“No author can even come close to capturing the awe-inspiring essence of the North Carolina coast like Greene. Her debut novel seamlessly combines hope, love and faith, like the female equivalent of Nicholas Sparks. Her writing is meticulous and so finely detailed you’ll hear the gulls overhead and the waves crashing onto shore. Grab a hanky, bury your toes in the sand and get ready to be swept away with this unforgettable beach read.”
Double Winner!! in the GDRWA’s Booksellers’ Best Traditional category AND Best First Book category
Finalist in the Georgia Romance Writers Published Maggie Award of Excellence
Finalist in Southern Magic’s Gayle Wilson Award of Excellence in the Inspirational Single Title category
Please visit me at www.GraceGreeneAuthor.com
On the Crystal Coast of North Carolina, in the small town of Emerald Isle…
Juli Cooke, hard-working and getting nowhere fast, marries a dying man, Ben Bradshaw, for a financial settlement, not expecting he will set her on a journey of hope and love. The journey brings her to Luke Winters, a local art dealer, but Luke resents the woman who married his sick friend and warns her not to hurt Ben—and he‘s watching to make sure she doesn‘t.
Until Ben dies and the stakes change.
Framed by the timelessness of the Atlantic Ocean and the brilliant blue of the beach sky, Juli struggles against her past, the opposition of Ben’s and Luke’s families, and even the living reminder of her marriage—to build a future with hope and perhaps to find the love of her life—if she can survive the danger from her past.
The Hammonds’ house glittered. Crystal, gold and silver reflected in the numerous floor-to-ceiling mirrors. The men wore tuxedos and the ladies, draped and fitted in their gowns and jewels, rivaled the decorations in the lavish rooms. It was the fanciest home Juli Cooke had ever seen.
Juli wasn’t glittery. She wove her way among the guests with a tray offering canapés. Her white shirt was already spotted with chocolate and red wine. The blotches were right smack in the middle where her black vest couldn’t hide them. Her feet hurt, bound in cheap black pumps. She was twenty-six and definitely not a decoration. She felt like a utility—faceless, graceless, and silent.
She paused as a guest chose a mushroom-capped hors d’oeuvre from her tray.
What were the Hammonds celebrating? It didn’t matter. It was the same for Juli regardless of the occasion—just another slice of unlived-in time spent trying to earn a buck because it was the bucks that kept her afloat, fed, and in her small apartment.
A hip brushed hers as Carla whispered, “What’s up with you and Frankie?”
“Frankie and me? Nothing.” Juli glanced around.
“Then you won’t mind if I ask him out?”
“Sammy’s watching. Move on. I’ll catch ya later.” Juli broke away and walked toward a group of people. Neither she nor Carla needed trouble from Sammy. As a boss, he was a tyrant. It paid to be alert if she wanted to stay below the trouble radar.
Nearby, a woman’s voice erupted in laughter and Juli turned to look. The woman was leaning toward a tall, thin man with her hand on his sleeve as she stared up into his face. Her body language was as revealing as his. Juli felt a little sorry for her. Even as the woman spoke to him, the man appeared to ignore her while he scanned the room.
He had a lean build, light brown hair and sharp features. The woman shrilled, “Luke, you are so…,” then the level of her voice dropped. He, Luke, was the one behaving differently from the rest of the group and should‘ve been the one who looked out of place but, no, he made the other partiers look superfluous.
Juli caught his stare. An unexpected pull, a subtle magnetism, drew her. A tingle raced up her spine. Had he sensed her eyes on him? His gaze passed over and through her and moved on.
That’s right, I’m nobody. It hit her like a punch in the gut. An invisible nobody going nowhere.
A knot of guests moved away and suddenly, she was reflected in a large mirror directly ahead. Unlike her own, muted reflection, everyone else captured in the mirror was sharper and more colorful. Humming began in her ears, growing louder as the room closed in around her. The warm air thickened with a fog of perfume and alcohol. A thousand unnamed scents threatened to choke her.
