“Maybe we should check into a nunnery instead,” Lilly Durand murmured, taking in the tropical-hued walls, lush greenery, and colorful Moorish-tiled floor of the resort’s indoor/outdoor reception area. Where nuns are dressed in somber black and speak in papery whispers to match our bleak moods.
“What’s that?” her best friend Audra Montgomery asked dully, her gaze vague. She seemed unaware of their surroundings as her fingers plucked idly at the hem of the yoga hoodie half-covering the white lace of the wedding dress she wore. The edges of its short train already appeared tattered.
Lilly placed her fingertips at her temples and contemplated the short check-in line for the famed Santa Barbara hotel, The Hathaway at Dragonfly Beach. Rather than taking her place behind other would-be guests, she continued to hesitate, now yanking on the sleeves of the sweatshirt she wore over her silk organza maid-of-honor gown. Pretty sequined shoes pinched her toes and she decided perhaps one good thing had come out of this disaster—there wasn’t a night of dancing ahead of her in the misery-making heels.
Suddenly, a frisson of awareness feathered down her spine. Her back shot straight and then a wash of heat cascaded over her flesh, prickling all the tiny hairs. It was an unwelcome sensation she’d become familiar with over the past few days, but surely there wasn’t the same cause of it. Not now. Not here.
Pulse tripping, she took a cautious glance around the lobby. Through an archway she could see an elegant lagoon-styled pool in the distance, surrounded by lounge chairs and gently waving palm trees. Over her other shoulder, she caught a glimpse of a courtyard with tables and chairs surrounding a bubbling fountain. Visitors dressed in expensive resort-wear. Employees in starched white shirts and dark slacks bustling about. No tall, athletic figure lurked nearby, upsetting her equilibrium with his confident charm and roguish grin.
Another positive outcome of the disaster, she thought, briskly rubbing her arms to dissipate the goose bumps that invariably followed that rush of heat—she’d put distance between herself and that man.
The assertion didn’t ease the sense of foreboding that seemed to hover over her, though. Lilly decided to chalk it up to the emotional rollercoaster they’d been through that day, but it didn’t stop her from taking an additional wary look about. Across the space, in a huge mirror in an ornately carved frame on the opposite side of the room, she saw her and Audra’s reflections. Even with her face paler than usual, the other woman’s delicate beauty was undeniable. Her champagne-blonde up-do and the pale blue of her eyes gave her the look of a graceful flower in a meticulously planned and very well-tended garden—an iris, perhaps.
On the other hand, Lilly, with her unruly dark hair, blue-black eyes, and pink-cheeked complexion was the brash, stubborn weed that managed to grow between the cracks in a neglected sidewalk.
Despite their contrasting appearances—and all their other differences—they’d been fast friends since their first week in college. Audra was soft-spoken, generous, and prone to seeing the very best in people. Lilly talked fast, trusted few, and expected little from her fellow man. But Audra and the entire Montgomery family had always been exceptionally kind and welcoming to Lilly and in return she had given them her undying loyalty.
Which is why she’d do whatever she could to take this bad situation and make it better.
As if she had any certain idea on how to go about that successfully.
Taking a deliberate deep breath, she linked her arm with Audra’s. The idea of spending some recovery time at this resort had come to Lilly in the aftermath of the disaster. Audra’s dad had opined it an excellent idea and instantly offered up his credit card. The shattered expressions on the faces of both parents of the bride had underscored that they were as devastated as their daughter.
Audra’s mother hadn’t been able to stop crying and Mr. Montgomery declared he was going to take a cue from Lilly and go ahead with his and his wife’s already planned R & R trip to London for two weeks—as long as Lilly felt capable of supporting Audra on her own.
Knowing that hovering and noticeably upset parents would only make her friend more distraught, Lilly had promised she could handle it…and hoped like hell she wouldn’t make a liar of herself.
“Let’s go,” Lilly urged Audra now, stepping toward the check-in line.
The other woman didn’t move.
Turning to her, Lilly swallowed hard. There was so much pain in Audra’s eyes. “What is it, Audie?”
“Jacob,” she said in a near-whisper. “Maybe I should go back to the beach. Maybe he’ll show up there after all.”
