Celeste Beacon had seen a lot of tough cases in her years as a grief counselor, but this one was the worst. She skimmed the information the subject’s parents presented her, but honestly, she kept coming back to the photo taken last weekend on a beach off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. He had the kind of serious muscles that she associated with a Hollywood beefcake, instead of a troubled soul.
“Will you take this case?” Theodore Warren asked. He was tall, and as she let her gaze move from the ripped pectorals in the photo to the square jaw, chiseled cheekbones and bright blue eyes, she realized that his son resembled him. They both looked to be tall, at least six-foot, four-inches and fit. Theo’s dark hair showed some grey at the temples whereas Sebastian’s didn’t. They both had a strong jaw . . . stubborn? Only time would tell. And the eyes were the same silvery grey color though Theodore had none of the wildness in his expression the way that Sebastian did.
“I’m not sure I can help your son. My normal client is usually much younger,” she said. And she had never been attracted to one based on a photo before. To be fair, she’d never felt this mixture of desire and emotion before. There was something about Sebastian Warren that fascinated her from the moment she’d seen him flashed all over the television.
She’d heard the news the same way everyone else—even his parents—had. Blasted on the 24-hour-news network as Sebastian’s high octane sports car careened off the road and into a highway stanchion, while he’d been racing with his best friend, Judd Ricken. Judd’s car had flipped end over end before landing on the roof in an explosion of flames.
“Please,” Marilyn Warren said. “We have tried everything else. He’s thirty-one, so too old for us to restrict his trust fund—not that he needs that money—he’s got his own successful tech business. I’ve begged and his father has talked to him more times than either of us can count. We don’t know what else to do.”
Celeste pulled the file back to her and flipped past the hot-guy photo that had stopped her before. She read the list of activities he’d engaged in over the past year. The counselor in her noted that there was definite evidence of an escalation of danger in the events. And, he seemed to be staying in one place for a shorter amount of time. Something she thought might be a pattern as well.
“I’ll meet with him, Marilyn. Then I will let you know if I can help him or not,” she said, unable to resist the mother’s plea.
“Wonderful,” she said, patting her hair as she glanced over at her husband. “I told you talking to another therapist would work; we just need someone who can break through to him.”
“I haven’t said yes yet,” she warned. She knew deep inside that she wasn’t going to take this case, but she wanted to meet him. Maybe if she talked to him she’d . . . what? Teenagers who’d been victims of unexpected tragedy were her normal clients. How was she going to help a thirty-one-year-old billionaire who was out of control? A man who seemed to have left every bit of the man he’d been behind in the wreckage they’d pulled him from.
Now, he was a playboy of the first order. Sleeping his way through Europe’s lesser royal baronesses, princesses and ladies. Everyone coped with grief in a different way, she reminded herself.
Theodore took his wife’s hand and squeezed it before he sat forward in his chair. “It’s important that he doesn’t realize we spoke to you. He doesn’t want us to interfere.”
“Why not?” she asked, taking her pen and jotting that information down. Most of the time when she took on a client, they were ready to move from grief to coping and then moving on.
“You’re not the first professional we’ve spoken to. The last one . . . well, Seb didn’t get on well with him, and he sort of suggested that he’d never talk to us again if we meddled again,” Marilyn said.
“Then, I think we should respect his wishes. I know you are motivated from a place of love, but this kind of thing is best done on the schedule of the griever. Not everyone grieves in the same way.”
Marilyn sighed and looked away. Theodore patted her hand and let go of it. “We have tried to respect that, Celeste, but he is getting worse.”
“Shark diving isn’t that dangerous,” she said. Her best friend, Kendra and she had taken a tour of South Africa two years ago and done it themselves.
“He wasn’t in a cage,” Marilyn said. “He took his own yacht out there and then, after drinking with those Spanish princesses, jumped in the water and swam with them. Does that sound normal to you?”
Ah, no. Not normal for a regular person. For someone who hadn’t had their heart burned out by grief. She’d lost her own way a long time ago, so she got what it was like to feel like there was nothing left to lose.
Theodore put his arm around his wife and turned back to Celeste. “We are at our wit’s end. We don’t want to lose our eldest son. We sat with him in a hospital for five days while he was in a coma.”
She understood they’d thought they’d gotten the answer to their prayers when Sebastian had come out of his coma, but then he’d woken as a different man. Not their son. “He might never be the same again.”
“We don’t care. We just want him safe,” Theodore said. “We’re holding a party at our house in the Hamptons next weekend for our anniversary and Sebastian will be there. Will you come and meet him? Give us your answer afterward.”
She pushed the papers in the file they’d brought around on her desk one more time. Saw the wrecked Bugatti, the photos of a wounded man in a hospital bed and then the one from the previous weekend. The body had healed, but the soul was still wounded and aching.
