Theo Wishart has given up on finding love.
Luca Moretti doesn’t want to find it.
A handful of summer days may change their lives forever—if they’re brave enough to look between the lines.
Eyes might be windows to the soul, but for Theo Wishart they’re all shuttered. His dyspraxia makes it hard to read people. He doesn’t do relationships and he certainly doesn’t do the great outdoors. Two weeks spent “embracing beach life” while he tries to close the deal on a once great, now fading seaside hotel is a special kind of hell.
Until Luca. Gorgeous, unreachable Luca.
Luca Moretti travels light, avoiding all romantic entanglements. Estranged from his parents, he vows this will be his last trip home to New Milton. His family’s hotel is on the verge of ruin and there’s nothing Luca can do to save it. He’s given up on the Majestic, he’s given up on his family and he’s given up on his future.
Until Theo. Prickly, captivating Theo.
No mushy feelings, no expectations, and no drama—that’s the deal. A simple summer fling. And it suits them both just fine. But as the summer wanes and their feelings deepen, it’s clear to everyone around them that Theo and Luca are falling in love. What will it take for them to admit it to themselves—and to each other?
This book is approximately 73,000 words
One-click with confidence. This title is part of the Carina Press Romance Promise: all the romance you’re looking for with an HEA/HFN. It’s a promise!
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"C'mon, c'mon. Almost there."
Luca Moretti ran encouraging hands over the wheel of his faithful old van as it rattled and coughed the last couple miles into town. Well, town was stretching a point: New Milton was little more than a single street of stores selling, at this time of year, flip-flops, cheap bodyboards, and tacky seaside souvenirs. But it was home, or at least it had been.
He parked at the curb behind a sleek black Town Car, beyond ready to stretch his legs after the long drive. Slamming shut the rickety door to his camper, Luca eyed the Lincoln curiously as he walked past — it looked out of place on New Milton's scruffy Main Street — and then promptly forgot all about it when he caught sight of the bay ahead. Whenever he returned home, the beach was always his first port of call. He didn't have time to linger, so just strolled down to the boardwalk, standing at the railing and breathing in the salty-seaweed tang of the ocean. There was no surf today, only a couple of guys out paddle-boarding beyond the swimmers, but he'd checked the weather report and tomorrow promised a nice offshore breeze to liven things up. He couldn't wait to get in the water.
After a few minutes enjoying the sights and sounds of summer, Luca headed back to his van via Dee's Coffee Shop. Stalling, perhaps, but he needed something to brace himself before he faced the knot of unwelcome feelings waiting for him at home. Reluctantly, he glanced up at the Majestic as he made his way back along the sidewalk. The hotel stood proud on the headland, gleaming and familiar in the midday sun: his home, once, his future, once — and now, neither.
Huffing out a sigh, he looked away and pushed open the door to Dee's. New Milton's only coffee shop always did good trade in the summer, but today it was packed. Wall-to-wall teenagers, in fact.
"Luca!" Dee's rich voice snapped him out of his thoughts and he grinned at his old friend.
Spiky hair, dyed a deep burgundy, and heavy framed pink glasses topped her wide, harried smile. He'd known Dee almost his whole life and reached over the counter to give her a hug. "Hey, how you doing?"
"Busy," she said. "When did you get into town?"
"Just now. It's a little crazy, today, huh?"
"Finn Callaghan's fans," she explained, indicating the teenagers. "Here for the wedding. God knows we need the business, I'm not complaining." Her eyes narrowed. "Now you look like you'll be wanting a Red Eye."
She wasn't wrong. He'd hit the road early to avoid the worst of the traffic and felt a little spacy from the short night's sleep. Smiling, Luca slid onto a stool to wait, watching while Dee made his coffee. Neither of her girls were around, but it looked like she'd taken on a couple of local kids to clean tables and work in the kitchen. When she brought his coffee over, he said, "Lexa and Ali not helping out this summer?"
Dee peered at him over her glasses. "They graduated last year, Luca. Ali's working in Brooklyn and Lexa's up in Boston."
