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The heels of Jessica's boots beat against the redwood of Zane Williams's sun-drenched deck overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Shielded by the shade of an overhang, he didn't miss a move his new houseguest made as he leaned forward on his chaise longue. His sister-in-law had officially arrived.
Was he still allowed to call her that?
Gusty breezes lifted her caramel hair, loosening the knot at the back of her head. A few wayward tendrils whipped across her eyes and, as she followed behind his assistant Mariah, her hand came up to brush them away. Late afternoon winds were strong on Moonlight Beach, swirling up from the shore as the sun lowered on the horizon. It was the time most sunbathers packed up their gear and went home and the locals came out. Shirt-billowing weather and one of the few things he'd come to like about California beach living.
He removed his sunglasses to get a better look at her. She wore a snowdrift-white blouse tucked into washed-to-the-millionth-degree jeans and a wide brown belt. Tortoiseshell-rimmed eyeglasses delicately in place didn't hide the pain and distress in her eyes.
Sweet Jess. Seeing her brought back so many memories, and the frigidness in his heart thawed a bit.
She looked like
It hurt to think about Beckon, Texas. About his ranch and the life he'd had there once. It hurt to think about how he'd met Jessica's sister, Janie, and the way their smalltown lives had entwined. In one respect, the tragedy that occurred more than two years ago might've been a lifetime ago. In another, it seemed as if time was standing still. Either way, his wife, Janie, and their unborn child were gone. They were never coming back. His mouth began to twitch. An ache in the pit of his stomach spread like wildfire and scorched him from the inside out.
He focused on Jessica. She carried a large tapestry suitcase woven in muted tones of gray and mauve and peach. He'd given Janie and Jessica matching luggage three years ago on their birthdays. It had been a fluke that both girls, the only two offspring of Mae and Harold Holcomb, were born on the same day, seven years apart.
Grabbing at the crutches propped beside his lounge chair, Zane slowly lifted himself up, careful not to fall and break his other foot. Mariah would have his head if he got hurt again. His casted wrist ached like the devil, but he refused to have his assistant come running every damn time he wanted to get up. It was bad enough she'd taken on the extra role of nursemaid. He reminded himself to have his business manager give Mariah a big fat bonus.
She halted midway on the deck, her disapproving gaze dropping to his busted wrist and crutches before she shot him a silent warning. "Here he is, Jessica." Mariah's peach-pie voice was sweet as ever for his houseguest. "I'll leave you two alone now."
"Thanks, Mariah," he said.
Her mouth pursed tight, she about-faced and marched off, none too pleased with him.
Jessica came forward. "Still such a gentleman, Zane," she said. "Even on crutches."
He'd forgotten how much she sounded like Janie. Hearing her sultry tone stirred him up inside. But that's about all Janie and Jessica had in common. The two sisters were different in most other ways. Jess wasn't as tall as her sister. Her eyes were a light shade of green instead of the deep emerald that had sparkled from Janie's eyes. Jess was brunette, Janie blonde. And their personalities were miles apart. Janie had been a risk-taker, a strong woman who could hold her own against Zane's country-star fame, which might've intimidated a less confident woman. From what he remembered about Jess, she was quieter, more subtle, a schoolteacher who loved her profession, a real sweetheart. "Sorry about your accident."
Zane nodded. "Wasn't much of an accident. More like stupidity. I lost focus and fell off the stage. Broke my foot in three places." He'd been at the Los Angeles Amphitheater, singing a silly tune about chasing ducks on the farm, all the while thinking about Janie. A video of his fall went viral on the internet. Everyone in country music and then some had witnessed his loss of concentration. "My tour's postponed for the duration. Can't strum a guitar with a broken wrist."
"Don't suppose you can."
She put down her luggage and gazed over the railing to the shore below. Sunlight glossed over deep steely-blue water as whitecaps foamed over wet sand, the tide rising. "I suppose Mama must've strong-armed you into doing this."
"Your mama couldn't strong-arm a puppy."
She whipped around to face him, her eyes sharp. "You know what I mean."
He did. Fact was, he wouldn't refuse Mae Holcomb anything. And she'd asked him this favor. It's huge, she'd said to him. My Jess is hurtin' and needs to clear her head. I'm asking you to let her stay with you a week, maybe two. Please, Zane, watch out for her.
He'd given his word. He'd take care of Jess and make sure she had time to heal. Mae was counting on him, and there wasn't anything he wouldn't do for Janie's mother. She deserved that much from him.
"You can stay as long as you like, Jess. You've got to know that."
Her mouth began to tremble. "Th-thanks. You heard what happened?"
"II couldn't stay in town. I had to get out of Texas. The farther, the better."
"Well, Jess, you're as far west as you could possibly go." Five miles north of Malibu by way of the Pacific Coast Highway.
Her shoulders slumped. "I feel like such a fool."
