Missed

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Missed

Rafael and Lisa (Cliffside Bay, Book 6)

Regular price $15.99
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women's fiction · clean & wholesome romance · Cliffside Bay series  · family saga fiction · standalone series

“…I have read this whole series, and each book gets better. Missed was my favorite one yet. Overall, I can sum this book up in one word... AMAZING! —Boundless Book Reviews

After years of struggling as a starving actor, Lisa Perry's dreams are finally coming true. Splitting her time between Los Angeles and Cliffside Bay, the young beauty has a successful television miniseries, her first movie role, and quality time with her best friends Maggie and Pepper. Everything is coming up roses until a single tragic moment changes Lisa forever.

Haunted by unshakable memories and near-crippling anxiety, Lisa must face a publicity tour full of crowds and interviews in order to move her budding career forward. And with the help of Rafael Soto, the head of security for Brody and Kara Mullen, she finally begins to relax. Though the pair are as different as night and day, something about her temporary bodyguard soothes the young actress, and soon their relationship turns from professional to passionate.

But what neither anticipates is that despite the obvious threats to a beautiful ingenue, it's actually her protector who stands in harm's way. Will Lisa and Rafael be able to face the danger awaiting him together, or are they destined to accept yet another tragedy they can't stop?

*** Each book in the Cliffside Bay Series is intended to be read and enjoyed as a sweet standalone, but for maximum enjoyment read this binge-worthy series in order. ***

— scroll down to read book sample —   

REVIEWS
I am always in awe when I finish reading the most recent of Tess Thompson’s books and after reading Missed: Rafael and Lisa, I once again was not disappointed. Tess Thompson has a magical writing style that brings me into the story from the very first page. I love how she is able to mingle the past characters’ lives with those of the newcomers. Cliffside Bay is a magical place that never disappoints. Rafael and Lisa are life survivors in very different ways. Tess Thompson’s ability to describe these realistic situations instantly connects her readers closely with these characters so that we may smile, laugh, cry, and hope with them. I look forward to reading her next book in this series! ★★★★★ Reader Review  

I can't put into words how much I love Tess Thompson and her amazing stories. I fell in love with these characters from the first book. That love has only grown as this series has continued. The dogs have now led way to the wolves. I was so excited to see what these fun characters had in store for us. I was not disappointed at all. Tess Thompson pulls us in with her thoughtful storylines and her amazing wordsI loved Rafael and Lisa. They couldn't have been more different, but similar. Lisa's career is starting to take off. She's been waiting for her time and it's now. I loved watching her dreams come true. I love that in the end, these two overcame so much to be togetherPlease check out this great book. Ruby Red Romance Review

What Tess Thompson does incredibly well is weave a tight, believable story about flawed human beings touched by tragedy and loss. She does this with incredible sensitivity, understanding and compassionThis story has heart, and redemption of two battered souls finding each other and making their way is well worth reading. The familiar cast of characters grows and develops even further in this book. It’s worth reading as a standalone, but it’s much better read as a series.★★★★★ Reader Review

I have enjoyed each of the Cliffside Bay books so much but do believe this is my favorite. It’s filled with so many emotions. Each one touches you deeply. From a horrific shooting that is another reason assault weapons should be banned to PTSD suffered by a war hero who saw some horrible things and lived through some horrible things[Missed is] going to touch your heart and your soul in ways you may not expect trust me. This is the best series I have ever read and it’s only getting better with each bookThank you for this wonderful book. It’s a huge 5 stars and a high, very high, recommend from me.★★★★★ Reader Review

Loved being back in Cliffside Bay again. Visiting old friends from previous books and meeting a whole new group of wonderful people who became my new friends so quickly. Another amazing love story!★★★★★ Reader Review  

If you get a chance to grab one of Tess Thompson's books, especially the Cliffside Bay series, don't hesitate. Friendships, romance and family figure heavily in her writing, and this story wont disappointGreat characters and wonderful stories!”  ★★★★★ Reader Review

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tess Thompson is the USA Today Bestselling and award-winning author of contemporary and historical Romantic Women’s Fiction with nearly 40 published titles. When asked to describe her books, she could never figure out what to say that would perfectly sum them up until she landed on, Hometowns and Heartstrings.

She’s married to her prince, Best Husband Ever, and is the mother of their blended family of four kids and five cats. Best Husband Ever is seventeen months younger, which qualifies Tess as a Cougar, a title she wears proudly. Her Bonus Sons are young adults with pretty hair and big brains like their dad. Daughters, better known as Princess One and Two, are teenagers who make their mama proud because they’re kind. They’re also smart, but a mother shouldn’t brag. 

Tess loves lazy afternoons watching football, hanging out on the back patio with Best Husband Ever, reading in bed, binge-watching television series, red wine, strong coffee and walks on crisp autumn days. She laughs a little too loudly, never knows what to make for dinner, looks ridiculous kickboxing in an attempt to combat her muffin top, and always complains about the rain even though she chose to live in Seattle.  

She’s proud to have grown up in a small town like the ones in her novels. After graduating from the University of Southern California Drama School, she had hopes of becoming an actress but was called instead to writing fiction. She’s grateful to spend most days in her office matchmaking her characters while her favorite cat Mittens (shhh…don’t tell the others) sleeps on the desk.

SAMPLE FROM MISSED

Chapter 1: Rafael

Rafael Soto had too many demanding women in his life. None of whom greeted him with a kiss after a long shift or wrapped their arms around him after one of his nightmares. The women in his life were married to rich dudes with enormous houses and fast cars. Like the America he’d served for three tours overseas, they needed him for protection, but not for love. All the hassle and none of the pleasure.

These were his thoughts as he opened the door of his old truck after a long day’s work and saw the blonde hurricane in high-heeled sandals bolt out of the Mullens’ front door. Honor Sullivan strode across the driveway toward him. He braced himself, as one should when face-to-face with a human tropical storm.

Flushed and out of breath, she stopped a few feet from him. Her giant diamond wedding ring flashed in the late-afternoon sunlight and nearly blinded him. “Hey, Rafael, you have a quick second?” She gripped a pencil. White knuckles.

He steadied himself with one hand wrapped around the door’s frame and looked into the brown eye of a hurricane. Technically, two eyes of the same hurricane. His free hand twitched at his side. Darned if hadn’t almost lifted it in a salute to his superior. Old habits died hard.

“Afternoon, Ms. Sullivan. What can I do for you?” Although they both worked for Kara and Brody Mullen, Rafael knew his place. He ran security. Honor Sullivan ran the career of former AFL quarterback Brody Mullen. Big difference.

“I won’t beat around the bush,” she said.

“I’d hope not, ma’am.” It occurred to him that Honor’s husband, Zane Shaw, was either the luckiest guy in town or the unluckiest, depending on what side of the storm he found himself.

“Kara told me the construction on the building is complete,” Honor said.

The building. Those two little words had possessed his every thought for months. His building. Six sweet apartments in a Victorian mansion that had drained every dime of his savings. The “renovation” that had chained him to the suits at the bank.

“Yes, ma’am. I’m headed there now to meet Stone and Trey,” Rafael said. “They finished the last details today.”