"Yeah?" He sipped his coffee with a grateful sigh. "Outgrown the place, huh?"
"What's to keep them here?"
No arguing with that, he supposed, not when he'd been on the road himself for the last five years. Except that he'd been forced to leave and, despite everything, New Milton and the Majestic still tugged at him in dangerous ways.
Thoughts of the hotel soured his mood, made him want to get the inevitable meeting over with. Glancing at the clock on the wall, he picked up his cup and stood. "I should go. Mom's expecting me for lunch."
"Come back when we're less busy," Dee told him, smiling. "I want to hear all about your latest adventures."
Luca laughed. The adventures of an itinerant surf instructor were a lot less exciting than Dee probably imagined. But, still, it felt good to laugh, to loosen the tension that had coiled tighter and tighter the closer he got to home.
It tightened again as he stepped outside, juggling his sunglasses and coffee, and headed back to the van. And maybe he was preoccupied by his thoughts and not paying attention to where he was going, because suddenly he was face-to-face with a guy. Sleek black hair, office-pale skin, and as buttoned-down as his Oxford shirt, the man scowled as he dithered left and right, trying to dodge past Luca. Their ridiculous dance might have been funny if the guy hadn't looked so pissed.
Endeavoring to get out of his way, Luca stepped to one side. But the guy surged forward at the same time and they collided so hard he felt the man's warm lips graze his jaw, his chest thumping into Luca's shoulder. The startling impact knocked the keys from Luca's hand, splashing hot coffee over his fingers. "Whoa!" he gasped, shaking his stinging hand. "In a hurry, buddy?"
"Yes, actually." Not a hint of humor or apology in his clipped British accent. The guy just glared at the spot of Luca's coffee staining his chinos, dark brow scrunched.
Luca's patience was already paper thin as he bent to pick up his keys. "Well, try looking where you're going next time, huh?"
"Me?" The guy's head shot up and Luca was startled by a pair of dark brown eyes, exactly the sort to set his pulse racing. Too bad they were snapping angrily and glaring at Luca's coffee-soaked hand. "You walked right into me!"
"Uh, I don't think so."
The guy scowled. "Fine. Of course it's my fault. I'm sorry." His sarcasm was thick enough to slice. Unbelievable.
"Well, thank you for such a heartfelt apology," Luca snapped. "I'm touched."
For a moment the guy looked confused, then his lips flattened into a hard line and he scowled. "Yes, well. Excuse me, I'm on my way to an important meeting and I can't be late."
Luca took an exaggerated step to the left. "Don't let me get in your way."
The guy didn't reply, just gave a curt nod and stalked away. Luca watched him go and definitely did not check out his ass in those well-fitting chinos. Arrogant bastard. He didn't expect to charm everyone he ran into, but what the hell had he done to earn that attitude? Typical entitled WASP in his Oxford shirt and penny loafers, silver spoon shoved so far up his ass he probably couldn't sit down. You got a lot of his sort on the island, and Luca hadn't missed them one little bit. Jeez, the guy hadn't even had the courtesy to look him in the eye. "Asshole."
Irritated, he climbed back behind the wheel of his van and turned the key, the run-in not helping his mood as he headed up to the Majestic.
It wasn't far and all too soon he glimpsed her through the trees surrounding the hotel gardens, their branches swaying in a gentle onshore breeze. Through the van's open window drifted the green scent of summer leaves mixed with the ocean's sharp tang — an aroma so redolent of home it hurt. Luca's stomach tensed, fingers clammy on the steering wheel. He hated this. Coming home sucked every damn time, but this time was the worst. Because this time was the last.
Even now, he still wondered whether he was making a mistake. Maybe he should let his mom and Don do whatever the hell they wanted with the Majestic, spend the summer elsewhere and forget all about the hotel. But he couldn't. He couldn't forget the Majestic and he couldn't let them destroy it.
