#Deal #Alert! 27 romance novels available in 6 sets for #99Cents per set! #AuthorRT

Announcing the biggest romance bargain of the summer! The Summit Authors Present: Favorite Romance Themes™ is a collection of six boxed sets centered around some of your favorite romance themes: marriage of convenience, bodyguards, reunited lovers, bad boys, good guys, and wounded heroes. Buy all six sets and you’ll get 27 (yes, twenty-seven) bestselling, award-winning romance novels for less than $6.

The first 3 Favorite Romance Themes sets are on sale now, and the next 3 go on sale Aug. 20. Each boxed set is just 99c for a limited time, so buy yours today (and please click Share to let your friends get in on this sizzling summer deal!)

On Sale Now – Just 99c for a limited time!
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Marriage of Convenience Boxed Set (Favorite Romance Themes™)

It’s perhaps the most beloved, classic romance theme of all: a couple who marry not for love, but because of an arrangement between families, a business contract, or the order of a king. They start their married life as strangers… then sparks fly, love catches them by surprise, and their arrangement becomes much more. This boxed set features four full-length “marriage of convenience” romance novels by Judith Arnold, Patricia Ryan, Patricia McLinn, and special guest author Cynthia Wright.
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | iTunes
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Bodyguards Boxed Set (Favorite Romance Themes™)

When a woman is in danger and a hot guy is assigned to protect her, the stage is set for spellbinding romantic suspense. The bodyguard is supposed to keep things strictly business—but forbidden fruit is always the most tantalizing. Their lives are on the line, their hearts are involved, and rules are made to be broken. This boxed set features five full-length romance novels with “bodyguard” heroes by Julianne MacLean, Kathryn Shay, Shelly Thacker, Patricia Ryan, and special guest author Julie Kenner (aka J. Kenner).
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | iTunes

REUNION Final 3-D coverReunion Boxed Set (Favorite Romance Themes™)

He’s the man from her past… the one she tried so hard to forget. They once shared a romantic relationship, only to have it end. Now he’s back and turning her whole world upside down. Will she risk her heart again—and will their love last this time around? This boxed set features four full-length “reunion” romance novels and one bonus novella by Kathryn Shay, Patricia Ryan, Patricia McLinn, Judith Arnold, and special guest author Emilie Richards.
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | iTunes

On Sale August 19 – Just 99c for a limited time!

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BAD BOY HEROES (Favorite Romance Themes™) 

Outlaws, rebels and rogues. A bad boy is the guy with a leather jacket, a killer reputation, and little regard for the rules. He’s more than a little dangerous—but you just can’t resist. Take a walk on the wild side with one of these men and you might lose more than your heart. This boxed set features four full-length romance novels with “bad boy” heroes by Patricia Ryan, Judith Arnold, Kathryn Shay, and special guest author Barbara Samuel.
On Sale August 19.

GOOD GUY HEROES Final 3-D coverGOOD GUY HEROES (Favorite Romance Themes™)
He’s the one who won’t let you down. A man of honor, a peace-keeper, a hero with a heart of gold. If you need a protector, he’s your man. Every woman dreams of a knight in shining armor who will keep her—and her heart—safe when the going gets tough. You’ll find five of them right here. This boxed set features five full-length romance novels with “good guy” heroes by Julie Ortolon, Wendy Lindstrom, Patricia McLinn, and special guest authors Jacquie D’Alessandro and Lauren Royal.
On Sale August 19.

WOUNDED HEROES Final 3-D coverWOUNDED HEROES (Favorite Romance Themes™)

He’s a loner and a lost soul, the man who keeps to the shadows. He may have believed in love once, but not anymore. Whether his scars are physical or emotional, he’s hurting and vulnerable and in need of redemption—but to get it, he’ll need a Beauty with enough courage to tame the Beast. This boxed set features five full-length romance novels with “wounded” heroes by Judith Arnold, Kathryn Shay, Patricia Ryan, and special guest authors Jean Brashear and Lisa Mondello.
On Sale August 19.

These are fantastic deals!  Make sure you get all 6 while the price is just 99 cents!

On Conversations: #Interview with #AAMBookclub #Author Shashicka Tyre-Hill

It is my pleasure to welcome AAMBookclub Author Shashicka Tyre-Hill to Conversations today. She's here to talk about her new release, BLESSINGS and MIRACLES: A MEMOIR. Be sure and check out her interview and get to know Shashicka.

Lisa ~

BLESSINGS and MIRACLES: A MEMOIR of a Teen Mom Turned Millionaire by Shashicka Tyre-Hill

Success can have many definitions, but ask the people who have obtained it and they will say, “I never gave up.” In BLESSINGS and MIRACLES - A MEMOIR, Shashicka Tyre-Hill shares how life didn’t begin in the best of circumstances. At the tender age of four she witnessed her mother and father arguing over him wanting to take food from the family refrigerator and sell it to feed his drug habit. Shashicka’s emotional outburst in response to her parent’s quarrelling landed the young girl in the Savannah Regional Mental Facility. This was the moment that forced her parent’s separation. Things got much worst before they got better. After becoming pregnant at the age of fourteen, there were not many who would have given Shashicka much of a chance in life, but that was not the way Shashicka saw it. From the time she was young, she knew God had a greater purpose and with determination and dedication, she worked hard to find what God had for her.

Although the road was filled with bumps, including sexual advances from her mom’s boyfriend, to almost losing her child to the system and landing on public assistance to survive as a teen mom, Shashicka finally found her passion— caring for the sick and shut-in.

BLESSINGS and MIRACLES is a moving memoir that will have readers cheering for a young Shashicka as if they knew her. And upon finishing the story, readers will come to realize they do know her. She is the young girl standing at the bus stop, the young boy getting into mischief on the street corner, the kids loitering in the park or cutting class at school. Shashicka represents the battle and triumph of so many children of color who find themselves being raised in single parent homes, forced to grow up too fast, too soon.

“When I was fifteen, and I had my baby and my mother told me to leave her house I believe God had abandoned me. As I was walking in the streets, I was thinking that no one cared about me; I didn’t really have anywhere to go. I cried out to God asking Him why? Why would he do this to me? Why did it have to happen to me? I felt totally alone and I thought that God had forgotten about me — but just for a moment. I had a couple more moments of, “Why me, God!” like when I almost lost my daughter. I really questioned God a lot then, especially while I was locked up. I didn’t understand why when I was doing everything right, when I was working so hard, why I had to go through all of this. But though I questioned God, He was always there.”

Fortunately for her, the opposition allowed her to find passion early in life. A light touch from a caring person can leave a lasting impression and after caring for her ailing grandmother, Shashicka turned her compassion for the sick and shut-in into a career that has not only given her a wonderful life, but has helped others to thrive.

Shashicka’s accounts of her early years force readers to think about the obstacles before them and re-adjust before throwing in the towel. Through her life readers will come to see that the problems we face are often the mental and emotional workout needed to strengthen us for the journey to destiny. Readers will find inspiration as they witness a young girl’s enduring will to succeed, the daunting pursuit to find lasting love and the quest for entrepreneurship.

“When I look back over my life today, I see that there were plenty of times I had to stretch my faith, but the major time for me was when I just couldn’t get my license. Having to do that three times was a lot. And the lady who was responsible for giving me the license spoke such negativity into my life. I remember crying so hard, that I couldn’t even speak. Then, I talked to my mom and she helped me to stretch my faith. That was when I went back for the third time. And, I did it!”

At the age of 21, Shashicka was a married mother of two who had become the youngest person in the country to obtain a home health care license. She started her first business Miracle Health Care in Brunswick, GA. Today she has seven locations in the state of Georgia. BLESSINGS and MIRACLES offers a uniquely personal, deeply intimate look into the complicated past of a teen mom and her will to succeed.

Each chapter of this memoir carries the reader from tragedy to triumph, as this young girl grows into a woman—a successful business woman, despite numerous setbacks.