The beach. Where there had been a beautiful rustic arbor decorated in seashells, ribbons, and draped with blue flowers just waiting for a pair of people to promise themselves to each other for a lifetime. White chairs for seventy-five guests. A string quartet preparing to accompany the sound of the surf as the bride walked down the sandy aisle.
“Jacob,” Lilly said, trying to control her rising rage at the thought of the jerk, “is not going to show up at the beach.”
“He might,” Audra insisted. “When he can’t reach me on my phone.”
Oops. That would be the phone that Lilly had hurled into the ocean after her best friend had showed her the text the groom had sent calling off the wedding. Just another of Lilly’s faults—a fiery temper, thanks to her French ancestors, she supposed. Her good arm was due to two years playing left field on the dorm softball team.
“Come on,” Lilly urged again, forcing her friend forward. “We’re going to check into this lovely resort, strip out of these fancy clothes and pinching shoes, and get comfortable.” As she grabbed the handle of one suitcase and pushed another forward with her foot, she hoped like heck that Audra had packed something more than a bunch of bikinis and bridal lingerie—she and Jacob had been planning on leaving for their honeymoon in Tahiti the next day. According to the loathsome, cowardly text he’d sent, he’d exchanged his ticket for one on a flight that left that very afternoon.
“Are you sure staying here is the right thing to do?” Audra appealed to Lilly again, looking lost and nothing like the capable PR executive she was for her father’s company in Los Angeles.
“We don’t have to,” Lilly said, not above second thoughts. Maybe it would be best to drive the couple of hours home, especially because she couldn’t get rid of the sense of…well, not exactly foreboding, but she still felt uneasy.
Uneasy and excited and wound up like she’d felt every time she’d been in close proximity to him.
“Do you want to go back to LA instead?” she asked Audra. “Or we can call your folks. I’m sure they’d welcome you on their trip to London.”
Audra shuddered. “I can’t be around Mom and her disappointment right now. I can’t face my neighbors in LA. All the explanations…”
“We’ll think about that another time,” Lilly said briskly, and now hustled Audra and their luggage to the back of the line. “At this moment we’re getting ourselves a suite.”
As they waited their turn, Lilly’s nerves jittered again. She rubbed the back of her neck and forced herself not to take another surreptitious glance over her shoulder. But damn, her instincts were on high alert, and the coiling tension was making her a little queasy.
“I’m sorry you didn’t get a chance to spend more time with Alec,” Audra said.
Lilly turned to her friend, round-eyed. Nobody had seen them “spend” any “time” together, she would have sworn to it. “Alec? ‘Sorry’?”
She gave a little half-shrug. “He seemed taken with you.”
“He would have been taken with anyone unattached, female, and in the right age range,” she said with a snort. “I know the type.”
“Lilly,” Audra scolded, though her voice sounded as tired as her dress was beginning to look. “You’re such a cynic.”
Not cynical enough to have warned her friend that Jacob was a bad bet. And not mean enough to say “I told you so” when that proved to be true. But the fact was, she hadn’t expressed any doubts about her best friend’s engagement, despite her undeniable qualms. Some people deserved to find long-lasting, stable love, she’d told herself at the time. Audra was one of them.
But now Lilly felt she’d failed the woman who was closer to her than a sister. She should have found a way to dim some of those shining stars in her best friend’s eyes.
Damn. She felt a sting in her own, thinking of Audra’s dashed future plans. And maybe you’re disappointed in yourself for those girlish fancies you were indulging in about Alec Thatcher.
“Carrie Underwood,” Lilly said quickly, drowning out that little voice in her head. “‘Before He Cheats.’” It was a game they’d made up in college, naming the right song to fit the emotional moment. “I wish we could find Jacob’s car. I’d love to take a bat to his headlights.”
Beside her, Audra went still. “You…you think he broke our engagement because of another woman?”
Shit. Shit shit shit shit shit. Of course Lilly thought exactly that. What man in his right mind wouldn’t marry beautiful Audra, beautiful Audra from a wealthy, prominent family, who was every guy’s dream of the ultimate good girl? There had to be someone else. Men were easily distracted and had no trouble moving on to the next bright shiny thing dangled in front of them.
