Eve Harris is all set to house-sit and run the bakery she shares with her sister while Maggie goes on her honeymoon, but there's one problem—the house is already occupied. By a movie star. He claims to be her brother-in-law's friend, and not only does he insist on staying, he also offers to help. Playing house has never been so tempting...
Rhys Thomas is looking for a place to lie low after wrapping up his latest film, so when Luke offers up his house as a safe haven, Rhys sees the perfect opportunity for a little R & R. But rest is the last thing on his mind as he and Eve grow close.
But Eve and Rhys are not as alone as they think. And as danger trails Eve, it will take everything Rhys has to save the woman he loves.
About the Author
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Meg Tilly
He caught sight of her as the wedding party swooped past him and entered the church. Her arm was linked with the bride’s, both of them laughing in the late-afternoon sun. Her head was thrown back, causing her long dark-chocolate hair to tumble down her back in glorious abandon.
Mine, the man thought with a fierceness that shocked him to the core.
He quickly parked, grabbed his phone, snapped a hasty photo through the windshield, then exited his vehicle. The path of his life had just veered to the left, and he had no choice but to follow where it led him.
He crossed the road and melded into the edges of a large group entering the church. Nervous sweat was starting to congregate in his armpits. He could feel it sticking his shirt to his back as he slipped past the ushers standing guard at the vestibule’s arched doors leading into the nave.
He sat in the rear of the church and waited for her to reappear. And when she did, he bathed in her beauty, the gracefulness of her form.
The ceremony was finished, the bride was kissed, and everyone stood hurling flower petals as the newly married couple headed down the aisle. Only a few more minutes before they would pass the back pews and the crowd would disperse.
He tapped the lacy arm of the matron beside him. “Who is she?” he asked. He thought he had put his socially acceptable expression of bored interest on. But apparently a flare of the passion coursing through him had slipped past the mask, for the woman’s eyes widened as she took a slight step back.
“The bride?” she asked, her dimpled hands fluttering up to her neck.
“No, her,” he said, smoothing his face into benign kindness and tipping it toward the mystery goddess. “The maid of honor.”
The woman’s skittishness subsided, and an affectionate smile took its place. “That’s the bride’s sister, Eve Harris. Quite the beauty, isn’t she?”
“I hadn’t noticed,” he lied. “She looked familiar, and I was wondering how I knew her.”
“She and her sister are co-owners of the Intrepid Café. It’s a pretty recent addition to our town, but it’s been quite the smash hit, let me tell you! My friends and I meet every Wednesday for our afternoon social and, oh my, do we enjoy their baked goods.” She glanced over her shoulder and noticed that her friends had moved on. “Excuse me,” she said, hurrying after them.
Dazed, he followed in her wake, out the church, down the steps into the courtyard, blinking in the harsh July sunlight. A mole emerging from its hole. His mind spun a million miles an hour.
She belonged to him. Of that he was certain.
However, this would require careful planning, preparation. He wasn’t sure exactly how he was going to pull it off, but he did know one thing.
He was her destiny.
Three months later
“So, which one will it be?” Eve asked, peering at Ethelwyn through the glass case.
The woman’s hands were shoved in the front pockets of her saggy faded jeans, her worn plaid work shirt loose and untucked. She was staring intently at the various pies. Her lips made little smacking sounds, as if she were actually tasting the various options. “I don’t know,” she moaned. “The cherry looks good, but I really love Maggie’s strawberry-rhubarb. It has just the right amount of tart and sweet.”
Behind Ethelwyn, someone cleared his throat. Eve glanced at the fortysomething man sporting an expensive haircut and wearing a fawn-colored cashmere sweater over a button-down white shirt. His sleeves were rolled back. There was a gold Cartier watch on his wrist and a burnished gold wedding ring on his finger.
He seemed a trifle irritated by Ethelwyn’s indecision.
Eve smothered a grin. Too bad, she thought. This is the Solace Island way. Doesn’t matter what your bank balance is. Everyone’s equal.
Besides, Ethelwyn was one of the Intrepid Café’s most loyal customers. She and her life partner, Lavina, purchased copious amounts of baked goods. Whereas Mr. Fancy-Pants had only started coming by recently and usually ordered a coffee. Black. How could anyone see the tempting treats and smell the wonderful fragrances caused by her sister’s delicious creations and then just order a black coffee?
“Take your time, Ethelwyn,” Eve said cheerily. “It’s an important decision. I’ll start boxing up the rest of your order.” She slid the glass door of the display cabinet shut with her hip as she rose. Then she turned to the back counter, where her sister, Maggie, was transferring pecan-puff jam-dot cookies from the cooling racks to a display platter.
“Hey, hey, hey,” Maggie murmured, a conspiratorial grin lighting up her face.
