SOME PASSIONS CAN’T BE DENIED . . .
Jessi Randal walked away from her last relationship with a baby and a broken heart. Now, years later, the last thing this single mom wants is to give Windfall Island-and all its nosy residents-anything more to gossip about. But the moment she lays eyes on the tall, sexy stranger with the slow Southern drawl, she knows she’s in delicious trouble . . .
Holden Abbot is on the island to find the missing heir to the Stanhope family fortune. It’s his job to charm as many secrets out of the town as possible. And if he can charm Jessi into his bed, even better. When all evidence points to her as the heir, a dangerous enemy sets his sights on Jessi and her son. Now Holden will have to risk everything to protect the family he’s come to love.
Anna, thanks for stopping by to share your favorite scenes from Hideaway Cove
I love this scene; it not only sets up the historical story line of the Windfall Island novels, but when combined with the prologue from each of the three books, and the epilogue of the final book, Eugenia’s story is told.
October 17, 1931. Windfall Island, Maine
“Helluva night,” Jamie Finley said as he and his crew loaded the last of the crates on the horse-drawn wagon that would carry the illegal booze to their stash in Hideaway Cove.
Like the others, including his son, Emmett, Jamie’s eyes strayed out to sea, where a pair of ships rode at anchor twelve miles from shore, at what those who flouted the U.S. government’s Prohibition law had come to call the Rum Line.
Two hours before there’d been three ships lit up like Christmas and raging with the wild party that hopped nightly, just out of reach of the Coast Guard, from one deck to the next. Then one of those ships, the Perdition, exploded and sank beneath the restless and hungry waves of the Atlantic Ocean.
Like the group on the beach, the other two ships had gone respectfully quiet and dark. Every ship’s captain feared fire at sea, but when a ship was loaded to the hatches with alcohol-based cargo, even the smallest spark took on a whole new threat.
“Da,” Emmett Finley said softly, and when his father turned to him, he opened the flap of his coat to show the face of the baby he held against his chest. The baby they’d found on their little boat when they returned from the Perdition with their load of bootlegged booze.
She slept fitfully, her tiny body warm against Emmett’s. Perhaps too warm.
“You’re right, son. We ought to get the babe in out of the weather.”
“What’re you going to do with it?” Floyd Meeker asked.
Jamie bumped up a shoulder. “Laura will know best.”
“You’re going to let a woman decide?” Meeker huffed, disgust digging the normal sour and disapproving lines on his face even deeper.
“My wife is as good as anyone else. Better than most, when it comes down to it.”
“Not on Windfall. It has to go to those who make the decisions for the island.”
“No.” With a speaking look to his son, Jamie Finley stepped over to Meeker, drew the rest of the men away from Emmett and lowered his voice. “The babe can’t be given over to the coppers without putting everyone at risk.”
Meeker jerked his head to where Emmett waited. “That’s a fine blanket wrapped around the child.”
Not to mention the jewel Jamie had seen around the baby’s neck before his son had shown the presence of mind to cover it up. “Her people will be looking,” he said. “She didn’t come from that ship, not to begin with.” Of that he was certain.
“If she’s found here,” Meeker said, “We’ll go into the deepest, darkest hole them Fed bastards can find, and then they’ll use the excuse to tear this island apart.”
“We’re agreed, then. We keep our business this night a secret. All our business.” Jamie made eye contact with each of his compatriots, saw them nod—all except Meeker, who stepped forward.
“I’ll take her, then,” he said. “You have enough on your plate, Finley.”
One of their crew laughed uproariously, incredulously. The other rocked back on his heels, quietly amused.
Jamie just shook his head. “No.”
“You haven’t got a nurturing bone in your body, Meeker.”
“I only want—” Meeker began, swallowing back the rest of his objection as the other men turned on him, their intent obvious in their set expressions and fisted hands.
Windfall Island had no sheriff, no law enforcement personnel of any kind. Windfallers dealt with their own, under a code of justice that went back to the island’s first settlers. That justice was swift and unforgiving.
Jamie rested a hand on his son’s shoulder and turned him toward home, leaving the others to ensure Meeker’s silence.
And silence, of a different kind, was what he shared with his son on the long, cold walk. The stars shone bright, sharp points of light in a sky that had gone from cloud-covered to clear in the hours since they’d first set out for the Perdition.
They scented the village first, the rich aroma of wood smoke seeming to warm air frosted with winter and ripe with the tang of the ocean. As they rounded a curve of shore, lights shone from windows, comforting as they made their way along the crooked streets to their own little house. And the sound of weeping that sliced through the walls.
“Stay by the door,” he told Emmett when they walked inside. The only light came from the banked fireplace across the room, and although his wife’s tears were stifled now, sorrow seemed to weight the air.
Laura Finley had strength to spare, as much strength as God had ever given a woman. That didn’t mean she’d never shed a tear, and under other circumstances Jamie would have left her to it, as he never knew how to handle such emotions. This time, though his eyes were dry, what moved her to tears broke his heart as well.
“Maddie is bad off,” she said when he joined her by the fire, where she leaned over the crib he’d made with his own hands before Emmett’s birth. Their infant daughter, not yet a year old, lay so still and silent within, her skin pale and translucent as moonbeams.
“She’s a Finley,” Jamie insisted. “She’ll fight it off.”
