The bell above the café door gave a muted ping. As Michaela Stone glanced up from folding napkins behind the counter, she saw a woman she didn’t recognize coming toward her.
Dressed in a casual yet elegant white and navy blue sweat suit, she looked like she’d just stepped off a yacht. Maybe she had. Her blond hair, kept in a loose twist, sparkled like it was alive. Mike found herself imagining how it would look if it were set free.
“Welcome to the Sea Stone Café,” she managed, embarrassed to realize that she was staring. “I’m Mike. What can I get you?”
“Just coffee.” The woman’s voice was so rich and full it reminded Mike of a blend of espresso and smooth Belgian chocolate.
“There’s no such thing as ‘just coffee,’ ma’am.” Mike pointed at the blackboard over the counter with a grin. “We offer ten different beans, and you can have brewed coffee, boiled coffee, ice coffee, cappuccino, latte, macchiato…well, you see over there?”
“Ah…nothing ordinary will do, I see.” Raising her porcelain blue eyes to the board, the woman read through all the coffee varieties. “Okay, a house blend cappuccino.”
“Excellent choice. Coming right up.” Mike abandoned the napkins and walked over to the espresso machine. While her hands automatically created the cappuccino, she thought about the woman waiting for it. It wasn’t tourist season in New Quay, Rhode Island, and even then, she rarely saw anyone who looked like this woman just drop in. It wasn’t just her clothes that suggested wealth and sophistication. The way the blonde carried herself, with ease and elegance, suggested a well-leveled self-confidence.
She placed an extra piece of chocolate on the saucer but stopped just as she was about to serve the coffee. “Would you rather sit at a table?” Not just yet.
“The bar’s fine, Mike. I’m Vivian, by the way.” She waited until Mike had put the coffee down before extending her hand and barely missed the cup. “Nice to meet you.”
“Likewise, Vivian.” It was surprisingly easy to call her by her first name. Vivian felt familiar. People never feel familiar this fast. What’s going on? Mike cleared her throat. “Just visiting East Quay?”
“Yes, for a while. I’m on…hiatus.”
Interesting choice of words. “Staying at the Marriott?”
Vivian didn’t appear to mind the third degree. She sipped her coffee and looked relaxed. “No, I’m borrowing my friends’ beach house with my two dogs. It’s their summer home, but I look forward to sitting by the fire this winter.”
“Ever experienced a New England winter? You may be surprised if you haven’t.”
Vivian laughed and the sound rippled down Mike’s spine. “I know they can be brutal. I grew up in East Quay, a thousand years ago. The town has changed a lot, but I’m sure the winters are the same.”
“We get snowed in all the time. As odd as it sounds, that’s good for business.”
“Yes, I bet people are even more interested in hot coffee when there’s a cold wind outside.”
“You got it.”
Mike caught herself staring at Vivian and grabbed a new pile of napkins. She neatly folded one in three, turned it over once, and attached the simple brass napkin ring.
“You work here alone?”
Unexpectedly happy she hadn’t bored Vivian, Mike shook her head. “No, I’ve got three part-time employees. One comes in for the evening rush.”
“You’re the owner?” A surprised smile revealed perfect white teeth when Vivian leaned forward, her fingertips playing with the rim of the coffee cup. “Well, I certainly admire what you’ve done with the place. It was already pretty run down when I was a child.”
“It was condemned when I bought it, been sitting empty for several years. I had to renovate for six months before I could get a license to serve food.”
“And look at it now.”
Mike warmed to the approval in Vivian’s voice, pleased that she appreciated Mike’s hard work. She watched Vivian sip her coffee, closing her eyes as she tasted it, and she looked so sensual Mike wondered if that was how she looked when she made love. Shocked at her thoughts and disturbingly aroused, she stared at the napkin she’d unconsciously wrinkled beyond recognition. Damn, what’s wrong with me?
“How long have you been in business, Mike?”
“Almost six years. I graduated from the University of Rhode Island, and then fate called me to this old marina. I fell in love with its beautiful vintage yachts and this abandoned building begging to become a café.”
“And you listened.” Vivian’s eyes sparkled.
“I did. It’s hard work, but I’ve never regretted that.” What I regret is all the years I wasted before that. Despite Mike’s best efforts, thinking about the past left her feeling naked and exposed. “This is also my home,” she continued, and tried to find the security that thought usually carried. “I live in the basement.”
“In the basement? In this old house? Is that…healthy?”
“Sure.” Pulled out of the mood she hated for a few seconds, Mike laughed, again warmed, this time by Vivian’s apparent concern. “I had it completely restored when the café started to make money. Before that I lived in a small apartment in town. Now I have lots of space. And it’s not as dark as you’d think.” And there’s really nothing wrong with darkness. You can hide well if you stay out of the light.
Vivian Harding couldn’t take her eyes off Mike’s face and the shadows flickering in her eyes. She felt like a voyeur as she sat across the counter and wondered what had caused such torment.
The young woman, or perhaps not as young as she’d first thought, was beautiful in the darkest of ways. Her hair was so black that the highlights were blue. They emphasized her blue-black eyes, set deeply under black, full eyebrows. Her features were strong, with sharp planes and angles—a face full of character. “So you’re like me, live and breathe work?”
“I guess that’s true, to some extent.” For a moment, Mike’s expression lightened. She placed a new pile of folded napkins next to Vivian. “I watch a lot of movies and play the drums. Especially if I’m angry. That’s why I started—to get rid of stress in college.”
“Ever play professionally?”
“No. Except for the gigs at college where they paid us in free beer.”
“Beer?” Vivian couldn’t stand the stuff. The smell, the taste; it was all bad. She wasn’t about to insult Mike’s taste, though.
“Yeah, there was a lot of beer, but I stayed away from it. I don’t drink.”
More shadows. Vivian leaned forward so she wouldn’t miss any of Mike’s facial expressions. “I don’t drink much either these days. A glass of red wine on special occasions, that’s all. I’m on, well…some medication, and the two don’t play nicely together.”
“I’d say so.” Mike grimaced, making Vivian laugh. “I knew someone who mixed alcohol with a little bit of everything. Everything but food.”
“Sounds like a careless person,” Vivian suggested cautiously. I bet that was someone close to you.
“To say the least.”
They exchanged another long look, and again Vivian felt something indescribable happen, something she couldn’t grasp, but it was as tangible as the coffee cup in her hands. Mike’s mix of dark wildness, combined with an undeniable vulnerability, stirred something inside Vivian and induced a faint tingle in her stomach. She was amazed at her own interest, and it did take her mind off the issues she was battling. Vivian welcomed the change of focus.
“You said you have dogs.” Mike changed the subject, her eyes now black as thunderclouds. “What kind?”
“Great Danes,” Vivian replied, trying to sound cheerful. She wanted to assure her she had nothing to fear from someone who was almost hiding in East Quay. Mike’s look of relief and the disappearing tremors in her hands were worth the effort. “They’re brothers, six years old, called Perry and Mason.”
Mike laughed aloud and the irresistible sound produced goose bumps on Vivian’s arms. “Perry and Mason! You a Raymond Burr fan?”
“Not really, but somehow the names fit. They’re both nosy and stubborn.” Vivian grinned. “They’re also sweet and well behaved, most of the time. Since I’m alone in that beach house, they make me feel safe.”
“Is your family still here in East Quay, Vivian?”
“No. I moved my parents to a condo near the harbor in Newport as soon as I could afford to. My mother always wanted to live near the water, and nowadays she loves to watch the ships come and go. Especially the QE2.”
“What do you know.” Mike sounded enthusiastic. “I went to Newport once, with a family I stayed with, and we toured the QE2. I was stunned, beyond stunned. I knew one day I’d travel on that ship and visit all the ports she went to.” Leaning forward, she placed her chin in her palms. “I still want to.”
“And you should, cara. You have plenty of time, but the sooner the better.”
“Have you sailed with her?”
Vivian nodded. “Yes, but it was a working voyage.”
“You don’t exactly strike me as a sailor.” Mike winked.
Laughing, Vivian shook her head, covering her forehead and feigning exasperation. “You found me out,” she huffed. “Honestly, I was part of the entertainment.”
