Warmly cocooned under the covers, Trish Barton shifted her legs. Still half asleep, she imagined a man’s strong arms drawing her closer. Denis. Had they just made love, her tissues still swollen and pulsing? She slid her hand across linens as if stroking his hard chest, but unlike his skin, the linens were cool, even though she imagined his heart beating as rapidly as her own. She sighed and slid her other arm out from under the covers.
The late fall breeze caressed Trish’s cheek and coaxed her to wakefulness. She sensed the hint of rain and the salty tang that characterized Schooner Bay, Oregon. Her family’s beachfront cottage perched only twenty feet above the beach. Why must I wake up when dreaming about him is so delicious?
“Patricia? Are you awake?”
Her eyes popped open in surprise.
Denis Haider stood next to her bed. He leaned down and brushed Trish’s cheek with his sensuous lips. “You really should lock your door, my love. Even though it made it easy for me to bring you coffee.” He held up a large mug. Steam curled above it. His voice rumbled from deep in his chest, sending a delightful shiver through Trish. “I should have called first and told you I was on my way, but I wanted to wake you.”
Trish sighed. “I dreamed about us.” She imagined her cheeks turning bright pink when he smiled, as if he suspected her imaginings.
“What I dream of, too.”
She shook her head, hoping to dislodge her most recent thoughts. “You know we can’t be together, Denis, not that way. Not until after my divorce is final. I couldn’t bear it if anyone found out.”
“I understand, but won’t you let me hold you?” he crooned as he set the mug down. He moved toward her and looked as if he was going to slide under the covers.
“Are you going to try to change my mind?” Her cheeks flamed again. I’m a grown woman. Why must I blush like a teenager?
He grinned, sat on the edge of the bed, leaned forward and nibbled her earlobe. “You read my mind.”
Trish clutched Denis’s hand. Lying next to him would feel good, better than good, she surmised. But she’d promised herself not to do anything that might upset the oh-so-tippy apple cart of her impending divorce. If Richard found out… They were still legally married.
What was a safe subject? “I love the sound of the waves, don’t you?”
“Not as much as I adore being with you. A miracle I do not deserve.” Denis kissed her forehead, then her lips. “You stay warm, under the covers. I will make you breakfast.”
She grasped his arm. “Not yet. Stay here for another few minutes. I want to savor this.” Her heart filled as she gazed at him, the man she’d fallen in love with and then lost more than twenty-five years earlier. His Austrian accent was less obvious than she remembered, probably because he had been living in San Francisco for the past three years. Trish reached up and stroked his cheek. His deep brown eyes were like Chet, their son, who Denis never knew about until four weeks ago.
He brushed her palm with his lips before he eased away from her bed. “You are too much of a temptation.”
“It’s not that I don’t want to, Denis.”
“I cling to that thought.” Denis tucked the blankets closely around her.
Denis’s presence was a daily reminder that her future now held the promise of real happiness. Happiness that had paled and disappeared during her conflict-ridden marriage, despite her fulfillment through her parenting of Chet and her stepson, Eddie.
“When do you have to go back to San Francisco? We’ve had so little time together.”
Denis’s dimples winked at her. “I’ll return soon. I came down with Noreen and her family and they expect me to go back with them. But I will return. So I can to watch the spectacular winter storms. Like I did last year and the year before that. Perhaps you will join me?”
Trish sighed. “I’d like that.”
“Good. I’m not sure my cousins fully understand about us. They have concerns that I spend too much time with you.” He laughed. “They don’t want to believe that I, almost fifty, have found love again. I have to convince them you have stolen my heart again, that I must come back to be with you. So you can— how did you put it the other day? —have your way with me.”
Trish grinned. She loved Denis’s tousled look, reminding her of the young man she’d first met during a family vacation at the beach when she was twenty, and he twenty-three. The gray hair at his temples highlighted the deep brown of his thick hair, and added to his mature male beauty. Trish shifted under the covers when Denis turned toward the door, so relaxed in his masculinity.
