Book 8 in the Gallaghers of Harmony Harbor series — June 2019
Can a summer of love make up for a lifetime of secrets?
Wedding fever has taken over Harmony Harbor this summer, and the local matchmakers have set their sights on Theia Lawson, a former navy pilot who’s in town for a stay at Greystone Manor. And while Theia’s got her reasons to put this small town behind her as fast as she can, there’s a certain tall, dark, and irresistible man that she can’t seem to get off her mind.
Firefighter Marco DiRossi wants to beat the matchmakers at their own game so he conspires with Theia to pretend they’ve already fallen in love. It’s only for the summer. What could go wrong? Yet as the beach season draws to a close, Marco and Theia find their pretend relationship has led to a very real attraction. But when a secret from the past is revealed, jeopardizing everything they hold dear, can this unlikely couple find their way to a happily-ever-after?
Marco DiRossi’s birthday fell on the Fourth of July, the combined celebration ensuring the day had been one of the high points of the summer, his favorite time of year. Summertime when being single in Harmony Harbor had been synonymous with living the good life in paradise. Lazy days spent at the beach soaking up the sun and scoping out the toned and tanned hometown girls, hot summer nights spent at the local bars and seaside cafés flirting with the tourists who flocked to his coastal hometown.
But his love for the Fourth had done a one-eighty once he became a member of the Harmony Harbor Fire Department. Now the holiday represented an uptick in grass fires, minor injuries, and burns.
The summer was also fraught with danger of another kind—his matchmaking grandmother, Rosa DiRossi. She’d been trying to marry him off for years. Her efforts increased tenfold during the summer months, when his hometown became Wedding Central, thanks to Greystone Manor.
Home to Harmony Harbor’s founding family, the Gallaghers, the manor also served as a hotel. A hotel that had become, under his sister Sophie’s expert and creative management, the premier wedding destination on Massachusetts’s North Shore.
Sadly for Marco, at that moment the manor was only a five-minute walk from where he sat in Sophie’s backyard. As if on cue, the sound of wedding-day celebrations drifted his way on a warm ocean breeze. His hand tightened around the wineglass stem as he lifted it to his lips.
This year might take the prize for worst Fourth of July, and it wasn’t his grandmother’s fault. It was his own. Liam Gallagher, his brother-in-law, best friend, and fellow firefighter got up from the picnic table and started to clear the remains of Marco’s birthday dinner.
When Marco put down the wineglass to pick up an empty platter and a bowl of hot antipasto spread, Liam said, “Relax. You’re the guest of honor. I’ll be in the doghouse if I let you help.”
“You’ll be in the doghouse with me if you don’t.” At the sounds of wedding guests chanting kiss, kiss, kiss and clinking cutlery against crystal, Marco sprang to his feet. He wondered what the chances were of moving his party indoors. “Bugs are getting bad. We should probably have cake and coffee inside.”
The screen door on the two-story white stucco house banged closed. Marco looked over to see his grandmother carrying a tray loaded down with a coffee urn, mugs, and a bottle of Amaretto. He knew better than to rush over and take the tray.
In her late seventies, Rosa was still strong in mind, body, and spirit. Sometimes annoyingly so. But as he often reminded himself when she got on his last nerve, the traits that drove him crazy were the reason she’d not only survived but thrived when her husband, Antonio, vanished on a rainy summer night.
He’d left her alone with three toddlers to raise and no money. She’d cleaned houses and taken in laundry and boarders until she’d scraped enough money together to start DiRossi Fine Foods and Deli. She worked harder than any woman he knew.
Tonight she wore her favorite blue dress, faded from its many washings. Her dyed black hair fell to her shoulders in loose curls, flattering a face that bore a striking resemblance to Sophia Loren. Rosa looked great for her age, her olive skin barely lined. Until her attention moved to Marco’s and Liam’s hands and her sucked-on-a-lime expression deepened the creases at the corners of her eyes and mouth.
“Eh, what do you think you’re doing? Put those dishes down.” Her Italian accent was thick despite the fact she’d moved from Pisterzo, Italy, to Harmony Harbor, Massachusetts, in the fourth grade.
Liam shot Marco an I-told-you-so grin, which faded when he realized Rosa was now focused on him.
“You too. Sit. Sit.” She nodded at Liam and then at the dishes. “It’s woman’s work.”
His grandmother was stuck in the fifties, where women had their roles and men had theirs and never the two shall meet.
Liam looked torn. Unlike Rosa, his wife was not stuck in the fifties. Which his ten-year-old daughter, Mia, proved by opening the screen door and yelling, “Daddy, Mommy says hurry up and clear off the picnic table so there’s room for the cake.” Marco’s niece smiled at him. “I made it for you. Mommy said it’s your favorite.”
Mia had the same long, curly dark hair as her mother and her father’s Gallagher-blue eyes. Looking at his niece’s adorable face, Marco got a glimpse of what the future held in store for him and her father. They’d have to beat the boys back with sticks. The kid was going to grow up to be a looker just like the rest of the DiRossi women. She was also his favorite little person on the planet, her baby brother Ronan Jr. coming a close second. They’d probably be tied for first place in his heart when his nephew wasn’t attached to his mother’s hip.