“You’re a performer?”
“Yes. I sing.”
“How great. I play the drums and you sing—we have potential.” A fierce blush crept up from Mike’s neck and spread to her pale cheeks like wildfire. “Hey, I didn’t mean—”
“I know, I know. But I see your point.” Vivian smiled, charmed by Mike’s apparent confusion.
The bell pinged and a young woman poked her head in. “Sorry I’m late for work, Mike! I’ll just park my bike and be right in.”
The mood between Mike and Vivian broke like a dry twig, and they both pulled back. Vivian slid ten dollars beneath her cup. “Well,” she said with some reluctance, “I think that’s my cue. It was nice talking with you.”
“Thanks. The same to you. Do come back.”
A quiet longing in Mike’s voice made Vivian stop and turn. “Of course I will. You make excellent coffee, cara.”
“Hey, kiddo, drop what you’re doing.”
Eryn Goddard jumped when her boss’s loud voice sounded just a few inches from her right ear. “Why?” She pivoted on the chair, meticulously preventing her disdain for Harold Mills from showing. He was a short, stocky man, and if his nonexistent social skills weren’t enough, he wasn’t running the local paper very professionally. She resented his lack of objectivity and his obvious pandering to some of the local politicians and merchants.
“Get down to the Marriott, pronto. Hernandez was supposed to go, but his wife’s hatching their fourth.” Harold obviously thought that Mrs. Hernandez should’ve thought better of interfering with business than to expect her husband at her side for the baby’s birth.
“What’s up at the Marriott?” Eryn was already on her feet, eager to get out of her bully of a boss’s way.
“A press conference. The world press is there. Make sure you have your credentials. Security’s bound to be tight.”
“Are you going to tell me what kind of press conference, or will that be a surprise?” Eryn knew she sounded sarcastic and didn’t care. Harold glared, and she felt a little wave of satisfaction.
“Our only freakin’ diva is back for the first time since she skipped town some forty years ago. Do me a favor. Put East Quay on the map for a change. Ask a headline question. Anything.”
Eryn’s mind raced. Only one name came to mind, but was that possible? “Vivian Harding? The opera singer?”
Eryn hated when he said “bingo” in that smug tone. Overbearing prick. “All right, I’ll head over there now. When’s the press conference?”
“In forty-five minutes.” He checked his watch. “Make that forty.”
“And that’s cutting it a tad close.” With her teeth clenched around a juicy insult, Eryn headed for the door, pulling her shoulder bag over her head as she strode between the desks in the small office. Nothing like a little pressure!
Vivian applied her deep red lipstick with skilled precision. As she put it down, she leaned in closer to examine her reflection. It was important to look impeccable, today more than ever. She gently pressed a tissue to her full lips before applying a second layer.
Something stroked against her leg, and she looked down at the dog. “Do I look the part, Mason? Will I look enough of the homecoming superstar to fool the press?”
Mason sat down and tilted his head as if to ponder the question, making her laugh. His brother joined them and rested his large head on the dresser, reluctant as usual to take his eyes off her.
Vivian returned her attention to the mirror and made sure her hair was secure in its loose twist. She had chosen a red pantsuit over a white sleeveless blouse and her trademark three-inch-heel pumps. Colorful earrings and a matching necklace full of emeralds, topazes, and rubies glittered. I dress the part, and they see what I want them to. So what? That’s how you play the game.
When she heard the cabdriver honk for the second time, she threw a multicolored scarf casually around her shoulders and patted Mason and Perry. “I won’t be long, boys. Behave.” Looking once more into the mirror, Vivian took a deep breath. One last time. Surely I can pull it off one more time?
Eryn sat down in the first row, at the far left, and looking around, she realized she was lucky to get this seat. One of the more seasoned reporters, who’d been a close friend to her previous boss, had saved it for her since the conference room was packed. Media people lined all three walls in the large room.
The buzz from the audience rose and fell around her, but Eryn was busy opening her tablet PC and locating the files she needed from her wireless uplink. Many Web sites were dedicated to the world-famous mezzo-soprano, and she’d read reviews of Harding’s performances and recordings before. Vivian Harding was one of the few classic divas in the same category as performers like Birgit Nilsson and Maria Callas.
Eryn wondered how such a talent could have sprung from East Quay. Few people in America, let alone outside the country, had ever heard of this little town. And despite Vivian Harding’s fame, she hadn’t put it on the map. As far as Eryn knew, this was the first time the singer had been back since she’d left East Quay immediately after Malcolm Hayes discovered her.
At the sound of applause Eryn glanced up at the podium, expecting the star of the media circus to appear. Instead a dark-haired woman in a dark blue skirt suit, her chocolate brown hair in a low, snug bun, climbed the few stairs to the dais.
She seemed familiar, and after a second Eryn realized why. Not only was Manon Belmont the owner of the venerated Belmont Foundation and considered East Quay’s first lady, but she was Eryn’s neighbor in the condo she’d inherited from her great-aunt. It was pretty mind-boggling to be living in the same building as the town’s crème de la crème. They’d never actually talked; Eryn had only seen her from afar and doubted if Belmont would even recognize her. Not that it mattered.
Eryn settled back and prepared to take notes when Belmont placed some papers on the table in front of her and looked out over the audience. She had a commanding presence, Eryn noted absently.
“Hello, and welcome. I appreciate that so many of you could attend, and I know you’re eager to meet the woman who made this possible. We’re here for a very good cause, and having our town’s most famous person on board is tremendously exciting.” Her throaty voice easily carried throughout the conference room. Obviously Belmont was used to being in the spotlight. Eryn couldn’t help but appreciate the confident way she carried herself. It was also hard not to notice how attractive she was when an inadvertent movement outlined her full, high breasts and the curve of a hip. “Please, welcome Vivian Harding.”
Belmont clapped, initiating a new round of applause. The door opened again and Vivian Harding emerged, highlighted by the harsh spotlights aimed directly at her. She stopped just inside the door, her hand tucked over the arm of a man. She squinted briefly and hesitated, murmured to him, and he nodded. Then she joined Manon Belmont at the table on the dais, the spotlights dimming as she sat down.
Harding was not what Eryn had expected. She was taller than she appeared on TV and youthfully beautiful. Eryn checked the Web site she had just pulled up to confirm that she was actually fifty-four. She saw no signs of plastic surgery, and though Vivian possessed generous curves, nobody in their right mind would ever call her fat. Her red tailored suit complemented her full figure, and her brilliant blue eyes nearly outshone her dazzling jewelry.
“Thank you, ladies and gentlemen of the press.”
There it was. The voice. Eryn was no opera aficionado, but no one on the planet who owned a radio or TV set could mistake Harding’s voice for anyone else’s. Eryn knew she’d never forget hearing it in real life, if only speaking and not singing.
“This press conference isn’t just about me.” Harding waved off the applause. “While I realize you’re interested in my life and work, I’m actually here to support an extensive charity project, governed mainly by the Belmont Foundation.” She glanced sideways, a smile on her bright red lips. “Manon Belmont has come up with a plan to raise enough money within a year to build a new wing at East Quay Memorial Hospital. In fact, the construction company is making initial preparations.”
Everyone was silent for a few seconds, since the announcement had taken Eryn and her colleagues off guard.
“In what way are you involved, Ms. Harding?” a man sitting three chairs from Eryn asked.
“I will sing in a benefit concert at East Quay Hall, three weeks from tomorrow, with the proceeds going to the hospital.”
Eryn caught Harding and Manon exchanging a furtive glance.
“The concert will serve a second purpose as well,” Harding continued. “It will also be my farewell performance.”
After several audible gasps, a volcano of simultaneous questions erupted.
“Are you retiring, Ms. Harding?”
“Why have you returned to your hometown now? Didn’t you once promise never to return?”
“Did Ms. Belmont contact you?”
“Are the rumors regarding you and Peter Ovolov true?”
“Ms. Harding? Over here! Is it true that you’ve fired Malcolm Hayes because of the scandal in Rome?”
Embarrassed, but not surprised, on her colleagues’ behalf, Eryn looked over at Manon, whose expression had hardened.
“One at a time, please.” Vivian Harding was clearly used to being accosted by the press on such occasions. “You in the yellow blouse, in the second row.”
