Cover of Between the Lines

“I loved this book. It’s a reading highlight of this past year… gentle and lyrical but also engrossing and sexy” — Cat Sebastian, author of A Gentleman Never Keeps Score.

Theo Wishart has given up on finding love. Luca Moretti doesn’t want to find it.

A handful of summer days may change their lives forever—if they’re brave enough to look between the lines. 

Eyes might be windows to the soul, but for Theo Wishart they’re all shuttered. His dyspraxia makes it hard to read people. He doesn’t do relationships and he certainly doesn’t do the great outdoors. Two weeks spent “embracing beach life” while he tries to close the deal on a once great, now fading seaside hotel is a special kind of hell.

Until Luca. Gorgeous, unreachable Luca.

Luca Moretti travels light, avoiding all romantic entanglements. Estranged from his parents, he vows this will be his last trip home to New Milton. His family’s hotel is on the verge of ruin and there’s nothing Luca can do to save it. He’s given up on the Majestic, he’s given up on his family and he’s given up on his future.

Until Theo. Prickly, captivating Theo.

No mushy feelings, no expectations, and no drama—that’s the deal. A simple summer fling. And it suits them both just fine. But as the summer wanes and their feelings deepen, it’s clear to everyone around them that Theo and Luca are falling in love. What will it take for them to admit it to themselves—and to each other? 

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Chapter One

“C’mon, c’mon. Almost there.”

Luca Moretti ran encouraging hands over the wheel of his faithful old van as it rattled and coughed the last couple miles into town. Well, town was stretching a point: New Milton was little more than a single street of stores selling, at this time of year, flip-flops, cheap bodyboards, and tacky seaside souvenirs. But it was home, or at least it had been.

He parked at the curb behind a sleek black Town Car, beyond ready to stretch his legs after the long drive. Slamming shut the rickety door to his camper, Luca eyed the Lincoln curiously as he walked past—it looked out of place on New Milton’s scruffy Main Street—and then promptly forgot all about it when he caught sight of the bay ahead. Whenever he returned home, the beach was always his first port of call. He didn’t have time to linger, so just strolled down to the boardwalk, standing at the railing and breathing in the salty-seaweed tang of the ocean. There was no surf today, only a couple of guys out paddle-boarding beyond the swimmers, but he’d checked the weather report and tomorrow promised a nice offshore breeze to liven things up. He couldn’t wait to get in the water.

After a few minutes enjoying the sights and sounds of summer, Luca headed back to his van via Dee’s Coffee Shop. Stalling, perhaps, but he needed something to brace himself before he faced the knot of unwelcome feelings waiting for him at home. Reluctantly, he glanced up at the Majestic as he made his way back along the sidewalk. The hotel stood proud on the headland, gleaming and familiar in the midday sun: his home, once, his future, once—and now, neither.

Huffing out a sigh, he looked away and pushed open the door to Dee’s. New Milton’s only coffee shop always did good trade in the summer, but today it was packed. Wall-to-wall teenagers, in fact.

“Luca!” Dee’s rich voice snapped him out of his thoughts and he grinned at his old friend.

Spiky hair, dyed a deep burgundy, and heavy framed pink glasses topped her wide, harried smile. He’d known Dee almost his whole life and reached over the counter to give her a hug. “Hey, how you doing?”

“Busy,” she said. “When did you get into town?”

“Just now. It’s a little crazy, today, huh?”

“Finn Callaghan’s fans,” she explained, indicating the teenagers. “Here for the wedding. God knows we need the business, I’m not complaining.” Her eyes narrowed. “Now you look like you’ll be wanting a Red Eye.”

She wasn’t wrong. He’d hit the road early to avoid the worst of the traffic and felt a little spacy from the short night’s sleep. Smiling, Luca slid onto a stool to wait, watching while Dee made his coffee. Neither of her girls were around, but it looked like she’d taken on a couple of local kids to clean tables and work in the kitchen. When she brought his coffee over, he said, “Lexa and Ali not helping out this summer?”

Dee peered at him over her glasses. “They graduated last year, Luca. Ali’s working in Brooklyn and Lexa’s up in Boston.”

“Yeah?” He sipped his coffee with a grateful sigh. “Outgrown the place, huh?”

“What’s to keep them here?”

No arguing with that, he supposed, not when he’d been on the road himself for the last five years. Except that he’d been forced to leave and, despite everything, New Milton and the Majestic still tugged at him in dangerous ways.

Thoughts of the hotel soured his mood, made him want to get the inevitable meeting over with. Glancing at the clock on the wall, he picked up his cup and stood. “I should go. Mom’s expecting me for lunch.”

“Come back when we’re less busy,” Dee told him, smiling. “I want to hear all about your latest adventures.”

Luca laughed. The adventures of an itinerant surf instructor were a lot less exciting than Dee probably imagined. But, still, it felt good to laugh, to loosen the tension that had coiled tighter and tighter the closer he got to home.

It tightened again as he stepped outside, juggling his sunglasses and coffee, and headed back to the van. And maybe he was preoccupied by his thoughts and not paying attention to where he was going, because suddenly he was face-to-face with a guy. Sleek black hair, office-pale skin, and as buttoned-down as his Oxford shirt, the man scowled as he dithered left and right, trying to dodge past Luca. Their ridiculous dance might have been funny if the guy hadn’t looked so pissed.

Endeavoring to get out of his way, Luca stepped to one side. But the guy surged forward at the same time and they collided so hard he felt the man’s warm lips graze his jaw, his chest thumping into Luca’s shoulder. The startling impact knocked the keys from Luca’s hand, splashing hot coffee over his fingers. “Whoa!” he gasped, shaking his stinging hand. “In a hurry, buddy?”