She tried to beat back the panic and failed.
In the midst of the laughter and glitz, Juli fled to the kitchen, but instead of exchanging the tray for a freshly filled one, she carried it straight out the door and into the night.
Luke Winters tuned out the hum of nearby conversations and looked beyond the flushed faces around him. Every man wore a black suit or tuxedo and they all seemed to have dark hair. There was nothing particularly distinguishing about Ben—other than his exceptional good nature—and that was no help here.
He’d told Ben not to come. There was no need. Marcel Hammond threw this party every year for business partners, clients, and friends.
Ben wanted to pretend everything was okay and he wanted everyone else to pretend with him. Ben was his cousin, his best friend and longtime business partner. Luke couldn’t pretend, he was a realist.
He gave his glass to a passing waiter and interrupted the woman who was speaking to him. “Please excuse me. I have to find someone. Very sorry.” He smiled in apology and gently detached himself from the small group.
Winding his way among the knots of people, nodding, waving or stopping for a quick, polite exchange before moving on, he traversed the room looking for Ben.
In the dimly lit hallway leading to the bathroom, two men stood close together. One was dressed as a waiter. Their hands moved quickly as they traded something—each having acquired an object that went directly into the new owner‘s pocket.
The action stopped Luke. He frowned, wondering at the boldness, or the need. They sensed him and looked up. Luke didn’t recognize either of them but the waiter stepped back, nodded and walked past him down the hall.
Was the guy smirking? The other man, a party guest, kept his eyes down and tugged at his suit jacket as he brushed past Luke.
Was it any of his business? No. He’d mention it to Marcel later, in case the incident was as unsavory as it seemed.
The bathroom door stood ajar. Luke pushed it open. No Ben. He returned to the main party room, again scanning the shifting bodies. A hand touched his arm.
“Luke? You look worried.”
Maia. He rubbed his temples. “I don’t see Ben anywhere.”
“Don’t hover over him. He’ll let you know if he needs help. In fact, he’ll ask for help a lot faster if you aren‘t suffocating him.”
She sounded fierce and it brought a sad smile to his face. “He’s sick, Maia. Don’t tell me you’re not concerned.”
“Of course, I am.”
He stared across the room. Sick was an understatement. Ben was dying. Not today or tomorrow, but within a few months. Neither of them wanted to say those awful words aloud. Luke looked down at Maia and touched her arm.
She stood straighter, adding a fraction of an inch to her petite stature. “Get back to work. Go talk to Amanda Barlow again. You left her broken-hearted. Take her a glass of wine.”
“Please, no.” Luke tugged at his collar.
“Please, yes. She’s interested in buying artwork to decorate her new home. Even forgetting your own business interests—if that’s what you want to do—please consider the artists who’d like to make the sales and those of us who work for you.”
She was right. Ben was an adult of sound mind. Luke was here this evening for the business opportunities. He had responsibilities.
He took the hand she’d placed on his arm and squeezed it. “Understood.”
“She’s over by the chocolate fountain.” Maia nodded. “And don’t forget to mention the Bingham hardwood reliefs. They’ll look outstanding integrated with Charlotte’s etchings in Amanda’s window room. She’ll love them.”
“On my way. And you?” He straightened his jacket and tugged at the ends of his sleeves.
“Well, I won’t be going back to the chocolate fountain, that’s for sure, or I’ll need a whole new wardrobe.” She laughed and her dimples deepened.
“Maia, in case I neglected to mention it earlier, you look lovely. You’re right, Ben’s an adult. Go have some fun. In fact, didn’t I see Ed Larson earlier?”
“Ed and I have been past tense for a long time. No worries, remember? Just take care of business.” She turned away.
“Sometimes we take you for granted.”
Her cheeks pinked up. “No problem. Now, go talk to Amanda about those etchings.”
