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Bookshop by the Sea
Author: Denise Hunter

chapter one


Eleven months had not been long enough to prepare Sophie Lawson for the sight of him. Presently, Aiden Maddox sauntered into the Dock House like he owned the place, the din in the restaurant rising at his arrival. One at a time the groomsmen grasped his hand and pulled him in for a shoulder bump.

Seven minutes late.

Aiden swept Sophie’s sister into a hug, giving her a peck on the cheek. His masculine frame dwarfed Jenna’s slight build. The bride-to-be accepted his affection with apparent warmth that tweaked a thread of betrayal in Sophie’s frayed heart.

Since she hadn’t seen him in seven years—and since he was otherwise occupied—she allowed herself a quick assessment. He’d dressed up a pair of jeans with a blue sports coat that she knew, even from across the room, matched his eyes perfectly. At the moment he was talking to Grant, his best friend and Jenna’s fiancé, smiling that same crooked smile that used to set her pulse thrumming. Aiden tossed his head back, laughing with abandon.

He looked much the same, just a little less boy and a little more man. His shoulders were broader, and he sported a five o’clock shadow. He still had those sensual lips, the top one curving like a heart, dipping low in the middle. But she didn’t have to stalk him on social media to know what he looked like now when they knew so many of the same—

His eyes locked on hers.

Sophie’s fingers tightened on the chair she stood behind. Her quick peek had turned into a prolonged stare.

She jerked her gaze away, pushed in the chair, and sought escape. Open French doors led onto the deck where the party would soon dine. The May breeze skittered over her skin as she slipped outside. Twilight’s rosy hue lit the landscape, the marina with all its boats, and the shimmering harbor. Water rippled against the pilings, and somewhere nearby hardware pinged on a sailboat mast.

Sophie straightened the name cards she’d placed earlier on the long rectangular table. She had put herself to the right of the bride, Grant to the left, and Aiden just beyond him, a safe three chairs from her own. Her father would be on Sophie’s other side, but that couldn’t be helped. She had to keep him away from her twin brother, Seth, and their maternal grandmother.

Sophie glanced at her watch. Their dad was now ten minutes late. She sent him a text. It was her job to run interference tonight, which included overseeing her dad’s movements and keeping Grant’s grandfather from the booze.

She ignored the erratic thumping of her heart—which had little to do with her assignments—and instead focused on positive things. The flickering votives, the white twinkle lights, the jazz music flowing through the speakers, and the savory scents of grilled steak and fresh garlic.

In the eleven months they’d been engaged, Jenna and Grant had gone back and forth a dozen times on the menu, requiring Sophie to call the restaurant as many times. But all that was behind them now. The stage was perfectly set for a beautiful rehearsal dinner.

As she reached for a votive, the hair on her arms lifted. The oxygen was suddenly too thick to breathe. She didn’t have to turn around—Aiden had followed her outside.

“Hello, Sophie.” The sound of her name on his lips made something twist hard and tight inside. Anger, that’s what it was.

She stared into eyes that gazed at her with fondness. Fondness. As though he had any right to look at her that way. At least he wasn’t presuming to hug her as he had the others. Surely he knew she wouldn’t welcome an embrace.

“Aiden.” She crossed her arms. “I see you made it.”

“Were you counting down the minutes?”

“Somebody has to keep things on schedule. Your seat is there, beside Grant. Dinner will be served soon.” She turned to go.

“Wait, Sophie. I haven’t had a chance to tell you . . . I’m sorry about your mom. She was a wonderful lady. Closest thing I ever had to a mother.”

His words triggered that soft spot she’d always had for the motherless boy.

Do not feel sorry for him.

“Thank you.”

“You were good to her. And she was so proud of you.”

“Yes, well . . .” Sophie shuffled her feet. Toyed with the skirt of her sundress.

“Your dad must be devastated.”

She blinked at him. Her dad was the last person who had a right to be devastated. Hadn’t Aiden heard? Why had Grant never mentioned it?

Aiden looked back into the restaurant. “Hard to believe little Jenna’s getting married. Seems like yesterday she was begging us to drive her to the movies to meet some boy.”

“Well, she’s twenty-two now, and she’s found her perfect match. Grant will take good care of her.” If Aiden noticed the bite behind her words he ignored it.

“They’re good together.” Aiden shoved his hands into his pockets. “And Seth graduated from Appalachian State, I hear.”

“With his masters. He just got hired on as project manager at a consulting firm.” She glanced around for an escape, but the entire bridal party was still inside.

“And you, Sophie? What are you up to?”

She really didn’t want to talk to him about her dreams but decided to offer the bare minimum for civility’s sake. “I’m moving to Piper’s Cove. Going to open a bookshop.”

The corner of his mouth ticked up. “Wow, that’s great. A bookshop, huh?”

She just smiled in response. Politeness dictated that she ask about his life, his business. But she couldn’t bring herself to do it. “I should go in and—”

“You look wonderful, by the way.” His gaze grew intense. “You always have, but I think you’re even more beautiful now.”

She steeled herself against his charm. It didn’t mean anything. Words were easy. And who did he think he was, coming here, saying things like that to her?

Think of Jenna. Keep it cordial.

“You look well too,” she squeezed out.

His eyes twinkled in that familiar way, those silver flecks dancing. “Did that hurt much?”

“Only a little.”

He chuckled.

She checked her watch. They couldn’t wait any longer for their dad. “I should go and round everyone up. We’re running late.”

“I thought this was the Fosters’ shindig—parents of the groom and all.”

Grant’s parents had paid for the meal—for the entire wedding actually, since the Lawsons’ bank account was in poor shape. But the details had been left to Sophie, and in the wake of her mother’s death, she’d been happy for other things to focus on.

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