Unsung Hero

by

Barbara Ankrum

Second chances are Nio Reyes’ specialty. He pulled himself out of childhood poverty to wealth and helped his Navy SEAL brother’s team recover after a mission went south. When he returns to his Laguna Beach hometown for a friend’s wedding, Nio will need all of his redemption skills to win back the woman he was forced to leave behind without an explanation ten years ago.

Becca Howard has quit believing in happily-ever-after’s. Scandal has ruined her once wealthy family, and betrayal has ended her engagement. She’s done with men or so she thinks. When Nio rises out of the ocean like a Greek god and announces he wants her back, she wants to run almost as much as she wants to stay.

Forgiving him is not an option. Getting over him is impossible. With secrets and family lies still standing in their way, can one long overdue weekend together in Laguna change everything?

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His return had been a decade in the making. He’d planned, prepared and rebuilt his life from the ground up to make it happen. Now, one long weekend would tell if everything he’d done and sacrificed for had been worth it. At last he’d come home.

For her.

Nio Reyes slid his board onto the waves at Brooks Street Beach, his favorite old Laguna haunt, as the sun pulled itself above the cliffs behind him. With the leftovers from a storm coming up out of Mexico, the usually glassy morning water was rough and had real potential for a good ride. A quick look at the lightening horizon had him paddling west with a stir of anticipation. He’d surfed other beaches over the years, other oceans, even, but none came close to this one.

Already the surf was dotted with a dozen locals hoping for a good morning ride. They were all kids, of course, with their skinny teenaged physiques and their suspicious, territorial looks, which he chose to ignore. Now he was the old man. The interloper past his prime.

He could remember thinking the same at their age. That life would likely be over by the time he hit thirty. Back then, he couldn’t imagine the turns his life would take. That his life was not, in fact, the fulcrum of everything, with the world pivoting around him, but instead a satellite that circled the things and people that had come to matter to him. At least those things he’d managed to hang onto.

He caught a wave and hopped upright on his board, skimming past a handful of locals who had misread the wave’s direction. He couldn’t keep the grin from his face. The connection with the water, feeling every dip and rise through his bare feet, up through his board, up through the swells in the ocean. Like riding a bike. It came back. The balance. The struggle. The victory.

At the end of his ride, he kicked the board up and over the backside of the wave and flattened himself down parallel to the water once more. Adrenaline pumped through him, the cool water suddenly a part of him. God, that made him feel…alive. He should do this more often. Here. At this beach. It was like magic, this place, and he’d missed it.

It had been here where he and his younger brother Trey had learned to surf, had saved each other more than once and where each had broken eardrums, noses and other extremities trying to outdo one another. Becca had been right beside them, too. Here, they’d been safe from the prying eyes of their parents. Brooks Street Beach, ironically enough, was the last place he’d seen her. The countless times he’d replayed that day in his memory…how she’d looked, what she’d said, just how ordinary the day had seemed.

But that was all before he’d lost everything that mattered to him.

Before he’d made something of his life.

Before the war had had its way with his brother and his brother’s friends—all now retired Navy SEALs, who, half-jokingly, referred to themselves as The Band of Brothers. But their bond was no joke. All of them injured in the war, in the last throes of a years-long battle in the Korengal Valley that had nearly taken all their lives.

This weekend marked three years, almost to the day, since Nio had arrived at that VA hospital in D.C. to see his brother, wounded in the war. Two weeks later he would return to yank out Trey, and since he refused to leave without them, two of his ‘brothers’—Mick Chester and Jase Wheeler—as well.

In those intervening two weeks, Nio had transformed his home in Northern California into a rehab gym/PT therapy sanctuary for the men and there they would spend the next year or more recovering. Paul Dobbins would come later, after three of the surgeries on the leg he’d lost in the war. Tommy McGuire stayed for a month or two after his wife, Holly, had insisted he join the others. Even Noah Mathis, the sixth surviving member of the team, had come for a brief time—though he’d been the hardest to get to know. This weekend, he was the lone missing but essential element in the alchemy that had transformed them all. But Noah had taken a bullet for Trey in the Korengal Valley and that made him an essential part of every reunion, whether he showed up or not. The emotional wounds, the PTSD most of them still dealt with, lingered on. Yet, all were forged by the same fire. A fire that had bonded them.

