter glue on the ribbons tied around the favors.”

He laughed with a combination of relief and genuine appreciation for her humor. “Damn, woman. You’ve done this before.”

“Twice. Cheesy phrases are my specialty. So, what is it?”

“Timeless.”

She leaned back and crossed her arms, nodding. “That’s good. I like it. Especially for an all-class reunion. Timeless has a lot of potential.”

“Glad the committee has your approval.” He winked, getting another smile in return. “Remind me to drag you along to the next meeting.” That would keep the vultures away from him.

“So that’s why the resort is sold out without so much as a closet in the housekeeping bungalow for me to rent, huh? It’s all Mimosa High’s fault.” She shook her head, then her eyes flashed. “Oh, I left my bags outside.”

“I put them in the living room for you.”

“Really?” She lifted her glass. “To gentlemen. A dying breed if there ever was one.”

He toasted but lifted his brow. “Hey, you sound bitter again.”

She sighed. “Can you blame me?”

“I don’t know. What happened with skinny-shoulder guy?”

She closed her eyes and gave in to a very slight smile. “Heidi happened.”

“Oof.” Mark shook his head and felt his lip curl. “Cheaters are the worst.”

“I agree, but he didn’t cheat. Oh, that would have just slayed me completely. No, Heidi is his sister. He spent a weekend skiing with her and came back with cold feet, and not from too much time in the snow. I guess they stayed up all night talking, and she made him really think I was not his professional equal or some such nonsense.”

“He told you that?”

“Not in so many words, but he danced around it enough for me to get the subtext. I guess I should never have dated my boss.”

“You can’t help who you fall for,” he said.

She tilted her head, thinking. “I don’t know if I would have described that as ‘falling’ as much as…sliding into it. Anyway, it was advertising,” she said, as if that explained it. “And you know advertising.”

“No, I don’t know advertising.”

“Built on lies. And affairs, though I’ve never had one. But it really is like Mad Men, only without the two-martini lunches.”

Mad Men?”

“The TV show.”

“Never heard of it.”

She drew back. “Where have you been for the last decade?”

“Mountains, rivers, cliffs, and deserts. Places that don’t have television.”

She eyed him for a moment. “I guess I can see that lifestyle on you. You’ve got that whole Ralph Lauren Goes on an Adventure vibe.”

“Ralph Lauren?”

“Talk about selling an aspirational image,” she said. “But, yes, advertising is an industry built on lies.”

“Why don’t you try your hand at something else now?”

“Because it’s what I know, what I do,” she answered. “Except…”

When her voice faded, he looked at her, silently inviting her to continue.

“According to my ex, I seem to be lacking ambition and skill because I’ve been in advertising almost fifteen years, and I haven’t made the management ranks yet.”

“The more you tell me about this guy, the happier I am for you.”

She smiled. “I liked my job enough, even though it was fairly low level. I liked the creativity. And I guess the late nights working on client crises.”

“Late nights at work? Who likes that?” he asked.

“A single woman.” She gave him a sad smile. “Then, after holding firm until I was thirty-eight years old, I fell for the mother of all marketing ploys: love.”

He didn’t know whether to laugh or reach over the table and shake some sense into her. “Love isn’t a marketing ploy,” he said.

She looked skyward with a cynical eye roll. “It is a ‘key message,’ as we say, used to sell long white dresses, overpriced flowers, dreamy honeymoons at places like this.” She shook her head. “Truth is, I was perfectly happy before I got sucked into all of that, even though they have names for nearly forty-year-old women who’ve never been married.”

“Smart, independent, self-sufficient, and able to set her own course in life?”

She put her hand on her chest as if his words had touched her heart. “Yeah, that’s the spin we single girls like to put on it. Beats old maid who missed the boat because she was too…afraid to commit. Finally did, and wham, slam, good-bye, ma’am.”

Laughing at her clever phrases, he stood to go to the wet bar and get the chilled wine. “Well, I’m really sorry I added to your mess by taking the last villa in Casa Blanca.”

“It’s not your fault,” she assured him. “I don’t blame you. I envy you the fine accommodations, but I don’t blame you.”

From the wet bar, holding the bottle, Mark studied her as she took in the view. For a second, he imagined that she belonged right there, on his villa patio, drinking, talking, and laughing. A sharp stab of longing hit.

Forget bringing her to a meeting. How nice would it be to have someone charming and smart and funny to take to the events this entire week? Someone who could help him ward off the hungry sharks. Someone who would make sure no one even asked about Julia. Someone…like her.