“Amy Torres, the Boston Phoenix. Why are you giving your last performance in a godforsaken little town like East Quay?”
Eryn groaned. What an idiot. Doesn’t she realize her question will alienate every citizen in this town?
“I left this town exactly thirty-eight years ago, and it’s high time I gave something back to it. After all, I went to high school here, and my parents lived and worked here for more than half a century.”
“But why now?” The reporter was insistent, and something impertinent in her voice made Eryn want to muzzle her.
“Why not now?” Harding countered, her expression still friendly, but she spoke with an obvious bite. “This is about closing a circle. I’ve seen and played almost every major opera house in the world. Now I want to finish my career in my hometown where I started out. Or maybe you didn’t do your research well enough to realize this fact, Miss…? I’m sorry. What was your name?”
Ouch. Good for you, Harding. Don’t take that kind of treatment from anyone. Eryn thought she saw Manon nod approvingly before sending the reporter a cold glance. Eryn raised her hand.
Manon Belmont could have throttled the Boston Phoenix’s reporter, but she also knew these types of questions were unavoidable. Vivian had assured her that after dealing with the European press, she didn’t consider the U.S. media too bad.
She regarded the next reporter Vivian acknowledged. The woman was young, with stunning red hair in a long braid and a self-assured look about her. When she rose to ask her question, relaxed and confident, Manon leaned forward so she wouldn’t miss her words. She managed to avoid frowning when her pulse quickened at the sound of the woman’s clear, strong voice.
“Eryn Goddard, New Quay Chronicle. Have you collaborated with the Belmont Foundation before, Ms. Harding? You and Manon Belmont look like you know each other.”
Vivian spoke in a low-key tone, unlike the confident onstage voice she had just used to address the other journalist.
“Ms. Goddard. Eryn, was it?” A faint tremor in the elegant hands, probably only visible to Manon, spoke of Vivian’s inner turmoil. “I admire your perception. Yes, I’ve worked with Ms. Belmont on several projects, and we’ve had some success. We became acquainted when she came to Paris and I was performing at Opera Nationale. We spoke after the performance, and when I learned she was one of the New England Belmonts and how dedicated she was to her grandfather’s legacy, the foundation, I was keen to help her raise whatever funds she needed.” Vivian raised her hands, palms up, and gestured toward Manon. “So if you think I’ve done anything remarkable for this town, you should be a thousand times more proud of Ms. Belmont. She is this town’s true daughter. I’m proud to call Manon Belmont my friend.”
Manon was astounded. She’d never expected Vivian to say anything like that. Not that the part about how they met wasn’t true…but the whole daughter-of-the-town business? And Vivian sounded almost regretful. What was that about? Manon glimpsed the reporter, Eryn, scribbling energetically on her computer as a forest of hands stretched toward the ceiling. With the autumn sun from a nearby window igniting her dark red hair, she appeared quite beautiful. Puzzled by the thought, Manon forced herself to focus on the other reporters. Then, to her annoyance, the insolent woman in the yellow shirt now blurted out the next question, without waiting to be acknowledged.
“Why haven’t you let your fans know about your work for charity?”
Manon glanced at Vivian, who appeared remarkably calm. She sounds as if Vivian is obligated to report every move she makes. No wonder she wants to retire.
“It’s quite simple,” Vivian responded. “I’m doing this for personal reasons. Private reasons. I didn’t want that misconstrued as some kind of bid for publicity.”
The woman looked stumped at the reply, and in the back, someone began applauding. The sound grew stronger, and Manon saw Eryn rise to her feet, bringing others with her as the entire assembled press gave a now-flustered Vivian a standing ovation.
“Please, please,” Vivian whispered, her eyes suspiciously bright, despite her brilliant smile. “Enough of this.” She looked at Manon, pretending to despair. “What do I do?”
“Enjoy,” Manon murmured. “You deserve it.”
“Very well. I’ll take a few more questions. You, sir, in the black suit on the first row. It’s Dan, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Dan Casey, New York Times. I’m flattered that you remember me and sad to hear you’re retiring. Usually, at this stage in an opera singer’s career, you’re at the peak of your performance, with a lot left to give, vocally and artistically. Why end it now? Would you like to share any of your reasons with us?”
With no sound, more a faint twitch of leg muscles, Manon felt Vivian begin to tremble and watched her press her palms together tightly before answering.
“Mostly the reasons are private, and I do agree with you. I’m not ending my career as a performer for artistic reasons. But I can tell you this. I’ll miss it a lot.” The slight quiver in her smile seemed to quiet everyone. “Even the press, Dan.”
“It’s a tremendous loss for the music world.”
Vivian murmured a thank-you, and then, with a hint of distress, she glanced at Manon, who gave her a reassuring nod and took over.
“I can answer the rest of your questions regarding our charity concert. The town has donated one week’s rent for the concert hall, for rehearsals and the main event. Ms. Harding’s performance will be the main attraction, of course, but we will have a full program, with several other local performers. An itinerary with all the details will be available when you leave…” She heard herself talk about these details with the press, but part of her alternated between making sure Vivian was all right and examining Eryn Goddard’s reaction to what was going on. She was obviously eager to get everything down, since she wrote at an energetic pace and regularly glanced up at Manon and Vivian.
Manon eventually wrapped up the press conference with a sigh of relief and surreptitiously peeked at Eryn one last time. At the same moment, Eryn looked her way, and, to Manon’s great embarrassment, lifted an eyebrow questioningly.
Manon groaned inwardly and quickly averted her gaze. Oh, for heaven’s sake. To be caught staring!
The taxi drove away with Vivian, and Manon walked back into the Marriott, intending to pick up her briefcase and talk to the hotel manager before returning to the office. Alone in the corridor, she coughed, her itching throat making her realize how exhausted she was. Damn flu. I thought I was over it. A coughing spell racked her, and she almost cursed aloud as she leaned breathless against the wall.
“Ms. Belmont, are you all right?” someone asked, and placed a hand on her shoulder from behind, startling her.
Manon saw first the green corduroy jacket and tan chinos. Then the red hair, gathered into a long, loose braid; the slightly freckled oval face; and golden butterflies glistening in small, neat earlobes swam into focus. Tipping her head back a little, Manon gazed into large, luminescent green eyes behind thin metal-framed glasses. It was the reporter from the first row, Eryn Goddard. A big leather bag was slung across her right shoulder and hung down to her hip.
“It’s all right. I’ll be fine,” Manon wheezed, and hated how weak her voice sounded.
“You sure? That’s a bad cough.”
Determined not to show just how bad she felt, Manon let go of the wall. “I assure you, I’m fine, Ms. Goddard. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, but there’s no need for thanks.” Eryn tossed her braid over her shoulder with her free hand. “Especially since we’re new neighbors.”
“Neighbors? I haven’t seen you in my building.”
“I just moved into the condo below yours.”
“I see.” Manon tried to think of something more interesting to say, but she was still annoyed that anyone, especially a reporter, had seen her in a weakened state. To top it off, Eryn was scrutinizing her unabashedly, her braid swinging slowly off her shoulder like liquid red gold as she tilted her head. If I didn’t know better, I’d say she’s checking me out.
Manon grew cold and breathless for a totally different reason. She stepped back, hoping the added physical distance would deter Eryn from seeing…too much. “I’d better be going.”
“Okay. Hope you feel better soon.”
“Thank you. For your concern.” She winced when she heard her own starchy words. She couldn’t afford to alienate the press. Although she felt ridiculous, Manon began walking toward the door at the end of the corridor.
“Yes?” Manon looked back over her shoulder. Eryn’s eyes glittered as if she was hard pressed not to smile.
As Eryn strolled down the street she wondered why she couldn’t stop thinking about Manon Belmont. The extraordinarily poised Belmont onstage was a distinct contrast to the vulnerable woman she’d just seen in the corridor. Eryn wondered how someone could appear so collected every instant in public. She carried herself impeccably, wore her hair in a tasteful but restrained style, and dressed conservatively, no doubt from the most expensive boutiques in Providence and Boston. However, the woman Eryn had just encountered in the hotel hallway acted almost unsure of herself, as if she was afraid of saying the wrong thing.
