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Samantha plunged a spoon into a pint of Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia, then sighed as the decadent ice cream melted in her mouth. Guilty pleasures like this were about all that kept her going these days. With enough Ben & Jerry's came hope that her acting career would pick up. A positive attitude had helped her to weather tough times in the past, after all.
It was getting harder and harder to believe, though. The silence of her phone lately had been deafening. In late spring, she'd had a minor role in a prime-time TV show that filmed in New York, but it hadn't led to other opportunities despite the enthusiasm of the director and the producers. Fall season shows were back in production, but she'd received none of the promised job offers, not even for bit parts.
She hadn't had a single callback for a commercial in weeks. If it weren't for her job as a hostess at a high-priced Upper East Side restaurant, she'd be in the most serious financial trouble she'd faced since coming to New York over fifteen years ago. Even with that, she'd had to dip into her savings already.
Though her sister Gabriella had mounted a terrific PR buzz campaign for her back in the spring, its effects had worn off in weeks, rather than months, and now, once again, she was struggling. She'd worn out her list of contacts. But with everything going on in Gabi's life these days, Samantha hadn't felt she could ask for more free publicity assistance. Gabi was adjusting to being a single mom and trying to work things out with the very patient man in her life, who'd agreed to postpone their own wedding until after their sister Emily's in a few weeks.
Ever the optimist, Samantha had survived discouraging times more than once since arriving in New York just out of high school as a fresh-faced girl with stars in her eyes. This dry spell, however, was the worst she could recall. More disturbing was that now it came with pitying looks from other actresses up for the same roles. Her once exuberant, supportive agent had started dodging her calls, then parted ways with her. His replacement, though enthusiastic, hadn't gotten promising results.
Samantha had been in New York long enough to read the handwriting on the wall. She was thirty-five, and while still beautiful, she was past her prime. Parts that once would have been hers for the asking were now going to women in their early twenties. It didn't seem to matter that the casting call was for someone her age, or even older. At the same time, she wasn't quite old enough for the burgeoning niche for older actresses. There wasn't enough optimism in the universe to counter that harsh reality.
When her phone rang, she lunged for it, which told her just how desperate she'd become. She didn't like the feeling.
"Samantha, hey. I'm so glad I caught you," her youngest sister, Emily, said, as if finding her at home was a rarity, rather than commonplace these days. "We need to talk. Now that Gabi's had her baby, it's time to get serious about my wedding. It's just around the corner."
Despite her generally sour mood, Samantha smiled. "Does Boone have any idea you weren't always serious about the wedding?" she quipped. "Remind me, when is it again? Sometime next year?"
"Very funny. It's less than a month away."
"That soon?" Samantha teased.
"Soon? This has been forever in the making. How long were Boone and I apart? Years and years. We need to make up for lost time."
The excitement in Emily's voice was wonderful to hear, Samantha thought, trying not to envy her. She and Boone did deserve this long-delayed happiness.
"When are you coming to North Carolina?" Emily prodded. "You have to have another dress fitting, not that you ever gain an ounce. It's more of a show of solidarity with Gabi, who's still fighting baby weight. And there's the bridal shower Grandmother and Gabi are throwing, then the rehearsal dinner. I'm thinking we need a bachelorette night, just us girls. I want you here for every minute. This is going to be the absolute best summer the Castle sisters have ever had in Sand Castle Bay."
"I wouldn't miss any of it," Samantha assured her. "After all, wasn't I the one who predicted last August that you and Boone were going to get back together?"
"Yes, you demonstrated amazing insight, but it wouldn't be the first time that some irresistible part came through at the last second and you bailed on me. My college graduation comes to mind."
"Well, there's no way I'd bail on your wedding," Sa-mantha reassured her. The likelihood of a plum role being offered was abysmally small. Besides, she'd never let Emily down after promising to be her maid of honor. The fact that Emily had even asked had come as a surprise. Their relationship had been tainted by some kind of sibling rivalry she'd never understood, but her sister seemed to be sincerely trying to leave that in the past.
"I'm driving south the day after tomorrow," she told Emily, not mentioning that the wedding was providing the perfect excuse to leave New York behind during these depressing dog days of summer. "I'll be there to do whatever you need."
"Are you bringing What's-his-face with you? The guy from the network or the producer? I lose track."
"Truthfully, so do I," Samantha admitted. "There's no one I'd want around for an occasion as important as my little sister's wedding."
