A Wedding at Meadow Shores Sneak Peek

Three Years Ago

 

Traffic was backed up for miles. The unexpected ice storm left holiday travelers at the mercy of untreated roads, and a steady stream of emergency vehicles maneuvering the slick roadway, signaled the fate of motorists ahead. Meadows Shore was less than an hour away, yet after creeping along for more than two, they’d barely traveled beyond the Boston suburbs.

The weather showed no signs of easing, and the state police were beginning to divert cars off the highway. Exhausted and disappointed, they returned to Wellesley for the night. Sophie called Eric to let him know they were on their way back, but he didn’t pick up.

When they finally arrived, the house was dark except for a dim light coming from the back bedroom. An unfamiliar car occupied her spot in the garage. If she’d been alone, she would’ve backed out of the driveway and driven into the night, casting yet another shadow over her loveless marriage. But Helena and Juliana were with her, retreating wasn’t an option.

“Someone from work probably brought over a file and pulled into the garage so they wouldn’t get wet.” She said the words to reassure her sisters, but in her heart she knew they were a lie. A familiar lie, the kind she’d been telling herself almost every day since she first met Eric Stevens.

Sophie was more comfortable in the world of denial when it came to Eric—it was less complicated, and perhaps a bit less painful than the real world. But one lives there on borrowed time, for denial provides only temporary shelter for cowards. Sooner or later reality would come home to roost, shining a harsh bright light, illuminating the darkest corners of her marriage. She parked the car, all but certain that tonight her life in denial was over.

Despite a growing unease, she went through the motions effortlessly—turned off the engine, grabbed the bags, locked the car. Humdrum, but for the gnawing feeling in the pit of her stomach warning something was amiss. Intuition, her father had called it: “A combination of knowledge, some of which you acquire consciously, and some of which you acquire subconsciously. You might not want to base all your life’s decisions on it, but it’s not wise to ignore it, either.” If only he’d heeded his own advice.

She wiggled the key into the recalcitrant side door lock with a chill of awareness, for she knew when the door opened, her life would be forever changed. The adage “when one door closes another door opens” came to mind, but it didn’t provide any comfort. Hands shaking, she struggled with the lock, cursing softly when it wouldn’t budge.

Once she resigned herself to the idea that the bandage was about to be ripped off Sophie preferred the sting of one quick yank to the slow, drawn-out method. Either way there’d be pain; might as well get it over with. The temperamental lock was just prolonging the agony. Finally, the damn door opened.

They entered the kitchen to the sound of jazz drifting through the house from upstairs. She caught her sisters stealing furtive glances at each other, worry distorting their innocent faces. “Stay right here. And relax, thieves don’t generally bother with background music when they’re robbing a house.” She must have sounded like she meant business, because they didn’t bother to argue.

As she made her way to the second floor the scene began to unfold. Even the beautiful music from John Coltrane’s saxophone couldn’t mask the awful sounds coming from her bedroom—the sounds of creatures feverishly copulating, oblivious to everything but the completion within tantalizing reach. She knew as soon as she spotted the car in the garage. In truth, she’d probably always known that Eric Stevens was a cheater.

Not having had any experience confronting rogue husbands, she wasn’t exactly sure what to do next. It wasn’t as though Emily Post had written extensively on the etiquette of dealing with one’s philandering husband and his mistress. What did one do?

The anger hadn’t yet hit, and the adrenaline was just shy of kicking in when she ascended the stairs to face her cheating husband. Although she had a starring role in the drama, in many ways it was as though she was seated in the audience, a voyeur witnessing the climax of a tragic play.

While she clutched the railing for support, images of her sisters flooded her brain, grounding her. She had more to consider than just her own feelings. Her parents died four years ago, and though her sisters were young adults, she was responsible for them. The way she handled this situation would affect them too. She couldn’t have them believe that Eric’s behavior was acceptable, a minor transgression simply to be endured. No, she had no intention of teaching that lesson.

Sophie paused on the stairs, and as she had so many times in the past several years, she prayed to her mother, begging her to provide the wisdom and courage she desperately needed to make the best decision for her sisters.

Gathering her strength, she walked into the bedroom, and, with all the calm she could muster, told the sweaty, acrobatic slimeballs, “Get. Out. Both of you. Get out now.”

She didn’t shout, scream, rage, wail, whimper, or stutter the words—she simply said them. Laid them out in an unyielding voice, one that no sane person would dare question. It was as if she’d practiced them hundreds of times. And maybe she had.

She didn’t bother to give them the courtesy of turning her back while they dressed. The young intern, the very young intern, apologized profusely on her way out the door, but Sophie didn’t acknowledge her. While she didn’t fully blame her—after all, the skinny redhead wasn’t the one who’d vowed to be faithful—she wasn’t about to let her off the hook, either.

Eric behaved as he always did when things didn’t go his way: like a petulant bully. He dressed, threw a few things in an overnight bag, and stalked out the door without offering an apology. He did, however, throw one last parting shot her way. “This is all your fault, and you know it. If you weren’t such a cold bitch, I wouldn't need another woman in my bed. You’ll be begging me to come back before the week’s over.”

As it turned out, he’d had lots of women in his bed, and Sophie never did ask him to come back.

Instead, she redecorated the bedroom they’d shared. Gave away all the furnishings piece by piece—furniture Eric had carefully handpicked, and other items he’d painstakingly approved.

But what gave her the greatest satisfaction was hiding the expensive jewelry he’d given her in various drawers hoping some unsuspecting shopper, decorating her home with castoffs from Goodwill, would find the hidden treasure a pleasant and perhaps much-needed surprise.

She then purchased brushes and a roller to repaint the room. Consulting no one, she chose fabrics and furnishings that suited her, and colors that made her heart sing. The project consumed her. It took well over a month to complete, but it was far less time than it would’ve taken to get an appointment with a decent therapist.

