True Colors by Judith Arnold

“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 
True Colors
True Colors by Judith Arnold

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.”





Chapter Two




It looked better than he remembered it.

Staying away for a year had clearly been a good idea. During that year, he’d regained his perspective, his balance, his sanity. He could evaluate the house with detachment. It was no longer the elegant retreat he’d envisioned when he’d bought it for Vanessa, no longer the extravagance he’d lavished upon her. She was gone from his life, and soon this property would be, too.

He hadn’t remembered that the front walk was paved with bluestone and the front door was flanked by those round bushes with the dark, leathery leaves and voluptuous pink blossoms. He couldn’t remember what they were called; botany was not his area of expertise. Whatever they were, they were in bloom now, vibrant splashes of pink where in his memory he’d visualized only gray clapboard and stark glass. He hadn’t remembered the pine trees, so tall and straight he could imagine the seafarers of an earlier era creating towering masts for their schooners from them. He hadn’t remembered the isolation of the house, perched as it was on a rise with a breathtaking view of the town and the ocean beyond.

He did remember that the house’s architectural style was modern. He liked modern. He liked the sharp angles and broad planes of the house, the simplicity and geometry of it. He remembered that the first time Vanessa had looked at the place, she’d said, “It’s kind of cold.” Then she’d rethought that opinion and said, “Kind of cool, actually.” He’d thought she was cool for loving it. Eventually, he’d realized she was just cold.

But he’d bought it for her. And now she was gone, and he would sell it.

He strode up the walk, trying not to let those gaudy flowering shrubs distract him, and pressed the doorbell. Through the glass sidelight bordering the door, he heard the bell resonate inside the house.

A few seconds later, he saw movement through the glass, first a shadow and then a woman approaching the door. He hadn’t expected anyone to be home. He’d rung the bell as a courtesy before letting himself inside, but he’d expected his tenant, Monica Reinhart, to be at work at three-forty in the afternoon. According to Andrea Simonetti, the real estate broker who’d set up the rental, Ms. Reinhart worked at that big inn in town, in some sort of management capacity.

The woman he viewed through the glass did not look like a manager. She was petite, with wild red hair tumbling in curls around her face. She wore a baggy sweater, baggier cargo pants, and canvas sneakers, none of her apparel particularly new or neat. Trailing behind her were two little girls, maybe eight or nine years old, their hair pulled back in ponytails. Both had on oversized men’s tailored shirts, the tails of which fell to their knees.

As soon as the red-haired woman spotted him, she fell back a step, then turned and said something to the girls. She didn’t open the door.

Fair enough. She didn’t recognize him, and she was apparently smart enough not to open the door to a stranger. He tried to signal her through the glass, digging his wallet from the hip pocket of his jeans so he could show her his driver’s license, but she took another step backward and then moved the girls and herself out of his line of sight.

He abandoned his wallet and pulled out his cell phone instead. He’d programmed Monica Reinhart’s phone number into it, even though he’d never had occasion to call her. Andrea had served as a go-between for them, but he’d wanted his tenant’s number, just in case.

He tapped it, listened to her phone ring twice, and then: “Hey, this is Monica. I can’t come to the phone right now. Please leave a message.”

Oh, come on. She was standing on the other side of the door. Why couldn’t she answer her phone?

He tapped on the glass. She and the kids refused to move back into view.

All right. He didn’t want to scare the shit out of her, but he knew he was harmless, even if she didn’t. He slid his phone back into his pocket, removed the front door key, and slid it into the lock. The door swung open.

He found Monica huddling with the two girls, pressed up against the coat closet door, all three of them pale and wide-eyed. Monica had one girl tucked securely under each arm, and she had her damn cell phone in one hand. “Get out,” she snapped. “I’m dialing 9-1-1.”

“I’m Max Tarloff,” he said, spreading his hands palm up to show he wasn’t holding any weapons.

She frowned, as if his name meant nothing to her.

“Your landlord.”

“Max Something?”

“Max Tarloff.”

Her mouth fell open, then slammed shut. He probably shouldn’t have noticed her lips. They weren’t covered in lipstick, and the light in the entry foyer wasn’t exactly bright, but he could see that those lips settled into a natural pucker, a little too full for her face. Her complexion remained pale, and despite her red hair she had no freckles, at least none that he could see. Sharp cheekbones, though, and a wide forehead, and pretty hazel eyes. Her hair was so thick and long and curly, he could imagine losing small objects in it.

His key, for instance. He pocketed it so she wouldn’t think he was planning to attack her with it.

“Tarloff,” she repeated. “Monica could never… Oh, I mean…” She faltered, then loosened her grip on the girls. “I think it’s okay.”

“He has his own key,” one of the girls said.

“Well, yes. As the landlord, he would.” She peered up at him. “I thought you were in California.”

“I was. Now I’m here.”

“But we—I mean, you’re not going to evict us, are you?”

Why was she acting as if he were an ogre, planning to boot her into the street, where she could live in a cardboard box? “I thought Andrea explained to you that I plan to sell the house when the lease is up in June.”

“She told Monica, but… I mean, it’s not June yet.”

That was the second time the woman referred to Monica. Evidently, she was someone else. Someone who was living in his house, if her comment about being evicted was anything to go by.

And perhaps he should evict her, because he’d rented this house to Monica Reinhart, not Monica and some other woman, and two little girls. Sure, the house was too big for one person, but he’d rented it only so there would be someone living inside it, making sure the pipes didn’t freeze in the winter and the roof didn’t leak during the spring rains. He’d set a ridiculously low rent because he’d felt Ms. Reinhart was doing him a favor by living here. An empty house was an invitation to mischief. He didn’t want people to think the place was abandoned.

Anyway, he didn’t need the money. What he’d needed was a quiet, discreet person turning the lights on and off and announcing to the world that the house was occupied.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“She’s our art teacher,” one of the girls announced.

“You interrupted our class,” the other added.

A class? An art class? In his house? What the hell? “Who are you?” he asked in a tight voice, not wanting to erupt and frighten the children—or have the woman phone 911. “That’s number one. And number two is, are you running a school in my house?”

“Not a school, no.” She loosened her grip on the two little girls. “Why don’t you go upstairs and do a little more work on your collages while I talk to Mr.—Tarkoff?” she asked him.

“Tarloff.” Number three, why don’t you know the name of your landlord?

“Mr. Tarloff. Go, go, go!” She sent them toward the stairs with a gentle nudge, then turned back to Max. “I’m Emma Glendon. I’m sharing the house with Monica.”

Max watched the girls as they scampered up the free-floating stairs to the loft. He was a nanometer away from losing his temper, but he didn’t want to explode in front of her students. “Number one, you are not on the lease. The lease offers no subletting provisions. I did not give permission to Ms. Reinhart to open this house up to additional tenants.”

The woman gazed up at him and he tried to ignore how lush her lips were. But when he steered his gaze away from them, it settled on her eyes, which were wide-set and fringed in dense lashes a shade darker than her red hair. Her irises contained a multitude of color—green and gray and amber. The way she peered at him gave him the uneasy sense that she could see more than he’d like.

Not that he had anything to hide. He just felt…unnerved.

“What was number two again?” she asked when his silence extended beyond a minute.

Number two? Right. “Number two, this property isn’t licensed for commercial enterprises. It’s not insured for you to be hosting classes with children. You need a permit from the zoning board to do that, and I know you don’t have one, because as the landlord, I’d be the one to have to request it.”

“It’s not a commercial enterprise,” the woman said. “It’s two little third-graders who come here and make collages.”

“They called it a class.”

“I teach them things. Parents teach their children things, too, but that doesn’t make their houses commercial enterprises.”

He glanced toward the stairs and scowled. “Are they your children?”

“No.”

“Are they paying you to teach them whatever the hell it is you’re teaching them?”

She hesitated long enough for him to know the answer.

“That makes it a commercial enterprise,” he said. “Most parents don’t charge their kids to teach them how to tie their shoes.” He scraped a hand through his hair in exasperation. He wasn’t sure what he was most upset about: the fact that Monica Reinhart was in breach of her lease, the fact that if something awful had happened—say, a pint-size art student got injured in his house—his insurance wouldn’t cover it and he might just find himself afoul of the law…or the fact that Emma Glendon, with her wild, fiery hair and her paint-spattered clothing, oozed sex appeal.

He couldn’t figure out why. She was no Vanessa. She was short, unfashionably curvy, and messy. A smear of paint tattooed her left hand. Not his type. Not at all.

“All right,” he said, as much to himself as to her. “You’re going to have to vacate the premises.”

“At the end of the lease. I understand.”

“Now,” he said. As soon as the word emerged, he felt terrible. Since when had he become such a tyrant? It wasn’t as if he was a landlord by profession. If he was in breach of zoning laws, he could hire an army of lawyers to rectify the situation.

But he wanted this house vacated. He wanted it sold. He wanted to put this part of his life to an end. He couldn’t move on as long as he still owned the place.

And it was probably going to be more difficult to evict two tenants than it would have been to evict one. Two tenants and a couple of pint-size Picassos in pigtails.

He was angry. He thought he’d overcome all his anger, his bitterness, his resentment. That was what this year had been about: rebalancing his life. Reclaiming it. Healing. And then moving on.

The red-haired art teacher standing in his entry hall only complicated matters, making it harder to rebalance, reclaim, heal, move on. Of course he was angry.

Before he could say anything more, anything that would make him feel even angrier, he yanked open the door and stormed down the bluestone front walk. The fat pink flowers on those shrubs couldn’t possibly be mocking him, but it felt as if they were.





Chapter Three




“Who was that?” Abbie asked.

The little girl’s voice distracted Emma from her inspection of the white carpeting on the steps leading up to the loft. She’d noticed a few faint smudges of dirt, but nothing that looked like paint or glue or ground-in clay, nothing a vacuum cleaner or a little rug shampoo couldn’t remove. At least she hoped so.

She wondered if the condition of the floors mattered anymore. The guy was kicking her to the curb, literally—or as literally as possible, given that the road leading to the house didn’t have a curb. Whether or not the carpet was in pristine condition seemed irrelevant. He would probably confiscate the security deposit just for the hell of it.

She didn’t want to discuss him with Abbie and Tasha, but she wasn’t about to lie, either. “He’s my landlord,” she said as she joined the girls at the work table, which held a chaotic clutter of construction paper, cotton balls, satin ribbon, aluminum foil, toothpicks, fabric, salvaged giftwrap, and magazines, pages of which had been scissored to shreds. Although Abbie and Tasha insisted they were old enough for pointy scissors, Emma had supplied each with snub-nose scissors—they cut just as well as pointy ones, so why tempt fate?—and a jar of rubber cement.

She loved having her young students create collages, which encouraged the children to think abstractly about shape and texture and the juxtaposition of images. Collages were messy. They were fun. And they didn’t require fine motor skills. Not everyone could draw or paint. But anyone could make a collage.

The collaging materials with which she’d armed the girls were indeed messy, strewn and scattered across the work table. They were messier than Emma’s hair or her clothes, messier than the drop cloths protecting the carpeted floor. She supposed she should be grateful that Max Whatever hadn’t come upstairs and seen Emma’s class in action.

The hell with gratitude. If he’d climbed the stairs to the loft and viewed the bedlam of two exuberant eight-year-olds creating collages, Emma’s fate would have been no worse than it already was.

He was evicting her. Now, he’d said.

“What’s a landlord?” Tasha asked.

Emma pasted a brave smile on her face. Tasha and Abbie’s mothers were each paying her thirty dollars an hour to teach their daughters some basic art skills. They weren’t paying her to whine about her imminent homelessness.

“A landlord,” she said, bending to pick up a linty cotton ball which had migrated from the table to the floor, “is someone who owns a house.”

“My daddy is a landlord,” Abbie bragged.

“Well, it’s someone who owns a house—or a building—and rents it out to other people to use. That man owns this house, but he rents it to Monica and me so we can live in it.” Using a present-tense verb to describe what the man was doing didn’t seem quite accurate, but Emma decided a shade of dishonesty was allowed, under the circumstances.

She needed to phone Monica to warn her that Max Whatever was in town—and worse, that Max Whatever was ousting Emma from his home. Possibly Monica, too. He’d seemed mad enough to kick them both to the non-existent curb.

Yes, he was mad. Mad Max.

She suppressed a bitter laugh and reached for her cell phone. Just a few minutes ago, she’d been about to tap in the emergency number, summoning the police to the house to save her and the girls from an intruder. Wouldn’t that have been fun. Maybe the cops would have carted Mad Max away before he could give Emma the boot. A mistaken arrest would have pissed him off even more, but the result wouldn’t have been any worse for Emma. It couldn’t be worse.

She stared at her phone for a moment, then shoved it back into her pocket. She couldn’t call Monica while her students were present. Besides, when Monica was working, she usually turned off her cell phone, which meant Emma would have to try to reach her through the inn’s switchboard, and that in turn might mean having to leave a message with an assistant. This was not a situation about which Emma wanted to leave a message.

She checked her watch, peeled a blob of dried rubber cement off its face and said, “Class ends in five minutes. Let’s finish what you’re doing and tidy up the studio.” Calling the loft a studio made the entire enterprise seem just a little more professional.

Which would no doubt piss Mad Max off even more.

While the girls scrambled to adorn their collages with a few final items—gummed gold stars in Tasha’s case, a heart-shaped patch of paisley fabric in Abbie’s—Emma gathered a few more fallen bits and pieces from the floor surrounding the table. While she tossed the detritus into the trash pail, she thought. About her impending homelessness. About how miserable she’d been sleeping on Claudio’s cousin’s couch before Monica had rescued her by inviting her to move to Brogan’s Point.

About Max.

He wasn’t what she’d pictured the few times Monica had mentioned their landlord. Max seemed like an old man’s name, but Max Whatever couldn’t have been much older than thirty. He was tall and thin, clad in jeans, sneakers, a brown wool blazer and a muffler wrapped several times around his neck, the kind of knitted scarf a girlfriend might make for her guy.

Emma tried to imagine Max’s girlfriend. Tall. Thin. Bristling with self-righteous indignation, like him.

Beautiful, like him.

Only now, when he was safely out of the house, could she allow herself to contemplate the intriguing lines of his face, the contrast of his straight, narrow nose and his thick, wavy hair, the juxtaposition of that dark hair with his pale blue eyes. His eyelashes had been downright phenomenal.

Not that Emma paid attention to a man’s eyelashes, except in a detached, appraising way. She painted portraits. She noticed facial details—professionally. Men’s eyelashes did nothing for her personally. As an artist, however, she found them intriguing.

In fact, she had found all of Max’s features intriguing. The faint hollows beneath his cheekbones. The sharp angle of his chin. The hint of bronze in his complexion. Even if Monica hadn’t mentioned that he lived in California, Emma would have guessed that he hadn’t spent the past few cold, snowy months in Massachusetts.

As riveting as his features were, he’d tried hard—with reasonable success—to keep his emotions hidden. His anger hadn’t exploded from his face. She’d noticed it in the tension around his mouth, in the flinty chill in his eyes as he’d regarded her. But unlike, say, Claudio, who used to erupt like Vesuvius at the slightest provocation, Max had been restrained, his emotions held in check.

That only made him seem madder to Emma. She was used to people who flung their emotions around like confetti on New Year’s Eve. Artists didn’t erect many walls between themselves and the world. They needed to be able to see, feel, experience everything around them. You couldn’t pick up on the subtle details of a flower or a seascape or a face if you had a thick wall of self-protection separating you from everything out there.

Painting Max’s portrait would be a fascinating challenge, she thought. Especially painting it as a Dream Portrait, with his amazing face surrounded by his dreams. Unlike Ava Lowry, who dreamed of being a princess, Max probably dreamed of…what? Being obeyed by his tenants? How would Emma depict that visually on a canvas?

The doorbell rang, and she flinched, panic seizing her at the possibility that Max had returned with a constable in tow, perhaps, or a sheriff. Who was in charge of evicting tenants? Was it something the local police could take care of? Would they point a service revolver at her and force her to pack all her things and remove them from the house while they watched? Fortunately, she didn’t own much, other than her art supplies.

Where would she store her easels and paints if she wound up living in a cardboard box on the corner of Atlantic Avenue and South street? Would the teeny-tiny apartment Monica had access to at the Ocean Bluff Inn be big enough? Doubtful. Monica’s wardrobe alone was at least three times as big as Emma’s, and then Monica had all her make-up and toiletries. She wouldn’t have room for Emma’s things as well as her own.

Emma realized that the person ringing it was probably Tasha’s mother. The girls’ mothers carpooled, and Abbie’s mother had picked them up after their last lesson.

The girls snatched their collages from the table and raced each other to the stairs. Emma watched them clamber down to the first floor, giggling and elbowing each other. What if one of them fell? Would she be sued, or would Mad Max, the home owner, be held liable? What sort of insurance would he need for her to hold her art classes here? Would he require special insurance if Emma didn’t call them art classes? What if she said they were simply occasions when she invited a couple of young friends over to make collages?

Fortunately, Abbie and Tasha were agile. No falls, no injuries. If anyone had gotten hurt, it wouldn’t do them much good to sue her. She had no money to pay any claims.

Correction: she had sixty dollars, the two checks Tasha’s mother handed her before oohing and ahhing over their collages. She thanked Emma and chased the girls down the front walk to her van, parked at the edge of the road. Emma waved them off, then turned away and closed the door.

Her vision took in the entry hall, with its stark white walls and white carpet. The walls needed some paintings hanging on them. Better yet, they needed color. The kitchen had slate-gray tile on the floors, and the living room sofas were a dark gray. The furnishings had come with the house—a good thing, since Monica, having grown up in a hotel, didn’t own much in the way of furniture, and Emma owned even less. But as much as she loved living here, sharing the airy rooms and the splendid views with her best friend, Emma didn’t much like the décor.

Not only was Mad Max a nasty landlord, but he was also a tasteless one. He’d had the good sense to purchase this fabulous house, but he’d given it a chilly, colorless ambiance. Emma decided she hated him.

She’d still like to paint him, though.





Chapter Four




Max entered the Ocean Bluff Inn and zeroed in on the clerk behind the burnished wood counter. She was dressed neatly in a blazer and blouse—the counter blocked his view of her lower half, so he couldn’t see whether she was wearing slacks or a skirt, but he felt safe in assuming that whatever she had on was appropriate. Her hair was neat, her lips glistening with a soft pink lipstick.

Monica Reinhart, he guessed. The proper professional he’d rented his house to. The young woman Andrea Simonetti had sworn would make a perfect tenant, taking care of his property until he decided what to do with it.

He took a deep breath and crossed the cozy lobby to the counter. Another man might storm across the room and light into the woman, but Max wasn’t given to displays of temper. He was kind of surprised that Emma Glendon had triggered so much anger in him, an anger hot enough that it hadn’t burned itself out in the time it took him to drive down the winding, weaving roads back to town and this hotel.

Monica tapped a few keys on her computer and then turned and smiled at him. A middle-aged couple descended the broad, carpeted stairs to the lobby, and Max hesitated, figuring it would be better for Monica to assist them first. Even if he didn’t lose his temper with his tenant, he didn’t want to discuss her breach of their lease—or possibly breaches, plural—in front of hotel guests.

But they strolled past him and out the front door to the veranda, leaving him and Monica alone in the lobby. He approached the counter and asked, “Monica Reinhart?”

Her smile unflinching, she shook her head. “Kim Seaver. Can I help you?”

Okay. Not Monica Reinhart. He wondered if Ms. Reinhart would turn up in baggy old pants spattered with paint, like her illegal roommate. “I need to talk to Monica Reinhart.”

“She’s in a meeting with the tennis court people,” Kim informed him. “The court needs to be resurfaced before the season starts. Is there something I can help you with?”

“No. It has to be Ms. Reinhart.”

Kim quirked one eyebrow, as if trying to guess what he needed to see her colleague about. If it were her business, he would have told her. He wished she would put her eyebrow back down.

“You’re welcome to have a seat and wait. The parlor is quiet.” She gestured toward an arched doorway off the lobby. “Or you can have a drink in the lounge. Or the TV room—”

He didn’t want a drink. Or a TV. He wanted to discuss his house with Monica, and then he wanted to sell the damned place and get on with his life.

“Oh, wait—here she comes now,” Kim said, her attention snared by chattering voices that drifted into the lobby from a back corridor. “You’re in luck.” The smile she gave him was oddly coquettish, which made him recoil. He didn’t trust flirtatious women.

The woman he presumed to be Monica Reinhart soon appeared in the hallway leading into the lobby from somewhere beyond the check-in counter. She was flanked by two burly men in work clothes—rugged jeans, flannel shirts, denim jackets. She, however, was clearly a graduate of the same school of grooming as Kim. She wore a tailored blue blazer over a plain white blouse, a pale gray skirt, nylons and dark shoes with low heels. Her hair was straight and dark, neatly trimmed to chin length, and her face was buffed and polished. She seemed to be everything Emma Glendon was not.

“Monica, this gentleman is here to see you,” Kim said cheerfully, then gestured toward Max. Did she actually wink at him?

He didn’t want to know. Seizing the moment, he extended his right hand across the counter and introduced himself. “Max Tarloff.”

Monica’s smile lost a bit of its luster as his name registered on her. Then she brightened again, with some effort. He could see the struggle as the corners of her mouth edged upward. “Yes, of course. Max Tarloff.” After shaking his hand, she slid hers free of his grip and turned to the workmen. “So—clay surfaces, new nets, work with the landscape people and leave the fence as is.”

“Right,” one of the workmen said. “We’re on it.”

“Thanks.” She turned back to Max, then glided around the counter. “I’m sorry—I didn’t know you were coming to town.”

“Well.” He spread his hands as if to say, here I am.

“Why don’t you come to my office?” She beckoned him around the counter and toward the back hall. Kim gazed after them, her expression calculating.

No, he wanted to shout at Kim. I’m not here to flirt. I don’t have a personal relationship with Monica Reinhart, and I don’t want a personal relationship with you. I want to get that wild-haired woman out of my house and I want to put it up for sale. And I want to forget it ever existed.

Doing his best to ignore Kim, he followed Monica down the hall to an office barely large enough to contain a small teak computer desk and a few chairs. The window behind the desk looked out onto a patio. While she might boast her own office, Monica was too young to roost high on the executive ladder at this resort. He supposed the offices overlooking the ocean were reserved for the head honchos.

He waited until she’d taken her seat behind the desk before he lowered himself into a chair facing her. The chair seemed better suited to someone her height than his; his knees jutted out, nearly banging the desk. Inching the chair back, he bumped the wall behind him. He felt like Alice after she’d eaten the cake that said “Eat Me” and outgrew the house she was trapped inside.

“It’s so nice to meet you face to face,” Monica said.

He braced himself against the charm offensive she seemed determined to launch. “Ms. Reinhart,” he said, choosing to keep things as formal as possible. “I stopped by the house before coming here. Some other person—who wasn’t you—was living there.”

“Emma,” Monica said. “My best friend.”

“According to the lease—”

He was interrupted by the ringing of a telephone on the desk. “Excuse me,” she murmured before lifting the receiver and tucking it against her cheek. “Monica Reinhart speaking… Hi, Dad. Yes, the tennis court guys were here…. They’ll get it done before Memorial Day. Don’t worry…. Well, with the weather, they couldn’t… It’ll get done, Dad. In time for the season…. No, they’re leaving the fence. Just like we discussed…. Okay. ’Bye.” She lowered the phone and gave Max an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry.”

He checked himself before reassuring her he didn’t mind. He didn’t, really; after all, he’d just barged in on her, interrupting her work day. He hadn’t made an appointment, and he ought to be grateful she’d invited him into her office. But he didn’t want things to get too friendly between her and himself. He was pissed off, and he wanted to stay pissed off.

What had he been saying before the phone rang? Monica thoughtfully reminded him. “According to the lease…?”

He nodded. “According to the lease, you were supposed to be the only person living in the house. No sublets were allowed.”

“Emma isn’t subletting. She’s just staying with me.”

“I rented to you, not to her. I wasn’t renting the house to make money—obviously. The rent is way below market value. I just wanted someone—one quiet, responsible adult—to stay in the house and make sure the pipes didn’t freeze in the winter.”

“They didn’t,” Monica said sweetly. “I made sure.”

“The lease was a simple arrangement. Straightforward. Low rent, one person. But you invited someone else to live with you—and even worse, she’s running a school out of the house.”

“It’s not a school,” Monica argued. “She just does art with some kids. I don’t suppose it matters though, does it? Andrea told us we’re going to have to vacate the premises in June. Unless you’d like to consider renewing the lease.” She sent him a hopeful smile.

“That’s not going to happen.” Damn Monica Reinhart for being so pleasant. She was coming across as civil and polite, and he was coming across as some sort of monster.

But he was pissed off. He’d flown into Boston, rented a car and driven up to Brogan’s Point, intending to make sure his house was still standing and then stop by at Andrea Simonetti’s real estate office to discuss listing the house for sale. Then he’d planned to drive back south to Cambridge, to spend a couple of days visiting his beloved mentor, Professor Stan Weisner, and indulging in a beer or two at one of his favorite college hangouts.

He hadn’t expected to find that wild-haired woman in his house—with a pair of kids in tow. And to learn that she was living there, and running a commercial enterprise without his permission, without a zoning clearance, without any of the legal necessities…

He’d been taken advantage of before. He wasn’t going to let that happen again, regardless of how civil and polite Monica Reinhart was.

Her phone rang again. “Oh—excuse me,” she said before lifting the phone and directing all her civility and politeness toward her caller. “Monica Reinhart speaking… No, that’s up to the landscaper. He has to work around the sprinkler heads. Talk to Barry about it, okay?” Another contrite smile as she set the phone back in its cradle. “We’ve really loved living in the house,” she told him. “We’ve put every effort into taking good care of it. We’ve shoveled the driveway all winter, even though technically that wasn’t our responsibility. We scrubbed all the outdoor furniture on the deck and stored it in the basement. We thought about hanging some pictures—well, Emma did. She’s an artist. She loves being surrounded by art. But we didn’t want to put any nail holes into your walls, so we left them bare.”

“An artist. Right,” he muttered, a vision of that short, curvaceous woman with her flamboyant mop of hair flashing through his mind.

“Did she tell you about her Dream Portraits? This is so cool—she paints a portrait of a person and surrounds the portrait with that person’s dreams. The one she’s working on now is a portrait of a little girl who dreams about being a princess. So she’s painting a castle, and a crown… I think she’s going to include a unicorn, too. She’s so amazingly talented.”

Max didn’t want to hear how amazingly talented she was. “She’s painting this portrait in my house?”

“Oh, she’s very careful. She’s laid drop-cloths all over the floor.”

Wonderful. She was not only running a school in his house, but also painting castles and unicorns. “There are licensing and insurance issues—”

The phone rang again. Monica held her hand up like a traffic cop, halting him, and then answered the phone. “Monica Reinhart speaking… Where’s Donna? She should be handling that.” Monica listened for a moment, then sighed. “All right. I’ll be there in a minute.” She hung up the phone and sighed again. “I’ve got a nervous bride-to-be who wants to change her menu for the fifth time, and our events planner took the day off to get a root canal. I’m sorry. I really have to deal with this.” She rose, and Max reluctantly stood, too. “Do you have a place to stay while you’re in town?”

“I was planning to stay in Cambridge.”

“But you’re here, and it’s such a beautiful day. Why don’t you spend the night at the Ocean Bluff Inn as my guest? It’s off season. We’ve got some vacant rooms. Please. As my guest,” she repeated.

She was being too damned nice, which made him suspicious. And he hadn’t intended to stay in Brogan’s Point during this trip. Brogan’s Point had never particularly appealed to him. Sure, the ocean was pretty, but Vanessa had been the one who wanted to live here. He was more of a city person. He’d grown up in New York, he currently lived in San Francisco, and this place was too quiet. Too tranquil.

“Thank you, but—”

“I insist.” Monica circled the small room to the door. “Why don’t I have Kim set you up in a room, and then you, Emma and I can meet for a drink at the Faulk Street Tavern at—” she glanced at her watch “—six o’clock and we can discuss this whole lease thing. You really can’t leave Brogan’s Point without having a drink at the Faulk Street Tavern. And you can’t leave Brogan’s Point without spending a night at the Ocean Bluff Inn. I’ll have Kim take care of it.”

With that, Monica strode out of the office and down the corridor, her sensible leather shoes carrying her at a brisk clip.

He didn’t want to stay here, in this beautiful New England resort. He didn’t want to have a drink at the Faulk Street Tavern, wherever that was. He definitely didn’t want to get friendly with Monica Reinhart and her illegal roommate.

A castle. A unicorn. If there was one thing Max loathed, it was whimsy.

He should just drive over to Simonetti Realty and let Andrea take care of everything. Get Emma out of his house, inspect the premises, have an appraisal done, get the place listed. He could drive back to Cambridge and enjoy a drink at one of his old haunts instead of some picturesque little seaside tavern. He could get on with his life.

That was what he should do… But another memory of Emma Glendon, her lush hair and her even lusher lips, lodged itself in his brain. And he found himself at the counter in the lobby, allowing Kim to book him into a third-floor room.





Chapter Five




Emma had been to the Faulk Street Tavern only a handful of times since moving to Brogan’s Point. She knew it was a landmark—although why, she couldn’t say. It was kind of scruffy, just this side of drab. The drinks were inexpensive, but given her finances, she couldn’t even afford inexpensive. Why go out for drinks when she could buy a cheap six-pack at the supermarket for not much more than a single drink at this bar? The wait staff at the Faulk Street Tavern was soft-spoken and mellow, but most people in Brogan’s Point were soft-spoken and mellow, especially compared to the barmaids Emma had encountered in Brooklyn. The décor was pedestrian. The only special thing about the Faulk Street Tavern was the funky antique jukebox standing against one wall.

But when Monica had phoned her, told her to put on some decent—by which she meant not paint-spattered—clothing and haul her ass over to the place at six o’clock, Emma didn’t argue. Apparently, Mad Max had tracked Monica down at the Ocean Bluff Inn and conveyed that he was not happy with his tenants. Or, more accurately, his tenant and Emma, whom he regarded not as a tenant but as some sort of toxic intruder.

A cockroach? A bedbug? A lethal dose of radon? Just because she and Monica had stretched the terms of the lease—no, they’d merely interpreted it differently from him—didn’t mean she posed a threat to his precious house.

