Read an Excerpt
I have to get to Haworth House. I have to get to Haworth House.
The words had formed an ongoing chant in Naomi's mind on the short ferry ride from the mainland and they'd become more insistent once the gray turreted tower had come into view. From the moment she'd seen it, she hadn't been able to tear her eyes away. In spite of the chill wind that had driven other passengers into the main cabin, she'd remained outside. Even now that the boat had docked and passengers were queuing up to disembark, she lingered at the railing.
Two weeks ago the life she'd built for herself in Boston had begun to unravel. First, she'd lost her fiancé and become a person of interest to the FBI. Then, two days ago, she'd been fired from her job at the law firm of King and Fairchild. The FBI thought she had something to do with the one-hundred-million-dollar-plus Ponzi scheme her ex-fiancé had been running during the six months they'd been engaged.
When she'd learned of their suspicions, she'd felt just like Humpty Dumpty after his fall—completely shattered. Every time she replayed the pivotal scenes of the past two weeks in her mind, she felt as if she were watching clips from a reality TV series. Everything seemed to have happened to someone else.
Only, they'd happened to Naomi Brightman.
But if she could just get to Haworth House, she'd figure out a way to put the pieces of her life back together. After all, Hattie Haworth had.
In the distance, a gull circled the tower, then soared into the brilliant blue sky. Little had she known a year ago when she and her sisters had toasted each other with champagne in Hattie's boudoir that her life was going to run such a close parallel to the original owner's. And Hattie had come here.
Naomi knew she was running away, something she'd never done before in her life. How could she? She'd been the oldest. It had been her job to provide a role model for her sisters. Some role model. In the space of half a month, her life had gone from girl success story to girl failure.
She simply had to get out of Boston. She needed a break from that damned prickling sensation at the back of her neck that told her she was being watched—24/7. By the FBI, the Boston police and perhaps by her ex, Michael Davenport, too. Everyone seemed convinced that her ex-fiancé was going to contact her.
The sudden sting of tears blurred her view of the tower. Blinking rapidly, she turned from the railing and bit down on her lower lip to keep it from trembling. No tears. She never cried. If it was the last thing she did, she was going to figure out how she could have been so wrong about Michael Davenport.
For a moment, she let her mind drift back to the night he'd ended things between them. He'd invited her to meet at the Four Seasons. That's where they'd first run in to each other six months ago. She'd been entertaining clients with her boss, Leo King, senior partner and her mentor at King and Fairchild.
Michael had claimed it was love at first sight for him. Had it been the same for her? She'd certainly thought so. Their romance had been a whirlwind one, and Michael was really good at the romantic side of things. There'd been flowers and little gifts, funny little trinkets that he'd given her to commemorate everything they'd done together. The Michael gifts, she'd called them. She'd kept them lined up on a shelf in her apartment.
He'd even given her one at their final meeting, a souvenir of Boston he'd picked up in the hotel gift shop. How many times had she gone over that last meeting, not only in her own mind, but also for the police and the FBI? Hundreds of times. Michael had been kind, telling her that he had to go away for a while on business. He'd lifted her hand, kissed her fingers and said he'd be in touch. All she'd read was sincerity in his eyes. And she'd believed him, just as she'd believed everything else he'd told her.
Naomi Brightman, girl super-chump.
And she wasn't sure she'd let go of him yet. In her hurry to leave her apartment without being tailed, she hadn't dared to pack a suitcase. But she'd put all of the Michael gifts in the big tote she always carried.
That made her a super-super chump.
"Is there something wrong, miss?"
Jerking around, Naomi found she had to glance up, way up, to see the face of the man who'd joined her at the railing. An instant tingle of familiarity moved through her. Why? He was tall, broad-shouldered and he wore aviator-style sunglasses that reflected back her own image. So it wasn't the eyes that made her think she might have met him before.
She quickly catalogued the dark hair escaping from beneath the hood of the sweatshirt, the strong line of his cheekbone and chin. But it was only as her gaze dropped to his mouth that the memory finally clicked.
Father Pierre Bouchard.