The treasure that you seek is in the cave you fear to enter.     Joseph Campbell

 

Chapter One

 

Max sidled off the elevator past a man delivering floral arrangements to patients. The heady scent of flowers mixed with the smell of industrial cleaning agents to create an odor so pungent it almost masked the stench of illness and death that permeated the place. Almost.

God, I hate hospitals—everything about them.

Well, maybe not everything, certainly not the leggy, young nurse with a stethoscope dangling from her pocket headed in his direction.

“May I help you?” she squeaked in a tiny voice better suited to a pixie than a statuesque blonde.

Glancing at her identification badge, he was careful not to linger too long on her breasts. “I’m looking for Room 222, Kaylie.” When she hesitated, he gave her what his friend Ceci Spencer once dubbed a panty-dropping smile. “I’m Max Parker, the attorney representing Nina Prescott.” He held her eyes for a second longer than was considered polite, and Kaylie Hennessey turned a lovely shade of pink, before returning an award-winning smile of her own. Oh yeah.

“I’ll show you where it is.”

“Not so fast.” A voice from out of nowhere—Melinda Springer, RN—though, given her tone, he wouldn’t have been surprised to see Ratched splashed across her nametag. “I need some identification,” she demanded.

The old battle-axe stood there, eyeballing him like a criminal, while he pulled out his wallet and handed over a driver’s license and business card. She took her sweet time examining the identification, and it was his turn to size her up. Not half as cute as Nurse Kaylie, and her chest wasn’t anywhere near as perky, but she wouldn’t be easily fooled. Nina would be safe with her in charge.

Judge Lang called first thing that morning wanting him to represent Nina Prescott, who’d landed in the hospital after her husband slapped her around and broke her arm. Not the first time it had happened. Apparently the Judge didn’t have much faith in the young prosecutor assigned to the case, and the lawyer representing Clay Prescott was slippery. Lang aimed to level the playing field, and Max was glad to help.

After what seemed like an eternity, the nurse returned his license, and pointed down the long hallway. “Three doors down on the right. Directly across from the nurses’ station. Keep the door open.”

“Thanks.”

“You won’t find her there right now,” she announced, working a generous squirt of hand sanitizer over her palms and fingers.

“Where is she?”

Melinda Springer turned on her heel. “You don’t really expect an answer to that, do you?”

 He was pretty sure she’d resisted tacking the words “dumb ass” on the end of the sentence. Sufficiently chastened, he asked a different question. “When will she be back?”

“Soon. Another lawyer’s waiting, too. You can keep each other company,” she threw over her shoulder, before disappearing into a patient’s room.

A lawyer waiting to talk to my client—don’t think so. Grateful to be just a visitor, he headed down the hall, stopping at the entrance of 222. Inside an empty bed and some nondescript furniture filled the small private room. Directly across from the doorway was a large window with a briefcase and an oversized purse sitting on the ledge, blocking his view of the street below. Maybe they belonged to the woman in the far corner who was quietly talking into a cellphone.

From the doorway, he strained to hear the conversation. It sounded like she was changing her evening plans. A sweet smile crossed her face while she listened to the voice on the other end of the call, so engrossed in conversation she didn’t notice him eavesdropping.

She was attractive, with shiny dark hair that hung in soft waves, grazing the swell of her breasts. If this was the prosecutor, Lang was right to call in reinforcements. The woman looked too young and innocent to handle the case alone. Prescott’s lawyer would eat her alive…and what a tasty meal she’d make in that black and white dress, highlighting each and every curve—and the woman had plenty.

Lifting her hand, she grasped a small section of hair and twirled it seductively around two fingers. His mouth went bone dry when a pink tongue emerged from her mouth, delicately spreading moisture over plump heart-shaped lips. A delectable meal indeed.

The brunette ended the call and looked up, catching his eye, but not uttering a single word.

He encountered more than his fair share of women—both the tongue-tied variety, and, the I want to stick my tongue in your mouth variety. Normally he didn’t have a real preference, but under these circumstances, quiet and meek worked just fine.

Striding into the room, Max dropped his briefcase on a chair by the bed. “Prosecutor? In-house counsel for the hospital?” The questions were delivered in rapid-fire, not bothering to wait for a response. “Don’t tell me you represent Clay Prescott.” He stared her down, daring her to say yes—almost hoping she would.

“I’m Sophie Clayton, the victim advocate from New Day.”

She didn’t look like any victim advocate he’d ever seen—too polished and overdressed. Victim advocates wore practical, even frumpy, clothes and shoes. The job was unpredictable, sometimes you had to get your hands dirty, and you never knew when you’d end up in some hellhole. This woman looked like she preferred to keep her pretty little hands clean, and he’d be willing to bet his next paycheck, she hadn’t spent much time in hellholes. And no victim advocate could afford the fancy purse sitting on the ledge, not unless she had a sugar daddy or a trust fund.

“I’m not going to guess who you are, but I will stop talking long enough for you to tell me.” She held her shoulders back, and her head high, making that cute little chin jut out defiantly.

It took everything he had to hold back a smirk while studying her up close. Maybe not quiet and meek, but Sophie Clayton certainly didn’t seem like she was jonesing to stick her tongue down his throat, either. “I’m the attorney from Parker Spencer appointed to represent Nina Prescott.”

“I guess we’ll be working together,” she said, somewhat underwhelmed, and entirely unimpressed.

Working with a victim advocate could be helpful, but he didn’t know this woman, and she didn’t look like she’d be particularly useful—not with the case, anyway. “This is a legal matter. I won’t need your services. But I’m sure Mrs. Prescott can use all the help you can provide her.”

She ignored him, brushed him off like a pesky fly that landed on her arm. “Domestic violence is complex, and the issues that arise are unique to these cases.”

Really?” He shut the door and sat down, leaning back in the chair with his legs stretched out in front of him. “I’m all ears. Tell me what you think I need to know.”

