***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2016 Wendy Wax
Madeline Singer was fairly certain that the number of former suburban housewives who went on to have relationships with rock stars was too small to be statistically measurable. Which might be why she felt like Cinderella that May evening as William Hightower handed her out of his boat and onto the dock at the Lorelei Restaurant and Cabana Bar. If, that was, Cinderella had to color her hair, suck in her stomach, and wore a size too large to make America’s Next Top Model.
Perched on the edge of U.S. 1, the multitiered Islamorada landmark served good, basic food, poured potent drinks, and drew a mostly laid-back crowd for its nightly sunset celebrations. Tables surrounded a thatched hut of a stage and spilled out onto a half-moon of beach where you could eat with your bare feet buried in the sand and your eyes pinned to a truly spectacular sunset that played out over the Florida Bay.
Remnants of sunlight glinted off the black hair lightly threaded with gray that brushed William’s shoulders and cast his sharply angled face into shadow. “Should be interesting to see what kind of reaction we get to the new song,” he said as he retrieved his guitar case from the boat and slipped an arm around her shoulders.
“Everybody on Mermaid Point loved it,” she reminded him. “You got a standing ovation.”
“Yeah, well, let’s not forget Mermaid Point is surrounded by water. The residents are a captive audience.”
Maddie laughed but did not concede the point. She may not be a musician, but she knew a great song when she heard one. Will had written “Free Fall” in September not long after she and the rest of the Do Over crew had finished turning William Hightower’s private island into what was supposed to have been a high-end bed-and-breakfast but which he’d turned into a sober living facility. It was the first song he’d written after more than a decade unable to make music at all. The first he’d ever written without the benefit of drugs or alcohol.
“And not that I don’t appreciate it,” he added. “But I don’t think you’re completely objective.”
“True,” she said. “But I was a William Hightower fan way before I ever met you.” That had been back when he was building a name as a southern rocker, and Wasted Indian had been climbing to the top of the charts. “So let’s not go questioning my musical taste.”
His dark eyes creased with amusement. The spider’s web of lines at their corners attested to all he’d been through. He dropped a kiss on the top of her head, then headed for the stage.
Maddie leaned against a vacant post not far from the bar that afforded an unobstructed view over the already packed tables that fanned out from the stage. A waitress handed her a glass of Pinot Noir, which she accepted gladly. She sipped it as Will and the musicians he’d cobbled together set up. Her eyes scanned the stage, the crowd, and the sun that hung in midair poised for its swan dive into the bay. She had only one more day with Will before she’d drive up to Bella Flora, the house that she, Nicole Grant, and Avery Lawford had nursed back to life and which had now become home. There they’d have to figure out what, if anything, they could do about the show they’d created, lost control of, and then quit so publicly.
Conversation ceased as William stepped up to the microphone. All eyes, including hers, fastened on the man who had once hung in poster form on her bedroom wall. William Hightower might be sixty-two, but he’d come out of rehab a little over a year ago for what he’d vowed would be the last time, looking hot as hell.
With a salt breeze and a pinkening sky for background, Will laid out his losses with a pain-roughened voice. He’d lost his younger brother and the woman who’d borne his son to drugs and excess. The pain had only mounted as he disappeared into every vial and bottle he could find in an attempt to hide from the hurt. Tonight he hid nothing, singing with his eyes closed, his fingers lithe on his guitar strings, his body taut with emotion. The crowd’s response was equally visceral. When he finished, Maddie’s were not the only cheeks wet with tears. She’d expected that. What she hadn’t anticipated was the naked hunger that shone in the eyes of his female fans.
He sent her a smile over the heads of the women who mobbed him after the set, and she managed to smile back even as she struggled to tamp down her jealousy and uncertainty.
She’d learned over the last months to stop apologizing for her body or even trying to hide it from him, though the stomach sucking was a reflex with a mind of its own. He insisted he wasn’t comparing her to anyone; that she, a fifty-one-year-old mother of two and grandmother of one, turned him on just the way she was.
But if Will’s mind didn’t stray to all the women who’d come before her or to the tsunami of female adoration that was currently washing over him, Maddie’s did. A lifetime spent as a suburban housewife prepared a woman for a lot of things. A relationship with a man like William Hightower wasn’t one of them.