Only a few guests strolled along the brick paths in the light of the Chinese lanterns because the air was cool and most of the ladies sported a great deal of bare skin. There were always guests who found the gardens irresistible, especially since the Hammonds didn‘t allow smoking in their home. At this moment, no one lingered nearby. Juli stood on the steps and gulped air.
The freshness of the coastal North Carolina evening washed over her. It cooled her hot face and stilled the buzzing in her head. As her breathing steadied, she could almost smell the sea salt crispness in the air even though they were a mile or more from the ocean.
She shivered as her taut muscles relaxed. She didn’t understand the panic attacks. They’d become more frequent. Was this one over a stranger? It wasn’t as if she wanted a man in her life. Or anyone. She was good alone. It was better that way. Simpler. No confusion or disappointment about who could be trusted or depended upon.
She didn’t want to go back inside yet. Hugging the empty tray to her chest, she stepped down to the brick path. A short distance away, an ivy-covered alcove sheltered a bench half-hidden in shadow. She hurried toward it, not seeing the outstretched pants leg until it was too late and she nearly landed on top of the person already seated there.
“Sorry,” Juli gasped and stepped back.
“My fault. Too quiet. I‘m sorry.”
A man’s voice. He sounded weak, but the darkness disguised his appearance. Moonlight filtering into the alcove touched him, increasing the pallor of his skin which seemed almost to glow in the dimness. Juli smelled no alcohol, but it didn’t mean he wasn’t drunk or drugged up.
“Are you ill?”
He laughed softly. “I just need to rest.”
“I understand. Sorry to have bothered you.” She started to move away.
He leaned forward. The light picked out his profile. “Are you working here tonight?”
She looked at her tray. It marked her, labeled her. An emblem of her status. She wasn’t worried about status. She’d given up the luxury of pride a long time ago.
“I’d better get back.” She turned and the rubber tip of her heel caught in a gap between the bricks. It tore off. After some inelegant stumbling, she avoided falling, but that was the least of her worries.
She grabbed the heel from the ground and removed her shoe. “No, no, no—” She tried to push the heel back on, but knew it was futile. It was a cheap shoe, not intended to be fixed, but discarded when its life was done.
“No spares? Maybe glue would help.”
She didn‘t answer. She closed her eyes and worked to pull herself together. Her head ached. Her ponytail, worn low on the back of her head, was too tight. It hurt her scalp. Everything was spinning out of control and she was too discouraged to care—almost.
“Sorry, not funny. Are you alright? What will you do now?”
She sat on the bench beside him. Her eyes had adjusted to the dark and she could see him more clearly, but his eyes were still no more than black holes in his face, as dark as the night. Her skirt rode up her thighs and she tugged at it. Not made for sitting. Wait staff don‘t sit.
Juli shook her head. “I‘m going to get fired. I wouldn’t care except I’ll have to find a new evening job.”
“This is extra work? Moonlighting?”
She liked the sound of his voice. Low and warm, it soothed the rougher edge from her mood.
“I can’t live on what I make at my day job.”
“Why would you be fired? It’s not your fault the shoe broke.”
“I shouldn’t have been out here.” Embarrassed, she added, “Sorry. I’m whining.”
“Me, too. I drove and shouldn’t have.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I was sick recently. I’m better now, just overestimated how much better.”
She heard the forlorn note in his voice and something moved in her heart, a little tilt that nudged the complexion of the evening and her attitude, some sense that she was the lucky one sitting here. She wasn‘t used to being the fortunate one and it moved her to friendliness.
“I got a ride in with someone else and he won‘t be leaving for hours.” She had decided to write this job off and her spirits lifted. She suppressed a laugh, but it warmed her nevertheless, and the lightness coursed through her. “Honestly, getting fired is no big deal. I never liked this job anyway.”
“Do you drive?”
“I have a license, if that’s what you‘re asking.” She’d owned a clunker until recently, but sold it for scrap when she couldn’t afford repairs and insurance, too.