To be safe, however, she’d obeyed Monica’s edict and dressed in a long brown skirt, a tunic in an interesting weave of brown, tan and moss green, and her most expensive shoes, a pair of tooled leather boots that Claudio had bought for her when things had been going well between them and that, obviously, she couldn’t return to him once things had stopped going well. Before dressing, she’d taken a shower and washed her hair, just to make sure there were no flecks of paint or glue in her long, unmanageable mane.

She understood the importance of making a good second impression on Mad Max, even if her first impression had flunked the test. This meeting needed to go well. It was bad enough that he seemed inclined to evict her and Monica because they’d breached—no, misinterpreted—the lease. What if he sued them for damages?

She’d have to pawn her boots, for starters.

“We’re going to make nice,” Monica had explained when she’d phoned. “We’re not going to be stubborn or sarcastic. Are we,” she added for emphasis.

“Who, me? Stubborn and sarcastic?”

“Like that. Behave, Emma. Keep your mouth shut and let me do the talking. I’m better at this kind of thing than you are.”

Anyone in the world had to be better at it than Emma.

But she’d washed her hair and donned her boots. And she’d arrived at the Faulk Street Tavern only five minutes late, even though she’d had to walk all the way down the hill into town from the house, a hike of nearly three miles. She couldn’t afford a car. Living in New York City, she hadn’t needed one. In Brogan’s Point, she’d gotten used to walking.

Fortunately, the boots were extraordinarily comfortable.

Monica and Max were already seated in one of the booths when Emma entered the bar. The place wasn’t that crowded; it was a weeknight, and still a bit early for pub crawlers. She strolled past the tables and across the scuffed wood dance floor at the center of the room to the booth her housemate and her nemesis occupied. Max courteously stood as she neared the table.

God, she’d love to paint his portrait. She’d remembered that his eyes were beautiful, but she hadn’t remembered exactly how beautiful they were. Like precision-cut amethysts, surrounded by those dense black lashes.

She slid into the booth next to Monica, facing Max. “Hi,” she said. She assumed she was allowed to say that much.

Max nodded and resumed his seat. Monica beamed a thousand-watt smile his way. “Let’s order some drinks,” she suggested, beckoning a waitress with a wave. “Max? What would you like?”

He eyed her warily, then slid his gaze to Emma and looked every more wary. “What do you have on tap?” he asked the waitress.

She rattled off a list of beers. He ordered a Sam Adams, and Emma requested one, as well. Monica opted for a dirty martini. “Can you bring a bowl of nuts or something?” she added. “What does Gus have that we can munch on?”

“Want me to get a menu?”

“No.” Monica aimed her blinding smile back at Max. “I’m sure you’d like to save your appetite for dinner at the inn. Only one of our dining rooms is open for dinner during the off-season, but the chef is fabulous.”

Max pressed his lips together in a grim line. Clearly, he was not buying what Monica was selling.

Emma tried not to fidget. The nape of her neck felt damp; blow-drying her thick hair usually took forever, and she hadn’t had forever that evening. She’d hoped her walk down the hill in the brisk spring air would have finished what the blow-dryer had begun, but apparently it hadn’t.

Or maybe the chill at the nape of her neck was caused not by her shower but by dread. This time tomorrow, she might be homeless.

“Mr. Tarkoff,” she began.

“Tarloff,” he corrected her as Monica kicked her under the table.

“I’m sorry. I mean, call me Emma and I’ll call you Max. Would that be okay?”

“Emma, let’s wait until our drinks get here,” Monica said pointedly.

“I’ll let you do all the talking,” Emma promised, then turned back to Max. “I just want to say that I’m petrified about winding up homeless. I’ve taken really good care of your house, and I have nowhere else to live, so I’m really up the creek if I get kicked out. That’s all. If you two want to debate the terms of the lease, I’ll stay out of your way.”

Max’s gaze narrowed on Emma. Evidently, he hadn’t expected her to be so blunt, to express her fear so honestly. She hadn’t expected to express it so honestly, either. But she’d hoped that if she gave voice to her panic, she’d win a few points for candor.

“I don’t want to make you homeless,” Max said. Maybe he had a conscience, after all. Maybe she could guilt him into letting her stay at the house until she found a new residence. And some space to run her classes and Dream Portraits, because she’d need the income to pay for the new residence.

She started to thank him for his compassion, but he cut her off before she could speak. “The thing is, you can’t run a business from a private house without getting a zoning variance.”

“This is Brogan’s Point,” Monica reminded him gently. “Everyone knows everyone here in town. We aren’t sticklers for those kinds of things.”

“What if one of Emma’s students tripped and fell in my house? As the owner, I’d be liable.”

“There’s nothing in the lease that says I can’t have guests in the house,” Monica pointed out. “Let’s say I had a guest and she tripped and fell. You’d still be liable.”

“I’ve got insurance for that. I don’t have insurance for a student paying to participate in a commercial venture in my house.”

The waitress arrived with their drinks and a heaping bowl of mixed nuts. “Gus said to tell you if you want something more substantial, the wings are good tonight,” the waitress informed them.

“Do you want wings?” Monica asked Max.

He shook his head.

Once the waitress departed, Monica took over. “The lease runs through the end of June. If you don’t sell the house July 1st, you may as well let us stay there month-to-month until you do sell—or at least until we can make alternate living arrangements. No sense having the house stand empty if you can be earning some money with it.”

Emma experienced a surge of gratitude. She knew Monica was saying this on her behalf. Monica already had alternate living arrangements.

“Money isn’t the issue,” Max argued.

Before he could clarify what the issue was, a man approached their table. He had a blandly handsome face topped by light brown hair, with sideburns that crawled just a little too far down his cheeks. He wore a cheap suit, his tie loosened. Emma suppressed a grimace. Monica did nothing to suppress her grin. “Jimmy! I didn’t know you were going to be here.”

“Hey, babe!” Jimmy leaned across Emma to kiss Monica’s cheek. “Yeah, a few of the guys decided to do a little TGIF action after work.” He gestured toward a clot of young men, all dressed much like Jimmy. He was a car salesman. Emma assumed his buddies were, too.

“It’s not Friday,” Monica pointed out.

“That never stopped us. Hi, Emma,” Jimmy said belatedly, and rather coolly. She suspected that his opinion of her matched her opinion of him. He shot Max a quizzical look, then turned back to Monica. “Who’s this? Emma’s new squeeze?”

Monica sent him a warning glance. “This is Max Tarloff, our landlord.”

“Oh.” Jimmy held up his hands in mock surrender. “My bad. I keep telling you, Monica, move in with me and you won’t have to deal with a landlord.”

“She’d have to deal with you,” Emma muttered. Someone must have stuffed some money into the jukebox, because it suddenly began blasting an old Rolling Stones song, drowning out Emma’s words. Just as well. She didn’t need Jimmy joining Mad Max in the Let’s-Give-Emma-Shit club.

“Jimmy.” Monica’s tone grew steely, even though she was still smiling. “Can we talk for a minute?”

Emma slid out of the booth without being asked. Monica followed her out of the booth, apologized to Max, clamped her hand around Jimmy’s elbow and hustled him away from the table.

Emma resumed her seat. Max gazed after Monica for a moment, then shook his head. “I tried to talk to her in her office this afternoon, but her phone kept ringing.”

“She’s a busy lady,” Emma said. “Always in demand.”

Max regarded Emma in silence for a moment. “That’s an old song,” he finally said. “Microsoft used it in an ad for one of its operating systems a few years back.”

“That jukebox is full of old songs. And nobody knows what they are, according to Monica.”

“What do you mean? Aren’t they listed on the front of the jukebox?”

“Nope. You put a quarter in—the price is as ancient as the music—and you never know what songs will come out. It’s supposed to be haunted, or magical, or something.”

A faint smile whispered across Max’s lips. “I don’t believe in magic.”

“I do,” Emma said, meeting his gaze.

His smile widened. “Really?”

“I don’t believe you can say abracadabra and wave a magic wand and make things happen. But I do believe you can take a bunch of paint and spread it across a canvas in such a way that it changes the world. It’s just colors and shapes, but those colors and shapes can reveal the artist’s soul—and the subject’s soul, too—and it can move people to tears. How can that not be magic?”

“Lots of things move people to tears. It isn’t magic. It’s a matter of brain chemistry, reflexes, psychological issues. If you fall and scrape your knee, you might cry. That’s not magic. It’s the body’s neurological reaction to pain.”

Emma hadn’t expected to venture into a scientific discussion with him, let alone a philosophical one. She considered pointing out that if he evicted her from his house, she’d probably wind up weeping hysterically, and that wouldn’t be because she’d scraped her knee. That would be much more akin to magic. Black magic. Bad magic.

But she was too intrigued by the analytical turn he’d taken. “Are you a scientist?” she asked. “I thought maybe you were a lawyer, given how hung up you are on liability insurance and clauses and all that.” She realized she knew nothing about Max, other than that he lived in California and he was her landlord. And that he was a hell of a lot younger than she’d expected. And that if he’d been responsible for the décor of his house, he had no taste.

And that he had beautiful eyes. A beautiful mouth, too. His lips were thin but distinct, anchored by his sharp nose above and his strong chin below.

“I work in the high-tech industry,” he said.

“High-tech is science. It’s magic, too, if you ask me.”

Another smile flickered across his face. His mouth was even more beautiful when he was smiling.

“How did you wind up with a house in Brogan’s Point?” she asked. “Especially that house. It’s so atypical for this area. Most houses around here are very New-England style. Colonials, Cape Cods, saltboxes…and you own this amazing modern house with walls of glass.”

His smile vanished. “Why I bought the house is irrelevant,” he said dryly. “All that matters is that I plan to sell it, as soon as possible.”

“Right. But I think Monica made a good point about letting us stay in the house until you sell it.”

He shook his head, then lifted his glass and sipped his beer. “When I was a kid, my family rented an apartment. Ugly little place. One bedroom. I slept on the couch in the living room. There was a big water stain on the kitchen ceiling. But it was in a gentrifying neighborhood, and the landlord decided to take the building co-op. He said we could stay in the apartment until it sold. Every time he brought in a potential buyer, one of my parents or I would be sure to stare up at the kitchen ceiling. The buyer would look up, notice the water stain, and leave. We wound up living in that apartment an extra two years until the landlord finally fixed the leak and repainted the ceiling.”

She tried to imagine a pint-size version of Max, all tousled dark curls and attitude, his piercing blue eyes aimed at a water stain. “Your house doesn’t have any leaks,” she noted. “Your ceilings look fine.”

“I’m just saying, it wouldn’t be hard for you to delay a potential sale. You’re smart. You’d find a way.”

She shouldn’t have been so pleased that he considered her smart. But she was smart—smart enough to change the subject. “So, you’re in high tech. What are you, a computer scientist?”

He mulled over his reply. She didn’t think she’d asked such a difficult question, but he seemed to feel he had to weigh his answer carefully. Finally, he said, “My work isn’t that interesting.”

His evasiveness made it interesting. “Let me guess,” she said. “You developed some amazing new app and became a billionaire.”

Another tenuous smile. “You found me out,” he confessed.

At least he had a sense of humor. A begrudging one, but it made him seem a bit more human to her. She visualized the Dream Portrait she’d do of him—his angular features, his dazzling eyes, the thick, dark waves of his hair, and a background of computers, code, tablets, graphics, gadgets and gizmos. If he were a billionaire, he could certainly afford one of her paintings. He could afford millions of them.

She smiled back at him. Hell, she’d offer him a discounted price on his portrait. She would have such a good time painting it.

The Rolling Stones song ended and the jukebox pumped out a new song. An old song, really, but Emma recognized it. It was one of the many songs her mother used to sing when she was gardening or puttering around the house. Emma’s mother had an awful voice; if she occasionally hit the right note, it was purely by luck. She also had a habit of mangling the words. Yet those classic rock and pop songs her mother used to torture had embedded themselves in Emma’s memory.

I see your true colors, shining through…

When someone with a good voice sang it, it was a beautiful ballad. Emma felt a lush warmth fill her as the singer’s voice curled around the words, sweet and searing. It vanquished the chill of her damp hair and the fear of homelessness hanging over her. She felt enveloped in the song.

Her gaze met Max’s across the table, and she felt even warmer. He stared at her as if suddenly transfixed. By the song? By Emma?

She heard nothing but the music. The din of conversation, the clink of glasses, the rhythm of footsteps and scrapes of chairs against the floor—all the noise faded. Nothing entered her but the song, and the sight of Max Tarloff watching her intently, intensely.

The bar disappeared. The other patrons. The waitress. The tall, square-jawed, tawny-haired bartender. The beers on the table, and the bowl of munchies. The entire universe evaporated, leaving behind only a song.

A song, and the man facing Emma.

When the song ended, silence.

And then Monica’s voice, shattering the odd spell the song had spun around Emma. “Hello? Slide over, Emma, so I can sit.”

Emma gave her head a sharp shake. She noticed Max doing the same. Embarrassed that she’d zoned out so completely, she shifted on the banquette, moving herself and her beer toward the wall so Monica could join her and Max at the table. “I’m so sorry,” Monica said to Max, apparently unaware of whatever had happened in the cozy booth while she’d been away.

What had happened? Emma had no idea. She felt as she’d been in the grip of a fever, and now it had broken and she was healthy again, but altered. The song was still inside her, tattooed onto her soul.

“That was a friend of mine,” Monica explained to Max, gesturing toward Jimmy, who had gathered with his buddies at the bar. “He can be clueless sometimes.”

Ordinarily, Emma would have cracked that Monica was correct on the “clueless” part of that claim, but underestimating sorely on the “sometimes” part of it. But she didn’t trust herself to speak. Her mouth felt the way it did after dental work, before the Novocain wore off.

Max flexed his lips, and once again Emma wondered if he was recovering from the same weird symptoms that had overtaken her. He took a sip of beer, cleared his throat and said, “That’s all right.”

“I feel bad about the insurance thing,” Monica said. “If you want Emma and me to pay the additional premium so your liability is covered, we can do that.”

Emma wanted to slam her foot into Monica’s shin—not only because she owed Monica an under-the-table kick but because Emma couldn’t afford to pay an additional premium. Monica didn’t earn much, but she received a steady salary, paid weekly, and if she had to, she could ask her parents for help. They were big on urging their daughter to be self-reliant, but in a pinch, they’d come through for her.

Emma’s parents were big on self-reliance, too. In a pinch, she believed they would want to help her out, too. But like her, they had no money to spare.

“It doesn’t seem worth it, since the lease is up in a couple of months. And there’s the zoning issue,” Max said. His brain-fog must have dissipated more quickly than Emma’s, if he could discuss lease dates and zoning laws. He turned to look at her, and she was once again stricken by the color of his eyes. So very blue. True blue, she thought, the song shimmering inside her. She saw his true colors—or at least the true blue of his irises.

“How about if I help you find a place outside my house where you can teach your art class?” he said.

Emma gaped, as startled by his offer as by the cool beauty of his eyes. “That would be great,” she managed.

“All right.” He slugged down the rest of his beer. “Let’s see what we can scare up.” Abruptly, he scooted out of the booth and stood. “I’ll be in touch,” he said, then strode across the tavern to the exit and out.

Scowling, Monica turned to Emma. “What the hell just happened?”

Good question. “I—he left,” she stammered. “And stuck us with the bill for the drinks.”

“I invited him here,” Monica assured Emma. “He knew I was treating. Is he serious? Is he going to find you studio space?”

“I don’t see how he can. It’s not like he knows this town.” The last traces of mist floated out of Emma’s brain and reality settled onto her, cold and heavy. “Any studio space he finds is going to be too expensive for me, anyway. And I’m still going to wind up homeless—unless he finds a studio that has a bed in it.”

“We’ve got a couple of months,” Monica reminded her.

“He could kick us out tomorrow,” Emma shot back. “We’re in breach of the lease, aren’t we?”

Monica gazed toward the door through which he’d vanished, then swiveled back to Emma. “I don’t think he’s going to,” she said. “If he’s going to help you find studio space, he’s not going to kick us out. He’s a good guy.”

Emma wouldn’t go that far. She wasn’t sure what kind of guy he was.

All she knew was that the song had walloped him the way it had walloped her. And he’d been as shaken by it as she was.

***

Gus watched the tall, dark-haired man bolt out of the tavern. She didn’t know who he was, but she knew what had happened to him. Not in the particulars, but she was well aware of the peculiar power of the jukebox over some people.

He’d been nailed by it. He and Monica’s red-haired friend.

Gus didn’t know the redhead. She was a newcomer to Brogan’s Point, and she rarely came into the tavern. But Gus knew Monica Reinhart. Hell, she’d known Monica when the kid was just a bump in her mother’s abdomen. Like Gus, the Reinharts were in the hospitality business. The Reinharts’ brand of hospitality was a bit more upscale than hers, but their inn and her bar were both landmarks in town. Gus knew that the Reinharts often recommended the Faulk Street Tavern to the Ocean Bluff Inn’s guests, even though they had a cocktail lounge at the inn. And Gus was always happy to send travelers up the road to the inn if they needed a place to stay.

She’d watched Monica grow from a scrappy kid into a hard-working teenager, into an even harder-working adult. She’d sometimes found herself wishing Monica had been just a couple of years older, or her own sons a couple of years younger. Gus’s younger son and Monica would have made a great pair. Now that they were all old enough that the age difference didn’t matter, her boys no longer lived in town. And Monica was still dating Jimmy Creighton, who’d been a good-looking twit as a teenager and hadn’t evolved much since then.

Sometimes Gus wished a tune from the jukebox would seize Monica and spin her around, give her a different perspective on life and love. But this evening, it seemed as if Monica’s friend had been the one spun around.

Monica’s friend and that lanky stranger. Just recalling how quickly he’d fled from the bar caused Gus to smile.

Manny Lopez, Gus’s assistant, lumbered the length of the bar, hauling a case of vodka from the storeroom downstairs. Gus was strong, but Manny had been a linebacker in high school, and he was still built like one, big and solid, with muscles as tough as the rubber in the radial tires on Gus’s four-by-four. He carried the case of liquor as if it were no heavier than a box of tissues. “Gonna be light tonight,” he said, commenting on the sparse crowd.

“It’s early yet,” she assured him as he set the carton down and began unloading the bottles. “Jimmy Creighton and his friends’ll drink enough to keep us in the black.”

Manny laughed. Gus smiled, but she wasn’t actually joking. Monica could do so much better. All she needed was a little nudge. Or maybe for Will to swing back into town and decide he liked Brogan’s Point, after all. Gus’s older son had a wife, a baby and a mortgage down in Quincy. He wasn’t going anywhere. But Will still rented, and that Boston rent he was paying devoured a huge portion of his paycheck. He could come back to Brogan’s Point, find work here, settle down, notice that Monica had blossomed into a lovely lady.

Gus’s smile widened. Her sons were every bit as stubborn and headstrong as she was. She’d never fulfilled her mother’s dreams, choosing basketball over ballet, marrying a bar owner and joining him in the business, taking it over after cancer had claimed him, and currently enjoying a nice, comfortable, out-of-wedlock affair with Ed Nolan, one of Brogan’s Point’s finest. Gus’s mother frequently made comments about Ed’s not buying the cow when he could get the milk for free. Gus ignored her.

She glanced over at the booth where Monica and her friend were seated. With the man gone, Monica had switched benches so she faced Emma. They bowed their heads together over the table, conferring intensely. Gus couldn’t see Monica’s face, but she could see the redhead’s.

Pretty girl. Crazy hair.

And a dazed expression.

The jukebox had gotten to her, for sure.





Chapter Six




That song. He didn’t even like it. Too schmaltzy. Too whiny. Why the hell couldn’t he get it out of his mind?

He liked hip-hop, raw and thumping. Maybe his taste in music—or lack of taste, his parents insisted—had been a reaction to the violin lessons he’d been forced to take as a child. Every week he’d had to trudge down Brighton 7th Street to Mr. Chomsky’s apartment, where he’d spend an hour sawing away on his cheap, battered fiddle while Mr. Chomsky would mutter, “So much talent going to waste because you don’t practice enough! Apply yourself!” Max had wanted to apply himself to the stickball games going on in the street or to the stretch of beach beckoning him from the southern end of Brighton 7th,, not to mastering vibratos and bow positions.

But his parents were old country, old school, old everything. They might have emigrated from Russia and embraced their newly minted American citizenship, but the only music they considered worthwhile was what Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Mussorgsky, Stravinksy and Shostakovich had written. They’d hated that their only child listened to that “loud, trashy stuff—I can’t even call it music,” his father would rail. “Not in my house. I won’t allow it.”

Other teenagers might have been sneaking smokes and booze beneath the elevated tracks of the B train running through the neighborhood. Max had been sneaking Ludacris, Ja Rule and Eminem.

He sure as hell hadn’t been developing a taste for pop ballads like “True Colors.” Yet that song had flowed from that antique-looking jukebox straight into his skull and settled in for a nice, long stay.

His accommodations at the Ocean Bluff Inn were spacious and pretty, the walls a muted beige, the bed decadently comfortable, king-sized and piled high with pillows. The room was silent; the windows faced away from the ocean, so he didn’t hear the waves breaking against the sand, and the hotel was clearly not filled to capacity, so no voices seeped under his door from the hall. But he couldn’t sleep, not with that freaking song playing over and over in his head. Beautiful, like a rainbow… So sweet. So cloying.

It wasn’t just the song that had taken up residence like a squatter in his gray matter. It was the actual squatter occupying his house: Emma Glendon. Emma with her extravagant hair and her astute eyes. Red hair, hazel eyes. Were those her true colors, or did she make use of Lady Clairol and wear tinted contacts?

Why should he care?

Damn it, he did care—enough to volunteer to help her find studio space. As if he could possibly be of any assistance in that. He knew nothing about Brogan’s Point. He’d bought a house here only because Vanessa had been from the area—the North Shore, she’d called it—and wanted an East Coast base. They’d been engaged to be married. He’d wanted her happy. She’d picked out the house, and he’d said, “Sure.”

He’d been a fool then. And here he was, being a fool again, helping that red-headed creature to find a new base of operations once he’d evicted her.

One big difference between her and Vanessa, of course, was that she hadn’t asked him for his help. She’d seemed started by his offer, as startled as he himself was when he’d made it. He’d been under a spell when he’d spoken, bewitched.

He was a man of his word, however. His parents may have failed to instill in him their passion for Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, but they’d taught him to honor his commitments, to follow through on his promises.

So he’d find Emma a place to set up her easel. At least he’d try.

And then he’d remove her from his house, put the damned place up for sale, and get on with his life.

***

“Tell me again about the magic,” Emma asked Monica.

Early morning sunlight filtered through the trees and streamed into the kitchen through a wall of glass. The kitchen didn’t offer a view of the ocean as the loft where Emma worked did, but it overlooked the forest of towering pines that bordered the house’s rear yard. Emma recalled the views from Claudio’s apartment: through the bedroom window a dark, narrow alley, and through the front windows the brick and brownstone buildings across the street. If you stood deep in the corner of the main room and peered westward through the window furthest from that corner, you could glimpse the drab steel cables of the Manhattan Bridge. Not the whole bridge itself, just a few of the cables.

Moving to Brogan’s Point had taken some getting used to, but the views from her current home were vastly superior. Unfortunately, her enjoyment of the view wasn’t going to last. God knew what views her next home would have. The pavement beneath her cardboard box? Maybe a flap, with “This Side Up” and an arrow printed on it?

She and Monica sat side by side on stools, their coffee steaming in mugs on the granite island occupying the center of the room. Monica was working her way through a bowl of oatmeal, but Emma had no appetite. Just sipping her coffee was a struggle.

“What magic?” Monica asked.

They were both dressed for work, Monica in crisp slacks and a tailored blouse, Emma in her paint-spattered overalls. She didn’t have any students today, and she intended to make as much progress as possible with her Dream Portrait of Ava Lowery. She didn’t hold out much hope that Max would find her a studio any time soon, if ever, and she needed to get Ava’s portrait done and a nice, fat check from Ava’s parents in her pocket before she ventured out to find a studio on her own.

“That magic jukebox at the Faulk Street Tavern. What’s the story with that?”

Monica scooped a dab of oatmeal onto her spoon and consumed it slowly, licking her spoon as if it were a lollipop. “According to legend,” she said, her voice taking on the stentorian quality of a documentary film narrator, “sometimes the jukebox will play a song that speaks to only one or two individuals in the bar. No one else will especially react to it, but the people it’s aimed at will be changed by it.”

“Changed in what way?”

Monica shrugged. “Changed in a way they need to be changed.”

As explanations went, that was pathetically vague. “So someone could hear a song and realize she needs a haircut?”

“I think the change is more profound,” Monica said. “It’s just a myth, though. Don’t you dare cut your hair.”

“I wasn’t planning to,” Emma said, then hid behind her mug, taking a long, scalding slurp of coffee. She didn’t want Monica to think she’d been changed profoundly by that song yesterday. She wasn’t even sure she’d been changed at all. Max, yes, but not her.

Then again, the insomnia she’d endured last night was a change for her. Usually, when she couldn’t sleep, it was because she was so energized by a project. She’d been known to stay up half the night working on a canvas, fueled by adrenaline and goaded by her muse. But the previous night’s sleeplessness had nothing to do with her art. It had to do with Max Tarloff. She’d lain awake, restless and edgy, picturing the mesmerizing glow in his striking blue eyes as the song had wrapped itself around him and Emma. She’d visualized the delectable shape of his mouth. She’d imagined that mouth on hers, imagined it grazing down her body…

A wave of heat washed through her. She shifted her legs on the stool and took another drink of coffee, praying that Monica wouldn’t notice how ridiculously turned on she was. By thoughts of their landlord, of all people! By thoughts of the man who would be kicking them out of the house the instant their lease was up, if not sooner.

“So the song from the jukebox changes the person who paid for it, right?” Whatever bizarre effect “True Colors” had had on her and Max, neither of them had put money into the machine and punched the numbered buttons for that song. Surely its magic had been intended for someone else. They were just collateral damage.

Monica shook her head. “No one can choose what song will come out of the jukebox,” she said. “No one even knows what songs are inside the jukebox, except that they’re all old. According to Gus, they’re all songs that were hits while you could still get records on vinyl. The jukebox can’t handle CD’s or MP3’s.”

“And you can’t choose which song it will play?” Now it was Emma’s turn to shake her head. “People put in money and then they simply have to accept whatever song comes out?”

“Yep.”

“That doesn’t seem fair.”

“Well, no one is forced to put money into the machine. And it’s only a quarter for three songs. The price hasn’t changed in decades. For twenty-five cents, people are willing to take a chance. It’s kind of fun. You put in a quarter and then the jukebox surprises you.”

Some surprise. If that song meant Emma would be plagued with insomnia for the rest of her life, she’d be pretty damned pissed. If, on the other hand, that song compelled Max to find her a new studio…well, she couldn’t be pissed about that.

“Who’s Gus?” she asked.

“The owner of the Faulk Street Tavern. That tall woman with the short hair behind the bar.”

“I wonder if any of the songs ever changed her. She’s in there listening to the jukebox every day.”

“I don’t know.” Monica glanced at her watch and slid off her stool. “I’ve got to go. If Max stops by, be nice. He seemed a little less prickly last night.”

“That’s because you were so sweet,” Emma pointed out. “I don’t do sweet very well.”

“It’s time you learned. The sweeter you are, the less likely he is to boot us out of the house before the lease is up.”

“All right.” Emma stared at the strong black coffee in her mug. Maybe she ought to stir some sugar into it. Sweet coffee might sweeten her mood.

She remained on her stool, staring into the mug while Monica rinsed out her dishes and stacked them in the dishwasher. Would Emma’s next residence have a dishwasher? Would it even have a kitchen? Would she have to eat off an aluminum mess-kit, like a soldier in the midst of a battle?

She was in the midst of a battle now, and the thought of eating caused her stomach to clench. She supposed soldiers felt the same way. Not knowing your future could sure suppress your appetite.

At least she wasn’t getting shot at.

She refilled her mug and trudged up the stairs to the loft. Sleepy or no, distracted or no, she had to get back to work on Ava’s Dream Portrait. Painting could be magical, as she’d told Max yesterday at the bar. Perhaps if she wielded her brushes, if she finished the castle, and added the unicorn and a dazzling, bejeweled crown to the picture, some magic would rub off on her.

The right kind of magic. Magic that would provide her with enough money to live on and a roof over her head—and the ability to get a good night’s rest. Was that too much to ask for?





Chapter Seven




Andrea Simonetti seemed perturbed. “Monica had a friend visiting her,” she told Max. “There’s nothing in her lease banning visitors.”

“This is a bit more permanent than a visit,” Max told the broker. The real estate company where she worked was located inside a building that looked like an actual house, with shingles and shutters and a cute brick chimney, although the house sat on Main Street and was abutted by a driveway that led to an asphalt parking lot in back. Andrea’s office was the size of a small bedroom, but instead of a bed, it contained a broad desk with a computer humming on it, and the walls were adorned with a few framed certificates attesting to Andrea’s professional status and several dozen glossy photographs of houses for sale.

“In other words, the friend is living in your house,” Andrea surmised.

Max nodded. “Not just living there. She’s running a business out of the house.”

“A business?” Andrea’s impeccably tweezed eyebrows arched so high, Max was afraid they’d collide with her hairline.

He laughed. “Not that kind of business. She teaches art. And that’s the thing. I can’t have her running a school in the house, with little kids doing finger-painting and trashing the place.”

“Is the place trashed?” Andrea’s eyebrows soared again.

“Not that I could see.”

“We need to do a walk-through,” Andrea said, jotting a note on the small pad on her desk. “Monica is liable for any damage to the place. We’ve got the security deposit, but—”

“The thing is, this second tenant…” What could he tell Andrea about the second tenant? That her hair was the color of fire and her lips made him think of plums, sweet and tart and juicy? That beneath her baggy apparel he could detect the sort of enticing curves most women went on drastic diets to eliminate and most men dreamed of? That a stupid song had scrambled his usually orderly mind and he was no longer quite sure of who he was?

No. He couldn’t say any of that. Just thinking it gave him a headache.

“She needs to work,” he said. “I want to help her find someplace else to hold her classes.”

“I don’t see how that’s your responsibility,” Andrea said, her tone indignant. “I’m so sorry. I should have checked to make sure Monica was honoring the terms of the lease. I’ve known the Reinharts for years. Monica is a good girl. I assumed she would entertain friends in the house—and I assumed she would do so in a civilized manner. No blow-outs, no keggers, no inviting half the world over via Twitter.”