He reminded her of the young French priest who'd been her confidant at the boarding school where she'd been raised. No, more than her confidant, she admitted as a guilty thrill moved through her. When she'd been fourteen, she'd had a major crush on the young and handsome Father Bouchard. He'd dominated her fantasy life for over a year. And this man bore an uncanny resemblance to him.
"Do I know you?" she asked.
The lips curved a little. And Naomi felt the tingle of recognition grow even stronger. She also felt a blush rise to her cheeks.
"No. We've never met. You're sure you're all right?"
"I'm fine." She tilted her head to one side, not quite ready or willing to let it go. "You weren't ever a priest at Our Lady of Solace boarding school near Lyons?"
It was relief she was feeling, not disappointment. He wasn't Father Bouchard. How could he be? The voice was wrong. No accent. And what were the chances of Father Bouchard ending up at Belle Island? And why in the world would she want him to? She hadn't thought of the young priest in ages. But he'd slipped into her mind frequently during the past year—ever since she and her sisters had opened up Hattie Haworth's fantasy box.
Naomi could still picture the words on the parchment paper she'd pulled out: Your secret fantasy has always been to make love with a priest. Now you will experience all those forbidden pleasures.
Firmly, Naomi ignored the guilty thrill that moved through her again and pushed that memory aside. She had bigger problems to solve. Straightening her shoulders, she said, "Sorry. You reminded me of someone."
But the feeling of familiarity lingered even as she turned and followed the last of the passengers off the ferry. Once on the pier, she couldn't prevent herself from glancing back. For a moment, their gazes locked and held. It wasn't merely familiarity she felt this time. There was also a tug deep inside of her. For an instant, she wanted to go back and talk to the stranger again.
"Hey, sugar! Over here."
Naomi snapped her head in the direction of the sound and spotted Avery Cooper, Jillian's college roommate and the man they'd hired to run Haworth House. With his megawatt smile, he was a sight for sore eyes. She'd had a pretty smileless two weeks.
Tall and broad-shouldered with skin the color of milk chocolate, Avery was his usual impeccably dressed self in a pale gray shirt and black slacks. Gold glinted in the chain around his neck and the hoop on his left ear.
Blinking back a fresh sting of tears, Naomi broke into a run. The moment she reached him, he grabbed her off her feet and swung her around in a huge hug. "This one's from me."
Naomi blinked faster as he set her on her feet and then pulled her close again.
"This one's from your sisters." When he drew back the second time, he studied her more closely. "Love the Jackie O sunglasses and the scarf."
"I used them to sneak out the back door of my apartment." She raised her tote. "I didn't even pack a suitcase. Good thing Jillian insists that we keep some clothes at the hotel. I was so afraid someone would notice and follow me. Not that I don't have a perfect right to leave town. The FBI never told me that I had to stay in Boston. Besides, I just came here to Belle Island. I didn't try to leave the country or anything." She frowned. "I shouldn't feel so guilty about this."
"It's your good-girl syndrome taking over." Avery glanced over her shoulder. "Did anyone follow you?"
"I don't think so. For the first time in two weeks, I don't have that prickly feeling at the back of my neck."
"Good." Throwing an arm around her, Avery led her off the dock and along the boardwalk lining the beach area. "Reese and Jillian are bummed that they can't be here."
Truth told, Naomi was a bit relieved about that. After the hubbub of the past two weeks, she was looking forward to some alone time. Jillian was in Europe on a buying trip, and Reese was on a book tour for a cookbook she'd just authored.
"My job is to provide all the TLC they can't shower on you in person. And we're going to start with a late lunch."
"Hungry. I know. I know." His tone of voice all sympathy, Avery nevertheless propelled her into a small café on the pier that offered patio seating. "Humor me. Once we get to the hotel, I figure you'll lay low in the tower, and I'll be working."
He pulled a chair out for her at a table that offered a view of the water. At the far end of the island, on a jut of land, she could just see the tower of Haworth House. The tightness inside of her eased.
Avery sat down across from her. "I figure you lost your appetite just about two weeks ago when the BFJ gave you your walking papers."
"Big Fat Jerk. When I was getting over Lowell Bidderman, I didn't eat much of anything for nearly a month." He flexed his right arm. "Lost some good muscle tone."
