Very highly recommended
When Senator Jeff Dylan passes away, Nick finds himself mourning not the memory of his father, but the knowledge of his father's lifelong disappointment in him, as well as the relationship they never had. Although he'd never been the son his mother wanted either, Nick still finds himself drawn to her side when he hears reports of brandy and sleeping pills. He moves back into his father's house to care for his mother, who had never gotten the fact that she was Jeff's housemaid until he got her pregnant. Then Nick learns that Jeff's will demands that his son marry for love within a year and live in the family home for the first year of the marriage.
The sight of the Atherton house at foot of his family's estate always produces pangs of helpless guilt in Nick. Derelict and forgotten, the Federation era house once known as The Oaks slowly decays. Jeff only bought the mortgage and closed on it to wound the Arthertons. It was Jeff's way to take vengeance on the man who'd married Sylvia Atherton, the only woman he had ever loved. Nick sees Sylvia's daughter at the way to right the past. In return for marriage, he'll give The Oaks back to Clair.
Their family history seems an insurmountable barrier between them. His father the Senator defines Nick's identity to their small town, and no one seems to understand that his name has nothing to do with who he really is. They can't talk about the things that really matter without inflicting pain. Coming from a loving family, Clair Atherton can't possibly understand how his existence embarrassed his mother Leota and father Jeff. Yet their shared pain in the past seems to connect Nick and Clair in the most unlikely way.
Leota and Clair are both strong, but neither seems to be able to use it to benefit others without Nick's delicate influence. His delicate determination to love them offers a bright future if only both women will accept themselves and the love he offers. Instead, it seems Leota is determined to get lost in her jealousy of the younger woman, to destroy rather than to build a future. She becomes a mother on a mission, determined to free her son from the Atherton woman. Nothing would hurt her more than to let Sylvia Artherton's daughter win.
Anna Adams skillfully writes in a distinctly crisp, sharp tone that uniquely reflects the tension between her characters, at times relaxing into a softer prose that reflects the emotions beneath the tension. The brittle tension periodically allows the glow of passion and love to shine through like sunlight on a cloudy day, lending Adams' prose a polish and sophistication quite rare in genre romance. Very highly recommended.
Read an Excerpt
"Okay, who ordered the male stripper?" Hannah Hart-well glared at her two younger sisters, Mimi and Alison, as the six-foot hunk Zorro ripped off his cape and flung it toward the leather side chair. Instead of meeting its mark, the black scrap of fabric snagged the bouquet of condom balloons dangling from the ceiling of her apartment and waved at her like a bat's wings. The surprise bachelorette party had definitely been a…surprise.
The music accompanying Zorro's striptease grew louder and the roomful of females cheered. Hannah groaned. Enthralled in the show, her sisters ignored her question. Either that or they didn't want to 'fess up.
Mimi tucked a wad of dollar bills into the waistband of Zorro's black tights while gyrating her hips to the beat of the Spanish guitar. Hannah squeezed her eyes shut. If her fiancé, Seth Broadhurst, found out about this evening, he would be mortified. A calm, practical psychiatrist, he avoided attention and wasn't a jokester like some of the other doctors at the hospital where they both worked. And she desperately wanted to maintain her hard-earned reputation with the ER staff.
Exhaustion pulled at her. She had to get some sleep. Her wedding was only a few hours away, her future teetering on the brink, just like Zorro's underwear dangling from the edge of her light fixture. Hannah waved her hands and lowered the volume of the music to a soft hum. "This was great, girls. I appreciate all the gifts, but the party's over."
A few moans accompanied her statement, but her friends conceded, offered congratulations on her upcoming nuptials, then hugged her goodnight.
Mimi sighed dramatically as the guests left. "Geez, sis, I wish you'd loosen up. Can't you go with the flow just once in your life?"
Maybe I could if you'd act responsibly just once in your life. "I can go with the flow," Hannah protested.
Mimi merely laughed, making Hannah feel incredibly boring, while her youngest sister, Alison, escorted the stripper to the door. When Alison returned, she sank onto the sofa beside Hannah.
Mimi's shark's-tooth earrings clinked as she gyrated her hips to the music again. "Wow, he had the biggest—"
"Mimi!" Hannah covered her ears with her hands, cutting off her sister before she could launch into a graphic description. So, the man had great muscles and sexy pecs and the biggest—
"Eyes. I was going to say the biggest bluest eyes, but he was well—"
"—proportioned," Alison interjected.
"—endowed," Mimi finished with a mischievous laugh.
Hannah leapt from the champagne-sticky sofa, gathering up the empty wine and champagne bottles. Punch cups, wineglasses and leftover hors d'oeuvres covered her clawfoot table, scraps of wrapping paper littered her Queen Anne chair and cake crumbs clung to the plush velvet of her Victorian sofa.
"You can't tell me you didn't enjoy the guy's moves, Hannah?" A note of pure horror darkened Mimi's husky voice as she poured herself more champagne.
"He was pretty buff." Alison's cheeks flushed to a rosy glow, but her gleaming brown eyes reflected the devil brewing in her thoughts. "Getting married doesn't mean you're dead. Lighten up." Alison snatched the stripper's thong from the chandelier. "Want to keep this as a memento of your last night as a free woman?"