What he’d done for them, three years ago, anyone with the resources would have done. What they’d done in return for him couldn’t be quantified. They’d saved him as much as the other way around. They’d taken him into their circle. Made him an honorary member of that exclusive Band of Brothers. Though he felt less than deserving, it was an honor he didn’t take lightly. Nor the fact that they’d joined him this weekend in Laguna at the house he’d rented on the cliffs above the beach for their annual reunion.

Because they damn well had his back in case this whole thing he’d come back to do went wrong. That’s just what brothers did.

Turning toward the shore, he scanned the beach for a glimpse of Becca. The beach was littered with people: early morning surfers preparing their boards, beach walkers, a few dogs. The sunrise glinted off them all like castaway shells but he saw no sign of her. Disappointment threaded through him but he caught sight of Trey instead, paddling out toward him, and he lifted a hand in greeting. No wetsuit for him.

“Thought I’d find you out here,” his brother called, bringing his board up beside Nio’s. Like old times.

“Couldn’t stay away,” Nio admitted with a grin.

“How’s it feel? Bein’ back after so long?”

Nio stared out over the ocean, the fragrance of the salty air, the ropey twines of seaweed littering the beach filling his senses. “Like coming home.”

“That’s cause this is home, Bro. And it’s about damned time. Pops can hardly contain himself that we’re both here at once.” He sat up on his board, dangling his legs in the waves. “I see he gave you his old truck to drive. A little below your pay grade now, wouldn’t you say?”

Nio shrugged, paddling beside him. “Traded mine out with him for the weekend. Just wouldn’t be the same, driving around here without that old truck. So, where are the guys?”

“Oh, uh…” Trey said, looking back at the house on the cliff, “getting ready for the fishing charter, I guess. You’re comin’, right?”

They slid down the backside of a wave in tandem. The water felt warmer now as they pushed through it. “No. I’ve got to meet with the contractor at the cottage after this. Half his landscaping crew is out sick and no way are we gonna miss that deadline. Pops is coming up from San Clemente on Sunday morning and half the furniture has already been delivered.”

“I saw. I’ll come over with you. I can—”

“No, no, you guys go fishing. It’s going to be an amazing day out there. This is your vacation, remember?”

“And yours,” Trey pointed out, paddling beside his brother.

“Not exactly. Culmination of a long-term plan, maybe.”

“Here’s to it, Brother.” The men high-fived each other.

As kids, people used to mistake them for twins, they’d looked so much alike, but Trey’s looks were uniquely his own now. He lived and worked mostly up in some little town called Marietta, Montana now as a private investigator for some attorney there. Still single, a lone wolf like himself, Trey’s reasons for being alone were his own. Yet, his sometimes dark, guarded nature seemed to relax here. The ocean seemed intent on stripping darkness away.

Home.

“What are you doing up so early?” he asked Trey. “Sun’s barely up.”

The pink sunrise winked in a wave as they paddled over the top of another shapeless set. “You think I’d willingly miss beating your ass in a little competition?” He shot down the backside with a laugh and took off paddling toward a set with potential in the distance. “First one to catch that next wave and rides it in pays for breakfast!”

“I’m already paying for breakfast!” he called back. But with a smile, he watched him go—holding back, in no hurry to beat him. His younger brother’s dark hair whipped back in the ocean spray as he cut through the water. He looked strong and fit, and except for the physical scars—remnants of that last day in Afghanistan—he bore only a trace of the brokenness he’d returned from the war with. And miles away from the troubled kid who’d left Laguna at eighteen and grown up to command a SEAL platoon.

Nio caught the next wave and hopped to his feet, feeling the water move under him like an extension of his board. Instinctively he found his balance, moving forward, back, bending low and crouching down as the wave tutored him, checked him and did its best to dump him. He loved every second of it. When the curl of the wave caught him, he ducked, skimming his hand along the backside for balance, then, as it began to flatten out, he kicked up and out and sank down on the backside.

Ahead, Trey, who’d already done the same on the previous wave, tossed a victorious look back at him. “Nice ride, but you’re gettin’ slow in your old age.”

