After growing up in privilege and marrying into money, Lila Alders has gotten used to the good life. But when her happily-ever-after implodes, Lila must return to Black Dog Bay, the tiny seaside town where she grew up. She’s desperate for a safe haven, but everything has changed over the past ten years. Her family’s fortune is gone—and her mother is in total denial. It’s up to Lila to take care of everything…but she can barely take care of herself.
The former golden girl of Black Dog Bay struggles to reinvent herself by opening a vintage clothing boutique. But even as Lila finds new purpose for outdated dresses and tries to reunite with her ex, she realizes that sometimes it’s too late for old dreams. She’s lost everything she thought she needed but found something—someone—she desperately wants. A boy she hardly noticed has grown up into a man she can’t forget…and a second chance has never felt so much like first love.
The last thing Lila did on her way out of town was sell her wedding rings.
When she arrived at the pawnshop, she looked flawless—she’d made sure of that before she left her custom-built brick house for the last time. Her honey blond hair was freshly straightened, her nails impeccably manicured, her blush and mascara tastefully applied. Her blouse matched her skirt, her shoes matched her handbag, and her bra matched her panties because, as her mother had always reminded her, if a terrible accident should ever befall her in a grocery store parking lot, she would be on display to a whole team of paramedics and hospital workers.
But as she pulled her diamond rings out of her purse, all Lila could think about were the things that didn’t look right: the dark roots that were starting to show where her hair parted. The visible tension in her face from months of clenching her jaw at night. The pale stripe on her finger where her rings had been. And even worse than the flaws she couldn’t hide were the ones she could: Out in the parking lot, her white luxury SUV awaited. Spotless and brand-new and jam-packed with the last remnants of her life she’d managed to salvage from the divorce.
For a solid two minutes, Lila kept her hands in the pockets of her stylish rose pink trench coat and listened to soft jazz on the sound system while the store employee scrutinized every facet of the diamonds. Beneath the glass display case, rows of rings sparkled in the light, each one representing a promise exchanged by two people coming together in trust and faith and hope. Lila tried to imagine the men who had proposed with these rings: rich and poor, old and young, all of them in love with a woman they believed to be as unique and dazzling as these jewels.
And they had all ended up here: the relationship boneyard. An “estate jewelry” storefront sandwiched between a dry cleaner and a pet groomer in a suburban strip mall.
The clerk finally looked up, clicking her tongue. “The setting’s very dated, but the stone itself is decent.”
Lila blinked. “Dated? Decent? That ring was on the back cover of Elle magazine the month I got engaged.”
“And how long ago was that?”
“Well. Seven years.” Lila squinted to read the employee’s name tag and tried a different approach. “Norma. I appreciate that you have a business to run and a family to support, but look at the cut and color of this diamond! The stone was imported from Antwerp, the setting is really quite classic—”
“If I’ve learned one thing in this business, it’s that everything goes out of style eventually.” The saleswoman lowered her loupe and tilted her head, her gaze shrewd. “The whole ‘timeless classic’ line? It’s a marketing myth.”
“But the cut.” Lila cleared her throat. “It’s exquisite.”
Norma lifted one corner of her mouth. “Do you happen to have the GIA certification papers?”
“Not anymore.” Lila knew she was being assessed for weakness. How desperate was she for cash? How much did she value this touchstone of her past?
What was the bare minimum she would accept?
She should lift her chin and meet the other woman’s gaze, but she couldn’t. She’d been completely depleted—of confidence, of certainty, of the will to stand up for herself.
“We can sell the diamond, but the setting will have to be melted down and refashioned.” Norma put on her glasses, picked up her pen, and wrote a few numbers down on the pad in front of her. “Here’s what I can offer you.”
Lila glanced down at the figure and swallowed back a sigh.
“I know it’s probably not what you were hoping for, but the fact is, diamonds just don’t hold their value.” Norma’s tone was both apologetic and insincere.
“But that’s less than a third of what my husband paid for it.” Lila hated how tentative and soft she sounded. Then she corrected herself. “My ex-husband, I mean.” She flattened her palm on the cool glass case and tried to rally as she stared at the number written on the pad.
You can do this.
She knew better than to accept an opening offer. She needed to negotiate.
You have to do this.
But she glanced up at the jeweler through lowered eyelashes, her eyes watering and her lip trembling. All the fight had drained out of her. The spark inside had flickered out.
“I . . .” Lila trailed off, cleared her throat, forced herself to start again. “I’ll take it.” The amount wasn’t enough to save her, but she needed every bit of cash she could get right now. So she let go of all her old hopes and dreams and prepared to take the money.
Norma half smiled, half sneered. “Let me write you a check.”