“What?” Eve said, placing a dozen chocolate cookies with caramel centers and a sprinkling of flaked sea salt on the top into a white bakery box.
“He likes you,” Maggie whispered. She wiggled her eyebrows, which meant the guy she was talking about was super hot.
Eve peeked over her shoulder, took a quick glance around the café to see who had arrived. No one had. She looked at Maggie. Who? Where is he? she mouthed, shifting casually closer to her sister, because clearly Maggie had a better hunk-viewing vantage point.
Behind Ethelwyn, Maggie mouthed. You should see the way he’s looking at you. All hungry-like.
The tendrils of hope and excitement deflated with a thump. “Eww,” Eve said. “First of all, he’s married.”
“He is?” Maggie looked disappointed.
“Yup. Ring on the finger. And second, even if he weren’t”—Eve wrapped the red-and-white string around the bakery box and secured it—“he’s not my type.”
Maggie started to open her mouth.
“At all,” Eve said firmly.
Maggie sighed. She looked so wistful.
“I know.” Eve reached over and wiped a smear of flour off her sister’s cheek. “You’re so happy and in love with Luke, and you want that for me.”
“Yeah,” Maggie said with a rueful smile. “That about sums it up. Speaking of . . . Falling Ashes has a gig in Seattle next week. If you’d like to check the show out, it’s on one of your days off—”
“Not going to happen,” Eve said, cutting her off at the pass.
“But you and Levi were such a cute couple. That guy was so into you. What happened? Why’d you break up? We all loved him, Mom and Dad included.”
“They were okay with him. Mom thought he was wild, and Dad wanted to keep an eye on him. ‘The devil you know’ and all that. It’s the only reason they hired him.”
“Once they got to know him, they liked him.”
“Dad thought he was a slacker.”
“You’re being harsh. Sure, it would take Levi a while to get focused, but once he did, he pulled his weight on the construction site. The guy was crazy about you—still is, I bet. He’s single.”
Eve gave her sister a look.
“What? It’s not like I’ve been keeping tabs on him. He sent me a friend request last week on Facebook. I was curious, so I glanced through his profile—”
“I’m going to be adventurous and take the cherry!” Eve heard Ethelwyn’s raspy voice declare from behind her.
“Sounds like a plan, Ethelwyn,” Eve said, turning around with a smile. “I’ll box it up.” She removed the homemade cherry pie with the latticework crust and fluted edges from the case.
“He still looks smokin’ hot,” she heard Maggie say from behind her. “Had a tour schedule posted, so he is managing to book gigs. Maybe the timing for the two of you wasn’t right before.”
“It wasn’t timing that broke us up,” Eve said, aware of a slight acerbic edge creeping into her voice. She sighed. It wasn’t fair to be grouchy at Maggie. Her sister didn’t have all the information. Why would she? Her family had been so fond of Levi, and he’d loved them. Even though the breakup had been brutal and he’d behaved very badly, that person wasn’t who he truly was. Drugs and alcohol had sunk their claws into him. It had broken her heart to see the man she loved disappear into a shell of his former self. She’d stayed in the relationship longer than she should have, trying to save him. One day, after he’d surfaced from a three-day bender, she’d realized the only person she could save was herself.
He’d been gutted when she’d left. No need to wound Levi further by tarnishing her family’s view of him, crushing the memories of happier times.
“You guys were both so young. Maybe things would be different now. Seriously, Eve, what would it hurt to go say hello? If you left right after work, you could hop on the ferry and totally make it to the concert with time to spare. You’d have to stay overnight, of course . . .”
“Maggie, honey,” Eve said, squeezing past her sister to snag a pastry box. “He’s a great guy and all, but—”
“But you aren’t attracted to him anymore.” Maggie huffed out a disappointed sigh. “I get it,” she said, gathering up the cooling racks.
Attraction, Eve thought, was never an issue. Hell, if she’d felt any more sparks around Levi her hair would’ve caught fire. It was the day-to-day connection that had been the problem—or the lack thereof.
“Mmm,” she murmured, even though a reply wasn’t necessary. Maggie had already disappeared through the swinging door that led to the kitchen.
Eve placed the pie on the counter and started to assemble the pastry box.
Levi. She still missed him. Correction. She missed the Levi she used to know, the bright-eyed boy-man who was overflowing with big dreams and passion, not the Levi he’d turned into. They’d met her first week at university. Within a month he’d convinced her to move out of her dorm and in with him. He was exciting, older than her, in the graduating class. His philosophy was that one should live in the present, seize life with both fists, burn hard and bright. It was what had attracted her to him in the first place.