She spoke in a relaxed voice, but her posture remained guarded. “Many perpetrators are dangerous, very dangerous. It’s not uncommon to find sociopaths or even psychopaths among them—they can fool you, and everyone else in the courtroom, pretty easily.”

“No kidding.” He didn’t bother to hide the sarcasm, and she didn’t bother to hide the irritation. With both hands on her hips, she shot him daggers. Not velvet encased ones, but pointed spears laced with poison. If they’d been real, he’d have been mortally wounded.

“Just say what’s on your mind, Ms. Clayton. This is a serious matter, and I don’t have time for niceties. Let’s define our roles before Mrs. Prescott gets back.”

“You’re an attorney, but you don’t have experience with these sorts of cases. Parker Spencer specializes in business law. It’s a highly successful firm, but the issues you work on are worlds away from this. I’m an expert in the field, I can help you.”

He paused, appreciating how the top of her high-heeled leather boots disappeared under her dress, wondering if they rode all the way up her thigh. “How do you know so much about Parker Spencer?”

She carefully tucked a section of hair behind her left ear, the motion slow and deliberate as if she was stalling. “Daniel Parker chairs my board.”

Your board?” He didn’t mean to sound quite so incredulous, but that’s how it popped out.

Sophie swallowed, and drew a long, deep breath through her nose. Her round breasts rose and fell exactly twice before she spoke. “I’m the executive director of New Day.”

That’s why her name sounded familiar. He remembered the exposé in the Sunday paper from a while back: Sophia Clayton, Smart and Beautiful—How This Lethal Combination is Eradicating Violence Against Women. Explained the clothes and the expensive purse—sort of. Executive directors of nonprofits didn’t make all that much money. No ring on her finger, either. “Why are you here, Ms. Clayton? Aren’t your talents better spent fundraising?”

Sliding her lips over her teeth, she squeezed her mouth into a tight line. Feisty, but controlled—barely. Ordinarily challenging women were more trouble than they were worth, but he couldn’t help wondering if he’d enjoy her. Maybe if the circumstances…

“Our victim advocates are unavailable. Occasionally I’m forced to take time away from pandering to do some real work. Look Mister...?”

“Parker. Max Parker.”

“You’re Daniel’s son?”

Her eyes were round as saucers now, saucers filled right to the brim with well-aged whiskey. He nodded.

“Now it’s my turn. What are you doing here?”

He didn’t offer an explanation, so she continued. “I know Parker Spencer does some pro bono work for our clients, but you’re a partner, and probably not a litigator.”

“No experience with domestic violence cases, a partner, not a litigator—seems you’ve got me all figured out. I’m here for the same reason you are: best available.”

“Look, Mr. Parker…”

“Max.”

“Max…this is a very serious case, so let’s just check our egos at the door. I’m not the agency’s most experienced victim advocate, but I do know a thing or two about domestic violence. And while you might not have experience in domestic violence, I’m sure you know your way around the law. For Mrs. Prescott’s sake, let’s not be too arrogant to ask each other for help.”

The pint-sized brunette was defining the terms of their working relationship. Guess she didn’t get the memo that he was in charge of the case now. “Are you a lawyer?”

No.” With a sharp grimace and her brows drawn together, she looked horrified, as though he’d accused her of swindling little old ladies out of their life savings.

“Don’t sound so insulted. It’s not a criminal enterprise—at least it doesn’t have to be.”

Her eyes sparkled while she struggled to keep a giggle from escaping out of those full, pink lips. A damn giggle. His dick twitched. Focus, Parker.

“I didn’t mean to offend you. I don’t have a problem with lawyers.” Her eyes were still twinkling.

“Thank goodness.”

She mistook the light moment for a change of heart. “I can help you understand how these cases work.”

“I’m sorry. Didn’t you say you’re not a lawyer?”

“These are not ordinary cases, especially this one. You can’t negotiate a deal that the other side never intends to keep.”

“I think I have a fair understanding of perpetrators in DV cases.”

She winced. Like everyone else in town, Sophie probably knew about his family, but unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to shut her up. “Being a victim doesn’t give you the expertise necessary to deal with domestic violence cases,” she said gently, so very gently.

Yep, she knew, and for some reason it pissed him off—really pissed him off—especially the part where she referred to him as a victim.

“And watching a few reruns of Law and Order doesn’t give you the knowledge necessary to litigate them.” A clipped tone intensified the harsh words, but he wasn’t done. Standing, he towered over her, giving him an extra edge. “And let’s get something straight. I’m no one’s victim, and I’ll be the one telling you how this is going to work.”

“Look…”

“No. You listen. I’m asking for a restraining order with custody of the kids to remain with Nina’s mother until she gets out of here.”

“What if she doesn’t want a restraining order? This is her decision, and we need to empower her to make it.”

 “Is that what keeps your conscience clear after some woman gets the shit beat out of her—that you empowered her, let someone in a bad frame of mind make life and death decisions for herself? Is that what helps you sleep at night?”

Furious, and becoming a bit unhinged, he needed to regain some semblance of control before Nina got back to the room. The last thing she needed was another out of control man in her life. But Sophie Clayton with her psychobabble bullshit was pushing all his buttons—every single one.

He took a couple of breaths before continuing in a more moderate tone. “I don’t care if she wants a restraining or not—she needs one.”

The door opened, abruptly ending the discussion. A nurse pushed Nina Prescott into the small room. Her left arm was almost completely concealed by a cast, and fresh, angry bruises covered her swollen face. She would have been unrecognizable even to her own mother. Seeing her battered and bruised was like a close-fisted punch to the gut, leaving him winded and gasping for air.

It didn’t matter how many victims he met—it never got any easier.

“I need to ask you both to wait in the visitor’s lounge while Mrs. Prescott gets settled,” the nurse instructed.