An electronic chime sounded as the shop’s door opened; then a shrill feminine voice rang out: “Holy crap! You’re Lila McCune. I love you! I’m your biggest fan. Marilyn Waters.” A short, windblown woman in a green turtleneck shook Lila’s hand, squeezing tightly. “I can’t believe this! Do you live around here?”
“Until recently.” Like this morning.
Marilyn turned to the jeweler and demanded, “Did you know she’s a celebrity?”
Norma’s sneer got a little sneerier. “No.”
Lila bowed her head. “Oh, I’m not really—”
“She was the late-night host of my favorite shopping channel for three years.” Marilyn turned back to Lila. “You probably don’t recognize my voice, but we’ve spoken on the air. I called in a few times, and you were so nice. You made me feel good about myself when I was fat and hormonal and losing my damn mind.”
Lila kept beaming as she struggled to reclaim her hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you in person—I love connecting with callers. What were some of your favorite items?”
“Oh, Lord, I bought so many things. When I was up with my first baby, I watched you every single night. I was exhausted and healing from a third-degree tear, but your show was really soothing. This woman can sell anything to anyone,” Marilyn informed the jeweler. “Crystal Christmas tree ornaments and fancy French sauté pans and this amazing cream that gets rid of the calluses on your heels. Works like magic. Would it be okay if I take a quick picture with you?”
“Of course.” Lila summoned her cheeriest, camera-ready smile.
“One more, just in case.” Marilyn clicked her camera phone three times in rapid succession. “I can’t wait to put this up on Instagram! My sisters are going to be so jealous.”
While Marilyn fiddled with her phone, Lila sidled over to Norma and murmured, “Make the check out to Lila Alders, please. A-L-D-E-R-S.”
Norma raised one finely penciled brow. “I thought you were Lila McCune?”
“I was. Now I’m back to my maiden name.”
Marilyn clicked off social media and rejoined the conversation. “So what happened, Lila? You’re not on the air anymore.”
“My contract was up, and, um, my agent and I decided it was time to transition.” Lila’s jaw ached. “I’m exploring some new opportunities.”
“Ooh! Like what?”
“Like . . .” Lila had never been so happy to hear her phone ring. “Would you please excuse me for a moment? I have to take this.” She pressed the phone to her ear and walked toward the front window. “Hi, Mom.”
“Where are you right now?” her mother demanded.
“I’m at the engagement ring boneyard.”
“I’m selling my rings for a fraction of what they’re worth.”
Her mother made a little noise of disappointment. “So you won’t be here for dinner?”
“No. Sorry I’m running late; it took me forever to pack up the car and then I had to drop by my attorney’s office to pay off my balance.”
“Well, now you can put it all behind you.” There was a pause on her mother’s end of the line. “Did you get a good price for the rings, at least?”
“No.” Lila forced herself to relax as her temple started throbbing.
“How much?” Her mother’s voice stayed light and airy, but Lila detected an urgent undertone. “Approximately?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Oh, no reason.” Another pause. “We’ll talk about it when you get here.”
“Talk about what?”
“Nothing. Drive safe, sweet pea. I can’t wait to see you.” Her mother hung up before Lila could say anything else.
When Lila returned to the glass counter, Marilyn was frowning and nibbling her lower lip while Norma examined a hair comb fashioned of tarnished metal.
Lila stepped closer to Marilyn and asked, “What’s that?”
“It’s a hair comb,” Norma said flatly.
“It belonged to my great-aunt,” Marilyn confided. “And her mother before her. It’s not really my style, but I thought maybe we could find a buyer who would really appreciate it. Stuff like this should be worn, you know? Doesn’t do me any good collecting dust in a drawer.”
“It’s beautiful.” Lila peered over Norma’s shoulder. The comb was shaped like a flower atop two thin prongs. “What’s it made of?”
“Steel. Dates back to the early eighteen hundreds.” Norma sounded disapproving. “Not interested.”
Marilyn’s whole body folded in a bit. “But it’s vintage.”
Norma remained impassive. “Worth a hundred bucks, max. Try listing it on eBay.”
Marilyn took back her family heirloom with evident shame.
“Well, I love it.” Lila straightened her shoulders. She ran her fingers along the faceted edges of the flower’s petals. The steel had been cut like a gemstone, designed to look dainty despite its strength.
“You do?” Marilyn’s voice was barely a whisper.
“Absolutely. Tell you what—I’ll give you a hundred dollars for it.” Lila opened her wallet, realized her current net worth stood at thirty-seven dollars and three maxed-out credit cards, and closed her wallet. “Let me go cash this check really quick.”
The sparkle returned to Marilyn’s eyes. “Keep your money. Just give me your autograph and we’ll call it even. It will be such a thrill to know that somewhere out there, Lila McCune is walking around wearing my great-aunt’s comb.”
“Oh, I couldn’t—”
“I insist.” Marilyn gave a little hop of glee.
Lila accepted the metal comb and slid the prongs into her hair. “Thank you, Marilyn. I’ll make sure it always has a good home.”
