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Three Days To Choose

Mag Mell Chronicles #2


by Celeste Joy

Three Days To Choose by Celeste Joy

Claire Lindner longs to be the kind of hard-nosed journalist who covers the stories that make a difference. The stories that demand justice. The stories that put the bad guys away for good. But Claire has never been able to break into the male-dominated newsroom. Instead, she writes a popular gossip to pay the bills, and all that misogyny and slimy gossip has taught her to never trust men. Claire has a secret though...at night she dreams of a kind, honorable, handsome gray-eyed man who wears funny, old-fashioned clothes.

Winemaker Beckett St. Jude has waited years for the woman of his dreams. When Claire is at the brink of death, he pulls her into his world – Mag Mell. Unfortunately, their first meeting is a disaster – Claire can’t stand him and she doesn’t trust him. On top of that, someone is working behind the scenes to bankrupt him and take over his family winery. How can he figure out who’s trying to ruin him, and more importantly, how does he court a woman who will barely talk to him?

Claire and Beckett have three days to build a friendship, three days to save the winery, and three days to expose the corruption that has become a cancer in Mag Mell. Claire though has an even bigger problem: dream career or dream lover? She has Three Days to Choose.

 


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Release Date: December 3, 2019
Genre: Fantasy / Historical Romance

A Pink Satin Romance


Excerpt

Chapter One

 

Claire Lindner stepped out of the limo only to be blinded by the flashing lights of the paparazzi. How funny. The paps always took pictures of her, even though they knew no one would buy them. It didn’t bother her. She wasn’t at the fundraiser to end up in a gossip column. She was there to pick up the latest gossip on everyone else. Claire flashed the photographers a smile and breezed into the upscale Soho hotel like she owned the place.

“Miss Lindner, we’re so glad you could make it,” the woman who organized the event gushed. She gave Claire dual air kisses. “Human trafficking is a problem everywhere, and a mention in your column raises awareness of the issue.”

“I’m happy to be here. This is a cause I feel passionately about.” Claire returned the air kisses. She wasn’t lying. She did feel passionately about human trafficking. She just longed to write something substantive that actually addressed the problem instead of what she had to write. After chatting with the woman for a few more minutes, Claire left to work the room.

As usual, everyone at the party sought her out to see if they could drop a bon mot in her ear in the hopes that she’d drop it into her column the next morning. The party guests talked about their friends, rivals, and countrymen. And of course, they slipped into conversation the name of whatever up-and-coming designer had made their clothes.

Claire swallowed her yawns. She mingled. She chatted. She feigned interest and pretended to nurse one glass of champagne after another. All the while, she cursed the good old boys in the newsroom who refused to allow a woman to join their ranks. Claire was about to leave when she saw something that caught her breath. The only problem was, what she saw wasn’t real. It was a waking vision…of him.

For close to three months, strange, disturbing dreams had been waking her up. Dreams of a handsome man doing hard, physical labor in a vineyard. And tonight, while she was awake, she’d seen flashes, like three-second videos, of the same man. He’d been racing a team of horses, growing more and more frantic, as if he was late for an important meeting. She in turn had grown jumpier and jumpier, until the lights, the noise, and the atmosphere of the fundraiser had become too much to handle. Was stress making her delusional? She found a ladies’ room in a back hallway and locked herself in the farthest stall. She took calming breaths for several minutes. Even those did not help her shake that edgy, nervy feeling.

Two other women entered the restroom shortly after she did. Claire recognized one of them by a pair of red Jimmy Choos she saw beneath the stall door. They were from three seasons ago. The woman dated the biggest mobbed-up politician on the Eastern seaboard. Actually, his connections probably extended farther. A lot farther.

Claire was about to step out of her stall, when the women with the red shoes abruptly pivoted back to the door. Claire heard the click of the lock.

“Congratulate me, I’m engaged,” Red Shoes said.

Engaged? Claire’s ears perked up. This could make good copy.