"You could handcuff Seth to the bed on your honeymoon," Mimi suggested wickedly as she played with the present she'd given her sister.
"You're both hopeless." Hannah pointed a manicured nail as she spoke. "You will drool after anything in pants, Mimi. And you, Alison Hartwell, are still in college. You're way too young to be thinking such naughty thoughts."
Mimi shook her long auburn hair free from its jade clasp, running her fingers through the unruly mass of curls. "Are you worried boring old Seth won't be able to get you excited like that guy did tonight?"
"You know sex is a very important part of marriage," Alison added.
"And if Seth isn't satisfying you—"
"I never said Seth didn't satisfy me!" Hannah howled, wondering if she should admit to her sexless life with her fiancé.
No, her relationship with Seth was perfect. She did not want excitement.
Before she could elaborate, the doorbell rang. "Please, pleeease don't let that be Seth." Hannah yanked the condom balloons from the ceiling then struggled to put them in the closet. "Hurry, help me hide all this stuff!"
Alison slid the handcuffs under the sofa cushion while Mimi sauntered to the door and opened it. A tired-looking trucker dressed in grubby coveralls towered over Mimi's petite five-two. His name tag read Mountain Trucking. Hannah sighed in relief.
"I have a special delivery here from Rose Hartwell," he said in a mountain drawl. "Would have been here sooner, but my truck broke down."
An almost reverent silence descended upon the room, obliterating the party atmosphere. At seventy, Grandmother Rose was the matriarch of the Hartwell clan. For years after the girls' mother had deserted them, Grammy had jumped in to help fill the parental shoes. The girls loved her dearly.
"One of you Miss Hartwell?" The trucker's gaze landed on the remainder of the decadent cake shaped like a man's body part, and his gray eyebrows shot upward.
"Yes." Hannah and her sisters nodded in unison. Alison signed the delivery slip, stepping aside as the man pushed a big box inside. He left with a chuckle.
"I bet it's the hope chest Mom told me about," Mimi said. "The grandmother of the Hartwell family traditionally passes on a hope chest to each of her granddaughters before she marries."
Hannah bristled at the reminder of their mother. She'd finally broken down and invited her mom to the wedding, hoping for a reconciliation, but she had declined, only cementing the wall between them with another foot of concrete—and the realization that her mother hadn't wanted her. Forcing herself to forget the familiar hurt, she studied the package. Her grandmother tended to be eccentric. What would she have put in the chest? Nothing alive, she hoped…
"Hurry, open it," Alison said.
Hannah took a deep breath and tore the wrapping, then opened the box, gasping in delight. A beautiful gold embossed chest sat inside. "It's exquisite."
"The chests are supposed to be replicas of the one our great-great-great grandmother brought over from England," Mimi explained.
Hannah ran her finger along the ornate decorative carving. "This chest will look perfect at the foot of my bed."
"I can't wait to see what Grammy enclosed," Alison shrieked.
Her hands trembling with excitement, Hannah slowly opened the chest and lifted a sheet of pale yellow stationery.
My dearest, loving, Hannah,
You are a very special granddaughter because you were the first miracle in the Hartwell family. You represented love and hope.
But you are the one who remembers the problems; the one old enough to realize that when your mother walked away she wasn't coming back. And with your own little heart bleeding, you were the one to square your shoulders, console your heartbroken father and nurture your little sisters. And you never complained. You showed us strength when we thought we had none left.
You are studious and smart, dependable and responsible, but cautious to a fault. Don't forget how to dream, my dear Hannah. Learn to take chances, laugh and have fun. I wish for you happiness, true love and a man who will give you all the joy a partner can.
Love you always,
P.S. Inside you should find something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.
Hannah wiped tears from her cheeks as she laid the letter aside and gently lifted a porcelain bride doll from the chest. Something new—a new doll for her collection.
Memories of her ninth birthday surfaced, bombarding her with emotions. She'd collected dolls as a child and had received a beautiful storybook Sleeping Beauty for her birthday. But the celebration had been ruined when her mother decided she couldn't hack married life any more. All of Hannah's silly childhood dreams had disintegrated when her mother had left, closing the door behind her. Hannah had packed away all her dolls and hadn't touched them since; didn't her grandmother remember?
Swallowing back the painful emotions, she searched the hope chest, surprised when her fingers brushed something hard. A plain brown rock, slightly jagged in shape, was wrapped in the hem of the doll's lacy dress. It toppled into her hands, along with a note. "'Don't let the man you marry weigh you down,"' she read aloud. "Why on earth would Grammy write something like that to me?"
"Maybe she thinks Seth is too much of a drag," Mimi joked.
"Very funny. Seth is a pillar of the community. He's the most solid, stable man I know, something this family needs more of." Hannah unwrapped the tissue paper covering her next surprise. "Oh, my goodness, it's Grammy's bridal gown. It's beautiful."
"Something borrowed," Mimi murmured as they all admired the lacy dress.