“Ha! Who you callin’ old?”

A kid with bleached-out dreads on a nearby surfboard answered, “You, brah!” and laughed uproariously with his friend until Trey turned his alpha-dog look on the kid, who made the calculated decision to paddle toward the next wave.

“Yeah,” Trey murmured after him, grinning. “That’s what I thought you said.”

“Good thing he’s in the water,” Nio murmured back. “Just sayin’.”

Trey gave a bark of laughter. “That was us once. Minus the blond dreads. You believe that? Hell. Feels like a lifetime ago.”

Nio shrugged. “They say every seven years or so, the body recreates itself. Every cell, new. I don’t guess there’s much left of the old us now.”

Trey stretched himself on his board and passed a meaningful look to his brother. “Maybe that’s a good thing.”

Neither of them would go back to those long-ago days, to the things that had torn their family apart.

“Hey,” Trey said, glancing back at the beach. “Speaking of which, there she is. Right on time.”

Still straddling his board, Nio jerked a look back at the shore, searching for a glimpse of her.

“To the right, by the rocks,” Trey instructed.

Heat spiked through him as he spotted her, taking photos from the beach, a camera in front of her face. Short denim cutoffs, legs up to there. He’d know those legs anywhere. Ten years had done nothing to diminish what seeing her again made him feel. He must still have some of those old cells after all. Flattening himself down against the board, his gaze met Trey’s.

How many days, weeks, years had he imagined this moment? How many nights had his memories of her kept him awake? Even while he was sleeping, she’d haunted his dreams. He’d distracted himself with work or some smoky bar, or simply with the making of his plan to win her back one day. Never once had she tried to contact him. But he didn’t blame her for that. It gave him pause though. And he wondered. Was there even a spark still alive of what they’d once shared?

“You got this,” his brother advised. “Go.”

Becca Howard sharpened the focus on her secondhand Nikon, homing in on the curl of water breaking a hundred feet out. The surfers had all missed this one but she wanted the shot of the water just the same. Sunlight sparkled through the wave as it folded down in a foamy mess—a perfect metaphor for the last twenty-four hours of her life. Wait. Make that the last two and a half years.

Beside her, Milo, her half-spaniel, half-Maltese rescue, barked at the incoming waves with a joyous abandon, hopping across the nearby sand with his unique, rabbit-like bounce. That forced the first real smile of the day from her. Milo loved everyone and everything about his new life with her, all well documented by her camera. At this hour, most of the Laguna beaches were dog friendly, as long as the dogs were on a leash. So, a few shots and they would take a walk up the coastline for a bit before the day began.

With quick snaps of the shutter, she captured a series of photos of his antics that coaxed another smile from her before she turned her focus on the water. This time of the morning had always been her favorite. Off the beaten touristy path, this beach was a prime locals’ spot with breaks too close for boogie boarding and swimming, but perfect for surfers. She’d been coming here since she was thirteen, sliding down the crests alongside her friends, some of whom she spotted out there even today. Sometimes she still missed racing those waves, though she had quit surfing two years ago, but she contented herself with capturing them through the lens of her camera now. If she played her cards right, maybe someday she’d even work up the nerve to try again for a show at the local museum or one of the many art galleries that dotted Forest Avenue. Then, that otherwise worthless fine arts degree she’d gotten from Pasadena’s Art Center might actually pay off.

For the last few years Laguna, in all its particular beauty, had been the focus of her photography. A few months ago, she’d been obsessed with seabirds. Lately it had been the ocean. She’d reacquainted herself with the surfer boys here at Brooks and met the new ones. Even as she set up her camera’s tripod, a cocky pair of teenagers stopped to flex for her in greeting.

“Hi, Bogie,” she called to the short one on the right with beachy blond hair that hung in his eyes.

“Hey, Becca. You catch that wave I rode in yesterday?” He winked at her, as if he wasn’t fourteen and his voice didn’t just crack, and he leaned down to pet Milo. “Hey, buddy.”

“Sure did. I’ll print one up for you.”

“Really?” He shrugged his board under his arm, trying to look casual as his friend scuffled toward the surf. “Cool, cool. I got more where that came from.”