Reaching out, he cupped her chin, forcing her eyes to his, the darn crutch under his arm falling to rest on the railing. "Don't."
"I won't be very good company," she whispered, dang near breathless.
His body swayed, not allowing him another unassisted moment. He released her and grabbed for his crutch just in time. He tucked it under his arm and righted his position. "That makes two of us."
Her soft laughter carried on the breeze. Probably the first bit of amusement she'd felt in days.
"I just need a week, Zane."
"Like I said, take as long as you need."
"Thanks." She blinked, and her eyes drifted down to his injuries. "Uh, are you in a lot of pain?"
"More like, I'm being a pain. Mariah's getting the brunt of my sour mood."
"Now I can share it with her." Her eyes twinkled for a second.
He'd forgotten what it was like having Jess around. She was ten years younger than him, and he'd always called her his little sis. He hadn't seen much of her since Janie's death. Cursed by guilt and anguish, he'd deliberately removed himself from the Holcombs' lives. He'd done enough damage to them.
"Hand up your luggage to me," he told her. With his good hand, he tucked his crutches under his armpits and propped himself, then wiggled his fingers. If he could get a grip on the bag
Jessica rolled her eyes and hoisted her valise. "I appreciate it, Zane. But I've got this. Really, it's not heavy. I packed light. You know, summer-at-the-beach kind of clothes."
She let him off the hook. He would've tried, but fooling with her luggage wouldn't have been pretty. The doggone crutches made him clumsy as a drunken sailor, and he wasn't supposed to put any weight on his foot yet. "Fine, then. Why don't you settle in and rest up a bit? I'm bunking on this level. You've got an entire wing of rooms to yourself upstairs. Take your pick and spread out."
He followed behind as she made her way inside the wide set of light oak French doors leading to the living room. "Feel free to look around. I can have Mariah give you a tour."
"No, that's not necessary." She scanned over what she could see of the house, taking in the expansevaulted ceilings, textured walls, art deco interior and sleek contemporary furniture. He caught her vibe, sensing her confusion. What was Zane Williams, a country-western artist and a born and bred Texan, doing living on a California beach? When he'd leased this place with the option to buy, he told himself it was because he wanted a change. He was building Zane's on the Beach, his second restaurant in as many years, and he'd been offered roles in several Hollywood movies. He didn't know if he was cut out for acting, so the pending offers were still on the table.
She sent him an over-the-shoulder glance. "It's
a beautiful house, Zane."
His crutches supporting him, he sidled up next to her, seeing the house from her perspective. "But not me?"
"I guess I don't know what that is anymore."
"It's just a house. A place to hang my hat."
She gave his hatless head a glance. "It's a palace on the sea."
He chuckled. So much for his attempt at humble. The house was a masterpiece. One of three designed by the architect who lived next door. "Okay, you got me there. Mariah found the house and leased it on the spot. She said it would shake the cobwebs from my head. Had it awhile, but this is my first summer here." He leaned back, darting a glance around. "At least the humidity is bearable and it never seems to rain, so no threat of thunderstorms. The neighbors are nice."
"A good place to rest up."
"I suppose, if that's what I'm doing."
He shrugged, fearing he'd opened up a can of worms. Why was he revealing his innermost thoughts to her? They weren't close anymore. He hardly knew Jessica as an adult, and yet they shared a deeply powerful connection. "Sure it is. Are you hungry? I can have my housekeeper make you"
no. I'm not hungry right now. Just a bit tired from the trip. I'd better go upstairs before I collapse right here on your floor. Thanks for having a limo pick me up. And, well, thanks for everything, Zane."
She rose on her tiptoes, and the soft brush of her lips on his cheek squeezed something tight in his chest. Her hair smelled of summer strawberries, and the fresh scent lingered in his nose as she backed away.
"Welcome." The crutches dug into his armpits as they supported his weight. He hated the damn things. Couldn't wait to be free of them. "Just a suggestion, but the room to the right of the stairs and farthest down the hall has the best view of the ocean. Sunsets here are pretty glorious."
"I'll keep that in mind." Her quick smile was probably meant to fake him out. She could pretend she wasn't hurting all that badly if she wanted to, but dark circles under her eyes and the pallor of her skin told the real story. He understood. He'd been there. He knew how pain could strangle a person until all the breath was sucked out. Hell, he'd lived it. Was still living it. And he knew something about Hol-comb family pride, too.
What kind of jerk would leave any Holcomb woman standing at the altar?
Only a damn fool.
Jessica took Zane's advice and chose the guest room at the end of the hallway. Not for the amazing sunsets as Zane had suggested, but to keep out of his hair. Privacy was a precious commodity. He valued it, and so did she now. A powerful urge summoned her to slump down on the bed and cry her eyes out, but she managed to fight through the sensation. She was done with self-pity. She wasn't the first woman to be dumped at the altar. She'd been duped by a man she'd loved and trusted. She'd been so sure and missed all of the telling signs. Now she saw them through crystal clear eyes.