“Yes, actually.” Not a hint of humor or apology in his clipped British accent. The guy just glared at the spot of Luca’s coffee staining his chinos, dark brow scrunched.

Luca’s patience was already paper thin as he bent to pick up his keys. “Well, try looking where you’re going next time, huh?”

“Me?” The guy’s head shot up and Luca was startled by a pair of dark brown eyes, exactly the sort to set his pulse racing. Too bad they were snapping angrily and glaring at Luca’s coffee-soaked hand. “You walked right into me!”

“Uh, I don’t think so.”

The guy scowled. “Fine. Of course it’s my fault. I’m sorry.” His sarcasm was thick enough to slice. Unbelievable.

“Well, thank you for such a heartfelt apology,” Luca snapped. “I’m touched.”

For a moment the guy looked confused, then his lips flattened into a hard line and he scowled. “Yes, well. Excuse me, I’m on my way to an important meeting and I can’t be late.”

Luca took an exaggerated step to the left. “Don’t let me get in your way.”

The guy didn’t reply, just gave a curt nod and stalked away. Luca watched him go and definitely did not check out his ass in those well-fitting chinos. Arrogant bastard. He didn’t expect to charm everyone he ran into, but what the hell had he done to earn that attitude? Typical entitled WASP in his Oxford shirt and penny loafers, silver spoon shoved so far up his ass he probably couldn’t sit down. You got a lot of his sort on the island, and Luca hadn’t missed them one little bit. Jeez, the guy hadn’t even had the courtesy to look him in the eye. “Asshole.”

Irritated, he climbed back behind the wheel of his van and turned the key, the run-in not helping his mood as he headed up to the Majestic.

It wasn’t far and all too soon he glimpsed her through the trees surrounding the hotel gardens, their branches swaying in a gentle onshore breeze. Through the van’s open window drifted the green scent of summer leaves mixed with the ocean’s sharp tang—an aroma so redolent of home it hurt. Luca’s stomach tensed, fingers clammy on the steering wheel. He hated this. Coming home sucked every damn time, but this time was the worst. Because this time was the last.

Even now, he still wondered whether he was making a mistake. Maybe he should let his mom and Don do whatever the hell they wanted with the Majestic, spend the summer elsewhere and forget all about the hotel. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t forget the Majestic and he couldn’t let them destroy it.

Pulling up on the large gravel driveway, Luca killed the engine and took a moment to gaze up at the old place. A little shabbier than last year, the paint on the wraparound porch looked more faded and her multiple gabled roofs sagged a little more deeply. But, to his eyes, she was still lovely. A couple of visitors’ cars were parked out front, but not many. Not enough for a weekend in mid-July. Not that he cared…

For a wild moment he considered kicking the van into reverse and leaving, heading south for the summer. Or all the way over to California. Why not? He was a free agent, he could go where he wanted. One hand drifted to the stick shift, the other reaching for the ignition, just as the Majestic’s door swung open and a spare familiar figure appeared in the doorway.

“Luca? Is that you, honey?”

He closed his eyes. Too late. Heavy limbed, he yanked open the door and climbed out of the van. “Hey, Mom,” he called, lifting a hand to wave.

“Luca!” Jude Brennan trotted down the stairs and across the gravel, long hair fluttering in the sea breeze. “You’re here!” And then she was in his arms, holding him tight. “It’s so good to see you, honey. I wasn’t sure you’d come.”

Luca buried his face in the familiar scent of her hair, feeling a wave of relief at coming home, and a low lurch of grief. “Of course I came,” he said, choking down his feelings. “I said I would.”

Pulling back, she took his face in her hands. “My handsome boy.” She smiled despite the wet gleam in her eyes. “Young man, I should say.”

He’d been a young man for quite a while, but they only saw each other once a year these days—every summer, at the Majestic—and Jude always picked up the changes in him. And he in her. Strands of white wove through her gray hair this year, her face thinner than he remembered, and tension pinched her mouth and eyes. She looked worn down. Perhaps because she was on the point of throwing everything away for a condo in fucking Miami, just because her asshole husband didn’t give a shit about the Majestic. But Luca couldn’t think about that, not with her right there. He was afraid of saying something he couldn’t take back. God knows, they’d both said enough already.

“Come on in,” Jude said. “I’ve made your favorite.” She always made his favorite, as if home-cooked lasagna could compensate for driving him out of his childhood home. “We’re not full at the moment,” she said, looping her arm through his as they walked across the drive. “If you want to, we have plenty of open rooms—”

“I’ll sleep in the van, thanks.” He’d vowed never to spend a single night under the same roof as Don Brennan, and had no intention of changing his mind.

She sighed. “Luca… Still?”

“Don still have a problem with my ‘lifestyle’?”

She didn’t answer as they climbed up to the porch, so Luca took her silence as a “yes.” At the top of the steps, Jude paused to catch her breath. Nervous, perhaps? She wasn’t alone. He had to take a deep breath himself, bracing for the barrage of emotions awaiting him.

Stepping inside, the foyer opened up around him, filled with sunlight, its gleaming marble floor leading to the grand staircase down which Luca had hurtled as a boy. The carpet was threadbare now, worn away on the edges of the steps, but so what if the carpets were threadbare, the chandeliers tarnished, and the wallpaper faded? What did any of it matter in a place like the Majestic, with a lifetime of golden summers baked into her old bones? She may lack the mod cons, but to Luca’s eyes her old-time elegance only added to her beauty.

Unfortunately, Don Brennan waited in the foyer, too, fiddling with a vase of flowers on the reception desk like the prissy asshole he was, tainting Luca’s homecoming. Don turned with a fake smile and said, “Luca, good to see you.” He didn’t hold out a hand to shake, or try for a hug—he knew better by now—which suited Luca just fine.

