Changes by Judith Arnold

It was love at first sight.

Diana had never believed such a thing existed outside the pages of romance novels, but the moment she spotted the object of her affection standing by the wall across from the bar at the Faulk Street Tavern, she was infatuated. Smitten. Over the moon.
Changes
Changes by Judith Arnold
“Oh, God,” Peter said, his voice as dry as burnt toast. “Can we leave?” Of course they couldn’t leave. Not before she’d crossed the room, planted herself in front of that magnificent specimen and indulged in a few up-close-and-personal minutes. Maybe she’d run her hand along a curved surface. Maybe she’d touch the buttons, two neat, vertical rows of red. Maybe, if she dared, she’d press one of those buttons and see what happened. Ignoring Peter, ignoring the niggling voice inside her skull warning her that he considered a mildly grungy watering hole like the Faulk Street Tavern so far beneath him that he’d need rappelling equipment to descend to its level, ignoring the certainty that if she spent more than five seconds here he was bound to be royally pissed, emphasis on royally… Ignoring everything but the target in her sights, she strode across the room. The dark pine plank floor was suspiciously sticky in a few spots. The booths lining one wall were crowded with patrons drinking, chattering, laughing, arguing. Most of the tables were occupied, too, and the long bar was insulated by a two-deep layer of people, mostly men, mostly clad in jeans or work pants, and flannel shirts layered over thermals. A few sported duck-billed caps. Working-class, she thought as she moved through the room. No problem, as far as she was concerned. Peter was such a snob, though. A waitress carrying an empty tray passed Diana en route to the bar. “You okay, hon?” she asked. Other than being madly, wildly in love, Diana was fine. “Thanks,” she said with a nod. “There’s an empty table over there.” The waitress tilted her head in the direction of one of the tables. “Grab it if you want it. Tables don’t stay empty long here on a Saturday night.” “Thanks,” Diana said again. She glanced toward the door, trying to signal Peter to claim the available table. He remained where he was, his arms crossed, his handsome face twisted into a scowl. Diana detoured to the table herself, tossed her jacket over one of the chairs, and then continued to the wall, to her destiny. It was gorgeous. Utterly, heart-stoppingly gorgeous. A Wurlitzer jukebox. Her expertise didn’t run to jukeboxes, but a few had passed through the galleries of Shomback-Sawyer Antiques in the five years Diana had worked there, and she did know a thing or two about antique furniture. This jukebox, while not exactly a piece of furniture, was a beauty. Burnished wood rose to a dome of gold-hued, marbleized veneer which ended in a graceful crown trimmed in red glass and chrome. Beneath that crown was a semicircular window, cloudy with age, behind which stood a stack of vinyl records. A horseshoe of mesh fabric covered the speakers, surrounding what looked like a stained-glass depiction of two peacocks, the male’s long tail curving down to cushion the female. Those red buttons, for selecting songs, stood in two straight columns on either side of the peacocks. None of the buttons was labeled. Diana wondered how someone could choose a song. Not that it mattered. Surely the jukebox didn’t actually work. She tried to recall what the concierge at the Ocean Bluff Inn had said when she and Peter had asked what people in Brogan’s Point did in the evenings. “Besides what we have here?” The concierge had gestured with a generous sweep of her arm, encompassing more than just the inn’s charming lobby but the entire sprawling complex of buildings, gardens, multiple dining rooms, tennis courts and a path down to the beach. “There are plenty of places in town. Being an antiques buff, you ought to check out the Faulk Street Tavern. It’s an easy walk from here, less than half a mile away. It’s got an antique I think you’re going to fall in love with.” So they’d checked out the tavern, and now Diana knew why. She was more than merely an antiques buff, and this was more than merely a jukebox. The concierge, a cheerful, chatty woman named Claudia, was right: Diana had fallen in love. “Okay. You’ve looked at it. Can we leave?” She’d been so transported by the jukebox, she hadn’t even noticed Peter abandoning the entry and crossing the room. Now he stood so close behind her she could feel the warmth of his chest against her back. “No, we can’t,” she said. “This is an amazing piece. I want to spend some time with it.” Peter rolled his eyes. He was an elitist—well bred, well educated, well groomed, and overly condescending when confronted with anything, any place or anyone he considered inferior. Apparently jukeboxes weren’t worth his time. Or they might be, if they were in a museum. In a dive like the Faulk Street Tavern, no. “I need to learn more about this,” she said, wondering whether the piece was truly an antique or whether the locals just fed tourists a phony story about it, like all those shops down the road in Salem which sold “genuine” witchcraft paraphernalia. Diana knew some people did practice witchcraft, but she doubted most of the ticky-tacky souvenirs sold in Salem had anything to do with that. “What do you need to learn?” Impatience tightened Peter’s voice. “You’re not going to buy it for Shomback-Sawyer.” “If it’s for sale, I might.” “Oh, this baby ain’t for sale.” A man sidled up beside her and Peter, and she felt Peter growing exponentially more annoyed, as prickly as a porcupine under siege, its quills quivering. She reached for his hand with her own and gave it a reassuring squeeze. He had no reason to feel threatened by the man who had joined them at the jukebox. The guy looked to be in his forties, maybe older, his face grizzled and his chin hidden beneath a stubbly beard salted with gray. He was thin, his gangly torso clad in a heavy cotton shirt with Frank stitched in red thread above the chest pocket and Kreske’s Auto Supplies imprinted on the pocket itself. “Do you know anything about this jukebox?” she asked the man. Peter tightened his grip on her hand just the slightest bit. Oh, for heaven’s sake, she wanted to snap at him. No need to go all caveman on her. She was talking to the guy, not inviting him back to her room for the night. “Just that it’s a fixture here, and it ain’t goin’ nowhere. Gus would never allow it.” “Gus?” “Owner of this bar. Nobody can remember a time before the jukebox was here. ’Course, anyone who could would probably be dead by now.” He edged closer to the jukebox and gripped its polished golden flanks with both hands. Diana almost yelled at him not to touch such a treasure, but then she conceded that he knew a lot more about it than she did. That gave him certain rights. “So it’s always been here?” she asked. “Long as I can remember. Were you planning to play something?” “Does it actually work?” If it did, Shomback-Sawyer could make a fortune on the piece. Two fortunes. Diana might just buy it herself. She loved its shape, the grain rippling through the wood, the beautiful stained-glass peacocks. If it actually played music, too… “Wouldn’t be much of a jukebox if it didn’t,” the man said. “But there’s no listing of the songs.” She gestured toward the buttons. “How do you even know what song you’re requesting?” He laughed, revealing a mouth full of crooked teeth. “You don’t,” he said. “You don’t know what’s playing?” “Well, you do once it starts playing and you can hear it.” He shrugged and dug his hand into the pocket of his twill work pants. “You don’t get to choose, though. You just put in your money and press a button or two, and you take your chances. It don’t play nothin’ new,” he added. “Nothin’ more recent than the invention of the iPod. Just old songs and really old songs. Some folks say it plays what you need to hear.” “What you need to hear?” He nodded. “I don’t need to hear nothin’,” he added, “so I’m prob’ly safe.” He removed his hand from his pocket, a quarter pinched between his thumb and forefinger. “Ten cents apiece, three for a quarter,” he said. “Same price as when I was a kid and every diner, restaurant and bar had a jukebox.” He inserted the quarter into the coin slot and poked a few unlabeled buttons. “Let’s see what we get.” The cloudy window in the machine brightened, resembling an upside-down smile. Diana heard a couple of clicks, a mechanical hum, and then the velvet-smooth voice of Frank Sinatra singing “New York, New York.” A loud chorus of hoots and boos arose from the bar, although everyone—including the man who’d paid for the song—seemed amused. “Don’t think I need to hear this,” he joked. “It’s a good song,” Diana conceded. “If you’re a Yankees fan, maybe.” She grinned. She might not be a baseball fanatic, but she knew Frank Sinatra’s rendition of “New York, New York” was the song played at every Yankees home game, just as Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” was played at every Red Sox home game. In this picturesque seaside town an hour north of Boston, fans of the Yankees—the home town team’s arch-rivals—were undoubtedly a rarity. The people carousing at the Faulk Street Tavern surely preferred “Sweet Caroline.” The stranger grinned back at her. “If that’s what the jukebox wants to tell me, I ain’t listenin’ to it. Have a good one.” He nodded at Peter, an acknowledgement Peter probably didn’t deserve, given that he hadn’t even bothered to say hello, and then strode back across the room to rejoin his buddies at the bar. They continued their hooting and guffawing over the Yankees theme song, even as they slapped him on the back and handed him a bottle of beer. Enthralled, Diana turned back to Peter. “Can we go now?” he asked. He looked, if anything, even more annoyed. And sulky. And miserable. “We’ve got to listen to all three songs,” she argued, trying to thaw him with a smile. “The man put in a quarter. I snagged a table. Let’s have a drink and hear the other two songs. Then we can go. All right?” Peter eyed the bar warily. “Do I have to have a drink? I’m not sure this is the kind of place where they wash the glasses.” She refused to let his attitude irk her. They’d come to Brogan’s Point to assess the Ocean Bluff Inn as a possible wedding venue. Peter favored a mansion they’d visited in Newport, but Brogan’s Point was easier to reach from Boston, and their money would go a lot farther at the Ocean Bluff Inn than it would in Newport. Not that their families couldn’t afford any venue Diana and Peter decided on, but she was a practical sort. If they booked a less expensive venue, she’d feel free to spend a little more on the band or the food. She was glad she’d talked Peter into spending the weekend in Brogan’s Point. The inn was truly lovely. The facility had several different event rooms, ranging in size from intimate to ballroom-grand. It also boasted plenty of guest rooms for attendees who wanted to stay overnight, and a breathtaking garden surrounding a gazebo that overlooked the ocean. Weather permitting, they could have the actual ceremony in the gazebo. They’d ordered tasting menus for dinner earlier that evening, sampling a variety of possible hors d'oeuvres, appetizers and entrees. The chef wanted them to try some desserts, too, but after all the crabmeat tartlets and apple-and-brie quiches, the tuna tartare and caviar blini, the fillet mignon and poached salmon, they’d been too full. Peter might loathe this bar, but he’d liked the inn—maybe not as much as the place in Newport, but enough not to veto it out of hand. While they’d stuffed themselves with bites and nibbles from the catering menus, he’d been the open-minded, courteous fiancé with whom she’d agreed to spend the rest of her life. When he got the way he was now, however, stuffy and grouchy and arrogant, she wanted to hurl the dazzling three-carat diamond solitaire he’d given her at his nose. He had a perfectly sculpted nose. Michelangelo could not have improved on it, nor could Dr. Kafavian, her mother’s favorite plastic surgeon. But the rock currently glittering on her left ring finger, if properly thrown, could give Peter’s pretty nose a nice, bloody gash. She didn’t want to hurt him, of course. He was her husband-to-be, and she was fully prepared to gaze at his nicer-than-hers nose across tables in kitchens, restaurants and even seedy bars like the Faulk Street Tavern for the next fifty years. But honestly, when he got this way, he pissed her off. Maybe even royally. “Just one drink,” she cajoled, leading him to the table and nudging him into one of the chairs. She removed her jacket from the other, draped it over the chair’s ladder-back and gazed around the room in search of the pleasant waitress she’d briefly spoken with on her way to the jukebox. “Somehow, I doubt this place is going to have a decent wine,” he muttered. “Then get an indecent wine. Or a beer. Or a martini. They probably can’t botch that.” He mumbled something—she was pretty sure he was complaining about the likely uncleanliness of the glasses, although if he ordered a beer he could drink directly from the bottle and not have to worry about the bar’s hygiene. She hoped that once they were married, he would loosen up and be less judgmental. She and Peter had known each other since childhood, and they’d started dating toward the end of high school. Even as a teenager, Peter had tended toward superciliousness. He came from an old Boston-Brahmin family and had upper-class tastes. He liked his clothing tailored, his cars expensive, his wines vintage and his scotch single-malt. He was fortunate enough to be able to afford it all, not only because of his family background but because he’d graduated from Harvard Business School and landed a ridiculously well-paying job at a private equity firm. He appreciated the good things in life. More than appreciated—he expected them. Diana wished he could occasionally forget he was the scion of a top one-percent family and perhaps understand the appeal of a rattly pick-up truck, a greasy hamburger, and a joint like the Faulk Street Tavern. At least it was called a tavern, not a bar. Why couldn’t that be enough for him? Frank Sinatra belted out the final notes of “New York, New York,” accompanied by a flourish of trumpets and a lot of jeers and catcalls from the tavern’s patrons. Diana found herself chuckling at their enthusiastic negativity, but a part of her mind focused on the music itself. Or, more accurately, the jukebox. That an apparently antique machine could produce such decent acoustics impressed her. The sound quality wasn’t quite like listening to an MP3 file through her high-end earphones, but if the jukebox was really as old as she thought it was, its speaker seemed awfully good. “That sounded great, don’t you think?” she asked Peter. “The trumpets, and his voice. It sounded almost stereophonic. I don’t think stereo had been invented when that jukebox was built.” Peter shrugged, clearly uninterested. His gaze darted around the room, searching for a waitress. Evidently he wanted to get this drink over with so he could return to the more elegant environs of the Ocean Bluff Inn. The waitress arrived at their table just as the second song began on the jukebox: a bright, bouncy tune, sung by a man in falsetto, about how someone made him feel like dancing. To Diana’s surprise, quite a few people left their seats in the booths and at the tables and filled the empty floor space at the center of the tavern. “I didn’t realize this was a dancing club,” Diana said to the waitress. The waitress grinned. “People react to the songs. What can I get you folks?” Peter waited for Diana to order. She asked for an Irish coffee—something sweet to make up for the dessert she’d skipped at the inn—and he grudgingly requested a Sam Adams lager. As soon as the waitress departed, he leaned across the scarred oak table and muttered, “After this drink, we’re out of here.” Diana sighed. She wished that when he’d leaned across the table it would have been to ask her to dance. Or to admit the song was catchy. Or just to crack a smile and concede that remaining at the Faulk Street Tavern for as long as it took to enjoy a drink wasn’t sheer agony for him. But he remained scowling, his arms once again folded across his chest, his cashmere sweater smooth and much too tasteful in this room full of people in flannel and denim and leather. Lord, he could be such a pill. Most of the time he was a fine man, smart and clever, honorable and respectful, but every now and then he’d slip into curmudgeon mode. His temper could flare into a major blaze in a fraction of a second. Once they were married, she’d have to figure out a way to get him to lighten up and mellow out. The waitress was back sooner than Diana expected; the service was quicker here than at the Ocean Bluff Inn. She set three square napkins on the table, then placed a mug peaked with whipped cream like a snow-capped mountain in front of Diana, and a beer in a sweating bottle and a V-shaped glass in front of Peter. His glass had tiny flecks of ice on the rim but it appeared clean. Diana wondered whether he would pour his drink into the glass or drink it straight from the bottle. Drinking from the bottle would protect his tender digestive system from whatever imaginary contamination the glass might contain, but it was so déclassé. Her mug looked clean enough. She took a sip—hot coffee, cool whipped cream and soothing whisky, a blend of bitter and sweet that simmered down her throat. It was, in fact, the most delicious Irish coffee she’d ever tasted. She smiled at Peter, but he was too busy frowning at the beer bottle and glass to notice. The song ended, and the crowd at the center of the tavern thinned as the dancers drifted back to their seats. Diana followed a couple with her gaze as they walked arm-in-arm toward the bar. The woman was plump, the man husky, and both were clad in plaid flannel and blue denim. She couldn’t see their faces, yet from their posture alone, the way the woman’s arm snuggled around the man’s waist, his arm looped over her shoulders, and her head leaned gently into the hollow of his neck, Diana could tell they were in love. She allowed herself an envious sigh, then wondered why she envied them. She and Peter were in love, too, weren’t they? When the couple reached the bar, a man stepped out of their way. Tall and lean, he had on black jeans, a Henley shirt and a denim work shirt over it, his sleeves rolled up to expose strong forearms. His face was an intriguing arrangement of planes and hollows, shadows and light. He had a hard chin, a long nose—definitely not a pretty nose—and dark, dark eyes. His hair was dark, as well, thick and wavy and in desperate need of a comb. His eyes met hers just as the third song began to emerge from the jukebox. It was an old song, from before her time, but she recognized it anyway. Her Uncle Martin loved British rock from the Sixties and Seventies, and when Diana’s family visited him on Martha’s Vineyard, he’d serenade her with his favorite songs. This one was David Bowie. Changes. The man with the dark hair and the darker eyes was staring at her. She stared back, unsure why. Unsure why she couldn’t seem to look away from him. Unsure why he was gazing at her with such intensity. The song’s familiar, stammering refrain filled the air: Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes. Every other sound fell away. She heard no other voices. No clinks of glasses touching, no thuds of bottles being set on tables, no scrape of chair legs against the wooden floor. She heard nothing but the song—and she saw no one but the man. “Diana!” An instant after the last soulful wail of a saxophone at the end of the song faded away, Peter’s voice intruded, forceful and demanding. “Diana!” She flinched and swung around in her chair, as if by ending, the song had released her from a spell. Peter was studying her, his brows dipped into a deep frown. “Where the hell were you?” “Right here.” Her voice sounded odd to her. She took a hot sip of her Irish coffee, as if that would wash away the fog in her throat, in her brain. “Finish your drink.” He waved impatiently at her mug. “I want to leave.” You’ve wanted to leave since the moment we arrived, she thought with a strange blend of irritation and…fear. Fear that something inside her was wrong, something had become unhinged. Something was falling apart. Had the bartender added a dangerous extra ingredient to her drink? “All right,” she said, nudging the mug away from her. “Let’s go.” But even after she’d stood, donned her jacket and let Peter lead her out of the tavern, she knew she’d left a piece of her soul behind. *** Gus handed Nick a glass of beer before he could ask for one. His hand automatically curved around the icy surface, chilling his palm. His mouth tasted the bitter foam before it had even passed his lips. Who the hell was that woman? Why did locking gazes with her make him feel as if someone had plunged a stiletto right through his heart? Clean and painless, yet it left him dead. Or reborn. Transformed, in any case. She wasn’t beautiful…except that she was. Long, tawny hair fell in gentle waves around a narrow, angular face. Her eyes were too large, too round, and even in the bar’s dim light, even with a good thirty feet separating her from him, he could see that they were hazel. Damn, he could see her eyelashes. He could also see the guy with her. And the diamond solitaire, as big as the frickin’ Rock of Gibraltar, glinting on her left ring finger. Given the size of that ring, Nick felt safe in assuming that, one, she was engaged, and two, Nick—a man who never would, or could, give a woman a ring like that—wasn’t her type. The guy with her was clean cut and dressed in clothes that reeked wealth. Her outfit pegged her as upper-class, too: tailored trousers, a soft, pale sweater beneath a tweedy-looking jacket, a colorful silk-looking scarf coiled around her neck. The folks Nick hung out with wore faded wool scarves their mothers or wives or girlfriends had knitted for them four Christmases ago. But then, the folks Nick hung out with didn’t dress like they’d just stepped off a sixty-foot yacht. If they’d stepped off a boat, it was a trawler, and they wore waders and smelled of fish. He’d wager a year’s salary that the woman whose too-big eyes had sent that stiletto straight through him from all the way across the room didn’t smell like fish. “It’s the song,” Gus said. Nick snorted. “Don’t start in.” Gus chuckled and poured some vodka into a martini glass. It flowed in a smooth, clear thread from the spout plugged into the top of the bottle. Gus never had to measure. She knew the exact amount of every ingredient in every drink. “I’m not starting in,” she said. “Just saying.” Nick swiveled around to face the bar, to stare at Gus rather than the woman with the blinding engagement ring adorning her left hand. The only jewelry Gus wore was a loop of braided leather around her wrist. She was tall and athletic in build, her red hair fading to gray and chopped in short tufts that looked almost, but not quite, masculine . She’d been running the bar since Nick was in diapers, and it felt somehow disrespectful to argue with her. But all those legends about the jukebox, the weird songs that came out of it, the weirder effect they had on people… Nick didn’t believe that shit. Real life had laid too many scars on him. The only things he believed in were hard work, good sex and paying for your mistakes. And an occasional cold beer. Not magic. And certainly not jukeboxes. Chapter Two Nick’s Monday morning routine was to rise around six and head over to the Community Center to work out in the gym. Free membership was a perk of his job, and during his time in detention, he’d discovered that vigorous physical exercise kept his brain functioning as well as his body. After his workout, he’d shower and walk down the street to Riley’s for breakfast. Rita, his favorite waitress there, always topped off his travel mug with coffee before he left. From Riley’s, he’d stroll down to the concrete and stone sea wall constructed along the edge of the beach, designed to keep the ocean’s waves from sweeping across Atlantic Avenue, damaging the cars and buildings and leaving behind a residue of sand, shells, and seaweed. The abutment had served its purpose for more than fifty years, failing only a few times when huge nor’easters had roared up the New England coast. Nick liked standing by the retaining wall, leaning his arms on the thick concrete ledge and surveying the beach below. Beyond it stretched the eastern horizon, a seam separating the blue-gray Atlantic from the dawn-pink sky. It didn’t surprise him that ancient navigators, gazing west from the shores of Europe, believed the earth was flat. How could it not be, when the horizon was so straight? They were wrong, of course. The folks who believed the Faulk Street Tavern’s jukebox had some sort of supernatural power were wrong, too. Just because that damned David Bowie song was still humming through his head, a two-day ear worm that refused to wiggle its way out of his skull, didn’t mean anything except that the music he’d listened to all day yesterday—head-banging heavy metal, whiny C&W tunes about runaway dogs and bitchy women, or maybe runaway women and bitchy dogs, and finally a ninety-minute megadose of Pearl Jam—had failed to eradicate the Bowie song from Nick’s brain. He didn’t even like the song. All that stammering. The melodramatic melody. The sobbing quality of Bowie’s voice. Nick had vague memories of his parents listening to David Bowie years ago, and memories of his parents were something he’d just as soon avoid. The coffee from Riley’s was helping, though. The coffee and the blustery March wind gusting off the water were doing more to clear that god-awful tune from his head than all the music he’d blasted yesterday. Above the water, a pair of gulls flew circles around each other in an airborne dance. Beyond the jetty to the south, the silhouette of a fishing boat, cables and masts vivid against the pale morning sky, headed out toward that flat horizon. “Don’t fall over the edge,” Nick murmured, as if the boat could hear him. As if there was an edge to fall over. In the distance to his north, he spotted a jogger running along the beach, heading toward where he stood. As the figure drew nearer, he could see she was a woman, gliding across the sand at the high-tide line. Running on dry sand could strain a person’s ankles and calves, but along the tide line the sand was damp and solid, supporting a jogger’s footfalls. Still, the wind was stiff and the air chilly, so the jogger had her challenges. She wore black running pants that clung to her long, slim legs, and a radioactive-orange jacket. She’d be visible in that thing even if she ran at midnight. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail. Tawny hair, sunlight turning the strands gold. A sharp, angular face. Way-too-big hazel eyes. Once again, he couldn’t look away. There was no jukebox out here, no David Bowie song, so he knew none of Gus’s idiotic superstitions were at play. Yet he was transfixed by the woman as she jogged closer. Captivated. Unable to keep from staring at her. His gaze tracked her as she sprinted past him, running parallel to the retaining wall. Street level was about five feet above the beach, so she’d have to look up to see him. But her face remained forward, her eyes aimed at the sand ahead of her as if she could visualize an actual path instead of just a stretch of beach. She continued south toward the jetty, and he decided she looked almost as good from the rear as from the front. Those stretchy black running pants did wonders for her ass. The sun caught the diamond on her left hand. So she was taken. He understood that. No law said a guy couldn’t look. And admire. And maybe enjoy a pleasant if frustrating twinge of lust. Even if she weren’t wearing an engagement ring, he’d never have anything to do with her. She wasn’t his type. Too patrician. He could tell she was from a different universe, not just by her obviously expensive jewelry but by her bearing, her polish, the way she could jog the length of the beach without popping a bead of sweat. Sure, the air was cold, but Nick could work out in an industrial freezer and still wind up drenched in perspiration. Rich people had more refined sweat glands, he figured. She had to be a tourist. He knew most of Brogan’s Point’s residents, even the wealthy ones who lived in the sprawling mansions on the north side of town, past the Ocean Bluff Inn. Those rich folks were the people he often hit up for donations to subsidize the youth programs he ran. He’d give talks, write proposals, sit through excruciating teas and cocktail parties where funds were being raised. He didn’t hate affluent people, or even resent them. He did his best not to gag on the Prosecco or the sherry they served, and he tried not to make a mess with the finger sandwiches, which never seemed to be the right size for his fingers. He was grateful to those rich citizens. But he knew they weren’t his people. The beautiful jogger wasn’t his people, either. She was just a wealthy woman passing through town, one of those iconoclasts who vacationed in Brogan’s Point during the off season. Maybe she preferred beaches when they weren’t mobbed with riffraff—the public beaches here in town were usually jam-packed from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Or maybe she spent those prime summer beach months someplace nicer—Nantucket, or Kennebunkport. Or the Riviera. She reached the jetty and halted, hands on hips. He could see the rise and fall of her shoulders as she panted. After a minute, she lifted one hand to her head and pushed back her hair. Then she turned. And saw him. The only music he heard was the caws and mews of the sea gulls swooping down toward the jetty, no doubt looking for some unlucky clams to smash against the rocks and devour. But just like two nights ago at the Faulk Street Tavern, the woman stared at him and he felt…punched in the gut today. Not stabbed, punched. He took a sip of coffee to keep from doubling over and grunting like someone on the wrong end of a fist. The coffee was still blessedly hot. Thank God for insulated travel mugs. Her gaze pinning him like a laser sight on a rifle, she sauntered up the beach’s slope to the retaining wall. Her feet sank into the powdery white sand above the high tide line, but that didn’t slow her down. He saw now why she’d tried to smooth her hair. Multiple strands had escaped from the elastic, and the wind off the water had tangled them into a silky mess. She halted just a few feet below where he stood. He contemplated leaping down from the retaining wall to join her on the beach. But then he’d have to walk all the way to the jetty to get back up to the street. It would be easier to reach down and haul her up the wall. She was so slim, she couldn’t weigh much. “That coffee smells amazing,” she said. Definitely not what he’d been expecting her to say. He wasn’t sure what he was expecting, but he was surprised she could smell the coffee from a distance, with the travel mug’s lid screwed on tight and the briny fragrance of the ocean heavy in the air. “It is amazing,” he said. “Where did you get it?” “Riley’s, just up the street. Best coffee in Brogan’s Point. Maybe in the world.” Why were they talking about coffee? Then again, why not? Discussing coffee with her seemed natural, easy, like something they might do every morning. “I’ll buy you a cup,” he said. “Oh, I…” She gazed around, then patted the zippered pockets of her glow-in-the-dark jacket. A faint laugh escaped her. “I don’t have any money with me.” “You don’t need money. I just said I’ll buy you a cup.” “Do you think that’s a good idea?” His gaze snagged on the huge diamond sparkling on her left ring finger. Then he shrugged. “Riley’s coffee is always a good idea. Give me your hands.” He set his mug down on the sidewalk adjacent to the retaining wall, then braced himself and reached down to her. She eyed the wall dubiously, and then his hands. Her shoulders rose and fell again, another deep breath, and she lifted her arms. He was right; she didn’t weigh that much. She bent her legs and used the treaded soles of her running shoes against the stones, half walking up the vertical surface as he lifted her. As soon as her hips reached the ledge, she twisted and sat on it, then swung her legs over. He took a step back, giving her space. Standing, she dusted off her cute little bottom with her palms and shot him a wary glance. “I should probably go back to the inn.” “You’re staying at Ocean Bluff?” She nodded. “They have coffee there.” “Not as good as Riley’s.” She bit her lip and averted her eyes, indecision radiating from her. “I really shouldn’t.” He could have said something to reassure her. He could have introduced himself, provided references, assured her she would be safe with him. He could have lied and told her he was noble of spirit and pure of soul. Instead, some crazy impulse seized him and he sang, so softly no one but she could possibly hear, “Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes.” *** This was crazy. She didn’t even know him—and she needed a shower. Something peculiar had happened to her Saturday night, when that song had spilled from the jukebox at the Faulk Street Tavern and she and this man—this total stranger—had engaged in a staring contest as intense as a round of steamy sex. That was a totally inappropriate thought. She gave her head a brisk shake and turned to view the ocean. The early morning sun hovered just inches above the horizon, painting a streak of splintered light across the waves. Crazy. Her whole life seemed crazy at the moment. Her decision to stay on in Brogan’s Point was definitely crazy. She and Peter were supposed to drive back to Boston yesterday, but she’d sent Peter off alone. “I need more time here at the Ocean Bluff Inn. I think it’s the right place for our wedding, but I want to be sure.” “I liked the mansion down in Newport better,” Peter had argued. “I hated that place.” Resembling nothing so much as a downsized version of the Palace of Versailles, it had been much too opulent for her tastes, all that Louis XIV furniture, the murals of fat cherubs prancing across the walls, the gilt moldings and frenetic floral patterns on the rugs. People—not least of all the bride and groom—would be rendered invisible, surrounded by such hectic décor. “Besides, I’d like to check out some of those antique dealers we passed on the drive up here,” she’d told Peter. “I might find some gems for Shomback-Sawyer.” “We can stop at a few of those places on the way home.” Peter had busied himself draping his shirts neatly on hangers inside his folding suitcase. He’d been so eager to leave, he’d started packing right after breakfast. She had been even more eager to stay, to visit the antique dealers, yes, and to absorb the atmosphere of the Ocean Bluff Inn. And also to figure out what had happened when she’d heard the David Bowie song emanating from that wondrous jukebox Saturday night. She hadn’t dared to mention the last reason to Peter, however. She’d been as enthralled by the tavern as he’d been appalled by it. Throughout their stroll back to the inn after they’d left the place, he’d muttered about its low-rent ambiance, its even lower-rent customers, and the fact that his beer had been too cold. Or maybe too warm. Or both. Whatever. Something had been drastically wrong with his drink, and he’d found the entire outing horrid. So she’d sent him on his way yesterday, after they’d argued and then lapsed into a frosty truce. He would eventually forgive her for staying on in Brogan’s Point. He’d stew and mope for a while, and then get over it. How long could he resent her for spending a few extra days in this quiet North Shore town and bringing in some new business for Shomback-Sawyer? If she transported some treasures back to the antiques dealership, she might even earn a bonus. Not that she or Peter needed the extra income, but money was the sort of thing that impressed him. After he had departed, she’d asked Claudia at the inn to line up a rental car for her and enjoyed another delicious tasting-menu meal in