“I am ‘smitten,’ dear Patricia. The word York, Noreen’s husband, used. Since I found you again, I am always smiling when I play with little Beatrice.” He stepped toward the window. “I will tell them I do not intend to lose my beautiful American jewel again.” He closed the window. The muscles of his shoulders bunched under his shirt. “It’s colder this morning than yesterday. Those clouds look to be carrying rain. A typical October morning in Oregon. Will you walk with me after breakfast?”
Denis smiled at her. “I will have the waffles ready in a few minutes.” He strode in the direction of her kitchen and Trish reluctantly left the warmth of her bed.
While in the shower, she hummed to herself, thinking back on all that had occurred since she had arrived at the cottage. “Langley’s Love Nest,” the wooden sign carved by her father, still hung crookedly next to the door. Chet had called her, insisting that she come to the cottage right away, though he hadn’t said why.
Trish had suggested that Chet propose to Jane at the old beach house. Two days after her arrival, Trish had waved them off, eager to renew her acquaintance with Chet’s dad, whom she had mourned as lost in a boating accident. Trish smiled as the water slid through her mostly-auburn shoulder-length hair. Chet, the image of Denis when he and Trish had met and fallen in love. Chet, whom Denis had first said looked like his twin brother, Hermann, drowned in that boating accident, his body never found.
Trish sighed, certain she would descend into loneliness after Denis left. But returning to Evergreen, Washington, wasn’t an acceptable option. She’d fled the mansion to avoid Richard, whom her attorney had served with divorce papers. Being alone here meant she could relax and not have to think about her attorney’s orders to write up a list of the property she wanted. Put the house on the market, decide which furnishings I want to keep, which ones I’ll put in storage for Chet and Jane after they are married. Talk to Eddie about any personal items he might like.
Her heart clutched, thinking of Eddie, her grown stepson, the little boy she’d raised since her marriage to Richard. Eddie looked so much like his father, except that Richard had a pronounced paunch and Eddie was toned and athletic. Probably because he made a point of working out in the gym. She recalled her most recent conversation with him, over dinner, a week before she left for the Oregon coast.
“Dad’s pushing me to get married.” Eddie had raked a hand through his thinning blond hair.
“He doesn’t want you to be alone, hon,” she’d replied. “Or have you got someone in mind? Are you afraid he might react badly to your choice, like he did when Chet brought Jane to the party last year?”
The heightened color that climbed his neck had confirmed her suspicions.
“Why don’t you bring her over to meet me, Eddie?” But he’d just shoved his chair back from the table and reached for his jacket.
“Maybe later, Mom, after the divorce.”
Startled at his abrupt reply, she’d asked, “You think I might not like her, or is it something else?”
“I know you and Dad are having issues. Probably why he’s been such a pain in the ass at the office the last few weeks. More than after he had it out with Chet.” He picked up his briefcase, placed near the door when he’d arrived for dinner. “Wish I had Chet’s guts. Standing up to Dad like he does.” Eddie’s admiration for his younger stepbrother was another bone of contention with Richard, Trish knew.
“Chet takes care of himself, sweetheart. And now, he’s taking care of Jane. Protecting her. That’s why he stands up to Dad.”
Eddie had nodded. “I know.” He’d chuffed out a quick breath. “Not that Jane can’t stand up for herself. She told me what happened when she met with Dad last summer.”
Trish recalled her husband’s comments about how Jane had refused his low-ball offer for her duplex, and what the young woman had said when he’d walked into Chet’s apartment and found her there. Yes, Jane is courageous. Just like Chet. They deserve each other.
Trish had walked into her older son’s arms for a good-bye hug. “She’s strong, but she needs Chet’s support, too. Any woman would want that from the man she loves.” Freeze-framed images of those times when she’d sought Richard’s support and come up wanting had flashed through her brain. But she hadn’t taken time for regrets, aware that something was bothering Eddie.
She’d turned back to him. “You take care of yourself. And this new person you love,” she’d added before kissing his cheek, his late-afternoon stubble scraping against her lips. She wanted him to tell her about his friend, so she wouldn’t have to guess or ask, but the way his gaze had slid away had told her Eddie wasn’t ready.
