For ten months, bestselling novelist Alec Winston hasn’t been able to type a single word, and he’s coming dangerously close to breaching his publishing contract. An invitation from his brother to spend the summer in Wilmington Beach might be just the thing to blast through his writer’s block. Yet Alec discovers more than a spark of inspiration on the sunny sands. He meets an amber-eyed muse who makes him think about much more than books . . .
Faith Armstrong has finally gathered the courage to leave her past behind and accepted a job as a private tutor, hoping for a fresh start on the North Carolina coast. This is the home she’s always longed for—not just a place, but a state of mind. She’s felt invisible her whole life, so the host of new friends and the attention of a sexy author have her head spinning.
But Alec has a secret that could prove this isn’t the life Faith dreamed of after all . . .
* Carla Neggers, New York Times bestselling author
** Kathy Altman of USA Today on The Dysfunctional Test
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
It was a dark and stormy night.
Alec Winston cursed and shoved back from his desk. He swiveled his chair away from the computer and the one line he’d managed to write in almost a year. Pathetic. He’d typed it as a joke, something to propel him out of this writer’s block, or whatever it was, but the joke was on him. He’d fired his agent because the guy had demanded new material, and now he was seriously close to breaching his contract with the publisher. Deadline one passed two months ago.
Twenty-five bestsellers, twenty of them number one on the lists, three book-to-movie options, foreign language rights in fifty countries, and he’d been reduced to it was a fucking dark and stormy night.
He ran his hand down his face and rubbed his jaw. The three-day-old growth scratching against his palm was the only sound in his otherwise quiet home office. Before him, New York City bustled on outside the window, completely unaware of the pile of shit thirty floors up. Night had fallen while he’d stared at the monitor, but the city was never dark. Skyscrapers and streetlights and headlights cut through the inky blackness. So different from back home, where he could spend all evening counting stars and never catch them all.
Surprised by the tinge of homesickness, he made his way out of the room and into the kitchen to start a pot of coffee. Coffee cured everything.
While salvation brewed, he leaned against the counter and thought about the trilogy proposal which had landed him a seven-figure advance. The readers liked his prophecy-themed dark cult series so much that Hollywood was filming the second book. Working off the interest from that, he’d roughly sketched out a timeline for the next series and passed it off to his editor.
Except that’s where the inspiration had ended. Died a slow, agonizing death like his characters. Oh, the irony. No matter how hard he tried to grasp a tangible thread of his former brilliance and put words to paper, it flittered away.
He shook his head and poured himself a cup of coffee. Turning toward the living room, he sipped from his favorite mug and stared at the room that had cost him more to redecorate than his first royalty check. The ostentatious interior designer had read all his books and raved on and on about ideas, until he’d agreed to something just to shut her up. The result was the nightmare before him.
Christ, he wrote about nightmares. He didn’t want to live in one.
Slate-gray walls, so dark they made the two thousand square feet look like two hundred. A red leather sectional and creepy as fuck sculptures were supposed to bring a “splash of color.” To top off the monstrosity, framed copies of his book covers lined one wall and movie posters based off his books scaled the other.
He hadn’t had guests over in six months. Not that he’d ever had many parties. Or friends. He was a writer, and writers would rather write about people than talk to them. His own head was much more interesting. But still, it would’ve been nice to have the option of company, should he want it. He used to get a kick out of watching people, imagining their worst fears, plotting their fictional demise.
Maybe if he headed over to Central Park tomorrow, sat on a bench and observed, he’d get some ideas flowing.
The house line wailed from his desk in the other room, the ringing insistent. Just like his agent and editor and adoring fans. He almost didn’t answer, but hell, it’s not like he was getting any work done. Coffee in hand, he strode into his office and picked up the phone.
“How goes it, big brother?”
Despite the fact that his muscles were unfamiliar with the gesture, Alec smiled. “Hello, Jake. You’re calling rather late.” He leaned back in his chair, his gaze automatically falling to the shelf across the room where a picture of them in their youth grinned back at him. Two skinny, pale boys with their arms around each other on the beach.
“Am I interrupting?”
Jake was the only one who knew about his writer’s block, and the knowledge made Alec’s face heat in shame. “No. Still a blank page.”
“Maybe a change of scenery will help.”
Jake had suggested it before, but Alec was hell-bent on doing this alone. He would get through this somehow. It was just a blip in his career was all. Except it was going on a year now, and this blip had quickly become an epidemic.
“I’m fine. Just need to work through it.”
Jake grunted. “How’s that going for ya?”
Alec frowned but said nothing.
“I can hear you pouting from here.” His brother laughed, and the sound immediately jarred him back to childhood. Not an unpleasant feeling. “Come on,” Jake continued. “What can it hurt? A little sun, a little breather. It’ll do you some good to come home.”
Alec didn’t have an aversion to going home. He did, however, have an aversion to his father’s inability to display any tact whenever Alec was within a ten-mile radius. Whatever. Family was family, and his could be worse. “I need to get this book done, not go on vacation.”
“You can work from anywhere. There’s this little thing called technology—”
“Har, har.” He sighed. “I’ll think about it, okay? Happy now?”
He glanced once more at their picture, taken one hot summer day at the beach near Covington Cove. Not the actual name for the private area of Wilmington Beach, but more an unofficial nickname given by the Covington staff through the years. Alec and Jake’s father worked as a gardener for the Covingtons, back before they sold the seasonal property. Their son, Cole, owned it now. Being the good son, Jake took over the family landscaping business instead of making shit up for a living, and still worked for Cole.