Get to know Shashicka:

What made you decide to share your story with others?

I want people to know that you can do it no matter what.

In the book, you mention an elderly client, Mrs. Duggins, who showed you how to budget. The book doesn’t mention her again after you leave her employment. To satisfy my own curiosity, did the two of you continue to communicate? Did she give you any business advice?

Yes I did keep in touch with her, she passed in 2009 and she taught me the most important part of business and that was how to budget the money that the business was making.

You are very candid about your marital problems in the book. Divorce is extremely prevalent these days. What made you stay even though you knew your husband was cheating?

At the time my main concern was trying to get my business stated and taking care on my kids. There were times in I relationship that I feel as a wife I didn’t allow him to be a man, when we got married we were very young and did understand our duties as husband and wife. A lot of times in a relationship we look at thing one sided, there was things that I did that wasn’t right I never cheated but I took his man hood by not allowing him to be a man of his house. When a person feel like they aren’t need they look to get that feeling from somewhere else. I really don’t believe in divorcing at all I feel that we all make mistakes.

You have accomplished quite a bit at a young age. Do you have any programs that help mentor current or future entrepreneurs or individuals who want to get into the home health care field?

No I don’t have a program, I do business coaching I will teach both men and women what I’ve learned over my 12 years of being in business, I have helped over 8-10 people who wanted to start a business get started that they are all doing wonderful.

Besides promoting your book, what else are you working on?

Franchising Miracle Home Care, Starting my 2 location for my Adult Day Care in Savannah GA as well as doing Motivational Speaking and Business Coaching.

How can people connect with you?

From my website www.shashickahill.com.

Read Chapter One of MATERIAL WITNESS by Lisa Mondello


Who does she trust when she’s living the real-life horror of one of her crime novels… 

Bestselling crime novelist Cassie Alvarez, aka Cassie Lang, has murder on her mind when she walks into Rory's Bar under dressed and undercover to research her latest crime novel. Researching the cool, blue-eyed and dashingly handsome man at the end of the bar stirs her senses more than she wants to admit. But is this man of leather armor all he appears to be?

Playing White Knight to an innocent wasn't how Detective Jake Santos planned to spend his time undercover. But there’s no way "CJ" is what she claims to be, and that nagging tightness in Jake's chest tells him he'd better take her home to safety and leave it at that. Then the barroom explodes with gunfire, leaving a trail of dead that includes a notorious Providence crime boss and an undercover FBI agent. When Cassie’s name is leaked to the media as the only witness to the grisly murders, Cassie insists she only trusts Jake to protect her.

The FBI wants their star witness happy and will do anything to make sure Cassie testifies. But it is clear to Jake that the shooter isn’t the only person who wants Cassie dead. Not knowing who to trust, he vows to protect Cassie at all cost despite the fact that guarding the beautiful novelist is a serious distraction.
Chapter One
She was going to kill Maureen. There was no doubt about it now.
   Cassie Alvarez yanked down the hem of her too-short red spandex mini-dress, trying to conceal what every man with a pulse at Rory's seemed to be ogling over. She was tired, cold and exposed, but it was no use. No matter how much she covered her bare flesh, she was all out there like the woman of the night she was pretending to be.
   Damn Maureen…and damn her for listening.
   It had taken Cassie all of ten seconds after seating herself at the bar to realize just how big a mistake she’d made in coming to a bar owned by one of Providence’s most notorious crime bosses. When you walk through fire, you get burned. With all the stares she’d gotten just walking across the floor, she felt like burnt toast.
   Definitely murder. It was her forte. The only question left was how? She’d plotted many murders in the past. She was good at it. And nothing was too harsh for what Maureen was putting her through tonight. The least Maureen could have done was come here with her since it was her idea.
   Maureen’s idea. But despite all the convincing, Cassie couldn’t figure out exactly why she’d actually agreed. Her editor had always been good at pulling her strings. And that nauseated Cassie even more than having her thighs stuck to the barstool.
   Note to self: Learn to assert yourself with your editor even if she is your best friend.
   Cassie vowed to do just that right after she was finished wringing Maureen's bony little neck.
   Turning her attention to her diet soda, Cassie used her red-striped straw to play with the maraschino cherry that had sunk to the bottom of the glass. The bartender wiped the polished surface of the bar as he made his way closer to Cassie. She made eye contact with him when came close enough. With her hand still holding the sweating glass, he snatched her drink and dumped the contents into a bucket behind the counter.
   “Hey, I was still drinking that.”
   “You’ve been stirring it for an hour. It’s nothing but melted ice and you’re making a mess of my bar. Doesn’t look good. Here’s another one.”
   Before she could protest further, he had a clean glass full of ice under the soda fountain and was filling it.
   “Don’t worry. I don’t expect you to tip me twice.”
   While her mouth was still dropped open, he made his way down to the other end of the bar, wiping as he went. She'd give anything to be home right now wearing her favorite Boston Bruins tee-shirt and the Brown University sweat pants that, even though they’d seen better days, Cassie refused to give up. Instead of three-and-a-half-inch stilettos, her feet would be warm in her fuzzy slippers. Instead, she was stuck in a bar watching people who’d be the inspiration for her next crime novel.
   “Life mimicking art,” she mumbled. “How’s that for stupidity, Cass?”
   She blinked her sore eyes as the haze of the neon lights on the window assaulted them. The quickest way to get out of here was to take notes and get into the head of her character. How could she write about a woman who was so devastated by circumstance, who felt trapped in a life beyond her control, if she hadn’t lived it? She needed to step outside herself to break this block.
   The room was thinning out now, but there were still enough people to talk to. The couple in their fifties, arguing at a table, looked too self-absorbed to do her any good. The “suit” with the combed-over shiny head, sitting alone at a table by the bathroom, looked like he was about to fall asleep in his martini.
   Cassie snapped her glance away from him as he lifted his head in her direction. Better to leave this man with his troubles and not make them one of hers.
   The argument from the couple grew louder. Apparently they’d both had a little too much to drink and were loud enough for Cassie to hear every intimate detail. Someone was walking home tonight.
And then there was the black-armored thug seated at the end of the bar, staring at her. Yeah she’d noticed. His interest in her was unmistakable. Their gazes locked for a lingering moment. The heat in his eyes was piercing.
   Cassie glanced down at her cleavage and to her bare legs. It couldn’t be the dress. There was nothing but a few scraps of fabric covering her.
   Slowly, she turned to look over her shoulder, just to see if she was wrong and he was actually looking at someone else. The table behind her was empty. When she turned back, it was as if he’d caught her in a radar lock.
   Terrific. “A little too eager beaver, but…” she muttered.
   The guy was hunched over with his long arms draped stiffly on top of the bar with his black leather jacket encasing him like body armor. His strong jaw had a don't-fuck-with-me tightness she was sure was bred of years of hanging out in a dive like this.
   Cassie wanted to feel bad for him. All of them really. What made a person come to a place like this thinking it could resolve their sorrows? She had to find out. Only then would she understand her character.
   As she always did with people she encountered, Cassie began to formulate a character sketch. She couldn't quite come up with one for this guy though. He was…
   Okay, so he was a good-looking thug. If she’d met him anywhere else she would have been…attracted to him. Her insides stirred violently, causing heat to rise from the pit of her stomach, up her chest and to her already warm cheeks, making them flame.
   It’s only research, for God’s sake! She was only pretending to be a hooker to research her next crime novel. It wasn’t like she was actually going to pick up the guy.
   She pulled her cell phone out of her purse and began texting.
   You’re a dead woman, Maureen. Remind me tomorrow how much I hate you for this. Cassie pressed the send button.
   A few seconds later, her phone vibrated. A quick look at the glowing screen and she saw Maureen’s name. Quit acting like a baby! You’re a grown woman. Shake your girls, ask some questions, and then get back to that computer! You’ll be writing in no time! M.
   “If I shake my girls, I’ll fall out of the damned dress,” Cassie said.
   The bartender must have caught her muttering because he was headed in her direction again. Before he could say anything, she said, “I’m all set.”
   With a heaving sigh, Cassie turned her attention back to Mr. Thug with the cool leather jacket and smoky blue eyes. Might as well go for broke. Stretching one of her long legs over the other, tugging at the hem of the obscenely short dress to keep it in place, she tossed him her most seductive smile. She’d talk to him for two minutes tops and then she’d be gone. If she failed, she'd have to give back her advance.
   Or come back here again.
   Maureen would definitely make her come back.
   Cassie shuddered at the thought. One evening out of her life in a bar with grease-lined walls and people was enough for any self-respecting woman. She was staying put until she gathered all the information she needed, and then she was hitting the pavement, back to her comfy but small apartment with locks and security in the nice section of the city.
   CJ Carmen, the main character in all her crime novels, would have the stomach to dance right up to any one of these thugs and demand the information she needed. Too bad Cassie didn't have CJ's gumption.
   That was the good thing about being a writer. No matter what problem she encountered in a book, she could keep working at it until she got it right. You couldn't do that in real life, and Cassie knew that painfully well. In real life, Cassie didn't have the grace and fluidity of CJ Carmen or the confidence with which she moved. She valued control in a world that was filled with so little of it.
Cassie took a deep breath and gathered all the courage she could muster. She’d created CJ Carmen. She could create a little gumption, too. If she had to take notes from someone, Mr. Smokey Blue Eyes seemed the most harmless of the bunch.
   Which didn't say much for the clientele in Rory's.

