Authors: Natalie Charles
rcher Cove Series
The Coffee Girl
arlequin Romantic Suspense
The Seven-Day Target
The Burden of Desire
When No One Is Watching
opyright © 2015
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
For my readers, with gratitude
andy made everything better
Jessie chewed a piece of milk chocolate almond bark and considered the scene around her. Half the contents of her closet were strewn across the unmade double bed, and an old silver thong sandal had somehow worked its way onto the shade on her bedside lamp. In the rush of selecting the appropriate garment, Jessie had blown through what must have been a full decade of her personal fashion statements: sheath dresses with lace overlay, brightly-patterned skirts, shirtdresses in pastel shades, and even a gingham print A-line number that still had the tags. They reminded her of evenings out, and some of them still smelled like her perfume. A sentimental journey, but as Jessie glanced back at the chaos of her bedroom, a pit formed in her stomach. This was not the sign of an ordered life.
She selected the black dress with the built-in sequined belt. It was that or the Amish-style getup with the enormous floral prints on a navy background, and she simply didn't own the orthotic footwear to match. She studied herself in the full-length mirror and wondered when she'd seen this dress last. Perhaps in college, when she'd been going through that clubbing phase? More importantly, why on earth did she still own it? She was grateful to the inner pack rat who developed odd attachments to tacky things. She could neutralize it with a yellow cardigan and call it a day.
Perfect for a Sunday baby shower.
She paired the dress with a small black clutch that contained only the essentials: her driver's license, the credit card that wasn't maxed, a bottle of nail polish in a shade called "Pink Me Up," and a nip of raspberry vodka because...God help her. She'd be seeing her family.
The May morning was unseasonably warm, so Jessie straightened her blonde hair but didn't get too attached to the result. By noon, her hair would be wavy again, giving her a slightly messy look that people might assume she'd intended, given her dress. "Don't give me that look, Travis," she warned the silver fox watching her from behind the front door. "I had an appropriate dress. I just can't zip it."
Some people inherited items of value from their relatives. Her friend Nate, for example, had inherited the little blue cottage she was living in. But when Jessie's Great Aunt Esther died, she'd inherited her taxidermic silver fox. It stood beside the front door, glass eyes patiently staring out at the horizon. She told herself that it was an interest piece and not at all creepy, but she usually hid it when she had company. Prince Travis didn't bother her, but some people simply didn't understand.
She gazed at the light blue dress she'd cast aside on her bed. That had been an unpleasant surprise, not being able to squeeze herself into it this morning. Jessie had been working some long hours at Hedda's Bakery, testing a lot of new chocolate recipes. Tasting was part of the job. She felt around her middle and found a plumpness she hadn't noticed before. Maybe she'd done a little too much tasting. No time to dwell on it, though. She had only twenty minutes to get to Great Barrington.
The drive was easy, the traffic light at this time on a Sunday morning. Jessie followed the highway along the coast from Archer Cove to Great Barrington, rolling down the windows to enjoy the fresh air. Her first day off in weeks, and she was spending it at her cousin Maggie's baby shower. She gritted her teeth. At least her cousin Wren would be there.
She arrived at a massive wrought-iron gate flanked by a thick hedge of arbor vitae. Driving through it was a bit like entering some gaping mouth, following the lengthy driveway like sliding down an esophagus. Then the mansion rose in the distance, a gray Georgian estate. She counted six chimneys and four valets. She pulled her old dark-blue Civic beside a man in black pants, a white dress shirt, and a black vest. He took Jessie's valet key and handed her a pink card with a number 43 on it. "And where's the party?" she asked.
"Which one?" he replied in a bored drawl.
"Maggie Schaeffer's baby shower."
He pointed in the direction of the estate and said, "Follow the signs."
Jessie set off toward the main entrance, and sure enough, in the lobby was a sign with a green arrow that read, "Schaeffer Baby Shower" and pointed to a set of French doors. Green, Jessie supposed, because even though Maggie and Greg knew the gender of the baby, they weren't telling anyone. For the record, this made shopping close to impossible. Jessie had hit no fewer than three baby stores before ultimately settling on a bottle set in primary colors and a yellow blanket.
Through the French doors was a slate patio overlooking an expansive English garden and, in the distance, a cerulean strip of ocean. Jessie stood for a moment to admire the landscaping and to watch a bumblebee climb inside a red tulip. Then her ears were assaulted by a shrill shriek. "There's Jessie!"