Which reminded him . . . “How are things between you and Lacey?”
“That’s the other reason I called.” Jake cleared his throat. “I asked her to marry me.”
Alec stilled. Jake had had a crush on little Lacey Covington since he’d first laid eyes on her. Dad had brought them to work with him on the Covington estate when Alec was eight and Jake was six. After reconnecting recently, Lacey and Jake had been dating for about eight months.
The Covington kids were nothing like their self-righteous parents, but Alec had read Cole’s memoir, just like every other person in America, so he knew what Cole and his wife, Mia, had gone through to get their happy ending. It had taken them ten years, thanks to Cole’s mother and her threats.
The whole thing made Alec nervous. If Kathryn Covington decided to meddle in her daughter Lacey’s life the way she had in her son, Cole’s, Jake would wind up on the losing end. Jake was a hard worker and made a decent living. But the Covingtons had more money than God.
“Aren’t you going to say anything?”
Alec swiped a hand down his face. “I’m sorry. You just surprised me. Can I assume she said yes, since you’re telling me?”
“She did. She said yes.”
Alec could hear the smile in Jake’s tone, which caused his own lips to curve. His little brother, getting married. “Congratulations, man. I’m really happy for you.” And he was. Lacey was a lovely girl. But . . . “Don’t you think it’s kind of soon? You’ve only been together a few months.” His own haunting experiences rose up to choke him.
“You know when you know.”
He’d have to take his brother’s word for it. Love had never slapped him upside the head. He preferred to keep it that way. He’d come close to love once, and he was still paying for it. “Well, I am happy for you. Did you tell Mom and Dad yet?”
“Yep.” Jake laughed. His brother was always laughing, it seemed. Jake was light where Alec was dark. Amazing they got along at all, really. “They’re excited. Lacey wants to do it at the end of summer.”
“This summer? As in three months from now?”
“Yeah. She wants the ceremony right here on the beach. Something small.”
Alec propped his feet up on his desk and crossed his ankles. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but she is a woman and a Covington. Is small even an option?”
Jake’s silence was lengthy. “Things have changed since you were home last. Lacey and Cole aren’t in contact with their mother, and their dad is trying to be more a part of their lives. He’s not the arrogant prick he used to be.”
John and Kathryn Covington’s divorce had been splashed all over the society pages and newspapers alike. John had bowed out of politics, claiming he wanted to spend more time with his family. Meanwhile, Kathryn turned into America’s most hated bitch, both from her reaction to the divorce and how Cole had described her in his memoir.
“Come home,” Jake implored again. “Get to know Lacey a little better, spend some time with the folks. Heck, sit on the beach and drink piña coladas. Stay for the summer. You can leave after the wedding. Maybe it’ll help get your head back into the book.”
It did sound good. His life was in New York now, but nothing imminent tied him here at the moment. What he’d been doing to write his next book sure wasn’t working. Alec reached over and swiped the nose of his Derek Jeter bobblehead, thinking as he watched the toy swivel.
“You can stay in our guesthouse, so you don’t have to worry about Dad. You’d have it all to yourself.”
“Is the house finished?” Alec could’ve sworn they’d just broken ground on Lacey’s McMansion not long ago. She’d designed it herself, according to Jake, and planned to build on an unused area of the original Covington property.
“Yep. They finished it last month. I’m just touching up some landscaping.” He paused to clear his throat. “I moved in with her when she asked.”
Alec tipped his head back and stared at the ceiling. Perhaps a trip down the coast was in order just to ensure Jake knew what he was getting into. To guarantee his little brother wasn’t making a mistake, like he had. “I’ll drive down this weekend.”
Jake paused. “Really? You can make it work?”
He looked at his computer monitor. It was a dark and stormy night. “Yeah, I can make it work.”
When he hung up with Jake, Alec transferred his files to a flash drive and shut down his PC.
The weekly call to Laura’s group home went as always: polite to the point of sterile, and it took him three attempts to dial. The night manager didn’t seem concerned he was leaving town for a few months. Out of respect, Alec never visited, but he did check in to see how she was doing. Laura’s father would raise hell tomorrow when he heard Alec was gone.
His anger couldn’t be helped any more than Alec’s attempts to right things. Both futile.
Alec made arrangements for someone to come in once a week to keep an eye on the apartment and then shot off a text to his editor. He packed up his laptop and shoved some clothes into a suitcase, setting them by the front door. After checking that all the lights were off, he went to stand by the window and take in the skyline view of New York.
It was a beautiful and ugly place down below. Filled with crime, poverty, and desperation. It also held sprawling parks, generous people, and easy access to anything the heart desired. Before his first book hit the bestseller list, he had moved to this city, known as the center of the publishing world, to immerse himself in it. To keep his edge and his finger on the pulse of the industry.
He had to admit, people recognized him wherever he went. He brushed elbows with producers and screenwriters. Booksellers and editors and marketing people, all willing to bend over backward to accommodate him. Adoring fans with blogs and websites and Facebook pages. But there was no one he could call at two a.m. just because. No one to argue with over a bad call in the Yankees game or grab a beer to discuss their day.
A city full of eight million people. It was all rather lonely sometimes.
He shook his head. It was only Thursday, but he didn’t have anything else to do. He could take his time driving down to Wilmington, unwind a bit. Besides, now that he had a plan of action and an objective set forth, he wouldn’t be able to focus on much else. Why delay his departure?