* * *

   He was a dead man. Jake Santos glanced at the clock over the line of liquor bottles neatly stored behind the bar and recalled the first rule of surviving undercover law enforcement. If your informant is five minutes late, you’ve waited four minutes too long. He’d been sitting there for fifteen minutes.
   Ty would be pissed.
   Jake couldn’t say he’d blame him either. His former partner had taken a bullet for following emotion instead of the rulebook. But Angel had been insistent. This case was so close to breaking wide open that another few minutes may be worth his time.
   Taking a long pull on his beer, he let his eyes crawl through the seedy bar. Scum bred scum, and Rory's was about as close to the bottom of the barrel as a person got. Most everything illegal that happened in Providence started with a handshake right here at one of these tables.
   Where the hell was Angel?
   He tossed a ten-dollar bill on the bar and waved to the bartender. As he turned to take one last look at the room, he saw her again. Yeah, he’d noticed the leggy brunette “lady” at the far end of the bar for the past fifteen minutes. It was kind of hard not to notice someone who looked as out of place here as his grandmother would.
   He dragged his gaze from her legs and let his attention drift upward toward her painted cheeks. Her dark eyes were the most prominent feature of her round face. Her eyes—from this distance they looked sable—were bright and wide, but not as if she was supporting a habit, like most other women who took to the streets. She appeared more curious than anything as her gaze swept the thinning room, almost as if she were taking mental notes.
   Jake cursed under his breath. He didn’t care how much paint she had on her face, he’d bet his next paycheck she wasn’t a hooker. The only thing they gave a damn about was getting money for their next fix. This one…she was looking for something and it wasn’t a john. She was tugging at her slinky red dress, trying to hide her God-given assets instead of advertising them like most other “ladies,” was another telltale sign she was way out of her comfort zone. No matter how much her high cheekbones were tinted with color to disguise her innocence, it was there just like a neon sign that screamed “hands off.”
   And her eyes were too curious. Curiosity like that was going to get her mugged, raped or dead before the night was over.
   Jake took another pull from the bottle, grimacing at the warm taste of its dregs. He placed the empty bottle in the perspiration ring it had left on the polished bar. He didn’t give a damn what this woman’s reason was for being here. Now that Angel was a no show, Jake was pissed. After weeks of gaining his trust, Jake was sure tonight he'd get a personal introduction to Ritchie Trumbella, bringing him closer to making a case against the local crime boss that would finally lead to an arrest.
But Angel wasn’t here. There were only a few locals drowning their sorrows at the bottom of a glass before staggering home. Well, them and the Painted Lady at the end of the bar who he knew was headed for trouble.
   Jake groaned inwardly. He'd been fooled before. It may have been a long time ago, but his memory was long. The way she was casing the place…
   Damn. He was a cop. A good one, too. And Jake knew that if he didn’t get this woman out of Rory’s fast, he’d end up reading her obit in the Providence Journal tomorrow morning.
He motioned to the bartender when he appeared in front of him. Sliding off the barstool, Jake tossed a crisp twenty-dollar bill to the finely polished surface of the bar and tipped his empty beer bottle toward the woman in red.
   “Send another one down to the end, and get whatever she's having.”
   “Diet soda,” the bartender said, stretching his wiry gray eyebrows up in a salute. His chipmunk cheeks glowed a shade darker with amusement.
   “Diet…” Jesus. There had to be one hell of a story attached to this woman. He wasn’t sure he wanted to hear it.
   He pushed an errant wooden chair back into place against a table as he made his way toward the end of the bar. As he got closer, Jake noticed her eyes were impossibly dark, almost black in color. It was the kind of deep color that made a man fall into them in a drugged daze. Her mouth twitched slightly. His eyes fixed on the small beauty mark just to the side of her lips, and he wondered if she'd put it there as part of her disguise or if it was natural. He fought the sudden urge to brush his thumb along her cheek to answer his question.
   “Have another?” Jake said, sliding into the stool next to her just as the bartender served the drinks and dropped the change from his twenty on the bar. Leaving the money in place, he pushed the soda the bartender just served next to the woman's already nearly full glass.
   The delicate features of her face registered steep panic. If every other signal she’d given off hadn’t been enough, this one just clinched it. There was no way this woman was working.
Jake's chest squeezed uncomfortably with an emotion he didn't feel very often and wished he could will away now. He almost felt bad for the girl, scared even. Did she have a clue what she'd gotten herself into by coming here? And dressed like this?
   “Thank you,” Painted Lady said softly. “But I already have a drink.” She tilted her slender shoulder slightly and…she blushed with the gesture. Good Lord, when was the last time he'd seen a woman's cheeks turn color for something so minuscule? You'd think he'd just asked her to take her clothes off for a strip search.
   “This your first time?”
   “Ah, no,” she stammered, averting her gaze.
   Definite amateur.
   “What's your name?”
   Curling her fingers around the sweated glass, she took a quick sip of her soda. Those dark eyes glanced away for a second before zeroing in on him like a radar lock. The blushing woman was tossed aside like a crumpled piece of yesterday's news. A seductress on the prowl had taken her place.
Jake's insides kicked hard and then squeezed into a tight knot. He hadn’t been in the company of a woman in… He couldn't recall. It had been way too long if he couldn't remember the last time he'd had sex.
   It had been his choice, of course. Women his age wanted a commitment and he was damaged goods, too detached for intimacy or some such shit the department shrink had said. Who the hell needed that?
   And how else could it be? A cop needed focus. He couldn't be effective in his job with his mind clouded with thoughts of someone at home. He'd seen just how distractions could destroy, not only a cop's career, but his life.
   Jake focused on the woman's lips, unable to pull his eyes from the sheen of moisture settled there. With a move that seemed too natural to be deliberate, she ran her tongue over her top lip and wiped it clean.
   Heat prickled his skin beneath his heavy jacket and settled like warm molasses in the center of his belly. He'd have to deal with his sexual appetite some other time. He was working and this woman was off limits with a capital “O.”
   “My name is CJ,” she finally said.
   After a moment, her penciled eyebrows lifted slowly, and she cocked her head to one side. It took a minute for Jake to realize she was waiting for him to respond.
   “Nice to meet you, Jake.” She thrust her hand out, apparently to shake his.
   He nodded and gripped her tiny hand. It was silky soft and lost in his much larger one. She quickly snatched her hand away and rested it in her lap by the hem of dress. Another strange move. She was too nervous, too polite, and she was starting to lose some of the confidence that had suddenly appeared out of nowhere.
   “Is that your real name? Jake?”
   Lifting his beer to his lips, he asked, “Why would I lie?”
   “Oh, I don't know. I can think of a hundred reasons why a man would want to hide his true identity.”
   “For instance?”
   “You have a wife at home?”
   He paused, staring at her. “Would that bother you?”
   Jake had to keep himself from laughing as he took a pull from the bottle. The way CJ rose up high on her stool, he was sure she was about to say yes, which for some strange reason, made him feel good. If she were really a hooker, she wouldn't give a shit if he had a Mrs. at home. He’d be just money to her.
   “That's your business. Not mine,” she said.
   He nodded again. “Damn right. But I'm not married.”
   He couldn't fathom why, but Jake wanted her to know that fact. It shouldn't have made a difference. There was no way he was going to take this woman to bed. But he didn't lie when it came to relationships. Lies were too easy to trip over. He’d learned that one the hard way early on in his career.
   “Are you waiting for a friend?” she asked.
   “Why do you ask?”
   “Well, you don’t work here. That much is clear. You weren’t sitting with anyone or even talking to the bartender. I’m just wondering why someone like you would come to a place like this. What brought you here?”
   His lips lifted up at the corners. “Do you always ask so many questions of people when you first meet them?”
   She shrank a little in her seat. “Well, I…”
   “What about you?”
   “I asked you first.”
   He frowned “For the record. Men tend to avoid questions in places like this.”
   She looked startled. Then, almost as if she were storing that tiny bit of information away for safekeeping, her face changed.
   “What do men such as yourself like?”
   Jake couldn’t help but laugh. This whole picture was too absurd. He didn't know if he should be hauling CJ out of here to make curfew or lock her up for the worst solicitation he'd ever seen.
   Why did his mind keep settling on pulling her into his arms and wiping that God-awful mask off her face so he could really look at her?
   Lord, he was long overdue…
   He needed a weekend off. Something to remind him he was still among the living where men and women and sex were concerned. Where he didn't worry about streetwalkers who needed rescuing.
He turned, about to give CJ an earful when a gust of cold wind pulled his attention back toward the open barroom door. The smell of cold March air freshened the dank odor of the room.
   The man of the hour had arrived.
   Jake fought to keep his reaction from showing as Ritchie Trumbella strolled into the bar like a king with his court. The two women draped on each of his arms looked much like CJ with their body-hugger dresses and 4-inch stilettos. As soon as Ritchie greeted three men sitting at a table, he motioned to the women to move along. They walked to the end of the room toward the restroom while Ritchie surrounded himself with the rest of his entourage.
   Damn! Where the hell was Angel tonight?
   The older couple that had been arguing most of the evening quickly got up and left the bar.
   Jake turned to CJ and saw that her eyes were like saucers, glued to the presence of this new man. If she didn't already know him, she was definitely intrigued. And he wanted to know why.
His gut twisted with her interest. And a sudden emotion that vaguely felt like…annoyance.   Regardless of what he'd set out to do, he didn't want CJ to meet Ritchie Trumbella any more than he’d want his own sisters to meet the man. Trumbella was bad news and the sooner CJ understood that, the better off she'd be.
   “Friend of yours?” he asked.
   She snapped her attention back to him like a rabbit caught in a snare. “No. Yours?”
   “You ask too many questions, CJ. You never know whose toes you're stepping on.”
   “I'll keep that in mind.”
   She lifted her soda to her lips again and took a sip. Then another. Jake's eyes lingered where the glass had been, then to the mark her lips had left on the sweat-lined glass.
   “Who is he?” she asked, going against his warning.
   How could she be here like this and not know Ritchie Trumbella? Why on earth was she here at all?
He owns Rory's.   
   Ritchie Trumbella owned a whole lot of other shady dealings, too. But if CJ didn't know this legitimate one, it was doubtful she knew anything at all about his non-paper dealings.
   Taking her by the arm, he said, “Let's get out of here.”
   CJ's dark eyes grew impossibly wide and her mouth dropped open. Her slender body lifted high on the barstool and went statue stiff. For a minute, Jake thought she'd actually stopped breathing.

