Mariah Stewart is the New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of thirty-one novels and three novellas and has been featured in The Wall Street Journal. She is a RITA finalist in romantic suspense and the recipient of the Award of Excellence for contemporary romance, a RIO Award for excellence in women's fiction, and a Reviewers Choice Award from Romantic Times Magazine. A three-time winner of the Golden Leaf Award presented by the New Jersey Romance Writers, Stewart was recently awarded their Lifetime Achievement Award
A SUBTLE BREEZE WHISPERED THROUGH THE STAND OF bamboo that edged the parking lot, setting the long leafy fingers to stir softly against the side of the dark blue van that was parked discretely in the farthest corner. The last traces of dusk’s pale gold and purple sky were visible through the windshield, and it would be but minutes more until the sun would be completely swallowed by the far horizon. The man inside the van checked his watch again and sighed. Eight-thirty. He leaned over to check his camera, set steadily upon the tripod. His client had wanted both still photos and video. Jeremy Noble, of Noble and Dawson Investigations, would give the good senator what he paid for.
A small, older model foreign car slowed at the corner, then made an easy right into the lot and drove straight to the first row before stopping. The car sat at idle for a long minute or so before the engine was turned off and a door opened. A dark-haired young man got out and looked up and down the rows of cars. Apparently not finding what he was looking for, he patiently leaned back against his car, his hands in his pockets.
With the aid of small but powerful binoculars, Jeremy focused on the license plate. Satisfied that this was one of the two parties for whom he was being paid to watch, he took a few cursory shots with the Nikon of the young man leaning against the car. He then turned his attention to the video camera, focusing the lens on the small black car with the Georgetown University sticker on the back window.
Through the eye of the video camera, the investigator could see that the man was even younger than he’d initially supposed, maybe twenty-two or twenty-three. He was handsome, dark-haired, with good clean features. The senator’s daughter had chosen a fine-looking man to lose her heart to. It was a shame that her father was intent on making sure that the relationship never went any further.
“I appreciate that you’ve agreed to meet me on such short notice, Mr. Noble.” The senator had offered a hand as he ushered Jeremy into the private study of the palatial Georgetown home earlier that day. “One of my colleagues has highly recommended your services.”
Jeremy had not confirmed the identity of his other client—he would never acknowledge for whom he did or did not work—but they both knew the senator’s friend—a congressman—was involved in a horrendous custody battle with an ex-wife who, along with her current boyfriend, had kidnapped the congressman’s only child and had attempted to take the boy out of the country. Only quick thinking and quicker action on the part of both Jeremy and his partner had prevented the child from disappearing from his father’s life. Thanks to Noble and Dawson, the boy was now back with his father where, it was hoped, he would remain.
“We have a bit of a domestic matter that my wife and I feel needs to be attended to immediately,” the senator confided, offering Jeremy a chair as he himself sat in a dark green leather wingback. “For the past several years, our daughter has been involved with a young man whom we feel is totally unsuitable. You see, we have long held the hope that she would marry into the diplomatic circle. Why, the son of the ambassador from Greece is head over heels for her. Good boy, good family.”
The senator’s cigar punctuated the air.
“Now, she tells me that she’s not seeing this other boy anymore—he’s a teacher. Can you imagine a child of mine living on a teacher’s salary? Her mother and I certainly cannot. Anyway, she tells us that that relationship is over. Her mother’s buying her story, but I’m not. I have it on good authority that she’s been secretly meeting him”—the senator handed Jeremy a piece of paper—“at this address. The boy’s license plate number is there, too, and the number of my cell phone. I want photographs. I want videos. I want her to see that she cannot lie to me, that there’s no place she can sneak off to where I cannot find her.”
Jeremy took the slip of paper, glanced at it before tucking it into his pocket.
“I want you to call me when the boy arrives. And I want to know when my daughter gets there.”
“Why don’t you just wait for her yourself?”
“I’m expected to attend a reception at the British Embassy. Besides, a man like me—a United States senator!—can’t very well be lurking about in vacant lots hoping to catch his twenty-one-year-old daughter in a lie. You’ll call me at the number on the card. I’ll take it from there.”
The senator stood to announce that the meeting was over.
“We love our daughter very much, Mr. Noble. We only want what’s best for her. We strongly believe that what’s best for her is not to marry a teacher and spend her life in the backwoods of Kentucky. That’s not the future we had envisioned for her. She’s our only child. I’m sure you understand.”
An uneasy feeling had crept over Jeremy then and had stayed with him for the rest of the day. He always hated jobs that involved the manipulation of someone else’s life. But the senator was prominent and powerful, and could be a good ally in the suburban Washington marketplace, where surveillance and intrigue services were frequently sought and handsomely paid for.