Pulling up on the large gravel driveway, Luca killed the engine and took a moment to gaze up at the old place. A little shabbier than last year, the paint on the wraparound porch looked more faded and her multiple gabled roofs sagged a little more deeply. But, to his eyes, she was still lovely. A couple of visitors' cars were parked out front, but not many. Not enough for a weekend in mid-July. Not that he cared ...
For a wild moment he considered kicking the van into reverse and leaving, heading south for the summer. Or all the way over to California. Why not? He was a free agent, he could go where he wanted. One hand drifted to the stick shift, the other reaching for the ignition, just as the Majestic's door swung open and a spare familiar figure appeared in the doorway.
"Luca? Is that you, honey?"
He closed his eyes. Too late. Heavy limbed, he yanked open the door and climbed out of the van. "Hey, Mom," he called, lifting a hand to wave.
"Luca!" Jude Brennan trotted down the stairs and across the gravel, long hair fluttering in the sea breeze. "You're here!" And then she was in his arms, holding him tight. "It's so good to see you, honey. I wasn't sure you'd come."
Luca buried his face in the familiar scent of her hair, feeling a wave of relief at coming home, and a low lurch of grief. "Of course I came," he said, choking down his feelings. "I said I would."
Pulling back, she took his face in her hands. "My handsome boy." She smiled despite the wet gleam in her eyes. "Young man, I should say."
He'd been a young man for quite a while, but they only saw each other once a year these days — every summer, at the Majestic — and Jude always picked up the changes in him. And he in her. Strands of white wove through her gray hair this year, her face thinner than he remembered, and tension pinched her mouth and eyes. She looked worn down. Perhaps because she was on the point of throwing everything away for a condo in fucking Miami, just because her asshole husband didn't give a shit about the Majestic. But Luca couldn't think about that, not with her right there. He was afraid of saying something he couldn't take back. God knows, they'd both said enough already.
"Come on in," Jude said. "I've made your favorite." She always made his favorite, as if home-cooked lasagna could compensate for driving him out of his childhood home. "We're not full at the moment," she said, looping her arm through his as they walked across the drive. "If you want to, we have plenty of open rooms —"
"I'll sleep in the van, thanks." He'd vowed never to spend a single night under the same roof as Don Brennan, and had no intention of changing his mind.
She sighed. "Luca ... Still?"
"Don still have a problem with my 'lifestyle'?"
She didn't answer as they climbed up to the porch, so Luca took her silence as a "yes." At the top of the steps, Jude paused to catch her breath. Nervous, perhaps? She wasn't alone. He had to take a deep breath himself, bracing for the barrage of emotions awaiting him.
Stepping inside, the foyer opened up around him, filled with sunlight, its gleaming marble floor leading to the grand staircase down which Luca had hurtled as a boy. The carpet was threadbare now, worn away on the edges of the steps, but so what if the carpets were threadbare, the chandeliers tarnished, and the wallpaper faded? What did any of it matter in a place like the Majestic, with a lifetime of golden summers baked into her old bones? She may lack the mod cons, but to Luca's eyes her old-time elegance only added to her beauty.
Unfortunately, Don Brennan waited in the foyer, too, fiddling with a vase of flowers on the reception desk like the prissy asshole he was, tainting Luca's homecoming. Don turned with a fake smile and said, "Luca, good to see you." He didn't hold out a hand to shake, or try for a hug — he knew better by now — which suited Luca just fine.
"Don," he said.
"Good drive? I hope you didn't run into too much traffic."
"No, it was fine. I left early."
Don nodded. "You take the tunnel? There's construction on 36th Street."
"Nah, the bridge to avoid the tolls."
And so it went on, the traditional male discussion of route planning in order to avoid discussing anything more important — like why gay guys made you nervous, or how you'd persuaded your wife to abandon the hotel her family had owned for three generations. That kind of shit.
Smiling tightly, Jude tugged her hair into a ponytail with twitchy fingers. "Well, let's eat," she said, slipping her arm around Luca's waist and ushering him into the kitchen. The big table sat under the window where it had always been, three places at the far end set for a cozy family meal.
"Beer?" Don held out a bottle of Luca's favorite Italian lager.