“Great. Here’s the thing.” Honor swept her long blond hair behind one shoulder. “Lavonne’s been living with us during the remodel.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Lavonne, former neighbor, was now one of his tenants.

“He’s not, you know, like other people.” Honor pushed the eraser end of the pencil with her thumb three times, like she was sending a message in Morse code. “And he really needs that apartment.”

“I understand,” he said.

Her eyes glittered, scrutinizing him. “Do you? Because he doesn’t have anywhere to go, and he can’t afford a big increase in rent.” The woman had missed her calling. He could’ve used her for interrogation purposes during one of his missions in Iraq.

“He won’t have one. Lavonne knows that.”

“He told me you asked him to move to the middle floor because you changed the first floor into two larger apartments instead of three.”

“That’s correct,” he said.

“He can’t afford a two-bedroom. The studio was all he could manage. I don’t appreciate you screwing him over.” She moved closer to him. “That’s not how we do things in Cliffside Bay.”

He bit the inside of his mouth to keep from laughing. No taller than five feet and a few inches, she was like a jelly bean snake can. The minute you twisted off the lid, a plastic snake jumped out and hit you in the eye.

“Ms. Sullivan, I’m not sure where you got your information. I told Lavonne he could have the two-bedroom on the second floor for the same rent he paid for the studio.”

“He told me that’s what you said, but I couldn’t believe it. Why would you do that?”

“Because I’m not in the business of kicking tenants out on the street. Especially Lavonne, whom I consider a friend. That’s not how I do things, regardless of where I live.”

“How will you pay for all the renovations if you don’t raise the rent?” She pointed the pencil at him. For a moment he was back in Sister Rosemary’s seventh-grade English class. “That’s not smart business.”

“I’m not a smart guy.”

She flushed a deeper pink and lifted her chin slightly. “I didn’t say that.”

“No offense taken. I’m not a business guy,” Rafael said. “I didn’t buy the building to make money or even as an investment. I bought the building so my mother and her friend Ria and Lavonne and I could have a safe and beautiful place to live.”

“I don’t understand. Buying an apartment building without the intention of making money is ridiculous.” She stuck the pencil behind one ear.

“Maybe to you. But I’m a soldier. I protect my own. Lavonne’s my friend. I didn’t want him living in that damp, awful studio one minute longer. I aim to get my mother out of a neighborhood infested with gang activity. I’m knee-deep in debt because of it. But what’re you going to do? That’s as good as a guy like me can expect.”

She played with the diamond tennis bracelet around her wrist. “I didn’t believe Lavonne. He told me you guys were friends and that you would never let him down. I thought he was confused. I couldn’t imagine you saying that.”

He winced. What did that mean? “Why?”

“Because of the way you look. Okay, that sounds terrible, but you’re all Navy SEAL-ish and cop-like—you have eyes like scanning devices. And I’ve never seen your teeth.”

“My teeth?”

“You never smile.”

“I smile.” More now that he had veneers. Thanks to his job with the Mullens he’d been able to afford them. For years he’d perfected a tight-lipped smile to hide his gray teeth, damaged from the acne medicine he’d taken as a teenager.

“No, you don’t. You’re this dead-serious, stealthy guy in the background, like a black panther. I couldn’t imagine you having the patience for Lavonne.”

“Patience? Why would I need patience?”

“He’s like a child. Simple. You two couldn’t be more different. You’re a hero and stuff. Lavonne’s my nanny, although sometimes I think Jubie takes care of him and not the other way around.”

“We may seem different, but I’m an outsider. Like him.”

“He doesn’t always understand things, so I thought maybe he was confused.” She continued to look at him as though he was a criminal. Talk about eyes that scanned everything. Took one to know one.

“I understand why you would be concerned,” Rafael said. Lavonne did think slower than some. Sure, he wasn’t going to win any academic contests anytime soon. Exploitative assholes would take advantage of him if they could. However, Lavonne was more emotionally intelligent than most men, Rafael included. “Lavonne gets things on a different level than some guys. He’s all intuition. He knows when someone’s his friend. He says you taught him that.”

“He did?”

“Yeah. He told me about the time you were both living with the same foster family and how you looked after him. He told me what you did for Jubie. Taking her in, I mean.” Honor and Zane had adopted Jubie when she was six years old.

“She’s our daughter as much as our baby boy,” Honor said. “From the beginning, we knew she belonged with us.” “She’s an awesome kid. Before we had to move out for the renovations, Jubie and Lavonne came up to hang out quite often.”

Her expression was a mixture of curiosity and disbelief. “You’ve spent time with Lavonne and Jubie? Like real friends? Just like he said?”

“Jubie likes to look at my military medals.”

“That sounds like her,” Honor said.

“You don’t have to worry about Lavonne as long as he’s living in my building.” Rafael shoved his hands in the pockets of his khakis. “We’re friends.”

“Friends?”

Still with the suspicion.

“Yeah. Friends. We watch sports or hang out. We’re both new to town. It’s hard to meet people here. Everyone already has friends and doesn’t seem interested in more.”

“Are you talking about my husband and his friends?” Honor asked. “Are they unfriendly?”

“I’m the hired help, Ms. Sullivan. I don’t expect an invite to one of their poker games.”

“The Mullens don’t think of you as hired help.” Honor tilted her head to the side. “As far as the poker games go, he and the Dogs go way back. You know how men are.”

“Men can only handle so many friends,” he said.

“Something like that.”

“Anyway, you can rest easy about Lavonne. I’ve got his back.”

“You don’t give him beer, do you? He shouldn’t drink. It would be like giving alcohol to a child.” She played with the necklace around her neck.

“I’m not his babysitter. I’m his friend. That said, he’s never asked for a beer. I keep the fridge stocked with root beer just for him.”

She sighed and took a step back, her brown eyes calm after the storm. “Fine, then. I was wrong. I thought he was confused. I’m sorry if I insulted you. Sometimes I’m bossy and bullheaded. My husband’s quick to point it out.”

“It’s no problem. I understand looking out for the people you love.”

“I’m glad you’re Lavonne’s friend. I didn’t realize…the kind of guy you are.” She gazed up at the clear sky for a moment before looking back at him. “Your mother’s moving here?”

“That’s the plan. If I can talk her into it. She’s stubborn and independent, so it’ll be a fight.”

“Sounds like me.”

He nodded as he got into his truck. “Not a thing wrong with either one of you. Have a nice night, Ms. Sullivan.”

“It’s Mrs. Shaw now.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know you took his name.” She didn’t seem the type. Maybe he had her pegged wrong, too.

“I’m still getting used to it myself.” Honor took the pencil from behind her ear and grinned. “Mrs. Shaw, wife and mother.”

“Good night, Mrs. Shaw.”

“Good night.” She turned in her high-heeled sandals and strode across the driveway and into the Mullens’ house.

“Hurricane,” he said under his breath as he turned on the engine. If I’d wanted to mess with Lavonne, I certainly wouldn’t now.

Not that he would have. He didn’t have much to claim as his own, but he had his integrity and his loyalty. Without those qualities, what kind of man would he be? Not the one his mama raised.

He was about to take off when Kara came running across the driveway.

Rafael rolled down the window. “Everything all right?”