“Are you insane? Your boyfriend goes through wives like a binge-eater at a smorgasbord,” the woman’s friend said. “How did you get him to propose? He swore he’d never take the plunge again.”

“I knew you’d be curious about that,” Red Shoes taunted. “He didn’t propose. I did. Can you believe that some guys are stupid enough to actually still have a little black book? He does, and not only that, he noted in it who he was with and what they did.”

“So? Rumors about his sex life never hurt him before.”

“Yeah, but he didn’t just write about sex.” Red Shoes proceeded to casually discuss details of the biggest scandal to hit NYC in years.

Claire listened in growing horror as the woman explained, in detail, how ninety million went missing from a major construction project and a call girl had ended up sliced into a hundred different pieces. The woman carelessly threw out names and decisions that had led to a grisly murder, a golf course mansion in Boca, and some very scary business partners.

Claire couldn’t pull out a pen and paper to make notes, but she filed all the names and dates in her memory. though it made her sick to think of it all.

“And you’re still going to marry him? Do you really want to end up like that dead hooker?”

The heels of the red Jimmy Choos rose off the floor slightly and Claire heard a quiet lip-smacking sound. Ah. Red Shoes freshened up her lipstick.

“I’ve got twenty million good reasons to walk down that aisle. I’ve also got all the details I just told you written up and locked in a safe deposit box. I’m not scared, but he is.”

The bolt on the lock clicked again and Claire heard the women leave.

Could it all be true? Holy crap!

Claire’s stomach churned and her heart sprinted like a Derby winner. This story was beyond hot. The politician in question had a lot of supporters in spite of his stunning lack of character. He was smart. He made sure the subways and bus lines had enough money, local festivals were well-funded, and property taxes rarely went up. If she wrote about him, she’d be taking on the five-hundred-pound gorilla of NYC politics.

Claire held her breath, afraid to make a sound, and waited five minutes more. When it seemed safe, she slipped out of the restroom, politely claimed a headache to the organizer, and took off. At home, she made half a dozen calls to corroborate the details she’d heard. Every call confirmed another piece of the puzzle. Her fingers trembled on the keyboard as she wrote up the piece. There were still lots of questions, but this was enough to start.

Two hours after she left the party, she rolled her head on her shoulders to loosen her rock-hard muscles. It was now or never. That dead woman deserved justice. The corruption that cost innocent people their lives and livelihoods had to be exposed. But was she the one to do it? Did she have the guts to go for the jugular?

Absolutely.

She stabbed the “send” key and finally poured herself a glass of wine. Her heart rate slowed from a gallop to a trot.

Would the story be printed? She lacked the right chromosome combo to be welcomed into the newsroom, but would that matter to the editor in chief? If he printed the story, it would probably be picked up by other papers and run nationally. She could leave society gossip behind and do what she’d longed to do for years—report on stories that were important.

Five minutes later, her cell phone rang. It made her jump, since most people texted.

“Claire.” The editor in chief of the paper barked out her name. “Good job. Now leave town.”

“What? What are you talking about?”

“We just painted a target on your back, Claire. Your story will be on the front-page tomorrow morning, so you need to get out of town until things cool down. Pack a bag and take the first plane, train, or bus going anywhere. Call me from the road. We’ll need a follow-up piece ASAP. Get working on it but leave town now.” He hung up.

Holy crap, they were going to print her story. She could feel her cheeks turn red as an enormous grin stretched across her face. A front-page byline. That was a dream come true. But having to leave town? Seriously, leave town? Was her editor right?

Shit. The man had started his career as a fighter pilot and had the warmth and humor of a B52. If he was worried about her safety, she should be too.

Cursing herself for not thinking to pack before she hit send, Claire stood at her closet door and tried to think clearly. What did she absolutely have to take with her while she temporarily disappeared? From a high shelf, she pulled down a heavy blue sweater. From a drawer, a pair of jeans. A couple of plain white tee shirts. Socks. Underwear, yes, and damn it, she’d take the good stuff. A handful of jewelry. 