* * *

   Cassie sat paralyzed on the barstool, blinking hard as the shock caused by the man in front of her set in. Sure, talking to Mr. Cool Leather Jacket with the smoky blue eyes was fine but that he was trying to pick her up… If she were sure she wouldn't fall off her heels, she'd fly for the door. No matter how attracted she was to this man, there was no way she was going to go that route if he'd been willing to be with a…
   Death couldn't come too quick for Maureen.
   “I think I've gathered enough…had enough soda,” she said. The backs of her thighs were sticky from sweat and made a squeaky sound as she helplessly slipped off the stool while trying to keep her dress from riding up her thighs.
   Jake stood next to her, his hand still gripping her upper arm. Her body tightened with the physical contact. He smelled of leather, a hint of the beer he'd just consumed, and something else. It wasn’t the cheap, heavy cologne so many men wore. He smelled musky, very male, erotically appealing.
   “What are you doing?” she demanded, trying to pull free.
   “It's a good idea I take you out of here.”
   “That's not necessary,” she insisted.
   “No trouble.”
   “It is to me.”
   “I just want to make sure you get safely to your car.”
   “I didn't drive,” she blurted out when his grip on her arm grew tighter.
   Brilliant, Cassie. So much for a quick getaway. She could have kicked herself for throwing him the advantage. She would have if she were sure her dress would stay firmly in place.
   But Jake's reaction was suddenly different from what she'd expected. His dark eyebrows drew into a tight knot on his forehead. He glanced away and dragged his fingers over a head of course dark hair, letting his hand rest on the nape of his neck. She damned herself for wanting to lose her fingers in his hair. Three years since she had a decent relationship and her body picked now, of all times, to come back to life.
   “Please tell me you weren't planning on walking home in this neighborhood,” he said tightly.
   She straightened her spine. “Of course not. What do you take me for?”
   He tossed her the most irresistible wry grin. He didn't have to say a word for her to know what he was thinking.
   “I’m not what you think.”
   Another grin. This one was more irresistible than the last. Her knees suddenly turned to rubber, making it difficult to stand. She cinched her purse strap higher on her shoulder and folded her arms across her chest.
   Jake cocked his head to one side. “And you're so sure you know what I'm thinking?”
   “You think I'm something I'm not. And I can assure you, I am definitely not.”
   He had a full-blown smile now. One with straight white teeth and a dimple on his left cheek she was sure wreaked havoc with more women than her.
   “You're not all that hard to figure out, CJ.”
   Indignation swelled inside her. Despite her obvious attire, she didn't like his assumption. She hadn't had sex in three years, and she definitely wasn't going to have it tonight with him.
   “If you'll excuse me, I'll go catch a cab and be on my way home. Alone.”
Jake shook his head and sputtered. “CJ, you couldn't be further from the Land of Oz. Cabs don't come to this neighborhood, honey. They know better.”
   Cassie groaned inwardly. That would explain the cab driver's behavior earlier when he dropped her off. Admittedly, she didn’t frequent this part of town and was more thankful that the cab driver knew how to get here than curious about his reaction. As neighborhoods go, the street didn’t look ominous, but looks were deceiving.
   A crescendo of laughter had Jake glancing over his shoulder to look at the man on the other side of the room. He was the owner of the bar, Cassie recalled Jake saying.
   With his movement, Jake's jacket gaped open, and she had the first glimpse of what this man hid behind his black leather armor. A Beretta was tucked firmly inside a holster against his chest. It was hidden well, but easy to find for someone trained in what to look for. Cassie knew the gleam of the metal when she saw it. She knew the weight of it in her hand and the smell of gunpowder when it ignited.
   Dark memories had her heart hammering wildly in her chest. But the boisterous conversation on the other side of the bar shifted her back to her reality. Cassie glanced in that direction, but she couldn't see a thing past the wide expanse of Jake's shoulders.
   As Jake leaned his arm on the bar, Cassie’s breath lodged in her throat. Her pulse hammered. And she wished to God she hadn't been curious enough to look.

