Excerpt: Starlight Bridge

CHAPTER 1

Ava DiRossi didn’t believe in fairytales and happily ever afters, but right about now, she’d sell her soul for a fairy godmother.

As the elevator shuddered and creaked on its way up to the north tower, Ava removed her black work shoe. The sole had come loose, flapping when she walked. She hammered it against the steel frame of the service cart in hopes it would hold out until the end of her shift. After several good whacks, she stopped to examine the seam. Satisfied the shoe wouldn’t fall apart before she got home, she slipped it back onto her foot.

Obviously she didn’t need a fairy godmother to take care of her footwear or to provide her with fancy gowns. And Prince Charming? She’d had one of her own. A long time ago. Only he’d turned out to be more princely and charming than she deserved, and she’d ended their fairytale marriage. But there was something a fairy godmother could help her with. If Ava had one, she’d ask her to turn back the clock to three months earlier. Her life had been so simple then.

She loved Greystone Manor. It had been her refuge, her sanctuary. She’d been left alone, free to do as she pleased as long as the guest rooms were well and properly cleaned. And they were, because Ava wouldn’t have it any other way. She made sure each room sparkled and shined.

But everything had changed the day Colleen Gallagher died and Ava’s cousin Sophie had become manager of the manor. It seemed like every time Ava turned around, her cousin was there with a new scheme to improve Greystone’s bottom line. One that invariably required Ava’s help and was designed to push her out of her comfort zone.

The elevator jerked to a stop. Without thinking, Ava moved the service cart toward the now open doors. A jarring pain shot up her arm, and she sucked in a breath through her teeth. That’s what she got for letting thoughts of fairy godmothers fill her head. She used her good arm and her hip to push the heavy cart into the deserted hall. As though in judgment of what she was about to do, long-dead Gallaghers looked down at her from the portraits in gilded frames that lined the stone walls.

“I’m not any happier about it than you are,” Ava told the portrait of William Gallagher, the family’s patriarch. He looked like the pirate he’d been reputed to be. “But Colleen would understand. She’d want me to find her memoirs.”

Until the private viewing at the manor three days after Colleen had passed, no one had really believed the memoirs existed. But during the wake, in a pre-recorded message for the Widows Club—of which Ava was a member, she was the token divorcee—Colleen had held up the book, proving it did indeed exist. And not only had Colleen written about her life and her secrets, she’d recorded each and every one of theirs. Just before Colleen announced where she’d hidden the book, static filled the screen and the videotape was damaged beyond repair.

There were secrets in the book that Ava couldn’t afford to come to light. Secrets she’d confessed to Colleen in a weak moment. Secrets the Gallagher’s matriarch had promised to take to her grave.

Oh now, you have a head full of fanciful thoughts today, don’t you, Ava my girl?

“Yes, thanks to you and Sophie, my head seems to be full of them these days. And I can tell you I was much happier without them,” Ava said as she parked the cart under William’s portrait, then sighed when she realized she was talking aloud. Talking to her ex-husband’s great-grandmother who’d died more than two months ago.

It wasn’t the first time Ava had caught herself doing so. She wasn’t worried she was going crazy though. Her newly acquired habit was a result of stress and exhaustion. There wasn’t much she could do about being so tired she could hardly think straight, but she could alleviate part of her stress by finding the book that would reveal the truth about her and that night and the man she’d allowed to ruin her life.

In case someone happened upon her in Colleen’s room, Ava tossed two sponges in a bucket and made her way to the walnut studded door, sliding her passkey into the lock. Colleen had lost her battle with her son Ronan, an historian, over the entry upgrade. She never did like change. If Colleen had gotten her way, Greystone Manor, which had been built in the early nineteenth century and modeled after a medieval castle, would have stayed exactly the same.

Meow.

Ava jumped, pressing a hand to her chest as a black cat wound his way between her legs. Simon, who’d arrived at the manor a week before Colleen died, raised his blue eyes and meowed again. Placing the bucket on the hardwood floor, Ava crouched to scratch behind his ears.

“You miss her too, don’t you?” she said to the cat, realizing that was most likely the reason she’d been talking to a dead woman. She missed Colleen. Ava had worked for her ex-husband’s family for more than a decade.

Simon purred, rubbing his head against her leg. She gave him a final pat. “You can come with me, but you have to stay quiet.”