“Sometimes I have to lean close to make sure she still draws breath.”
“Laura.” Jamie lay a hand over hers, waited until she straightened, then tipped his head to where their son waited.
Emmett opened his jacket, let his mother see the child sleeping in his arms.
“Jamie,” Laura breathed, then her voice sharpened to a knife’s edge. “Take that child out of here.”
“Shhhh, Laura, listen to me,” and he told her what they’d witnessed on the beach.
“I heard it,” she said dully, “I felt it.” Then she bent back to Maddie, and he understood that it had made no impact on her, not with their daughter fighting for her life against an enemy they had no way to defeat.
A measles epidemic had run rampant through the island. The very young and the very old had proven especially susceptible. The rest of them could do little but stand by and watch their loved ones fade.
“Take the babe away before she sickens. Please, Jamie. I couldn’t bear to see another child take ill. Wait,” Laura said as he turned to go. “Can…Can I see her again?”
Emmett came a step or two closer, turning to put the baby’s face into the light from the fire.
“Look how rosy her cheeks are.”
“She’s awful warm, Ma,” Emmett said.
“No wonder, out in all that damp and cold with naught more than a blanket to keep her warm. God willing, she’s only taken a bit of a chill.”
Like his wife, Jamie turned back to their daughter. The difference between the two infants, so close in age, but miles apart in health, drove like a knife into the heart.
Still, many a frail child had come back from death’s door, while a healthy, well-fed one succumbed.
“Go on now; take the child over to the Duncans’. Claire will know what to do.”
“But they’ve sickness there, too.”
Laura lifted her gaze to her husband’s. “It’s over for them.”
“What happened, Da?”
Jamie reached into the child’s blanket and removed the jeweled necklace, depositing it in his pocket. “We’ll find out soon enough, boy.” And out they went, though he hated leaving his wife and child again.
Seeing as the Duncans lived just across the way, it took mercifully few moments in the breath-stealing cold to reach their home. Joe Duncan opened the door at Jamie’s knock, stepping back to invite him and Emmett in. Once a man of high energy and infectious good humor, now sorrow carved deep lines on Joe’s face and stooped his shoulders.
Their daughter Elizabeth had sickened with the measles at the same time as Maddie, but although Jamie searched Joe’s face, he couldn’t read the outcome. When Claire Duncan came out of the back room, though, Jamie knew immediately.
“Maddie?” Claire asked.
“We’ll know soon.” Jamie had to stop, swallow against the band of fear and sadness tightening his throat. “Laura said your wait is over.”
Claire’s eyes filled, and when she reached out, Jamie caught her hand in his own, then clasped Joe’s shoulder.
“Emmett.” Claire dashed her hands across her damp cheeks, then stopped when she realized the boy had his arms full. And what he held.
As Jamie related the bare bones of the story, she flew across the room and gathered the baby up, already clucking about the child being damp and feverish.
“A soaked nappy doesn’t help,” she finished, stripping off the beautiful pink blanket with no more than a quick, envious sigh for its fineness.
“Laura was right to send you,” Joe said, watching his wife hurry out to fetch a dry diaper and some of their own daughter’s clothes. “Claire boiled everything in sight, even swabbed the floors and walls with lye soap. Would’ve boiled me if she could’ve wrestled me into the pot.” He looked down, his jaw working for a second before he managed words again. “I’d’ve jumped in if it woulda meant…” he broke off when his wife came back in, the two of them sharing a long look.
“You tell Laura we’re praying for Maddie,” Claire said. “For all of you.”
“She’d say to tell you she’s returning the favor.”
“No need now.” Claire stared off toward the bedroom before meeting Jamie’s eyes again, working up a little smile for him. “You’ll let me know. About Maddie.”
“I will.” Jamie turned to collect Emmett, and found him asleep on the bench by the fireplace.
“Boy is done in,” Joe said. “Why don’t you leave him here? It might be best, considering…”
Jamie nodded once, pulled his watch cap back on, and slipped out the door to go keep vigil with his wife.
It would be over, one way or another, by dawn.
Another of my favorite scenes is the first interchange between the two main characters. Not only does this scene set the stage for the romance that is to blossom, but it was a lot of fun to write!
Windfall Island perched just off the coast of Maine, a long, narrow, unforgiving spit of land edged with rocks too damn hard for even the relentlessly pounding surf of the Atlantic Ocean to wear down. Her people were just as hard, just as unforgiving, and just as moody as the Atlantic—not to mention they ran the gamut from mildly eccentric to downright off-kilter.
Holden Abbot had come to Windfall Island to do a genealogy of the residents. All the residents. According to his research, the island had been settled by those on the fringes of society, sailors who’d jumped ship, men who’d broken laws, and runaway slaves. Fugitives from justice all. They’d left a legacy of insularity, paranoia, and a severe dislike for any form of law enforcement—maybe because, over the centuries, breaking the law had often meant the difference between survival and starvation for the people of Windfall.
Laws weren’t broken on a regular basis anymore, at least not the big ones. Nowadays tourism provided. The season, however, had ended with the falling leaves and dropping temperature. The last tourist had vacated the island long before the wind became cutting and the surf turned deadly.