She busied herself unpacking her one suitcase, layering her clothes into a long, stylish light wood dresser. Carefully she set her jeans, shorts, swimsuits and undies into two of the nine drawers. She plucked out a few sleeveless sundresses and walked over the closet. With a slight tug, the double doors opened in a whoosh. The scents of cedar and freshness filled her nostrils as she gazed into a girl cave almost the size of her first-grade classroom back in Beckon. Cedar drawers, shoe racks and silken hangers were a far cry from the tiny drywalled closet in her one-bedroom apartment.
Deftly she scooped the delicate hangers under the straps of her dresses and hung them up. Next she laid her tennis shoes, flip-flops and two pairs of boots, one flat, one highheeled, onto the floor just under her clothes. Her meager collection barely made a dent in the closet space. She closed the double doors and leaned against them. Then she took her first real glimpse at the view from her second-story bedroom.
"Wow." Breath tunneled from her chest.
Aqua seas and the sun-glazed sky made for a spectacular vista from the wide windows facing the horizon. She swallowed in a gulp of awe. Then suddenly, a strange bone-rattling feeling of loss hit her. She shivered as if assailed by a winter storm.
Why now? Why wasn't she reveling in the beauty surrounding her?
Nothing's beautiful. You lost your sister, her unborn baby and your fiancé.
"Would you like to go out onto the balcony?"
She whirled around, surprised to find Mariah, Zane's fortyish blonde assistant standing in the doorway. She'd worked for him since before he had married Janie. Jessica and Mariah's paths had crossed a few times since then. "Oh, hi." She glanced at the narrow glass door at the far end of the wall that led to the balcony. It was obviously situated there to keep from detracting from the room's sweeping view of the Pacific. "Thanks, but maybe later."
"Sure, you must be tired from the flight. Is there anything I can do for you?"
"I don't think so. I've unpacked. A shower and a nap and I'll be good to go."
Mariah smiled. "I'll be leaving for the day. Mrs. Lopez, Zane's housekeeper, is here. If you need anything, just ask her."
I'll be fine."
"Zane will want to have dinner with you. He eats dinner just before sunset. But he'd make an exception if you're hungry earlier."
"Sunset is fine."
Mariah studied her, her eyes unflinching and kind. "You look a little like Janie."
"I doubt that. Janie was beautiful."
"I see a resemblance. If you don't mind me saying, you have the same soulful eyes and lovely complexion."
She was pale as a ghost, and ten freckles dotted her nose. Yep, she'd counted them. Though, she'd never had acne or even a full-fledged zit to speak of in her teens. She supposed her complexion wasn't half-bad. "Thank you. I, uh, don't want to cause Zane or you any trouble. I'm basically here because it would've been harder to convince my mother otherwise, and I didn't want her to worry about me off in some deserted location to search my soul. Mama's had enough on her plate. She doesn't need to fret over me."
"I get it. Actually, you might be exactly what Zane needs to get his head out of the sand."
That was an odd statement. She narrowed her eyes, trying to make sense of it.
"He's not been himself for a while now," Mariah explained without spelling it out. Jessica gave her credit for the delicate way she put it.
"I figured. He lost his family. We all did," Jess said. She missed Janie something awful. Sometimes life was cruel.
Mariah nodded. "But having family around might be good for both of you."
She doubted that. She'd be a thorn in Zane's side. A kink in his plans. She would bide her time here, soak up some fresh sea air and then return home to face the music. Humiliation and desperate hurt had made her flee Texas. But she'd have to go back eventually. Her face pulled tight. She didn't want to think about that right now.
"Maybe," she said to Mariah.
"Well, have a good evening."
"Thanks. You, too."
After Mariah left, Jessica plucked up her shampoo and entered the bathroom. Oh, boy, and she'd thought the closet was something. The guest bathroom came equipped with a television, a huge oval Jacuzzi tub and an intricately tiled spacious shower that was digitized for each of the three shower heads looming above. She peered closer to read the monitor. She could program the time, temperature and force of the shower and heaven knew what else.
After she punched in a few commands, the shower spurted to life, and water rained down. Jess smiled. A new toy. Peeling off her clothes, she opened the clear glass door and stepped inside. Steamy spray hit her from three sides, with two heads spewing softly and one pulsing like the pumping of her heart. She turned around and around, using the fragrant liquid soap from a dispenser in the wall. She lingered there, lost in the mist and jet stream as pent-up tension seeped out of her bones, her limbs loose and free. Eventually, she got down to business and worked shampoo into her hair. Much too early, the shower turned off automatically. As she stepped out, the steam followed her. She dried herself with a cushy white towel. How nice.