Passport? Extra cash? She yanked free the envelope taped to the bottom of her underwear drawer. Three years ago, at the ripe old age of twenty-four, she learned the hard way to always keep a grand stashed away. You never knew when cash for a last-minute invitation to the Hamptons, or bail money for a friend, might be needed. Was there time to get out of her cocktail dress and heels? Probably not. Call her best friend, Sue? Definitely not. She’d make that phone call from Grand Central, just before she got on the next train out of New York.

Minutes later, she zoomed past all the handmade furniture and artwork she’d spent years collecting. Her weekender weighed down one shoulder. Its sides bulged. The zipper didn’t even zip all the way. She didn’t care.

Claire twirled around once she made it to her kitchen. It was the closest thing to dancing she could do. A front-page byline. Too bad she didn’t have time to pop the split of decent champagne she’d been saving. She grabbed it anyway. She’d pop it as soon as she could.

Soon she’d move out of this broom-closet-size walk-up and into a bigger place. A place with room to dance. A place with reliable hot water, a twenty-four-hour doorman, and the gold standard of NYC apartments—an elevator. The piece she’d filed tonight would earn her all that and more. She threw her phone and charger into her purse next to the bubbly.

Like every native New Yorker, Claire took the time to lock and deadbolt her door before she ran down three flights and through the foyer of her building. Her car should have been waiting, or at least, be there soon.

Ah, there was a black sedan pulled up at the curb. That must be it. She ran to the passenger door, but it opened before she even touched the handle, and...

Shit. Shit. Shit. The man who stepped out stopped her heart and sent it racing for cover up in her throat someplace.

Big. Grim. This guy constantly followed two steps behind the biggest mobbed-up politician in the state—the man Claire had just written about. This guy was his muscle. His guard. His fixer. He was the kind of guy who wore scrape marks on his knuckles and sunglasses at night.

His prison tats probably had prison tats.

“You’ve been a bad girl, Claire.” He unfolded his six-foot-plus frame and towered over her. He wore black-on-black hitman chic and reeked of pricy aftershave. “Rumor has it you heard something interesting tonight.”

“I write a gossip column. I always hear interesting things.” She backed up. He followed.

“Tonight was especially interesting, wasn’t it? In the ladies’ room...you listened in on a conversation...”

“I had to pee. I went to the bathroom. That’s not a crime.” Oh, God help me. I’m a lousy liar.

“I’m not going to ask again. Your story? I heard all about it. Show me the copy and I swear it’ll be quick.”

How could he have heard about it already? Maybe one of her corroborating sources had called his boss, or maybe a jealous reporter at her paper had heard about it. Either way, she was in big trouble.

He reached for her arm. She twisted away as several things happened in micro-second succession: a siren blared, red lights flashed, and a cop car screamed around the corner. The hit man looked in the direction of the siren, and Claire made a decision. Nothing on Earth would keep her from seeing her byline tomorrow morning. Not even a hit man.

She nailed him with her weekender bag. He stumbled. She shot around him and raced to cross the street.

Wheels screamed. The acrid smell of rubber burning on concrete hit her nose. A horn blared, and just before impact, everything froze as another vision flashed in her mind—this time, of a hot, sunny beach.

What the what? Women dressed in old-timey clothes milled at the shore. Farther down the beach, two men stood, arms crossed as if waiting for something. Another man came running up to the edge of the water, his hand extended. His fingers splayed. His chest heaved.

It was him again, the guy from her dreams. There was something about him that was solid. Trustworthy? No, men were never to be trusted, though she dreamed of the two of them together. She couldn’t remember exactly what happened in the dreams. Something sexual. Something scary. And oddly enough, something about grapes. She always remembered seeing vines and feeling the weight of thick, heavy, ripe grapes bursting with juice. Yet every morning, the memory of her dreams eluded her, and she awoke restless, worried, and aching.

The moment her mystery man held out his hand, she wanted to be with him. She didn’t know why. She didn’t even think of the cop car about to make road sushi out of her. At that exact moment, all she wanted was to grasp his hand.