“Sorry,” she muttered now, guilt twisting with the tension in her belly. “Don’t listen to me. What do I know?” Except that there were dozens of ways for so-called “love” to go wrong.
It’s why she’d stopped believing in it—at least for herself.
Smart, right? Look at Audra, who’d grown up with every advantage, every emotional support, and still ended up with a broken engagement and likely a broken heart to go with it. While Lilly hoped her friend would pick herself up and brush herself off after this—and fully intended to do her best to get Audra back on her feet—it was going to be hard not to worry about her friend flinging herself headlong into her next romance. But Lilly had no doubt that her bestie would do that very thing, once she healed.
And with that abundance of goodness inside of her, Audra might be able to have it all the next time around.
Now if her last name had been Durand…that was a whole different proposition altogether.
This is how Durands love, her aunt had told her once upon a time, sweeping up the shards of a beer bottle that had been violently flung against a wall.
That’s when Lilly had started wising up.
Which didn’t explain the, well…giddiness that damn Alec Thatcher had made her feel.
Damn Alec Thatcher. She was going to think about him like that for the rest of her days.
No, she was going to stop thinking of him altogether. Immediately.
The next available clerk beckoned them forward. Lilly shuffled in the direction of the long, gleaming reception desk, each hand fisted around a suitcase handle, Audra trailing behind her. With dismay, Lilly realized the employee waiting for them was a young man. What would he think of their strange half-wedding, half-Pilates class get-ups? She’d rather they’d scored one of the two female clerks standing to his right, who looked to be in their twenties and also sisters or cousins or something. The pretty women would be sympathetic to the situation and likely have the savvy not to mention their odd mode of dress.
But their guy didn’t blink an eye and took hold of the platinum card she presented. “Yes,” he murmured, starting to key something into a computer. “Mr. Montgomery already called ahead and made sure we set aside the best suite available for you.”
Of course he had. The rich really were different, Lilly thought. It wasn’t bitter, that thought, just an observation. Wealth made things so much easier.
Order the pricey wedding planner to de-construct the nuptials-that-should-have-been. Book fancy rooms at a luxe resort for your daughter and her friend.
Lilly’s mind conjured up that tall, athletic man with the charm and the grin who had been slated to stand up for the groom at those canceled nuptials.
Flirt with a woman you just met because you both were in town for the same wedding. Within hours, tow her to a secluded corner and kiss her like you’d already spent hours in bed with her, it was that intimate and panty dampening-demanding. Suggest in a hot whisper they go to this B & B he knew of at Lake Arrowhead for a weekend soon—she’d love the place, with its mountain views and in-room hot tub. He’d make all the arrangements.
Because damn Alec Thatcher was rich too.
And Lilly, giddy—yes, giddy was the right word—on whatever powerful pheromones that man oozed without seeming effort, had begun forgetting a lifetime of caution, allowing secret fantasies to unfurl like seedlings beneath a warm sun.
Stupid. Dangerous. Foolish.
“You’re all set,” the clerk said now, handing over a pair of keycards in paper sleeves. Next he whipped out a map to draw the route to their bungalow nestled amongst the lush greenery of the expansive grounds. When Lilly assured him they could find their own way and handle their minimal luggage alone—Durands were accustomed to doing for themselves—she turned to Audra.
Her best friend’s desolate expression made Lilly’s already heavy heart drop toward her pinching shoes.
“This way,” she said gently, hooking her elbow around the other woman’s arm once again. “Let’s get on with it.”
Get on with Audra’s healing.
And the screwing-her-head-on-straight for Lilly.
No more thinking of Alec Thatcher, she reminded herself in stern tones. All the daydreaming she’d indulged in for the last couple of days during the pre-wedding hoopla was O-V-E-R. Lilly Durand would recall once more that love was just a fairy tale, and unlike Audra, she’d never been anything close to a princess.
A couple of hours later, Lilly wandered among the flourishing flowers, shrubs, and trees that served to enhance the resort’s air of opulent luxury. The paths were well-groomed and serpentine, allowing her on-and-off glimpses of the lagoon pool, a putting green, and the ocean in the near distance as she ambled, hoping for inspiration in dealing with the Audra problem.
The healing wasn’t happening…not in the least little bit.
