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Here is a fun preview of The Summer of Second Chances, my romantic women’s fiction novel which releases July 11th. Hope you enjoy!



The Summer of Second Chances by Miranda Liasson, publishing July 11, 2023

This material is copyrighted and may not be copied or used without permission.


About the book:

Darla Manning has survived cancer so she can survive anything–including having to work closely with her ex-husband to help their best friends have an amazing summer wedding in their quaint Victorian beach town. Her cancer is cured, but what remains is a lifetime of tests and follow-ups. While Darla has survived, she’s not truly living. Nick Cammareri knows he failed Darla in their marriage, but now he wants to show Darla that he’ll be there for her no matter what. And the more time he spends with her, the more he realizes that he wants Darla in his life for keeps. As they enjoy another couple’s wedding festivities, he decides to remind her of their own love story and show her that, this time, he’s here to stay. But when Darla has a test scare and other secrets come out, will she only push Nick away again, or can she leave all her fears behind and live life to the fullest?


Chapter 1

The reason Darla Manning had bought the most sprawling, contemporary beachfront house in Seashell Harbor, New Jersey had nothing to do with proving her success. Nope, she’d bought it because she knew beyond a doubt that Nick Cammareri, six feet two with eyes of blue, would never set foot inside any structure that wasn’t—well, vintage. No quirky curves, outlandish gingerbread trim, or a turret…no Nick.


Nick was the construction manager of the Cammareri Vintage Remodeling Company. And her ex-husband—her youthful mistake and the man she’d divorced almost a decade ago. Keeping him out of her home and her life sounded so good in theory. But in practice, it was another story.

Darla ascended the twenty-two steps up to the aqua-painted double doors of her home with her bulging suitcase and the backpack containing her precious laptop in tow. She couldn’t even see the ocean yet, but its salty tang awakened all kinds of feelings. Love of her town. Of her friends and her family. A sense of finally being home, and also a bone-deep sadness that she wasn’t going to stay.

What ifs were as plentiful as dandelion seeds. It was best to blow them away to the wind and be done with them for good.

She’d bought her house a few years ago, but she’d spent the past year in California taking advantage of a wonderful position to teach at a college creative-writing program. It had been hard being a continent away, trying to purge her mind of Nick, but it had been good for her, and she’d done it. All she had to do these next few weeks was make certain the feeling of being over him stuck around long enough for her to put her house on the market so that she could return to accept the permanent position she’d been offered.

She’d already gotten the wheels in motion, calling the premier real estate agent in town to list the house.

At the top of the steps, she glanced over the railing just as the mid-June sun was taking its final plunge over the water. In the waning light, the row of beachfront houses was a pastel ribbon of salmon, aqua, and pale yellow.

It took her breath away. The familiar coastline, the cheery colors, the ocean as her backyard, with its endless white-capped waves playfully rolling in as if nothing sad in the world could ever happen. She had so many wonderful memories growing up along this sunny shore.

The other memories—of her failed marriage, of her hard road to overcoming cancer—she tried hard to forget.

She was very, very grateful to be a Hodgkin’s disease survivor. But sometimes, even three years after she was declared cancer free, she felt that she was still in survival mode, not living mode.

She punched a code—which was, ironically, HERE2STAY—into her door lock and pushed. The doors opened with a surprisingly loud squeak, probably from not being used much in the past year. She took that as a reassuring sign that Nick had definitely stayed away—because the fixer in him would never tolerate a squeak like that.

A gust of sea breeze blew through the great room, fresh and clean. Definitely not the dust-laden stillness of a house that had been shut up for a year. There was something else in the air—the scent of rich, bold coffee. It instantly brought Nick to mind because he loved craft coffee. Did home invaders make coffee?

More surprises awaited. Her new kitchen backsplash was a stunner—a blue iridescent tile with a pattern that reminded her of waves sparkling in the sun. She touched the tiny tiles, admiring the intricate and artistic design, and a glance at the enormous wall of windows showed one of the glass sliders fronting the beach to be open.

It occurred to her that maybe she should drop everything and run before she ended up like the poor hapless victims in the bestselling thrillers she penned. But just as she stood there contemplating her next move, a head popped up from the couch.

A big, massively furry head, with a long pink tongue and a very bad haircut.

“Woof!” the interloper said, placing his massive paws on the back of her very expensive couch, done in a color her designer called “aqua heaven,” a blue that perfectly matched the color of the ocean outside.

“You’re not a scary home invader,” she said. The dog made a move as if to scramble over the sofa but appeared to suddenly remember his manners.

Unlike her best friend Hadley, who owned an animal shelter, Darla was not enamored of pets. And she had no idea what kind of dog she was looking at. A sheepdog, maybe? White face, gray ears and back. Hair seriously in need of a stylist (probably even more than hers was after nearly twenty-four hours of air travel). With one lethal shake of his head, dog hair flew. All. Over. Her. Couch.



She did not almost laugh out loud at the expression of insta-love on the dog’s dopey, drooly face as he cocked his head to the side, assessing her. Despite herself, she took a cautious step closer.

“Well, hello to you too,” she said. She was wary of animals and wasn’t sure if she should reach out a hand.

