Socialite Emma Dearborn's future was all planned out for her: the perfect wedding, the perfect husband, the perfect life. Then Garrett Keating returned.
He wasn't about to let Emma go through with her farce of a marriage, and he set out to stop her...seduction being at the top of his list. But if Emma didn't walk down the aisle by her birthday, she stood to lose an inheritance worth millions.
Just how far would Garrett be willing to go to have Emma? All the way to the altar?
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Emma Dearborn felt an itch. Not a little itch. A maddening, unrelenting itch — right between her shoulder blades, where she couldn't reach it.
Emma wasn't prone to itches and was almost never guilty of fidgeting, which was probably why she remembered experiencing the same terrorizing itch sensation before. It had only happened twice in her life. The first time, she'd accidentally driven her dad's restored priceless Morgan into Long Island Sound at Greenwich Point when she was sixteen. The car had been recovered; her dad nearly hadn't. The other time, her date for the annual Christmas cotillion had turned ugly, and she'd had to walk home in her long white satin dress and heels in a snowstorm, crying the whole time.
Since those days, of course, she was no longer a novice with driving or men. More to the point, the itch this time couldn't possibly relate to some impending traumatic event. Her life was going splendiferously.
Impatiently she took a long gulp of mint-raspberry tea. Mentally she told herself to get over the damned itch and quit squirming. For Pete's sake, there was nothing remotely wrong. Everything around her reflected her serenely contented life.
A basking-warm June sun soaked through the glass windows overlooking the pool outside. The Emerald Room was the one place in the Eastwick Country Club where members could dress casually. Today the pool was chock-full of kids fresh out of school and shrieking with joyful energy. Inside, moms in sandals and shorts elbowed with the business-lunch crowd in suits.
Emma, because she'd just chaired a meeting of the fund-raising committee, was stuck dressed on the formal side. Her light silk sheath was lavender-blue, not because it was her signature color. Emma objected to the whole pretentious concept of signature colors. Somehow, though, her closet mysteriously filled up with blues. Everyone else in the group was dressed more laid-back — not that anyone cared today about clothes.
The Debs had missed their traditional lunch last month — everyone was so darn busy! — which meant they all had to talk at once to catch up.
Harry, the bartender, had kindly reserved the malachite table by the doors, not just giving them the best view but also a little privacy for their gossip. Felicity and Vanessa and Abby were all there.
Emma's heart warmed to the laughter — even if that itch was still driving her crazy. The friends were closer than sisters. They'd all grown up together, attended the same private school, knew each other's most embarrassing moments — and tended to bring them out at these lunches. If the teasing ever lagged, there was always their debutante history to haul out of storage. What were friends for if not to savor and embellish the most mortifying events in one's life? And Caroline Keating-Spence had joined them for lunch this time.
"Emma, are you sleeping?"
Quickly she whipped her head toward Felicity, not realizing that she'd dropped out of the conversation. "Not sleeping, honest. Just kind of woolgathering what a long history we have together...how much fun we've always had."
"Yeah, sure." Vanessa winked to the rest of them. "She covered up nicely, but we all know she's engaged. Naturally she wasn't listening to us. She's at that moony stage."
Felicity chuckled. "Either that or that big clunk of a sapphire on her finger is blinding her. Hells bells, it blinds the rest of us, too. What an original engagement ring. But that's exactly what I was trying to ask you about, Em. How's everything going with the wedding plans?"
Again she felt that exasperating itch spider up her spine. This was getting downright crazy. Her engagement to Reed Kelly was yet another thing that was going totally — totally — right in her life. At twenty-nine years old, she'd stopped believing she'd ever be married.
Actually the truth was that she'd never wanted to be. "Everything's going fine," she assured them all, "except that Reed seems to have arranged the whole honeymoon before we've finalized the wedding plans."
They all laughed. "You two have set a date, though, right?" Another shooting itch. "Actually we've reserved East-wick's ballroom for two different Saturdays, but between my schedule at the gallery and Reed's racing schedule with the horses, we still haven't pinned one down for sure. I promise, this group will be the first to know. In fact, you'll probably know before I do, knowing how fast this group picks up secrets."
They all chortled — and agreed — and then moved on to the next victim. Felicity, being Eastwick's foremost wedding planner — which meant that she excelled in both original extravaganzas and gossip — was always full of news.
As the freshest scandals were brought out to air, Emma glanced at Caroline, who seemed oddly quiet. Of course, it was hard to get a word in with the Debs all talking simultaneously, but Caroline hadn't joined in the laughter. And now Emma noticed her signaling Harry for her third glass of wine.
The itch was close to driving Emma to drink, too, but seeing Caroline guzzling down pinot noir distracted her. Heaven knew, the Debs had been known to enjoy a drink — and occasionally to overindulge. No one kiss and told in the group, not on each other. Emma wouldn't normally care if Caroline was gulping down the pinot noirs, but drinking was so unlike her.