“You gonna give me a hint what kind of cake it is?” Marco asked as he moved the plates and parmigiana to make room for Rosa’s tray.
He figured Mia had made him an Italian rum cake. Up until his twentieth birthday, the dessert, with its three layers of sponge cake soaked in a rum-flavored syrup and filled with layers of vanilla and chocolate pastry cream had been his favorite. But then life as he’d known it had ended, and neither he nor Rosa had had the heart to make the cake again.
“Nope. It’s a surprise.” His niece grinned and then waved over her father. “Come on, Daddy. Hurry up before Mommy finishes changing Ronan.”
When Mia disappeared into the house, Liam glanced at his grandmother-in-law, obviously gauging whose doghouse he’d rather be in. He carefully picked up the plates in an effort not to draw Rosa’s attention away from unloading the tray.
Marco made a wrong-choice buzzing sound.
Liam glared at him.
Marco didn’t know what the big deal was. Rosa hadn’t heard him. Lately they’d noticed her hearing wasn’t what it used to be. He lowered his voice anyway. “I’m just trying to help. All you have to do to get out of Soph’s doghouse is sing to her.” The Gallagher boys put the harmony
in Harmony Harbor. “But that won’t work on Ma.” Marco had taken to calling Rosa Ma when his own mother deserted him.
His grandmother lifted her head to frown at Liam. “Eh, what—”
As Rosa geared up to give Liam hell, his best friend threw Marco under the bus. “Hey, Rosa, did you hear our boy here got asked to be in another wedding? How many is that this year, bro? It looks like you’ll beat last year’s record after all.”
Ensuring that Marco now had his grandmother’s complete and disappointed attention, his supposed best friend went about clearing the table.
“Madonna mia,” Rosa said, pouring herself a healthy shot of Amaretto. “Always the groomsman, never the groom.” She made it sound like he’d been handed a death sentence.
“Ma, what are you doing?” he said when she tossed back the almond-flavored liqueur and then went to pour herself another shot. He reached across the table, picked up the coffee urn and filled her mug.
“He could have been the groom today. Three years ago too.” Liam dropped his bomb just before heading to the house with an armload of dishes.
Marco stifled a groan, shooting a glance at his grandmother to be sure she hadn’t heard, followed by a glare at his brother-in-law’s back. Liam had to know how badly it would go for Marco if Rosa found out how close he’d come to marrying Callie. At the last second, terror had struck his confirmed bachelor’s heart, and he couldn’t go through with the proposal.
Callie was a woman with a plan. She wanted a ring on her finger, a house by the sea, and two babies, preferably one boy and one girl. There was a time stamp on the baby end of things so, no matter how much she loved him, she couldn’t afford to wait around until he got his act together. As Liam had alluded, it wasn’t the first time Marco had choked at the big moment. There’d been another woman before Callie. He’d loved her too. At least he thought he had.
Rosa took a seat across from him at the picnic table, glancing in the direction of the manor’s spa as she did. The Gallaghers owned five thousand acres of land that were bordered by the Atlantic and the woods, which meant they owned the majority of the cottages that lined the gravel road upon which Liam and Sophie’s home sat.
For the past year, Marco’s mother, Tina, worked at and managed the spa. Room and board came with the job. He did his best to avoid her, but his sister made that difficult to do. She invited Tina to every family gathering, of which there were quite a few. He couldn’t avoid the family get-togethers without hurting his sister and his niece’s feelings, something he would never do. So he went. Lucky for him, Tina was at a conference in LA this week.
Maybe lucky for his mother as well, he thought when Rosa returned her attention to him. With one look at her dark, flashing eyes, he knew what was coming. “Your mother, she ruined you for marriage. You don’t trust women because of her. She abandoned you. She’s a—”
He’d heard it all before. “Ma, relax. I was twenty. She didn’t ruin me. The right woman hasn’t come along, that’s all.”
Only he was pretty sure she had, and two hours earlier she had said I do to someone else. He lifted his glass of wine, toasting Callie in his mind. Wishing her all the love and happiness she deserved. His chest grew tight as he thought about the woman he might have loved and lost, and he wondered if there was something wrong with him. He wanted what his sister and Liam had.
His grandmother sighed and came to her feet, leaning across the picnic table to pat his cheek. “Time is running out, mio bel ragazzo.” My handsome boy. “You are thirty-three.” She said it like he had one foot in the grave.
“I’m a baby. No one gets married this young anymore.”
She snorted and then named ten men he knew, including his best friend and several of his firefighter brothers, one of whom was Callie’s new husband. Marco hadn’t known how good an actor he was until he’d been greeted with the news of their upcoming marriage at the station four months before.
His sister’s voice and Ronan’s baby babble drew his attention to the house. Sophie, with the toddler on her hip, walked backward as she filmed Mia, who carried a cake aglow with so many candles it looked like they might need an extinguisher to put them out, which was probably why her father walked beside her with his hands poised to grab the cake. The four of them sang “Happy Birthday,” providing the distraction Marco needed.
Or was it? he wondered when Sophie and Liam smiled at each other and then at their children. Marco felt the weight of someone’s gaze and glanced over to see his grandmother watching him. Glassy-eyed, she pressed a hand to her heart. He needed a better distraction.