* * *

   Jake saw terror flash across CJ’s face. Great, she was finally beginning to understand how stupid it was for her to be here. But just as he was about to lead her to the door, her arms abruptly came up to his chest. She gripped his leather jacket, leaning into him as if she were about to climb into his lap.
   Confusion mixed with heightened awareness of this enigmatic woman suddenly so close to him.
   “Gun!” she screamed. With an unbelievable force, Cassie yanked him forward to the floor until his body was stretched over the length of hers. The air in the bar exploded into a spray of bullets and flying glass shards. Chairs and tables tumbled over as people screamed and scrambled for cover.
   The room and everything that was happening exploded right in front of him and registered at lightning speed. Primal instinct took over. Screams, bullets, breaking glass and the sound of his own heart pumping were deafening. Jake wrapped his arm around CJ's waist, shielding her body with his own as he slowly dragged her around the corner of the bar to relative safety on the other side. She buried her head in his chest as he encased her body, protecting her from the flying glass from the shattered mirror behind the bar and the bottles of booze bursting with every hit from bullets.
It seemed to take forever for the explosion of gunfire to stop. In reality it was probably less than thirty seconds. But as soon as it started, it was over. It took another thirty seconds for Jake to get his bearings once the massacre had ended.
   From outside, the cold wind whistled through the blown out windows and brought with it the sound of tires peeling out as a car sped off down the narrow side street. Before Jake even lifted his head, he knew the car was gone. Whoever did this would go unpunished unless he could find a witness.
His chest tightened where CJ's face pressed against his shirt. He didn't have to see her face to know she was crying. Her fingers clutched his shoulders in a death grip and her body shuddered helplessly beneath him.
   It would make it easier on this case to have a witness, but Lord help him, he didn't want it to be this fragile woman in his arms.




Read Chapter One of THE MARRIAGE CONTRACT by Lisa Mondello


"Hilariously funny!" "Delightful!" 4 STARS Romantic Times Magazine

What would you do to get a second chance at love? Sometimes fate needs a little helping hand...

When Ruthie Carvalho finds an old birthday card with a marriage proposal scribbled on the back, she figures she's hit pay dirt and is destined to get her 35 year old daughter married.

The trouble is, Ruthie can't stand Cara's boyfriend and Cara is just stubborn enough to push in the opposite direction of what her mother wants.

When Devin Michaels gets a phone call from his old friend's mom, he knows Ruthie is up to something. But he's at a crossroad. It's been 17 years since he's seen Cara and memories of their soulful talks and walks on the beach make him long to reconnect.

Going back to the seaside town of Westport Massachusetts to reconnect with Cara seems like just the thing to do. One look at Cara and the years seem to melt away. With a little help and “creative” planning from Ruthie, can these old friends become lovers and have a second chance at happiness?
Chapter One