“Don,” he said.

“Good drive? I hope you didn’t run into too much traffic.”

“No, it was fine. I left early.”

Don nodded. “You take the tunnel? There’s construction on 36th Street.”

“Nah, the bridge to avoid the tolls.”

And so it went on, the traditional male discussion of route planning in order to avoid discussing anything more important—like why gay guys made you nervous, or how you’d persuaded your wife to abandon the hotel her family had owned for three generations. That kind of shit.

Smiling tightly, Jude tugged her hair into a ponytail with twitchy fingers. “Well, let’s eat,” she said, slipping her arm around Luca’s waist and ushering him into the kitchen. The big table sat under the window where it had always been, three places at the far end set for a cozy family meal.

“Beer?” Don held out a bottle of Luca’s favorite Italian lager.

He was always such a suckup, but Luca wasn’t in a position to refuse; he really needed a fucking drink. “Thanks.” He killed the neck in one long gulp and set the bottle down, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand just to irritate the fastidious bastard. But Don didn’t rise to the bait, taking a seat opposite him and shaking out a napkin to lay across his lap.

They ate in silence at first, Jude casting Luca quick sidelong looks while she picked at her food and he shoveled forkfuls of lasagna into his mouth. It was excellent, as always, but only served to remind him of everything he’d lost.

Eventually, Jude set down her fork. “I suppose we should address the elephant in the room.”

Shit, no. “We really don’t need to, Mom.”

“I think we do,” Don said. And who the hell had asked him?

“Luca, honey, I know you’re not happy about our decision to sell—”

“Nope.” He flashed a hard look at Don. “It’s a crappy idea.”

Don cleared his throat, but Jude gestured for him to keep quiet. “I thought you might feel better about it if you knew more about the proposal: what Lux Properties are suggesting they could do with the site, how it would benefit New Milton.”

Luca stared at her, uncomprehending. Why the hell would he care about any of that? “They’re going to tear the Majestic down,” he said, struggling to keep his voice calm. “What more is there to know?”

Jude’s lips thinned. “Nothing’s decided yet, Luca.”

He paused in his eating. “It’s not?”

“No. In fact, we have someone from the company coming to talk to us this afternoon, and I’d appreciate your input. I—” A glance at Don. “We want to do what’s best for New Milton, as well as what’s best for us, as a family.”

“Not tearing down the hotel would be best,” Luca said, and went back to his lasagna so he didn’t have to look at either of them.

Don said, “Now, Luca, that’s not true—”

“How would you know?”

“Luca.” Jude sounded weary. “Please don’t.”

Shame, uglied by resentment, tightened a knot in the pit of his stomach. “I only meant he doesn’t love New Milton like we do. He hasn’t lived here long.”

“He’s lived here for the past five years, Luca, helping me run the place. Don gave up his career.” She didn’t need to add, after you left town. “We want to do what’s best when we sell—for everyone, including you. You’ll get a share of the sale, Luca, and I want you to be part of the decision.”

“I don’t—” He closed his eyes, took a breath. I don’t want a share of the sale. I don’t want to be part of the decision. I don’t want any of this. “You already know what I think.”

Don set his fork down with a clatter. “If you knew—”

“Don, don’t.”

“No, Jude, it has to be said. Luca, your mother and I can’t run this place anymore. She’s not well and she can’t manage.”

Luca’s gaze shot up, fixing on Jude. “Mom?”

“I’m fine.” She glared at Don. “I’m finding it more tiring than I used to, that’s all. I’m getting older, Luca, and this is a big hotel for the two of us to manage alone.”

“Alone? What about Eddie, and Mrs. Kausar—?”

“We have four rooms occupied,” Don said. “In July. We can’t afford to hire anyone this season, Luca, and if you won’t come back—”

“I can’t.” He held Don’s stare beat for beat. “You know why.”

Silence. This was the real elephant in the room, the great fucking Don-shaped shadow looming over everything.

“Luca, please.” Jude touched his hand, her fingers thin, bonier than he remembered. “I want you to be part of this. Theodore’s coming all the way from New York to talk to us today, and I’d love you to be there with me.”

Luca lifted an eyebrow at the name. “Theodore?”

“Theodore Wishart.” She shared a pleased smile with Don. “His father owns Lux Properties. We’re getting firstclass treatment.”

“Theodore Wishart? That’s his name, for real?”

Jude laughed, the bright amused chuckle he remembered from the days before Don. “I think he’s British or something.”

“And he’s coming here to talk you into selling the Majestic?”

“To make us an offer—” another glance at Don “—and to explain what their plans are for the site, yes.”

Luca chewed his lip. If Jude hadn’t signed anything yet then maybe he could talk her out of it, show her what a mistake she was making. He glanced at Don’s uneasy expression and knew he was right: Jude hadn’t decided, something was holding her back. And Luca had a feeling that something was him—which meant there was still a chance to change her mind.

“Okay,” he said, keeping it casual. “I’ll meet with the guy, see what he’s offering. But I warn you, Mom, I doubt anyone called ‘Theodore Wishart’ is gonna change my mind. About anything.”

Chapter Two

Over the years, Theo had learned to arrive early for meetings. It involved meticulous planning and several reminders on his phone, but it was worth the effort; clients like Judy Brennan appreciated punctuality. As his father often remarked, rushing in late made Theo look like a right bloody pillock.

And Theo hated looking stupid.

Which was why he was currently sitting on the boardwalk in New Milton with his head in his hands, his humiliating collision outside the coffee shop playing on a continual loop inside his head.

Why did this always happen to him? Why?