the inn’s Sunrise Room, an octagonal, glass-walled dining room facing east, overlooking the ocean. It would be a beautiful space for a wedding reception, and she’d assured herself that was why she’d wanted to dine there. But as she’d worked her way through mouthwatering bites of portobello caps stuffed with gruyere, butterflied shrimp, and asparagus spears wrapped in bacon, she hadn’t thought much about the wedding at all. She’d thought about whether she dared to return to the Faulk Street Tavern. She’d decided it would be best not to tempt fate, even though she had no idea what heading back to the tavern for another Irish coffee had to do with fate. Instead, she’d spent Sunday night in her spacious room at the inn, sprawled out on the king-size bed she no longer had to share with Peter. She’d watched television, read, and gone to sleep. In her dreams, a dark-haired, dark-eyed stranger had floated in and out of view, staring at her. Now, here he was, with his black , dark waves of hair and his penetrating brown eyes. Here he was, wearing faded jeans and a battered leather jacket which looked gloriously lived in, its surface laced with creases. He’d clasped her hands and hoisted her over the sea wall. He’d spoken to her. He’d asked her to have a cup of coffee with him. He’d whispered the refrain of the song the jukebox at the tavern had been playing when their gazes had met and fused. He extended his right hand to her. “Nick Fiore,” he said. Did introducing himself mean he was no longer a stranger? Whether or not it did, she couldn’t ignore the gesture. Shaking his hand, she said, “Diana Simms.” “So. Coffee?” She opened her mouth to say no. But what came out was, “Thank you. I’d like that.” He motioned with his head toward a street perpendicular to the road that bordered the sea wall—Atlantic Avenue, she believed it was called. “It’s just a short walk. I don’t know how tired you are from your run.” “I’m okay.” He dug his hands into the pockets of his jacket, a move that kept him from taking her hand, if indeed that was something he’d considered doing. He had been forward enough to invite her for coffee before he even knew her name, after all. And he’d held both her hands for the few seconds it took to hoist her up off the beach and over the wall. Her own hands still felt the warmth of his, the strength of his grip. That warmth was enough to make her hesitate. This was crazy, crazy. She halted on the sidewalk as soon as they’d crossed Atlantic Avenue. “I should…shower,” she finally said. She wasn’t about to announce her concerns about her sanity to him. His mouth curved in a crooked smile, as if smiling was something he didn’t do that often. “You smell fine. You look fine, too.” “My hair’s a disaster.” His reluctant smile gave way to a low chuckle. “Riley’s isn’t the Ritz. Trust me—you’re better groomed than most of the people in there.” He lowered his eyes to her body, then back to her face. “Nobody’s even going to notice your hair. They’ll be blinded by your jacket.” She laughed, too. Yes, this was crazy—but since he’d gotten her to laugh with him, he’d earned the right to have a cup of coffee with her. They ambled up the street in silence, until he paused at a storefront and swung the glass door open. It emitted a tinny jingle as a bell perched above the hinge announced their arrival. The coffee shop was packed. At eight a.m. on a Monday morning, this was obviously the place Brogan’s Point’s wage-earners started their day. Men in heavy work clothes and thick-soled boots perched on the stools along the counter like sparrows on an electrical wire. The tables and booths held clusters of men, some in suits and others in denim or canvas work apparel, and women in skirts, pant suits and scrubs. Waitresses circulated with thick porcelain plates containing aromatic omelets and home fries, bowls of oatmeal and glass coffee decanters. Conversation blended with the clink of silverware against plates and the thumps of mugs against Formica tabletops. No empty tables, Diana noted with a mixture of disappointment and relief. Maybe they’d be forced to leave, and she could jog back to the inn and regain her mental stability. “In the back, Nick,” a waitress hollered to Nick as she scurried past with a couple of empty dishes. Diana took some small comfort in the understanding that he’d given her his real name, and that he was apparently a regular here. The crowd offered her a layer of protection, too. What could happen in a coffee shop with so many witnesses? Nick beckoned her to follow him past the packed tables toward the rear of the diner, where, sure enough, a booth stood empty. He gestured her toward one of the banquettes and slid in across the table from her, then tugged a couple napkins from the chrome dispenser at the wall end of the table and laid one in front of her. Beside the dispenser stood salt and pepper shakers and a cylindrical jar of sugar. That seemed so quaint. Even the more humble coffee shops Diana patronized in Boston usually had bowls on every table containing packets of plain sugar, raw sugar, brown sugar, and a variety of no-calorie sweeteners. With its maroon leatherette banquettes and checkerboard-tile floor, Riley’s seemed frozen in another decade, another century. All that was missing from their booth was a table-side jukebox. Thank heavens for that. Diana dreaded to think what would happen if someone slipped in a quarter and David Bowie’s voice, crooning about changes, rose above the din of chattering customers and waitresses. The effect of his song emerging from a jukebox had been bizarre enough when the length of the Faulk Street Tavern had separated her from Nick. With him just the width of a table away from her, who knew what would happen if they heard that song again? Despite the crowd, a waitress materialized at their table almost immediately, carrying two laminated menus. “Back again?” she teased Nick. “You just can’t stay away, can you.” “It’s because I’m in love with you, Rita,” he teased back. “If only you’d marry me, we wouldn’t have to keep meeting like this.” She laughed and fanned the air with her hand, waving off his flirtation. “I’ll just have another coffee,” he told her, then nodded toward Diana. “She’d like a menu.” “No, thanks,” Diana said. “Just coffee for me, too.” “You should eat something,” he argued. “You just ran, what? Twenty miles?” “More like two.” “That’s worth a couple of slices of toast, at least. One slice per mile.” She shook her head. She had planned to eat breakfast at the inn. But who was to say that an expensive breakfast at the inn would taste better than a piece of toast at this greasy spoon? Given how wonderful the coffee smelled… “All right,” she conceded. “Just one slice, though.” “Whole wheat, rye, white, sourdough, seven-grain, English muffin,” the waitress recited. “You look like someone from the city, so don’t order a bagel. Ours are pretty lame. Can’t compete with a good Boston bagel.” Diana laughed. “I don’t want a lame bagel. Sourdough, I guess. Just one slice.” “The order comes with two.” The waitress pivoted and strode away. Diana glared at Nick. “You’ll have to eat one slice.” “Demanding, aren’t you.” But he was smiling. Not a crooked smile this time, but a warm, gentle smile that eased the harsh lines of his face and brightened his eyes. Was that why she was here with him right now? Because she’d known that somewhere inside him, that smile was waiting for her to set it free? She was engaged to be married. She was in the preliminary planning stages for her wedding. She shouldn’t be thinking about Nick Fiore’s smile and his soul-melting brown eyes. But she couldn’t very well get up and leave. The man had done nothing wrong. He’d been a complete gentleman, he’d invited her to have coffee with him, and she’d accepted. Perhaps he’d forced the toast on her, but she could forgive him for that. It was herself she was having trouble forgiving—for having accepted his polite invitation and letting her mind stray in dangerous directions. She thought about how inviting his smile was, how mesmerizing his gaze. How his rough-hewn features came together into the sort of face a woman could study for a long time without ever getting bored. She thought about sweaty sex. She needed to make things clear, for her own sake if not for his. “Nick, I’m really not sure why I’m here,” she began—a statement as lame as the bagels in this café were alleged to be. “You’re here because of the song.” “The David Bowie song?” He nodded. Before she could question him further, the waitress returned, holding a tray laden with their order. The bread was sliced thick and toasted to a golden brown. It shared the plate with a huge slab of butter. The waitress distributed knives, teaspoons, and a lidded stainless-steel pitcher of milk. “You want any jam?” she asked. “No, thank you.” Diana glanced at Nick. He was going to have to eat one of the chunks of bread; he might want jam. “We’re good,” he said to the waitress. She gave him a sweet smile. She had to be at least a dozen years older than him, but the soft shine of her eyes told Diana she appreciated Nick in a way that transcended their friendly banter. Diana couldn’t blame her. He was definitely worthy of appreciation. Feeling her cheeks grow warm, she lowered her gaze to his hands. Those hands had hoisted her off the beach as if she’d weighed less than air. He had long fingers, sharp, bony knuckles, and an unfashionable watch on a leather strap buckled around his left wrist. No rings. Specifically, no wedding band. He nudged aside the travel mug he’d been carrying and wrapped his fingers around the bulky mug the waitress had brought him. Diana found herself wondering what those fingers would feel like brushing against her cheek or wandering through her hair. She was engaged, damn it. She had to stop thinking about him that way. This whole situation was nuts. But he’d ordered her toast, and she couldn’t very well not eat it. She dabbed the tip of her knife into the butter and spread a thin layer across the crisp surface of her bread. “That other slice is for you,” she told him. “Call me demanding if you want, but it’s too much for me to eat.” “You just ran a marathon. You need fuel.” “I ran from the Ocean Bluff Inn to the jetty. That is not a marathon.” “So, what do you think of the OB?” It took her a minute to realize he was referring to the Ocean Bluff Inn. She wondered if revealing where she was staying had been a wise idea. Now that he knew where to find her, he could track her down there. He could insinuate himself into her room, into that vast king-size bed with its smooth sheets and its fluffy duvet. Oh, for God’s sake. No more thoughts about sex. She absolutely forbade her brain to go there. “It’s lovely,” she said, referring to the inn. “And you’re from Boston?” He could have guessed that from her discussion of bagels with the waitress. Admitting it to Nick wasn’t revealing any secrets. “Yes.” “Just passing through town? Or are you planning to stay for a while?” “I’m planning—”a wedding, she ought to say, but didn’t “—to stay for at least a few more days. There are so many little antique dealers in the area. I want to explore.” “You’re into antiques?” His face was blank. She couldn’t tell if he was impressed or put off. His opinion shouldn’t matter. “It’s my job. I work for an antiques dealership in Boston. Shomback-Sawyer Antiques. While I was here, I figured I could check out some of the local dealers and see if I could find any treasures for our clients in town.” “While you were here,” he echoed, his tone casual, his hand reaching across the table to snag the second slice of toast. “Yes.” He was waiting for her to tell him why she was there. And she should tell him. He could probably figure it out, anyway. His gaze slanted toward her left hand, where her engagement ring glinted in the light from the fluorescent ceiling fixture. Yet she couldn’t bring herself to speak the words. He was still a stranger—maybe not a total stranger, since she knew his name, but a stranger nonetheless—and for some inexplicable reason, she couldn’t bring herself to say she was in Brogan’s Point because she thought the Ocean Bluff Inn would be a beautiful venue for her wedding. She couldn’t even bring herself to think about a wedding, about her engagement, about Peter. Merely gazing across the table at Nick Fiore created sensations inside her that she never felt when she was with Peter. It was a terribly disloyal thought. But her voice stuck in her throat, the words I’m planning my wedding refusing to emerge. She felt the way she had at the bar Saturday night—as if she were under a spell that robbed her of free will. Saturday night the spell had made her stare at Nick across a room of drinking, dancing, carousing bar patrons. Today it silenced her when she ought to tell him she was engaged to be married a year from June. Then again, he probably couldn’t care less that she was engaged. If she told him, he’d congratulate her, wish her well, maybe joke that he’d bill Peter for the cost of her coffee and toast. Surely he hadn’t bought her breakfast because he was interested in her. Just because her hands still tingled when she recalled the strength of his fingers gripping her, pulling her up over the retaining wall at the beach, didn’t mean that brief contact had affected him in any way. Nothing was going on here. Nothing but two people sharing a cup of coffee and an order of toast. Nothing but two strangers who, last Saturday night, had glanced at each other when a silly old David Bowie song played in a beautiful antique jukebox. “Do you work?” she asked, glad her voice finally seemed to be functional again. Her voice, perhaps, but not her brain. Nick frowned as if she’d spoken in Swahili. She realized her question, emerging from a prolonged silence, was a complete non sequitur, lacking any sort of context. “I mean,” she explained, feeling her cheeks grow warm again, “do you have to be at work? Am I keeping you from your job?” He smiled. “If I show up at my office at ten instead of nine, no big deal.” “Your office?” She did her best to filter any hint of judgment from her tone, but Nick certainly wasn’t dressed like someone who worked in an office. “That’s a room where I sit at a desk and look important.” He laughed. She loved when he joked. His laughter smoothed his edges just enough to make him irresistibly handsome. “I coordinate programs for at-risk kids,” he continued. “I spend half my life raising money and the other half dealing with the police, the state’s Department of Youth Services, the schools and the kids themselves. My office is in the community center. I think it used to be a utility closet before someone crammed a desk in there and told me to set up shop. But I don’t spend much time at my desk, so…” He concluded with a shrug. “Wow.” His career sounded much more important than selling antiques to wealthy Bostonites. “You’re—what? A social worker?” “Something like that,” he said vaguely. “That’s wonderful.” Another quick, self-deprecating laugh. “No, really.” She wanted to lean across the table, give his shoulders a shake, and tell him not to downplay the value of what he did. Actually, she just wanted to lean across the table and grab his shoulders. She deliberately leaned back, pressing into the banquette’s stiff upholstery. “I trade in dusty old stuff rich people want to decorate their houses with. You save lives.” “I wouldn’t go that far,” he said, not quite convincingly. His modesty was sweet, but Diana would bet a whole lot of pricy antiques that he did save lives. She munched on her toast, buying time as she sorted her thoughts. She hadn’t been wholly honest with Nick Fiore, and she wasn’t sure she could be. But she couldn’t keep avoiding the truth that sat between them, invisible but as real as the mugs of coffee steaming on the table, the stainless-steel pitcher of milk, the glass cylinder of sugar. She dared to lift her gaze to him and found him watching her, his smile gone, his expression quizzical. Was he as bewildered as she felt? As churning with questions? “Did…did something happen Saturday night when the jukebox played that song?” she asked. That he didn’t ask her what the hell she was talking about indicated that he also believed something had happened. “I don’t know,” he finally said. “Something did happen.” He sighed and studied his coffee. The steam rose in a lazy curl of vapor. “Yeah,” he said, then raised the mug and took a sip. “What? What happened?” “I don’t know.” He sighed again, his eyes not meeting hers. She followed their angle and realized he was staring at her diamond ring. “You’re right. I really should get to my office. All those lives waiting to be saved,” he added, his smile fleeting and sardonic. One final swig of coffee drained his mug, and he shifted in his seat to pull his wallet from his hip pocket. Minutes later, after Nick had paid the bill and traded a bit more flirtatious banter with the waitress, Diana found herself outside Riley’s, blinking in the glaring morning light. During their time indoors the sun had risen fully and the air, while still blustery, had warmed a few degrees. “Do you need a lift back to the inn?” he asked. She would love a lift back to the inn. She would love a little more time in Nick Fiore’s company, trying to fathom what the song they’d heard at the tavern Saturday night had done to them, what it meant, why she felt so disoriented, and why her raising the subject had caused him to stand abruptly and announce that he had to get to work. She would love to grab his shoulders—not to shake them but to pull him toward her, to feel the warmth of his body against hers. She would love to figure out why, after he’d clearly guessed that she was engaged—his obvious scrutiny of her ring implied as much—she couldn’t speak the words, couldn’t tell him the truth, couldn’t admit that she wanted something she couldn’t have, something she shouldn’t want. “I need to run,” she said, meaning it literally. “Thanks for the coffee.” Before he could stop her—as if he’d even want to—she spun and jogged down the sidewalk, back toward Atlantic Avenue and the retaining wall and the beach. Back to the inn. Back to safety. Chapter Three Gus Naukonen wiped the bar down with a wet cloth. Once a week, she’d treat its glossy mahogany surface to a complete waxing and buffing, but most days a good scrub with water and cleanser was all it needed. She loved this time at the bar. Mid-afternoon, open but quiet. A couple of older women sat at a booth, sipping chardonnay and catching up on gossip. Ronnie Marzetto, who’d retired and passed his lobster boat down to his son-in-law a year ago, worked his way through a beer, a bowl of peanuts and a crossword puzzle at another booth. Carl Stanton slouched on a stool at the far end of the bar, nursing a coffee. Carl drank too much. Gus knew it. Carl knew it. She’d cut him off after his third whiskey and told him hiding in a bar and guzzling the hard stuff wasn’t going to solve his multitude of problems. “On the house,” she’d said, filling a mug with coffee for him. She’d brewed it hours ago, and now it was as dark as tar and smelled burned. But Carl wouldn’t know the difference. He just needed to sober up before Gus called his long-suffering wife and asked her to come and pick him up. Gus had already made him hand over his keys. At least he was a quiet, mellow drunk. Gus felt sorry for him. Out of work, and his wife was sleeping with Bruce Bauer, and everyone knew it. If Carl Stanton was Gus’s husband, she’d probably be sleeping with someone else, too. Not that Bruce Bauer was anyone’s idea of a heartthrob. It was one of those frying-pan-fire situations. Gus didn’t judge. Beneath her feet, she felt subtle vibrations as Manny Lopez moved crates of liquor around in the basement. Manny was thick and sturdy, his torso as solid and round as a beer keg, his arms as solid as granite, his legs as thick as the trunks of the centuries-old pines lining Forest Road. Yet he was a teddy-bear, always smiling, light on his feet despite his massive build. When he wasn’t literally doing the heavy lifting, maintaining her inventory, lugging boxes of bottles up the stairs and bins of glassware and plates to the industrial dishwasher in the kitchen, he was mopping the floor, backing up Gus and the other bartenders during surges in traffic, and breaking up the rare fight. People didn’t come to the Faulk Street Tavern to get into fights. It wasn’t that kind of place. It was Gus’s kind of place. Tranquil. Homey. A bar where a person could relax and get a generous drink at a reasonable price. Not a bar where crap was tolerated. The front door open with a familiar creak of its hinges. During peak hours, of course, no one would notice that creak, but in the mid-afternoon lull, Gus could hear every sound. The lullaby-soft murmur of the women’s voices as they sipped their wine. An occasional sniffle from Carl—either he had post-nasal drip or he was crying; Gus did him the courtesy of not searching his face for tears. The slap of her rag as she gave the bar a final swipe. Another thud and gentle rattle of glass from below. And the front door’s hinges. She smiled, expecting to see Ed Nolan sweep through the door. He usually dropped by around this time. “Just checking to make sure everything’s copacetic,” he’d say. “Had a fender-bender up on Wayne Road, and I’m in no hurry to get back to the station house and do the paperwork.” He always had an excuse for visiting the tavern during his shift, and Gus always pretended those excuses mattered to them both. Ed would never admit he’d stopped in because he wanted to see her. However, when the door arced wider, the person who stepped into the nearly empty bar wasn’t the tall, handsome cop who could make her body sing in the wee hours of the morning, after she’d shut the tavern for the night and crawled into bed with him. It was a young woman. Gus knew who she was. She didn’t recognize every person who entered her establishment, especially on a busy Saturday night, especially an out-of-towner. But she remembered this girl, with her softly waving honey-colored hair, her slim figure, her delicate features and big, goo-goo doll eyes. This was the girl the jukebox had bound to Nick Fiore. She was dressed in a tweedy brown jacket, a white sweater, a colorful silk scarf coiled loosely around her throat and skinny jeans that showed off her slender legs. Gus was six feet tall and raw-boned, so any normal-size woman tended to look graceful to her. But this woman was particularly well put together. Petite and elegant, she carried herself like someone who had spent more than a few precious years of her childhood in ballet classes. Gus recalled her own mother signing her up for ballet classes at the Brogan Point rec center, back when she’d been a kid and the lessons had been dirt cheap. After a few sessions, the teacher, a skinny woman with a beak nose, a Russian accent and a spine as straight as a flagpole, had urged Gus’s mother to sign her up for basketball, instead. Gus was still grinning at the memory when the young woman neared the bar. As she’d walked across the empty dance floor, she’d kept pausing and glancing over her shoulder at the jukebox, which sat idle at the far end of the room. When the girl reached the bar, she turned back to Gus. Her cheeks and the tip of her nose were pink, probably from the brisk late-winter air outdoors. Her brows dipped in a slight frown. Silent, she stared at Gus as if not really seeing her. She might have been looking at the row of bottles standing along the shelf behind Gus, or at her reflection in the smoky mirror behind the bottles. “Can I get you something?” Gus asked. Her voice seemed to jolt the girl. “Oh.” She blinked, then smiled shyly. “It’s really too early for a drink.” The stale old joke about how it was five o’clock somewhere drifted through Gus’s head. She let it pass. “I’ve got soft drinks. Coffee, tea, soda, lemonade….” The woman still seemed to be in something of a stupor. “A glass of water?” “That would be nice. I’ll pay for it,” the woman added. Gus snorted and turned to fill a glass with ice and water from the tap. “On the house,” she said, placing a square cocktail napkin beneath the glass as she set it down. No sense letting the glass sweat all over the bar just minutes after she’d wiped the surface clean. “I feel bad, taking a stool and not ordering something.” “Especially when the place is so crowded,” Gus said, waving her hand at the nearly empty room. The young woman glanced behind her, laughed, and then stopped laughing as her gaze alighted on the jukebox. She turned back to Gus. “You’re going to think I’m insane, but…can I buy that jukebox?” Yeah, Gus thought she was insane. She hooted a laugh. “Buy it?” The girl looked earnest. “I work for an antiques dealer in Boston,” she said. “I’m sure that’s an antique. I’d pay you a very generous price—” “Sorry,” Gus cut her off. “It’s not for sale.” “It’s an amazing piece.” No kidding, Gus thought. “Can you tell me about it?” the young woman asked. “Do you know anything about its provenance?” There was a fancy word. Fortunately, Gus’s vocabulary was up to the challenge. “All I can tell you is, it was here when my husband and I bought the place.” “Really?” “Standing right there. We never moved it. For all I know, it was standing there when this was just an empty lot, and they built the tavern around it.” The girl’s frown intensified, and then she realized Gus was joking. She allowed herself a small laugh. “It’s gorgeous.” Gus couldn’t argue that. “Yeah.” “So beautiful. The woodwork, and those gorgeous peacocks… Just amazing.” She smiled and gave Gus a direct stare. “Are you sure I couldn’t write you a check right now and take it off your hands? There would be a lot of zeroes on that check.” Gus liked checks with lots of zeroes on them as much as anyone else. But the jukebox? No way. She shook her head. “Sorry.” “You must have it serviced, right? What does the service guy tell you about it? Has he ever mentioned its age or vintage?” “It hasn’t been serviced since we bought the place. We had a guy come in then. He showed us how to open the money box and get the coins out. He said to contact him if we wanted to change the records inside. It was all records, vinyl. Back when we took over this place, CD’s didn’t exist, let alone MP3’s.” “So what do you do when you want to change the records? Does someone from Wurlitzer take care of that?” Gus tossed the cleaning rag she’d been using into a hamper at the far end of the bar. Swish—three points. She’d definitely been better suited to basketball than ballet. “I’ve never changed the records. The songs keep changing on their own. At least that’s what it seems like. Who knows? Maybe there are a few hundred records inside there. Only vinyl records. The jukebox never plays any songs more recent than around the mid-80’s.” “It changes the records on its own?” The girl’s frown returned, even more intense. Gus shrugged. “It plays what it wants. People slide in a dime or a quarter, punch some buttons, and then whatever comes out comes out. Folks around here think it plays whatever song someone needs to hear.” “Someone needs to hear?” At Gus’s nod of confirmation, the girl shook her head. “That doesn’t make any sense.” “Lots of things in life don’t make sense.” Gus busied herself emptying trays of clean glasses from the dishwasher rack onto the shelves beneath the bar. “But you empty the coins?” “Donate them all to charity. The local food bank, a battered women’s shelter, the American Cancer Society.” “That’s very generous.” The girl traced her finger around the rim of her glass. Her nails were manicured, the polish reminding Gus of pearls. “What do you mean, it plays whatever song someone needs to hear?” Gus stopped fussing with the glasses and leaned on the bar. Compared to the girl’s hands, her own were large and blunt, the nails cut short and unpolished. The last time she’d had a manicure was the day before her wedding, thirty some-odd years ago. After that, she’d worked alongside Joe running the tavern until she’d had the boys, and then she’d been a barkeep and a mother, and then a barkeep and a widow. Who had time for manicures? Fortunately, Ed Nolan wasn’t a fussy kind of guy. He seemed to like her hands just fine. “You were in here Saturday night,” she said, deciding that the poor girl needed a bit of direction. She might be an antiques expert, she might have gorgeous hands—and that diamond ring adorning her left ring finger was probably worth as much as the jukebox’s charity earnings over the past ten years. But she seemed bewildered. Gus decided to enlighten her. “You were sitting over there—” she gestured toward the table where she’d seen the girl“—and the jukebox played ‘Changes.’” “Yes. The David Bowie song.” The girl laughed sheepishly. “My parents and my uncle listen to a lot of classic rock.” “That song was talking to you,” Gus explained. “It certainly felt that way.” The girl still looked sheepish, perplexed but fascinated. “So it was telling me to make changes?” “What do you think?” “I think the whole thing is bizarre.” Gus lined up her shakers and strainers. “The song says, ‘Turn and face the strange.’” “It does? I never really listened to the lyrics. Just that stuttering thing he does. Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes.” She rested her arms against the bar, apparently growing more relaxed in Gus’s company. “Do you know all the lyrics to all the songs?” “Just the ones that leap out at me. That one did. Probably because it hit Nick the same moment it hit you.” “You know Nick?” Her cheeks grew redder—and the color couldn’t be blamed on the chilly March air. They were indoors, and the radiators were working. “He’s a local. I’m a local.” Gus let the woman finish the thought for herself: you’re not a local. “Does he need to make changes, too?” the woman asked. “I guess you’d have to discuss that with him.” Gus noticed movement at the door and heard the familiar whine of the hinges as it swung open. There he was—Ed in his uniform. He’d made detective nearly a dozen years ago, but he still worked as a patrolman a lot of the time because Brogan’s Point just didn’t have much call for police detectives. That was fine with Gus. She liked the way he looked in in navy blue, with his thick leather holster and his shiny badge. “Hey,” he called out, striding into the tavern. “I was in the area and thought I’d see how things are going.” “They’re going fine,” Gus said as he approached. “Not so fine for Carl.” Ed angled his head toward the moping guy at the end of the bar. “He’s drying out.” “Have you got his keys?” She dug into her apron pocket and produced the jangling key ring. Carl peered up from his coffee and scowled. “Those are mine,” he said, his voice slurring. “Don’t worry,” Gus called down the bar to him. “I’m taking good care of them.” “I should probably let you get back to work,” the girl said, inching away from the bar. “This is my work,” Gus assured her. “Giving people who come in here drinks. Even if it’s only water.” The girl reached into the leather purse dangling from a strap on her shoulder. “I must owe you something.” “Not for water. Come back later and buy a drink.” “I would,” the girl said dubiously, “but I’m afraid the jukebox will play some other song and send me another message I don’t understand.” “You’ve already heard your message,” Gus said. “Let it sink in. Maybe you’ll understand it in time.” The woman nodded, although she didn’t look entirely convinced. She took a few steps toward the door, then turned back and extended her right hand. “I’m Diana Simms.” Most customers didn’t introduce themselves. Either Gus knew them or she didn’t. This gesture was a surprise—a pleasant one. “Augusta Naukonen,” she said, shaking the woman’s hand. It was so small and fine-boned, Gus had to take care not to bruise it. “Everyone around here calls her Gus,” Ed piped up. Gus released Diana Simms’s hand and the girl took another step toward the door, then hesitated and asked, “So you think the song was sending a message to Nick, too? Is he supposed to change?” “Like I said, you’ll have to discuss that with him,” Gus told her. Diana had the prettiest frown Gus had ever seen—and she’d seen it several times now, so she felt qualified to judge it. “I guess I will,” she said on a sigh, then turned and walked to the door. Gus watched her leave, then turned to Ed. “Do I need to keep an eye on her?” he asked. Gus shook her head. “No. She’s just trying to puzzle out the jukebox.” Ed snorted. “That jukebox. It makes people crazy.” “Either that, or it makes them sane,” Gus said. He smiled. “You make me crazy,” he murmured before leaning over the bar and planting a kiss on her lips. Chapter Four As days went, this was not Nick’s worst. He’d met with the town manager at ten-thirty to discuss next year’s budget, enjoyed a fruitful phone conversation with the high school principal about the after-school tutoring program he’d established there, reviewed the schedule at the community center gym, met with two drop-outs he’d been counseling and got them signed up for GED classes, and talked to someone in the state’s Department of Youth Services about a local girl with substance abuse issues who belonged in therapy and not the juvenile justice system. “Find me a good rehab program her family can afford,” he’d argued. “You can litigate her DUI later. First, let’s get her detoxed.” All in a day’s work. He tried not to think about the atypical way his day had begun. He tried not to think about Diana Simms, with her eyes the color of the ocean. He tried not to think about the damned song playing in a never-ending loop inside his skull. Changes? Sure, he could use some changes in his life. A higher salary would be a nice change. A little less caffeine, a little more exercise. A new shower curtain for the bathroom in his house. What he’d really like would be to install glass sliders above the tub, but he’d need an upward change in his salary to afford a glass-sliders change in his bathroom. None of the changes he’d welcome had anything to do with Diana, though—not given that her life was in Boston and her finger was adorned by that blinding diamond engagement ring. At around six o’clock, he left his cramped, windowless office at the community center, locked up and headed for his car, calculating how bad the traffic would be if he detoured to the big-box home repair store down on Rte. 1 to look at shower curtains before driving home. Not that the shower curtain was a major change, but maybe if he bought a new one, he could silence the song he’d heard playing on the jukebox at the Faulk Street Tavern Saturday night—and continued to hear playing in his mind ever since. He climbed into his car, started the engine and turned on the radio. Bass-heavy Metallica blasted through the speakers, and he let it surge over him, praying that it, too, might drown out the David Bowie song. He turned the radio’s volume up so high, he didn’t hear his cell phone ringing. He felt it vibrating against his thigh, however. Pulling it from his pocket, he peered at the screen, turned off the radio and cursed. He should just ignore the call. But it was hard to ignore your mother—even when she had left scars across your psyche that would never fade. Sighing, he thumbed the connect icon and lifted the phone to his ear. “Yeah?” His voice emerged as a growl. “Don’t be like that,” his mother said. “It’s been ages since we talked.” He took a minute to subdue his reflexive anger at the sound of her voice. “I’ve been busy,” he said. “One of the shutters fell off in front of the house. A living room window. I thought maybe you could stop by and rehang it.” Sure. There was nothing Nick wanted more than to do freaking repairs for his mother. “Like I said, I’m really busy.” “Nick.” Her voice took on a familiar wheedling tone. When he was a kid, the syrupy sweetness of her voice had made him feel loved, made him feel as if she would keep him safe and protect him from his father’s wild temper. Not anymore. Now, when she said, “I’ll make you dinner. You can come, hang the shutter, and I’ll make manicotti. You love my manicotti,” all he could think of was that he loved her manicotti a hell of a lot more than he loved her. Still, she was an older woman, living alone. Her body was worn down by