Well, the job would be over soon enough.
Jeremy watched the little BMW convertible zip into the parking lot and cruise for a place to park. The exuberant driver hopped out and all but danced across the macadam to her waiting lover. She spun into his arms, settled momentarily for a long, deep kiss, then danced back toward the BMW, pulling the dark-haired young man with her. Jeremy leaned into the video cam and brought them into sharp focus.
The senator’s daughter was not a natural beauty—her features were just slightly too small, her eyes just slightly too far apart—but clearly, her young man was totally captivated. Adoration was written all over his face.
Jeremy watched as they walked to the back of her car, watched as the young man turned her to him and touched her face gently, watched as the young woman looked up at him with eyes filled with love and lifted a hand to smooth his hair back tenderly, as if to reassure. He said something to her that caused her face to crinkle with soft laughter, her eyes glowing and alive with promise and trust.
Filled with a hot, sudden shot of envy, Jeremy tried to remember when a woman had last looked at him with such loving eyes.
It had been, he conceded, a very, very long time.
Something in Jeremy’s gut wrenched as he recalled that his instructions included calling the senator as soon as the young man had arrived. One hand reached for the cell phone, the other into his shirt pocket for the scrap of folded paper containing the number. He looked back at the couple in the parking lot, so filled with each other, so unaware that their happiness was one brief phone call from coming to an end.
The young woman reached into the trunk and pulled out a dark green gym bag, which she swung over her shoulder. Slamming the trunk, she turned again, and in the light of the nearby lamppost, Jeremy could see her dreams, aglow with promise, reflected in her face.
They’re running away, Jeremy realized as she locked the car and took the young man’s hand.
The small, slim phone lay heavy in his own.
He suddenly recalled another early summer night when the face of another young woman had been caught in lamplight, just so. He’d been a junior at Princeton that year, and had had the world by the tail. He and his date for that weekend had strolled off campus to Nassau Street, down Witherspoon to a coffee shop that was open late and served great sandwiches. On their way back to campus, they had stopped beneath a street lamp and kissed. From behind them had come a sigh, and, startled, they had broken apart. An elderly man, dapperly dressed and leaning on a cane, apologized for having frightened them.
“I’m so sorry,” he’d said softly to Jeremy, “but you’re so young, and she’s so beautiful. Hold fast to nights like this, son . . . they pass so quickly. Hold fast to it all . . .”
The old man had stepped closer and kissed Jeremy’s date, right at the corner of her pretty young mouth, then stepped away, nodded to them both, and disappeared back into the night.
It had been years since he’d thought of it—or the young woman, whose name and face had been lost to time—but the words came back to Jeremy now.
“Hold fast to it all . . . .”
Jeremy watched the young lovers walk across the parking lot, and he put the phone down. He pulled the film from the Nikon, exposing it, then packed up the video cam.
“Good luck, kids,” he said quietly as the small foreign car sped from the parking lot and disappeared into the night.
He took the long way back to his townhouse. He pulled up slowly in front of his garage, parked the car, and contemplated what he’d done. Jeremy had never scuttled an investigation before, never given less than his best on any job, regardless of the difficulty. And this client would be a particularly unhappy man. Well, it was too late to change his mind now. He’d made his decision back in the parking lot, and now he’d have to play it out. The senator would have an easy enough time finding someone else to wreck his daughter’s life. But at least it wouldn’t have been Jeremy’s call that had taken the sparkle from those young eyes.
Jeremy glanced at his watch, then picked up his cell phone and dialed the number he’d been given.
“Senator. Jeremy Noble. I’m afraid I’ve had a touch of bad luck . . . my car broke down on 95 outside of College Park. I’m afraid I won’t be able to keep that appointment after all . . .”
Jeremy unlocked the front door, chuckling as he pictured the distinguished statesman whispering angry curses into the tiny cell phone while in the midst of an important gathering in the oh-so-very-elegant British Embassy.
Whistling, Jeremy punched the message button on the answering machine as he went into the kitchen and turned on the light. Half listening to the messages, he opened the refrigerator door and hunted for something that hadn’t expired or grown some life form of its own. Unsuccessful, he checked the freezer. Nothing there either. He poked around in a cupboard until he found a can of soup. That would have to do.
The messages were still running, but so far he’d heard nothing important enough to interfere with his quest for food.
It occurred to him then that he hadn’t had a meal at home or a day off in over five weeks. While there was definitely something to be said for steady work, tonight’s little episode had reminded him that there were other, more important things in life. He dumped the congealed soup into a pan, then added a little water. It looked disgusting.
Nothing at all like that cream of she-crab soup he’d had at the Bishop’s Inn on the Maryland coast back in June. Pale as moonlight, with chunks of crab and delicate traces of herbs. Jeremy’s mouth watered just to think of it.