A limousine passed her and then slowed. Eryn assumed it was because of the afternoon traffic, but no other cars were in the limo’s lane. It stopped completely, and Eryn halted next to it, curious.
A back window lowered. “Are you on your way home, Ms. Goddard?” Manon Belmont asked in a reserved tone.
“Yes. The cab line was so long—”
“Would you like a ride?”
Eryn hesitated only a moment. “Thanks, if it’s no bother. That’d be super.”
The chauffeur, a distinguished-looking man in his sixties, came around to the passenger side.
“Ma’am.” He politely removed his cap as she entered the car.
“Thank you, sir.”
“Just call me Ben, ma’am.” The corner of his mouth twitched, making his neat mustache quiver.
“Only if you call me Eryn. I’m not used to being ma’amed.” Eryn grinned when he nodded. She already liked the chauffeur.
As they merged into traffic, Eryn turned to Manon, who was busy reading from a folder. She made no attempt to talk to Eryn, only glanced at her and nodded distractedly.
The muted light in the limo softened Manon’s features, making her look different—less strict, younger. Eryn knew she was in her early forties and that she’d never married. In fact, she was supposedly a barracuda when it came to men. With a new man on her arm at almost every function, she teetered on the difficult edge of being envied or called a tramp.
As Eryn studied Manon discreetly she wondered if anyone who actually looked at this class act of a woman could call her a tramp. An aura of quality, of substance, permeated the air around Manon, as if she oozed old money, old values. As if I’d give a hoot for old values. Old values crucify people like me.
“Thanks for the ride. Definitely better than a cab.” As the old-style elevator stopped at the fourth floor, Eryn pulled the gate aside and hoisted her heavy computer bag farther up on her shoulder. “This is where I get off.”
“My pleasure.” Manon sounded strange. “And again, thank you for being kind to me.”
“Hey, no problem. Just drink lots of fluids, okay?”
“Thank you. I’ll remember that.” Manon obviously had something else on her mind.
“Yes?” Eryn asked gently.
“You’re a reporter…and in my position, I have to be careful.”
“And you want to make sure this is all off the record.” Irrational disappointment shot through Eryn, making it even hard to speak. Why do I care what she thinks? “I thought we were just chatting.”
“The press hasn’t given me many opportunities to chat, I’m afraid.”
Manon’s reserved stance spoke volumes. Obviously she wasn’t going to encourage any warm and fuzzy heart-to-hearts between neighbors. The muscles in Eryn’s stomach clenched into a tight fist. Manon’s tone of voice, stiff, yet tinged with defeat, bothered her. I wonder what she’s trying to hide. She’s clearly worried about something.
Eryn was annoyed that Manon apparently lumped her in with all the other reporters she mistrusted. And what ticked her off even more was her own reaction, her urge to assure Manon that everything was cool, that she had nothing to worry about.
“I’m sure the media’s given you a lot of attention. That can’t be easy,” Eryn said, and struggled to sound matter-of-fact. “Of course you’re suspicious. But if I ever try to interview you, you’ll know beforehand. Fair enough?” She tried a mischievous grin, which disarmed even Harold once in a while. “After all, we’re neighbors and I may need a ride again.”
A few seconds ticked by, then Manon smiled carefully and unfolded her arms. “You’re right. Neighbors should have an understanding.” She paused and checked her hair with quick, jerky fingers. Eryn wondered if she was that nervous. “If you need a ride and see Benjamin and the car, use it if it’s convenient. Besides, I can tell he likes you.”
And you? Do you like me? Or was that just a clever brush-off?
Eryn shook off her own bit of paranoia and waved to Manon before she closed the elevator gate. As the old monstrosity squeaked on up to the penthouse floor, Eryn stuck her key into her door lock and turned it absent-mindedly.
She simply couldn’t figure her illustrious neighbor out and her reporter’s antennae were buzzing. Manon was seen as a scion of the community, but there were suggestive whispers about her private life. She was also aloof, verging on rude. It didn’t add up. What had Vivian Harding said? East Quay’s true daughter? Curiouser and curiouser. I’m going to do a little research and see what I can find out. Eryn knew Manon was bound to be hiding something.
Tired beyond words, Eryn craved a hot bath and some red wine. First things first. Humming, as soon as she entered her apartment she walked over to her CD player and pressed play. You can’t soak in the tub without Eric Clapton.
Mike lifted a crate of oranges and started filling the basket next to the chrome juice press. If anyone ordered fresh orange juice at the Sea Stone Café, they could watch the staff squeeze it or they could suck it out of the orange themselves if they wanted it any fresher. Mike grinned and whistled almost inaudibly.
“Mike? Where do you want me to put these?”
Mike gasped at the sound of the unexpected male voice. With her hands in an automatic defensive pose, she jerked around so fast that Edward, one of her employees, almost lost his balance as he backpedaled, juggling a large melon under each arm.
“For crying out loud. I didn’t mean to scare you.” Edward put the melons down on a nearby barrel. “You okay?”
“I’m fine. I’m fine.” Mike rubbed her bare arms. “Just a little jumpy.”
“A little? Any jumpier and you’d end up in orbit.”
“I’ll send you into orbit,” Martha said, nudging her husband out of the way. “Go out back and make yourself useful. It’s garbage day, and I’ve got four bags for you to tie up.”
“Yeah, yeah. Garbage.” Edward rolled his eyes at Mike over Martha’s head. “I’m going, I’m going.”
Martha carried one of the melons to the area between the bar and the kitchen. When she returned, she put her hand on Mike’s shoulder. “You look frozen. Why don’t you pop down to your place and get a sweater?”
“I’ll be okay. Just a tad chilly for a second.”
“You almost did your karate stuff on Eddie. Not that he wouldn’t benefit from some roughing up, but I’d kinda like for him to keep his teeth. Want to tell me what’s going on? You’ve been somewhat tense lately.”
“I…” Mike forced herself to ignore another shiver. “I can’t talk about it. Not now.”
“Oh, child, it’s okay.”
Mike saw nothing but unconditional kindness in Martha’s eyes. Tears welled up when Mike thought how blessed she was that Martha and Edward had walked through the door and into her life five years ago. They were the parents she’d wished for throughout her teens, and not having any children of their own made it even better. Maybe I should feel selfish for monopolizing them. But hell, I don’t. I need them. I love them.
“I understand. I do. Just so you know you can come and talk to me anytime.”
“Thanks. I will. One day.”
“Good.” Something on the TV caught Martha’s attention. “Oh, my! Look at that! It’s her!”
“Who?” Mike turned around, curious since Martha hated the “dumb-box,” as she referred to television sets.
“I adore her, Mike. Edward and I saw her in Italy when we were on that tour we won. In Milan at La Scala. He didn’t want to go, he hates opera, but as soon as she started singing…he cried like a baby.”
Vivian! Mike felt her jaw lose cohesion. The heavy makeup didn’t hide Vivian’s features, but all the bright colors changed her appearance.
Martha reached for the remote and raised the volume. “Oh, what a beautiful speaking voice.”
“Her name’s Vivian,” Mike said, still under the spell of the woman she’d chatted with the day before. And she’s so damned beautiful.
“That’s right. Vivian Harding.”
“I’ve heard of her. I think,” Mike said dubiously.
“If you know her name’s Vivian, how come you don’t know who she is?”
“She was here yesterday having coffee. We talked some. She was nice.” Seeing Martha stagger and grab for the counter, Mike had to smile, and she felt the shadows around her dissipate. “She promised she’d come back.”
“She did?” Martha pressed a hand to her ample chest. “I hope she does. Soon. Today. No, not today. I look like hell.”
“You look fine. But I don’t think she meant today. If she did, it’s not long till closing time.”
Martha looked reassured. “What did you two talk about?”
“Nothing special. Stuff.”
“Did she enjoy the coffee?”
“Very much.” I think she enjoyed chatting with me. If she wasn’t just slumming, for kicks. It didn’t seem that way, but…you never know.
“You make the best coffee in town. It’s sure worth coming back for. And, sweetheart,” Martha added, circling Mike’s waist with a strong arm, “so are you.”
