Thirty-four years ago, Bulwark, Blaze County, Texas.
Aidan Lawson stared at the bright summer day with great longing. He was trying hard to be nice about being stuck inside when all he really, really wanted was to be out riding next to his pa.
Last night, Pa had explained that he and the ranch hands were joining a posse at daybreak to track the coyote pack roaming the canyon. That was why Aidan was stuck at home today. Pa said he was too young to go coyote hunting, and Aidan had to stay behind and help his ma. Aidan didn’t agree. He reckoned six was old enough to ride with Pa, even when hunting coyote. Coyote attacked their stock, and Aidan needed to learn how to look after their cattle, because he was going to be the best rancher ever.
Just like Pa.
Aidan loved the land. He loved the cattle. He loved the horses.
Horses. Aidan laughed out loud. Any day now, his very own horse, promised to him by his pa last summer when Desert Sand became pregnant, would be born. He was ticking off the days — there were three-hundred-and-nineteen ticks so far — on the special calendar his ma had made for him. He couldn’t wait, because every cowboy needed his own horse. Horses were a cowboy’s best friend.
Aidan heard a shout from across the passage. He sighed and got up. His job today was to look after the twins. His twin brothers. He also had twin sisters. The girls were seven weeks old and sleeping outside in their bassinet under the big old cottonwood. Ma should’ve asked him to look after them, but his ma was already outside setting up for the big party tomorrow, so she was looking out for his sisters while he was stuck inside with his brothers.
He couldn’t wait for the shindig. There would be lots and lots of people, yummy food, and best of all, his bestest friend would be there. He had a big surprise for Lily. Mammy had taught Aidan to waltz, and he was going to ask Lily to dance.
“Ma said to stay quiet,” Aidan said, plodding into the boys’ room.
Raff was awake, looking out his window.
“Cotie took sissy,” the three-year-old cried, calling Aidan closer. “T’was a big cotie. Big like Pa.”
“Don’t be silly, Rafferty, coyotes don’t grow that big. They are small, like dogs. And they never come this close to the house,” Aidan explained, puffing his chest out. Being the oldest meant he had to teach his younger brothers’ important stuff.
“No! I saw,” Raff cried. “I saw the cotie pick sissy up and run away.”
“Wassup,” a sleepy voice asked from the second bed.
“Now see what you’ve done?” Aidan hissed.
“Sully, cotie took sissy! Come!” Raff pulled his twin from the bed, and the two dark-haired boys raced out the room.
Aidan rushed after them and caught them by their shirts as they reached the stairs. Raff was always up to tricks, dragging his twin along. But before Aidan could pull them back to their room, he heard his ma.
“Aidan!” Ma was at the bottom of the stairs, yelling. She had one of the babies in her arms. “Have you got Sinead?”
Aidan’s eyes grew big. Ma never yelled. He shook his head slowly.
“I told you the cotie take sissy!” Raff shouted.
Aidan slipped away from the crowd of people who’d come to his baby sister’s funeral. Cousin Jason, Pa’s mean cousin, had tracked and killed the coyote four days after Sinead went missing. It wasn’t as big a coyote as Rafferty had said, but it had blood on its mouth and fur.
His sister’s blood.
They never found his baby sister.
Aidan thought it silly to put an empty box in the ground, pretending that Sinead was in it, but Pappy explained to him that they needed closure — whatever that meant.
Mammy and Pappy were staying with them for a while, because his ma just lay in bed, crying and holding baby Siobhan. And his pa spent his days looking after Ma. Pa also cried a lot.
It was a bad time, and now the house was filled with sad-faced people, so he’d decided to come to his happy place.
“When your foal is born, I’ll look after it real well,” Aidan promised Desert Sand, rubbing the mare’s big belly. “No coyote will get to it, I promise.”
The soft voice startled him, and he peeked under the smooth neck to find his best friend peering over the stable door.
“Lily! You’re here.” He’d looked for her earlier, but couldn’t find her.
“Mama had to work, so we came after she cleaned at Miz Callahan’s.”
Lily slipped into the stall and moved a bit closer. She stood next to Aidan and reached up to rub over the broken stripe on Desert Sand’s forehead.