* * *

Sophie’s head was spinning as they walked toward the empty waiting room. She glanced sideways at Max. He was handsome and reeked of power—you could smell it from across the room. Men like that had no trouble convincing everyone around them to do whatever they wanted.

He thought she’d just fall in line, acquiesce quietly. Well, that wasn’t her style, and it wouldn’t be helpful to the client if it were. But they needed to change course, otherwise it would be impossible to work together, making Nina Prescott the loser. And from the look of her, Nina had already lost far too much.

Maybe something less controversial would help restart things between them. “Your dad’s a wonderful man. I really enjoy working with him. He pulled the agency from the ashes—taught me so much about running a business.” Sophie adored Daniel, and couldn’t help but smile while she spoke about him. “He’s very proud of you, talks about you all the time.”

“Yeah. My dad’s a great guy.” His voice softened. “He’s got a heart of gold, that’s for sure. And when it comes to business, there’s no one better to learn from.” Then, as though he’d caught himself being human, he added, “You won’t find me as accommodating.”

“That’s hard to believe.” The corners of his mouth quirked—ah, he’s not entirely humorless.

“If the prosecutor doesn’t seek a restraining order, I’ll…”

“It’s Nina’s decision. A restraining order is a piece of paper, it can’t keep her safe, and sometimes it makes the situation worse.”

“The police can pick him up and put him away if he violates it. This guy has plenty of money and muscle behind him. Other than sending her underground, which I’m not opposed to, it’s our best hope to keep her safe. And once we have the order—and we will get it—you’re going to call your friend the police chief…he sits on your board, right?”

She nodded politely, but she’d nearly had enough of his high-handed arrogance. If this had been any other situation—if he wasn’t providing pro bono services to a desperate client, she would have given him a piece of her mind by now. Maybe two pieces. As it was she could feel the anger rising in her throat.

“Then he’s going to get the message to his boys on the street. Prescott gets no more chances. He’s had plenty. Do we understand each other?”

He was forceful, leaving no room for negotiation. Some people would have cowered, stepped back, and that’s certainly what he expected. But she moved closer. “An important job title and a well-fitting suit may have some clamoring to do your bidding, but I don’t work for you, and I’m certainly not one of your fan girls.”

Before Sophie could say more, the nurse stuck her head into the waiting room. “She’s all set.”

Max turned to her. “I’ve got this, Ms. Clayton. It’s getting late, don’t you have a date this evening?”

He was smug and dismissive, making her want to lash out again. But she swallowed her retort, like a big wad of tasteless chewing gum, although he did catch the eye roll.

“Women usually find me charming.”

“Oh, please,” she groaned, not even attempting to stop herself this time. Max grinned. A beautiful toothy grin, accompanied by a low chuckle. “You’re nothing like your father.”

“I’d have been disappointed if you said I reminded you of a seventy-year-old man.”

 

* * *

 

She had to give it to him, he represented Nina well. Waltzed into the courtroom, took control of the case, and never looked back. That man had no shortage of confidence. The poor prosecutor didn’t know what hit her, and Clay Prescott’s sleazy lawyer never had a chance. Impressive, and he looked mighty fine doing it. He’d also been kind to Nina, not as heavy-handed or intimidating as he’d been with her.

As soon as the judge issued his ruling, Sophie left the courtroom and headed for the hospital to bring Nina the good news. Not surprising, she was visibly relieved to hear the children would stay with her mother while she remained in the hospital, and that the local police would patrol the house regularly.

Crossing through the lobby on the way out of the hospital, Sophie glanced at the clock above the reception desk. If she grabbed a cab, she’d be at the restaurant in ten minutes. What a day!

Just as she reached the exit, Max strolled in. They stood awkwardly for a few seconds, surprised to run into each other.

“Going up to see Nina?”

“Yeah,” he nodded. “How’s she doing?”

“Relieved. She’ll be happy to see you.”

“I want to leave copies of the order with her and let the nurses know they need to call the police if Prescott or any of his buddies come around.”

Max seemed almost embarrassed to be there. He was making excuses for coming back to check on Nina, and for ensuring her safety. In truth, most of the lawyers the agency worked with wouldn’t have bothered to come back to the hospital on a Friday evening, they would have simply phoned Nina and left it to her to inform the nurses about the restraining order.

“I called Chief Barnes and filled him in. He said he’d get the word out.” Max nodded, his hand casually tucked in his coat pocket. “You did a nice job for her today.” She meant it, if only every client could be represented with as much skill, conscientiousness, and compassion as he’d shown.

“For someone with no domestic violence experience who’s not a litigator, you mean?”

They were both grinning. It was the outcome they’d hoped for, and the relief was palpable.

“I’ll only be upstairs a few minutes, do you want to get a drink?”

“Actually, I’m on the way to meet your dad and…I’m late.” Oh God! She’d almost spilled a secret that wasn’t hers to tell.

“Where are you meeting him? I’ll join you when I’m finished here. My dad won’t mind.”

“It’s…uh…a business dinner—we have some…uh…um…confidential matters to discuss,” she stammered, with as much grace as a bull in a china closet. She’d always been a bad liar—hopefully he didn’t catch it.

“A little late to be doing business on a Friday evening, isn’t it?”

“Sometimes it can’t be helped.” She needed to get out of there now. “It was nice meeting you Max, I’ll see you at the Aldrich Gala.”

 

* * *

 

Max watched her climb into a cab. She’d lied about the business meeting. And how did she know he’d be at the Aldrich Gala? He never went. The only reason he was putting in an appearance this year was because his father had asked him and his brother, Nate, to be there. His dad wanted to introduce them to someone special he was dating.

No…not possible. Dad couldn’t be dating Sophie Clayton. There had to be at least forty years between them. He shook his head, hoping to clear the cobwebs. Ridiculous. It’s been a long week. Fortunately, he knew just how to relax.

Reaching into his jacket pocket, he pulled out his phone and scrolled through the contacts. “Brittany, it’s Max Parker. Any plans tonight?”