Cara Cavarlho could think of a hundred places she wanted to be right now. 
    This wasn't one of them.
    She tugged on the rope dangling above her head. A musty cloud of dust hit her in the face as the stairs leading to the attic of her parents' Westport home dropped, gaining her access. Gripping the splintered stairs, she began her ascent into the “black hole”, she so affectionately dubbed the attic in her childhood, with mixed emotion. Ever since her parents decided to sell the home she had grown up in and move to Florida with the senior league, she found herself becoming overwhelmed with emotion.
    Of course, her thirty-fifth birthday being right around the corner wasn't a big help. That her mother kept reminding her of her single, childless status only added to her emotional unrest.
    She yanked on the metal chain dangling above her head and light quickly spilled into the sweltering crawl space. “It's a furnace up here!” she called down, immediately feeling the cool air below bathe her warm face.
    Whose idea was it to delve into this black hole on a hot August afternoon? Certainly not mine! she fumed silently.
    “I know. We should have done this earlier in the day, before the sun had a chance to heat the attic,” she heard her mother, Ruthie, call up from below. “Do you want me to get the fan?”
    I want to get out of here and not do this. “No. I can't stay up here long, anyway. I'm already sweating like a pig.”
    On her hands and knees, she carefully crawled along the aged planks, feeling them bend under her weight. Aerobics twice a week and running three miles a day had her wearing the same size she had worn since college. With each creak of the aged floor boards, she was glad she’d taken pains to keep her figure trim.
    Despite the dim light, it was difficult to see. She squinted and tried to focus. Boxes. There were loads of them scattered Helter Skelter around her, tucked into corners they'd been placed in years ago and long since forgotten. The life she used to lead was lost up here. Why couldn't things ever remain the same...?
    “Just start with a few, dear. We can rummage through them first and price anything you want to include in the tag sale,” Ruthie suggested.
    “Sounds like a good idea. I'll come back up tomorrow morning before breakfast to get more. I can barely breathe up here now.” Cara's eyes roamed the piles of memories one last time. After choosing the five boxes closest to the hole and carefully lowering them to her mother, Cara descended to fresh air once again.
    She helped her mother drag the boxes down the stairs and out to the back porch of the beachfront home. Plopping the last one on the wrought iron patio table, she puffed her cheeks and slid the back of her hand across her sweated forehead. The sooner we get through this the better.
    Ruthie was the first to begin the unveiling and plunged into the first box while Cara poured both of them a tumbler of her mother’s homemade lemonade. After a few minutes of digging, Cara found her tension ease. While she'd been dreading the idea of unearthing old memories, she found the task easier once she delved in and became lost in them.
    The first box was filled with old Christmas ornaments and treasures she and her brother, Manny, had made in school when they were kids. A paper doll chain. An old wooden whale Manny had made in woodshop. The next box had old crochet blankets and booties from when they were babies. While Cara fingered the soft yarn of a baby afghan, Ruthie dove into the box filled with old yearbooks and newspaper clippings from Manny's athletic high school days.
    “You suppose Manny would want to keep any of these things?” Ruthie asked, picking up a yearbook and fanning the pages open. A candied piece of what looked like edible underwear fell to the floor boards by their feet. Ruthie retrieved the “article” and held it up in the air between her fingers.
    Cara laughed, remembering the gag gift Manny had given her years ago. It was harmless, but she knew her mother wouldn't find the truth so humorous.
    “Those are mine, Ma. Manny gave them to me before he left for the seminary.”
    As she expected, Ruthie threw her an appalled look. “How would your brother know about such things? He's a priest, for goodness sake!”
    Cara sobered immediately, sucking in her cheeks to keep her laughter at bay. She knew her mother had a hard time remembering Manny as a normal everyday teenager before he'd left for the seminary. Now wasn’t the time to remind her.
    But as usually, Cara didn't leave it alone. She reached across the table for the naughty underwear. “What size are they anyway?”
    “Never you mind.” Ruthie dropped the brittle article of “clothing” in the green rubber garbage can by the table. “If your grandmother saw this, she'd probably take them for herself.”
    Cara gasped. “She would not!”
    “Oh, you'd be surprised. The other day I caught her standing in front of the full length mirror, trying on one of those tight bustiers Madonna wears all the time.”
    “You're kidding. You are kidding, aren't you?”
    Ruthie sighed heavily, a worried looked suddenly etching her face. “I think she has Alzheimer’s.”
    Cara’s hand flew to her chest. “Why?”
    “She's acting strange.”
    “So what’s new? She always acts strange. She's a free spirit.”
    Ruthie remained somber. “As we speak, she's at church.”
    “It's Tuesday.”
    “What? People only go to confession on Sunday?”
    She slapped the yearbook on the table. “She thinks she's Madonna. And there's the fishing thing.”
    Cara held up her hand to halt her. “Fishing?”
    Ruthie sighed and reached across the table, patting Cara's hand. “You’ve been away for a while, honey. You'll see what I mean after a few days.” Cara turned her attention back to one of the boxes in front of her and pulled out a pair of white baby booties.
    “Oh, were these mine?” she crooned, examining the tiny booties.
    “No, dear. I made them for your children, just after you were born. Not that they'll ever be used,” Ruthie quipped under her breath.
    “You made booties for your own grandchildren when I was still a baby? What about me? What did I get to wear?” Cara shook her head in disbelief. Utterly bewildered, she stared blankly at the silk threads sewn in minute stitches with loving care. Her eyebrows furrowed as she read the name embroidered on the heels. “Omar? What's this Omar you have embroidered here?”
    “Your grandmother made you plenty of booties when I was a little girl. I was merely passing on the tradition. One that I won't hold my breath you'll continue.”
    Oh, this vacation is going to be good, Cara thought. A full three weeks helping her parents get the house ready for sale, and listening to poor Ruthie dig about her lack of grandchildren, was going to be a slow, agonizing death.
    It was times like this she could throttle her brother for becoming a priest and dropping all the procreation pressure on her shoulders.
    “And Omar,” Ruthie continued, “is the name I picked out for your first born son. What can I say? I had a thing for Dr. Zhivago.”
    “You were already naming my kids!? Omar?” She mouthed the name with disgust.
    “You didn't like Dr. Zhivago?”
    Cara drew in a deep cleansing breath of salted sea air, wondering how she could have been born to this crazy family. This was going to be an extremely long three weeks.
    Ruthie plucked out an old birthday card from the box and read it. “Devin Michaels. Mmmm. Now that's a name I haven't heard you speak in a long time.” Turning it over, she read the ink staining the back and squealed in delight, practically jumping from her seat. “Devin proposed to you!”
    “What are you talking about? He did not.”
    “On your birthday card. He proposed!” Ruthie sputtered, “How come you never told me about this?”
    “Let me see that.”
    Cara nabbed the card from her mother and speed read the note, smiling. 
    I, Devin Michaels, agree to marry you,
    Cara Cavarlho should both of us still
    be single at age thirty-five.
    Signed: Devin Michaels
    “I remember this.” The memories poured back one by one. She and Devin had just toasted her birthday. After sneaking out on her own birthday party, they sat on the concrete ledge of the watchtower at Gooseberry Point, watching the midnight moon, drinking cheap wine illegally, and toasting to their future success.
    She had been lamenting about Manny leaving for the seminary and the predicament he'd left her with regarding her mother's future grandchildren. If she dared to remain single—which, given her lofty career goals, she'd whole-heartedly planned to be at age thirty-five—Ruthie was sure to hound her for the rest of her life. Or at least until menopause, whichever came first.
    Devin joked that he would be chivalrous and rescue her from being eternally damned by her mother. What was nothing more than a little joke between two friends was now coming back to haunt her.
    Cara couldn't help but smile, remembering the boy, the friend Devin had been. They'd been inseparable that summer. There’d always been something special about Devin. Something just a little bit more…
    “Devin always had a thing for you, you know.” Ruthie raised her eyebrows and shined her matchmaking smile.
    “Thirty-five seemed so old to us back then.”
    “Still is when you're single, dear,” Ruthie returned. 
    Some things never change.
    Cara rolled her eyes. “We were just kids, Ma.”
    Kids or not, back then they thought they knew everything. Most of all, what they wanted in life. Devin was going to take on the world as a lawyer. From the little bits and pieces she'd heard over the years from people back home, and news coverage on the tube of the highly publicized cases he'd won, he'd done just that, as a prominent Manhattan defense attorney.
    Winning one highly publicized case he'd taken straight out of law school, one that the prosecution as well as the world thought he'd lose hands down, had propelled him into the most exclusive law firm in Manhattan. It hadn't taken him long to make a name for himself and become a much sought after, multi-million dollar baby of law.
    Cara had her own plans in which marriage had no part. She had to admit pride in the fact that, like Devin, she'd reached the pre-set goals made that fateful summer. She had worked hard and become a home interiors expert, opening her own successful shop in the posh Back Bay area of Boston nearly ten years earlier.
    Looking at her mother's bright expression, and knowing what conclusions she'd already drawn, Cara said, “This was a joke, Ma.”
    “It's in black and white.”
    “Blue and white.”
    “How many assistants have you lost to motherhood already?”
    “Four,” Cara sputtered.
    “In a month or so, Louise will make five.”
    The heaviness of her mother's statement hit Cara hard. Especially in light of the feelings she'd been having of late. Forcing the thoughts away, she tossed out the usual response she used when her mother started this line of conversation.
    “That's why I’m not getting married. In case you hadn't heard, barefoot and pregnant went out long ago, Ma. Women have careers now.”
    “That may be so, but look me. I was so thrilled when you were born, I never once regretted leaving my catering business behind.”
    “My point exactly. You gave it up.”
    Ruthie scowled and snatched the card back, holding it to her chest as if it were the only hold she had on getting any future grandchildren. “That’s right. The women of your generation want it all.”
    “You say it like it’s a dirty word.”
    “It feels like it when I have no grandbabies to spoil. Mark my words. I may just get to see your father walk you down the aisle before I die after all. I think you should call Devin.”
    Cara cocked her head to one side and blinked hard, trying her best to gather up her control. “I haven't heard from Devin in over fifteen years! I doubt he hardly remembers me.”
    Even as she said the words, she knew it wasn’t true. She and Devin had been inseparable. Warmth spread from the center of her chest outward just thinking of their friendship. It had been a long time since she’d thought about Devin.
    Ruthie gasped. “Don’t be ridiculous! Devin would never forget you. If I know Devin, he’ll keep his word. He’ll honor this marriage contract,” Ruthie continued, as if she were in her own world.
    “You must have some feelings for him or you wouldn’t have kept his card all this time.”
    “I didn’t even know it was there.”
    “We’ll see.”
    The way her mother clutched the card, fanning herself from mid-day August heat, Cara knew this was only the beginning. These next three weeks were going to be the longest weeks of her entire life.