“Emma.” He slowly crossed the space, holding the wine as an idea took shape. “I have an offer for you.”

“An offer.” She gave a tentative smile. “That sounds interesting.”

“It might be. You want to stay here, right?”

“You giving the place up?” she asked.

“No.” He sat down and held the bottle over her empty glass. “But I’ll share it.”

Her eyes widened, and she made a little grunt, putting her hand out to stop him from pouring. “I think we’ve had enough wine, cowboy.”

“I’m serious.”

She puffed out a breath. “Listen, you’re gorgeous, with the whole silver fox thing going on, but—”

“I don’t want to sleep with you.”

She tipped her head and lifted a brow. “Just a platonic share, huh? You and me in the king-size bed with Scheherazade drapes and candles in the bath? Yeah, right.”

Actually, the idea didn’t pain him in the least. The more he listened and watched, the more he liked her and wanted her company. But what he needed was a woman to stop the questions he wouldn’t be able to avoid all week. No one would bring up Julia with another woman in the picture. But it would have to be a woman who people believed was permanent, not a casual date.

He hadn’t told a single person here whether or not he was single. He worked so hard to avoid the question that he’d completely succeeded.

“I don’t want to sleep with you,” he repeated. “I want to marry you.”

Kindle   iBooks    Nook    Kobo   Google Play

Chapter Four

Emma slipped in some earrings, stepped back, and took a look at herself in the mirror, liking the way the cream-colored linen pants and sleeveless tunic fell, adjusting the long gold chain that pulled it all together.

She’d bought this outfit imagining romantic dinners by the water and slow strolls on the beach under the moonlight…with her husband.

The one who was plagued by icy feet and an even icier heart.

Okay, it was time to forget Kyle and think about this. What had made her do something as impulsive as agreeing to this?

Sometimes she did impulsive things when she was nervous. Like the day she started her job at East End Marketing and fought tears on the way into the office because being single was pressing down and starting to get so old. About half an hour later, she met Kyle Chambers, and the next thing she knew…she was talking herself into him.

That’s not what happened today, she mentally insisted. Mark Solomon was just…a harmless old widower, right?

Uh…wrong. Old if you were blind and harmless if you were wearing a chastity belt. Out there was pretty much the best-looking man she’d laid eyes on in years, with an impressive athlete’s body, a good heart, and the ability to make her do something she hadn’t done in days: laugh out loud.

The rationalization continued like a bad song she couldn’t get out of her head. What’s the harm? What’s a little lie to strangers? What difference does it make that he’s hot as hell?

He’d offered her a week in paradise for the small fee of a little white fib to a bunch of strangers.

Yes, it had felt strange to lie to the lovely lady who owned this place—who, fortunately, had no idea Emma DeWitt worked on the Casa Blanca account as a copywriter. Mid-level scribes didn’t get dragged into important client meetings. Emma had hoped when she moved from a behemoth ad agency on Madison Avenue to a small shop in SoHo that she’d get more client interaction, but the only interaction she got was with the boss.

She squinted her eyes and tried to picture Kyle when he’d come simpering into her cube a few weeks ago after his spontaneous ski trip with a sister he hadn’t seen in a year.

But the wedding loomed. The big day. White lace and promises, right?

She’d clung to the damn marketing like it was her life raft in a sea of singleness. It had all been so right…so right out of the movies, including the quirky restaurant engagement.

“That reminds me…” Emma snapped her fingers and reached for her handbag, hanging on the back of the door. Deep in the back pocket, she found the satin pouch she hadn’t packed in her checked luggage. In the little bag, she’d placed the emerald earrings Mom had given her. There was a necklace of value, a gold bracelet, and…the rock.

Not a huge rock, but it did the job.

Sliding the engagement ring onto her finger, she waited for the weight of sadness that had pulled her down the day she’d taken it off, at Starbucks, surrounded by busy New Yorkers taking a break from a slushy rain.

When she’d held the ring out to Kyle, he’d shaken his head and said, “It’s yours.”

“But you’re not,” she’d whispered in response, making him avert his eyes and push back his chair and end the world’s most uncomfortable coffee date in history.

History, she reminded herself. Kyle was history.

She closed her bag and slipped it on her shoulder, checked for lipstick on her teeth, and smoothed her hair one last time. Then she stepped out into the fading evening light of the living room, glancing around for Mark.

