Jackie Braun is the author of more than two dozen romance novels. She is a three-time RITA finalist and a four-time National Readers’ Choice Award finalist. She lives in Michigan with her husband and two sons.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
"I'm divorced." Rachel Palmer raised her chin after saying so and affected a smile.
Hmm. She sounded defensive. She wrinkled her nose at her reflection in the mirror and tried again.
"I'm no longer married." This time she added a careless shrug to the mix. It didn't help.
Hands on her hips, she announced baldly, "That's right. Mal has been doing the nasty with his secretary, and I was the last to know."
Maybe she should just stamp that on her forehead and be done with it. If only it were that simple.
As Rachel was discovering, divorce wasn't an ending. Nor was it a beginning exactly. It was a transition. An emotional, a physical and, certainly, a financial shift of seismic proportions. The problem was she had no idea where she would wind up once the tectonic plates of her life settled down again.
She needed to figure it out and fast. As of yesterday afternoon, her marriage was officially over, decreed so not only by the two parties involved but by the state of Michigan. Rachel Palmer, nee Preston, was a single woman once more. She wrinkled her nose again at her reflection. A single woman inching toward thirty-three and past her prime child-bearing years, as her mother so helpfully had pointed out during dinner the previous evening.
Dinner had been Heidi's idea. Her younger sister said they should go to Maxie's, the same upscale restaurant where Mal had proposed, and celebrate.
"It will be like erasing the past. A do-over. Come on, Rach. Now isn't the time for mourning," Heidi had insisted cheerfully as they'd left the Oakland County courthouse.
Against her better judgment, Rachel had agreed. She'd regretted it as soon as a round of fruit-garnished drinks arrived at their table. While their mother nibbled pineapple off the skewer, Heidi had raised her glass.
"Here's to the start of an exciting new chapter in your life."
Exciting new chapter? Her sister should have been named Pollyanna. It fit her perpetually optimistic personality.
Rachel had reached for her water. "Heidi—"
"If you're free tomorrow night, I have someone interested in meeting you. We can double date."
"Heidi—" Once again that was as far as she'd got before her sister cut her off.
"Oh, don't worry. He's nice and harmless." The younger woman had scrunched up her face and taken another sip of her overly sweet drink. "Kind of boring, actually, but he's polite and well-groomed. The first guy doesn't count anyway. Everyone understands he'll just be your rebound man."
"I don't think this week will work for me." Or the next, or the next. .indefinitely. But Rachel knew her sister. It was best to leave it open and save herself the inevitable argument.
"You haven't been out in ages, Rach."
Rachel's mouth had fallen open at that. "I just got divorced. Today."
Their mother had made an indelicate snorting noise. "That didn't stop Mal."
Heidi had taken a more diplomatic approach. "You and Mal were legally separated for the past year. You even stopped wearing your wedding band three months ago."
"In part to get you off my back. You kept hounding me about it," Rachel had shot back.
Besides, the ring represented a promise, one that had been broken. But Rachel didn't agree with Heidi's assessment that she needed to get back into the dating scene right away. It wasn't that she still loved Mal. Oh, she mourned the demise of their marriage and the failure it represented, but she wasn't pining over her ex any longer. Even so, that didn't make the thought of dating again any more palatable.
Rachel's hollow-eyed self gazed back at her in the mirror now. She wasn't like her outgoing younger sibling, who could strike up a conversation with a stranger in the grocery store and then be invited out for dinner or drinks. She'd found meeting men awkward and intimidating when she was twenty-two. She didn't delude herself that it would be any easier as a divorced woman of thirty-two.
She turned on the faucet and splashed cold water on her face in the hope of obliterating the dark circles under her eyes. Unfortunately, they were still there after she blotted her face dry with the towel. She did her best to camouflage them with some concealer, and then added mascara to her lashes. They were long and thick and by far one of her best features. Maybe no one would notice the circles if she played up her lashes. After applying tinted moisturizer and a little blusher to her cheeks, she pulled her hair back in a clip. She might not be able to wrap her mind around Heidi's "new chapter" description, but it was a new day. And it was time to get ready for work.