“Forget parties. Forget trashing the place.” Max tried to steer Andrea back to the issue that concerned him. “You know the available properties around here. Is there any reasonably priced space where Emma could hold her classes?”

Andrea shrugged. “I’d have to research it.”

“Please do.” Max rose from his chair.

Andrea peered up at him. Her lipstick was as impeccable as her eyebrows, the dark pink applied with precision. Max had never understood the allure of lipstick. If you wanted to kiss a woman, you didn’t want to kiss some cosmetic product. And if you didn’t want to kiss her, lipstick wasn’t going to change that.

“What about listing the house?” Andrea asked. “Do you want to go ahead with that?”

“I plan to sell it,” he assured her. “But don’t list it yet. They have two more months on the lease.”

“Selling a house takes time. Especially an unusual house like yours. It’s fabulous, but it’s not exactly your standard-issue Boston area home. I know we’ll get a good price for it, but it might take longer to find a buyer who loves it as much as you did when you bought it.”

Max wasn’t sure he’d ever loved it. Vanessa had. He’d bought it for her.

But that was none of Andrea’s business. “If you want to get started on some preliminary work—have it appraised, photograph it, make sure everything is in order—that would be fine. But don’t list it yet. I’ll let you know when I’m ready to take the next step.”

Leaving Andrea’s office, passing two younger brokers at their desks in the front room and stepping outside into the sunny afternoon, Max tried to puzzle out why he was suddenly less than eager to sell the house. Every remotely possible explanation led back to that stupid song. Like a rainbow? What the hell did rainbows have to do with anything?

He strolled down the driveway to the lot in the rear, where he’d parked his rental car, and climbed in. Had he been at Logan Airport only yesterday, signing the paperwork in that area of the terminal where all the rental car desks were clustered? Had it been a mere twenty-four hours ago when he’d phoned the Hyatt Regency in Cambridge on his way out to the rental car lot and told them he’d be checking into his room that evening, after a quick trip north to Brogan’s Point?

Why was he still here? Why had he spent a night in the Ocean Bluff Inn instead of the Hyatt? Why hadn’t he told Andrea to go ahead and list his house for sale?

Why did he want to help Emma find studio space? Yesterday, when he’d seen her huddling inside the front door of his house with those two little girls, her thumb poised on her cell phone so she could dial 911, he’d had no interest in helping her. Quite the opposite—he’d been startled and then enraged to discover her living in the house. He’d wanted her gone.

Now… Now he didn’t know what he wanted.

Because of that ridiculous song? Or because of Emma’s stubborn chin and her defiant attitude, her lush lips and her amazing hair?

He pulled out of the driveway and cruised slowly down Main Street and then Atlantic Avenue, searching for studio space. As if he knew what such a thing would look like. The businesses lining the street had signs and displays in their windows: hardware store, boutique, gift shop, consignment shop, knitting shop, diner. Nearly all the stores were occupied, and none of them seemed like a suitable venue for an artist to hold classes and paint.

What did Max know about artists, anyway?

He wondered what Emma had done to create a studio in his house. Had she just taken a room and filled it with art supplies? Was the room full of half-finished canvases? Did it reek of turpentine?

Without consciously thinking about it, he steered out of town and up the twisting back road that climbed the hill to his house. Other houses stood along the road, nestled among the pine trees. Some were set back from the street by long driveways, and others loomed close to the roadway. His house sat at the top of the hill on a two-acre plot. An architect had designed the house for himself twenty-five years ago, and sold it only because he’d reached the age when New England winters were more than his arthritic joints could tolerate. Max was only the second person to own the house—and he’d never even hung his jacket in one of its closets. That was actually rather pathetic. An architect’s dream come to life, and Max owned it, and he’d spent not one single night under its roof.

He reached his driveway and let the car roll to a stop. The scent of the ocean, so prominent down the hill, along Main Street and Atlantic Avenue, was overtaken here by the fragrance of the surrounding pine forest. Although he couldn’t smell the ocean, he could see it. The architect had cleared enough trees to provide a spectacular vista from southeastern-facing side of the house.

Max turned from the ocean view and regarded the house thoughtfully. He could see why Vanessa had fallen in love with it. Too bad she’d never really gotten to enjoy the place. She’d furnished it, decorated it, discussed her plans with him. And then everything had fallen apart.

At one time, that thought would have filled him with bitterness. Standing on the front walk right now, making his way to the porch, pressing the doorbell… The song he’d heard in the bar last night drifted through his head, and to his amazement, he felt no bitterness at all.

As she had yesterday, Emma peeked through the sidelight. Unlike yesterday, however, today she felt safe in opening it when she saw Max on the other side of the glass. Even though he had a key and could have let himself in, he remained standing on the front porch as she opened the door, gazed up at him, and said, “Hi.”

As if she’d expected him.

“May I come in?”

“Sure.” She stepped back and he entered the house.

He wanted to focus on the house itself, to view it the way Vanessa had the first time Andrea had shown them the place. He wanted to see it not as a burden to be shed but as a home, a place where Emma and Monica lived.

White carpeting, was his first thought. Not very practical.

Emma smiled hesitantly. “I’m working right now, so…”

“I didn’t mean to interrupt you,” he urged her. “I just wanted…” To see you, he almost blurted out. “To see your work space. You need a new studio. What is that going to entail?”

She turned and strolled ahead of him down the hall. His gaze journeyed from the tumbling waves of her hair down her compact body, clad today in baggy denim overalls. Her hips shimmied gently with each step. Her feet were small, her sneakers spattered with paint. Fortunately, all the sneakers left on that impractical white carpet were tread marks. The paint must have dried long ago.

As they entered the great room and neared what Andrea had called a floating staircase—one that rose from the center of the room, not bordered by walls—he heard what sounded like a low chuckle coming from Emma. “What?” he asked.

“Did anyone ever tell you you talk funny?” she asked, then hurriedly added, “I don’t mean that as an insult. It’s just—I mean, what is that going to entail? No one says entail in casual speech.”

Max hesitated, his foot on the first riser as she proceeded up the stairs. “They don’t?”

“No one I know does.”

“You know me.” He followed her up the stairs to the loft. Few people noticed that he spoke—well, funny wasn’t the word he’d use to describe his speech. He loved language and all the words it provided for him. He used them whenever he needed them. Entail was a perfectly good word. “English isn’t my first language,” he told her. He wasn’t sure why he’d revealed that about himself. But then, he wasn’t sure why he’d driven up the hill to the house in the first place. He wasn’t sure why he was doing a lot of things.

Emma had already reached the loft. She spun around and stared at him. “Really? I never would have guessed. You speak beautifully. You just use unusual words sometimes. What’s your first language?”

He didn’t answer right away. He was too distracted by the sight of the loft, which she’d converted into a splendid work space. The floor was covered with thick, stained drop cloths. Canvases stood stacked against a wall, draped in plastic wrap to prevent them from marring the wall itself. Sturdy shelving along another wall held supplies. A large table stood at the center of the loft, old and scarred and covered with paints, brushes, and a jar of murky solvent. Three easels stood near the table, the center one holding a rectangular canvas, maybe two feet by three feet, that featured a painting of an adorable little girl, her eyes bright, her cheeks a soft, tawny peach hue, her rippling blond hair topped by a bejeweled crown. Behind her face, a half-painted castle loomed, and what appeared to be a unicorn stood on the stretch of green lawn beside the castle. The easels flanking the painting held photographs and sketches of the girl, the castle, and the mythical horned creature.

Max was mystified. “A unicorn?”

“It’s what I call a Dream Portrait,” Emma explained. “I paint the person and surround her with her dreams. Ava Lowery dreams of being a princess. What’s your first language?”

“Russian,” Max said, his gaze riveted to the painting. He picked a path carefully over the drop cloths for a closer look at the canvas on the easel. The afternoon’s natural light flooded through the glass wall of the great room, bathing the painting in a warm, golden glow.

“Russian?” Emma said. “Really?”

“I was a toddler when my family came to America,” he told her. “A year and a half old. For the first few years we were in the United States, my parents spoke only Russian, so that was what I learned first. I picked up English pretty quickly, though.”

“Wow. Russia! Why’d they come here?”

He shrugged. “A better life. More freedom.”

“So where did you grow up? Where did you learn English?”

He finally tore his gaze from the painting to look at Emma. Her face glowed even more beautifully than that of the little girl on the canvas. He didn’t think his life story was particularly interesting, but her eager curiosity touched him. “Brighton Beach. It’s a neighborhood in Brooklyn where many Russian immigrants live. Little Odessa, it’s called.”

“Sure, I’ve heard of Little Odessa. Before I moved here, I was living in Dumbo.” He frowned, picturing the cartoon elephant with the big ears. “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass,” she explained. “It’s on the western edge of Brooklyn. Lots of artists live there. Lots of lofts converted into studios. It’s getting gentrified, so the artists will probably be forced out soon by high rents.”

He’d known his way around Brooklyn pretty well while growing up, but he had never heard of that neighborhood. “Dumbo,” he said, then shook his head. “I gather Brooklyn has become somewhat more upscale since I left.”

“You live in California now, right?”

“San Francisco.” He ambled around the loft, careful not to trip over the wrinkles and bumps in the cloth covering the floor. The view of the ocean through the glass wall was spectacular. “I like living near the ocean.”

“This house qualifies,” Emma said, glancing toward the glass wall for a moment and then gravitating back to the easel. “You should keep it.”

“It’s a little far from San Francisco. I would have a difficult commute to work.”

“Big deal. The U.S. has two oceans. You might as well have homes near both of them.”

The idea was tempting. But this had been Vanessa’s house, not his, not theirs. She was gone, and he wanted her house gone, too. Perhaps that sentiment was irrational, but he was rational ninety-nine percent of the time. He could allow himself one tiny percent of irrationality.

“I guess that would be pretty expensive,” Emma conceded. “Two houses. Sheesh. I can’t imagine owning even one house. But if I were you, I’d dump the San Francisco place and keep this one.” She studied her painting thoughtfully, then lifted a paintbrush and dabbed a touch of shading to the castle’s main turret.

“As I said, I work in San Francisco,” he said, not adding that he could work on the east coast as easily as the west. Computers, phones and airplanes could keep him connected. And overseeing his foundation and his investments wasn’t exactly the most demanding job in the world. He had Janet running the office in San Francisco. She was alarmingly competent. And he was a call or a text away if she needed to contact him.

He could work here as easily as there. He could convert the magnificent loft into an office and manage the foundation while gazing out at the ocean. His office in San Francisco was on Market Street, which he supposed offered a pretty enough view for an urban vista. But it wasn’t as stunning as the view through the glass walls of his house.

Vanessa’s house, he reminded himself.

Emma took a step back from her easel and scrutinized her painting. She had the easel positioned facing the wall of glass so the daylight streaming through the panes would illuminate it. He studied her profile. Her nose had a slight bump in it, not visible when viewed straight on. Her chin was surprisingly strong. Or maybe not so surprisingly, he thought. She was clearly a tough woman, determined and stubborn. Did the shape of a woman’s chin correlate to her personality?

She startled him by turning suddenly, so she was facing him. “I’d like to paint you,” she said.

Her words surprised him even more than her abrupt movement. His own words surprised him even more. “I’d like to kiss you.”





Chapter Eight




Holy crap.

Staring at him, Emma had been thinking about the stark lines of his face, the hollows of his cheeks, the vivid blue of his eyes. She’d been thinking about how she would position him on the canvas—three-quarter view would probably be best, with him looking past the left shoulder of whoever stood in front of the canvas, because his left side was just a tiny bit more interesting than his right—and how she would capture the twining texture of his thick, dark hair.

But now she was thinking only of his mouth, wondering how it would feel pressed to hers, wondering how it would taste.

Like a rainbow…

Of course not. Mouths did not taste like rainbows. Kisses did not convey color. And she absolutely couldn’t let him kiss her, because he was her landlord, and he wanted her out of his house, and if they started something romantic, or just plain sexual, the landlord-tenant power dynamic between them would inevitably be a part of it. If she slept with him, would he reduce the rent? If she didn’t kiss him, would he have the local constable nail an eviction notice to the front door?

The possibilities tumbled and jumbled inside her mind, making her queasy. “I don’t think…”

“No,” he said more to himself than to her. “No, I—I’m sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking.” He spun away and stared at the panoramic view beyond the glass wall.

He seemed oddly vulnerable, his broad shoulders slumping, his hands buried in his pockets as if to prevent himself from touching anything.

Touching her.

God, she wanted that. She wanted him to touch her. She wanted to paint his hands as well as his face. She wanted to paint his dreams, just as she was painting Ava’s little-girl dreams of a castle and a unicorn.

“I should go,” he said.

She agreed. He should go. The air around them was thick with unspoken thoughts, unexpressed desires. Yet she didn’t want him to leave. “It’s your house,” she said.

He snorted a laugh. But he remained where he was, making no move toward the stairs.

The silence stretched for a minute, and she said, “So, can I paint you?”

At that, he turned. “What would painting me entail?”

There he went, using the word entail again. She smiled. “Well, I could do it the way I’m doing Ava’s. I’d snap a bunch of photos of you and then paint from the photos. Or you could pose for me, but that would take a lot more of your time.”

He nodded slightly, mulling over the options.

“And then I’d have to ask you a few questions—about your dreams.” It occurred to her that asking him about his dreams might be terribly intimate, more intimate even than kissing him. It wasn’t as if he were a little girl who loved playing make-believe. He was her landlord, for God’s sake.

Yet he’d said he wanted to kiss her. If he could cross boundaries with that comment, surely she could cross boundaries by interrogating him about his dreams.

Or maybe not. A discrepancy existed between them. He had the power to kick her out of the house. She had no power at all.

None of this was right. She’d been a fool to mention painting him. Typical of her—reckless, barreling ahead without first considering the ramifications. She should have thought about what painting him—what pursuing anything beyond a landlord-tenant relationship—would entail before she suggested it.

She started to tell him to forget the whole idea, but before she could speak, he said, “Okay. Paint me. When can we start?”

She blinked, stunned. The afternoon sunlight glazed his face, bringing every angle and hollow into stark relief. His eyes… She would have to mix cerulean blue with a bit of zinc white and maybe a hint of cypress green to capture their unique color. His skin tone? Amber, yellow ocher, a touch of gold. His hair? A dense mix of burnt umber and perylene black. Colors danced inside her head.

Max’s colors.

Another blink snapped her back to reality, or at least to more pragmatic concerns. She had to finish Ava’s portrait first. It was near completion; another day or two, and it would be ready for framing. Emma needed to warm the castle up a bit—she’d modeled it after some photos of medieval European castles, which tended to be cold and dank and kind of foreboding, not the stuff of a young girl’s fantasies. A bit more gold in the stones would fix that. And she wasn’t satisfied with Ava’s hair; it needed a touch more gold, too. Ava’s face was as close to perfect as Emma could hope for, her dress looked lovely, and the scepter in Ava’s hand looked like a little like a magic wand, which Emma thought Ava would love.

Tomorrow morning she had an art class with the doctor twins, Willy and Wally Stenholm. One of them was a retired optometrist, the other a retired podiatrist—Emma could never remember which was which—and their wives had insisted that they take an art class with Emma because they had no hobbies to keep them occupied in retirement, and they were getting on their wives’ nerves. Their parents had run a millinery shop, back when such things existed, and the two septuagenarians loved painting hats. Whatever. They paid Emma well, and each week she created a still life arrangement with a hat for them to reproduce on their canvases. She’d picked up some interesting hats at the Goodwill store, and Monica had introduced Emma to a friend of hers who worked at the local high school and allowed Emma to borrow a few hats from the theater club’s costume stash. Last week the doctor twins had painted a police hat from the school’s production of Guys and Dolls. Tomorrow they would be painting an arrangement of old-fashioned headwear from the local community theater. It wasn’t high art, but she charged the doctor twins twice as much as she charged Abbie’s and Tasha’s parents, and they happily paid.

“We could start on Friday,” she suggested, then held her breath, waiting for Max to come to his senses and back out.

“Friday. Good.” He nodded briskly, then strode to the stairs and down, as if he wanted to leave before he did that come-to-his-senses thing and returned to the subject of leases and clauses and eviction.

Emma watched him as he reached the bottom step and headed for the front hall in long, loping strides. She heard the faint squeak of hinges as he opened the front door, the solid click as he shut it.

This was definitely weird. Arguably crazy. Would he still insist on her moving her operations out of his house if she was painting him? Would he still demand that she pack up and go? Would he render the artist he’d just hired to paint his portrait homeless?

He hadn’t exactly hired her. They hadn’t discussed her fee. She hadn’t printed out a contract for him to sign. Maybe he expected her to paint him for free in exchange for remaining in the house. Which might not be a bad deal.

Except… She shook her head as she once again contemplated what a mismatch they were. He might be at the mercy of her paintbrush, her vision and creativity, but she was at the mercy of his property ownership. Painting him didn’t change the fact that he could still force her out of his house.

***

Friday.

That gave him a full day to recover from bizarre spell he was under. One entire day to take care of business, drive down to Cambridge, visit with his mentor from MIT, and remember who he was: Max Tarloff. Computer geek. Rich guy. San Francisco resident. Property owner eager to sell the ocean-view house he’d bought on Boston’s north shore two years ago, when his brain had been outvoted by his heart.

Surely that wasn’t what was happening now. His heart had nothing to do with Emma Glendon and her fanciful painting. He was just…bewitched. Or bored. Or something.

He hadn’t felt so muddled when he’d first met her. He’d considered her attractive, certainly, but he encountered plenty of attractive women. He’d also considered her a problem, which she was. He’d been annoyed with her. Angry. Exasperated.

What had happened to change his perspective?

It couldn’t have been merely that he’d viewed the painting she’d been working on, fascinating though it was. He’d had no idea what her paintings were like when he’d offered to help her find some studio space elsewhere in town. That offer had been utterly irrational. His consenting to let her paint him was equally irrational. Both decisions only dragged him further from his goal of selling the house and getting on with his life.

True Colors.

The possibility that the song was what had turned him around, paralyzed certain thought centers in his brain, and made him lose track of his plans and goals, was as crazy as everything else. Yet what else could have caused his mental meltdown?

He consoled himself with the thought that Emma seemed to have been transformed, as well. At their first meeting, she’d distrusted him. She’d resented him. She’d contemplated calling the police on him. And now…

She wanted to paint him.

And he wanted to kiss her.

Don’t think about that, he cautioned himself. Think about the painting.

When had he ever been interested in fine art, of all things? His parents had coerced him into those violin lessons, but he’d hated them. His passion had been for stickball, the beach, hip-hop, computers, and eventually girls. By the time he was twelve, he’d mastered C++ and Java programming. He and his Linux operating system had made sweet music together, far sweeter than any sound he’d ever coaxed out of his violin. In high school, he and Laurie Peretzky in high school had made much sweeter music. In college, he and Jenna Parsons. And for a couple of glorious years, he and Vanessa.

Much sweeter music than that cloying “True Colors.”

The drive from Brogan’s Point to Cambridge took less than an hour, which meant he could easily return to the Ocean Bluff Inn tonight if he chose. He still had a room waiting for him at the Hyatt Regency in town, however. He’d left his clothes and toiletries at the inn, but he could purchase a few necessities in the city if he decided to stay there. For some reason, he thought it might be best to keep his distance from Brogan’s Point for a while—or, more specifically, to keep his distance from Emma, at least until his brain resumed its normal functioning.

He was able to park in one of MIT’s visitor lots. Pocketing the claim ticket the lot attendant handed him, he strolled the familiar streets of the campus, basking in the gentle nostalgia characteristic of a returning alumnus. MIT wasn’t a beautiful campus. It lacked the ivy-covered colonial buildings of Harvard, just a mile up Mass Avenue. The buildings here were designed for science and engineering, and they looked it—gray and utilitarian, labeled with numbers rather than names. Even Building 10, with its symmetrical pillars and the Great Dome rounding its roof, looked austere in an ancient Greco-Roman sort of way.

He checked his watch. Ten-thirty. Too early to call Janet; it was only seven-thirty on the west coast. Besides, he’d spoken to her last night and didn’t have to check in with her today. According to her, the foundation was operating quite smoothly in his absence. A few financial reports had come in, but nothing he needed to review immediately. She would scan them and email them to him if he wished, but really, nothing at the office demanded his urgent attention, and she hoped he was enjoying his trip back east.

He might be the chairman of the New World Foundation, but Janet could run the place well enough without him. Possibly even better, since he wasn’t in her way, meddling, questioning, analyzing.

He strolled through campus to the Strata Center, assuming he would find Stan Weisner in that building—one of the few oddly shaped structures on campus, but certainly nothing reminiscent of picture-postcard ivy-covered college campuses. The Strata Center housed much of the computer science department. When Max had been Stan Weisner’s student, he’d called Stan Professor Weisner, but in the past ten years, they’d become first-name-basis friends. He and Stan bounced ideas off each other. Stan had been an early investor in Max’s start-up when it had been little more than the manifestation of Max’s honors thesis, and as a result, Stan was now significantly wealthier than he’d been back in the days when Max had called him Professor Weisner.

A schedule on Stan’s office door indicated that he was currently teaching a class. Max noted the classroom number and strode down the hall. As an undergraduate, he had loved Stan’s lectures. No harm in catching the final few minutes of his mentor in action before they settled somewhere to drink coffee and talk shop.

The classroom was full—and why wouldn’t it be, since it was a computer science class at one of the world’s preeminent science and technology universities? Max discreetly slipped into the room through a door at the rear and lowered his lanky body into the only empty seat he saw. At the other end of the room, Stan, his round pink face framed above with wild silver curls and below with a matching silver beard, chattered enthusiastically while scribbling code onto a whiteboard in his indecipherable scrawl. His students leaned forward, some squinting at the squiggly figures on the whiteboard, some tapping the keyboards of their laptops and tablets, some merely shaking their heads in confusion.

If anything, Stan’s hair and beard looked shrubbier than ever, almost as if his face were at the center of a flower. Max wondered if Emma would want to paint Stan. Surely his radiant face, surrounded by all those chaotic curls, was more worthy of her talents than Max’s was.

His smile faded. He’d traveled to Cambridge, at least in part, because he didn’t want to think about Emma. But there she was, lodged in his brain. Like a rainbow.

No. Not like a rainbow. Not like that stupid song.

Stan finished jotting something on the whiteboard and spun around, words spewing from his mouth and his hands flapping like a chicken’s wings. In mid-sentence, he spotted Max and let out a hoot. “Maxim!” he hollered, pronouncing Max’s name as the way Russian parents did: Mahk-SEEM.

Every student in the room swiveled around to stare at Max. He sank as low as he could in the chair, but that did nothing to discourage their gawking.

Even if it had, Stan wasn’t about to let him remain anonymous. “Max, come on up here!” the professor bellowed, gesturing with a wide sweep of his arm. “Do you know who this is?” he addressed his students, who continued to stare at Max until, with reluctance, he hauled himself out of the chair and trudged to the front of the room. “This is Max Tarloff,” Stan continued. “One of the most brilliant CS majors ever to walk the halls of this esteemed institution. Probably the most brilliant student I ever had who didn’t go on for a Ph.D.”

Max rolled his eyes. He remembered Stan’s efforts to persuade him to apply to graduate school, and his own unwillingness to be persuaded. He’d had a business plan embedded in his honors thesis, and he’d wanted to pursue it. That had turned out to be the right choice for him.

“Okay, so you haven’t heard of Max Tarloff,” Stan said, obviously noticing the blank stares of his students. “Maybe you’ve heard of NWES? New World Encryption Strategies?”

The students stopped looking confused. “That’s you?” a young man in the front row asked.

Someone further back in the room murmured, “Holy shit!”

“That’s Max,” Stan boasted.

Max rolled his eyes again. He wished he was still seated in that chair in the back row. Or maybe hiding under the chair. He didn’t like the spotlight, and he definitely didn’t like being viewed as a ridiculously successful titan of the computer industry, even if that was what he was.

“While he was an undergraduate, Max developed a system for encrypting information from credit cards and other scanned material to protect it from hackers and pirates. Brilliant stuff, boys and girls.”

“I had a good professor,” Max said, trying to deflect some of the attention to Stan.

“You bet he did,” Stan said, happy to toot his own horn as well as Max’s. “He graduated from MIT, moved to San Francisco, raised some capital and started a company. Some of you may have heard about its acquisition by Google three years ago.”

Awe shimmered in the gazes of the students as they regarded Max. Uncomfortable as the object of such reverence, he shifted his weight from one foot to the other and focused his gaze on the ceiling tiles. He would have preferred that the universe hadn’t heard about the acquisition, but the sum Google had paid Max for his company had been staggering—just over a billion dollars. Google would have paid even more, but Max had insisted on retaining some patents and licensing agreements, guaranteeing him a steady income from his innovations.

As if he needed a steady income. Even after distributing much of the windfall to his investors and employees, he’d been absurdly wealthy. He’d bought his parents a house and convinced his mother to retire from her job as a cafeteria lady at P.S. 209; his father had insisted on continuing to drive his cab, but he’d reduced his hours and volunteered for fewer night shifts. Max had invested some of his money in new start-ups, a few of which were prospering and earning him more income. He’d donated generously to MIT’s scholarship fund. And he’d set up the foundation—the best thing he’d ever done, even if it had cost him Vanessa. Maybe because it had cost him Vanessa.

Hands shot into the air throughout the classroom. Stan’s students had questions for Max. Dozens of questions.

“Why did you call your company New World?”

“Because technology is a new world,” Max said. “Also, because my family immigrated from the Old World to America, which we considered the New World.”

“What advice do you have for people like us who want to develop new apps?”

“Forget the apps,” Max answered. “How many apps do we need on our phones to find the nearest seafood restaurant? How many apps do we need to play time-wasting games?”

“But that’s where the money is,” someone called out.

“It’s not going to change the world,” Max argued. “Do something useful. Develop software that will help doctors pinpoint the kind of tumor a cancer patient has. Develop software that will make automobiles safer. Develop software that will protect consumers who scan their credit cards, so no one can steal their data and empty their bank accounts.”

“You’ve already taken care of that,” Stan reminded Max.

“How rich are you?” a girl near the back of the room asked, a question that prompted a good deal of laughter.

“You want me to flunk her?” Stan joked.

“No, I’ll answer her,” Max said solemnly. “I kept enough money to live comfortably and used the rest to establish the New World Foundation. We fund educational programs. Scholarship money for college kids, and also programs at younger levels. Pre-K programs in poor communities. Tutoring programs. Classes for immigrants who need language help. We’ve teamed up with several organizations that fund educational programs in Africa.”

Some of the students looked marginally less impressed with him. Evidently, they thought he ought to be spending his wealth on private jets and ocean-worthy yachts. Or maybe on modern, glass-walled houses with stunning water views.

Other students looked more impressed. But Max hadn’t set up his foundation in order to impress anyone. To him, it had simply been a matter of his having greater wealth than he could make use of. He could live the rest of his life without ever wanting for anything. Beyond that, why sit on his money when he could instead use it for something worthwhile?

Besides, money sometimes attracted the wrong people—people who wanted that money. People who pretended to like you because you could do things for them. People whose values skewed in directions Max didn’t exactly admire.

People who wanted to use you. People who could hurt you.

Fortunately, the students’ questions veered from a tabloid-worthy interest in his wealth to the technology he’d developed. His scribbles joined Stan’s on the whiteboard, and he reveled in the sheer joy of just doing science, exploring, experimenting, thinking hard. Of all the ups and downs in his life, the years he’d spent at MIT, surrounded by computer geeks like himself, had been among the best.

He needed this kind of exchange, this kind of mental exercise. Running the foundation was interesting enough, and spiritually rewarding. Monitoring his investments had its own satisfactions. Meeting with colleagues on the boards to which he’d been named was pleasant. Consulting with government officials searching for new encryption strategies allowed him to demonstrate his gratitude toward the country that had taken his family in. Interrogating fresh-faced young techies about the projects they wanted him to invest in stimulated him, even though he often found that their science instincts weren’t as strong as their hunger for the kind of wealth he’d achieved.

But talking with like-minded souls about pure research… That was joy.

He wondered if Emma felt a similar bliss when she discussed art with other artists, if she experienced the same rush of giddy satisfaction when one of her students drew a line just so or captured just the right hue in a painting.

And he wondered why, when he was in his milieu, in the heart of MIT’s computer science building, he still couldn’t stop thinking about Emma.





Chapter Nine




Emma had misgivings about meeting Monica at the Faulk Street Tavern Thursday evening. But she had to hike down the hill, anyway, and Monica had sounded excited when she’d phoned Emma an hour ago. “I’ve got an idea,” she’d said.

Great. Emma needed an idea. Or two. Or three.

She needed a lot more than ideas. She needed money, and she needed her head examined, not necessarily in that order.

The day had started out well enough. Last night she’d declared Ava Lowery’s Dream Portrait finished. If she held onto it any longer, she’d wind up tweaking this and that, making the emerald lawn surrounding the castle a slightly deeper hue, adding a bit more sparkle to Ava’s crown, or maybe to Ava’s eyes. As an artist, she knew that no creative work was ever really done; there was always one more thing you could improve on. At some point, you simply had to be brave and say, “Enough.”

Because Ava’s painting was her first paid project in Brogan’s Point, Emma had included framing in her price. She was hoping Ava’s Dream Portrait would be her calling card. If Ava’s parents liked it enough, they would show it to their friends and recommend Emma. A frame would make the portrait look just a bit better, like wrapping an elegant satin ribbon around a gift-wrapped box and tying it into a gorgeous pompom-shaped bow. A frame made the painting look complete.

She’d started the day with her art class with the twin doctors, during which they’d happily painted the hats she’d arranged for them—a vintage blue 1940’s cloche, complete with a gaudy plume and a fascinator, juxtaposed with a man’s gray fedora. She’d borrowed the hats from the wardrobe room of the Point Players, a community theater troupe for whom she’d helped create the set when they’d staged The Real Inspector Hound in February. She’d placed the two hats atop a buff-colored cloth on the table in the loft, creating a noir-ish kind of still life. Willy and Wally had loved it.

Once they’d left with their newest hat paintings, Emma had packed up the hats, pulled on her tooled leather boots, and marched down the hill.