Beaming with pride, his niece set the cake in front of him.
“Italian rum cake, my favorite. Thanks, cara. It looks amazing.” He leaned over to kiss Mia’s cheek and grin at his sister. “Now you can stop passing off the stuff from Truly Scrumptious as your own, Soph,” he said, referring to the local bakery. “Mia can bake for you.” Unlike him, his sister hadn’t inherited the DiRossi passion for food or the cooking gene.
And just as Marco had hoped, Liam couldn’t let the jibe against his wife go unanswered. “What are you talking about? She’s an amazing baker.” Liam began reeling off several examples of his wife’s superlative baking skills.
“I might have had a little help with Ronan’s birthday cake and the cupcakes for Mia’s last day of school,” Sophie admitted sheepishly before shooting Marco a thanks a lot look.
“Trust me, it’s better she buys from the bakery or asks me or Mia to make her cakes and cookies.” Rosa chuckled and then went on to regale them with stories of Sophie’s disasters in the kitchen growing up.
While his family laughed and argued, Marco smiled and blew out the candles on his cake. They stopped talking to stare at him. Rosa looked like he’d committed a mortal sin.
He raised his hands. “What did I do now? The candles were melting into the cake.”
“You didn’t make your birthday wish. You need to make one.” Rosa picked up a candle and showed it to Sophie. “We need new ones. Matches too.”
He sighed, knowing exactly what she wanted him to wish for. “I did,” he lied.
She saw right through him and snapped her fingers at his sister. “Sbrigati! Hurry up.”
He blinked at the forceful note in her voice. Apparently, there was a short birthday-wish window.
“We don’t have any more candles, Nonna. But it’s fine. Marco already made a wish.” His sister raised a questioning eyebrow at him.
He frowned at her. “Seriously?”
She rolled her eyes and then lifted her chin at Rosa.
Okay. He got it. She wanted to know what was up with their grandmother. He raised a shoulder. He didn’t have a clue why she seemed more anxious than usual about the birthday-wish thing.
“Wish papers, Nonna. Remember? I got them for my birthday,” Mia said. His niece ran back inside the house without waiting to see if her great-grandmother remembered.
Liam sat next to Marco at the picnic table and held out his arms for his son. Sophie handed him over and then went to help Rosa cut and plate the cake. Marco’s grandmother looked not only relieved but pleased. If he believed that birthday wishes came true, he might be getting nervous right about now.
“Any idea what that was all about?” Liam asked Marco under his breath while trying to keep Ronan entertained with an empty mug.
“It’s the same thing every year. She insists I wish for the woman of my dreams. I say I do, but I don’t.”
Liam glanced at Rosa and then nodded as if he’d figured it out, mouthing the name of a long-time member of the Widows Club who’d died five months before.
“Why would—” Marco bowed his head. His best friend was probably right. The Widows Club’s biggest regret was that Mrs. Fitzgerald hadn’t seen her granddaughters settled and happily wed.
Marco grabbed Ronan’s wandering hand and nibbled the little boy’s fingers, making him giggle. There was nothing better than a child’s laughter to lighten the mood. He looked up when the screen door banged close behind Mia.
She ran to the picnic table with a sheaf of colored papers in her hands.
“Let’s eat the cake first,” he suggested, uncomfortable with the idea of them making wishes on his behalf. Especially if they said them out loud. Especially because he knew what they would wish for.
Maybe instead of putting the cart before the horse and wishing he’d get married and live happily ever after, they should ask the wish fairies to grant him the ability to fall in love. He frowned, wondering where that had come from. There was no problem with his heart. Look at how much he loved Rosa, Sophie, Liam, and the kids. But then he remembered the debilitating case of nerves that had swamped him when he’d almost proposed to Callie. So maybe he did need some help in the romantic love department.
“No. We do this now. It’s more important than eating.”
Marco stared at his grandmother. Other than her family, there was nothing more important to Rosa DiRossi than food. It was a good thing she couldn’t read his mind. If she had even an inkling that he thought he needed some help in the romantic love department, not only would today be his worst Fourth of July on record, but any chance of salvaging the rest of his summer would be blown.
While he’d been silently staring at his grandmother, Mia had handed out the colorful squares of tissue paper and markers. He looked at the paper in front of him, then nudged it away with the tip of his finger.
Rosa pushed it back with hers. “You need all the help you can get.”
He sighed heavily, shielded the paper with his hand, and wrote Have an awesome summer just like in the good old days. He glanced at his niece and sister, who had finished theirs and were rolling them into tight cylinders.
“Are you two writing books?” he asked Liam and Rosa when he’d finished rolling his paper into a tiny tube.
His grandmother didn’t respond, but Liam did. “Ronan’s fine motor skills aren’t fully developed, so he needs help. In case you’re wondering, he wants a cousin. Preferably before he’s a teenager.”
“Thanks a lot—”
Mia interrupted Marco. “That was my wish too, Daddy.” She then turned her earnest gaze on him. “You don’t have a lot of time, Zio. Some people don’t get pregnant right away. I’ll be a teenager in two years.”
“Try three. Besides, you already have cousins on the Gallagher side.” Before his sister or grandmother could get in on the conversation, he said, “Now what are we supposed to do? Rip them up?”