“You live in Morehead City?”
“I live in Emerald Isle. If you drive me home, I’ll pay for the cab to your house, or back here to Beaufort, if that’s what you prefer. Plus a bonus for your time.”
“What?” She stared at him. Her eyes were adjusting to the dark and his features were becoming clearer.
“Drive me home. I live on the island. I’ll pay for your cab to wherever you want to go.” He leaned forward, his shoulders hunched.
He was thirty-something, maybe forty, she guessed. “Are you joking? You’re a stranger. I don’t see an axe or duct tape, but—” Was she crazy? Sitting here chatting with a strange man in a dark, lonely garden? She sat straighter, pressing her upper arm against her side, feeling the reassuring pressure of the pink mace sprayer tucked into the interior pocket of her vest.
“My name is Ben Bradshaw. I’ve been ill and I overtaxed myself. I couldn’t hurt a kitten. I’ll give you the money for the cab now, if you’d feel more comfortable.” He reached into an inside pocket in his formal jacket. “Here, you can even hold my cell phone.”
She eyed the phone in his hand. “Why don’t you call a cab yourself?”
“Because my car will still be here.”
“Listen, I’ll go inside and let the hostess know you want to leave. Some of the guests are friends of yours, right? They’ll be happy to drive you home.”
“I want to leave quietly. Not have anyone fussing or saying I told you so. Or seeing I had to leave my car behind because I was too weak to drive it.”
Juli looked at the bright round moon, at the couples walking nearby and at the cheap broken shoe in her lap.
Sometimes it was important to know when to call it a day.
She held out her hand for his phone. “My name’s Juli Cooke. It‘s nice to meet you, Mr. Bradshaw. I need to get my backpack and tell my ride I’m leaving.”
“It’s Ben, please. I’ll wait here.” He brushed the back of his hand across his forehead.
“Don’t get any ideas, right? This is just about a ride home. Nothing else.”
He nodded. “Thank you.”
Sammy Robards was in the kitchen. She saw him note her entry through the back door and watched anger flash across his face.
He stabbed his finger in her direction. “Is that what you’re paid for? I’ve got guests in there. You’re paid to serve them.”
She held her shoes in one hand and the tray in the other. Without a word, she handed him the tray and kept moving. What was there to say?
Frankie was in the coatroom. He looked startled, caught hiding from work. He was only marginally reliable although people tended to like his gently tousled sandy hair and boyish looks.
“I don’t need a ride home tonight. I’m leaving now. Got another ride.” She knelt and scrounged in the back behind the hanging wraps for her backpack. It wasn’t exactly where she’d left it, but her fingers finally touched the mesh side pocket and she pulled the pack out. When she stood, Frankie was giving her a look, no doubt amazed.
“What are you doing? Where are you going?”
He followed her to the door. She glanced back over her shoulder. “I‘m going home.”
“How are you getting there?”
“No worries. I‘ll see you tomorrow or the next day.”
The tall man who’d stared through her, Luke, the one who’d made her feel invisible, stood in the coatroom doorway. They nearly collided. Guests always wanted something, but if she was walking out on the server job, she certainly wasn’t going to fill in for the coat check person and definitely not for this snobby guy who’d started her whole evening crashing downhill. She swerved around him and kept going, glad to exit the back door for the last time.
Ben was as she’d left him. She sat on the bench to pull her sneakers out of the backpack and shoved the broken shoe and its mate into it, along with her little white server cap.
“Ready?” Ben asked.
She had doubts, but she‘d made her decision. “I am.”
When they moved into the light, she saw how truly pale he was. She touched his arm, then pulled her hand back, resisting the impulse to offer support.
“Are you okay?”
“I can manage. I don’t want to draw attention.‖ He leaned back against a white pillar while the valet brought up the car.