She wanted to help him. Hell, that was why she’d started doing this. After all these years, she’d hoped to get a little closer to healing herself, but she hadn’t. This case might be the one that would do what the others hadn’t been able to.
Lacing her fingers together on her desk, she leaned forward and looked at the grieving parents—they always looked the same—desperate and scared. “I’ll meet him and won’t mention the fact that you have already talked to me. I’m not going to pretend to be anyone but myself. If I do take this case, I don’t want to start by lying.”
“Thank you. You’ve answered our prayers,” Marilyn said, coming forward and hugging her.
After they left, she got on with her day, but couldn’t get the image of Sebastian Warren out of her head. What was he doing? Did he feel indestructible? Was he living fast in case next time he didn’t make it?
But, no matter how she tried to keep her thoughts on the case and potential job, she knew that she was going to the Hamptons to meet him, because she had never felt that kind of spark in her life before. The kind of need that she’d seen in his eyes in that photo had called to something long hidden in her soul.
Sebastian Warren hadn’t wanted to come back to the Hamptons in late October. The wind whipped around him from the sea and he stood there letting it buffet him. Everyone else was inside, as the storm was blowing fiercely, and it wasn’t a night fit for man or beast.
Yet, here he stood. Contemplating his next move. Staying home wasn’t an option. Not here in the Hamptons, but in his own luxury penthouse in Miami’s trendy South Beach area. Or even going back to work. Risky Business, his sports themed international retail chain didn’t need him at the helm. He’d hired the right people when he’d been starting out. And he’d spent ten years fixated on making it the best damned business he could. A chronic workaholic, who’d only taken breaks when his best friend had forced him out of the office.
The irony of his life now that Judd was gone wasn’t lost on him. It started raining. Hard pelts of icy water hitting him hard on the head, and he took the punishing blows for a second, before running back to the house and through the door that lead to sunroom.
Down the hall, the sounds of his parents’ party didn’t tempt him. He’d changed since the last time he’d seen these people. He didn’t want to talk to them about it or even really face his parents, who were determined to see he got help. Everyone else seemed stuck in the same place they’d always been. But for Sebastian the world had changed, and there was no denying it. Not that he would have anyway. He was a big believer in truth, even when a lie would be nicer . . . safer. There was no safety in his world any more.
He was a grown man. He didn’t need help dealing with things. Nothing against the scenery, but his parents made him crazy. Even as wild as he might seem to them, he knew better than to miss their anniversary party. His parents had been married for thirty years. At one point in his life, he had wanted that.
Wanted to find a woman who could be his partner for all his days. He had figured he’d settle down when he turned thirty, but not any more. Judd’s death had simply cemented what he’d always known. There were no guarantees in life.
“Mind if I join you?”
He glanced over his shoulder at the pretty blonde in the dark blue cocktail dress. Her hair hung in soft waves around her shoulders and she was waiting to be invited over. So different from most of the other woman he’d been running with lately. Not that he thought many of them would be tempted away from the party, unless he promised them a better time.
He skimmed his gaze over her, sizing her up and didn’t even flinch at his own crassness any more. The man he’d once been would never let his gaze linger on her full breasts before moving down to her nipped in waist and long curvy legs. That was his past-self’s loss. Because this woman had an innate sensuality in her face that made him want to know her better.
“Please,” he said, gesturing for her to enter. He needed something to distract him from his thoughts and this party.
“Thanks. I’m Celeste Beacon,” she said, holding out her hand as she walked over to him.
“Seb Warren,” he said as he took her hand in his. Her nails were neatly trimmed and unpainted. Her hands were small and cold but soft. So very soft. A zing of awareness shot through him, as he slowly let her hand drop.
He winked at her. “Doesn’t everyone?”
“Well, I should say I’d guessed. Your parents have pictures of every moment of your life splashed out all over the house.”
“They are very proud of my siblings and I,” he said. Which made it even harder for him to be back here. To be faced with the man he used to be.
“I’m envious,” she said. “Only child.”
“Spoiled?” he asked.
She shrugged and he noticed the gentle curve of her shoulder. “Some might say that, but I never felt that way.”
“So, why did you want to join me?” he asked.
“You seemed lonely. I shouldn’t have mentioned that, should I?” she asked with a little nervous laugh. “My best friend cautioned me to stop being so blunt.”
“Shooting from the hip is okay with me,” he said. “But I think you should be careful with the other guests. Most of them like the sweet little white lies we all tell ourselves.”
“I will be more careful. That was a pretty blunt assessment of white lies,” she said.
“Everyone tells them,” he said with a shrug.