time, loneliness and the abuse his father had inflicted on her. The old man had specialized in discreet punches and slaps, leaving bruises no one could see, and emotional abuse that left bruises no less real, even if they were also invisible—the fear, the caution, the constant anxiety that one wrong word or gesture might change the abuse from emotional back to physical. Nick had a master’s degree in social work. He knew about domestic violence. Growing up, he’d had a front-row seat in the boxing ring of his home. So from a clinical standpoint, he could sympathize with his mother. But he’d fought in that arena, too. He’d fought harder than his mother ever had. His sympathy had limits. “Hire a handyman,” he spoke into the phone. “Someone who knows how to hang shutters.” “I can’t afford—” “I’ll pay for it,” he said, thinking again about how much he’d like his salary to ch-ch-change. “Look, Mom, I have to see someone right now. I’ve got to go.” “Call me,” his mother whined. “Come visit. I’ll cook something nice.” He rolled his eyes, muttered good-bye and tapped the disconnect icon. And cursed again. He was in no longer in the mood to shop for a shower curtain. Nor was he in the mood to drive home and listen his mother’s plaintive voice alternating with the Bowie song on that audio loop in his mind. He wasn’t even in the mood for a blast of Metallica. He tore out of the community center parking lot, his tires spitting loose pebbles behind him. Instead of heading west toward his house or south to the shopping district on Rte.1, he steered to Atlantic Avenue, the road paralleling the retaining wall, the beach, and the ocean beyond. The sky to his right was fading to dark as he cruised north, the last light of dusk bleeding out of the day. Although the evening air was cold, he rolled down his windows and let the sea breezes whip through his car. A cigarette would have helped—if he still smoked. A glass of something strong—if he wasn’t driving. A mother he could trust—if he could swap his own mother for a better one. The houses along Atlantic Avenue were tightly packed, barely a sliver of space between one and the next. Land was precious this close to the shore; a large yard would spike the already prohibitive costs of ocean-view properties even higher. Further north, Brogan’s Point featured plenty of mansions owned by gazillionaires. Along the stretch of the Atlantic Avenue closer in to town, though, single-family homes nestled shoulder to shoulder with triple-deckers, summer rentals, and rambling old houses transformed into quaint bed-and-breakfasts that catered to New Yorkers and folks from Western Massachusetts who came to enjoy a long seaside weekend in a town they could reach in just a few hours. He kept heading north until he reached the driveway to the Ocean Bluff Inn. The entry was flanked by short stone pillars topped with lantern-shaped lights. As he steered up the winding drive to the imposing white clapboard structure spread across the grassy ocean-view bluff for which it was named, he slowed the car, took a few deep breaths and shook his head, hoping to clear it. He cleared some of the anger, some of the static. But the damned David Bowie song remained. Why had he driven to the inn? Diana probably wasn’t here. Or if she was, she might be with her fiancé, that clean-cut dude who’d been with her at the Faulk Street Tavern on Saturday night. That proper gentleman who’d planted a massive chunk of crystalized carbon on her ring finger. Nick was an idiot to have driven to the OB. Seeing Diana made no sense. Except that not seeing her made even less sense. He shut and locked his car—the oldest, shabbiest vehicle in the guest lot—and walked to the front steps, his footsteps crunching on the crushed shells and sea-smooth pebbles that paved the path leading to the building. He climbed three shallow steps to a broad veranda furnished with a few heavy wooden Adirondack chairs and rockers. It was still too early for the inn to put lightweight wicker furniture on its front porch; winter hadn’t released New England from its grip yet. The green tips of daffodils and crocuses were beginning poke through the soil and a few trees were dotted with leaf buds, but no one would be shocked if the region saw a few more inches of snow before spring officially arrived. Winter usually took its time departing from Massachusetts. Nick crossed the porch to the heavy oak door, swung it open and stepped inside. He was immediately embraced by the heated indoor air. The inn’s lobby was small and welcoming, the walls painted a soft white and adorned with framed seascape paintings and photos of old sailing ships, the hardwood floor covered with thick patterned area rugs. Along one wall ran a counter of polished oak—the hotel equivalent of Gus’s bar, he thought with a wry smile. A bowl of apples stood at one end of the counter, an urn holding brightly colored flowers at the other. Halfway between them, a clerk in a dark blue blazer and khaki trousers was stationed. The clerk eyed Nick curiously, then asked, “Can I help you?” “I’m looking for…” Nick paused, hearing a woman’s voice emerging through the arched doorway leading to a parlor off the lobby. Diana’s voice. “I think I found her,” he said, moving toward the doorway. Diana stood in front of a window in the parlor, her back to Nick, a cell phone pressed to her ear. “No,” she said, her voice tight with tension. “I’m sorry you feel that way, but—” She listened for a moment. “I will when I’m ready,” she said. Another pause. “Peter. Don’t be this way. It’s not—I’m fine. Really. Right. Okay. I’ll call you tomorrow.” She lowered the phone, jabbed her finger against the screen and muttered, “Screw you.” This must be the evening for unpleasant phone calls—and Nick shouldn’t have eavesdropped on Diana’s. She’d hidden herself inside this small parlor, which was furnished with overstuffed chairs and a sofa, a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf stacked with weathered hardcovers, and a fireplace with an ornately carved mantel. Maybe she’d hoped for privacy. But if she’d truly wanted privacy for her phone call, she should have gone to her room. The parlor was a public space, sort of. Nick gave her a moment to simmer down, then cleared his throat. She spun around and gasped. “Oh!” “Sorry—did I scare you?” “No.” Even from across the room, he could see the tension seeping out of her spine, her shoulders relaxing as she let out a long breath. “You just startled me a little. What are you doing here?” Good question. “I…was pissed off,” he said. Her huge eyes clouded with concern. “At me?” He gave her what he hoped was a reassuring smile. “No, of course not. But I thought…” God, this was going to sound odd, no matter how he expressed it. “I thought seeing you would cheer me up.” “And instead, you found out that I was pissed off, too.” She slid her phone into her purse. “I guess you overheard that argument.” “Just the tail end.” He smiled again. “Maybe you’re pissed off, but you’re cheering me up.” It was true. Simply standing in the same room with her eased his tension, deleted his mother’s phone call from his memory, and muted the Bowie tune. Diana took a step toward him, then halted. The room wasn’t large. One more step and she’d be close enough for him to touch her. “You want to grab some dinner?” he asked. It didn’t seem like that complicated a question, but she took a full minute to mull over her reply. “I was going to eat here at the inn,” she said. “I’ve been doing these tasting menus.…” She bit her lip, then shrugged and smiled. “The hell with that. Let’s go somewhere else. You must know some good local restaurants. That place where we had coffee this morning—” “Riley’s. Great for breakfast, not so great for dinner. You like seafood?” “I’d better, if I’m spending time in Brogan’s Point.” “I’ll take you to a good local place. No atmosphere. Lobster right off the boat.” “It sounds perfect. Let me run up to my room and grab my coat.” She neared him, then moved right past him, denying him the chance to take her hand or brush a stray lock of hair back from her cheek. Just as well. He had no business wanting that kind of contact, that connection. She was a visitor, a Boston woman. Already taken. “Go ahead,” he said. “I’ll wait down here.” He followed her into the lobby and watched her walk up the grand stairway to the second floor. The main building had four floors, so he assumed there must be an elevator somewhere. But Diana was a jogger. It figured she would take the stairs. Five minutes later, he watched her descend that double-width stairway like a debutante—one wearing tailored slacks, a wool coat and a colorful silk scarf rather than a gown, but just as regal, just as elegant. Just as beautiful. She was smiling. And she wasn’t wearing her diamond ring. Chapter Five “I love this place,” Diana said. The Lobster Shack was the antithesis of the Ocean Bluff Inn’s fancy dining rooms, and of any Boston restaurant she’d ever dined at with Peter. It was located in a small converted warehouse across Atlantic Avenue from a wharf lined with commercial fishing boats, back in port after a day’s harvest. The restaurant’s walls were paneled in splintery shingles draped haphazardly with woven ropes and trawling nets. Its tabletops were unvarnished planks topped with butcher paper. Its lighting was uneven, some bulbs in the ceiling fixtures emitting a glaring silver light and others a softer amber glow. The lobsters were served boiled to a bright red, accompanied by a cup of drawn butter, a saucer of coleslaw and a basket of greasy French Fries. The waitress had brought glasses along with their bottles of beer, but she hadn’t bothered to pour the beer, and when Nick took a slug straight from the bottle, Diana decided not to bother with her glass, either. He looked ridiculous wearing a plastic bib with a cartoon drawing of a smiling lobster on it—ridiculous but adorable. She’d donned a bib, too. He was a lot more adept than she was at cracking lobster shells with the hinged metal nutcrackers the waitress had provided for them, but then, Diana wasn’t used to eating lobster this way. Peter always argued that eating boiled lobster straight out of the shell was too sloppy and uncivilized. To make him happy if they were dining out together, she would order a “lazy man’s” lobster, the meat already removed from the shell. Breaking the shell and wrestling the steaming pink and white flesh out with a tiny fork was challenging and messy, but it was fun. It also kept Diana and Nick too busy to talk about anything other than how delicious the lobster tasted. Prying chunks of succulent meat from the claws required her full attention. It distracted her from thinking about her argument with Peter an hour ago. He’d phoned her while she’d been staring blankly at some of the inn’s catering menus and wondering why none of the elaborate descriptions of the food tweaked her appetite. She ought to have been starving, since she hadn’t eaten lunch. The thick slice of toast she’d consumed with Nick that morning had filled her up, and once she’d hit the road, she hadn’t wanted to stop for food. She’d gone to three antiques dealers Claudia had suggested to her, all of them located on a winding country road leading northwest out of town. The first two had been stocked with glorified trash—as she and her colleagues at Shomback-Sawyer always joked, these were the sorts of shops that ought to have signs reading, “We Buy Junk—We Sell Antiques” hanging above their doors. The third dealer had operated out of a barn not far from the New Hampshire state line, and it was there that Diana had scored a major coup, purchasing a pair of authentic Tiffany lamps for eighty dollars apiece. They were dusty and their bronze bases were crusted with dirt, but they were genuine. Given the price the dealer had charged her, he apparently hadn’t known how to tell a real Tiffany lamp from a reproduction. But Diana had rubbed enough crud from them to spot their Tiffany Studios stamps and numbers. The dealer had rolled his eyes when she’d asked him to pad them with yards of bubble-wrap. She’d offered to pay extra for the wrapping, and he’d pretended he was doing her a big favor by charging only twenty bucks to wrap the lamps and nestle them into a sturdy box. She’d driven about a mile back toward Brogan’s Point before pulling off the road and phoning her boss. “Really? The lamps had Tiffany stamps?” James Sawyer had said. “Stamps and numbers. They aren’t the most magnificent specimens I’ve ever seen, but they’re the real thing.” “In that case, stay up on the North Shore as long as you want. Maybe you’ll find some more treasures for us. Use the company card. Good job, Diana.” After stashing the lamps carefully in her room at the inn, she’d strolled down the hill toward town until she’d found herself at the entry to the Faulk Street Tavern. She’d gotten lucky with the lamps; maybe she’d get lucky with the jukebox, too. She hadn’t, and she’d left the bar bewildered and strangely edgy after her conversation with Augusta, the tall, lanky bartender who had implied that the jukebox was somehow magical. Turn to face the strange, she’d recited, song lyrics that must have lodged themselves in Diana’s soul on Saturday night. Her day had certainly turned strange. And then Peter had called and turned her day from strange to infuriating. He wanted her to come back to Boston. He didn’t like her “wasting time”—his words, not hers—in Brogan’s Point. He’d decided he didn’t like the inn at all. He wanted to have the wedding at that ostentatious mansion in Newport. He thought Diana was too stubborn. Her parents were worried that she hadn’t come home with him. He didn’t care that James Sawyer had urged her to stay on at Brogan’s Point and check out some more antique dealers in the area. She needed to come home. Now. She’d ridden an emotional rollercoaster all day. From the high of discovering the Tiffany lamps hidden in that gloomy barn full of mediocre Depression glass and not-quite mint-comic books to her bewildering conversation with Augusta at the bar, to her phone conversation with Peter…to this moment, eating the simplest, freshest, most delicious lobster she’d ever tasted and wearing a plastic bib. If Peter saw her in this bib, in this eatery, he’d probably break off the engagement on principle. No future wife of his ought to be seen in public wearing a plastic lobster bib. “So,” Nick said, leaning back in his chair. His hair was tousled, his cheeks and chin wearing a day’s growth of stubble. His eyes were unfathomable, so dark. She had to avert her gaze so as not to be drawn in by their beauty. “You took off your ring.” Right. She was wearing the bib, and she wasn’t wearing her engagement ring. She’d been so angry with Peter after his phone call, she’d taken it off and hidden it inside a pair of rolled socks in a drawer when she’d gone to her room to fetch her coat. She hadn’t considered whether Nick would notice. How could he not notice? The stone was three carats, as ostentatious as the Newport venue where Peter wanted their wedding to take place. “I was annoyed,” she said, hoping that was enough of an answer to satisfy Nick. She didn’t want to think too much about the implications of her not wearing her ring while she ate dinner with an irresistibly attractive man who wasn’t her fiancé. He remained silent, gazing at her. His silence forced her to acknowledge that, in fact, she did want to answer the questions he was too polite to ask. Something in his piercing gaze, something in the angle of his head and the set of his jaw and those strong, rugged hands of his, hands that just that morning had lifted her off the beach and into his world, compelled her to open up to him. “My fiancé can be kind of…domineering. That was who I was talking to when you showed up at the Ocean Bluff Inn. And he was…well, being domineering. It ticked me off. So I removed my ring.” It doesn’t mean I broke off the engagement, she wanted to say. But the words wouldn’t come. “You must feel ten pounds lighter,” Nick joked. Despite the fury inside her when she thought about Peter’s imperious attitude, his judgmentalism and his downright bossiness, she laughed. “It’s a silly ring, isn’t it.” “Silly isn’t the word I’d use for it. That ring could pay for my after-school tutoring and rec programs for a year.” “Well, it’s much bigger than anything I would have picked out. But Peter didn’t want me to pick it out. He likes to make the big decisions.” And even the smaller decisions, she thought indignantly. Like when she should go back to Boston. And how she should eat lobster. Nick tilted his head slightly, as if viewing her at a different angle might clarify things for him. “You don’t strike me as the sort of person who wants other people making big decisions for you.” “I make my own decisions,” she said. “It’s just…” She sighed, nudged back her plate, and took a sip of beer. “Peter and I have been together forever. We grew up together. Our parents are close friends. I know the way he can be.” “Generous to a fault,” Nick joked, flicking his fingers at her naked left hand, where her too-generous ring should have been. She laughed, then faltered. Peter could be generous, and he could also be mean, especially when he didn’t get his way. She had learned, after the many years they’d known each other, that life was a lot easier if she simply let him get his way—or at least believe he was getting his way—most of the time. That understanding stirred a mix of emotions inside her, worry and anger and guilt. “I shouldn’t talk about him behind his back,” she said. “It seems disloyal.” “When is the wedding going to happen?” Never. The word rose up into her mouth like a neat, round bubble, just waiting to pop. Startled, she swallowed, forcing the bubble back down. Of course she was going to marry Peter. They were planning on their wedding a year from June. The families had discussed it. Everyone had cleared their calendars and worked out their schedules. An engagement announcement had run in the Boston Globe. All she and Peter had to do was reserve a venue—if they could agree on one. She realized Nick was waiting for a response. He appeared curious and probing, as if he could see more than she wished to reveal. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “We haven’t set a date yet.” Feeling even more uneasy, she plunged her hands into her lap, as if that would make her less keenly aware of her ringless finger. “What can you tell me about the jukebox?” He gazed at her for a moment longer, then accepted her change of subject with a crooked smile. “At the Faulk Street Tavern?” She nodded. “It’s been there forever. Some people think it’s magic.” “I don’t believe in magic,” she said, wishing she sounded more certain. “I don’t either.” He shrugged. “They say it tells people what they need to hear.” Apparently Augusta had told him the same thing she’d told Diana. Or else the legend of the jukebox was beyond Augusta’s control, and everyone in Brogan’s Point knew about it. “Did any of the other people in the bar need to hear David Bowie on Saturday night?” she wondered aloud. Perhaps Peter should have listened more closely to the song. It wouldn’t hurt him to change his overweening attitude and become more open-minded. But he hadn’t seemed to be paying attention to the music that night, any more than Diana had paid attention to the other songs the jukebox had played. She couldn’t even remember what they were. She just remembered people singing along, and then filling the dance floor at the center of the room, and then…Changes. Nick drank some beer, his eyes never leaving her. “Here’s the way I understand it—and again, this assumes you believe in magic and all that. The jukebox plays a song that someone in the bar needs to hear, and that person hears it in some special way. They know the song is sending a message to them. That’s what I’ve been told, anyway.” “And you don’t believe that?” He shrugged again. “Magic? I don’t think so.” “But that song, ‘Changes’—it was talking to us, wasn’t it? You sang it to me this morning at the beach.” He opened his mouth and then shut it. Magic or not, he seemed to acknowledge that the song had connected them somehow. “Maybe it just happened to play when I was in a reflective mood on Saturday night. I can’t really think of much in my life that needs changing. Nothing important, anyway. I’m happy. Life is good.” “You told me you were pissed off, and you thought seeing me would cheer you up.” “It did. It does.” “But you were pissed off.” “That was about…someone else. Someone I can’t change. I can only change myself—if I need to change. Which I don’t.” She was tempted to quote the Shakespeare line about protesting too much. “Who’s the someone else?” she asked, figuring she deserved to know as much about him as he knew about her. “Have you got a fiancée, too?” He snorted, then shook his head. “No fiancée. I was pissed off at my mother.” She smiled. “Forgive her. Mothers can’t help but piss us off sometimes. I’m sure your mother loves you.” “I’m not,” he retorted, then shook his head. His voice was gentle even though his eyes were hard and cold when he added, “Forget it. It’s not worth talking about.” That alone convinced her his problem with his mother was worth talking about. But she wouldn’t pry. It wasn’t her business. The waitress appeared at their table. She handed them foil-wrapped wet-wipes and stacked their dishes, somehow managing not to spill the precariously balanced pieces of empty lobster shell piled on their plates. “You folks want any dessert?” she asked. Diana had devoured an entire lobster and more French fries than she should have. “I’m full,” she said. “Just the check,” Nick said. “My treat?” she asked. She earned a good living, and she believed in equality. It irritated her that Peter would never let her pay for their dates, even though once they got married his money would be hers and her money his. “The man pays,” he would declare, as if it were one of the Ten Commandments, whenever she pulled out her wallet at a restaurant. She hoped Nick wasn’t that rigid. More important, she hoped he understood that this wasn’t a date. “Next time,” he said, implying that he was indeed more open-minded than Peter—and also implying that there would be a next time. She should have been concerned. Maybe she should have spelled out that, the absence of her ring notwithstanding, she was engaged to Peter, and any encounters she had with Nick had to take that fact into account. But she was too pleased, too wickedly, inappropriately thrilled by the thought of a next time with him, to say anything. Once the bill was settled, they left the restaurant. Night surrounded them, cool and dark. Lights along the wharf etched the sailing boats in silhouette. The clang of chains and metal hooks against masts sounded like bells as the boats bobbed in the water. The sea air had a briny scent, salty and lush. “Boston Harbor doesn’t smell like this,” she pointed out. “That’s a harbor. This is the ocean.” He folded his hand around hers and headed toward the wharf. Once again, she thought about saying something, reminding them both that his holding her hand implied nothing, that they were only friends, could never be more than friends… Except that deep inside her, she didn’t believe that. She didn’t believe his holding her hand implied nothing. She didn’t believe they were only friends. Did this mean she was turning to face the strange? Did it mean she was changing? They strolled in silence to the end of the wharf, where the breeze was stronger, the ocean’s fragrance thicker. Her hair tangled in the gusts and he shifted slightly, angling her so the wind would blow her hair away from her face. When one thick lock snagged on her nose, he caught it and brushed it back, tucking it behind her ear. Her ear tingled. Her scalp. Her hand, enveloped in his. Her entire body. The wind was chilly but she was warm. Too warm. She shouldn’t be feeling this way, not about Nick Fiore. She should say something, tell him not to pivot to face her, tell him not to give her hand a quiet tug, pulling her closer to him. Tell him not to lean in, not to lower his head until his lips were a breath away from hers, then less than a breath away. Then touching hers. She should say no. But her mind scrambled. Her heart pounded. Her soul said yes. She reached up with her free hand, steadying herself as the heat of his mouth on hers caused her legs to weaken and sway. She might have been standing on one of the boats rather than the dock; the earth seemed to rock beneath her feet. But Nick was solid and secure. The world could be churning with wild waves, hurricane tides, whitecaps and undertows, but as long as she clung to him, she would be safe. Through the worn leather of his jacket she could feel the firm bone and muscle of his shoulder. The tips of his hair grazed her knuckles, cool and silky. He slid his arm around her waist, embracing her as if he knew she needed protection from the storm, as if he feared that one powerful wave might sweep over them and carry her off. It occurred to her that he wasn’t the solid ground she was counting on. He was the powerful wave, carrying her off. He was the storm, surging around her, inside her. His mouth clung, coaxed and conquered. When her lips parted in a faint moan, his tongue stole inside, claiming her. She’d never experienced anything like this before. She’d kissed, of course, and been kissed, but she’d never been so totally, utterly turned on by a single kiss. Her brain tried to inject some rationality into the moment. You hardly know him. He’s a stranger. This is wrong. You’re engaged. No. It was right. Maybe later, when she thought about it, she’d decide it was wrong. But at that instant, standing on the wharf with Nick, his arms holding her, drawing her against him, the warmth of him enveloping her as the heat of his kiss burned through her body and deep into her soul… Nothing in her life had ever felt more right. Chapter Six Holy shit. He shouldn’t have started this kiss—but now that he had, he couldn’t stop it. She tasted so good, so sweet, better than any dessert they might have ordered at the Lobster Shack. Better than any woman he’d ever kissed before. One kiss, and he was rock-hard. It took all his willpower to keep from arching his hips into her, letting his body find the heat of hers. He didn’t have any willpower left to stop kissing her. So he didn’t stop. He tasted, sipped, nibbled, nipped. He ran his hand up her spine to the nape of her neck and dug his fingers deep into her hair. He’d wanted to touch her hair the moment he’d seen her at the Faulk Street Tavern Saturday night, the moment the song had started to play and his gaze had met hers. He’d imagined her hair feeling like honey, because it was the color of honey. But of course it didn’t. It felt like strands of satin. Her hair was amazing, but so was the rest of her. He knew she was slim—he’d easily lifted her over the retaining wall that morning—but wrapping his arms around her informed him of how slender her waist was. He remembered how tempting her ass had looked in her stretch-fabric running pants, and he decided that, as soft and seductive as her hair was, he needed to explore more of her. He ran one hand down her spine to the small of her back, then lower, cupping one tight, round cheek. Mistake. He’d thought he couldn’t get any harder. That one touch proved that he could. She made a tiny sound—a sigh, a groan, a feline purr. God, he wanted her. All of her. All night long. “Come home with me,” he whispered against her mouth, trying to remember when he’d last laundered his sheets. If she was half as crazed with lust as he was, she wouldn’t notice the sheets. She definitely wouldn’t notice the dingy shower curtain. “I can’t,” she murmured. He could practically hear tears in her voice. He could practically feel them in his eyes. Not because she was denying him what he craved, but because she was reminding him of everything that was impossible about this, about them, about letting one blazing kiss lead them where they both wanted to go. Maybe she didn’t want to go there as desperately as he did. Christ, maybe she was kissing him only to get back at her domineering fiancé. The guy had pissed her off, so now she was extracting her revenge by tangling tongues with Nick. It was possible. Slowly, reluctantly, he loosened his hold on her. The fingers that had arched so naturally around her butt now curled into a fist as he let his hand drop to his side. She lowered her eyes. Her lips were swollen, glistening with moisture. I did that, he thought with a combination of satisfaction and irritation. He’d kissed her—and himself—senseless, and now she was saying no, and he was… Pissed off didn’t come close to what he was feeling. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled. “Yeah.” Her gaze shot up to his face. She appeared startled by his anger. Wasn’t she as frustrated as he was? Wasn’t she as exasperated that the domineering fiancé, the asshole whose ring she’d deliberately removed, was preventing them from going the distance? Or was she just playing Nick, fooling around a little before she put her ring back on and became the dutiful bride-to-be? Instead of firing back at him, she brought her hand to his face and caressed his cheek. Her fingers felt cool against his skin, which was practically steaming from the lust burning inside him—and her touch was so gentle, her expression softening from surprise to wistfulness, that he felt his fury drain away. “Nick,” she said. He waited, watching her, wishing she would keep her hand pressed to his face forever. Or else press it to his throat, his chest, his dick. “I can’t start something with you when I’m engaged to someone else.” Something? Were they pursuing something? He’d thought they were just going for a hook-up. No complications. No meaning attached to it. No thinking allowed. Which was ridiculous, and wrong. Casual hook-ups had been fine when he’d been younger, but he was thirty now. He liked to know the woman he was making love to. He liked waking up with a woman as much as he liked sleeping with her. Diana was right. This was something. Damned if he knew what. But whatever it was, he couldn’t just blow through it, have some fun and move on. And if it wasn’t a casual hook-up, if it was something… Well, there was a fiancé in the picture. Nick might not be the noblest guy in the world, but he didn’t make a habit of fooling around with women who were publicly attached to other guys. He had at least that much integrity. “Sorry,” he said, apologizing for having forgotten the existence of her fiancé when he’d kissed her, and ruing the fact itself. Yes, he was sorry she was engaged. If she weren’t, they might be in his car right now, speeding back to his house, him flooring the gas pedal and her running her hand up and down his inner thigh. “I have to work this out,” she said. “I have to…I don’t know, try to make some sense of everything.” By the time she made sense of everything, she’d probably be back in Boston, with her antiques and her family and her fiancé’s family. And her fiancé. It would probably be for the best, too, Nick thought, although his body wasn’t convinced. Just looking at her gave him a hard-on. Remembering how she’d felt in his arms, her hair spilling through his fingers, her lithe body pressed to his, made him think that her refusal to go home with him was not even remotely for the best. They walked side by side up the wharf to the parking lot by the Lobster Shack, no longer holding hands. Neither spoke. Diana seemed lost in thought, and Nick wouldn’t have been able to string three words together if he’d tried. His mind was as dense as shoreline fog. Only one word managed to break through the thick, gray mist: Sorry. Sorry, sorry, sorry. The drive back to the inn passed without conversation. She sat next to him, her face pinched, her arms wrapped around her middle in a self-protective hug. He thought about turning on the radio, but while a dose of loud, clashing rock would give his brain a needed jolt, it would probably scare her. Even worse, he might turn on the radio and hear David Bowie singing that freaking song. There was nothing wrong with the song. He couldn’t blame it for what had happened between him and Diana. What should have happened. What wasn’t happening. Not a word shattered the silence until he eased the car to a halt in front of the inn’s broad porch. Only then did she speak: “I’ll see myself in, thanks.” Apparently she took him for a gentleman, assuming he would have gotten out of the car, opened her door for her, and walked her up the steps to the porch and inside. He wasn’t always the epitome of courtesy. With Diana, he would have been. But she didn’t want him to be. She unfastened her seatbelt and turned to him, once again wistful, her eyes shimmering in the gloom of the car’s interior, her lips still rosy, still way too tempting. The word sorry was replaced in his mind by the word desire. And then the word hopeless. “I have to think,” she said, as if that explained everything. He nodded. He wasn’t going to say desire or hopeless. And he sure as hell wasn’t going to say sorry. He’d already said that. It wasn’t worth repeating. He waited to start the engine until she was safely inside the building, the heavy front door swinging shut behind her. Then he coasted down the driveway, back out to Atlantic Avenue, and a couple of blocks south to Faulk Street. On a Monday night, the bar wasn’t that crowded. The place was busy enough for Gus to earn a nice profit, but not packed the way it had been on Saturday night. A slow song he didn’t recognize, layered with syrupy violins and soulful singing, filled the air, and several couples rocked back and forth on the dance floor, arms wrapped around each other, feet barely moving. Lucky people, he thought. They were holding their lovers, rubbing body parts, getting it on as much as it was possible to do while fully clothed and in a public place. He crossed directly to the bar. Gus was pouring something pale and frothy from a blender pitcher into a bowl-shaped glass. She handed it to a waitress, then acknowledged Nick with a squint and a pointed critique: “You look like hell.” One thing about Gus: she didn’t mince words. “Thanks. I wish I could say the same about you.” She smiled. “Bad night, huh. What can I get you?” He wasn’t sure. He’d had a beer with dinner, but he could manage another drink without jeopardizing his driving skills. He eyed the whisky bottles arrayed along the mirrored wall behind her. “He’ll have coffee,” Ed Nolan’s voice reached him from behind. If it were any other cop, Nick would have figured the guy was intervening because Nick was acting dull and dazed. But Nick didn’t have a buzz on—what was the opposite of a buzz? Was it possible to be too sober? And Ed Nolan knew Nick as well as Nick knew himself. Ed knew what Nick could handle, what he couldn’t, what he needed. He wasn’t sure he needed coffee, but he probably needed Ed. “Two decafs,” Ed told Gus. “This boy looks shit-faced.” “I’m not drunk,” Nick said. “I didn’t say you were.” He took the two steaming mugs from Gus and beckoned Nick to follow him. They settled into an empty booth just steps from the jukebox. If Nick had been thinking more clearly, he would have grabbed the banquette that faced away from the jukebox. But Ed took that seat and Nick wound up with a clear view of it, its peacock decoration glowing, its glossy veneer reflecting golden light from the ceiling lamps. He steered his vision to Ed. Tall and broad-shouldered, Ed Nolan projected strength and vigor, even though he was closing in on his sixtieth birthday. He had a square face, blunt features and a thick head of slate-gray hair. Ed was as close to a father as Nick had ever had. Nick was as close to a son as Ed had ever had. Ed’s daughter was somewhere out west, San Francisco or Seattle, drifting around, selling jewelry at craft fairs or something. His wife had died when Maeve had been a teenager, and she hadn’t taken it well. Ed knew a thing or two about screwed-up teenagers. “Drink,” he said, nudging one of the mugs closer to Nick. “You heard what I said to Gus. It’s decaf. It won’t keep you up all night.” The coffee wouldn’t. Memories of kissing Diana would. Nick drank. The coffee