Early-morning mist caressed the ocean. As Mike stretched her legs, she glanced at the trees farther up the shore. Soon their leaves would blaze against the azure skies. She loved fall.
Inhaling deeply, she jumped off the boardwalk and started her morning run in the cool, crisp air. As she approached the water she shortened her stride. The sand made her work hard as she deliberately stayed on the dry part of it. Eight or ten years ago she couldn’t have guessed she would enjoy such familiar routines. She’d never controlled her time or her life, so making and sticking to her own schedule now empowered her. Back then it had been a struggle to move, to force the same body to obey that now responded so willingly.
Mike could almost hear Josie Quinn advising her not to beat herself up for what she went through before she got her act together. Mike thought fondly of her, the first adult able to reach her in years. At twenty-one Mike had been broken, disillusioned, undernourished, and full of hate. Josie, then in her late forties, volunteered at the Youth Center in Providence, and Mike learned to respect and finally love her mentor in just six months. They had always stayed in touch, but now it pained and worried Mike that she couldn’t track Josie down.
Shaking off her sad thoughts, Mike inhaled deeply. The scent of autumn, my favorite time of year. Good for business too, but without the hassle of the summer crowd. The beach was almost empty. This was just how Mike liked it. She ran for another ten minutes before she spotted someone approaching. A breeze caught the woman’s caramel-colored coat and pushed the morning mist farther out to sea.
As she jogged closer, Mike saw the woman wasn’t alone; two huge dogs flanked her. Mike slowed so she wouldn’t startle the two Great Danes, which she realized had to be Vivian’s Perry and Mason. The breed wasn’t unusual in New England, but as far as Mike knew, no one else in this neighborhood had dogs like that. Closer, she could see Vivian’s long hair fanned out like a fair silken sail on the wind.
Mike slowed to a walk, then stopped next to her and stretched one leg at a time by tucking it up behind her. “Nice to see you again, Vivian.”
Fighting to control the excited dogs and keep her windblown hair out of her face, Vivian looked like she needed a break. “Mike, you’re up early.”
“Habit. I always jog early. I haven’t seen you on the beach before.”
“Perry and Mason insisted on exploring today. I thought we better do it before the beach crowd comes.”
“Smart move. So these are your boys. They’re cute.”
“Cute isn’t the word I’d use, but they’re being good right now. Sometimes they set each other off and can be a handful.” Vivian laughed, eyeing the dogs affectionately.
Mike couldn’t resist smiling. Her laughter. I’ve never heard anything more beautiful. Mike regarded the large dogs respectfully. “They’re…wonderful. May I pat them?”
“Of course. They’re friendly.”
Carefully approaching the dog she thought was Mason, Mike looked into his dark eyes as she extended a hand. To her relief he licked it immediately and then trotted over to her, pressing his body against her hip.
“Good Lord, when I said they’re friendly, I didn’t mean this much. Mason never takes to anybody like that.” Vivian moved closer. “He’s usually very reserved, especially with strangers. Perry is the sycophant of the two.”
“Ah, I know what it is. I smell like fresh pastry.” Mike grinned, surprised at how much this eccentric woman and her dogs charmed her. “He must think I have something yummy in my pocket.”
“That could be it.” Vivian laughed again. As she stepped forward, the other dog moved in front of her and made her stumble. Staggering toward Mike, she fumbled for support but lost her balance. “Merde!”
“You okay?” Mike shoved Mason out of the way and slid her arms beneath Vivian’s, stopping her from falling.
“Yes, yes. Thank you.” Vivian sounded out of breath as she leaned against Mike. “Didn’t pay attention, that’s all.”
Mike had a sudden, almost frightening urge to hold Vivian closer, to shield her.
Another nudge at Mike’s legs made her look down. “Perry seems to like me a lot too,” she said, changing the subject when Mason’s twin sniffed at her pockets. “I’ll have to bring some doggie biscuits in case we run into each other again.”
Still half leaning on Mike, Vivian paused before she answered. “I’m sure we will. I plan to make this a routine for the dogs while I can. I don’t know exactly how long I’ll be in East Quay.”
Mike hesitated but finally let go of Vivian. She didn’t want to start jogging again; instead she just stood there, enthralled by Vivian’s eyes. They reminded her of the ocean and were even bluer out in the open, without the excessive makeup Vivian had worn on TV. “I understand you’re an opera singer.”
“Yes. After I perform for the Belmont Foundation, I’m going to take a break. Believe it or not, it’ll be my first vacation in two years.” Vivian gazed at her gently. “You look like a hard worker too. Something we have in common.”
“I guess so.” Mike’s cheeks warmed under Vivian’s gaze. “Keeping the café profitable takes a lot of effort, so I have to work more or less around the clock. With a break for a short nap now and then.”
The dogs began to pull in the direction Mike had come from. “They’re impatient.” Vivian paused and pointed to a house on stilts about fifty yards from the waterline. “My manager’s house is just over there. Would you like something to drink? Juice or a cup of coffee?”
Mike started to use the café as an excuse to decline but changed her mind. I never go anywhere, and she’ll find out in a flash that I’m not very worldly. But I think she likes to talk to me. And I could sure look at her forever. She returned Vivian’s smile. “Thanks. Some juice would be nice.”
As they walked toward the dunes, Mike realized that though she didn’t know Vivian, she very much wanted to.
Vivian unleashed the dogs before she climbed the stairs. Seeing how they had taken to Mike, she smiled. Their reaction was a good omen, since Mike was her first private houseguest, a nerve-wracking prospect. Even though she had entertained her colleagues for years in the opera world, that had been business. But to have a young woman over for an impromptu visit felt more daunting than even her upcoming performance.
Vivian gestured for Mike to sit down on the patio before she hurried into the house and grabbed a pitcher of orange juice from the fridge. She placed it and a couple of glasses on a silver tray, took a deep breath as she picked it up, bit the tip of her tongue for balance, and carried it out to the patio, hoping she wouldn’t trip or spill anything. Successful, she placed the tray on the cast-iron table. “Here we go.”
“Thanks.” Mike was still patting the dogs. “Perry, Mason, down.”
Vivian stared as her boys obediently lay at Mike’s feet and gazed up at her, as if eager for her praise.
“Good dogs.” Mike’s words were met with adoring looks and wagging tails. “I’m glad you haven’t had their ears cropped or their tails docked.”
“Yes,” Vivian said, her heart warming at this observation. “Personally, I find it unnecessary and unnatural to subject any pet to that kind of treatment.”
“I know what you mean. You mentioned they’re brothers. They look alike.”
“Yes, some people warned me they might become hostile toward each other when they matured, but after six years they still only play.”
“Best friends, huh, boys?” Mike ruffled the dogs’ ears. “They’re great.”
Vivian sipped her juice and motioned for Mike to accept the other glass. She studied Mike—black hair, milky white complexion, and the darkest blue eyes she had ever seen. Tall, at least six feet, and slim, Mike appeared fragile, but the way she jogged suggested strength beneath her smooth skin.
She recognized an unexpected attraction, which was both puzzling and unwelcome. Granted, she’d been acting out of character lately, and with good reason, but she certainly didn’t have time for any mysterious feelings. This called for casual conversation. “So, Mike, did you grow up here?”
“I lived on the other side of town most of my life. Was raised south of East Quay, in the outskirts four bus stops from the depot. Now they’ve built a whole new community there, kind of like a suburb, though it’s silly to think of a town this size having one.”
“Unless you consider the tourist season with all the summer guests.”
“True. Everyone and their dog are here then.” Mike winked at Vivian. “Present company excluded, of course.”
“Of course.” Vivian hoped her smile didn’t look as forced as it felt. Maintaining a relaxed façade was more difficult than she’d anticipated. “I know exactly where you’re talking about. I grew up not far from there, a bit closer to town, on Delivery Street, and couldn’t get away fast enough. I hated it with a passion. It was so run down and depressing…” She grimaced. “I guess that’s why—”
“I’m shocked that coming back to East Quay is comforting. Like home, you know? It’s odd, because I don’t know anyone here anymore, except my manager and Manon Belmont.”
“You’re not exactly back in the sticks, are you?” Mike cocked her head and glanced around, gesturing at the luxurious interior. “This is definitely the more upscale part of East Quay.”