Naomi narrowed her eyes. As far as she knew, Avery had been in a relationship with his current partner, Matt Trudell, since his college days. "Lowell Bidderman?"
"Junior high. I must have been fourteen. Lowell was my first love, and the reason I discovered I was gay at an early age. But I was afraid to say anything, even to Lowell. In junior high I felt I had to at least pass as a heterosexual. Do you remember your first crush?"
She did, and for a second, Naomi felt heat rise in her face again.
"You're blushing," Avery said. "That good, huh?"
She waved a hand. "It was a crush. All fantasy and no substance."
"The best kind." Avery grinned. "Tell me."
She'd never told anyone.
"Confession is good for the soul," Avery urged.
"It's silly. Not even Reese and Jillian know. But when I was fourteen, I had this super crush on a young priest who'd been assigned to our boarding school."
"Really?" Avery's eyes lit up. "Shades of The Thornbirds. The young innocent girl, the handsome caring priest, forbidden love…all set against the rugged landscape of Australia. Adored the novel. And Richard Chamberlain in the movie—be still my heart."
Naomi nodded, relaxing a bit when she saw that he wasn't shocked. "Exactly. I'd bought the book and smuggled it into the dorm. I read it by flashlight under the covers. I loved it."
"Forbidden treats are always so much more delicious. Tell me more about this priest."
Naomi spread her hands. "Father Bouchard was assigned to the school. He was young, probably in his early twenties. He was so kind, and he was such a good listener. I could talk to him about anything. I fell hopelessly in love. I used to write about him in my diary every day, and then I would dream about him every night."
And a year ago after she'd opened up that parchment in Hattie Haworth's boudoir and the message had been indelibly printed on her mind, she'd unearthed those diaries and reread every one.
"Details. Give me the details. Did you ever actually do it with the priest—in your dreams?"
Heat burned her cheeks again. She'd fantasized about doing a lot of things—not just in her dreams, but in her diaries, too. "What do you think? I'd read The Thornbirds."
"Atta girl. Did you ever tell him what you were feeling? "
Her eyes widened in shock. "No. Of course not. It was all fantasy. Pure fantasy."
"Just like me and Lowell. Except for the priest part."
She nodded. Except for the priest part. But the priest part had definitely been on the piece of parchment she'd pulled out of Hattie's hatbox. Now you will experience all of those forbidden pleasures…. And that was what had motivated her to reread the diaries she'd written at fourteen. Then she noticed the expression on Avery's face. "What?"
"Just thinking. You know, there's a priest, a Father Dane MacFarland, who's due to check in to Haworth House today."
"Avery, you can't be—"
He raised both hands, palms outward. "I'm not suggesting anything. Just providing information. Besides, he may be eighty and using a walker."
He accepted a menu from the waitress and flashed her a smile. "We'll have your best bottle of champagne and four lobster rolls."
"Champagne?" Naomi echoed.
He turned his smile on her. "Sisters' orders. My mission is to get you from mourning into celebratory mode ASAP. Before anyone finds you here."
"My sisters are being pushy."
Avery's brows shot up. "Turnabout's fair play. You've been taking care of them and pushing them for a long time."
Her lips curved.
Avery patted her hand. "That's better. They're annoyed that they can't talk to you in person. But since we're pretty sure your phone is being tapped, they want you to have as much privacy here as you can get."
"We were careful not to mention Haworth House when we talked. We have this code we've used since we were kids."
"Right." Avery raised both hands and wiggled his fingers. "They're being very cloak-and-daggerish with me, too, using pay phones and only contacting me on my private line at the hotel."
Naomi sighed. "It's not going to take a Sherlock Holmes to trace me here."
Avery shrugged. "Hey, if using codes and pay phones makes your sisters feel like they're helping, I say it's a good thing. And who knows? Might buy you twenty-four to forty-eight hours of privacy."
The waitress arrived and began the uncorking ritual. Once she'd filled the glasses, Avery raised his. "To the new Naomi Brightman."
Naomi blinked. "I'll be perfectly happy to get the old one back."
"I assumed that old Naomi's bridges are pretty much burned."