All of Me
There’s no place like home, and no love like his…
Lilly Vasquez has returned home to Compass Cove after making her way in Hollywood as a hair stylist to the stars. With such a successful career, why she moved back to Long Island to open her own salon is a mystery, and Lilly’s not talking. That is until a movie shoot nearby drops the trouble she thought she left in California right into her backyard.
FBI Special Agent Jack Miller has floated in and out of Compass Cove for the last fifteen years, rarely staying in town for more than a few days because he’s so wrapped up in his work. But when a complaint about a potentially dangerous situation in town lands in his lap, Jack is gobsmacked to see the name of the woman who has occupied his thoughts for more years than he can remember, Lilly Vasquez.
With the excitement of a big family wedding, Jack has an excuse to stick close, but Lilly doesn’t appreciate the attention, especially since it stirs up a bee’s nest of long-buried feelings. Likewise, Jack is dealing with his own attraction to the fiery brunette, and it’s making him crazy. He needs to stay objective to keep Lilly safe, but his heart isn’t listening to reason. Will the long-time friends succumb to the small town magic and take the biggest risk of their lives, or will they play it safe, and miss their happily ever after?
All of Me
As days went, this one needed a complete do-over.
As Lilly Vasquez made her way through her salon, closing up for the night, she wondered what had made her think she could run her own business. Today had brought her a vendor that failed to send her order, a very unhappy customer—who was angry the stylist actually cut her hair short, when that’s what she’d asked for—and her top colorist quit to take a position in a big salon in New York.
The woman was superbly talented and deserved every opportunity, but Lilly wished she could tell her colorist the glamour she was looking for in the fancy salon in the big city wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
Which was why Lilly had come home to Compass Cove. The place didn’t get her heart racing like L.A., and the wedding she was going to in a few weeks wouldn’t be attended by A-list celebrities, but the people she loved would be there, and she’d learned they were the only ones who really mattered.
As she flicked off the lights in her office in the back, Lilly heard a knocking from the front of the salon. It was past seven, she was exhausted, and part of her was tempted to take the stairs to her small apartment above the salon.
But as the knocking became steadier, she breathed out, clicked on the light in the reception area, and went to the front.
She hoped it was something simple. Maybe it was her lost products finally being delivered. Or perhaps it was Charles, one of the stylists, who was always forgetting something. Lilly should probably get the man a key, but then he wouldn’t ever try to keep track of his shit.
The shock hit as soon as she could see who was knocking. Lilly had left her work in L.A. abruptly, so when the face staring through the glass was her old boss, Noel Kristoff, she couldn’t quite get her head around it. Hadn’t she just been thinking about him? Minutes ago, his face and smile and wacky outfits had flashed through her mind. And now he was grinning at her like a man possessed.
None of this made any sense. Noel didn’t like to go anywhere with less than a million people unless it was to his chateau in Bordeaux, so there had to be a good story as to why he was standing outside her door in her tiny town.
Disengaging the alarm, she threw the deadbolt on the door and almost lost her arm when he yanked it open and charged inside.
“Leelee!” Noel grabbed her in a bear hug, pulling her into his massive chest. “You look gorgeous, dahlink. How have you been? I would say I’ve been searching everywhere for you, but I only had to ask one person, and he told me immediately where to find your shop.” His Hungarian accent was still thick, even after years in California designing hair for the fussiest movie stars and costume directors. If there was a look in a movie that anyone remembered, chances were Noel was responsible.
Taking a step back, she surveyed her old boss’s face. Warm and happy, his black hair was pulled into a knot at the nape of his neck. Nothing seemed to dampen his spirit. Even three crazy ex-wives couldn’t do it to him.
“I… I cannot believe you’re here,” she finally uttered. “I was just thinking about you.”
“I still think you have the gift of my people, my dear.” Folding his arms, Noel—who cherished his Romani heritage—looked around.
“Only if your people landed in Hungary by way of Puerto Rico,” she said.
His belly laugh boomed through the space. “Show me your place. I’m dying to see.”
Initially, Noel was the only person she told about opening her salon back home. When she cut ties with her life in California, she’d made a clean break. He was the only one she’d sporadically kept in touch with. The man had trained her, mentored her. Everything she had she owed to him, and her own hard work.
That he wanted to see what she’d made was a little intimidating, but it also made Lilly’s heart happy.