After moving her bags into the villa’s only bedroom, he’d taken his belongings and stored them somewhere and must have used the guest bath on the other side of the little house. The villa had one bedroom, but the living room sofa pulled out and accommodated at least one more person, so it wasn’t like he had to sleep on the floor, for heaven’s sake.

A few butterflies fluttered in her belly at the thought, and then she spotted him back on the patio, leaning against the railing. And those butterflies soared.

He’d changed to tan linen pants and a pale, short-sleeved shirt that fit his broad shoulders tightly enough to show them off, but with enough drape to say he didn’t care if anyone noticed his body or not. His hair was completely dark in the back, but the last bits of sunlight picked up the silver threads at his temples, giving him the look of a man with wisdom, experience, power, and class.

And a hella fine backside.

He turned as she came outside, studying her while she rounded the pool and approached him, his gaze dropping over her with the same flash of appreciation she imagined lit her eyes.

“I have a question, Mark.”

“Shoot.”

“How recently did we get engaged?”

He lifted a shoulder. “How about a month ago? I was in…” Dark brows knit as he thought about it. “Indonesia? No, Bhutan. The Sacred Rivers. Let’s say we hiked to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, and I popped the question three thousand feet above Paro.”

She choked a laugh. “Well, that makes getting engaged at Daniel in New York sound pretty pedestrian.”

“Good restaurant, but not very romantic.”

She rolled her eyes. “Okay, Bhutan it is. Three thousand feet off the ground because we were so in love, we were floating on air.”

“You are a copywriter.”

“To the bone,” she acknowledged, lifting her left hand to wiggle the ring. “And I can fend off evil predators.”

He reached for her hand to take a closer look. “So this was dessert at Daniel?”

“Actually, the appetizer. So we could spend the dinner planning.”

He nodded, angling the ring to check it out. “I might have gone a little bigger, but not ostentatious.”

“Do you think these people will judge?” she asked.

He lifted his shoulder. “I don’t know. I don’t talk to any of these people.”

“Then why did you come?”

He started to answer, then stopped, catching himself. “I just did,” he said. “You ready? We can walk up the beach to get there.”

She didn’t move, slowly crossing her arms. “No.”

“What? You changed your mind?”

“No, you can’t lie to me.”

He frowned. “I’m not lying. You really do walk up the beach to get there.”

“That’s not what I mean. Just now, when I asked you why you came to this reunion, you said, ‘I just did.’ That’s a lie.”

He opened his mouth to argue, then closed it again.

“Am I right?”

“Possibly,” he said after a second’s hesitation. “Does it matter?”

“Why you came? No. Honesty? Yes. Very much. In fact, it’s my deal-breaker. In this villa, when we are together, it’s one hundred percent honesty or nothing at all.”

He leaned closer and glanced side to side as if someone might be listening to him whisper, “You do realize you agreed to lie to every person you meet this week.”

She caught a whiff of his aftershave, spicy and masculine, giving her an unexpected pull of attraction. “But I’m not lying to you. I can’t do this if we dance around our conversations and tell each other half-truths. It’s the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth between us.”

He studied her face for a long time, his expression changing, but she couldn’t quite interpret his thoughts. “All right,” he finally said. “No lies, only truth with us. I promise.”

And she believed him. Not sure why, but Emma was certain Mark Solomon was a man of his word.

“Then answer the question,” she said. “Why did you come if you have no friends or acquaintances at this reunion?”

He turned away, the hint of a smile lifting the corner of his mouth. “You’re going to mock me mercilessly.”

“And you would deny me that opportunity?”

He smiled at that. And then he reached into his pocket and pulled something out, his fist closed around it. “For sixteen years, I’ve periodically received…guidance from my late wife.”

“Like messages from the great beyond?” She had to work to keep the disbelief out of her voice.

“Exactly like that.” He turned his hand over and opened his fingers to reveal what was in his palm. A ring with a bright red stone and writing on the side. A woman’s ring, she realized, with a gold and black ’86 on the side.

“Her class ring?” she guessed.

He nodded, his smile wry enough to tell her he saw the humor and irony and maybe a little bit of foolishness. “Lacey contacted me while I was in New Zealand, asked me to come and be here a week early to help with the planning. They were desperate to get men on the planning committee, and no one had said yes yet.”

“But you did.”

“Not at first. Hell no. I flat out refused the committee and the event, and not because I think I’m too good or too important or too busy, like a lot of the other men had said.” He gave her a serious look. “I didn’t want to open up wounds that have long closed and healed.”