There was a bit of a standoff as the dog assessed her. Apparently deciding that she would do just fine as a petter, the dog struggled for purchase on the plush cushions and then galumphed over the couch to get to her quicker.

“Ouch,” came a groggy voice from the couch. “Watch it, Boss Man.”

Darla froze, her hand midpet, as the tones of that voice vibrated through her in a startling, unwelcome way. It was low and deep and gravelly from sleep, and so heart-stoppingly familiar that she was hit with a truckload of unwanted emotions.

Shock. Surprise. And yes, anger that speak-of-the-devil Nick was, indeed, in her home. Calm down, emotions, she warned herself. You’ve worked hard to be in control. Don’t screw up now.

She was ambitious. Driven. Fiercely independent. She’d conquered her rogue feelings about Nick. This was only a test, one that she would pass with flying colors.

The dog jumped up and licked her, this time on the face, probably because, in her distracted state, she’d slacked off on the petting.

“Down, Boss!” her male visitor reprimanded, but not very harshly. Nick was easygoing, slow to anger, and typically didn’t demand much of people. Or pets, apparently.

Or himself, as their five years together had taught her. The ginormous Boss lived up to his name by ignoring Nick’s command and bounding over. She shook his massive paws, trying not to get thrown off balance by a dog who was nearly as tall as her own five feet two, gently placed them on the floor, and patted him on his shaggy head.

Naming a dog Boss was asking for trouble from the beginning. That dog should be named Fireball or Tornado or Chaos. That was how she succeeded in her job as a top-ten thriller writer. She had careful control of words, sentences, and of course, her characters.

That was how she kept cancer out of her mind.

And that was how she planned to keep Nick out of it too.

“Sorry about that,” Nick said, flying off the couch and attempting to finger comb his dark, wavy hair, which was completely the opposite of her fine, curly, blond hair. And which made him hot in the way that attractive guys are who don’t give a fig about their appearance.

Which threw her off balance in a completely different way.

“The backsplash is beautiful. Thanks. The floor looks great too.” Darla kept her gaze everywhere but on Nick, trying not to focus on the fact that her ex-husband happened to be shirtless. With fine, broad shoulders and a tapered-down waist. And, she noticed with chagrin, he was barefoot in a faded, worn pair of jeans. Feelings tumbled around her head willy-nilly—he had beautiful long-fingered working hands, beautiful feet. Okay, fine, he was gorgeous everywhere. And his laid-backness clearly didn’t extend to his workout routine. Because the ripples of muscle on his chest were prettier than sunshine on the bay.

“Hey, Darla.” After all this time, she still felt the burn of Nick’s gaze as it flicked quietly over her in assessment. And the rumbly cadence of his voice vibrating through her, reminding her of a casual, careless cowboy who’d just slugged a shot of tequila.

“What is it?” she asked. He was staring at her.

He pointed to her head, rotating his finger in a circle in the air. “Your hair. It’s…”

Her hand flew upward. “A mess. I took the red-eye, but we had a rain delay in Denver. Long night.”

He reached over like he was going to gently finger a curl. Then he seemed to realize that wasn’t appropriate and dropped his hand. “It’s…long.”

Three years after the chemo, it had finally reached her shoulders, a real feat with curly hair that just kept…curling up. At last, it was the length it had been BC, Before Chemo. Before she’d found a little, seemingly insignificant lump in her neck that had changed her life forever.

On the outside, she now looked just as she had before all of that. But she doubted she’d ever feel like her old happy, carefree self again. The battle for her life had banished that woman forever. But she’d always attacked all her problems with a vengeance. She prided herself on that. To the world, Darla Manning appeared to have her shit together. She’d made certain.

She shrugged. “It’s been three years.” And if she made it through her upcoming barrage of blood and other screening tests without a sign of the cancer returning, the prize was relative relief from worry…until next year. The fear and overwhelming sense of dread that was now at its height would temporarily abate. She’d have a ticket to ride the bus of life through another year to continue her plans and dreams.

“Three years,” he mused. “It’s a milestone.”

“One I’d like to forget,” she quipped. Then immediately bit her lip. Nick tended to make things come out of her mouth—honest things—that she later regretted.

“No,” he said, his gaze bearing down on her with a solemn, intense expression. “It should be marked. Celebrated.”

She waved her hand in a dismissive gesture. “I’m not sentimental like you.”

“Yes, you are,” he said. “You just don’t show it.”

“You don’t get to analyze me anymore,” she said quietly.

“You’re right,” he said, his tone dry. “Because we don’t have a relationship, do we?”

“What does that mean?” She threw her hands up in the air. “Of course, we have a relationship. We’re exes.”

He gave a lazy shrug, but the intensity was back in his gaze. “We were best friends for years.”

She snorted. “A lot’s happened since then.”

“Just to clarify,” he said, “I’m not looking to be best friends. Just friends would be nice.”

She held up her hands in surrender. “I have nothing against being friends.” If only she could squish Nick Cammareri firmly in the friend box and shut the lid. Trouble was, he kept spilling out.

Oddly, he grinned. “Good.” He petted Boss, who was now sitting patiently at his feet. “So why did you come back early?”

Shouldn’t she be asking him why on earth he was here? While she tried to figure out a calmer way to ask that, she said, “I’m on a deadline, and I have a million things to do.” She thought about telling him that she was headed right back to the West Coast as soon as she could, but she didn’t quite know how to bring that up. Or, more truthfully, she was avoiding the subject.

