Home for the Baby's Sake

ISBN: 978-1335894847

Home for the Baby's Sake

October 2020
He’d do anything for his son…
…Including returning to the town he left behind.

Valentine Bay’s the perfect place for real estate developer Roman Marek to raise his infant son. But when he snaps up the charming local theater, he doesn’t bargain for tempestuous director Hailey Bravo. Hailey won’t let Roman wreck the thing she holds most dear—and she’s certainly gotten under Roman’s notoriously thick skin. As the duo spar and sparks fly, Roman’s surprised to find that Hailey’s the perfect missing piece for his family. But how can he convince her that this partnership’s for keeps?

The Bravos of Valentine Bay:
They’re finding love
—and having babies!—
in the Pacific Northwest

BUY THIS BOOK

AmazonBarnes & NobleAmazon KindleNookApple Books

Kobo

What Readers are Saying

“Sometimes we can be our own worst enemy. This is Roman Marek's biggest problem. Enter Hailey Bravo, she is a strong, bold and giving woman. Roman has finally met his match in Hailey. But both are a bit on the stubborn side and like things to go their way. Can they make their ways mesh together?.... This is a very charming story and who can resist cute babies and meddling mother's, too?”

5 stars, Cassie, Goodreads Reviewer

“The book moves at a good pace and all of the characters are well developed and likeable. I loved the author’s writing style and the fact she described all of the scenes so well. By the time the story ended I wanted more. Can't wait to read the other books in this series. This is Definitely a good 5 star read.”

5 stars, Joyce Stewart Reviews, Goodreads Reviewer

“I absolutely loved this book. It flows well, the characters are believable, and the romance between Roman and Hailey is wonderful like a Harlequin should be.”

5 stars, Janie, Goodreads Reviewer

“What happens when you have two stubborn people together? A whole lot of laughs and a really good book.”

5 stars, Phylis Carpenter, Goodreads Reviewer

“Another Winning Story. I loved Hailey and Roman's story. I laughed, quite often, and cried a little too. Great characters all around and the reappearance of earlier characters blended well. This has to be one of my favorite Christine Rimmer books!”

5 stars, Karen Geurts, Goodreads Reviewer

Chapter 1

On a balmy afternoon in early September, Roman Marek stood on the sidewalk at the corner of Carmel Street and Pacific Lane in Valentine Bay, Oregon. His hands in his pockets, he scowled at the excess of arches and scrollwork adorning the facade of the building directly in front of him.

The Valentine Bay Theatre was nothing short of a nightmare—at least, to Roman it was. He’d made his fortune in Las Vegas real estate and he had a definite preference for efficient, light-filled, modern spaces. The last thing he would ever invest in was a run-down, century-old theater in the Venetian Gothic style.

But invest in it he had—in fact, he’d bought the damn thing outright. His mother had insisted. And Roman Marek would do just about anything for his mother. He loved her and he owed her.-

As for her ridiculous fondness for the old theater, when Roman was a kid, his mom used to bring him here to watch second-run movies and attend community events. She looked back on those days through rose-colored glasses. And that was why, a few weeks ago, when Sasha learned that the elderly owner had died and the heirs wanted to get rid of it, she had demanded that Roman buy the place.

Buy it, he had. And now he needed to decide what the hell to do with it.

To him, a wrecking ball seemed the most effective solution to the problem—just knock it down and build something better. But demolition wasn’t going to fly with his mother. To keep Sasha happy, the building would need to remain standing and to retain at least a semblance of its original design.

As Roman glared at his recent acquisition and continued to consider his limited options, a skinny guy in khakis and a plaid shirt strode past the ticket booth and went inside.

With a shrug, Roman followed. Might as well have a good look around, get a better idea of what he was up against.

He entered a lobby that was pretty much as expected, with an aged maroon-and-black carpet in a dizzying pattern of interconnected medallions. There were lots of arches, fussy plaster moldings and several Tuscan pillars marching relentlessly toward the back wall. Curving stairs topped with fussy ironwork led up to the balcony.