She’d left Ava’s portrait in the loft, afraid it might get damaged if she carried it to town. If she owned a car, she could have laid it flat in the trunk and brought it with her, so she could hold it up beside various picture frames to assess which frame complemented the painting most effectively. But without a car, she would have had to hand-carry the painting down the hill, which would not only have been unwieldy but would have put the painting at risk. A car might splash mud from a puddle onto it. A low tree branch might snag it. A bird might poop on it. It was definitely much safer in the loft. Emma could pick out a frame without the presence of the painting.

She already had a pretty good idea of what style of frame would work best with Ava’s Dream Portrait, and she had the painting’s measurements written down and tucked into her purse. Monica had promised to drive Emma south on Route 1 to a big-box craft store after work. Emma would have plenty of frames to choose from there.

Since Monica was doing this favor for her, Emma couldn’t very well refuse to meet her at the Faulk Street Tavern. “We’ll have a drink and discuss my idea,” Monica had said, “and then we can drive down to Peabody and buy a frame.”

Emma had nothing against bars in general, especially bars like the Faulk Street Tavern, which was unpretentious and boasted prices about half of what she’d had to pay for drinks in Brooklyn. In fact, she’d liked the Faulk Street Tavern just fine, until the day she’d sat across the table from Max and “True Colors” had poured through the speakers flanking the stained-glass peacocks on that funky old jukebox. Ever since then…

She’d felt weird. As if she couldn’t quite perceive things as they were, or as they ought to be, or as she expected them. As if the colors of the world surrounding her were slightly off, the blue of the sky carrying an undertone of green, the ocean glittering with dark red highlights, the asphalt of the roads more purple than gray.

She didn’t know where Max was. He’d said he would meet with her Friday so she could start work on his portrait, and the thought filled her with a disconcerting combination of excitement and dread. She’d printed out her boilerplate contract for him, but she hadn’t filled in any of the blanks: deposit, final cost, delivery date. She had no idea how much to charge him. On the one hand, he was a businessman of some sort who owned a spectacular, undoubtedly valuable, house, so he could probably afford a high price. On the other, he was Emma’s landlord. He controlled her future—at least, her housing future. If she overcharged him, he might be offended enough to evict her.

On yet another hand—she exceeded her allotment of hands, but her relationship with Max, if that was the right word, was too ambiguous for only two hands—he’d said he wanted to kiss her. And on one more other hand, she hadn’t let him kiss her.

She’d wanted him to. She’d wanted his hands—only two, but they were large and strong-looking, and no gold band circled his left ring finger—to gather her to himself, and she wanted him to press his mouth to hers, and she wanted…

Things she shouldn’t want.

He’s your freaking landlord, she reminded herself.

Monica hadn’t yet arrived at the Faulk Street Tavern when Emma entered. Five o’clock on a Thursday evening, the joint wasn’t exactly hopping. A man sat alone at the bar, hunched so deeply over his glass that his nose nearly rested on the rim. A few younger guys who smelled of the ocean sat in a booth, a pitcher of golden beer and a platter of wings occupying the center of their table. They wore denim and flannel, not fisherman’s gear, but Emma had learned that it took more than a shower and a change of clothes for a crew member of a trawler or lobster boat to lose that lingering ocean scent.

Not that she minded. Growing up in Vermont, she’d rarely visited the ocean—she recalled her parents taking her brother and her to the beach in Maine once, but the water had been too cold to swim in. Still, Emma had fallen in love with the rich, sour fragrance of the sea. Living in Brogan’s Point, even if only for a few months, had reminded her of just how much she loved that smell.

Behind the bar, the tall, square-jawed woman with hair the color of dead pine needles hovered at the register, counting and sorting cash into its drawer. She glanced up at Emma’s entrance, shot her a fleeting half-smile, and then turned her attention back to the stack of bills in her hand. Next to her, a beefy young man with black hair and tawny skin unloaded glistening glasses from a tray.

Unsure whether to take a seat at one of the many empty tables or wait for Monica’s arrival, Emma circled the room with her gaze. The jukebox stood across from the bar, beautiful in a flamboyant way, with its glossy, veined wood and its colorful peacocks. A faint shudder rippled down Emma’s spine and she spun away. What if another song spilled out of the jukebox while she was there? What if that song dazed and haunted her the way “True Colors” had?

She crossed to one of the empty booths and sat with her back to the jukebox, as if that would keep her from hearing it if someone popped a coin in and it started to play.

She didn’t have to sit alone for long. Just minutes after her arrival, Monica swept in. She got a much warmer smile from the woman behind the bar. No doubt that woman—what was her name again? Something masculine, Emma recalled—had known Monica her whole life. Brogan’s Point wasn’t that small a town, but all the people who owned long-time business establishments in town seemed well acquainted with one another.

“Hey, Gus,” Monica called to the woman as she strolled across the room to Emma’s booth.

Gus. Emma lodged the name in her memory.

“I’m getting a glass of wine. What would you like?” Monica asked Emma in a quieter voice.

Evidently, it was too early in the evening for the wait staff to be working. Emma squinted at the bar, trying to recall what beers were on tap. “A Sam Adams, I guess,” she said, digging into her purse for her wallet.

“I’ve got it,” Monica said, waving Emma’s money away and sauntering over to the bar to get their drinks. She returned to the table in less than a minute, carrying a goblet of white wine, a glass of Boston lager and two square cocktail napkins. She settled onto the banquette facing Emma, passed her the beer and then tapped her goblet against it before taking a sip. “So, did you finish the painting?”

Emma nodded. “It came out pretty good.”

“It’s better than pretty good. I’ve seen it.”

Emma shrugged off her friend’s praise. She was edgy, anxious about what Monica’s grand idea might be. “I still have to photograph it for my portfolio,” she said. And then I’ll frame it. I appreciate your giving me a lift to the frame store.”

Another wave of dismissal from Monica. Then she leaned forward, her dark eyes glowing with excitement. “So, I’ve been thinking,” she said. “We’ve got this housing situation—”

“I have this housing situation. You’re all set.”

Monica shook her head. “You’re all set, too. You can live in the studio apartment at the inn.”

Emma frowned. “You said it was really tiny. I don’t see how we can—”

“Share it? Nope. You can have it all to yourself. I’ll move in with Jimmy.”

“No,” Emma blurted out before she could stop herself.

“Why not? I think it’s a great idea. I don’t want to live that close to my parents. But they’re not your parents. Their proximity shouldn’t matter to you.”

Emma took a deep breath. She’d said no awfully quickly, and bluntly. If this was Monica’s brilliant idea, it sucked. But Emma didn’t want to risk offending her best friend by pointing out that the apartment at the inn belonged to the Reinhart family and, more important, that Jimmy was an ass. “That’s a big step, moving in with a guy,” she said instead.

“You should know. You lived with Claudio,” Monica reminded her.

“And look what happened. He cheated on me and I wound up sleeping on his cousin’s couch.”

“And then I rescued you,” Monica said with a smile, clearly pleased with herself.

“You can’t keep rescuing me,” Emma argued. “Especially not this way.”

“It’ll work out,” Monica assured her. “I’ve known Jimmy since high school.”

“And you two have spent more time broken up than together. You broke up freshman year of college.” Emma remembered that period all too vividly. Monica had been alternately mopey and furious, and Emma had served as sounding board, shrink, and buddy, dragging Monica to parties and gatherings to keep her from wallowing in misery in their dorm room. “You broke up at least three times during college.”

“Four times,” Monica said with a blithe shrug.

“And a few times since we graduated.”

“So I think I know what I’m getting into,” Monica said. “Is Jimmy perfect? No. Do I want to spend the rest of my life with him? The jury’s still out. Do I love him? Yes.”

“Can he be a jerk sometimes?” Emma couldn’t resist saying. “Yes.”

Monica only laughed. “Like I said, I know him. He’s got a two-bedroom place at Colonial Heights,” she told Emma, naming a complex of red brick garden apartments just south of town. “So if he’s getting on my nerves, I can move into the other bedroom.”

“I bet he’d really like that,” Emma said with a snort. “‘Jimmy, you left the toilet seat up again, so I’m not sleeping with you tonight. But thanks for letting me live here.’”

Monica laughed again. “Yeah, right. I’m going to go all Lysistrada on him because he’s left the toilet seat up. If women did that every time their partners left the toilet seat up, the human race would die out.”

Emma shared her laughter. Just as she’d dragged Monica to parties during her numerous break-ups with Jimmy in college, Monica had dragged Emma to a performance of the ancient Greek comedy when one of the campus theater groups had staged it. In the play, the heroine, Lysistrada, organized the women of her city to deny their soldier-husbands sex until they ended the war. The play made a wonderful statement about women using their sexual power over men to bring about peace.

It would be nice if women could use that same sexual power to train their men to lower the toilet seat when they were done peeing. But Jimmy required a lot more training than merely his bathroom manners. He was shallow. He was egotistical. He took Monica for granted.

“I appreciate the offer,” Emma said, “but no. I’m going to solve my housing problem on my own. I’ll find someone with a room they want to rent in their finished basement, or over the garage.”

“You won’t get enough natural light in a basement,” Monica pointed out. “How will you paint?”

“How will I paint at your family’s hotel? You said that studio apartment is tiny.”

Monica conceded the point with a sigh.

“I’ll find a place to rent. And I’ll find some studio space to paint.” Or Max will find it for me.

No. Just as she didn’t want Monica to rescue her, she didn’t want Max to rescue her. She’d been independent her whole life. Even as a child, living with her parents, she’d learned how to take care of herself. As loving as her parents were, they were awfully flaky. Lacking money to buy a lot of picture books, Emma’s father used to read a road atlas to her and her brother. He’d had Emma climbing on the roof of the house with him when she was a toddler, helping him repair loose shingles. Emma’s mother would have sent her to school in shorts and flip-flops in the middle of January. By the time Emma had been in kindergarten, she’d learned how to make sense of New England’s harsh weather and dress appropriately.

She’d figured out how to apply to college on her own. She’d figured out how to compile a portfolio and how to fill out the financial aid forms which won her the scholarship aid she’d needed. She’d figured out which laptop computer would work best for her, and she’d bought it. Surely she could figure out how to find an apartment within her admittedly meager price range.

Besides, she’d rather live in a tent on the beach than see Monica moving in with Jimmy. Monica was smart. She was pretty. She was generous. She was far more stylish than Emma. Sooner or later, she was going to figure out that Jimmy wasn’t worthy of her. Emma was hoping for sooner.

“What if you can’t find a place?” Monica asked, her eyes shadowed with concern. “I’m afraid you’re going to move away from Brogan’s Point. And I like having you here.”

“I like being here,” Emma agreed. “I like living with my BFF. I’ve got students here, and I want to build my Dream Portrait business. At least for now, I need to stay put. But not if it means you have to move in with Jimmy.”

Monica let out a long breath. “He doesn’t like you much, either,” she admitted.

Emma laughed.

The tavern’s door creaked as it opened and shut, admitting more patrons. A trio of young women came in together, then another couple of ocean-smelling guys wearing thick-soled boots and shrubby beards. Boats must be docking and businesses closing for the day, freeing their employees until tomorrow. The room vibrated with the energy of people ready to decompress or to socialize, people chatting, people thirsty for whatever Gus might pour into their glasses.

“Jimmy’s like comfort food,” Monica explained. “I know what to expect with him. There’s no anxiety, no worries. No big let-downs.”

“Wow,” Emma muttered. “It sounds so romantic.”

“He’s good in bed,” Monica added.

Well, that was something.

The door creaked again and a couple of men entered. The younger one wore leather and denim, and his hair was a windblown mess of dark waves. The older man had a bluff, square face and striking silver hair. He wore a police uniform. “Is the place getting raided?” Emma asked, shooting a wary glance toward the cop. “I’m over twenty-one. How about you?”

Monica grinned and shook her head. “That’s Ed Nolan,” she murmured, although Emma doubted anyone outside their booth could hear her. “He’s Gus’s boyfriend.”

“Whoa. She’s quite a cougar.”

Monica’s grin widened. “The older guy.”

Emma followed the two men with her gaze as they crossed the room to the bar. A few more patrons trickled in behind them, and the tables began to fill up. “Who’s the younger guy?” she asked.

“Nick Fiore. He was a couple of years ahead of me in school.”

His leather jacket carried a hint of danger. So did his unkempt hair, his snug jeans, and his swaggering gait. “How could you choose Jimmy over him?” Emma asked.

“I doubt he ever noticed me,” Monica said, then pressed her lips together and shook her head. “Besides, he was a mess back then.”

“He doesn’t look like a mess.”

Monica pursed her lips. “He got arrested,” she said, then paused. “For trying to kill his father.”

Emma felt her eyebrows shoot up.

“It was very ugly,” Monica said. “Thank God he got his shit together eventually.”

“I guess he must have, if his drinking buddy is a cop.”

“He runs a bunch of programs for at-risk kids through the community center. I mean, he’s a good guy, but… In high school, he was definitely troubled. I kept my distance. And like I said, he probably didn’t even know I existed.”

Emma watched the two men for a minute. They stood at the bar, chatting amiably with Gus. At one point, the cop slung his arm around the younger man’s shoulders and they laughed.

The community center. Emma had passed it often on her strolls down the hill. It was one of those utilitarian municipal buildings constructed of textured tan bricks and steel-framed windows. She’d entered only once, when she’d gotten caught in a sudden downpour without an umbrella. The place had seemed pleasant in a bland, civic sort of way, with a gym, a swimming pool, assorted offices and multi-purpose rooms.

She wondered if the center had an art room, a studio where she could teach her classes. If she remained in Brogan’s Point, she’d be part of the community, wouldn’t she? And that would entitle her to use the community center. If she wound up renting a room in someone’s basement or over a garage, as seemed likelier than her finding another modern mansion with ocean views and excellent natural lighting renting for dirt-cheap, she could continue to earn a modest living teaching at the community center.

“What’s his name again?” she asked Monica.

“Ed Nolan or Nick Fiore?”

“The one who isn’t the cop. Nick Fiore?”

Monica tilted her head, assessing Emma. “Are you going after him?”

He was attractive, no doubt about it. But he wasn’t Max Tarloff.

Which was the stupidest thought Emma had had all day.

“I’m going after the community center,” Emma said, sliding out of the booth.

Monica opened her mouth, but Emma didn’t wait to hear her question. She had to approach Nick Fiore now, before she lost her nerve or contemplated the logistics enough to conclude that using a room at the community center for her art classes was a stupid idea.

Someone must have stuck a coin in the jukebox, because as Emma strolled across the dance floor to the bar, the room filled with the sultry baritone of Elvis Presley singing “Jailhouse Rock.” Well, that had to be a sign, she thought with a smile. She still wasn’t sure what the jukebox had been trying to tell her when she and Max had been enveloped in Cyndi Lauper’s plaintive voice crooning about true colors, but if Elvis could sound so downright cheery about incarceration, the jukebox must be telling her that Nick Fiore was fully rehabilitated and not too messed up any more.

“So I said to this bozo, ‘Telling a cop to eff himself is usually not a good way to avoid getting arrested,’” the officer was saying as Emma approached him and Nick Fiore, “and he says, ‘Gee, you’re right, officer. I should have told you to eff your mother.’ Needless to say, I arrested him.”

“My tax dollars at work,” Nick muttered.

Behind the bar, Gus said, “I know the F-word, Ed. I raised two boys. Nothing shocks me.”

“But I didn’t want to shock this lovely young lady,” the policeman said, turning his bright smile on Emma. Nick traced the policeman’s gaze to Emma and smiled as well.

“You girls ready for another round?” Gus asked.

“No, we’re fine,” Emma told her. “I wanted to talk to…Nick Fiore, right?” She extended her right hand. “I’m Emma Glendon.”

“I hate to tell you, honey, but he’s already taken,” the policeman warned her.

Emma grinned as Nick shook her hand. “I want to discuss business. Or art. Or both.”

“That sounds ominous,” Gus said. “You sure you don’t want another drink?” Although her voice was as dry as chalk, Emma suspected she was joking and obliged her with a laugh and a shake of her head.

Nick lifted his beer and angled his head toward an empty booth. “Sure, we can talk. But I’ve got to warn you, I don’t know much about art. Or business, for that matter.”

She followed him to the booth, settled across from him and took a deep breath. “I’m a friend of Monica Reinhart’s,” she began, then pointed toward Monica, who had twisted in her seat to observe Emma and Nick. Realizing that they were both staring at her, she smiled feebly and fluttered her fingers in a wave. “You went to school with her, but she said she didn’t think you knew who she was.”

“Her folks own the Ocean Bluff Inn, don’t they?”

So he did know who Monica was. Too bad he was already taken. Emma had exchanged less than a dozen words with him, but that was enough to convince her he was a much finer specimen of manhood than Jimmy. “Right. Anyway, she and I are close friends, and we’re about to lose the lease on the house we’re renting. The thing is, I’m an artist and an art teacher, using a loft in the house as my studio. Once we lose our lease, I’ll lose that space to teach my art classes. Monica said you worked at the Brogan’s Point Community Center, and I thought, maybe there’s a room there I could use for my classes.”

Nick didn’t say no. He didn’t scowl or guffaw or shove her off the banquette. He drank some beer and ruminated. “You want to rent a room, or access a room for free?”

“Well, I’d prefer free,” Emma said. “It’s not like I make tons of money teaching art to children and retired doctors.”

“That’s who you work with? Kids and retirees?”

“I’ll teach anyone willing to pay me. I’m an artist.” She hoped he understood what that meant: she was chronically broke.

“Okay. So you want to charge money for your classes, but you don’t want to pay rent on your studio space.”

When he put it that way, it sounded cheap and chintzy. “I’ll pay rent if I have to, and if I can afford it. Or maybe I could earn the use of the studio by doing other work at the center. Like, maybe I could teach a free class for kids who can’t afford to pay, and then I could charge the retired doctors—who, believe me, can afford to pay. Maybe we could arrange something like that.” She hesitated, then added, “Or I can scrub sinks and mop floors.”

“The community center’s janitorial staff is unionized,” he informed her. “So forget about that.” He ruminated, sipping a little more beer. “I run some after-school programs at the center,” he said. “Sports activities, mostly. Maybe we could incorporate some art activities, too. I don’t know if I’ve got the budget for that, or if we’ve got a room you could use. I’d have to discuss it with the center’s director.”

“Jailhouse Rock” stopped booming from the jukebox. He still hadn’t said no. “I’d be very grateful if you would,” she said. “Or if you could tell me who the director is, and I could meet with him myself.”

“Her. The director is a she.” Nick regarded her thoughtfully. “Let me talk to her first, and poke around my budget to see if I’ve got any spare change I could put towards art in the after-school program. Or my summer program. Give me your number, and I’ll call you after I’ve made some inquiries. How does that sound?”

“Fantastic,” Emma said, doing her best not to jump onto the table and indulge in a victory dance. She didn’t have a victory to dance about, yet. All she had was the promise of a possibility.

He pulled out his cell phone and she recited her number for him to program into it. They shook hands again and slid out of the booth. She watched him stride back to his friend at the bar, then spun around and allowed herself a few prancing, celebratory steps, her boots tapping gently against the dance floor as she started back to the booth where Monica awaited her.

Then she froze as another song emerged from the jukebox, slow and sweet and haunting—and crazily familiar. True Colors.

She turned to stare at the jukebox, and then at the door, where Max Tarloff stood, staring back at her.





Chapter Ten




He’d had the hotel room in Cambridge lined up. He’d had a plan for dinner with Stan Weisner and an invitation for drinks with MIT’s president, who generally treated Max as visiting royalty whenever he visited his alma mater. Max had written some very large checks to the school. The president went out of his way to make him feel welcome.

Ordinarily, he would have accepted the president’s invitation and enjoyed dinner with Stan. But he’d wound up taking a rain check on both engagements. He’d told himself he wanted to return to Brogan’s Point because he’d left his toothbrush at the Ocean Bluff Inn.

Yeah, right.

Arriving back in town, he’d driven directly to his house at the top of the hill and found it empty. Not sure where Emma might be, he’d steered back down the hill in the direction of the inn. Slowed at an intersection by Brogan Point’s modest rush-hour traffic, he’d spotted the Faulk Street Tavern on a side street off Atlantic Avenue—a stolid, unpretentious building, no neon sign calling attention to it, no velvet-rope crowd lining up to get in. What the hell, he’d thought. Instead of having a drink with MIT’s president, he could have a drink with some of the locals. Until he sold his house, they were technically his neighbors.

He didn’t want to acknowledge his hope that Emma might be inside. It was too silly, too crazy. He’d driven to Cambridge to put some distance between her and himself, yet he’d spent most of the day thinking about her. About her fiery hair and her flinty personality, about how he’d wanted to kiss her. About how he’d agreed to let her paint his portrait. He was a rational man, a computer whiz, a business mogul—and she was like an insidious virus, invading his software and making him behave in ways that made no sense.

He parked, entered the pub—and yes, Emma was there. Seated at a booth with a man, leaning toward him, engrossed in an intimate conversation with him. The man appeared to be about Emma’s age. He was dark, scruffy, a bit dangerous-looking in a black leather jacket.

Max immediately felt like an idiot. He’d been fantasizing about Emma, agreeing against all reason to let her paint his portrait when he ought to be furious with her for living in his house without his permission, and running a damned school there, too. And meanwhile, she was involved with some other guy. Shit.

But then she stood, walked from the table, and saw Max. And that stupid jukebox song began to play again. True Colors.

She walked directly toward him. She looked fearless, and beautiful. Her baggy jeans failed to conceal the sweet curves of her hips and the length of her legs. Her eyes were wide, her tantalizing lips shaping a half-smile that made him want to kiss her even more.

She reached him and her smile grew fractionally larger. “They’re playing our song,” she said.

“Is that really our song?”

She shrugged. Her smile was tentative yet inviting, warm yet slightly apprehensive.

“Can you—” he angled his head toward the door “—step outside for a minute?”

She glanced over her shoulder to another table—not the table she’d shared with the guy, who, Max noticed, had also abandoned the table and was now standing with a police officer at the bar, but another booth where Monica Reinhart sat nursing a glass of wine. Emma held up a finger, signaling Monica that she’d join her in a minute, and then let Max hold the door open for her.

The evening air was pleasantly cool, briny from the ocean breezes drifting up from the beach beyond Atlantic Avenue. Two couples strolled up the block, talking and laughing, and edged past Max and Emma to reach the bar’s door. Max waited until they were inside and he and Emma were once again alone on the shadowed side street. He waited because he wasn’t sure what he was going to do. He waited because the dusk light had an orange glow that made Emma’s hair shimmer like curls and swirls of flame.

Then he stopped waiting. He cupped his hands over her shoulders, pulled her into his arms, and kissed her.

Her mouth tasted even more delectable than it looked, sweet and soft, like the flesh of a nectarine. Her lips parted and her hands skimmed his sides and circled around to his back, holding him close. She kissed him as eagerly as he kissed her.

This was why he’d declined the MIT president’s invitation, and told Stan he couldn’t remain in town for dinner. This was why he’d skipped checking into the Hyatt Regency in Cambridge. It had nothing to do with buying a damned toothbrush. It had been this. This obsessive, encompassing, mind-boggling need to kiss Emma.

He wasn’t sure how long the kiss lasted. Minutes. Hours. An eternity. Less than an instant. What he was sure of was that when they finally came up for air, he believed he wasn’t the same person he’d been before.

“Max.” Her voice was softer that a breath, so soft he couldn’t tell if she was angry or upset or turned on, or all of the above.

“Should I apologize?”

“No.” She lowered her eyes and shook her head. The lush waves of her hair captivated him. He couldn’t stop himself from lifting a hand to the top of her head and stroking his fingers through the thick, fiery locks.

She sighed, angling her head slightly, allowing him to caress the skin behind her ear. “I couldn’t stop thinking about you all day,” he confessed. “It’s crazy. I hardly know you, and what I know, I’m not sure I like.”

That got a laugh out of her. “Well, I hardly know you, either. But one thing I do know about you is, you’re honest.”

Not as honest as she believed, but he didn’t argue the point. Instead, he pressed a kiss to her hair, which was cool and silky against his lips, and then to her forehead, which was warm and smooth and made him want to kiss every square centimeter of skin on her body. “All right,” he murmured, then touched a kiss to the outer corner of her left eye. “I’ve got a king-size bed at the Ocean Bluff Inn.” A kiss to the outer corner of her right eye. “I also happen to own a house here in town, and I know it’s got a few beds in it.”

Her sigh sounded almost like a purr, a deep vibration in her throat. She tilted her face so his mouth could find hers again. “No,” she said just before locking her lips to his.

He kissed her for a long, luxurious moment, then pulled back. “No, what?”

“No, I can’t go to bed with you.”

“Can’t, or won’t?” He grazed her chin with a kiss.

“Won’t.” She brushed her lips against the hollow of his neck. “You’re not my type, Max.” Her fingers flexed at the small of his back, sending an electrifying jolt of arousal through him. “I’m an artist. You’re a landlord.”

“I’m a hell of a lot more than that.” He tightened his arms around her, pressing his hips to hers, letting her know what she was doing to him.

She made that purring noise again. “You’re a businessman. You’re someone who cares about insurance and liability and stuff like that.”

“And you’re someone who obviously doesn’t.” He smiled in spite of himself.

“I mean, it’s not like we’ve got some grand relationship going.” Her hands slipped an inch lower on his back, and his dick grew an inch harder. “It’s just—”

“Chemistry,” he said.

“I was going to say animal attraction.”

“I think chemistry, you think biology.” He used his thumbs against the delicate bones of her jaw to raise her lips to his once more.

They kissed deeply, hungrily. Drawing back, she said, “Let’s call the whole thing off.” He must have looked appalled, because she grinned. “It’s an old song. ‘You say po-tah-to, I say po-tay-to.’ You think chemistry, I think biology.” She sang, “Let’s call the whole thing off,” in a lilting melody.

“I like ‘True Colors’ better,” he told her—an admission that surprised him as much as her. He hadn’t thought he liked that song at all. Yet it had brought her across the tavern to him, hadn’t it? It had delivered her into his arms. For that alone, he loved it.

“I do, too,” she admitted, edging back a step. She jerked her hands from him, as if they’d been glued to him and she’d had to exert herself to break the adhesive. Another step back, and he could see, even in the waning light, that she was flushed, her lips glistening, her eyes not quite focused. “I really have to go,” she said. “Monica is waiting for me.”

That was a lame excuse, but he didn’t challenge Emma. If she didn’t walk away from him, she would wind up in his bed—either at the inn or at the house. And she wasn’t ready for that. Physically, maybe, but not emotionally.

He wasn’t ready for her emotionally, either, but he didn’t care. He wanted her, anyway.

He would have to wait. Maybe while he did, he would come to his senses and realize that pursuing anything with Emma, physical or emotional, was a stupid idea. In a matter of days, he would have the house listed. He would be back in California, living his life. An interlude of hot sex would be terrific, but he didn’t need it to survive, and he wouldn’t chase Emma if she didn’t want to be caught.

She reached for the door to the bar, but when her fingers curled around the handle, she turned back to him. “About tomorrow, I have to go to the community center in the afternoon. They may have a room I could use as a studio. So come early.”

Come early? Oh. Right. She meant come to the house. Because she was going to paint his portrait.

And he was going to…what? Pose while she gazed at him and analyzed him and moved his hand this way and his leg that? He was going to sit as motionless as a vase or a bowl of fruit while she objectified him on a canvas?

Of course he was—because he’d said he would. Because posing would mean spending more time with her, getting to know her better, maybe finding out that they were more than a conflict between chemistry and biology.

Because while she was gazing at him, he could be gazing at her, imagining her naked, imagining her lying beneath him.

Imagining her seeing rainbows when she came.





Chapter Eleven




The next morning, Emma was still freaking out.

She hadn’t slept well. More accurately, she hadn’t slept at all. Infused with a nasty mixture of adrenaline, bewilderment, and sweat-inducing arousal, she’d lain in bed, trying to figure out what the hell had happened between her and Max outside the Faulk Street Tavern.

Inside the Faulk Street Tavern, too. The whole thing had started when that damned song had started playing.

That blessed song.

She was in love. No, she wasn’t.

She was in lust. No, it was more than that.

She was in trouble. That much was certain.

Good God. Who would have guessed that Max Tarloff could kiss like Casanova on steroids? She couldn’t recall ever being so turned on by a few kisses. She couldn’t recall ever being so turned on at all.

And he was her flipping landlord. And she was supposed to paint him. Definitely, she was in trouble.

She hadn’t told Monica about the encounter outside the pub. When Emma had rejoined her friend at their booth, Monica had immediately started pumping her for information about her conversation with Nick Fiore. Emma had welcomed the distraction, happily discussing the possibility of scoring some studio space at the community center. “If you can work at the center, you’ll probably attract a lot more students,” Monica had pointed out. “You can post class schedules on the bulletin boards there, and in the center’s newsletters. This could work out fabulously, Emma! Not only would you have space to teach, but you’d generate a lot more income. People would go to the center, swim a few laps, and then spend an hour painting—and paying you.”

“If,” Emma had emphasized. “First I have to see if there’s a room at the center I can use.” Even if there was, Emma’s housing problem would not be solved. But if the community center worked out, she could live in someone’s basement or above someone’s garage and not have to worry about breaking zoning laws by conducting her art classes in a non-commercial venue.

For all his fussing about those stupid zoning laws, Max seemed to have no objection to her beginning work on his portrait in his not-zoned-for-commercial-use house. Of course, all she would be doing today would be photographing him and interviewing him a bit, so she could get a sense of what his dreams were for the background imagery.

The thought of interviewing him made her queasy. The thought of being alone in the house with him made her giddy. She was tempted to beg Monica to take the day off and stay home, but then she would have to explain why. What would she say? “Max and I need a chaperone so we won’t jump each other’s bones the minute he gets here.”

She couldn’t talk about her steamy interlude outside the Faulk Street Tavern with Max, not even with her best friend. Not until she’d made sense of it—which seemed pretty freaking impossible.

Tired of lying in bed, battling insomnia while her brain tied itself in macramé knots, she’d arisen at five and gotten to work framing Ava Lowery’s painting. The frame she’d purchased after she and Monica left the pub yesterday evening complemented the painting beautifully. Ava’s parents would be pleased. Ava—the little princess—would be ecstatic.