I’d be with you if I could, she thought, and as she reached out her hand to him, she felt a tug on her sternum that pulled her up and away.

What the hell?

She kept being pulled up, and it felt as if she flew faster than Mach 1. Objects blurred as she whizzed past them. A streak of white. A streak of blue, of red, of yellow, of chartreuse. And with the colors came sounds, lovely, haunting sounds, as if each streak of light held its own unique music. She picked up even more speed, and the colors and sounds merged into a rainbow tunnel of light. A song echoed in her memory as something she’d heard once before, a long time ago.

Ahead of her, a pinprick of pure white light appeared. While everything else kaleidoscoped into a riot of color, the white light stayed constant, and in fact, grew larger and larger. It had to be the light at the end of the rainbow tunnel you saw when you died. The only trouble was, she felt weird, but not dead. So where was she? What in the heck was happening to her?

A moment later, when the brightness became blinding, the sense of flying abruptly ended. So did the song. Claire shot out of the tunnel and hung suspended in a silent space.

After a while, she felt a weird fizzing sensation. What on Earth… She tried to open her eyes. They didn’t work. She tried to move her arms and legs. She couldn’t even feel them. The fizzing accelerated.

In junior high, she’d done this experiment where she dropped Mentos candies into a bottle of Seven-Up. The reaction had sent a geyser of bubbles six feet into the air. This time, she was the Mentos, and all around her was the bottle of Seven-Up.

Feeling slowly returned to her fizzy limbs, though they still refused to work right. The bubbles played on her skin and tickled everywhere, even down there.

Whoa. Niiiice. She opened her mouth to groan when the taste of salt hit her tongue.

Salt?

Her eyes stung as she forced them open, and she realized she was bubbling away in a vast blue sea. A cold, vast blue sea. The sun made an undulating pattern of ripples on the surface high above her head.

Shit. Unless she’d also grown gills, she’d need air and warmth fast. Too bad her extremities needed lessons in remedial movement. She tried again to get them to work. The ability to scissor her legs came back first, followed by reaching and pushing with her arms. The surface came closer and closer until she could see two other bodies in the water above her. Between them floated something that looked like a short surfboard.

She fought to override the urge to inhale, but it grew harder and harder, until it felt like acid burned her lungs. Was she going to drown? Yeah, it looked that way. With the surface maybe ten feet above her, Claire couldn’t take it anymore; she inhaled and immediately stopped moving ahead and started thrashing. She tried to cough out the water she’d inhaled, but only took more in. Her vision clouded and grew gray. This was it. This was the end.

Her thrashing stopped, and her last thought was of walking through the vineyard with her mystery man.

Strong arms grabbed her limp ones and propelled her to the surface. She still couldn’t breathe. Her lungs had too much water in them.

“Stay calm,” a voice commanded. “We’ve got you.”

Someone, a woman, wrapped her arms around Claire’s middle and squeezed. Warm water flew out of her mouth. She gasped air in. Another squeeze. More water came out. Coughed. Gasped. Coughed more. Fortunately, her rescuers kept her head above water.

“Geez, how much did she inhale?” another woman said. She had the distinctive accent of a fellow New Yorker.

“A lot. You remember what it’s like. I barely made it to the surface. Thank God she didn’t breathe in sooner,” the other woman said. That voice had no particular accent. Claire’s eyes fluttered open. “Oh good, she’s back. Hey, Claire, how are you feeling? You had a nasty swim up, but you’re safe now.”

Safe? She was safe? She’d nearly drowned. What in the heck was happening? Where in the hell was she? And how did these women know her name? Claire coughed some more and looked at her rescuers.

A woman with brown hair and brown eyes had been speaking to her. The other woman also had brown hair, but hers was darker and retained its waves, even soaking wet. Along her side, she felt bits of fabric. Both women wore some kind of clothes or bikinis or something. Claire, however, was naked.

