With a past like hers, Jessica Clayton feels safer in a life spent on the road. She’s made a career out of helping others downsize—because she’s learned the hard way that the less “stuff,” the better, a policy she applies equally to her relationships. But a new client is taking Jess back to Cape Sanctuary, a town she once called home…and that her little sister, Rachel, still does. The years apart haven’t made a dent in the guilt Jess still carries after a handgun took the lives of both their parents and changed everything between them.
While Jess couldn’t wait to put the miles between her and Cape Sanctuary, Rachel put down roots, content for the world—and her sister—to think she has a picture-perfect life. But with the demands of her youngest child’s disability, Rachel’s marriage has begun to fray at the seams. She needs her sister now more than ever, yet she’s learned from painful experience that Jessica doesn’t do family, and she shouldn’t count on her now.
Against her judgment, Jess finds herself becoming attached—to her sister and her family, even to her client’s interfering son, Nate—and it’s time to put everything on the line. Does she continue running from her painful past, or stay put and make room for the love and joy that come along with it?
If not for all of the emotional baggage cluttering up her Airstream, this wouldn’t be a bad place to park for a few days.
As Jess Clayton drove through the quiet streets of Cape Sanctuary on a beautiful May afternoon, she couldn’t help being charmed anew by the Northern California beach town vibes.
She had been here before, of course. Several times. Her sister lived just down that street there, in a large two-story cottage with gables, a bay window and a lush flower garden. Rachel loved it here. Every time Jess came to town, she was reminded why. What was not to love? Cape Sanctuary was a town defined by whimsical houses, overflowing gardens, wind chimes and Japanese fishing balls.
And, of course, the gorgeous coastline, marked by redwoods, rock formations, cliffs.
She drove past Juniper Way, her sister’s street, but didn’t turn down. Not yet. She would see Rachel, Cody and the kids soon, after she was settled.
They were the whole reason she was here, after all. She didn’t see her nieces and nephew enough, only on the rare holidays and birthdays that she could arrange a visit. When a prospective client reached out from the same town as Rachel and her family, Jess saw it as a golden opportunity to spend more time with the kids.
And her sister, of course.
She sighed as she made her way to her destination, Sunshine Cove, still a mile away, according to her navigation system.
Rachel was the reason for all that baggage she was towing along. Jess loved her younger sister dearly but their relationship was like a messy tangle of electric wires, some of them live and still sparking.
She would be in Cape Sanctuary for two weeks on this job. Maybe she would finally have the chance to sort things out with Rachel and achieve some kind of peace.
The road rose, climbing through a stand of redwoods and coastal pine, with houses tucked in here and there before the view to the ocean opened up again
. In five hundred feet, your destination is on the right: 2135 Seaview Road.
She couldn’t argue with Siri on this one. That was a spectacular view. The Pacific glistened in the afternoon sunlight, with only a few feathery clouds above the horizon line. She turned at the orca-shaped mailbox Eleanor Whitaker had told her to seek. Through more coastal pine, she could see the house. She recognized it from the pictures her client had sent. One level, made of stone and cedar, the house looked as if it had grown out of the landscape fully formed.
She knew the house was more than five thousand square feet, built at the turn of the century by a wealthy ranching and logging family in the area. It featured seven bedrooms and eight bathrooms, all of which she would come to know well over the next two weeks.
From the picture Eleanor had sent, Jess knew Whitaker House was beautiful. Elegant. Comfortable. Warm.
The kind of place where Jess had once dreamed of living, free of shouting, chaos, pain.
She could see, tucked into the trees overlooking the ocean, a smaller house on the property that was almost a miniature of the big house, with the same cedar and stone exterior as well as windows that gleamed in the afternoon sun.
A big dark blue pickup truck was parked there but she couldn’t see anyone around.
Jess pulled her own rig over to the side of the driveway in case anyone needed to come in and out, then scouted around for a place she could unhitch.
From their phone call earlier that morning as she was driving, she knew Eleanor wouldn’t be here, that she had taken her teenage granddaughter into a nearby town to an orthodontist appointment and then to catch a movie they had both been wanting to see.
Make yourself at home and set up anywhere that works, Eleanor had said.
As she cased the property, she instantly found the spot a hundred yards from the house that would give her a perfect view of the water, almost as if it had been created exactly for her twenty-four-foot 1993 Airstream, affectionately nicknamed Vera by Jess’s business partner.
This job was meant to be. She had already bonded with Eleanor Whitaker over their weeks of email and phone correspondence. This view sealed the deal.
When she was done working each day, she could go to sleep to the restful sound of the ocean. She climbed back in her pickup and backed the trailer with the ease of long practice. Some people struggled with trailering but Jess didn’t. The seven years she had spent as a driver in the military still served her well.
When the Airstream was in a good spot, she hopped out and was reaching in the back of the pickup for the chocks when an angry male voice drifted across the manicured lawn to her.
“Hey. This is private property. You can’t park that here!”
She instinctively wrapped her hand around the chock. Angry male voices always brought out the warrior princess in her. She could blame both her childhood and those years in the army when she had to go toe to toe with people twice her weight and a foot taller.
The chock was heavy and could do real damage in the right hands.
“I have permission to be here,” she said, her voice cool but polite.
He frowned. “Permission? That’s impossible.”
“I assure you, it’s not.”
“This is my mother’s property. She would have told me if she had given somebody permission to camp here.”
Ah. This must be Nathaniel Whitaker, Eleanor’s son. Her client had mentioned that he lived in another house on the property and would probably be in and out as Jess went about her work.
Hadn’t Eleanor told him Jess was coming?
She relaxed her grip on the chock but didn’t release it. “You must be Nathaniel. Eleanor has told me about you.”
