There are so many to thank for this book being published. I'm so grateful to and appreciative of everyone who had a part in this journey. But most of all, I must mention:
Huge thanks to my wonderful, lovely editor, the talented Esi Sogah, who believed in this story, and in me, and brought me into the fold. My gratitude to you is boundless.
Thank you to my copy editor, the art department, publicity, marketingâeveryone at Kensington/Zebra Shout who has been involved with this book. Your efforts are appreciated!
Thanks to my literary agent, Stephany Evans of FinePrint, who initially took me on in good faith. Your help, insight, and support have been so appreciated and valued.
Thanks to the first beta readers of this story: Jeannie Moon, Patty Blount, Lisa Jo Brennan, Gordon Bonnet, and Karla Nellenbach. Your feedback, cheers, and suggestions helped me make this a better book.
To my core familyâmy lioness mom, Linda; my artist dad, Rob; my creative brother, Jamie; and Natasha, Kyle, Teri, and Stevieâthank you for everything and I love you all so much. Short and sweet, but by now I think you know how I cherish you.
To my sons, Josh and Danny, the most important people in my lifeâI am honored to be your mom. You're my greatest gift. You're my brightest light, my inspiration, my motivation, and my reason. I love you both more than I can ever express.
To my friends, both local and online, writers and non-writersâyour daily encouragement, support, caring, and enthusiasm has been such a lifeline for me, especially in the past three years. I can't name you all, because I'm blessed that there's so many of you . . . thank you for your friendship.
This round, I must send special hugs to Karen DeLabar, Amy Weaver, Janelle Jensen, Claudine Kiffer, Jolyse Barnett, Maggie Van Well, Lisa Guilfoil, KD McCrite, February Grace, Randi Pellett, Joann Centrone, Christie Latorre, Robyn Reitano, Jenny Beal, Tobi Printz Platnick, Maryann Judge, and my writing sister Jeannie Moon. Your unwavering caring and support lifts and sustains me.
Thanks to LIRW, CTRWA, and Team Gracen on Facebook for your support.
Thank you, most of all, to the readers. Without you, the ride wouldn't happen or matter. That you took some time to read my book means the world to me, and I'm beyond grateful.
Long Island, New YorkâMay
Looking for a beautiful and talented woman was a tough job, but someone had to do it. Dane Harrison had such specifics in mind, he trusted no one else to find what he needed. So he'd chosen to do it himself.
And going to different bars and clubs throughout Manhattan three or four nights a week wasn't one of the toughest jobs he'd ever had. In fact, it'd been a blast.
He'd seen more singers than he could count at this point. Some mildly attractive, some a bit trashy, some sweet and pretty, some of them downright hot. Dane loved women in every size, shape, and color. That wasn't the issue. The voice and presence; those were the important things. He wanted star quality.
Some were better singers than others. Some had charisma, but not a good enough voice to match. Out of all the singers he'd seen perform, so far only three had a combination of a quality voice, stage presence, beauty, and yes, even the right personality for what he had in mind. He wanted the woman to be likable. Whoever he chose would be the headlining act at the lounge in his brand-new hotel. To say he had high standards for this job was an understatement. But he was determined. And if anyone could find an amazing woman, even in a city as big as New York City, Dane Harrison could.
He hadn't been nicknamed “Golden Boy” for nothingâhe had natural charm. The kind that wasn't sleazy, or smarmy, or an act. His charm was endearing, contagious, and drew people to him wherever he went. Especially female people. They flocked to him, had since he was a boy. As his brothers always saidâwith a touch of admiration from his older brother and a touch of disdain from his younger oneâhe was “born with the touch.” So how hard could it be to find a gorgeous female singer to work for him?
Harder than he'd realized, actually.
Something that should have been an easy task had turned into a major pain in the ass. He'd been so convinced that he'd find the right woman easily, and now time was running out. The new hotel was opening in only five weeks, and he hadn't secured the entertainment yet. Dane slumped a bit in the back of the hired town car that was taking him from his spacious loft apartment in Tribeca to the north shore of Long Island. His sister had suggested a club with a female singer that she'd heard about, and he'd decided to meet her there. Being with Tess would be relaxing; she always grounded him. He needed that, because this week, he'd started to do something he very rarely did: worry.
Maybe his standards were
high. Maybe the kind of woman he envisioned finding for the gig didn't really exist. Most of them had been fine, and some of them, more than fine. Possible contenders. But his gut just didn't . . . he hadn't
it. And he always went with his gut.