“I want it to be with someone who loves it.” Marilyn shot a hostile look at Norma. “Someone who understands that everything doesn’t have to be made out of platinum to be worth anything.”
For the second time in ten minutes, Lila’s eyes welled with tears. She hugged Marilyn, said thank you a dozen more times, and hurried back out to the parking lot before she lost her composure.
The woman on TV who kept you sane in the middle of the night isn’t supposed to have a nervous breakdown in the middle of the afternoon.
The prongs of the metal comb were biting into her scalp, and she reached up and pulled it out of her hair, then unlocked her car with a click of her key fob.
“Oh, Lila, wait!” Marilyn’s voice called. “If I could just trouble you for one more thing before you go.”
Lila startled. In her hasty attempt to shove the comb back into her hair, her thumb hit the button to open the SUV’s back gate.
A jumble of linens, clothes, shoes, books, file boxes, and a lamp tumbled out onto the asphalt.
Marilyn stopped midstride and looked down at the mess, then back up at Lila with an expression that was equal parts shock and pity.
“I’m transitioning,” Lila explained in her perky, late-night shopper voice as she picked up a fragment of the shattered stained-glass lampshade. “I’m considering my options.”
Steady, pounding rain drenched the windshield of Lila’s SUV as she made the drive to Black Dog Bay, Delaware. The night sky was starless, the roads were treacherous, and Lila stayed in the right-hand lane of the highway, praying that she wouldn’t skid on an oil slick or scrape a guardrail or misjudge her braking speed.
She wanted to turn on the radio and take a sip of coffee from the travel mug resting on the console, but she was too afraid to release her death grip on the steering wheel.
Buying this car had been a mistake, she could admit that. A huge mistake. Almost as huge as the vehicle itself.
Once upon a time, in her heyday of hawking callus cream on late-night cable, she had driven a sporty little black coupe. She’d never given a second thought to issues like braking speed or turning radius.
And then, ten months ago, her father had died. And after the funeral, she’d come home to the news that her producers had opted not to renew her contract. Six weeks later, her husband had explained that, while he would always love her on some level, he was not actually in love with her. Because he was in love with someone else.
The morning after Carl broke the news that he was abandoning her for something new, Lila had decided she deserved something new, too. And Carl deserved to pay for it. She’d stalked out of the house, roiling with rage, and driven to the nearest auto dealership.
“I want the biggest car you have on the lot,” she told the first salesman she saw. “Fully loaded: leather seats, sunroof, power everything.”
The salesman didn’t miss a beat. “Backseat DVD player?”
“Sure, why not?” she’d replied, though she had no children. She didn’t even have a dog. There’d be nothing in her backseat but baggage after Carl sold the house she’d spent five years decorating with custom flooring and fabric and furniture.
“Do you have a color preference?” the salesman asked as he led her toward a line of shiny new vehicles.
“No.” She pulled out her checkbook. “Let’s just get this done before my husband closes the joint accounts.”
And that was how she’d ended up with this all-wheel-drive behemoth with an interior large enough to set up a pair of sofas and a coffee table. This sumptuous, supersafe SUV—or, as she privately referred to it, the “FU”-V.
She’d driven back home in a spurt of renewed optimism, feeling invincible.
Then she’d turned into the circular driveway in front of their stately brick home and realized that she had blind spots the size of a small planet and insufficient clearance to maneuver the vehicle into the garage. She’d had to park outside and slink in to face the scorn of the man who’d vowed to love her in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer.
Except that man hadn’t been waiting for her in the house. He’d vanished, taking his laptop and golf clubs with him, leaving a certified letter from his accountant explaining that because his businesses had been “gifted” to him by his father, she wouldn’t be entitled to any portion of his company’s equity or revenue going forward.
All her outrage and optimism sputtered out after that, followed quickly by her savings, because Carl did indeed freeze the joint accounts.
But she still had this FUV, cocooning her within steel crossbars and countless air bags as she cruised down Coastal Highway 1. She had a world of comforts at her disposal—heated leather seats, climate control, enough cup holders to accommodate a case of cola, and, of course, the backseat DVD player. She’d signed the purchase agreement thinking that she was buying a guarantee of safety and protection.
She instinctively tapped the brake as she glanced at the dashboard. An orange alert light in the shape of an exclamation point was blinking. She had no idea what that meant, but she knew it was bad.
Reminding herself to stay calm, she tried to watch the road ahead and maintain her speed.
One hazard light wasn’t the end of the world. She could call Triple A. How did the Bluetooth system work, again?
Another light illuminated—this time, the engine temperature alert.
The oil level alert.
The battery life alert.
BEEP BEEP BEEP
The antitheft alert blared to life at eardrum-shattering decibels.