Dressed in shorts, tank, and tennis shoes, she squinted into the light. “Yes, yes, everything’s fine. Brody’s plane’s been delayed. I didn’t want Michael to worry when he didn’t show up later.” In stark contrast to Honor, Kara Mullen was tall with an Italian complexion. As nurturing and even-tempered as anyone he’d ever known, it was not much of a stretch to imagine why she’d become a nurse.

“I’ll let him know on my way out,” he said.

“Thanks. Are you headed to the apartments?”

“Yes. The guys are waiting for me. We’re celebrating.”

“I can remember like it was yesterday the first night I stayed in that place,” Kara said with a shiver. “It was so cold and damp. I’d never felt more alone in my life. Now no one will ever have to suffer through another cold night in that place.”

“Stone and Trey have done a phenomenal job.” Between Stone’s contractor work and Trey’s interior design, the place had transformed from depressing to airy, beachy rooms filled with light.

“I’m so happy for you,” Kara said.

“I can’t thank you enough for letting me stay at Flora and Dax’s place these last few months.” Flora, the Mullens’ longtime housekeeper and her husband, Dax, lived in Oregon for part of the year, leaving their home empty. He’d been thrilled to stay there during the renovations.

“They were happy to do it for you. You’ve done so much for our family.”

He ducked his head, embarrassed. “Just doing my job.”

“You know it’s more than that to us,” she said.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“When I was over at Kyle and Violet’s the other day, Stone mentioned the renovations cost a lot more than you thought they would.”

He scratched his neck. “Yeah, I’m now beholden to the suits for the rest of my life.”

“I know you wanted a place for your mother.”

“Yes, ma’am. Worth every penny,” he said.

She flushed and shuffled her feet, then looked down at her hands. “Discussing money is so awkward. We want to give you a bonus. You’ve been beyond good to me. Trust me, having good security is life-and-death to me.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out an envelope. “This should help with the renovations. It’s a small token of our appreciation.”

He stared at the envelope. “This isn’t necessary.”

“It is to me. Open it later.” She patted the window frame and backed up a few feet. “You go have fun. Say hi to the guys for me.”

He watched her sprint across the driveway and disappear into her house. Unsure how to react, he tossed the envelope onto the seat. He’d look later and decide whether it was a bonus or  charity.

He drove out of the driveway, the Mullens’ palatial house in his rearview mirror.

***

Minutes later, Rafael arrived at his albatross. Located on the main street of town, the run-down Victorian mansion had long ago been turned into apartments. Now it finally fit in with the rest of the quaint, scenic town. With Stone’s help, he’d chosen a soft shade of gray for the exterior, and white for the trim and wraparound porch. He loved that stupid porch more than he should. There was just something about a porch that screamed family and friends. He’d already imagined his mother, Ria, Stone, Trey, and Lavonne gathered on a warm summer day for a barbecue. Against his better judgment, he’d sprung for a nice grill that was now tucked into the corner of the porch waiting for a few steaks.

Rafael Soto from Oakland owned a Victorian. Go figure. Life was nothing if not full of surprises.

The property was big enough for a small parking lot behind the house. Rafael took the spot between Stone’s truck and Trey’s vintage sports car. The vehicles were like the men themselves. Stone was a massive workhorse of a man, whereas Trey was compact and fast, both in mind and body.

He found them inside one of the first-floor apartments, leaning against the kitchen counter with beers in their hands.

“Hey, man,” Stone said as he reached into a small cooler and pulled out one of the IPAs from Zane Shaw’s local brewery. “We’re celebrating.” He tossed the bottle to Rafael, who caught it with one hand.

“It’s official. Operation Save Mama is complete.” Trey’s aqua-blue eyes seemed to dance as his mouth lifted in a slight smile.

“It’s surreal, I’ve got to admit.” Rafael screwed the top off his beer, then took a long swig. “God, I love the smell in here.” The scent of mildew had been replaced by the aroma of fresh paint and stained wood.

Rafael stomped his feet. Solid. Floors no longer creaked. Stairs were now sturdy.

“What do you think? Will this do for your mama?” Stone’s chiseled, almost hard features could scare anyone with a pointed look in their direction. Until he opened his mouth and it became obvious that he was a giant man with a giant heart.

“Do you think she’ll love it as much as we do?” Trey asked.

“Dude, you guys killed it. She’s going to love every inch,” Rafael said. They’d gone high-end with the cabinets and countertops in all the apartments. To give it a beachy feel, Trey had chosen white cabinets and light granite countertops, but dark floors. Light green paint on the walls looked anywhere between beige and white, depending on the time of day.

Two years ago, when he moved to Cliffside Bay for the job with the Mullens, Rafael figured his chances of finding anything to buy unlikely. Real estate in the sleepy seaside community rarely came on the market. The few available properties were way out of his price range. He’d given up his dream of owning his own home and moved into the damp and cold apartment on the top floor of the old Victorian.

When Old Man Cooper, as he was known in the community, had announced he’d like to sell the building, Rafael had gone to him with an offer. To his surprise, Cooper had a soft spot for veterans. With twenty percent down, he’d taken a loan for the rest, and the building was his. After inspection.

During inspection, they found as many problems as the Victorian was years old—rotting floorboards, plumbing problems, and electrical issues. The building was deemed unsafe for tenants without a major rebuild. Everything would have to be gutted and replaced. Knowing that additional financial debt was inevitable, and he’d have to live frugally, he’d gone forward with the deal. The debt didn’t matter. Now he had a place for Mama and Ria. Finally, he would get them out of the old neighborhood.

Stone took his baseball cap off and ran his fingers through his thick brown hair, then put it back on again. “We want the other third-floor apartment.”

“You two?” Rafael asked. “Sure.” The apartments on the second and third floors were two bedrooms. One of the second-story places was slotted for Lavonne. Rafael had the top-floor apartment with the ocean view, but the other one was still available. “That just leaves one empty on the second floor.”

“We decided we could afford it if we rented it together,” Trey said.

“I can’t live in that RV for another winter,” Stone said.

“And neither of us can afford a house right now,” Trey said.

“Plus, we need a place to entertain the ladies,” Stone said.

“What ladies?” Trey laughed. “It’s not like college. That was like shooting fish in a barrel.” He took off his glasses and cleaned the lenses with a cloth from his pocket. Although often in slacks and a jacket when he met with his fancy clients, Trey was dressed casually today in trendy jeans, a perfectly cut button-down shirt the same color as his eyes, and tan loafers Rafael wouldn’t be caught wearing, dead or alive.

“Rafael and I didn’t go to college. We were too busy defending our country,” Stone said as he tossed a bottle cap at him.

“Sorry,” Trey mumbled.

“I’m just messing with you,” Stone said. “My ego is plenty big enough without having gone to college.”

“Huge,” Rafael said.

“But let’s face it. We’re on some serious loser streaks when it comes to women,” Stone said.

“It’s because we’re broke,” Trey said.

“True,” Rafael said.

“Girls like dudes with money,” Stone said. “If you’re ugly, then you better be rich.”

“Which means you’re screwed,” Trey said.