“She’s so soft. How long before the foal’s born?”
Aidan shrugged. “She’s at three-hundred-thirty-three days.”
“That’s a lot of days.”
“Yeah, but she’ll drop any time now. She’s almost ready. You look real pretty today.” Aidan liked the blue dress she wore. It was way prettier than her usual T-shirts and shorts.
Her honey-colored eyes sparkled as she smiled and touched the dress. “It’s new. Mama made it. And Miz Marlene bought me these new boots.” Lily lifted her one foot up to show off her dark-blue-and-yellow daisy-patterned boots.
“They’ll get dirty walkin’ around the ranch.”
“I love them.” She frowned.
“They are pretty,” he added quickly and was glad when she smiled again.
He loved to see Lily smile, because then her eyes shone like fresh honeycomb. Aidan loved honey. And he loved Lily, too. Which was good, seeing as they were going to marry when they finished school.
It was part of his plan. Aidan had lots of plans.
“There you are,” a gruff voice said, “and pretty Miz Lily.”
Joe, the ranch foreman, tipped his hat and wiggled his bushy eyebrows. Lily giggled.
“Aidan, your pa is lookin’ for you.”
Aidan and Lily followed Joe out of the stables.
Aidan was woken by Pa during the night. It was finally time. He’d waited three-hundred-and-forty-two days for this moment. He’d seen foals being born before, of course. Lots of times. But this was a special one and a bit later, when Aidan watched the foal struggle out from its mama, he fell in love.
Even covered in slimy fluids, barely able to stand on shaky legs, the little palomino was a beauty. Aidan just knew that he and Raw Honey — for that was the name of the foal, he decided — would be best of friends for many years to come.
Their next chore of the day was a trip into Bulwark where Pa had some important business to do. It was just him and his pa at the Main House, so Aidan went everywhere with Pa. Ma, his brothers and baby sister were away with Miz Marlene visiting a friend in Corpus Christi, because Ma needed a change of scenery. Aidan didn’t understand that because he thought the scenery on the ranch was just fine.
Pa dropped Aidan off at Mammy’s house. Aidan was surprised to find Miz Ivy there. It wasn’t Miz Ivy’s day for cleaning Mammy’s house, but he was pleased because that meant his friend was there, too.
He found Lily in the sandpit. She sat in the middle with her legs hugged tight to her chest, her chin resting on bony knees, and her short, straw-colored hair sticking up in all directions.
“Lily!” He couldn’t wait to tell her all about Raw Honey.
Lily jumped up quickly and tripped over the edge behind her. She fell on her butt. She looked like his new foal, all arms and legs as she backpedaled out the sandpit.
As Aidan got closer, he could see that things weren’t right. She had an ugly mark just above her swollen left eye. And a small cut, all stitched up, to the side of it where her hair stuck out straight. There was a second red mark on the side of her jaw, and her lip was cracked. Lily was full of bruises and cuts. And her face was streaked with dirty marks.
Aidan frowned. “Did you have an accident?”
She shook her head, rubbing the back of her hand over her forehead. She looked away, but her hand moved down to hold her side. “It was my daddy. He … hit … kicked me.” Tears filled her eyes. “He got real mean last night. Mama says it’s the drink … and … he doesn’t really want to hurt us. But he does. It hurts so bad,” she whispered.
Tears were running over her cheeks, and Aidan stared at her in horror.
Lily had told him before that her pa was mean and hit her ma. Aidan had told his ma about it, asking that Lily — and her ma and little sister, of course — come stay on the ranch where it was safe, but his Ma had smiled sadly and said it was a grown-up thing and not to worry about it.
He wasn’t sure what to do now. He’d never seen Lily cry before. He didn’t like seeing his friend cry.
Then he thought of what Pa did when Ma cried — and she cried lots these days — so he crept closer and sat down next to Lily. He put his arms around her shoulders and gave her a gentle squeeze, pulling her a bit nearer to him. Lily rested her head on his shoulder. Her hair tickled his chin as he turned his face toward her.
Aidan got a close-up view of the stitches. He counted them. There were five.