“Or at least scarred,” she added, deeply suspecting that his grief wasn’t truly healed yet.

“Completely scarred and numb,” he agreed. “Anyway, I left Auckland and flew to New York, where I keep a small apartment. I had some papers I had to pick up from my safe-deposit box. When I was in it, I lifted up an envelope, and this ring fell out. I totally forgot I had kept it with some of Julia’s things.”

He held the ring with two fingers and angled it so they could both see it.

“And that was the message? Finding her ring?” Bit of a stretch, Emma thought, but hey, she’d never been a widow.

“I had a flash of a memory from the day the rings arrived and we both put ours on. She was so excited. We were outside eating lunch, and she held the red stone to the sun and said, ‘I’m going to wear mine forever. I’ll be the only person at the high school reunion who still wears her Mimosa High ring.’”

Emma didn’t say anything, watching his face as he relayed the story. No sorrow or grief, just a look of warm appreciation. Like he was grateful he’d had that moment with her.

“When Julia suggests something, I usually listen.”

And maybe he was a total nut job. “How often does she, uh, talk to you?”

Laughing, he pocketed the ring. “And she mocks.”

“Not mocking, just…it’s a little out-there, don’t you think?”

“It is, but it doesn’t happen that often. Once every couple of years, something will hit me hard, especially when I have a decision to make. And if I listen to her advice, my choice usually turns out to be the right one.”

“When was the first time?” she asked, fascinated by this romantic illusion.

“When I had the offer to sell Seeking Soulmates, the company we started together. I had no intention of selling, because we were profitable and I enjoyed running the business. Being a workaholic had kept me sane after Julia died, even though I didn’t realize how burned-out I’d become.”

Emma eyed him, seeing a man in his prime of health and life. She couldn’t even imagine him burned-out. “So how did she deliver that message?”

“I’d fended off about six offers from larger companies because I just knew she wouldn’t have wanted to sell to a huge conglomerate that would bury or kill the concept, no matter how much they offered. Then, I was approached by LoveInc.com.”

“Ahh.” She immediately recognized the name of the largest Internet dating site. “The ‘love only happens if you take the chance’ people. Kind of a lame tag line, if you ask me. And they are a huge conglomerate.”

“Not back then. The owner had vision and millions in stock options before a public offering. The cash wasn’t great, but his ideas for the company were. I was immediately tempted, but uncertain.” He looked out to the water, which had settled into a million shades of twilight blue, but Emma couldn’t take her eyes off him.

“So how’d she convince you to do it?” she asked, guessing that had to be where he was taking this story.

“I was in midtown, on my way home from a meeting with the LoveInc people, and it started to pour. Cabs were short, but I managed to snag one at the very same moment as a woman. I offered to let her have it, but she asked where I was going, I told her, and our destinations were close. She suggested we share.”

Of course she did, Emma thought. Who wouldn’t want to climb into a cab with George Clooney’s blue-eyed brother?

“Her name was Julia,” he said, his voice a little lower. “She looked nothing like my late wife, but she was very excited because she’d just gotten engaged. I asked how she met her fiancé, and she said—”

“LoveInc.com,” Emma finished.

“Yep. She said it was the best experience, and if she were going to buy stock in a company, it would be that one. Those were her very words.”

“Maybe she was an investment banker working on the deal and wanted you to buy in.”

The corner of his mouth lifted. “You are a cynic. No, she was just a girl named Julia who needed a cab and unwittingly delivered a message that I should sell the company and take the stock offer. And that decision…”

“Made you a rich man.”

“Beyond my wildest expectations,” he confirmed.

Of course, that probably would have happened if he hadn’t accidentally met a girl named Julia who raved about her online dating experience, but she couldn’t help be charmed by the idea of a man who listened to his wife…even from the grave.

“So what do you think your late wife would have to say about the whole fake fiancée to fend off offers and questions idea?” Emma asked.

He thought about the question—really thought about it, she could tell—and then said, “I’m not sure.”

“Maybe we’ll find some seashells that spell out ‘good idea, Mark’ on the sand.”

He laughed. “You’re mocking.”

“Ya think?”

He put an easy arm around her and guided her toward the villa. “So you’re the fiancée who makes fun of me.”

“I could be.”

“I like that.” He tightened his hold, pulling her an inch closer.

I like that, she thought. The realization made her slow her step, and he matched the timing, looking down at her.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Nothing.”