There was a faint hesitation on the other end of the line and then Emily asked slyly, "Not even Ethan Cole?"
Samantha's heart did a predictable little stutter step. "Why on earth would you bring up Ethan? He's ancient history. Not even history, come to think of it. He never even knew I existed back in the day."
"Aha!" Emily said triumphantly. "You do still have feelings for him. I told Gabi you did. She thinks so, too. Our powers of observation are every bit as good as yours when it comes to romance."
"And you got that from my asking why you mentioned him?" Samantha inquired irritably, hating any possibility that at her age she could be wearing her heart on her sleeve for anyone to detect. Especially when the man in question probably wouldn't even recognize her if their paths crossed.
"I got that from your wearing his old football jersey around the house the whole time you were home after the hurricane last summer," Emily responded. "And, amazingly, it disappeared after you went back to New York. I'll bet it's in your closet up there right this minute."
"It is not," Samantha retorted, glancing down at the gold-and-green jersey she was currently wearing. So what if she still harbored a not-so-secret crush on the star quarterback from the high school? Three years older and surrounded by throngs of local girls, Ethan had never once noticed her back then. She was a summer kid, not even a blip on his radar. She seriously doubted he'd discovered deep feelings in the intervening years just from spotting her in some detergent commercial, and that was even assuming he knew it was her.
"You know he never married," Emily said casually. "And he and Boone play golf together. Boone's asked him to be in the wedding."
Samantha's stupid heart did another of those annoying little telltale hop, skip and jumps. "Not on my account, I hope."
"Of course not," Emily said. "But he is Boone's best man, which means you'll be seeing a lot of him."
Samantha groaned. She'd expected this sort of matchmaking from her grandmother, who'd actively campaigned to see that Emily and Boone were reunited and had done her share of manipulating to see that Gabi wound up with Wade Johnson. Samantha had been certain, though, that Cora Jane would show a little more respect for Samantha's ability to find her own man. Then, again, there wasn't much evidence that Samantha had made any particularly good choices up to now. The men she'd dated had been seriously lacking in staying power.
"Did Grandmother put you up to this?" she asked testily.
"Up to what?" Emily replied innocently. "I told you, Boone and Ethan have been friends forever. Their families go way back. It makes perfect sense that he'd want Ethan in the wedding."
"I suppose," Samantha conceded.
"Gotta run. I love you," Emily said. "See you soon."
"See you soon," Samantha echoed.
Suddenly going back to Sand Castle Bay for her sister's wedding had gotten a lot more interesting
and maybe just a little dangerous.
Gabi held Daniella Jane in her arms, rocking her gently as she studied the color in Emily's cheeks.
"Well, did you find out whatever it was you wanted to know when you spoke to Samantha?" she asked.
"Oh, Samantha still has it bad for Ethan, all right," Emily replied with a smirk.
"Which means you intend to meddle," Gabi guessed.
"Well, why not?" Emily inquired, reaching to take the baby from Gabi's arms and cooing to her. "Grandmother does it all the time."
"And gets away with it because she's Cora Jane and we love and respect her," Gabi reminded her. "You and Samantha haven't always seen eye-to-eye on things, not that I've ever understood why that is."
Emily made a face that had the baby gurgling with what could have been delight
or a dire portent of something else entirely.
"I know that's all on me," Emily admitted. "And the worst part is that I honestly don't remember when it started. If I was going to feel this competitive nonsense, it should have been with you. We're the driven, ambitious ones. Or at least you were until you turned all mellow and had this beautiful baby. She's the one and only thing good to come out of your relationship with Paul the slimebag. Now you've fallen madly in love with Wade, and as much as it pains me to see, now you're just plain sappy."
"Hey, I have a thriving art gallery with a dozen temperamental artists working on-site. I'm trying to turn that into a tourist destination," Gabi protested. "I haven't exactly slacked off. I just redirected my goals."
"Yeah, yeah," Emily said. "You're missing my point. I can't figure out why I've always had this thing with Samantha, but I honestly do want to put it behind us. It's past time. I don't want any of those old lingering feelings to spoil what should be the happiest time of my life."
"Amen to that, and asking her to be your maid of honor was a really sweet gesture," Gabi said. "I know how much she appreciated it."
"It doesn't exactly make up for the way I've treated her over the years, as if her sole role in life was to annoy me." She tickled Daniella, then grinned as the baby squirmed. "Lordy, but she's cute. I think I want one."