“I’m sure you do, Bogie.” She smiled back at him as he headed toward the water. He was going to break some hearts in a few years.

As men do.

As a man had less than twelve hours ago, when her life had taken a California-worthy seismic shift.

“I’m moving to Atlanta,” her fiancé, Steven Whaley, had announced last night as she’d scraped his half-eaten meal from his plate. “There’s a second assistant director job on a new series they’re filming there. It’ll get me my first area days for my DGA membership and I’m taking it.”

First area, a term she’d come to despise, was like a carrot that had been dangling over his head for nearly three years now, and gathering enough days to achieve it meant he could finally work on any project in L.A. and start moving up the director ladder. But she was still stuck, not on only his choice of pronouns, but by his defensive tone. “When you say I’m moving…”

“Well, obviously, I can’t do the job from here,” he answered, as if her question was dumb. Something he’d gotten in the habit of doing a lot lately. Then: “Sorry, I didn’t mean it to come out that way.”

“But…for how long?” She was no rank beginner when it came to separations. When he was working on a show, which was often, he crashed with a friend in Hollywood. The Directors Guild had all kinds of stumbling blocks for assistant directors becoming full-fledged union members, allowed to work in Los Angeles proper, including eighteen-hour days on low-budget features and near slave wages like he’d been getting as a sometimes A.D. on an ultra-low-budget show this season. Just getting this far in the DGA process had taken him eight years, and for two and a half of those they’d been together. Now, after years of poverty and going without, he was about to make a real living and realize his dream; his dream, which had become hers by default.

“For as long as they’re filming, I guess.” Steven toyed with his knife, spinning it in place on their dining table, unable to meet her eye. “Six months at least. But there’s a lot of work there. I might…stay.”

Stay? “And what about us?”

“Yeah. We need to talk about that.”

Doom thudded in her ears. “Apparently so.”

He flashed that same hazel-eyed look at her that always made her wonder what secret he’d been keeping. “Listen, I…thought I was ready to get married, but it turns out I’m not,” he told her without softening the blow.

Like a fist to the solar plexus, his words left her breathless and clutching the counter behind her. The small, sparkly diamond on her left hand suddenly felt like a lead weight.

After getting to his feet, he paced over to their cold fireplace. “And I…to be completely honest, I’ve…well, I’ve met someone else.”

Ooohhh! The rat bastard.

Jamming her tripod into the sand, she fixed her camera on top, remembering every second of the hour she’d given him to pack his things and get out.

In the emptiness of her apartment afterward, as she stuffed her feelings with the chocolate cake she’d made them for dessert, she told herself it didn’t matter. That she’d survived worse. And she had. But for the third time in the last decade of her life, she’d been blindsided by a man. What did Oprah say about the universe trying to tell you something? First the universe whispers, but if you don’t listen to the whisper, at some point, you’ll get a scream?

She stared out at the ocean, so stormy and wild from some hurricane down in Baja. The surf beat the shore in a steady roar. Oh, she’d heard the whispers: his weekends in L.A., the excuses, his reluctance to talk about wedding plans. But she’d ignored them. Rather, she’d needed not to believe them.

Maybe because with a fiancé she belonged again. To someone. Now, she just felt…lost. Because she’d loved him? Had she? Now she questioned even that. Was it love? Or the idea of love?

She wasn’t sure which felt worse—her anger at his betrayal, or the possibility that he was right and they didn’t belong together. And she’d been willing to settle for a man who didn’t really love her.

Out on the second break offshore, a surfer caught a decent wave, hopping upright on his board. Becca lifted her camera again and tightened the focus, waiting for the shot. She’d noticed him earlier, but he was still too far away to recognize. He wasn’t one of the regulars here, of that much she was sure. He was surfing with one other guy, but not hanging with the locals, and he’d already caught a few decent waves. It was clear he was no gremmie. No blond surfer boy, either. This guy was all man, with pitch-dark hair and the body of a sea-god—an observation that blindsided her by tightening something low in her belly.

Take that, Rat Bastard.