He was always such a suck-up, but Luca wasn't in a position to refuse; he really needed a fucking drink. "Thanks." He killed the neck in one long gulp and set the bottle down, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand just to irritate the fastidious bastard. But Don didn't rise to the bait, taking a seat opposite him and shaking out a napkin to lay across his lap.
They ate in silence at first, Jude casting Luca quick sidelong looks while she picked at her food and he shoveled forkfuls of lasagna into his mouth. It was excellent, as always, but only served to remind him of everything he'd lost.
Eventually, Jude set down her fork. "I suppose we should address the elephant in the room."
Shit, no. "We really don't need to, Mom."
"I think we do," Don said. And who the hell had asked him?
"Luca, honey, I know you're not happy about our decision to sell —"
"Nope." He flashed a hard look at Don. "It's a crappy idea."
Don cleared his throat, but Jude gestured for him to keep quiet. "I thought you might feel better about it if you knew more about the proposal: what Lux Properties are suggesting they could do with the site, how it would benefit New Milton."
Luca stared at her, uncomprehending. Why the hell would he care about any of that? "They're going to tear the Majestic down," he said, struggling to keep his voice calm. "What more is there to know?"
Jude's lips thinned. "Nothing's decided yet, Luca."
He paused in his eating. "It's not?"
"No. In fact, we have someone from the company coming to talk to us this afternoon, and I'd appreciate your input. I —" A glance at Don. "We want to do what's best for New Milton, as well as what's best for us, as a family."
"Not tearing down the hotel would be best," Luca said, and went back to his lasagna so he didn't have to look at either of them.
Don said, "Now, Luca, that's not true —"
"How would you know?"
"Luca." Jude sounded weary. "Please don't."
Shame, uglied by resentment, tightened a knot in the pit of his stomach. "I only meant he doesn't love New Milton like we do. He hasn't lived here long."
"He's lived here for the past five years, Luca, helping me run the place. Don gave up his career." She didn't need to add, after you left town. "We want to do what's best when we sell — for everyone, including you. You'll get a share of the sale, Luca, and I want you to be part of the decision."
"I don't —" He closed his eyes, took a breath. I don't want a share of the sale. I don't want to be part of the decision. I don't want any of this. "You already know what I think."
Don set his fork down with a clatter. "If you knew —"
"No, Jude, it has to be said. Luca, your mother and I can't run this place anymore. She's not well and she can't manage."
Luca's gaze shot up, fixing on Jude. "Mom?"
"I'm fine." She glared at Don. "I'm finding it more tiring than I used to, that's all. I'm getting older, Luca, and this is a big hotel for the two of us to manage alone."
"Alone? What about Eddie, and Mrs. Kausar —?"
"We have four rooms occupied," Don said. "In July. We can't afford to hire anyone this season, Luca, and if you won't come back —"
"I can't." He held Don's stare beat for beat. "You know why."
Silence. This was the real elephant in the room, the great fucking Don-shaped shadow looming over everything.
"Luca, please." Jude touched his hand, her fingers thin, bonier than he remembered. "I want you to be part of this. Theodore's coming all the way from New York to talk to us today, and I'd love you to be there with me."
Luca lifted an eyebrow at the name. "Theodore?"
"Theodore Wishart." She shared a pleased smile with Don. "His father owns Lux Properties. We're getting first-class treatment."
"Theodore Wishart? That's his name, for real?"
Jude laughed, the bright amused chuckle he remembered from the days before Don. "I think he's British or something."
"And he's coming here to talk you into selling the Majestic?"
"To make us an offer —" another glance at Don "— and to explain what their plans are for the site, yes."
Luca chewed his lip. If Jude hadn't signed anything yet then maybe he could talk her out of it, show her what a mistake she was making. He glanced at Don's uneasy expression and knew he was right: Jude hadn't decided, something was holding her back. And Luca had a feeling that something was him — which meant there was still a chance to change her mind.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Between the Lines"
Copyright © 2018 Sally Malcolm.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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