“Like I said, it isn’t mine.”
“But surely you make more than your manager.” Mike pursed her lips. “If you don’t, you must be gullible or doing something else wrong.”
Vivian tossed her head back and laughed aloud. “God, how true. This isn’t a small apartment above a hardware store, that’s for sure. Returning to ‘the right side of Quay’ and still helping the local hospital by doing what I do best feels okay.”
“And it should. No need to go slumming to prove a point.”
She actually gets it. Vivian wanted to reach out and squeeze Mike’s hand in gratitude, but instead chose to cuddle Perry’s silky ears. If she gets it, perhaps I can really come home. Some of the comments the reporters made during the press conference still stung, perhaps because she believed, deep down, that they were justified. I did abandon this place and didn’t look back, until now, despite every attempt they made to get me to perform here over the years. And now I need these people a lot more than they need me.
“You’re performing for free, right?” Mike interrupted Vivian’s thoughts. “That’s cool and very generous.”
“Yes, I am. And thank you. Those $1,500 tickets should certainly help build the new children’s hospital wing. Manon Belmont expects most of New York’s opera community to turn out.”
“That’s great.” Mike said. “With all the cutbacks lately, our hospital needs the cash.”
“I know.” Vivian let her fingers trace the rim of her glass, creating a delicate, haunting sound that made the dogs prick their ears. “After Manon and I discussed this project, my manager took care of everything. At first he was apprehensive, but I told him since I was going on leave this was a fabulous way to end my tour. Honestly, Mike, I’ve traveled for so long and…”
There’s more than I can handle alone now. She was so relieved to know Malcolm was taking care of things when she had to keep one doctor’s appointment after another. He was more than her manager. Before she met Manon, Malcolm and his wife were her only friends and had been since she was a teenager. The hordes of admirers and fanatical opera fans that constantly surrounded her, as well as her accompanist, makeup artist, and the paparazzi, weren’t a good source of new relationships. And besides, she had always been an ambitious workaholic.
Vivian realized she was drifting and said briskly, “I have to make some changes, so I decided to take a break here. Time will tell if it was the right move.” She sipped her juice again. “Exactly how did you end up owning such a successful café?”
“Martha and Edward helped me turn an out-of-the-way café into a popular place for the yacht crowd and, later on, the locals from East Quay.” Mike sounded cautious. “Lately, we’ve attracted a lot of out-of-towners, thanks to some serious advertising. We couldn’t accommodate a bigger crowd until now. At breakfast and lunch, we have mostly regulars, and in the evenings all sorts of people come in for a meal and some coffee.”
“Sounds like long days for you.”
“Very long days. That’s why my morning run is so important. It gives me a chance to…breathe.”
Watching the careful smile that flickered over Mike’s features reminded Vivian of glimpsing a startlingly beautiful sunrise, only to watch it disappear as fast as it appeared. Uncertain why a mere smile had such an impact, Vivian struggled for something to say.
“I can imagine that. Most people don’t realize what kind of physical effort being an opera singer entails. It’s like being a lumberjack.”
“Performing for an entire evening is hard on the body.”
“I’m glad I ran into you this morning.” Mike gestured toward the dogs, the glass, and the ocean view. “This was great.”
“I agree. How old are you, Mike?” The question slipped out before Vivian could stop it. Damn, where’s my tact?
“Thirty-four.” Mike sounded unfazed. “You?”
“I’m fifty-three.” Relieved, Vivian liked Mike’s quick return of her frank question. “Actually fifty-four in a few months.”
“You look a lot younger.”
“Thank you, so do you. Age is really just a number. We opera singers aren’t like many theater and screen actors. We can still find parts well into our sixties. Makeup helps, but our performance isn’t about appearance. It’s about the voice.”
“You don’t need any help in either department,” Mike said impulsively.
Embarrassed but pleased, Vivian changed the subject. “I can certainly see why people eat at your cafe. It feels so warm and welcoming. Besides, you’re bound to attract all kinds of coffee lovers.”
“I know. Our Java lovers are very particular about how we grind and brew their coffee.” Mike fiddled with her glass, flustered at the praise. “And being meticulous has paid off. My best investment, not counting Martha and Edward, was our state-of-the-art espresso machine. I stayed up the entire first night staring at it, making cappuccino, café latte, café mocha, and ten other specialties. Edward insists that he found me asleep with my arms around it, but I don’t recall that.”
“Well, you have a new customer to add to your regulars.” Vivian smiled at her sudden commitment, limited though it was. “I love the ambience, and the view is wonderful.”
“Thanks. That’s the idea. When the sun goes down and the sky’s all purple and orange, the marina is a pretty romantic place.” Mike made a wry face. “At least if you believe in romance.”
“And you don’t?” Vivian’s voice was gentle.
“I don’t actively look for it.” Mike shrugged and appeared a little uncomfortable. “I have a business to run.”
Vivian recognized her own life all too clearly in that sentiment, and it saddened her. They had loneliness in common, it seemed. She watched Mike rise from her chair with Perry and Mason standing at attention. “You have to get back to work?”
“I’d like to stay longer, but…” She patted the dogs, which rose expectantly. “Now, boys, behave and I’ll bring you doggie treats next time, if it’s okay with your mom.” Her cheeks reddened as she glanced at Vivian. “Damn. I didn’t mean to invite myself…”
Wanting to erase Mike’s mortification, Vivian placed a hand on her shoulder. “Just pop by anytime. I’ll be here most of the time, when I’m not rehearsing.”
“Okay, then. See you later!” Mike patted the dogs and stunned Vivian by gently touching her arm, the contact so brief it barely registered. “Have a really good day.” Mike ran down the steps toward the beach and jogged at a steady pace along the water’s edge.
Vivian touched her own arm, which tingled from Mike’s touch. The sky was ablaze, but she resisted the urge to close her eyes. Instead she watched Mike until she disappeared from sight.
Manon sorted through the Sunday paper and tossed everything but the entertainment section on the floor by her bed. Noticing Eryn Goddard’s byline, she tried to reconcile the professional-looking woman in the photo with the redheaded force of nature she’d just met. Now she understood why she hadn’t recognized her, though she should have at least remembered the name.
Sunday mornings were the only times she indulged in personal luxuries. She’d already filled the tub with hot water, scented with honey oil and bay-leaf bath salts. She read on her way to the bathroom for a long soak, caught up in Eryn’s article about Vivian Harding. Pleased by the publicity, Manon was relieved that the piece didn’t speculate about Vivian’s private life. Eryn had obviously done her homework too. She mentioned how much the opera world admired the singer but didn’t just focus on her notoriety. Instead she provided facts about the person, the woman Vivian Harding. Eryn demanded her reader’s full attention and some brainpower. Though Manon was neither a writer nor an editor, she took pride in being able to spot talent. And Eryn clearly had it.
Manon placed the newspaper next to the bathroom sink. As she removed her bathrobe, she scrutinized herself with unusually critical eyes. Though her full breasts were a bit out of proportion to her slim figure, as were her long legs, a college friend, Faith Dabrinsky, had once told her, “When you wear those preppie clothes, you hide your wonderful assets. You’ve got to learn to flaunt them a little…in a respectable way, naturally.”
Manon knew she was only half joking. She climbed into the large tub and set the jets to maximum before she sank down into the milky bubbles. Leaning back she let the soothing scent and the massaging water engulf her.
Being head of the Belmont family and Jacques Belmont IV’s only direct descendant had its moments, but it also created headaches and heartache. She wondered if her grandfather and father had routinely felt as tired as she did right now and how they had relaxed from the demands their positions placed on them.
She’d been only thirteen when the somber realization had struck that she would take over the family fortunes and the obligations that came with it someday. Fortunately, she’d had seventeen years after that to prepare for the legacy before her grandfather died. It had felt natural to take over the foundation, his heart’s work. It had never felt like a burden. She loved it and had concentrated on learning everything she could about how to administer the many philanthropic programs. She hadn’t expected to find herself at the head of Belmont Industries quite so soon, however.