He leaned back and raised his eyebrows. “Didn’t you just set rules for complete honesty? Something is wrong, I can see it.”

Nothing was wrong, but the reaction in her body when he pulled her closer was…unexpected. And powerful. And stimulating.

And the last thing she wanted or needed was a man who made her feel stimulated.

“I don’t know.” She glanced away, his gaze a little too intense for her. “This whole thing is…spontaneous. That’s not how I roll.”

“You jumped on a plane to go on your honeymoon alone,” he reminded her.

“And look how well that turned out.”

“It’s not too bad…” He brushed some hair off her cheek, the graze of his knuckles on her skin just making everything worse. “So far.”

Her eyes shuttered at the touch and his deep voice.

“But I promised platonic,” he added. “You have my word on that.”

Too bad, whispered a devil in her ear. “Still, the whole thing scares me a little,” she admitted.

“What part?” he asked.

“The part…” She looked up at him, almost immediately lost in the depths of crystal-blue eyes. “The part when it starts to feel like it’s not pretend.”

He looked into her eyes for the longest time, saying nothing. She could feel her pulse pound and her breath catch, hear the squawk of a distant gull and the splash of water, smell the spicy, woodsy scent of him and feel his warmth.

That would be this part, right now, she thought, as every sense was overloaded and time stood still.

“You know, I have a theory about fear,” he said. “Any fear can be conquered by facing it head on. Just staring it right down and doing what scares you most. Three times.”

“Three times?” she asked.

“That’s the magic fear-beating number,” he assured her. “I had to parachute out of planes three times before I could deal with the sheer terror of it. First time I went rock-climbing? Same thing. Anything that comes with inherent risks needs to be faced down three times.”

“So, how would that work here, exactly?”

“Depends on what you’re scared of. Telling people a lie? Being trapped in a villa with me? Wanting to—”

“Kiss you,” she whispered.

His eyebrows raised. “That’s what you’re afraid of?”

She swallowed and managed a nod. Afraid to do it…afraid that it might never happen. “I mean, out in public, if we’re going to get people to believe we’re really engaged, then we’ll probably…kiss.”

“You’re absolutely right,” he agreed. “So you know what we have to do.”

“Three times?”

He smiled slowly. “Fast learner. I like that.” He inched closer. “I like that a lot.”

“On the mouth?”

“That’s usually where I go first, but we can start with a peck on the cheek and build up, if you like.”

“Okay…but…wait.” She put a hand on his chest, wishing it weren’t so hard and that she didn’t want to press down so much. “How did you do this? How did you get me from ‘gee, is this the smartest move?’ to mouth-kissing?”

“I told you, face your fears.” He lowered his face and brought his mouth a slight centimeter from hers.

She leaned into him and kissed his mouth very softly, barely touching, just the slightest whisper of a kiss, just enough to…melt. And thank God there would be two more after this.

Kindle   iBooks    Nook    Kobo   Google Play

Chapter Four

Emma slipped in some earrings, stepped back, and took a look at herself in the mirror, liking the way the cream-colored linen pants and sleeveless tunic fell, adjusting the long gold chain that pulled it all together.

She’d bought this outfit imagining romantic dinners by the water and slow strolls on the beach under the moonlight…with her husband.

The one who was plagued by icy feet and an even icier heart.

Okay, it was time to forget Kyle and think about this. What had made her do something as impulsive as agreeing to this?

Sometimes she did impulsive things when she was nervous. Like the day she started her job at East End Marketing and fought tears on the way into the office because being single was pressing down and starting to get so old. About half an hour later, she met Kyle Chambers, and the next thing she knew…she was talking herself into him.

That’s not what happened today, she mentally insisted. Mark Solomon was just…a harmless old widower, right?

Uh…wrong. Old if you were blind and harmless if you were wearing a chastity belt. Out there was pretty much the best-looking man she’d laid eyes on in years, with an impressive athlete’s body, a good heart, and the ability to make her do something she hadn’t done in days: laugh out loud.

The rationalization continued like a bad song she couldn’t get out of her head. What’s the harm? What’s a little lie to strangers? What difference does it make that he’s hot as hell?

He’d offered her a week in paradise for the small fee of a little white fib to a bunch of strangers.

Yes, it had felt strange to lie to the lovely lady who owned this place—who, fortunately, had no idea Emma DeWitt worked on the Casa Blanca account as a copywriter. Mid-level scribes didn’t get dragged into important client meetings. Emma had hoped when she moved from a behemoth ad agency on Madison Avenue to a small shop in SoHo that she’d get more client interaction, but the only interaction she got was with the boss.