Emma waited until after Monica had left for the Ocean Bluff Inn and she had the house to herself before showering, attempting futilely to tame her hair with a round brush and her blow-drier, and fretting far longer than necessary about what to wear. Her baggy, paint-speckled jeans and overalls made her look like an artist, but they weren’t exactly flattering. Her few skirts were flattering, but they would set too formal a tone for her morning session with Max. She tried on three different tops before settling on a cotton sweater in a bright turquoise shade and a pair of khaki slacks that had seen better days—but then, all of her clothing had seen better days. Once she and Claudio had broken up and she’d had to fend for herself, her budget hadn’t allowed for splurges at New York City’s boutiques and department stores. Even the consignment shops in her Dumbo neighborhood had been too pricy for her.

She fussed some more with hair before giving up and letting it curl any which way it wanted. She checked her watch four times. She tested her digital camera to make sure it didn’t need new batteries. She choked down a cup of coffee, then brushed her teeth. Not that she and Max were going to kiss again. She just didn’t want to have coffee breath.

At a few minutes past nine, the doorbell rang. She gave herself a mental slap on the cheek and a stern reminder that she was a painter and this was a professional engagement, that if Max decided to go forward with the project, she would charge him for her time and talent, that—for God’s sake—he was her landlord. That his willingness to consider having her paint his dream portrait and his offer to help her find studio space had meant nothing more than that he’d fallen under a weird spell cast by a Cyndi Lauper song in an antiquated jukebox with peacocks on it.

The song’s weird spell was why they’d kissed, she reminded herself. Yesterday’s spasm of lust wouldn’t have occurred if “True Colors” hadn’t suddenly escaped the jukebox and filled the air when he’d stepped inside the bar.

You are an artist, she lectured herself as she descended the stairs. Glimpsing Max on the front porch through the narrow sidelight framing the door, she added, you are a tenant.

One more deep breath, and she opened the door. “Hi,” she said brightly.

His smile was hesitant. Did he want to back out? Did he want to run for cover? She wouldn’t blame him if he did.

But she hoped he wouldn’t, because he was so… damn, so gorgeous. The sky was overcast, but enough morning light seeped through the filmy white clouds to illuminate the striking geometry of his face. Such piercing eyes, such a strong, sharp chin. All that thick, dark hair, as disheveled as her own. Had he blow-dried his hair, too? Had it fought all attempts to tame it, the way hers had?

“Come in,” she said, doing an admirable job of behaving as if nothing R-rated had occurred between them yesterday.

He followed her down the entry hall, his footsteps slow but steady. If he wasn’t racing up the stairs to the loft in an eager rush to pose for her, he wasn’t bolting in retreat, either. He’d dressed in jeans and a ribbed gray sweater that teetered on the narrow line between geeky and stylish but that made her unfortunately aware of his lean, beautifully proportioned physique.

At the top of the stairs, he gazed around. She’d tidied up the loft, although with her art supplies stacked on open shelves and the rumpled drop cloths blanketing the floor, the open space was never going to look neat—not until Max kicked her out and reclaimed the house for himself.

She’d set a stool out for him to sit on, far enough from the work table and easels so she could circle it easily and close enough to the wall of glass for the milky morning light to illuminate his face. His gaze circled the loft, then settled on the stool. “Am I supposed to sit there?” he asked. He sounded kind of apprehensive.

“The seat of honor,” she said, flourishing her hand as if it was a royal throne and he was a king.

“I’m supposed to sit on this stool while you paint me?” He lowered himself onto it and frowned. “It’s not very comfortable.”

“I’m not going to paint you while you sit there,” she explained, crossing to the table for her camera. “That would be a waste of your time. What I’ll do is take a bunch of photos of you and paint from them.”

He eyed her camera warily. “I’ve never done anything like this before,” he said.

He almost made the words sound sexual. Or else maybe she was just imagining an innuendo where none existed. Yet she appreciated his willingness to let her see his discomfort. Maybe she should stop trying to act as if this was just a typical job for her.

“Okay,” she said, then forced a smile. “Here’s how it works. I take a bunch of photos of you, and I ask you a bunch of questions about your dreams.”

“My dreams?”

“Not your bedtime dreams.” She felt a blush warm her cheeks when she uttered the word “bedtime.”

He didn’t seem terribly rattled by her reference to bedtime, though, so she soldiered on. “I paint what I call Dream Portraits. That’s a portrait of you surrounded by the things you dream about. Like Ava Lowery’s portrait.” She pulled Ava’s painting away from the wall, where she’d propped it after framing it, and displayed it for him. “She dreams of being a princess, so I painted her surrounded by princess things.”

“I don’t dream of being a princess,” Max said.

Emma laughed. “That’s a relief.”

He lapsed into thought for a moment. “I’m not sure…I mean, to talk about my dreams? I don’t know. That’s personal.”

The way we kissed was personal, too, she almost pointed out. Opting for discretion, she said, “Painting you is personal,” as she returned Ava’s painting to its resting place against the wall.

“Yes, but…my dreams?”

“Don’t worry. We’ll just talk.”

He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it, apparently at a loss.

“If you don’t want to do this, we don’t have to.”

“You want to, though. You told me you wanted to paint me.”

“I do,” she admitted.

“Emma.” He stared at her, his eyes so intense, so focused, his gaze felt like a physical touch. “About last night—”

“No,” she said quickly. “No, no, no. Today is about painting. Not about…that.”

“Everything is about that,” he said, sounding unnervingly wise.

“All right. Look. I can paint your portrait. You can pay me for the painting. Or not,” she hastily added when she saw his brow dip in a frown. “Because I owe you for holding art classes in your house. Right?” She was ad-libbing, trying to read his mind, trying to figure out how to make the situation feel less awkward and less… Damn it. Sexual. Maybe she wanted to paint Max’s portrait only because painting him was safer than screwing him would be. Both were intimate acts, though. Both involved the dropping of defensive layers, the casting aside of self-protective shields.

He smiled wryly. “How much were you planning to charge me?”

“That depends on how detailed the painting is,” she said. “Why don’t I take some photos, and we’ll discuss your dreams, and then I’ll be able to assess what the painting will entail.” Entail. His word. Now he had her saying it.

She turned her camera on, listened to its motor hum to life, and scrutinized him in the pale morning light. His features would be thrown into stronger relief if she adjusted his head slightly, but she was afraid to touch him. “Could you just turn a little to the right?” she asked.

He shifted on the stool. His expression was pained.

“This isn’t going to hurt,” she assured him.

“I feel self-conscious.”

“No kidding.” That coaxed a smile out of him, and she smiled, too.

“I really don’t like being in the spotlight.”

“Once I have this painting done, you can hide in the shadows. People can admire your portrait and ignore you.”

He chuckled.

She started snapping pictures. Usually she was full of patter and jokes, eager to put her subjects at ease. But Max wasn’t just any subject, and although she’d managed to tickle a laugh out of him, she felt as self-conscious as he apparently did. Trying to come up with clever chatter would tire her out, so she decided to skip the light stuff and go straight to the heavy. “Tell me about your dreams.”

“I dream of not being in the spotlight,” he said.

She smiled tolerantly and continued photographing him. “Besides that dream.”

He shrugged, then cringed , as if afraid he’d ruined something by moving.

“That’s okay,” she said. “You can move if you want. I’m going to take a ton of photos, so if some of them come out blurry, no big deal.”

“I can move, but I can’t move out of the spotlight,” he muttered, although his eyes were bright with amusement. “I don’t know. I don’t dream about big things. Most of my dreams have already come true,” he said, his smile gone.

He looked so somber, she snorted. “You sure seem thrilled about that.”

He shot her a look. The motion caused the morning light to shift across his face. She could gently nudge his head back to where she wanted it, but she still felt nervous about touching him, even in a professional way. Instead, she decided to snap a few photos of him with shadows angling across his features. “Sometimes,” he said, “when your dreams come true, things don’t turn out quite the way you expected when you first dreamed them.”

“Do you want me to paint some disappointments into your portrait? I guess I can do that. The Dream Portraits I do are usually upbeat and inspiring. And fun. Like Ava’s princess portrait. Back in Brooklyn, when I was developing the concept, I painted a ballet dancer I knew, surrounded by all the roles she dreamed about dancing. But I suppose I could do a depressing painting, if that’s what you want.”

“Of course it’s not what I want,” he retorted. “All right, then. Upbeat and inspiring dreams. Let me think.” His expression changed again, growing pensive as he ruminated. He gazed out the window for a long, silent minute, then said, “I’ve always dreamed of having a home with an ocean view.”

“Then this must be your dream house,” she said, trying to capture with her camera the reflective cast of his eyes, the tilt of his head.

To her surprise, he laughed again. After a bit more thought, he said, “The two apartments where I lived in Brooklyn were both a few blocks from the beach. But all I could see from our windows was the street and the air shaft between our building and the next one. Where I live in San Francisco—Pacific Heights—I can see the bay. Not the ocean, though.”

“But you can see the ocean from this house. Why do you want to sell it?”

“Because I don’t live or work in Massachusetts?” he suggested, turning the statement into a question as if he expected her to grade him right or wrong.

“Tell me about your work,” she said. “Do you have a dream job?”

“Yes.”

That caught her by surprise. She wasn’t exactly sure what he did for a living. If the ridiculously below-market rent he was charging her and Monica indicated anything, he wasn’t the sharpest businessman she’d ever encountered.

“I run a foundation,” he told her.

“Cool!” That sounded grand, both altruistic and powerful. “What kind of foundation?”

“We focus mostly on education for impoverished children and immigrants. My parents had good educations in Russia, even though when they moved here they wound up with jobs that didn’t put their education to use. But they knew it was important for me to learn English and study hard. With a lot of immigrant children, their parents are so overwhelmed that the children don’t get the kind of encouragement I got. They need extra support. Their parents need language skills. California is full of immigrants from Latin and South America and Asia, and my foundation funnels grants into programs for them. But we work with programs all over the country. Some programs in Africa, too.”

“Wow. That is so cool. No—it’s noble.”

“Feel free to worship me.”

“I’ll paint your portrait, like the Renaissance painters used to paint their royal patrons.” She moved behind him and snapped some photos of his back. He had strong, solid shoulders. Shoulders she wanted to wrap her arms around, the way she had last night. She gave her head a brisk jerk, as if she could shake off the thought like a dog shaking water off its fur after a swim in a pond.

The fact was, she had bigger problems than merely the distraction of Max’s appearance, which was as appealing from the back as from the front. How on earth could she depict his dreams of educating immigrants in a painting? What was the visual peg on which she could hang this portrait? If she was going to create a Dream Portrait of him, she needed more to go on than educating immigrant children.

“Have you been to Africa?”

“I’ve visited Malawi,” he told her. “We contribute to a program there, run by Unicef. But I was there for only a couple of days, just to make sure the funds were being used properly. We didn’t want our money to wind up in some corrupt politician’s pocket.”

She sighed. As noble as his work sounded, Africa seemed like a non-starter for her painting. “Do you have any hobbies?” she asked hopefully.

He thought for a minute. “I shoot hoops with friends a couple of nights a week. I go hiking—not too often, but I enjoy it.”

Wonderful, she thought sarcastically. She could paint a knapsack.

“I play chess.”

“Of course. You’re from Russia,” she teased.

“Not all Russians play chess,” he argued. “I just like the mental challenge. I’m no champion, but I enjoy it. Sometimes I play against my computer. I usually win.”

“Do you read? Play a musical instrument?”

He winced. “I studied violin for six years and hated every minute of it.”

“Six years? You must have been pretty good.”

“I wasn’t good at all. And I hated it.”

Maybe she could paint a violin with an ax smashing through it. Great. A broken violin and a knapsack. She could call this one a Nightmare Portrait instead of a Dream Portrait. A chess board had possibilities, though.

“Do you have any pets?” she asked.

“No.”

She thought of him, living all by himself in his apartment with its San Francisco Bay view. Then she thought of him not living by himself. “Do you have a wife?” she asked.

He flinched, then spun around on the stool to face her. “Do you think I would have kissed you if I did?”

“Some men would,” she said, trying not to shrink from the intensity of his stare.

“I’m not one of them.”

“Well. Good.” She smiled, trying to lighten the moment.

He didn’t return her smile. Instead, he reached out and snagged her wrist, nearly making her drop her camera. He pulled her toward him, then rose from the stool. “If I had a wife,” he murmured, “I wouldn’t be making love to you.”

She opened her mouth to point out that he wasn’t making love to her. And then she understood what his fierce, hungry gaze was telling her. Standing so close to him, feeling his fingers circling her wrist, warm and firm but not forcing, she knew that hunger. She felt it just as fiercely.

In his eyes, she saw his true colors. He was a stern, solemn property owner, someone who did good works and obeyed zoning laws. But he was also a man burning with desire. A man who would make love to her.

She knew it. She wanted it.

With his free hand, he pried the camera from her grip and set it on the stool. Then he slid his arm around her waist and pulled her closer to himself, much closer. So close her breasts pressed into his chest when she inhaled. She needed that breath, though, because once he took her mouth with his, breathing was impossible.

They kissed. And kissed. They kissed like last night—no, not like last night. This kiss was deeper, wilder, needier. This kiss wedded not just their lips and tongues but their souls. Her hands fisted on his shoulders, those broad, strong shoulders she’d been admiring just minutes ago as she’d snapped photos of his back, and he cupped one hand over the curve of her bottom, drawing her against him, letting her feel his arousal. His other hand made its way to her head, where he tangled his fingers into her hair, the stubborn waves and curls that had refused to relax beneath her blow drier earlier that morning. That her hair was a mess didn’t seem to bother him in the least.

After an endless minute, he tore his mouth from hers, but only to graze her cheeks, her brow, the soft, vulnerable skin of her throat. She felt her legs sway beneath her, and he tightened his grip on her butt, guiding her against the bulge beneath his fly. He unraveled his other hand from her hair only to tug at her shirt, skimming it up so he could slide his hand across the skin of her back. Her skin was warm, but his hand was hot. Everywhere he touched, she felt a burning deep inside.

She brought her hands forward and down, resisting the urge to forge a direct path to his fly and instead shoving his sweater upward. He leaned back far enough for her to pull it over his head, along with the gray T-shirt he had on underneath. He released her to free his arms from the sleeves and tossed the garments aside. His gaze strayed past her and he muttered, “The window.”

“Don’t worry about it,” she said, staring at his chest. It was perfect—not too bulked up, not too lean. Streamlined muscle, a scant growth of hair along his sternum, a flat, hard stomach punctuated by a narrow navel framed in another smattering of dark hair. She wanted to paint him shirtless. She wanted to paint him naked. The hell with painting—she just wanted him naked.

“It’s all glass, Emma,” he said, his voice cracking slightly as she stroked her hand lightly across his pecs.

“We’re too high for anyone to see us,” she assured him, thinking, I’m high on you. I’m high on this. The loft was on the second floor, and the nearest neighbor lived several acres away, with enough trees between the two properties to obscure that house. If she couldn’t see it, she assumed that no one in that house could see her and Max. And even if they could, she didn’t care. The thought of stopping what they were doing for the time it took to walk to her bedroom was unbearable.

Max apparently needed little persuasion. He yanked her shirt off and groaned as he gazed at her chest, her breasts straining against the stretchy cups of her bra. She’d never been one for lacy, flimsy underthings, and her bra was strictly utilitarian. Maybe that was why Max wasted little time in flicking open the clasp and slipping it down her arms and away. A rumble of sound, want and pleasure and anguish, rose from his throat. “You’re so beautiful.”

“I was thinking the same thing about you,” she whispered, lowering her mouth to kiss one flat, tan nipple.

He gasped, twined both hands into her hair and pulled her head away, only to lock his lips to hers once more. Their tongues dueled, their breaths merged. Their hands moved simultaneously down to their slacks, Emma fumbling with the fly of his jeans, Max deftly locating the fly of her khakis. He got hers undone first, and she felt the fabric shimmy down her legs. He slipped his hands under the elastic of her panties and shoved them away, then wedged one hand between her thighs, pressing, sliding deep, spreading her dampness with his fingertips.

She couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t think. Couldn’t get his damned jeans off him. She was shaking, much too close to coming.

She heard a faint laugh from him as he nudged her scrabbling fingers away with his free hand and popped the button of his waistband. The zipper made a hissing noise and then he sprang free of the denim, large and hard and… God, yes. Beautiful.

Reflexively, she arched one leg around his. He laughed again. “Not standing up,” he whispered. “We’ll kill ourselves.”

If they did, she die happy. But she pulled back from him long enough to survey the loft. The table had too many art supplies on it. The stool wasn’t stable. The canvas drop cloth was thick and stiff and spattered with paint.

He grabbed her hand and started toward the stairs. All right, so they’d abandon the loft, her favorite place in the whole house, a room open to the magnificence of the surrounding landscape, the ocean view. They’d walk down the stairs and around to her bedroom. They’d be reasonable and civilized, and…

No. The stairs were covered in soft carpeting. That would do.

At the top stair, she pushed him down. With a startled gasp, he sat, and before he could question her she straddled him, settling onto his lap, her thighs sandwiching his hips and his erection rising between their bodies. She bowed to kiss his mouth.

Another sexy sound growled up from his throat, his chest. If he’d had any thoughts of speaking, let alone wandering through the house to her bed, he abandoned them. Instead, he kissed her back, flexed beneath her, gathered her breasts in his hands and kneaded them, stroking her nipples with his thumbs. He broke the kiss and lifted her higher so he could replace his hands with his lips, nuzzling, licking, gorging himself on her breasts. She reached down between them, lifted her hips, guided him into her.

They moaned in harmony. They rocked in synchronicity. He arched against her as she pumped against him. Her body tensed, trembled, teetered on the edge of bliss…and then exploded in a cascade of deep, aching pulses. She collapsed against him and he held her, panting, sighing, gradually growing still beneath her.

For the first time since moving into this house last autumn, Emma decided that she liked the carpeting, after all.





Chapter Twelve




He’d come here hoping for everything and expecting nothing.

Well, in truth, he hadn’t hoped to make love on the stairs leading to the loft—and he hadn’t expected that, either. But he’d known Emma would be magnificent. He’d known she would be all sweet curves and fiery hair and devouring kisses. He’d had a taste of her yesterday evening, and once he’d had that taste, he’d wanted the full banquet.

She felt surprisingly light in his lap, her head resting against his shoulder, her hair spilling over his skin and tickling the underside of his jaw. She fit perfectly in his arms. The step he sat on was even more uncomfortable than the stool, but he didn’t want to move. He wanted to sit exactly where he was. With her. Like this. Forever.

That was a crazy thought. This whole situation was crazy. He knew hardly anything about her, other than that she was an artist and she was broke. If he were looking for a woman—which he wasn’t—two items that wouldn’t be on his list were “artist” and “broke.”

“Mind-blowing sex” would be on his list, however. Pretty high up on the list. And what he’d just experienced with Emma…

Mind-blowing was an understatement. Defense-shattering came closer. Universe-destroying. He felt stripped naked—not just his body but his heart, his soul, totally vulnerable, unprotected.

Unprotected. Shit.

“Emma.” His voice was muffled by her hair.

She heard him, though. “Hmm,” she said drowsily, her breath whispering across the skin of his neck.

“Emma, I didn’t use anything.”

“It’s okay.” She leaned back slightly so she could speak. “I’m protected. And I’m healthy.”

“I’m healthy, too,” he said. She gave him a drowsy smile and settled back against him.

He closed his arms around her again and sighed. He was healthy, but he didn’t feel protected. He felt altered in ways he wasn’t sure he liked. Life was safer when he thought about protection—not only condoms but emotional protection. He’d had bad experiences. He’d been used. He’d been hurt. He’d been taken advantage of. He had to be careful.

With Emma, he hadn’t been even remotely careful, either now or yesterday, when he’d kissed her. Or pretty much every minute since he’d sat across a table from her in that bar and heard “True Colors” pour from the jukebox.

He was a smart guy. He’d developed a unique computer encryption system and started a company. He’d earned a fortune. He’d created a foundation and he was its executive director. If someone held a gun to his head, he could probably still play the Theme From Schindler’s List on his violin. Badly, perhaps, but he could play it.

Yet with Emma Glendon, he was someone else. Someone he hardly recognized. Someone wild, someone utterly reckless.

“What do we do now?” he asked. It wasn’t a rhetorical question. He really had no idea where to go from here.

“Well…” She traced her index finger down his sternum, swirling it through the hair growing there. “We could make love again, if we were sure it wouldn’t kill us. Or we could put or clothes on and resume the interview.”

Not the interview. He’d felt profoundly awkward discussing his dreams with her. As far as making love again, that would be wonderful, but it wouldn’t solve his problem. It wouldn’t transform him back into the man he’d been before he’d met Emma. And she was right—another round of sex would probably kill him. At the very least, he’d need to consume a few energy bars first, and maybe a fistful of megavitamins.

“I still don’t know about your dreams,” she said.

“One of them just came true.” His statement obviously touched her. She leaned back and gave him such a sweet smile, he felt his blood shimmer in his veins.

His claim surprised him as much as they flattered her. Who the hell was this sentimental creature, this romantic lover who knew just the right thing to say to a woman? Not Max Tarloff.

“Another option…” she traced her finger down his chest again, sparking stirrings of renewed lust in his groin “…would be to get something to eat. I didn’t have any breakfast this morning. I’m starving.”

Energy bars, he thought—enough fuel to power him through some more epic lovemaking. “All right,” he said. “Let’s get something to eat.”

Slowly, cautiously, she extricated herself from his embrace without tumbling down the stairs. Like her aimless finger trailing across his skin, her radiant smile caused his dick to twitch back to life. But when he stood, he knew he’d need more than her smile to get him going once more. His thighs ached and his back was sore. He prided himself on staying in shape. Apparently he wasn’t in the sort of shape conducive to screwing on stairways.

Uninhibited in her nakedness, Emma strolled across the loft to where their clothing lay in a disheveled heap. She slipped her shirt over her head and tugged on her jeans. Then she carried his clothing to where he stood, gob-smacked not just by her glorious beauty but by the realization that she hadn’t bothered to put on her underwear. More twitching in his groin. He ignored it as he donned his own clothes. “Why didn’t you eat breakfast?” he asked, recalling the concoction—a parfait glass dish filled with layers of yogurt, fresh berries, and granola—with which he’d started his morning at the Ocean Bluff Inn.

She smiled again, another blindingly lovely smile. “I was a nervous wreck about your coming here. I was afraid something like this would happen.” She tossed back her head and laughed. “And it turns out I was right. Maybe I can earn some spare cash telling fortunes and predicting the future. I could scrounge up a crystal ball and a deck of Tarot cards and set up shop on Atlantic Avenue.”

He remained silent, unsure of whether he should give voice to what he was thinking: that she hadn’t needed any skill at prognostication to know this would happen. There had been an inevitability to it. As forceful as the song that brought them together, their attraction simply had to travel to its final measure—which had turned out to be hot sex on the stairs.

She pranced down to the first floor, light on her bare feet, and he plodded down behind her, wishing he felt as breezy as she looked. She also looked rumpled, her lips rosy from his greedy, devouring kisses and her hair a lush tangle of curls. On her, “rumpled” was gorgeous.

Like her, he was exhilarated. He was exhausted in the best possible way. But a vague foreboding gnawed at him. She was his tenant. She needed spare cash. This was all wrong.

And yet he wanted her. Possibly even more than before.

He’d spent even less time in the kitchen of his house than in the loft. Of course, he’d spent little time inside the house at all—touring it with Andrea Simonetti and Vanessa before he’d purchased it, wandering through it and listening to Vanessa gush about the space, the views, the airiness of the rooms. She’d talked as much to Andrea as to him, describing what she’d want to do with this room, how she’d decorate that one, the updates she was planning for the master bath: “A jetted tub, of course. And one of those towel warmers.”

“Whatever you want,” he’d said, not really caring about the temperature of his towels as long as she was happy.

She’d been excited about the kitchen, and as he followed Emma into the room he could see why. It had been updated just prior to when he’d purchased the house, and it presented a sleek, clean arrangement of granite counters, stainless-steel appliances, white cabinetry and bright lighting, including a row of three cone-shaped metal lamps hanging from a bar above the center island. Vanessa had eaten sparingly and worried incessantly about gaining weight, but she’d liked things new and shiny, and this kitchen certainly fit that profile, even after Monica and Emma had been using it for a year.

Emma glided around the room as if she actually knew what she was doing. She pulled a carton of eggs from the refrigerator, set a pan on the stove, and got to work breaking eggs into a bowl. “Are omelets okay with you?” she asked as she pulled a whisk from a drawer.

“If it’s not too much trouble.”

“I love cooking,” she said. “When I was growing up, we cooked everything from scratch. We had chickens. There’s nothing like fresh eggs from your own chickens—who haven’t been fed antibiotics and commercial feed. The yolks are such an intense yellow. Like the heart of a daisy.”

He settled on one of the stools at the center island; it had a molded seat and a backrest and was much more comfortable than the stool in the loft. Emma’s movements as she whisked the eggs mesmerized him—yolk and white liquefying and blending into yellow. Not the heart of a daisy, unfortunately. A paler yellow, almost lemony.

“Did you grow up on a farm?” he asked.

“Not a commercial farm.” She turned from him to swing open the refrigerator again, this time to remove cheese, mushrooms and chives. The refrigerator’s shelves weren’t as barren as his usually were—he was a huge fan of take-out, and he stocked only the essentials in his fridge: milk, beer, a couple of apples, a bag of bagels that lacked the chewiness and sour undertone of the bagels he’d grown up eating in Brooklyn. And leftover take-out containers. Always a varied collection of those.

She pulled a knife from its slot in a wooden block and began to chop the chives. “My parents are back-to-the-earth hippies. They were middle-class suburban kids who met in college and decided to buy a few acres in Vermont and make a go of it. We had a big vegetable garden and the chickens. We had a cow for a while when I was really little, but raising dairy cows is a lot more complicated than just carrying a pail out to the barn and milking the animal. So my parents wound up selling the cow to a neighbor who ran a commercial dairy farm, and we’d get our milk there. It was all very rustic.”

She turned from him once again, this time to retrieve a loaf of bread and a tub of butter. She clicked a dial on the stove, igniting one of the burners, slapped the pan onto it, scooped a blob of butter into the pan, and got busy grating the cheese.

“Brooklyn must have been quite an adjustment for you,” he said. He knew full well that there was nothing rustic about that congested New York City borough.

She grinned. “I went to Boston University. After four years in Boston, I was used to traffic and noise and crowds. And eggs that weren’t quite so yellow.”

“Growing up on your parents’—well, whatever it was. Not a farm.”

“Just a piece of land in the middle of nowhere,” she said.

He nodded. “So when you grew up there, was your dream to live in a city?”

Her gaze met his across the center island. If she could ask him about his dreams, he could ask her about hers, couldn’t he? Even if he wasn’t going to paint her, even if he was going to sell this house and return to San Francisco, he could still ask her about her dreams.

She didn’t seem as uncomfortable as he’d felt when she’d questioned him. “I can be happy anywhere,” she said. “City life, rural life, it’s all good.” She poured the beaten eggs into the pan, creating an appetizing sizzle. “My dream is to have a roof over my head and some studio space with good lighting.”

And by selling the house, Max was going to deny her that simple dream.

But he’d promised to help her find new studio space. Maybe he could find her housing, too.

Maybe he could bring her back to California with him.

He stifled a sardonic laugh. That wasn’t going to happen. She might have given herself to him this morning, but last night outside the tavern, she’d warned him she wouldn’t make love with him because he was a businessman. And a landlord. She’d said that as if landlords were evil.

Perhaps, when they were evicting tenants, they were.

But she had made love with him. So maybe he had a chance of… Of what? No, he couldn’t bring her back to California with him. Get real, Max.

She deftly flipped the omelet in the pan, then layered in the cheese and mushrooms and folded the egg around it. “Can you check the toast?” she asked.

A few minutes later, they were seated side by side at the center island, each with a plate full of steaming omelet and golden toast, and a mug filled with coffee she’d reheated from earlier that day—she apologized about that, but it tasted fine to him. “This is delicious,” he said after taking a bite of his omelet. “Obviously, your talents extend beyond painting.”

“They extend beyond cooking, too,” she reminded him, twirling her fork to break a stretchy thread of melted cheese.

Her wicked smile made him grin. “Indeed they do,” he said, thinking he’d sure as hell like to see how those talents of hers manifested themselves on a surface more comfortable than the stairs. Taking a bite of toast, he pondered various strategies to get her into bed, or at least onto the sleek modern couch in the great room. Then he reproached himself. He owed her something more than a satisfying orgasm. He could make her dream come true, couldn’t he? “So,” he said, “we’ll make sure you have a well-lighted studio and a roof over your head.”

She seemed momentarily taken aback by his having changed the subject. Then she shrugged. “I have that now,” she reminded him. “Right here.”

“No,” he said swiftly, then shook his head and belatedly tried to soften his words with a smile. “I can’t let you stay here. I have to sell this house. I’m sorry, Emma.”

“Is it a financial problem? You need the money?”

The last thing he needed was money. “No. It’s…a personal matter.”

“This house means something to you,” she guessed. “Something bad?”

He really didn’t want to discuss it with her. But he couldn’t lie to her, not when she was so sweet and open with him. “I bought this house for my fiancée,” he told her.

“Oh.” Something went cold in her face, her eyes no longer radiant, her lips tightening. “You should have told me you were engaged.”

“I’m not. Not anymore.”

She thawed slightly. “You got rid of the fiancée, and now you want to get rid of the house.”

“Something like that,” he agreed. “Except that I didn’t get rid of the fiancée. She got rid of me.”

The light in Emma’s eyes changed again, warm with sparks of emerald and gold. “Did she break your heart? The bitch!”

He was amused and touched by her rush to his defense. “My heart healed,” he assured her.

“Not completely.” Before he could argue, Emma explained, “If it had, you wouldn’t be attaching emotions to this house. It’s just a building, right? A beautiful building with fantastic natural light—but you wouldn’t be so anxious to sell it. If you were completely over the bitch fiancée, you’d double the rent and make some money on this place. I shouldn’t have said that,” she added with a self-deprecating smile. “If you doubled the rent, I’d have to move out anyway. I couldn’t afford it. Monica might be able to, though. Now she’s stuck trying to decide whether to relocate to a teeny-tiny apartment at the inn or to move in with her boyfriend, who—just for the record—is an asshole.”

Max wanted to refute her claim. Of course he was over Vanessa. The only reason he wanted to sell the house was that he saw no reason not to sell it. His life wasn’t in Massachusetts. He had no use for the house. It was just more thing to own, one more responsibility, one more liability. Emma was correct in pointing out that he could increase the rent and turn the house into a source of income, but he didn’t need any more income.