Their first year together had passed like a dream. Memories of music and making love, sunshine and laughter, friends and members of the band tumbling in and out of their apartment. Making sangria in the enormous pasta pot that the previous tenant had left behind. Going to the band’s weekend gigs, standing in the front, starting the dancing, other people joining in. Aware of his eyes on her while he made love to his guitar, to the mic. The gigs became a protracted foreplay to what they would be doing after the set, his music and voice thrumming through her sweat-slicked body like a caress. She’d felt unleashed from the girl she used to be. The one who’d spent her high school years working weekends and summers in the family construction business alongside her sister, mother, and dad. Weeks would sometimes pass before she’d remember to drag herself out of their warm bed, put on her sensible clothes instead of her wild-child ones. She’d walk across campus to the Presbyterian Church on Whitney Ave. But it wasn’t her church, with her family, familiar faces and friends. She would sit there surrounded by strangers, a lump in her throat, imagining her family back in Eugene, Oregon. Sitting in their regular pew, freshly scrubbed and innocent of the wild university goings-on, their bellies full of homemade pancakes and cheesy scrambled eggs. Missing them had loneliness rising like a volcano, threatening to tear her apart until finally she stopped going to church altogether.
Eve placed the cherry pie in the assembled box and unspooled some string.
Looking back, it was hard to pinpoint when the shift happened and he became the other Levi, the one she didn’t know. It had been an imperceptible slide. He’d graduated so certain that fame was going to reach out its golden finger and tap him on the shoulder. Over that next year, bit by bit he lost his way. He would come home worn-out, anger flaring unexpectedly, a crack of lightning exploding out of a clear blue sky. He was on the road more often than not, with a plethora of women, drugs, and booze at his fingertips. Their relationship changed, became brittle, full of recriminations, and the very quality she’d adored became the thing that tore them apart.
Eve secured the pie box with a bow, a wave of melancholy sweeping through her. Someday, somewhere, I’m going to meet someone who’s right for me, she vowed, pushing the sadness aside. And he’s going to be a steady Eddie. A nine-to-fiver. Someone I can count on.
She turned toward the bustling café, plastered a smile on her face, stepped to the cash register, and rang in Ethelwyn’s purchases.
“Aaaand that’s a wrap for Rhys Thomas, folks,” the first AD called. The weary film crew burst into cheers and applause. Which was very sweet, considering it was raining, they were on night shoot, and it’d be a good three hours before any of them would see a bed.
“Thanks,” Rhys said. “It’s been a pleasure working with you.” The crew was still cheering. “Thank you. Really.” He gently thumped his fist to his heart, nodded, smiled, ignoring the excruciating headache that’d been wreaking havoc on him for the last two days.
The sound of their hands clapping was like a million ice picks driving into his skull. Rhys took a few more steps back, gave a wave, then headed for his trailer.
There was the usual crowd of fans by his Winnebago. During the day they set up barricades. Tonight, however, they were shooting bits and pieces. Needed to move fast and light, hopping from location to location, so the barricades were left behind.
He scrawled a few autographs on scraps of paper, photos of him, current and past. How people found out where he was shooting and showed up still sorta freaked him out after all these years. That they would stand outside his trailer in the pouring rain at four in the morning was mind-boggling.
“Rhys,” a buxom blonde purred. “Want company?”
“Not tonight, thanks, love,” he replied, polite but firm.
There had been a time, in his early twenties, when he would have taken her up on her offer. When he’d first hit it big, he’d been like a kid let loose in a candy shop where everything was free. Now, at thirty-two, screwing her would just make him sad—for her, for him.
Once the PA was able to squeeze him past the crowd and unlock his trailer, Rhys stepped inside and locked the door behind him. He’d learned early on the necessity.
He stripped out of his soaking-wet wardrobe. The heat was on in the trailer, but still, he was freezing his ass off, standing naked holding the dripping clothes in his arms. No sense putting them on hangers—they were filthy. Not just with sweat from the physical scene they’d filmed, but movie dirt, too, and fake blood.
He wrinkled his nose. There had been something seriously rancid in that alley they were shooting in. He was tempted to leave his briefs behind, because who the hell wanted to stuff soaking-wet underwear into their script bag? But if he left them behind, some enterprising soul would sell them to the highest bidder.
Rhys shook his head. The world’s gone crazy for sure, he thought as he peeled his underwear from the pile of clothes and dumped the rest in the sink.
Wardrobe would launder the clothes and store them for a few months, just in case reshoots were needed.
They’d be wise to disinfect them, he thought with a puff of laughter that jarred his head. Acting sure is glamorous. He strode over to his satchel, caught sight of himself in the mirror, his junk shriveled up like a scared turtle from the cold. Yeah, I’m one sexy beast, he thought, another puff of laughter escaping. He was glad the shoot was over. Was dog-tired. Needed to rest, to tuck away somewhere quiet for a few weeks, far from the crowds and paparazzi.