She noted the subtle disapproving lift of his brow. “Writing and teaching. Still working yourself to the bone, I see.”

She waved her hand in a whatever gesture. “The price of success.” Add your marriage into that calculation too, a little voice inside of her whispered. That had been a victim of her success too.

“Yeah, well, as far as your health is concerned, maybe that’s too high.”

“My health was fine until I walked in and you made my blood pressure skyrocket,” she snapped.

“I’ve always been good at that,” he said with a pointed expression that told her he wasn’t talking about anger. Why did he look at her like that, with a gaze that reminded her of things he was capable of doing that she had no business remembering?

That caught her off guard and made her blush—again. Before she could think of a clever retort, he said, “All I’m saying is that your friends are worried about you, but they don’t want to say anything. Maybe I’m just concerned too.”

“Thanks for that. But I think we’d better just stick to the facts. Like, what are you doing here?” Darla switched to her no-nonsense voice. The one that made her twin five-year-old nieces stop fooling around and listen up immediately.

“Oh. That’s…a long story. Can I get you a drink?”

He was asking her if she wanted a drink? In her own home?

The familiar irritation welled up, fortunately tamping the sex appeal down. “No drink, Nick. Just answer the question.” Her house was just twenty years old, not one hundred–plus like nearly all the homes in their charming beach town. She’d caved and given him a key to redo her kitchen backsplash, at his insistence. And okay, he’d also offered to sand and refinish the wood flooring while she was away. But those projects had been done months ago.

Also, she knew him well enough to know that he was stalling.

He sighed heavily. “My roommate just found out he’s leaving for air force training on Monday. His fiancée had to switch her shifts at the hospital to get the weekend off and—”

Why did a thirty-seven year old man have a roommate? She bit back the question. Their old friends had all settled down with jobs, relationships, and houses. His lack of doing so was even more evidence of his continued lack of maturity. Too bad she still found herself trying to avoid looking into his soulful eyes that, come to think if it, sort of matched the dog’s.

As if Boss read her mind, he rolled over on his back and gave her that you-know-you-love-me-already look.

“And you came here?” She practiced calming breathing, like her therapist said.

The goal was to get him to leave, not engage him. Yet, after five minutes, here she was, irritated as all get-out.

He gave a lazy shrug. “Far be it from me to stand in the way of young love.”

She rolled her eyes.

“The truth is, they’re really noisy. The bed squeaks, the headboard knocks against the wall, and…”

She held up a hand. “Okay, spare me the details.” He was messing with her, being Nick. She could tell by the mischievous twinkle in his eyes as he embellished the facts. Or at least, she hoped he was embellishing. Unfortunately, her brain had taken that info and twisted it into things she didn’t want to remember. She shook off the old memories, peeled his gray T-shirt off the back of her couch, and handed it to him, trying not to notice that it was soft and warm and smelled like his soap. The same familiar scent from so long ago, her nose remembered perfectly.

He didn’t take it.

Please take it, she wanted to say, and cover up those pecs already!

“Maybe you can go to your dad’s.” There. She had no problem being assertive with anyone else in her life.

“Except Dad has Mayellen over, and I feel awkward going there.” Mayellen was his dad’s longtime love, and Darla was so happy for him. He deserved happiness after raising all three of his kids alone. With a pang, she remembered how much she missed Angelo. Divorce did bad things to a lot of your other relationships too.

That was just like Nick. Assuming he could stay here. Using his charm to get what he wanted.

He hadn’t changed one bit.

With big, broad shoulders, the callused hands and rugged tan of a working man, and thick, wavy hair that was never completely in place but looked perfect anyway, Nick still had every single trait that pushed all of her attraction buttons. And all the traits that irritated her to death too.

Nick placed his hands on his hips. “I texted you, but when I didn’t hear back, I assumed it was okay. Hadley told me you were flying in tomorrow.”

“Wait, you—” she scrolled through her phone and found a text. Hey, Dar, something’s come up. Okay if I stay over at your place this weekend? Call me back and I’ll explain.

He did sometimes text her. About tile colors. The flooring. All the little details of her remodel. If they stuck to basic conversation like that, they were fine. Because bad things happened when they started to veer off the road into emotional territory. More evidence that it was time to end it. For both their sakes.

“How about going to Tony’s?” His brother was dating her best friend Hadley, and the quaint, old cottage they’d bought was in the middle of a huge renovation.

Nick let out a heavy sigh and leveled a practical gaze at her. “Dar, please let me stay for tonight. Tomorrow I’ll figure something else out, all right?”

Dar. No one else called her that. She used to love how he said her name. But now he said it like she was the one being unreasonable, not him.

Was she unreasonable? A glance at her watch said it was eleven o’clock. She threw up a mental flag, too exhausted to argue. Besides, her house was huge. If he stayed in one of the extra bedrooms, she probably wouldn’t even see him. “Fine.”

“Great.” He flashed a smile that threatened to make her knees go weak. “You won’t even know we’re here.”

Right. “Okey dokey,” she said.

Nick wheeled her suitcases past the kitchen toward her bedroom. “Hey, I made some pasta. With broccoli. You hungry?”