Chapter Two

 

Sophie paused in front of the full-length mirror to take one last look before heading down to wait for Daniel. After studying her reflection, she frowned. The dress had been a mistake. Yes, it was exquisite—an opaque silk underlay covered by a lovely sheer fabric that gave it an almost ethereal look. Cut modestly in front, it merely hinted at what lay underneath, but it left her back almost completely exposed.

Her sister, Ella, was right—the color brought out the gold tones in her dark brown eyes. But she was wrong about the neutral shade toning down the allure of the nearly backless dress. “Benign beige,” she’d called it. Boy, was Ella wrong about that! It would have been more appropriate to call the shade nude, because of the way it blurred the line between the fabric and her skin, amplifying the seductiveness of the outfit. There was nothing benign about it.

She glanced at the clock—too late to change. Mercifully, neither her hair nor makeup were overdone. One last swipe of pale pink gloss, and she shut the apartment door behind her.

Ordinarily she took the stairs, some days it was the only way to squeeze in a little exercise, but her ridiculously high heels made the elevator the best option tonight. James O’Malley, the doorman, was finishing his supper when she stepped into the lobby.

“You look lovely this evening, Ms. Clayton. Will you be needing a cab?”

“No thank you, Mr. O’Malley, I have a ride.”

James O’Malley was a sturdy man of about sixty who spoke with a delightful brogue and a twinkle in his eye that had charmed her from the moment they met. Soon after moving into the building, she’d asked him to call her Sophie. He’d explained, in a faint Irish lilt, that it wouldn’t be proper to use her given name. His bosses wouldn’t like it. So from that day on, despite his protests, she called him Mr. O’Malley, explaining whenever he complained that it wouldn’t be proper to call an older gentleman by his given name. Her grandmother wouldn’t like it.

“How’s your wife?”

His face lit up. “So much better. That reminds me.” He pulled a glass jar and a small envelope out from behind the desk. “She made you something sweet, to thank you for sending her to Dr. Baker. It’s her special chocolate fudge sauce. I can hold it until you get back.”

“You won’t eat it all will you?” Sophie teased, opening the card.

“Not if I know what’s good for me.”

Her heart swelled reading Colleen O’Malley’s kind words. “I was happy to help. It’s hard to find a good doctor, even in a city filled with them. Hot fudge is my favorite, please thank her for me.”

“I will.”

“It’s a beautiful evening and I’ve been inside all day. I think I’ll wait out front.” After the brutal winter, the mild spring air felt heavenly. The purple and white crocuses were beginning to peek through the soft ground. Crocuses and the Aldrich Birthday Gala—two sure signs that spring had arrived in Boston.

The last time she’d attended the Gala she was married to Eric. Unlike her family, who mostly begged off this event but sent a generous donation, Eric Stevens never missed an opportunity to rub elbows with Boston’s rich and powerful. He was always looking for a way to advance his career and social standing. That’s why he’d married her.

Sophie’s father, Samuel Clayton, had been the Director General of the United States Foreign Service, and was later appointed an ambassador, and her uncle, Nicholas Harrington, had served several terms in the United States Senate. It wasn’t unusual for American or foreign dignitaries to visit their home at Meadows Shore.

She smiled, remembering one Fourth of July when the president spent the weekend. Her sisters and cousins, all eleven of them, had sneaked down to the beach, setting off fireworks behind the house where the president slept, sending the Secret Service agents into a tizzy. Those were the sorts of stories that had made her irresistible to Eric.

Daniel’s car pulled up, interrupting the reminiscing. He stepped out, kissed her cheek, and stood back. “Sophie, you’re breathtaking! If only I were a few decades younger, all those young bucks wouldn’t stand a chance.”

She chuckled. “Daniel, those young bucks have nothing on you.”

For the last two years Daniel had been her savior, a beacon while she plodded through unknown, sometimes hostile, territory. Smart and clear-thinking, he’d given form to her amorphous vision for the agency, lending emotional support when she’d needed it most.

“This is your moment, Sophie. I wish you’d revel in it.”

She climbed into the town car sliding over to make room for Daniel. “I am reveling in it. I couldn’t be more proud of everything we’ve accomplished.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about, and you know it.”

She could feel herself growing tense, like every other time he brought this up. “Daniel, we’ve discussed this so many times. You’re the chair of the board, and it’s your moment, too. New Day wouldn’t exist without you. You’re the right person to accept the award.”

Daniel shook his head. “Waste of good breath arguing with a stubborn woman,” he muttered. Then he said no more.

That was easy, too easy. Not like him to throw in the towel without more of a fight. Daniel loved a challenge. He was fond of saying: “More than one way to shuck an oyster—and I know all of them.” She glanced at him, hmmm, what are you up to?

Over the past month, Daniel had nagged her relentlessly about accepting the award for the agency. She’d explained countless times that she didn’t want to go up to the stage—that it wasn’t about modesty, but about fear. He simply didn’t believe her. “Don’t give me that Sophie, you’re afraid of nothing,” he’d bluster.

Daniel was reading through his notes for the evening, so she closed her eyes for a few minutes, alone with her thoughts—stubborn man.

 

Her family left Europe and moved to Fair Harbor when she was in middle school. Short in stature, with dark hair and eyes, she resembled many of the Portuguese girls who lived there—nothing special. The Portuguese were the area’s newest immigrants and, like all other new immigrants, they were treated accordingly.

Except Sophie’s family was unique, straddling both sides of the tracks. Her mother was a Portuguese immigrant, but her father’s roots could be traced to the earliest settlers. The Sousas struggled to make ends meet, while the Claytons were wealthy and powerful. This cultural contrast proved too much for the underdeveloped brains of pre-adolescent girls. She didn’t fit into a familiar box, so they shunned her.