“Please stop cryin’,” he said, understanding now what his pa meant when Pa said to Ma, “You’re makin’ my heart hurt”. His heart was hurting for Lily, and he pressed his lips to the side of the stitches, like Ma would kiss his scrapes better.
They sat like that for the longest time, with Aidan’s thin little-boy arms wrapped around his hurting friend. Aidan told Lily all about Raw Honey and what a wonderful horse she was going to be.
After a while, Aidan crawled back onto the sand. He reached inside the big pocket of his pants and pulled out two toys. One was a brown Chevy truck, the other a Dodge cattle truck.
“This is my special truck,” he said, lifting the Chevy up in his hand. He held it out to Lily. “You can play with it, if you want.”
Lily looked at the truck and then back at Aidan’s face. She moved forward into the sandpit. She wriggled until her legs crossed in front of her and shyly took the truck from him. She had another bruise, Aidan saw, a blue one high up her arm.
She sat still for a long while, just watching him race his truck around the track he’d made, holding the Chevy tight in her hand, before she moved and joined him.
They played until a shadow fell over them.
“Mammy,” he called out when he noticed who was standing next to the sandpit. “Are you comin’ to play with us?” Mammy loved playing in the sand with him.
Mammy shook her head. “Not this time. I’ve come to fetch Lily. She has to go with her mama.”
He jumped up quickly. “No! Her pa is a bad man. She must come and stay with us.”
Mammy’s blue eyes were sad. “She will be okay, Aidan, I promise,” she said gently, ruffling his hair, “but Lily has to go now.”
Lily got up. She held out her hand to give back his truck.
He thought of how sad and hurt she was and shook his head. “Keep it. You can give it back next time we play.”
She nodded and gave him a little smile. “Bye, Aidan. See you soon.”
With a wave, she turned to follow Mammy, clutching the brown truck in her hand. Her spiky hair shone bright like ripe corn ready for harvest, and her long legs skipped to catch up to his grandmother.
She wore her blue-and-yellow daisy boots.
It was the last time he saw Lily Brown.
Present Day, New York City.
“It’s a wrap.”
Cecelia Carlsen tried to find the relief those words normally brought at the end of a standard modeling shoot. For some reason, this eight-day perfume commercial had been different.
She had worked with a dream team, from the Australian director right down to the cheerful gopher who had kept her supply of favorite herbal tea on hand. The locations had been exhilarating. She had especially enjoyed her time on the surfboard, riding the waves off the Montauk Coast. Even the costumes had been to die for, and that was saying a lot, as designer clothes were her bread and butter.
She had slipped into the storyline — a modern woman with a hectic life, trying to balance family, career, and hobbies — with surprising ease. Even without the accompanying poignant ballad sung in a low, haunting voice, the story had spoken its message of triumph loud and clear.
There had been no need to call upon her acting ability, no need to coax her body to produce the required emotion, no need to rehearse her character. Her facial expressions, her body movement, all of it, had flowed naturally. At odd times during the shoot, she even found herself longing for what her character had — a family — and the weight of the wedding band she’d worn had felt good. Comforting even.
And therein, Cecelia thought, lay the conundrum. Her intense yearning for the life so brutally ripped from her had taken her by surprise. She had made peace with her past, had closed herself to emotion — to love, to marriage, to children — many years ago.
Loving, and losingthose you love, hurt too bloody much to want to go down that road again.
“You were awesome, doll! Absolutely awesome!” Karl came up to her and brushed a kiss on her cheek.
“It is because you are such a great director, my friend.” Cecelia countered the compliment with one of her own.
“No, Cecelia, don’t sell yourself short. You have a tremendous ability to act, to use your gorgeous body to bring forth the needed emotion.” He clasped her upper arms between his hands. “I really wish you would turn to full-time acting.”
He had tried many times during the last few days to win her over to the other side.
Cecelia’s clear laughter rang through the set, turning many smiling heads toward them. “Karl, Karl” — she shook her head — “you know I would hate to tie myself to one role, one location, for so long. I love the variety modeling offers.”
“Hey, babe. Are you joining us tonight?”