Rubbing a soapy hand down her arm, massaging her tired muscles, Manon recalled her shock when her father had suffered a massive stroke four years after her grandfather’s death and soon passed away. Suddenly she was responsible for running both Belmont Industries and the Belmont Foundation, two independent companies that needed full-time attention.
She couldn’t have done it without her highly competent friend Faith, who took over the business side of Belmont Industries and breathed new air into the corporation.
Manon turned off the Jacuzzi’s jets and welcomed the silence. As she sank deeper into the water, her chin just above it, she let her hands slide along her body and gently rubbed sore muscles. The image of a redhead with long, rich hair pulled back in an intricate French braid invaded her mind: Eryn Goddard, her new neighbor. Manon sighed and continued to explore her own smooth skin.
Eryn’s eyes intrigued her. Shimmering, green, and luminescent, they were unwavering in their intensity. Manon shivered and slid farther under the water, only her face above the surface. Involuntarily she parted her legs, and the hot water flowing against her most sensitive parts made her gasp as if someone else was touching her.
It would be so easy to imagine she was feeling Eryn’s caress, but Manon struggled against such fantasy, as she had always done. She could ill afford it now. As a Belmont, she had been raised from birth to be perfect, to behave immaculately. Though she saw nothing wrong with being gay, her legacy didn’t allow her the luxury of putting her own interests and happiness first. All her life she had worked hard to fulfill her family’s expectations, burying her need for personal fulfillment and learning to be satisfied with the rewards of the family business. Though she had found women attractive since she was seventeen, she couldn’t act on her feelings. Absolutely not.
Eryn Goddard’s face emerged again, and Manon moaned as one hand found an erect nipple and the other moved toward her swelling center. I shouldn’t. But it was too late to stop; the startling rush of arousal was too strong. Pushing her self-imposed rules aside, she spread her legs and stroked down along her folds. The slickness between them was easy to spread over the aching ridge of nerves at the center. In her mind, she loosened the ribbon holding Eryn’s braid, and fragrant wavy hair surrounded them…Them? Oh, God. Stop it, you fool! Get a grip!
Furious at herself, Manon rubbed harder, quicker, as if getting the orgasm over and done with would erase Eryn from her mind. With agonizing slowness, she moved toward climax, her clitoris swollen and hard where her fingers pinched it. Images of Eryn’s tongue sliding between her fingers to soothe and entice came and went. Manon whimpered and muttered incoherent words, sometimes cursing under her breath. Unsure if she struggled toward, or against, her pending orgasm, Manon finally went rigid, convulsing as wave after wave of lonely pleasure surged through her.
The water sloshed around her, and for a moment it wasn’t foamy water at all, but long red locks and the soft skin of a freckled cheek that touched her. Manon cried out, muffled, close to mortified, when her orgasm began to wear off. Silent tears ran down her cheeks and blended with the water, and she had no idea where the tears of sadness ended and the ones of fury began.
Eventually the water became so cool she started to shiver. Her legs unsteady, she rose and took a quick, hot shower. Afterward, she rubbed her skin vigorously with a terry cloth towel, determined to wipe the thought of Eryn Goddard off her skin and out of her mind.
The Sunday brunch crowd occupied almost every table in the Sea Stone Café. Vivian moved between them with calculated ease as she kept her eyes on a vacant table by the far wall. She reached it with a sigh of relief and sat down, adjusting the scarf covering her hair, which she had pulled back into a French twist for the day.
“Vivian,” a familiar voice greeted her from behind. Mike showed up at her side. “Perfect timing—I was just thinking about you.”
Vivian smiled at the spontaneous comment and promptly saw two red spots appear on Mike’s high cheekbones. “I was thinking of you too—and your coffee,” Vivian teased, delighted at Mike’s reaction. Then it occurred to her that Mike might be making polite conversation with yet another customer, and the possibility erased her smile.
“Of course,” Mike countered, “the way to a lady’s heart is through caffeine in appropriate doses.”
Reassured, Vivian felt her cheeks warm under Mike’s gaze. Me—blushing? Now that’s one for the tabloids! “Well, if you want to stay on my good side,” she said, “you can bring me a double espresso latte and a baguette with lettuce and tomatoes…and perhaps a sprinkle of Parmesan.”
“My pleasure.” Mike smiled, but then she wavered. “Want some company? It’s time for my break. Or are you waiting for someone?”
As Mike straightened her back and shoved her hands into her apron pockets, her obvious discomfort piqued Vivian’s interest. “I’d love some company, Mike. I’m here by myself.”
“Great.” An expression of relief flitted through Mike’s eyes. “Be right back.”
Vivian noticed several other people sitting alone, reading the Sunday paper. She suspected Eryn Goddard’s article was featured in the entertainment section and hoped nobody recognized her. In her official role as prima donna assoluta, with impeccable makeup and an awe-inspiring hairdo, she made an unforgettable impact on most people. She dressed to enhance her position as one of the most beautiful mezzo-sopranos working. A full spread in Vanity had claimed that none of the new talents could compare, despite their youth. If they saw me now or, worse, early in the morning, they wouldn’t argue this so-called fact any longer. Vivian hid a smile at the mere thought.
Opera reviewers around the world unanimously agreed her voice was at its best these days, when maturity and life had put its mark on her vocal cords and her soul. Vivian knew they were right, but they didn’t know many things, which made her worry about the charity event four weeks from now.
A Sunday paper was tucked into the narrow basket beneath each table, but Vivian didn’t attempt to pick one up.
“Here we go.” Mike placed a tray between them and sat down. “Oh, God, you have no idea how long my feet have screamed at me to sit down.” Vivian heard her kick off her shoes under the table. “There, better!” She eyed the tray. “Now, here’s your latte and baguette. I spiced it up for you with some new mixed herbs that go really well with tomatoes…Vivian?”
Vivian tore her eyes from Mike’s enthusiastic face and regarded the steaming mug of coffee and the large baguette. “It looks delicious. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. You seem a bit tired. Is being on your home turf catching up with you?”
Vivian sipped her latte and felt the caffeine hit her system almost instantly. “In a way, yes.”
Mike stirred her drink, fished out a dark tea bag, and squeezed it against the inside of the mug with her spoon. Blowing on the tea she looked thoughtfully at Vivian. “Something bothering you? Can I help?”
“Thank you, but I don’t think so. As I said, this will be my last performance for quite a while.” Most likely ever. The thought hurt, and Vivian steeled herself against it, pushing it to the back of her mind. “The media is focusing a lot on my part of the concert…and I guess I’m nervous. I have rehearsals all month, but still…” She shrugged. “I’m probably just overanxious.”
“I think it’s wonderful.” Mike leaned forward and placed her mug back on the table. “Was it your idea?”
“No, it wasn’t.” Vivian sipped her coffee. “Manon Belmont approached me several months ago, asking if I could fit this event into my schedule. I was booked for another year abroad, but my circumstances changed, so I could agree to Manon’s request.” Vivian bit into the baguette, managing not to drop the tomato. “I’m not the only one performing. A local concert pianist will be playing, and Madame Verdi’s ballet group will dance.”
“Madame Verdi! Oh, I remember when my fondest daydream was to dance. A girl in my class, I think it was second grade, took her classes. I desperately wanted to be a ballerina, but I sprouted into a gangly tomboy faster than you can say ‘beanpole.’”
Vivian could easily picture Mike as a child. The tousled black hair, skinny knees beneath denim shorts, and those dark blue eyes studying the world in much the same way Mike was looking at her now, with undivided, but guarded, interest. “So what did you end up doing?”
“Oh, nothing much.” Mike’s eyes grew impossibly dark. She shrugged and cradled her chin with her palm. “Survived, mostly. I grew up with just my father and had to be responsible for myself early on.”
“Sounds familiar. I grew up with both my parents, though. They worked shifts at the cotton mill—long days and sometimes nights. I was home alone a lot.”
“You’re an only child too?”
“Yes. I remember wishing for siblings. How about you?”
Mike shook her head, her knuckles whitening as her hands clutched the mug. “No, I didn’t. Not ever.”
Vivian remembered what Mike had told her about knowing someone who drank too much. Her father perhaps? She knew better than to pry, especially in a public place. Still, she couldn’t help but respond to Mike’s obvious distress. Barely missing the tea mug, she placed her hand on Mike’s wrist. “Life can be tough on kids.”