Upon arriving inside their bungalow, Audra had zombie-walked straight into one of the bedrooms that were separated by a pretty living area. She’d crawled onto the bed and curled into a ball, still in her wedding gown and hoodie. Lilly had removed her friend’s shoes and covered her with a woolen throw…and then wrung her hands waiting for some further sign of distress…or life.
But Audra’s eyes remained firmly closed and after a while Lilly had changed into dressy jeans, a silky collared shirt, and loafers, then decided an exploration of their environs was in order. Now she felt almost guilty for enjoying the mingled scents of fragrant blossoms and salty ocean. A light melody filtered through the limbs of spreading ficus trees and graceful palms as the afternoon slid toward evening. Another guest walked by, wrapped in a terry robe with an embroidered logo—Dragonfly Spa—on the front, giving Lilly a new idea.
She’d gather up the information on the spa services, the meditation and exercise class schedules, she decided. Maybe the prospect of partaking of those would entice Audra to sit up, get out of that dress, and begin the process of moving on with her life.
In the lobby, an employee walked up and presented to her a tray of glasses filled with sparkling water and lemon slices. Lilly took one in hand with a murmured thanks, pausing to sip at the refreshing beverage.
A female voice came from her elbow. “How are you settling in?”
Lilly turned, her gaze landing on a woman in the hotel’s understated uniform of dark slacks and white blouse. She had a scarf artfully tied at her throat and her nametag read “Jessie.” One of the clerks she’d seen at the receptionist desk earlier, Lilly noted.
“Fine, thank you,” she answered.
“And your friend?”
Lilly hesitated. “It’s been a bad day,” she admitted.
“I figured as much.” The woman gave a small smile. “We hoteliers are very observant.”
“I suppose the wedding gown and bridesmaid’s dress were a giveaway. We wanted to escape the scene of the…crime as soon as possible and didn’t stop to change.”
Gleeful cries drew their attention to another part of the lobby. A small group of women were hugging, clearly thrilled to see one another.
“A reunion of old friends,” Jessie said, “a celebration for one of them who has been cancer-free for several years.”
“That’s nice.” Lilly felt her own mood lift a little.
“I’m Jessie Hathaway by the way.” The other woman held out her hand.
“Lilly Durand,” she answered, with a brief shake. “Hathaway, as in…”
“That’s right. My great-great-grandfather started the hotel. There’s more than one now, but all of us entering the family business usually begin by working here, at the original location. My brother Kane and my sister Amber are also on staff.”
“Not bad as a first rung on the corporate ladder,” Lilly said, her tone dry.
Jessie grinned. “Don’t I know it. But we do take our reputation very seriously. We strive for every guest to have the experience of a lifetime.”
“About that…” Lilly began. She cleared her throat. “I realize this is known as the place for people to commemorate happy times, but…”
“You’re asking about the Heartbreak Hotel thing,” Jessie said, nodding.
“I don’t know where I saw it referred to as that,” Lilly said, her face heating. “But the idea of staying here just popped into my mind this morning when Audra found out there would be no wedding today.”
“A while back, someone wrote a lifestyle piece in the Los Angeles Times about her beneficial experience staying here after her boyfriend dumped her. It went viral on the Internet and was followed by some TV pieces as well. Other people going through rough times reserved rooms and talked about their positive visits on social media.” Jessie shrugged. “Along the way, that nickname was coined.”
Heartbreak Hotel. Guests suffering from romantic disappointment supposedly found renewed joy in life during their time at the resort. Though feeling silly, Lilly found she still had to ask. “Is it the meditation sessions? A particular massage?”
“I wish I could point to one certain thing,” Jessie said. “But if I had to guess, I think—” Pausing, she held her hand to her ear, where Lilly could see a tiny earpiece was nestled.
“I’m sorry,” Jessie said after a moment. “I have to go. All hands on deck. There’s a missing boa constrictor.”
At Lilly’s horrified expression, Jessie began to laugh even as she hurried off. “Stuffed toy,” she called over her shoulder. “Beloved of a five-year-old guest.”