“Where’s the damn . . . ?” He rummaged around his bag until his numb fingers closed around the bottle of aspirin. “Thank God,” he muttered, flipping the lid off. He shook out two pills and swallowed them with a glug of coffee left over from meal break.
Then Rhys turned on the shower. An anemic trickling of water emerged. At least it was hot. Wouldn’t take long to wash off the grime and makeup. The shampoo his makeup artist, Pete, had given him smelled of green apples. An odd choice, since Pete was rarely seen without full biker gear on. Either it was a way for the dude to wind Rhys up, or the shampoo had been on sale.
Oh well, Rhys thought, massaging the shampoo into his scalp, tipping his head back to capture the stingy stream of water. It’s better than smelling of dumpster garbage, old beer, and piss.
Eve leaned against the staff bathroom door at the café, her eyes squeezed shut. The manila envelope containing the disc with images of her art, her CV, and artist’s statement was clutched to her chest.
After several months of persistent follow-through, Jocelyn Smith of the South End Gallery had finally agreed to take a look at her portfolio.
“Please . . . please . . . please . . .” Eve murmured, even though she knew it was stupid to pray about something that was already predetermined. Inside would either be a rejection letter or an acceptance.
She exhaled, emotionally braced herself, then opened the envelope and took the letter out.
Dear Eve Harris,
Thank you for your submission. We at the South End Gallery are fortunate to have a plethora of talented artists residing on Solace Island. We have chosen the works for our next exhibition, and yours was not among them.
Your work shows considerable talent. We hope that you will consider submitting again to us in the future.
Jocelyn Smith, owner
She felt her face flush. “Damn.” She shoved the letter back into the envelope. It was stupid to feel defective every time a rejection landed in her in-box or arrived in the mail. Getting an art career up and running was difficult, and the sheer number of wannabe artists was mind-boggling.
A laugh escaped her compressed lips. “Who are you kidding?” she muttered. “You are one of those frikkin’ wannabe artists.” Never mind that she’d attended Yale University School of Art and graduated in the top five percent of her class.
“Dammit. I was sure . . .” she started to say, but her voice trailed off. She hadn’t been sure. She’d hoped. Big difference.
“Fine.” She tucked the manila envelope behind the hot water heater to retrieve later. “Nothing wrong with hoping. Onward and upward, as Grandmother would say.” She straightened, shook off her disappointment, and exited the bathroom. Eve smoothed her apron, then slipped through the swinging doors to rejoin her sister dealing with customers in the front of the café.
Maggie glanced at her hopefully, eyebrows raised.
Eve gave a barely discernible shake of her head, keeping a lighthearted smile on her face. Worse than the rejections was her sister’s disappointment.
“I’m so sorry,” Maggie murmured, placing six brownies in a box and securing it with string.
The small bell on the front door jingled as three more customers stepped inside and headed toward a table.
Eve shrugged. “It is what it is.” She turned away, making it clear that if she wasn’t bothered, Maggie shouldn’t be either. Eve handed Dorothy three menus and tipped her head in the direction of the newcomers.
“It’s eight minutes to three and the place is still hopping. Do you think we should stay open a little longer?” Maggie asked Eve as she passed her carrying the last two brownies on a plate.
They smelled delicious.
“Nope,” Eve said. “You’ve got places to go, people to see.”
Her stomach growled hungrily. She was in need of a little comfort, and those brownies would hit the spot. “Wait!” Eve snagged the brownie plate from her sister’s hand before Maggie lowered the glass display dome over them. “I’m going to take these puppies home.”
“Eve,” Maggie said, laughing. “You made me promise not to let you gorge when we’re here.”
“Exactly,” Eve said, dodging her sister’s outstretched hand and pushing the swinging door open with her shoulder. “That’s why I’m taking the brownies home. I want to enjoy them at my leisure rather than stuffing my face here.”
Eve had learned the hard way that if she was craving something, she needed to hide it in the kitchen. Otherwise a customer might see it and she’d be forced to relinquish her claim.
Once in the kitchen she wrote Eve’s! Don’t touch. Thanks! on a Post-it and attached it to the plate. Larry, the new dishwasher, had a habit of surreptitious snacking on the job. He wasn’t supposed to, but Eve couldn’t blame him. It was impossible to resist the siren song of Maggie’s baking. Larry was an odd duck. He didn’t talk much. He had a shambling quality about him. A huge beard, shoulder-length bushy hair, abundant on the sides and back but sparse at the crown of his head. Eve made a point of keeping her gaze firmly fixed on his eyes when he spoke because he had really bad teeth and she didn’t want to embarrass him.
