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After childhood plans to become the captain of a starship didn’t pan out, Suzanne Brockmann took her fascination with military history, her respect for the men and women who serve, her reverence for diversity, and her love of storytelling and explored brave new worlds as a New York Times bestselling romance author. Over the past twenty years, she has written more than fifty novels, including her award-winning Troubleshooters series about Navy SEAL heroes and the women—and sometimes men—who win their hearts. In addition to writing books, Suzanne Brockmann has co-produced a feature-length movie, the award-winning romantic comedy The Perfect Wedding, which she co-wrote with her husband, Ed Gaffney, and their son, Jason. She has also co-written a YA novel, set in the world of her paranormal Fighting Destiny series, with her daughter, Melanie. Find Suzanne Brockmann on Facebook, follow her on Twitter, and visit her website to find out more about upcoming releases and appearances.
Leila Hunt stared into the mirror at the bottom of the staircase, and Cinderella did not stare back. And that was a shame, since Leila was dressed just like Cinderella—from the golden hairpiece that matched her own short, blond curls to the glittering off-white ball gown that hugged her tall, slender figure, all the way down to the delicate glass slippers on her feet. Well, they were plastic slippers, really. But like the real Cinderella's slippers, they fit Leila perfectly.
Regardless of all that, Leila didn't look like Cinderella. She looked at herself critically in the mirror, wondering why exactly that was.
Maybe it was because she didn't look as elegant as a fairy-tale princess should. Her face was a little too cute, a little too heart-shaped. Her nose was upturned at the end, and her chin was a shade too pointy, making her look elfin. No, strike that. She was much too tall to be elfin. Elfin implied petite, and at five feet ten inches, Leila hadn't been petite since she was an infant.
What she looked was perky.
God, Leila hated that word.
She stepped closer to the mirror and tried to look sexy instead. She tried to look as if she were keeping some incredible secret. She tried to smile mysteriously, moving her lips only slightly upward.
The smile only made her look mischievous. Perkily mischievous—more like Peter Pan than a princess.
Leila turned from the mirror with a sigh. She still wasn't sure why she'd bothered to leave New York City after Elliot called her at the airport and told her he wouldn't be able to catch the flight to Florida.
Yet here she was, back on Sunrise Key, her hometown, dressed as Cinderella, as if she hoped that somewhere out in the yard, on her brother Simon's rented dance floor, Prince Charming was waiting for her.
She looked around the room. A Batman and a clown lingered in the corner. King Henry VIII, turkey drumstick in hand, sat next to a wizard. There was nary a Prince Charming in sight.
Leila went out the french doors and into the backyard where most of Simon's guests were dancing under a tent to taped music that was blaring out of four sets of gigantic speakers.
"You look beautiful," a voice beside her shouted to be heard over the music. "That dress suits you."
Leila would have recognized that crisp English accent anywhere. It was Marshall Devlin. Dr. Marshall Devlin. Dr. Marshall High-and-Mighty, Better-than-Thou, Best-Friends-with-Her-at-Times-Equally-Annoying-Brother, English-Accent-Encrusted Devlin.
Six years older than Leila, Marsh had spent summers and school vacations on Sunrise Key starting when he was in high school. Despite his traditional Englishman's coolness and the short duration of his visits, Marsh and Simon had hit it off immediately. They stayed friends through the years, united in their single goal—or so it had seemed to Leila at the time—either to torment and thoroughly embarrass or to totally ignore Simon's little sister. Namely Leila.
It seemed hard to believe that Marsh Devlin could have been such good friends with one Hunt and such bitter enemies with another Hunt—again, namely Leila. Well, bitter enemies was perhaps too strong a phrase. But Marsh and Leila had been adversaries from the word go. Even now that they'd supposedly grown up and become mature adults, they still argued incessantly. Of course, now it was called debating or discussing a difference of opinion. But Leila knew better. She knew that Marsh still kept score.
Out of all of Simon's friends, Marshall Devlin was the one who had the power to infuriate Leila. Out of all of Simon's friends, Marsh was the one who had moved to Sunrise Key, to her hometown, and now lived here year-round as the island's only medical doctor.
Out of all of Simon's friends, Marsh also happened to be far and away the best looking. He wasn't handsome in the traditional sense. His face was slightly too lean, too angular. But his nose was impossibly straight and his cheekbones exotically high. His eyes seemed an unremarkable shade of brown until examined from a close proximity. Then they became a swirl of colors—different subtle shades of lighter and darker browns, flecked with greens and even yellows. Marsh was, like his eyes, quietly, subtly gorgeous.
"Poor Cinderella," Marshall Devlin continued as Leila gazed at him. "Have you lost your Prince Charming?"