Broccoli? she almost said. She couldn’t recall Nick ever eating anything green.

Her stomach gave a loud rumble, but she ignored its complaint. “Thanks, but I ate at the airport.” She stifled a yawn. “And I need to get to work early, so I’d better get to bed.” She gathered her purse and her computer. There was a time when she would’ve sat down with him and shared food and asked about his family. His dad was surely getting close to retirement age. And his sister, Lucy, who was just finishing her first year at the Culinary Institute of America in upstate New York; how was she taking the move with her almost four-year-old daughter? But chitchat wasn’t going to do anything but muck up her feelings even more.

“Of course, you do.” He said it like nothing had changed. She would always be Darla the workaholic, and he’d always be laid-back Nick.

“Well, good night.” As soon as she started down the hall, he stopped her.

“You sure you want to go to bed?” He turned red. “I mean, are you sure you want to go to sleep?”

It was her turn to blush. “What?” Did she hear that right? “You aren’t propositioning me, are you?” Because that would be…embarrassing. And of course, nothing she would ever want.

“No! Of course not.” He sounded adamant.

Oh, okay. Good. She should have felt relief, but she was too confused. “I really have to go to the bathroom.”

He hesitated. “I—um—maybe that’s not such a good idea.”

She raised a questioning brow. “It is if I don’t want to pee on the floor.”

He hiked a thumb behind his shoulder, pointing to the wing of the house opposite her bedroom. “Maybe you could use that bathroom.”

“Good night, Nick,” she said in a firm voice. Enough was enough. She finally broke away, wheeling her bag down the hall.

Now she just had to break away mentally too.

Chapter 2

Nick sat down on the couch, the dog glued to his side, glancing at the second hand on his watch. Five, four, three, two…he braced himself for impact just as Darla came running back into the living room.

She appeared in front of him, her hands balled into fists, lips pursed as she clearly struggled for calm.

Even now, Darla could enter a room and leave him not knowing what hit him. Mowing down his common sense. Filling his senses with her beautiful face, her curly blond hair, and her warm brown eyes. Looks that were deceiving because she often presented a tough don’t-mess-with-me demeanor. But underneath lay a warm heart and a wicked sense of humor that made her unlike anyone he’d ever met. Tangling up his emotions and filling him with wanting. Still.

He cursed silently. “I started on your bathroom a little late, and the tile was delayed. Sorry it’s a mess in there.” He’d meant to tell her, but she’d thrown him by showing up a day early. And just being in the same room with her again had made all his thoughts scatter.

“Did we actually talk about redoing my master bathroom?” Now she was waving her arms. Not good.

“No, but you told me you hated it. And you did pick out that tile.” She probably thought he’d procrastinated, but he hadn’t. Nor could he blame it on the fact that he’d had papers and projects for his MBA program, on top of working full time with his dad. She didn’t know this, but the tile she’d fallen in love with had been out of stock for months. Finally, he’d managed to order it—from Italy. But it had gotten stuck on a cargo ship somewhere out at sea. He’d meant to surprise her with the whole project being done, but now she was coming home to a mess.

“I hate a lot of things. Crowds. War. Brussels sprouts…” She counted on her fingers.

Somehow, he was relieved he didn’t make the list. On the other hand, if she kept going, he was certain she’d call out his name.

The Nick she used to know would’ve been quick to make excuses. But he didn’t have to make them now.

He was great at irritating her, sometimes on purpose. That hid the attraction that still flared between them. Yes, it was much better to have her think he was a deadbeat because he felt too much in her presence. Wanted too much.

And he’d hurt her enough.

Oh, he hadn’t cheated on her. But he’d been jealous of the time she’d spent building her career at a time when his was languishing.

She’d filed for divorce. And in his anger and hurt, he’d said fine.

He hadn’t fought for her. Like his own mother when he was young, who’d left him, Tony, and Lucy silently in the middle of the night, never to return.

No stick-to-it-iveness. His dad had made it a point not to criticize their absent mother, but that was what was implied.

“The tile just arrived to the shop,” he continued, shaking off the memories. “It’ll take me a week tops to put your bathroom back together. And now that you’re home, you can give me your approval on the fixtures that I thought would look nice.”

Something in her eyes softened. “Well, it was nice of you to tackle my bathroom. So…thank you.”

He nodded the you’re welcome. Seemed like he was always trying to show her that he’d changed. He’d fixed her rotting porch roof with the slow, undiagnosed leak. Redid her plain, boring backsplash. Her kitchen floor. And now her master bath.

He’d fixed everything he could get his hands on but their broken relationship. Done everything but tell her how sorry he was that he’d screwed things up between them.

Maybe it was time for him to move on and let the past lie, like she clearly wanted to do.

But that was the thing about living in this town. You saw your whole past every single day—every person, every mistake. It was actually one of the things he loved about it—there was no running.

He did his best every day to show that he’d turned into a capable, hardworking person, even if he couldn’t quite shake the image of the immature young adult he’d been.

“Nick, I—I just wanted to tell you something,” she said. Her eyes were a warm, gentle brown that reminded him of a doe, a comparison she used to hate. He remembered being eighteen and thinking he’d never seen anyone with eyes like that, with gold flecks that could look cool or fiery, depending on her mood. And he still hadn’t.