The good news? Though the air smelled kind of stale, he detected no odor of mold or mildew. He might get lucky and not have to call in a mold abatement crew.

Roman found his way into the backstage area and saw that there was some kind of planning meeting happening out on the stage itself. There were a couple of hot blondes and a few long-winded middle-aged people, all of them sitting in a circle in folding chairs. He eavesdropped without shame as they droned on about a Festival of Fall Revue, a haunted house and a Christmas show—community events, complete money wasters, as far as Roman was concerned. Unfortunately, the former owner had signed on for them and it was part of the deal that Roman would honor those commitments.

Thus, the upcoming events were money wasters Roman could do nothing about. It would be the first of the year before he could get going on his plans to make something useful of this musty pile of concrete and stone.

He stood in the shadows behind a narrow black velour drape, watching the meeting, unnoticed, for several minutes—and not because he was interested in community events.

One of the hot blondes had caught his eye. She wore green shorts and a white shirt and had a pretty face—a gentle oval with wide-set eyes, a small chin and a delicately shaped, shell-pink mouth. The other hot blonde was pretty, too, her face more angular, her pale hair even longer. He would guess that the two of them were sisters, possibly fraternal twins. But he liked the one in the green shorts the best.

As if it mattered in the least.

Shaking off the weird spell the pretty blonde had cast on him, Roman turned away and continued his self-guided tour of the property. Come the new year, when he could finally boot the theater people and community boosters out, he wanted to know where he was going with the building, to have everything in order to start ripping out walls.

The more he looked around, the better he felt about the situation. It could have been so much worse. The place needed a boatload of work, but it wasn’t a bad space. And it was big. He explored the warren of rooms backstage and the large storage and docking area at the rear of the building.

The property could be a killer boutique hotel. Valentine Bay had a burgeoning tourist trade. When the transformation was complete, Roman would have the out-of-towners lining up for a chance to stay here. Already, he was envisioning the extensive remodel that would keep a sense of the old theater and yet be streamlined, modern and welcoming to hotel guests.

By the time he returned to the backstage area, only one hot blonde remained—the one he liked, in the green shorts. Everyone else had cleared out. She was busy on a tablet. Her thick, straight platinum hair fell forward to mask her face as she bent over the tablet on her lap, typing out notes or maybe an email.

He hesitated offstage again, watching her, smiling a little at the tender curve of her back, the way she had her knees braced together supporting the tablet, her lower legs apart, ankles wrapped around the chair legs. She wore battered Converse All Stars and she was so damn cute, even with her sweet face obscured by her hair.

He should move the hell on. But some random impulse held him in place, had him hoping that maybe she would glance over her shoulder and spot him, give him an opening to find out her name.

Just as he was about to give it up and turn away, a tall, gangly dude appeared from the wings on the opposite side of the stage. Roman remembered him, the guy in the plaid shirt, the one he’d followed inside.

“Hailey,” said the lanky guy. He had a distinctive voice, low and commanding for a man his size. “At last, I have you alone.” He sounded like the villain in some tacky old-time melodrama. All he needed was a tall black hat and a greasy moustache to twirl.

The blonde was not impressed. She didn’t even bother to look up as she waved a dismissing hand. “Doug. Don’t you have levels to check in the light booth or something?”

“When are you going to let me take you to dinner?”

Her focus still on her tablet, the blonde muttered, “Don’t even go there.”

“I can’t seem to help myself.” Doug moved clear of the wings and onto the stage.

“I mean it, Doug. Don’t.”

But Doug was nothing if not persistent. He took another step. “There’s always been such powerful energy between us. Remember senior year? The Crucible? I was John Proctor and you were the feisty, wild, troublesome, angry and headstrong young Abigail…”

The blonde did look up then. Roman watched her spine draw straight. Shaking her head, she stood and set her tablet on the chair. “You need to just give it up. You get that, right?”

Doug put a bony hand to his heart. “Don’t pretend you don’t feel it—bam! Like a bolt of lightning every time our eyes meet. I promise you, no one else ever has to know.” He moved in close to the blonde named Hailey.