Hold wasn’t a tourist, but he was an outsider—which had proven even less tolerable to the citizens of the island. At least the male citizens. The women tended to be a lot more welcoming. Rabidly so.
Except for the one he wanted to get to know.
Jessi Randal seemed mostly oblivious to him—friendly, helpful, and sort of vaguely flirtatious without putting any real intent behind it. Without ever saying no, she kept him at arm’s length. Then again, he’d never outright asked her for a date because hearing her say no—well now, that would be a true rejection.
She walked in—petite, pretty, and looking so fresh and so sunny it seemed she brought spring in with her. And there, Hold thought, his blood sizzled, his nerve endings tingled, and a weight seemed to settle on his chest, and made it just a little hard to breathe.
“What’s new, Mississippi?” She peeled a puffy coat the color of fresh lemons off her curvy little body, and when she turned and leveled her bright smile and dancing green eyes at him, he couldn’t have kept a thought in his head with duct tape and wire mesh.
“I know you Southern boys like to go slow, but it can’t possibly take this long for you to come up with an answer. You only need one word, like fine or good.”
Being from the South, Hold generally took his time over, well, everything. Jessi made him feel a powerful impatience; he just didn’t want her to see it. So he sat back, folded his arms and played it cool.
“Unless you’re up to something nefarious and you don’t want to tell me about it.”
“Not me.” Unless, Hold thought, she considered it nefarious to picture her naked. Which she probably did.
“Okaaay, so let me try this again. What’s new?”
“Not a blessed thing, sugar.”
“Well then.” She sat at her desk, and although the phone began to ring, she only looked over at the old-fashioned wall clock, which stood at one minute to eight.
She waited, watched the second hand sweep its measured way around the dial to dead on the hour, then plucked the receiver off the ancient black desk phone and said brightly, “Good Morning, Solomon Charters. Hold Abbot?” She looked over at him, grinning hugely. “Let me see if he’s around.”
Hold slashed a hand across his throat, shook his head, even got to his feet, prepared to beat a hasty retreat before he had to talk to the Windfaller on the other end of that call—probably female and ready with a proposition he’d have to find a non-insulting way to fend off. He’d just about run out of charm, and for a man who hailed from a part of the country where charm was as much a part of the culture as pralines, that was saying something.
Jessi rolled her eyes, but said into the phone, “He’s not here, Mrs. Hadley.” After a “Yes,” a couple of “Mm-hmmms,” and some scribbling, she said good-bye and hung up the phone, holding out a pink message slip. “How about dinner?”
Hold crossed the room to brace his backside against her desk, just near her right elbow. “Sign me up, sugar.”
“Boy, you’re good at that,” Jessi said. “The little lean, the eye contact, and the way you call me ‘sugar’ in that slow, easy Southern drawl. Smooth as Bourbon. Laureen Hadley is a goner.”
“Laureen Hadley. You’re having dinner with her tonight.” Jessi handed him the pink message slip. “Eight sharp, which is quite the sacrifice for Mr. Hadley since, according to Mrs. Hadley, eating that late will wreak havoc on his digestion. Mr. Hadley is always one taco away from complete intestinal meltdown, so that’s really no big surprise.”
Hold stared at the slip a minute, then wadded it up and tossed it in the trash. “I’m not having dinner with the Hadleys. I’m busy tonight.”
“Of course you are,” Jessi said in a way that told him she thought she knew exactly what he’d be busy doing. Or rather who.
She reached into the top drawer of her desk and pulled out a stack of pink message notes and handed them over. “Take your pick.”
Hold dropped them in the trash. “I’m busy then, too.”
“Why do you encourage them if you’re not interested?”
“I don’t encourage them.”
She twisted around in her chair, rolling it back a couple feet so she could stare at him, brows arched. “What do you call flirting?”
“Harmless fun. A way to pass the time, make a woman feel good about herself.”
“Harmless for you, maybe. Around here it’s like making yourself the only bone in a roomful of starving dogs. Once they get done swiping at one another, the last one standing is only going to…”
“Gnaw on me a little while?”
She gave him a slight smile. “For starters.”
“You made your point, Jessica. From now on I’ll only flirt with you.”
“At least I know you don’t mean it.” She rolled back to her desk, pulled a stack of paperwork over in front of her.
“What makes you think I don’t mean it?”
“I don’t know. Maybe the fact that you flirt with, oh, every woman between legal and the grave? What would make me any different?”
“I don’t know,” he parroted. “Maybe the fact that I’m attracted to you?”
She rolled her eyes.
“It’s true, Jessica. I’m saving myself for you. Ask any woman between legal and the grave. They’ll tell you I’m all talk and no action.”
“I have no interest in your love life.”
Not for long, Hold thought as he pushed off her desk. And he was running out of patience. Sure, he’d only been there a couple of weeks, and while he’d wanted Jessi from the moment he saw her, he’d decided to give her time to get used to the idea. She was, however, being purposely, stubbornly, obtuse.
Or maybe there was something more at work this morning.
Hold slid the stack of papers out from under her unseeing eyes. “Want to share your problem with Uncle Hold?”
“You’re not my uncle.”
He grinned, settled beside her again. “Glad you noticed.”
She shot him a look. “It’s not that big a deal, just something Benji sprang on me this morning that I’d like to make happen.”
“Maybe I can help.”