Ava picked up the bucket and straightened to open the door. As she did, a sweet, floral scent wafted past her nose. She frowned at the fresh bouquet of pink, yellow, and white roses in a crystal vase on the nightstand beside the canopied bed. Odd. Who would . . . Jasper, she decided. The older man had been with the Gallaghers for as long as she could remember. He’d been Colleen’s right-hand man and confidant. Skinny as a rail with stiff, upper-crust manners, he was a pain in Ava’s culo.

Her gaze lifted from the roses to the gothic-style leaded windows that overlooked the gardens. Sleet pelted the window panes, and the barren trees swayed in the cold, mid-January winds. She wrapped her gray sweater around her while casting a longing glance at the fireplace with a three-tiered wrought iron candelabra standing in front of it. The fireplace was more for show than heat. So no matter that she could practically see her breath in the room; now wasn’t the time to put it to the test and risk an actual fire.

She eyed the hundreds of books lining the walls of the sitting area. More were stacked haphazardly on the antique tables on either side of a well-worn, gold damask loveseat with additional stacks creating small towers on the hardwood floor. A cluttered white desk with feminine lines sat in the center of the room with a view of the dark, turbulent sea through the French doors that led onto a stone balcony.

The room looked exactly the same as the night she’d searched it with her cousin, her auntie Rosa, and the rest of the Widows Club. As far as Ava knew, no one had found the book. Though not for lacking of trying. It had to be here, somewhere in this room.

She set the bucket beside the fireplace and walked the perimeter, lifting the heavy, antique-gold drapes and peeking under the oil paintings in search of a safe or secret compartment. Simon meowed from where he stretched out on the back of the loveseat, once again drawing Ava’s attention to the shelves of books behind him.

They’d been looking for a brown, leather-bound book the night they’d first searched the room—aptly named The Secret Keeper of Harmony Harbor. Ava wondered if Colleen had hidden it within another book. She wouldn’t be surprised if she had. Colleen had been a cagey old lady.

As Ava catalogued the sheer volume of books she realised she’d be here longer than she had anticipated. Unconsciously her hand went to her bruised arm; she couldn’t be late again. She reached in her pocket for her earbuds and turned on her iPod. Fitting the buds in her ears, she got to it, leafing through one book at a time. Alone with her music—aside from Simon—Ava felt some of the day’s tensions leave her. She liked repetitive, mindless work. She found it calming. Well, it was usually calming. With the book on the loose it was somewhat less so today.

Someone tapped her shoulder, and she jumped, dropping the book she’d just taken off the shelf. She whirled around, pressing a hand to her chest. “You practically gave me a heart attack.”

“Sorry.” Sophie grimaced. Her cousin wore her uniform of a white blouse and black pencil skirt. “I called out, but you mustn’t have heard me. What are you listening to?” She pulled the bud from Ava’s ear and held it to hers. “It’s loud”—Sophie made a face— “and depressing.”

Mad World by Gary Jules. It’s not depressing. It’s beautiful.” Ava reached into the pocket of her black uniform dress and turned off the iPod, then bent to pick up the book she’d dropped. “I, um, was looking for something to read.”

Sophie removed the black-framed glasses that held back her long, chestnut-brown hair and put them on, leaning forward to look at the book. She raised an eyebrow. “Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. Interesting choice.”

“I thought so. It was one of Colleen’s favorites.”

“You miss her, don’t you?” Sophie said with a sympathetic smile.

It wasn’t that long ago that her cousin had been as anxious to find Colleen’s memoirs as Ava. A fire in Sophie’s LA apartment left her and her daughter, Mia, homeless, forcing them to move back to Harmony Harbor. For years, Sophie had kept the true identity of Mia’s father a secret. But just a month after arriving home, the truth came out. It had been a difficult time for Sophie and Liam, but in the end, their love for each other prevailed.

So Sophie would understand Ava’s need to find the book only too well and would no doubt offer her help. But there’d be a price to pay. Sophie would want to know her secret, and it was a secret Ava would take to her grave. “Si, I miss her.”

Sophie rested her hip against the back of the loveseat, absently petting Simon. “Do you think I’m horrible for renting out Colleen’s suite?”

Her cousin had announced her plans last night. It was the reason Ava was searching the room. While there was a part of her that didn’t want Colleen’s private space invaded, she understood why Sophie felt she had to do so.

Within a day of her cousin announcing plans for a bridal show at Greystone, their major competitor, the Bridgeport Marquis, announced plans for their own bridal fair. Yesterday, the Marquis’ bridal suite had been featured in the Harmony Harbor Gazette.

“You know, if Colleen were here, she’d have suggested it herself, Sophie. The bridal suite at the Marquis can’t compete with this.” Ava lifted her hand to the French doors. “Look at the views.”

