Read an Excerpt
Sweetheart, South Carolina, the home of happily-ever-after
Devlin Warwick blew past the ornate sign with its elegant gold scrollwork. He didn't bother to hide his curling scowl. Please. The only happily-ever-after he'd ever gotten was the day he'd left town.
Hitting the gas, Dev pushed his shiny red pickup past the speed limit. He watched the needle creep to fifty, sixty and head straight for eighty. He didn't care. He wanted the speed. Let Sheriff Grant pull him over. Unlike the last time they'd tangled, at least the officer would have a legitimate reason to hassle him.
With the windows rolled down and heavy metal cranked loud, Dev enjoyed the anticipation. The citizens of Sweetheart had no idea what was about to hit them. He'd waited a long time for this moment.
He'd leftbeen run out of town was more like itten years earlier with everyone's condemnation ringing in his ears. There was nothing the citizens of Sweetheart hated more than a scandal, although they certainly ate up the gossip that came with it. He'd given them plenty of both.
His grandfather had kicked him out. He'd lost the only family he had left. The irony was that he hadn't actually committed the crime they'd tried and convicted him of in the court of public opinion.
But now he was back. Successful, despite their predictions that he'd end up a drug addict or a felon, just like his dad.
He was going to enjoy this.
Dev pulled into the driveway of his grandfather's house and sat with the motor idling. There was always the inn .
But, he reminded himself, the past didn't live inside these walls. Neither did his grandfather, who'd died four years ago. Dev hadn't even known he was sick.
The darkened windows mocked him, reminding him that he was completely alone. The house was his now, not that he'd seen it since the night he left.
It hadn't changed.
The facade was well maintained, but there were still signs of wear and tear. The house was at least fifty years old and had been well used. No doubt the second stair to the porch still creaked. The shutters needed repainting. Maybe he'd take care of that while he was here.
At least the front landscaping was immaculate. He paid enough money to keep it that way. Trimmed shrubs filled the space behind the stone retaining wall. He'd missed the amazing shade of blue of his grandmother's hydrangeas by a couple of months. No matter how hard he tried, he could never quite get the same color. Her rosebushes in the back might have late blooms, though.
The few memories he had of his grandmother all involved her kneeling on the ground, her hands deep in dirt. For a little boy, furious and lost, the quiet moments they'd shared in the garden had been a lifeline he'd desperately needed.
Unfortunately, those visits had been all too short. The taste of something sweet that had turned bitter because he could never stay longer than a few weeks. When he'd come to live in Sweetheart full time at the age of fifteen his grandma had already been gone.
He had mixed emotions about walking through the dark green front door. The specter of that last night reared its ugly head. Yelling, screaming, his grandfather throwing one of his grandmother's prized figurines at the wall as he ordered Dev out.
Broken pieces of ceramic scattering across the floor. Blood trickling from a nick in his cheek.
Without thought, Dev reached for the scar. The pad of his finger ran down the puckered flesh, a constant reminder of the price he'd paid for something he hadn't even done.
But he'd learned his lesson well. If you were going to get punished for the sin you might as well enjoy committing it.
If only he could manage to hold on to the rage of that night. But if the house held some of his worst memories, it also held the best.
His grandfather, the closest thing he'd had to a father, had patiently taught him how to use power tools in the dusty, dank garage. Together they'd spent countless hours throwing a ball at the hoop tacked to the side of the house. They'd moved silently together in the kitchen as they both attempted, badly, to cook dinner.
When he'd had nowhere else to go his grandfather had taken him in, given him a home and his first taste of tough love. After the kind of mindless liberty he'd known all his life, Sweetheart had been like a prison, full of rules he didn't give a damn about.
His grandfather had expected a lot. The crushing weight of that responsibility had been so constricting, especially when Dev knew he couldn't live up to it.
Better to accept the low expectations and just embrace the inevitable. It was almost a relief when he could let go of the secret hope that this time somehow things would be different. They never were.
At least not back then. Now After years of hard work he was successful. And low-balling the Sweetheart Consortium's bid for their new resort had been an easy decision. He might lose a little money on the job, but he could afford the hit. And the time away to oversee this project himself.
These days he rarely took on a job personally. He had several managers who normally went to the sites. Lately he'd spent more time in boardrooms than with his hands deep in the earth. Sweetheart was a chance to remedy that and get a little revenge of the see how successful I've become variety.