Caroline wasn't one of the original core Debs group because she was a little younger. Emma had swooped her into the circle of friends, the same way she tended to peel wallflowers off the wall at social gatherings. Caroline was no wallflower, but there was a time she'd needed a little boost of self-confidence. Emma had gotten to know her well because of Garrett — Caroline's older brother.
Again Emma felt a ticklish itch. This time a familiar one. Although her heart hadn't dug up that old emotional history in a blue moon, Garrett Keating had been her first love. Just picturing him brought back that whole poignant era — the time in her life when she'd still believed in love, when she'd felt crazy-high just to be in the same room with him and equally pit-low miserable every second they'd had to be apart.
Everybody had to lose that silly idealism sometime, she knew. Still, she'd always regretted their breaking up before making love. Back then she'd held on to her virginity like a gambler unwilling to lay down her aces, yet so often since then she thought she'd missed the right time with the right man. Garrett's kisses had awakened her sexuality, her first feelings of power as a woman...her first feelings of vulnerability and surrender, as well. She'd never forgotten him, never even tried. She wasn't carrying a torch or anything foolish like that; it was just a first-love thing. He owned a corner of her heart, always would.... Abruptly Emma stopped woolgathering. Harry showed up at their table again.
The bartender served Caroline her third wine, which she immediately downed like water. Emma frowned. Everyone knew Caroline had had a rift with her husband, Griff, the year before — but they were back together now. Everyone had seen them nuzzling each other at the spring art fair as if they were new lovers. So what was the heavy deal with the wine?
"Murder!" someone said.
Emma's head shot up. "Say what?"
Abby spoke up from the corner, her voice a thousand times more tentative than normal. "You've had your head in the clouds, Em. I don't blame you, with a wedding coming up. But I was just telling the group what happened since I went to the police about my mother."
"The police?" Emma knew about Abby's mother's death. Everyone did. Lucinda Baldwin — alias Bunny — had created the Eastwick Social Diary, which had dished all the dirt on the moneyed crowd in Eastwick. Marriages, cheating, divorces, touchy habits, legal or business indiscretions — if it was scandal worthy, Bunny somehow always knew and loved to tell. Her death had been a shock to everyone. "I know how young your mom was, Abby. But I thought someone said she had a heart condition that hadn't been detected before, that that was what she died from —"
"That's what I thought originally, too," Abby affirmed.
"But right after Mom died, I couldn't face going through her things. It took me a while...but when I finally got around to opening my mom's private safe, I just expected to find her journals and jewelry. The jewelry was there, but all her journals were gone. Stolen. They had to be. It was the only place she ever kept them. That's when I first started worrying.And then, finding out that someone tried to blackmail Jack Cartright because of information in those missing journals added to my suspicions."
"Abby's become more and more concerned that her mom was murdered," Felicity clarified.
"My God." Scandal was one thing, but Eastwick barely needed an active police force. There hadn't been a serious crime in the community in years, much less anything as grave as murder.
"I can't sleep at night," Abby admitted. "I just can't stop thinking about it. My mom loved secrets. Loved putting together the Diary. And for darn sure, she loved scandals. But she never had a mean bone in her body. She had tons of things written down in her journals that she never used in the Diary because she didn't want to hurt people."
Emma groped to understand. "So that's partly why you think she was murdered? Because someone stole those journals? Either because they wanted to use the information, or because they had a secret themselves they wanted covered up?"
"Exactly. But I still can't prove it," Abby said restlessly.
"I mean, the journals are gone. That's for sure. But I can't prove the theft is related to her death. The police keep telling me that I don't have enough to open up a new inquest. Honestly, they've been really nice — they all agree the situation sounds suspicious. But there's no one to arrest, no suspects. I can't even prove the journals were stolen."
"But she's positive they were," Felicity filled in. Abby nodded. "They had to be stolen. The safe is the only place my mother ever kept them. Unfortunately, the police can't act just because I know something is true. There's no evidence to prove my mother didn't simply hide the journals somewhere else. And there isn't a single suspect."
The whole group clustered close to discuss the disturbing situation — and to support Abby — but eventually the Emerald Room filled up with kids and families. Serious talk became impossible. The women lightened up, chitchatted about family news, but eventually the group broke up.
In the parking lot Emma climbed into her white SUV, her mind spinning between Caroline's troubling behavior at lunch and the worrisome suspicions about Bunny's death. Still, by the time she turned on Main Street, her mood instinctively lifted.
Her art gallery, Color, was only a couple blocks off the main drag in town. Emma didn't mind running the fund-raising committee for Eastwick's country club or any of the other social responsibilities her parents pushed on her. If it weren't for her parents — and a mighty huge trust fund coming to her on her thirtieth birthday — she couldn't do the things she really loved. Most people never knew about the volunteer work she did with kids, but the whole community was well aware how much time and love she devoted to the gallery.
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