“Sure. What is it?” A thought occurred to him. What if she was about to tell him that the cancer was back? That sent a shudder through him. “Are you—are you okay?”

“Of course, I’m okay.” Her irritation was barely disguised. “It’s not always about my health.”

“Sorry. I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions.” It was just so hard when he was the last to know anything. But he couldn’t tell her that.

Her face crumpled. “No, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have snapped.” She rubbed her temples. “It’s been a really long day.”

Always with the apologies. Both of them were quick to smooth things over without ever going deeper. “I’ve got a crew coming here first thing in the morning so we can get that bathroom done.” She looked super unhappy at that, so he added, “I’ll tell them to come at ten. That way you can sleep in a little.”

“Okay, thanks,” she said. “I appreciate it.”

“What was it you wanted to tell me?” He vowed not to jump to conclusions, whatever she said.

She gave him a wave as she headed toward the hallway. “Not important. I’m going to crash. See ya.”

“Oh, I almost forgot.” He got up and fished around in his pocket. “My guys were back there drilling out the floor, and I found this on your bureau.”

As he held out the antique ring, she recoiled. Which threw him, because he knew it was important to her. “I trust my crew,” he said, “but sometimes we have delivery people coming in and out, and I didn’t want it to lie around and take a chance that some dishonest person—”

“Thanks. It belonged to my great-great-grandmother,” Together they examined the large, sparkly gem with an old-fashioned filigree band. There was no mistaking it for a unique piece. It wasn’t a precious gemstone, but Nick knew it was precious to her in other ways. “I would hate to lose it.”

He looked up at her, so close that he could reach over and kiss her cheek. “The ancestor who started the home for unwed mothers, right?”

Darla nodded. “Yep. She was amazing.”

He knew a whole lot more about that ancestor than Darla thought he did. She stood there, palm open, waiting for him to drop the ring in. “Well, it must run in the family then,” he said, which made her blush.

He was digging himself a hole. He decided at the last minute to place it carefully into her palm, curling her fingers around it.

Her lashes fluttered, and she looked up at him.

His heart gave a jolt. She was still just the same. A complex mix of vulnerability and emotion, shielded by a huge suit of invisible armor. He knew who she was underneath the armor, and he yearned to connect with that person.

Nick saw everything in that look. Confusion, pain, annoyance. But something else too.

A tiny flicker of attraction. Heat. Still there, after all this time.

And despite himself, he felt a strange sense of hope.

Chapter 3

Darla did not want that ring. Yes, her great-great-grandmother Amelia Manning was a kick-butt trailblazer and way ahead of her time.

The ring was pretty too, at first glance looking exactly like a diamond, but it was really one of thousands of bits of quartz that had bumped their way down watersheds from the Catskills, getting polished and hewn along the way, and often ending up on local beaches—and then in a lot of the local gift shops.

It wasn’t a diamond, but it was priceless to Darla. Amelia had left a bad marriage, bought the ring, and pretended to be a widow so she could buy property. Hence the “amazing” part.

The property she bought was an old Victorian with a wraparound porch a few blocks from Main Street, taking in unwed mothers who had no place to go, teaching them life skills like personal finance and childcare. She helped them get jobs and sometimes, when she could beat down the summerhouse mansion doors of the very rich and plead her case, even educational opportunities or apprenticeships.

Darla often bolstered herself by thinking that just a hint of her ancestor’s gutsiness might run in her blood. Could courage be inherited? She hoped so.

The weird thing was that Hadley and Kit, her two best friends, had both found love while wearing the ring. It had been Darla’s idea to give it to each of them over the past two summers to serve as a little shot of courage when they’d needed it most.

But Darla was interested not in finding but in forgetting, and she didn’t even take the ring to California.

Also, the irony was not lost on her that the ring had just been handed back to her by the guy she’d spent the past year trying to forget.

As much as she yearned to learn more about her bold ancestor, there was no way that she was going to put that ring on now with Nick standing right there. So she set it on her bedside table, vowing to put it in somewhere for safekeeping in the morning.

She sought out a bathroom in the same part of the house Nick was sleeping in, but as far away from him as possible. She skipped the shower and just brushed her teeth, hurrying back to her bedroom as quickly as possible.

Then she threw on her favorite T-shirt that read I’M AN ENGLISH MAJOR, YOU DO THE MATH and sleep shorts and climbed into bed with her laptop, settling in to write just a few words until she got sleepy.

Any words counted at this point. Stalker X, the book she was contracted for, was coming out more along the lines of an enemies-to-lovers romance. No terror, no suspense. She’d been struggling for the past three weeks to turn it into the book she was supposed to be writing.

But Darla was tired. She couldn’t even remember the last time she’d taken a full weekend off. It seemed that the more successful her books became, the faster her publisher, Crime Scene Publishing, wanted her to write them. Which had initially seemed like a good problem to have. She’d handled the stress and strain of deadlines without missing one in all this time. But for the first time in her career, the winds had blown her way off course.

She picked up the ring and tried it on, examining its sparkle. “Hi, ring. Instead of a man, please bring me an idea so that I can save this book.” She let out a chuckle because—well, she was appealing to a ring. “Although being married to my work is probably not a good idea. But what I really need is a mysterious man named Stalker X that I can invent to save my neck.”