Her camera whirred as he slid down the edge of the wave expertly then rode it past the other surfers who whooped as it curled perfectly behind him. He ducked out of the tunnel of water and pumped the board up the face and back down again with an agility born of years of practice. Still a few hundred feet away, as he slid closer to her spot on the beach, she narrowed her focus to his footwork, snapping off a few shots of his long, honed legs; the sexy indentation in his glutes when he dipped and curved down a wave; the way his swimmer’s chest tapered down to his slim waist.

Steven’s physique paled in comparison.

But the same questions she’d been asking herself all night surfaced in her mind: Who was the other woman? What did she have that she, Becca, didn’t have? And more importantly, how had she not seen this coming? Again?

She’d even met him after her father’s fall. After the accusations, the indictments, the attorney fees that broke them. He’d been beside her for the trial. Maybe he’d found all that attention interesting. Or…a curiosity. Maybe once all that was over this last spring when the shame of it all put an end to her father’s life, maybe he was just done with her. Maybe the drama was all too much.

Now, all she could think about was how they were going to get through Lilah and Graham’s wedding this weekend. The one for which she and the rat bastard were both standing up for the bride and groom.

Could there be anything worse than attending a wedding together on your breakup weekend?

She raised her camera focus on the surfer’s face as he drew closer, but he eluded her, turning back to look at the wave as he expertly conquered it. But now she was curious.

She stopped shooting and simply watched through the telephoto lens, waiting for him to turn back to her. When he did, shoving the hair from his eyes, she nearly dropped the camera.

Oh. No. No, no, no!

The wave flattened and Nio Reyes sank into the foamy water near the beach not fifty feet from her. Moments later, he was picking up his board and wading through the breaking surf onto the beach like some kind of calendar god. As he walked, he slicked his longish, dark hair back away from his face one-handed, then tugged down the zipper leash on the back of his short wet suit.

She’d recognize that loose-hipped, athletic walk anywhere. Ten years hadn’t changed that. They’d simply and unfairly refined the vessel.

She did not need to see Nio today to remind her of her many failures as a girlfriend. And she certainly didn’t need him to see her after the long, sleepless night she’d just had. What, in the name of all that was holy, was he doing here on her beach after all these years?

Then, he looked up. Right at her.

Desperately, Becca tried to pull herself together, jamming her camera back into the camera bag and unlocking the tripod’s legs as she searched for her suddenly missing flip-flop.

No time to look. She left it and pushed through the sand with only one, determined to avoid him. She tugged Milo with her. “C’mon, Milo. Let’s get outta here.”

Why, oh why was the parking lot so far away?

“Becca?” Nio called from behind her.

Ignore him.

“Hey!”

Oh, God. That voice. It had gotten deeper. Sexier. I will not look. I will not…

She heard him running. Suddenly he was right behind her. “Becca, wait. I know you can hear me.”

She stopped dead, turned and looked at him. Milo did, too, wagging his tail in greeting of this new potential friend. Nio bent down and let the dog sniff his hand, which Milo promptly licked.

Traitor.

This close, Nio Reyes looked even better than he had from a distance. If that was even possible. His jaw was shadowed by a day or two’s growth of dark scruff that looked ridiculously sexy on him. For a decade of her life, she’d wondered about this moment. What it would feel like if she ever saw him again. What she would say.

Now, she cocked her mouth, words failing her completely.

Breathless from his swim and from chasing her, he stood a few feet away, his wet suit halfway off one muscular shoulder. He yanked off the other to his waist as he stood there, his gaze taking in every piece of her. In his left hand was her other flip-flop. He held it out to her. “This yours, mija?”

“Thanks,” she said, snatching up the miscreant flip-flop, and trying to slip it on her foot. “And don’t call me mija.”

He held up his hands with a grin as she hopped in the sand. “All right. Can we just talk?”

“Talk?” She shifted her feet in the sand. “Oh, yeah. Talking’s the thing you didn’t do before you left ten years ago.” She shrugged. “Details.”

“Becca—”

“I’m really busy, Nio. I’m late, actually. I’m meeting a friend. But it was great to see you. You look…good.”