The man had appeared out of nowhere, broad-shouldered and long-limbed, and Theo had just…frozen. With his tousled hair glinting gold in the sunlight, silver-gray eyes bright against his sun-bronzed face, he might have been plucked from Theo’s imagination. He was simply perfect. The sort of beautiful, athletic demigod Theo had wasted years of his life worshiping. And the sort of man he’d learned to avoid like herpes.

Typical, then, that they’d found themselves engaged in an embarrassing little dance, trying to step around each other on the crowded sidewalk. Getting desperate, Theo had decided to just shoulder past, but, naturally, he’d misjudged his trajectory and ended up walking smack into the guy. Of course he had. He could still feel the flare of soft heat as they’d collided, the scratch of the stranger’s stubble against his lips.

Bollocks.

A light breeze drifted in off the ocean, cool against his skin, riffling its fingers through his hair. Not enough to disturb it, but enough to make him sit up and take a deep breath. He tried to relax, to shake off the encounter. It didn’t matter. He’d never see the guy again, so who cared if he’d made a fool of himself? Nobody. Nobody would even know.

You know.

Irritably, he shut down the thought and fixed his attention on the vista spread out before him instead. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been to the beach. Generally speaking, he avoided the great outdoors at all costs; it was uncomfortable, exhausting, and—in his experience—often harmful. But right then, sitting there with the breeze in his hair and the sun on his face, he understood why people loved the ocean. And felt a twinge of regret it was a pleasure denied him.

The beach was certainly busy. Families sprawled on sun loungers or towels, sand castles stood in various stages of construction or demolition, and a laughing game of volleyball rattled away up near the dunes. The water teemed with children and their parents, splashing about in the few small waves close to shore. There were no breakers today, the ocean still as a pond, but further out he could see two guys standing on their surfboards, paddling themselves along with long oars. Amazing. He couldn’t begin to imagine having the balance required to do something like that, but he could admire the lithe male bodies outlined by the gleam of their wetsuits in the sun.

A familiar heat stirred his blood, followed by a surge of yearning that expanded in his chest and then deflated like a popped balloon. Not for him, such beautiful boys. People were difficult, that was the problem. They were confusing and he didn’t have the knack for connecting with them. He couldn’t make himself understood and he couldn’t understand them in return. Sometimes he imagined a glass wall stood between himself and other people—he could see them well enough, he just couldn’t break through. He’d tried, but after Grant Daly… Well, there came a time when you had to admit defeat. Not everyone could stand on a surfboard, and not everyone could find love. Good fortune like that was simply the luck of the draw.

Besides, there were other joys in life. Things he was good at, like running projects, finding investors, making hotels thrive. Things that could earn him the respect of his peers and even of his father. He just needed to stop wishing for—

His phone alarm beeped, startling him, and he lurched to his feet, slamming his thigh into the arm of the bench. “Fuck!” The pain shocked tears into his eyes.

Embarrassed, he looked around in case anyone had noticed, but nobody was watching. Swearing under his breath, he limped back to the sidewalk and took a moment to pull himself together. The alarm meant half an hour until the meeting. Everything was fine, he had plenty of time. No harm done. Glancing down at his leg, he grimaced at the dirty smudge on his chinos—it matched the coffee stain on the other leg from his run-in with the bronzed demigod. Damn it. He rubbed at the smudge, feeling a bruise coming up underneath. Well, it didn’t matter. No one would care. Judy Brennan was an older woman, perhaps her eyesight wouldn’t be good enough to notice the marks? He ran a hand over his hair, making sure it was still in place despite the breeze—it had a tendency to chaos that he struggled to control—but it felt fine. He looked fine. He was fine.

He wished he’d stayed in the sodding car and waited.

“Hey, boss, there you are.” He turned in relief to find his assistant, Miranda Hope, heading toward him, long legs loping along the boardwalk. Her red Doc Martens and eyebrow ring made Miranda an unusual fit for Lux Properties, but Theo liked her; she made his life easier without making a fuss. She was also the only person at Lux—or anywhere else—he considered a friend. “Time to head up to the hotel,” she said.

He waved his phone at her. “Yes, I know.”

But she frowned as they walked back to the car together, head cocked. “What are you doing down here, anyway? I thought you were getting coffee.”

“Yeah I…got distracted.”

She lifted her pierced eyebrow. “By the cute guy you ran into?”

Theo winced. “You noticed that?”

“Dude, the guy was superhot. Of course I noticed.”

“No, I mean—” His face heated. “Me bumping into him, like an idiot.”

She waved the incident off with a flick of her fingers. “Shit happens. And a guy like that? I bet people run into him all day long, just for kicks.” She grinned. “Was he cute up close?”

Theo stared at his feet, watched them pace along the cracked sidewalk. “He was pissed off, I’m afraid.”

Miranda nudged his shoulder in consolation, but didn’t say anything more, for which he was grateful.

They’d left the Lincoln on the street next to the coffee shop and Theo made to get into the passenger seat, as usual, but Miranda stopped him. “Take the back seat,” she said. “It’ll look more impressive when we pull up outside the hotel.”

“It’ll make me look like a pillock.”

“I’ll make you look like Mr. Theodore Wishart, of Lux Properties, which is who you are.” She smiled and tugged his shirt collar to straighten it. “Wear your jacket, too.”

He could have made use of Lux’s car service but he preferred it when Miranda drove. She understood him better. Opening the back door, he smiled. “What would I do without you?”

“Be late for everything.” Her smile faded and in a quieter voice she added, “Listen, you’ll kick ass this afternoon. Relax, okay?”