Gabi laughed. "I have a hunch Boone will be more than willing to cooperate, but you might want to get this wedding behind you first."
"First, Boone and I have to be in the same place at the same time if we're going to make a baby," Emily grumbled. "He's checking in on all his restaurants on his way here from Los Angeles."
"So you'll be apart how long? A whole twenty-four hours?" Gabi teased.
"Two days actually," Emily replied with a dramatic sigh.
Gabi laughed. "You are pathetic. You were apart for years before you reconciled. Even after you got back together, your work kept you in different cities for quite a while."
"And now I'm spoiled," Emily conceded. "With Boone in Los Angeles with me while I work on those safe houses for abused women and families, I've discovered just how amazing living together can be. I had no idea I'd adapt so quickly to having someone in my life 24/7. Add in B.J. and instant motherhood, and it's been the most incredible few months ever."
"It really is wonderful to see you so ecstatically happy," Gabi told her. "It's great that you and B.J. formed this immediate bond. Not every stepmother is so lucky."
"Believe me, I've heard the stories," Emily said. "How about you? I can see what a contented mom you are, but what's the scoop with you and Wade? Why hasn't he moved in here?"
"As broad-minded as Cora Jane may be, I don't think I want to test her limits by suggesting that my boyfriend and I live together under her roof. Wade and I are committed to working things out. That's enough for now."
"You're really happy?" Emily asked, studying her worriedly. "Staying here in Sand Castle Bay is what you want? And the gallery's enough for you?"
"I have more than a job here, Em. I have family and a wonderful man and that little munchkin you're holding. My life is full. I don't need a ring on my finger just yet. I certainly don't need to go back to the stressful, demanding life I was leading in Raleigh. Besides, I think Dad would stroke out if I hit him with another wedding bill right now. You haven't been here when Grandmother's handed over the invoices for yours. Poor Dad's just grasping the reality that weddings don't come cheap, especially with a daughter who has very expensive taste."
"Hey, I'm not the one who insisted on inviting half the state of North Carolina. You can thank Dad and Grandmother for that. Boone and I would have been content with family and a few friends."
"So you say now," Gabi said, "but I never heard you putting up much of a fuss as the guest list grew and grew and started to include half of Los Angeles."
"Well, it is what it is now," Emily said blithely. "Let's get back to Samantha. Any idea what's going on with her? She didn't sound all that happy when we spoke just now. Is her career faltering again?"
Gabi winced. "I'm ashamed to say I haven't given it much thought. I've been a little distracted lately."
"Understandable," Emily said. "She hasn't asked for your PR help, has she?"
"No, but she wouldn't. I had to badger her into letting me help a few months ago. It seemed to be effective, so I guess I just assumed that things kept on snowballing. In a good way, that is. That's how it is sometimes, one job leads to another, but I shouldn't have taken that for granted. I should have asked," she said, feeling guilty.
"Why? Not everything is up to you to fix," Emily said, an oddly defensive note in her voice. "If Samantha wanted help, she could have said something. That's her way, though. She just suffers in silence, then resents it when nobody jumps in to save the day."
Gabi regarded her younger sister with dismay. "That's not true, Emily. Samantha's not like that. Why would you even say something so cruel?"
Emily looked taken aback by Gabi's vehemence, then buried her face in her hands. "Because I'm mean and spiteful," she said in a small voice, then lifted her gaze to meet Gabi's. "What is the matter with me? I always see the worst in her, even when she's done nothing wrong."
"It's times like this when I really wish Mom were still around," Gabi said softly.
Emily blinked back instant tears at the unexpected reference to their mother, who'd died several years ago. "What does Mom have to do with this?"
"Maybe she would understand why you have this attitude toward our big sister. Dad certainly wouldn't have any idea. He was oblivious to everything going on at home when we were growing up. I doubt Grandmother was with us enough in the early years before Mom died to know the root of the problems between the two of you."
Emily sighed. "And it's increasingly obvious that it isn't something I can just wish away. These careless, hurtful words just pop out of my mouth sometimes, and I have no idea why."
"Then dig deeper and figure it out," Gabi advised. "You and Samantha both mean the world to me, and I don't want to be caught in the middle. I want us to be sisters, in every positive, loving sense of the word, okay? In fact, in my dream scenario, you and Boone eventually settle back here and Samantha marries a local, too, and we all live blocks apart so our kids can grow up together."