The school held an awards ceremony during the spring. The auditorium was packed with students, teachers, and parents when the principal called her name. As she climbed the steps to receive her award, she tripped and fell, twisting her ankle. The humiliation pained her more than the throbbing ankle.

The next day she returned to school on crutches, a reminder to everyone of her clumsiness. The fall marginalized her further, and the taunting continued until some other unsuspecting student violated the middle school social code, allowing her to return to obscurity.

 

Although middle school was long behind, she’d avoided walking up to a stage ever since that ill-fated day, and had absolutely no intention of changing course tonight. She opened her eyes to the sound of paper crinkling as Daniel folded his notes and tucked them into his pocket.

They settled in for the short ride to the museum. “Are you ready for tonight?” she asked, gently patting the top of his hand.

“More than ready. This is my second chance at love and happiness. Max and Nate will understand.” Despite his assurances, he was stiff and gruff, and she gave him a little squeeze of encouragement.

 

* * *

 

Max sat in the back of the black Mercedes sedan, waiting. Waiting was something he’d never done very well. Sure, he could wait for an opponent to wave the white flag of surrender during a business negotiation. He’d wait till hell froze over if that’s what it took to close a deal, but that was different—that was calculated waiting. This kind of waiting was more akin to patience, another virtue that eluded him.

Thirty-four, single, and a partner at one of Boston’s most prestigious law firms, to almost everyone, it seemed like he’d conquered the world. Most days he felt like that too. The lucrative partnership, with the status it conferred, offered many perks—beautiful women chief among them—lots of beautiful women. And Max took full advantage of that perk. Why shouldn’t he?

The gossip columnists chattered endlessly about how he had too many women in his life…and in his bed. Maybe. But most of the time, he felt the number was damn near perfect.

“Martin, do you mind turning on the game?” Although he preferred to drive—more freedom, less fuss—there were times when a driver was necessary. On those occasions, Martin, who’d worked for his family for years, would play driver. Martin welcomed the extra income, and Max trusted that he would never compromise his privacy. The arrangement worked for both of them.

Completely bored, he fiddled with the climate control in the backseat. “What’s taking her so long? She’s a professional model, isn’t getting all dressed up what she does every day for a living?”

Martin shrugged. “I stopped trying to figure out why women do the things they do a long time ago. With a wife and three daughters, it saved my sanity. Highly recommend it.”

The baseball game didn’t make him feel any better—his beloved Blues were getting massacred. Allie was nearly twenty-five minutes late. He’d gone up to her apartment earlier, but she wasn’t wearing makeup, and refused to let him in.

Now fixated on the dashboard clock, he watched the opportunity to stop for a pre-Gala drink slip away. He’d almost had enough of Allie, and the evening hadn’t even started.

Growing more and more irritated by the second, he sat back with nothing to do but stew, and think about how much he hated these events. Ordinarily he’d volunteer time or make a donation rather than subject himself to an evening of phony philanthropy with people who had little interest in the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. After the party, they’d go back to their extravagant lifestyles without giving poverty a second thought. These galas were simply a way of networking and social climbing under the guise of altruism, but there was nothing altruistic about them.

That’s why he was bringing Allie—young, outgoing, and lovely to look at. When the evening became too much, he’d tune it out and imagine her naked under him, breathless, screaming his name, while he drove into her, again and again. At the end of the night, if all went well, that fantasy would become reality—a just reward for tolerating the insipid drone of the bloated egos clamoring to do business with the firm.

As he leaned into the front seat to ask Martin to turn off the game, a uniformed man emerged from the building, holding the door for a striking woman in a long black dress—Allie, finally.

Despite her glamorous look, he caught himself scowling as she approached the car. She’s made up to the nines, no wonder it took her so damn long to get ready.

Chapter Three

 

Martin pulled into the circular driveway in front of the Gabriella Portman Aldridge Museum. The splendor of the European-style building with its spectacular artwork and gardens made it the perfect backdrop for a formal gathering. Even with all its elegance, the museum, and the gardens in particular, where serene and welcoming to adults and children alike. His mother had brought them here often when they were kids, and through the years when he needed an escape or some solace, he often came back.

While Max helped Allie from the backseat, his father’s driver pulled up, a couple of cars behind them. The moment had arrived. He had mixed feelings about meeting the new woman in his dad’s life—feelings he hadn’t counted on.

It had been more than a decade since his mom died, and he couldn’t remember his father dating anyone, let alone someone special. Every muscle tightened painfully at the thought of his mother, and his chest ached, making it difficult to breathe.

His dad had spent years beating himself up over her death. But it was Max, not his father, who could’ve prevented the tragedy. If only he hadn’t been so wrapped up in himself, so self-absorbed, he could have saved them.

His mind drifted back to that awful summer. He’d just graduated at the top of his class with a joint business and law degree. For years he worked long hours through every school vacation, doing research and anything else that needed to be done at the firm. After graduation, his grades and work ethic earned him an office at Parker Spencer, the firm his grandfather and Richard Spencer built. He’d received no special treatment, nor did he ask for any. Someday he’d be in charge, and didn’t want his employees and colleagues thinking it was simply his birthright that had gotten him there.

Parker Spencer gained national prominence while the second generation held the reins, and Max was sure his generation would make it soar higher. In his mind, the possibilities were endless.

With the stress of the bar exam behind him, he’d picked out an engagement ring for his long-time girlfriend, Victoria Denslow. On top of the world, invincible, so caught up in his own bullshit, he never noticed how isolated his sister Katie had become—never noticed how concerned his parents, especially his mom, were about her.

He didn’t pull the trigger, but they were gone because he was a selfish bastard. Simple as that.

His dad, on the other hand, was selfless. A good man who dedicated his life to his family and community. Unlike Max, he deserved to be happy again.

Max watched while his father assisted a woman from the car. “Dad!”

His jaw dropped when they turned in his direction. His father’s lady friend wasn’t the white-haired grandmotherly type he’d been expecting. This woman was considerably younger than his father and attractive—very attractive, with not a single white hair in sight. Sophie Clayton. I’ll be damned.