She squinted her eyes and tried to picture Kyle when he’d come simpering into her cube a few weeks ago after his spontaneous ski trip with a sister he hadn’t seen in a year.

But the wedding loomed. The big day. White lace and promises, right?

She’d clung to the damn marketing like it was her life raft in a sea of singleness. It had all been so right…so right out of the movies, including the quirky restaurant engagement.

“That reminds me…” Emma snapped her fingers and reached for her handbag, hanging on the back of the door. Deep in the back pocket, she found the satin pouch she hadn’t packed in her checked luggage. In the little bag, she’d placed the emerald earrings Mom had given her. There was a necklace of value, a gold bracelet, and…the rock.

Not a huge rock, but it did the job.

Sliding the engagement ring onto her finger, she waited for the weight of sadness that had pulled her down the day she’d taken it off, at Starbucks, surrounded by busy New Yorkers taking a break from a slushy rain.

When she’d held the ring out to Kyle, he’d shaken his head and said, “It’s yours.”

“But you’re not,” she’d whispered in response, making him avert his eyes and push back his chair and end the world’s most uncomfortable coffee date in history.

History, she reminded herself. Kyle was history.

She closed her bag and slipped it on her shoulder, checked for lipstick on her teeth, and smoothed her hair one last time. Then she stepped out into the fading evening light of the living room, glancing around for Mark.

After moving her bags into the villa’s only bedroom, he’d taken his belongings and stored them somewhere and must have used the guest bath on the other side of the little house. The villa had one bedroom, but the living room sofa pulled out and accommodated at least one more person, so it wasn’t like he had to sleep on the floor, for heaven’s sake.

A few butterflies fluttered in her belly at the thought, and then she spotted him back on the patio, leaning against the railing. And those butterflies soared.

He’d changed to tan linen pants and a pale, short-sleeved shirt that fit his broad shoulders tightly enough to show them off, but with enough drape to say he didn’t care if anyone noticed his body or not. His hair was completely dark in the back, but the last bits of sunlight picked up the silver threads at his temples, giving him the look of a man with wisdom, experience, power, and class.

And a hella fine backside.

He turned as she came outside, studying her while she rounded the pool and approached him, his gaze dropping over her with the same flash of appreciation she imagined lit her eyes.

“I have a question, Mark.”

“Shoot.”

“How recently did we get engaged?”

He lifted a shoulder. “How about a month ago? I was in…” Dark brows knit as he thought about it. “Indonesia? No, Bhutan. The Sacred Rivers. Let’s say we hiked to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, and I popped the question three thousand feet above Paro.”

She choked a laugh. “Well, that makes getting engaged at Daniel in New York sound pretty pedestrian.”

“Good restaurant, but not very romantic.”

She rolled her eyes. “Okay, Bhutan it is. Three thousand feet off the ground because we were so in love, we were floating on air.”

“You are a copywriter.”

“To the bone,” she acknowledged, lifting her left hand to wiggle the ring. “And I can fend off evil predators.”

He reached for her hand to take a closer look. “So this was dessert at Daniel?”

“Actually, the appetizer. So we could spend the dinner planning.”

He nodded, angling the ring to check it out. “I might have gone a little bigger, but not ostentatious.”

“Do you think these people will judge?” she asked.

He lifted his shoulder. “I don’t know. I don’t talk to any of these people.”

“Then why did you come?”

He started to answer, then stopped, catching himself. “I just did,” he said. “You ready? We can walk up the beach to get there.”

She didn’t move, slowly crossing her arms. “No.”

“What? You changed your mind?”

“No, you can’t lie to me.”

He frowned. “I’m not lying. You really do walk up the beach to get there.”

“That’s not what I mean. Just now, when I asked you why you came to this reunion, you said, ‘I just did.’ That’s a lie.”

He opened his mouth to argue, then closed it again.

“Am I right?”

“Possibly,” he said after a second’s hesitation. “Does it matter?”

“Why you came? No. Honesty? Yes. Very much. In fact, it’s my deal-breaker. In this villa, when we are together, it’s one hundred percent honesty or nothing at all.”

He leaned closer and glanced side to side as if someone might be listening to him whisper, “You do realize you agreed to lie to every person you meet this week.”