Lila didn’t realize she was yelling until she heard the sound of her own voice in her ears in the split-second pauses between beeps and dings.
Her fingers gripped the steering wheel so tightly, her wrists trembled. She tried to focus on the road, but all she could see in front of her was a cluster of red and orange lights, announcing crises she hadn’t even imagined.
She glimpsed a gas station on her right and swerved into the parking lot, skidding on the wet pavement and jumping the curb in her haste. For a moment, she worried the enormous hulk of machinery would simply topple and roll over, but it righted itself with a shudder.
The cacophony of beeps and dings continued. She threw the transmission into park and started jabbing at buttons on the dashboard and key fob. Nothing changed—the lights kept blinking, the alarms kept blaring.
She heaved the door open and jumped out, stumbling on the retractable assist steps that automatically unfolded.
“Shit!” She fell into a gasoline-scented puddle. Though she managed to catch herself with her hands, the water splashed onto her cheeks and collar.
The car alarms kept sounding.
She grabbed the edge of the massive metal hood and pulled. Nothing budged. She could barely see at this point; her hair was plastered to her face in the icy downpour.
“Stop.” A calm, authoritative male voice filtered through all the honking and dinging. A hand pressed down on her shoulder. “Give me your keys.”
Shaking and breathless, she whirled around to face a man wearing a baseball cap and a dark wool jacket. He smiled at her and held out his palm.
Lila hesitated for a moment, worst-case scenarios flashing through her mind. If she handed over her keys, this guy could steal her car. She’d be stranded here, shivering and alone.
Without the three-ton vehicle that she could barely drive.
She pointed toward the driver’s side door. “They’re in the ignition.”
The man stepped onto the metal ledge, reached into the SUV’s cabin, and cut the engine.
Everything stopped at once—the dinging, the honking, the panic and despair.
Lila listened to the raindrops spatter against the pavement during the long, lovely pause.
Then the engine rumbled to life again as the man turned the keys in the other direction.
She started to protest, but the words died on her lips when she realized that she could hear the engine now. She could also hear the steady squeak of the windshield wipers. All the alarms had been silenced.
And the guy that had done the silencing was now staring at her.
She took a faltering step back.
He kept right on staring. “Lila?”
She took another step back.
He took off his hat, and suddenly those features fell into place in her memory. The brown eyes and thick hair and the deep, teasing voice. “Lila?”
“Ben?” She clapped a hand to her mouth, suddenly aware of how bedraggled she must look. “Ben!”
Without another word, he opened his arms to her and she ran to him, closing her eyes as she pressed her cheek against his shoulder. It had been years since he had held her, but she suddenly felt sixteen again, hopeful and shy but safe.
“What are you doing here?” Something about the way he asked this made her wonder how much he’d glimpsed of the FUV’s contents.
“I promised my mom I’d come stay with her through the summer,” she mumbled into his jacket. “She’s been having a hard time with everything.”
His arms tightened around her. “I heard about your dad. I’m so sorry. He was a great guy.”
“Yeah, it’s been a tough year. But we’re hanging in there.” She looked up at him.
He cupped her chin in his hand. “It’s so great to see you.”
“What about you?” she asked. “I thought you were still in Boston?”
“I moved back last month. I’m taking over my dad’s company. We’re starting some new projects down by Bethany Beach.”
She was grinning now, not her camera smile but her real smile. She knew she looked toothy and ridiculous, but she couldn’t stop.
Because the first boy she’d promised to love forever was smiling down at her with what could only be described as adoration. “You changed your hair.”
She nodded. “I went blond a few years ago.”
“It looks great. You always look great, Lila.”
“Oh, please.” She pulled away, trying to straighten her hair and her shirt and her earrings all at once. “I’m a drowned rat.”
Ben shook his head. “You get prettier and prettier. Listen, here’s my card. We should get together sometime and catch up.”
She forced her lips into a more demure expression as her mother’s voice resounded in her head: Don’t be too eager. There’s nothing a man likes more than a woman who has other options. “Thanks. I’d like that.”
“You’re staying with your mom?”
“Take it easy on the drive into town, and get your car checked out, okay?” He nodded at the SUV. “This model has a lot of electrical problems. Probably a short somewhere.”
“How do you know?”
“My foreman used to have the same car. Emphasis on used to.”
Lila climbed back into the FUV, buckled her seat belt, and just sat for a few minutes. Relishing the heated seats and warm air gusting out of the vents. Watching the dashboard for any more emergency lights.
Reeling from the unexpected gift she’d just been given.
Finally, she put the FUV into gear and started back down the highway to her hometown. And five minutes later, when she passed the quaint clapboard sign adorned with the silhouette of a Labrador retriever—welcome to black dog bay—she removed one hand from the wheel, turned on the radio, and scanned through the static until she found a song she could hum along to.
Maybe coming home wouldn’t be so bad, after all.