When Ben went to the passenger side door with an unsteady gait, the valet smirked and eyed Juli in her server outfit. Ben didn‘t seem to notice and Juli ignored it. A server leaving mid-party with an unsteady guest was bound to give a bad impression. That was life.
Ben asked, “You know the way to Emerald Isle?”
His car was decent, but nothing fancy. She could manage it, even in the dark. “I do.”
“I’ll give you directions to the house after we cross the bridge.”
After that exchange, Ben went silent. The silence was heavy and awkward. Nagging tales about foolish women who get into cars with strangers nipped at her nerves. Yet, she couldn‘t imagine any threat from this man. Had her good sense abandoned her?
To fill the emptiness, she began to talk—more than usual. As they drove through Beaufort and crossed the bridge into Morehead City, she told quirky, probably rude stories about the foster families she’d grown up with, about her co-workers, about the lessons she‘d learned for getting by in life. Juli chatted on, surprised at herself. It was unlike her to open up her history for inspection. Once or twice she suspected he’d fallen asleep, but when she looked at him, his eyes were fixed upon her and he seemed fascinated by her monologue. So she talked. She knew the words were lost in the void, spoken to a man she’d never see again.
That night she felt as clear-headed as she ever had. Juli suspected it wasn’t necessarily a good thing. When life as you know it pauses and you realize there’s nothing else to do, but to go on in the same unsatisfactory way you always have, it’s a black moment. Driving through the night, over the bridge, and along the ramrod straight, mostly dark, Atlantic Avenue that stretched the length of the island, Juli sensed a change coming. She caught her breath and her fingers tightened on the steering wheel.
Soon after they crossed the town line into Emerald Isle, Ben said, “Turn here.”
His house looked impressive, a duplex rising several stories. It seemed immense in the moonlight and on the far side, the beach side, the full force of the Atlantic Ocean crashed onto the shore, sounding violent and reassuring and timeless, all at once.
She experienced a first—a serendipitous flash of being in a place where she belonged.
She parked his car in the open area below the house and walked with him to the base of the wooden stairs. The stairs scaled the exterior side of the house. They were steep, especially in the dark with the night wind whipping around from the ocean side, flinging sand and salt.
“You’re welcome to come up while I call the cab service. I don’t have their number programmed in my cell.” For the first time, he seemed nervous.
“No, thanks. I’ll wait down here.”
“I understand.” He drew some bills from his wallet. “Here. I can’t thank you enough for your help. I’ll go up and make the call. If you get worried or it takes too long for the cab to arrive, let me know.”
“Your keys and your phone.” She handed them to him.
He started up the stairs and she couldn’t help watching—he moved like an old man. Well, he’d gotten his wish and was home now, and she had picked up a nice bit of cash.
Juli perched on a low rock wall to wait. It was dark, but only about eight o’clock or so. The street was quiet despite the many houses and most had their exterior lights on. Above her, a window scraped open.
She looked up and he called out, “Are you okay down there?”
“Fine.” She waved. The house blocked most of the onshore breeze, but she was still chilly. She pulled a sweater from her backpack and settled in to wait. The tangy smell of the ocean and the sound of surf, artificially loud in the quiet of night, transported her a thousand miles away from practicality and reality.
The mood was lovely and lasted until the cab dropped her off at the entry to her second floor walkup on the backside of a renovated apartment house. Not bad. Worn and slightly dingy, but as neat as she could make it. It was her own place and she worked hard to support herself. She was self-reliant and proud of it.
Juli tossed her backpack into the corner behind the sofa. When she removed the elastic band from her hair, she sighed and massaged her fingertips into her scalp. It felt as good as getting out of those pumps.
So much for Sammy and his catering crew. She’d stuck with that job as long as she had because it was convenient to grab a ride with Frankie, but everyone had their limit and she’d met hers this evening. Convenience and a paycheck didn’t justify every job.
She needed to concentrate on finding work that offered some kind of future.