He turned his back on New York, gathered his luggage, and locked the door on his way out.
* * *
“Ginny is so excited you’re coming,” Mia said. “She’s beside herself. When do you get in?”
Faith held the phone to her ear and traced a lazy pattern over her comforter with her finger, calculating the distance between Charlotte and Wilmington. “I should get there in a few hours.” Her head whipped up with a thought. “I hope that’s okay. I know it’s a day earlier than we discussed.”
Mia Galdon—no, make that Mia Covington—had contacted Faith a couple months ago, asking if she’d be interested in the opportunity to be Ginny’s private tutor. Faith had been one of the people who had worked with Mia’s sister at St. Ambrose before Mia pulled her out of the private school. Faith was the first person Mia called for the job, but Faith had had to finish out the school year and tender her resignation, thus the delay. The decision had been eating away at her ever since, until she was pretty certain she’d developed an ulcer.
Faith had missed working with Ginny when they’d moved to the coast. The teenager was a sweet, chipper girl who’d struggled with her disability in the public school system. At St. Ambrose, she’d flourished, learning to read and write and do the simple activities of daily living.
But that wasn’t the only reason Faith had agreed to take the position and move hours away from everything she knew. It was also because Mia genuinely loved Ginny, was an active part of her life, and had once given up everything she’d had for her sister. Faith could relate.
“Of course that’s okay,” Mia assured. “Like I told you, the guesthouse is ready for you.” She paused to say something to someone in the room and then came back on the line. “It’ll be nice having someone work one-on-one with her again. The Down syndrome groups and programs here just aren’t cutting it for her. You were always her favorite teacher.”
Faith, never really comfortable with compliments, didn’t say anything and knew all this, as Mia had told her more than once. Mia seemed to need the reassurance of the repetition, though.
“I’m looking forward to it. See you soon.”
They disconnected and Faith looked around her bedroom. The walls were the same white they’d been as a child. A functional desk, dresser, and bed were the only furniture pieces. There were no pictures on the wall, no little trinkets or baubles. No life, because she’d never had one.
Nerves swam in her belly at this new venture. She’d never left Charlotte before. She’d never left her parents’ house and lived on her own. At twenty-seven years old, if she didn’t do it now, she never would. The opportunity was perfect. The Covingtons were matching her old salary at St. Ambrose, and accommodations were included. She wondered what it would be like, living alone. Probably no different than home.
She sighed and stood. It was time to let go, and in doing so, maybe her parents would, too. She’d been stuck in this rut for too long, not moving forward because she feared her parents needed her presence. But that was her own wishful thinking.
Faith doubted they’d notice she was gone.
She closed her bedroom door behind her, as her parents preferred it, and stopped outside Hope’s room. Her bedroom door was always open, as if their parents expected her to one day return. But Hope was never coming back. If not for the silence and disappointment etched in her parents’ eyes, Faith would assume she was the only one who knew that.
She didn’t know why she did it, but she stepped just inside the doorway of her sister’s room. Unlike her own, splashes of color were everywhere. The walls were a fading rose, the bedspread a deep lavender, the curtains navy blue and homemade. It would seem like a mismatch to anyone who hadn’t known Hope. The wood of the dresser, shelves, and bed was painted a moss green. Pictures of Hope adorned every nook and cranny. Stuffed animals were neatly lined up on the bed.
The room hadn’t changed in years. A thin layer of dust coated the dresser to her right. For a fleeting moment, Faith considered writing her name in the dust, but shook away the impulse.
Descending the stairs, she moved past her luggage stacked by the front door and made her way into the living room. It resembled any other family room in small-town America: powder-blue walls, country-style plaid couches in cream and navy, plush beige carpet, and a white mantel with family portraits.
The pictures drew her eye. She inspected the photos in their mismatched frames, feeling like a spectator in her own house. Her parents after they brought Hope home from the hospital. Hope, cheerleading at a homecoming game. Hope, posing in her senior prom dress, her many friends gathered at her side. They’d all shaved their heads, too, to match Hope’s. The last picture was Hope and Faith sharing a hospital bed after a treatment.
That was the only photo Faith was in. If she didn’t know better, she’d swear it was a shrine to Hope’s memory, but the mantel had always held these reminiscences, or ones like it, since Faith was a toddler. If Faith wasn’t next to Hope in a picture, she wasn’t displayed.
She tried to draw bitterness from deep inside, allow herself to grow angry, but neither emotion would come. Because she knew her place in this family, always had. Knew why she was conceived. And it wasn’t for a photo on the mantel.
From the other room, the murmurs of her parents’ conversation rose. A quick glance at the clock told her they were sitting down to dinner. Five-thirty on the button, every evening. They’d started without her. Not the first time.
Faith’s plan was to eat with them and then hit the road, but her stomach clenched and she didn’t think she’d be able to keep anything down. Still, she should try. Their last remaining child was leaving home. Surely they’d want some time together first, to talk about her new adventure and wish her luck. They must be giving her time to finish packing.
When she stepped into the kitchen, her parents were standing by the small oak table, their backs to her. Faith glanced at the stove. The casserole dish, which had been used to bake chicken and vegetables, was empty.
Mom had only made enough for two.
Her chest grew tight, and she tried to inhale a deep breath, yet tears burned her eyes anyway. Tears. She hadn’t cried in ages. Such a useless action.