He couldn’t say any of those things, though, because he was too intent on trying to suppress his laughter. He loved the matter-of-fact way she referred to Vanessa as “the bitch fiancée,” and her succinct assessment of Monica’s boyfriend. And then the urge to laugh faded as he acknowledged the truth in her words. The house was just a building. An asset. If he were truly over Vanessa, he wouldn’t care about the house’s fate, one way or another.

Yet it wasn’t just a building. It was Emma’s home. She was the one acutely aware of the building’s beauty, its natural light. Selling it meant subjecting her to upheaval, both personal and professional.

“Let’s not talk about the house,” he said. He didn’t want his mind crammed with Emma’s words, her wit, her sharp observations. He didn’t want to reflect on that upheaval his actions were likely to cause her. He ate another forkful of omelet—damn, it was tasty—and turned the conversation back to her. “Let’s talk about your ex-boyfriends.”

“Ex-boyfriends? Plural?” She grinned.

“I have no doubt you’ve broken dozens of hearts.”

“Dozens! Yeah, sure. I started dating when I was three.”

“Up there in the wilds of Vermont?”

“Hmm, you’re right. The only other kid I saw when I was three was my brother. Who I didn’t date.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

“My high school was pretty small, too.”

“You went to Boston University. That wasn’t small.”

She conceded with a shrug. “You’re right. There were at least a dozen guys there. I tried my best to break their hearts, but I’m not sure I succeeded.” She noticed his plate was empty and slid off her stool to clear the dishes.

He stood, gathered their mugs and carried them to the sink. “Surely you broke at least one heart,” he teased.

“Maybe. If I did, it wasn’t deliberate.”

They worked together smoothly, rinsing the dishes, stacking them on the dishwasher racks. “I find it odd that you’re unattached,” he justified his curiosity. “You’re beautiful, you’re talented… You’re very sexy.”

Her cheeks grew rosy. She was even more beautiful when she blushed. He recalled the blush of her naked breasts, the intensity of her well-kissed lips when their bodies had been joined. Beautiful seemed a woefully inadequate word to describe her.

“I was with a guy in Brooklyn,” she told him. “Claudio. He was a painter, too. Abstract expressionist. He liked dark colors painted with big, strong swipes of the brush. All his paintings looked like anger to me. But then he developed an unexpected yearning to paint portraits—of one particular woman.”

“I take it that woman wasn’t you?”

“No. She was an artist’s model. I guess she knew some good poses.” Emma shrugged, not seeming terribly upset. “In retrospect, I think the worst part was that when Claudio and I broke up, I had to move out of the apartment, because it was his. I really hate being homeless.” She sighed, shook the excess water off her hands and dried them on a towel. When she turned to him, she was smiling. “It’s not your problem,” she said. “You want to sell this house. That’s your right. I’ll find somewhere else to live. But now—”she put down the towel and checked her watch “—I’ve got to find somewhere else to paint. I told Nick Fiore I’d drop by the community center today to see if he could scare up a studio for me.”

Max didn’t know who Nick Fiore was. He did know he ought to phone Janet. He had a foundation to run—even if she could manage the office well enough in his absence. He ought to phone Stan Weisner, too, to see if they could arrange a dinner down in Cambridge. He ought to check in with Andrea to get the house listed for sale. He ought to carry Emma off to bed and make love to her properly, on soft sheets, on a plush mattress. Languorously. Indulgently. Wickedly.

But she wanted to go to the community center. “Can I come with you?” he asked.





Chapter Thirteen




An hour passed before Emma and Max left for the Brogan’s Point Community Center. They decided to shower first. And even though the house had three and a half well-appointed bathrooms, they wound up showering in the same bathroom, at the same time, which slowed things down considerably.

Max’s body was an esthetic masterpiece. Emma was not just a woman who had experienced several mind-boggling orgasms, thanks to that body; she was also an artist. She couldn’t keep herself from admiring the supple, graceful contours of his physique, the ridges and indentations of his bone structure, the sleek undulations of his musculature. The sprinkle of hair across his chest, tapering down to the taut, slightly rippling surface of his abdomen, transformed from gentle curls to dark streaks as the shower soaked his skin. His eyes were simultaneously dark with passion and bright with amusement as he skimmed her body with soap and watched her twist and writhe come beneath the steaming spray of water.

She wanted to paint all of him. Not just his face, not just his dreams but every part of him, from his neatly angled toes to his knobby knees, to his narrow hips, his navel, his pecs, his broad, sturdy shoulders, his amazingly beautiful face. And his groin. She’d like to paint that thick, hard erection, maybe gild it in gold, frame it in filigree and hang it over her bed to admire every time she lay there.

She did lie there, after they’d finished showering and found themselves panting and wet in places the shower hadn’t dampened, and so they’d raced to her room to make love again.

It was early afternoon by the time they headed down the hill to the community center to see Nick Fiore. Fortunately, Emma hadn’t arranged a specific time for her meeting with him. Equally fortunately, she was able to travel down into town in Max’s car, which saved her the several-mile hike she’d gotten used to since moving into his house.

Max might own real estate in Brogan’s Point, but Emma felt like a genuine town resident when she introduced the two men. Nick’s office was so small, all three of them barely fit into it, but Nick was gracious and friendly, and—thank God—he remembered his discussion with Emma from yesterday evening at the Faulk Street Tavern. “We’ve got a room here that might work out for you,” he told Emma. “I think I can arrange for you to use it rent-free if you’re willing to donate some of your time and expertise to the town’s programs. It would be great if we could include art in the after-school program I run for teenagers here. I sure as hell can’t offer that on my own. Basketball, yeah. Art? Forget it.”

“If I could use the room for free for my own classes? Of course I can put together an art program for your after-school kids.” Emma was giddy at the thought of securing free studio space. If she could do that, she could devote more of her sparse income to paying the rent on whatever residence she was able to scare up for herself. She couldn’t live in Monica’s studio apartment at the inn, and now that Max had, however vaguely, explained why he wanted to unload his house—the ex-fiancée, the broken heart—Emma couldn’t resent him for wanting to be rid of the place, even if that choice would render her homeless.

“Come on,” Nick said, leading the way out of his tiny office. “I’ll show you the room.”

They paraded down a hall, Emma following Nick and Max bringing up the rear. A few offices lined one side, the doors labeled “Director of Senior Services” and “Parks Department.” She caught a whiff of chlorine as they strolled past the entrance to the town’s indoor pool. They continued past the locker rooms, around a bend in the corridor, past the gym where, she assumed, Nick ran his basketball program, and through a door.

The room was bigger than Nick’s office, which wasn’t saying much. It had no window, which was a serious drawback. The only light source came from glaring fluorescent ceiling fixtures—ugh. Not good light for art.

But it had enough square footage for a work table and some shelves. She could squeeze a supply cabinet into the corner. If the town would provide the room, perhaps it would also provide some basic furniture. Emma would supply the art equipment. She was doing that already with her classes in Max’s house.

She paced through the room while Max and Nick watched from the doorway. Pale green cinderblock walls—ugh again. If she wanted to display her students’ work, she’d have to tape it to the walls, which might ruin the paintings and collages, or else buy or build some free-standing pin boards. She could bring in directional goose-neck lamps to create direct illumination. She recalled passing a bathroom just a few doors down the hall; she could take care of clean-ups there.

With a little effort, she could make this room work.

It was free. Of course she could make it work.

“It’s perfect,” she told Nick.

His smile transformed his face, erasing its brooding shadows. She wouldn’t mind painting his portrait, either. He wasn’t Max. He didn’t make her heart race. But she could admire him with her artist’s eye. Definitely an appealing subject.

“Great. Once the school year ends, my after-school program ends, too. But I run summer programs. We could really use an art counselor, or teacher, or something along those lines. My budget sucks, but if you’re willing to work for shit wages—”

“If I can use the room for my own classes, as well, I’ll work for shit wages for you. Artists are used to shit wages. We’re supposed to starve. It’s part of the package.”

Nick laughed and nodded. Max only studied her, his eyes dark and intense.

As they strolled back down the hall to Nick’s office, Nick discussed all the bureaucratic steps necessary to grant Emma the use of the room and add her to his summer staff. Meetings with his board. Paper work. Budget issues. If she was going to run an art program, he’d need her to fill out an application, supply a résumé, provide references. His voice washed over her in a meaningless babble. This information was important, and she’d pay attention once she had to. She’d sign the papers, present her portfolio, dance pirouettes for his board, jump through hoops of fire, whatever was required to gain her access to the free room. She didn’t want some irate town guardian to banish her because she lacked the proper licensing, the way Max had reacted to her classes the first time he’d met her, when she’d been running her class with Abbie and Tasha in his house.

After another series of hand-shakes, Emma and Max left the community center. The late afternoon air was warm, the sky paling as day gave way to evening. A hint of salty, musky perfume lifted off the ocean and flavored the air. “This is wonderful,” Emma said, twirling in a happy dance in the parking lot outside the community center. “I’ve got a studio!” Indeed, the day was as close to perfect as she could imagine. She had a studio. She had dozens of photos of Max, and the opportunity to paint him. She had great sex.

Of course her life wasn’t perfect. She still needed to find a new home. And she wasn’t sure with what dreams she could surround Max in his portrait.

And he would be leaving. She’d opened her body to him, and she’d never been able to open her body without also opening her heart and her soul. He mattered to her. He was important. She wanted him in her life. She wanted to know his dreams, his hopes, his goals. She wanted much, much more than he was in a position to give her.

She’d known that before she’d kissed him. She’d known it when they’d gazed at each other and Cyndi Lauper had serenaded them from the jukebox at the tavern.

Looking at Max, she saw his true colors shining through. They were vivid, shimmering, brilliant. But what did they reveal? Who was he, really?

***

Gus finished counting the last of the tens in her cash drawer and nudged it shut. Even now, in the twenty-first century, a lot of her patrons still preferred to pay their tabs in cash. Some of them didn’t want their husbands or wives to find charges from a bar on their credit card bills. A few of the old-timers didn’t trust credit cards at all. A lot of the young ones—the deck hands on fishing boats, the laborers, the clerks in touristy shops where business fell into a comatose state during the winter months—didn’t earn enough income to trust themselves with a rectangle of plastic from Visa.

So Gus relied on cash, which saved her money, since she didn’t have to pay credit card fees on cash transactions. All she had to do was maintain an adequate stash of legal tender in the register. She felt perfectly safe carrying her daily profits—often thousands of dollars in cash—from the tavern to the bank every day. Everyone in town knew she was Ed Nolan’s partner. No one was going to mess with a police detective’s girlfriend, especially when she was six feet tall, and her assistant, Manny Lopez, was built like a linebacker for the Patriots, and she ran the most popular bar in town.

She glanced toward the front door, which remained stubbornly shut. Ed had told her he would come to the bar this afternoon, and he hadn’t. Nothing to worry about, she assured herself, but she couldn’t keep from glancing obsessively at the front door every few minutes.

Ed was working on a drug case. A high school kid in a neighboring town had overdosed on heroin. Fortunately, he’d survived, and he’d told police he’d gotten the heroin from a crew member on one of the boats that trawled for cod out of Brogan’s Point. Ed had been waiting for that boat to come in today. He had backup. He was going to arrest the guy, run him in, and then come to the Faulk Street Tavern to let Gus know all had gone as planned.

She hadn’t told him she was anxious about his safety, and he hadn’t acknowledged that she might be anxious. They never discussed stuff like that.

But… She was anxious.

She eyed the front door for the thirtieth time in as many minutes, then steered her attention to a table of women drinking exotic martinis. She glanced at the bowls of barbecue-flavored peanuts lined up on the counter near the door to the kitchen. She checked out the table of older guys drinking whisky and arguing over the latest Red Sox losing streak. Then the front door again, praying for Ed to swing it open and stroll inside.

No sign of him.

She reminded herself that her worries were groundless. Ed was tough. He had backup. No captain would allow a twenty-something crew member onto his cod boat armed with anything more dangerous than a utility knife.

A utility knife could do a lot of damage.

Ed had faced worse, she reminded herself. He’d be fine.

Manny emerged from the kitchen, lugging glistening racks of glasses straight from the dishwasher. He shot Gus a quick smile before setting the racks onto the back counter and sorting the glasses onto shelves—stemware here, tumblers there, highball glasses in their allotted place. Could he tell she was concerned? Would he think she was weak for counting the minutes and wishing she could will the front door to open?

It did, and she felt her breath slide out of her on a sigh of relief, which was replaced by a pang of disappointment when she saw two people, neither of them Ed, enter the bar. That pretty red-haired girl, Monica Reinhart’s friend, stepped inside first, followed by the tall, lanky, dark-haired fellow Gus had seen at the bar with Monica and the red-head. She ought to know their names. Anyone who came into the Faulk Street Tavern more than once qualified as a regular. And the girl had introduced herself yesterday, when she’d wanted to talk to Nick Fiore. What the heck was her name? Emily?

“Want me to take that?” Manny asked, motioning with his head toward the booth where the couple seated themselves. It was too early for the waitresses to start their shifts, and none had arrived at the bar yet. Gus could serve the couple, though. Manny was busy with the glasses, and damn it, she wasn’t worried. She could take an order, fill it and deliver it without his help.

She waved him off, then sidled over to the newly occupied table, laid two square cocktail napkins on its scarred wood surface, and asked, “What can I get you?”

The man eyed the woman courteously, allowing her to order first. “Do you have any champagne? I feel like celebrating.” She smiled at the man. “Is that all right?”

“Order whatever you’d like,” he said, although he didn’t seem to be sharing her high spirits. Her face radiated a blend of happy emotion—exuberance, satisfaction, serenity. His darker features were matched by a darker mood.

She grinned at Gus. “A glass of champagne,” she said.

“We’ve got Moët, Mumm, and Tattinger.” Champagne wasn’t a big seller at the tavern, and Gus didn’t stock much. Too often, someone ordered a glass or two and the rest of the bottle lost its effervescence and had to be disposed. Still, she had to include a few bottles of bubbly in her inventory. She hadn’t kept the bar in business for thirty-plus years by denying her customers what they wanted. Sometimes those customers wanted champagne.

“Whichever one is cheapest,” the redhead said with a shrug. “I wouldn’t know the difference, anyway.”

Gus nodded and turned to the man. “A Sam Adams lager.”

“Tap or bottle?”

He asked for a bottle. Gus nodded again and left the table, casting a quick look toward the front door en route back to the bar. No sign of Ed.

He’s tough. He has backup. He’ll be fine.

As she worked the mushroom-shaped cork on a bottle of champagne, she forced her attention from the door back to the couple. She was pretty sure they’d been targeted by the jukebox’s magic a couple of days ago. She tried to remember what song had been playing when they’d been in that afternoon, seated at the very same booth, staring at each other. Had the song brought them together? Right now, she’d guess it had torn them apart. They really seemed to be moving to two different tunes, the girl’s upbeat and danceable, the guy’s dirge-like, something in a minor key.

When it came to the jukebox’s alleged powers, Gus was immune. No song had ever cast its spell on her, or on Ed. She wouldn’t mind having “Staying’ Alive” boom through the speakers when Ed was seated on a stool across the bar from her. That was a song a cop needed to hear.

She caught a motion near the entry with her peripheral vision. Don’t look, she cautioned herself. You’re acting like a fool. But she looked anyway—and in walked Ed, looking calm and confident, like someone who’d accomplished exactly what he’d intended and hadn’t shed a drop of sweat in the process. He met her gaze, smiled, and sauntered toward the bar, his expression just this side of smug.

Gus felt all the tension drain from her spine, her muscles, her nerves. The champagne cork came free with a festive pop. He’s tough, she thought. He’s fine.

***

Emma seemed to think she’d won the lottery. Her smile, always a thing of beauty, now looked laser-bright, and her eyes glittered like Fourth-of-July sparklers. All because that guy at the community center, Nick Whatever, was allowing her to use a storage room as her studio.

She wouldn’t yearn for that horrible little windowless room—and she wouldn’t have to machete her way through acres of red tape and bureaucratic paperwork—if Max allowed her to remain in the house. He could do that so easily. He didn’t need the money selling the house would bring him. And she did need the house. The loft offered so much space, so much light. If he were painting her dream portrait, it would feature her face, so open, so lovely, her angular cheeks and narrow chin shaping a valentine, and her resplendent hair, and her wide green eyes—glowing not like sparklers but like fireworks bright enough to illuminate the sky. And the dream surrounding her would be the loft in his house, filled with her easels and paints, her energy and creativity.

She was excited about the room at the community center because it was her only option. Max had given her no other choice, and she was the sort of woman who could view no choice as the greatest opportunity in the world.

He hated himself.

One word, one minor change of plans, and the house could be hers. He didn’t need it. She did.

Except that he’d bought that house for another woman. A woman who, he’d learned too late, had loved him only because he could buy her things. He’d been so crazy in love with Vanessa, he hadn’t been able to refuse her anything. She wanted a house on a hill overlooking the Atlantic Ocean? No problem. It was hers.

Emma hadn’t asked for the house. She wouldn’t. Unlike Vanessa, Emma had no idea how easy it would be for Max to give her that house, and three more just like it, if she wanted them. Even though much of his money was now controlled by his foundation, he still had more than he could ever hope to spend in his lifetime. If Vanessa had stuck around, she might have been pleasantly surprised to discover that, despite establishing the foundation, he was still absurdly wealthy.

He ought to tell Emma the truth. He ought to let her see his true colors, just as the song urged. But if he did… It would change everything. She’d stop viewing him as a Russian immigrant who grew up in a Brooklyn tenement and felt uncomfortable discussing his dreams. Of course he felt uncomfortable discussing them, especially with a woman he desired as much as he desired Emma. What was he supposed to say to her? “My dream is to be loved for myself, not for my wealth.” That made him sound so pathetic.

And how the hell was Emma supposed to paint that dream, anyway?

“This is just so cool,” she yammered, her words tumbling over one another in her excitement. “Not only do I have a place to work, but I’ve got another job! Or I will, if I pass muster with Nick’s board. I don’t have a teaching credential, but I’ve got plenty of experience working with kids. In high school and college, I spent my summers as an art counselor at a camp. And I’ve taught art to individuals—in gross defiance of zoning laws. Shame on me!” she added gleefully. “I should get letters of recommendation from Abbie’s and Tasha’s parents. I really hope this committee isn’t hung up on stuff like art education credentials. Nick implied the job pays crap, so they can’t expect me to be some sort of art professor, right?”

She paused when the bartender appeared with a bottle of beer and a slender fluted glass of champagne. The bubbles streaming upward through the pale liquid reminded him of Emma’s personality: round and fizzy, rising as high as they could go.

He felt like shit.

“Of course, I still need to find a place to live,” Emma said after taking a sip of her drink. “But as long as I have a place to work, I’m good. I can always buy a tent.”

“You don’t have to buy a tent,” he said curtly.

“Just joking.” She reached across the table and gave his hand a gentle squeeze. “But at least now I don’t have to worry about finding a place to live where I can also work.”

He drank some beer straight from the bottle, relishing its sour flavor. Closing his eyes, he pictured that small, windowless room in the community center, its linoleum floor, its cinderblock walls, its sheer ugliness. She was thrilled because she thought it was her only option. But it wasn’t.

“Look, Emma—if you want, I’ll take my house off the market. I don’t have to get rid of it. If you want to continue to live there…”

She’d raised her champagne flute to her lips, but his words clearly startled her enough to make her lower the glass and gape at him. “But you came to Brogan’s Point to sell the house.”

“It can wait.”

“And I can’t keep teaching there. You said so yourself. There are those nasty zoning laws. And insurance issues, and liability. All that legal stuff.” She pressed her lips together, effectively smothering her radiant smile. “Taking the room at the community center means I’ll be able to teach there this summer in Nick’s program. So I’ll earn a little more money and maybe make contact with more people who might want to commission Dream Portraits.” She shook her head. “I can make it work.”

“You could make it work in my house, too. Stay. Stay as long as you want. We’re not a landlord and tenant anymore. We’ve gone beyond that, haven’t we?”

She stared at him, suddenly wary. “What do you mean?”

He wasn’t sure what was troubling her. “Emma. We’ve made love. Several times.” Several spectacular times, he wanted to add. “You can stay on in the house. Forget about the rent. That’s the least I owe you.”

Her expression went from wary to deflated, from deflated to suspicious. Her voice was cool, barely an inch from icy. “You don’t owe me anything, Max—unless you want to pay me for your portrait. I can’t calculate the cost until I figure out what the painting will…entail.” She seemed to trip over that last word, for some reason. “But as far as the house… I don’t need you to do that.”

“Do what? Take it off sale? It isn’t even on sale yet.”

“You don’t have to let me stay on in the house because we had sex. I didn’t make love with you because I wanted something in return. You don’t owe me anything.” She sighed again. The fireworks vanished from her eyes, extinguished by a layer of tears. Extinguished by Max. “What happened this morning was special. It was freely given, at least on my side. And now you’re offering to pay me for it. I put out, so you’ll let me live on your property rent-free. Just so generous of you, Max.” Her voice cracked and she averted her gaze.

“Emma.” He kept his voice low, as unthreatening as possible. He wasn’t sure what he was dealing with right now, other than an irrational woman. Math he could understand. Computers. Code. But women? He was totally at a loss. “I’m just trying to make things easier for you,” he said.

“Did I ask you to do that? Do you think I need you to make my life easier? I made love to you because I wanted to, because you turn me on, because…because that stupid song convinced me I saw your true colors. But I think I’m seeing them now. I slept with the landlord, and now the landlord owes me a favor. The hell with that.” She slid out of the booth and stormed toward the door.

Max raced after her, shooting the bartender a look he hoped she would read as a promise to return and pay his tab. Yes, he was diligent about paying what he owed—a trait Emma seemed to believe was highly objectionable.

He caught up to her just outside the tavern’s front door—the place where he’d first kissed her, where he’d first realized how much he wanted her. “Emma.” He grabbed her forearm, closed his fingers around the slender limb. “Stop.”

She turned to face him. She wasn’t crying, but he saw a few glistening rivulets streaking her cheeks where tears had skittered down to her chin. “It’s okay, Max,” she said. “I was wrong. I thought I knew you better than I did. The song…” She lowered her eyes and shook her head again, just as she had inside the tavern. “I’m an artist. I see colors. I think they’re true, but maybe sometimes they aren’t. Artists tend to see things the way we think they are, not always the way they really are. We see dreams.”

“You’re not seeing me,” he argued. “I care about you, Emma. I want you to work in a big, open space with lots of light. I’m offering to let you continue to do that in my house.”

“No, thanks,” she said, easing her arm from his grip. “I’m going to take a walk, Max. I need to clear my head.” She spun away and stalked down the street.

He watched until she turned the corner and vanished from sight. What was her problem? He was trying to make things easier for her, and she was acting as if he were a creep.

Let her take her damned walk, he though as he yanked the door open and headed back inside. Let her walk until her feet ache. He didn’t care.

He shook his head at his own self-deception. The fact was, he cared too much. He cared so much, he wanted to tell her the truth about himself—that he was richer than she could imagine, that he was practically richer than he could imagine. That making her life easier would create no hardship for him. That he could be her patron as well as her lover. That he could arrange things so she would never have to worry about where she would live and where she would work.

And either she would embrace him—because she wanted his money to make her life easier—or she would hate him for trying to buy her. Either way, he would lose .





Chapter Fourteen




The long walk up the hill was exactly what Emma needed. The air was humid enough that anyone who saw her hiking back to the house would assume she was sweating, not crying. And by the time she reached the house, she wasn’t crying anymore, anyway.

How could a day that had started so wonderfully turn rotten so abruptly?

The day wasn’t completely rotten, she reminded herself as she unlocked the house and let herself in. She’d lined up a new work space—nowhere near as nice as the loft; Max was right about that. But the room at the community center would do. And she had a new potential source of income. Thanks to the community center, she’d be able to paint. She’d be able to teach. She’d be able to take care of herself.

Emma had a remarkably well-developed gene for responsibility. Growing up, she’d eaten food her family had grown on their own land or bartered for with their neighbors. She’d learned from her father how to repair a leaky roof, and from her mother how to sew a shirt. She wasn’t averse to accepting gifts—she liked getting gifts, actually—but only gifts freely given. Like the boots Claudio had given her, simply because she’d seen them in a boutique window and said, “Aren’t those gorgeous?”

Sex was a gift, too. You gave it to someone you liked, someone you loved, someone to whom you were irresistibly drawn. Someone who fit you in all the right ways, like the interlocking shapes of an Escher drawing.

She’d shared something powerful with Max. She had reveled in every moment of it, every sweet, sharp sensation. It had been something pure, something generous and open. No conditions. No strings. Something as true as the colors in a rainbow.

And then he’d transformed it so it was about a landlord and a tenant and him owing her something.

She cursed.

“Wow, you’re in a good mood,” Monica said, emerging from the kitchen and joining Emma in the entry hall as she turned the bolt on the front door. Monica must have driven her car into the garage; Emma hadn’t seen it parked on the road in front of the house. Monica had changed from the conservative work apparel she’d had on that morning into a droop-shouldered sweater and a pair of stylish jeans. A glass of white wine in her hand, she eyed Emma up and down. “You should have let me know you were hiking the hill,” she said. “I would have driven down and picked you up. What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Emma muttered, then sighed. “Everything. Is there more wine?”

“I just opened a bottle.” Monica beckoned her toward the kitchen. “Come and tell me what happened.”

Emma settled on one of the stools at the center island while Monica moved directly to the refrigerator to fetch the wine. She had begun dinner preparations—a package of chicken sat defrosting on the counter, and an onion, some carrots and a flowery crown of broccoli lay beside the sink. Ignoring the food, Monica filled a second wine goblet with chilled Chardonnay and handed it to Emma. It wasn’t champagne, for which Emma was very grateful.

“Max and I…” Just saying those words ignited a pain in her chest, round and hard. There was no Max and I. Emma had thought there could be, but there wasn’t.

“Our landlord?” Monica asked.

Emma nodded dolefully. “I’m an idiot. I know.”

“You’re not an idiot. What happened?”

“I thought…” She heaved a sigh. “I thought something was going on between us.”

“Something romantic?”

Emma nodded.

“You slept with him?”

Another nod. Emma wasn’t sure she wanted to reveal, even to her best friend, what an impulsive, reckless, poor judge of character she was. “And he turned it into a tit-for-tat thing. He made me feel…” She sipped some wine. Icy and dry, it soothed her throat, and her soul. “I mean, I thought I was falling in love with him. I felt so close to him. Like we understood each other. Like we knew each other on a really deep level. And he…” She swallowed the quiver in her voice. “He told me I could stay here in this house.”

Monica scrutinized her across the center island. Evidently, Emma wouldn’t have to explain further. Monica got what Emma was implying. “In other words, he’d let you live here like a kept woman?”

“I don’t think he meant it quite that way, but that was how his offer felt to me. Maybe I’m too sensitive, I don’t know…” She drifted off, once again sinking into a bitter self-evaluation. Impulsive Reckless. Poor judge of character.

“So—wait a minute. He was willing to continue to rent the house to us?”

“He said he wouldn’t sell it. I could live here.”

“Because you slept with him?”

One more sad, pitiful nod.

“Emma.” Monica sounded not judgmental but confused. “I know he’s a good-looking guy. Very good-looking. But…shit, Emma. Why on earth would you have sex with the landlord?”

Emma stifled her sigh by sipping some wine. “It was just—like this spontaneous thing. Magic.”

“Did he break your heart?” Monica’s voice bristled with righteous anger.

“No,” Emma assured her, although for some reason she wasn’t quite convinced of that. How could Max have broken her heart? They hardly knew each other. Surely what she’d felt for him couldn’t be love.

Yet the pain increased inside her, swelling like a tender bruise in the center of her soul. Something was broken, that much was certain.

“So it was just one of those things,” Monica summarized. “And then he botched the aftermath.”

“Maybe we both botched it,” Emma conceded. “Maybe he didn’t mean his offer the way I took it. Maybe I overreacted. I don’t know.” She felt her tears returning, and in the stark white light of the kitchen, she couldn’t pass them off as perspiration.

“Then there’s a chance we can fix this,” Monica said briskly, setting down her glass and digging in her hip pocket. She pulled out her cell phone and started tapping the buttons.

“Don’t call him!”

“I’m not calling him,” Monica said. “I’m calling Andrea Simonetti to see if Max listed the house for sale. If you’re right about him, he might do something out of spite. If you’re wrong about him, it’s possible he was serious about letting you stay on in the house. And honestly, if he does, I want to stay here, too. That efficiency apartment at the inn is so tiny—and much too close to my parents. It would be practically like moving back in with them. Ugh.” She shuddered.

“What about living with Jimmy?”

Another shudder. “The more I thought about that, the less I liked the idea. You know him—if I moved in, he’d say, ‘Oh, you’re running a load of laundry? You can wash these clothes of mine while you’re at it.’ I don’t want to do his laundry. I don’t want to clean up his messes. He’s a great guy, he’s fun, he makes me laugh, he’s good in bed, but I don’t want to have to pull his hair out of the shower drain.” As she spoke, she tapped her phone, then held it to her ear and listened. After a minute, she said, “Hey, Andrea. It’s Monica Reinhart. I’m glad I caught you…” After a couple of minutes of chit-chat, she said goodbye and disconnected the call. “He hasn’t listed the house,” she informed Emma with a smile. “Andrea hasn’t heard from him in a couple of days.”

“I don’t know if I can live here,” Emma said dolefully. “Not after…”

“Not after you and he had one of those things? That’s no reason to give up on the house. We both want to continue living here. Before he showed up on our front doorstep, we were figuring on renewing our lease, right? You can work this out with him. Don’t be a wimp.” She tapped her phone again, her thumbs flying over the screen. She stared at it, squinted, enlarged it, scrolled. Her smile faded. “Damn.”

“What?”

“I just accessed the inn’s registration files. He’s checked out.”

“He has?”

“Fifteen minutes ago.”

“So…he’s gone, but he didn’t put the house up for sale.” Emma wasn’t sure what that meant. She wasn’t sure of anything, except that at the rate she was sipping her wine, she was going to need a refill soon.

“Our lease doesn’t expire until the end of June. He’s still got a few weeks to kick us out. He might go back to California and have Andrea take care of everything for him.”