Cecelia turned to the gorgeous Canadian actor sauntering her way. She welcomed his arm as it slid low down her back, his hand resting on the curve of her arse with familiarity. It hurt not one bit that her co-lead was yummy. And available. They had worked together before, had developed an easy rapport, and he had been as open to some behind-the-scenes action, delving deeper than needed to attain that magical onscreen sizzle, as she had been.
The crew were going to celebrate the wrapping up of the commercial at a top Manhattan club. Under normal circumstances, Cecelia would be the one leading the party, but tonight she was promised to her sister. It was Charlie’s birthday, and for a change, Cecelia was in the same city.
“Ah, Ricky darling, I wish I could.” Her regret was heartfelt as she answered his question. “But I have plans for tonight.” She laced her hand through his silky hair and pulled his head closer, pressing a lingering kiss to his lips. “But next time you are in New York, look me up.” She made eye contact and flashed him a wide grin.
Cecelia hoped they had another opportunity to explore their connection, but in the fast-paced world she moved, relationships, especially the personal kind, were the first to suffer, and she knew that might not happen.
“You’ve made the front page of all the gossip magazines. And sites. Again.” A smorgasbord of magazines, displaying various images — kissing, dancing, eating — of Cecelia and Ricky on location in Montauk, were slapped down before her, iPad on top, paused on the latest video of the two of them that had gone viral earlier that day. Apparently, they had secretly wed, Montauk their honeymoon.
Cecelia frowned at Charlie, catching the bite of disapproval in her tone. She had been picking up on that vibe more and more recently.
“What can I say?” Cecelia shrugged and flashed her sister a bright smile. “He was irresistible. And so good in the sack. But, alas, it was a very brief fantasy marriage.”
Ignoring the exasperation on Charlie’s face, Cecelia took a seat at the kitchen table, watching Charlie put the final touches to the celebratory meal.
“Where’s Gina? Lionel?”
Normally their housekeeper was the one puttering around the kitchen, her husband lending a hand where needed when he wasn’t chauffeuring Cecelia.
“She and Lionel went to the park for a walk. They should be home soon.” Charlie shot her a disgruntled look. “Don’t try and distract me, Cecelia. Pour us some wine and tell me why it’s been nine weeks since you were last home.”
“Nine weeks? Surely not. I was home—” Bollocks, it had been before the Cape Town shoot and that had been in February. “Charlie, I am so sorry.”
Cecelia’s remorse was genuine. It was too long away from her home, her family — the little she had left. Charlie. Her cousin Danny. And Lionel and Gina. She poured the wine into the glasses Charlie set in front of her.
“You work too hard, Cecelia. John agrees with me.”
Cecelia winced at her sister’s concerned tone. “I love my work,” Cecelia defended herself, “and John needs to stop discussing me behind my back. It will get him fired.”
Not that she would ever fire her loyal bodyguard. She considered him family, too.
“You’re burning out.”
“Am not.” Cecelia took a sip of the merlot, serenely smiling at her sibling.
“Are too,” Charlie huffed, and her light-blonde ponytail flipped around her face as she turned to fiddle with the burbling pots.
“When are you hooking up with him again?”
Charlie’s spine stiffened, and her blue eyes flared with temper as she faced Cecelia. “Don’t start.” She waved the spatula about, and Cecelia ducked a splatter of red sauce.
“Goose, gander, Charlotte. The man is an arse.”
“Don’t go there. You know it’s complicated.”
Cecelia snorted in disgust. “He has been stringing you along for years, Charlie. Years.”
“I love him, sis.” Charlie swallowed and briefly looked away before making eye contact again. “He’s getting out. Soon. Leaving that life behind him.”
Cecelia suppressed a sigh. “Oh, Charlie, I know you love him,” she said, then softened her tone. “But he said that before.”
She liked the man. To a point. Unfortunately, his continued cloak-and-dagger behavior was hurting her sister. And because of the criminal element he mixed with and the ever-present danger surrounding him, an open relationship with Charlie was out the question.
If the roles were reversed, Cecelia would have kicked the blue-eyed Texan to the curb years ago. Yet her sister clung to a relationship that was going nowhere. Love and leave ’em — even if Cecelia shared it with the entire world — was so much less complicated.