"Actually, I have." Leila stepped away from the dance floor, away from the pounding music. She kept her voice cool and polite, hiding the familiar surge of adrenaline that seemed to be released into her system whenever she came face-to-face with this man. Her heart gave a little skip that she told herself had to be from jet lag. "Elliot was detained. He won't be here until tomorrow evening."
"Elliot?" Marsh said, a frown marring his lean features. "Ah. Your gentleman friend. That's right. Simon said he was coming for the weekend. What a shame he couldn't be here. New Year's Eve is hardly the time to be by oneself."
No kidding. But truth be told, New Year's Eve was hardly the time to be with Elliot.
Leila had been dating Elliot for the past year. She liked him. They were friends. But as far as romance went, they weren't about to set the world ablaze. Except Elliot had recently started talking about marriage.
Was Leila willing to settle for a life with a man she didn't love? That was the million dollar question. And if she weren't willing to settle, was she willing to risk never finding anyone to share her life with? Because, face it, romance took time. And with her crazy work schedule, time was something she didn't have a lot of. She knew she and Elliot were compatible. So, okay, her life wouldn't be filled with hot, steamy, passionate nights, but neither would she be alone.
Except here she was, on Sunrise Key, at the start of her two-week vacation, alone.
It wasn't the first time Elliot had postponed a trip.
And with his schedule, it certainly wouldn't be the last.
With very little imagination, Leila could project herself into the future, to that mystical world of Little League games and dance recitals and chorus concerts and science fairs. She could picture Elliot missing every single one—calling in his apologies to their children over his cellular phone. That would really, really stink.
But at least there would be children. Provided Elliot could find the time in his busy schedule to procreate.
"Quite a crowd this year," Marsh said, and looking over the array of costumed guests, Leila had to agree. Simon's guest list must have included nearly half of the year-round inhabitants of the small island town, and at least as many visiting vacationers and winter residents. Of course, in a town as small as Sunrise Key, the island visitors outnumbered the locals nearly six to one during the winter season.
The costumes Leila saw were as varied as their wearers. Many of them were charmingly homemade, but quite a few, like her own, had been rented.
Simon, looking dashing as Indiana Jones, was dancing with a mermaid. But not everyone was as easy to recognize. The light from the Japanese lanterns strung around the dance floor was dim at best, and many people had masks that covered their entire faces.
It was odd and slightly frightening—all of these people with hidden identities. With their faces carefully concealed behind masks, everyone had a certain bizarre freedom. For one night, they could actually become kings or clowns or veiled harem girls. Or Cinderella.
Leila spotted a second Batman dancing with a Catwoman, and she didn't have a clue as to who either of them were. At least three ninjas were scattered throughout the crowd, impossible to recognize beneath their masks.
"What are you dressed as?" Leila pulled her mask away from her face to look at Marsh more closely.
He was wearing khaki pants and a white shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows.
"A harried, overworked small-town doctor." His sudden smile made him look boyishly handsome. "I just came from a house call. The youngest Knudsen boy got a piece of rust in his eye. Scratched his cornea. He'll be fine, but it hurts like the blazes. This has been a record-breaking week for the Knudsens. John Jr. knocked out his front tooth playing football—no helmet—and Melissa got seven stitches in her knee after trying to jump the curb in front of Millie's Market while wearing her Rollerblades."
Marsh looked tired. The lines around his eyes and mouth had deepened since Leila's last visit to the island, adding maturity to his face. Every year he became even more good looking. A lock of wavy brown hair had flopped forward into his eyes, but as usual he didn't seem to notice.
He never noticed when his hair was in his face. He simply looked through it. It drove Leila nuts.
"Have you made your New Year's resolutions?" Marsh asked.
"Funny you should ask," Leila muttered. In the past she hadn't had time for such things, but this year was different. Maybe it was because she'd just turned thirty. Maybe it was the impending second anniversary of her father's fatal heart attack. Or maybe it was Elliot's talk of marriage, but this year she'd spent the past few weeks looking back at her accomplishments and taking stock of where she was in life. Whatever the cause, never before had Leila felt so uncertain.
Careerwise, she couldn't have been happier. She had a thriving, successful private practice as an independent accountant in New York City. In a financial, business sense, she was precisely where she wanted to be. It was the other parts of her life—home, relationships, family—that were lacking. It was her personal life outside of the office that rated a big fat zero.
Even Elliot barely made a bump on her happiness index. But having children—babies—would make a difference. Wouldn't it?
"This year I have only one resolution," Marsh said. "To regain control of my life." He smiled ruefully. "Lately things have gotten rather out of hand."