“You were fabulous,” she said on the boat ride back to Mermaid Point. “Could you feel how the audience reacted to ‘Free Fall’? God, they loved it. They were hanging on every word.”
“Yeah.” Steering with his right hand, he pulled her onto his lap with his left. “I didn’t expect to get the same high, you know, performing straight. But it’s a definite rush. Kind of like a shot of adrenaline to the heart.”
His body was hard and warm against hers. She could practically feel that adrenaline coursing through him. When they reached the house, Will emptied his pockets onto the bedroom dresser and began to shuck his clothes.
“I’m way too wired to go to bed,” he said pulling on swim trunks. “Want to come for a swim?”
She’d become used to taking off her clothes in front of him, had been unable to argue his unfailingly positive physical reaction to her, but his reception tonight had proved that while she might have tamped down her insecurities, she hadn’t shed them completely.
“I think I’ll stay here and start getting my things together.” Unable to meet his eyes, she glanced at the items he’d pulled from his pockets. There were two cocktail napkins with names and phone numbers, one of them written in bright red lipstick. A crumbled photo of . . . “Is that a naked woman?” She moved toward the dresser for a closer look. “I didn’t know anyone owned a Polaroid camera any more.”
“Hmmm?” Will asked as he reached for a towel.
“This.” She held the photo up by one corner. “This naked photo.”
He turned to look at the photo Maddie held between her fingertips. He snorted. “Given who I think shoved that in my pocket, I doubt it’s remotely recent.”
“Someone shoved a naked photo of herself in your pocket,” she repeated dully.
“And this is . . . ?” She scooped up a wisp of red lace, dropping it when she realized what it was. “A thong.” She could hear the note of disbelief in her voice.
“Seems to be.” Will shrugged and smiled. “You sure you don’t want to come for a swim? It’s past resident curfew. We’d have the pool and the hot tub to ourselves.” He shot her a wink.
“I’m looking at a thong that a complete stranger placed in your pocket.” A thong that she doubted would make it over one of her thighs. “And all you’re thinking about is going for a swim. With me.”
“Absolutely.” He leaned down and brushed his lips across hers. “What else should I be thinking about?” He asked this as if every female at the Lorelei that night hadn’t spent the evening mentally undressing him and would gladly swim naked to Mermaid Point, like some Sexual Seal Team Six, if invited.
Maddie hadn’t dated in close to thirty years and she’d never dated a rock star, but she was pretty certain that freaking out over groupies or calling attention to all the women William could have sex with instead of her was not a good idea. She shrugged as casually as she could. “I don’t know. I’ve never been in this situation before.” She looked at but did not touch the thong.
“It’s nothing,” he said tucking the towel under one arm. He hadn’t bothered to put on a shirt and she couldn’t help watching the play of muscle as he shrugged again. “It just goes with the territory. You walk up on a stage and . . . seriously, Maddie, there’s no accounting for what some people will do or assume.”
His eyes held hers, but he didn’t argue the point. “I’m just going to do a few laps. I’ll be back in a bit.”
Maddie knew him well enough to know that a few laps could be anywhere from fifty to infinity. Swimming had been his go-to stress reliever during and after rehab, and he typically swam twice a day out of habit, she thought, as much as necessity. She stood out on the balcony and watched him slip into the pool; it and the ocean beyond glimmered in the moonlight. Only a few years ago she’d dreamt of empty nesting only to have that nest filled with an aging mother-in-law, an unexpectedly pregnant daughter, and an unemployed husband who’d lost everything, including his job, to Malcolm Dyer’s Ponzi scheme. Two desperate years of hanging on and staying afloat had followed. Now here she stood on the bedroom balcony of William Hightower’s private island, an outcome she’d never imagined in her wildest dreams.
Inside she began to empty her drawers, carefully avoiding the items that still littered Will’s dresser. Then she got undressed, slid into bed, and lay listening to the rhythmic splash of his flutter kick. Somewhere in the middle of lap thirty-five she finally fell asleep.