All in all, Larry was a pretty good find. Eve did have to give him a gentle reminder to use deodorant last week, but she only had to tell him once and after that it wasn’t a problem. He was punctual, fast, and hardworking, and best of all, he washed dishes like a dream!
“Mine,” she called out, pointing to the brownies as an extra precaution.
Larry was hunched over the sink, up to his elbows in soapy water. His head rotated slightly, and he grunted.
“Thanks,” she said, then slipped through the swinging door and returned to the hustle and bustle of the café.
There were several people lined up at the bakery counter. Maggie was looking a little tired. Dorothy Whidbee, however, who was well into her sixties, was going strong.
“Where does she get her energy?” Eve murmured to Maggie. They paused for a moment, watching Dorothy, their rotund part-time waitress and full-time love child weaving her way among the tables with the coffeepot, topping people up. She was incorporating some kind of belly-dance move into her walk and undulating along like an overstuffed snake with legs.
“Don’t ask,” Maggie warned, a bemused smile flitting across her face. “I made that mistake and got an hour-long dissertation on the joys and benefits of tantric sex. Oh dear.” Dorothy was now attempting to demonstrate to Big Hank—a loyal and steady customer—that she could do a shimmying backbend and top up his coffee cup at the same time.
“Dorothy,” Eve called.
Dorothy straightened, looking like a kid who got caught with her hand in the cookie jar. “Uh-huh?”
Eve shook her head. “No belly dancing on the job.”
“Aww,” Big Hank protested. “Party pooper.”
“Wouldn’t be much of a party with a lapful of scalding coffee,” Eve replied.
There’d been a line waiting outside the front door when they opened that morning, and the flow of people hadn’t let up all day. Everyone wanted to store up on goodies before Maggie and Luke went away on their vacation.
“It’s really not fair,” the next woman in line chided Maggie. “You get us addicted and then you abandon us?”
A young hippie couple complete with earth-toned fabrics, backpacks, and fresh-scrubbed faces vacated their table.
“Maggie’s not abandoning us,” Eve said, snagging a dishrag. She rounded the counter, gathered the two empty mugs, a crumpled napkin, and the dessert plate that had been licked clean, then wiped down the table. “She is taking a well-deserved break.”
Maggie and Luke had gone on an abbreviated three-day honeymoon with the understanding that they’d make up for it with a longer vacation once the Intrepid Café was better established.
Well, the time had arrived. Eve was more than a little apprehensive about the next two weeks, but it’d be a cold day in hell before she’d let her sister know. “When Maggie comes back from her glorious holiday, she will be refreshed and rested and full of ideas for new recipes and tasty treats.”
“Ooh,” the soft-faced woman in the floral dress murmured.
“And I,” Eve continued as she headed toward the entrance, making sure to project her voice so everyone in the café could hear, “will be here at the Intrepid Café, keeping the home fires burning. Granted it will be a shortened week, but on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, we will be open as usual. Eight a.m. to three p.m.”
“Who will be doing the baking?” someone from a table of rowdy construction workers called from the round corner table.
“I will,” Eve called back with more confidence than she felt.
“But you can’t cook,” Big Hank said from his spot by the door.
“You don’t know that,” Eve replied jauntily, but she could feel her face turning red and giving her away.
“Yeah, I do,” Big Hank insisted, his voice building in strength and volume. “Remember when Maggie went away for that long weekend—on her honeymoon, she was. I ordered my usual oatmeal cookie to go with my coffee, and it tasted terrible.”
Grizzled Big Hank was a gruff old sweetie, but at the present moment Eve would quite happily stuff her wet dishrag in his mouth.
“Well, that was an unfortunate accident,” Eve said crisply. “We buy everything in bulk, and I wasn’t used to the layout of the cupboards. I did, however, learn from that, and now when I bake . . .” Eve didn’t bake. She was a klutz in the kitchen. The last time she attempted was three months ago, when her sister had taken her mini honeymoon. It had been an unmitigated disaster. Eve had planned to practice cooking, to prepare for the next time Maggie wasn’t able to man the ovens. But there were only so many hours in the day. When Eve found spare time on her hands, it was much more pleasurable to be out in a field painting.
“Yes?” Big Hank said, raising a bushy eyebrow. “Now when you bake . . . ?”
“I test,” Eve said, jutting her chin out. “That’s right. I dip my finger in and taste, to make sure the sugar is actually sugar and not salt.”
“Well, thank heavens to Betsy, because that cookie”—Big Hank paused for dramatic effect—“was horrible,” he said with relish. “Worst thing I ever tasted in my life!” Big Hank slapped his thigh, his booming laugh filling the café. “I paid good money for that cookie. My mouth was all ready . . . I took the first bite and . . . BLAH!”