“It’s something I have to do myself.”
“Because Benji is my responsibility.”
“I get that, but why do you have to do it alone? Maggie would do anything for you, no questions asked—Maggie and Dex,” he said, referring to her best friend and majority owner of Solomon airlines, and her fiancé. “So would I.”
“Then it would be Maggie and Dex doing it. And there’s no way I’m asking you for help.”
“Because I hardly know you.”
“And you don’t want to admit you’re attracted to me?”
“Back off, Abbot.” She shot to her feet, did the backing off herself. “Benji is my son, and if he wants to go—whatever he wants, I’ll damn well make it happen without going begging to my friends. Or complete strangers with egos the size of—” she tossed her hands in the air— “something really big,” she finished, clearly at a loss, but so damn gorgeous he wanted to scoop her up and kiss her until all that glorious temper turned to a different kind of heat.
“What are you grinning at?”
“You,” he said, holding himself back with what could only be called an Herculean effort. “You’re beautiful when you’re mad.”
Her mouth dropped open. “You… I… Stop saying things like that.”
“I’d rather show you anyway, sugar.”
She lifted her hands to her cheeks, not just pink now but hot red. “Hold—”
“Why don’t you tell me what Benji wants?” he said because he’d pushed her too far, and he didn’t want to hear her give him a single reason why they couldn’t be together.
“It’s just so—” she dropped her hands, laughing a little— “ridiculous.”
But it had upset her, and it didn’t take much for him to reason out why. “It can’t be easy to raise a kid by yourself, no child support.”
Jessi sat back down, crossed her arms. “Really? Do tell.”
Hold smiled indulgently. “I know you own ten percent of Solomon Charters, but you’re putting most of the profits back into the business if you want to grow it at all, and especially right now, when you’ve just lost the Piper…” He trailed off at the look on her face—a look that had nothing to do with being reminded of Maggie’s near-death just a few days before, resulting in the loss of her first airplane. And when the tone of her voice matched the look, he knew. He’d just made an ass of himself—a supercilious, condescending ass.
“Oh, don’t stop now,” Jessi said. “I find it truly fascinating how you can tell me all about my life without ever asking a single question.”
“Let me guess. You’ve been asking questions, just not to me.”
“How do I respond to that observation without putting your back up any more than I’ve already done?”
“Apologizing would be a good start,” she said with a perfect mix of disappointment and reproach.
Hold suppressed the urge to hang his head, dig his toe into the carpet, stuff his hands in his pockets, or otherwise give physical presence to the guilt he felt. “I wouldn’t have to apologize if you’d talk to me once in a while.”
“I talk to you all the time.”
“Not about anything personal.”
“That’s because my personal life is none of your business. Which I keep telling you, and you keep ignoring.”
“Doesn’t that tell you how serious I am about getting to know you?”
Jessi just shook her head, turned back to her desk. Dismissed him again, like she always did. “You want to get to know me? Start with my genealogy, Hold.” She shot him a glance, eyes sparkling, a hint of laughter in her voice. “Maybe I’ll turn out to be the long lost Stanhope heir, and all my troubles will be over.”
Money, Hold thought sourly.
He could have told her it didn’t solve every problem, but that would raise questions he wasn’t ready to answer. Jessi believed him to be a simple researcher; he hadn’t told her, or anyone, that he came from one of the wealthiest families in the country.
Because he’d yet to meet anyone it didn’t matter to on some level.
He could honestly say the women he dated didn’t always go into the relationship because of his money, but once they found out, they changed. Every last one of them.
What he felt for Jessi… He didn’t know what he felt for Jessi, or what she felt for him. But he wanted a chance to find out before his money complicated everything.
Jessi sighed. “It’s a nice dream, inheriting a fortune. Not having to live from paycheck to paycheck would certainly make life easier.”
“Money isn’t everything,” Hold murmured, although he couldn’t brush off the ease it put into his life—the freedom, for instance, to be here on Windfall Island for who knew how long, working a job that didn’t even net him a paycheck.
But he understood there were people who would do anything, say anything, be anything, to get it. He had firsthand experience.
So, not only is Hold meeting Jessi’s son, but Hold kisses her for the first time. And I got to drop a bomb at the end of the scene!
…Hold looked down at his casual slacks, sweater and shirt, all in deep brown. And okay, the slacks were Hugo Boss, but she didn’t know that. “I’m not wearing a tie.”
“Alert the media.” But she laughed. “Do you even own a pair of jeans?”
“Of course.” But in his life, jeans were for, well, practically never.
“Does it matter? The way I dress.”
“Of course. Doesn’t it matter how I dress?”
And there was an invitation he couldn’t have resisted, he thought, even if he hadn’t already appreciated the way her snug jeans and the v-necked t-shirt she wore beneath an unzipped hoodie hugged the curves of her body.
She was a little bit of a thing, as his mama would have said, the top of her head barely reaching his shoulder. But what there was of her was well put together. And surely, the way she was dressed mattered, seeing as those jeans were tucked into heeled boots and made her legs seem a mile long. Even though the whole outfit was conservative enough to make it clear she was in Mom mode, all he wanted was to get her alone and peel her out of it—
“It’s not polite to stare.”
“No, son, it’s not, but sometimes it can’t be helped. You’ll understand in a few years.”