And then he reached for her.

Roman didn’t even realize that he’d let out a low growl until he’d already started to her rescue—only to halt when she grabbed Doug’s arm and kicked his legs out from under him.

Doug let out a shout of surprise as he landed on his ass at her feet, center stage. “Ouch,” he whined. His wounded expression was pretty damn comical. Groaning a little, he dragged himself upright again, one hand at his back. “That was just mean.”

Hailey scoffed. “You’ll live—and you should know better.”

“There are names I could call you,” Doug grumbled.

“Just don’t try that again. You’ll end up back on your butt.”

With a low, derisive sound, Doug turned and limped off the way he’d come.

“It’s called harassment, Doug, and you need to quit it,” Hailey called to his retreating back, “You come on to me again, I’m giving Mariette a call.”

“Leave my wife out of this,” Doug grumbled as he disappeared into the wings on the other side of the stage.

Thoroughly entertained, Roman let out a chuckle.

The blonde whirled to face him. He was close enough to her now to see that her wide eyes were a gorgeous lavender blue.

He put up both hands. “Sorry. I saw what was happening and I hung around in case you needed backup.”

She regarded him warily. “Who are you?”

“Roman Marek.” He tipped his head toward the spot where Doug went down. “That was impressive. You have to do that often?”

She studied him for a slow count of five, apparently trying to assess if he was any kind of threat. He knew he was in the clear when she scoffed and flipped her hair back over her shoulders with both hands. “Please. Men never come on to me. I tend to give off an antirelationship vibe.”

He dared to move out onto the stage. “Oh, I don’t think Doug was looking for a relationship.”

She laughed then. It was a husky, inviting sound. “I’m Hailey Bravo.”

The Bravo family was well-known in Valentine Bay. “I went to school here in town. Same grade as a guy named Connor Bravo.”

“Connor’s my brother—he’s third-born, after Daniel and Matthias.”

“I remember Matthias, too.” Surly and usually high on weed or something stronger, that was how Roman remembered Matt Bravo.

Hailey seemed to sense the direction of his thoughts. “Matt was not a happy guy in high school.” A smile bloomed on those pretty pink lips. “But about two years ago, he got married. He moved up near Astoria to live with his wife on her family farm. He is happy now—you know, the wonder of true love and all that.”

“I’m sure,” Roman said with a shrug, though he wasn’t. He’d been married twice. Both times, it had ended badly.

A frown wrinkled Hailey’s smooth forehead. “You don’t look all that sure.”

He frowned back at her. “Of what?”

“Love, Roman Marek. Love.”

On the contrary, he was sure about love—sure that he wanted nothing to do with it. And he should get going. But he liked Hailey Bravo. She seemed so self-possessed and confident. She’d put that Doug character on the floor without breaking a sweat. Plus, she was very easy on the eyes.

“So where are you in the Bravo family birth order?” he asked.

“I was born seventh.”

“That makes you how old?”

“You ask a lot of questions, Roman.”

He gave her a lazy shrug. “I’m a curious guy.”

“I’m twenty-five.”

He was thirty-two. And he found himself thinking that seven years was an acceptable age difference between him and a woman he might possibly get involved with. Not that it mattered. He had no plans to get involved with any woman anytime soon. “As I recall, there are a lot of you Bravos, aren’t there?”

“Ten total, nine by blood.”

He wasn’t following. “You mean one of you is adopted?”

“No. One of us was switched at birth, so there’s the switched sibling and the sibling we grew up with. The one we grew up with is a sibling, too. So that makes ten.”

He eyed her sideways. “You’re blowing smoke.”

“Nope. It’s true. One of us was switched at birth.”

“Which one?”

“I can’t tell you which one.” She put a finger to her lips and whispered, “It’s a family secret.”

“Why?”

“Reasons, Roman. Reasons I’m not at liberty to disclose.”

“You’re very mysterious.” And charming. And so damn cute.

“Not mysterious at all. Not really.” As he watched, her sweet mouth turned down at the corners and those fine eyes seemed sad. “We lost Finn years and years ago—he’s sixth-born, two years older than me. He vanished on a family trip to Russia.”

