Nicole Grant Giraldi stood in front of a far-too-full-length mirror that hung on a wall of the too-small cottage where she, her husband special agent Joe Giraldi, and their twin daughters currently lived. It exposed two primary reasons women were not designed to give birth at forty-seven: lack of elasticity and surplus gravity. She closed one eye and shifted slightly, but the expanse of flesh did not become easier to contemplate.
Despite all of her fears and doubts, the body she was staring at had performed admirably. It had adapted and stretched to accommodate Sofia and Gemma. Against great odds, it had carried them full term, propelled them into the world nine months ago, and then provided sustenance. What it had not done was snap back into anything that resembled its previous shape.
Her eyes slid away. She forced them back. It was time to accept reality. Her breasts hung lower than seemed anatomically possible. Blue veins streaked across them, no doubt to match the ones that now crisscrossed the legs she’d once been proud of. Stretch marks cut across the stomach that jiggled as she turned. Although she knew it was a mistake, she looked at her rear end, which had grown wider and had somehow been injected with cottage cheese. Most likely while she’d been sleeping. Or confined to bed rest.
“Are you ready?” Joe called.
She sighed and turned her back on the mirror as she wriggled into a jogging bra, slipped her arms into a T-shirt, then began to pull the too-tight spandex up over her thighs. “Almost!”
“I’m going to put the girls in the stroller. We’ll be outside.”
Nikki tied her hair back into a low ponytail, donned a lightweight running jacket, and laced up her shoes. Careful not to look at herself again, she left the bedroom and made it through the tiny cottage in a matter of seconds.
It was the second day of January. On the west coast of central Florida, that meant a vivid blue sky, butter yellow sun, and a cool salt breeze. She breathed in the crisp air as she stepped onto the concrete path that bisected the Sunshine Hotel property and nearly stumbled at the sight of Joe and the girls waiting for her.
Were they really all hers?
Tamping down a swell of emotion, she moved toward the stroller taking in the pink and white knit hats neatly tied beneath their chins and the streaks of sunscreen slathered over their cheeks. Sofia had her father’s dark hair, sparkling brown-black eyes, and sunny temperament, while Gemma was auburn haired and green eyed like Nikki. Where Gemma’s oversize lungs and the will to use them had come from was still under debate.
“All present, recently diapered, and accounted for. Requesting permission to move out.” Joe shot her a wink and saluted smartly.
Though he was closing in on fifty, Joe remained broad shouldered and hard bodied with a chiseled face and piercing dark eyes that too often saw right through her, a skill she blamed on his FBI training. They’d met when he’d used her to help him catch her younger brother, Malcolm Dyer, whose three-hundred-million-dollar Ponzi scheme had left Nikki and then-strangers Madeline Singer and Avery Lawford with nothing but shared ownership of Bella Flora, a 1920s Mediterranean Revival-style mansion at the south end of the beach.
She saluted back and fell into step beside him. A few doors down they passed the two-bedroom cottage that Madeline Singer and her daughter, Kyra, and grandson, Dustin, had just moved into.
“It’ll be great having Maddie here, but it’s so strange to think of someone else living in Bella Flora,” Nikki said, thinking of the house they’d brought back from the brink of ruin and that had done the same for them. After they’d first renovated Bella Flora, Dustin’s famous father, mega movie star Daniel Deranian, had bought it for Dustin and Kyra. It had become home to all of them when they’d needed one most, but Kyra had been forced to rent it out.
“Yeah,” Joe agreed as they wheeled past Bitsy Baynard’s one-bedroom, which the former heiress had taken in lieu of repayment for the money she’d put into their now-defunct TV show. “When is Bitsy coming back?”
“I don’t know. She said she was going to stay in Palm Beach until she found someone who knew something about where Bertie is hiding.” Nikki grimaced. In her former life as an A-list matchmaker, Nikki had brought Bitsy, heiress to a timber fortune, and her husband together and had counted them as one of her biggest successes. Right up until last January when Bertie disappeared with Bitsy’s fortune and an exotic dancer who was pregnant with his child.