“No!” Sophie and Mia cried at same time Rosa set her rolled paper upright on the table. Before he realized what she was up to, she lit a match and touched it to the tip. The paper floated in the air and then whooshed into flames.
He stared at Rosa, who cupped her hands to catch the burning embers. “Are you crazy? Don’t catch…What do you two think you’re…?” he began when Sophie and Mia did the same. Like Rosa’s, their papers rose into the air and burst into flames. “Careful where the embers…”
“We all caught them!” Mia squealed. “Now the wishes will come true for sure.”
“Don’t you dare light yours.” Marco had just finished telling Liam when Rosa leaned over and set theirs on fire before he could stop her.
Above Mia’s and Ronan’s laughter and squealing, Marco could have sworn he heard screaming. He held up a hand. “Quiet for a sec.”
There it was again. Someone was in trouble. Liam handed him Ronan. Marco passed him to his sister and then jumped to his feet. Their pagers went off. They were on call. A recording from dispatch relayed the location of the emergency—Greystone Manor.
Liam pulled out his cell phone as they took off at a run for the manor. “It’s my uncle Daniel. He went out on a paddleboard and appears to be in distress on the water,” he said once he’d disconnected.
“Heart?” Marco asked as his own began to race. The last place he wanted to be tonight was anywhere near Greystone Manor.
“Could be anything. They never did figure out what happened last fall,” Liam said as they sprinted along the path through the woods. He glanced at Marco when they cleared the trees and raced for the bridge. People in their wedding finery stood outside the white tent opposite the pond. “You gonna be okay?”
“I’m fine.” He whipped his T-shirt over his head, letting it drop onto the grass. “Just glad I didn’t go commando today,” he said as he went to unbutton his jeans.
“You and me both. Though I have a feeling the women might be disappointed.” Liam lifted his chin at a group of twentysomething women congregated on the beach. One of them turned, her pretty face stricken. “Can you swim?” she called out. “Our husbands tried to help and got caught in the undertow.”
“Everyone wants to be a damn hero,” Marco muttered as he looked around for the groom while toeing off his running shoes. “Where the hell is Johnny?” Callie’s new husband and a member of their crew.
He spotted the bride at the water’s edge. Her back was to him, her wedding gown billowing in the light breeze off the ocean, her long, golden-blond hair streaming down her back. And just beyond her, Johnny struggled to keep himself and a sandy-haired man afloat.
Faint cries drew Marco’s attention from the two men. He squinted against the setting sun and made out Daniel Gallagher lying prone on a yellow paddleboard in the distance.
“You’re a stronger swimmer than me. You get my uncle. I’ll take these two,” Liam said as he kicked off his shoes, leaving on his board shorts. They galloped into the cold water. Liam going right, Marco left.
Callie called his name, but he didn’t have time to turn around and respond. It was more than that though; he didn’t want to see her face. He pushed her out of his mind, focusing instead on Liam’s uncle.
Marco dove under the water, coming up several yards away from where he went under. He began to swim out into the harbor, his strokes even and powerful, his kick strong. Liam was right. Marco was the stronger swimmer of the two. It hadn’t always been that way. But now his best friend had a family to occupy his free time.
In the distance he heard the sirens as the emergency vehicles raced for Greystone Manor.
Five minutes later, when the searchlights cut across the water, Marco stopped swimming to raise his arm, glad of the light, as night had fallen, the moon and stars buried beneath the clouds.
Daniel lifted his head from the paddleboard, seemingly disoriented. “Where am I?”
“Mr. Gallagher—Daniel—don’t try to get up, okay? Just stay down on the board.” He didn’t want him falling off and into the water. “Can you tell me what happened, sir? Do you have any pain?” he asked as he treaded water to the front of the board. Like most of his crew, Marco was a certified paramedic.
“My heart, I think. I had an attack last fall, you know.” His Irish accent was thick. The older man had returned to Harmony Harbor last summer, after spending the majority of his adult life in Ireland. No one knew why he’d come home.
Marco refocused on his patient. Daniel’s color appeared to be good. His breathing wasn’t labored; nor were his words slurred. And other than that brief moment of disorientation, he seemed aware of the situation. All good signs. “I heard about your attack, sir. Are you in pain now? Any light-headedness?”
“No. Although it might be the chill keeping the pain at bay.”
Possibly. An archaeologist, Daniel regaled him with stories about his digs while Marco swam the older man and his board to shore. For someone who’d been in distress not more than twenty minutes before, he appeared to be doing remarkably well. No sooner had Marco had the thought than things took a turn for the worse.
As soon as he stood up to push the paddleboard the rest of the way to shore, Daniel began to moan. Callie, who’d been standing with the crowd gathered on the beach, lifted her wedding gown and waded out to meet them. She was a nurse. Of all the things he could have said to her “You look beautiful” shouldn’t have been one of them, but that’s exactly what he said.
She stared at him, her eyes glassy. “I wish…” she began, only to be cut off by a man wading out to them wearing a soaked tuxedo.
“Baby, what are you doing? You’re going to ruin your dress.” Johnny held Marco’s gaze as he lifted his wife into his arms and carried her back to shore.
There was a whining sound just before fireworks exploded in the night sky above them. Red, white, and blue starbursts twinkled down to earth.