Shaking her head, Lilly moved to the concierge desk to collect brochures that listed the amenities of the resort as well as those of some local attractions. There were suggested hikes in the foothills as well as scenic beach walks. Though they were likely duplicates of what could be found in the bungalow she shared with Audra, she gathered them anyway and headed out of the reception area, back onto the paths through the grounds. As she walked, she skimmed the glossy pamphlets.
Dusk fell as she strolled, but low fixtures popped on to uplight the trees and delineate the walkways. Still, despite the illumination, Lilly found herself at a dead end, the way blocked by a discreet locked gate leading to a service area. Turning back, she berated herself for not paying closer attention to her whereabouts.
She had a horrible sense of direction and as she wandered, taking random rights and lefts, nothing looked familiar. There didn’t seem to be any people about either. Probably everyone was inside getting ready for dinner, she thought, reaching for her phone.
Which, apparently, she’d neglected to slip into the pocket of her jeans before leaving their bungalow.
“Gah,” Lilly muttered, casting her glance about for something she recognized.
Then she froze, that shiver she’d felt before once again cascading down her spine. Her hands clutched the stack of brochures and she quickened her pace, trying to outrun the feeling that someone was watching her.
One of the resort’s claims to fame was the quiet and seclusion it offered guests, but right now Lilly wished she’d stumble upon a raucous family group or the boa constrictor search party.
With her heart hammering like crazy, she forced herself to stop a moment and take a deep breath. There was no good reason for panic and it wouldn’t do Audra any good for her best friend to finally arrive back in their rooms in a state of high alarm.
Ignoring the persistent sense of eyes on her back, Lilly took a slow glance around and then headed off in what seemed a promising direction. Sure enough, after a few minutes one of the resort’s larger edifices loomed ahead. While many of the visitors stayed in free-standing villas and bungalows, there were also three two-story buildings housing more traditional guest rooms.
Right now, Lilly just wanted to be around people and she was sure she’d find an employee among them to direct her to her own place.
An ajar door beckoned, and she rushed for it, seeing just beyond it another opening—into an elevator. Such devices led to places where people congregated, she thought, even as she detected the sound of footfalls behind her.
Giving in to her unfounded alarm, she rushed inside the elevator and slapped the nearest button. A muffled voice came from beyond the closing gap. Her heart sprang into her throat as a long arm, a leg, and then a whole, tall, adamantly masculine figure made it into her small space.
The elevator doors slammed shut and then it hummed, lurching upward as she stared, aghast, at her companion.
With his wide shoulders, broad chest, and sinewy forearms, even in a pair of khakis and casual collared shirt, sleeves rolled up, he was Mr. Take-Charge. His assertive gaze and his self-possessed manner proclaimed he was born for the head of a boardroom table and in his pockets he’d carry platinum credit cards, a stainless steel smartphone, and a gold pen engraved with his initials.
No wonder her instincts had been rioting. “I never expected to see you again,” she said to Alec Thatcher, pleased she’d managed to find her voice though it sounded as breathless as she felt.
He opened his mouth, then shut it as the elevator came to an abrupt stop—between floors! An alarm sounded.
Lilly tore her gaze from the man to look at the control panel and the red light flashing there in time with the irritating, intermittent sounds. “What’s this?”
“I was trying to warn you,” Alec said, as he smacked a button that stopped the infernal beeping. “You didn’t see the ‘Out of Service’ sign on the elevator, I’m guessing.”
“No.” She backed herself into a corner as he played around with the buttons some more, clearly trying to get the car moving again. “Is it stuck?”
“So far, yes.” He glanced over his shoulder at her. Had he been sitting by the pool this afternoon, or maybe walking on the beach? Tennis perhaps, something to contribute to that annoying tanned fitness thing he had going.
His gaze narrowed. “You all right?”
“I’m perfectly fine,” she said, though he was too big and too close and her pulse was careening from point to point like a chicken with its head cut off. “But what are you doing here?”
It sounded peevish. Well, she felt peevish. She slammed her arms over her chest and thought of those weird sensations she’d experienced since arriving at the hotel. “Have you been following me?”
On a sigh, he turned and mimicked her pose, crossing his arms over his chest and propping one shoulder against the side of the stalled elevator. His dark brown eyes met hers. “Not quite, sugar. Though now it looks like we’re going to be together for a bit.”