Avery Lawford pushed a stray curl off her forehead. Eyes half closed she stumbled toward the kitchen relying on her nose to lead her toward the all-important coffeepot.
“Here you go.” A mug of coffee, warm and wondrous, was placed in her hands.
She breathed in its dark, delicious aroma, then took a first sip. Her eyes opened another notch as she moaned with pleasure. “You are a fine human being.”
“And a careful one,” Chase Hardin said as she took another sip. “I know how to read warning labels.” His finger skimmed across the T-shirt she’d slept in. A gift from Kyra Singer, who knew her well, and that read, I Drink Coffee for Your Protection.
She could feel his eyes on her as she took another sip. She sighed with pleasure as the liquid caffeine began to rouse and warm her.
“Okay, guys, I think it’s safe to go about your business now,” Chase said.
A utensil clattered against a hard surface. The refrigerator door opened. After an especially heavenly sip she opened her eyes all the way and took in the kitchen. Which looked as if a hurricane had swept through it. Chase’s father Jeff sat at the kitchen table, his walker beside him, the morning paper folded to the sports page. Chase’s son Josh was in the process of wolfing down a bowl of cereal while his brother Jason helped himself to eggs from a pan on the stove.
Muzzy with sleep Avery blinked away a vision of Deirdre Morgan, the mother who’d abandoned her for decades and then reappeared without warning, standing at that very stove demonstrating her newly acquired culinary skills.
“I’m going to drop the guys at school, then take Dad to his doctor’s appointment. If he’s got the energy I’ll take him to the job site with me.” Chase now ran what had once been their fathers’ construction business. Avery had been working with him since she’d come back from Mermaid Point. Where the mother she’d only just forgiven for abandoning her had crumpled at her feet and died of a brain aneurysm. Avery looked down into the swirl of creamed coffee, blinking away tears as she tried to dislodge the image. Her hand shook as she raised the cup to her lips.
“If the day ever comes that I’d rather sit at home like an old fart than visit one of our construction sites, I’ll let you know,” Jeff snapped.
Chase nodded to his father but made no comment. Pulling a crumpled bakery bag from the back of a cabinet, he carried it to the table. “I managed to save you exactly one glazed donut,” he said as he placed the bag in front of Avery. “Next time you’re going to have to hide them better.”
She extracted the donut from the bag and pinched off a bite knowing as she began to chew the sugary confection that if Deirdre were there, she’d be lobbying for Avery to trade the donut for a fat-free yogurt.
“Have you guys got your lunches packed?” Chase asked. He was running full throttle while she was still trying to get up to speed.
Mouths full, both boys grunted in the affirmative.
“Is there anything I’m supposed to sign, deliver, or do that I don’t already know about?” Chase, who had a lot of years as a single father under his belt, prodded.
They shook their heads.
“Are you sure?”
There were two identical eye rolls. The chewing didn’t stop.
“What do you have going on today?” Chase asked Avery.
“Hmmm?” She downed the last of her coffee, managed another bite of the donut, and blinked up at him. “I’m going to finish those sketches for the O’Reilly addition. And I had some ideas for the spec home on Davis Island.” She enjoyed being a part of the company their fathers had built. Being busy helped, but it hadn’t eliminated the aching sense of loss she still felt for the mother she’d lived so much of her life without. Nor did it erase her worry over whether Do Over could be salvaged. And if they did salvage the show? What would it be without Deirdre, who’d put her personal stamp on every property they’d touched?
“Do you have time to help me pick up the boys’ Explorer from the repair shop later?”
“Um, sure.” She took another sip of coffee, willing the caffeine into her bloodstream, and her thoughts back to the present. “I’m wide open today. Tomorrow I’m going to Bella Flora—Maddie and Nikki should be there in time for dinner. I thought I’d stay there at least through the weekend. We’ve got to figure out our next moves.” She swallowed. Deirdre’s absence would be even more palpable when they were all under one roof again. Especially Bella Flora’s.
“Are you okay?” Chase asked quietly as he took her empty cup and carried it to the coffeepot to refill it.
“Yes,” she said automatically. “Thanks. I . . .” Her voice trailed off as she accepted the coffee, cupping the warm mug between both hands.
