Within Reach Online - Sarah Mayberry

PROLOGUE

ANGELA BARTLETT STRODE up the path toward her best friend’s house, very aware she was running late. It was a warm October day and only the screen door barred her way when she arrived on the front porch.

She rang the doorbell, then leaned close to the screen. “It’s me. Sorry I’m so late,” she called into the house.

“So you should be.” The voice echoed up the hallway, followed by the sound of footsteps.

A petite, pretty woman with pixie-cut blond hair appeared, a baby balanced on one hip. She was dressed in hot-pink capri pants, an aqua T-shirt and bright yellow sneakers with hot-pink laces.

She sounded grumpy, but her brown eyes were smiling and Angie knew she wasn’t really in trouble. They’d been friends long enough that Billie could easily forgive a few minutes’ tardiness.

“Happy birthday, sweetie,” Angie said, dropping a kiss onto her friend’s cheek as she opened the door. The baby stared at her with big, liquid eyes and she dropped a kiss onto his forehead, too. “Hello, Charlie-boy.”

“Shh. We’re pretending it’s any old party so one of us doesn’t get all maudlin about getting old,” Billie said.

“Thirty-two is not old,” Angie said, as they walked into the spacious country-style kitchen.

Sunlight streamed through floor-to-ceiling windows that opened onto a deck. The adjacent open-plan living room was also flooded with light, the brightness accentuating the brilliant jewel tones of the furnishings. Like Billie herself, this was a house full of color and life and vibrancy.

“Where’s Michael?” Angie asked when there was no sign of Billie’s husband.

“Where do you think?”

Which Angie guessed meant he was in his study. An architect, Michael often brought work home with him, something Angie knew Billie sometimes resented.

“Auntie Angie.” A small body launched itself at Angie and Billie’s five-year-old daughter wrapped her skinny arms around Angie’s hips.

“Hi, Eva.”

Eva looked up at her, adoringly. “I thought you were never going to come.”

Angie sank onto a crouch. “I was late. Sorry about that.” She hugged her goddaughter close, breathing in the smell of berry shampoo and Barbie perfume.

“Don’t let it happen again,” Eva said mock-sternly. She was a cheeky little thing, funny and smart as a whip.

“I will make a concerted effort, I promise,” Angie said solemnly.

“Okay, time to get this party started,” Billie said, crossing to the sound system and hitting a button. James Brown’s “Get On Up” blasted through the house. Billie started dancing, holding Charlie out from her body and shaking her backside as only she could.

Angie smiled at her friend’s antics. “Here’s an idea—you could just ask Michael to come out of the study like a normal person,” she yelled over the music.

Billie simply grinned and kept dancing.

Eva giggled, thrilled to be part of the conspiracy to flush out her hardworking father. Angie grabbed her hands and they joined Billie, doing their best to match Billie’s moves.

A minute later, a tall, broad-shouldered figure appeared in the doorway. Michael Robinson’s dark, curly hair was ruffled. His feet were bare, his jeans old and faded, his white T-shirt well washed. He crossed his arms over his chest, the expression in his gray-green eyes equal parts amused and frustrated.

Billie sidled up to her husband and passed him their son before starting to dance in earnest, her small body moving smoothly to the beat. She shook her booty, jiggled her small breasts and wiggled her hips until Michael lost the battle and his mouth curved into an all-out grin.

“Okay, message received. No more work. What needs doing before everyone arrives?”

A flurry of activity ensued. Billie took Angie on a whirlwind tour of her birthday present from Michael, the small wooden studio in the backyard designed to give Billie the space to pursue her current passion for all things ceramic. They had barely returned to the house when a couple of neighbors arrived, along with a few other friends. Michael entertained them on the deck while Angie helped Billie put the finishing touches on the food in the kitchen.

“So… How are things with the hot Greek guy?” Billie asked as she mixed oil and vinegar for the salad dressing.

“Nonexistent,” Angie said.

“Don’t tell me it’s over already?”

“It’s over.”

“Angie, I swear. What are we going to do with you?”

Angie frowned, irritated by the despairing note in her friend’s voice. “Being single is not a disease. I love my life.”

“I want you to be happy.”

“I am happy. A man does not happiness make. Sometimes, in fact, he makes unhappiness.”

Billie opened her mouth to say something, then obviously thought better of it. Angie was