was scalding and bitter, the exact opposite of Diana’s sweet, soft lips. “So,” Ed said, cupping his beefy hands around his own mug. “What truck ran you over?” Although he’d lived in Brogan’s Point for years, he still talked like a kid from Revere, the proudly working-class town abutting Boston to the north. Ask Ed where he grew up, and he’d say, “Ra-vee-ah.” “A truck named Diana Simms,” Nick told him. Frowning, Ed rummaged through his memory and came up empty. “She from around here?” “She’s from Boston. Staying at the OB Inn.” “Nick, Nick, Nick.” Ed shook his head and clicked his tongue. “You’re messing around with tourists?” “I’m not messing around with her.” Unfortunately, he added silently. “It’s that damned jukebox. She and her boyfriend were here Saturday night. So was I. The jukebox played ‘Changes’ by David Bowie. Nothing’s been the same since then.” “Her boyfriend?” “Her fiancé,” Nick said grimly. A normal person, someone who wasn’t devoted to Gus, someone who didn’t live in Brogan’s Point and hadn’t heard about the legendary powers of the jukebox, would have told him to forget about Diana, take a cold shower and get on with his life. But Ed wasn’t normal, at least not by that definition. “Are you sure the song wasn’t for her and the fiancé?” “I’m not sure about anything,” Nick conceded. “But I think she’s sure it wasn’t for her and the fiancé. She sent him packing and stopped wearing her engagement ring.” At least for tonight. Tomorrow it might be sparkling above her ring-finger knuckle once more. “What is it about that frickin’ jukebox, anyway? Everybody else was dancing and drinking and having fun while that song played. Me, I felt like I was drugged or something. I couldn’t move. I could only stare across the room at her. And she could only stare across the room at me.” “Who knows?” Ed shrugged. “The jukebox has never spoken to me, not like that.” “It didn’t speak,” Nick muttered. “It sang.” “The way Gus explains it, it only speaks to someone who needs to hear what it’s saying. Maybe you need to make some changes.” “I thought of that,” Nick said. “But I don’t know what I should change. I’m in a good place right now. Work is good. My friends are good. No complaints.” He drank some more coffee. “Maybe she needs to make some changes. The whole fiancé thing. Maybe she shouldn’t marry him.” “You’d like that?” Nick opened his mouth and then closed it. Sure, he’d like her not to be engaged. If she hadn’t been engaged, they could have been at his house right now, in his bed, trying out every position he knew. But Ed was asking something more. “I hardly know her,” he admitted. “Would I want to be her fiancé? Hell, I don’t know. Is she desperate to get married? I don’t know. She’s a city girl. She buys and sells antiques. What do I know about antiques?” “You drive one,” Ed joked. Nick indulged him with a smile, then grew solemn again. “I don’t know what I want—except her. I want her.” “Maybe what the song was telling you was that if you want to get her, you have to change.” “Change what?” Nick leaned back in his chair and spread his arms wide, as if to say, I’m perfect the way I am. Ed shrugged again. “Court her. Let her know you’re serious. Let her know you. I don’t suppose you told her about your background.” He sighed. “Yeah, right. I’m going to tell a classy antiques dealer from Boston about that.” Ed tipped his head and raised his bushy gray eyebrows, as if to say, Why not? Here was why not: because a woman like her wouldn’t want anything to do with a guy who’d been convicted of attempted murder, who’d wound up in the justice system, who’d been shipped off to juvie detention until he’d aged out. Who’d been rescued by a good-hearted cop, someone who’d believed him even if the judge hadn’t, someone who’d helped him get scholarships and loans to attend UMass and then to earn a master’s degree in social work. Someone who’d helped him establish a position in town as a youth counselor, offering guidance and support to kids as screwed up as himself, rescuing them the way Ed had rescued him. Diana came from the kind of world where a ring with a diamond that took up half her finger was considered “silly.” A world where antiques were bought and sold, not driven. “I remember a time,” Ed said, “when you decided you couldn’t hack college. Somewhere in the middle of your sophomore year, I think. You were holding down two jobs, you were drinking a lot—” “Not that much,” Nick objected. “Enough to cause problems. Your course work was challenging. You felt alienated from your classmates—all those nice kids whose only run-ins with the law were speeding tickets. You called me up and said you were dropping out, you didn’t belong there, you couldn’t do it. Remember that?” Unfortunately, Nick did. “I’d drunk too much that night.” “And a hell of a lot of other nights,” Ed needled him. “Do you remember what I told you?” Nick sighed. “Something wise, I’m sure.” “I told you that if you wanted something, you had to go after it. You had to fight for it—even if that sometimes meant you had to fight yourself. You wanted that degree, Nick. You wanted to prove something—to yourself and to the world. You wanted to overcome the shit you’d been through. You wanted to transcend it. So you fought. You fought all the obstacles and you fought yourself, and you got the degree.” “I kept drinking.” “Saturday nights, maybe. Not weeknights.” Nick sighed again. “Getting my degree was a valid goal. Nailing a pretty antiques dealer who’s engaged to someone else? I’m not sure that’s worth fighting for.” “You don’t want to nail her, Nick. You want to have her.” “Christ. When did you turn into Yoda?” “I’ve always been Yoda,” Ed joked. “You want her? Fight for her.” Chapter Seven “James?” Diana sat inside the rental car, staring through the windshield at the compact Cape-Cod style house sitting squarely on a scraggly lawn that showed no signs of spring revival. The house’s roof sagged slightly, its clapboard siding was in desperate need of fresh paint, and the asphalt driveway leading to its one-car garage rippled with cold heaves and cracks. Diana had just emerged from the house, raced to her car and punched in her boss’s number on her cell phone. Her heart thumped with excitement. Another find. Another score—or it would be another score if James gave her his approval. “Don’t tell me you found some more Tiffany lamps,” he said. “Even better. The concierge at the inn where I’m staying told me about a friend of hers whose grandmother had recently died, and the friend was planning to empty her grandmother’s house so she could sell it. She’s got a liquidator coming in on Saturday. But Claudia—the concierge—gave me her friend’s number and said I should see if she’d let me look around first. If we come up with a better bid than the liquidator, she’ll cancel that Saturday appointment and let us clean the place out, instead.” “And we would do that because…?” “It’s like a pirate’s treasure chest, James. There’s plenty of junk, but…my God. It’s amazing! The grandmother was a packrat.” “A hoarder?” Diana could practically hear him grimacing and shuddering through her cell phone. “We don’t deal in old newspapers.” “No old newspapers. But lots of rare books in mint condition. She’s got this amazing Stickley oak sideboard. A gorgeous roll-top desk with a patent and date stamped in it—1878—in excellent condition. There’s a crank gramophone that actually works, with a gorgeous morning-glory horn. She’s got a collection of music boxes to die for—and they all work, too. A couple of rugs—I think they were Turkish, but Eugene would have to appraise them. Oh, and a mirrored vanity table…” She sighed. She’d loved that vanity table. She’d imagined herself sitting on the tufted satin stool, gazing into the triptych mirror, grooming her hair with the sterling-silver-handled hairbrush sitting on the marble-topped table and then spritzing some perfume behind her ears from the cut-crystal atomizer next to the hairbrush. “James, we have to make a bid on this.” “The whole lot?” “I know, that sounds kind of crazy. But I’m telling you—this is a phenomenal find. Even if we had to toss half of what we got, we’d make a mint on the other half.” “I don’t like to buy entire lots, Diana. We’re not liquidators. We’ve built a reputation on our selectivity—” Diana didn’t make a habit of interrupting her boss. He was revered among antique dealers throughout the country. He often appeared on TV shows, sharing his expertise. He had hired Diana shortly after she’d graduated from college, at least in part because her parents and grandparents had purchased more than a few big-ticket items from Shomback-Sawyer over the years, and he’d trained her. He’d sent her to seminars. He’d brought her along with him to estate sales. Five years after joining his staff, she still had a great deal to learn, and she made it her practice to keep her mouth shut and absorb his wisdom, not to question him. But this time, this house… She just knew that if James was with her, he’d be bidding on the whole thing, if only to get his hands on that sideboard. And the gramophone. And the vanity. “Lenore—that’s the granddaughter—wants the entire house cleared out,” Diana explained to James. “Everything has to go so she can sell the place. She’s on a tight schedule. There must be at least fifty thousand dollars’ worth of antiques here, probably closer to six figures. She said the liquidator offered her eight thousand for everything. He’s not an antiques dealer. He has no idea what she’s got.” James said nothing. Diana wasn’t sure if his silence was a result of his crunching numbers or keeling over in shock. “We could easily get it for twelve grand plus moving costs,” she said. “Maybe even less. But we have to act fast.” “You ran that number past her? Twelve thousand dollars?” “No, but she seemed to think getting eight thousand was a good deal. Why would she object to getting fifty percent more?” James sighed. “This is not like you, Diana.” “What’s not like me?” she asked hesitantly. Was he going to chew her out? Fire her? “Sounding so…so sure of yourself. So confident.” She allowed herself a small laugh. “Well, I am confident about this. We shouldn’t let this opportunity pass us by.” Another sigh. “Where are you now?” “Parked at the curb in front of the house.” James fell silent again. This time she could hear a faint tapping through her phone. He must be running figures on his calculator. “We’d have to secure the truck, make sure we have room in the warehouse... I’ll need a little time to work out the logistics. Do you think your eager heiress can wait a few minutes?” Diana felt the tension ebb from her shoulders. Not only wasn’t James firing her, but he actually seemed persuaded. Her uncharacteristic confidence had won him over. “A few minutes, sure,” she said. “Not a few hours.” “A few minutes. And this house is where? New Hampshire?” “I’m just south of the state line, in Massachusetts. A few miles north of Brogan’s Point,” she told her boss. “Brogan’s Point. The antiques capital of the world,” he said, his voice tinged with sarcasm. “Who would have thought?” “I’ve made some lucky finds, that’s all,” she said modestly. Just because he wasn’t firing her didn’t mean she ought to brag that stumbling upon two fantastic deals in as many days had been due to her superior skill rather than a stroke—or two strokes—of luck. Luck was a huge part of it. So was the fact that she was exploring a region Shomback-Sawyer rarely visited. The firm tended to track estate sales closer to the city, and to rely on tips from colleagues and past customers. Diana was checking out collections that would have fallen under Shomback-Sawyer’s radar. She was alert and observant, and she trusted her instincts. She was confident. “Next thing I know, you’re going to suggest that we open an office up on Cape Ann so you can keep scouring the area for new finds. All right, let me see what I can work out. I’ll call you back as soon as I can.” Diana said goodbye and thumbed the icon to end the call. She didn’t want to consider how much the idea of opening an office in Brogan’s Point appealed to her. She knew James had been joking when he’d suggested it. Brogan Point was barely an hour’s drive north of Boston. Shomback-Sawyer didn’t need an outpost here. Besides, she reminded herself, she liked living in the city. She’d grown up in Brookline, the sprawling urban town that shared more than half of its border with Boston. She’d been riding the T all her life, visiting the Museum of Fine Arts by herself from the time she was ten years old, shopping on Newberry Street by the time she was fifteen, and attending Red Sox games at Fenway Park for as long as she could remember. Currently, she rented a lovely flat in the South End. Peter resided in a charming, and much larger, place in Back Bay, but Diana had insisted that they maintain separate residences until they got married. She loved the South End—the restaurants, the boutiques, the humming energy of the city. Didn’t she? In Boston, she couldn’t jog on the beach. In fact, she rarely jogged outdoors in the city because there was too much traffic. Instead, she ran on a treadmill in a fitness center down the block from her apartment, where membership cost her $500 a year. And at night, even with her windows closed, the city’s noise seeped into her bedroom. She never had the pleasure of being blanketed in silence when she slept, because silence didn’t exist in a city. There were always car engines, horns, dogs barking, distant sirens, the ranting of some inebriated person staggering down the street at two in the morning. Nighttime in Boston was nothing like the tranquility of Brogan’s Point. Diana slept more deeply in her broad, cozy bed at the Ocean Bluff Inn, where the only sound was the faint whisper of waves rolling onto the shore a few hundred feet from her window, than she ever did in Boston. She woke up better rested, her mind sharper, her nerves absorbing everything around her with a sensitivity usually dulled by the city’s clamor and clutter. God help her, she liked living here. Visiting here, she silently amended. She was only visiting, not living. Her fondness for Brogan’s Point had nothing to do with Nick, she assured herself. She hadn’t even seen him today. He hadn’t been standing by the retaining wall with his morning coffee when she’d jogged along the beach—she’d been watching for him and she hadn’t seen him. Which was a good thing, she reminded herself. If she’d seen him, she might have done something crazy, like fling herself at him and resume kissing him, picking up where they’d left off last night. Where she’d left off. She’d ended the kiss because she had to. She couldn’t pursue anything with him until she’d sorted out her feelings about Peter. She also couldn’t pursue anything with Nick because, for all she knew, there was nothing to pursue. He was a sexy dude willing to enjoy a no-strings fling with a tourist. He was a local boy looking for fun. He was… She didn’t know what he was. She knew pathetically little about him. At the moment, she felt as if she knew pathetically little about herself, too. Her emotions were more turbulent than the ocean during a storm, a churn of whitecaps and undertows and whipping winds. She had no idea what she wanted…other than Nick. She knew she wanted him. Her phone vibrated in her hand, and she acknowledged that she wanted something else, as well: James’s approval, so she could negotiate with Lenore for the right to haul away the cornucopia of gems and junk inside her late grandmother’s house. Nick might be a fantasy, a dangerously alluring bit of flotsam the stormy sea had tossed at her feet. But the contents of the aging house at the end of the crumbling driveway were real. The profit possibilities were stupefying. The sheer joy of stumbling upon so many precious pieces, so many amusing curiosities, so much intriguing history was immeasurable. And the confidence—the understanding that she was ready to start making deals on her own, that she could assess merchandise accurately and take responsibility for bringing it to the firm—yes, she wanted that. “Our inventory is low after the holiday shopping sprees,” James informed her. “We’ve got space in the warehouse. If we can move everything in one full-size van, we can schedule a pick-up for Thursday. But if this turns out to be a bomb, and all these fabulous pieces turn out to be junk, it’s coming out of your hide.” “Fair enough,” she said, then mouthed the word confidence. “As long as I get a bonus if all these fabulous pieces turn out to be treasures.” “I hope you’re right.” Again James paused, as if choosing his words with great care. “You’ve changed Diana.” “For the better, I hope.” The David Bowie song echoed faintly in her mind. “I’m going to give the woman an offer she can’t refuse. And I’m going to earn that bonus. Because you know what? I am right.” *** Lenore had been thrilled to accept Diana’s offer of ten thousand dollars for everything in her grandmother’s house. Diana wrote up an agreement and promised to call as soon as the moving van had been scheduled. Once she and Lenore had shaken hands, she climbed back into the rental car and drove to the inn, humming “Changes.” Had she changed? What, besides confidence, had James heard in her words, in her voice? Could he tell, just from talking to her, that last night she’d experienced the hottest, wildest, most arousing kiss in her life? No. That was not the sort of thing a person could detect in a voice. She was pretty sure they couldn’t, anyway. She warned herself not to think about Nick, his kiss, and the way she’d felt in his arms. She couldn’t think about it while she still had the engagement ring Peter had given her, stashed inside her rolled socks in a dresser drawer at the inn. Peter. Surely she loved him. She’d agreed to marry him, hadn’t she? Just because Nick Fiore had bewitched her with a kiss didn’t mean she should throw away everything she and Peter had. As she thought about it, though, she wasn’t quite certain she’d ever really agreed to marry him. That they would get married had always just been a foregone conclusion. Her parents and Peter’s had been close friends for years, and when Peter and Diana had been born, their parents had begun planning. Like royalty, they’d plotted the merging of their two families when Diana and Peter had been toddlers splashing each other in the wading pool in the backyard of Peter’s parents’ grand brick mansion. When Diana and Peter had reached primary school—the stage at which boys and girls generally loathed members of the opposite sex—their parents had blithely ignored their squabbling and bragged about the magnificent grandchildren Diana and Peter would someday produce for them. They’d sent Diana and Peter to the same prep school, where somehow Diana and Peter had drifted from antagonists to cautious friends to a couple. She recalled Peter’s invitation to the prom when they’d been seniors: “I guess we’re going together, right?” She’d had a crush on Griffin Stanhope that year. She’d dreamed of Griffin asking her to go to the prom with him. But of course he never did. He couldn’t. Everyone knew she belonged to Peter. Everyone knew it in college, too. It was a given. A law of nature. When Peter had presented her with that gaudy diamond ring, he hadn’t asked her to marry him. He’d handed her the box and said, “Moving right along…” At the time, she’d laughed. But it hadn’t been funny. It hadn’t been the romantic proposal she’d dreamed of. No rose petals strewn across the floor. No bended knee. Not even an I love you and I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Just “Moving right along…” She’d moved right along. She hadn’t questioned any of it. Like the apprentice she’d been at Shomback-Sawyer, she’d listened and observed and done as she was told. It was what everyone expected. Diana Simms was not the sort of person who got on the phone and persuaded people to do what she wanted. Until now. Strange fascination, she thought as the song floated through her head. She was turning, and she was facing change. # The message light on her bedside phone at the inn was flashing when she entered the room. For a moment, she worried that the message was from Peter, calling to demand that she stop gallivanting around the North Shore and come back to Boston where she belonged, as he’d said yesterday. But he would have contacted her on her cell phone, not the hotel’s phone. So would James, or her parents. Or Claudia’s friend Lenore if, God forbid, she’d changed her mind about allowing Shomback-Sawyer to cart away her grandmother’s belongings. The business card Diana had left with Lenore had Diana’s cell number printed on it. She tossed her purse on the bed, reached for the phone and pressed the button for messages. “Hi,” came a man’s voice, deep and soft yet slightly gruff, like pebbles wrapped in velvet. Her memories of kissing that man came rushing back, swamping her, warming her deep inside. “I never got your phone number,” Nick’s message continued, “so I’m trying the OB number instead. I know I—we—well, whatever. I’m refereeing a b-ball game at the community center this evening. Middle school kids, but they’re pretty good. I thought you might like to see what I do for a living. At least some of what I do. The game starts at six-thirty—it’s a school night, so the kids play an early game. Anyway, I hope I’ll see you there. This is Nick, by the way.” He recited a phone number, said goodbye, and disconnected. Diana listened to the queue of instructions following his message, then pressed the button to replay it. This time, she jotted down his number, and laughed when he said, “This is Nick, by the way.” As if he’d had to identify himself. She would know his voice anywhere. Even if he’d whispered, if he’d had laryngitis, if his voice had been filtered through one of those identity-disguising machines so he came out sounding distorted, she would have known the caller was Nick. She sank onto the bed, trying to ignore the fact that the mere sound of his voice could fill her with a warmth intense enough to melt her soul—and her resistance. He’d contacted her despite her having fled from him yesterday. Had she not made herself clear? Or had he seen past her rejection and sensed that behind her words lurked a desperate yearning for him? She recalled that she hadn’t said no to him last night. She’d said, “I have to think.” He probably believed a full day of thinking was sufficient and he could approach her again. She shouldn’t go to the game. Honestly, why would anyone who wasn’t a parent of one of the players want to sit through a basketball game played by a bunch of thirteen-year-olds? What she should do, she chided herself, was put her damned ring back on her finger, call Peter and tell him she’d be back in Boston tomorrow. Or return to Boston without putting the damned ring back on. Because whenever she went home, whether it was tomorrow or next week or next year, she was going to have to confront the fact that something was changing. She was changing. She couldn’t shake the suspicion that if she tried to put the ring back on, it wouldn’t fit. Chapter Eight He must have been nuts, leaving that message for Diana. If she came to the game, he’d want her, just as much as he wanted her yesterday. If he wanted her, he was going to have to tell her the truth about himself, who he was, where he’d been and what he’d done. If she knew that ugly truth, she sure as hell wouldn’t want him. But Ed Nolan had reminded him of who he really was: a fighter. Someone who didn’t run scared. Someone who confronted his challenges and dealt with them as best he could, even if his best might get him into a shitload of trouble. What did he have to lose? If he didn’t try for Diana, he’d never have her. If he did try for her and she decided his background was too awful, he’d never have her. But there was a chance, however slim, that she’d decide that his screwed-up background was forgivable, that he had somehow redeemed himself, that an attempted murder conviction notwithstanding, he was worthy of her love. Oh, and she’d have to dump her fiancé, too. Just one more minor detail. He watched as the teams lined up, nine in red T-shirts along the bench to his left, ten in green T-shirts along the bench to his right, a mix of girls and boys. At their age—early teens—some of the girls were taller than some of the boys, and he didn’t have enough players to create an all-girl league and an all-boy league, so he’d created a single co-ed league. He coached both of these teams, which was why he had to referee the game. He couldn’t stand on the sidelines with one team or the other. He had to remain neutral. These were his kids. He worked with them in an after-school program he’d designed with the middle school. The combination of high-stakes proficiency testing and budget shortfalls had cut into the amount of physical education and recess time the students received each day, and he’d convinced the school board that any after-school program he set up needed to include physical activity for everyone, regardless of their athletic ability. At first, some of the boys balked at having to form teams with girls, and vice versa. But a grudging respect had grown among the players. Some of his girl players were pretty damned talented. Some of his boy players had more ego than athletic prowess. He divvied the teams up carefully so they’d be evenly matched. And they loved playing evening games at the community center. They felt like varsity jocks when they played there. Volunteer coaches stood with the two teams. Nick pulled a ball from the rack, bounced it twice to make sure it was fully inflated, and then crossed to the center of the court. The two tallest players joined him, and eight other players, four in red and four in green, shaped a circle around them. Nick blew his whistle and tossed the ball. The girl in red jumped higher than the boy in green, and the game got underway. Nick had to watch the game closely. He had to monitor for traveling, elbows, all manner of fouls. Some of his players were meek and clumsy. Some were almost thuggishly aggressive. His primary objectives were to make sure no one got hurt, everyone had fun, and all the players left the game feeling better about themselves than they’d felt before the tip-off. Achieving those goals demanded his full attention. But it received only ninety-nine percent of his attention. The last one percent skimmed the stands, searching. Friends, siblings, parents, a few school and community center workers sat scattered along the scuffed wooden bleachers. Not exactly a capacity crowd. If Diana came, he would see her. He did. Right after the first basket was scored, he spotted her. Not knowing any of the other people in the stands, she sat by herself, dressed in a simple beige sweater and jeans, her hair falling in tawny waves around her face, her dazzling eyes fixed on the players. A boy—Will Czerny, a brilliant kid with serious anger issues whom Nick had been working with for a year—dribbled toward him, and Diana followed the action until her gaze met Nick’s. She smiled hesitantly and fluttered her fingers in a tentative wave. That one tiny gesture infused Nick with energy. He gave a quick nod, then turned and jogged down the court, watching Will dribble past a guard and make his lay-up. Nice play, and Will hadn’t plowed anyone down en route. Nick left his whistle dangling around his neck—no need to blow it—and glanced up at the scoreboard in time to see two more points added to the red team’s score. The game went well. Only one minor flare-up occurred, between two boys Nick happened to know were good friends. He’d assigned them to separate teams because if they’d been teammates they would have combined to terrorize their opponents. On separate teams, they negated each other. He wished there had been some sort of afterschool sports program when he’d been thirteen, a place where he could have burned off his own anger by running and sweating and shooting a ball into a hoop. A place where he could have talked to an adult who had some familiarity with what was going on in Nick’s home, in his life, without telling Nick he was imagining things or warning him that as long as the violence didn’t touch him personally, it was none of his business. That was what his parents had told him, and he’d known they were lying. The violence had touched him personally, and it had been his business. He wished there had been a safe place where he could have hung out, away from his father’s temper and his mother’s passivity, a place where he would not have to be a hero—or a criminal. It was just such a haven he provided to the kids in his afterschool programs. He saw himself in some of them, and if he could keep them from being sucked into the system the way he’d been, he would consider his life well spent. The game ended with the green team winning by four points. If the game had been played on Friday, he would have packed both teams into a few cars driven by volunteers and taken everyone to the Pizza Pit for a post-game feast. But it was a school night, and the players’ parents and guardians swarmed down the rickety bleachers to collect their kids. Nick thanked the coaches and scorekeeper, gave the players a brief speech about how proud he was that they’d played clean and fair, ascertained that everyone had a ride home and reminded them to do their homework. That final remark was greeted by a chorus of good-natured groans. “Wanna tell us to brush our teeth, too?” Will hooted. “You especially,” Nick shot back. “And brush your tongue, too. It looks green.” The kids erupted in laughter and stuck their tongues out at one another for inspection. “Yours is blue!” “Yours is black!” “That’s ’cause I eat fire!” He felt Diana’s presence even without looking at her. He knew she was standing on the periphery, not wishing to intrude on his pep talk with the kids. Once they headed for the exits, he turned to her. She wasn’t wearing the diamond. Did that mean she was ready to pick up where they’d left off last night? Had she done the thinking she’d said she needed to do, decided she was done with her Boston fiancé, and come to the community center for the sole purpose of throwing herself at Nick? Nothing was ever that simple—and nothing in life had ever been handed to him. Ed was right. If he wanted Diana, he would have to fight for her. Still, the absence of her engagement ring was a good sign. “That was fun,” she said. Sure it was. Nothing more entertaining than sitting on a hard wooden bleacher and watching a group of unevenly talented tweeners playing a game of hoops that ended in a score of 43-39. Yet Diana was smiling. The past hour couldn’t have been too painful for her. “I’ve got to lock up the equipment and wash up,” he said. “Then we can grab a bite to eat, or something to drink.” “Do what you have to do,” she said. “I’ll wait.” # Fifteen minutes later, they were seated across a table from each other at the Pizza Pit, splitting a mushroom pizza. He hadn’t wanted to take her to the Faulk Street Tavern, in part because bar food wasn’t Gus’s strength and Nick was hungry, and in part because he didn’t want to risk some other song pouring out of the jukebox and snaring them in its sticky web. “So I got the go-ahead to buy the entire lot,” she was telling him. “It wasn’t just that I’d stumbled onto some real treasures in that house, but that my boss trusted me. He trusted my judgment. It was practically like getting a promotion, his letting me buy an entire lot like that. We’re going to make a really nice profit on it, even if we wind up tossing or donating half the stuff. The other half is fantastic.” Nick didn’t understand much about antiques. Yeah, his Honda Civic had more than a hundred-fifty thousand miles on it, and his house was furnished with pieces purchased at the Goodwill store. But nothing he owned, no matter how old, was worth much. Her excitement about the estate purchase she’d engineered was infectious, though. He recalled the first time he’d seen her, across the room at the Faulk Street Tavern while David Bowie crooned. Even at that distance and in the dim lighting, he’d noticed that she’d looked drawn. Beautiful but pensive, maybe a little worried. Not now. Now she glowed. “When I got your message,” she said, “I wanted to see you, to tell you about this.” “About the house full of stuff?” “About how empowered I feel. I exceeded expectations, Nick. And I love it.” Oh, man. He loved it, too. He loved her for being so excited. Not that he loved her. He just loved how psyched she was, radiant and bubbly. This wasn’t about love. Turn and face the strange… The lyric bludgeoned his brain with the force of a lead pipe, nearly flattening him. He covered by reaching for another slice of pizza. He didn’t love her. Of course he didn’t. But damn, if this—this thing was going anywhere—and who the hell knew where it was going, but if it was—he had to come clean. He had to tell her who he was. How could he, when she was so happy? Congratulations on your big score today. By the way, I was convicted of attempted murder when I was fifteen. Telling her the truth was the right thing to do. But before he could do that right thing, she started talking again. “I’m so glad you invited me to the game. In all honesty, I wasn’t going to come.” “I wouldn’t have blamed you,” he said, managing a smile. “A group of middle-school kids too short to execute a slam-dunk? Not exactly a thrill.” She smiled. “I wasn’t expecting a Celtics game. But…it wasn’t that.” She sipped from her glass of iced tea, then smiled again, a forced, feeble smile. “I phoned Peter after I got your message. My…” Her hesitation stretched into a full-fledged silence. “Your fiancé?” he guessed. She nodded. “I wanted to tell him about my coup this afternoon. I mean, he is supposed to be my fiancé. My husband-to-be. I thought, wow, I had this great day at my job. The person I should share this with is the man I’m supposed to marry, right?” Nick wasn’t enjoying the turn the conversation had taken, but he knew he had to listen. What she was saying was important. “And he just…” Her smile now seemed brave but futile, her eyes glistening with tears. “He said, ‘Well, that’s very nice, Diana. When are you coming home?’ He just dismissed the whole thing. It was like, ‘Oh, aren’t you a good little girl. Now snap out of it and get back here where you belong.’ Like he was patting me on the head and pasting a gold star next to my name.” Having never had a gold star pasted next to his name, Nick could only imagine what that was like. Flattering. Patronizing. Dismissive. “I was so excited, and he didn’t want to share my excitement with me.” She was still smiling, but the moisture in her eyes overflowed, a few stray tears trickling down her cheeks. “And I thought, well, I’ll see Nick tonight. Maybe he’ll get it. Because I just wanted to share with someone. Is that so terrible?” “No, of course not.” He longed to gather her in his arms and hold her tight, to let her rest her head on his shoulder and cry her heart out. Even if she’d be crying over her son-of-a-bitch fiancé. But she was laboring hard to conceal her distress. When she dabbed at her cheeks with one of the flimsy paper napkins the waiter had delivered with their order, she pretended she was wiping her mouth. She didn’t want comforting. She was too proud for that. “When something cool like that happens,” he said, “you want to celebrate. Celebrating alone is the pits.” “Well, I’m celebrating with you.” “I’m honored.” He hadn’t known he would say that, but it was the truth. Her tears spilled more heavily now, a trickle turning into a torrent. He handed her his napkin, because hers was sure to be saturated soon. “I’m going to break up with him,” she said. Because of Nick? Because of the fiancé’s inability to acknowledge how important her professional accomplishment today was to her? Because of the song? Because she was changing? The reason didn’t matter. She was breaking up with the bastard. And Nick was thrilled. Chapter Nine After they’d finished the pizza, he drove her back to the community center, where she’d left her car. She’d made arrangements with the rental company to drop the car off in Boston tomorrow, after which she would pick up her own car and drive it back to Brogan’s Point. She wasn’t done here, wasn’t even close to being done. She wasn’t even sure what “being done” might mean. But whatever it meant, she’d rather have her own car while she figured it out. At least she’d figured one thing out: she had to end her engagement to Peter. It wasn’t just his reaction to her big coup today that convinced her. It wasn’t his inability to enjoy a beer in a working-class bar without passing judgment on everyone and everything in the place, right down to the glassware. It wasn’t his stuffiness, his grumpiness, his arrogance. It wasn’t even Nick Fiore’s kiss. That kiss weighed heavily on her during the brief drive back to the community center. She thought it best that they not kiss again, not only because she hadn’t yet officially ended things with Peter but because if Nick kissed her, her brain would go into melt-down mode and she would be unable to think at all. And she had a lot of thinking to do. The parking lot was nearly empty, and Nick was able to pull into the vacant space next to Diana’s car. He turned off the engine and twisted in his seat to face her. “Diana—” She braced herself. How could she say no if he kissed her? How could she deny them both something she desperately wanted? But instead of leaning across the gear stick, he simply studied her. Several glaring spotlights hanging from the building’s eaves illuminated the lot. The silvery light played over his face, emphasizing its sharp lines and angles and making Diana even more aware of how profoundly dark his eyes were. “If you’re breaking your engagement because of me…” He lapsed into silence for a moment, then continued, “I feel bad about that.” She sensed a subtext in his words, but she couldn’t decipher it. Was he saying he felt bad about the possibility that he’d broken her and Peter up? Or was he warning her that even if she ended the engagement, he wasn’t about to step in and take Peter’s place? She didn’t expect him to. They were still nearly strangers. Close strangers, strangers strongly attracted to each other, but strangers nonetheless. She hadn’t grown up with Nick. She hadn’t gone to school with him, or beaten him at backgammon, or discussed politics with him. She hadn’t seen him at his worst, and he certainly hadn’t seen her at hers. “It’s not because of you,” she assured him. “It’s because…” Because she felt freer and happier and more self-assured without Peter. Because she liked not having to keep taking his emotional temperature, soothing him, making sure he was happy. Because her world seemed more spacious when he wasn’t occupying so much of it. Because she was finally listening to herself rather than to him. She couldn’t begin to explain all that to Nick. Instead, she said, “It’s because of the song.” “That’s crazy.” “I know.” She smiled. He smiled, too, and then leaned forward, as she’d expected him to earlier, and touched his lips to hers. Not a blazing kiss like the one he’d given her on the dock, but a gentle whisper of a kiss, full of promise, full of temptation. It was the sort of kiss that made her want much, much more. But first she had to sort out her life. She had to do the right thing. “I’m going to Boston tomorrow,” she said. He settled back in his seat, his expression darkening slightly. “So this is goodbye?” “No. I’ve got to be back here Thursday to oversee the packing and moving of the estate I bought.” That wasn’t the only reason she planned to return to Brogan’s Point, but to suggest more might be presumptuous. “I’m going down to Boston to meet with my boss and with…with Peter,” she said, carefully avoiding the word fiancé. She’d stopped wearing the ring, and she had to stop using that word in reference to Peter. “And then I’ll come back.” He accepted her statement in silence. Just as she didn’t want to make presumptions, he apparently didn’t want to, either. She would come back. They’d figure out their next step then. Maybe they’d return to the Faulk Street Tavern and hope for another song to emerge from the jukebox, telling them what to do. She would come back, and she’d turn to face the strange changes. A long moment passed between her and Nick. She wished he would kiss her again. She hoped he wouldn’t. He didn’t. “Thank you for inviting me to the game,” she said. “I’ll call you when I get back from Boston.” “Okay.” He managed another smile, this one tentative. He seemed as cautious as she felt, as eager and as anxious. God, she wanted to kiss him again. “Good night,” she murmured, then let herself out of his car. *** She made arrangements with the car rental company to drop off her car at one of the company’s Boston outlets, then drove south to the city, her suitcase filled with clothes for her laundry hamper and the precious, bubble-wrapped Tiffany lamps wedged into the back seat. As soon as she reached her South End building, she transferred the lamps to her own car, which she kept parked in a neighborhood garage one long block from her building, and then dropped the rental car off and settled the bill. She walked back to her building, wheeling her suitcase behind her. Lugging it up the stairs to her third-floor walk-up, she thought about how nice it had been to have Peter carry it down the stairs for her when they’d departed for Brogan’s Point last Saturday. Not nice enough to justify remaining engaged to him, though. She was strong. She could carry her own suitcase. She took a moment to appreciate the welcome familiarity of her apartment once she’d unlocked the multiple locks and let herself inside. It was small—a great room with a kitchen, a bedroom and a bathroom—but sun-filled and comfortable. She’d furnished it herself, arranging an assortment of old cast-offs from her parents that had been accumulating dust in their basement, and inexpensive new pieces she’d purchased online. Peter had groused about her having bought chintzy, do-it-yourself junk and he’d refused to help her assemble the occasional tables and breakfast bar stools. Fortunately, the instructions had been pretty straightforward, and a helpful neighbor from across the hall had let her borrow his toolbox. And somehow, by adding an interesting vase here and hanging a framed sepia photograph there, she’d managed to tie the entire room together. Even Peter had grudgingly admitted that her apartment looked good, although he never let her forget how cheap her coffee table was. She moved through the great room to the bedroom, where she emptied her suitcase into the laundry hamper and repacked the suitcase with clean garments. She paused to water the potted philodendrons along the window sill—hardy plants, they required blessedly little attention—and then left the apartment, bolting all the locks behind her. On her way down the stairs, she sighed, not from the weight of her suitcase but from the realization that Peter might never have occasion to criticize her low-priced furniture again. She rolled her suitcase down the street to the garage, locked it in the trunk of her Saab, and pointed her car toward Back Bay, where Shomback-Sawyer’s main office was located. She was able to find a parking space not too far from the front door. The lamps weighed less than her suitcase, and she didn’t have to lug them up or down a flight of stairs. She entered the showroom and headed straight for the elevator. She had phoned James Sawyer that morning before leaving Brogan’s Point, and he was expecting her. His face brightened as she swept into his office with the lamps. “Here, let me help you with that,” he said, hastening across his office and easing the carton from her hands. James was tall and thin, with a narrow face and a hooked nose. Diana thought he resembled a male version of Olive Oyl. He dressed in a prim, prissy style, favoring suspenders and bowties and wing-tipped shoes. Looking at him, and knowing he was one of the founders and named partners of a successful antiques business in an antiques-crazy city, one would never guess that he was known around town for sponsoring auctions to raise money for homeless shelters, soup kitchens and early childhood education programs. He was stern and his personality was as dry as overcooked toast, but within his bony chest he had a generous heart. He set the box down gently on his desk—a flame mahogany partner’s desk dating back to about 1920, a bit fussy for Diana’s taste but a beautiful specimen. In fact, James’s entire office was filled with beautiful, if slightly fussy, pieces: the leather wing-back chair with its lion’s-claw feet, the ornate hunt-board, the burgundy brocade drapes flanking the windows, the elaborately patterned Persian rug. James’s office décor was as fussy as he was. Today’s bowtie, Diana noted, appeared to be silk and featured a pattern of birds so closely woven together they might have been an Escher print. “Genuine Tiffany?” he asked, gingerly removing the bubble-wrap from the lamps and looking for their official stamps and numbers. “Oh, my. Very nice.” “We’ll need to have the wiring and switches checked,” Diana said. “Given how cheap the price was, I didn’t want to take the time to check that at the shop where I bought them. I just wanted to grab them and run.” “Not a problem.” He lifted one, admiring it from different angles. “Very, very nice.” “I have the documentation for the purchase,” Diana continued, pulling the receipt from her purse. Usually, James was as fussy about paperwork as about everything else. But he didn’t even glance at the slip of paper Diana handed him. He tossed it onto his desk and turned to face her. She realized with a start that his uncharacteristically glowing expression was a reaction not to the lamps but to her. “Look at you!” She did, glancing down at her jeans—clean but ordinary—and her ribbed sweater and wool jacket. Her hair was probably a bit mussed. She’d been unable to pat it into place when she’d entered the building, because she’d been burdened with the carton containing the lamps. Nor had she taken the time to apply any make-up at her apartment. It occurred to her that James might disapprove of her casual appearance. But she wasn’t planning to spend the day at the office, and he knew that. He was aware that she would be heading back to Brogan’s Point today. She needed to be there early tomorrow morning, before the truck arrived to pack up and move the contents of that humble Cape Cod house full of goodies. She lifted her gaze to James’s face and saw he was beaming. “You look so robust, Diana! So invigorated.” “Well, I’ve had a good couple of days.” She was referring to her antiques finds. Everything else about the past few days had been turbulent, to say the least. “I heard it in your voice on the phone,” James said. “And now I’m seeing it. You’ve changed.” Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes, she thought, suppressing a bemused smile. “In what way?” “I don’t know. I can’t put my finger on it. You just seem…more alive, somehow. Whatever it is, it suits you.” “Thank you.” James grinned. “So you’ll be up there tomorrow for the big move?” “Yes. I’d also like to do some more exploring in the area. I feel like there’s more to be discovered up on the North Shore. Is that okay with you?” “If your big purchase yesterday pans out, yes, of course, it’s okay with me.” Diana and James exchanged a few more pleasantries before she said goodbye and left his office. In the elevator descending to the ground floor, she allowed herself a moment to savor his approval and his compliments. Did she really look more alive? Did she feel more alive? Could a single song have made such a difference in her life? Apparently, it had. Yet her smile faded as she reflected the final stop of her trip to Boston. Peter would also notice that she’d changed, but he wouldn’t be pleased by the change. The next hour of her life was not going to be anywhere near as much fun as the past hour had been. The receptionist recognized Diana as she entered the complex of offices that housed the equity firm where Peter worked. The reception area was sleekly designed and modern, with glass walls, streamlined leather seating, and Rothko and Klee paintings on the walls. Not prints—originals. The firm was awash in money. “Hi, Diana,” the receptionist said. She was younger than Diana and model-gorgeous in a snug-fitting knit dress with an asymmetrical neckline, her make-up impeccable, every hair in place. “Is Peter expecting you?” “No,” Diana said, not bothering to add that Peter was certainly not expecting what she’d come here to tell him. The receptionist’s eyes glittered. “You’re surprising him! How nice. Let me see if he’s in his office.” She pressed one perfectly manicured hand to her temple, holding her tiny ear piece in place, and tapped a few buttons on her high-tech console. “Peter?” she murmured. “Guess who’s here? Diana!” She probably would have liked to toss a fistful of silver confetti into the air, just to celebrate this wonderful surprise. The receptionist’s joy stoked Diana’s sense of dread. This was not going to be a confetti-worthy encounter. It was going to be awful. Maybe she should leave, right now. Maybe she should rethink everything. She and Peter had been a couple forever—or at least, they’d been destined to be a couple forever. Everyone wanted it. Everyone believed they were fated to be together. But that was before Diana had heard the song. Before she had changed. The receptionist exchanged a few more words with Peter, then released her ear and smiled at Diana. “He’ll be with you shortly,” she reported. “He’s on a conference call.” If he were on a conference call, Diana thought, how could he have chatted with the receptionist? Wouldn’t his phone line be tied up? Diana suspected that he wasn’t on a conference call at all. He’d asked the receptionist to lie for him. He probably wanted Diana to cool her heels for a while before he granted her an audience with him. He was angry with her, and so be it. He was going to be a lot angrier with her once she ended their engagement. She returned the receptionist’s smile and took a seat on one of the leather sofas. Waiting for Peter to summon her gave her a chance to rethink what she was doing. Was breaking up with him a huge mistake? Was the disappointment her decision would cause her parents and Peter’s worth the satisfaction the decision gave her? Was she truly satisfied? What if she floundered on her own? What if she got lonely? What if her days in Brogan’s Point were a vacation from reality, and reality—the life she was intended to live—was here, in Boston, at Peter’s side? If ever she needed to talk to her sister, it was now. She and Serena had never been close. Serena had been the rebellious Simms daughter, the one who had never given a damn what their parents wanted. She’d dropped out of college and moved to London, where she worked as a shop clerk by day and hung out with punk rockers at night. She’d cut her hair short and spiky and gotten a tattoo of a rose on her left shoulder. Diana hadn’t seen her in a year, but Serena posted photos on her various social media pages. Viewing the pictures of Serena’s hairdo and the tat, Diana had been alternately appalled and amused. Serena had always been wild. To compensate, Diana had always been obedient. Their parents would not have survived two wayward daughters. The more defiant Serena was, the more well-behaved Diana felt she had to be. Someone had to be the good girl in the family. At times, Diana had envied Serena. How liberating it must be not to care! Yet Diana knew there were benefits to remaining in her parents’ good graces. They doted on her, praised her, made her feel loved. As a second child, the younger sister of a bold, beautiful drama queen, Diana had always felt kind of insecure and deficient. She lacked Serena’s courage and flair. She lacked her certainty. But at least she had her parents’ approval. If she broke up with Peter, she would likely sacrifice their approval. Was she ready for that? The receptionist had swiveled her chair to her computer and was busily tapping away on her keyboard. No sign of Peter. Diana pulled out her cell phone. It was evening in London, probably an hour or so past dinner. Who knew if Serena was out clubbing or at home in bed—quite possibly not alone? Diana tapped in a text: I’m breaking up with Peter. Then she hit the send button. Somehow, putting it in writing and sending it to Serena helped to solidify her decision. Another ten minutes passed. Diana checked her emails, relived her meeting with James in her mind, stared at the Rothko painting on the wall facing her and thought about how glad she was to be working with antiques rather than ugly modern art. All those slashes and blotches of black—the painting was truly depressing. Finally, the receptionist called over to her. “Peter will see you now,” she said, rising and beckoning Diana to follow her. Although Diana knew the way to Peter’s office, she also knew that no one was allowed to wander unescorted through the maze of offices where staggeringly huge financial transactions took place and rich associates grew richer. The thick carpet muffled Diana’s footsteps. She and the receptionist passed a few glass-enclosed rooms filled with busy-looking people and flickering flat-screen monitors, and finally reached Peter’s office. That he had a private office with a window so early in his career reflected his trading and management successes, as well as the simple fact that he was Peter. He got what he wanted. People deferred to him. His office door was open, and the receptionist gestured that Diana should go in. Peter was seated behind his desk, but he rose as she crossed the threshold. His expression darkened. He clearly wasn’t thrilled to see her. Or maybe his scowl wasn’t a response to seeing her. It was a response to her attire. “You’re wearing jeans,” he said. She took a second to recover. “Yes, I am.” “You look like a slob. Who wears jeans to work? Besides laborers, of course. And slobs.” Oh, for God’s sake. “No one at Shomback-Sawyer seemed to mind,” she retorted. “They’re probably just happy you’re back home, where you belong. As happy as I am,” Peter remembered to add. He circled his desk to her side and gave her a polite kiss on the cheek. “You’re all done with that Brogan’s Point nonsense, I assume. I’d like to put a deposit down on the Newport place—” “Peter.” She eased back a step and took a deep breath. “Brogan’s Point is not nonsense. And no, I don’t want you to put a deposit down on the Newport Place.” “You really like that inn better? It’s pretty, I’ll grant you that. But the town, the surrounding environment…” “Peter.” Another deep breath. “We aren’t getting married. There or in Newport, or anywhere else.” He frowned, although he looked less angry than incredulous. “Don’t be silly.” “I’m not being silly.” She dug through her purse until she found the diamond ring, carefully wrapped in a tissue. “I’ve thought long and hard about this, and I really think we should call off the wedding.” “You haven’t thought long or hard about anything. Three days ago, we were discussing menus for the reception.” She conceded silently that three days wasn’t very long. But she’d thought hard. More than thought, she’d felt. She’d listened to her gut and her heart. She couldn’t expect Peter to understand that, and she didn’t even try to explain. “I’m sorry, Peter, but…I mean, it’s not that I don’t love you. We’ve been friends forever. We’ve grown up together. But I just don’t think we should get married.” “You just don’t think at all,” he snapped. A frisson of anger shot up her spine, surprising her. She never got angry. Peter was the angry person in their relationship. She was the peacekeeper, the soother, the calmer of waters. Not at the moment. “That’s a nasty thing to say. I do think, and now I’m finally thinking about what’s right for me instead of what’s right for everyone else. Kind of a first for me, I’ll admit.” “Bullshit.” The word sounded particularly crude coming from Peter’s refined lips. “What’s right for you is to marry me, raise a family with me, live a life of ease and grace with me. What’s right for you is to fulfill your dreams—” “Your dreams, maybe. My parents’ dreams. Not mine. Do you even know what my dreams are?” “Do you?” His voice carried a sneer. More anger spun through her, fierce and electrifying. She handed him the tissue-wrapped ring and stepped toward the door. “Right now, my dream is to leave this office.” He shocked her by snagging her arm, his fingers closing around her wrist like a manacle. “Don’t you dare walk out of this office,” he said, his tone now dangerously hushed. “You can’t do this to me. To us. I love you, Diana. I’ve always been good to you—and good for you. Do not walk away from what we have.” His words touched her. Yet whatever affection and need they carried was belied by the painful grip of his hand, and by the fact that he was issuing an edict. She felt less like his equal than like a recalcitrant child about to run into the street, being held back by her father. Peter might be able to convince himself that he was denying her escape in order to save her life. But he couldn’t convince her. “Let go of me,” she said, quietly but firmly. “I don’t want you to make the biggest mistake of your life.” “That makes two of us,” she said, wriggling her arm until, at last, his fingers relented on her. She fled through the door, not looking back to see if he was following her. Outside his office, she slowed her pace from a run to a brisk walk so as not to draw attention to herself. She didn’t want to humiliate him. He could tell his colleagues that his engagement was off when he was ready to. The last thing either of them needed or wanted was a scene. She kept walking, sparing a swift nod for the receptionist before she left the office. Not until she’d stepped into the elevator and the door whisked shut did she let out a breath. She was shaking, she realized. Her vision blurred with tears, but through the blur she was able to see the red marks Peter’s hand had left on her wrist. Her purse was shaking, too—or, more accurately, vibrating. She lifted the flap and pulled out her phone. The message light blinked. She tapped the screen and a text from Serena appeared: Halleluiah! Through her tears, Diana smiled. Chapter Ten He wasn’t sure why he decided to head for the beach after work. The day had been warmer than usual, hinting at spring’s approach, but by the time he left his cramped office in the community center, the sun had set and the wind blowing off the water was blustery. He needed that blast of cold. He needed the familiar, sour scent of the ocean filling his lungs. He felt restless, anxious. Like something was about to change. Not him. He didn’t have to change. He was fine. He parked just off Atlantic Avenue, crossed the street to the retaining wall and stared out at the ocean, nearly black but tipped with lacy whitecaps that remained visible even as the daylight faded away. The salty wind tugged at his hair and filled his lungs. He’d been born into the sound of the surf pounding the shore, and the deep ocean smell. Sometimes he wondered how people who didn’t grow up near a coast could stand breathing such bland, odorless inland air. Maybe that was why he’d driven to the water’s edge—for the smell, or for the rhythmic hiss of the waves rolling in to lick the sand, or for the wind. Or for some other reason. Something had compelled him to come. The moment he spotted Diana down on the beach, he knew why he was here. She sat alone on the sand, wrapped in a coat and scarf, her knees drawn up to her chest and the sea breeze whipping her hair back from her face. He thought about shouting to her, but with the gusts blowing in from the ocean, his voice probably wouldn’t reach her. Besides, she seemed absorbed in her own thoughts. If he called to her, he’d startle her. He should leave her alone. She had said she would call him when she got back from Boston, and she hadn’t called. That meant either she wasn’t ready to talk to him yet, or she was done with him. The hell with that second possibility. He wasn’t done with her. And if she wasn’t ready to talk…he’d just sit quietly beside her, and they wouldn’t talk. He strolled to where the retaining wall ended at the jetty, picked a careful path over the rocks and down to the beach, and walked to her. She was so solitary and still, she might have been a statue. He slowed as he neared her, searching for any indication that she’d sensed his approach. But she was lost in thought, her eyes focused on the dark sky and the darker water. When he was only a few steps away from her, she turned her head and peered up at him. “Hi,” she said. Calmly, quietly, as if she’d been expecting him. He settled onto the sand next to her. “How was Boston?” he asked. “Wonderful.” She sighed. “Horrible.” Despite the rapidly fading light, he could see that her cheeks were pale and tracked with glistening streaks. She’d been crying. He guessed her trip was more horrible than wonderful. “Are you okay?” “Yes. I am. Really.” She turned back to stare at the water. “I broke up with him.” Her fiancé. Well, that was good for Nick, but maybe not for her. “I was going to phone you,” she said, speaking more to the ocean than to him. “But I didn’t want you to see me crying.” He snorted and shook his head. Was she afraid he would think less of her because she was human? Did she think he’d condemn her for having feelings, for mourning the end of something significant in her life? He looped an arm around her and she rested her head against his shoulder. He could feel more than hear her sobs, faint tremors that rippled through her body. He had no idea what to say, so he said nothing. He let her weep, let her grieve, let her lean on him. After a while, the tremors stopped. He wished he was the kind of gentleman who always carried a fresh handkerchief in his pocket so he could hand it to her. He bet her fiancé would have produced a dainty, monogrammed square of linen for her to blow her nose into. “So much for the wonderful part,” he joked. “What about the horrible part?” She managed a choked laugh. “I haven’t told my parents yet. They’re going to freak out. He’ll probably tell them before I have a chance to. He’ll probably recruit them to try to change my mind. They adore him.” “That’s their problem,” Nick said simply. She flickered a look at him, her eyes clear and wide. “You’re right.” Then she settled back against his shoulder and sighed again. “He was so angry. I hadn’t expected that. I thought he’d be upset, or maybe hurt. But all I saw was anger.” “He was probably trying to cover up the hurt,” Nick said, donning his social-worker hat. “Men don’t like anyone to see them hurt. It makes them feel vulnerable and weak. So when they’re hurt, they sometimes lash out in anger.” She mulled that possibility over, then nodded, her hair sliding against his neck with the motion of her head. “Is that what you do when you’re hurt?” she asked. “I’m never hurt,” he said, another joke. “What do you think, I’m one of those weak, vulnerable guys?” “You’re right,” she murmured. “About Peter, I mean. He was probably just hurt. I feel so bad. I never wanted to hurt him.” “Only a sociopath wants to hurt others,” Nick pointed out. “I don’t know how he usually behaves when he’s hurt—” “”The situation arises so rarely. People always let him have his own way. I guess I used to let him have his own way, too—until now. I didn’t mean to hurt him, though. That wasn’t my intention .” “Of course not.” “He’ll get over it,” she said, sounding as if she was trying to convince herself. “He’s got so much going for him. He’s smart, he’s handsome, he’s rich… Once word gets out that he’s available, women will be lining up outside his door.” “You make him sound irresistible.” Nick’s tone was light, but he felt a twinge of insecurity. What could a guy like him possibly offer a woman like Diana, who’d been engaged to such a smart, handsome, rich man? An occasional lobster dinner? A middle-school b-ball game? Some hot sex? He could certainly offer her that. “I hope someone does find him irresistible. I want him to be happy.” “How about you? Are you happy?” “Yes.” Again she sounded uncertain. “I’d be happy if I knew he was okay. And if I knew my parents would accept my decision.” She shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe they’ll be okay with it.” “They don’t have much choice,” Nick pointed out. “It’s your life.” She nestled more deeply into the curve of his arm and returned her focus to the water. The tide was coming in, the moon rising, a bright silver crescent the shape of a smile. They sat in peaceful silence for a while, listening to the waves, feeling the wind caress them. Eventually, she stirred. “How did you find me? Did you know I’d be here?” “How could I have known that? I left work and felt like coming down to the beach. I wasn’t looking for you.” He probably was, subconsciously. He’d been restless, edgy, wondering if he would ever see her again. For all he knew, she could have traveled down to Boston, seen her fiancé, and realized she really did love him, after all. The guy could have gotten appropriately excited about the big purchase she’d pulled off, and he could have swept her into his arms and charmed his way back into her good graces. He could have offered her the use of a monogrammed handkerchief, while he was at it. A lot could have happened in Boston—wonderful for Diana and horrible, or at least not so wonderful, for Nick. During his turbulent childhood and adolescence, he had always biked to the beach when he needed to decompress. His mode of transportation may have changed since he’d reached adulthood, but the beach was still his destination when he needed to calm down and regain his perspective. He hadn’t realized how much Diana’s trip to Boston and her failure to call had agitated him. Thoughts of her had been like a white noise inside his skull all day, barely perceptible but unsettling. So he’d come to the beach—and found her. And the moment he’d spotted her, the white noise had disappeared. More than the beach itself, seeing her had soothed him. “Well,” she said. “Maybe you weren’t looking for me, but you found me.” She extricated herself from his embrace and turned to face him. “You must be hungry. I think it’s my turn to treat you to dinner.” “That’s okay.” “No. I mean it. I’m hungry. Let’s get something to eat. You name the place. I’ll pay.” *** The place he named was his own house—or, more accurately, a supermarket about a mile away from his place. Diana considered eating in an excellent suggestion. She had stopped at the Ocean Bluff Inn to drop off her suitcase, but she was still dressed in her jeans, which now had grains of sand embedded in the seams despite her having vigorously dusted herself off when they’d left the beach. She was tired of eating in restaurants, being served, grazing through tasting menus. She hadn’t cooked in nearly a week, and while she wasn’t the most talented chef in the world, the thought of fixing a simple, home-cooked meal with Nick appealed to her. Suburban supermarkets were so much more spacious than the neighborhood grocery stores where she did most of her shopping in Boston. She and Nick loaded the cart with chicken, vegetables, a baguette of French bread and, at Nick’s insistence, a quart of premium vanilla fudge ice-cream. He assured her he was well stocked with everything else they could possibly need—butter, salad dressing, coffee, spices. His house was tiny. It contained a small kitchen equipped with twenty-year-old appliances and Formica-topped counters, a slightly larger living room filled with mismatched but comfortable-looking furniture, and a bathroom not much larger than a closet. Despite being ridiculously small, the bathroom was clean. “I’ve got to buy a new shower curtain,” he mumbled when he showed her the room, but she couldn’t see anything terribly wrong with the shower curtain hanging from the rod. He was a bachelor, and she doubted he was earning a six-figure salary as a social worker running programs for Brogan’s Point’s children. The house might be modest, but it suited him. She couldn’t imagine him living in an elegant apartment like Peter’s. Nick’s eclectic furnishings, the tidy stacks of books and the recently vacuumed carpet covering the living room floor indicated that he took pride in his home. On the living room walls, he’d hung a few seascape paintings. Not masterworks, nothing Diana would have encountered in her art history classes at college, but they were pretty. “All right,” she said once they’d returned to the kitchen and unloaded the groceries. “Go do something. I’ll give a holler when dinner is ready.” “Forget that. I’ll help.” “If you help, I’m not treating you to dinner.” “If I don’t help, you won’t know where to find the pots and pans.” She surveyed his kitchen. There weren’t too many places to hide pots and pans—some cabinets above the counter, some below. She’d bet the pots and pans were below. She swung open a cabinet door and found exactly what she was looking for—a roasting pan. She pulled it out and gave Nick a triumphant smile. Still, even if she didn’t need his help, she liked having his company in the cozy little kitchen. They worked side by side, seasoning the chicken, scrubbing the carrots and potatoes and broccoli, arranging everything in the roasting pan and shaking assorted spices over the whole thing. Once that was in the oven, she prepared a salad while he disappeared down a flight of stairs to the basement. He returned a minute later holding a bottle of red wine. “I don’t have any white, so I hope this will work.” “I like red,” she said, and once he’d opened the bottle, she slid the roasting pan out of the oven and added a splash of wine to the chicken. They didn’t talk much while they prepared the meal. Diana was aware of Nick watching her—not in an uncomfortable way, but more to observe what she was doing. “How much garlic powder did you put in there?” he asked. “You didn’t measure it.” “I cook by feel,” Diana told him. “My parents had a maid when I was growing up. She did a lot of the cooking. I used to help her. She never measured anything, but everything always tasted great.” “I don’t measure much when I cook, either,” he admitted, “but that’s because I don’t cook anything that needs to be measured. Spaghetti—you fill a pot with water and toss in a handful of pasta. You open a jar of sauce and pour some on top. No measurements necessary.” Diana made a face. “Homemade sauce is so easy,” she told him. “You shouldn’t be using stuff from a jar.” “Yeah. My mother—” He abruptly stopped. “Your mother…?” “Would say the same thing,” he concluded. “Fiore. I’m Italian. I ought to know how to make sauce. Gravy, she calls it.” “Your mother never taught you?” “I didn’t want to learn,” he said laconically. Diana suspected there was more to his story than simply his not wanting to learn. She opted for tact, however, and busied herself wrapping the baguette in foil to heat in the oven. But as she finished the dinner preparations, as Nick set the small butcher-block table beneath the window with carefully folded paper napkins and mismatched silverware, as she tossed the salad and he pulled two wine glasses from one of the cabinets, a thought tugged at her brain: you know nothing about this man. True, she knew some things. But she didn’t know about his mother. More important, she didn’t know why his eyes darkened with shadows when he mentioned her, why an emotional shutter seemed to slam shut inside him, barring further inquiry about the woman who’d raised him. If he were Peter, Diana would respect that locked shutter. She wouldn’t press, wouldn’t probe. Experience had taught her not to push him into places he didn’t want to go. When she did, he became cranky and mean. She had learned that it was wisest to leave certain things unspoken with him, certain questions unasked. But she was no longer Peter’s fiancée. Perhaps one reason she’d left him was that she’d finally come to realize that having to exercise so much caution around him would make for a dreary, exhausting marriage. If she was ever going to get married, it ought to be to someone with whom she could discuss anything, without hesitation or fear. Nick Fiore and marriage did not belong in the same sentence in her mind. But she was eating dinner at his house. She’d kissed him. She wanted to kiss him again. She wanted to do