“Max! I’m so happy to see you.” He had a few inches on his father, but his dad had a lifetime of experience on him. Over the years, he’d quietly taught Max about business, and about life—character, honesty, and integrity, the hallmarks of manhood, all of which Max learned by watching him. Watching the way he treated his wife, kids, employees, colleagues, and friends, and maybe most importantly, the way he treated his adversaries with fairness and respect, even those who’d done little to earn it.

“It’s good to see you too, Dad.” While they’d worked together every day for almost ten years, his father was mostly retired now, and spent much of his time on the golf course with his buddies, or at New Day, where he chaired the board. These days it was rare to find him in his office at Parker Spencer.

Turning to the woman beside him, his father made the introductions. “You know Sophie Clayton, the woman who single-handedly changed my life.” Max cringed like a pimply-faced teenager, at the thought of her hand doing anything to his father.

Daniel.” She tipped her head to one side, her mouth curving softly, and the gold flecks in her eyes shimmering while she gently chided his father. “You give me much too much credit for your happiness, credit I hardly deserve.” Sophie extended a perfectly manicured hand, “Max, it’s nice to see you again, and under more pleasant circumstances.”

He took her hand. It was warm and inviting, like her smile. “My pleasure.” Max held her gaze, grasping her small hand in his, releasing her only to stop his pants from getting any tighter.

Balling both hands into tight fists at his side, he remind himself that she was his father’s date.

* * *

 

Sophie watched the two men embrace warmly. She’d only met Max Parker once before, but she’d heard all about his reputation—playboy extraordinaire. He was quite handsome, well over six feet tall with the body of a serious athlete. Daniel mentioned, sometime just last week, that Max had recently completed a triathlon. Biking, swimming, and running produced broad shoulders, narrow hips, and muscular thighs, his well-tailored tux showcased those attributes very nicely, and his square jaw was the perfect complement to that muscular frame. No wonder women flocked to his bed.

His chestnut hair curled at the ends, looking like it needed a trim, or maybe just a comb run through it. It saved him from looking too perfect, enhancing his bad boy image perfectly. Thick, dark lashes framed eyes as blue as his dad’s, unfortunately, that’s where the resemblance ended.

From everything she’d heard, he had much more in common with her ex-husband than with Daniel. It was widely rumored his bedroom had an open door policy, and that the women who sashayed through it were getting younger and younger. His date lent credence to the gossip. Stunning, but up close she resembled a little girl playing dress-up with her mother’s clothes and makeup. Eric would have liked her too.

Eric had been a poor excuse for a husband—for that matter, he’d been a poor excuse for a man. But she’d allowed it, behaving more like a doormat than a woman. She’d asked nothing of him, and in turn, he gave nothing.

In truth, she had never learned how to ask. Sophie didn’t recall her mom ever having to ask her father for anything at all, let alone for the most basic of courtesies. Perhaps it was because her dad was the kind of man who understood that marriage was about respect. Like life itself, it was as much about giving as taking.

The words Eric flung at her right before he left weren’t entirely untrue—during their marriage she had become passionless. It happened when she realized she was destined to spend the rest of her life with a man who cared only about himself. That realization would have sucked the passion out of anyone.

When they met, she’d been inexperienced, though eager to learn about sex. Eric certainly went to great lengths to teach her how to please him, but somehow her own pleasure got lost, becoming an unimportant facet of the relationship. At first, sex with him left her aroused and frustrated. When she tried to talk to him about her needs, he made it seem as though there was something wrong with her because she couldn’t find pleasure in pleasing him—like the woman I heard screaming his name in my bed. Sex soon became a chore, an unpleasant chore, and ultimately it happened only when he shamed her into it—when he was between lovers.

 

* * *

 

Once inside the large foyer, Max grabbed a couple of champagne flutes off a passing tray, handing one to Allie. He drained his before she’d even taken her first sip.

“Hey, man.” He turned toward the voice. Mitchell Spencer. He and Mitch had known each other all their lives, their families inextricably linked through the firm.

“Hey.” With a hint of annoyance, he stood by while Mitch openly checked out Allie. Mitch had little regard for boundaries, assuming that all women were fair game. Unlike Mitch, Max steered clear of women in relationships, especially serious ones. Plenty of unattached women, why buy trouble?

Mitch had a lot of balls, drooling over Allie’s breasts, like a hound over a bone. Not that Max cared all that much, Allie was just for tonight.

“Mitch, this is Allie Jensen. Allie, Mitch Spencer.”

 “Are you here alone?” Max asked.

“For now.” Mitch winked at Allie. “Who’s the woman with your dad?”

“It’s his uh…uh…girlfriend.” Max almost choked on the words, but he didn’t know how else to refer to his seventy-year-old father’s female companion.

Mitch whistled through his teeth. “Wow. I mean, wow. That’s some body she’s got going on over there. No wonder he’s got the spring back in his step. Old goat.”

Max glared at him. “Shut up. Just shut the fuck up,” he growled, wishing he’d told Mitch that Sophie was a family friend or some other bullshit. No matter, sooner or later Mitch would learn the truth.

“Relax. I didn’t mean anything by it,” Mitch shrugged. “He seems happy lately, that’s all.”

Fortunately, a tall blonde whose dress consisted of a few scraps of clingy fabric held together by enormous safety pins captured Mitch’s roving eye. “I think I might have found my date for the evening. Catch you later.”

He watched his friend flirt shamelessly with the blonde. With little coaxing, she’d be in his bed at the end of the night. He and Mitch had spent many an evening together on the prowl, and those evenings always ended predictably.

Normally Mitch’s escapades amused him. Rivaled his own. But tonight he found the behavior unseemly. As he silently disparaged his friend, he caught sight of Allie and downed another glass of champagne.