She was once again blinking back tears as the boys put their empty bowls in the sink. Chase took his father’s plate, added it to the stack, and reached to open the dishwasher.
Avery waved him away. “Go ahead. You’ll be late. I can load the dishwasher.”
“Thanks,” he said pecking her on the cheek. “I’ll text you when the Explorer is ready.”
At her nod he shooed the boys out the door, then hovered at his father’s side as Jeff maneuvered the walker through the kitchen. A few minutes later the garage door rumbled shut.
She was sorry to see them go. Sorrier still when the quiet that she would have once treasured, descended. Alone was not good. Alone in the silence was even worse.
“Get over yourself,” she muttered as she stood and carried her coffee cup to the sink. As she loaded the dishwasher and tidied the kitchen she began a mental to-do list. She continued that list as she showered, stuffing her mind with concrete tasks to be completed. After dressing quickly, she fled the house. Her memories of the mother so recently regained, then lost, came with her.
Nicole Grant knew it was pointless to be pissed off at The Millionaire Matchmaker. She also knew she should not be watching it. And yet here she was doing exactly that. Again.
Stifling a curse, she raised the television remote and snapped off the program, incensed that the woman had so successfully commercialized and sensationalized what Nicole had once considered a delicate and highly personal service.
Grumbling, she retrieved a handful of nuts from the bowl on the coffee table and popped them in her mouth. As the founder of Heart Inc., Nicole had found spouses with specific pedigrees, personality, and even genetic traits for a long and notable list of clients to whom discretion was key and a million dollars didn’t even qualify as pocket change. And she had done it without exposing them to public humiliation, using the f-bomb as an adjective, or scolding/coaching them on their pickup lines and appearance in front of a television audience.
The Millionaire Matchmaker didn’t even belong on the same planet as Nicole’s Heart Inc. once had.
Once. She downed another handful of nuts.
Once, Nikki had been famous for the wealth and status of her clientele, the charm with which she handled them, the plush offices that she’d maintained on both coasts, the famous and wealthy elbows she’d quietly rubbed. She’d been considered the A-list matchmaker and dating guru, had written a bestselling book of advice, had been the expert in her field—quoted in national publications and on network programs.
That had been before she, and a troubling number of her clients, had lost everything in Malcolm Dyer’s three-hundred-million-dollar Ponzi scheme. Before the world discovered that Malcolm Dyer was not just her financial advisor but also her younger brother. Whom she’d practically raised and foolishly loved and trusted.
Not even helping the FBI put him in jail had cleansed her of the taint of that relationship.
“You really need to stop binge watching that show.” Joe Giraldi handed her a glass of Chianti and raised his own in salute.
“I know.” She’d been knocked down often in her life but never had this much trouble getting back up. Somehow her willpower and resolve, which had seen her through the loss of her business, her savings, and her reputation, had now deserted her. “I just can’t seem to help myself,” she admitted as he sat down beside her. “I don’t suppose you have any family connections that might like to put out a hit on her?”
A dark eyebrow quirked upward in amusement. “Well, my Nonna Sofia has been willing to fling a curse now and then. But a hit? How many seasons of The Sopranos did you watch while I was out of town?” As a special agent in the FBI’s financial crimes unit, Joe traveled often. It was his hunt for her brother that had brought him into her life.
She sighed. For someone who’d worked her way out of poverty to the top of her field, she now spent an embarrassing amount of time on Joe’s couch with a television remote in her hand.
She took a sip of the wine. In her experience alcohol could smooth out the occasional bump, but it was pretty much never the answer. Still she hoped it would calm the bubble of anxiety that now seemed to perpetually simmer inside her.
“Dinner’s ready. It’s gorgeous outside. Are you up for eating on the patio?”
“I’d go a lot farther than the patio for your manicotti,” she said as her stomach, which was clearly unsatisfied with the junk she’d been filling it with, rumbled with hunger.
She followed him out the open slider to the table that overlooked the pool, Biscayne Bay, and a slice of South Beach now twinkling in the distance. She smiled her thanks as he pulled out a chair for her, then watched him sit across from her. When he’d first started dogging her on the beach at Bella Flora during his hunt for her brother, she’d had no idea that his stern good looks hid a warm and generous heart. Joe Giraldi was full of surprises, most of them good.