A few more tears leaked out of Emma’s eyes. She didn’t want Max in California. She wanted him here. She wanted him to come to the house and tell her he hadn’t meant his offer the way it had come out. She wanted him to say he was thrilled that she’d found a new work space, and he hoped she’d find an affordable new place to live, and he couldn’t wait to see her Dream Portrait of him. She wanted him to take her in his arms and kiss her, and murmur that one of the things he loved about her was her independence, her self-sufficiency, her ability to survive even though she was an artist living in a society that didn’t value artists terribly highly.

But now he was gone. Back to his job, directing a foundation? Back to his view of San Francisco Bay? Back to a life that had never really had a place for her in it?

San Francisco Bay. The Atlantic Ocean.

Suddenly she knew the dream she would paint in his portrait. Because damn it, he might have vanished, but she was going to paint his Dream Portrait, anyway.

***

Stan Weisner seemed delighted to see Max hovering in the open doorway to his office. “Finally, you’re going to take me out to dinner,” Max’s old professor said, his mane of curls shimmering like polished silver springs in the glare of the fluorescent fixture in the ceiling—a fixture that reminded Max of the equally harsh lighting in that room Emma was so thrilled about turning into a studio.

Max had found Stan at his desk, finishing up some work before he left campus for the evening. After apologizing for having passed on dinner the other night, Max had insisted on taking Stan out tonight. Stan had phoned his wife to inform her of his dinner plans, and he was beaming when he hung up the phone. “She’s thrilled,” he said. “If I went home for dinner, she’d have to prepare a real meal. Instead, she’ll just open a can of something and read a book while she eats. Should I let El Presidente know you’re back in town? We could stop at his house for a drink if you’d like.”

Max didn’t want to socialize with the university’s president. He didn’t want to be fawned over and thanked for his generosity. What he really wanted to do was hole up in his room at the Hyatt Regency, just a few blocks up Memorial Drive from the campus, and lose himself in a bottle of vodka. Russian psychotherapy, his father used to call it.

But he owed Stan a better visit than the one they’d had a few days ago, when Max had wound up taking over Stan’s comp-sci class and then had raced back to Brogan’s Point to see Emma. And he owed himself the opportunity to think about something—someone—other than her.

She’d been right to blow up at him, even if she’d blown up at him for the wrong reason. She didn’t know the right reason. She didn’t know that he hadn’t come clean with her, that he hadn’t told her who he truly was, that he hadn’t revealed to her how insignificant the house and her meager rental payments were to him. He hadn’t trusted her enough to tell her. He owned that mistake.

She’d made it clear, when she’d stormed out of the Faulk Street Tavern, that she was in no mood to repair their barely begun, terribly fragile relationship. Perhaps he should have chased after her, imposed himself on her, forced her to listen…to what? His confession about having more money than any human being could ever possibly spend in a lifetime? His explanation that he’d shifted most of that money to his foundation—and still had more than he needed to live in luxury for the next hundred years? His revelation that the last woman he’d loved had left him when he told her he’d used most of his fortune to set up a foundation instead of spending it on her?

Emma didn’t lust after his money. She didn’t even know about his money. He’d learned not to discuss his wealth, certainly not with anyone he knew as little as he knew Emma.

Yet when he looked at her, when he touched her, when he kissed her…he felt a deeper knowing. Like that enchanting song, he felt that he saw her true colors. Those true colors implied that Emma was the sort of person who would like him not more but less, once she knew how rich he was.

That didn’t compute. People loved money. They loved wealth, and luxury, and not having to scrimp and scrape to get by. They loved not having to worry about finding an affordable place to live and work. Why should Max believe Emma was different?

It was the song he didn’t trust—not Emma but the song, which had given him the absurd belief that he could see something in Emma that probably wasn’t there.

If he didn’t trust her, he didn’t trust himself even more. He’d misread Vanessa so utterly, why should he assume he’d suddenly developed the ability to comprehend women’s minds and souls?

He and Stan strolled up Mass Avenue, chatting about Stan’s students, his final stretch of classes before the exam period began, his usual gripes concerning the challenges of securing grants to fund his research. They paused at each restaurant they encountered, scrutinizing the posted menus and peering inside. Eateries Max remembered from his student days, when he’d had no money to dine out, looked less tempting today than they had when they’d been beyond his reach. Now, no restaurant in the entire country was beyond his reach.

Eventually, he and Stan found a menu that appealed to them. Fortunately, the restaurant was able to seat them without a reservation.

“Enough about me,” Stan declared, once the beers they’d ordered had been delivered to their table. “What’s going on with you? Still enjoying being the richest man on the planet?”

“No,” Max said, not having to think. He wasn’t the richest man on the planet, not by a long shot. And since he’d divested himself of so much of his wealth when he’d established the foundation, he technically wasn’t as rich as most people assumed he was. But he was rich. And at the moment, he didn’t enjoy it.

Stan chuckled. “Fund my research,” he joked. “Let me lighten your load.”

“Submit something to Janet,” Max suggested. “As a rule, we don’t fund university research, but for you I could make an exception.”

“Nah, that’s all right.” Stan waved his hand as if erasing Max’s words from the air between them. “I’ll get my funding on my own. We don’t want people accusing you of playing favorites with your foundation. And here we are, talking about me instead of you again.” Stan drank some more beer and leaned back in his chair. “Tell me why a guy who should be on top of the world looks like he’s on his way home from a funeral.”

Max managed a chuckle. “Do I look that bad?”

“On a ten-point glum scale, I’d score you at least a nine. I thought this was supposed to be an easy trip for you. Divest yourself of some real estate, visit your old stomping grounds, let MIT throw rose petals at your feet, and humor your old honors advisor.” He leaned forward, suddenly frowning. “You didn’t come back east for a funeral, did you?”

“No. No, I’m fine.” The waitress returned to their table, and Max gave the menu a perfunctory glance before ordering a steak. He had no appetite, but he had to eat.

Once the waitress had gathered their menus and departed, Stan studied Max more closely in the muted lighting of the restaurant. “So, what’s the problem? Anything I can help you with?”

“I doubt it,” Max said, realizing as soon as he’d spoken that his words implied there was a problem. Not a major disclosure; Stan had already figured out as much.

A weighted silence stretched between them, lasting until the waitress returned with their salads. Max knew he had to say something. Stan was his friend. During the four years Max had been at MIT, Stan had been practically a father figure. Max had confided in him about his money woes—back then, he’d been juggling a scholarship, a loan and two jobs, both tutoring fellow students and washing dishes in one of the campus refectories. When one of his roommates started self-medicating his depression with copious amounts of pot and booze, Max had asked Stan for guidance. When Max’s mother had been diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer, Stan had offered him reassurances, steered him to useful medical websites, and given him enough money to buy a bus ticket to New York so he could see her after her surgery.

He hadn’t confided in Stan about girlfriend woes, because he hadn’t had many girlfriends as an undergraduate. MIT’s computer science department hadn’t been overflowing with female students when he’d been there. He’d dated a Wellesley student for a while, and he’d been quite infatuated with a Smith girl who’d decided, after a few months, that her two-hour drives to Cambridge to visit him were wearing her out. But while he’d been passionate about his research, he’d never actually been in love with a woman. Not until Vanessa.

He wasn’t in love with Emma, either. The very idea was preposterous.

“Here’s the thing,” he said, unsure of what he was going to say until the words flowed past his lips and into the air. “There’s a jukebox in Brogan’s Point.”

“A jukebox.” Stan accepted Max’s statement with a curious nod. “I haven’t seen one of those in ages.”

“This one looks like an antique, something you’d see in a black-and-white movie from decades ago. It plays old songs.” Max shook his head, aware of how strange he must sound to Stan. “I think it put a spell on me.”

Stan erupted in laughter. “Like Voodoo? Come on, Max. You’re a rational guy.”

“Some things defy rationality.” Max shrugged. “The jukebox played this song, and the next thing I knew, this woman and I… Well. It’s stupid. I don’t want to go into it.”

“What song?” Stan grinned mischievously. “Maybe it’ll work on my wife.”

“No. Really. It’s silly.”

“What was that really hot disco song? ‘Love to Love You, Baby.’ Oh, man.” Stan’s smile softened, growing nostalgic. “Very erotic. Or ‘When a Man Loves a Woman.’ The original version. Percy Sledge.”

“‘True Colors,’” Max told him.

“What? Wasn’t that song used in a commercial? I sort of remember—cameras, or film, something like that.”

“It must have been a long time ago,” Max said. “Do cameras still use film?”

“So, tell me about this spell.”

“I’m embarrassed,” Max admitted. “I’m a scientist. I believe in facts, data. Things I can see.”

“And yet,” Stan argued, “music can put a spell on people. I don’t know about a camera commercial, but some music…a Bach fugue, for instance. It’s mathematical, but also emotional. Or Debussy. You listen to Clair de Lune and you can actually see the reflection of a full moon in a pond. Or Percy Sledge singing, ‘When a Man Loves a Woman.’ My wife used to throw herself at me when she heard that song. I ought to dig out the CD and see if it still has that effect on her.” He paused to butter a hunk of bread and take a bite. “‘True Colors.’ Okay. What did this spell make you do with the woman?”

Fall for her. Fall and fall and fall, like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole. A whimsical fantasy story to go with the whimsical fantasy that hearing a pretty pop tune in the presence of Emma Glendon could turn his soul inside out and upside down.

“She’s an artist,” he said. “A painter. We have nothing in common.”

Stan dismissed this with a snort.

“I offered to help her out a little, financially. She was insulted. She acted as if she thought I was trying to buy her.”

“She sounds like she’s got integrity. See? You and she have that much in common.”

“I have no integrity,” Max muttered. He’d treated her like a recalcitrant tenant, and then like a hot mama. He’d had sex with her for no better reason than that he’d wanted to and she’d made herself available. He’d refused to tell her the truth about himself.

“Don’t get all Russian on me,” Stan chided. “I know pessimism and depression are part of your ethnic make-up, but you’ve been in the U.S. since you were old enough to stop sucking your thumb. Russian gloom doesn’t suit you.”

Max sighed. “Maybe she’s just too good for me.”

“That I can believe,” Stan teased, then turned as the waitress approached with their entrees. “Ah, steak. If that doesn’t dispel your mood, Mahk-SEEM, then I’m shipping you back to St. Petersburg.”

The steak, along with a second beer, did cheer Max a bit. Or maybe it was simply Stan’s jovial personality. When they parted ways at the Kendall Square T stop, Stan to head for home, Max contemplated returning to Brogan’s Point. By now, the Hyatt ought to be used to his making reservations and then not keeping them.

But as he strolled to the hotel overlooking the Charles River, he thought better of returning to Brogan’s Point tonight. Stan had nearly convinced him that there was nothing crazy about being bewitched by a song—even a song used as the soundtrack for a TV commercial about photographic film—and that a healthy, red-blooded man couldn’t be blamed for jumping the bones of a gorgeous, red-haired painter.

Not jumping her bones. Making love to her.

That was the catch, the thing that brought his spirits back down. He and Emma had made love. Kissing her, filling her, coming inside her—it had meant something.

He should have told her the truth about himself. Instead, he’d more or less thrown money at her.

He couldn’t go back to Brogan’s Point, not until he was ready to come clean with her. Maybe she would love him because he was rich and she would appreciate access to his money. Maybe she would hate him because he could buy and sell her a million times over.

Lose-lose.

It would probably be best just to fly back to San Francisco, forget about the house, forget about Emma. Forget about a shimmering song that claimed to be about seeing the truth but had in fact lured him down a blind alley.





Chapter Fifteen




Emma didn’t need to look at the photos she’d taken of Max, let alone print them and pin them to a board beside her easel for reference. His image was imbedded on the insides of her eyelids, emblazoned on her soul. She could see his vivid blue eyes, fringed with dark lashes. She could see the angle of his chin, the slight hollows beneath his cheekbones, the sharp line of his nose, the dark, silky waves of his hair, which always seemed just a bit windblown. She could see his strong shoulders, his leanly muscled chest. She could feel the heat of his skin against her palms as she touched him…

She gave her head a resolute shake. The temperature of his skin had nothing to do with her painting of him.

She’d never before painted a portrait from memory. But Max… She had him memorized.

“I don’t see his true colors,” she said aloud, her voice barely a whisper in the quiet house. Monica had headed off to spend the night with Jimmy. She might not want to do his laundry or clean up after him, but as she’d told Emma, he was good in bed.

Monica’s departure had suited Emma fine. Tonight she was restless, revved up, and she didn’t want to explain her midnight spasm of creativity to her friend. She just wanted to paint and paint and paint. Being alone in the house meant not having to justify herself.

“I don’t see his true colors,” she said again, her voice hovering like a tendril of smoke in the airy loft. “But I’ve got his dream nailed down.”

Adrenaline pumped through her veins. She’d thought about brewing a pot of coffee, but she didn’t need caffeine to keep her awake. Instead, she’d brought the open bottle of Chardonnay and her wine glass upstairs to the loft, and she fortified herself with occasional sips of the cold, crisp beverage.

Wasn’t wine supposed to make you drowsy? If so, this wine had failed in its mission. Emma simmered with energy, hummed with it, trembled with it. Her nerves were strung tight, sensitive to the spread of light on her canvas, the play of colors as she dabbed nurdles of paint onto one of the old ceramic dishes she used as a palette and blended the nurdles to get the precise degree of darkness for his hair, the right mix of pink and tawny brown for his complexion. His eyes… Damn, it was hard to recreate that crystalline blue. A dab of cerulean, a dab of cobalt, a generous blob of zinc white, a hint of silver. She mixed the paint studied it, mixed it some more, and added a little more cobalt and a little more zinc white. There. The true color of Max Tarloff’s eyes.

How could she see him so clearly? How could it feel as if he were in the loft with her, posing for her, watching her, wanting her as much as she wanted him?

What if she’d completely misunderstood him? Judged him unfairly? He’d offered to let her stay on this house because he’d wanted to help her. Had that been such a bad thing?

It had forced her to acknowledge the inequality between them. It had reminded her that he was her landlord and that her housing situation depended solely on his whims. It had made her feel dependent on him, indebted to him. Maybe he hadn’t meant to emphasize the difference in their status—she the impoverished renter, he the generous landlord—but that was how she’d felt. If he hadn’t realized she would take his gesture that way, well, he hadn’t seen her true colors, either.

Dumb-ass song.

She continued painting, her brush strokes precise and controlled, and Max slowly revealed himself on the canvas. When it came to painting, at least, she knew his true colors. The face and upper torso taking shape on her easel resembled not the man who had sat awkwardly on a stool while she’d snapped photos of him, and who’d been so reluctant to discuss his dreams, but rather the man she’d kissed, the man she’d caressed, the man against whose warm skin she’d traced teasing patterns with her fingertips.

As for his dream, the one dream he’d shared with her… She might be completely wrong about it. He might have just told her to distract her, to prevent her from digging deeper into his psyche. He’d put so much effort into concealing his true colors. But she had the one dream he’d confessed to, and as the painting materialized beneath the bristles of her brushes, that one dream seemed right. In fact, it made her wonder whether he’d offered to let her stay in the house not because he’d had sex with her but because he wasn’t yet ready to let go of his dream.

What would she do with the painting, once it was done? She couldn’t sell it to him. She doubted she could keep it. Yet there it was, the swirls of his hair defined by glints of light, his face in semi-profile, his eyes gazing off to the left, toward the view he dreamed of. Something in her rendering of him made him appeared both wistful and satisfied, anchored in this place even though he didn’t live here. Was he from Russia? Brooklyn? San Francisco? No matter. In Emma’s portrait, he looked like someone who had been searching for a home and had found it at last.

He’d probably hate the painting. She supposed she could keep it for herself, a memento of a man she’d given her heart to, even though he’d kept his heart locked away from her, refusing to let her artist’s eyes really see him.

Stupid, stupid song. She hated it. She hated that it had bewitched her and made her fall in love with a man who had deliberately kept his true colors hidden from her.

Yet she found herself humming it as she worked.

***

No one answered when he rang the bell.

He checked his watch again. Nine-fifteen. Not terribly early, even for a Saturday morning. He rang the bell again, then shielded his eyes with his hand and peeked through the glass sidelight into the entry hall. No sign of life.

Emma and Monica couldn’t have moved out yet. Emma didn’t even have a place to move to. Certainly she couldn’t camp out in that stuffy little room at the community center. That was a public building—offices, a swimming pool, a gym, a hub of Brogan’s Point activity. Not a homeless shelter. And her situation there hadn’t been finalized yet.

She’d joked about living in a tent—although, given her back-to-the-earth childhood, maybe she hadn’t been joking. He couldn’t believe she would have evacuated the house that quickly, though.

However, she could have gone out that morning, or last night. She could have returned to the Faulk Street Tavern, heard some other song spilling from the jukebox—“When a Man Loves a Woman,” perhaps; hadn’t Stan said that song had an aphrodisiac effect on his wife?—and gazed into some other man’s eyes. She could have gone home with that other man, gone to bed with him. Moved on, even if she hadn’t yet moved out.

Max rang the bell one last time, then pulled his key from the pocket of his jeans. It was his house, after all. He was allowed to enter it.

Silence greeted him as he closed the door behind him. “Hello?” he called out, not wanting to startle Emma if, God forbid, she’d brought that other man back here for the night. Bracing himself for that possibility, he ventured down the hall toward the great room, moving cautiously, doing his best to clomp his feet so she’d hear his approach. The plush white carpet absorbed his footsteps, though. And if she and the other man Max had conjured in his imagination had spent the night together, they’d probably be sound asleep now.

Why had Vanessa chosen to floor the house in white carpet? It was pretty, but so impractical. Had she planned to make visitors remove their shoes at the front door, and pad around in their bare feet? Would she have provided slippers for her guests?

He didn’t exactly mind the white carpet, but it would have to go. He knew nothing about interior decorating, and even less about color. Would brown carpeting be boring? Would green make the house look like a golf course? Would red be too garish? Once he had the place recarpeted, should he ask the installers to save a scrap of the carpet from the stairs to the loft as a souvenir of the hottest sex he’d ever experienced?

In the kitchen, he found an empty wine glass on the counter by the sink. It looked clean, but when he lifted it to his nose, he could smell a residue of wine in it. A bowl containing a banana, a couple of apples, and a twig of green grapes sat on the center island. Surely if Emma and Monica had moved out, they wouldn’t have left their fruit behind. Or a dirty glass. The last time he’d been in this kitchen, when Emma had made him a delicious omelet for breakfast, he’d been impressed with how tidy the place was.

Of course she and Monica hadn’t moved out. They had another month and a half on their lease. Monica was probably with her boyfriend, and Emma was with…

He didn’t want to think about it.

He felt a little like a trespasser as he moved through the airy, sunlit rooms on the first floor. You own this house, he reminded himself. It’s yours. Yet it felt like Emma’s more than his. More, even, than Vanessa’s. Emma had lived there for only a few months, but in those few months she’d made the place her own.

He circled back to the great room and started up the stairs to the loft. At the top, he froze.

Emma lay sprawled out on the floor, her hair a tangle of fiery red around her face, her baggy cotton sweater and jeans spattered with paint, her feet clad in her familiar, paint-stained canvas sneakers. A smear of paint marked her chin like a blue scab. Her chest rose and fell in a steady rhythm. She was sleeping.

Beside her, on an easel, was a painting of Max, staring out at a panoramic view of the ocean. In the painting, he might be seated on that ghastly, uncomfortable stool, which stood exactly where it had been when he’d posed on it just twenty-four hours ago. He might be gazing through the wall of glass at the Atlantic Ocean at the bottom of the long, panoramic hill on which his house stood.

His house. Emma’s home.

He scrutinized the loft. The table at the center of the room held tubes of paint, a jar filled with several paintbrushes in various sizes, and a plate smudged with blends of paint—some blue, some yellow merging into a rich, dark green, the color of the sea in the painting. Dollops of black and brown swirled together like veins in marble, just as his hair in the painting was black with veins of brown. Two intense blues lightened with pale paint to create the color of his eyes.

The table also contained another empty wine glass, and an empty green wine bottle. The glass in the kitchen assured Max that Emma hadn’t drunk the entire bottle herself. Someone—Monica, he hoped—had drunk at least a glass of it. And Emma didn’t look drunk. Her breathing was relaxed and steady, her complexion a healthy peach hue.

Besides, if she’d gotten drunk, she couldn’t possibly have produced such an amazing painting. Max knew all the myths about tortured artists drinking or ingesting or shooting up assorted intoxicants and then, under the influence, allegedly creating masterpieces. He didn’t believe those myths. Great artists might be substance abusers, but the artwork they accomplished while drunk or stoned was never as beautiful or moving as what they might accomplish while sober.

Max was a scientist. He indulged in alcoholic beverages when the occasion called for them. And he’d never come up with as good a solution to a programming challenge after drinking a few beers or a vodka as he’d come up with after consuming a mug of strong black coffee or a glass of steaming Russian tea.

Emma wasn’t drunk. Just asleep. Since this painting hadn’t existed yesterday, she must have painted it overnight. No wonder she was exhausted.

She couldn’t possibly be comfortable, sleeping on the rumpled, stained drop cloths spread across the floor of the loft. To pick her up and carry her to her bedroom would be awfully presumptuous. But to leave her on the floor seemed heartless.

Before he could decide what to do with her, she stirred. A soft sound—half a purr and half a sigh—slipped past her parted lips. They looked rosier than he’d remembered, in contrast with her smooth, pale skin and that blot of blue paint staining her chin. Then her eyes fluttered open. She peered up at him, looking sweetly befuddled. At least his presence didn’t alarm her. Finding him in her loft didn’t cause her to scream or recoil in horror.

“Max?” Her voice was thick with drowsiness.

“You didn’t answer the doorbell, so I let myself in. I’m sorry.”

“No, that’s all right.” She rubbed her eyes with one hand and pushed herself up to sit. “It’s your house.”

He almost retorted that it was hers more than his, but he wasn’t sure if that was true. He also wasn’t sure if his apology was for having entered the house or for having said the wrong thing yesterday—or for having failed to say the right thing.

“I thought you’d gone back to California. Monica said you checked out of the Ocean Bluff Inn.”

“I just went down to Boston,” he said. “Actually, Cambridge. I wanted to see an old professor of mine.”

“Oh, you’re a Harvard man?”

“M.I.T.”

She shoved a heavy tangle of hair back from her face and sighed again.

“Either way, I guess you’re a genius, right?” She remained seated on the floor, apparently not quite fully conscious. She yawned, rubbed her eyes, rolled her shoulders, yawned again.

He needed to move down to her level, rather than towering above her. He considered sitting on the stool—no, too uncomfortable. Or on the stairs—no, too erotic a memory attached to that place. Instead, he dropped onto the floor facing her, but not too close, not crowding her. He crossed his legs, rested his elbows on his knees, folded his hands, and watched her.

“To be able to paint something like that—” he gestured toward the painting “—is genius. It’s amazing.”

“It still needs work,” she said. “I’ve got to extend the seascape and the sky. The ocean needs more turbulence, I think. And I didn’t get your sweater right. I have to do some more shading, give it some more dimension. It’s funny—I had no trouble picturing your face, but your sweater caused me problems.”

He shot the painting another awed look. “You did all that last night?”

“Last night into this morning, until I finally had to take a nap.” She yawned yet again, reminding him of a cat. A beautiful, sexy cat stirring awake after dozing in a patch of sunlight.

“It’s extraordinary.” He peered up at the painting from his position on the floor. “Different from the painting you did of the little princess girl.”

“That painting was much more representational,” she agreed. “This one is more impressionistic. Rougher lines, less blending of color. I don’t know. If I’d done it during the day, when I was fully rested, and I’d relied on the photos I took of you… But I didn’t want to. I wanted to feel the painting, not copy the photos.”

“Well.” He continued to study it, then shook his head, trying to wrap his head around the idea that she’d created the painting without photos, without him posing for her. By feel. “It’s amazing,” he repeated, wishing he had the vocabulary to capture the painting’s effect on him. Did she feel the wistfulness with which she’d imbued the painting? Did she feel the loneliness he saw in the her rendering of his eyes, the stubbornness in her rendering of his mouth? Did she feel how troubled he was, how desperate to make things right and how worried that his attempt would only make things worse?

“Feel free to name a price,” she said, then gave a half-hearted laugh that made him wonder if she seriously wanted to sell the painting to him. “We never discussed what I charge for my work, let alone signed a contract. But I sure as hell could use the money.”

Okay. She’d raised the issue, however unwittingly, before he’d had to. He drew in a breath and said, “We have to talk.”

“If it’s about the house—”

“It’s about the house and a lot more,” he said. Her eyebrows lifted slightly. She looked intrigued.

He didn’t want to intrigue her. He wanted to make her understand who he was, and to love him not because of it but in spite of it.

He wanted her to love him.

So much was at stake. But if he wasn’t honest with her, nothing else would matter. He took a deep breath for courage and said, “I’m very rich.”

Emma snorted. “Compared to me, everyone is very rich. Even Monica.”

“No, Emma. I’m talking rich. Top one-percent rich. Top one-tenth-of-one-percent rich.”

She angled her head slightly, as if appraising him in this new light. “Well, I assumed you weren’t poor. This house isn’t exactly a shack, and you were renting it to us for peanuts. I figured either you were stupid or you were nuts. Or you were so rich, you didn’t need to charge us a high enough rent to cover your mortgage and taxes on the place.”

“There is no mortgage. I paid cash for it.” Did he sound arrogant? Snotty? “Emma…I’m one of those gazillionaires you read about in the business pages—assuming you read the business pages, which you probably don’t,” he added when he saw the faint smirk curving her lips. “I’m a computer scientist. A software engineer. I developed an encryption program that protects credit card transactions, among other things. I got some venture capital funding, hired a small staff, and developed the software until it was ready to market. A major player in the industry offered me a ton of money for the company. So I sold it.”

“And now you have a ton of money,” Emma concluded.

“Yes and no.” He considered his words and reminded himself to be honest. “Yes. I have a ton of money. But a smaller ton of money than I might have had. I’ve got a seat on the board of directors of the company that bought mine, which pays a ridiculous amount to each of us whenever the board meets. I’ve made some smart investments in other start-ups. But even without that income… After the sale, I distributed shares of the profit to my staff and investors. But I had an obscene amount of money. More than I knew what to do with. More than was right, frankly.”

“Right?” She looked intrigued again. “Is there a right amount?”

“No one should have as much money as I did, not when there are so many people in the world who have so much less. I set up a foundation—the New World Foundation—and put most of my money into that. It funds educational programs, both here and abroad. One of our focuses is education for immigrants, helping them to assimilate and get up to speed. I was lucky I was young when I came to America—I learned English quickly and started school with my peers. My parents spoke some English, which helped. But we have so many immigrants in this country who have so much to contribute, and they come here unprepared for our schools, or with language issues. New World funds a lot of educational programs devoted to helping them.”

“That’s nice,” Emma said. She looked mildly perplexed, as if unsure why he was telling her all this.

So far, he’d told her only the good parts. He pushed onward. “When I sold my company, there was a party to celebrate the acquisition. I met a woman at the party. Vanessa.”

He’d half expected Emma to react in some way. Most women didn’t like to hear about other women, at least not in the context of romantic entanglements. But Emma didn’t seem the least bit jealous or annoyed. She sat unflinching, her eyes now fully in focus, her expression curious. “Your fiancée?” she asked.

“My ex. Yes.” He ruminated for a moment. “She was…how can I put this? I was a computer geek from M.I.T. She was the sort of woman you expect to see on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. There was more to her than her beauty, of course. She was intelligent. She was fun. We started seeing each other. We got engaged.”

Emma said nothing. She simply watched him, waiting.

“And then, we broke up.” Not true, and he corrected himself. “Vanessa left me. But not before I’d bought her this house.”

Emma’s brow dipped in a frown. “You’re still not over her, are you.”

“I’m very much over her,” Max assured her. “But I bought this house only because she wanted it.” He fidgeted for a moment with his watchband, stalling. He hated to admit what an idiot he’d been. But he had to be honest with Emma, and being honest required him to acknowledge his foolishness. “She’d grown up in New England, and she said she’d always wanted an ocean-view house. We looked at a few places in Maine, but the winter weather is so brutal there. Then we found this house. She said she wanted it, so I bought it. I told her to decorate it any way she wanted. It was hers.”

“So she’s responsible for all the white,” Emma said. “The walls, the carpet—it’s kind of sterile, if you ask me.”

“Not my true colors,” he joked, his gaze flicking toward the painting on the easel. The colors Emma had used to depict him and the ocean were so rich, so lush, so vibrant. He should have figured she wouldn’t be a huge fan of Vanessa’s austere decorating choices.

“Meanwhile, I set up my foundation. I funneled more than half my wealth into it. Vanessa was appalled.”

“You should have consulted her,” Emma said, surprising him by taking Vanessa’s side. “A big financial decision like that? The couple ought to make it together.”

“She didn’t want to make financial decisions,” he explained. “That wasn’t why she was upset. She was upset because my personal worth had been cut by close to two-thirds.”

“But…you said you still have a lot of money.”

“I do. But I had a lot less than I had when she’d accepted my proposal. She wanted to marry a billionaire. A mere millionaire wasn’t good enough for her.”

Emma scowled. “It’s not like you blew the money on something stupid. I mean, a foundation—that’s pretty noble.”

He made a face. “I didn’t do it to be noble. I did it because it seemed like the right thing to do. I wanted to see the money put to good use, helping people the way my family could have been helped when we first arrived in America. And helping kids in poorly funded school districts. Helping kids become more math- and science-literate. Helping kids in developing countries, where the need is so great. The foundation was a way to spread my wealth around and let it accomplish some good in the world. I couldn’t have spent all that money if I lived to be a thousand years old.” He sighed. “Apparently, Vanessa could have spent all that money. She was furious with me for not granting her the opportunity.”

Emma absorbed this. “So she broke up with you, and you were stuck with this house.”

“I never really considered it my house. I didn’t even want to think about it. I was grieving. And feeling like a schmuck. I thought she’d loved me. Me, an egghead from M.I.T.”

“A very sexy egghead,” Emma said, tickling a faint smile out of him.

“I found Andrea Simonetti running a real estate office in town and asked her to rent the house. I didn’t want it sitting empty, but I couldn’t sell it until I’d looked at it one more time. And for a year, I couldn’t bring myself to look at it, because seeing it and remembering how stupid I’d been to buy it for Vanessa would make me bitter. But this spring, I finally decided I was ready to sell it. I never gave any thought to the tenants. Until I met you.”