While going about her nightly routine preparing for bed, Cecelia thought long and hard about the past week and the shoot.
And her sister’s words.
Why was she so restless?
Her life had certainly not turned out as expected. Last month had been the anniversary of Edmund’s death. Twelve years since the awful day her fiancé had been brutally ripped from her life. Ruddy hell, but she still missed him so bloody much. Twenty-oh-four had been the darkest year of her life. They would have been married for these last dozen years and most likely had the four children they had planned.
Yet here she was, alone. No husband. No children.
She would be turning forty next January. Half her life was behind her, and what did she have to show for it? A healthy bank balance, a tenuous relationship with her sister, a cousin whose past was as complicated as Cecelia’s own, a few loyal staff members.
And a boatload of regrets.
Maybe it was time to retire from the limelight and concentrate on more important things in life. Give more time to the Solace Foundation. Visit with friends. Find a man to settle down with.
Hmm, it was her best friend’s birthday next month. She should plan a trip to Boston, spend time with Jules and Manny, her husband, and their boys. Her godsons were the closest she’d ever get to having children. She did a quick calculation and realized it was five months since she had last seen them. Thanksgiving, to be exact. Julia Marconi had been true to form then, offering her opinion without being asked.
“You cannot continue to flit from photoshoot to runway, from fancy nightclub to some exotic island vacation. And I am not even going to mention the bed-hopping you indulge in.” Julia sliced the air with her hand in a decisive manner.
“I have commitments,” Cecelia snipped in reply. People relied on her, and she had millions of dollars of contracts waiting.
“You’re burning out, Cecelia.” Julia’s arms flew around in dramatic emphasis. It was a habit she had picked up from her Latino husband. “When was the last time you took some time out and gave your life serious consideration?”
Cecelia conceded there might be some truth to that statement.
Her work schedule was exhausting. But, bloody hell, she liked being busy. As to the bed-hopping …
“I do not have a husband with whom to … indulge. I have needs. Physical needs. I like sex.”
Jules’s eyes narrowed, and a smirk formed around her mouth. “Maybe it is time we found you a husband.”
“Ruddy hell, Jules, you just said I need to stop flitting around. How on earth will I find a husband if I do not ‘flit’ around?”
“No, no, no.” Jules shook her head from side-to-side. “You will never find a husband amongst the men you … whatever … with.”
“Date, Julia. Men I date.”
“No, my dear friend, you don’t date. You purposefully choose men you’ll never settle with, and you use them and discard them. They are all ego-filled, narcissistic, vapid wimps who enjoy hanging onto your famous arm. You need a real man, one who won’t put up with your bullshit.”
Jules just smiled, her light eyes brimming with amusement. “I’m going to find you a husband, Cecelia. Mark my words.”
“Was Jules right?” Cecelia asked her reflection in the mirror. She put the brush down and deftly separated her hair in three sections and twisted a braid. Tying it off, she sauntered to her bed and slid between the soft sheets. Cecelia switched the light off.
Was she sabotaging her own life? she mused.
But that was what she wanted.
No attachments. No expectations. No commitments.
Ugh! Bloody commercial making her long for things she could not, dare not, have.
Two days later, London.
The brown, mid-thigh, double-breasted trench coat was a sumptuous blend of wool and silk. And very slippery. Especially on the mostly nude body wearing it. Cecelia sighed. She had a devil of a time keeping the weighty outfit covering all the necessary bits. Double-breasted did not equate to keeping both breasts covered.
Click. Smile. Click.
Cecelia moved in time with the music.
Click. Click. “Lift the collar a tad.” Click.
She loosened her hand slightly. The material slipped — yet again. Cecelia cursed through her smile. She tightened her grip and pulled it up. “Who on earth,” she muttered, smile — click, click — “wears a coat” — click, tilt, smile, click — “on a naked body?” Click.
But she laughed with the others on set. Tilt. Click. Slip. Pull up again.
“Expose more shoulder, darling.” If she could just drown out that bloody click sound.
Click. “Both shoulders now.”