Roman vaguely remembered the story of Finn Bravo’s disappearance. It had happened when Roman was twelve or maybe thirteen, four or five years after he and his mother had fled the only other home he’d ever known, stopping for the night in Valentine Bay. And somehow, never moving on.

Come to think of it, the Bravo parents had died on another trip a couple of years after they lost Finn, hadn’t they? Both stories had made the local newspaper.

“We’re still searching for Finn.” Hailey tipped her pretty chin high.

Roman gave her a long, slow perusal, from the top of her blond head to the toes of her All Stars—because it gave him pleasure to do so. “I hope you find him someday.”

“We will. We Bravos never give up.”

The mood had darkened considerably. Now, Hailey seemed both determined and sad. A change of subject was in order. “So what’s up with that Doug character, anyway?”

She scoffed. “We were in drama club together back in high school, Doug and me. He helps out here at the theater. And he also pretty much considers it a point of pride to make a pass at every woman who wanders by.” She tipped her head to the side, studying him. “Got kids?”

He thought of his little boy and almost smiled. “Why?”

“Right now, we’re staging the Festival of Fall Revue. Almost every kid in town will be in it. We can always make room for one more.”

He considered telling her he had an eleven-month- old son. She seemed to like kids. But if he mentioned Theo, he would probably end up having to explain what had happened to Theo's mother and that wouldn't be fun.

Uh-uh. It was the wrong moment to go there. “I’m just having a look around the building—and what do you do here at the theater?”

Her smile got wider. She looked so happy to be here, onstage in her hometown’s shabby old theater. “I work with the local arts council, putting on seasonal-themed shows and programs. It’s a community endeavor and we try to get everyone involved.” He listened, absurdly enchanted, as she chattered on about how her title at the theater was artistic director. “Also, my sister Harper and I have our own little production company, H&H Productions. In the past year, we’ve coproduced all the events here at the theater. Frankly, our budget makes a shoestring look fat. But Harper—she’s our tech director—can do amazing things. She’s a genius when it comes to making something from practically nothing. She’s building five major interlocking sets for the Festival of Fall Revue. Wait till you see them, Roman. They’ll blow you away.”

“Sounds impressive,” he said, and found he almost meant it. He could not have cared less about theater sets—interlocking or otherwise. But Hailey Bravo’s enthusiasm was contagious.

She gazed up at the catwalk overhead and then out past the lip of the stage, over row upon row of worn, maroon-velvet seats. “The place could use updating,” she said. “But overall, it’s a great space.” Her expression turned wistful. “Unfortunately, it’s been sold. We’re not sure what the new owner plans to do with it.”

Roman made a noncommittal sound and gave no indication that he was the new owner she was so worried about. Yeah, he should tell her.

But he just couldn’t quite make his mouth say the words. She would only want to know what would happen when the contract with the arts council ran out at the end of the year, and she wouldn’t like his answer. That could mean the end of this conversation.

He didn’t want that—didn’t want her walking away. He was enjoying himself. She was a breath of fresh air, full of energy and enthusiasm.

“So Roman,” she said with a teasing little grin, “if you’re here to contribute to the worthy cause of community theater for all the kids in town, I would be only too happy to accept your check made out to H&H Productions—or if you’re uncomfortable writing a check to our family business, you can make it out to the Valentine Bay Arts Council. Most of the theater’s budget comes through them.”

“I might just do that.”

“You’re a generous man.”

“No, I’m not. But I do want to get in good with the artistic director.”

*

Hailey Bravo grinned up at the tall, broad-shouldered guy with the compelling jade-green eyes. He was gorgeous, really, with that jawline cut from granite and that mouth she couldn’t stop staring at, that full lower lip and a distinct, beautifully shaped bow on top. His big, hard arms were shown off to perfection by his short-sleeved knit shirt.

And better than mere gorgeousness, those fine eyes gleamed with intelligence and wry humor. She felt downright giddy just looking at him, which made zero sense. Never, ever had she been the giddy type.