* * *

    Devin Michaels strode through the full glass door of his lavish downtown office in the heart of Manhattan, success evident from his steady gait.
    “Congratulations, Mr. Michaels,” the receptionist at the front desk said with a gleaming smile.
    “Thank you, Lucy.” He walked by the woman without so much as a nod of his head, ignoring the overt physical appraisal she made of him in his expensive suit as he paced down the corridor, leather briefcase in his hand. Despite his court win this morning, his mood was growing fouler by the moment. If will alone could kill the bitter taste his profession left in his mouth, he'd have done it long ago. But the past few months of trying hadn't managed that feat.
    “Way to go, Devin.” Kurt Langdon, an associate partner, slapped him on the back, and then shook his hand, squeezing it with competitive zeal. “They said it couldn't be won, but then again, you always prove them wrong. Victory is sweet, huh?”
    Devin glared at Kurt's hand on his shoulder until it was removed. He'd become used to the other lawyers in the office wanting to befriend him for the sole sake of furthering their own interests within Wallingford, Collins, and McCaid. Kurt's transparency made him nauseous. In fact, all of the vultures working in this firm were circling the dead flesh, waiting for their chance to have their name stand aside the big boys.
    Devin had made it his purpose to ensure his name alone would stand out before the rest. That’s the way it had always been, and what he’d worked so hard for all these years. He didn't know when it had started, but lately he wondered why he ever thought that was worth fighting for.
    Kurt cleared his throat. “We're toasting the big win in the conference room in fifteen.”
    Devin nodded, and then ventured toward his office door, hoping to find a quiet moment before he'd have to pretend to actually be happy he'd won a case where the guilty won.
    “Congratulations, Mr. Michaels,” Brenda said softly. His administrative assistant's soft brown eyes twinkled admiration at him and forced him to smile for the first time that day. They reminded him of warm cinnamon brown eyes that used to smile at him in his youth. Years stood in the way of those memories. Funny how, ever since Brenda started working for him three months ago, those memories kept creeping back into the recesses of his mind.
    Brenda shuffled some papers on her desk and stacked them into a neat pile, which she cradled in the crook of her arm. She was green out of business school, and although Devin had balked at the idea of taking on an assistant so inexperienced, she was quickly shaping up to be an asset to him. His reputation for being an arrogant barracuda was one that made it a difficult position to fill. Brenda’s determination to keep up with him was something he admired.
    He smiled his gratitude. “Thank you, Brenda.”
    She quickly grabbed her daily planner and steno pad, adding to the stack and followed on his heels through the double oak doors of his office. “You have a lunch meeting at noon with the senior partners. Mr. Ryan of Ryan Enterprises at two fifteen. Logan Hayward confirmed your squash game at three. You have a meeting with your Real Estate agent at four thirty to finalize the sale on your Co-op.” She took a deep breath before continuing, her pause causing him to lift his head to look at her for the first time. “Dinner with Cheyenne at--”
    “Cancel dinner,” he cut in, remembering he'd forgotten to take care of that loose end himself. Cheyenne Lewis, his companion for the last six weeks when time permitted during his grueling schedule, had overstayed her welcome in his life. She was beginning to get too clingy. “Send her flowers—I think she likes lilies—and tell her...” he thought a minute and shook his head. “I'm sure you'll think of something, but don't make any promises.”
    “Yes, Mr. Michaels,” Brenda said, jotting the note in her steno. “Today's mail is on your desk as well as your phone messages. Ruth Cavarlho was insistent-”
    Devin snapped his head up, his pulse quickening. “Who called?” He sucked in a deep breath as if the wind had been knocked out of him after hearing the name. When he saw his young assistant’s startled expression, he realized his surprise was evident in the way he’d barked at her.
    “Ruth Cavarlho,” she repeated, darting her gaze from his face to her steno, her hand still poised in place for the next instruction. Then back again.
    It wasn’t like him to unravel in front of anyone. He’d be damned if he’d start today.
    “That'll be all, Brenda,” he said, straightening his spine and pushing strength into his voice as he spoke. A pen on his desk suddenly became his anchor and he gripped it between the pads of this fingers until Brenda nodded.
    “Yes, Mr. Michaels.” She turned and walked to the wide oak double doors and added, “They're toasting in-”
    “Fifteen.” He pushed up his suit jacket sleeve and glanced at the gleaming gold watch on his wrist. “Ten minutes. Call me. And get Ruthie Cavarlho on the phone for me, please.”
    The heavy door echoed in his head as it was closed. He sunk deep into his thick leather arm chair behind his desk and swung the seat around. Rubbing at his jaw, he stared out the window at the hustle and bustle of people on the street below his Manhattan office. Everything seemed so small. So very small.
    For a man who'd made it his purpose in life to remain frozen, void of emotion, he was thawing fast. To feel anything at all would mean death in the snake pit of a career he'd willingly entered. It amazed him that the mere mention of a name, the thought of Cara could still trigger a deep emotional response to their friendship. The years somehow hadn't managed to wash that away.
    He leaned forward in his seat and rested his chin on his steepled fingers. The Manhattan skyline had always been a source of inspiration. It was his dream. But lately, he’d been far too unsettled about the career that had always driven him hard. Instead of thrilling in the victory of a court case like this morning’s win, his mind eagerly sought out memories of those easy summer days with Cara.
    He remembered it well. It was the summer before his father passed away. Carl Michaels had taken ill earlier that spring, told to get his affairs in order and spend time with his family. The elder Michaels had never been willing to take time for anything other than activities he suspected would further his business interest. When they'd received the news his condition was terminal, the family rented the same beach house on the coast of Westport, Massachusetts they’d always spent summers, hoping to capture years of what they missed in what little time they had left. Before that summer, Devin didn't even know his father, and when they finally had a chance to connect, he was losing him.
    A bittersweet grin tugged at his lips. Although they were polar opposites in the looks department, he was a lot like his father. Cara had pointed that out to him. She saw it, even back then. It was only lately that he could see the resemblance.
    Cara had been more than a friend. She'd been his rock, the one thing that he could always count on to keep him stable while the earth beneath him crumbled. When he first saw her, he was instantly attracted to her cinnamon brown eyes and chestnut curls. The coral string bikini she wore wasn't half bad, either, he recalled, thinking of her walking along the shore collecting shells, flaunting assets she hadn’t yet discovered a man found so desirable. And he had.
    But it was the friendship that bound them together. It hadn't taken long for her laughter to embrace him and, eventually, they’d become inseparable.
    Devin chuckled at the irony. He'd built his reputation being a hard as nails, cut throat, defense attorney. Respected and admired by his peers, he was feared by his opponent. In one fell swoop, seventeen year old memories flooded him and brought him to his knees like a spineless jellyfish.
    The buzzer on his telephone sounded and Devin swung around in his chair to answer the page from Brenda.
    “Mrs. Cavarlho on line one,” she announced.
    His heart raced as his pushed the blinking yellow light on the phone panel. Ruthie Cavarlho. Everything he remembered about her spoke of love and warmth.
    “Devin, dear. It's so good to hear your voice,” Ruthie said brightly.
    “It's been a long time. I hope everything is well with you.” And Cara. Tell me everything about Cara, he said inwardly. Look at him! He was shaking in his shoes like an eighteen year old boy pumped full of testosterone. If only the vultures outside his office door could see this...
    “Yes. How's your mother doing, dear? It’s been a few years since I’ve seen her. She doesn’t come to Westport anymore.” Ruthie continued her small talk and filled Devin in on the family's plans to move to Florida within the month.
    “I'm sure Harold is happy to be retiring.” With a brisk motion, he slicked back his hair in frustration, waiting for her to be the one to mention Cara's name. A hot fire burned in his gut as he waited, anticipating the news that she was married, maybe with children, living happily ever after in the arms of another man.
    But no, what was he thinking? That wasn’t Cara at all. The Cara of his memory was a carbon copy of himself, driven in her quest for success. She’d chanted over and over again how she’d never marry. But that was a long time ago...
    “Did you receive Cara's card in the mail, yet?” Ruthie said, mentioning her daughter for the first time.
    He quickly rummaged through the stack of mail on his desk, tossing each letter aside until he found the thick violet enveloped. “I’m just reading it now.” He tore the seal and pulled the cards--yes there were two, he noticed--and began to read the first.
    Happy Birthday, Dev!
    It's pay up time!
    Love, Cara
   Confused, he glimpsed the second card, finding it vaguely familiar, and laughed out loud when he finished reading the back. Lord, it felt great to laugh and actually feel it! “I can't believe she kept this!” A strange feeling tugged at his heart that she’d kept a keepsake of him.
    “Well, you know, Devin, she always had a thing for you,” Ruthie said as if it was a known fact among them all.
    “How is she doing?”
    He paused a second, a tinge of disappointment settling in his gut with her lack of elaboration.
    There was a slight pause before she continued. “She's staying at home until Labor Day, helping her father and me with the move and all. We're having a bit of a bash for her thirty-fifth birthday. We'd love to have you. Are you available?”
    The inflection in her voice rose as to emphasize her double meaning. Same ol' Ruthie.
    It wasn't until faced with the possibility of seeing Cara again that Devin realized he'd give anything to see her. He punched up his schedule on the computer and immediately groaned at entries flooding each and every day for the next month. “Things don't look good, Ruthie. I'm not sure I can get away.”
    “Oh, but...what about the wedding?” she gasped.
    “Who's wedding?”
    “Why...yours and Cara's, of course. You did read the card, didn't you?”
    “Yes, but...” Puzzled by her query, Devin picked up the card again and turned it over in case he’d missed some important piece of information. The search proved futile.
    “Cara will be thirty-five next week.”
    “Yes, I know.”
    “Well, then you know what that means, don’t you?”
    He was silent.
    “Do you or don't you intend to honor that contract, young man.”
    A grin tugged at his lips. Although Ruthie's voice held a hint of amusement, he sensed her taking this line of offense immensely serious.
    Knowing in advance how Ruthie Cavarlho operated, he proceeded with caution. “Ruthie, it’s not really a contract.”
    “It’s in black and white.”
    “Yes, but…it’s bogus. There was no serious intention of marriage by either of us, no meeting of the minds. No-”
    “Devin, dear, don’t talk to me in legal mumbo jumbo. I don’t understand a word of it.”
    “It was a joke. It’s not legal.”
    “Not legal,” Ruthie grunted.
    There was silence on the other end of the line for a few seconds. Devin picked up the ball point pen he'd strangled earlier and started tapping in his desk to fill in the void.
    “Would Cara know this?” Ruthie finally asked.
    “Well, I-”
    “I'll bet she doesn't,” she proclaimed, an undertone of hope resonating in her words. He could almost hear the wheels in her head spinning triumphantly when she declared, “What she doesn't know won't hurt her.”
    A grin tugged at his lips. “Ruthie, what are you up to?”“Nothing. I’m merely planning a birthday party for my single daughter, and I would love for you to attend. Is there anything wrong with that?”
    “Of course not.”
    “And once you're here, if things should happen to, how shall we say, fall into place, then so be it.”
    He had to laugh. It surprised him how good it felt inside. He'd always been a sucker for Ruthie’s charm and seventeen years of passing time had made no difference.
    “Devin Michaels, you know how fond I am of you. I've never made any bones about that,” she admitted warmly. “And all these years I have been praying my daughter would someday find a nice man just like you. So why can’t it be you? I know you care for Cara.”
    He couldn’t deny that. But it had never been the way Ruthie had always wanted. What he and Cara had shared was friendship, nothing more. His whole world with Cara felt like a lifetime ago. And at the same time, their friendship was so close to his heart he could almost touch it.
    His heart pounded in his chest and he rubbed the spot that squeezed tight. “I'll see what I can do,” he conceded, his smile fading. “But I can't make any promises.”
    “Be sure to bring your tuxedo.”
    He heard the phone click just as Brenda paged him again. “They're waiting for you in the conference room.”
    He cradled the phone in his palm wondering what the hell had just happened? He couldn’t quite get a grip on the flood of emotions coursing through him. Dropping the phone, he fingered the pink slip on his desk with Ruthie Cavarlho's name scribbled on it for a good long time.
    He wanted to see Cara. More than he could even think right now. There was a time when the very first person—the only person—he'd seek out was Cara. She'd certainly seen him through the worst times in his life. And some of the best.
    This was it, he realized. Going back to Westport to reconnect with his best friend was the medicine he needed help him get his life back on track.
    Devin pressed the intercom button on the panel, suddenly feeling good for the first time in days. “Cancel,” he said briskly, the rush of excitement from this morning’s victorious court appearance long forgotten. The excitement of a new battle took its place.
    “I...I beg your pardon.”
    “I said cancel! Make some excuse, I don't care what it is.” Rubbing his face with his hand, he drew in a long breath. He couldn't believe he was actually considering something so foolish, so destructive, putting everything he'd work so hard for on the line.
    All he had to do was make a few calls and he could catch the next flight. In a matter of hours he'd be standing face to face with Cara. Something inside him clicked, as if everything that was laid out before him no longer held any meaning. He knew what he had to do.
    “Cancel the rest of the day, too. In fact, cancel the month. I'm taking a leave of absence starting now.”
    He heard Brenda’s slight gasp. “Mr. Michaels, I don't understand-”
    “Just do it! And Brenda, get me my realtor--” His voice broke off, “No, never mind. I'll take care of that myself.”
    He leaned back in his chair and swung the seat around. Rubbing his chin between his thumb and index finger, he stared vacantly at the Manhattan skyline. The city he'd sought out in his youth, that drove him with every beat of his heart, had lost its magic with a single phone call. The unsettled feeling that had plagued him for the past few months suddenly lifted and he could finally breathe again. He was taking a new direction, and it felt great.
    Hearing the buzz from Brenda again, he swung around and saw the light panel on his phone lit up like a Christmas tree. The grapevine in this office was as fast as a New York cabby racing from one green light to the next. He could almost hear the whispering vultures strategically planning his downfall outside his office door, starting with the moment he walked through it. And suddenly he didn’t give a damn what they did.
    Brenda sounded again with a repeated buzz that spoke of urgency. If he didn't make a quick getaway soon, the senior partners were sure to barrel through the doors of his office in full justifiable protest.