As Darla looked at the tiny, glinting facets, she wondered again about her ancestor. Internet searches that she’d done hadn’t turned up much about her life. While Darla was home, she vowed to stop by the library or historical society and get help with some local research.

Darla felt certain that Amelia had faced a lot bigger problems than fixing a book. She’d led her life boldly and bravely and against the grain. She hadn’t let anything stop her.

Like fear. Which reminded Darla that her cancer checkup was forty-eight hours away and counting. Tick tick tick.

Maybe she should wear the ring. To remind herself to be brave too.

A few minutes later, she’d dozed off for the tenth time, only to jerk her head up to find that she’d left an entire paragraph of zzzzz on her screen. She was exhausted. She was stressed. And distracted by the bizarre presence of her hot-but-troublesome ex right down the hall.

Rubbing her temples, she did the math for the thousandth time. Two thousand words a day times a month till her deadline was still doable but felt impossible unless the ideas started flowing. Finally, she shut her laptop, slid it under the bed, and immediately sank into a deep sleep.

She was awakened sometime later by her doorbell ringing, followed by banging at the front door. Giant “woofs” sounded out, and doggy toenails clicked on her polished wood floor. She threw on her robe and charged down the hall, suddenly having to contend with a one hundred–pound dog excitedly running circles around her while the knocking continued.

“Boss! Hey, get over here,” Nick said, grabbing the dog by the collar as he approached the door from the opposite side of the house.

One glance showed him to be wearing a sleepy expression from just being awakened and little else. He was shirtless—again—with soft gray sweats, his thick, wavy hair tousled and sticking up a little on one side, once again stirring up memories of tender moments she didn’t want to remember.

As the light from the hall fell on his smooth planes of muscle and his toned arms,

she froze. A rush of heat flared up inside, and for a second she forgot about the pounding, which was now accompanied by giggling and laughing, meaning in all likelihood that her friends were on the other side. Nick glanced up and caught her staring at him full-on. Which made him break out into a slow, sure smile.

Darla put her hand on the doorknob. “I am not staring at you,” she said. Just in case he was thinking that.

He held up his hands in surrender. “Hey, I never said you were.” But his smirk proved he thought otherwise.

“What time is it?” she asked.

“Almost midnight.” He looked through the sidelight. “I don’t believe this,” he said.

Darla walked up behind him. The sharp, spicy, masculine scent of soap and shave cream wafted toward her. Yep, fresh from a recent shower would be her guess.

Darla tried to shake the scent out of her nostrils. It was just that she hadn’t dated anyone in a year. Which made her way too susceptible to cloves and menthol, that was for sure.

Sure enough, outside the door stood Darla’s two best friends. Hadley, whose light brown hair was up in a ponytail, stood there staring back and holding a pizza box. Kit, who had long dark hair, waved excitedly at her side.

Nick’s brother and Hadley’s fiancé, Tony, was there too, and so was Kit’s fiancé, Alex de la Cruz.

Her best friends, ironically with his two best friends.

“I think they’ve been drinking,” Darla whispered to Nick. “They look way too happy.”

“At this point, I wish I were too.” His glance slid over to her. Suddenly she knew what he was thinking—imagining the fallout when their friends saw them together looking like—

“Maybe they won’t notice,” she said, her cheeks on fire.

He lifted a brow. “Too late now,” he said with a shrug. “They’ve seen us.”

“Why don’t you have a shirt on?” Her words slipped out in an irritated tone.

“Um, because I don’t sleep with a shirt.” He flashed her a pointed look.

She felt another blush overtake her face. Because she knew that that wasn’t all he didn’t sleep with.

“Also, I rushed out here to save you from potential home intruders. I didn’t have time to put one on.”

Darla sent him an oh well glance and threw open the door.

“You’re back!” Hadley cried, passing the pizza box to Tony, who caught sight of Nick, his brow immediately shooting up in surprise.

Darla went into a hug huddle with her two oldest and dearest friends. Except that the giant dog tried to join in. Hadley, who ran an animal shelter, crooned to Boss, making him even more excited.

Despite the antics of the hairy party crasher, it was a thrill to see her friends again after so long. That made her happy but also hurt her heart because California was a long way away.

“Oh!” Kit said, a hand suddenly flying to her mouth. Her expression grew puzzled as she looked from Darla to Nick and back again.

Oh fricking no.

Darla looked down at her pink robe. And her T-shirt. And dragged her gaze over to Nick, who was standing there in all his shirtless glory. Except Nick hadn’t flinched. Whereas she was wrapping her robe tightly around herself and wanted to disappear into the floor.

Tony, a big guy with a tight end’s body, gave a fake cough. “Hope we’re not…interrupting.” Tony, a young-Tom-Brady-kind-of-famous football player until an injury sidelined his career, had returned to Seashell Harbor, reassessed his life, and opened up a crazily popular restaurant called Cam’s Place. Most people called him Cam, but Darla never had, probably because she’d known him since high school. Nick loved his brother and had never resented his fame, but calling Tony Cam seemed, to her, to omit the fact that Nick was a Cammareri too.

“Oh, Darla.” Hadley, who was always exuberant, immediately wrapped her arms around her. “You guys got back together. I knew it would happen!”