“This town of yours. It’s so small. I know you said it’s small, but how small? I see three streets.”
Seeing Noel so far out of his element made Lilly laugh. “There are plenty of people here, but we never feel overwhelmed, or lost, or invisible. It’s not filled with phonies, or people who are only looking out for themselves.”
His brows drew together in a grimace. “Not everyone is like that. You had good friends.”
He was right, she’d had some good friends. But her life had spun so far out of control, and her head was in such a bad place, that the only way she could figure out how to stop the insanity was to leave it all behind. “Let me show you the shop. It’s only been up for a little more than a year, but I’ve built a solid clientele.”
“I had no doubt you would succeed.” He waved her off.
“You lie.” Noel had warned her that businesses like hers failed more than succeeded. There’d been no mincing of words.
He laughed. “Okay, I had a little doubt. I didn’t know how many small-town women would want good hair.”
What a thing to say, she thought. “All women want good hair. All women. And I’ve definitely created a niche for myself with the younger demographic in town.”
As she walked him through the different areas of the shop, Lilly had the opportunity to be proud of what she’d built. “There are eight stations, with two dedicated for colorists.” Lilly pointed out the sleek wood cabinets in a rich dark brown. Oval mirrors were suspended above each. “I have three shampoo sinks, and in the back there’s a work room, break room, powder room, and storage.” Compass Cove was filled with small businesses, all of them locally owned, and many had been in the same spot for generations. Some had fallen on hard times, but it looked like Lilly was going to make it. Visions, which was what she called her day spa, was getting stronger every month.
“So, what brings you to town? I would’ve met you in the city.” She knew New York was one of Noel’s favorite places. He’d said he loved the energy the throngs of people brought to the streets every day. It was where he started his career thirty years ago.
“Normally,” he said, walking toward the back of the shop, “that would’ve been my preference. But I’m here because the movie I’m working on is shooting close by.”
“Really? Where?” Lilly didn’t know if she should be happy or sad. She loved the movies, and had loved working on movies, but she wasn’t sure if she wanted her old life to collide with the one she was rebuilding in her home town.
“There will be some location filming at the college, ah, what’s it called? Jennings? There’s also a mansion location and a beach. Or two. It’s a romantic comedy. Sentimental. Happy. It will sell tickets.”
“That’s awesome! I had no idea. One of my good friends is a librarian at the college. She’s getting married in a few weeks to the football coach.”
He nodded while looking at her color lab, which was tucked onto one side of the workroom. “You like this brand of color? I’m still not sure about it?” He held up a can of product.
“The clients are happy. No fading. No brassiness.”
He nodded. “Weddings are such happy events. You have a man in your life?”
That wasn’t a question she was expecting. “No. Not right now.”
“Ah. Okay.” Noel turned and clasped his hands behind his back. “Have you dated since you’ve been home?”
Lilly shook her head. “No, I’ve been busy. Not much time for anything. It drives my mother crazy.” That wasn’t a lie. Mami was telling her pretty regularly that she’d better find a man before she was too old. “Why all the questions about my love life?”
“There’s something you should know.” Noel’s hesitation made Lilly nervous. He sighed. “Kat Barnes is in the movie. The cast arrives tomorrow.”
“Well, that’s special, but it’s not something that warrants the worried look on your face. What’s really on your mind?
He took another look at the color station and nodded.
“You’re right. I’ll get to the point. Gio is the star of this film. He and Kat are the leads.”
The news hit her like a blast from a cannon, forcing Lilly to sit down at a shampoo sink. Kat Barnes was bad enough. She and Lilly hated each other. But Gio? He was a whole different kind of trouble.
“I wanted to let you know, so you could be prepared. I thought seeing him without warning would be… what is the word?” She could see the wheels turning in his brain, searching for the right term.
“A trigger? Yeah.” Lilly nodded. If she’d run into him in town, she didn’t know how she’d react. “I’m not hard to find either, as you found out.” Lilly dropped her face into her hands. “God, I never thought I’d have to see him again. And here, of all places.”
Sitting next to her, Noel patted her back. “I know. But he’s arriving in a few days. Have you told anyone about what happened?”
Unable to face what drove her from her life in California, Lilly shook her head. The truth was, she hadn’t even told Noel how bad it had gotten. “No. No one. Not even my parents.”
“You need to tell someone. You did have a restraining order at one point. Correct?”