* * *

    Cara smiled regally at the many people inspecting the odds and ends she and her family had accumulated her entire life and had displayed on their front lawn for purchase. She was annoyed, to say the least, at their perusal. This was her life they were scrutinizing!
    When had she gotten so sentimental? Sure, her parents were moving away, selling the home she loved so much. But she'd left home long ago. Maybe it was just her time of the month. No, that would mean she had perpetual PMS for feeling the way she did. Who could possibly endure that?
    Or maybe...it was because Roger, the man she'd been dating for the past year and a half, had become a fixture she wasn’t sure she wanted to keep in her life. She'd been a success in business, lived on her own in her Back Bay condo for the past few years. But this thirty-five thing was beginning to hit home.
    She pushed the thought away, refusing to believe that her internal clock was waging war, and she was losing the battle.
    “Is this real crystal?” a young woman—still a girl really—asked, holding the carafe Cara had given her mother as a birthday gift when she was fifteen. Her other arm was wrapped tightly around the waist of a young man. Amorous glances and giggles reflected the youth of their love. She wondered if they were newly married, filling their home with items they would someday put up for sale on their front lawn.
    “Yes,” she replied shortly, watching the young man knock over a vase. He had a familiar stand. It took her a moment, but she realized that he reminded her of a young Devin Michaels.
    Funny. Ever since she found that damned birthday card, her mind wandered until it settled on Devin Michaels.
    “We’ll take it,” the young man said, smiling affectionately at the girl. After digging through his wallet, he handed her the amount indicated on the little white tag Cara had so carefully placed on the bottle the previous evening. With their hands entwined, the young couple walked away.
    That's when she thought she caught a glimpse of him. Devin Michaels. She stood on the far side of the lawn, squinting from the sun’s harsh rays to focus on the man strolling through the open white picket gate. A dozen or so people had stopped and parked along the side of the road and were now leisurely waltzing across her parents lawn.
    The man could just as easily be someone who lived along the beach, just out for a stroll. She’d lived away from home so long that she’d lost touch with the comings and goings of neighbors. It couldn't possibly be Devin just because her mind suddenly wanted it to be. But as he ambled closer, she knew without a doubt it was Devin.
    A glimmer of recognition registered on his face when their eyes met, and his mouth tilted to reveal a perfect smile. Her breath lodged in her throat, and she couldn’t keep from feeling giddy. Nibbling on her bottom lip, she fought to compose herself.
    The years had been good to him. The lanky boy he once was had filled out in all the right places. The man sauntering toward her now had wide shoulders and ripples along his chest, clearly visible beneath his polo shirt, a telltale sign that he spent time working out regularly. His charcoal eyes had deepened in color, giving off a masculine power of attraction that seared straight through her. It wasn't the Devin Michaels that she remembered from her youth, the shy but funny friend she'd teased so often. He was a man now. Powerful, stunning in movement and frightening with his dynamic presence all at the same time.
    But he was still Devin Michaels, her childhood buddy.
    “Devin,” she said, catching her breath when he was finally standing before her. She looked up and noticed the inches he'd grown taller. He was now at least six inches taller than her five foot seven inch frame.
    “Hello, mia Cara.” The words of endearment rolled off his tongue with ease, sounding as soothing as the ocean that lulled her to sleep at night. My dear one was the meaning. Her grandmother had referred to her that way on countless occasions in her youth, which Devin had teased her about when he'd been privy to hear. But this time, the pure emotion with which he spoke the simple words cascaded over her like the incoming tide.


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