“Sometimes. Most of the time, I’m blunt to the point of rude. At least that’s what my mother mentioned,” he said. Not the kind of discussion he wanted to have at a dinner party, or to be honest, ever.
An awkward silence built between them and she chewed on her lower lip, which made him realize again that her full lower lip tempted him. He wondered why she was here and what she really wanted from him. But really did that matter? He focused instead on what he wanted. Her. She’d distract him from the storm and his parents’ party.
“Want to try again?” he asked.
“Try what? Telling you why I joined you?” she asked.
She tipped her head to the side and her long silky hair fell forward over one shoulder. “You looked sexy standing there alone. I’ve always had a thing for the dark, brooding lord of the manor. Looking out at the stormy sea, I have to tell you you brought to mind Heathcliff.”
“Like your dark brooding men mixed with a little bit of crazy, do you?” he asked. He stared down at her. She barely reached his shoulder and tipped her head to the side to meet his gaze. She was different. He could tell she wasn’t one of the women from the bridge club that his mom was always bringing home to meet him and his brother. She also didn’t quite strike the right image as one of the daughters of his dad’s business associates. Who was Celeste Beacon?
She laughed. “He’s romantic, not crazy.”
“Really? Would you want Heathcliff?”
She shook her head. “Only if I could change him.”
“Ah, now we get to the heart of the matter,” he said. “Women always want to change a man.”
“Men like changing women as well,” she said. “They want . . . never mind. That’s a quagmire I think we should avoid.”
“Why? I would love to know what you think men want in a woman,” he said.
“All men, or what I think you want?” she asked quietly.
“I think I prefer honesty,” he said. “Not that I don’t like the occasional pick-up.”
She made a choking sound.
“Ah, so you do know my reputation,” he said.
“Maybe. It’d be impossible not to know it,” she said.
So, he was a curiosity to her. He’d seen the reaction before. Like he was some sort of freak in the sideshow to be gawked at. Everyone wanted to know what the wreck had been like . . . he’d hoped she’d be different and was disappointed she wasn’t.
She might have come at it from a different angle, but she was like everyone else. Wanted to come closer to the wild animal that he’d become and see if he’d still lash out.
“Beat it.” Not tonight. He was in his parents’ house and he’d promised his younger brother he’d behave.
“Hey,” she said, softly, reaching out to touch him.
Her touch was like a warm breeze against his skin. He closed his eyes against the emotions she stirred to life in him. This wasn’t just lust and he had no time for anything but that.
He shrugged her touch aside.
“What?” he asked. He didn’t owe strangers anything. There was only one person he felt he owed something to and that man was dead. So cute as she might be, this one could hit the road. He’d already decided that tonight’s thrill was going to be racing the storm back to the city and then taking his jet away from Long Island.
“I’m here because you looked lonely nothing more. Like, you could use a friend. And though I suck at small talk, I can be a good friend.”
There was sincerity in her voice that he wanted to believe but he wasn’t naïve, and he knew that most people had an agenda. Hell, even he had one. To forget. And she wasn’t helping him tonight so it was time to say goodbye.
“Thanks, honey I have all the female friends I need. For some reason women seem to flock to me,” he said. He was being snarky, but he knew there was some honesty in his words. There were times when he was perplexed about why women pursued him. He was clearly not going to settle down or even have a relationship that lasted more than one night with them.
“Well that’s too bad. Because when I was sixteen, I was driving with my parents home from dinner and a car t-boned us at an intersection. I walked away, but my parents . . . they both died,” she paused. In her eyes, he thought he read a little of the survivor’s guilt that he carried. “I thought maybe you might want a friend, who wasn’t trying to get into your bed.”
He stood there for a long moment. Part of him wanted to doubt her, but when their eyes met again he saw the truth right there in her eyes. She’d lost and though she’d done a damned good job of acting normal when she’d first come onto the balcony with him, he saw that she had been pretending. Functioning . . . just like he’d been.
But sixteen was a while ago for her, so how had she moved on? Did he really care? Moving on wasn’t what he was interested in. Kissing her, taking her to his bed, forgetting the world he lived in for a few hours or maybe an entire night, now that was what he wanted.
“Don’t. I wasn’t exactly saying anything brilliant. I just didn’t want you to think that I’d come here for any other reason but to talk.”
Just talk? He knew better. There had been that delightful awkwardness when she’d first come out here. She might have seen him standing alone and was she trying a different type of pickup?
She blushed. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a woman do that. She intrigued him. He closed the gap between them and gave her a few points for not backing up, as he crowded close to her and he braced one hand against the paneled wall behind her head. He leaned in so close that he could feel the warmth of her breath against his cheek. Then, he brought his mouth down on hers. They could talk all night, but it was in her kiss that he’d find the answers he wanted.
End of Excerpt