And not just the soup, his tired mind poked at him playfully, the chef was pretty mouthwatering, too . . .
Ah, yes, Jody.
Jeremy set the pan of soup on the burner and turned the flame on low.
Jody Beckett. Jody with the light brown hair and the long, lanky body and the wizard’s touch in the kitchen.
He sat on one of the hard kitchen chairs, pulled another out from under the table and propped his legs up on it, thinking back to the days he had spent at the Bishop’s Inn in the beginning of June. He’d been working on a big case that involved Laura Bishop, the owner of the inn, and when it had concluded, she’d invited him to stay on for a few days as a guest, a little bonus for his part in bringing the matter to a successful conclusion. Because of his work schedule, he’d been able to spend only two days and nights there, but every minute had been a treasure. Sun, sand, fishing, great conversation with the inn’s other lively guests, incredible food.
If he closed his eyes, he could see her. Clear skin, eyes the color of pale amber, a pert nose that wrinkled when she laughed, a sweet mouth that curved up on one side. Great legs, too. Long and shapely . . .
It wasn’t, he acknowledged, the first time he’d seen that face—or those legs—in his mind’s eye. More than once over the past few weeks, something of Jody had seemed to be floating around inside his head, like a snippet of a song he’d yet to learn all the words to.
Hold fast to it all . . .
Perhaps it was time to take Laura up on her offer to spend a week at the inn.
Jeremy pulled his briefcase across the table and opened it, searching for his appointment book. Things looked pretty tight, he grimaced, trying to figure out which jobs he could switch around or postpone, and which he could pass off to his partner.
If he worked like a demon this week, he might be able to make it by the last week of July.
If his partner pitched in, he could make it in less.
He reached for the phone, wondering just what payment his partner, T. J. Dawson, would extract in return. Whatever it was, it would be worth it for a week at the Bishop’s Inn. Long enough, he rationalized. There was something about Jody that had been circling around in the back of his mind like a lazy hawk on a summer morning. Maybe it was time to find out if it was more than just her cooking that was keeping her there.
Jody Beckett leaned against the white porcelain sink that was shaped like a big scallop shell, hoping to bring her face as close as humanly possible to the mirror that hung behind it. Narrowing her eyes, she studied the skin around them, searching for some outward sign that in one short day—just twenty-four more hours—she would turn thirty.
The big three-oh.
Gray hairs and sagging and wrinkles, oh my.
She squinted a little more, wondering if that right there was the start of crow’s feet. Crow’s foot, she corrected herself, since there appeared to be only one. Turning her face this way and that, she realized that what she had first thought to be a line was merely shadow, the play of early morning light from a nearby window. Jody sighed deeply. She just wasn’t ready to be old when it had been years since she had felt really young.
Jody brushed back her hair—summer streaked and just a shade or two from being mousy—and caught it in a yellow scrunchie. A glance at the clock assured her that she needn’t hurry, since it wasn’t likely that anyone else would be awake just yet, but hurry she did. She liked the tranquil lull that lay about the Bishop’s Inn—her home and place of employment for the past three years—at the earliest hours of the day. Pulling on a pair of faded denim shorts and a tee-shirt the color of cornflowers, she slipped her feet into Adidas sandals and tucked the key to her suite of rooms into a pocket. Closing the door behind her, she eased down two flights of steps, the second of which widened into a sweeping curve to the lobby. Once downstairs, she paused and cocked her head, listening, but hearing no telltale sounds of running water or doors closing or feet moving on thick carpet.
Good. She loved having the inn to herself, if only for a little while.
Once in the kitchen, Jody started the coffee—she’d use the big pot today, since they were booked almost to capacity—and turned her thoughts to the breakfasts she would prepare. As the inn’s chef and self-proclaimed kitchen queen, she was responsible for working with the owner, Laura Bishop, to plan menus and cook the meals as well. Although Laura employed extra help in the summers and on peak weekends throughout the year, Jody preferred to do most of the work herself. She took great pride in all of her work, but particularly her exceptional regional cooking, which reflected Maryland’s history and bounty. There were those who swore her cream of she-crab soup had been devised through magic alone, and others who made trips to the inn several times throughout the season in search of her crab cakes and her beach plum cobbler. Her Lady Baltimore cake had become somewhat of a legend. Over the past eighteen months, more and more happy couples had come to Bishop’s Cove to tie the knot there in the lovely gardens of the historic inn, drawn, many claimed, as much by Jody’s catering as by the beautiful, romantic location by the sea.