He was looking forward to the moment when the town realized they'd hired him. Watching them squirm was going to be sweet.
It was just his luck that he'd arrived in time for one of the splashy parties Sweetheart loved. The Fall Masquerade would afford him the perfect opportunity to scope things out while keeping his presence a secret.
Tonight he planned to watch and learn. What had changed and who was in charge? How could he exploit the situation to turn the screws on those who'd assumed the worst of him without bothering to actually discover the truth?
Grabbing his garment bag and duffel, Dev finally went inside to change. He might prefer the jeans and work boots he wore when tromping around a site, but he was equally comfortable in the tailored suits required when making presentations to conglomerates and corporations.
The red silk mask was unusual, but it would keep his identity a secret, at least for tonight. And he had to admit he enjoyed the private jokethe top twisted up into two pointy devil horns. The devil among the saints.
Tonight he'd take in the spectacle. Tomorrow he'd get to work. And relish their frustration as the citizens of Sweetheart tried to make his life hell.
The difference between now and ten years ago was that this time there was nothing Sweetheart could take.
A buzz of anticipation and excitement ran through the room. The Fall Masquerade was always a highlight of the year. Everyone loved the chance to dress up and be anonymous for a little while.
Well, everyone except Willow Portis. Despite no one knowing who she was, she felt uncomfortable. Stupid. Waiting for someone to laugh at her costume. Although, so far all she'd gotten were compliments.
"Quick, touch me."
Surprised, Willow stared at the gladiator. The costume would have worked better if he'd had the ripped body to match. "What? Why?"
"So I can tell my friends I've been touched by an angel."
Compliments and bad pickup lines. Willow touched him all rightshe shoved the idiot out of her way. Deciding there was safety in numbers, she walked over to the tables set up with refreshments. Her friend Jenna was catering, although Willow hadn't seen her.
Settling for punch, she crossed her arms over her chest and scanned the crowd for a familiar face. Even living in Sweetheart her whole life, and knowing everyone at the party, it was difficult to tell who was behind some of the masks.
Which was exactly what she was counting onthat no one would recognize her.
With nothing better to do, Willow stood and watched, trying to figure out who people were. Tarzan and Jane were clearly Tony and Michelle Sewell. The superhero with them was Wes Unger, Tony's best friend since grade school. The sexy nurse was Carol Ann Kline, a transplanted divorcee, hell-bent on hooking a Sweetheart man.
Distracted by her little game, Willow didn't realize someone was behind her until a long shadow spread across the table. Heavy hands landed on her waist and then ran slowly up her ribs.
She jumped. Her skin crawled. Smacking down on the hands, she stopped them from traveling higher. "What are you doing?"
"Checking for injuries. The fall from heaven must have hurt."
Willow bit back a groan. "Seriously?"
"Trust me, I'm a doctor."
Using the sharp points of her elbows, Willow pushed the guy away from her and turned. Indeed, he was dressed as a doctor, complete with green scrubs, stethoscope and a surgical mask obscuring half his face.
From somewhere deep inside, a fit of pique threatened to take over. The doctor reached for her again, but she held out a hand to stop him. To his credit, he didn't push. He was pissing her off, but he wasn't dangerous, just obnoxious and uncouth.
"If you touch me again, I'm going to make you regret it."
Maybe using a temporary rinse to dye her hair a shocking red had been a bad idea, after all. At the time, covering up her dark, ordinary brown had seemed like a smart move. But combined with the mask that obscured half her face, it seemed to make her unrecognizable. Although it was entirely possible that the dress she'd designed was more responsible for the attention she was getting.
She'd wanted to be daring. To take a risk.
For the past several months, she'd been fighting hard against a restlessness she couldn't explain. Her business was doing well. She had more requests for exclusive wedding gown designs than she had time to fulfill, and stores all around the world had picked up her latest collection. The boutique was thriving. Clients came from all over the South for wedding, bridesmaid and prom dressesand everything else that went with those important purchases.
After putting herself into debt to open her design company and boutique with Macey, her business partner and friend, the scales had finally started to tip in the past few years.
By most standards she was successful.
So, why did she feel so lost?
If she was honest with herself she'd admit the disquiet had started when she began designing Hope's wedding dress. It wasn't that she begrudged her friend happiness it just brought home that she'd spent all of her energy on her business and none on her personal life.