Stone put everything he made back into his business and lived in an RV on his brother Kyle’s property. Despite his sophisticated, arty vibe, which women seemed to love, Trey didn’t stand a chance. An interior designer who had lost most of his money to his ex-wife and lived in the basement of an old lady’s house wasn’t exactly marriage material.

And what about him? He had a scar from a bullet in his shoulder and a scar on his soul from the moment in Iraq that he could never take back. No amount of wishing could make either of them disappear.

“I forgot to tell you. Lisa Perry asked about you the other day,” Stone said to Rafael.

“What? When?” Rafael asked.

“I was over at Maggie’s, installing a new shelf in the baby’s room, and Lisa happened by,” Stone said. “She was like, ‘Hey, how’s Rafael? I haven’t seen him around all summer.’” His voice went up in a terrible attempt at imitating beautiful, sweet Lisa Perry.

“You’re lying to me,” Rafael said.

“Swear on my life,” Stone said.

“Lisa’s the blonde one, right?” Trey asked as he put his glasses back on.

“The blonde one?” Rafael asked. “That’s how you describe her? She’s like an angel inhabiting the earth. Seriously, she’s the most beautiful woman ever born, not to mention sweet and kind.” He’d been walking past the church in town when she’d come out with Maggie and Jackson. At the sight of her, he’d stumbled on the sidewalk like a total dork. “Have you seen that show she’s in? Indigo Road?”

“Yeah, Violet made me watch it with her,” Stone said. “I did not cry at that one part, no matter who tells you differently.”

“How come you haven’t asked her out?” Trey asked. “I mean, given that she’s the most beautiful woman in the world and everything?”

“Lisa Perry doesn’t go for a guy like me,” Rafael said. “She belongs with a guy like Mullen.”

Stone tipped his hat. “True enough. Or rich guys like my brother and the rest of his friends.”

“What do they call themselves again?” Trey asked.

“The Dogs.” Stone rolled his eyes. “My brother thought of it. Which is embarrassing.”

“The Dogs. Rich, good-looking, successful. Gorgeous, smart wives,” Trey said with a mournful sigh. “Those guys have it made. We’re more like the mangy wolves of Cliffside Bay.”

Rafael laughed. “The Mangy Wolves. Perfect.”

“Wolves can be sexy,” Stone said. “We’re bad boys, right?”

“Rafael yes,” Trey said. “You? Not unless teddy bears are bad.”

“I’ll have you know I used to beat the crap out of anyone who even nodded sideways at my brother or Autumn,” Stone said. “And I was a marine, if you haven’t forgotten.”

“Other than your thick neck, it’s hard to imagine.” Trey gave him a good-natured shove.

“God’s honest truth, though,” Stone said. “I wish I could get somewhere with that sassy Pepper, but she hates my guts. I have no idea what I did.”

“You probably put your big foot in your mouth,” Trey said.

“In an attempt to be funny,” Rafael added.

“You two are going to make me cry.” Stone stuck his lip out and pretended to wipe his eyes.

“We may be total losers when it comes to women, and we’re dead broke—and you two are ugly—but we did good when it comes to this building.” Rafael turned to look around the apartment once more, admiring the gleaming chrome appliances. “Joking aside, I can’t thank you enough for making this place world-class.”

Stone grinned and hopped down from the counter. “Come on, we’ve got a surprise for you up in your apartment.”

“I don’t like surprises.” Rafael grimaced. Knowing Trey, he’d taken it upon himself to install some antique bathtub he’d had shipped from Italy.

“You’ll like this one,” Stone said as he grabbed the cooler of beer.

“I wish I had a little money left over to decorate,” Rafael said as he followed the guys out of the apartment. “My old crappy furniture is going to look even older and crappier now.”

“Yeah, but this is yours, man,” Stone said.

“No one can take that away from you,” Trey said. “Unless you get married and your wife takes everything you own.”

“Dude, we’ve got to get you laid,” Stone said. “Your bitterness is starting to stink up the place.”

They walked up the wide stairway that led to the third floor. When they arrived at Rafael’s new apartment, Trey opened the door and stood aside. “Go on in.”

Rafael gasped and froze in the entryway. “What the hell?” The main room was fully decorated. “It’s incredible.” Black and gray furniture with splashes of cobalt blue in pillows and lamps gave it a masculine feel but not overly so. “But how? I mean, all this stuff must have cost so much money. I don’t get it.”

“Kara Mullen,” Trey said. “She called me last month and said she wanted to pay for the entire apartment to be decorated.”

“But how did you know what I liked?” Rafael asked.

“I had to take some guesses from the photos you’d pinned on your Pinterest board,” Trey said.

Rafael went hot. “You know I have a Pinterest board?”

“It took a little digging, but I found it, Latinlover83,” Trey said with a laugh.

“Latinlover83? No way.” Stone doubled over with laughter.

“Okay now, calm down,” Rafael said. “I was collecting photos for when I could afford to decorate.”

“How’d I do?” Trey asked. “It was rough doing it without input.”

“You did great, man. Seriously.” The dark gray accent wall and white trim had been in one of the photos on his board. Abstract prints in soothing blues and greens that reminded Rafael of the landscape of Cliffside Bay hung on the walls. His medals were now in a glass display case on a bookshelf behind the couch.

Rafael walked over to the black stone gas fireplace. A framed photograph of his mama and him as well as an arrangement of seashells decorated the mantel.

“Your mom sent the photo,” Trey said. “She said you might like it for your mantel, so I got it framed.”

Rafael ran his finger over the bumpy pattern etched in the wooden frame. Mama smiled back at him, her narrow shoulders thrown back like she was the queen of everything. She was the queen. To him, anyway. He set the photo back on the mantel and turned to his friends.

“Check out the view,” Stone said.

“That’s the only part I expected,” Rafael said.

Trey pointed to the off-white waffle shades that hung from the windows. “I chose something simple. When these are down, you’ll still get some light, but they’ll keep out the harsh afternoon sun.”

In a daze, Rafael ambled over to the bay windows that faced out to the sea. They’d had to comply with height restrictions, but the view from this floor skirted above town and looked out to the long stretch of public beach at the end of Main Street. Today, umbrellas in every color populated the beach from one end to the other. Kids played in the sand; surfers rode waves; a long line of tourists waited in front of a food truck parked in the dirt lot above the beach. He sighed with pleasure.

“Come see the kitchen,” Trey said.

He followed his friend. The cabinets and granite were the same as the other apartments, but Trey had added a teal sea-glass backsplash. Vases and bowls in the same soft color adorned a shelf in the corner. “I’m going to have to learn to cook.”

He placed both hands on the distressed wood of the dark-chocolate-colored rectangular table. Like an upscale picnic table, long benches took the place of chairs. Three large pendant lights in the same sea-glass shade hung over the table.

“In case you ever have people over for dinner,” Trey said. “Kara’s idea.”

“We can have dinner parties like grown-ups,” Stone said.

“The three of us sitting around this table is just sad,” Rafael said with a laugh.

They went to the bedroom next. Trey had chosen soothing blues and distressed mahogany furniture. There was a partial view of the ocean from the west-facing wall. The other window looked out to the houses that crawled up the hillside. Directly below, tourists dressed in shorts and tanks strolled by with ice cream cones in their hands.