But she was giddy over Roman—like right from first sight. He just rang all her bells in a big way. It had taken her by complete surprise, to feel so strongly attracted.

She hadn’t been out with a guy in three years. Not since Nathan, who had been her everything. Other guys just didn’t interest her.

Until now…

“Hey.” Roman’s wonderful, rough voice called her back to the moment. She blinked and watched as he strolled out onto the lip of the stage. He sat down with his legs dangling over the side and patted the space next to him.

She didn’t even hesitate, just trotted right over there and dropped down beside him.

“So tell me.” He spoke in a rough whisper, for her ears alone, and leaned close enough that she could smell him. Delicious. Like a clean shirt, freshly ironed—and something else, too. Something like the ocean on a cool, breezy day. “How did you get that antirelationship vibe?”

And just like that, without any more encouragement than his simply asking the question, she willingly told him stuff only Harper, who was not only her sister but also her best friend, had ever known.

“There was this guy, Nathan Christoff. I met him my freshman year at UO. Nathan was tall and lean, a great actor, very intense. I was wildly attracted to him, but he was…elusive.”

Roman was watching her closely. She couldn’t read his expression. Then he said, “So you chased him.”

She laughed—at the memory and because the stranger beside her had known instantly what she would do. “I did chase him. Shamelessly. Until he finally got honest and admitted that he was completely gone on me, too.”

“But…?”

She shifted her gaze downward. Staring at her Chucks, gripping the edge of the stage harder than she needed to, she filled in the blanks for him. “Nathan had stage four leukemia. It was in remission, but he warned me that the odds weren’t good. It was likely to come back.”

Roman’s thick, black brows drew together, and his eyes knew too much. “This isn’t a happy story, is it?”

She bit her upper lip and shook her head. “I finally managed to make him see that I just wanted to be with him. He stopped resisting and we were a couple. But he never would come home with me to meet the family, so no one here in town except Harper knew that I had a special guy. We were happy, Nathan and me, for several months. Then he got sick again. He died three years ago.” She stared out over all the empty seats, her gaze ranging up to the balcony and then on overhead to the spectacular chandelier. It was eight feet tall, that chandelier. It weighed twelve hundred pounds, an iron-framed paper-and-silk creation in the style of a Chinese lantern.

Roman said nothing, not for the longest time. They sat there in the empty theater, just the two of them, like they were the only two people in the world. It probably should have felt weird, sharing all that silence with a man she’d just met.

But it didn’t feel weird. It felt easy, between them. Easy and exciting, simultaneously.

Finally, she admitted, “I haven’t been with anyone since he died, haven’t wanted to be. After a year or so, I wasn’t even sad anymore. Just happy on my own, graduating from college, getting going on the rest of my life here in my hometown.” She closed her eyes and shook her head, another laugh escaping. “I can’t believe I laid all that on you.”

“I wanted to know.” He took her hand.

And she let him. His touch was warm. Firm. Heat and something very close to longing skated up her arm and straight to her heart—for all the things she’d honestly believed she would never want again.

Was she getting a little carried away here?

No doubt about it.

She pulled her hand away.

He let go reluctantly—or did she only want to think that he didn’t want to let go?

Roman glanced at his watch. It was an Omega, a gorgeous thing, the kind that cost as much as a car and did everything but your taxes for you. She was sure he was going to say he had to get going.

She was wrong.

He asked, “Are you hungry? It’s lunchtime. And I remember this fish place from when I was growing up. It’s not far from here--if it's still there…”

She knew what restaurant he meant because she knew every restaurant in town. “You mean Fisherman’s Korner. It's still open, still serving the best fish and chips on the Oregon coast.”

“Have lunch with me there.”

“Yes,” she said far too eagerly—and then reminded herself that she really didn’t know him. He’d said he’d gone to school with Connor, and he probably had. But she didn’t remember any of her older brothers ever mentioning him back then. Not that she should remember—but still, she definitely needed to take her own car. “I have to see who’s still here and either lock up or get them to do it if they leave before I come back. You go ahead. I’ll meet you there. Fifteen minutes, tops.”