“Whuh...whuh...” Claire tried to form words, but her tongue still tasted of salt and refused to work right. She covered her naked breasts with one floppy, nearly useless hand. That didn’t work right either. She dropped like a rock.

One of the women reached down and grasped her hand. Immediately, Claire had the mental image of a headline: “Irizarry Invents Steam Engine.” What did that mean? The woman with the curly hair hauled her to the surface, and clamped Claire’s arms over the wakeboard.

“Here, hang onto this and cough it out,” the curly-haired one instructed. She sounded like a drill sergeant. “You’ll be okay in another minute.”

“The Welcoming Committee is going ape shit.” The one with straight hair shaded her eyes with one hand and squinted toward the shore.

Claire followed her gaze. Two different groups stood at the edge of the water. In the closest one, women in long skirts and blouses with high collars gestured at them to come ashore. About fifty yards away, three men stood. Arms crossed, legs apart, staring at them.

Claire swallowed hard. One of the men was the guy from her dreams. He wore a long, rather formal dark blue suit coat, a black waistcoat, black slacks, and a white shirt with a stiff collar and some kind of blue tie. She couldn’t tell the exact color of his hair because it was parted in the middle and slicked back. His posture was stiff. He bowed to her ever-so-slightly. That was when she noticed he had the most beautiful gray eyes she’d ever seen, and—

What the hell? He stood two football fields away. How could she see his eye color? Yet she could. Details from the faraway crowd were as clear as if she stood right beside them. Something wonderful and weird was going on with her eyes. Was she in heaven?

“The Committee is always going ape shit. They see our mouths moving and think we’re spilling all their stupid little secrets. Sheesh. It’s not like they ever say anything useful,” the woman with the wavy hair said. She turned back to Claire. “Hi, I’m Rosie Irizarry.”

“And I’m Kit. Kit Rycroft.” The one with straight hair extended her hand. Claire took it weakly, and the image of another headline flashed into her mind. It read, “Rycroft Exposes Sex Slave Scam.” What in the heck was up with the headlines?

“Where am I and what’s going on? I was about to be hit by a car when all of a sudden, I was pulled into this crazy dream. How can I be talking with my own dream? Am I in...heaven?” Claire managed to get out in between coughs.

“You’re not dreaming, and you’re definitely not in heaven. This is all real, and what’s going on is easier to answer than where you are,” Rosie said with a laugh.

“We’ll swim over to those women on the beach, and they’ll wrap you in sheets, give you something to eat and drink, and tell you some shit you’ll find impossible to believe about where you are. Keep an open mind and try not to freak out,” Kit said.

“Then we’ll all go for a walk to a changing house, where you’ll get into the same kind of crazy-ass clothes they have on, except Kit and I already stole half of your underwear. You’re welcome, by the way. Then we’ll eat some more. Kit and I’ll have another fight with the Welcoming Committee, and then we’ll all drive home through a fucking scary forest, all the while throwing rocks at flying monkeys.”

Claire’s head spun like somebody had beaned her with a two-by-four. She’d written a story about a crooked politician, jumped in front of a speeding car, nearly drowned, was naked with women she’d never met, and up ahead was a scary forest and flying monkeys. This couldn’t be heaven. She must have landed in the other place.

The straight-haired one, Kit, smiled, jerked her head toward the shore, and started kicking the wakeboard. “Welcome to Mag Mell.” 

* * *

Beckett St. Jude stood by the shore and finally heaved a sigh of relief. When Claire hadn’t surfaced, and the other two women had dived for her, his heart had turned to stone. Thank God they’d been there. What were their names again? Rosie and Kitten or Cat or Mouse? Something like that. Whoever they were, he was grateful. They’d saved Claire, but they’d also left him with an enormous problem.

What in the world was he going to do with her now? He already had his hands full.

“Congratulations, she made it.” Ethan Campbell, the blacksmith, clapped him on the shoulder. Beckett didn’t know the man personally, but he had read about him in the papers. He and his woman, the curly-haired one who’d helped rescue Claire, were growing wealthy on the new inventions they came up with almost daily.