Sophie nibbled on her thumbnail and nodded. “I know, but maybe I overreacted. The old bridal suite has an ocean view too. It’s just not as big as Colleen’s. I’ll have Dana stage them both. If she thinks the old bridal suite shows just as well, we’ll feature it in the Gazette. That way we won’t have to pack Colleen’s things away.”

Dana Templeton was a long-term guest at the manor. She’d also become a close friend to both Ava and Sophie. The woman had exquisite taste . . . and a secret. She was probably as anxious to find Colleen’s memoirs as Ava.

“Next on the list is updating the restaurant menu,” Sophie added with a look in her golden-brown eyes that was all too familiar.

“It’s getting late. I should probably get going,” Ava said in hopes of avoiding another conversation about the restaurant. She turned to pick up the books she’d piled on the floor. She adored Sophie, admired the woman she’d become, but her cousin had an almost obsessive need to fix things, including the people she loved. Over the past two months, it had become apparent that Ava was her new pet project.

“You’re not walking home. I’ll give you a ride. It’ll give us a chance to talk about the restaurant,” Sophie said brightly.

Ava bowed her head and sighed. Her cousin was like a dog with a bone. “Sophie, no matter how often you ask, my answer will be the same. I can’t. My father—”

“Please, just think about it? You’re an incredibly talented chef. No, don’t wave me off. You are. You know how important the bridal show is for us. I can’t have Helga handling the food. I need you, Ava. Greystone needs you.”

“No, what you need is a well-trained and experienced chef, and that’s not me. I want to save Greystone as much as you do, Sophie, but I can’t take over the restaurant. I’ll do anything else but that.”

“What if I talk to Uncle Gino? I’m sure he’d—”

Fingers of fear crawled up Ava’s spine at the thought of Sophie talking to her father. She drew the sleeve of her sweater over her hand, fisting it around the gray wool. “No. Capisci?” The words came out more forceful than she intended, and in Italian. When she was nervous or upset, she slipped back into the language she’d grown up hearing at home.

“No, I don’t understand,” Sophie said with equal force and a stubborn jut of her chin. “You helped out before so I don’t know why you won’t help out again.”

There were times when her cousin reminded Ava of her auntie Rosa, Sophie’s mule-headed grandmother. This was one of them. “Because you were desperate.” Ava held up a hand when Sophie opened her mouth. “Find someone else. I’m not interested. I’m a maid, Sophie. Not a chef.”

“What happened to you, Ava? What happened to the girl I remember?”

Ava had once loved to cook—it had been her passion. But she was no longer the girl her cousin remembered. She didn’t want to be. “She grew up. Now, do you think I can get back to my job?”

Sophie made a face. “Fine. Griffin will be arriving within the hour unless his plane was delayed by the weather. It should be enough time for the room to warm up. There’s extra firewood in the lobby. I’ll go—”

“Griffin . . . Griffin’s staying here? In this room?” Her ex-husband rarely came back to Harmony Harbor. In the past ten years, Ava had only seen him a handful of times. Though that may have been because he’d gone out of his way to avoid her. Granted, she had done the same. But she hadn’t been able to avoid him when he’d come home for Colleen’s funeral or for Liam and Sophie’s wedding.

“I thought I told you he was coming home.” Sophie lifted a shoulder as though it had slipped her mind, but Ava saw the hint of a smile playing on her lips. “We needed some extra muscle to help get the ballroom ready for the bridal show. You have to admit Griffin fits the bill.”

She wouldn’t let her mind go to just how well her ex fit the we-need-muscle bill or allow herself to think about the potential consequences of her tenacious cousin playing matchmaker. Ava would worry about that later. Right now, she was more terrified at the thought of Griffin staying in a room that quite possibly held a book that contained her deepest, darkest secret.

“What’s wrong?” Sophie touched Ava’s bruised forearm, her brow furrowed with concern. “It’s not like when he came home for Colleen’s funeral. His ex won’t be with him if that’s what you’re worried about.”

At the light pressure of Sophie’s hand on her bruised arm, Ava clenched her teeth to stifle a groan and reached for the bucket. “Nothing’s wrong, I just have a lot to do before he arrives. I’ll get to it now.” She prayed her cousin took the hint and left, because for the first time in more than a decade, Ava had no intention of doing her job. She was going to find Colleen’s book instead. Or at the very least, ensure that Griffin didn’t.

Sophie looked over the room. “I promised Mia and Liam I’d be home for supper, but if you need me to stay—”

“Thank you, but no. I’ll get done faster without you.”