Over her embrace, Darla telegraphed Nick a do-something look. And in response, she got…a shrug.

Yeah. Like either of them could actually fix this mess.

“It’s not what it looks like—” he offered.

“What exactly is ‘it’?” Hadley bit down on the insides of her cheeks to keep from laughing.

Darla tried to sound as controlled and no-nonsense as usual. “Nick was here when I got in, working on some projects. He needed a place to stay for tonight.”

“Right.” Kit, her kind, empathic friend who tended to believe everyone, said it like she didn’t believe it at all.

“Projects.” Tony looked his brother over with a huge grin. Alex cleared his throat and suppressed a laugh.

“Oh,” Hadley said in an overly cheery tone, “that makes complete sense. We actually believe it.”

“I was crashed in the guest wing.” Nick pointed down the hall. “And Darla was…over there.” He waved his hand in the opposite direction.

“Right. Way over there,” Darla said. “Complete opposite sides of the house.” They sounded…ridiculous. Even worse, they sounded guilty.

“Well, hope both of you are hungry,” Hadley said.

“Were you all out having fun?” Darla asked them. “Why didn’t you call me?”

“Tony and I were being spontaneous,” Hadley exchanged a mischievous glance with him. “We brought all this pizza from Giovanni’s, and we decided to get everyone together. Come on, let’s eat before it gets cold.”

“We should go out on the deck,” Alex suggested. “It’s a great evening.” He winked at Kit, who smiled back and blushed a little. Ever since those two had started dating last summer, Darla had never seen Kit happier. Alex too, for that matter. Kit’s six-year-old son, Ollie, was blossoming too. They’d all had hard times since Kit’s first husband, an air force pilot, died while serving, but this past year had changed Kit’s life in every way.

Of course, it was just a coincidence that Kit had been wearing the ring.

“Great idea,” Darla walked toward the kitchen. “I’m not sure if I’ve got anything to drink—” As she opened the fridge, she gave a little gasp, finding it fully stocked. Coke. Beer. Even milk and OJ and actual food like a hunk of cheese, eggs, and a carton of blueberries.

Her mom had probably done it on her way to work her twelve-hour ICU shift at the hospital, which, come to think of it, she should just be getting off from now.

Before she could say anything, Nick shrugged and reached past her to pull out the beer. “Nothing worse than coming home to an empty fridge,” he said with a grin as he grabbed a pizza box and headed outside.

Okay, shocker, not her mother after all.

Nick stocked the fridge…for her? With other things besides beer? Who was this man, and what had he done with Old Nick?

A few minutes later, they were all gathered outside on Darla’s expansive deck, sitting around a softly glowing firepit under a starry summer sky, beautiful enough to take your breath away.

“I really missed you,” Hadley said over the gentle lap of waves beyond the deck as she pulled out a giant slice of pizza, trailed by a long, stretchy string of cheese. “Don’t ever leave again.”

“That was a really long year,” Kit said between bites. “But I’m glad you had a great experience in the writing program. We’re just so glad you’re back.”

Darla opened her mouth to tell her friends about accepting the job when Hadley grabbed her hand and held it up. “You’re wearing it.”

Oh no. She must have dozed off before she could take the ring off.

“It’s your turn,” Kit said matter-of-factly before Darla could say anything. “Whether you believe or not. And just to remind you, you’re the one who started this. So wear it and good luck.”

Darla shook her head. “Um, I suggested wearing the ring because Hadley was so down, remember? I’m more interested in making time to find out a few things about my ancestor.” But how would she ever make time for that?

Hadley smiled. “The ring came through for us just when we needed it the most. So whether you like it or not, it’s on your finger, babe. Kit’s right. It’s your summer.”

“And you’ve been working so hard,” Kit said. “It’s time to slow down and enjoy life. Maybe the ring will help remind you of that.”

Kit and Alex sat side by side on a couch, glancing at each other like…well, a couple in love. Tony and Hadley sat next to each other too, sipping from the same beer. Darla and Nick sat across from them—each alone on chairs, as far apart as it was possible to be.

Boss was collapsed at Nick’s feet, softly snoring. So even Nick had somebody, even if he was hairy and a hundred pounds of deadweight.

Equally strong as feeling quite alone was the feeling that Darla couldn’t help wanting just a smidge of that happiness for herself. A quiet but insistent voice in her head whispered, Is it too late for me?

“Should we tell them?” Hadley glanced at Tony as she polished off her last slice and set down her plate.

Uh-oh. Darla caught Kit’s gaze. Kit smiled and gave her a thumbs-up.

She would guess that excited reaction probably meant a baby or a wedding or both.

Tony grabbed Hadley’s hand in a sweet gesture that made Darla’s eyes mist over.

On what seemed to be instinct, Darla darted her gaze over to Nick to find him staring quietly at her. Instead of shifting his gaze, he sent her a little shrug that signaled he was just as surprised as she was.

“We have an announcement.” Hadley took up Tony’s hand and beamed at him. “We’re getting married.”

Kit gasped. Darla held her breath. But Alex voiced what they were all thinking. “Congrats you two, but, um, we’ve heard this before, like, a long time ago.” Hadley and Tony had planned their wedding all last year, and it had gotten bigger and more elaborate with each passing day, the consequence of Tony’s star status. Finally, they’d put their plans on hold until they could think hard about the more intimate wedding they really wanted.