much more than kiss him. She ought to be able to ask him anything. No holding back. No censoring herself. She waited until they were seated at the table, they’d sipped their wine, and he’d tasted the chicken and pronounced it delicious. Then she took a deep breath, as if about to dive off a high board into a very small pool, and said, “So, you’ve got a lousy relationship with your mother?” His eyes flashed, and then he surprised her by laughing. “You could say that.” “I just did.” She laughed, too, relieved that he hadn’t blown up at her. “Where does she live?” “Here.” “Here?” Diana gazed around the kitchen, half expecting to see evidence that Nick’s mother resided in this house. “In Brogan’s Point,” he clarified. “So, you grew up right here in town?” “I did.” “And never left?” “I went to UMass for college and grad school, but other than that…” Diana shouldn’t have found that fact so amazing. She’d lived her entire life in the greater Boston area, except for a semester of college in Barcelona. She’d traveled to London twice to visit Serena, toured parts of Europe with friends, spent an idyllic week in Cozumel, but as far as actually living somewhere, Boston and Brookline were her home. But Boston was a world-class city, filled with theaters, museums, parks, universities, four-star hotels, boutiques, gourmet shops, and residents speaking dozens of languages. Brogan’s Point was a sleepy little Cape Ann hamlet. Could a person actually live his entire life here without growing bored? Evidently, yes. Nick had lived his life here, and he didn’t seem the least bit bored. “Does your father live in Brogan’s Point, too?” She sensed the shutter slamming shut once more. “No.” Don’t hold back, she ordered herself. “Your parents are divorced?” “He’s gone,” Nick said tersely. “Dead? I’m sorry.” “I…” Nick drank some wine as he sorted his thoughts. “I don’t know if he’s dead. He left town years ago. I don’t even know if my parents are legally divorced. I just know he’s gone.” “Really?” How could he not know if his parents were still married? How could he not be curious enough to find out? “It is what it is,” Nick said. “My father is out of my life. That’s all.” That certainly wasn’t all. But Diana decided to do him the kindness of dropping the subject for now. The fact that he’d told her as much as he had—even if it wasn’t much—and hadn’t lost his temper or accused her of unforgivable nosiness was a victory in itself. She’d touched some sore spots, and he didn’t seem to hate her. That alone made her want to kiss him—and more. They spent the rest of the meal talking about safe subjects. He told her about coordinating the town’s summer programs for teenagers who were too young to get full-time jobs but not too young to get into trouble if they wound up with free time on their hands and nothing productive to fill that time with. She told him about her meeting earlier that day with James Sawyer, and about her task for tomorrow: making sure the estate she’d liquidated was carefully packed and trucked to the warehouse space Shomback-Sawyer had reserved for it. She and Nick lingered at the table until the wine was gone, then cleaned up together, side by side, occasionally bumping shoulders or elbows and laughing. Nick didn’t have a dishwasher, but he had soap, a sponge and a towel, and it didn’t take long for them to get the dishes washed and stacked in the rack to dry. “Some ice-cream?” Nick offered. Diana patted her tummy. “I’m stuffed.” “There’s always room for dessert.” She grinned and shook her head. “You tried to get me to eat too much toast that morning at Riley’s, too. I think you’re trying to fatten me up.” “No,” he said. He was smiling, but his gaze was serious. “You’re perfect, just the way you are.” He’d probably intended his words as a simple compliment, nothing more. But they resonated inside her. No one had ever told her she was perfect, with good reason. She was far from perfect. Yet when she tried to recall the last time Peter had told her she looked great, or her parents had told her they were proud of her, she couldn’t think of a single instance. She worked so hard to please everyone, yet no one ever seemed quite satisfied with her. Except James Sawyer. And Nick. She was no longer going to knock herself out in the hope that the people who were supposed to love her actually did love her. If they did, they ought to love her for who she was, not for her willingness to please them. She’d heard the song. It had persuaded her to change not just her relationship status but her attitude. Her world view was changing. Her determination. Her…what was James’s word? Confidence. “I’m not perfect,” she told Nick now. But she said it with a smile, with the self-assurance that he wouldn’t try to locate her imperfections and criticize her for them. One advantage of not knowing Nick that well was that, if he did decide to harp on her flaws and weaknesses, she could walk away. They had no relationship. She was free. She didn’t have to please anyone but herself. Nick tossed the dish towel onto the counter and placed his hands on her shoulders. “You’re close enough,” he said. Was he talking about how close she was to perfection? Or how close she was to him? An arm’s length away was dangerously close. Less than an arm’s length. He stepped toward her, molded his fingers to the curves of her shoulders, bowed his head, and kissed her. Close enough, she thought as her mouth softened beneath his, as her body nestled against his, as she sank into the warmth of his kiss. She no longer had to feel guilty kissing him. She had ended things with Peter. She was unbetrothed, unattached, free. Free to return Nick’s kiss. Free to part her lips and welcome the invasion of his tongue. Free to wrap her arms around him, to feel the sleek muscles of his back through the fabric of his shirt. His tongue stroked hers, at first gently and then more hungrily. This kiss tasted better than any ice-cream Diana had ever eaten. Nick Fiore was the most delicious dessert she’d ever had. He wrapped one arm around her waist as he had the last time they’d kissed. She loved the way that made her feel, petite and possessed. He ran his other hand up her side, under her arm, forward just enough for his thumb to brush the side of her breast. She shuddered. Maybe she wasn’t free. She felt like a captive, imprisoned not by his embrace but by the lush sensations he awakened inside her. She never wanted to escape. She just wanted to keep kissing and kissing and kissing him. No, not true. She wanted much, much more than his kisses. “Make love to me,” she murmured, surprising herself. She had changed, all right. The old Diana would never have been so bold. His breath hitched. He pulled back just far enough to peer down into her face. “Are you sure?” She nodded. She’d said the words once. She wasn’t sure she had enough courage to say them again. Apparently, once was enough. He bowed and brushed her forehead with a light kiss. Then he lifted his hands to her head, digging his fingers deep into her hair on either side of her face and tilting her to receive another, deeper kiss from him. “Okay,” he whispered. Chapter Eleven He led her to his bedroom. It was, like the rest of his house, small but relatively tidy. Most of the room was taken up by his bed, which was flanked by small maple night tables. A tall chest of drawers stood in one corner. Two framed photos of what appeared to be waves crashing against a shoreline of harsh stone formations—Maine or Nova Scotia, Diana would guess—hung on the wall. A pair of sneakers lay near the closet door and a paperback edition of a John Grisham novel sat next to the lamp on one of the night tables, a scrap of paper serving as a bookmark. Diana crossed to the table and lifted the book to read its back cover copy. “Is it any good?” “I like courtroom dramas,” Nick said. “I’m afraid to get an e-reader. If I had one, I’d probably buy every legal thriller ever written.” She smiled. “If you had an e-reader, I wouldn’t have known what you were reading.” Every little bit of information she gleaned about Nick was precious. His taste in reading. His lack of discipline when it came to buying books. She could relate to that. She had several hundred books downloaded to her e-reader. It was simply too easy to click the buy button. Tonight neither she nor Nick would be reading. She lowered the book and shifted her gaze to the bed. It was neatly made, if not quite up to the standards of the Ocean Bluff Inn’s housekeeping staff. The sheets were a dark red, the color of the wine they’d consumed with dinner. The blanket was tan with red and blue lines crisscrossing it. She would be lying on that blanket soon, on those pillows, having sex with someone who wasn’t Peter for the first time in her life. Was she out of her mind? If she was, she didn’t care. She turned to Nick, reaching for him as he reached for her. Together they tumbled onto the soft, plush blanket, lying on their sides facing each other, their heads cushioned by the down pillows, their legs intertwined. Nick kissed her again. He kissed her lower lip, the corners of her mouth, the tip of her nose. He nuzzled her throat, nipped her ear. If Peter had been such an effective kisser, maybe Diana wouldn’t have left him. No. Even if his kisses could arouse her the way Nick’s did, she would have left him. Even if he touched her the way Nick was touching her, his hands simultaneously gentle and firm, his fingertips grazing her as if he needed to memorize every curve and contour of her body, every rise and hollow, caressing her wrist as if it were as important as her breast, stroking the nape of her neck as if it was as significant as the flare of her hips… She still would have left Peter. She still would have wanted to share this moment, this experience, with no one but Nick. She touched him as he touched her, gliding her hands along his shoulders, across his ribs, to the buttons of his shirt. Before she could release one button, he was there, flicking the buttons open with impressive speed. He shrugged out of the shirt, tossed it over the side of the bed and then settled back down beside her. She had expected him to remove her shirt, too, and the rest of her clothing, while he was at it. But he simply continued to caress her through her sweater and her jeans, as if he wanted to give her time to accept where they were heading, and a chance to bring everything to a halt if she chose. She didn’t need time. She’d made her choice. Pushing herself to sit, she gripped the ribbed edge of her sweater and lifted it up, over her head. Her hair fell around her face in disarray, and Nick tenderly brushed it back. This isn’t a relationship, she reminded herself. Don’t fall in love. But the gentleness of his touch, his thoughtfulness and his sensitivity about any misgivings she might have made it hard for her not to think of love when she thought of Nick. She didn’t know him that well, but what she knew…oh, yes. She could love him. Now that she’d removed her sweater, Nick clearly felt he could remove everything else. He reached behind her to flick the clasp of her bra, then stripped off her slacks and panties in one efficient sweep. His jeans went the way of his shirt, sailing over the edge of the bed, and then they were both naked. He was all muscle and sinew, all strength and grace. His body was so different from Peter’s. Peter kept fit, but his muscles were toned by a personal trainer at an expensive fitness center. Nick looked like someone who had earned his muscles through hard work. He looked like someone who could fight if he had to, and who would win. His biceps, while not bulging, were rock-hard. His chest and abdomen were taut. His legs were a runner’s; as a jogger herself, Diana appreciated the definition of the lean muscles in his calves and thighs. She pictured Nick racing up and down a basketball court, shouting encouragement to his kids. She pictured him swimming in the ocean. She pictured him lifting things, building things, fixing things. She didn’t have to picture him easing her onto her back, because that was what he doing. His muscles weren’t the only part of him that was rock-hard. He was fully aroused, and when she stroked his erection he groaned, pulled her hand away and kissed her palm. “I’m already there,” he murmured, easing down her body so he could kiss her breasts, her belly, the dampness between her legs. Her body lurched as his tongue slid over her. Peter had never done this to her, and oh… It felt so good. So indescribably good. She shuddered, too close to coming. “Stop, Nick, stop…” He lifted his head. “Much better than vanilla fudge,” he said, making her laugh, helping her to relax. “You okay?” “I’m okay.” He reached across the bed, tugged open a night table drawer, and pulled out a condom. “You still okay?” he asked as he tore open the envelope. “I’m fine.” “Let’s see if we can improve on that.” He settled between her legs, his knees nudging her thighs apart, and eased into her. Slow and firm, the heat of him melting her, bathing her, permeating her. Overwhelming her. She exploded with his first thrust. Her body throbbed, clung, wrung itself out in pulses so sweet they hurt. She heard herself moan, felt her legs tighten around his hips, lost herself in sensation. He continued to thrust, harder and deeper, stroking her until her body convulsed again, even more powerfully. This time he was with her, gasping, groaning, pulsing his heat into her. Minutes might have passed. Hours, for all she knew. Days. Eons. Time no longer had meaning. All that mattered was now, this bed, this man. All that mattered was the freedom to love Nick Fiore. It’s not love, she told herself. But her heart wasn’t listening. Chapter Twelve He was still awake at midnight. Diana slept like the dead. Considering the workout he’d given her, he supposed he shouldn’t be surprised. They’d made love twice. They’d taken a shower together. He’d donned a pair of sweat pants and lent her an old T-shirt, and they’d split the container of ice-cream. Then they’d made love again. Man, he could become addicted to her. Not just because she was beautiful, not just because her body fit so perfectly to his, not because her skin was peach soft, and the curves of her breasts matched the curves of his palms, and she was so hot and wet, and when she came she made a sound deep in her throat, and when he came inside her, he felt as if he was dying and being reborn all at once…but because of her smile, and her velvety voice, and her energy. Because she was one hell of a woman. She had told him she needed to be awake by seven. She had a big day ahead, that estate deal she’d negotiated and had to oversee. Not a problem; he was usually awake before seven, anyway. The way things were going, though, he might be awake at seven because he would never fall asleep between now and then. His brain was in overdrive. His brain, his nervous system… His conscience. The local women he’d had relationships with knew who he was and where he’d been. He’d never had to sit them down and tell them the sordid details of his past. But Diana knew none of that. He should have told her. How could he? She’d been so open, so eager. So ready to rock and roll. And he’d wanted her the way a thirsty man wants water, the way a drowning man wants air. He’d wanted her from the moment he’d seen her at the Faulk Street Tavern and that song from the jukebox had snared them in its web. Was he supposed to stop everything and say, “Before we get it on, let me tell you about my criminal record.” Yes. That was exactly what he was supposed to do. And he didn’t do it. He glanced at the clock on his night table. Midnight. He wanted to call Ed Nolan, but if he did, he’d either wake the poor guy up or interrupt whatever he might be doing with Gus. Besides, he already knew what Ed would say: You should have told her. Tomorrow. When they woke up. First thing. He’d come clean. Which left the rest of tonight. Maybe, if he wrapped himself around her, and embraced her beautiful body, and nuzzled his face into her thick, silky hair, he’d be able to fall sleep. Fat chance. Just thinking about that caused his dick to perk right up. Maybe he didn’t have to tell her. After all, this wasn’t the romance of the century. They were hot for each other—hot like one of those thousand-acre forest fires they were always experiencing out west—but it wasn’t as if he and Diana were heading toward ’til-death-do-us-part vows. In a day, or two, or maybe a week, she would return to her life in Boston. She’d stop slumming with a working-class kid from Brogan’s Point and go back home to her antiques and her tailored wardrobe and her blue-blood friends. This was a vacation for her. A few days away from it all, spending time in a luxurious inn overlooking the water and enjoying some crazy-hot sex with a local. Nobody was saying anything about a permanent commitment. He wasn’t going to ask her to marry him. He couldn’t afford the sort of diamond ring she was used to. He couldn’t afford her. They would have some fun, they’d screw their heads off, and then they would say goodbye. Why drag the ugly truth into it? What she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. Why not let her believe Nick was a noble, upstanding citizen with an unblemished past? Why disillusion her? He settled deeper into the pillow, slung one arm around her narrow waist and drew her back against him. The position didn’t do much to ease his aroused state, but somehow, he managed to drift off to sleep. *** They went to Riley’s for breakfast. Rita spotted them as they entered the place, arched an eyebrow at the sight of Diana pressed close to Nick’s side as they waded into the usual breakfast crowd lining up along the counter and swarming near the cashier, and pointed toward the rear of the eatery. With his hand at the small of her back, Nick guided Diana through the throng until he spotted the empty table Rita had indicated. “It pays to have a friend on the staff,” Diana said as she slid onto the banquette facing Nick. “Weren’t all those people waiting for tables?” “Some of them,” Nick conceded. “Rita looks out for me.” “I think she has a crush on you,” Diana said. Her voice had a teasing lilt to it, but her cheeks darkened to a slightly deeper pink. “Yeah, right.” He shook his head. “Not a chance. She knows me too well.” Just speaking those words reminded him of what Diana didn’t know. Tell her, the angel on his left shoulder whispered. Leave it alone, the devil on his right argued. Rita arrived at their table with a decanter of steaming coffee in one hand, two mugs in the other, and two laminated menus wedged between her elbow and her ribs. She set the two mugs down, filled them with coffee without waiting to be asked, and handed Nick and Diana the menus. “The blueberry pancakes look really good today,” she said before sauntering away. “Blueberry pancakes.” Diana’s eyes widened. “I can’t remember the last time I had pancakes.” “Then order them.” “It’ll be too much. I’m not used to eating a big breakfast—especially when I didn’t jog.” “You can jog later,” Nick suggested. He signaled Rita, who hurried back to their table. “Two orders of the blueberry pancakes,” he said. “You sold us. Orange juice?” he asked Diana. “Can I get a small one?” “Two small OJ’s,” Nick requested, taking Diana’s menu from her and handing it and his own to Rita. As soon as Rita waltzed away, the angel on his left shoulder started nagging him again. Tell her. “The last time I had pancakes was over a year ago, at the bridal shower for one of my friends at the Harvard Club,” she said. Her face was bright, her voice bubbly. “They had a buffet, and I made a pig of myself. But, you know, it was a party…” She went on, describing the buffet, describing the décor, describing the gifts her friend had gotten. The Harvard Club, the devil on his right shoulder whispered. Diana was way out of Nick’s league. Why bare his soul to her? She’d be returning to her friends and her Harvard Club parties before long. So it went over breakfast, as they feasted on what, Diana admitted, were tastier pancakes than the one she’d consumed at the Harvard Club. She told Nick about what the rest of her day would be like—getting to the house ahead of the movers, sorting the goods into valuable stuff and probable junk, overseeing the packing of the valuable stuff, making sure everything wound up on the truck, handing over a check. Tomorrow she would head to the warehouse, where she’d meet an appraiser and start working through the inventory, once again sorting items. The pieces with no value would be donated to appropriate charities. The pieces with modest value would be priced and sold as quickly as possible. The truly valuable pieces would be inspected and sent to restorers, if necessary. Once those pieces were in pristine condition, they would be photographed for Shomback-Sawyer’s catalog, posted on the firm’s website, and possibly included in an auction. The process, as she described it sounded interesting. Too interesting for him to interrupt her and launch into a speech about his criminal past. “I’m talking too much,” she admitted sheepishly, then used her fork and knife to lift half a pancake from her plate and deposit it on his, as if they’d been sharing breakfasts for years. “What’s on tap for you today?” “The usual,” he said. “I’ve got to prepare a funding report for the town’s budget committee. I have a meeting with one of the nurses at the high school. They’ve got a couple of pregnant girls enrolled, and we’re monitoring things closely to make sure the girls stay in school. The girls don’t want to meet with me personally, but I’m coordinating things with the state’s Department of Health and Human Services. We want to make sure the girls have every support they need to stay in school.” Diana sighed. “What you do is so important! I feel so petty. Who needs an antique gramophone? Those girls are fighting for their future.” Nick snorted and shook his head. “Yeah, I’m such a saint.” Tell her. “After last night, I know you’re no saint,” she teased, her cheeks flushing with color again. He loved the way she could hit him with a bawdy joke, even if she embarrassed herself way more than him. They finished their breakfast, Nick polishing off the chunk of pancake Diana had passed along to him, and he handed his travel mug to Rita for a fill-up. Diana took out her credit card, but Nick brushed it away and replaced it with his own. If he wasn’t going to come clean with her, the least he could do was pay the bill. It wasn’t enough. He should come clean. But being with her, bantering with her, gazing into her sparkling hazel eyes and remembering the lush warmth of her body as he’d made love to her… He wasn’t ready to end things yet. And telling her the truth would end things. He knew it would. He’d let this adventure play out a little longer. He’d keep his mouth shut, and then she’d go home, and she’d never have to know. *** The moment Nick Fiore entered the Faulk Street Tavern, Gus could tell that he was a changed man. That song had exerted its magic over him, after all. She couldn’t say he looked better. Or, for that matter, worse. He just looked…changed. At two in the afternoon, Carl Stanton was in his usual seat at one end of the bar, drinking coffee—on the house. Gus refused to sell him any drink with liquor in it, but she wasn’t going to make him pay for a drink he didn’t really want. He was sad, sulking, angry with her for denying him the whisky he’d ordered, angry with his wife for refusing to let him keep any whisky in the house. At least he was smart enough not to keep a bottle in his car. If Gus ever found out Carl was doing something as stupid as drinking while driving, she’d have Ed all over him before he could beep his horn. Manny was mopping the dance floor. He put a lot of muscle into it—and he was endowed with a considerable amount of muscle—but the floor would be sticky again by nine that night. Gus wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t as if people were deliberately splashing their drinks as they walked around. She was slicing lemons and limes as Nick crossed the room to her. “What can I get you?” she asked as he settled onto a stool. “A ginger ale, if you’ve got it.” She smiled, reached into the fridge below the bar and pulled out a can. “What else? You look like you need more than a soda.” “I need Ed,” he admitted. “Is he around?” She shook her head. “There was a fire down on Crawford Road, that old farm stand. Nobody hurt, but it looks like arson. Ed’s over there with the fire chief.” Nick’s eyebrows flicked upward. “Rossetti’s? That place has been empty for years.” “It’s been up for sale for years. No takers. I think someone decided to get rid of it the easy way, maybe collect some insurance money.” “Well.” Nick sipped his soda. “At least no one got hurt.” “That’s an advantage of setting empty structures on fire,” Gus noted. She lifted her knife and resumed slicing a lemon, shaping neat, thin wedges. “Anything I can help you with?” Nick shook his head. Gus waited patiently. Patience was one of the most important traits a bartender could possess. People came into her establishment to drink, to party, to have a good time—but they also came because they were looking for something. Often what they were looking for was a sympathetic ear. You just had to wait them out. After a long, thoughtful silence, Nick asked, “Why can’t we ever escape our pasts?” “Why can’t we escape our noses? They’re a part of us.” “You can get a nose job.” “Hmm. Well, I don’t think medical science has come up with some sort of surgery to alter our pasts.” “You can delete data on a computer.” “But it’s still there. Ed tells me the forensics guys can dig out all kinds of evidence people thought they deleted. Porn sites. Emails to lovers. All kinds of stuff. You think you’ve erased it, but it’s still there if a person looks for it.” “How about if a person doesn’t look for it?” She added the slices of lemon to a bowl and shrugged. “It’s still there.” He nodded and drank some more soda. “I’ve got to tell Diana, don’t I.” Gus recalled the pretty, doe-eyed woman who’d offered to buy the jukebox a couple of days ago—the pretty, doe-eyed woman who’d gotten caught up in “Changes” along with Nick. “I thought she was wearing an engagement ring,” Gus said. “Not anymore. She broke off the engagement.” “She changed, huh.” Nick flashed a dark look at Gus. “All right. Let’s assume I wanted to change, too. Why can’t I change the part of me from my past that I don’t like?” “You know what, Nick?” Gus set down her knife. “That part from your past isn’t so bad. I mean, sure, it’s bad, but it happened. It’s over. You got screwed, but you overcame it.” “Some people don’t think I got screwed.” “I do. Ed does.” She reached for a lime. “The folks who don’t think you got screwed aren’t worth worrying about.” She sliced. “Is Diana worth worrying about?” “Yeah.” The word slipped out and Nick winced, as if he hadn’t wanted to admit that. “Tell her,” Gus said. “If it scares her away, then she’s not worth it. If she’s worth it, she won’t be scared away.” Nick sighed. He nodded. He drained his glass, stood, and slapped a couple of dollars onto the bar. “You’re a goddess, Gus,” he said as he stood. “I don’t know how Ed ever managed to snag you.” “He got lucky,” Gus deadpanned. Nick laughed a little forlornly, turned and strode across the room to the door. Gus watched him leave. He had it bad, she thought. One song, and he was a goner. She hoped he would be as lucky as Ed. Chapter Thirteen By the time Diana headed back to the Ocean Bluff Inn, most of the day was gone, and she was rumpled and covered with dust. Even though the movers did the heavy lifting, her back ached from hand-wrapping so many delicate items and arranging them inside cartons and crates. Her hair looked like a skein of yarn after a litter of kittens had played in it, and her shirt was smudged with dirt. She couldn’t remember ever being this happy. She’d scored a major professional coup. And she’d be seeing Nick tonight. Life didn’t get any better. Which meant, of course, that life could get worse. She was stripped down to her underwear, ready to climb into the porcelain claw-foot tub in the bathroom attached to her room, when her cell phone rang. She lifted it, read the caller’s name on the screen, and grimaced. Taking a deep breath to steel herself, she thumbed the connect icon. “Hello, Mom.” “Diana. Good grief, what is going on?” “I’m fine, thank you,” Diana said as smoothly as she could. “How are you?” “I’m in shock. Peter contacted us yesterday and told us you gave him back his ring. What is the problem? Did you want a different stone? A different setting?” Diana shook her head to clear it. What planet was her mother calling from? “Mom. I gave him back the ring because I broke up with him. The engagement is off.” “No!” Her mother sounded so shocked, it occurred to Diana that Peter hadn’t told her parents the truth. Apparently, he’d told them she’d returned his ring, but not why. “How can that be?” It further occurred to Diana that her mother was so fixated on Diana’s marriage to Peter—and had been so attached to the idea practically since the day Diana was born—that the notion of this marriage not happening struck her as preposterous, beyond the realm of the believable. Everyone wanted Diana and Peter to marry. Everyone expected it. How could Diana dare to thwart destiny? “I’m sorry, Mom. I wanted to give the reality a chance to sink in before I told you and Dad. But…I realized I wasn’t happy with Peter. I don’t think I could ever be happy with him.” “Of course you can be happy with him. He’s a good man, Diana. And from such a good family.” “And he’ll make some other woman a good husband,” Diana said. “His family is great. This has nothing to do with his family. It has to do with the fact that when I’m with him, I knock myself out trying to please him. I’m always giving in to his wishes, always worrying about whether he’s happy—and when he isn’t, I’m worrying about what I should do to make him happy.” “That’s what marriage is all about,” her mother said. “Making each other happy.” “He doesn’t make me happy,” Diana countered. “And honestly, I don’t know if I make him happy, either. I try so damned hard. I shouldn’t have to try that hard.” “A successful marriage takes work,” her mother said. A successful marriage also took balance. It took both partners working at it. And it took great sex, she thought, a flush of heat surging through her body as she remembered the night she’d spent in Nick’s bed. “Mom, you’ll just have to trust me on this. I’m doing what’s right for myself.” “For yourself,” her mother said scornfully. “Apparently, what’s right for everyone else is irrelevant to you.” Diana flinched. Did her mother really believe that Diana’s happiness wasn’t as important as her own? Or Peter’s? Or Peter’s parents’? “It’s my life,” Diana said, doing her best to filter her rage out of her tone. And wasn’t that typical of her? Once again, she was more worried about upsetting her mother than her mother was about upsetting her. She sighed and said, “I’ve got to go.” If she prolonged the conversation, her words would be like lighter fluid on hot coals. Flames would erupt. The conversation would turn into an conflagration. “I’m about to take a bath. I’ll call you tomorrow.” “Good idea,” her mother said, and for a hopeful moment, Diana believed her mother was as eager as she was to step back from the flames and let the embers cool. “I’m sure once you sleep on it, you’ll realize that you and Peter are perfect for each other. We’ll get this marriage back on track.” We? Diana shook her head. No, Mom. We will not. Diana’s marriage was not a group project. It was not a committee decision. It was her life. “I’ve changed,” she blurted out, realizing as soon as she spoke that her mother would have no idea what Diana was talking about. How could she explain about the jukebox, the song, her newfound confidence, her professional accomplishment? How could she explain about Nick? “I’d better go,” she said more quietly. “And I’m sorry, but I’m not marrying Peter.” She was still fuming when she stripped off her bra and panties and sank into the steaming water that filled the tub. Why had she said she was sorry? Why did she have to apologize for making her own decisions and determining her own future? She’d changed, but she had more changing to do. Each change led to another change. Two days ago, she’d become more self-assured in her work. Yesterday she’d become more assertive about her personal life. Last night… Last night she’d made love to someone who wasn’t Peter. And it had been glorious. For the first time since she’d heard her mother’s voice emerging through her cell phone, she smiled. *** “So, how did the move go?” Nick asked. They were seated in an elegant dining room at the inn, its glass walls offering a generous view of the ocean. The sky above it was a spread of colors, pink and purple, a few blue-gray clouds rippling across it like the swirls of fudge in the ice-cream he and Diana had devoured last night. No eating ice-cream out of a waxed-cardboard tub in this place, he thought. The tables were draped with linen; the silverware was sterling silver and weighed heavily in his hands. He’d traded his jeans for a pair of tailored slacks. His legs were used to denim, but this was where Diana had wanted to eat dinner. She’d insisted on paying, too. “I’m exorcising a demon,” she’d said. When he’d argued that that wasn’t much of an explanation, she’d elaborated. “I came here with Peter to see if we wanted to book our wedding here. And I came to realize I didn’t want to book a wedding with him, here or anywhere else. I just want to eat here like a normal person, not trying out the caterer’s tasting menu and bickering with him over whether the crab puffs are better here or at some other place we also looked at.” “Does that mean we should order the crab puffs or avoid them?” Nick asked. Diana laughed. “Order whatever you want. We’re celebrating.” Cheerful though she was, he sensed an undercurrent of…not quite tension in her, but something. Something gray, something down. “What are we celebrating?” he asked. Personally, he wouldn’t mind celebrating the hot sex they’d enjoyed last night—and the promise of more hot sex tonight, if she was willing. But he suspected she had something else in mind. “The big move today went perfectly,” she told him. “Nothing broke. Nothing was lost. Everything fit into the one truck, and it’s all in the warehouse now. My first major deal!” That was worthy of clinking his wine glass to hers. She’d ordered a bottle of some fancy red with a French name, and it tasted great. He just had to remember to be careful with the delicate glass. Pick it up the wrong way, and the thin stem might snap in two. He was used to handling basketballs, not crystal goblets. The waiter came to take their orders. Just to be safe, Nick skipped the crab puffs—they sounded too fussy for his tastes, anyway—and ordered a steak. Diana requested something a lot more elaborate, involving shrimp, asparagus and assorted other ingredients that were listed on the menu in elegant gold script. Once the waiter was gone, Nick gazed at her. A candle enclosed in glass sat at the center of the table, flickering amber light over her face. She’d worn a lacy white blouse and a dark skirt, and one of the several thoughts circulating through his mind was that he’d love to tear both the blouse and the skirt off her and do the naked tango with her, right here, on the plush carpet, with that panoramic view of the ocean beyond the glass wall. Another thought was that he still sensed a shadow of something in her eyes, an emotion that didn’t have anything to do with celebrating. Asking was probably a big mistake, but he asked anyway. “What went wrong?” She’d lifted her glass to drink—and the graceful goblet seemed to fit her hand a lot better than his. His question made her pause, the glass inches from her lips. She looked perplexed. “What do you mean, what went wrong?” “Sure, the liquidation went smoothly. Your first big score and all that. But…I don’t know. You don’t seem as happy as you should be.” The smile that curved her mouth was sweet and sad and almost helpless. “I had a difficult conversation with my mother, that’s all.” Nick