Her words didn’t have an impact on his expression. If anything, his glower intensified, his frown now edged with confusion that she knew his name.
Despite his sour expression, she couldn’t help noticing he was an extraordinarily good-looking man. Eleanor hadn’t mentioned that her son had dark hair, stormy blue eyes, a square jawline. Or that his green T-shirt with a logo over the right breast pocket that read Whitaker Construction clung to his muscles.
Jess found it extremely inconvenient that Nathaniel Whitaker happened to hit every single one of her personal yum buttons.
“Who are you?” he demanded. “And how do you know my mother?”
Ah. This was tricky. Eleanor was her client. She must have had her own reasons for not telling her son Jess was showing up. Jess felt compelled to honor those reasons. Until she could talk to the woman, Jess didn’t feel right about giving more information to Nate than his own mother had
. “My name is Jess Clayton. Your mother knows I planned to arrive today. I have her permission to set up anywhere. I thought this would work well.”
Beautifully, actually. The more time she looked around, the better she liked it. A twisting path down to the ocean started just a few yards away, leading down to what looked like a protected cove.
“Set up for what? Why are you here?”
“You really should ask your mother,” she said. It would be so much better if he could hear the explanation from Eleanor.
“I just tried to call her when I saw you pulling in. She’s not answering.”
“Probably in the middle of the movie. She told me she and Sophie were going to a matinee after the orthodontist.”
If she thought this further knowledge about his family would set Nate’s mind at ease, she was sadly mistaken. His gaze narrowed further. “How the hell do you know my daughter had an orthodontist appointment?”
“Your mom happened to mention it.”
“Funny, the things my mother told you. I talk to her several times a day, every day, and she hasn’t said a word to me about a strange woman setting up a trailer in the side yard. Tell me again what you’re doing here?”
She wanted to be finishing her trailer setup so she could unhitch and go into town for groceries. She would rather not be engaged in a confrontation with a strange man, no matter how hot, who didn’t need to know every detail of his mother’s life.
Why hadn’t Eleanor told him already? It’s not as if the woman could keep their efforts a secret for long.
Still, it was not up to Jess to spill the dirt.
“I’m afraid that’s between me and your mother. You really need to get the answer to that question from her.”
“Sorry, ma’am, but that’s not good enough. Right now, you’re trespassing. If you don’t move this out of here, I’m calling the police. The chief happens to be a good friend of mine.”
“Yes, I know.” Done with this discussion, Jess reached down to wedge the chock behind the passenger-side wheel. “You play poker with him every other Friday night. Your mother told me.”
“What else did she tell you?” He had moved beyond suspicion to outright hostility. She probably shouldn’t have said anything about the poker. She certainly wouldn’t want someone she didn’t know poking into her business. If he hadn’t been so blasted good-looking, she might have been able to handle this whole thing better.
She forced a smile, trying to take a different tack. “I assure you, Eleanor knows I’m coming, as I said. She told me to settle in and make myself comfortable until she gets home. You can try calling her again.”
Or you can accept that maybe I’m telling the truth and give me a break here. I’ve been driving for hours. I’m tired and hungry and I would really like to make a sandwich, which I can’t do with you standing there like a bouncer at a nightclub in a bad part of town.
“I’ve tried multiple times. She’s not answering. You’re probably right, her phone is probably on silent.”
“Look, when Eleanor and Sophie come back from the movie, she can tell you what’s going on. Until then, I would really like to finish setting up here.”
“No matter what I say?”
She didn’t want to challenge him but she was starving.
“This is your mother’s house and she invited me here,” she said simply. “It will be easy enough to prove that once Eleanor returns. If I’m lying for some unknown reason and just happened to make an extraordinarily lucky guess about your mom and a daughter named Sophie who had an orthodontist appointment today, you and the entire Cape Sanctuary police force can boot me out.”
He didn’t look at all appeased, his features still suspicious. She couldn’t really blame him. He was only trying to protect those he loved. She would probably do the same in his shoes.
“Would you like a sandwich?” she said, trying another tack. “I make a mean PB and J.”
For the first time, she saw a glimmer of surprise on his expression, as if he couldn’t quite believe she had the audacity to ask. “No, I wouldn’t like a sandwich.”
“Suit yourself. I’ve had a long day already and I’m ready for some food. And I need to see how Vera survived the drive.”
As she might have expected, his frown deepened. “Who is Vera?”
She patted the skin on the Airstream. “It was, um, a pleasure to meet you, Nathaniel.”
“Nate,” he muttered. “Nobody but my mother calls me Nathaniel.”
She nodded and without waiting for him to argue, she slipped into the trailer and closed the door firmly behind her.
The curtains were still closed from the drive and she didn’t want to open them yet to the afternoon sunlight. Not when Nate Whitaker might still be lurking outside.
Instead, she sank onto the sofa that doubled as her office, dining room and guest space, astonished and dismayed to find her hands were shaking.
What was that about? She had a familiar itchiness between her shoulder blades and could feel a little crash as her adrenaline subsided.
Nate Whitaker wasn’t a threat to her. Yes, he might be angry right now but he wouldn’t hurt her. She already felt like his mother was an old and dear friend. Eleanor surely couldn’t have a son who was prone to random violence.
Instinct told her he wouldn’t physically hurt her, yet Jess still had the strangest feeling that Nate posed some kind of danger to her.
Ah well. She likely wouldn’t have much to do with the man. She was here to help Eleanor, not to fraternize with the woman’s gorgeous offspring.
She only had to make sure she didn’t lose sight of her twin objectives here in Cape Sanctuary—spending time with her sister’s family and helping her client—and she would be fine.