“Will you call me when you decide to introduce us? I’m going to the beach house for a few weeks, but I’m happy to come back early if you want me to. After my alone time. You won’t tell your dad where I’ve gone, will you?” She’d patted his hand. She had yet to tell Eddie why she needed to get away. Perhaps he suspected, now that Richard was no longer living at home.
“It’ll be our secret. He’ll probably figure it out if he comes over and you aren’t here.”
Trish glanced out the window of the cottage at the breakers climbing the beach as she pulled on her clothes. She wondered how long Richard would wait before going to the house to try again to talk her out of the divorce. He’d called a few times before she’d left town. But she could guess why he insisted on calling, even when he hadn’t raised what she knew was on his mind. He’s afraid I’ll turn him down again if he asks me not to go through with the divorce. Richard hated being thwarted, especially by her.
Trish brushed her hair, allowed the slightly damp ends to air dry, and wandered into the kitchen. The scent of newly-brewed coffee mixed with the flavors of waffles and bacon and whatever Denis was baking.
Denis bent down and removed two miniature cinnamon buns from the warming oven. “There you are, my dear. Have a seat.” He plated the waffle and slid her serving in front of her with a flourish before taking a seat next to her. “You were wise to have us stop at the Flakery Bakery when we went into town yesterday. I needed only to warm these up.”
Trish leaned over and gave him a kiss. “How could I have been so lucky to find a man who likes kitchen duty?” Not like Richard, who rarely set foot in the kitchen except to get something to eat, who preferred the company of other women, even though married, and hadn’t bothered to keep them a secret. She slid her arms around Denis to give him a hug. Her heart stuttered in her chest. “I don’t know what I’m going to do while you’re gone.”
Denis kissed her and picked up his fork. “You will follow those instructions your attorney gave you. So you can move on, so we can be together. And when I return, we will talk about the future, plan for it.”
She nodded, and imagined introducing Denis to her friends in Evergreen. After the divorce, she mused. A part of her wanted them to know about him beforehand. After all, Richard and I are separated already.
Bitsy, her nearest neighbor and best friend, had urged her to avoid spending money on a legal separation when she had no intention of changing her mind.
“Just go for the divorce, Trish.”
Trish had agreed. But she remembered what her attorney had said, that a legal separation offered protection, before the divorce was final.
Trish’s nosy neighbor, Imogene Sharp, lived three doors down and the widow was a gossip of the first order, wearing a perpetual frown, always seeming to look down her nose at people whose behavior didn’t meet with her approval. The woman held up her son, Quentin, as a paragon of success and virtue, especially compared to Chet, whose problems as a teen and college student were well-known in Evergreen. Not that he behaved that way now. Trish suspected Quentin had traded on his father’s good name in the business community to get where he was. Funny how Imogene never commented on Eddie’s success in Richard’s company.
“What Malvina told me to write down. You’re right. I need to get back to her.”
“After we have our walk. Eat, my dear, before your food turns cold,” Denis urged.
After breakfast, Denis and Trish walked down the stairs to the beach. A man, not dressed for walking in the deep sand and apparently unused to doing so, stumbled and bumped into Trish as she and Denis turned in the direction of his cousins’ beach house.
“I’m so sorry.” She grasped Denis’ arm to avoid a further collision. “I didn’t see you.”
“My fault,” the stranger mumbled and reached for his hat as the wind threatened to blow it off his head. He stumbled away.
“You know him?” Denis watched as the man struggled for footing in the deep sand before reaching the road and striding rapidly away.
“He looks vaguely familiar, but I don’t know who he is. Do you think he might be homeless?”
Denis nodded. “Perhaps. His pant legs are ragged, and see the leather covering one elbow of his jacket? It’s pulled away from the cloth.”
“Maybe he’s a cottage owner’s down-at-the-heels relative taking advantage of an empty house to sleep out of the weather. Or one of the new owners,” she added. “I think I saw him the other day when I was digging for clams after you went into town with Noreen and Beatrice. She is such a sweet child. I want to get to know her better— be like a grandmother to her.”