"I was sorry to hear about the fire," Leila said. When her plane had landed at the tiny island airstrip, Simon had filled her in on all the local gossip. Leila's best friend, Frankie, had gotten her private investigator's license. Millionaire Preston Seaholm was back on the key, sans wife. Noah and Kim Kavanaugh were going to have a baby any minute now. The town committee had hired a new lifeguard for the town beach. And due to problems with the electric wiring, Marsh Devlin's big house on the point had recently burned to the ground.
Marsh smiled again, but this time it was tight and aloof, and kept his straight white teeth carefully hidden from view. "I'm sure you were sorry to hear that," he said. "Particularly since I'll be living here, in your brother's house, for God knows how long. Certainly for the two weeks you'll be visiting."
Marsh was over six feet tall, but Leila's high heels brought them directly eye to eye. "That's not what I meant," she said sharply.
"Sorry." He dropped his gaze, and with one hand finally, finally raked his hair back from his face. "Sorry, I'm . . . sorry. It's been miserable. I'm tired, and . . . sorry."
"How much did you lose in the fire?" Leila asked gently.
"Everything," he replied, glancing back up at her. Again, she could see a glimmer of fatigue in his eyes. "The place was gutted. Everything I owned went up in extremely literal smoke." He held out his arms. "I stand before you in borrowed clothes. I had one pair of jeans in my office, and a dozen dress shirts at the cleaners, but that—and the clothes I had on my back—was it."
"Oh, God, Marsh. I had no idea—"
"The worst of it was losing my pictures," he told her. "You know, my collection of photographs? I had photos of Simon and you and me, back when Si and I were at university, and you were still just a little brat. I even had pictures from London. Pictures of my mother . . ."
He stared back at the colorful lights out in the yard. In the shadowy light, his face looked impossibly sad.
Leila was shocked.
In her experience, Marshall Devlin had only two emotional states. More often than not, he was detached and aloof. Occasionally he got angry and frustrated. And that was it. Leila had wondered if perhaps Marsh was incapable of experiencing all those other messy, complicated feelings. Sadness. Grief. Loneliness. Even the positive ones: happiness, excitement, joy, love. Especially love.
Looking at him now, seeing the pain and the loneliness etched on his face, Leila realized that he no doubt felt all of those things. He simply kept them carefully hidden. Neatly repressed.
What would it be like to chip away all of the chilly layers of Marsh's proper icy facade? Who would she find hiding there? The thought intrigued her. Obviously Marsh had been devastated by the fire. But before this moment, she hadn't believed him capable of being devastated by anything.
In all of the years she'd known him, Leila had never considered offering Marsh comfort. Before this very moment, she had never thought he'd ever need it. But he clearly did. And if he had been anyone else in the world, Leila would have put her arms around him and given him a hug. But this was Marsh Devlin standing in front of her.
So instead, Leila touched his arm. He felt solid and muscular. And warm. She could feel his body heat right through the sleeve of his shirt. He wasn't cold at all.
That was a silly thought. Of course he wouldn't feel cold to the touch. He was human, after all. His chilliness was in his demeanor. It wasn't a physical thing.
But as he glanced at her, surprised by her unexpected touch, there was a flash of warmth, of wonder on his face.
This was the first time she had ever touched Marshall Devlin, Leila thought almost inanely as she gazed into the green and gold flecks of his brown eyes. They'd spent the nineteen years since Marsh had first visited the island cautiously circling one another, battling with barbed words and acidic tongues, but never, ever touching. Wasn't that odd?
"I am sorry about the fire," she said. Looking down at her hand, she realized he'd covered it with his own. His fingers were much bigger than hers and slightly roughened from outdoor work. They were very nice hands.
"Thanks, Leila," he said quietly. "I don't know how much Simon has told you, but things have been kind of tough lately."
He held her gaze steadily, and along with the pain and fatigue, she could see hope and warmth and promise. He was letting her see all that and more. He wasn't trying to hide any of it from her. It was another first.
Leila shook her head. "Simon hasn't told me anything." Her voice sounded breathless.
He looked away from her then, squinting at the ocean of partygoers moving on the dance floor. "Don't get me wrong," he said, glancing back at her. "I love it here on Sunrise Key. But I've been thinking—"
Before he could finish, a circus clown, a vampire, and a silent-film star came rushing across the lawn, leading a pack of about fifteen other partygoers toward the back deck of the house. They streamed around and between Marsh and Leila, and one of them, a harem girl, waved as she ran past.
"Hey!" she shouted over her shoulder. "Where's your fiance? I thought you were bringing him along. What's his name?"
"Elliot," Leila called back. "And he's not my fiance . . ." But the harem girl was gone. "Yet," she added lamely.
She glanced at Marsh again, but all of the depth and warmth he'd let her see was once more carefully concealed.