“This is really mine?” Rafael asked as he turned to look at his friends.

“It’s yours, man.” Stone raised one of his monster arms, biceps bulging, and tipped his beer bottle toward Rafael. “Hell of a lot better than our cots in the military, huh?”

Rafael raised his bottle. “Thanks for this. It’s more than I expected. More than I deserve.”

“Come on, let’s get another beer and enjoy your living room,” Trey said.

When they all had new beverages, Stone set his beer on the coffee table and plopped onto the couch with his arms folded over his massive chest. “I have something I want to run by you guys. Have a seat.”

Rafael and Trey sat in the armchairs across from Stone. “What’s up?” Trey asked. “You look serious.”

“What do you guys think about going into business together?” Stone asked.

“How do you mean?” Rafael asked.

“Do what we did with this one. Buy a building or house, clean it up, and either rent it out or flip it,” Stone said.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Rafael said. “For you two. You’re the ones with the talent. Plus, every dime I had I put into this place.”

“We could take out loans. Veteran loans,” Stone said. “My brother said he’d lend me some money if we wanted to get started. And he’s here if we need advice.”

Kyle was a commercial real estate developer. If anyone could help, it would be him.

“As far as what your part would be, you’re the most anal, organized, money-tracking bastard I’ve ever met,” Stone said to Rafael. “You could run the business and find us places to buy and flip.”

“My best friend from college is a landscape architect.” Trey’s eyes lit up as the idea seemed to take hold of him. “Nico might be interested in joining us. He’s working for a jerk down in San Diego right now. He’s coming up in a few weeks. We could talk to him about it then.”

“A fourth partner would be good. Less risk,” Stone said.

“Less reward, but I get what you’re saying,” Rafael said. “I’d have to keep my day job, though. At least until we started making a profit.”

“Would we need an architect?” Trey asked.

“We can hire that out if we need one,” Stone said.

“I’ll think about it,” Rafael said. He reached into his pocket for the envelope Kara had given him. Now that he saw what she’d done, he felt even less like cashing it. However, if he used it more like a loan for the business, he could possibly pay them back.

“Like seriously think or like blowing me off because you don’t want to hurt my feelings?” Stone asked.

“The first one,” Rafael said.

“We could be Wolf Construction,” Trey said.

“Wolf Enterprises. That sounds fancier,” Stone said.

“It has a nice ring to it,” Rafael said.

Stone raised his beer. “To the future.”

“To the future,” Rafael and Trey repeated.

A knock on the door drew their attention away from their toast. Who could that be?

“You expecting someone?” Stone asked as he crossed the room in three long strides and opened the door.

Lisa Perry and Pepper Griffin stood in the doorway.

Rafael’s stomach did a somersault as he rose to his feet. Even dressed in cutoff jeans and a tank top that hugged her slender waist, Lisa was otherworldly beautiful with her alabaster skin, white-blond hair, and ice-blue eyes.

“Um, yeah, come on in,” Rafael said, finally.

“Hello, boys.” Pepper Griffin was petite and skinny with white skin and black hair cut to chin level. He wouldn’t describe her as classically pretty, more striking, with dark eyes that seemed to take up too much of her face.

“What’re you girls up to?” Stone took his hat off and held it in front of him like a kid, obviously flustered in the presence of Pepper. The poor sap had it bad.

“We were at the bookstore and saw Stone’s truck.” Lisa crossed over and gave him a quick hug. They were on hugging terms? When had that happened? Stone lived on his brother’s property, which was next door to Jackson and Maggie’s place. Maybe they’d spent time together over the summer. He knew Lisa had been staying there for a few weeks at least.

“Come in. Have a seat,” Rafael said.

Lisa sat on the couch, but Pepper moved about the room, seeming to inspect every square foot. Stone watched her as he leaned against the mantel and drank his beer.

“We’re sorry to come by uninvited,” Lisa said. “This apartment is gorgeous.”

“Kara Mullen surprised me and hired Trey to decorate it,” Rafael said.

Lisa’s dainty hands clasped together. “Really? That’s so sweet.”

“Supersweet,” Pepper said. “Trey, it looks amazing.”

“Appreciate it,” Trey said.

“The Mullens must love you,” Lisa said to Rafael.

“They’re mega rich,” Pepper said. “This is nothing to them. That’s how rich people exploit the working man. They do something like this and their employee stays with them forever, even if you pay them like crap.”

“Pepper, how gauche.” Lisa shot Rafael a sheepish smile. “I can’t take her anywhere.”

“They’re very good to me,” Rafael said. Pepper was like her name. A little bit went a long way. “Trey decorated the entire apartment without any input from me. He totally nailed it.”

“He had Rafael’s Pinterest board for a reference point,” Stone said.

Note to self: Kill Stone in his sleep.

“I love Pinterest.” Lisa smiled at him, and his heart grew. “I’ll follow you.” The whole world fell away for a moment as they stared at each other.

“Maybe you two can exchange recipes,” Stone said.

“Or I could just cook something for you,” Lisa said to Rafael.

“I have a lot of favorite recipes.”

Cook something for you.

Lisa turned her attention to Trey. “Someday I’m going to have a house and I want you to decorate it. You did such a good job with Maggie’s home.” A hint of wistfulness touched her voice. “I’m in love with every room.”

“And Maggie’s baby.” Pepper perched on the edge of the ottoman.

Lisa colored. “I have baby lust, it’s true.”

Baby lust. Could she be any more adorable?

“I built everything in here with my sweat, blood, and tears.” Stone held up his giant hands. “With my bare hands.”

Lisa smiled at Stone. “You big baby. You’re wonderful, too.”

“Thank you. I feel better now,” Stone said, grinning. “Calluses are sexy, right, Pepper?”

Pepper lifted a haughty chin and shot darts from her eyes aimed right at Stone’s chest. “If you like dead skin, sure.”

Stone laughed and winked at her. Pepper turned away, focusing her attention on the bowl of seashells on the table.

Lisa pointed at the cooler. “Are you having a party and didn’t invite us?”

“Worker bee party,” Stone said.

“We finished the renovations and got this place decorated. We’re celebrating,” Trey said.

“Would you ladies like anything? We only have beer,” Rafael asked, remembering his manners.

Lisa nodded. “We’d love one.”

“We’re never one to turn down adult beverages,” Pepper said.

“And we’re celebrating too,” Lisa said. “Pepper’s been offered a movie role.”

“That’s great,” Trey said.

Pepper shrugged her narrow shoulders and tossed her black curls. “It’s a horror film. I’m dead by the end of the first act.”

“Her character just has to look in that closet.” Lisa’s eyes danced as she took a beer from Stone.

“I’ll get my own,” Pepper said when Stone reached back into the cooler.

He grabbed a beer and held it out to Pepper with a saucy grin. “No. You’re our guest. I insist.”

Pepper smirked and took it from him. “Yes, sir.”

Okay now. He wasn’t sure what was going on there, other than five thousand sexual sparks and a major attitude from Miss Pepper.

Stone settled back into the couch, returning the smirk.

“What brings you by, anyway?” Rafael asked.

“We’ve come about an apartment,” Lisa said. “Is there one available?”