*

When she arrived at the fish place on Ocean Road, Roman was waiting outside for her, leaning against a sleek black sports car—the famous one made in Italy, with doors that opened upward, like wings.

“This car,” she said, shaking her head, trailing a finger along the gleaming hood. “You’d better write the arts council a check, Roman Marek.”

He put his hand to his broad, hard chest, right over his heart. “You have my solemn word on that.”

They went inside. The food was excellent, as always, and being with Roman was easy and fun. Even the silences were comfortable. He said he’d moved back to town from Las Vegas and bought a house on Treasure Cove Circle. Hailey knew the house. It was a mansion nestled in its own private oceanfront reserve surrounded by beautiful old-growth forest, overlooking a secluded stretch of beach.

“I want to see you again,” he said as he walked her back out to her car. She gave him her number and when he gathered her close, she didn’t resist.

The kiss was just right, a tender, sweet getting-to-know-you kind of kiss. His lips felt so good brushing against her own, and excitement sizzled through her. They both pulled back slowly and just stood there at the driver’s door of her Kia Sportage, grinning at each other for a long string of lovely seconds.

“See you soon,” he said as he pulled open the driver’s door for her.

She climbed in and he shut the door. Then he stood there, the afternoon sun gleaming on his dark brown hair, as she backed from the parking space and drove away.

For the rest of the day, Hailey felt like the living, breathing representation of some old romantic song. She walked on air and danced on clouds. She’d met a guy she wanted to see again. That hadn’t happened since Nathan.

She couldn’t stop smiling as she sat at the kitchen table in the family cottage she shared with Harper and worked on her plans for the Christmas show—which desperately needed an actual name. Later in the afternoon, she was back at the theater, greeting the parents as they dropped off their children for Fall Revue rehearsals.

It was the usual circus, corralling all the kids, giving them instructions that they immediately forgot. There was some pushing and one of the little girls cried. Hailey consoled and coaxed and loved every minute of it—she always did. But somehow, more so today.

Because she kind of had butterflies over Roman Marek and for three long years she’d honestly believed that all her butterflies had shriveled up and died.

After the moms and dads returned and took their kids home, Hailey and Harper spent an hour talking props and costumes—what to make and what to try to scavenge at cut-rate prices or, better yet, for free. Eventually they called it a night and headed to Beach Street Brews for burgers and beers.

The waitress took their orders, filled their mugs and left the rest of the pitcher on the table.

Harper raised her mug. “Here’s to us. We did what needed doing for another whole day.”

Hailey clicked her mug against her sister’s. “We need a name for the Christmas show.”

Harper licked the foam mustache from her upper lip, her gaze locked with Hailey’s. “Pageant?”

“Bor-ing.” Hailey pretended to flick a bit of lint off her shoulder.

“Hometown Holiday?” Harper was watching her much too closely. Hailey was ten months older, and yet in so many ways they were like twins. They read each other’s minds, finished each other’s sentences, knew when something had changed for the other. “Christmas on Carmel Street?”

“Hmm. Yummy alliteration and the theater is on Carmel Street. It has possibilities.”

Harper leaned close. “You can’t stop grinning. What happened today?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Liar. Tell me.”

Hailey considered holding out a little longer, just for the fun of it. Instead, she surrendered to the inevitable. “Ever heard of Roman Marek?”

Harper’s eyes widened. “You met a guy.”

Hailey tried not to look wildly gleeful. “Same age as Connor, grew up here, moved to Nevada. Now he’s back in town. He’s bought the house on Treasure Cove Circle.”

“The house with the private forest all around it and the primo beach down below?”

“I’m pretty sure it’s the only house on Treasure Cove Circle.”

“Tell me everything.”

Hailey gave a purposely casual shrug. “He dropped by the theater. We started talking, then later I met him at Fisherman’s Korner for lunch.”

“So…sexy single dad with kids in the show?”

“No, he said he’d only come in to have a look around.”