“Mom tells me that all the time,” Benji said glumly. “Who are you, anyway? How come you talk funny?”
“My name is Holden Abbot,” he said, absorbing another small sting that Jessi hadn’t even mentioned his name to her son. “But you can call me Hold.”
“Mr. Abbot,” Jessi corrected from the kitchen, where she’d gone off on yet another errand.
She returned with a gallon of milk, chocolate syrup, and an expectant expression. Maybe she didn’t want to ask questions herself, but she was paying close attention to the answers. He’d just have to watch his words, and be grateful he was being cross-examined by a seven-year-old.
He’d decided, after much consideration, to keep his own counsel where his origins were concerned. He’d been burned, and burned badly, by a woman who’d strung him along, accepted his engagement ring, pretended to love him, all so she could buy herself a lap full of luxury. Even the life she had to sell for it was built on a lie.
It wasn’t as though he didn’t trust Jessi, he told himself. Despite her clear and unapologetic yen for the ease money would buy her, he didn’t believe she’d set her cap for him if she knew his net worth counted in the millions.
Still, money—that kind of money—changed everyone. He didn’t know where they’d end up, but he was determined to work his way around Jessi’s resistance. No, not just determined—frantic would be the better term for what churned in his stomach and whipped through his blood whenever he set eyes on her. He couldn’t put a name to it—or wouldn’t, yet—but he could no more turn his back on it than he could stop his own body from drawing in air, or his own heart from beating.
What sense, he reasoned, would there be in complicating an already confusing matter? There’d be time enough later, once her feelings—and his—were sorted out, to tell her about the family fortune. And if his need for her burned out as fast and hot as it had roared into flame, then what harm would have been done? It wasn’t as if he was deceiving her, after all; he was just choosing what to tell and what to keep to himself.
“I talk funny,” Hold answered Benji, “because I’m from Louisiana.”
“Louisiana,” Jessi corrected. “It’s way down south by Florida. Where Disney World is.”
“Have you been there?” Benji asked, all but dancing in place. “Mom says we can go.” He shot her a look. “Maybe.”
“We’ll talk about it, Benj.”
Benji nodded, watching his mother with the supreme confidence of a child who’d never been let down.
Jessi poured milk and added chocolate syrup, looking like a mother afraid she’d have to do exactly that.
“Why are you all dressed up?” Benji asked him, and Hold had to let the pang of sympathy—edged with that snap of dislike for her predicament—go.
“What is it with the pair of you and my wardrobe?” he murmured for Jessi’s benefit. To Benji, he said, “My mama isn’t so laid back as yours. She frowns on jeans.”
“But you’re all grown up.”
“You never outgrow your mama, son.” He held Jessi’s chair for her before taking his own.
“Yeah, that’s another thing Mom tells me all the time.”
“And now you have living proof.” Jessi slid a piece of pizza on her son’s plate.
“All the other tourists are gone,” Benji said around a mouthful of pepperoni and cheese. “So what are you still doing here?”
“Just now I seem to be doing all the talking.”
“Benji’s got a point,” Jessi said. “How is it that you can just take off from your regular life to work on a smalltown gen—” She broke off, and the way she glanced at her son told Hold he wasn’t the only one taking care with what he said. “Shouldn’t you be manning a desk somewhere?”
Hold winced. “No, ma’am, no desks for me. You might say I’m a kind of salesman.”
“And what do you sell?”
“Happiness. Or at least a chance for it.”
Jessi dropped her pizza and stared at him.
Hold tapped lightly on her forehead. “What’s going on in there?”
“Mom, can I watch some TV?”
Jessi latched onto the diversion. “Homework?” she asked Benji.
“Did it in school.”
“Okay, one hour, and keep it down.”
Paper plate in hand, Benji whooped and raced all of ten feet to their little family room, snatched the remote from the top of the TV and flopped down on a beanbag chair.
“I repeat,” Hold said, reaching out.
Jessi grabbed his finger before he could tap it against her head again.
He curled his hand around hers and lifted it, bringing her fingers to his lips. Those lips curved when she jolted, when he saw the pulse throb to life in her neck. She trembled, and he feared he was pushing too hard, but when her eyes lifted to his and he read the desire there, heat flared inside him and spread.
“Hold, I…” She eased back, but he knew if he let her think, she’d retreat entirely. So he claimed her mouth. He framed her face, nipping her bottom lip before he sank in. She stiffened, but just when he was sure she’d push him away, she sighed, softened, opened her mouth to let her tongue tangle with his. And gave. He’d known she would; she was so generous, so caring. She had a heart as big as the world, and though she tried to guard it, her heart was wide open. So he told himself as he slipped his hands into the glory of her hair. He’d just have to guard it for her, be careful not to offer more than he wanted, or let her give more than was good for her. Still, he took the kiss deeper, tasted the sweetness of her, swallowed the sexy little moan she made and felt his control begin to crumble. He wanted more, needed her like his next breath.
“Jessi,” he said, nuzzling her neck, slipping his hands down the sexy outer curves of her breasts as the fire inside him burned through the leash he’d put on his desire. “Let me,” he began.
But when she nudged him back, he stopped pushing.
“Benji,” she said, and the fact that she had to clear her throat first, that she looked at him with dazed eyes, went a long way to making up for her presence of mind. “We have to be careful.”