She caught a whiff of his aftershave, spicy and masculine, giving her an unexpected pull of attraction. “But I’m not lying to you. I can’t do this if we dance around our conversations and tell each other half-truths. It’s the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth between us.”

He studied her face for a long time, his expression changing, but she couldn’t quite interpret his thoughts. “All right,” he finally said. “No lies, only truth with us. I promise.”

And she believed him. Not sure why, but Emma was certain Mark Solomon was a man of his word.

“Then answer the question,” she said. “Why did you come if you have no friends or acquaintances at this reunion?”

He turned away, the hint of a smile lifting the corner of his mouth. “You’re going to mock me mercilessly.”

“And you would deny me that opportunity?”

He smiled at that. And then he reached into his pocket and pulled something out, his fist closed around it. “For sixteen years, I’ve periodically received…guidance from my late wife.”

“Like messages from the great beyond?” She had to work to keep the disbelief out of her voice.

“Exactly like that.” He turned his hand over and opened his fingers to reveal what was in his palm. A ring with a bright red stone and writing on the side. A woman’s ring, she realized, with a gold and black ’86 on the side.

“Her class ring?” she guessed.

He nodded, his smile wry enough to tell her he saw the humor and irony and maybe a little bit of foolishness. “Lacey contacted me while I was in New Zealand, asked me to come and be here a week early to help with the planning. They were desperate to get men on the planning committee, and no one had said yes yet.”

“But you did.”

“Not at first. Hell no. I flat out refused the committee and the event, and not because I think I’m too good or too important or too busy, like a lot of the other men had said.” He gave her a serious look. “I didn’t want to open up wounds that have long closed and healed.”

“Or at least scarred,” she added, deeply suspecting that his grief wasn’t truly healed yet.

“Completely scarred and numb,” he agreed. “Anyway, I left Auckland and flew to New York, where I keep a small apartment. I had some papers I had to pick up from my safe-deposit box. When I was in it, I lifted up an envelope, and this ring fell out. I totally forgot I had kept it with some of Julia’s things.”

He held the ring with two fingers and angled it so they could both see it.

“And that was the message? Finding her ring?” Bit of a stretch, Emma thought, but hey, she’d never been a widow.

“I had a flash of a memory from the day the rings arrived and we both put ours on. She was so excited. We were outside eating lunch, and she held the red stone to the sun and said, ‘I’m going to wear mine forever. I’ll be the only person at the high school reunion who still wears her Mimosa High ring.’”

Emma didn’t say anything, watching his face as he relayed the story. No sorrow or grief, just a look of warm appreciation. Like he was grateful he’d had that moment with her.

“When Julia suggests something, I usually listen.”

And maybe he was a total nut job. “How often does she, uh, talk to you?”

Laughing, he pocketed the ring. “And she mocks.”

“Not mocking, just…it’s a little out-there, don’t you think?”

“It is, but it doesn’t happen that often. Once every couple of years, something will hit me hard, especially when I have a decision to make. And if I listen to her advice, my choice usually turns out to be the right one.”

“When was the first time?” she asked, fascinated by this romantic illusion.

“When I had the offer to sell Seeking Soulmates, the company we started together. I had no intention of selling, because we were profitable and I enjoyed running the business. Being a workaholic had kept me sane after Julia died, even though I didn’t realize how burned-out I’d become.”

Emma eyed him, seeing a man in his prime of health and life. She couldn’t even imagine him burned-out. “So how did she deliver that message?”

“I’d fended off about six offers from larger companies because I just knew she wouldn’t have wanted to sell to a huge conglomerate that would bury or kill the concept, no matter how much they offered. Then, I was approached by LoveInc.com.”

“Ahh.” She immediately recognized the name of the largest Internet dating site. “The ‘love only happens if you take the chance’ people. Kind of a lame tag line, if you ask me. And they are a huge conglomerate.”

“Not back then. The owner had vision and millions in stock options before a public offering. The cash wasn’t great, but his ideas for the company were. I was immediately tempted, but uncertain.” He looked out to the water, which had settled into a million shades of twilight blue, but Emma couldn’t take her eyes off him.

“So how’d she convince you to do it?” she asked, guessing that had to be where he was taking this story.

“I was in midtown, on my way home from a meeting with the LoveInc people, and it started to pour. Cabs were short, but I managed to snag one at the very same moment as a woman. I offered to let her have it, but she asked where I was going, I told her, and our destinations were close. She suggested we share.”