Harper was still staring at her, laser-focused. “Marek. The name’s not familiar.” Harper’s eyebrows scrunched up. “But if he was in Connor’s grade in school, that makes him—”

“Eight years ahead of us.” Their mother had held Hailey back a year so that she and Harper could start kindergarten together. “Seven years older than me. Is that too old for me?”

“Please. When you were seventeen and he was twenty-four, that was a problem. Twenty-five and thirty-two, uh-uh. And there’s no reason we would necessarily remember this guy just because he and Connor were in the same grade.”

“I told him about Nathan.”

Harper’s beer sloshed on her hand as she set it down hard. “Wow. You really like this guy.”

Why pretend otherwise? Harper would know the truth, anyway. “I gave him my number.”

Could her sister’s eyes get any wider? “Ginormous step forward. I’m so proud of you.”

“God. I hope he calls.”

Harper poked her in the shoulder affectionately. “Of course he’s gonna call.” She glanced toward the entrance. “Look. It’s Gracie and Dante.” Their youngest sister had just begun her first year of teaching history at VB High. She and Dante Santangelo were a couple. They’d started out as friends, then, this past summer, Gracie had rented a cabin on Dante’s property. The two had grown closer. Just recently, she’d moved in with him. Dante was a sergeant detective with VBPD. He was also their brother Connor’s lifelong BFF. “Dante might remember this guy of yours.”

“He’s hardly my guy,” Hailey corrected. “Let’s not get carried away with this thing, huh?”

Harper grinned. “Oh, come on. Let’s.” She waved Grace and Dante over, then moved to the chair next to Hailey, so the happy couple could sit side by side.

The waitress brought two more mugs and the burgers Hailey and Harper had ordered. There were hugs and congratulations when Gracie announced that she and Dante were engaged. She didn’t have the ring yet. They would be shopping for one soon, though.

“Together,” Gracie said.

Dante nuzzled her cheek. “She wants to choose for herself.”

Harper nudged Hailey in the ribs. Hailey nudged back to let her sister know that she got the message: Dante Santangelo was long-gone on Gracie. Dante, who’d been married before and shared custody of twin daughters with his ex-wife, had always been kind of grim, a determined man, never a happy one.

Dante wasn’t grim now. Now, he was openly in love with their baby sister and he didn’t seem to care who knew it. He was also nine years older than Gracie, a fact that made Hailey feel even better about the possibility of something good happening with the gorgeous “older” man she’d met that afternoon.

“You two are adorable,” Harper declared.

Dante gave her a patient look. “One of us is.” Gracie beamed at him and they shared a quick kiss.

Harper nibbled a fry. “We have a question, Dante. Hailey met a guy at the theater today. He said he went to school here in Valentine Bay and he was in the same grade as you and Connor.”

“His name is Roman Marek,” added Hailey, trying to sound cool and collected despite her silly, fluttery stomach and the blush she just knew was creeping up over her cheeks.

Dante signaled the waitress. “I remember Roman, yeah. Showed up in town like third or fourth grade. Kind of a loner. Smart. Tough, too. He left town for college—Berkeley, I think—and just moved back recently. I heard he bought that big place on Treasure Cove Circle.”

“That would be the guy.” Harper just kept on grinning.

And Dante was looking at Hailey, waiting for her to explain why she needed to know about some guy he went to school with. “Thanks. I’m, uh, hoping he’ll kick in a nice donation to the arts council.”

“From what I’ve heard, he can afford it,” said Dante. “He made it big in Nevada real estate.”

The waitress appeared. Dante asked for another pitcher and he and Grace ordered food. Hailey asked Grace how her first week of teaching had gone. Grace said every day was a challenge and she loved every minute of it.

Harper wanted an update on Dante’s eight-year-old daughters, who were back with their mom and stepdad in Portland right now. An hour went by. More than once, Hailey checked her phone, just in case Roman might have sent her a text or something. He hadn’t.

Not that she expected to hear from him so soon.

But there had been a real connection between them. She knew he would call.

Maybe tomorrow.

Definitely by the day after…