Big Hank leapt from his chair, grabbed his napkin, and rubbed it wildly on his tongue. As if he were still being tortured by the flavor of the cookie Eve fed him three months ago.
Clearly, he was enjoying the rapt audience of the entire café.
Hilarious, Eve thought a trifle bitterly. Must have participated in Ham-o-lah-Community Theater Productions in his youth. “Well, wait and see,” she said, keeping the confident smile affixed to her face. She flipped the sign on the door to closed and threw the dead bolt, so no new customers could slip in when she wasn’t looking.
Just in time too, because she could see a cluster of hungry-looking tourists heading their way. “I happen to be a crackerjack cook now. My sister has taught me all her secrets.”
There was no reason to inform all and sundry that said “secrets” consisted of Maggie working day and night for the last week. She’d made huge containers of dough for the various cookies. Premade pies were waiting in the fridge and the freezer, ready to be slipped into the oven. She’d even premixed ingredients for the muffins and cupcakes, keeping the wet ingredients separate from the dry. Detailed instructions were written in a blue binder.
All Eve needed to do was mix the right amounts together and pop them in the oven. Easy-peasy. What could possibly go wrong?
The protective gloves made him feel a little fat fingered, but they were a necessary evil when working with toxic substances. What he didn’t like was how sweaty his face was getting. He longed to rip the mouth mask, safety shield, and safety glasses off and climb out of the protective coveralls, but the sodium peroxide would cause severe chemical burns. It could literally melt flesh away.
That was, after all, why he was using it.
He glanced at the battery-operated schoolroom clock that he had secured to the concrete wall of his underground bunker and watched the long black second hand finish its jerky sweep around the face and land on the twelve. That should do it.
He pushed away from the wall, walking past the small shrine in the corner, which was shrouded in a clear plastic tarp. It was not ideal, but special circumstances had arisen and compromises had needed to be made.
Tomorrow, once the place was dry, he’d be able to remove the tarp and bury his face in her cherry-red scarf once again. The scarf he’d stolen from the coatrack in the back room at the Intrepid. Would be able to feel the caress of silk slide across his face, breathe in the lingering notes of her scent.
Then he’d move on. Trail his finger over the grainy picture he’d taken outside a few months ago. The quality of the photo wasn’t good. He’d captured it surreptitiously through the windshield of his car. He’d been too far away. Too many people had been crowding around, and she’d been moving quickly. The focus had been bad, and perhaps his hand had been shaking from the pressure and excitement. It didn’t matter. He would get a better one soon.
But right now he had work to do.
He turned on the hose and started spraying down the section of the bunker where the bondage bed had been, cleansing the far wall and the floor with fresh, cool water. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Everything was dispensable.
Chhhsss . . . chhhsss . . . chhhsss . . . The water splattered against the gray concrete surfaces, streaked down the wall, then lapped its way across the floor, congregating at the stainless-steel floor drain in the center of the room. A tiny whirlpool spun around and around before disappearing down the drain. A repeat performance of what the blood had done a few days prior.
Chhhsss . . . chhhsss . . . chhhsss . . .
So fucking erotic, the tears, the blood, her helpless screams, and then the silence. Absolute, total silence.
Jesus! He was hard as a rock now. Didn’t have time for this foolishness. There was work to be done. A timetable to stick to. He would have to take care of his unruly dick a little later.
He switched off the water, looped the hose and hung it.
Removed the stiff scrub brush from the cupboard and carefully, systematically, went over the area with vinegar, neutralizing any remaining sodium peroxide.
This was important for two reasons. The first: to alleviate any lingering traces of blood from the test run. Which was—he could feel his dick twitch just thinking about it—very successful.
But second, and most important: it cleansed and purified the place for her. Eve Harris. His love. His light. His reason for being.
A few more days and he would be ready.
Her life was about to change. She just didn’t know it yet.
Eve locked the door of her apartment, which was situated above their café, and started lugging her gigantic suitcase down the back stairs. It was her third and final hurrah, for which she was grateful. She was sweating pretty hard by the time she got to the bottom. She stopped for a moment, shook her aching arms out, then headed toward her car, taking full advantage of the suitcase’s built-in wheels.
It had taken Eve longer than she’d anticipated to pack. Yes, she was only going to be staying at Luke and Maggie’s, which was a minuscule nine-minute drive away. And yes, her only company was going to be a large, shaggy wolfhound who wouldn’t care what she was wearing.