Mortified, she took in the familiar kitchen to level her emotions. White pine cupboards, green tile counters, checkered laminate floor, fruit bowl next to the wine rack. Faith never drank wine. Maybe she should start.
When she felt more in control, she cleared her throat and walked over to the table. The years had been kind to her mother. Her wavy brown hair, which once trailed down her back, was cut in a bob and interlaced with gray, giving her a distinguished look. Because she’d been a stickler for healthy eating, her lean, lithe frame resembled that of someone much younger. Until you looked in her eyes.
Her dad turned to look at her, by all accounts seeming confused. He had stormy hazel eyes, just like Hope’s, and thick white hair that had once been chestnut, like Faith’s. He, too, had remained in fit shape, though his shoulders sagged as often as his smile.
“I didn’t mean to disturb you. I . . . just wanted to say good-bye.”
It dawned on her, too late, that he’d thought she left already. Without a good-bye? Without a hug and kiss and I’ll miss you? If she’d been more rational, she would have remembered they didn’t hug or kiss in her family. Not anymore.
“Should I make you a sandwich for the road?” Her mother didn’t meet her gaze, but her tone was as formal and polite as always. Like she was speaking to a member of the choir instead of her daughter. “I got a pound of that shaved turkey you like.”
Faith didn’t care for turkey. That had been Hope’s favorite. “Thank you, but I’ll be okay. I had a late lunch.”
“Well, drive safely,” Dad said. He opened his arms to offer her an awkward hug and wound up patting her on the back instead. “Bye for now. Call us when you get there. Don’t forget to wear sunscreen. UV rays on the beach can be brutal.”
She wouldn’t know. She’d never been to the beach.
“Yes, do drive safely.” Mom’s focus returned to her meal as they both sat down. “Good-bye, Faith.”
She opened her mouth to say . . . something, but the words wedged in her throat when she realized that’s all she’d get. But what had she expected? A total personality change?
Slowly, she nodded her head.
A hot ball of pain burned in her stomach. She had walked through each room of the house before entering the kitchen, as if her brain knew this was a semipermanent good-bye, even if her heart held out hope. She’d wanted to take in the details of home so she could remember it, store away the visual in her mind’s memory box. It was a silly, fruitless notion. There was no imprint of her here.
“I love you,” she whispered, because she did. She’d loved them with the same childish heart that had dreamed of a way out. Or a way in.
“Back atcha,” Dad called.
Mom hummed her response, a cross between agreement and dismissal.
Without further ado, she walked down the hall and gathered her luggage by the front door. One suitcase held her books, a lovely escape she thoroughly enjoyed, and the other her clothes. There were two boxes of therapy materials in her car, and another box with cosmetics. Still, after twenty-seven years, there should be more to pack. More to a life than this.
Anxiety clawed at her throat. She could still tell Mia she couldn’t accept the offer. She hadn’t signed a contract. Maybe she could get her old job back at St. Ambrose. A comfortable, albeit lonely, existence here had to be better than what was out there. What did she know about being out in the world? Failure loomed. Humiliation at every turn.
She surprised herself by opening the door, then paused. She strode over to the mantel, grabbed the picture of her and Hope, and left.
After dinner, Lacey and Jake had taken Alec on a tour of their new home. He was impressed. The original Covington beach house, just next door, where Mia and Cole resided, was right up there with the homes of crowned royalty. Lacey’s home was slightly more subdued, but still demonstrated the wealth she’d been born into. Because Lacey and Cole had broken up the estate, the lot she built on wasn’t overly wide, so she’d designed up.
Three floors of magazine-quality interior design. There were pale hardwood floors throughout. Each room was painted in a different shade of coastal pastels. The greens, browns, blues, and grays served as both masculine and feminine accents. Much more inviting than Alec’s gruesome apartment.
The main level had a living room with deep-cushioned corduroy couches, a floor-to-ceiling white brick fireplace, and black stained tables. The kitchen appliances were stainless steel, the counters white marble, and the cabinets mahogany. A long, polished kitchen table along the wall held a small stack of newspapers and a bowl of keys. He pictured Lacey and Jake drinking coffee together there in the mornings. A small library and half bath finished things off.
The second level held four bedrooms, all with an accompanying bath, but the third floor rocked him back on his heels. There were wall-to-wall windows facing east, with a wondrous view of the ocean. Lacey had clearly set it up as her studio. Acrylic paint tubes, canvases, and brushes lay scattered over several tables. More than ten easels dotted the space. A small sink occupied a corner, along with a recliner that had seen much better days.
Alec raised his brows at the chair. “You still have that thing?”
Lacey wrapped her arms around Jake’s waist, her soft blond hair long enough to brush Jake’s hand as he held her arm in place. Her blue eyes lit with mischief. “He watches me paint from that chair.”
“Can’t get rid of Black Beard,” Jake said unapologetically. “It’s a staple.”
“It’s probably held together by staples.” Alec grinned. Jake had bought the recliner for his first apartment eight years ago. It should’ve been junked eight years ago. The fact that Lacey let him keep it said a lot about her.
They made their way back downstairs and onto the front porch, where Lacey and Jake sat side by side. The only thing not picture perfect was Lacey’s yard. There were several large holes in the lawn and various pieces of equipment lying around.
“What’s your plan for the landscape?”
Lacey settled into the crook of his brother’s arm and set the swing in motion. “Jake’s going to line the driveway with palms and Myrica. The base of the porch here will have mountain laurels. Since the mimosa grove separates Cole and Mia’s property from ours, we decided on dogwood trees where the holes are dug. We’ll line the side of the house and path around to the beach with wild oats and sea grass.”