Daniel moaned louder when Liam and his father, the fire chief, reached for the board, pulling him the rest of the way to shore. “I’m dying. Call my daughters. Tell them their da needs to see them to say goodbye.”
“Daniel, you’ll be fine.” The chief tried to reassure his brother as the paramedics moved him onto a stretcher with Liam’s and Marco’s help.
“I’m dying, I tell you. You need to call my daughters, and you need to call them now.”
“All right. We will. Just calm down. Here comes Mom, so stop saying you’re dying.”
An elegant older woman with white-blond hair clutched Rosa’s arm as they hurried down the grassy incline. Kitty Gallagher wore low heels and a light-blue pantsuit. The two women had been best friends since grade school.
After leaving Kitty with the chief, Rosa came to Marco’s side. She smiled up at him. “You see, mio bel ragazzo. Wishes do come true.”
He bent down to look her in the eyes. “What are you talking about? You didn’t wish Daniel dead, did you?”
She cuffed him on the arm. “Stupido. Kitty’s granddaughters, they’re coming home to Harmony Harbor.”
“What does that have to do with…?” It hit him then what she meant. “No, Ma. I’m serious. Don’t even think about setting me up with the Gallagher girls.” Looking into her shining eyes, he knew to protest was useless. He grabbed his shoes and jeans and chased down his boss. “Hey, Chief. Any chance I can take my vacation time next week?”
The new plane Theia Lawson piloted flew like a dream. A good thing since her passengers were a nightmare.
She winced at the muffled sound of stampeding little feet and shrieking laughter coming through the cockpit door and her noise-reducing aviation headset. She wondered why she hadn’t anticipated the drama that would result from transporting Penelope Gallagher, her two mischievous twin boys, and Penelope’s half sister, Daphne, who’d exhibited all the signs of a fearful flyer, to Harmony Harbor.
No, Theia thought at the crash and bang that practically rattled the seven-passenger Cessna Citation, she shouldn’t be surprised there would be drama with members of the Gallagher family onboard.She’d come to know the sisters’ father, Daniel Gallagher, pretty well last fall. The man was adept at causing drama wherever he went. Obviously, he’d passed the talent on to his progeny.
The noise level in the cabin decreased exponentially when a measured baritone leveled instructions to settle down and return to their seats in a firm, commanding tone. Theia’s boss and best friend, Caine Elliot, had assumed the role of flight-attendant-slash-co-pilot today. He rarely flew as anything other than her passenger, but he’d decided he needed to go undercover to better gauge the situation with the Gallagher girls.
Theia loved Caine like a brother. She credited him with saving her life and then giving her one far better than she deserved or expected after she’d quit the navy. He was kind and generous, brilliant when it came to business.
But he wasn’t the same fair-minded, moral man she knew and loved when it came to the Gallaghers of Harmony Harbor. She might not know a lot about business, but his dealings with the family seemed underhanded and vengeful, traits she’d never seen in Caine, though she’d unfortunately witnessed them in her dealings with his grandmother, Emily Green Elliot. Theia had as little as possible to do with the eighty-year-old tyrant who kept Wicklow Developments and her grandson firmly under her dictatorial thumb.
A conversation between another pilot and air traffic control drew Theia from her thoughts about the Elliot’s plot to wrest control of Greystone Manor from the Gallagher family. The pilot flying up ahead reported turbulence. There had been a chance of thunderstorms this morning, but she’d factored them in to her fight plan.
She glanced at the weather radar. There was no change in precipitation levels, but that didn’t rule out clear-weather turbulence. After activating the fasten your seat belt signs in the cabin, she pressed the comm button on the audio panel and spoke into the mic on her headset. “For your safety, please ensure your seat belts are fastened, as we may be entering an area of turbulence.”
She was about to ask Caine to do the same but doubted he’d hear her above the noise. It sounded like the three-year-olds were throwing a tantrum due to being restrained.
“Get hold of your demon spawn before they kick out a window and send us to a watery grave!” Daphne yelled.
Without warning, the remarks triggered a barrage of memories for Theia. A vise tightened around her chest, making it difficult to breathe. Sometimes that was all it took, just a throwaway remark or a simple sound. She held her breath for seven seconds and then pushed it out for eight. In and out until the tightness in her chest finally released.
Pushing the vestiges of murky memories from her mind, she muted the comm on the audio panel. She wasn’t backsliding. This was just a blip. Her PTSD was under control. She hadn’t had an episode in almost a year. Switching on her headset to talk to air traffic control, she requested permission to increase elevation.
Her gaze flicked to Caine as he entered the cockpit. She welcomed the grin that curved her lips at the sight of his disheveled dark hair and his untucked white shirt, the look of frustration etched on his handsome face. The Gallaghers had clearly tested the limits of her typically unflappable boss.
He took his place beside her. “Don’t even,” he muttered as he put on his headset.
She waited until the plane leveled off at the new altitude and she’d checked the radar to respond. “Bet you wish you’d listened to me and drove the Gallaghers to Harmony Harbor instead of flying them to their father’s deathbed. You’re a much better driver than you are a co-pilot. Plus, you look good in Harry’s uniform,” she said, referring to Caine’s personal driver.