When the walkway split they wheeled the stroller toward the low-slung main building, a midcentury gem that they’d renovated for what they’d hoped would be a new season of their TV show, Do Over. The sound of voices and the scrape of furniture reached them from the new rooftop deck, where tables and chairs were being set up. The pool area was quiet. The lifeguard would take his place on the retro lifeguard stand at noon when temperatures had risen and the rooftop grill started cranking out hot dogs and hamburgers.
By the time they wheeled through the opening in the low pink wall and onto the beach, Nikki was feeling slightly winded. Joe was not. Despite the weak morning sun and the breeze off the gulf, he pulled off his T-shirt and tucked one end into the waistband of his running shorts. His chest and abs were hard, his arms and legs muscled. Dark hair smattered with gray dusted his chest and arrowed downward. She considered his body with an unhealthy mixture of admiration and jealousy. And a devout wish that men carried the babies in our species.
“You know we don’t have to run,” he said when they reached the hard-packed sand near the water’s edge. “It’s a gorgeous day just to be outside.”
“Definitely gorgeous,” she agreed, admiring the dip and dance of sunlight on the slightly choppy water’s surface. A windsurfer skimmed by as she began to stretch, his brightly colored sail bulging with wind. “But I know you’re ready for a run.” She had to hold on to his shoulder as she reached back to grab her foot and stretch her quads. “And so am I.”
“All right.” When she’d finished stretching, he flashed her a smile and opened his arms wide, leaving their direction up to her. “Lead the way.”
To their right lay the historic Don CeSar Hotel and the northern half of St. Petersburg Beach. In the other direction . . . she shrugged as if it didn’t matter, but she could not deny the tug she felt. Without a word she pivoted left and broke into a slow jog, heading toward the southern tip of Pass-a-Grille. And Bella Flora.
Joe turned the stroller and fell in beside her. For a few heady minutes she simply gave herself up to the fresh air, the wash of water on and off the sand, and the caw of gulls wheeling through the sky. But it wasn’t long before her breathing grew uneven and her strides became shorter. She flushed with embarrassment when she realized that he had checked his stride to match hers. Her chin went up and she picked up her pace. She’d recently weaned the girls to formula, and while nursing had helped her drop weight, she was going to have to do more than crawl if she ever hoped to get her body back. “You worry about yourself and the girls,” she snapped, careful not to huff or puff. “I’ll be fine.”
“Okay,” he said easily. “You’re the boss.” His movements remained fluid, but she could still feel him holding back. “There’s no shame in taking it easy, Nik. And walking is exercise, too. A walk could be nice.”
“Right.” Surely that wasn’t her breathing that sounded so . . . labored. Or her legs that had turned into lead weights. She pinned a smile on her lips and focused her eyes down the beach. She’d run this distance a thousand times. There was no reason she couldn’t do it now. She woulddo it now. And if she felt a little uncomfortable, well, no one had ever died from discomfort. Otherwise she would have expired early in her pregnancy. She picked up her pace another notch and ignored Joe’s look of concern. She was not going to whine or complain, and she most definitely wasn’t going to walk. Breathing was overrated. And it was nothing compared to pride.
Shortly before her life imploded, Madeline Singer had decided to refurbish it slightly. Her nest had emptied and sheÕd hit the big five-oh. The time seemed right to take down a few metaphorical walls. Raise a few ceilings. Open things up.
What she’d envisioned as a minor renovation turned into a total gut job when her husband lost everything in Malcolm Dyer’s Ponzi scheme. The life she’d only planned to tweak got demoed, blown to bits before her eyes.
There were casualties. Somehow she managed to drag her family clear of the rubble. Ultimately, those who were still standing constructed a new life, one that bore almost no resemblance to the original. Not exactly a “do over,” but a chance to do and be more.