He only wished he had her confidence; this sort of customer contact was not his forte. With a nod, he slipped into the back seat, grateful when Miranda pumped up the air-conditioning. Arriving hot and sweaty was not appropriate, and his encounter in town had left him more flustered than he’d have liked ahead of a big meeting—and this was a Big Meeting. The New Milton development was his brainchild, and closing the sale on the Majestic was his best shot at proving to his father that he deserved a partnership in the family business. Which was what he wanted, of course. What else would he do with his life?

Taking a deep breath, he sat back and let the chilled air cool him, watching the view as Miranda drove out of town and up to the hotel. From this angle he could see that the beach itself was small, more of a bay, and the town behind it lay strung along a single street in a shallow valley between the two headlands bracketing the cove. On one stood the Majestic Hotel, and on the other he could see Hanworth Hall, where, in a couple of weeks, New Milton would be hosting its very own big fat gay wedding.

And that’s why Theo was so interested in acquiring the Majestic’s property. He’d watched the romance between the actor Finn Callaghan and his New Milton sweetheart, Joshua Newton, unfold on social media last year when Finn had come out as bi. A little entranced and a lot envious, he’d started researching the sleepy little Long Island town. Rich people liked the company of other rich people and, given its rising profile, New Milton was the perfect place to buy into while property prices were relatively low, and then capitalize on the stardust blowing in from its Hollywood connection.

God knew the place could use some dazzle.

Signs of decline were everywhere. The bright awnings and ice cream signs failed to hide poorly kept houses, empty storefronts, and potholed roads. New Milton might get by in the summer, but the winters must be long, cold, and empty. His new development would change all that. It would bring visitors year-round—wealthy ones looking for upscale spas and bars, restaurants and boutiques. It was a compelling vision and he had no doubt Judy Brennan would buy it once he’d explained the facts. Her reticence about the sale was merely sentimental, after all, and sentiment could never withstand the application of cold, hard financial realities.

As the Majestic came into view, Theo sat forward to get a closer look. He was familiar with the details, having seen several photographs, but this was his first visit in person. And he had to admit, he was charmed. The Majestic was a grand old lady of a building, built in the Queen Anne style of the late nineteenth century. But her glory days were behind her. The slate on those beautiful Dutch gables had clearly been patched, the pedimented porch clumsily repaired, and the balustrades on the elegant third floor balconies, once painted in pretty beach pastels, were peeling badly. But that romantic round tower, reaching up to the clear blue sky, was spectacular, and Theo felt a pang of regret that the old place would have to come down.

Still, there was no choice; the style simply didn’t fit with Lux Properties’ portfolio. If he closed his eyes, he could imagine the sleek new build in her place: the manicured clifftop golf course, the private beach below, and beyond it the wide gray Atlantic. It would be chic, modern, and aspirational. In short, everything the Lux brand represented. He smiled, heart pumping as the familiar rush of adrenaline took hold.

This, he could do. This, he was good at. And when he left later that afternoon he’d be heading back to Manhattan with the deal done, his partnership a step closer, and all thoughts of golden-haired demigods left far, far behind…

Chapter Three

Luca tugged at the collar of his shirt, uncomfortable in the heat.

“You didn’t have to dress up,” Jude said, coming to join him on the porch. They were watching the drive, waiting for the arrival of the bean counter from Lux Properties. “Mr. Wishart is here to impress us, not the other way around.”

Luca shrugged. Truth was, he’d changed into a shirt and dress pants because he wanted this Wishart guy to take him seriously when he told him where he could shove his plans. And people didn’t take you seriously in board shorts and flip-flops—much like the WASP-y asshole in town earlier. And why was he still thinking about him? So what if he’d been cute? Cute guys could be assholes, too, and frequently were in Luca’s experience.

“Good heavens, Luca, what’s got your goat?” Jude said. “You look like you swallowed a wasp.”

Chance would be a fine thing. He allowed himself a wry smile and tugged at the collar of his shirt again. “I had a run-in with a guy in town, is all. Kinda got under my skin.”

“A run-in?” She put a hand on his arm. “Luca, do you mean a fight?”

“No! A literal run-in. We bumped into each other and he was a jerk about it.” He glanced at Don, who sat in the shade close to the door, and added, “Shame, because he was cute.” Don shifted irritably. Praying for Luca’s immortal soul, perhaps? Since he was already hell-bound, Luca added, “Nice ass, too.”

Jude sighed. “Luca, must you?”

“Sorry. Nice butt.” Which wasn’t at all what she meant and he knew it. But Don could take a flying leap if he thought Luca was going to censor himself in his own home. What had been his home before Don had wormed his way in. “Shame about the attitude,” he said, squinting out over the long drive. “Or I’d have totally hit on him.”

Jude gave him a sidelong glance, one he couldn’t decipher. Not disapproval, although there was a hint of that. Maybe it was more disappointment. Or—sadness? “You won’t just bump into the right person in town, Luca. You have to get to know someone to find out if they’re right for you.” Her gaze switched to the driveway where a large black Town Car was turning in from the road. “And to do that, you have to stick around a place for more than a few weeks at a time.”

Luca didn’t answer. They’d had this conversation too many times and he wasn’t getting into it again. She’d made her choice when she married a guy who thought Luca’s “lifestyle” was a problem, and Luca didn’t have to live with it—or him. And after five years on the road he had no regrets about his itinerant lifestyle. After all, why make a home someplace when it could just get ripped out from under you? Better to travel light, like the proverbial rolling stone.

Behind him, Don got to his feet, peering at the car crawling down the long drive. “This must be Mr. Wishart.”

“Ya think?” Luca watched the car sweep around and pull up in front of the hotel. The driver, a woman, got out to open the back door for the passenger—who couldn’t even drive his own car, apparently—and a young man climbed out.

Luca stared.