“Yes, but I’d have to pay attention to the road. And as you so sweetly pointed out, you have no need of my services. This way, I can spend more time observing Penelope and Daphne.”
“How’s that working out for you?”
“Smartass,” he said without heat.
“So I take it Penelope and Daphne, like the rest of the Gallagher family, have bought into Daniel’s deathbed act?” She couldn’t believe they’d fallen for it the first time, let alone a second.
“They have, but I’m not convinced the soon-to-be-ex Mrs. Gallagher has. Tara won’t allow Daniel’s youngest, Clio, to fly over.” Tara and Clio lived in Ireland.
“Three daughters by three different wives. He’s quite the lad, our Daniel is,” Theia quipped, though she honestly wasn’t surprised. Daniel Gallagher was a handsome charmer who had a way with women.
Personally, she liked the man. He was interesting and engaging, and beneath his gregarious bravado, she’d caught a glimpse of a man who wasn’t as happy or as confident as he appeared, which she found kind of endearing. It didn’t mean she approved of what he was doing behind his family’s back. In her book, you were loyal to your family no matter what.
Even if that family included an uncle who could barely look at you now and cousins who’d tormented you growing up and hadn’t outgrown the habit. Her aunt loved her at least.
Thoughts of her family carried with it the memory of their last visit two and a half years before, days after the accident. Theia cleared her throat in an effort to get rid of the emotion the memories evoked.
“It’s probably a good thing there’s only two to deal with. From the little time I’ve spent with them, there doesn’t appear to be any love lost between Penelope and Daphne. I imagine throwing a third sister into the mix would make it that much worse,” she said, her voice huskier than usual.
“You’re probably right, but it would carry more weight if all three of them were here to demand their shares of the estate be sold immediately.”
She pressed her lips together to keep from voicing her disapproval of the plan. It was none of her business, and she had no intention of sticking her nose where it didn’t belong. She’d grown fond of the Gallaghers in the short time she’d stayed at the manor last fall, but she loved her job and couldn’t afford to lose it. Her salary was more than generous. Without it, she wouldn’t be able to make amends to the family who’d lost their husband and father because of
her, or to sleep at night, or live with the guilt of what she’d done. What she’d failed to do.
Besides, she considered Caine family. She owed her loyalty to him, not to the Gallaghers.
“I know how you feel about this, T, but you don’t know the entire story. Emily—” He broke off to stare straight ahead. “Trust me, I have good reasons for what I’m doing.”
She’d known all along that his grandmother was behind this, but she couldn’t call him out on it, could she? Emily was his family. And, like Theia, he believed you stuck by family no matter what. As far as she knew, his grandmother was the only family he had left. He was an adult orphan like her.
Actually, she wasn’t positive she was an orphan. She’d never known or met her father. Despite her mother dragging her to Ireland every summer to search for the man she’d proclaimed to be her grand passion, the love of her life.
Theia rolled her eyes. As far as she was concerned, romantic love caused more trouble than it was worth. Especially the head-over-heels kind. Or, as she thought of it, the kind of love that made you lose your mind. It wasn’t that she was against the whole marriage thing. She wanted a family. Eventually. She just didn’t have time for one now. Even if, at thirty-four, her biological clock was ticking so loudly it was getting hard to ignore.
But ignore it she did. She had a debt to pay. And until she’d paid it, she didn’t deserve to be happy. She scrubbed her hand over her face, refocusing on the job at hand.
“I’m sure you do have a good reason, Caine. But all I care about right now is that we’re flying back to New York at five like you promised.” She glanced at him. “We will be, won’t we?”
The sooner she was gone from Harmony Harbor the better. Pretending to be someone he wasn’t might not bother Caine, but it bothered her. A lot.
“You have a hot date you didn’t tell me about?”
“Okay. Relax. As far as I know, we’ll be leaving at five. I was a little busy trying to corral the terrors, so it was tough to get a read on how Daphne and Penelope feel about the Gallaghers and the manor. I got the impression they’re not overly fond of their father.”
Theia laughed. “The master of understatement. They hate the guy. Can you blame them? It sounds like once Daniel was done with the mother; he was done with the daughter.”
“Yeah, he’s not going to win Father of the Year. Which is why I suggested he tell Daphne and Penelope that he wants them to keep the estate in the family. Given how they feel about him, that should ensure they do the exact opposite. It works in our favor that they both could use an influx of cash. Penelope and her husband recently separated, and Daphne was on the losing end of her divorce settlement.”
Since Penelope was a marriage counselor and Daphne a divorce attorney, Theia could understand how their marital problems might affect their professional reputations and negatively impact their incomes. She imagined their careers of choice also added another layer of conflict to the sisters’ already difficult relationship. Still, she thought her boss might be forgetting one important detail.
“I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but you do realize that seven of Colleen Gallagher’s great-grandchildren are firmly in the Save Greystone Manor camp, right? And trust me, if you think the pushback from the Harmony Harbor Business Association to your Main Street development is tough, they have nothing on the Gallagher great-grandkids.”
“You hate to be a Debbie Downer?” Caine snorted a laugh. “T, you’re one of the most pessimistic people I know. But I appreciate you pointing out the possible snag. It’s one of the things I love most about you. Even when you don’t agree with me, you’re always looking out for my best interests. You’re the one person I can count on to tell me the truth.”