“And discovered I was running an illegal art school on the premises.”

“I was angry about that.”

“I know.” She smiled.

She wasn’t responding the way he’d expected. She seemed rather placid about everything he’d told her. She’d known about Vanessa—he’d told her that before—but she hadn’t known about his wealth. Perhaps she just didn’t care about him enough to be angry that he’d concealed the truth about himself for so long. Or perhaps she was an extremely clever actress, behaving blasé so she could get her hands on his money, the way Vanessa had wanted to.

He simply couldn’t believe that of Emma, though. The one time he’d tried to give her something—the continued use of this house—she had rejected the offer, and she’d rejected him.

“I would never try to buy you,” he said. “I hope you know that.”

She averted her eyes and toyed with one of her shoelaces, twisting it around her finger and then releasing it. “I never thought you were trying to buy me,” she said slowly. “But yes, I’m poor. I’m your stereotypical starving artist. I’m okay with that. I didn’t become a painter to get rich. I became a painter because painting is what I do. It’s how I process the world.”

He could more or less understand that. He processed the world through mathematics, through logic, through computer code. Different medium, but essentially the same idea.

“I don’t mind being poor. I grew up poor. I’m used to not having much. It’s no big deal to me. As long as I have a roof over my head, some food in the fridge, an occasional glass of wine, and my art supplies, I’m fine. I don’t need more than that.”

“That sounds more noble than my foundation,” he joked.

Her eyes flashed with emotion. She didn’t smile. “I don’t mind being poor, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to be someone’s charity. That’s how you made me feel, Max. Just when I’d figured out a way to make everything work—a place to teach my art, a way to earn a little extra income—you stepped in and acted as if I couldn’t make everything work. You offered to fix everything for me. I didn’t know how rich you were. I didn’t know that my staying on in this house wouldn’t make any difference to you, money-wise. What I knew was that we’d slept together, and then you offered me the house because you owed me. You made me feel like a whore.”

His heart broke a little. “God, Emma. I never meant that.” He wanted to reach for her, gather her to himself, hug her until he could convince her that he’d had only the best of intentions. He’d wanted her to have everything she wanted: a roof over her head, food to eat, wine to drink, a place to create her art. That was all.

She wanted so little. He had so much.

“I thought you’d be angry with me for not telling you who I was. I feel I’ve been dishonest with you. But I’ve learned to be very discreet about my wealth.”

“You were afraid that if I knew how rich you were, I’d turn out to be another Vanessa, huh.”

He shrugged.

“In case you haven’t noticed, I do not look like a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model.”

“I’d have to see you in a swimsuit to know for sure,” he said.

There. A hint of a smile.

“I don’t want your money, Max.”

“What do you want?” he asked. “If you were going to paint your own dream portrait, what would you paint?”

Her smile widened. She gazed past him, through the glass wall at the morning beyond, the wide blue sky and the wide green ocean below it. “Paint,” she said. “I’d paint paint, and canvases. I’d paint time. I don’t know how to paint that, but that’s what I want. More time. I’d paint a bottle of wine, or maybe champagne.” She turned back to him. “I’d paint an ocean view, just like yours.”

“I didn’t realize the ocean view was my dream until you got me to acknowledge it,” he admitted.

“It’s a good dream. There’s something elemental about the ocean. It’s where we all came from. Where we started.”

“All things being equal,” he said, “would you let me make that dream come true for you? Would you let me give you an ocean view?”

“If you’re talking about this house—”

“I’m talking about you, Emma. I’m talking about us. You took this house and made it a place of creativity, of beauty. But it needs more. It needs color.”

She eyed him quizzically. “You want me to redecorate the house?”

He couldn’t abide the distance between them any longer. He reached out, snagged her hand, and drew her to him. Once he had his arms closed around her, he felt totally at peace, the same way he felt when he gazed out at the ocean. “Just by living here, you made this house yours,” he said. “It’s your home.”

“What about Monica? She lives here, too.”

“She lives here,” he agreed, “but you inhabit the place. You make it a place of learning, of sharing, of creating. If you want to pay me rent, pay me rent. I don’t care. I just want you to stay here. No,” he contradicted himself. “I want us to stay here. I want this to be our place.”

“Our little love nest?” she asked skeptically, even as she snuggled closer to him.

“Our home. You can make it into a home.”

“You live in San Francisco.”

“My foundation is there. I can fly back and forth. I don’t have to be there every day. I’ve got a phone. I’ve got a computer. I’ve got enough money to buy a private jet if I need one.” He brushed his lips against her brow. “I’m not giving you anything, Emma. I’m asking you to give something to me.”

“What can I give you? Other than the painting?”

“Love. Trust.” He used his thumbs on her chin to tip her face up, and he pressed a kiss to her mouth. “Color. Fill my world with color, Emma.”

They kissed again, slower, deeper, a kiss that shimmered with light and shadow and shape, a prismic array of colors. A kiss that convinced Max that Emma was the source of all things beautiful in his world, that with her talent and creativity she could turn anything he might imagine into a reality. A kiss that assured him that he could share her vision, that if he saw the world through her paintings—through her eyes—their love would shine like a rainbow.

A kiss that proved his dream didn’t exist merely on canvas. It existed here, in this room overlooking the ocean. It existed in this kiss.





Chapter Sixteen




Saturday was always a busy night at the tavern, and thank God for that. Gus earned half the week’s take on that one night alone.

Tonight was no exception. The day had been warm, and even though the summer season hadn’t officially begun, the town beach had been swarming with visitors that afternoon. According to her two waitresses, who’d spent the day at the beach themselves before checking in for work, only a few brave souls had waded into the icy water, but plenty of people had taken to the sand, reading and building castles, playing volleyball and tossing Frisbees.

A fair share of those beach-goers had chosen to end their day with some liquid refreshment at the Faulk Street Tavern. The place was packed, the noise level high, the liquor flowing and the cash register humming.

Even so, she kept an eye out for Ed. He’d said he would stop by later that night, which meant he’d help her close up and then accompany her back to her apartment for the night. She doubted he’d be in before ten, but she watched for him, anyway. She didn’t like worrying about him, and tonight she wasn’t worried. He wasn’t on a high-risk case. He wasn’t chasing down a drug dealer on a trawler. She didn’t need him to come to the tavern to reassure her that he was safe.

Tonight was about want, not fear. She wanted to see him. She liked looking at him—and sleeping with him. Nothing wrong with that.

Many of the booths and tables were occupied by Faulk Street Tavern regulars. More regulars lined up along the bar. A group of lobstermen at one table celebrated a particularly profitable haul with a couple of bottles of pricy single-malt scotch. A crowd of young couples had pushed several tables together into a long row; the women ordered festive mixed drinks but the men were mostly sticking with beer. Manny raced back and forth from the kitchen, delivering steaming platters of wings, onion blossoms, and mini-pizzas.

Gus wondered if she should improve the food offerings. People came to the tavern mostly to drink, not to eat, but if they ate, they stayed longer and drank more. Manny was skilled enough at food preparation to serve up the basics, but it might be time to consider hiring a chef for weekend nights.

Someone must have slipped a quarter into the jukebox. An old Frankie Valli song began to play: “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” Schmaltzy, but no one ever said there was anything wrong with a love song being schmaltzy. The dance floor quickly became clogged with couples, arms wrapped around each other, bodies slowly swaying to the romantic song.

She finished filling a couple of pitchers of beer, set them on a tray, and noticed the door opening. She recognized the couple who entered. Impossible not to remember that red hair. Her own hair had been like that once—well, maybe not quite as intense a shade, and certainly not as long and wild. Now her hair was tempered with gray, and she kept it short so she wouldn’t have to pin it back while she worked.

On Monica’s friend, the long, curly tresses looked good.

The man with her looked good, too.

Champagne yesterday, she recalled. Champagne and a beer. And then the woman had stormed out of the place.

Tonight, she didn’t look as if she had any intention of storming anywhere. She held hands with the man, smiled up at him, then led him through the crowds in search of a table. Good luck with that, Gus thought.

Eventually, they gave up on snagging a table and worked their way over to the bar. They waited while a couple of guys wearing Hurley Plumbing Supplies shirts ordered Mojito’s, then took their turn at the bar. “Champagne? Gus asked.

“No. Champagne didn’t work out so well,” the red-haired woman said with a smile. Emma, Gus recalled, the woman’s name suddenly popping into her brain. She recalled the woman introducing herself when she’d approached Nick Fiore a few days back, when he’d been standing at the bar. Emma. “I’m sticking with beer tonight.”

“You still get your bubbles that way,” Gus joked, then eyed the man.

“Two Sam Adams lagers,” he ordered. “I guess we’ll go with bottles.”

Gus nodded, pulled two beers from the refrigerator under the counter, snapped off the tops and reached for a couple of chilled glasses. When she turned back to the couple, Emma said, “We’re in love.”

“That’s definitely worth some bubbles,” Gus said.

“It’s because of the song,” Emma told her. “From the jukebox.”

“I’m not sure I believe that,” the man said.

Well, Gus thought, this isn’t their first argument. They’d been at odds yesterday. And they’d obviously survived yesterday’s argument, if they were announcing their love today.

“He’s a scientist,” Emma explained. “He’d like to pretend he doesn’t believe in magic. But deep in his heart, he does.”

“Deep in his heart is all that matters,” Gus murmured.

“The song was ‘True Colors,’ by Cyndi Lauper.”

Gus nodded. So many people came and went, but when a song from the jukebox exerted its magic, she had a way of remembering.

“Can we play it again?” Emma asked, waving toward the jukebox at the far end of the room.

Gus shook her head. “You can put in a quarter, but the jukebox will play whatever it wants to play. You can’t control it.”

“That’s crazy,” the man said.

“No, it’s not. It’s magic.” Emma rose on tiptoe and kissed his cheek.

The man asked Gus to start a tab for them, which meant they planned to stay a while. Maybe they’d get lucky, and “True Colors” would pour out of the jukebox for them. Even if it didn’t, they were already lucky. They’d found each other.

So some other song would play. And some other couple would be touched by it, enchanted by it. Maybe tonight.

###





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 True Colors, I hope you will consider posting a review of it online. Thank you!



Here’s a peek at Wild Thing, the third book in the Magic Jukebox series:





Chapter One



Monica had no idea how many straws a camel could carry on its back. She only knew that if she was a camel, she’d reached her limit.

And really, it was not a big thing in and of itself. Just one last straw. Just Jimmy being Jimmy.

But enough. Her back had broken. She was done, done, done.

She sat at a table at the Faulk Street Tavern, nursing a glass of wine. Maybe she should have ordered something stronger, but she wanted to remain clear-headed while she contemplated that single, final straw and waited for her best friend to join her. Emma was teaching an art class at the Brogan’s Point Community Center, but she’d promised to come to the pub as soon as her final student departed. Monica calculated that Emma’s trip from the community center to the bar would take about ten minutes. Emma didn’t own a car, although her gajillionaire boyfriend could buy her a fleet of Lamborghinis if she asked him to. Of course, one reason he was so crazy about her was that she would never ask. His wealth meant nothing to her.

She had acquired a bicycle, however—used but in excellent shape—which enabled her to scoot around town a little more rapidly than traveling by foot. Monica glanced at her watch and hoped Emma would arrive soon. If she finished her glass of wine before Emma showed up, she might order another, and that would be the end of her clear-headedness.

Jimmy. The asshole.

Last night was the tenth anniversary of their first date: the junior prom in high school. Monica hadn’t even been aware that Jimmy Creighton knew who she was back then. They’d traveled in different circles. She’d been an A student, diligent and disciplined, working at her parents’ inn when she wasn’t doing homework or pursuing other moderately egg-headed activities. Jimmy had been a cut-up, a funny, handsome guy who took nothing too seriously. Yet for some reason—maybe on a dare—he’d invited her to be his date for the prom. And for some reason—maybe because he was the cutest guy who had ever asked her out—she’d said yes.

They’d had their ups and downs over the past ten years, but Monica had thought they were mostly on an up right now. They both had jobs, he selling cars and she moving up into management at the inn. The sex was good. They hadn’t had a fight in more than a month.

“For our anniversary,” she’d told him, “I want to make a special dinner for you. Okay?”

“Sure, of course,” he’d said. “I love when you cook for me. If it wasn’t for you, I’d be living on buffalo wings and beer.”

She’d scheduled a day off for herself yesterday, although she’d shown up at the inn before dawn that morning so she could accompany one of the chefs from the inn to the docks to pick up lobsters fresh off a boat. From there, she’d journeyed to the green-grocer for organic vegetables, and from there to the butcher, and from there to the wine store for a thirty-eight dollar bottle of Bordeaux. Then she’d let herself into Jimmy’s apartment, donned an apron, and gotten to work. She’d made lobster bisque. She’d made Veal Oscar, garnishing the veal with lobster meat and asparagus spears and topping it with a béarnaise sauce. She’d warmed a loaf of bread. She’d prepared a tossed salad and scalloped potatoes. She’d spread a white linen cloth over the café table that stood in one corner of his living room, and lit a tapered white candle. And waited for him to show up.

The Ford dealership where he worked closed at six. Even allowing for traffic, he should have reached his apartment before seven. At eight-thirty, she phoned his cell. “Oh, hey,” he’d said cheerfully. “I’m over at Dave’s place. A group of us decided to pop some beers and catch the Sox game on TV. I’ll be home by midnight, okay?”

Not okay. Final straw. Monica had blown out the candle, tucked the wine bottle under her arm, and walked out of his apartment, leaving behind her key to the place.

That was yesterday. Today she’d gotten through the day, keeping her grumpiness in check until she realized she wasn’t terribly grumpy, after all. After previous break-ups with Jimmy, she’d felt angry or depressed, lost or confused. This time, not really. This time she was ready to shed all those straws Jimmy had been heaping onto her back for the past ten years. She was ready to move on. A little mournful, a little anxious, but ready.

The Faulk Street Tavern was rarely crowded on a weekday afternoon, and today was no exception. Gus Naukonen, who had owned the place since before Monica was born, occupied her usual station behind the bar, wiping surfaces, filling bowls with munchies, arranging bottles. None of the wait staff had arrived yet, but anyone who wanted a drink could walk up to the bar and ask for one, which was what Monica had done. Presumably, so had the young guys in polo shirts and khakis seated around one of the big tables with a couple of pitchers of beer and heaping bowls of popcorn. They were too clean-cut and rich-looking to be a fishing crew. Monica guessed they were college kids, their spring term over and their wealthy families settling into the rambling summer homes that dotted the northern end of town, where the upper-class folks owned what they euphemistically called “cottages” but which Monica called mansions.

She wasn’t much older than those boys, but she felt older. No—she felt mature. Jimmy was a baby. She’d outgrown him.

A few other tables were occupied, and a man the far side of middle age sat at the bar, slumped over an empty glass. From where Monica sat, she could see Gus shooting occasional glances at the man, as if to make sure he didn’t lean too far in any direction and topple off his stool.

Behind Monica stood the jukebox. She had her back to it, but she knew it was there, a magnificent antique rumored to possess magical properties. With its arched wood frame and its stained-glass inset of two peacocks nestling together, it was beautiful enough to belong in a museum. Its contents were a mystery: old songs that had been recorded back when vinyl records were the only available technology. No one knew what songs were in the jukebox, though. They weren’t listed on the machine. You couldn’t choose a particular song. According to legend, the songs would choose you.

Monica had grown up hearing the myth of the jukebox’s reputed magic. She knew that if you put a quarter into the machine, three songs would play, and no one knew what those songs might be, other than that they’d be oldies, dating to her parents’ era or even longer ago than that. Sometimes a particular song would strike someone in the room a particular way, bewitching that person, or transforming her, or…something. Monica hadn’t really bought into the legend until her friend Emma and Max, the gajillionaire, had both fallen under the jukebox’s spell and found true love in each other’s arms.

Monica supposed that when it came to the jukebox, she was currently an agnostic. She didn’t quite believe it was magic, but she didn’t quite not believe it, either.

The bar’s door opened, and Monica glanced over the back of the banquette. At the sight of Emma’s wild red hair, she smiled. She was not going to cry on Emma’s shoulder. She was not going to fall apart, bemoan the death of her decade-long relationship with Jimmy, turn the afternoon into a pity party. Instead, they were going to hoist their glasses high and drink a toast to Monica’s liberation.

“Hey,” Emma said, ambling over to Monica’s table and sliding onto the banquette facing her. “I hope you didn’t have to wait long.”

Monica burst into tears.

***

Some marinas had a rule stipulating that sailboats had to approach their slips on their motors. Ty Cronin preferred the marinas that didn’t have that rule. To him, maneuvering a boat into a slip on wind power alone was a welcome challenge. Gauging the coastal breezes, riding in on the jib, tweaking the rudder an inch one way or the other until you eased alongside a mooring or into a berth… Sweet. What was the point of sailing if you had to rely on the motor?

The North Cove Marina at Brogan’s Point didn’t have a motor-only rule, so Ty brought the Freedom into its slip on wind power and technique. He’d had a good run up the coast from Key Biscayne. Some nasty weather off the Carolina coast, but nothing he couldn’t handle. The Freedom was a gorgeous vessel: tiny but well-equipped galley, comfortable upholstered sleeping benches, an inboard shower and state-of-the-art commode in the head, and big sails that swelled and curved and maximized the wind’s power. He hadn’t even bothered with the spinnaker. The boat moved fast enough without it, and this trip wasn’t a race.

It was a job. Wayne MacArthur had offered him a nice chunk of change to transport the boat from his winter home in the Florida Keys to his summer home in this seaside town north of Boston. Ordinarily, Wayne had explained, he would sail the Freedom up the coast himself, but he had some business issues detaining him in Florida, and he wanted the boat moored in Brogan’s Point before Memorial Day. Ty was cool with that. The list of adventures he’d prefer over spending a week doing a solo ocean run was pretty short. Getting paid for the privilege was a bonus.

He’d never been to Brogan’s Point before—or, for that matter, any part of New England. So what the hell. He’d sail up, spend a few days, and fly back to Florida. He had nothing going on there that couldn’t wait for a couple of weeks.

He navigated the Freedom into its assigned slip and glided the boat into position with barely a tap against the old tires cushioning the side of the dock. He leaped off the boat and onto the smooth pine planks of the dock, lashed the boat fore and aft, and stood for a moment, his feet planted on the dock’s solid surface, his legs adjusting to the lack of roll and pitch.

The May afternoon was mild, warm but nowhere near as humid as the heavy air smothering southern Florida at this time of year. A refreshing breeze lifted off the water, flinging a lock of Ty’s hair across his nose. He’d washed his hair that morning when he’d showered, but after a day that had started off the coast of Rhode Island, carried him through the Cape Cod Canal, and blown him into his destination on brisk, strong gusts, he could use some freshening up.

Back on the boat, he spent a few minutes lowering the jib and wrapping it. He cleated the ropes, secured the rudder, and shut down the onboard navigating equipment. Then he ducked into the cabin, yanked off his shirt, and wedged his six-foot-two-inch frame into the closet-size bathroom. Tepid water, a bit of soap, more water and a few swipes with a towel invigorated him. He squinted at his reflection in the small slab of mirror above the sink. A raspy stubble of beard had sprouted since he’d shaved yesterday morning, somewhere around New Jersey, but he didn’t feel like shaving again. He felt like getting rich and celebrating.

He donned a fresh shirt, stashed his duffel and laptop inside a storage bin beneath one of the upholstered benches, and secured the bin with a padlock. No saying who might be hanging around this marina. No point taking chances.

His wallet and cell phone stuffed into the pockets of his jeans, he emerged from the cabin and sprang back onto the dock. He snapped a couple of photos with his phone. The boat in its berth. The supply shack at the end of the dock, a massive wooden crate overflowing with bright orange life vests beside the open door. The much larger building on shore, situated midway between this dock and the next one, with a phony-looking anchor painted on its side, and above it the words “North Cove Marina” in nautical blue and gold lettering. Ty texted the photos to Wayne, along with a brief message: “Made it safe and sound.” Then he waited.

In less than a minute, his phone vibrated. “Check’s in the mail,” Wayne had texted back. Ty tapped the phone to open his PayPal account. Twenty thousand dollars had just been added to it.

He grinned, transferred the money to his bank account with a few clicks, and strode up the deck to dry land. The door to the large building was open, and he stepped inside.

The front room was ugly in a familiar way. The pale green walls were decorated with a few nautical-themed prints, framed maps, oversized ropes and doughnut-shaped lifesavers. More boxes of bright orange life vests stood on the floor. A counter extended the length of the room, manned by a skinny kid who looked barely out of high school. He wore a polo shirt with the cute-cartoon anchor insignia stitched above the pocket, and salmon-red slacks.

“Hi,” Ty greeted him. “I just sailed Wayne MacArthur’s boat in.”

The kid opened a loose-leaf notebook. The fancier the yacht club, Ty had noticed over the years, the more old-fashioned. He’d worked at some marinas that operated out of shacks no bigger than an outhouse but managed their slips and monitored conditions with up-to-date computer software. An upscale place like this, where the staff wore shirts with anchors above the pockets, used notebooks.

“What slip did you park in?”

Ty recited the number of the slip Wayne had instructed him to use. The kid flipped through the pages of his notebook, found what he was looking for, then glanced out a window behind the counter and eyeballed the boat. “Nice ship,” he said.

“She sailed beautifully.”

“Is Mr. MacArthur still on board?”

“No. I brought her up myself. He’s flying up.”

“Okay.” The kid turned the notebook around so it faced Ty, handed him a pen, and asked him to sign his name.

Ty considered asking where the nearest bar was, but then realized the kid was probably too young to drink. Not that that would have stopped Ty when he’d been that age. He’d been filching the occasional beer by the time he was fifteen, not to get drunk but to piss off his grandparents. Still, this was a ritzy yacht club in a ritzy town. He smiled, gave the kid a nod and headed back outside.

Strolling through the parking lot, he tapped his phone, searching for bars in the area. Without wheels, he needed to find a bar close by.

The Faulk Street Tavern. It sounded quaint and New England-y. He called up a map of Brogan’s Point and located the place, less than half a mile away. Since he’d have to return to the boat after he’d drunk himself a toast or two, he didn’t want to travel too far for his refreshment.

Brogan’s Point didn’t have much of a downtown. It boasted a nice-looking beach, though, stretching along the ocean below a stone and concrete sea wall. A few shops lined the street bordering the sea wall, and more shops filled the streets intersecting it, two- and three-story buildings constructed of clapboard, brick, and stone. Eateries, hardware stores, ice-cream parlors. A real estate office. A women’s clothing boutique. A Starbucks, of course. Turning from the stores, he gazed along the ocean’s edge. Not far south of where he stood, several commercial docks lined with trawlers stretched eastward into the ocean. Ty could just make out the silhouettes of some warehouses near the trawlers. Fish markets, he figured.

If a Hollywood director wanted to film a movie in a stereotypical New England seaside town, he could do worse than Brogan’s Point. It had everything Ty expected such a place to have, short of a guy in a yellow rain slicker, dropping his R’s and eating a bowl of chowder. Or chow-dah, he supposed.

He strolled up the street, enjoying the solidity of the asphalt beneath the soles of his sneakers, enjoying the blunt breezes that rose up off the ocean to slap against the side of his head. Yeah, he could see spending a few days here before buying a plane ticket back to Florida. He could sleep on the boat, use up his food supply, and spend some time on the beach, even if the water here wouldn’t be warm like what he was used to down in Florida or what he’d grown up with in California. Ocean was ocean. Sand was sand. Ty’s parents used to joke that he was actually the son of a mermaid, given his affinity for the sea.

Up ahead he spotted the corner where Faulk Street intersected with Atlantic Avenue. He turned onto the side street and entered the bar.

To his great relief, it wasn’t quaint. It appeared to be a working-class establishment, a little dim, a little scruffy, not too crowded but already redolent with the stinging scent of hard booze, beer, and oily, salty edibles. He stood just inside the doorway, surveying the place and considering where he ought to plant himself. The tables all looked too big for one person. A few of the bar stools were occupied, but more were empty. That seemed like the better bet.

He strode across the room, the center of which was clear of furniture. A dance floor? If it were his choice, he would have filled that space with a pool table. But he wasn’t really up for a game right now. He’d done a week of hard sailing. He needed to decompress.

The woman behind the bar stood nearly as tall as Ty, with square shoulders, short hair fading from ginger to gray, and a pleasantly weathered face. She had the sort of no-bullshit look of a sports coach, or maybe a shrink. He supposed either of those character types would make good bartenders. “What can I get you?” she asked.

“A shot of bourbon and a glass of whatever you’ve got on tap,” Ty said.

She named a few beers. No connoisseur, he asked for the first one she’d listed, then settled onto a stool and gazed around the room. A group of frat boys sat at one table, cheerfully arguing about the relative merits of Porsches and Ferraris. Three portly older men in faded Red Sox caps nursed their drinks at a table near the door. Two attractive women sat facing each other in a booth to his left, one with long, curly red hair and the other with black hair that ended in a ruler-straight line at her shoulders. They each had a glass of wine, and they bowed their heads together across the table that separated them, engaged in intense conversation. A couple of stools down from Ty, a guy three sheets to the wind slumped over an untouched mug of coffee.

Against the wall opposite the bar stood a jukebox. It looked like something you might find in a catalog, or in one of those stores that specialized in selling new stuff designed to look old. A dome-shaped arch, buttons, fabric-covered speakers flanking a colorful façade of what appeared to be stained glass peacocks, of all things.

He heard the thump of glasses on the bar behind and swiveled around on his stool to discover that the bartender had served his drinks. He tossed back the bourbon in one gulp, savoring its burn down his throat, then followed it with a sip of cold beer.

He had money. He had time. He had liquid refreshment. Life was good.

The din of voices rose slightly as more people trickled into the bar. Ty glanced at his watch: five fifteen. Rotating back around to view the room, he nursed his beer and watched the bar’s clientele drift in, most of them just off work from the look of it. Some wore the uniforms of their jobs: garage coveralls, medical scrubs, tailored outfits that included button-down shirts adorned with loosened neckties or colorful scarves, depending on gender.

An energetic woman in tight black pants, her hair pulled into a pony tail, bounced over to the bar. “Sorry I’m late, Gus,” she shouted to the bartender as she laced an apron around her waist. “The traffic on Route 1 was a bitch.”

“Surprise, surprise,” the bartender muttered sarcastically. Ty wondered whether Route 1 here in Massachusetts was the same road as Route 1 in Florida. He was pretty sure it was. Like I-95, Route 1 spanned the length of the country from Maine’s Canadian border to Key West. Pretty cool to think you could drive from the nation’s northern border to its southern tip on one single road. Maybe someday he’d hop on his bike and ride the distance, just for the adventure.

The waitress grabbed a tray, shot him a quick smile and headed back into the room, circulating from table to table, checking on the patrons. Ty watched her for a while, then shifted his attention to the two young women conferring in the booth. The one with the black hair was dabbing her eyes with a cocktail napkin. The redhead leaned toward her, giving the dark-haired one’s free hand a squeeze. Dykes? Ty wondered. He’d hate to think that two good-looking women like them were unavailable to the male half of the population, but a hot little fantasy flared in his mind at the thought of them going at it. An even hotter fantasy placed him between the two of them, the meat in the center of the sandwich. He laughed at his crassness, told his balls to stop thinking for him, and took another sip of beer.

“Share the joke?” The woman who’d addressed him had stepped up to the bar, blocking his view of the drunk guy with the coffee. She was probably within shouting distance of forty, nice looking and dressed for cruising in a short skirt and a low-cut blouse which displayed cleavage deep enough to swallow small items.

“Just thinking about what an ass I am,” he said pleasantly.

“I don’t believe that,” the woman said. Catching the bartender’s eye, she said, “Can I have a Cosmo, Gus?” Then she turned back to Ty. “You’re not from around here, are you.”

“Is this one of those places where everybody knows everybody?”

“Kind of. I guess you and I should get to know each other, so you don’t feel left out.”

She deserved an A for effort, but Ty wasn’t interested. He smiled politely, drank a little more beer, and said, “I’m just passing through. Running an errand.”

“If only all errands ended with a drink,” she said, accepting the cocktail glass the bartender handed her.

He rotated in his seat to gaze out at the room again. Business was definitely picking up, more and more tables filling. Another waitress pranced into the pub, her apron already tied around her waist. Two of the frat boys wandered over to the jukebox.

“Brace yourself,” the Cosmo drinker said.

“Why?”

“That jukebox is crazy.”

How could a jukebox be crazy? He braced himself, anyway, then let out a long breath when the jukebox began pumping music into the room. An old Beach Boys tune—“Fun, Fun, Fun.” Ty recognized it because his grandfather on his dad’s side was a huge Beach Boys fan. The old man owned the band’s albums, cassettes, even sheet music of their songs. He was a crappy guitar player, but he fantasized about becoming the next Brian Wilson. “If you live in California, this is your music,” he’d lecture Ty, who would nod solemnly. As a kid, he’d worshipped his father’s father.

Throughout the room, people laughed. Some sang along, their voices screeching as they reached for the falsetto notes. A small cluster of revelers moved to the center of the room and started dancing, although it looked more like they were just jumping up and down. Pretty rowdy for a weeknight.

The song ended. “Like I said,” the Cosmo drinker repeated, “that jukebox is crazy.”

“What’s crazy about it?”

“It only plays old songs. Really old songs.”

“I guess that makes sense. It looks like an antique.”

The woman shrugged. “I don’t know why Gus keeps the thing there. I mean, if you’re going to have music, it should be music people listen to.”

Ty could have argued that people still listened to the Beach Boys. But he didn’t want to get into an argument with his chatty new friend.

Another song came on, another oldie. Ty didn’t recognize this one, but he thought his musically untalented grandfather could have mastered it. It had had only a few smashing cords, and the singer sounded as if he’d gargled with battery acid before laying down the track. The simple lyrics emerged in a harsh growl: “Wild thing…you make my heart sing…” The singer went on to growl that some woman made everything groovy.

Groovy? Ty started to laugh—and then he stopped. The woman in the booth, the one with the black hair and the teary eyes and the solicitous friend, was staring at him. Staring hard.

And damn, if he couldn’t keep from staring right back at her.

0 comments:

Post a Comment

Read free eBooks, English Fiction, English Erotic Story

Delicious Digg Facebook Favorites More Stumbleupon Twitter