He covered her hand, pressed it to his chest. “Tell me you mean what I think you mean.”
“Hold…” She stood, and although she’d eaten nothing, took her plate and glass into the kitchen.
Hold followed her, waited while she set her things down,, watched as her eyes filled with uncertainty and sorrow. Both ripped at him.
“My mother,” she began, “My mother was my hero. I know most people would say that about their father, but I was barely three when he died.”
“So even though you never knew your own daddy, you still missed him,” he interpreted. He kept his distance, although he wanted to take her in his arms and comfort her.
“I missed the idea of him. And thank you for getting it.” Her gaze lifted to his, skipped away again. “But my mom—I miss her every day. There wasn’t anything we didn’t share—except when I… with Lance. I couldn’t tell her, maybe because I knew she’d be disappointed. She always told me to follow my heart, but looking back I realize it wasn’t my heart I was following. I knew it, even back then, on some level.”
“Do you think she’d disapprove of me?” Hold asked, and breathed a sigh of relief when she shook her head.
“I’m sorry if I gave you that idea, Hold. I think my mother would love you.” She smiled. “Just like every other woman on this island.”
“Gossip again?” he said, although he had to stop his hands from fisting. “I’m getting a little tired of defending myself against a bunch of exaggerations and stories turned upside down to make it seem like I was the instigator when—”
“I get it, Hold. I’ve lived here all my life. You don’t have to tell me how stories get twisted.”
She spread her hands. “Why me?”
He laughed softly. “Why not you, Jessica? Except for that bone-deep stubborn streak.”
“I don’t know. You’re…” She made a two-handed gesture that took him in from head to toe. “And I’m…me. Single mother, jeans and t-shirts, smalltown.”
“You know what I see? A beautiful, incredible woman, who works too hard managing a business, taking care of everyone else, and believing she doesn’t deserve anything in return. You really need to cut yourself a break.”
“People keep telling me that,” she murmured.
“And let’s not downplay the way you fill out those jeans.” But he knew what she wanted to hear. Or at least he thought he did. “The minute I set eyes on you, Jess—”
“Don’t.” She whirled away from him, arms crossed, moving around the kitchen with all the energy of a small tornado.
Too bad it was such a small room—too bad for her. Hold put himself in her path, shifting when she tried to go around him, herding her back until he could box her in. And then he waited until she shifted her eyes, filled with temper and resentment, to his. “You’re going to listen to me, Jessica.”
“Fine, Mr. Abbot.” Her eyes shifted past him, and he knew she was checking to make sure Benji was still engrossed in SpongeBob. “Have your say, and then you’re going to leave.”
“Fine,” he bit off. But before he could even begin to order his thoughts, scattered by being so close to her, there was a knock on the door.
“I’ll get it,” Benji announced. Through the kitchen archway Hold caught sight of the kid popping to his feet and running to the front door, just out of sight. “Mom,” he yelled a second later, “there’s another strange guy here.”
“I’m no stranger, kid,” a male voice floated back to the kitchen, “I’m your daddy.”
And now the secrets begin to come out. First, Jessi reveals a secret that strains her relationship with Hold…
…Jessi took a deep breath as three pairs of eyes cut to her, watching with varying levels of curiosity. None of them knew what was about to hit them. She still didn’t quite believe it, and she’d had a week to come to terms with her discovery.
“My great grandparents, Joe and Claire Duncan,” she began, “lived across the street from your family, Maggie, in the house I live in now.”
“And my Uncle Emmett lives across from you now.”
Jessi nodded. “The Duncans had a daughter named Elizabeth. My grandmother. Her birthday was December 17, 1930. Eugenia’s birth date was February 10, 1931, which makes her not quite two months younger than my grandmother. Unless she was my grandmother.”
Silence hummed again—ripe, this time, with shock. Not surprising as she’d shied away from any connection to Eugenia. Just the idea of it still scared her to death, knowing she was putting Benji in danger. But she couldn’t keep him safe by lying to herself. The truth would come out, no matter how hard she tried to prevent it.
She slid her gaze to Hold and found his eyes on her face, his expression…unexpressive. While Dex and Maggie gazed at her with concern, in Hold’s eyes she saw doubt.
“It makes sense,” Dex finally said. “You and Maggie are about the same age.”
Hold nodded. “So the preceding generations of your family would be contemporary to one another as well, in all likelihood. But it sounds like your evidence is anecdotal? That means—”
“I know what it means.” She took another breath, a calming one this time rather than a bracing one. “The dates are recorded in my family Bible.”
“I can produce it if you want proof,” she said. It didn’t erase the doubt in Hold’s eyes, and that hit her like a blow. “But I could have altered the dates.”
Maggie took a step forward, just one before Dex put a hand on her arm.
Hold let the silence draw out.
And the fist around her heart squeezed even tighter.
Jessi wanted him to simply take her word, even when it went against all logic. Especially then. What woman wouldn’t want that kind of unquestioning trust, absolute faith, from the man she loved?
What baffled her was why he held back. He’d been hurt by a woman, she’d figured that much out. She couldn’t know the details; he hadn’t given them to her. But it must have been a deep wound for him to close himself off so tightly, especially when she’d given him no reason not to trust her.
