Excerpt: Barefoot Beach

CHAPTER 1

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?”