Growing up with a father who owned a landscaping business, he knew what each of those plants was and could picture how the estate would look when finished. He approved. Alec also noted how Lacey always used the term “we” when referring to anything regarding the house. She’d already accounted for and accepted his brother in her life and home. It wasn’t hers, but theirs.
Some of his tension eased. They really did seem happy. Lacey was always touching Jake’s arm or shoulder or hand, and Jake never went more than thirty seconds without a smile or a glance at her. The princess and the gardener. Huh.
A car door closed in the distance. Between the neat rows of mimosa trees, a woman exited a white compact car and stared at Cole’s house. From this distance he couldn’t make out much more than shoulder-length reddish-brown hair and blue jeans.
He jerked his chin in her direction. “Who’s that?”
“Must be Faith Armstrong.” Jake shrugged.” Ginny’s private tutor. She’s supposed to be getting in from Charlotte today.”
Ginny being Mia’s sister. He hadn’t seen them since his teen years. He was pretty sure Ginny was still in diapers then. “I remember Ginny being quite a handful.”
Jake nodded. “She’s mellowed a lot. Mia’s great with her.”
He remembered that, too.
A teenage girl came bounding off the porch next door and jumped into the woman’s embrace, nearly toppling them both to the ground. His lips curved listening to Ginny’s laugher. Kid had a great laugh. Cole and Mia watched from the doorway. Their voices mingled with the roar of the tide, and he couldn’t make out what they were saying.
“You’ll get to see them tomorrow,” Lacey said. “We’re going over there for lunch, if you’re up to it.”
“I’m up to it.”
She nodded. “We should get you settled into the guesthouse so you can write your next masterpiece.”
Alec kept his sarcastic comment to himself and grabbed his bags from the trunk. The guesthouse was on the south side of the property, nestled between several pine and palm trees. Close enough to the big house for access, but far enough to offer privacy. Inside, the kitchen and living room were separated by an island. White wainscoting lined the walls below a chair rail, and the space above was painted navy. Several seascape paintings and white leather furniture served as accents.
“The bedroom and bath are through there.” Jake pointed down a short hall. “There’s a desk in the bedroom. You can move it wherever you want.”
Alec nodded and glanced out the sliding glass door off the kitchen. The private beach was devoid of people. The waves left a white foam as they pounded the sand and retreated, and the sky began to darken with dusk, taking with it some of the heavy humidity. He had forgotten how beautiful Wilmington was at sunset.
If he couldn’t write here, he may as well find a new vocation.
“Is everything okay?” Lacey’s voice held a worried note. “Do you need anything?”
He forced a smile and turned from the view. “Nope. This is perfect. Thanks for the invitation.”
Her shoulders relaxed. “You just come up to the house if you need something. We stocked the fridge and cabinets. Well, Jake did. He knew what food you preferred—”
Alec grinned. “Thank you, Lacey. I’m good. I’m pretty easy to please, actually.”
Jake snorted. “Come on, honey. Let’s leave my brother to his brilliance.”
After they’d gone, Alec stepped out onto the back deck and braced his forearms on the railing. He breathed in salty air as some of the stress left his body. A soft, humid breeze blew in off the ocean, cooling his skin. He closed his eyes to listen to the surf and the gulls squawking as they skimmed the water, searching for fish.
It had been a long, long time since he’d felt this relaxed. Now all he needed to do was channel that semblance of peace and get a story down.
When he opened his eyes, the newcomer from next door was standing in the surf on the other side of Cole’s property. Dark had descended at a leisurely pace, just like everything else on the southern coast, but there was enough moonlight to make out her profile. She stood motionless, facing the ocean with her arms crossed in front of her, so still she could’ve been made of marble.
Curious, he descended the deck stairs to the beach and hiked in her direction. If she heard him coming, she gave no indication. Not wanting to startle her, he cleared his throat when he got close enough for her to hear him over the waves.
She turned abruptly and must’ve forgotten her feet were buried in the sand because she had to throw out her arms to steady herself. “I’m sorry, I was just . . .” She pointed to the vast expanse of ocean as she righted herself.
It was too dim to make out much of her features, but from what Alec could gather, he never would’ve noticed her in a crowd had they met anywhere else. Plain wasn’t the best term to describe her, but it was adequate. Something about her voice knocked him back a step, though. It barely rose above the tide and had a musical quality.
She must’ve taken his silence for something dire, because she wouldn’t look him in the eye. “I didn’t mean to disturb you. I’ll just head back—”
“You’re not. Disturbing me, I mean.” He took a half step forward to see her better, but he wound up disappointed because it was too dark. “Besides, the ocean belongs to no one. You’re free to walk here regardless of who finds you disturbing.”
She didn’t seem to locate the humor in his remark as he’d intended. She rubbed her arms, despite the late evening heat, and turned toward the house as if undecided as to what to do next.
“I’m Alec, by the way. Jake’s brother.”
“Oh. Yes, of course. Mia said you were coming.”
God, that voice. Like a mermaid call, a singsong lilt from underwater. Fascinating.
Her frame was slender to the point of breakable. The hem of her jeans was rolled to her calves, baring a flash of pale skin. No polish on the toes. Pity. He had a thing for that. A plain white tee covered most of her torso and was too baggy to determine if she had any curves. His gaze traveled up. Her neck was long, regal almost, adorned with a thin chain that disappeared underneath her shirt. Best he could tell, she had a triangular-shaped face and pointed chin. Her eye color remained a mystery.