There was a reason she called Noel Papa Bear. He protected her like she was his very own. “I left because the judge refused to reissue the restraining order. Then after he…” She swallowed the words, rubbing the side of her face like the pain was still there. “The DA wouldn’t prosecute. No one believed me except you, and Maddie.”
Giovanni Graham was a star of the highest order. He was a gorgeous, funny heartthrob that commanded the screen no matter what role he played. Action-adventure, drama, romance, comedy, or something for kids, he could do it all. The old saying “women wanted to bed him, and men wanted to be him” was definitely true when applied to him.
Lilly had been the envy of women all over the world when she and Gio dated for almost a year. Initially, things had been great between them, but it didn’t stay that way. It changed; slowly at first, and before Lilly knew it, her life had spun out of control. Violently.
She knew the dark side of Gio Graham. The side that came out behind closed doors. The guy was no hero, and he wasn’t fit to be anyone’s leading man.
Gio Graham was the man who had terrorized her. And no one had believed her story.
An hour later, she sat with Noel in her apartment with a bottle of wine and two big bowls of steaming clam chowder from The Dock’s End. They’d been mostly quiet, sharing a few words here and there as they made the short walk to the restaurant at the marina and then back to her apartment.
He didn’t mention Gio again, and neither did Lilly, even though that was obviously what was on their minds.
“Maybe he won’t look for you?” Noel finally asked the question she didn’t know how to answer.
“I don’t know. It’s possible, but he might. He doesn’t think he did anything wrong.”
“He has been here? To Compass Cove?”
“I brought him home one Christmas.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“My parents didn’t like him.” She couldn’t fault her mother’s instincts. “Mama said he was too charming to be trusted.”
Noel took a deep breath. “He’d best stay away from you. Fattyú.” Lilly had worked with him long enough to know her former boss had just called her ex a bastard. She couldn’t disagree.
“Maybe I could go to the police? Just to put him on their radar. I mean... I did have a restraining order.”
“You could try. At least they would be alerted.”
“I’ll stop over there tomorrow morning. In the afternoon I’m doing a test run on my friend’s hair for her wedding. Want to help?”
“What time?” he grinned. “I’ll be here.”
There were few things Jack Miller hated more than stakeouts. Especially when his partner was a by-the-book DEA agent bucking for a promotion. He was in hell. And Satan had a badge.
Darren, who wore his hair high and tight like a jarhead recruit, was watching the deserted warehouse from their fifth-floor perch. They’d been in Brooklyn for three days, and no one had entered or left the old bread factory. The entire area was being revitalized, with the shipping depot going in near the river, and mixed-use buildings replacing old businesses and industrial spaces.
If they ever converted this old building, he expected a loft would go for several million dollars. If the guys in his unit wouldn’t bust on him for being a rich boy, he probably would have gone for it and bought himself one. But if his time in the military had taught him anything, it was that if he wanted to fit in, Jack had to be like everyone else. He couldn’t be the kid who grew up on an estate, went to an Ivy League school, or had a trust fund, even though he was all those things.
Now that he was an FBI agent, nothing much had changed. If he showed his hand, he’d get shit from the squad.
“You want something to eat, pal?” Maybe food would make the guy loosen up.
Darren shook his head. “No thanks. Had a protein bar. I’m fine.”
“Are you sure? This pizza here is pretty good.”
“That crap will clog your arteries.” Darren continued to watch out the window, while Jack took a bite of the loaded pizza and rolled his eyes.
“I think we have to consider that they moved their operation.” Jack had been excited to work on the joint task force with the DEA. They were going after dealers who were feeding the heroin epidemic in Queens, Brooklyn, and Long Island. It was scary shit, and he wanted these assholes bad, but his Spidey senses were telling him they’d been tipped off.
Lately, he was sorry he’d volunteered for the assignment. He’d been stuck in the room with his counterpart for going on seventy-two hours, and there was a growing chance Jack would hurt the guy.
After a protracted silence, Darren turned and snapped at Jack, “You’re impatient. I’ve had stakeouts that have gone on for weeks. I live on protein bars, water, and adrenaline. I barely sleep, I usually don’t shower. When I emerge, I look like the walking dead. You have to stay the course.”
Now that was fucking scary.
Jack figured in a few days, Darren was gonna start to look like moldy bread. Wasn’t that fantastic?