“Understatement.” Mike’s voice didn’t waver. “Say, can’t you discuss your stage fright…or whatever…with Manon Belmont? From what I know, she’s a neat lady, really classy, and on TV the two of you looked like good friends. I think everyone in town admires her. Well, perhaps except Reba Ronaldo. She wrote a nasty column a while back in the New Quay Chronicle, which she had to apologize for, and that must’ve stung.”
“Who on earth is Reba Renaldo, and what did she write?”
“She implied that Manon Belmont goes from one man to the next like wildfire. You know, chews ’em up, spits ’em out. That sort of thing.”
“What a terrible thing to say, about anyone. It’s nothing but lies. I’m amazed she wasn’t fired. I mean, a local paper, which relies on local adverts?”
“Ah, believe it or not, Reba has her fans. When a large number of them wrote to the paper, complaining, she and the chief editor finally thought she ought to apologize. On the front page, no less. Only time that woman’s made the front page, and she has to eat humble pie.”
Mike snickered, a sound Vivian found surprisingly charming. She could easily picture Manon’s haughty expression as she read this Reba person’s column. She’d certainly seen it many times in the past. “The Belmonts have earned a lot of respect and loyalty in the community.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Mike grimaced. “They’ve had their share of bad luck, more than their share. Seems like they’ve been sort of cursed. I think a lot of people feel bad for Ms. Belmont because of that.” Mike’s voice was low, almost hollow. “She’s the last one. That’s got to be awfully lonely. Who could blame her for looking for company?”
“I agree.” Vivian wondered why Mike sounded so pained. She leaned her chin into her palm. “I guess I could talk to Manon about my stage fright. On the other hand…”
“I don’t think it’s really stage fright—I’ve done this too many times for that. However, I suppose I could talk to Manon about this strange uneasiness. It’s not like me. She’s my friend, but…and perhaps this is my pride speaking here, I don’t want the press to get wind of this. You have no idea how the media can blow things out of proportion.” Vivian’s eyes hardened. “They file everything you say or do and store it for future reference. No matter what, they always get the last word.”
“Oh, trust me, I have some idea.” Mike made a wry face and twisted her napkin into a ball. “But is the local paper that bad when it comes to the charity event? Surely you thought Eryn Goddard’s piece was fair?”
“The Belmont Foundation arranged for the press conference. They need the publicity.” Vivian willed her shoulders to relax and shook her head. “Since I’d already agreed to do it, there was no way out. They need to sell every single one of the tickets. And I really don’t have an opinion about the New Quay Chronicle. If I remember correctly, Ms. Goddard appeared intelligent and pleasant. At least I think it was her, sitting in front. I’m sure she did a good job.”
“Haven’t you read it yet?” Mike reached for the newspaper. “I glanced at it earlier and think it’s actually well written. Granted, I’m more used to bookkeeping and dealing with business management, but it seemed to do you justice.”
Vivian felt herself grow cold and shook her head again. “No, I haven’t read it.”
“Here.” Mike unfolded the entertainment section and offered it, but appeared slightly puzzled when Vivian waved it away.
“I’d rather not.” Vivian knew she sounded short and smiled weakly. “Why don’t you read some of it to me?”
A few seconds ticked by before Mike dropped her gaze toward the article. “All right. No problem.” In a low, clear voice, she read the beginning of Eryn’s text.
As she took in the words, Vivian began to relax. She liked how Eryn had written the article. The straightforward text wasn’t full of the ingratiating adjectives that inundated some of the articles written about her in Europe. More importantly, it was neither disrespectful nor malicious. Instead it focused on Vivian’s link to East Quay and her work in general over the years. Eryn had appeared to be confident and friendly. Her questions had indicated that she’d done her homework, but…she was a reporter, and the media always made Vivian feel on guard.
“She’s done a good job,” Vivian said with a quiet sigh of relief when Mike stopped. “Thank you for reading it to me. I…I haven’t subscribed to the Chronicle yet.”
“My pleasure.” Mike folded the paper and put it back into the basket. “Got to get back to work.”
“Can you bring me the check? I need to go walk the dogs.”
“Do you think you’ll be back, Vivian?” Mike asked tentatively.
Mystified, Vivian nodded. “Yes, of course. Why do you ask?”
“If you leave your name, address, and phone number on a slip by the cash register, you can keep a running tab. We do that for our regulars.”
To Vivian’s surprise, a faint blush crept up Mike’s neck and colored her cheeks.
“That sounds perfect. You know where I live, after all.” She smiled and rose from her chair. “And don’t forget to visit. You did promise.”
After a brief silence Mike grinned and said, “I did, didn’t I? Well then, since I never break my promises, I’ll come by later in the week and check on your stage fright.”
Not bothering to notice if any of the patrons were watching, Vivian slid her hand up along Mike’s bare upper arm. “Good. See you soon, cara.”
“We’ll be off then, Michaela,” Martha said just after closing time at ten, tucking her hand under her husband’s arm. “See you tomorrow morning.”
“Night. Have a good one.” Mike walked them to the door and locked it after them, waving through the window before returning to the counter. She emptied the cash register, counted the money, and added up the credit card slips. As she went through her normal routine, part of her mind was elsewhere.
She hadn’t been able to stop thinking about Vivian all day. She’d smiled at her customers and provided the best service possible, all the while mulling over her earlier conversation with Vivian. Vivian fascinated her. She was a world-famous celebrity, and yet she was kind and warm and approachable. She was obviously wealthy, but she didn’t seem bothered that she and Mike came from different sides of the track. She had offered friendship, with no strings attached, and Mike felt her defenses were weakening, whether she liked it or not.
As she sorted the paperwork, she returned to her thoughts of Vivian and her heart sped up.
She’d watched Vivian during lunch, memorizing her image for future reference. With her hair pulled back and no makeup, Vivian looked fresh and naturally beautiful. She’d seemed intently focused on Mike, her eyes sometimes clouded with emotions Mike couldn’t read. Unaccustomed to such exclusive attention from anyone, Mike still felt the weight of her gaze. And to think she was afraid of faltering during her first performance ever in her hometown. Her, with all her talent and experience.
Mike gave a short bark of a laugh. Until a decade ago, failure had been her specialty. She would have to tell Vivian how the Belmont Foundation had helped her turn her own life around. It wasn’t something she talked of easily, but something in the way Vivian listened to her made her want to. With that thought in mind, Mike placed the money in the safe and switched off the lights.
Edward jokingly called her basement apartment “Mike’s bunker,” which wasn’t far from the truth. The stairs took her down to a narrow hallway, which in turn led into a large room where she spent her precious little free time.
The room boasted a twin bed, an entertainment center holding her wide-screen television and stereo, and a leather couch with a driftwood coffee table. In the far corner stood a small, elevated stage where her prized possession reigned in solitude. She’d dreamed of owning a drum set ever since she’d played in high school. Being able to buy the latest state-of-the-art Yamaha digital drums had healed yet another of her wounds.
Too tired to play that evening, Mike went into the bathroom and showered quickly. The hot water soothed the shoulder that always ached after carrying trays all day. After drying slowly, she dropped the towel to the floor.
Unusually aware of her own nakedness, Mike wondered for the briefest of moments if Vivian could ever find her attractive. Hell, she didn’t even know if Vivian was into women. She glanced over at the stack of newspapers that she’d bought earlier that day in hopes of finding out more about her new friend. She couldn’t remember reading anything about Vivian’s private affairs. There was no mention that Vivian had ever married.
Mike shuddered from the cool air against her damp skin as she pulled on a pair of gray flannel shorts and a tank top. After quickly brushing her teeth, she climbed into bed, grateful to tug up the covers for warmth. She grabbed one of the many pillows and buried her face in the crisp cotton fabric. Out of long habit, she began to hum an old lullaby. “Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder where you are…” It was one of the few things that always helped settle her.
Unprepared for the image of Vivian that appeared behind her closed eyelids, Mike stopped humming and drew a deep breath, uncertain what to think. The memory of how Vivian had focused on her made her heart race. She hugged the pillow to her chest and let Vivian’s image fill her mind as sleep overcame her.