“Umm, are you forgetting I used to work as a maid? I was actually pretty good at—”

Would she never leave? Ava took matters into her own hands and carefully steered her cousin toward the door. “Yes, I’m sure you were the Maid of LA, but I am the Maid of Harmony Harbor, so you can go now. Give Mia a kiss for me.”

Sophie laughed. “Okay, okay, I’m leaving. But call me when you’re finished, and I’ll give you a ride home.”

“Ciao,” Ava said and closed the door. Heart racing, she pressed her back against it. Simon sat in front of . . . the fireplace. The one place none of them had thought to look. Ava raced across the room. She knelt on the floor to move the heavy wrought iron candelabra, careful not to knock off the candles as she pushed it to the side. Ignoring the pain in her arm, she scrutinized the brick facing for a sign it had been tampered with. When she didn’t find any, she ran her fingers along the dark oak frame and mantel.

Simon meowed and padded into the fireplace. He sat on the logs and looked up. Ava stuck her head inside and did the same. It was too dark to see much of anything. She was typically prepared for whatever might come up on the job, but she didn’t carry a flashlight, and she didn’t have her cell phone. Her father had broken it two weeks before in another fit of temper.

She skimmed her right hand up and down the wall where Simon was staring. Two of the bricks were loose. She pushed her finger between them, touching what felt like soft leather. She held her breath as she tried to lift it and the edges of paper brushed against her finger. It was a book. Her pulse kicked up with excitement, her shoulders sagging with relief.

Her relief was short lived. No matter how hard she tugged on the upper brick with her uninjured arm, it refused to budge. Gritting her teeth, she tried using both hands. Her bruised arm protested the movement, but she refused to give up and breathed through the pain.

Fifteen minutes later, she stopped to regroup. There had to be another way. Her hands were blackened with soot, the tips of her fingers raw, and the bricks had barely moved. She looked around the room for something to wedge between them and spied the poker.

“We’re in business, Simon. This should do . . .”

“Tell Grams I’ll see her in a bit.”

Her gaze shot to the door. She’d recognize that voice anywhere. Griffin was here. Now. Outside the door. She shot to her feet, shoving the candelabra in front of the fireplace.

Meow.

She’d trapped Simon. She grabbed the cat, put him on the floor, scooped up the bucket and sponges while frantically searching for somewhere to hide. The balcony. She didn’t care if she froze to death; she couldn’t let him find her here.

As she turned to run, Ava heard the beep of the passkey. She wouldn’t make it. She spun around and ran the short distance to the bathroom. Her breath coming in panicked puffs, she stepped inside the bathtub and carefully inched the crimson and gold shower curtain across the rod. She sagged against the tile wall, praying his in a bit meant he’d drop his bags off and leave.

If it had been anyone other than Griffin, she’d pretend to be cleaning the room. But she remembered all too clearly the humiliation of being discovered by him and his ex-wife the last time they’d stayed at the manor. He’d looked at Ava like he hadn’t known who she was, and his wife had asked for fresh towels, acting as though Ava hadn’t done her job.

And then there was the book. She couldn’t leave without it.

“How did you get in here?”

Her gaze jerked to the curtain, her heart beating double time. She let out the breath she’d been holding when the bed creaked. Simon. Griffin was talking to the cat. “Better question would be, what have you been up to? Your paws are black. Off the bed, buddy.”

Her toes curled in her shoes, a warm, fluttery sensation settling low in her stomach in response to the slow drawl of Griffin’s deep voice. He always spoke in that low, unhurried tone. Even when he was angry or when he was whispering how much he loved her or when he was talking her out of her temper. Only then there’d been a hint of laughter too. Her temper used to amuse him. He had a long fuse; she had a short one. She used to, at least.

Her lips curved at the memories; then her wistful smile faded when the consequences of what he’d just said penetrated her lovesick brain. Simon’s paws were dirty. All she’d need was for Griffin to start looking for the source. She had to . . .

There was the rasp of a zipper, then the light thud of something hitting the floor. At the sound of heavy footfalls approaching the bathroom, Ava’s eyes went wide, and she pressed her back against the tiled wall. A bare, muscled arm reached past the curtain, a large hand turning on the water. The cold spray from the showerhead hit her in the face, and a small, shocked squeak escaped before she could contain it.

Griffin whipped back the shower curtain. His thick, toffee-colored hair glistened under the florescent light, his dazzling, deep blue eyes wide in surprise. She opened her mouth to say something, but the words got stuck in her throat as her eyes drifted down his body. He was completely and gloriously naked. And even more beautiful than she remembered.