Humming happily, Jody glanced over the worksheet she had prepared for herself the night before. There would be sixteen at breakfast this morning. The Walkers’ (the Rose Room) and their friends, the Calhouns’ (the Chinese Room), had booked a charter boat for the morning and would be stopping by for a quick cup of coffee only, since the day trip provided a light breakfast on the bay. Jody reached into an overhead cupboard and pulled out a small silver thermos. Gordon Chandler, a long-term guest who was attempting to salvage cargo from a sunken ship off the coast of Bishop’s Cove, would be going out early, and he always appreciated the extra cup of coffee that Jody sent with him. He was planning on diving that morning with his crew, she’d heard him mention the night before, and while Jody hummed, she tried to imagine what it would be like to dive into the dark, unseen depths of the ocean, to encounter . . . who knew what?
She shivered slightly. There had been a time, long ago, when she had been more adventurous, when she would have jumped at the opportunity to dive, to explore a sunken ship and seek its treasures. The passage of time and a total devotion to her job had seemed to banish the thoughts of such daring pursuits from her life’s itinerary.
Not completely, and maybe not forever, she told herself as she removed a stainless steel bowl of pale brown eggs from the refrigerator and set it on the counter next to a square tray stacked with bundles of spring-green asparagus. One week from now, I will be stretched out on a blanket on the beach at Ocean Point, New Jersey. Of course, that little trip couldn’t compare with the thrill of deep sea diving, but still, it would be a week away from the same old, same old.
She’d planned the trip at the urging of an old high school friend, Natalie Evans, one of the crew with whom Jody had spent many a blissful summer afternoon lying on the beach, greased and oiled and ready to tan. Natalie, who had turned thirty in May, had thought it would be fun to plan a reunion of sorts on their old beach, and had assured Jody that she’d line up the old crowd and they’d spend a long, happy weekend reliving old times. No spouses, no kids, just a bunch of thirty-year-olds who had spent much of their teen years together. Jody smiled just thinking about seeing everyone again. It had been so long . . .
Of course, it would have been even more fun if she’d been able to rent the house her family used to stay in every summer, but a room in that brand-new motel right there on the beach would be fine, the perfect choice for her first trip back in fourteen years. And there would be other advantages to staying in a motel, she rationalized. She wouldn’t have to clean or cook. And as much as she loved cooking, she was taking this long-awaited vacation to get as far away from her real life as she could.
When her father’s job transfer to Nebraska midway through her junior year of high school took her from the central New Jersey home where she’d grown up, Jody had been certain that the best years of her life were behind her. Finding it difficult to make friends so late in the year, she found herself spending more and more time at home with her mother and her grandmother, a recent widow, who had come for an extended stay with her only daughter. Grandmother Jenny Rose, a true daughter of the South, was an exceptional cook, and was more than happy to teach her granddaughter everything she knew. By the time she graduated from high school the following June, Jody had discovered that she had more than just a casual knack for cooking.
Scrapping her plans for an accounting degree, Jody enrolled in The Restaurant School in Philadelphia, and it was soon clear that she had made the right choice. She stayed in Philadelphia and went to work with a world-class chef, at first as a low-level assistant, and later, having learned all from him that she could, moved on to what would be her last job in the city. Robert Orloff, the owner of the trendy new restaurant, Flora, took Jody under his wing, where she had remained for several years.
In time, Jody had had enough of the cold, icy Pennsylvania winters. She’d thought to drive south, maybe to Savannah or to Atlanta. Someplace warm. Besides, she’d grown to love Southern cooking, having learned so much from first her grandmother, then from Robert, who’d grown up in the area of Virginia that sat at the very end of the Delmarva peninsula. What would be more natural than a move south? Almost twenty-seven that year, Jody packed up her belongings and her résumé, the glowing recommendations to several premier chefs provided by Robert, and the fat file of recipes she had developed over the years, and set out to find adventure—or, at the very least, a place to hang her hat and her pots.
A serious summer storm had forced Jody to seek shelter just as she crossed from Delaware into Maryland, and the shelter she found was the Bishop’s Inn. And the rest, as they say, is history. When the inn’s cook was unable to make it through the storm to get to work, Jody offered to cook dinner for the small crowd of fellow travelers who were similarly stranded. Laura Bishop had been so impressed with Jody’s creativity on such short notice that she had offered Jody a job that very night. When she threw in a suite of rooms on the third floor of the lovely old inn, Jody jumped at it. She had always loved the beach, and the chance to live year-round so close to the ocean had appealed to her. Not that she had much time to spend lounging on the sand these days, but at least she could carve out an occasional afternoon run or early evening stroll along the water’s edge.
And come this time tomorrow, I will be on my way to my all-time favorite beach, where I will spend a glorious week. She grinned as she poured cream into a spatterware pitcher for the breakfast buffet. Finally, after all these years—Ocean Point, New Jersey, here I come!