smiled, too, suspecting his smile was just as helpless. “Mothers,” he muttered. “What did she say?” Diana sipped her wine, lowered her glass and sighed. “She found out that I’d ended things with Peter. I was going to tell her—in person. And really, it should have been up to me to tell her. But Peter told her, instead. She’s furious.” He imagined her mother would be even more furious if she knew Diana had broken her engagement because she’d heard a song at the Faulk Street Tavern. And more furious yet if she knew Diana had spent last night in Nick’s bed. “Any particular reason she’s upset, or just in general?” “Both, I think.” Another sad little smile. “My parents love Peter. Maybe more than they love me.” “I doubt that.” She dismissed his words with a wave of her hand. “They’ve been dreaming of this wedding since Peter and I were in diapers. Peter’s parents are their best friends. Peter and I grew up together. It was all so perfect. He was everything they could hope for in a son-in-law. The right blood lines, the right schools, the right income.” “Maybe they thought he’d make you happy.” “Who knows?” She took another sip of wine, then leaned back as the waiter appeared with their salads. “I don’t think my happiness was particularly high on their list of concerns. When I said I wouldn’t be happy with Peter, my mother seemed to think that was irrelevant. She acted as if I was selfish for not going through with the marriage. I was letting everyone down.” “That’s their problem, not yours,” Nick said. “They’ll make it my problem,” she muttered, looking disconsolate. “My sister had to move all the way to England to avoid their manipulations. I always tried to compensate for that, to be the best possible daughter. If I married Peter, I’d still qualify for that title. But that’s not a good reason to get married.” Nick nodded his agreement. “I want to be my own person,” she said. “For once in my life, I don’t want to have to worry about making everyone else happy.” “You won’t get any argument from me.” Of course, he hoped she’d make him happy later tonight, when he finally got to strip off her blouse and skirt. But he’d make her at least as happy. “Mothers,” she said glumly, echoing his earlier plaint. “If I ever have children, remind me not to meddle in their lives.” As if Nick would be available to issue that reminder when she became a mother. But he played along. “I’ll remind you.” “Your mother can’t be as bad as mine,” she said. He caught himself before swearing. “She’s worse.” “Does she meddle in your life?” Tell her. The nagging voice of conscience resonated in his head. The little angel on his shoulder. The voice of Gus, dispensing words of wisdom while she stood behind the bar at the Faulk Street Tavern, slicing lemons. He picked up the steak knife the waiter had brought for him, hefted its wooden handle, set it down. He gazed out at the water. He tried to find the courage to come clean. “I’m not…I’m not the guy you think I am,” he finally managed. Diana peered intently at him. Her eyebrows dipped slightly above the bridge of her nose. “What guy do I think you are?” He shrugged. “A social worker. A do-gooder. Someone who runs programs for kids.” “And you’re not that?” “I am.” Deep breath. Tell her. “I did time in the juvenile justice system.” “Okay,” she said slowly, and her brows straightened, her frown fading. He watched her watching him. She didn’t look pleased, but she didn’t look horrified, either. He wondered how many people with criminal records traveled in her circle. “That’s it? Okay?” “If you were a juvenile…well, lots of kids screw up when they’re young. Then they grow up and put their past behind them.” Nick had grown up. At times he felt he’d skipped right past grown-up to old. But he doubted he could ever put his past behind him. Tell her. “I was convicted of attempted murder,” he said. Chapter Fourteen Diana dropped her fork. It clattered against the edge of her salad plate and fell to the thick carpet with a muted thud. In a matter of seconds, the waiter had scooped the fork off the floor and set a clean replacement to the left of her salad plate. As if the pretty plate of arugula, endive, grape tomatoes and balsamic vinaigrette could tempt her. Her appetite was gone. Murder? Attempted murder, he’d said. Was she supposed to be relieved that his intended victim was fortunate enough to have survived? Tears clogged her throat, a salty lump that made swallowing next to impossible. What did she know about this man? They’d locked gazes over a song at a bar. She’d left her fiancé for him. Well, for herself, too, but Nick Fiore had been the catalyst—Nick, with his dark eyes, his dark hair, his intensity. His rugged physique. His modesty. His innate goodness. What goodness? He’d nearly killed someone! Oh, God. She’d made love with him. She’d lost herself in his arms, several times. She’d never known sex could be so pleasurable, could leave her feeling satisfied on such a soul-deep level. She’d never slept more soundly than she had last night, enveloped in his protective, possessive warmth, lulled by the steady rhythm of his breathing. “The verdict was wrong,” he added. “Of course it was,” she snapped, a strange, frantic energy bubbling along her nerves. Didn’t every convict believe the verdict was wrong? Didn’t they all believe they’d been cheated, misunderstood, abused by the system? She’d made love with a would-be murderer! “I didn’t want to tell you,” he said. “I was afraid you’d react this way.” “What way?” Her voice sounded brittle to her, like thin ice splintering. “Juvenile justice. Sure. Some kids get busted for smoking a joint. Some get nailed for underage drinking. You got convicted of attempted murder.” “Diana.” He reached for her hand and she recoiled. Shoving back her chair, she searched the dining room for their waiter. She couldn’t eat. She couldn’t remain seated at this table. She needed air. She needed to move. What she really needed was a long jog on the beach, but the sun had set and she was wearing a skirt, and— “Is everything all right, miss?” the waiter said, whisking across the room to their table. “Please cancel our dinners,” she said. “I’ll sign the check to my room.” “Diana,” Nick said. “If you’re hungry, you can stay and eat your steak,” she said with what she considered extreme generosity. “I’ve got to go.” Nick stood, dug into his pocket and pulled out his wallet. He handed the waiter a wad of cash. “Here. Keep it.” Diana rose to her feet as well. “I said I’d sign it to my room.” Ignoring her, Nick shook his head at the waiter, who seemed dumbfounded by the amount of money Nick had handed him. Diana didn’t wait to watch them settle up. She bolted out of the dining room, through the inn’s quaint lobby and out onto the porch. The night was pleasantly cool, the air thick with the ocean’s perfume. The breeze rising up off the water tangled in her hair as she raced to the edge of the porch, her hands fisted around the rail as if that was the only way to keep herself from charging down the bluff to the beach. She gulped in deep breaths and kept her eyes open so they wouldn’t fill with tears. A few faint stars pricked the night sky. She heard footsteps behind her. She didn’t have to turn to see Nick. She could feel him, his essence shimmering in the air around her, sparking as if the atmosphere was charged with electricity. “Can we talk?” he asked. She refused to look at him. “It’s a free country.” “My father used to beat my mother.” Her no-tears strategy wasn’t working. She felt her vision swimming. A strange dizziness washed over her, making her legs feel weak. Maybe she swayed, went pale and appeared about to faint, because Nick gripped her arm, firmly but gently, led her away from the railing to one of the sturdy Adirondack chairs, and lowered her into it. As soon as she was settled, he released her, as if he could sense that she didn’t want him touching her. He sat in the chair next to hers. She continued to stare out at the ocean, afraid of what she would see if she looked at him. A murderer? The son of a wife-beater? The man with whom she’d spent a night making love? “My father beat my mother,” he repeated. “Usually he just smacked her around a little, or hit her in places where it wouldn’t show. When I was a child, I couldn’t do anything about it. Except watch. Or withdraw. Usually my mother would tell me to go to my room so I wouldn’t have to see it. I could hear it, though. The walls were thin.” “I’m sorry,” Diana said, meaning it. It must have been traumatic for him. Maybe the trauma of it was what had turned him into a criminal. “When I got older and stronger, I tried to talk my mother into leaving him. She kept saying he didn’t mean to hurt her, he loved her, he just had a temper. She’d tell me it wasn’t my problem. She said I should just leave when my father acted that way. But one night, when I was fifteen, I didn’t leave.” Diana didn’t want to hear this. It was going to be awful. She wished she could press her hands to her ears, but even if she did, she knew she wouldn’t be able to block out Nick’s low, steady voice. “My father had been drinking. He came home late, and his dinner was cold. He started smacking my mother around. And I just couldn’t stand it anymore. So I pulled him off her and hit him. Pummeled, him, really. I guess I was a little crazed. All I wanted was for him to stop beating her. I wasn’t trying to hurt him.” “But you did,” she said. Her horror was gone, replaced by a forlorn sense of resignation. “Maybe I did mean to hurt him.” Nick sounded resigned, too. “I swung a chair at him. In the court, that chair became a deadly weapon. He was knocked out cold. My mother was screaming that I’d killed him. She called the police and they arrested me.” He fell silent, apparently lost in memory for a few seconds. “My father was hospitalized for a while. Broken ribs. A fractured skull.” He exhaled. “Yeah. I meant to hurt him. I’d been watching him hurt my mother all those years. Every now and then he’d whack me, too, until I got too big for him to take on. It was his turn to experience pain. I wish I could say I felt guilty, but I don’t.” “The justice system found you guilty.” He exhaled again, a long, weary breath. “The public defender assigned to my case thought I’d be charged with assault, but it wound up being attempted murder. He was sure I’d be acquitted, because my mother would testify that my father had been battering her and I’d only been trying to defend her.” He fell silent. All Diana heard was the whisper of the waves lapping the shore. “So how did you wind up convicted?” she finally asked. “My mother testified that my father hadn’t done anything to her. She said he was a good man and she had no idea why I tried to kill him.” Diana gasped—and finally turned to stare at Nick. He stared back at her, his eyes piercing, his chin raised slightly, as if daring her to deny what he was telling her. “Why would she do that?” “Who the hell knows? Maybe she loved him. She was his wife. So she sacrificed me.” “Oh, Nick.” What else could she say? She thought her mother was awful because she was trying to pressure Diana into marrying Peter. That seemed so trivial compared to what Nick had endured. His mother’s choice was so much crueler than anything Diana had ever experienced. “Have you worked it out with her?” A cold laugh escaped him. “What am I supposed to work out? I was fighting for my life, and she turned her back on me. She refused to tell the truth, and I wound up with a criminal conviction.” Emotions spun like a tornado inside Diana, buffeting her. “You make it sound so straightforward, Nick. I’m sure it was more complicated than that. Battered wives don’t think clearly.” “Are you defending her?” “Of course not. She did a terrible thing to you.” “I spent three years in the system, Diana. Locked up. When I aged out of the juvie system, my criminal record was sealed, but it’s there. I’ve got a conviction. I’ll have it for the rest of my life—because my mother couldn’t bring herself to tell the truth.” Another long silence, and he said, “I’m telling the truth now, Diana. I didn’t want to tell you, but you deserve to know.” Her eyes welled with tears, making him appear to waver as she gazed at him. “Thank you for trusting me,” she said. He emitted a bitter grunt. “Yeah. I trusted you, and you walked out on me.” “I was shocked. You can’t blame me for that.” He shrugged and looked away. She interpreted that to mean he agreed. He wasn’t blaming her. And she was beyond shocked now. She’d been shocked when he told her about his conviction, but now she was even more shocked that his mother could have betrayed him the way she had. She was shocked that a boy could have been so abused by his mother and the justice system, and yet have matured into the person Nick was, a decent, caring man who watched out for other children and kept them from falling through the cracks the way he had. Her struggles seemed so petty in comparison to what Nick had lived through. Her mother was upset because she wasn’t going to marry the man her mother wanted her to marry. Peter was upset because she’d broken up with him. They were angry with her because she’d changed—but she was convinced that change was for the better. She was stronger and more self-possessed than she’d ever been before. They would simply have to accept it. They might be annoyed and disappointed. But they had never testified against her. They’d never lied in court, leaving her to suffer for a crime she hadn’t committed. The irony of Nick’s past—that he’d been convicted of a crime because the woman he’d fought to defend had abandoned him—was a wound she couldn’t begin to fathom. “Has your mother apologized for her part in what you went through?” Diana asked. He shrugged. “Yeah, she’s apologized.” His voice was flat. Clearly he didn’t think much of his mother’s apology. “She’s right here in town,” Diana recalled. “I see her as little as possible.” “Do you talk to her at all?” “She calls me sometimes.” He exhaled, sounding weary. “She’ll invite me over for dinner or ask me to do an errand for her. She called a few days ago and told me one of her window shutters fell and she needed it nailed back on.” “Did you fix it?” “Sure,” he said sarcastically. “There’s nothing I’d rather do than drop everything and race to her house to fix her freaking shutter.” He shot Diana a sharp look. “Yeah, I’d rather spend an evening rehanging her damned shutter than being with you.” His tone hinted that perhaps hanging his mother’s shutter might be more pleasant for him than this conversation. Still, his broken relationship with his mother struck Diana as terribly sad. Her mother was angry, yet Diana couldn’t imagine their not remaining in touch. In time, she was convinced, her parents would accept her decision not to marry Peter. They’d resent it; they’d pressure her to rethink it. They’d argue with her. She’d argue back. It was what adult children did with their parents. Nick clearly didn’t do that with his parents. “You told me your father was gone. I assume that means he doesn’t live in town?” “I have no idea where he is,” Nick said coldly. “After he recovered from his injuries, he took off. No forwarding address. No money to support my mother. No paperwork.” He allowed himself a humorless laugh. “As far as I know, they’re still married.” “I think after a certain number of years, your mother can claim she’s been abandoned and get a divorce, even if your father isn’t around to sign the papers.” “Well, she never did that. She used to say the church wouldn’t allow a divorce, but that’s not true. You can’t get remarried in the church, but you can get a divorce. She never took that step, though.” He shrugged. “Who knows? She probably still loves the bastard.” Maybe she did. Battered women sometimes remained attached to their batterers. It was a totally irrational thing, but they did. Maybe Nick’s mother’s refusal to divorce her husband was just one more reason he was estranged from her. Yet despite his hostility toward his mother, he seemed to have healed himself. He’d kept going. He’d survived the horror of a criminal conviction, overcome it, triumphed. He was living a good life now, giving back to a world that had forsaken him. “You’re an amazing man,” she said. He snorted. “I’m a guy who almost killed my father. There’s nothing admirable about that.” “It’s admirable if you were trying to save someone else’s life.” “Maybe I wasn’t.” He stared out at the dark ocean, now barely distinguishable from the equally dark sky above it. “Maybe I just hated my father because he’d been beating up on my mother for so many years. He drank and became a bully. Maybe I hurt him because I hated him.” “I don’t believe that,” Diana said. She honestly didn’t. Not because she didn’t want to believe a man she loved could be that cold-hearted, but because she knew Nick. She knew him enough to know that he was a good man. She loved him. Astonished by the realization, she twisted in her chair to look at him. He must have sensed her gaze on him, because he turned to her. Even in the evening shadows, she could see the turbulence in his expression, the pain and regret and fear. The hope. “Nick,” she murmured, reaching across the arm of her chair to take his hand. As soon as her fingers touched his, he stood, clasped her hand in his and pulled her to her feet. His arms came around her as hers came around him, and they kissed. At first the kiss was light and forgiving, but soon it grew deep and needy, as dark as the night enveloping them. She was scarcely aware of them crossing the porch to the door, wandering through the lobby to the stairs, climbing them to her room. She didn’t hear her footsteps on the thick rugs, didn’t feel the slick surface of the key card as she slid it into the slot and clicked the door open. She didn’t notice the pale light from the bedside lamp, the plump pillows, the plush duvet covering the bed. She was conscious of only one thing: Nick. His hand clasping hers. His warmth permeating her. Her love for this strong, brave man. He kissed her again, and she was lost. This had to be love. It was so much more powerful than anything she’d ever felt for Peter. It left her dazed. Intoxicated. Yearning. Aching. Her hands tugged at his clothing. Her fingers seemed suddenly incapable of the most simple tasks—unfastening a button, untucking a shirt tail. He was much more dexterous. Her blouse slid down her shoulders, her skirt down her hips. She hated the garments because they separated her skin from his touch. She loved them because they were apparently so easy to remove. Once he’d stripped her naked, he helped her to remove his own clothing. Then they tumbled onto the bed. It was big, the duvet soft, the mattress cushioning and cradling her back. Nick rose above her, his arms propping him, his hips pressing against hers with an urgency that matched her own churning emotions. She yearned. She ached. She loved. His tongue plundered her mouth. His fingers tangled into her hair, traced the curves of her earlobes, stroked the underside of her chin. He slid down to kiss one breast and then the other, sucking hard on her nipples, causing her back to arch and her breath to catch. He kissed her belly. Her hip bones. Her crotch. For a few hedonistic seconds she believed her favorite part of him was his mouth—but then she decided that wasn’t true. Her favorite part of him was his soul. “I don’t have anything with me,” he whispered. She knew at once what he was referring to. “It’s okay,” she assured him. She’d been engaged to Peter a long time. She’d taken care of protecting herself. “You sure?” She was sure she wanted Nick, needed him, loved him. She was sure this moment was everything she’d been waiting for, everything she’d ever dreamed of. “I’m sure,” she murmured, opening for him, reaching down and guiding him to her. Their bodies merged, fused, burned together. His thrusts were slow, purposeful. Given how desperately they’d been kissing, she would have expected him to be wilder, but this wasn’t just sex. It was a merging of minds and hearts as well as bodies, and Nick seemed to want every instant, every motion, every sensation to matter. Her muscles flexed. Her nerves tensed. Her breath caught. She closed her eyes, wanting to savor the sensations. “Open your eyes,” he whispered. She obeyed and found him gazing down at her. His hair was disheveled—her doing, she admitted as she dug her fingers convulsively into the dark, wavy locks. His jaw was tense. His eyes were as soft as she’d ever seen them, a deep, mellow brown, taking her in, absorbing the sight of her. Oh, God, yes. She loved him. She loved Nick Fiore. Her body arched in a blissful release. She shuddered, convulsing around him, feeling him climax inside her, hot and hard. They moaned together, a sweet, ragged chorus of bliss. Of love. Slowly, carefully, he eased off her. He rolled onto his back, nestling his head deep into one of the oversize down pillows, and drew her against him. His shoulder was her pillow. It was much harder than a pillow, but she didn’t mind.. She couldn’t imagine anywhere she’d rather rest her head. He stroked his fingers lightly up and down her arm as his breath slowed and his body cooled. She traced an aimless pattern across his chest, smiling when his nipples stiffened, smiling again when his abdominal muscles clenched at her touch. Love. This had all happened so quickly, it was all so intense, but she couldn’t deny what she felt. Nick was the most honorable man she’d ever known. He had triumphed over injustice and betrayal, and now he was giving back, giving of himself to kids who might have been dealt the same bad hand he’d had when he was their age. What would her life have been like if she hadn’t entered the Faulk Street Tavern last Saturday night? She would be acquiescing to Peter right now, saying that if he really preferred that ostentatious mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, they would have their wedding there. She would be yielding to her mother and buying some frou-frou white gown that cost more than the national debt. She would be at Shomback-Sawyer in Boston, pacing two steps behind James, taking notes and nodding at whatever he said. She would be knocking herself out to make everyone happy. But she had entered the tavern. And she’d heard the song. And she’d changed. Her hand stilled on Nick’s chest, her palm feeling the deep thrum of his heartbeat. She’d changed, because of the song. “Nick,” she murmured. “Hmm?” “You have to change.” Chapter Fifteen Great. Diana was one of those women—the ones who adore you, support you, make you feel like a million bucks, take you into their beds and into their hearts…and then try to change you. Nick tried to laugh off her comment, but honestly, it irritated him. And he didn’t want to be irritated right now. He was unwinding, wallowing happily in post-coital drowsiness. Loving the way her compact body felt against his. Loving the way her knees nudged his leg, and the way her hair splayed across his arm like a net of silk. Loving the way her breath skimmed across his throat and her fingers sketched his skin. And she wanted to change him? How? Was she going to tell him he had to eat less red meat? He’d given up cigarettes. He drank with restraint. He worked out. If he wanted to eat a damned slab of steak, he would. Did she think he should drive more slowly? Listen to opera? Replace his leather jacket with a tailored wool blazer? Was she going to try to turn him into a stiff, proper imitation of her former fiancé? Sorry, babe—that’s not going to happen. “The song,” she said. “The song said we had to turn and face the strange changes. We had to change. I’ve changed. You need to change, too.” “I’m not changing,” he said. “I’m where I want to be.” “You’re perfect, huh.” She laughed. He allowed himself a reluctant smile. No, he wasn’t perfect. That didn’t mean he wanted to change. Being imperfect was all right with him. “Fine,” he said, just to shut down this conversation. “I’ll get a haircut.” “Hair grows back.” She lifted away from his shoulder and peered down into his face. He remembered what she’d looked like the instant she’d come, the instant before he’d come. She’d been the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, her eyes as bright as diamonds, her mouth so soft and lush, her skin the gentle pink color of a springtime sunset. Her body had been so tight around him, her hips rising off the bed, her hands clenching. No condom. Just skin to skin, soul to soul. Remembering made him hard enough to agree to change anything she asked for. A new job? A new face? Whatever she desired, he’d do it. No, he wouldn’t. He’d never changed for any other woman. As much as he savored the weight and warmth of Diana’s body against his, the glow in her eyes, the hopeful beauty in her smile, he wasn’t going to jump through hoops of flame for her. She’d described jumping through those hoops for her former boyfriend. Surely she wouldn’t turn around at treat Nick the way she’d been treated in her last relationship. “You need to reconcile with your mother,” she said. He recoiled, appalled by her suggestion. Was she insane? After what he’d shared with her, after what she knew about his life…she wanted him to make nice with the woman who’d sold him down the river? “Fix her shutter,” Diana murmured. Christ. Nick did not need to hear this. “Diana—” “No. Hush.” She silenced him with a gentle brush of her fingertips against his lips. That one light caress was enough to turn him on again. He was angry and confused…but damn, he was horny for her. Couldn’t they just make love and go to sleep, and not have this awful conversation? Apparently not. She stroked her index finger across his lower lip, pulling back when he tried to catch it with his teeth. She drew a line over his chin, down his throat to his chest. Her smile could have wrung tears from Satan, it was so sweet. “The song said we have to change,” she reminded him. “I changed. You have to change, too.” “What happens if I don’t?” he challenged her. “I’ll stop believing that the jukebox was talking to us. I’ll believe it was talking to me alone.” She didn’t have to say anything more. He understood what she was getting at. If he didn’t change, if he didn’t believe in the power of the song to bind him and Diana, she would leave. She might leave anyway. She lived in Boston—which wasn’t that far away in miles, but in culture and style it was light-years from sleepy Brogan’s Point. Her life was there, her job, her family. Her ex-fiancé. Even if she left, he knew she wouldn’t go back to the ex. She had changed. She’d listened to the song and let its magic transform her. If he didn’t want to lose her, he would have to do the same. “All right,” he heard himself say. “I’ll fix the goddamn shutter.” *** The missing shutter was noticeable as soon as Nick pulled his car to the curb in front of the brown-shingled Cape Cod house Saturday morning. Four windows flanked the front door, two on each side. Each window was framed by a pair of white shutters except for one missing shutter that made the house look lopsided. The front yard was small and early-spring scruffy, tufts of grayish-brown grass poking through the soil, resembling a bad haircut. The shrubs flanking the cement front porch looked pruned, though. Someone had made an effort with them. Nick stood on the front walk, staring at the house as if it contained a dragon he had to slay. Diana could see a muscle ticking in his clenched jaw. His hands were curled into fists. His posture was rigid. She rubbed the small of his back, a massage she hoped would soothe him. “It’s going to be fine,” she assured him, even though she had no way of knowing whether Nick or the dragon would win. “You’re going to be fine.” His jaw tightened even more, but he squared his shoulders and strode up the slate front walk. “Is she expecting us?” Diana asked, following him to the porch. “I phoned and said I was coming.” I, not we. Did his mother know Diana would be standing beside Nick when he showed up? Did Mrs. Fiore know that Diana and Nick had been all but inseparable every minute they weren’t working? He’d had a full day yesterday at his office, and Diana had spent the day at the warehouse, sorting the items from Lenore’s grandmother’s house with James Sawyer and trying not to suffocate beneath all the praise he’d heaped upon her. He’d been bowled over by the estate, even more excited about the price she’d paid once he’d had a chance to see what that price had purchased. “Whatever you’re doing,” James had said to her, “just keep doing it.” What she was doing was taking chances, being adventurous and daring. What she was doing was loving Nick. Today, after he fixed his mother’s shutter, she would love him even more. Not just because the repair would be a kind thing to do—she already knew Nick was considerate—but because by fixing his mother’s shutter, he would prove that he’d changed. They both had to change, according to the song. Diana was a pragmatic person, not into weird woo-woo superstitions, but she knew this: they both had to turn and face the strange changes if the jukebox’s magic was to be trusted. Nick pressed the doorbell button, and Diana heard its muffled chime through the closed door. The door swung inward and a small, dark-haired woman of late middle age stood before them, smiling so brightly Diana’s heart broke a little. Nick’s mother looked like him—dark hair, although hers was generously laced with gray, and dark, intense eyes, a firm chin and a smile that could illuminate the world. She was petite, though, small-boned, several inches shorter than Diana. Nick must have inherited his height from his father. The thought of such a tall man slapping around such a small, fragile-looking woman caused Diana to wince inwardly. Nick’s fear that his father might kill his mother all those years ago would have been reasonable. “Come in!” She beckoned them inside but fell back a step as they crossed the threshold. Diana wondered whether she wanted to hug her son. If so, she opted not to. His face wasn’t exactly welcoming. “This is Diana Simms,” he said curtly, gesturing toward her. “Diana, my mother.” “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Fiore.” Diana extended her hand and Nick’s mother gathered it in both of hers, clasping tight, as if desperate for human contact. “You’ll both stay for lunch, right? I’m making lasagna. Nicky loves my lasagna.” She sent him a smile that broke Diana’s heart a little more. It was loving and pleading and tinged with a vague hopelessness. That hopelessness was well placed. Nick didn’t return her smile. At least he didn’t say they wouldn’t have lunch with her. “Let me get to work. Where’s the shutter?” “In the garage. Everything’s in the garage—the ladder, the tools, whatever you need. I’m so grateful you’re doing this, Nicky. The house looks—well, you can see how it looks. Like it’s falling apart. It isn’t. I take good care of it. I always have. But I’m too short to fix that shutter.” Nick touched Diana’s shoulder. “I’ll be outside if you need me.” With that, he was gone. “Take off your jacket,” Mrs. Fiore said. “Make yourself comfortable. I’ve got things to do in the kitchen.” Diana slid off her blazer, draped it over the newel post of the stairway and followed Nick’s mother through the cozy, obsessively tidy living room into the equally cozy, tidy kitchen. The appliances were old, the sink white porcelain, the floor linoleum tiles. But everything was immaculate. Even the twin cat dishes that sat on a rectangular plastic mat near the back door, one filled with water and one with dry cat food, were clean and neat. Mrs. Fiore must have noticed Diana’s gaze. “You’re not allergic, are you? Some people are, I know. But Missy is skittish. She’ll hide in the basement until you leave. She’s scared of most people.” “No allergies,” Diana said, wondering if Missy, like her mistress, had ever been abused. Mrs. Fiore didn’t seem at all skittish. Indeed, she seemed starved for company. “Is there anything I can do to help?” Diana asked, nodding toward the simmering saucepan on the stove, the pot of boiling pasta beside it, the Pyrex baking tray and the bowl of ricotta cheese. “Just sit. Please. You’re a guest.” Mrs. Fiore pushed up the sleeves of her knit cardigan and gave the sauce a stir. Diana took a seat at the square table pressed up against the wall, which featured patterned wallpaper in a cheerful yellow shade. The café curtains at the window above the sink were the same sunshine yellow, and the table was covered with a yellow and white checked cloth. “Nick uses tomato sauce out of a jar,” she said. “I’ve tried to teach him how to make real gravy,” his mother said with a laugh. “He doesn’t want to learn. But that’s okay. I keep thinking, if he wants pasta with real gravy, I’ll make it for him. He’ll come here to eat.” Diana was touched by the poignant undertone of her words. She was obviously eager to lure her son home for visits. “I don’t cook like this all the time,” she went on. “I work, you know. Customer service at the Wal-Mart down on Route One. It’s not much, but I didn’t go to college like you young people. And I never worked while Nicky was growing up. I wanted to be here with a snack for him when he got home from school. But now…” She shrugged and overturned the large pot into a colander in the sink, draining the hot water from the wide, ridged strips of pasta. “I’ve got to earn my keep, right? They’re good to me at Wal-Mart. It’s a nice job. Nicky said something about you work in antiques?” So Nick had told his mother about her. Diana was enormously pleased. “That’s right.” “This whole house is full of antiques,” Mrs. Fiore said. “Not that any of them are worth anything. Just old stuff. When you can’t afford new, you call the old ‘antiques’ and it sounds a lot better.” Diana dutifully chuckled. Nick’s mother was quite pleasant. Of course she would be—she’d raised a wonderful son. Yet this same woman, so friendly and full of chatter, had betrayed that son in the worst possible way. When he’d defended her, when he’d protected her, when he’d stood before a judge, fighting for his future, his mother had forsaken him. Mrs. Fiore prattled as she layered the lasagna into the pan, and Diana added an appropriate comment whenever the woman paused for a breath. Once the lasagna was constructed, Mrs. Fiore popped it into the oven. Within minutes the small kitchen steamed with mouth-watering aromas of tomato sauce, oregano, and garlic. By the time Nick joined them in the kitchen, the lasagna was done baking, a salad had been tossed, and Mrs. Fiore had told Diana about a pregnant young associate she worked with at Wal-Mart, the tulip and daffodil bulbs she’d planted—“I was hoping they’d sprout by now, but I guess it’s still a little early”—and her recent trip to a casino, where she actually came home fifty dollars ahead. “Those slot machines are rigged to make you lose, you know? But I got lucky. I got lemons, I got cherries. I love fruit, especially when I get three across on the screen.” Nick removed his leather jacket and rolled up his sleeves, and Diana stifled a lustful sigh at the sight of his lean, sinewy forearms as he washed his hands at the sink. He dried them on a paper towel, which he scrunched into a wad and lofted into the trash can near the cat’s dishes. His gaze intersected with Diana’s, and he arched an eyebrow. She gave him a discreet nod, signaling him that her conversation with his mother had gone well. “So, sit.” Mrs. Fiore pointed to one of the empty chairs at the table. “The lasagna is done. What do you want to drink? I’ve got a nice red vino, soda, iced-tea…” “Just water, thank you,” Diana said, then informed Nick, “Your mother wouldn’t let me help at all. She did all the cooking.” She wasn’t sure if she was telling him this to improve his opinion of his mother or to justify her own lack of contribution to the meal. He didn’t respond, just pulled two tumblers from a high cabinet and filled them with water. “Do you like it?” his mother asked, once they were all seated and digging into their food. “It’s delicious.” Diana wasn’t used to eating such a heavy meal for lunch. But the lasagna was marvelous. She’d eaten lasagna at countless restaurants in the North End, Boston’s “Little Italy” neighborhood, and Mrs. Fiore’s lasagna could