It hadn’t done her a lot of good in this instance. He had a blind spot when it came to the Gallaghers and the estate. He’d already found a loophole that would allow him to buy Penelope’s and Daphne’s shares. It was how he planned to get the other Gallaghers to sell that worried her.
Not my monkey, not my circus, she thought. Still, she couldn’t keep herself from saying, “Yeah, you can always count on me to tell you the truth. I just wish you’d listen to me now and again, especially when it comes to this. If you’re determined to go ahead with it, you have to handle every last detail. Big or small. You can’t allow your grandmother to get involved in any way. Look what happened two years ago.”
Theia had been new to Wicklow Developments and hadn’t been Caine’s trusted confidante at the time, but she’d heard what had happened when Emily had been running the show in Harmony Harbor. It was why Caine had asked Theia to go undercover at the manor last year.
“You don’t have to remind me. It’s not something I’m likely to forget.” Even if it wasn’t his fault, it was obvious Caine still felt guilty about not keeping a closer eye on what was going on in Harmony Harbor when a woman whom Emily had hired was murdered. Just not guilty enough to walk away from Greystone Manor. “It’s also the reason why—”
Whatever he was about to say was interrupted by chatter over the radio. They were in for a bumpy ride. Caine sighed and went to undo his seat belt. “You got this?”
“You’re kidding me, right?” It would take a lot more than a little turbulence and an incoming storm for her to require her co-pilot’s assistance.
“Can’t blame a guy for trying,” he said as he went to unfold his six-foot-four frame from the seat just as an alarm sounded. “What the—”
Theia scanned the panel for the problem, refusing to let the shrill beeping sound mess with her head. “Looks like our fearful flyer decided to calm her nerves with a cigarette. Better get her out of the bathroom before we hit turbulence.”
She wasn’t sure Caine heard her over the toddlers yelling fire and Penelope banging on what Theia assumed was the bathroom door. She didn’t bother giving her safety spiel over the comm. She’d let her flight attendant handle their passengers while she avoided the turbulence as best she could. She looked at the weather radar while talking to air traffic control, calculating their chances of making it to Harmony Harbor before the approaching storm.
Ten minutes later, they were through the worst of the turbulence. Better still, it sounded like Caine had calmed the nerves of all four Gallaghers.
She activated the comm, relaying to her passengers that they would be landing shortly and to please keep their seat belts fastened. She imagined Caine had already ensured that they did. Theia silently echoed Daphne’s cheer that they’d soon be landing. Not only would Theia be rid of her passengers shortly, but she was confident they’d beat the incoming storm. More important, according to the weather radar, the system would clear out before her departure time of five. She mouthed, Woo-hoo.
Caine entered the cockpit looking worse than he had before.
“Not your usual love bite,” she said with a nod at the teeth marks on his tanned forearm.
“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”
“No, I—” She broke off, frowning when someone began yelling in the cabin, and it wasn’t the terrors. Not the little ones at least. “Is she saying ‘fire’?”
Caine turned and ran. In his hurry, he forgot to close the cockpit door. Theia caught a glimpse of Penelope on her hands and knees in the aisle.
“What were you thinking, giving them your purse? You should have taken out the lighter!” she yelled at her sister while patting the carpet under the seat.
Theia’s mouth went dry. The threat was real. She’d assumed Penelope was being dramatic.
“I didn’t give it to him! H-he must have…Mon Dieu, we’re going to die!”
“No one is going to die. Out of the way, Penelope, and get the boys buckled,” Caine said, taking her place on the floor. Seconds later, he shot to his feet, his eyes meeting Theia’s as he rushed toward the cockpit.
“How bad?” she asked, hoping her hair hid the perspiration beading along her hairline.
He had to raise his voice to be heard over the twins, who were hysterically crying. “Can’t be sure, but better to err on the side of caution and have the fire department meet us on the tarmac.”
A tremor ran through her, and she gave him a jerky nod. She activated her comm, relaying the situation to air traffic control. Caine reached for the Halon extinguisher to the right of the co-pilot’s seat.
She glanced back at Daphne, who began her We’re going to die chant again. Her face was frozen in terror, her hands clutching the armrests in a straight-armed death grip.
“Stop it. Stop saying that! You’re scaring the boys,” Penelope screamed at her sister. Which seemed to work, at least on Daphne. But the twins instantly picked up where their aunt had left off, and then Theia heard the pounding of little feet and one of those brothers screaming, “Help! Save us!”
Some of Theia’s tension eased when Caine, who’d been having trouble getting the extinguisher to release, stood with it in his hand. But no sooner had he turned to head for the cabin than the little boy screaming for help burst into the cockpit, hurling himself at Caine’s legs and throwing him off-balance. All six feet four inches and two hundred and twenty pounds of Caine landed on Theia, slamming her forward. Her face smashed into the instrument panel, while her hands jammed against the controls. The plane banked sharply to the right.
“Theia!” Caine shouted as the momentum threw him off her.
She pushed herself upright, her vision blurring as she absorbed the sights and sounds around her. Caine was now on the floor, his feet anchored against the backs of the seats to keep the g-force from throwing him and the crying little boy he protected with his body around the cockpit. The twin’s brother, mother, and aunt were hysterical in the cabin.