She didn't know who said it. It didn't matter. What mattered was that she felt that fake, painful smile spread across her face as she prepared to pretend that she was blissfully happy to be at the baby shower for her third cousin's wife. Her dad's cousin, Louise, who was hosting the shower, came over in a flash of beige. The next thing she knew, her face was being mashed against her ample bosom. "Jessie, sweetheart. Don't you look pretty."
Louise was a lovely woman with a death-grip hug. Jessie mumbled a "thank you" against the silk of her dress.
"You're seated at table seven, with your mom and auntie," Louise said. "You have a lovely time, darling."
On her way to table seven, she passed Maggie, the mother-to-be, who was sitting at a white wrought-iron table decorated with vases of blue and pink lilacs. She was wearing a bubblegum-pink dress that really should have provided more in the way of shoulder straps and breathability in the middle. Unlike Louise, Maggie was very hands-off in her greeting style and preferred to lightly clasp hands and kiss the air beside both cheeks. It would not have surprised Jessie in the least to know that Maggie believed this to be a more dignified, even Continental form of greeting. "Jessie," she sighed in her usual affect, "good to see you, as always."
"You too, Mags. You're glowing."
"Ugh!" She tossed one hand into the air. "I'm swollen all over. Look." She held out one leg and turned it to demonstrate. "It's not even noon, and I have cankles. Doctor says my blood pressure is through the roof. They may have to put me on bed rest, and at that point you may as well throw me off a cliff. What am I going to do on bed rest?"
Jessie smoothed her honey-colored hair reassuringly. "You look beautiful, Mama. Pregnancy suits you."
Maggie's expression took on a wide-eyed look, her blue eyes wild as she leaned in to whisper, "I get so angry sometimes. Is that normal, do you think? I want to smash a chair into the wall."
There was a lengthy pause as Jessie digested this information. Then she tittered a nervous laugh. "I'm sure you're not the first. Maybe it's the blood pressure."
"Well." Maggie righted herself again, a bright smile plastered on her face. "Thanks for coming. I hope you have a great time."
Jessie felt the smile frozen on her face as she walked away. My God, she thought. She's going to kill us all.
She turned and saw her cousin Wren approaching, carrying a mimosa. Wren looked gorgeous, as always. She'd always been beautiful, with her brown wavy hair, slightly freckled skin, and large, expressive brown eyes, but if it was possible, she'd become even better-looking recently. She was in love, and it suited her. Life was so unfair.
"Thank goodness you're here," Wren gushed. "I thought you were going to stand us up." She kissed her on the cheek. "Nice dress. It's so…fancy. Do you have plans to go out with Quinn afterward?"
"No. The dress I wanted to wear is at the cleaners," Jessie said. "Anyway, I thought about not coming at all. Then I decided I'd just bring alcohol."
Wren wrinkled her nose as Jessie opened her clutch. "Don't even bother with that stuff. The mimosas are flowing freely. This is my second. Here." She handed the flute to Jessie. "You look like you need it more than I do."
Jessie accepted the drink gratefully and took a generous gulp. There she was, on her first day off in weeks, standing in her trashy-looking club dress and yellow cardigan at a baby shower, of all places. She'd never been one to fawn over babies and get excited about weddings. She'd spent most of her time since college working at her uncle's bakery and perfecting her chocolate recipes. Being as busy as she was left her little time to think about settling down.
The large diamond on Wren's left hand caught the sunlight. Last summer Wren, her quiet, mild-mannered cousin, had fallen in love with Hollywood bad boy and Class-A gorgeous man Jax Cosgrove. They'd bought a vineyard overlooking the ocean, and Jax had proposed in the south of France, on the set of one of his films. Wren's own screenplay was set to film in Scotland in a few months — her second film. Their life was glamorous and perfect and down-to-earth all at the same time. "How are things with Jax?" Jessie asked, even though she knew the answer.
Wren's expression brightened. "Great," she beamed. "Wedding plans are going well, and the vineyard is busy. I have your maid of honor dress in the car. You just need to try it on, but it's custom-made, so it should fit like a glove."
Right, the wedding was in August, and Wren's own baby shower was sure to follow. Jessie took another gulp of her mimosa. "How wonderful," she said, with a glance around the patio. "Where are we sitting?"