Sugar. He’d called her that from almost the instant they’d met and it had done something to her insides, making them warm and melty. Sugar. Nobody had ever called Lilly anything close to sweet.
She swallowed, shuttering the thought. “Get out your phone. Call the front desk. They’ll send someone.”
His head shook. “Don’t have my cell on me.”
Though she’d forgotten hers as well, Lilly sent him a suspicious look. “Really?”
Damn. It’s not as if she could frisk him, Lilly thought, her gaze roaming his body. And then she considered that, running her hands over his wide chest and shoulders, down the long planes of his back, to his fantastic male ass and then around to his—
His expression registered amusement and a tinge of smugness and she realized the cocky bastard had noticed her cataloging his physical attributes. She pressed her lips together and gave him the stink eye. “Why are you here?”
“It’s a well-known hotel.”
She supposed it made sense that Alec Thatcher, accustomed to only the best, would have booked a room at this renowned resort for the night of the wedding. “Still…why are you here here?” Her forefinger spun, indicating the current four walls surrounding them.
“I saw you dash inside and was trying to get to you before the doors closed.”
“So you were following me,” she said.
“Guilty,” he answered, though he looked anything but.
“And you saw me in the lobby earlier too, right?”
He ran a big hand through his brown hair, disordering the precise layers of his businessman’s cut. “Audra too. At that moment I imagined anyone associated with Jacob might not be a welcome sight to either of you. I decided not to approach.”
Her lip curled. “But now—”
“How’s Audra doing?” he asked, his voice soft.
She wouldn’t let his gentle tone get to her. “How do you think she’s doing? She’s devastated. The future she’d been dreaming of has crumbled beneath her feet and she doesn’t know up from down at this point.”
“And you?” Alec asked, his gaze seeming to bore through muscle and bone to her vulnerable soul. “How are you?”
The future I’d been beginning to foolishly dream of crumbled beneath my feet when I was so sharply reminded of the perils of romance.
“I’m not the injured party,” she said instead, stiffening her spine, even as the walls of the elevator seeming to be moving inward and turning from steel to velvet, creating a private world only inhabited by the two of them. It had been like this from the first, their connection intimate, private. Dangerous in its intensity.
Every emotion she experienced when she was around Alec seemed brighter, hotter, deeper. Yes, dangerous.
This is how Durands love.
“I’m not the injured party,” she repeated, to make sure they both got the message.
“Aren’t you?” Alec asked, studying her face in a thoughtful way that made her hackles rise. It made her feel naked. Exposed. “You’ve clearly put your walls up, Lilly.”
“We’re almost strangers,” she muttered. “You don’t know anything about my walls.” Pushing past him, she began to beat on the control panel with her fist.
“That’s not going to do anything—” Alec began, but then the car jerked down, jerked up.
The action unbalanced her and Alec grabbed her arm to steady her. The heat of his hand transferred through the thin material of her shirt and shot like sparklers along the entire side of her body. “Let go,” she said through her teeth, trying to shake free of his hold.
His grip didn’t hurt, but it didn’t loosen either. “I’m not the enemy, sugar.”
Sugar. The word whispered through her like a yearning sigh.
Damn it! The enemy was the traitorous reaction she had to that simple word. The way the man made her soft inside when Lilly Durand needed to be strong. Independent. You could only trust yourself, she knew that, certainly not some man on whom you’d developed an out-of-character, temporary-but-now-smothered crush.
“Lilly,” Alec hauled her closer, until his nearness dizzied her. She swayed again on her feet and felt the entire world rocking beneath her.
“Lilly,” he repeated, sliding his arm around her waist now. “Are you okay? You told me closed places make you claustrophobic.”
She blinked up at him, owlishly. She’d confessed that? Surely she hadn’t added that it was because she used to hide in the closet when her aunt and uncle fought, hurling insults and household goods at each other for hours at a time.
“This isn’t happening.” Lilly put a hand to her head, trying not to let his nearness scramble her thoughts again.
Then, without warning, the elevator doors shushed open, and cold air slapped her face, driving the dizziness away. She wrenched from Alec and leaped out, onto what appeared to be the building’s second floor. Walking backward, she shot a finger at him.
“I don’t want to see or speak to you again.”