She designed wedding gowns all day, but the prospect of creating her own felt like a dream completely out of reach. The constant barrage of giddy brides searching through their merchandise for that dream dress was getting to her. And if she wasn't careful, the jaded edge she'd developed was going to morph into complete indifference. When that happened, her ability to create magical, romantic and sexy dresses would dry up.
Part of the reason she kept her business in Sweetheart was because of the atmosphere. The entire town was built around the idea that love and marriage could equal lifelong happiness. And her creative process needed that inspiration. She designed dresses for the most important day in any woman's life she had to believe there was more beyond that day, or the creations would just turn into piles of expensive material and beads with no heart.
It had been a long time since she'd felt desired and sensual in her own skin. So tonight she was taking advantage of the disguise to be daring, something she did not do. She was stepping out on a limb, secure in the knowledge that she could keep her little walk on the wild side a secret.
The masks provided anonymity and freedom. To further confuse everyone, she'd designed a dress she'd never, in the light of day, consider wearing. One of her own sexy, slinky creations paired with two arching angel wings she'd hand-stitched and then laced onto the back of the bodice. Stark white feathers rose behind to tower over her by at least a foot. Instead of wedding white, she'd made the dress out of a pale silvery gray.
The tight bodice, flared mermaid skirt, flowing sleeves and naked shoulders showed off more of her body than she was usually comfortable with. Willow had worked hard to build the image of a quiet, accomplished businesswoman. She clung to it, wrapping the familiar shield around her. Flaunting her body went against years of trying to live down the scandal of her sister's disgrace.
Rose had always worn the smallest, tightest things she could get away with. She'd stayed out all night, drunk excessively and embraced everything their parents had warned her to avoid. Everyone had hoped her older sister would outgrow her penchant for pushing boundaries and making mistakes, especially when she eloped with an older man who had an established, settled life. Perhaps his love would be enough to curb her destructive behavior.
Unfortunately, it wasn't.
Not only hadn't he settled her, he'd been betrayed by Rose in the worst way. Then, after the divorce, her sister had headed as far as she could get from Sweetheart, taking the settlement and becoming a showgirl in Sin City. Willow cringed every time she thought of Rose on stage, topless in front of thousands of strangers. But Rose refused to cash the checks Willow sent, insisting she didn't need the help.
Forcing the unhappy thoughts away, Willow realized maybe it was inevitable that Rose would pop up in her mind tonight. Even as she'd put the dress and mask on, part of her had felt as if she was betraying the reputation she'd fought hard to build.
Needing a break from the blatant sexual come-ons, Willow worked her way into the corner. It was her default position for these types of events. Having the solid support of the wall behind her was comforting and familiar.
She was seriously considering calling it a night when her friend Tatum, the local florist who had designed the amazing red, orange and yellow centerpieces, sidled up beside her.
"Do I want to know what prompted this little outfit?"
Willow cut wary eyes to her friend. If any of their group would understand, it would be Tatum. She was a no-nonsense, make-no-apologies kind of person. Willow admired her for that self-confidence. Tatum didn't need anyone's approval.
After spending her entire life worrying what others thought, Willow was envious. But she had no idea how to adopt Tatum's cavalier attitude. It just wasn't her.
"What do you mean?" she asked, still uncertain if Tatum knew who she was. She hadn't told any of her friends what she'd planned to do tonight. She'd been apprehensive about their reactions. She wasn't interested in being razzed for the decision or talked out of it.
Tatum's pale green eyes raked Willow from the tip of her head to the toe of the designer heels peeking out beneath her hem.
"Well, let's start with the hair. I really hope it's temporary. While I'm all for taking a risk, you've never struck me as a red kinda girl. And the dress. Don't misunderstand, it's gorgeoushow could it not be? You designed itbut a little revealing for you, isn't it?"
Oh, Tatum knew it was her. "Thanks, Mom."
Her friend chuckled, sipped on the glass of punch she held. "Don't get me wrong. If you really want to go there, I'll support you one hundred percent. But as long as I've known you, this" her hand waved up and down to take in Willow's entire ensemble "has never been your thing."
Tatum turned, giving her back to the room and blocking out everyone else. Her stare was serious and sharp. "I've had my fair share of one-night-stand regrets. I just want to make sure you know what you're getting yourself into."
Willow shook her head. "No one said anything about a one-night stand."
"Please, honey, that dress screams 'screw me.' Right along with the underlying air of innocence that not even your amazing creation can completely cover up. You're like catnip, and every single man here is sniffing."