She took another sip of her wine hoping it would calm her.
“Are you sure you’re feeling okay?” he asked.
Although he read faces for a living, Joe didn’t call her on the lie. And he was far too much a gentleman to bring up her appalling lack of direction since Do Over had come to such a horrible end.
She still ran daily and continued to hunt down and eradicate the gray hairs that tried to infiltrate her auburn hair, but she could no longer afford the physical “tweaks” that had once seemed so important. Most of her vintage designer wardrobe had been sold. The only remaining luxury from her previous life was the classic Jag, the first expensive thing she’d bought for herself. They’d have to pry the keys out of her cold, dead fingers.
The breeze was soft and warm. The blue sky had begun to pale. She drew in a deep breath of salt-tinged air and instructed herself to pay attention and enjoy the moment. Tomorrow she’d make the four-and-a-half-hour drive to Bella Flora midway up the west coast of Florida. There she, Maddie, Avery, and Kyra would deal with their new reality.
“How long do you think you’ll stay in Pass-a-Grille?” Joe asked, seemingly reading the turn her thoughts had taken.
“I don’t know. I guess until we figure out what, if anything, we’re going to do about Do Over.” They’d all been licking their wounds to varying degrees since September. It was now the beginning of May, time to either move forward together or separate to follow their own paths. Maddie and Avery had become close friends, the first real friends Nikki had ever had. Would that friendship survive if they let go of the show? And what exactly would she do for a living if that happened?
“You know you don’t have to do anything until you’re ready,” Joe said quietly, once again seeming to tap into her thoughts. “You can just stay here and ‘be.’”
“Be what?” she asked.
“Be with me. Relax. I don’t know. Clearly, watching and starring on reality TV hasn’t made you happy. I don’t imagine you’d be any happier eating bonbons and watching soap operas?”
“You mean as opposed to living one?” she asked.
White teeth flashed. “Seriously, Nikki. You’ve got money from your portion of the sale of Bella Flora if you insist on continuing to pay your own way. Or you can let me take care of things while you write your story and set the record straight before your brother has a chance to put his version out there. Maybe that would help you move on. So that we can get married.”
She turned her attention to the Caesar salad he’d prepared. Malcolm had petitioned for the right to accept a hefty advance for his story, money he claimed would go to the investors he’d bilked. A move possibly meant to impress a parole board, though she doubted that money would ever make it to his victims.
She chewed carefully, aware of Joe’s eyes on her. He was right about her being stuck. But the idea of sitting back and letting Joe or anyone else take care of her, well, it would never work. And as for marriage, she loved him too much to deprive him of what he deserved—a far less jaded woman whose eggs had not yet expired and who could give him the children he wanted.
She looked up into Joe’s intelligent brown eyes and read the sincerity in them. She’d hit the relationship jackpot and could not in all conscience cash in her chips.
She set her fork down. “I’ve been married twice. And I sucked at it.”
“It’s not a skill you develop,” he said. “I’m pretty sure it’s a matter of choosing the right person.”
“Said the man who’s never been married,” she said wryly.
“True. But I know what marriage can be.” Joe said this with the quiet assurance of someone whose parents and grandparents had been together for over half a century each. “I know who and what I want.”
Somehow he’d decided she was that person. A fact that both amazed and frightened her. FBI agents were trained not to take no for an answer.
“Ready for the main course?” he asked.
“Yes, but I can . . .”
“No, I’ve got it.”
She took another long sip of Chianti as he disappeared into the house. This was their last night together for a while. This was not the time to hash out their differences or debate their feelings. This was a night to be enjoyed.
When he returned she ate every bite of the meal he’d prepared, and turned the conversation with a deft and intentionally lighter hand. When they’d finished and he drew her up from the table and pulled her into his arms, she gave herself to him without reservation. Deirdre Morgan had been full of life one minute and dead the next. Nicole was determined to make the most of this moment. To create new memories that would never be forgotten when their relationship came to its inevitable end.
She only hoped she’d have the strength to let him go when the time came.