Today was January second. The first usable day of a brand-new year and once again her life was under construction. Yesterday she, her daughter Kyra, her four-year-old grandson Dustin, and Dustin’s new puppy Max had moved out of Bella Flora into the newly renovated two-bedroom cottage she stood in now. Soon Kyra and Dustin would go to Orlando so that Dustin could play his father’s son in Daniel Deranian’s directorial debut. At which point Maddie would be completely on her own. A fact that both excited and terrified her.
In the kitchen, the lack of counter space forced her to work more efficiently, and in less than fifteen minutes she’d assembled an egg soufflŽ, slid it into the oven, and set the timer. The soufflŽ was of the never-fail variety, guaranteed to pouf in exactly sixty minutes. Unlike life, which came with no guarantees and often “poufed” when you least expected it.
Soon the scent of melting cheese teased her nostrils and began to fill the air. She pictured it wafting down the short hallway to the second bedroom, slipping under the closed door, and crooking its finger. While she waited she put on a pot of coffee and puttered, unpacking and organizing the exceedingly compact kitchen. The cottage felt like a dollhouse after the castle-like Bella Flora, but Maddie felt oddly content. She lacked space and income and her rŽsumŽ consisted only of a brief and excruciatingly public stint on their renovation-turned-reality-TV-show. But the cottage belonged to her. And so did the new life that lay ahead.
A text dinged in and the face of William Hightower, the rock icon formerly known as William the Wild, appeared on the screen. A reminder that the life that lay ahead included a relationship with a man whose poster had once hung on her teenaged bedroom wall.
Mornin’ Maddie-fan. Hud and the fish send their regards.
Ha. She had discovered early on that the fish that lived in the Florida Keys had a nasty sense of humor. Despite Will’s efforts to teach her how to fly cast, she was no threat to the fish population and they knew it. Catch anything yet?
Nope. But the sun’s on the rise and it’s so beautiful down here this morning I’m not sure I care.
Liar. Will loved to be out on the flats around Islamorada above all things, but he did not like to be bested by anything covered with scales.
True. And Hud’s making me look bad. He and the fish want to know when you’re coming to visit.
They’re just looking for entertainment. Hudson Power, Will’s longtime friend and fishing guide, had taught her to drive a boat and been very patient with her ineptness at fly casting. But she was fairly certain she’d heard the fish laughing at her on more than one occasion.
True, he texted again. But I miss you madly, Maddie-fan.
A warm glow formed in her chest and radiated outward. She did not understand why Will, who had finally won his own personal war on drugs and was once again topping the charts, had chosen her when he could have his pick of younger, prettier, and undoubtedly firmer women, but she’d finally stopped asking. Plus, it was hard to argue with his physical reaction to her. Her cheeks flamed at the thought, and despite her two left thumbs, she was very glad they were texting and not FaceTiming.
When are you coming down to Mermaid Point? They had met when their former network sent Madeline, Kyra, Avery Lawford, and Nicole Grant down to the Keys with instructions to turn Will’s private island into a bed-and-breakfast, an idea he did not appreciate in the least.
As soon as Kyra and Dustin leave for Orlando. Kyra, who’d met and fallen for the megastar on her very first film set, was not at all happy about the upcoming film. Or having to spend six weeks on set with Daniel and his equally famous movie star wife, Tonja Kay.
Can u tell me when?
In 2 weeks.
That’s 2 weeks 2 long.
She was still smiling when she heard the first sounds of movement from the second bedroom. By the time she’d finished setting the dinette table, pulled the orange juice out of the refrigerator, and cut up a bowl of fruit, there were only a few minutes left on the timer. A woof and the shake of a dog’s collar were followed by the creak of a bed frame. Despite the early hour, the soufflé had worked its magic. She poured herself a cup of freshly brewed coffee.
Today was the first day of the rest of her life. Now all she had to do was figure out what to do with it.
Excerpted from Best Beach Ever by Wendy Wax. Copyright © 2018 by Wendy Wax. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.