Wren nodded over her left shoulder. "Over there. They stuck us way in the back. I think I may take it personally."
"I've found it's really the only way to take things."
They were seated at a table with Jessie's mother, Sadie, Wren's mother, Aunt Lilliana, their grandma, and their Great Aunt Doris, all of whom stopped talking as they approached. Never a good sign. Jessie's mom pulled out the chair beside her and patted the seat. "Here, sweetie," she said. "I haven't seen you in a while." Then added, with a level of concern, "How are you doing?"
"I'm not the one you should be worried about," Jessie said. "Maggie has high blood pressure and anger problems."
"She looks like she ate a spare tire," Auntie Lil said before taking a sip of her iced tea.
"Mom, that's not nice." Wren rolled her eyes at Jessie. "She looks adorable."
A smartly-dressed waiter in a silver vest and a bow tie came by with a pitcher of lemon water and poured glasses for Wren and Jessie. The second he left, Sadie leaned over and said earnestly, "How's Quinn?"
Jessie gripped the champagne flute. She had been dating Quinn Rogerson for a few months, and things were great. Better than great, because she'd been in love with Quinn since, oh, the first time she’d seen him in high school. He was handsome and smart, and everything she'd ever wanted in a boyfriend. Sure, Quinn bristled at the term "boyfriend." He wanted to keep things more open. All Jessie had to do was to be patient and to show him what a catch she was, and she felt she was making some headway there. But every time her mother asked about Quinn, her voice assumed this desperate note that made Jessie wonder if she viewed Quinn as the Last Hope: either they would marry and have babies, or Jessie was destined live out the rest of her life with ten cats and her taxidermic fox.
"Quinn is doing well," she said. "He's busy. He's working toward partnership," she added, pleased to see Auntie Lil and Grandma nod their heads approvingly. "He's up in August, so. Fingers crossed."
"We all want that to happen," Sadie said gravely. "Partnership will make him a good provider, and men don't usually think about marriage until then."
Jessie glanced around the table and saw more serious nodding. "Jeez, Mom. Is it 1950?"
Wren reached for her empty champagne flute. "You look like you're almost done with your drink. Do you need another one?"
Jessie rubbed at her forehead and closed her eyes. "Yes. Please."
It's not like she was one of those women who was afraid to be alone. After all, she'd gotten this far on her own. Did she think she'd maybe like to have children one day? Sure, why not. But it's not like she was at the point where she actually begrudged other people's happiness. She could sit at that baby shower in her old, slinky, completely inappropriate black dress, next to her blissfully happy cousin, and celebrate someone else's joy without even considering her own life. Like, for example, the fact that she had just turned thirty years old. Or the fact that her perfect boyfriend spent more Friday nights working than with her. No, she could totally ignore all of that and just enjoy the unseasonably warm May morning. She wasn't even bothered by the way her dress was clinging to her back sweat. Life was grand.
Wren came back to the table and set another mimosa in front of her with a sad smile. "Cheers, Jess. It ends at two o'clock."
"Bottoms up." Jessie drank half the flute right away and set the glass down again with a small burp. "You're going to need to keep these coming."
y the time
brunch was over and they were playing games to guess the gender and size of Maggie's baby, Jessie was feeling pleasantly tipsy.
Maybe it was horrible that she was getting drunk at a baby shower. She could accept that. It was just that every five minutes, one family member or another was strolling over to the table to ask how Wren's wedding plans were coming along, and then glancing hopefully at Jessie to say something along the lines of, "How about you, honey? Any prospects yet?" As if finding a husband was like panning for gold. When their cousin Melinda walked over — more like sashayed over in her designer clothes and platform heels — Jessie replied that she was taking a break from dating, "Just until the rash on my lady parts clears up."
"People are making conversation," Sadie said as she selected a Parker House roll from the bread basket. "You can't fault them for that."
"They're not making conversation. They're being nosy," Jessie said. "And how come they can't ask me about my business? Am I only defined by my reproductive capabilities?"
She halted her speech when they heard applause and turned to see that the father-to-be, Greg, had entered the patio. He was tall, blond, and self-assured as he gave a charming smile and a wave to the flock of female friends and relatives celebrating his wife. Jessie tilted her head as she studied him, struggling to keep her eyes open. She felt so sleepy. "I never realized how attractive Greg was," she murmured.