Rafael almost choked on his beer. Lisa Perry, living in his building? “Just one. It’s a two-bedroom on the second floor.”

Lisa’s face lit up. “That’s perfect. We want a place to share.”

“We’ll be in and out because of our work,” Pepper said. “But we want an apartment in Cliffside Bay to be by Maggie.”

“I hate living alone,” Lisa said. “So Pepper’s agreed to put up with me.”

Pepper rolled her eyes. “Hardly. Until this movie role I was so broke she took pity on me and offered to pay for a place.”

“Stop it. That’s not true,” Lisa said, with a shy duck of her chin.

“Lisa Perry is about to become a huge star,” Pepper said.

“Did you hear about Raven yet?”

“Um, yeah. Sure.” Rafael knew everything about Lisa Perry that was possible to know without having said more than a half dozen words to her. Unlike some, information about Lisa was easy to find. She was an actress with a recent hit series as the main character on a period piece called Indigo Road that aired on HBO. He’d watched every episode. Twice. Next week, her first feature film came out. According to what he read on the internet, she was about to become the next big thing.

“Pepper’s going to jinx me,” Lisa said. “She tells everyone we meet.”

“It couldn’t happen to a sweeter girl,” Stone said. “I’m happy for you.”

“She’s not a girl,” Pepper said. “Why do guys like you always call women girls?”

Stone raised his eyebrows. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to offend.”

“Well, you should think before you talk,” Pepper said.

“Yes ma’am.” Stone saluted her. “A guy like me will take that under advisement.”

Pepper’s eyes flew open even wider.

“Why do girls like you always call us guys?” Stone asked.

“It’s very offensive. We’re grown men.”

“Oh my God, you’re such a jackass,” Pepper said.

“A guy like me or a jackass? Which is it?” Stone asked.

“You know what—” Pepper said, before Lisa interrupted her.

“Pepper, give it a rest.” Lisa put her hand on her arm. “Maybe we could see the apartment now?”

“Sure, yeah,” Rafael said. The thought of Lisa Perry living downstairs from him made him light-headed. Not like it would give him more of a chance with her. Frankly, it was probably the perfect recipe for misery. She’d have men over and he’d see every one of the bastards leave from his building having spent the night with an angel.

He left the guys with their beers and took the ladies down the stairs to the second floor. The two apartments were mirror images of each other. One had a peekaboo view of the ocean. The other faced east and would have beautiful views of the sunrise over the mountains. Since Lavonne had already chosen the ocean view, he opened the door of the other apartment.

Lisa squealed and did this cute bouncy thing on her feet. “Rafael, it’s gorgeous. You guys did an amazing job.”

Pepper was at the window. “We’ll see the sun rise.”

They’d gone with an open-floor concept in the first- and second-floor apartments, with the kitchen and great room one big room. Trey had assured him that it would be the best use of space and light. He’d agreed, knowing nothing about either.

The ladies loved the bedrooms and complimented the bathroom for being spacious.

“Pepper’s a total slob,” Lisa said.

“I am not.” Pepper smacked her playfully on the shoulder.

“Who’s living directly above us?” Lisa asked. “Are they noisy?”

Neither of the other guys had said a word about the other apartment belonging to them. Instinct told him to keep quiet for now.

“Not that I know of,” he said.

“When can we move in?” Lisa asked.

“Don’t you want to know the rent?” he asked.

Lisa smacked her forehead. “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I forgot to ask.”

He kept his voice steady, embarrassed by the amount. “Two thousand. Includes utilities.”

“Great,” Lisa said. “We’ll take it.”

“Come on. I’ll get your set of keys.” 

Chapter 2: Lisa

Lisa woke the next morning in the guest room at Maggie’s house and reached for her phone. Using the bank app, she pulled up her savings account. She stared at the beautiful seven-figure sum and grinned. Soon, she would invest most of it, but for now she liked to remember how far she’d come.

Her manager, Sasha, had negotiated a good deal for a relatively unknown actress. The director had wanted her after seeing Indigo Road. If she was smart and invested conservatively, she could make it stretch over the rest of her life. She might not get another acting job. It was possible. Raven could be a flop. They could change their minds about a second season of Indigo Road. One never knew. For now, she was content knowing she would never have to take another cocktail waitressing job or search for coins in the cushions of the couch.

In a few days, she would leave for weeks of promotional activities, including the premier of Raven. As part of her contract, she was to appear on a variety of talk shows. Her reward would be to come home to a cute apartment where she would have a few months to relax before heading north to film the new season of Indigo Road.

After they left Rafael yesterday evening, she’d texted Trey to see if he could decorate the apartment for them while she was away. He’d agreed to have it ready for them when she returned at the end of August.

She showered and headed downstairs. Maggie and Jackson would have been up for at least an hour. Lily woke early and liked to have her breakfast after a good snuggle with Mommy. Jackson would already be at the office. As the primary doctor of Cliffside Bay, he probably had a slew of patients waiting.

The house smelled of coffee and cinnamon. A freshly baked breakfast cake was cooling on the counter. Lisa took a big sniff but made a piece of dry toast instead. Standing at the sink, she ate her piece of toast and watched the sparrows play in the birdbath. She loved these beautiful creatures, so delicate and graceful, yet strong enough to soar across the yard.

Her thoughts turned to Rafael Soto. During the weeks she’d been at Maggie’s this summer, he hadn’t appeared at any of the parties or nights out at the brewery. She hadn’t asked anyone about him, not wanting to give herself away. Yesterday, she’d thought about taking him aside and asking him to dinner, but she was too shy. She couldn’t tell if he liked her. He was so reserved it was impossible to make a guess either way. Stupidly, she’d asked Stone Hickman about him. The answer was noncommittal. “He’s fine. We’ve been too busy with the renovation to do much but work.”

She followed the sound of Maggie’s music into the living room. Maggie was on the couch with her guitar in hand. Music sheets were spread across the coffee table. Lily played on the floor with blocks. Pepper lounged in the chaise in the corner of the room, reading the book she’d bought yesterday. Neither of the grown-ups did much in the way of greeting, other than a grunt from Pepper and a headshake by Maggie. The little one, however, let out a joyful shriek and flung herself into Lisa’s arms.

“Hello, love.” Lisa sat on the floor with her back against the couch and brought Lily onto her lap. She kissed the top of her head and breathed in the scent of those red curls. She was a beautiful child, with white skin and red hair like her mother. She looked like Maggie, except for her blue eyes. Those were all Jackson.

“Sasaw,” Lily said as she snuggled into her chest. This was her nickname. Lisa turned to Sasaw.

Pepper sneezed. “I think I’m getting sick.” She didn’t seem to require a response, as she didn’t even look up from her book.

The three of them knew one another so well, there was really no need for talking. It could have been their apartment in New York except for the luxurious furnishings, the enormous house, and the most beautiful blue-eyed one-year-old on the planet.

Although she and Pepper adored staying at the house, it wasn’t fair to Jackson that they were always here. He never said anything, other than how much he loved Lisa’s cooking and appreciated Pepper’s insistence on doing the dishes. However, Lisa knew they needed to be alone in their nest without Pepper and Lisa mooching around. She’d been thrilled when Kara mentioned Rafael’s apartment building. The fact that Rafael owned it had nothing to do with why she wanted to rent the place. Right? Wrong. Fine. He was icing on an otherwise delicious cake. Who was she kidding? Rafael Soto was the best icing on the best cake ever made.