The sleek car had already pulled onto the Cross Island Parkway when his cell phone rang. He pulled it out of his pocket, glanced at the caller ID, and answered with a smile. “Hey, Tess. Almost at the restaurant, maybe another twenty minutes or so.”
“Damn,” Tess sighed. “I hoped you'd be running late, or I wouldn't be. I'm still at the office.”
“Oh.” Dane let out a chuckle. Tess worked in midtown Manhattan. “Well, that puts a crimp in our plans, huh?”
“Yeah. I'm so sorry. But listen, I can make it up to you, and you'll thank me later,” Tess wheedled. “You'll still stay over tonight, right? I should be home by the time you get back after the club. I'll see you in the morning?”
“Yes, you will.”
“Good. Because I really don't know what time I'll get out of here. Gotta finish this proposal.”
“Don't work too hard,” Dane said with affection. “And hey, don't forget to eat something.”
“I won't, Mother Hen,” she joked. “My assistant already ordered me dinner, it's on its way.”
“Good.” Dane looked out the window at the passing scenery as the driver maneuvered the car from the Cross Island to the Long Island Expressway. It was late spring, and the trees were finally budding, a sea of yellow-green and white and pink. The sky was a deep blue above the branches as the sun had just set, but since they were heading east, the changing colors of the sky were behind him.
Tess had called him the day before to tell him about the club on Long Island, and its singer. “It's a martini bar, over in Glen Bay. On Friday nights, they have a regular singer who does everything from standards to Adele. Jeannie and her husband went there with friends two weeks ago and according to Jeannie, this woman's got a knockout voice, and is something of a knockout herself. So, since you haven't found your chanteuse yet, want to go check it out? I'll come with you.”
“Sure,” he'd said. “Your best friend is a good enough reference for me. Why not? I've been looking all over Manhattan; maybe I just didn't look far enough east. Frankly, I never considered looking on Long Island.” He hadn't. And was getting desperate . . .
Now, Tess sighed. “I wish I could go with you tonight! Damn. Sounds like it'd be a good evening. I always have fun with you.”
“That's what I'm here for, Tesstastic: a good time. Rain check. We'll do it again,” Dane assured his younger sister. Only two years apart, they were more than siblings, they were truly friends, and he adored her. “Everything else okay with you?”
“Nothing new and earthshaking since yesterday morning,” she said with dry amusement.
“Get back to work, then, so you get home before midnight. And eat, Missy!”
“I will, I will! Stop nagging me. Go have a good time for both of us.”
“Not a problem,” Dane said assuredly.
Tess chuckled. “Of course it isn't. Who am I talking to? Wherever you go, you have a good time. It's just a given. I think fun finds
“Yes, I do,” Dane agreed with a grin. “And yes, it does.”
By the time Dane strolled into the martini lounge, it was close to ten-thirty. It was a nice enough place; not as worn as some of the bars he'd gone to in the city, but not as upscale as some of the others he'd frequented. And to him, there was a distinctly different vibe in a Manhattan bar or club compared to a Long Island oneâor anywhere else, really. New York City had a feel and energy all its own. Nothing and nowhere matched it.
He'd grown up on Long Island, not far from where he was now. The second son of a multigenerational, multimillionaire family, Dane had been born and raised in one of the most affluent communities on the Gold Coast of the North Shore. He had led a charmed life, despite his family's dramas, explosions, and scandals. When it was time to go to college, he got out of that mega-mansion of misery and went out of state. But neither his lively years as an undergrad at Duke nor his time at the Wharton School of Business could keep him from returning to New York by his midtwenties. He was a true New Yorker, it was in his blood. He loved living in the city, he loved the business he'd started and grown there, and he loved the vitality. He thrived on it. Long Island, though nice, just felt . . . muted. Smaller. Quieter. And that wasn't for him. Dane was all about color and sound, living large, taking life for a ride.
He smirked as he remembered Tess joking that a good time always found him. It was true. He loved life, so it loved him back. He never dwelled on negative things. There was no reason to. He was an upbeat, satisfied man, living a charmed life, so he just went with the flow.
The bar was dimly lit as he found a small table for two in the middle of the room. The waitress he'd passed on the way in brought his drink to him as he sat down. He'd heard the last bars of a song as he'd entered the midsize room, but now it was all applause. The audience obviously liked the singer, or the song, a lotâplenty of the gigs he'd gone to recently didn't get such an enthusiastic response. In fact, some of the patrons were too cool or sophisticated to acknowledge the entertainment, much less applaud like this audience was. This, to Dane, was a good sign. He sipped his dirty martini and glanced around to gauge the crowd before he looked at the singer.