But for Eve, well, she didn’t have the resources to go to some tropical isle. House-sitting for Luke and Maggie was her vacation, and she wanted to make the most of it. She wanted to snuggle in and be cozy. One thing led to another, and before she knew it she had amassed a huge pile of stuff in the middle of her living room. She needed painting clothes, but also comfy lounging-around-the-house clothes, hiking boots and socks, a hat in case of sun—since she tended to burn—underwear, bras. And a vacation wasn’t a vacation without her favorite flannel pajamas from high school. The fabric had worn through in several places. There was a gaping hole under the right arm, and the left elbow was only a few fraying strands of fabric. The fabric at the shoulder was also quite threadbare; a tiny zigzag tear was threatening further action. The pajama top was missing a couple buttons. Yes, her favorite pajamas were real ratty-looking. Normally, she wouldn’t be caught dead in them, but since it was just ol’ Samson-the-dawg for company, the pajamas were coming. She also needed a couple sweaters, a raincoat, and so her to-bring stash grew and grew.
Those were the clothes. Then came the necessities. She managed to whittle the stack of eighteen books down to a more reasonable armload of five, but it had been hard since she really wanted to read all of them. She’d dragged her easel out of her painting room, and it was now waiting in her trunk, along with a large cardboard box jammed full of stuff: her palette; a couple cleaning jars in case of absentminded breakage; her paint box with copious tubes of paint, both full and half-used; rags. She’d also packed a can of turpentine, as well as OMS, linseed oil, charcoal pencils, and a couple of sketchbooks. There was absolutely no possible minimizing there. When she was painting she didn’t want to have to stop the flow because she’d been stingy with the supplies she’d brought.
Her suitcase wasn’t rolling smoothly. She scowled down at it. One wheel was stuck. Great, she thought. Just what I need, another expenditure. Money was pretty tight right now. If she could just find a way to sell a few of her paintings, it might take the pressure off. She’d taken a huge loan to pay for her share of the building and the start-up costs for the Intrepid Café. The food side was doing well. Their customer base was growing by leaps and bounds, but people didn’t seem to realize that the art adorning the walls was there to be purchased, too. Not a single painting had sold, even with her dropping the prices twice.
Sometimes, while lying in bed at night, Eve felt the weight of her debt like a large concrete slab on her chest, threatening to crush her.
It was different for Maggie.
Her sister had been Great-Aunt Clare’s sole beneficiary. It raised eyebrows that she’d left her money to only one of her nieces, but Eve knew why. Great-Aunt Clare had been trapped in a heartbreaking situation of her own making. Gifting her worldly goods to Maggie was her way to try to make amends.
Her sister had used the inheritance to start her first business, Comfort Homes, with Brett, her two-timing weasel of a fiancé.
Eve knew she should feel terrible that he’d been murdered last spring by his crazy stalker girlfriend, but whenever she thought about how badly Brett had treated her little sister, the danger he’d put her in and how he’d screwed around on Maggie and dumped her on the eve of their wedding, how he’d inadvertently played a part in Great-Aunt Clare’s death, the vengeful part of Eve was glad he was dead.
Maybe that made her a bad person.
Thankfully, those dark times were behind them. They were living on Solace Island now. Maggie had sold Comfort Homes to fund her portion of the Intrepid expenses, and Eve secured a loan and a mortgage.
The payments were stressing Eve big-time. Gobbling every spare cent she managed to scrape together. But she’d never let Maggie know. Maggie was her little sister. She’d always looked up to Eve as if she had the answers to everything. Those were their roles in life. Eve was the ideas person, the go-getter, the passionate, creative artist. Maggie was the follower, the shy homebody. Eve had spent a good portion of her life trying to protect her sister and help her fulfill her dreams. She wasn’t about to burst her little sister’s bubble and let her know how panicked she sometimes felt about the fiscal burden she’d taken on.
“Yoo-hoo,” a voice trilled.
Eve jerked her gaze from her suitcase wheel with a start. How long had she been standing there daydreaming?
One of their customers was making her way across the small parking area behind their building. Her diamond and gold tennis bracelets jangled as she double-waved both hands in the air. Oh shoot. What is her name? Eve rummaged around her blank brain. This is not good. She comes in almost daily.
The woman was moving surprisingly fast given her petite size and heft, huffing slightly, her chest leading the way like the prow of a ship.
“Eve,” the woman said, coming to a stop beside her, her cheeks flushed. “Thank goodness. I am so glad I caught you! I had ordered one of Maggie’s chocolate cakes with the broiled pecan topping and my silly husband forgot to pick it up yesterday when he dropped by. I guess it slipped his mind. Poor man. I guess he’s becoming forgetful in his dotage.” The woman attempted a smile, but Eve could see strain and a lingering sorrow behind it. She is quite pretty, Eve thought. Interesting that I’ve never noticed before. Guess I’ve always been too busy, racing from one customer to next. How old is she? Hard to tell. Late fifties, perhaps. Lovely skin, good bone structure, delicate hands. Must have been stunning when she was younger.