“So do you.” His eyes sought hers in the early morning light. She’d never forgotten how morning seemed to shoot his brown eyes through with gold. Today was no different. His dark, wet hair tousled across his forehead, making him look boyish, though there was nothing boyish about his physique, or, for that matter, his expression right now. He was looking through her, just like he always had, seeing right into her shadowy places.

Before she could contemplate that any more, she said goodbye and started to turn away.

“I’ve been looking for you,” he said, stopping her.

Had he? Laguna was a small town. If he’d been looking, she’d have heard. “Oh? I’m not that hard to find.”

“Your parents’ house—” he began.

“Belongs to someone else now. All of it, gone. You must have heard. You’d have to live in a cave not to have heard about Judge Howard’s dramatic fall from grace.”

“I’m sorry, Bec.”

“Are you? Really?”

He flinched. “That requires a longer conversation.”

“I have to go.”

“Tonight then?” he called after her.

She blanched and turned back to him. “Tonight?” Oh, no. He couldn’t mean—

“At Graham and Lilah’s rehearsal dinner. I’m…an out-of-towner, so I’m invited.”

Of course, the rehearsal dinner. He’d come for the wedding. She clenched her jaw. If she didn’t miss her guess, he’d show up with some pretty young thing on his arm. Men who looked like him didn’t go stag to parties. Ever. But what did that matter to her?

By tonight she’d have her head straight about seeing him again and she wouldn’t feel so…so—oh, who the hell was she kidding? Where Nio Reyes was concerned, there would never be enough hours in a lifetime to straighten out her feelings about him. “I have to go. Really. See you, Nio.”

With Milo at her heels, she hurried up the long flight of concrete steps to the parking lot above without once turning. Clicking the remote on her Honda Civic, she reached the car and tossed her stuff inside. But as the dog hopped in, she looked back. Nio was staring up after her, as if he’d seen a ghost. And he had, really. That’s me. Ghost of girlfriends past.

Well, no more. She’d had quite enough of being abandoned, double-crossed and two-timed by men she’d actually trusted. Ergo, men, all men—including Nio Reyes—were off her to-do list for the foreseeable future. She’d stepped in one too many cow pies in that pasture.

Or some dumb metaphor like that.

She slammed her door shut, started the car and headed for The Beach Shack, where she was already late to meet her best friend for breakfast before getting ready for work. As she climbed the hill, she risked a glimpse of him in her rearview mirror, still looking like a sea-god, his gaze still fixed on her car as if he could somehow call her back.

Milo turned a brown-eyed, quizzical look on her.

“What?” she asked.

Panting, the dog turned back to watch the beach disappear behind them.

“Fine. So maybe I could have handled that better. In my defense, Milo, I’m only human.”

The dog apparently agreed with that assessment with a long, wet kiss on her cheek.

Becca sighed and silently gave thanks for this little warm body beside her. “So, that’s your advice? Let go? Live in the moment?”

With a whine-yawn, the dog settled down on his wingman seat beside her and laid his head on his paws.

“That’s so canine of you.” She scratched him behind the ears. “Good boy.”

“That went well.” Trey stood beside Nio on the beach, toweling off the salty aftermath of his last ride.

“Yeah. If you call her running off like her hair was on fire after she recognized me well,” Nio said. It had taken him a minute to get over the shock of seeing her again, too. God, she was still such a beauty. Maybe even more beautiful than the last time he’d laid eyes on her. This time, the sight of her had hit him like a shore break, punching the breath from him as only Becca Howard could. Her windblown hair was a little shorter now, but still that same, thick chestnut brown he used to dream about losing himself in. Her jean cutoffs showed off her still-lithe long legs, and her thin T-shirt did nothing to hide curves that hadn’t been there ten years ago.

“Better than no reaction. Then you know you’re dead in the water.”

“She still hates me. But I can deal with that.” He hoped.

Of course, he’d heard about the judge’s fall from grace. The original rumblings had coincided with Trey’s return from the war and the journey back for the boys to his home up north. The implosion of Judge Howard’s career hadn’t happened in a week or even a month, but over a long court battle that had ended in a conviction and a stripping away of everything he’d ever touched. Nio had read between the lines of her father’s obituary. So unlike the old bastard to take himself out that way. Then again, political and financial ruin tested the strongest of men. But he’d left his wife and daughter to face the aftermath alone.