But when he looked up and saw the woman onstage, everything just . . . shimmered. Maybe it was the air around her, maybe it was the woman herself, maybe there was something in his drink? Dane experienced something akin to when he'd done mushrooms back in college. The air seemed to actually twinkle and glow. It was the damnedest thing. Dane sat very still as he stared at her. Dark red hair that fell to her shoulders, big dark eyes, delicate pale skin, and an hourglass figure made for debauchery, encased in a navy blue sheath dress and matching stilettos. Beautiful and sultry, her presence was powerful, tangible. Time seemed to hang for a few seconds, spin out and slow . . . then everything was normal again as the singer spoke.
“Thank you so much,” she murmured into the microphone, and Dane snapped out of his moment of . . . whatever the hell that was. He scrubbed his hands over his face as if it would help break whatever spell he'd been under for a few seconds.
“Kelvin here . . .” The vocalist gestured to the thin African-American man who tinkled the keys of the piano lightly behind her, a knowing grin on her face. “He and I have done gigs together since our college days. That was a long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. . . .” The audience laughed at the
reference. “This was one of the first songs he taught me, and it's one of my favorites. Hope you like it.”
In a rich, smooth alto, she began to sing an old standard, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”. And looking at her, listening to her, taking in her polished presentation and charisma . . . Dane felt it in his gut. Her.
He just knew. Dane drew in a long breath, exhaled it slowly, and took a deep swallow of his drink. The search was over. He'd found whom he'd been looking for to headline at his new hotel.
Now all he had to do, after a talk with the bar owner and a quick background check, was convince her of that.
Julia Shay smiled at her audience as they showered her with applause. “Thanks so much,” she said with genuine appreciation. “Thank you. Kelvin and I are going to take a little break, then we'll be back for the third and final set. Stick around.” She replaced the microphone in its stand and made her way off the tiny riser that served as a stage. As she passed the piano to head toward the back hallway, her accompanist, Kelvin Jones, rose and followed her.
“Damn good set, sister,” he said as they entered what served as a small dressing room. It had a table and chair in front of a mirror on the wall, and one leather couch that had seen better days. Kelvin flopped onto it at the same time Julia did, and they both exhaled. She put her feet up on his lap, careful not to let the bottoms of her shoes dirty his black suit. “I hate heels,” she muttered. “My feet are killing me.”
“I know, Princess,” Kelvin said. He took off her four-inch navy stilettos, dropped them to the floor, and began to massage her left foot.
She threw her head back, closed her eyes, and moaned a guttural moan. “Ohhh, thank you. Damn. Your fingers really are magical.” A smirk twisted her mouth. “Talented fingers, my man. Between the piano, your gift for massage . . . too bad you play for the wrong team.”
“Excuse me, but I do
Kelvin told her with a dismissive flip. He shook his head, making the short dreadlocks sway. “I like my team just fine, thank you. You may be pretty, but the men I date are prettier than you.”
“God, it's sad but true,” she said ruefully, and they laughed.
Julia and Kelvin had met during their freshman year at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. During the first week, he sat down next to her in a Composition class and they'd hit it off immediately. They'd been close friends ever since. Sometimes, more like family. Which was good, since Julia barely had any family of her own. After her life had fallen apart, she'd moved back to Long Island because she'd grown up there, and Kelvin had gone to New York with her. He and Randi, her best friend since childhood, were all the family she had.
She lay still, letting her limbs relax after standing onstage for almost an hour, and trying not to wrinkle her navy silk dress. “Speaking of pretty boys, can I ask you something?”
“About pretty boys? One of my favorite subjects,” Kelvin said. “Ask away.”
“Did you see that guy sitting alone, midway back, really handsomeâ”
“Yesss,” Kelvin almost purred. “He's more than pretty, honey. He's smokin' hot. I'm proud of you for noticing.”
“Well, yeah, I noticed him.” She was underplaying it; the guy was seriously gorgeous. Dark curly hair, a full, sexy mouth on a square jaw that seemed to be carved from marble, broad shoulders, and blazing blue eyes that hadn't left her throughout two sets. “But it's not that. I felt like he was . . .
us, intently. Or, actually, me. I don't know.”