The plan was to live part-time here and part-time in Los Angeles, as needed. She and Pepper didn’t have a place in LA, but they’d agreed to discuss that after Pepper returned from British Columbia, where she was shooting the horror film.

She stretched and smiled as she gazed at the copper head against her chest. Morning sun softened the room. Outside the French doors, red flowers climbed a trellis. On the other side of the stone patio, the swimming pool was a deep blue. Life was different here in the land of sea and sunshine. The moment Lisa and Pepper arrived in California, their lives had fallen into place. At long last, it seemed their dues had been paid, and the lives they’d dreamed of were unfolding before them.

Maggie had reconnected with her childhood sweetheart, and now they had a beautiful home and a precious daughter. After a hit debut folk/rock album, Maggie was going on a short concert tour.

Life was good and about to get better.

Pepper sneezed again. “I’m definitely getting sick.”

“Don’t give it to the baby,” Maggie said.

“We have the concert tomorrow,” Lisa said. “You can’t get sick.” She and Pepper were heading north to a country music festival before they had to ship off to their destinations.

She startled when the doorbell rang. Maggie didn’t look up from her guitar, nor Pepper from her book. “Come on, Lily, let’s go see who it is.” With the baby on her hip, she traipsed down the hall to the front door. She tried to open it, but realized the lock was latched. Jackson always locked the door after he left in the morning.

She unlocked the door and yanked it open.

Rafael Soto.

Goodness, the man was hot in a T-shirt. He also wore cargo shorts and those sports sandals that were so popular out here. A manila envelope dangled from his right hand. Her name was written in even handwriting across the top. She was always impressed by how tidy he appeared: closely cropped hair, trimmed and clean fingernails, freshly shaven. A precise man. One who wasted no energy on false moves. She wondered if he’d take those same skills into the bedroom.

“Good morning,” he said.

“Hi,” Lily said, loud and clear, then waved. They joked that Lily waved like a pageant girl.

“Is this Lily?” Rafael asked. “She’s gotten so big.”

“She just had her first birthday, and she’s walking.”

“Is that early?” he asked.

“Um. No, not early. Right on time.”

“I’m sorry to bother you but I forgot to give you the paperwork to fill out.” He held up the envelope. “It’s a few legal documents to fill out.”

The morning sun was causing her to squint. “Come in, please.”

He grimaced and scratched behind his ear. “No, I can just give them to you and be on my way. You can drop them by later, or I can come back out to get them.”

“Please, come in. Lily and I are just hanging out. I have coffee cake.”

His dark brown eyes darted to his truck as if he wanted to escape. “I do like coffee cake.”

She moved aside so he could step past her.

“It smells good in here,” he said.

“This house always smells good. It’s because a family lives here.”

She avoided the living room and went straight into the kitchen. “Sit. Would you care for coffee?”

“Only if it’s already made.” He placed the envelope on the island and sat on one of the stools.

“You want cake too, Lily?”

Lily smiled and nodded her head with more enthusiasm than was necessary. “Yes. Cake.”

“She likes cake as much as I do,” Rafael said.

“She has limited experience of the world, but I’d have to say cake is her very favorite thing.”

“Cake,” Lily said.

Lisa set Lily in her high chair and latched the seat belt. She put the baby’s tray in place, then turned to get a coffee cup.

“You must have a lot of experience with babies,” Rafael said.

“A little. My twin brother has two. My niece is a little older than Lily. My nephew, Oliver, is almost four.” She poured coffee into a mug. “Cream? Sugar?”

“Just a little cream.”

She set a small pitcher in front of him.

“Fancy,” he said.

“Maggie keeps it in the fridge,” Lisa said. This house was all about the coffee.

Lily thumped her tray table and yelled cake three times in a row.

Lisa laughed as she cut a small piece for the baby and set it on the tray. Lily stuffed the entire thing in her mouth.

“She’ll need a bath later,” Lisa said.

“Is Maggie out?” he asked.

“No, she’s in the living room. She’s working on a new song. When she’s like that, I watch the baby so she can work. She gets laser focused.” Lisa cut a large square piece and set it on a plate, then slid it over to him. “Would you like a fork?”

“Yes, please.” The corners of his eyes crinkled. “If I was alone, I’d just stuff the whole thing in my mouth like my friend Lily.”

Lisa warmed at the sight of his smile and handed him a fork. “You should smile more. You have a beautiful one.”

He cut into the cake with his fork. “You’re the second person in two days to say that.”

“Really?”

“Yes, Honor Shaw pointed it out yesterday when she was threatening me with a sharp pencil.”

Lisa laughed. “Honor is like Hermia. ‘And though she be but little, she is fierce.’”

He looked at her blankly. “Hermia?”

“Shakespeare. Midsummer Night’s Dream. Never mind. Theater geek joke.”

“I don’t know much about Shakespeare.”

She flushed. Why had she said that? It had obviously made him feel bad. So thoughtless. No wonder she could never find a good man.

“I’m sorry. That was a stupid thing to say,” she said. “Most people wouldn’t recognize that quote. I probably sounded pretentious.”

He looked up from his cake. As he held his fork in midair, his brown eyes looked straight into hers. “Why are you apologizing? You should never say you’re sorry for knowing something others don’t. Just because I’m an uneducated slob doesn’t mean you should apologize for sharing your expertise. Men love to make women feel shamed when their fragile egos are threatened, so women have learned to pretend they know less than they do. Real men know smart women are sexy.” He went back to his cake.

She had no idea what to say. For one thing, she’d never heard him say that many words in a row. Secondly, he sounded about as opposite of an “uneducated slob” as one could get.

“That’s very enlightened of you,” she said, finally.

He looked up, amusement in his eyes. “If you met my mama, everything about me would be perfectly clear.”

“Given your experiences, I’d bet money you know a heck of a lot more than most.” She topped off his coffee.

He touched the napkin to his mouth. “The stuff I know—I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.”

“Oh dear.”

The corners of his mouth lifted in one of his quarter smiles.

“It’s okay. I took the gig. The military got me out of poverty. I live with the consequences.”

“You’re a hero, though. That must mean something to you.”

“It’s validating when people thank me for my service. But what happens in war is never as black and white as civilians like to think. Whether or not I was heroic is something only God can decide.”

“I suppose that’s true for all of us.”

He picked up his plate and mug. “Thank you for the coffee and the cake. You made my day off even better.” He came around the island and set the dishes by the sink. Rafael Soto moved like a stealthy panther, without making a sound and with dexterous ease. When he passed by her, she caught the scent of him—fresh soap and a spicy deodorant. No cologne. He wasn’t the type.

He knelt by Lily’s high chair. The muscles in his shoulders and back rippled under his thin shirt.

“How’s your cake?” he asked the baby.

She held up a sticky hand in response and smiled.

Rafael straightened and put his hand over his chest. “She’s a heartbreaker.” He touched the top of her head. “This hair.”

“I know. I hate to leave her, but I have work stuff coming up.” Three weeks without Lily and the sea breeze.