It was him: the jerk from town. Well, this explained the entitled attitude—Luca should have guessed. Wishart had donned a navy blazer over his baby blue button-down, the sun adding a gloss to his slick black hair, but Luca would recognize those dark flashing eyes and cut-glass cheekbones anywhere. Which irritated the hell out of him; he refused to be attracted to the asshole who’d come here to destroy the Majestic.

Luca saw the exact moment Wishart recognized him because he came to a stumbling halt, catching himself on the open car door. Luca smiled as the guy looked away, muttering something to the driver. She glanced over her shoulder at Luca, eyes widening, while Wishart reached into the car to retrieve a messenger bag. When he stood up again, he appeared more collected and crunched over the gravel to the porch. The driver stayed with the car, but Luca felt her gaze on him and wondered what Wishart had said.

Jude crossed to the top of the porch steps. “Mr. Wishart?”

“Yes.” He climbed the stairs with an odd, deliberate focus and offered his hand to shake. “Mrs. Brennan?”

“Call me Jude.” They shook hands. “This is my husband, Don, and this—” she indicated Luca “—is my son, Luca Moretti.”

As before, Wishart’s eyes didn’t even come close to meeting Luca’s. “Uh, yes. Hello.”

“Again,” Luca said, holding out his hand. After a brief hesitation, Wishart took it, his fingers slender but his grip very strong. Too strong. Was he making a dumbass point? Luca squeezed back, even harder, and had the satisfaction of seeing the other man wince.

“Again?” Don interrupted. “Luca, I didn’t know you’d been in touch with Lux Properties.”

“Relax,” Luca said, dropping Wishart’s hand, feeling like he’d scored a point. “This is the guy I, uh, ran into in town.”

Don’s face went a satisfying shade of cerise and his mom’s eyebrows rose. Wishart seemed to be studying something behind her head, but there was a delicate blush along his fine cheekbones that Luca wished he hadn’t noticed.

“I see.” Jude glanced between them. “Well. Shall we go inside, Mr. Wishart? It’s a little warm to talk out here.”

“Of course,” he said. “And, please, call me Theo.”

Slick bastard. Way too put together for Luca’s taste, with his glossy hair and smart blazer, snooty British accent and dark, averted gaze. Gay, too. Luca could feel the zing of mutual awareness push-pull between them, no doubt equally unwelcome on both sides.

Setting that aside, he followed the others into the empty dining room where Jude had laid out tea, coffee, and homemade ginger cookies. All of which Wishart ignored in favor of setting up his laptop. “Fantastic,” Luca said, snagging a cookie, “death by PowerPoint.”

Wishart stilled. “I do have a number of slides Jude and Don should see.” His gaze hovered shy of Luca’s, his stiff expression difficult to read. “But if youd rather not see them, Mr. Moretti…?”

“Oh no.” He smiled broadly. “I’m good.”

Jude tutted. “For heaven’s sake, Luca, sit down. You promised you’d listen.”

Wishart’s attention returned to his laptop, but Luca could see his ears twitching. Interested in any conflict, no doubt, and looking for divisions to exploit. Luca sat down and clamped his jaw shut: he wasn’t giving Wishart anything.

Thirty long minutes later the presentation was drawing to a close and Luca wasn’t bothering to hide his yawns. Not that Wishart didn’t have his sales pitch polished, it was the most polished pile of bullshit Luca had ever heard. But it was still bullshit. Jude’s expression tightened the longer Wishart banged on about their branding strategy, new business models, and market positioning. When he revealed an architectural sketch of the characterless new hotel, Luca knew he’d won and was all but crowing by the time Wishart concluded the whole shebang with: “And we’ll leverage the Callaghan bump to build New Milton’s brand as an aspirational vacation destination, resulting in an economic uplift for the whole area.”

“Well.” Don perched on the edge of his seat, practically salivating. “It all sounds very… What do you think, Jude? It all sounds very impressive to me.”

“Sounds like bull to me,” Luca said.

Wishart’s eyes flashed in irritation. “I can assure you it’s accurate.”

“Oh, c’mon, it’s speculation. First—” He held up a hand to stop the guy from interrupting. “You said the resort would have a private beach, but this beach isn’t private. Second, the crap about the ‘Callaghan bump’ only shows how much you don’t know about New Milton. Finn Callaghan doesn’t even live here and his fans are teenage girls. They aren’t going to be staying at your fancy golf resort. Third, what makes the Majestic special is that it’s timeless. It doesn’t need all the BS you’re selling. Right, Mom?” He looked to Jude for confirmation. “People don’t want Wi-Fi and a private beach. They don’t want spa days and conference facilities. They don’t come to the Majestic for any of that crap.”

“They don’t come to the Majestic at all,” Wishart observed. “Which is rather the point.”

Silence swelled in the wake of that incontrovertible truth. Jude pressed her lips tight, Don frowned, and Luca kicked himself for giving the guy an opening.

After a pause, Wishart carried on. “With regard to the private beach, I can assure you that the Majestic’s boundary extends to the foreshore. It’s already a private beach.”

“It’s not. Mom—”

“No, he’s right, honey. Back in the thirties they operated it as a private beach, but it’s been open to the public for decades. I can’t say I’m keen on keeping our neighbors off our section of the beach, Mr. Wishart.”

“Theo,” he corrected mildly. “And I’m sure an exemption could be agreed for local people—especially in the off-season.”

“The off-season,” Luca scoffed. “Right. When there’s no one in town anyway.”

“Once the new resort opens, Mr. Moretti, there’ll be reason to visit New Milton all year. That’s why the whole town will benefit from the development.”

“The town is doing just fine, thank you.”

“Is it? Because that’s not what I saw today. I saw closed-down stores, I saw empty rental properties. I saw one coffee shop and one bar in the whole of New Milton.” He cocked his head, lips curling into a satisfied smile. “How many young people live here these days? How many return once they’ve finished school?”

