She couldn’t sleep. All night Mari tossed and turned in an attempt to get comfortable and find sleep. The sheets were a tangled mess around her. The pillow had been bunched up, flattened out, and then bunched up again to no avail. She rolled onto her back and glanced at the blue digits to her left. 4:00. In less than eight hours she would come face to face with Blake Mason for the first time she could remember. As promised, she’d called Tyler after Gage’s visit and told him when Blake would arrive. Unease was her silent partner when she made the call and not for the first time she wondered if she was making the right decision keeping Tyler’s secret.
She blew out a harsh breath and reached behind the clock. Her hand came up against the square picture frame and she pulled it in, holding it above her face. She’d memorized the features long ago; natural coily brown hair, warm brown eyes, and a smile that engaged her entire face.
She always thought her mother beautiful. To grow up and hear others remark on how much she looked like Miranda was the world’s greatest compliment to a girl who missed her mother more than anything. She traced a finger over Miranda’s face in the picture. There was unadulterated joy on her face as she wrapped her arms around a young Mari and squeezed tight, the two of them laughing into the camera.
Mari shoved the covers off of her and climbed out of the bed. She was already moving toward the door as she tugged on a pair of jeans and reached for a long-sleeved shirt. In minutes she was walking out into the dark of the morning. She considered sitting out by the water or up at the overhang, but her feet didn’t hesitate to find that old familiar path winding up the hill.
She didn’t stop to breathe in the ocean or admire the view. She leaned the picture frame up against the headstone before she lowered herself on the ground beside the grave and propped her chin up on her arms. She lied there in silence for several minutes just staring at the picture. Gradually some of the starch left her shoulders thanks to the video loop of memories with her mother in her head; the two of them building sandcastles together, lying on their stomachs in front of pinwheels and blowing on them when the wind was still, and just the sweet sound of Miranda’s laughter.
She rarely ever talked about Blake. Young Mari had questions about her absent father Miranda answered vaguely. Then she was gone before Mari was old enough to know the right questions to ask. Still, there was one thing she said about him more than anything else. “He is a good man, Mari. A very good man who loved you.”
“I don’t know about the love thing and I don’t know if he’s still a good man, Mama. I am going to meet him. I already gave my word on that and it’s too late to go back. I just hope he’s still the man you fell in love with and not the man Tyler thinks he is.”
She freed a hand to tuck strands back away from her face. “I worry about that too, if I made the right decision or not agreeing to let him dig around. I feel like I’m stuck in the middle trying to make decisions with not even half of the information. I’m walking blind here.”
As usual there was no response, but something in her eased at sharing her concern.
“It’s hard trying to figure all of this out…I wish you were here.”
She kept the picture within view but rested her cheek against her arms. The sounds of the night were a quiet reassurance compared to the silence of her bedroom and the next thing she knew, she was waking up to the sun warming her face and the kiss of the sea breeze.
She blinked sleepily and lifted her head just as Gage climbed up the hill. She dropped her head back down and watched him reach the top. His eyes touched on the picture by the headstone before they came back to rest on her.
“We’ve been looking for you. Did you spend the night out here?”
“No, just a few hours. I couldn’t sleep.”
“Neither could he I’ve heard.”
She wasn’t sure what to do with that bit of knowledge so she let it lie and pulled herself into a sitting position.
“What time is it?”
He squatted down beside her. His dark eyes searched hers and she knew he would see far more than she wanted him to.
“A little after nine.”
She combed her fingers through the wild strands of hair and ducked her head. “I need to go shower and stuff.”
He cupped the back of her neck until she lifted her head to look at him.
“He already loves you.”
“That doesn’t mean I don’t need to shower.”
He laughed and sat all the way down, pulling her into him as he did. She went willingly and wrapped her arm around him as she leaned in.
“I just want him to be the man Mama was crazy about.”
“Everyone changes over time. I think losing you and Miranda would have done something to him. It would have changed him, changed anybody. But when it comes down to it, who we are at our core is who we are. And I think your mother knew your father’s core better than anyone.”
“He didn’t ‘lose’ us. He left us. There’s a difference.”
Gage just hugged her close. “You’ll find out the truth from him soon enough.” With a kiss to the top of her head and a pat to her hip, he encouraged her to let it rest. “Come on, time to get moving.”
Only a few short hours later she was pacing the length of her living room. Blake would arrive any minute now. She’d asked to meet him at home alone rather than at the house with everyone else. Raoul hesitated over the request, but bowed out to her wishes. He, Gage, and Allison left her to the guesthouse by herself. Nerves tap-danced in her stomach while she fought to think of something other than Blake’s impending arrival.
A soft but firm knock against the door penetrated the silence. She froze in the middle of her circuit. The lack of anyone calling out to announce his or her presence confirmed it could only be one person. She swallowed hard and scrubbed her hands over her thighs before she stepped to the door. Another deep breath and she pulled it open.
Two men stood on her porch, but it was the man directly in front of her who stole and kept her attention. He was taller than her; not tall enough to make her neck ache but there was an inch or two difference. He wore his black hair shorn close to his head.
She was her mother’s mini-me, but as she stared at the man before her she saw him in her too. It was in the height of his deep brown cheekbones and slant and color of his hazel eyes; eyes that were hungrily taking her in.
“You look just like her,” Blake breathed and the emotion touching his eyes nearly broke her. “I always told her you would.”
No matter who Blake was or what he’d done, he’d loved Miranda Drake. It was in his voice and his eyes. She didn’t know what to say to his words. Her hand tightened on the doorknob and she fought to find some calm.
“I get that a lot.” She tore her eyes from him to wander over the man witnessing their awkward reunion.
Stubble coated the rich brown-bronze of his jaw and chin. His amber brown eyes took in everything from her to the house to Blake in mere seconds. He commanded every inch of his height, which only seemed to emphasize the three or four he had over her. He carried the weight of fine muscles like a man who knew how to use them to his advantage. Her heart tripped. He had the same edge about him she saw in Tyler. His speculations about Blake’s activities came back to mind.
“This is Reese,” Blake introduced them when he caught the direction of her gaze. “He’s a very good friend of mine.”
Mari didn’t look away from Reese. Her mind was supplying her with a myriad of different meanings for friend. “Mari, but you probably know that.”
He nodded and she pulled her attention back to Blake. “Is he going to be our audience while we stumble through this?”
His answering smile was pained. “No, he’s going to go with your family. They said you wanted us to be alone.”
“Anyone else in the house?” Reese asked reclaiming her attention.
She arched a brow and stepped back to open the door wider. “You want to search?”
There was the start of a smile near the corners of his lips. “Your word is good enough for now.”
She didn’t miss the “for now”, but it was hard to fight a faint smile of her own. “Then there’s no one here.”
He nodded and looked to Blake. “Call when you’re done.”
Blake barely nodded before Reese turned and jogged down the stairs to walk to the main house. She watched him go, sucking in another breath before she met Blake’s eyes and let go of the door. He took the invitation for what it was. She could’ve sworn she heard him draw in a deep breath of his own before he stepped inside, shutting the door behind him.