“This time it’s for real,” Hadley said, her eyes dancing with happiness.

“There was a sudden cancellation at the Seaside Inn,” Tony said, referring to the crown jewel of their town, a century-and-a-half–old Victorian right on the water, a coveted venue for weddings. “We can have the ceremony and the reception there, so it’s a nice, simple solution. No muss, no fuss.”

“But I thought you two wanted it in your backyard,” Kit said. According to updates from Hadley, she and Tony were smack in the middle of renovating a quaint old cottage that sloped right down to the bay.

Darla was thrilled for her friends. But she found herself waiting to hear when the wedding was going to take place. After her deadline, she silently hoped. Which maybe was selfish of her, but she wanted to have the freedom to celebrate with her best friends.

“We did,” Hadley said, “but our remodel’s not going to be done for a few more months. And I’m expanding the cat side of Pooch Palace and Tony’s so busy with the restaurant…”

“Basically, life is not going to stop for this wedding,” Tony said.

“So when the venue had an opening,” Hadley continued, “Paula Shearer thought of me. It worked out like a charm.” Hadley turned to Darla. “It’s like…fate. I know this is sudden, but you’re home now and it’s summer and…and it just feels right.”

“We know we’re springing this on everyone,” Tony said. “But does the last Saturday of the month work for everyone? Just say the word if it doesn’t.”

Darla suppressed an anguished groan. That happened to be the exact date of her book deadline. Two weeks away.

Not to mention she had to put her house on the market. And her bathroom looked like a tractor had just plowed through it. She felt a little dizzy. But everyone was piping in with their congratulations and offering to help.

How could she tell them she was leaving now? Ugh, how could she leave these friends of her heart at all?

“The venue takes care of everything—food, music, drinks,” Hadley said. “So all you guys have to do is show up and celebrate with us.”

Tony nodded, putting his arm around Hadley’s shoulders. “What we want is a simple, quiet ceremony surrounded by our family and best friends. Nothing complicated. We hope that making it simple works for everyone.”

Darla pushed aside the sense of looming dread that tugged at her insides. She wanted to be all-in for them, but common sense told her that weddings were never uncomplicated.

Hadley was hugging her. “We waited for you to get here, and you’re done teaching. So you have time, right?”

“Of course,” Darla mustered a bright smile. “I’m so excited for you. And I’ll do anything you need to help.”

She meant it. She would do anything for her friends.

And she really needed to tell them all that she was leaving. That made her stomach churn with even more dread, so she pushed it aside. Right now, it was Hadley’s moment.

“You sound like you two have got it covered,” Kit said. “So we should plan a few activities over the next two weeks for all of us to spend time together.”

“We’d love that more than anything,” Hadley said. She gave them both a quick side hug before joining Tony as he chatted with the guys.

Weeks of fun? It all sounded amazing, wonderful…if they were any weeks but these weeks.

“Are you all right?” Kit looked her over with concern. Darla had to work extra hard not to alert Kit’s mom radar, which was always up and running.

“I’m just a little exhausted from the trip,” Darla said without hesitation. “It’s going to be great to spend time together.”

“You and I both know that Hadley underestimates any work normal humans have to do to plan an event. She’s going to need stuff.” Kit counted on her fingers. “The cake, flowers, a dress, maybe a bachelorette party…”

“She has the dress, right?” Darla said. Didn’t Kit remember the painstaking, time-consuming process they’d gone through months ago with Hadley’s mom and grandmother? Kit was staring at her, not saying anything, and that made Darla’s heart sink even more. Of the three of them, Hadley was the one who took hours deciding on clothes. Literally. Hours. And shopping gave Darla hives.

“She said something about looking for another one,” Kit said.

Oh my. The hectic events flashed before Darla’s eyes. Events that would doubtless include Mr. Shirtless and Barefoot.

She wouldn’t have the choice to boot Nick out of the wedding fun. But she could definitely boot him out of her house. Which she planned to do ASAP.

Guilt welled up that she felt so conflicted about something so joyful involving her favorite people in the world. As if Nick had read her mind, she caught him staring at her again, a look of concern on his face. But he turned away quickly to talk to his brother.

Maybe Hadley noticed because she dropped her voice and said, “Are you okay with hanging out with Nick? I’ll do my best not to pair you off together, but…”

“First of all,” Darla said quickly, “no matter what it looks like, nothing’s going on between us. He’s just being…Nick. He brought that giant dog, and he’s camping out here tonight so his roomie can spend time with his fiancée. And he’s been tearing my master bathroom to pieces.”

“Oh, Darla, that’s so sweet,” Kit, who always thought the best of everyone, said. “He’s redoing your bathroom as a surprise?”

“I didn’t ask him to do that,” Darla said firmly. “And I didn’t expect to come home to chaos.”

Hadley suddenly looked worried. “If this is too much right now…”

“Oh, Hadley, no. Never. I’m thrilled that you waited for me to come back. It’s going to be an amazing wedding.”

She would deal with the chaos and her deadline and her annoying-but-still-hot ex…somehow. And she’d do everything in her power to help her friends have the best wedding ever.


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