Of course she did, Emma thought. Who wouldn’t want to climb into a cab with George Clooney’s blue-eyed brother?

“Her name was Julia,” he said, his voice a little lower. “She looked nothing like my late wife, but she was very excited because she’d just gotten engaged. I asked how she met her fiancé, and she said—”

“LoveInc.com,” Emma finished.

“Yep. She said it was the best experience, and if she were going to buy stock in a company, it would be that one. Those were her very words.”

“Maybe she was an investment banker working on the deal and wanted you to buy in.”

The corner of his mouth lifted. “You are a cynic. No, she was just a girl named Julia who needed a cab and unwittingly delivered a message that I should sell the company and take the stock offer. And that decision…”

“Made you a rich man.”

“Beyond my wildest expectations,” he confirmed.

Of course, that probably would have happened if he hadn’t accidentally met a girl named Julia who raved about her online dating experience, but she couldn’t help be charmed by the idea of a man who listened to his wife…even from the grave.

“So what do you think your late wife would have to say about the whole fake fiancée to fend off offers and questions idea?” Emma asked.

He thought about the question—really thought about it, she could tell—and then said, “I’m not sure.”

“Maybe we’ll find some seashells that spell out ‘good idea, Mark’ on the sand.”

He laughed. “You’re mocking.”

“Ya think?”

He put an easy arm around her and guided her toward the villa. “So you’re the fiancée who makes fun of me.”

“I could be.”

“I like that.” He tightened his hold, pulling her an inch closer.

I like that, she thought. The realization made her slow her step, and he matched the timing, looking down at her.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Nothing.”

He leaned back and raised his eyebrows. “Didn’t you just set rules for complete honesty? Something is wrong, I can see it.”

Nothing was wrong, but the reaction in her body when he pulled her closer was…unexpected. And powerful. And stimulating.

And the last thing she wanted or needed was a man who made her feel stimulated.

“I don’t know.” She glanced away, his gaze a little too intense for her. “This whole thing is…spontaneous. That’s not how I roll.”

“You jumped on a plane to go on your honeymoon alone,” he reminded her.

“And look how well that turned out.”

“It’s not too bad…” He brushed some hair off her cheek, the graze of his knuckles on her skin just making everything worse. “So far.”

Her eyes shuttered at the touch and his deep voice.

“But I promised platonic,” he added. “You have my word on that.”

Too bad, whispered a devil in her ear. “Still, the whole thing scares me a little,” she admitted.

“What part?” he asked.

“The part…” She looked up at him, almost immediately lost in the depths of crystal-blue eyes. “The part when it starts to feel like it’s not pretend.”

He looked into her eyes for the longest time, saying nothing. She could feel her pulse pound and her breath catch, hear the squawk of a distant gull and the splash of water, smell the spicy, woodsy scent of him and feel his warmth.

That would be this part, right now, she thought, as every sense was overloaded and time stood still.

“You know, I have a theory about fear,” he said. “Any fear can be conquered by facing it head on. Just staring it right down and doing what scares you most. Three times.”

“Three times?” she asked.

“That’s the magic fear-beating number,” he assured her. “I had to parachute out of planes three times before I could deal with the sheer terror of it. First time I went rock-climbing? Same thing. Anything that comes with inherent risks needs to be faced down three times.”

“So, how would that work here, exactly?”

“Depends on what you’re scared of. Telling people a lie? Being trapped in a villa with me? Wanting to—”

“Kiss you,” she whispered.

His eyebrows raised. “That’s what you’re afraid of?”

She swallowed and managed a nod. Afraid to do it…afraid that it might never happen. “I mean, out in public, if we’re going to get people to believe we’re really engaged, then we’ll probably…kiss.”

“You’re absolutely right,” he agreed. “So you know what we have to do.”

“Three times?”

He smiled slowly. “Fast learner. I like that.” He inched closer. “I like that a lot.”

“On the mouth?”

“That’s usually where I go first, but we can start with a peck on the cheek and build up, if you like.”

“Okay…but…wait.” She put a hand on his chest, wishing it weren’t so hard and that she didn’t want to press down so much. “How did you do this? How did you get me from ‘gee, is this the smartest move?’ to mouth-kissing?”

“I told you, face your fears.” He lowered his face and brought his mouth a slight centimeter from hers.

She leaned into him and kissed his mouth very softly, barely touching, just the slightest whisper of a kiss, just enough to…melt. And thank God there would be two more after this.

Kindle   iBooks    Nook    Kobo   Google Play