Until now, she reminded herself, until she stood in front of him and admitted she’d lied to him. Yes, she wanted his trust, but she’d just handed him a hell of a reason not to give it.
She rubbed a hand over her chest, tried to soothe the pain there even as she understood she’d brought it on herself.
And that was just bullshit. She’d learned a long time ago not to blame herself for events that were out of her control. Lance had taught her that. She might be perfectly willing to admit what she’d done wrong, but she’d be damned if she stood there and blamed herself for whatever was going on in Hold’s mind.
“You want proof,” she said to him, proud she’d gotten the words so evenly past a throat tight with unshed tears.
“If he does, he’s an idiot,” Maggie observed hotly.
“No, I’m not,” Hold said. But he wasn’t meeting her eyes anymore.
Jessi turned on her heel and stalked out, too hurt, too angry to look at him a moment longer. Or so she’d thought.
When Hold stopped her in the lobby, she rounded on him, poked a finger at him. “You think I’m after the money.
“It’s a short trip from wishful thinking to reality, especially with the family Bible right there within easy reach, all the documentation in my hands.” After all, hadn’t she said it more than once, joked about being rich?
“No, Jess, I—” Hold ran a hand back though his hair, looked away. “Knee-jerk reaction.”
“It was all jerk,” Maggie called out from the little office, not even pretending she couldn’t overhear.
Well, let them listen, Jessi thought. Then she wouldn’t have anything to explain later. She wouldn’t have to talk about it again. Because talking about it now was almost killing her.
“It’s my job to ask those kinds of questions,” Hold said.
“Maybe that’s true, but it was personal, too.”
Again, he didn’t deny it.
“This is what you were waiting for, right?” she said, the anger draining away to leave the hurt behind. “You pushed and prodded until I told you all about my life, until I let you in completely. And yet you still don’t understand me.”
“I tried to give you romance—”
“That was just a dance, Hold, a wonderful dance while it lasted. But romance isn’t whirling around a room in a man’s arms. Romance isn’t even a courtship that ends with vows given, rings exchanged. Romance is waking up with the same person, day after day, year after year. It’s more than affection, even more than love. It’s trust, faith, believing the best about someone even when you think the worst. Especially when you think the worst.”
“You know how I feel about you, Jessica.”
“How could I when you don’t even know yourself?”
When he didn’t answer, she stepped up and kissed him lightly on the cheek. “It’s all right, I understand. And I’m sorry.”
“You have nothing to be sorry about.”
“Yes, I do.” She went out to the car and retrieved the blanket, still wrapped in its faded paper.
When she came back, she whisked by Hold and straight into the little office, dropping it on top of his research. Then she stood back, arms wrapped around herself, stomach in knots, sick in her heart.
Maggie stepped forward and pushed the flowered paper away. They all stared dumbfounded at the blanket, with its embroidered initials, until Maggie said, “Shit, Jessi.”
“I found it in my attic.”
“The day we were cleaning it.” Hold lifted his eyes—unapologetic eyes—to hers. But then she’d known what his reaction would be. “I thought you wanted to stop because of your mother, because it was still too early.” He shoved his hands in his pockets. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I’m telling you now.”
“A week later. I get that you’re afraid for Benji—”
“And I get that you’re angry, but we should be talking about what it means to the search for Eugenia.”
“Fine.” He picked up the blanket and studied it. “It looks authentic, but it doesn’t follow that the blanket came with the baby. It could have gotten into that trunk in your attic in any number of ways. And we aren’t sending your DNA off to be tested.”
“You didn’t have any trouble putting Maggie in danger,” Dex reminded Hold. “When I wanted to protect her—”
“It’s not just me this time,” Maggie said.
“No,” Jessi put in. “If it was just my safety, I’d be happy to play Bull’s-eye.”
“And we can’t send the test to another lab,” Maggie said to Dex, “unless you want to go back to Boston and get some Stanhope DNA to check against Jessi’s.”
“That could be problematic, seeing as they won’t let me near them.”
“Then we investigate Jessi’s possible connection to Eugenia some other way,” Hold said.
“How do you suggest we do that?” Jessi turned to look at Hold, kept her gaze cool and level although it cost her. “Don’t you think it’s a little curious that this blanket has been in my family’s possession for so long, yet I didn’t even know it existed?”
Hold scrubbed both hands over his face, shoved them back through his hair. “I don’t know—the journals?” he said, referring to the Windfall Island journals Maggie had borrowed from Josiah Meeker and copied, so that she and Dex could search through them for clues to Eugenia’s fate.
“We can try that,” Jessi said, “but I don’t think any of my people were big on writing.”
“Of course not,” Hold said bitterly.
Silence fell, the kind of silence that would have been filled with dramatic music if they’d been actors in a soap opera. But this was reality, Jessi thought, and in real life things needed to be said. “Can you give us a moment?” she said to Dex and Maggie.
They filed out of the little office, Maggie shooting Hold a glare as she passed him.
Jessi quietly shut the door. “I come from simple people,” she began.
“I didn’t mean that the way it sounded,” Hold said. “It just feels like we’re having nothing but bad luck.”
“We both know I’m not talking about one snotty remark you made,” she said, getting a kick out of the way his mouth twisted at the word “snotty”. “I get that you’re angry, Hold, but it’s not okay for you to expect me to spill my guts every other second while you keep secrets.”