“We have a house-load of company arriving on the four o’clock ferry,” the woman continued. “I know you are closed today, but I was hoping to catch you before you headed out. I’m praying that you haven’t sold the cake to someone else.”
Suddenly the woman’s name dropped into Eve’s brain like a ripe plum falling off a tree. Irene. Irene Dawson.
“Well, Mrs. Dawson,” Eve said, making a point to use the woman’s name to try to cement it into her consciousness.
“Irene,” Mrs. Dawson said, leaning in and giving Eve’s arm a little pat, as if she were conferring a great secret. “You can call me Irene, dear.”
“Irene,” Eve acknowledged with a nod of her head. “You might be in luck. We stored your cake in the back kitchen fridge, so unless Maggie decided to sell it at the close, your cake should still be there. Just give me a second to load this up and . . .” Eve opened the door of the ancient blue Prius her mom had sold to her cheap. She wrestled her suitcase onto the backseat while Irene circled around, a friendly little fat-chested pigeon sending helping gestures and noises into the air.
Once the suitcase was safely stowed, Eve unlocked the back door of the café. She didn’t bother with the light switch. There was enough daylight coming through the frosted window by the sink. A faint smell of burned oatmeal cookies still lingered. Eve had done a trial run with some of the cookie dough, figuring she could bring the cookies with her to nosh on. Unfortunately, she had misread the temperature for the oven. The cookies were beyond salvaging. Black burned blobs that were raw in the middle.
It did not bode well for the upcoming week.
Eve sighed. “I’ll be right back,” she said, heading into the kitchen.
“Oooh,” Irene Dawson cooed, tripping after her. “How fascinating to get a chance to see behind the scenes, where the magic takes place.” She seemed so pleased to be back there that Eve didn’t bother pointing out that she hadn’t actually invited the woman to come inside. Had said quite clearly, I’ll be right back. Ah well, Eve thought with a shrug. At least the place is presentable. Unlike her apartment upstairs. After Eve’s packing spree was finished, the place was in a bit of disarray. But Eve wouldn’t think about that. She would deal with her messy apartment after her vacation was over.
“My goodness, look at that fridge,” Irene said. “It’s enormous. I didn’t know they made refrigerators with three doors! That would be so handy to have at Christmastime. I could store all the leftovers and still have room to spare.”
“Yes, well . . .” Eve murmured politely, reaching for the handle closest to the swinging door. She was pretty sure she had seen the cake on the top shelf.
“Oh!” Mrs. Dawson exclaimed, slapping a hand on the refrigerator door and the other hand to her chest. “I almost forgot. Did you hear the news!” Her eyes went wide.
“No. What?” Eve asked, because really, she couldn’t do much else. Mrs. Dawson had now turned to face her, and the woman’s backside was resting firmly against the fridge door.
Mrs. Dawson’s lips pursed, her gaze darting around the darkened room as if perhaps someone might be lurking in the shadows. Then she leaned in. “There’s been a . . . murder,” she said, her breathy whisper seeming loud, almost harsh in Eve’s ears.
“Are you sure?” Eve asked, inexplicably shaken.
Mrs. Dawson nodded vehemently. “They found human remains in Spraggs Creek, caught on one of the pilings of the walking bridge.”
“Oh,” Eve said, suddenly wishing she had taken the time to turn on the light. “Well, maybe it was an accident. Someone was drunk, slipped and fell, hit their head.”
“I’m afraid not. We are close friends with the chief of police, Henry Lorne. He was over for dinner last night. Apparently, it was one hundred percent foul play. The body was charred beyond recognition. They were able to remove a good portion of the jaw intact and are sending it to the city in the hopes that a forensic dentist will be able to identify the victim.”
“Well,” Eve said, feeling rather nauseous. “That’s good. I hope they are able to unravel the mystery. Now, if you could excuse me, I’ll just . . .” Eve closed her hand around the refrigerator handle and gave it a gentle tug.
“Oh goodness,” Mrs. Dawson said, stepping away from the fridge door. “I’m sorry. I was standing right in your way.”
“No worries,” Eve said, grateful to have a little breathing space. The woman had dosed herself rather liberally with Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium perfume, an odd choice for someone who dressed in pastel flower tones.
Eve swung the fridge door open, the refreshing cool air from the interior momentarily soothing her. “Ah. Here it is.” She slid the cake off the top rack. “You’re in luck.”
She boxed up the dessert, made change for Mrs. Dawson, and then ushered her out the door. She watched the woman cross the small parking lot, step out onto the sidewalk, and disappear around the side of the building, feeling grateful Mrs. Dawson had gone. Grateful for the sunshine and the light breeze and the normalness of the sounds of lives being lived all around her.