Luca clenched his jaw and refused to think of Dee’s absent girls.

Triumph lit Wishart’s dark eyes. “Am I right, Jude?”

“There isn’t much to keep young people here, it’s true.” She pursed her lips. “But I don’t know—a golf resort? Are those the sort of people we want in New Milton?”

“Wealthy people,” Wishart said. “Wealthy people on vacation, looking for an excuse to spend their money. Forgive me, Jude, but those are exactly the sort of people you want in New Milton. The fact is, by selling your property to Lux, you’ll be leaving a lasting legacy to the town—one that will see a whole new generation moving here and staying here. Creating a sustainable community. Isn’t that something you want? This grand old place has had her day, but through us the Majestic’s legacy will live on and bring new prosperity to New Milton.”

“But you’re going to tear her down!” Luca protested. “You’re going to change everything.”

“Change is what New Milton needs.”

“It’s not!” Luca surged to his feet. “And if it was, it still wouldn’t need a damned golf resort.”

“You have a problem with golf?”

“I have a problem with you. Coming here and conning my mom—”

“It’s a business proposition, Mr. Moretti, and a bloody good one.” Wishart cocked his head, frowned as if thinking. “What’s your solution to your mother’s revenue problem? Do you have one?”

Luca glared and said nothing. He had no answer to give and Wishart’s raised eyebrow suggested he knew it.

“Luca, sit down.” Jude tugged his sleeve, her other hand on Don’s knee as if to keep him from jumping to his feet, too. “Theo, I understand what you’re saying,” she went on, “but my family has owned the Majestic for three generations. I’m not sure I can be the one to let her go—not to a company planning to tear her down.”

Thank God! Luca shot a victorious look at Wishart. Suck on that, douchebag.

But Jude hadn’t finished. “What I’d like is for someone to take over the Majestic as a going concern. Someone who understands what makes her special—and what could continue to make her special.”

“I understand,” Wishart said.

Luca snorted. “The hell you do.”

“I do.” His eyes flashed again. “I can assure you our new build would capture everything which makes the Majestic special.”

“Such as?”

Wishart blinked and didn’t answer, a flush creeping back into his face. Luca smiled: Gotcha.

“That’s a good point.” Jude leaned forward in her chair. “What do you think makes the Majestic special, Mr. Wishart?”

His eyes closed briefly, lips moving. “I think it would become clear during the construction phase of—”

“Bullshit!”

“Heck, Luca, will you can it?” Don turned to Jude. “Sweetheart, the truth is we’ll never get a better offer than this and the last thing we want is a fire sale.”

A fire sale? Luca looked to Jude for a response, but she was staring down at her fingers, clenched together in her lap, the skin tight over her knuckles. “Mom?”

“He’s right,” she said reluctantly. “Now is the time to sell. Ideally, I’d have found a…a successor. Someone with the drive to restore the Majestic. Someone who appreciated her and understood what made her so special to the people who’ve come here, and still come here, year after year. That would have been my dream, but—” she glanced at Luca “—failing that, I have to consider other options.” She turned to Wishart, shoulders straightening. “Theo, I’ll make you an offer.”

“What?” Luca grabbed her wrist. “Mom, no.”

She covered his hand with her own, but carried on. “Two weeks, Theo. Stay here for two weeks, as our guest. Get to know the Majestic, let yourself fall in love with the place. I won’t sell to a stranger, and I’d like to sell to someone who’d rather restore her than rebuild.”

Wishart stared. “I— Uh. I’m not sure I can…” He trailed off, frowning.

Luca might have laughed at Wishart’s awkwardness if he hadn’t felt so crushed. “Mom, please don’t.”

Jude’s hand tightened on his, eyes very bright. “Do you have a better idea, Luca?” He couldn’t hold her sharp, knowing gaze and looked away. After a beat she carried on, “Theo, what do you say? Let us get to know you. Get to know us. After that, we’ll talk.”

Wishart swallowed so hard Luca saw his Adam’s apple bob in his throat. “I’m afraid I need to press you for an answer today because—”

“Then you can have it right now.” Jude stood, dropping Luca’s hand. “You probably won’t like it.”

Luca held his breath, silently willing Wishart to call her bluff.

He didn’t.

*

It was a bloody disaster.

Theo glared at the door through which the others had disappeared, allowing him privacy to call his father and consult on Jude’s ridiculous proposal. Didn’t she realize he had work to do? Other sales to close, other projects to manage? Important as the New Milton project was, he couldn’t afford to spend two weeks away from the office to babysit the sale.

On the other hand, could he afford not to? Securing the Majestic was non-negotiable. If he didn’t do it, someone else would and that was unacceptable. This was Theo’s project, his shot at partnership, and his reputation on the line.

He started pacing. Moretti was the real problem and in more ways than one. Bloody hell, why did it have to be him Theo had blundered into in town? He’d screwed up their relationship before it had begun. And Moretti had influence over his mother—she’d watched him throughout Theo’s presentation, monitoring his reaction, looking for his approval. Yes, it was clear Moretti was the key: convince him, convince Jude.

But Moretti thought he was a prick, he’d made that plain, so how the hell would Theo convince him of anything?

From behind the door came the muffled sounds of angry voices and Theo’s hackles rose. It wasn’t a good sign. He needed everyone on board to secure this sale, everyone feeling they’d get something they wanted. But Moretti’s issue appeared to be naïve nostalgia, and that left Theo at sea. Facts and figures were his forte, not hearts and minds.

He paced to the French doors, considering what to tell his father. He wasn’t relishing the conversation; Eddie Wishart respected results not excuses. The gauzy curtain stirred, a faint sea breeze drifting in, cool against Theo’s overheated skin. The promise of fresh air proved irresistible, and with a glance at the empty room behind him, he stepped out onto the porch.