It was getting on her last nerve today rather than be the beat she worked to. Click. Click.
“Look over your shoulder at me.” Click. Click. Click. Bollocks!
And finally, “Take a break.”
Cecelia gratefully pulled the lapels closed and did up the buttons. She walked to the side of the set to join the others as they browsed the various images on the screen. Cecelia let out another sigh as she slipped the four-inch ankle boots off, rotating her foot one way, reversing the direction, and then swapping to the other foot as she watched the slideshow play. The images were good. Very good. Not that she ever had any doubt. Even with her fight to keep her breasts covered, she managed to appear natural yet seductive, creating the necessary look for the images.
“Fabulous, babe. Absolutely fabulous. We’ll do the cream one now.”
The new coat, as luxurious an item as the previous one, was even more treacherous with an asymmetric front, which meant the panels didn’t quite meet below the waist. At least the flesh-colored G-string, as miniscule as it was, covered that which needed to be concealed.
Cecelia was by no means a prude, and she trusted the photographers she worked with to respect her no ‘nipples and pubis’ rule, but not every person on the set was trustworthy, and unauthorized images had made their way to the media a few years back. Cecelia worked hard to keep her brand family rated. One of the duties of her bodyguards, something John Smith, her head of security, was anal about, was to ensure it didn’t happen again — mobile devices were prohibited within the studio.
“You look gorgeous,” the stylist gushed as she adjusted the waves of blonde hair cascading about her shoulders.
Cecelia had to agree with her as she gave herself a critical once-over in the multiple mirrors. The cream wool looked stunning against her tanned skin, and the style suited her natural shapely body, showcasing her best feature — her endless legs.
The call reached the dressing area, and after a last dusting of powder, Cecelia made her way back to the changed set and took her place on the cushions on the floor.
Then it was more of the same.
“Move your head.” Click. Click. “Yes!” Click. Ugh, bloody camera!
Click. “A bit more leg.” Click. Click. “Ah, beautiful.”
“That’s gorgeous.” Click. “Hold the collar open … just a bit more … yes.” Click. “Yes.” Click. “Yes.”
Cecelia moved her hand just in time as the jacket slipped.
Click. “Yes!” Click.
Cecelia’s head was starting to pound with each click.
“You are being sneaky, Monty,” she accused as she flung her head back with forced laughter.
Click. Thump. Click. Thump.
“A bit to the right. Turn.” Click. Thump. Click. Thump. “Smile.”
She grimaced as the cramp took hold. That too? “Sod it all, Monty, my leg is killing me. Bloody killing me!”
“Just a few more.”
Cecelia smiled big, ever the professional. She stopped hearing the clicking — finally — thanks to the headache and the cramp.“Beautiful.”
“Collar up.” She moved the collar. “Look down.” She looked down. “Beautiful.”
Cecelia could not go another minute. She collapsed to the mat and groaned, gripping her knee to her chest to alleviate the cramp.
“Okay. Okay. Take five.”
The shoot wrapped up around six that afternoon, but it was after seven before Cecelia managed to leave the studio and succumb to the exhaustion from working since the ungodly hour of five that morning. Whoever thought modeling was glamorous was sorely mistaken. She snuggled deeper into the soft hoodie, relaxing against the plush rear seats of the hired Jaguar. Too tired to even update her social media with news of her day, she was already dreaming of the heavenly bath waiting for her at the hotel, knowing the hot water and pulsing jets would ease the ache of her weary body.
She had no idea what to do with the overwhelming sense of nostalgia that had plagued her since Montauk. Bloody hell, maybe she was getting too old to continue at this pace, but what else would she do? It kept her busy. It kept her from thinking and from wanting things that couldn’t be.
Cecelia tried calling Charlie, desperate for her sister’s counsel, but Lionel told her she was at a two o’clock matinee with Gina, and they were getting dinner out afterward. Cecelia spent a few minutes chatting to Lionel before asking him to have Charlie call her back tomorrow as she planned to make it an early night in.
The call came in the early hours of the morning, rudely jerking her from her much-needed sleep. Nothing good ever came from a call at that time. This one was no exception.