“And you will, as soon as we are together.”
Trish’s cell phone rang. She glanced at the number.
“Don’t you want to answer that?” Denis stopped and picked up a storm-smoothed stick.
“Malvina can wait.” Trish returned her phone to her pocket. “Right now, I just want to be with you, concentrate on you.”
Denis smiled. “Business and pleasure. Not to be mixed?”
“I like how you think, Denis.”
~ ~ ~
Trish’s parting from Denis later that afternoon was bittersweet. She allowed the tears she’d refused to shed in the presence of his cousins—Noreen frowning and York retaining a studiedly neutral mien—to flow freely while she trudged back to the beach house. She wanted to get to know Denis’s cousins, his only family since the death of his wife and young son in Austria, but her brief contacts with Noreen told her the young woman, slightly older than Chet, was less than friendly.
Denis’s words two days earlier only partially explained. “Noreen resents that she lost her father. Now that I’ve moved here, she treats me like I think she might have treated him. Jealous of my time with you. That’s all, Patricia.” Denis had patted her hand. “She’ll come around. Noreen dislikes change. That’s what you are to her, an unexpected change. For me, and now for her, just when she was expecting that I would stay in San Francisco for good. Which we could do if you decide you want to move in with me.” He’d winked at her.
Trish wanted to believe that Noreen just needed time. But Denis had also said how important it was for him to be part of Noreen’s family, to make up for the loss of her father.
“You know I feel badly that I was the only one …”
“Denis. It isn’t your fault you lived and Hermann and Noreen’s father didn’t.”
“I know, I know. But Noreen has missed so much and her mother was bitter. That’s probably why Noreen is bitter, too.”
Their conversation hadn’t resolved Trish’s resentment that Noreen couldn’t seem to accept her. Denis still felt guilty, Trish knew, and she was afraid he might feel forced to choose between her and his remaining family. Who would he choose? She didn’t want to speculate.
Trish detected the questions in his cousin’s eyes when she’d walked up with Denis and he kissed her good-bye. He had set aside his usual reticence about showing his feelings in public, something she attributed to his European upbringing. It was all she could do not to burst into tears during their final hug. He’d whispered in her ear, “I will talk with them. Help them understand. Don’t worry.”
She could only nod before she began her solitary walk back to the house. As she approached, a car that had seen better days pulled away from the driveway leading to her cottage. The driver resembled the man she’d almost bumped into earlier that morning.
Denis had urged her to lock her doors at night, perhaps even forgo her late-night strolls on the beach. She’d pooh-poohed his concerns, reminding him that no one hurt anyone in Schooner Bay.
Her phone jangled in her pocket. She assumed it was Malvina again. I’ll call you back later. After I’ve had time to go over that list. Before dinner. She chuckled to herself. If she’d uttered the words aloud, the beachcombers she passed might think she was a batty middle-aged lady prone to talking to herself.
Her phone rang again while Trish sipped her soup and nibbled on the last of the cinnamon buns, Denis’s favorite morning treat. “Hello, Malvina.”
“At last. Didn’t you receive my messages?”
“I was busy.” Malvina didn’t need to know about Denis. Trish rose from her seat and removed the singing tea kettle from the stove.
Never one to ease into a conversation, Malvina got right to the point. “We have a problem. Named Richard Barton. He knows where you are.”
Trish’s pulse zoomed into the stratosphere. She walked to the window and looked outside. Except for that man she’d almost collided with, she recognized all the people wandering along the sand looking for shells or other treasures washed up by the previous night’s incoming tide, had seen most of them many times since her arrival. If Richard was here in Schooner Bay… He’d never been violent with her, but she wanted no verbal assaults, either, or insistent demands that she change her mind. Thank goodness Denis had left. She didn’t want to imagine what Richard might do if the two men confronted each other.
She scanned the road leading to the shore and the several driveways behind the cottages in view of where she stood. She saw no car she would have recognized as Richard’s. Still, the absence of a sign of his presence did nothing to assuage her sense of impending doom. What if he came to the cottage? Maybe Denis was right. Maybe it wasn’t safe for her here.