“You’re right. I’m not being fair, Jessica, but this,” he picked up the blanket, “this is life and death.”
And his secrets only felt like it, Jessi thought. “It’s still my business.”
“Your business.” He jammed his hands in his pockets, turned away then back. “Do you think your safety, Ben’s safety, doesn’t matter to me? What do you expect from me?”
“Nothing, Hold. One day at a time, remember? No putting labels on what’s between us.”
“That’s not… We weren’t going to push each other for more than we were willing to give.”
“I’m not the one pushing. You don’t want to talk about your family, or tell me anything about yourself, for that matter. So I haven’t pushed, but you can’t ask me to stand there in front of my friends while you make it clear you’re only in this for sex.”
Now he was the one who looked like he’d taken a blow, and although it shamed her, Jessi felt that instant of satisfaction that maybe, just maybe, he understood what she was feeling. “When did I say that?”
“Never in words, but you’ve picked my life apart, Hold. You’ve questioned every interaction with Lance but you can’t even tell me you’re going away to spend a weekend with your family? Hell, I don’t even know if your parents are alive, or their names, or if you have any sisters or brothers.” She gave it a beat while her heart ached with every pounding stroke. “Okay,” she said when he didn’t answer, “so tell me again how this isn’t just sex.”
…and now Hold’s secret is revealed, tearing them apart.
The moment Hold saw Jessi everything faded away. She looked so damn beautiful, but it wasn’t the dress that showcased her curves to perfection; it wasn’t the wreath of flowers perched so becomingly atop her madly curling hair. It was her. The inner light that shone from her, the kindness, the humor, the warmth. The love.
She’d given it without hesitation and without strings, and he’d given her nothing back.
God, he was such a fool.
He had no choice now but to face the music; after all, he’d chosen the tune.
He threaded his way through the crowd, and when she turned, when she saw him and her face closed, he felt the first whisper of the desolation he would feel to live without her.
Not that living without her was an option.
She’d understand, he told himself. She’d be angry at first that he’d kept secrets. But Jessi was nothing if not open and forgiving. And he was telling her himself, right? Better late than never.
“Hold,” Rose Stanhope said as he reached the edge of the bower and saw her standing there with an apologetic expression on her face. “We were just talking about you, and here you are. I had no idea you were acquainted with anyone from Windfall Island.”
“Dex called him in to do the genealogy,” Jessi answered for him. “Rose is on our side.”
Hold couldn’t have cared less about the search for Eugenia’s descendants. His eyes never strayed from Jessi’s face. Jessi’s cold, calm face. “Jessi, may I talk to you? Privately?”
“It’s okay, Maggie. I’m fine.”
But she didn’t let him touch her. When he reached for her elbow to guide her out of the bower, she sidestepped so neatly he’d have believed it nothing more than happenstance if he hadn’t seen the strain in the parting smile she’d sent Maggie.
He stopped under a small trellis strung with honeysuckle. The beauty of it, the fragrance, were no match for her. “I believe I owe you an apology,” he began.
“Oh? Why?” she asked with a polite little smile.
“Rose didn’t tell you about me?”
“Not because I asked.”
“No, I don’t imagine she thought it was any big secret.”
“But it was,” she said, still smiling slightly, as if nothing was wrong. “Clearly you didn’t tell me the truth for a reason. I imagine you thought your money would change things between us.” He remained silent, so Jessi pressed on. “Who was she?”
“Who?” Hold blurted out.
“The woman who was after your money. The woman you loved until you found out she only saw you as a payday.”
Hold ran a hand back through his hair, swore to himself she wouldn’t catch him off guard again. “Her name isn’t important. Neither is she.”
“Of course she is, Hold, because you still haven’t gotten over her—or over what she did to you, which is the same thing. What’s not important is me.”
“If I mattered, you’d have told me about her. You’d have told me about your family.” She stepped forward, and even in the dim light he could see she wasn’t angry, just hurt. Deeply, deeply hurt. “If I mattered to you, the past wouldn’t, because you’d trust me enough to realize I loved you before I knew your bank balance.”
“Jessica.” He reached for her.
She caught his hands, squeezed them before she let go again. “I want to thank you, Hold,” she said, so gently he didn’t know how she managed to keep her voice steady when his throat was tight and aching. “Next time I won’t be so resistant to the people who come into my life. I’ll still be careful, especially where Benji is concerned, but I will risk.”
“Next time?” he said. “It’s not over, Jess.”
“It was over every time you chose to close me out of your life. I’ll miss you,” she said as if he’d never spoken, and her voice did tremble, just a little, this time, “but I’ve enjoyed every minute of the time we spent together. You were good for Benji, at a time in his life when he needed to be around a good man.”
“I’d like to see him, Jess.”
“You’re his friend, Hold.”
And that relationship had nothing to do with her; he got that message loud and clear. But he’d be damned if he settled for it.
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Fun facts about Anna
I love to dance, but I have absolutely no rhythm.
I love action movies, but not James Bond—until Daniel Craig.
I love jigsaw puzzles, but I have very specific rules for how the pieces have to be laid out, so my kids will no longer do them with me because I drive them crazy.
I love true crime shows like Dateline and 48 Hours.