It was just before eight o'clock when she pulled her car into the nearly empty municipal lot behind Expressive Gems, the jewelry store she owned in Rochester's charming downtown. Not only did she sell jewelry, five years ago she'd begun to do some serious designing. When inspiration struck, she could lose herself in her job for hours. She'd entertained dreams that went beyond the little shop, dreams that hadn't seemed realistic or practical while married to Mal. Indeed, he'd discouraged them. He was unhappy as it was that so much of her time was taken up at the shop. But now? New day, new chapter. It was something to think about, she decided as she pulled the lapels of her coat together and hustled across the parking lot.
The weather was turning right along with the leaves. The wind didn't help. Another week and the trees that dotted the street out front would be aflame in hues of red and orange. Rachel liked autumn, although she couldn't help dreading the long Michigan winter that would come after it.
She let herself in via the employee entrance, balancing her purse and travel mug of coffee as she unlocked the door and deactivated the alarm. Then she switched off the interior security lights and flipped on the overheads. The aroma of roses hit her almost immediately. She kept a lush arrangement near the display cases in the front. They had another day, maybe two, before they would need to be replaced. Some had started to wilt.
Jewelry shopping was about mood and emotions. In particular, it was about romance. She suppressed the twinge of betrayal she felt thinking about the receipts for a highend jewelry store across town in Mal's coat pocket that had led to the discovery of his infidelity. It was bad enough he'd cheated on her, but then he had to go and buy his bimbo jewelry at the store of a competitor who surely recognized his name.
A brisk knock sounded at the front entrance as she finished making a pot of coffee in the shop's small break room. The sign on the door clearly read Closed. She hadn't turned it over yet, nor would she for another forty-five minutes. As tempted as she was to ignore the interruption, she went to see who it was.
She had a licensed general contractor coming, though the appointment wasn't until ten o'clock. Perhaps he was early. Very early, she thought, glancing at the clock. Depending on where the estimate came in, Rachel was hoping to renovate the storage space over the shop and turn it into an apartment. The house she and Mal owned jointly was on the market. Per their settlement, the equity was to be split evenly between them when it sold. She planned to use her half to buy Mal's investment in Expressive Gems from him. The deed to the shop was in her name, but Mal was a cosigner on the loan she'd taken out to purchase inventory when she'd first started designing her own jewelry. That also was the deal they'd worked out through their lawyers.
While the housing market was slow, Rachel needed to get serious about finding a new place to live—hence the appointment with the contractor. When she'd first purchased the old building, she'd considered turning it into an income property. It had the potential to become a decent studio apartment. Then she and Mal had married and she'd put those plans on hold. Much like her career plans beyond the shop, she thought with chagrin.
When she reached the door, it wasn't the contractor who stood on the other side of the glass. It was Tony Salerno. The collar of his trench coat was flipped up against the damp breeze. His grin flashed white in his tanned face when he spotted her. The smile she offered in return was as polite as it was automatic. He was Expressive Gems's best customer, and as such, one of the few people for whom she would open early.
His smile said he knew it.
"Mr. Salerno. Good morning."
Despite her best efforts, gooseflesh pricked on her arms. In addition to being her best customer, Tony was hands down her most handsome, with hair the color of espresso and a pair of eyes that leaned toward hazel. His mouth was wide, sensual. When he conversed with members of the opposite sex, it curved into the sort of smile best saved for the bedroom. Add in the sexy remains of an Italian accent—he'd immigrated to the United States from Florence with his mother when he was thirteen—and he was never without female companionship.
Since Tony could afford to be generous, he never was without the need for glittery trinkets to bestow on those women. Hence his unofficial status as Expressive Gems's benefactor. Thanks to his regular patronage and appreciation for her work, she'd had the resources to devote to her own designs. Still, Rachel never felt completely at ease around him. He made her feel ridiculously feminine and self-conscious. That was especially true on this day, with her sister's talk of dating echoing in her head.
As he stepped inside, Rachel tucked behind her ears the mousy hair that had fallen out of her clip, and tried not to think about how long it had been since she'd gone in for highlights.
"This is a surprise," she said.
"A pleasant one, I hope....
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Book Description Harlequin. Mass Market Paperback. Book Condition: Good. Book has a small amount of wear visible on the binding, cover, pages. Bookseller Inventory # G0373178344I3N00
Book Description Harlequin, 2012. Book Condition: Good. N/A. Ships from the UK. Former Library book. Shows some signs of wear, and may have some markings on the inside. Bookseller Inventory # GRP90052015