“When will you be back?”

“At the end of August. I’ll have some time off before we film the second season of Indigo Road.”

He shoved his hands in the pockets of his cargo shorts. “Second season’s taking forever to come out.”

What? He’d seen the show? “You watch?”

“Yeah.” His gaze flickered to above her head.

“You’re full of surprises, Mr. Soto.”

“It’s not my usual type of show, but since I kind of know you, I had to tune in. It’s not every day a guy like me knows a beautiful movie star.”

“I’m not really a star.”

“You’re extremely talented. I can’t take my eyes off you.” He cleared his throat. “Onscreen, I mean.”

“Really?”

“It’s hard to imagine how anyone could.”

“I can. Trust me. I hate watching myself. And my voice. I’m always, like, ‘Do I really sound like that?’”

“Everything about you is beautiful. Including your voice.” He nodded toward the door. “I should go.” He crossed the kitchen without making a sound.

Everything about you is beautiful. Had he just said that, or had she heard him wrong?

Do it. Just do it now before he leaves and you lose your chance.

“Would you ever want to go out sometime? Like for dinner or something?” she asked his backside.

Almost to the door, he whipped around to look at her. “You want to go out with me?”

“Yes. I mean, if you want to.” Why had she asked him? He didn’t want to go out with her. If he did, he would have asked her already.

“I can’t afford much, as far as dinner goes.” His hands were back in his pockets. “Everything I’ve got is sunk into the building.”

“I’ll cook for you then. In my new apartment.”

He looked at the floor and tugged on his collar. “I’m not boyfriend material. Not for someone like you.”

“Someone like me?” What did that mean? She wasn’t good enough for him? Too many ex-boyfriends for a good Catholic boy? Too New York jaded?

“Hollywood. Old-school glamour.” He glanced behind him, like he was expecting someone to walk through the door. “You didn’t ask how much the rent was.”

She looked down at the counter and placed her sweating hands flat against the cool granite. Stupid girl for thinking he might like you. “All right. Enough said. Forget I asked.”

She waited for him to leave, wishing the floor would open and whisk her away.

“Lisa.”

She looked up at him. “Yeah?”

“Trust me when I say, it’s not you but me.”

“Yeah. No problem. I get it.” She didn’t get it. What did money have to do with anything? Up until recently she’d had less than Rafael.

“I’ve hurt you. I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s fine. Really. I misread the signals.” Just leave, please.

“You can fill the paperwork out and bring it by whenever you can.”

“Will do.”

He turned to go, but then stopped and returned his gaze to her. “The reason I don’t smile is because my teeth used to be gray.” He tapped his mouth. “I got these Hollywood teeth put on a year ago. I’m still learning how to smile.”

She nodded. There was a time she needed to learn how to smile, too. During those dark days she wasn’t sure she ever would again. “I understand perfectly.”

“See you around.”

And with that he was gone.

***

Lisa stood shoulder to shoulder with strangers under the unforgiving August sun. Mist from the sprinklers strategically placed around the fairground’s concert arena was the only relief from the heat. Dust covered her feet and ankles. The air smelled of beer, popcorn, and sweaty bodies.

They were waiting for the last act of the day—headliner Wyatt Black.

Lisa smiled at the woman next to her.

“Popcorn?” she asked.

“I’m good. I’ve got my beer,” Lisa said.

“I’m Cheryl. Seeing Wyatt was on my bucket list,” she said.

“My husband got these tickets for my fiftieth birthday. He was supposed to come, but he got called into work.”

“I’m sorry. My best friend was supposed to come but she’s sick.”

“Well, we can be each other’s dates then,” Cheryl said.

“Done.” They exchanged another smile.

She wished Pepper could be here. Sadly, those initial sneezes were indeed the beginning of a cold. This morning she hadn’t been able to get out of bed. Lisa had borrowed Maggie’s car and driven by herself. It was fine, she’d told herself during the hour it took to get to the festival from Cliffside Bay. Being alone was good for her. She needed to do more things alone. Twins were never alone. Then she’d become a triplet with Maggie and Pepper. She had to learn to be comfortable doing things solo.

As Wyatt Black took the stage, the crowd roared its welcome. Wyatt Black was the hottest thing in country music. Classically good-looking but with a bad-boy aura, he crooned a love song like no one else.

After the audience applause lessened, he sang the opening notes of his current hit. She and Cheryl locked arms, strangers united by their love of music. Lisa noted Cheryl’s sandals, a little ragged and faded. Her husband had probably saved for months to afford these tickets.

The crowd sang along with Wyatt. They all knew the lyrics, as though they’d helped write them. His was the voice of the people in this audience. Hardworking Americans felt a kinship with this man. He was them. Wyatt had grown up in a trailer in the woods with his single mother. The odds to break out of the cycle of poverty were stacked against him. Yet he had. By writing songs that gave a voice to the poor, the working class, the disenfranchised. His lyrics were about real struggles: money problems, heartbreak, family, love. They were deceptively simple, in Lisa’s opinion. The words and music combined with Wyatt’s soulful voice touched a chord in people, made them feel less alone in a terrifying world. Women swooned for him. Men felt as if he were their brother.

Her thoughts drifted to Rafael. He’d misjudged her. She understood the people in this audience far better than she did the people she’d met in Hollywood. These were her people. If he weren’t so prideful, Rafael might have taken the time to see beyond outside appearances. He had no idea of the dark places she’d been. Now he never would. Whatever. He was just another jerk, like all the guys she liked.

A popping sound interrupted the music. Was there something wrong with the sound system? Wyatt continued to sing for a moment, then stopped, looking confused. Crew rushed onto the stage and pulled Wyatt and the band off arena. The popping sound continued, like the loudest popcorn maker ever made.

Someone shouted, “There’s a shooter.”

That was the popping noise. Bullets. A shooter.

Bullets rained from the sky.

She and Cheryl looked in each other’s eyes. “We have to get out of here,” Lisa said as her beer fell to the ground.

Lisa grabbed Cheryl’s hand. The crowd surged, this way, then that, both the individual and the collective searching for shelter. Bullets, one after the other, with no space between, pelted the crowd. Someone pushed her from behind and she stumbled. Cheryl jerked and fell. Lisa knelt beside her. A hole the size of two fists had ripped open her chest. Blood soaked into the dry earth.

A man shouted at her. “You have to run.”

She looked up to see a gray mustache and eyes the color of a muddy river. A cowboy hat shaded his face.

“But she’s hurt. I have to take her with me.”

“I’m sorry, sister, but she’s gone. C’mon now.” He lifted her to her feet, the strength of him like an electric shock that shook her awake. “Hold tight to my hand.” She gripped his fingers and tried to run, but in truth, he dragged her. She fixed her gaze on the back of his brown boots. Don’t lose sight of his boots. Don’t let go of his hand. Around them people passed. The awful cracking sound continued, louder than the screams.

Someone tumbled into her. She fell face-first. Blood covered the grass like morning dew. She sobbed and tried to rise to her feet. The man lifted her into his arms. He ran with her clinging to his neck. “I’ll get you out of here. I promise you. Just hang tight.”

They ran with the surging crowd.

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