“And you’re Faith, correct? The therapist.”
“Er, yes. I’m a special needs teacher, but I have a degree in occupational therapy, too.”
He nodded, hoping she’d keep talking. He was getting all kinds of ideas flitting through his mind about a character for his book just from her voice alone. Each time she stopped talking, the ideas drifted away. Which was interesting, because didn’t all women talk? A lot? Not her. Maybe she was nervous, given his celebrity. How he hated that.
Just as he was about to encourage more, she pointed to the house. “I should get back inside. It’s getting late.”
It was barely nine.
She walked away, and Alec watched until she disappeared behind the dunes. Not even a good-bye, or see you later, or nice to meet you. He shook his head and walked back the way he’d come.
* * *
Faith closed the back door to the Covington guesthouse and leaned against it. Exhaustion and nerves warred through her body and she fought to rein them in. She wasn’t used to all this attention, and today she’d received a lot. Well, since arriving in Wilmington, anyway.
She thought she’d be uncomfortable meeting Cole Covington for the first time, but he was an unusual mix of genuine and nice. Faith allowed herself to relax in his company after a few minutes. Not so with Alec. Perhaps because he’d snuck up on her in the dark. She’d picked a time without anyone else on the beach to go out and take in her first real glimpse of the ocean. Even the air was different. Lighter, and scented with an odd mix of fresh fish and brine. The water lapping at her feet was cool and hypnotizing. She’d been so wrapped up in a mix of emotions, she hadn’t realized she wasn’t alone.
What he must think of her. Then again, he probably wasn’t thinking of her at all. Why would he?
His fame didn’t faze her and hadn’t been what had brought on a sudden flare of nerves. Authors, even ones as big as Alec Winston, were just people like the rest of them. Flesh and blood and souls in want of something. No, it was the way he’d stared at her, like he was picking apart her brain. A puzzle to fit together. In all her years, no one had ever wanted to know what made her tick, and in two minutes he gave her the impression he desired nothing more.
Maybe it was a writer thing.
She focused on why she was here, bringing Ginny to mind and smiling. Ginny had been happy to see her. She couldn’t remember the last time that had happened either.
Shaking the thoughts away, she shoved off the door and made her way to the living room to get her luggage. Her internal clock was declaring bedtime. She hadn’t even really had the chance to settle in, but there would be time for that. Time was something she had in plenty.
Taking her cell phone out of her pocket, she checked the screen. No messages. Same as the last hundred times she’d looked. A pang of disappointment hit her right in the stomach. She didn’t know why she expected her parents to call. And it was after nine. Too late for her to try them. They’d be in bed by now.
She fished her pajamas and toothbrush out of her suitcase and came across the photo of her and Hope that she’d hastily shoved there before getting on the road. She sat back on her heels and stared at the two of them, her chest growing tight.
Ten years and it still seemed like yesterday that they’d buried her sister. Faith hadn’t felt whole since. In fact, the hole in her chest seemed to grow with each passing year. One day it would consume her until nothing remained but a black void.
“We finally made it to the beach,” she whispered, tears blurring her eyes.
She hadn’t cried in years, and now twice in one day she’d had to bite them back. She sighed and rose to her feet, setting the picture on the small fireplace mantel next to a conch shell. Hope would’ve loved it here.
Faith turned, doing a quick survey of her new place. The sea-foam-green walls and white wicker furniture echoed the simple fashion of every beach house—at least the ones in movies. For her, it seemed the perfect escape. She had no expectations, but was satisfied with the amount of room offered. Yet it wasn’t her home any more than her parents’ house had been. She got the strange sensation she didn’t belong anywhere.
In a few months, she’d go apartment hunting. Once she knew the job was secure and Wilmington was where she’d stay, anyway. No sense in rushing things. She’d built up a lot in savings from not paying rent. Even though the Covingtons compensated her well, she couldn’t afford a beachfront location, but perhaps something within walking distance so she could stare at the ocean. There was something almost . . . healing about it.
Pulling her mind out of the pity party, she slipped into her pajamas and brushed her teeth. Before turning in, she walked to the bedroom window and looked outside. She wondered if she’d ever get used to the sight. Her imagination didn’t do the ocean justice. A full moon illuminated the black ripples, the vastness of water stretching on forever.
Alec wasn’t standing in the sand any longer, but she could all but feel him still in front of her. There was a quiet, humming presence about him that his novels’ back-cover photos didn’t portray. His thick, longish black hair curled just above his ears, and though she couldn’t see them on the beach earlier, she knew his eyes were bluish gray. The square jaw and a shadow of a beard barely growing in gave him a hint of danger. His wide shoulders and taut muscles were a thing of beauty, if not a little intimidating. He was taller than she expected, too—at five foot five, she’d had to crane her neck to look at him. And handsome, especially when he smiled at his own self-deprecating humor.
Turning from the window, she climbed into bed and stared at the ceiling. Her first trip to the beach, something she’d always dreamed about but never accomplished before now, and Alec Winston left an imprint tied within her memory.
Faith hadn’t yet decided if that was a bad thing.
“We’re not leaving for a couple weeks.”
Faith watched Ginny closely, looking for any signs the sixteen-year-old was upset with what Mia had just told her. She didn’t find any. Ginny continued to color her picture of flowers, concentrating on what was in front of her.
Mia exchanged a look with Faith from across the kitchen table, her eyes concerned.