easily hold its own with what those restaurants served. “Nicky, you like it?” “It’s fine,” he said tersely. “I made the gravy with extra basil. I know how you love basil.” “It’s good.” “The pasta, it’s not too soft? I know you like it al dente—” “Mom.” He lowered his fork and stared at her. “You don’t have to knock yourself out for me, okay?” His tone, quiet but firm, pierced Diana’s brain like a laser. Suddenly she understood Mrs. Fiore, her ingratiating personality, her need to talk, to entertain, to please. How many times, Diana wondered, had the woman’s lasagna failed to satisfy her husband? How many times had he slapped her or punched her because of that failure? Mrs. Fiore appeared flustered, as if Nick’s quiet reproach was itself evidence that she had failed. Her face went pale and she lowered her eyes. “I’m sorry, Nicky.” “No need to apologize.” “Of course there is. There always is.” They were no longer discussing the lasagna. Nick stared at his mother again, and she stared at her plate, her fork resting against the edge, her hands folded in her lap. The tension in the room was thicker than the tangy fragrance of the food. Diana pushed her chair back, realizing that they had wandered into personal territory, into their wounded past. “Perhaps I should excuse myself,” she murmured to Nick. He pressed his hand to her wrist, holding her in her seat. “No, stay. You want me to change? I’m doing my best, but…I need you by my side for this.” Diana’s breath caught in her throat. She knew she loved Nick, although he’d never uttered the word love. Yet asking her to remain with him as he wrestled his demons to the ground was as just as significant. His statement seemed to startle his mother, too. She lifted her gaze to Nick and then Diana. Then Nick again. “I’m trying to forgive you, Mom.” The words emerged in a dark rumble, his voice gruff as he struggled to express himself. “I don’t know why you did what you did. I don’t know why you sold me out that way. But I’ve been angry for too long. I don’t want to be angry anymore.” Tears filled his mother’s eyes. “Nicky. I never meant to sell you out. As God is my witness, that was never what I wanted.” “It’s what happened.” “I know it looks that way to you. But Nicky…” His mother emitted a sob, and she wiped her cheeks with her napkin. “He scared me so much, Nicky. He healed, and he got out of the hospital, and he threatened me.” “He was always threatening you.” “This was after, though. You were in that foster home, out on bail, awaiting trial. Your father got out of the hospital and he came here, and he held a knife to my throat and told me that if I told anyone he hit me, he’d come back and kill me. And he would have, Nicky. I was sure of it.” “So you figured your life was more important than mine?” “I would have died for you if I had to,” his mother said, her voice wobbling as more sobs undermined it. “But I knew I wouldn’t have to. You would be okay. You were strong. He couldn’t hurt you.” “Are you kidding?” “You stood up to him, Nicky. You beat him. You took him down. He was as scared of you as I was of him. I knew you were safe.” “Safe? I was convicted of a crime!” “But you escaped from this house. You freed yourself from this family. You had that wonderful cop looking after you. Officer Nolan. And me… If I went into court and said your father had beaten me, I’d be dead. If I didn’t say anything, he would leave and I wouldn’t have to get beaten by him anymore. I didn’t want to die, Nicky. I was scared, I was a coward, but I didn’t want to die.” She broke down, freely weeping. Diana watched as Nick rose, circled the table and pulled his mother to her feet. He wrapped her in a hug—a tentative, awkward embrace, but a protective one. A forgiving one. “All right,” he said. “I’m a terrible mother,” she murmured into his chest. “You had a terrible father. And you turned into such a good man, Nicky. Maybe it was best that we set you free.” A dry laugh escaped him. “I was hardly free. I was in the criminal justice system. In detention.” “Free from us. Free from all the hate and fear in this house. I’m so sorry, Nicky, so sorry.” “All right,” he said again. “It’s done. It can’t be changed. Time to move on.” They held each other for a long while. Diana felt like a trespasser on the scene, witnessing such a private moment—until, over his mother’s head, Nick directed his gaze back to her. He looked resigned, and relieved. Younger. His eyes glistened, not with tears but with an inner light she’d never seen before. The light of forgiveness. The light of letting go. Yes, he had changed. And she loved him even more. Chapter Sixteen He felt…changed. Liberated and free, as if a two-ton weight had been lifted off his back. He had always enjoyed his mother’s lasagna, but today it had tasted better, the sauce rich and fresh, the pasta al dente, just the way he liked it. In the past, his mother’s fussing to cook her pasta to his specific taste had irritated him. He’d felt that she was overly anxious to please him the way she’d been with his father. “I’m not your husband,” he’d wanted to shout. “I’m not that sonofabitch. Not all men are like that.” Yet he’d come close to killing his father. For years he’d feared he was like that. If not for Ed Nolan scraping him off the floor and reshaping him into a functioning human being, a student, a responsible adult who could, if not make things right, at least make things a little less wrong, Nick might have turned into a sonofabitch, too. That he hadn’t was a triumph in itself. That he could forgive his mother—that he did forgive her—was more than a triumph. It was a rebirth. When he and Diana took their leave after lunch, Diana paused halfway down the front walk and turned to inspect his mother’s house. “It looks good,” she said, pointing to the shutter he’d rehung. “It was a simple fix.” “Simple if you’re six feet tall and know how to use a hammer,” she said. “There’s no way your mother could have done that. She’s so small.” “There’s this thing called a ladder,” he joked. “Even I needed a ladder to hammer in the nails on top.” “Okay, so you have to know how to use a hammer and a ladder,” Diana joked back. He slung his arm around her shoulders as they admired his simple handiwork. Her body nestled within the curve of his arm as snugly as two puzzle pieces locking together. Had the song compelled him to change? Or Diana? It didn’t matter. He would never love that song. But damn it, he loved her. “Thank you,” he said. “For what? Acknowledging that you know how to use a hammer and a ladder?” He smiled and pressed a kiss to the top of her head. Her hair felt like warm silk against his lips. “For making a new man out of me.” She turned to face him. “Are you a new man?” He closed his other arm around her and took her mouth with his. She tasted spicy from the lasagna, but sweet as well, her own special sweetness. Yes, he loved her. Loved her and wanted her. If they weren’t standing on his mother’s front walk, in full view of her nosy neighbors, he’d let this kiss progress from R-rated to X-rated. But there were the nosy neighbors, and not even a wall to lean against, let alone a bed to lie down on. Before he made a fool of himself, he eased back, nuzzled her forehead with a final kiss and said, “Here’s an idea. Check out of the OB and move in with me.” She blinked, apparently startled by what he’d said. He was startled, too. He’d known his share of women over the years, but he’d never invited one to move in with him. He’d never met a woman he’d wanted to live with. Not until now. “Are you serious?” “Yes.” Gazing down into her suddenly solemn face, he realized he’d never been more serious about anything in his life. “I know, you’ve got your place in Boston, and your job. And I’m here in Brogan’s Point.” “And we’ve known each other only a week.” “Yeah. That, too.” She peered up at him, her eyes shimmering, her brow flexing as she sifted through her thoughts. Finally, she spoke. “I guess you’d better drive me to the inn so I can check out.” He couldn’t expect more from her than that. Hell, if he could, he’d go ahead and ask her to marry him. Not that he could give her a monstrously huge diamond, or her parents’ blessings, or the life she would have had with her rich ex-fiancé. Not that he could expect her even to want to get married so soon after she’d ended an engagement that had been based on a relationship of many years’ standing. But he wanted it. He wanted her. He wanted the woman who had changed him, and in the process healed him. For now, he would take what she offered. He would help her move out of the Ocean Bluff Inn, bring her back to his house, dive onto his bed, and spend the next several hours there with her. Naked. He opened the passenger door of his car for her, then climbed in behind the wheel. They didn’t talk during the drive through town, along the waterfront and north to the inn’s winding driveway. But even without words, he communicated with her, his right hand folded around her left, his fingers imparting their heat to her, his need, his love. He had barely pulled into a parking space and shut off the engine before she was bounding out of the car. Was she as eager as he was to get her stuff, sign her bill and race to his house for some naked-on-the-bed time? It looked that way. Her eyes were bright, her face slightly flushed. Once again her skin made him think of peaches. Honey hair, peach skin… Damn but she made him hungry. She met him at the rear bumper and laced her fingers through his. Together they strolled up the walk to the veranda—and froze when a tall, well-groomed man rose from one of the Adirondack chairs and started toward them. “Peter?” Diana said. “What are you doing here?” Nick noted that she didn’t slip her hand from his. He also noted that Peter, the ex-fiancé, was staring at their clasped hands—staring and scowling. He remained on the veranda as they approached, his posture regal, his expression supercilious, as if he believed it was only right that they should come to him, not the other way, and that he should be standing above them. Not for long. Refusing to retreat, Nick proceeded up the steps until he was eye-to-eye with the guy. Peter met Nick’s gaze for a long second, then turned to Diana. “I’ve come to take you home,” he said. “Get your things. Let’s go.” “What are you talking about?” She sounded a touch exasperated but not terribly concerned. “This has gone on long enough. I gave you a few days to get your head on straight.” He looked pointedly at her hand in Nick’s and shook his head. “Evidently, you haven’t accomplished that yet. But I’m tired of waiting. You wanted a brief vacation from our engagement, so fine. Your last little…whatever. I won’t dignify it by calling it a fling.” That bit of nastiness, Nick suspected, was directed at him, not at Diana. “Now it’s time to get back to reality.” “Peter.” Diana eased her hand from Nick’s, and he felt the loss of contact like a small death. But she needed both hands to clasp Peter’s upper arms in a reassuring hug. “You’re the one who needs to face reality,” she said gently. “I broke up with you. I ended our engagement. It’s over.” “It’s not over. You’re just—I don’t know, experiencing a brief psychotic episode. We’re getting married. Everyone wants this.” “I don’t want it.” She still sounded gentle, like a mother comforting a toddler whose balloon had blown away. “I don’t want to marry you, Peter. I don’t want to go wherever you have in mind to take me. I don’t want you to decide what my home is. I’m in Brogan’s Point right now. It’s where I want to be.” “With him?” Peter shot Nick a lethal look. “Yes. With him.” “You’re going to stay here? In this seedy little nothing town?” “I don’t know where I’m going to stay,” she said. “I don’t have my whole life mapped out anymore. And I like that. Please…I’m sorry you drove all the way here—” “What about your apartment in Boston?” “It’s still there. I’ve got five months left on my lease. I’ll figure things out.” “No need to. Everything’s already figured out. You’re coming with me.” And with that, he flung her hands off his arms and snagged one of them in a tight grip. “We’re going to go inside, get your things, and drive back to Boston. I’ll send someone to pick up your car. It’s time for you to quit this craziness.” “Stop it, Peter.” She no longer sounded slightly exasperated. She sounded downright furious. “I’m not crazy.” “You dragged me to that sleazy bar, you swooned over that stupid jukebox, and you’ve been deranged ever since. Who is this guy, some local stud? What the hell has gotten into you, Diana?” “I’ve changed,” she said. “I’ve changed.” She tugged her arm, unable to free herself. “Let go of me.” “Let go of her,” Nick echoed. He didn’t like the way the guy was holding Diana, his grip so tight, so possessive. “You keep out of this,” Peter snapped at him. “This is between Diana and me.” Nick felt his temper rising like a fever inside him. That grip, those thick, brutal fingers circling Diana’s slender wrist like a manacle…and his size, looming over Diana, trying to bend her to his will with his hands when his words weren’t enough… Memories swamped Nick, fierce, violent memories of his father grabbing his mother’s arm, shaking her, threatening her. Terrifying her. He was no longer a little boy, watching in horror as his father beat his mother into submission. He was a man, a man who loved Diana. A man with a criminal record. His record was sealed, but that seal could be broken if he did the wrong thing. Yet standing by while this bastard hurt Diana was the wrong thing, too. His hands reflexively curled into fists and he started to swing. “Nick! Don’t!” Her voice sliced through his feverish rage like ice water dousing the fire inside him. Miraculously—because he couldn’t remember deliberately lowering his arms—he discovered his hands at his sides. His breath came heavy, his eyes burned, and he felt a hatred almost as deep as what he’d once felt for his father. But he didn’t hit Peter. Hell. He wanted to. He wanted to more than he could fathom. But he didn’t. He would have pounded Peter into an oozing mass of pain for Diana. Instead, he didn’t pound Peter into an oozing mass of pain…for Diana. Because she’d asked him not to. Because if she’d asked him to let go of her, he would—no matter how much he never, ever wanted to let go of her. And if she asked him to hold her, he would, forever. Because if you loved a woman, you listened to her. The same strength that had infused her voice when she’d shouted, “Don’t!” seemed to fill her body. She wrenched her hand loose and backed away from Peter. “You know what your problem is, Peter?” “My problem is that my intended seems to be experiencing pre-nuptial jitters, that’s all.” “Your problem,” Diana corrected him, “is that no one has ever said no to you. You’re handsome, you’re rich, you’re charming, and everyone has always said yes. Whatever you’ve wanted, you’ve gotten. You’re the one who’s gone crazy—because for the first time in your life, someone has said no to you. When I saw you in Boston and gave you back your ring, you bruised me.” She touched her wrist. Nick couldn’t see any bruising on her pale, delicate skin, but the mere possibility that this thug, this asshole, this monster had bruised her made Nick’s hands tighten into fists again. It took more self-control than he’d realized he had to keep his arms at his sides. “You never hurt me like that before, Peter. You never had to, because you always got your way. I always did what you wanted. “Well, now I’m not doing what you want. I’m sorry, but that’s life. Sometimes things don’t go exactly the way you want them to. Get over it.” Peter seemed incredulous. “I didn’t bruise you.” “You did,” she said. “And it will never happen again. Now go away and leave me alone.” She folded her arms over her chest and glared at him, five-foot-four inches of steely resolve. Peter gaped at her, his frown deepening, growing less hostile and more perplexed, as if she were mutating before his eyes, transforming from a compliant little lady into a fire-breathing dragon. He looked almost frightened, which suited Nick just fine. One final gaze, and Peter turned, stormed down the steps to the parking lot, and climbed into a silver Mercedes coupe parked not far from Nick’s aged Honda. Peter revved the motor and, in an aggressive maneuver, tore out of the lot, his engine roaring and his tires sending loose gravel flying like shrapnel. Had Diana actually chosen a rattly Honda Civic over a powerful Mercedes coupe? Or had she just chosen to reject the Mercedes? Was she going to reject Nick, too? He’d almost struck Peter. He would have, if she hadn’t stopped him. He would have resorted to violence, just like his old man. “Are you all right?” she asked him. He’d been focused on the empty space where the Mercedes had been, on the pebbles and dust settling back to earth in its wake. Her question startled him. He spun back to her and found her watching him, looking uncannily calm. “The hell with me. How are you?” “Never better.” She gave him a tentative smile. “You look a little ragged.” “I wanted to punch his lights out,” Nick confessed. “Why didn’t you tell me he hurt you when you saw him in Boston?” “I hurt him, too,” she said. “You didn’t leave bruises.” “Maybe I did. On his heart, or at least on his ego.” “His ego could use some roughing up.” Diana laughed. “Diana.” Nick gathered her hands in his. They were so small, so soft and fine-boned. It pained him to think that prick had hurt her, and had been well on his way to hurting her again today. Nick would have done anything to protect her—even if it meant a second criminal charge, a stint in prison, a lifelong stain on his soul. He would have done it—but she’d protected him, instead. She’d saved him from his own worst impulses. “I love you.” He could think of nothing more to say than those three words. She rose on tiptoe and touched her lips to his. “I love you, too.” “I know it’s been fast, and there’s still stuff you don’t know about me—” “I’m looking forward to learning that stuff. And you’ll learn stuff about me, too.” “I like heavy metal music.” “My feet turn to ice in the winter.” “I used to smoke, but I quit about five years ago.” “I used to bite my nails.” “I hate doing laundry.” “So do I.” Their eyes met. Her smile was so sweet, he felt it resonating inside him. “This is insane,” he said. “Maybe it’s magic.” “I didn’t use to believe in magic,” he admitted, then bowed to kiss her. “But now, I guess I do.” “That’s because you’ve changed,” she murmured, then pulled him to her for a longer, deeper kiss. Epilogue “I’m a wreck,” Nick said. Ed Nolan grinned and shook his head. They were seated across from each other in a booth at the Faulk Street Tavern. It was three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, and they both nursed iced teas, Ed because he was on call that weekend and Nick because he would be leaving for Boston in fifteen minutes. “You’ll be fine,” Ed assured him. “Do I look okay? I thought about getting a haircut, but Diana told me not to.” “I’d say you’re better off pleasing her than pleasing her parents,” Ed said. “And yes, you look okay.” Nick was wearing a suit. The full deal—jacket, tailored trousers, button-down shirt, tie, lace-up shoes. He’d bought the outfit last week. He’d never owned a suit before, never needed one. But then, he’d never driven to Boston to meet the parents of the woman he planned to marry. The very rich, very proper parents. “I feel like a freaking stock broker.” “You look like a guy who cleans up pretty well,” Ed said, then shouted over his shoulder to Gus, “Tell Nick he looks okay.” “You look gorgeous,” Gus shouted back. The bar was just beginning to fill up. Carl Stanton sat on his usual stool, hunched over a whisky. A half-dozen young guys were gathered around another table, laughing and swapping stories, a pitcher of beer and a platter of wings forming a centerpiece. A half-dozen young women sat two tables away, sipping exotic martinis and checking out the guys. Manny Lopez stood behind the bar with Gus, unloading clean glasses onto a shelf. If Gus wanted to shout across the room to Ed and Nick, no one seemed to mind. Nick knew he didn’t look gorgeous. He looked clean-shaven and clean-cut and nothing like who he really was. “What if I blow it?” he asked. “Listen to me.” Ed leaned forward, his beefy hands planted on the table on either side of his glass, his expression stern yet fatherly. He looked the way Nick’s father had never looked, and that alone gave Nick courage. “Diana loves you. You love her. You make her happy. You treat her right. If her parents are good people, that’s what they care about. If all they care about is that you haven’t got a fancy title or an executive office, then they’re not good people and you don’t have to worry about impressing them.” “In other words, I win either way.” “Exactly.” Nick sighed, checked his watch, and swigged the last of his iced tea. “What if I use the wrong fork?” “What do you think? They’ll point at you, snicker, and call you a moron.” Ed snorted. “Use whatever fork you want. As long as you chew with your mouth shut, they won’t mind.” “What if they say they want us to get married in some mansion in Newport?” “Diana’ll decide where she wants to get married. She’s no pushover, in case you haven’t noticed.” “I’ve noticed,” Nick said with a grin. That was just one of the things he loved about her—the thing about her that had changed the most since she’d heard the song. He glanced over at the jukebox, wondering if there was another song in it for him, something that would give him the fortitude to get through this evening with Diana’s parents. He was supposed to meet them, along with Diana and her sister, who was visiting from England, at some fancy French restaurant in downtown Boston—he doubted they’d be wearing plastic bibs with smiling lobsters on them, and dining at a table covered in butcher paper—and by the end of the meal, he hoped they’d accept him as the man their daughter loved. Actually, he hoped for more. He hoped they’d like him. He hoped they’d find him smart and honorable and pleasant, the ideal addition to their family. But he’d settle for acceptable. Diana had sworn that her sister would love him. She wasn’t about to vouch for her parents, but she’d told him to be himself, because Nick himself was the man she loved. How could he be himself when he was dressed in this tailored gray suit? “I’ve got to go,” he said, nudging away his empty glass and sliding out of the booth. “Wish me luck.” “You found Diana,” Ed reminded him, standing as well. “How much more luck do you want?” “What I want…” Nick’s gaze drifted to the jukebox, standing in splendid isolation against the far wall of the tavern. “What I want is a song that’ll give me courage.” Gus swung around from behind the bar and strode to their table to pick up the empty glasses. She patted Nick’s shoulder. “You don’t need another song,” she said. “You already got your magic, Nick. Run with it.” He turned to face her. She was smiling, something she rarely did. Impulsively, he kissed her cheek. “You’re right,” he said. “I’ll run with it. No—I’ll fly.” He gave Ed a nod, then strode to the door and out, off to Boston to be with the woman he loved. *** Ed slung an arm around Gus. It pleased him that her height matched his. That seemed to make things easier, somehow. The door swung shut behind Nick. “He’ll be fine,” he said, echoing the assurance he’d given the kid. “He’ll wow them,” Gus agreed. “Now you’re gonna tell me it’s all because of that jukebox?” Gus shrugged noncommittally. “Believe what you want. And let me believe what I want.” He eyed the jukebox and gave her a squeeze. “I’ve gotta get back to headquarters. I’ll be off at six.” “You know where I’ll be at six,” she said, angling her head toward the bar. He released her and took a step toward the door, which also brought him a step closer to the jukebox. He eyed it again, then rotated back to Gus. “You got a song in there for me?” “Pop a quarter in the slot,” she said, a teasing undertone in her voice. “Maybe it’ll play ‘Take Me Home Tonight.’” Ed grinned. Gus winked, then sauntered to the bar, the empty iced tea glasses in her hand, her slim hips shimmying just the slightest bit. Nick Fiore wasn’t the only guy in love, Ed thought with a sigh. ### About the Author Judith Arnold is the award-winning, bestselling author of more than eighty-five published novels. A New York native, she currently lives in New England, where she indulges in her passions for jogging, dark chocolate, good music, good wine and good books. She is married and the mother of two sons. For more information about Judith, or to contact her, please visit her website. Feel free to check out her other books and sign up for her newsletter. If you enjoyed Changes, I hope you will consider posting a review of it online. Thank you! Here’s a peek at True Colors, the second book in the Magic Jukebox series: Chapter One “We’ve got a problem,” Monica said. Emma set down her paintbrush and blinked herself into the here and now. She’d been lost in her work, dabbing shadings into the stone façade of the castle behind Ava Lowery’s half-finished face. To Emma’s left stood an easel holding a pin board that displayed twenty close-up photographs of Ava, a five-year-old bundle of energy who hadn’t wanted to sit still while Emma had snapped the pictures, so some of them were a little blurry. To Emma’s right stood another easel holding images of medieval castles, unicorns, jewel-encrusted tiaras and satin gowns. Directly before Emma stood the easel containing the painting she was working on—her very first Dream Portraits commission since her arrival in Brogan’s Point four months ago. A warm wash of sunlight flooded the loft through the glass wall behind her stool. If she turned around, she would be rewarded with a spectacular view of scattered trees and rooftops and outcroppings of granite sloping down toward the heart of town, and beyond it the ocean. But she needed that wonderful natural light behind her, spilling onto her canvas, way more than she needed the distractions of a beautiful view. Immersed in her painting, she hadn’t heard Monica climb the stairs to the loft. The stairs and loft were floored in white wall-to-wall carpeting—what sane person covered the floor with white?—but Emma had spread a patchwork of canvas drop cloths across the floor of the loft to protect the ridiculously impractical carpet from paint spatters. She should have heard Monica’s shoes scratching across the canvas. She would have, if she hadn’t been so intensely focused on the castle she was painting. Despite that intense focus, she’d heard Monica’s voice. In particular, she’d heard the word problem. “I’ve already used up my allotment of problems for this year,” she said. She was smiling, but it was true. Things had finally turned around for her—thanks, in huge part, to Monica—and she really wanted to enjoy a few problem-free months before the next onslaught of problems crashed over her. She’d been sleeping on her ex-boyfriend’s cousin’s couch in the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn when Monica had phoned last November and said, “Look—you and Claudio are history and you’re living out of a suitcase. And I’m living in this fabulous house for dirt-cheap. There’s plenty of space here, and a sun-filled loft where you could paint. Three and a half bathrooms. Kiss New York goodbye and come to Brogan’s Point.” Emma had come. She’d scrounged up a few local art students. She’d knocked herself out promoting her Dream Portraits business, and she’d finally gotten her first commission. She wanted only good news from now on. Maybe the problem Monica had mentioned was something simple. A clogged toilet? Emma knew how to use a plunger. A blow-up between Monica and Jimmy? Emma had survived her own blow-up with Claudio. She could nurse Monica through a heartbreak. Jimmy wasn’t good enough for Monica, anyway, although Emma was wise enough to keep that opinion to herself. Monica didn’t look heartbroken, however. Emma tore her gaze from the painting she’d been working on and scrutinized her friend’s expression. As an artist specializing in portraiture, she knew how to read faces. Monica’s face was not sad or dejected. It was concerned and annoyed. Clogged toilet or the equivalent, Emma thought with relief. “Our asshole landlord wants to sell this house,” Monica said. That was not the equivalent of a clogged toilet. “What do you mean, sell it?” “Sell it. Find a buyer and unload it. Stop renting it to us.” That was a problem. In fact, it was a problem. Emma had no idea what property values were in this picturesque seaside town an hour north of Boston, but she could guess that any house as spacious and new as the one she and Monica were renting, with a gorgeous ocean view and three and a half bathrooms, had to be worth some serious money. “I don’t suppose we can buy it from him,” she said. Monica laughed bitterly. “If someone dies and leaves us a million dollars, maybe. I just got a call from Andrea.” “Andrea?” “My mother’s friend. The realtor who got me this deal. The landlord—Max Something, I can’t remember his last name—lives out in California or somewhere, and he’d asked Andrea to rent this house out until he figured out what he wanted to do with it. He didn’t want it sitting empty while he did whatever the hell it is he does in California, or wherever the hell he is. I got a year’s lease—way below market value, because he thought I was doing a favor for him, occupying the place, turning lights on and off and scaring away potential vandals.” “You’re so scary,” Emma joked. “Well, not me in particular. A tenant, any tenant, as long as I was responsible. Which I am,” Monica insisted, evidently in response to Emma’s smirk. “I got this deal because my mother knew Andrea, and she knew I didn’t want to live down the hall from her and my dad at the inn. Anyway, our landlord—Max Whatever—can’t evict us until June, because of the lease. But he might want to start showing the house now, which means we have to give Andrea access and keep the place tidy.” “Oh, God,” Emma groaned. “Tidy? Anything but that.” “It isn’t funny.” “I know.” Emma drummed her fingers on one denim-clad knee. Her overalls were speckled with paint. So, she noticed, were her fingers. She would probably have less difficulty keeping the house clean than keeping herself clean, but either way, tidy didn’t come naturally to her. Monica was much tidier than Emma. Right now, on a day off from her job, she was wearing stylish skinny jeans, a fitted blouse, and ballerina flats that didn’t have a single scuff on them, let alone freckles of paint like Emma’s battered canvas sneakers. Monica often worked weekends at the Ocean Bluff Inn and got a couple of weekdays off in exchange, but her schedule varied so much, Emma couldn’t keep it straight. Fortunately, she didn’t have to. When Monica had a day off, she did her best to stay out of the loft, leaving Emma in solitude to paint, staying out of the way when Emma was working with her art students. Emma sometimes heard Monica downstairs, unpacking groceries, running the vacuum cleaner over the ridiculous white carpet, or chatting on the phone, but Emma had the ability to submerge herself so deeply in her work that she was hardly aware of whatever was going on in other parts of the house. Creating art in this house, in this loft, was so much easier for her than her situation in Brooklyn had been. There, she’d been forced to paint while sharing space with three other artists in a converted factory broken into floor-through lofts. None of them could afford to rent a studio alone, so they’d pooled their resources and split the rent on a loft in the building. They’d each claimed a quarter of the loft space and did their best to ignore one another while they were working. Not ideal, but the arrangement had worked well enough as long as Emma had been living with Claudio. But then she’d caught him screwing around with a naked model in his much grander, unshared studio—that would teach Emma to surprise him with a spontaneous visit in the middle of the day. He’d owned the co-op apartment they’d been living in, so she’d been the one to move out. Fortunately, his cousin Marie had insisted she liked Emma better than Claudio—“Can I get custody of you?” she’d asked—and Emma had wound up on her couch for a few months, until Monica had bailed her out by inviting her to move to this house in Brogan’s Point. Which was leased in Monica’s name. The story of Emma’s life, she thought with a sigh. Maybe someday she’d earn enough money to be able to sign her own name to a lease. Actually, if their landlord insisted on selling this house out from under them, someday might have to come soon. “If he evicts us, you’ll move back to the inn, right?” Monica nodded grimly. “I’m not moving in with my parents. No way. But they’ve got an efficiency apartment there I can use.” Monica’s parents owned the Ocean Bluff Inn, a landmark hotel nestled against the shoreline just north of downtown Brogan’s Point, and Monica was apprenticing her way into the management of the inn. She’d been working there since high school, first as a chamber maid, then as a waitress in the inn’s assorted dining rooms. During college, when she and Emma had met and become best friends, she’d worked summers as a desk clerk in the lobby. Her parents insisted that she experience every job at the inn so she’d learn the business inside and out. Emma didn’t just adore Monica; she was intrigued by her. Emma was an artist, and she’d grown up in a ramshackle old house in Vermont, where her parent grew their own food, her father did carpentry and her mother snagged part-time jobs when money grew tight. Business people—people who got steady paychecks, people who paid their income taxes on time, people who dressed stylishly even on their days off—were like another species to Emma. In college, she’d met plenty of members of that species, but she’d mostly hung out with her fellow art majors. Pure chance had assigned Monica as her roommate. However, in spite of their differences, they’d instantly become fast friends. Maybe it was a case of opposites attracting. Or maybe it was simply that Monica was smart and kind and loyal—and as intrigued by Emma as Emma was by her. “I really don’t want to move back to the inn,” Monica confessed. “Not into that tiny apartment, anyway. My parents have a gorgeous suite there, six rooms, eighteen hundred square feet. I guess that’ll be mine if they retire and I take over management of the place. But that’s a long way off. And I can’t stay there with them now, not with Jimmy.” Emma considered pointing out that, as a twenty-six year old woman, Monica was certainly entitled to invite her boyfriend into her bed—even if he wasn’t good enough for her. But she recognized the awkwardness of doing that in her parents’ home. There simply wasn’t enough privacy. At least Monica had access to the efficiency apartment she’d just mentioned. Emma would have to make her own living arrangements if she got evicted from this house. Brogan’s Point wasn’t exactly overflowing with rental housing, let alone rental housing affordable to an artist just getting started. She could move to another, cheaper town, but then she’d lose her students, the main source of her income. And she’d need a studio, too. Shit. This wasn’t just a problem. It was a problem. “All right,” she said, determined to remain optimistic. “We’ve got until June. He can’t kick us out before then. Maybe something will happen in two months.” “Yeah.” Monica was clearly the less sanguine partner in their friendship. “Someone can die and leave us a million dollars. Better yet, Max the landlord can die.” “Or change his mind,” Emma said diplomatically. “Maybe he’ll find out that the real estate market is really depressed right now, and he’ll decide it’s not a good time to sell.” “Or he can die,” Monica argued. “That would work for me.” Emma laughed. Reluctantly, Monica laughed, too. “It’ll work out,” Emma assured her. “Things always do work out the way they’re meant to.” “Except when they don’t,” Monica said darkly. She turned toward the stairs down to the first floor. “Get back to your painting, girl. You’re going to need the money.”

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