His cell phone buzzed. When he looked down, he saw a message from his brother, Adam. Where the fuck are you? I’m getting married in three weeks. Mia is flipping out because my best man is missing.
Jack texted back: I’m not missing. I’m working. I will be there. He would do his best, but that’s not what he’d told his family. Stop worrying about me, and you make sure Mia doesn’t go all bridezilla on everyone.
His future sister-in-law was the least likely woman to lose her mind over her wedding, but Jack had seen people do some crazy things. He figured anything was possible.
I should be around in a few days. We’ll get a beer and your lovely bride can interrogate me for as long as she likes. He was pretty sure he’d be out of this dank warehouse soon; the investigation was going nowhere. If not, he’d still be here. With Agent Moldy Bread.
At the same time Adam pinged him back, his phone buzzed. A call from his boss.
“Hey, Jack. How goes the stakeout?” There was a clear and audible chuckle, and based on the muffled voices in the background, his boss wasn’t alone. A couple of other agents had drawn duty with Darren, so they were going to have a good time at his expense.
“Funny.” He walked away so Darren couldn’t hear. “You need to get me out of here.”
“Come on, Jack. How bad could it be?”
“Are you kidding me?”
There was a burst of laughter from the SAC and whoever was in his office.
“Great. You guys have a ball.”
“Actually, you can come in. It was exactly what you thought. The subjects were tipped off and moved the operation east. You’ll be working out of the field office on Long Island for the duration of the investigation.”
That was a plus. At least he’d be around for the wedding.
“Should I tell Darren?” He glanced over. His partner hadn’t moved. The guy was like a piece of pottery.
“His people will let him know. Hey, one more thing, I got a call from local police about a woman who filed a report about her ex-boyfriend. I’m going to send you the contact information. Said she’s worried about him being violent. Since the guy is coming from out of state, and there was a restraining order, it bounced to us.”
“Abuser?” That wasn’t his usual jam. “Why me?”
“You’re from the area, so I figured you could see what’s up. It could fall under a couple of federal statutes, but we’re not sure.”
“Yeah, I guess. Send me what you have, and I’ll talk with her. How many complaints are we looking at?”
“More than a few. We’re getting the whole file from L.A. Hold onto your hat, she identified the ex. It’s Gio Graham.”
“The actor?” Jack’s stomach lurched.
“Yep. The woman is named—hold on, let me look—Lilly Vasquez. Owns a salon or something.”
Lilly. Jesus. It was a good thing Jack was getting this on the phone. The squad didn’t need to see his reaction. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah. But make sure she’s on the level. I know she had the order, but celebrities are constantly being targeted by crazies—anything is possible. The relationship was all over the tabloids, and the detective I talked to said the case was full of question marks. They aren’t sure she’s totally on the level. Especially after they interviewed Graham. He said she was the one who was dangerous, and stalked him online. He suggested she might be using being victimized as a cover.”
The suggestion that Lilly was at fault made the muscles in Jack’s neck spasm in response. The woman was a lot of things, but a crazy stalker wasn’t one of them. “Yeah. I want to know everything. Everything.”
For the longest time, no one could figure out why Lilly had returned to Compass Cove. She’d had a great gig in the film industry, which she’d left suddenly and without any explanation. But hearing all this, it made more sense. He remembered she’d been dating the guy. He couldn’t turn around without seeing her face on some gossip rag. It drove Jack crazy. Now, thinking about what might have transpired between them made him so angry he was going to make it his mission to find out what happened.
“Wait. You think there’s something to this?” his boss asked. “That she…”
“I don’t draw conclusions until I have all the facts,” he lied, not wanting to tip his boss off to his own conclusions. “But I’m not going to be the guy who blows this off and lets a woman get hurt.”
“I dunno. Based on what we do know, she sounds a little unhinged. He can’t get her to tell him what she did with the jewelry he gave her. It was worth over a million bucks and someone close to them said she gave it all away to friends of hers.”
Jack’s wheels started turning. He had a good idea what happened to the jewelry, but give it away just for fun? Not likely.
“I don’t need her going all psycho on this guy, Miller. That wouldn’t be a good look for us.”
“Uh huh.” That pissed him off. If Lilly reached out for help, this was serious. She was bull-headed, independent, and not prone to drama. No, if she was concerned enough to go to local police, she was scared. Which was why Jack was going to stop by and see her tomorrow.
End of Excerpt
All of Me