Funny, after all these years that he’d think of her old man as a coward, when the judge’s simple pivot in his direction had once nearly been Nio’s undoing. Not to mention his brother’s. Having spent years working to prove himself worthy of Howard’s daughter, Nio wondered if it was too late to make good on the promise he’d made to himself to get her back one day. But one way or the other, this weekend he meant to resolve that question.

“So…what now?” his brother asked.

Nio picked up his board and headed to the parking lot. “Now, I change her mind.”

“He said you needed a longer conversation? What does that mean?” Lana Larson asked between bites of a currant and lemon scone as Becca broke off a piece of bacon and fed it to Milo under the table at the outdoor café. “He hasn’t been back here for years. In fact, I haven’t seen his brother, Trey, or his father for a long time either. Not since he stopped working as your father’s gardener. Not long after Nio left, as a matter of fact.”

Even now, Becca could picture Nio’s father, Juan Luis, trimming their once-upon-a-time garden hedges, making sure every branch and shrub was perfectly shaped, every flower fed and trimmed. He’d been a fixture in their lives for years. Just as Nio had once been.

She gulped her coffee. “I have no idea what he meant. I’m not sure I really want to know.” That was as far from the truth as things got. “And of course, he has to catch me looking like…like the morning after what happened.”

“Now you’re just being silly. You always look beautiful, despite what Gollum the Betrayer threw at you. Are you going to eat that last piece of cantaloupe?”

“No, go ahead. You know what I mean. Even if you hate old boyfriends, you don’t want to look like a hag when they see you again. Better to dazzle than assure them they were right in the first place for ditching you.”

Lana, a graphic artist, liked to play down her own good looks, but with her beachy silver-blonde hair, lanky figure and Orange County complexion, men followed her around like puppies. Becca’s dark chestnut hair and green eyes were something of an anomaly here in a town where towhead was the color of choice.

“Considering he chased you up the beach, I don’t think that was an issue.” Lana forked the fruit. “I’m telling you, it’s no accident Nio’s here. I’d wager a hundred bucks he’s come for something other than Lilah and Graham’s wedding. Like you, maybe.”

Becca gasped. “Bite your tongue! And it was sheer coincidence we ran into each other this morning. Anyway,” she grumbled, “I don’t have a hundred bucks.”

“Okay, ten bucks,” she replied with a chuckle. “But let’s look at the facts. He hasn’t been back in ten years, no one’s even heard from him—”

“Make that I haven’t heard from him. Apparently Graham and Lilah have.”

“Okay, I’ll give you that. But maybe that was a recent thing. He shows up surfing, two days before the wedding of his former best friend and he says he’s been looking for you. Just sayin’.”

An eternal optimist, Lana had been by her side through thick and thin, through their last years of high school and the loss of Nio, to Art Center, where they’d both gone to college. Even after Becca’s family’s meltdown, she’d been there, reassuring her it would all work out somehow. Becca loved her like a sister. Better than a sister, actually. Not that she’d ever had one. That was merely theoretical.

“He didn’t say he’s come looking for me.” She shook her head at Lana. “He just peripher­ally…men­tioned it.”

Lana smiled, drumming her fingers on the table. “I say, kismet. One door hits Gollum in the ass on the way out…and…” She slapped her hand down on the table. “Bam! Fate smiles.”

The waitress who’d swung by with a coffeepot in her hand jumped, then with a look, refilled their cups. “Anything else, ladies?” They both shook their heads and she slid the check under the sugar stacker before hurrying off to another table.

“Don’t say it, okay?” Becca told Lana.

“Say what?”

“Don’t say ‘I told you so.’”

“Hey.” She grabbed Becca’s fingers and squeezed. “I just hate that Steven hurt you like that.” She added another more descriptive word under her breath.

Until today, Lana had kept her opinions about Steven to herself, mostly, but Becca knew he wasn’t at the top of her list, as potential husbands went. And now Lana was having a hard time hiding her relief that Steven wouldn’t be part of any future she and Becca shared.

“Thanks.” Becca leaned forward. “But you do understand there’s a problem here now, right?”