Face it, he was no better than Mitch Spencer.

 

* * *

 

His dad and Sophie were chatting with a group nearby. Max could hear bits and pieces of the conversation. She was charming and witty, comfortable making small talk with strangers, and his father gazed at her adoringly.

Max couldn’t keep his eyes off her either. She was good-looking—but so what? The world was full of good-looking women. What made this one so damn special?

As he contemplated his attraction, Sophie’s wrap slipped off her shoulders, exposing a large swath of beautiful, satiny skin, the kind of skin that begged a man to reach out and run his fingers over it. He stood mesmerized, imagining her dress slowly slipping off, gliding effortlessly over those gorgeous curves, and pooling at her feet. Allie squeezed his arm and jolted him back into the moment. Lucky for him, she wasn’t a mind reader.

Frustrated, he combed his fingers through his unruly hair. His body simply refused to accept that she was his father’s date. Grabbing yet another flute, he took a large swig, nearly gagging when images of Shakespeare’s Oedipus infiltrated his already disgusting thoughts. It was going to be a long night, and he had a feeling that he’d need something stronger than champagne to sustain him.

Max thought about heading to the bar, but instead, like a glutton for punishment, he stole another look at Sophie. Her wrap was off now, neatly draped over her arm. She was pretty, very pretty. Not striking like Allie, and not a classic beauty. She certainly didn’t resemble the blue-blooded Bostonians, with their patrician looks, who graced the lounge chairs at the country club, nor the scantily clad women perched on stools at popular Boston clubs.

She exuded a quiet but smoldering sexuality. An earthiness that was honest and wholesome. The combination was gorgeous, tugging at him with a siren’s sweet allure, and even sensing the danger, he couldn’t force himself to look away.

He got it now, plain as day—why his father had started leaving the golf course behind, spending more and more time at New Day. Max always assumed helping the agency was his dad’s way of doing Penance for his mom and Katie’s deaths. Apparently he’d misconstrued the motivation. Mitch was right, his father hadn’t been this happy since before they died. Yeah, well, Sophie Clayton would provide a welcome distraction for anyone, especially a lonely old man.

Max scanned the room, restless, itchy, just plain uncomfortable, even the thought of Allie in his bed couldn’t temper the uneasiness. He wasn’t a prude, tales of his sexual exploits were not for the timid. Yet, for some reason, he found this May-December romance unsettling. Actually, it made him want to puke. There had to be forty years between them—at least that. Sure, his dad was in excellent health, and in great shape for a man his age. Even started mowing the lawn again after retiring, but…

Hell, it was easy to understand his father’s fascination with her—you’d need to be a fool to miss that, but what attracted her to him? Did they have sex? He shuddered. Do not go there. Studying them carefully, he decided that she wasn’t someone who’d have any trouble attracting men her own age. What’s really going on here? It was driving him crazy.

Badly in need of a change of scenery, he caught his dad’s attention, “Let’s move into the gardens where it’s less crowded.”

While they headed toward the lush gardens, to the very spot where Max sometimes went to find peace, the gushing continued. “Sophie’s the executive director of New Day. She’s turned the agency into a force to be reckoned with on behalf of survivors of domestic violence and their families.” His father couldn’t seem to stop singing her praises to anyone willing to listen.

Max started to roll his eyes—his dad sounded like a sap. It was embarrassing. And then it hit him. Although he couldn’t recall the particulars, the newspaper article had detailed New Day’s financial difficulties and explained how Sophie worked magic to keep the agency’s doors open. He’d bet her magic trick involved batting those big brown eyes while she stuck her hands deep in his father’s pockets. Not anymore, not if he had anything to say about it.

It was starting to take shape. He finally understood what she saw in his dad. What seemed genuine and honest about her was merely a façade. Like his father, he’d been taken in by a pretty face—duped. Irritation quickly replaced discomfort, with anger impatiently waiting its turn, and before long, Max was seething.

His father’s heartache and grief left him vulnerable to the wiles of a pretty woman, one with an ulterior motive, but Max had absolutely no excuse. And while he didn’t want to spoil the evening, there was no way he’d let some gold digger break his dad’s heart—a heart that Max once believed was irreparably broken. His chest tightened, and he could feel his heart racing as the imagery took over.

 

We’d buried them on a glorious summer day, the kind that made you happy to be alive. A day made for playing in the waves on a sandy beach or kicking back on the porch, sipping a cold beer with friends. It wasn’t a day for burying family.

The graveside service was private, just relatives and a few close friends. When it ended, everyone moved toward the parked cars. I turned around to take one last look before they were lowered into the ground for eternity. Gasping for breath, I watched my father slumped over the caskets, heartbroken, looking like he wanted to crawl into the hole with them. It sucked all the oxygen and what little sanity I had left from my body. I stood trembling, helpless, while fury infiltrated every cell.

No one would ever hurt my family again.

 

Max needed air. “Allie,” he said, touching her arm. “I’ll be right back.”

Thoroughly shaken, Max pushed his way through the crowd to the open portico. He normally had better control over the painful memories, letting them surface only when he was alone. But this hadn’t been an ordinary memory. This felt real. Standing in the museum, he’d smelled it—dirt from the freshly dug graves, and the overwhelming stench of flowers past their prime. The very same smells that had bombarded him on the day of the funeral.

It had been ages since the images had taken control of his mind, leading him somewhere he didn’t want to go. His private hell didn’t belong in public places. The cool breeze chased away the demons, leaving behind only the rawness from the vivid memories, and an anger simmering precariously close to the surface.

After a little while, Max remembered that he still needed to take care of Sophie Clayton, and headed back inside. He wasn’t concerned with his dad’s physical safety—it was his emotional well-being that worried him. He’d put a stop to the charade tonight. Find a moment to chat with her alone, before his father was in too deep. Dealing with her might help him regain some semblance of control. Yeah, it was exactly what he needed to get his head back on straight.