A large swing hung from the roof, scattered with sun-bleached cushions. It swung lazily in the breeze, creaking softly. Terribly inviting, but when Theo imagined sitting on it all he saw was himself face-planting onto the floor, so he walked to the rail instead and dialed his father’s number. From this vantage point he could look out over the Majestic’s unkempt gardens toward the ocean. Once, the gardens must have been pristine, with neatly edged borders and deep, shady arbors in which to doze or read, but like the rest of the hotel the gardens had sunk into genteel neglect and now ran rather wild. He could make out a path, though, cutting through the tangle of trees at the side of the garden and disappearing on to the clifftop. Beyond it, the sun glittered high above the ocean. Sunrise, Theo imagined, must be spectacular…

“Theodore.” Eddie Wishart’s south London rasp, unsoftened by thirty years in the States, snapped him out of his thoughts. “Is it done?”

“There’s a problem.” Keeping the details pertinent, he briefed his father on Jude’s concerns and her offer.

Predictably, Eddie was unimpressed. “What the bloody hell is she thinking? She won’t get a better offer.”

“I know, but money isn’t the issue.” He watched the trees sway, listened to the breeze carry children’s laughter up from the beach. “She wants to believe we’ll protect the, uh, specialness of the place.”

“Bollocks. Offer her another ten grand.”

“It won’t help.”

A breathy huff drifted down the line. “Fine. I’ll send Daly up to sort it out. Smarmy git, he’ll have her eating out of his hand in no time.”

“No!” Fuck, no. Not Grant Daly. Not the bastard who’d seduced him, humiliated him—almost broken him. “Not Grant.”

“Theodore…”

“It’s not necessary.” He fought to get his flash of temper under control. “Give me the time Jude wants and I’ll handle it myself.”

A long pause, then, “Can you, though? You ain’t exactly Prince Charming, sunshine.”

Turning away from the gardens, Theo caught sight of his reflection in the French doors and straightened up as if his father were watching. “Dad, trust me. I can close the sale myself.” He’d need to handle Moretti, but Theo didn’t want to discuss him with his father. He knew what Eddie would say and wasn’t in the mood for his off-color jokes. “Sending someone else will only make us look more corporate and Jude wants to feel like she’s selling to a friend—someone who understands the place. Better we only show one face at this point.”

Silence crackled in his ear, his father’s doubt loud enough to smother the cry of the gulls and the happy sounds from the beach. But at last he said, “Alright. Keep me posted. We can’t afford a cockup, Theodore.” He laughed his coarse laugh. “Of any kind, eh?”

Theo’s cheeks heated. “There won’t be any mistakes. I know what I’m doing.”

“You’d better.”

He stood for a moment staring at his phone after his father ended the call, wondering if he’d done the right thing. But he couldn’t stand the thought of Grant Daly breezing in and charming Luca Moretti with his easy smile and warm handshakes, stealing the sale from under Theo’s nose and screwing up his shot at partnership. No, he wouldn’t let that happen. He could do this—he would do it—even if he hated every bloody moment.

When he stepped back into the shabby dining room, Moretti and Jude had returned. There was no sign of Don. Moretti had his arms folded, shoulders hunched, scowling like a teenager who’d just been reamed by his mother.

Jude tipped her head. “Well?”

“Oh.” They’d been expecting him to speak first, of course. “Yes, my father’s agreed it would be an excellent opportunity for me to get to know the place better.” He hoped the transparency of the lie wasn’t as obvious as it felt, but the look Moretti flashed him suggested it was. Theo looked away quickly, the brief eye contact unnerving. “I’ll ask my assistant to send my luggage. It should be here by tomorrow morning.” The thought of staying here alone, without Miranda’s support, only heightened his disquiet. But with him out of the office, he’d need her back at her desk. The New Milton development was far from the only iron in the fire.

Jude’s smile widened, oblivious to his unease. “Wonderful! Then welcome to the Majestic, Theo. Come through and I’ll check you in.” As she headed into the foyer she glanced at Moretti, slouching in the doorway. “Could you show Theo up to the Whitman suite, Luca?”

“The Whitman suite?” Something passed between them, a glinting look from Jude which made Moretti subside. “Sure,” he said and glanced at Theo, a cool brush of his silvery eyes. “Hope you’re okay to take the stairs. The elevator’s, uh—”

“Temporarily unavailable,” Jude caroled from where she was walking across the foyer. “But it’s a beautiful staircase and there are views all the way across the bay from every landing.”

Theo lifted an eyebrow in Moretti’s direction. “The stairs are fine.” No need to mention the prohibitive cost of fixing the ancient elevator; he was sure they were all well aware. The financial difficulty of refurbishing a building of this age had to be one of Jude’s prime reasons for selling. Moretti scowled and turned away.

Point.

Jude checked Theo in on a computer which might have been state of the art at the turn of the century and handed over a genuine brass key with a large wooden fob. Perhaps in response to his surprise, she said, “Much nicer than those plastic key cards, don’t you think?”

“A little harder to fit in your wallet.”

“And harder to lose.” She smiled. “Follow Luca, if you will. He’ll bring up your luggage when it arrives—and I’m sure he’ll be delighted to show you around New Milton while you’re here. Won’t you, honey?”

“Sure,” Moretti growled. “Delighted.”

That was a lie. Or sarcasm. Theo couldn’t always tell the difference, but either way it didn’t matter; he wasn’t here for Moretti’s friendship, he was here to close the sale. Theo smiled as he followed him out of the foyer and up the stairs.

Game on, Mr. Moretti. Game bloody well on.

*****

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