Faith gently stilled Ginny’s hand with her own. “How do you feel about Cole and Mia going on a little trip?”
Instead of answering, Ginny asked a question of her own. “What’s a honeymoon?”
Mia smiled and ran her fingers through her short black hair before answering. “When two people get married, they take a vacation together afterward, so they can get closer. That’s called a honeymoon.”
Ginny mulled that over and tapped her chin with a finger. “But you’re already married.”
“Yes,” Mia hedged. “There was a lot going on after the wedding six months ago, though. We had just moved here, remember? Things are settled down now, so we’d like to take that trip.”
“I can’t come?” The question was asked matter-of-factly and without sadness, apparently a distracted thought, because she’d already gone back to coloring.
“Not this time, pretty girl. But I won’t go if you’re scared or worried. Talk to me.”
Faith rested her chin in her palm. Mia used that phrase a lot with Ginny. Talk to me. It allowed for open communication between them and worked very well in getting Ginny to relay her feelings.
“How long will you move away?”
Mia reached for Ginny’s hands. “I’m not moving away. Never. I’ll be back in just under two weeks. We can talk by phone every day.”
“No.” Ginny slapped the table. “How long will you move away?” Her voice rose in frustration and Faith realized what Ginny was trying to say.
“Do you mean how far are they traveling?”
Ginny nodded, anger deflating.
“They’re going to Cozumel, which is in Mexico. To fly there by plane, it takes about two hours. So she won’t be very far away at all.”
“And,” Mia added quickly, “you get to stay at Lacey and Jake’s house. Won’t that be fun?”
“I want to stay here.” Her voice had an edge of hysteria that Faith knew preceded a tantrum.
“That’s okay, Ginny.” Faith kept her voice cool and calm. “You can stay here with me. Or maybe Jake and Lacey could stay here for those two weeks. We can ask them at lunch today. Would you like that?”
Ginny nodded and picked up her crayon again, clearly done with this conversation.
Mia blew out a silent breath and tilted her head toward the dining room.
Faith nodded and followed her out of the room.
The Covingtons’ maid, Bea, was busy setting the table for guests when they walked in. Chicken salad, croissants, and fresh fruit were laid out, along with a pitcher of sweet tea. White china and crystal glasses of water reflected the sunlight streaming through the window.
“This is ready, Miss Mia.” Bea wiped her hands on an apron.
Mia nodded. “It looks delicious, Bea. Have you eaten?”
“No, ma’am. I’ll wait until your company leaves.”
Mia waved her hand. “Don’t be silly. Everything’s set out. You go relax for a while.”
Bea hesitated, a wrinkle creasing the dark cocoa skin of her forehead. After a few moments, she swiped a hand over her tight bun, nodded, and stepped out.
“She’s still a little frightened of Cole,” Mia said. “He tries so hard to put her at ease, too.”
That was the odd thing about the Covingtons. They didn’t treat their staff like staff. They never barked orders or pretended they were invisible. At St. Ambrose, the students came from affluent backgrounds and knew it. As a teacher, Faith had often been demeaned and dismissed as if not important. In the two days since she’d arrived, Mia and Cole had insisted she eat with them and spoken to her as if she were their friend, not an employee. It made it hard to understand the boundaries.
“Maybe we should put off the trip,” Mia mused, interrupting Faith’s thoughts.
“What’s this?” Cole strode in the room wearing faded jeans and a white button-down shirt. He still had a trace of a limp from the injuries he’d endured overseas, but one had to look closely to notice. The long, purplish scar on his neck, however, was blatant. He wrapped his arm around Mia’s waist and kissed her briefly on the mouth. “You want to postpone the honeymoon again?”
There was no animosity in his tone, just humor. They were a cute couple. Affection shone in their eyes, and whenever Cole looked at Mia, it was like he was seeing her for the first time. Faith wondered if it had anything to do with how long it took them to get back together. She’d read Cole’s memoir, every captivating, painful word, and she felt like she knew these two on a level too personal for comfort.
Mia brushed a strand of Cole’s blond hair from his forehead. “Ginny’s upset about us leaving.”
“I’d rather have you alone, but we can take her with us. Family vacation?”
Mia looked unsure, her gaze traveling over Cole’s shoulder and around the room. “We haven’t had any time to ourselves, but I also don’t want to leave if she’s worried. There hasn’t been any stability in her life—”
“Stop it. She had you.” Cole turned his brown eyes to Faith. “What do you think?”
They also asked her opinion a lot, which was both humbling and flattering. “You don’t leave for two more weeks. It’ll give her some time to get used to the idea. I would just keep reminding her that you’ll be back. Perhaps have Jake and Lacey spend a little more time with her to get her used to the transition.”
Cole nodded. “If that doesn’t work, we’ll take Ginny with us.”
Faith opened and closed her mouth, hoping she hid her surprise. It took a special kind of person to be willing to take his wife’s disabled sister with them on a honeymoon. For the first time since accepting the job offer, Faith knew it was the right choice.
* * *
Alec followed Lacey and Jake into Cole’s house and whistled through his teeth. “Nice digs, Cole.” He hadn’t been inside the house in years, not since John and Kathryn Covington owned the place, but it looked different now. Instead of expensive paintings by famous artists and deco wallpaper, there were rich blue-gray walls and family portraits.
“Alec Winston.” Cole shook his hand. “Been a long time. How’s the new book coming?”