“You’re lucky. I think Kit and Rosie came close to hauling a corpse ashore,” Sebastian Sullivan added. He was a detective inspector with Scotland Yard. Everyone knew him. Next to Prince Robb, Sullivan was the most trusted man in Londonderry.

“I thought women swam to the surface all by themselves,” Beckett said.

“Usually that’s the case, but Rosie got a note early this morning. Apparently, there’s a woman with a gift to see into the future. She keeps it private, so no one knows who she is, though she’s been doing it long enough that everyone believes her foresight to be true. The note said that the first new arrival today would change things in Mag Mell. It also said she’d drown swimming to the surface if she didn’t have help. The Welcoming Committee refused to assist her.”

“Why?” Beckett whirled to face him.

“Because they’re bitches?” Ethan suggested.

“I think they feel threatened. Letting a new arrival drown seems a bit extreme, though, even for them. And Beckett, they actually did more than refuse to assist her. They forbade Kit and Rosie from swimming out,” Sebastian said.

“If they were forbidden, why did they do it?” Beckett asked.

“Rosie told me, and I quote, ‘I don’t give a shit about those hags.’” Ethan’s face broke into an enormous grin. “She and Kit took off from here, not from down the beach, so the ladies couldn’t stop them unless they stripped down themselves and swam out. Bastian and I made that piece of wood between them. They call it a wakeboard.”

“And we’re to bring their clothes to the changing house,” Sebastian added.

Beckett barely heard them. He stared at Claire, noting that her eyes were blue. Steel blue, like those of a wolf he’d met in the woods as a boy. That wolf’s eyes had had an iridescence to them that had made him wonder if the creature had been wholly wolf. They’d stared at one another for some time. Eventually, it had left as silently as it had arrived.

As he watched the water, Claire’s eyes widened. He wondered if it was the shock of their connection, or of being able to see him from such a distance. He’d heard that new arrivals were always surprised by their eyesight. Whatever the reason, he liked the way her cheeks flushed and she bit her lower lip when she saw him. It made his smile grow even wider.

Mine. The word whispered through his mind and a connection, fragile as a tendril on a vine, grew between them.

“Did the two of you connect in your dreams?” Ethan asked.

“I never saw whole dreams, only fragmented images.” Beckett looked up sharply.

His dreams of Claire were like water that slipped through his fingers. He only remembered bits of what he saw of Claire in her world. She either laughed and flirted with strange men or sipped something from an oddly-shaped glass and spoke in low tones of things other people did. Dishonorable things. Sometimes he saw her sitting at a table before a small glowing window. Her fingers touched a board in front of her, and words appeared in the window. Was that box an invention of her time, or sorcery?

The singular memory he had of them together in Mag Mell was of walking through the vineyard together at dusk. She had worn white and smelled of jasmine. He’d felt the warmth of her hand in his. Was that their future or a mere possibility of it?

“Kit and I didn’t connect much either, and what we saw was confusing. The dreams never show you the whole picture,” Sebastian said. “But she’s the mate of your soul. Trust that, not what you’ve seen in your dreams.”

“Looks like they’re coming in.” Ethan pointed to the three women kicking the strange floating board toward the shore.

“Didn’t you recently harvest your grapes, St. Jude?” Sebastian asked.

“The white grapes were harvested a few weeks ago. The red grapes…we’ll start picking tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow? But your woman is here,” Ethan said.

“Yes, the timing is...unfortunate,” Beckett said. He actually wanted to shake a fist at the sky and curse. The timing was abominable.

“Workers are supposed to begin picking tomorrow. I could put it off for a day and spend today and tomorrow with Claire—and some of the other days as well.”

The women stopped kicking and began to walk through the water toward the shore. Beckett felt a tightening below his beltline. How embarrassing. She wasn’t even ashore yet, and his body yearned for her? How could that be? He’d never even met her.