Theia wiped away the moisture dripping into her eyes, surprised when her hand came away bloody. There wasn’t time to worry about her injury. The Cessna’s nose was down. They were going into a death spiral. She’d been in one before. They didn’t both make it out alive. The faces of Caine, the Gallagher sisters, and the little boys filled her mind. Everything inside her froze at the thought that they’d die on her watch.
“It’s not the engine. You’re good. You’ve got this.” Caine’s calm, confident voice penetrated the panic that held her in its icy grip, snapping her out of it.
She forced a grunt of agreement past her lips as she pulled the throttle back to idle and then brought the nose up. She squinted past the blood dripping into her eyes, trying to focus on the navigation equipment. A muffled cheer filled her ears, and then the voice of the air traffic controller. She flew the requested pattern with no problem, ensuring both she and the plane were fit to land.
Focused on proving that both she and the Cessna were good, Theia hadn’t noticed the quiet that had descended within the cabin. Caine must have gotten the little boy back to his seat the moment the plane leveled off. She glanced at the cockpit floor. There was no sign of blood, other than her own, but she needed to know everyone was okay, and whether the fire in the cabin was out. Instead of reminding her already traumatized passengers that they weren’t out of the woods yet, she activated and deactivated the seat belt sign a couple of times to get Caine’s attention. Hoping he’d be in a position to notice.
He practically burst through the cockpit door. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m good. How about you and the little guy?” She frowned at the expression on his face. “What is it? Is the kid not okay? The fire’s spread?” Her heart leaped to
“You’re hurt. You’re covered in blood. Dammit, T, this is on me. I should have shut the cockpit door. Made sure the kids were buckled in,” he said as he rooted around onehanded in the back pocket of the co-pilot’s seat. He must have found what he was looking for because he straightened, then leaned toward her.
“Caine, I’m good. I’m fine,” she said when he began gently cleaning the blood from her face.
Theia never let anyone know when she was hurting or scared. Even Caine, who was pretty much her closest friend in the world. She hadn’t told him about the almost incapacitating panic she’d dealt with when she first got back in the cockpit. After the accident, she thought she’d never fly again. If it weren’t for Caine, she probably wouldn’t have. But she’d never let on, never let her guard down, never let him see the crippling fear that would overtake her at the most unlikely of times.
Her uncle, the colonel, had taught Theia to never let anyone see her sweat or see her cry. To show any sign of vulnerability or weakness was to allow the enemy to see it too. Her male cousins had done a good job of beating the lessons into her, as had the navy. She’d learned to hide her emotions very, very well.
“The little guy, the fire, that’s what I’m concerned about.” She pushed his hand away. “Stop. I need to prepare for landing, and I need to know what we’re dealing with.”
He made a frustrated sound before he reached for his headset and took his place beside her. “Other than being terrified to leave his seat, the boy’s fine. I don’t think we have to worry about the rest of them either. I wish I could say the same about the fire. There’s no flame, but there is smoke. I can’t get the extinguisher to work. It must have gotten damaged when I dropped it. I soaked the area with water, but—”
“You think it’s under the floor.” She scanned the instrument panel, looking for signs they had an electrical fire onboard. She didn’t see anything so far. Although she did see signs of the incoming storm. The winds had started to pick up but not to a worrisome level. Visibility was still good. It wouldn’t be long before it wasn’t. She contacted the control tower while doing a quick prelanding check of the equipment. “Cessna Citation one three five, ready for
She didn’t have to state the runway. It was a municipal airport with only one runway, which could be tricky with crosswinds. She was okayed to land. Her heart pounded at the line of fire trucks and ambulances awaiting their arrival. She prayed they didn’t need them.
Her prayers were answered. As soon as they’d taxied to a stop, she unbuckled her seat belt and stood. She locked her shaky legs, fisted her trembling fingers, and gritted her teeth when a wave of dizziness washed over her.
“Get the Gallaghers off as quickly as possible and hold back the fire department. I want a chance to deal with this on my own.” The last thing she wanted was for them to tear her new baby apart for no reason.
“You need to get your head looked at. Let the professionals…All right.” Caine held up his hands and then grabbed his black uniform jacket off the back of the seat. Recovering his black hat from the floor, he fitted it on his head and pulled the brim low. “On this plane, you might be the boss, but I’m your boss on the ground. You’re getting checked out whether you like it or not.”
Theia rolled her eyes as she followed him out the cockpit door and then winced. Maybe she wouldn’t fight too hard when he demanded she let the paramedics look her over. She didn’t have to worry about him getting the Gallagher party off the plane immediately. They did that all on their own with murmured goodbyes.
No apologies or thanks for the ride, she noticed. Though she supposed she couldn’t blame them. She wasted less than a second thinking about the Gallaghers and moved to the seat where the little pyromaniac had been sitting. No sooner had Theia pulled back the carpet than she heard the clump of heavy boots in the aisle. She lifted her head to peek between the seats. A firefighter in full gear filled the space. She gave a panicked yelp at the sight of the hose in his hands and shot to her feet.
“It’s all right. I—” A blast of water knocked her on her butt.