“It’s coming.” Not at all, but it would. Hopefully before his publisher threatened to sue.
Jake snorted. “He has writer’s block.”
Cole’s eyebrows shot up. “For how long?”
Alec narrowed his eyes on his brother before turning back to Cole. “A while. I’ll work through it.”
“It’s been a year.” Jake shrugged when Alec shot him another glare. “Cole’s an agent. He’d understand. Maybe he can help.”
Further awkward conversation was avoided when Mia strolled in. Jesus, her blue eyes were still one of the most intense things Alec ever had the pleasure of seeing. Last he’d seen her, her black hair had trailed down her back. She’d cropped it all off since then.
“Look at you, all grown up.” She smiled and drew him in for a hug. “And you finally grew into your shoes.”
“Har, har.” Yeah, he wasn’t so gangly anymore. He released her and stepped back. “You are as lovely as ever.”
“Aw. Still know all the right words.”
They’d never had a romantic history. Mia had only ever had eyes for Cole, and Alec had only ever wanted to live in the fantasy inside his make-believe stories, but they’d had some good summers long ago.
Jake snorted again at Mia’s comment, insinuating he didn’t, in fact, currently have the right words due to his writer’s block.
What People are Saying About This
“All of Me is fantastic! It’s fun, emotional, and totally engaging, and I can’t wait for what’s next from Kelly Moran!”—Carla Neggers, New York Times bestselling author
Praise for Return to Me
“An emotional roller-coaster ride I read in one sitting.”—Carly Phillips, New York Times bestselling author
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
2.5/5 stars I am always in the mood for a good romance, so when I saw this one come available for review, I thought it sounded like a sweet love story. I absolutely adored the friendships in this book. They were so well developed and I truly felt the connection between the characters. However, I really struggled with the romance of this one. Alec and Faith are two people who carry an immense amount of pain within themselves. My heart broke for both of them and their situations and I was looking forward to seeing these two fall in love and help heal the others' hurts. While this does eventually happen, the journey was a difficult one. Alec is very hot and cold with Faith and that always drives me crazy. For someone as fragile as Faith, I loathed seeing him hurt her. At one point in the book I remember thinking that I wish they would cut all ties and have that be the end. It was that frustrating. I also really struggled to feel a connection between them. Something was so formal and felt off to me, so I found myself not being able to connect to my characters on the emotional level I needed to fully become invested in their relationship. That's not to say I don't understand where Alec is coming from. He feels he is in an impossible situation and he isn't ready to let go of the guilt and pain of his past in order to move on with his life. Faith comes out of nowhere and completely blindsides him, making him feel all these feelings he never thought he could feel again. I think I could have handled it had there not been so much back and forth on his feelings. I understand he is troubled and doesn't know how to proceed but it just ruined the romance for me. I think what really upset me most is how after Faith opened up to Alec and told him about her family and how she feels, he would still continually hurt her. He hurts her, but he can't stay away from her, thus confusing her even more with his conflicting feelings. I also wish there had been a bit more build up on Alec's motivation to make things right at the end. We spend the whole book with him struggling with what he thinks is right, and then it's solved rather quickly. It just seemed too easy and I felt it would have taken him longer to come to his senses than it did. I am happy with the way the book ended though, because ultimately I did want to see these two find their happily-ever-after. Once Alec stopped being so hot and cold with Faith, I ended up enjoying their scenes together and started to believe in the romance. Unfortunately by that point, it was so late it was too hard to overlook all that had transpired. While this didn't work for me especially, I think many will enjoy the angst filled romance. The friendships and the secondary characters were really a bright spot for me, so I was really happy to see that added layer that a lot of books overlook. I also adored the setting, as it transported me to the ocean and the beautiful scenery North Carolina has to offer. I may still go back and try Moran's Return To Me and see if I have better luck with Cole and Mia's story.
Life has dealt a nasty deal to Faith Armstrong and yet she goes on with a good and caring heart. Life has also dealt a nasty deal to bestselling horror novelist Alec Winston and it is affecting his ability to write. An invitation from his brother to spend the summer in Wilmington Beach might be just the thing to blast through his writer’s block. Faith Armstrong has finally gathered the courage to leave her past behind and accepted a job as a private tutor, hoping for a fresh start on the North Carolina coast. These two damaged individuals just might be perfect for each other. Faith is incredibly strong although she doesn’t appear that way from the outside. But I absolutely fell for her. Alec has grown comfortable wallowing in his pain and misery. When Faith breaks through his gloom he can write again but can she kick start his heart as well? I’ll admit there were times in this book that I hated Alec for striking out in pain at the easiest target, Faith. But when he gets the stick out of his ass he is a pretty good guy. This is the second in the series but can be read stand alone. Kelly Moran will have you laughing and crying and squirming and sighing. Another fabulous story.
Kelly Moran has done it again. I absolutely adore this book. It made me laugh, it choked me up, it made me want to throw my beautiful ARC across the room. Alec and Faith were both such wonderful, wounded souls. Alec has finally hit the wall and it has manifested as a huge case of writer's block. Faith is moving into a new phase of her life and realizing just how awful the old phase really was. When the two realize they have off the charts chemistry and are helping each other with their hurdles they agree to a summer fling. How often does THAT work? With passions and stress levels rising, Faith and Alec aren't sure what to do, but each knows they don't want to do it without the other. Their journey is sweet, sexy, and gut wrenching. I felt absolutely ALL the feels in this book. It was just that great. I can't wait to see what Moran gives us next