Sunlight glinted off Claire’s wet eyelashes, her long, dark, wet hair, and eventually, her wet shoulders. Damn, every bit of her looked good wet. Yes, he would definitely put off picking grapes for a day. Soon, as the water grew shallower, he would be able to see her completely. Every inch. That meant it was probably time to turn around.

He didn’t want to.

He wanted to see her make it all the way to the shore, and if he was honest, he wanted to see her naked. A gentleman, however, would never give in to such desires. He turned around.

“What do you plan on doing today? It’s a gorgeous day. A picnic would be nice,” Sebastian said.

“We’ll visit the bank, the cooper, and the greengrocer.” He also had to stop by the guild hall and reschedule the grape pickers. “There are a hundred things I must attend to before the harvest. I’ve already told the Committee that I’m in a hurry. I need her dressed and ready to go in the next fifteen minutes.”

Ethan threw back his head and laughed. “Oh, that’s not going to happen. First, Claire will be tired, so they’ll sit on the beach for a while, eat something, and talk. Then, they’ll go to the changing house, shower, dress, eat some more, and talk a whole lot more. Finally, there’ll be the formal introductions, and then you get to take her home. I give it two hours at the very least.”

Beckett’s heart skittered like it had slipped on the wet floor of the winery. Two hours? At that rate, everything would be closed by the time they reached Londonderry.

“What working man has the luxury of plucking two hours from his day to wait for his woman to wash and dress and eat and chat?”

“It’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity.” Sebastian’s voice had an odd, strained quality to it.

“Patience is your best friend today, St. Jude,” added Ethan. “You get only one chance to make a good first impression. It can make the next three days...very pleasant indeed.” He smiled.

“Or not.” Sebastian grimaced. “Come on. Once our women leave for the changing house, we’ll cool off with a swim. It will feel good, especially with today being so hot.”

They waited in silence a few more minutes. Ethan and Sebastian toed off their boots, leaving them in the sand. Socks followed, draped over the boots.

Beckett started to remove one of his boots but was interrupted when he heard someone running toward them. The head of a young man in his mid-twenties popped up over the ridge of beach grasses. He looked farther down the beach to where the women congregated. His mouth dropped open. Damn, he’d probably seen Claire naked.

“Yo, eyes here, buddy,” Ethan called out, and pointed to the ground at his feet.

“Sorry, sir. Of course. Beg your pardon.” The young man scampered down the dunes to stand before them. “Mr. St. Jude, I have a message for you, sir.” He handed Beckett a note before he collapsed onto his knees in the sand, panting.

Beckett ripped open the envelope and read the note. Then he read it again, hardly believing what it said. Zounds. His breath froze in his lungs, while his heart ran as fast as a horse at full gallop. He managed to keep his face under control, though he wanted to rail and shake his hands and scream to the sky.

“Bad news?” Sebastian asked.

“I am afraid I have to postpone our swim, gentlemen. And I shall have to postpone meeting Claire as well.” Beckett swallowed and took a deep breath. “I hate to impose, but will you please see her safely to the winery? The business that calls me away will hopefully be completed by the time you get there.”

“But the introduction. Your first impression. I cannot stress how important it is, and I would know, since I mucked my own up. Surely this business, whatever it is, can wait?” Sebastian said.

A good person does what is right, even if it is contrary to his own best interests. Beckett heard his father’s voice whenever he had a moral decision to make. He rubbed his aching temples. It felt like a team of six draft horses was inside his head, stomping around, trying to escape.

“No, my business cannot wait even a moment.” He didn’t elaborate. He couldn’t. A gentleman would never speak of someone else’s tragedy, though knowing the Londonderry gossip chains, it would soon be all over town.

“Go and do what you have to do. We’ll bring Claire to the winery as soon as we’re done here,” Sebastian said.

“Thank you. I appreciate it.” Beckett took a deep breath to calm his already fraying nerves. He tugged his cravat into place and straightened his waistcoat. Was this how knights felt as they checked every buckle and tie before heading off into battle?

He followed the messenger back over the shifting dunes.

 

 

 

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