“Not exactly.” Her friend finished the scone with a final flourish and brushed the crumbs off her hands, which Milo vacuumed up. “Which problem are we talking about?”

“The wedding! This is Lilah and Graham. I love them both. And I suppose Steven does, too—if he’s even capable of such a thing. But we can’t just not show up to their rehearsal dinner tonight and wedding tomorrow because we’ve broken up. And we can’t ruin their big day by openly despising each other. We’re in their wedding party.”

“What did he-who-shall-no-longer-be-named say about said dilemma?”

“He agreed that we should both go and…pretend we’re still a couple. He’d probably planned the timing of all of this before he dropped the bomb on me. He probably planned it down to the minute so he could slink off without our friends knowing.”

“Sneaky. So you pretend. For the weekend. And the next day, you kick the bastard out on the street where he belongs.”

“He’s already gone. He left last night after our breakup. Probably staying with her.” Anger rose in her again. Deep down, she’d known things had been shaky between them for a while. Was it her fault somehow, that he’d gone to someone else? Had she not been supportive enough of his career? Understanding enough of his time away? Maybe it had been her pushing for a wedding date. Maybe she’d just been too busy planning her future to admit what was right in front of her.

Those thoughts had no sooner formed in her mind than she rejected them. No. She would not take the blame for his infidelity. That was his choice and she refused to take responsibility for it. He could have been honest. He could have just told her he was having doubts. Then, at least they could have discussed things before he jumped into bed with another woman to torpedo their relationship. But talking things out wasn’t really his style. Maybe it wasn’t hers either.

“We can pretend,” she told Lana. “Apparently, that’s what we’ve been doing for a while. It’s just…doing it in front of Nio.”

“Sure you can.” She popped the last piece of cantaloupe in her mouth. “After all, you’ve pretended all these years that you didn’t still love him. Right?”

Becca gaped at her. “I’m…I was engaged to Steven, which clearly means I am not in love with Nio Reyes. I let go of him the day he walked away from me without a word.”

She tilted a disbelieving look at Becca.

“Well, okay. After a while. But I’ve been over him for years. And years.” She gathered some scone crumbs and licked them off her finger.

“If you say so. Wait. What if he’s married? Did you see a ring?”

Was there? “That’s totally beside the point. I’m not interested. Period.” And I was too mesmerized by his chest to notice. She stared down at her nails.

“But how did he look?”

Her mind drifted back to the sight of him, all briny and wet from the ocean, looking…the way he looked. But ten years older. Ten years better. “Good,” she admitted. “Okay, great.” At Lana’s wicked grin, she added, “Like James freaking Bond walking out of the water, okay? Not that it matters.”

Lana’s grin grew. “Oh, it matters.”

Just thinking about him now made her feel illicit. Guilty. Was it wrong that she could have such thoughts the day after losing the jerk she thought she was going to marry?

Hell no.

But tears welled in her eyes all the same.

Nio had been the son of her parents’ gardener; forbidden fruit to a girl so far out of his sphere they practically lived in different universes. But the irony of it all? None of that had mattered to her. He’d existed separately from all that. He was smart and kind and he’d never made her feel what other boys did, as if her father’s money mattered. They’d built a friendship from the ground up and what bloomed had been as solid as an oak.

And her father, who swam in the upper echelon of moneyed Laguna and made no bones about controlling where and with whom his daughter mingled, was proven right when he’d said she couldn’t count on a boy like Nio. Her parents had sent her to the best private schools, imposed hawk-like supervision and nearly strangled her with expectations. All for naught. She’d fallen for Nio anyway. He was a few years older, had gone to a local public school and came from the wrong side of town. But oh. How she had thought she loved him.

Maybe his “unsuitability” had been part of his appeal at first. A rebellion. But he’d become so much more than that. Then he’d just disappeared from her life without so much as a text.

So…forgive him for that inexplicable abandonment all those years ago? She shook her head. Despite the dog wisdom that Milo had attempted to impart, she’d be a fool to open herself up to that kind of hurt again. But that didn’t mean she didn’t want to know the answer to one question: why?

End of Excerpt

Unsung Hero is available in the following formats:

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January 15, 2019

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