Tiny pearls formed a border along the edge, the lace billowing out in sheer white folds. The neckline curved and slipped off the shoulders for a dramatic effect. Hannah pictured her grandmother wearing the gown at her own wedding, and a warm feeling washed over her. "This is so sweet, but didn't Grammy realize I already have a wedding dress?"
Mimi laughed. "Grammy must be getting senile."
"What should I do?" Hannah asked. "Seth helped pick out my dress."
"Wear it and save this one for your own daughter some day."
Hannah nodded and removed a pale blue garter from the chest. The girls laughed as she slipped the lacy garment over her thigh.
"Now, something old," Mimi said. Hannah's breath caught at the last item—a velvet ring box. She and her sisters exchanged animated smiles.
"I wonder if it's the ring," Mimi said.
"What ring?" Alison asked.
"The ring Grammy told us about when we were little," Hannah explained. "An antique pearl ring with tiny gold leaves on each side—"
"There's a legend that accompanies the ring," Mimi cut in. "The legend says that if a woman wears this pearl ring to bed the night before her wedding, she'll dream about the man she's meant to marry."
Hannah slowly opened the box, and all three of them gushed, "It is Grammy's pearl. Oh, my gosh, the ring is lovelier than I remembered." She traced a finger over the delicate setting, half afraid to slip the heirloom on her finger. "You guys don't believe any of those silly superstitions, do you?"
"No, but Grammy Rose does," Mimi said. "She said she wore the ring and dreamt of Gramps the night before their wedding."
Alison's eyes sparkled with excitement. "Are you going to wear the ring to bed, Hannah?"
Hannah studied the antique gold band, the tiny diamond chips set inside the rich gold leaves, the perfect pearl. "I don't know. All that legend stuff is kind of spooky."
"Don't be silly, I think it's romantic," Alison said.
"Since Seth didn't even give you an engagement ring, you can wear this one instead," Mimi said.
"I didn't want an engagement ring," Hannah clarified. "We both decided to be practical and opted for simple gold wedding bands."
"Well, when I get engaged, I want a ring," Mimi said. "A big gorgeous diamond."
"Go on, Hannah, try on the pearl, let's see how it looks on your finger," Alison said.
Hannah hesitated. "Let me get ready for bed first." Exhausted, she stood and gathered her things. "You guys can clean up, the bride-to-be needs her beauty rest."
Her grandmother's gown swished as she draped it over her arm and carried the satin-lined hope chest to her bedroom. Tomorrow her entire life would change. She'd marry Seth and have the safe, secure life she'd always wanted. She'd become a Broadhurst, a member of one of the most prominent families around, finally free of the crazy Hartwell image.
Their father, Wiley, owned a chain of used-car lots across the country and was famous for his wacky commercials. As a child, Hannah had loved the kooky ads, but when she grew older, her dad's flamboyant tastes had brought ridicule. His embarrassing advertisements had been one reason her mother had left him.
Hannah gently spread the bridal gown over the chaise in the corner of her room, placed the bride doll on top of the chest, then placed the velvet ring box on the mahogany nightstand beside her bed. Memories of her grandmother's eccentric but lovable ways filled her thoughts as she brushed her teeth and prepared for bed. Seconds later, she donned a nightgown, then slipped back to the bedroom. Pausing to admire the pearl ring, she silently laughed at the idea of the silly legend. Should she wear the ring to bed and see if the legend came true?
Nah, the legend was just an old wives' tale.
She turned off the lamp and crawled into bed then closed her eyes. But sleep eluded her and worry set in. What if she didn't make a good wife? What if she was more like her mother than she'd thought? What if she'd made a mistake in choosing her mate or had trouble committing, like her mother?
She flipped on the light and glanced at the ring. She didn't believe superstition. But moonlight streamed through her window illuminating the perfect creamy pearl, the tiny diamonds glittering like teardrops in the centers of the leaves. Oh, what the heck.
She stared at her bare left hand, the ringless finger. Maybe she would let the pearl serve as her engagement ring. What could it hurt? Smiling to herself, she lifted the ring and slipped it on her left hand, then crawled under the covers, and pulled them to her chin. Forget the superstitious family legend. Tonight she'd sleep like the dead.
Either that, or, if the legend came true, she'd dream about her future husband. Maybe they'd even be dreams of the hot honeymoon night to come. She closed her eyes—yep, she could already see Seth Broadhurst's face in her mind.
His smoky gaze and the hunger in his solemn, brooding look was almost painful in its intensity. He swept her back with his hands, not bothering to disguise the tormented longing in the almost animal-like sound that erupted from deep in his throat. Hannah whimpered and leaned into him, unable to suppress the erotic tremors his heated touch drew from her tender skin.
He was her destiny. The man she would marry, the man to whom she would give her heart, body and soul for eternity.
Long, tanned fingers tormented her as he gently glided his fingers along her cheekbone, traced the curve of her chin. He kissed her tenderly, almost reverently, his lips a loving reminder of the words they'd shared only hours earlier when they'd spoken their vows. With a sigh of contentment, he pulled her into his embrace, murmuring heartfelt words of love and need that would forever be imprinted in her brain. Hannah curled into his warmth and strength, savoring the way he clung to her as he carried her over the threshold to their home.