“Running away” was such a cowardly term. Dean preferred to think of it as “permanently relocating.” Lying back, he breathed in a gulp of fresh Maine air, laced with pine and beach roses and the sharp tang of the Atlantic Ocean. He felt his muscles relax, really relax, as he sank deeper into the hammock. He’d waited almost half his life for this.
At fourteen years old, Dean had willingly forfeited his anonymity—and the peace and quiet that went with it—for the chance to become an internationally revered pop star. He’d become Dino Valentine, lead singer of the boy band Five of Hearts. For the next six years, Dean’s life had been a whirlwind of recording sessions, hours of choreography, concert dates, and appearances.
Fame. Fortune. The perks that came with being a household name. It all sounded great in the beginning, but no one ever told him about the downside of being under the microscope. All the people that wanted their share of the pie, their moment in the spotlight, their chance to spend someone else’s hard earned money. And the devious ways they plotted to get it.
In the six years since the band had broken up, Dean had kept to himself as much as possible, and tried to stay out of the public eye. He didn’t leave his Malibu mansion except to go visit his band mates. He was content to spend his days writing music, swimming laps in the pool, and chasing off opportunistic photogs looking for the chance to catch Dean in a compromising position—the money shot that would set them up for life.
Now, in the midst of yet another groundless paternity suit, Dean knew he needed to go where the money-grubbing vultures couldn’t find him. He was done with the life of a celebrity. He was done with Southern California.
He swung from the hammock in his new backyard, a plate of cookies and an ice cold beer within reach. His baseball cap was pulled low over his eyes to block out the glare of the sun. A group of tall arborvitae bushes hid the next house from view, giving Dean the illusion that he was truly alone, something he’d been craving for so long. He opened the book in his lap but stared at the words, unseeing. He hoped all these changes, the cross-country move, and buying a new house, would bring him the sense of peace that had been missing.
Several years ago, Dean had had a tutor who came from Maine. He’d listen for hours while the man talked about what a beautiful state it was. He’d hailed from the coast and spent summers helping on his dad’s lobster boat. He had told Dean all about the snowmobiling, the ice fishing, bonfires, and parties in the woods. He’d described the crisp tang of autumn in the air and the riot of color from the trees, almost the entire month of October. There was something to do all year round.
Dean closed his eyes and breathed deeply of the fresh mown grass, ocean breezes, and a flowering shrub he couldn’t put a name to. He dug a toe into the lawn and set his hammock gently swinging. Smacking his lips, he grinned in drowsy happiness. He was falling asleep in the middle of the day. What a foreign concept that had become. Dean pillowed his head on his arm and snuggled into the hammock for some rest. Just as he was drifting off he thought he heard giggling.
Cracking one eye open, Dean scanned the yard. There, over by the blueberry bushes, was a carrot-topped little pixie. He shook his head, opening his other eye, and looked again. This time the tiny child was over by the willow tree, crouched down and grinning. Dean rubbed his eyes and leaned out of the hammock for a better look. Wait. Now the little thief was right beside him—stealing his cookies! How could he be everywhere at once?
Dean reached out to grab him by the collar but forgot he was in the hammock and lost his balance. The miniature con artist screeched as Dean nearly fell on top of him. He took off, a cookie in each hand. Dean landed with a thud on the lawn.
“Hey, get back here with my cookies!” Dean tried to get up to run after the child but tripped over his own feet and landed face first in the turf, knocking his ball cap off his head.
“Problems?” A soft, feminine voice, thickly laced with humor, called from the edge of the lawn. Dean stood, brushing his clothes off. He was starting to think chasing off paparazzi was preferable to chasing after … was it only a child? So much for peace and quiet.
“That kid made off with my cookies.” He scanned the perimeter of the yard, unable to locate the cookie thief.
“That team works fast. I imagine your cookies have been gobbled up by now.” He could actually hear the amused smile in her voice.
That team? There was more than one? Dean was starting to get a headache.
“How’d you all get into my yard anyway?” Rubbing his temples, he tried to work out how he’d thought there was one kid darting through his shrubs only to find there were more. How many more? This was confusing.
“There is a break in the hedge. I have a finely tuned radar when it comes to this bunch. I had a feeling they were up to no good.”
Frowning, Dean snatched up the empty plate. He turned, finally prepared to square off with this latest intruder. His words stuck to his tongue. His gaze was drawn to a pair of startlingly blue eyes. A light breeze picked up a strand of her long red hair, tossing it around playfully. Red hair and freckles. Suddenly, he was back in grade school remembering his first crush. Oh, he was a goner.
She smiled, shrugging her shoulders in apology. The twinkle in her eyes called the sincerity of the apology into question, yet somehow Dean didn’t mind.
“My name is Shannon. I live next door with those … cookie thieves.”
“I, um, I’m Dean.” His brain was working overtime, trying to catch up. “Just how many kids are running around here?”
“Brady, Brenna, and Brian, you march those little butts out here right this second!” Dean watched in horror as not one, but three little children peered out from behind the tall hedge and proceeded to line up in front of Shannon for inspection. He didn’t know much about kids, but he’d guess them to be about four or five years old. Their heads were bowed but Dean could tell they weren’t the least bit repentant. There were cookie crumbs on their cheeks and they looked to be trying very hard not to giggle. Grudgingly, he had to admit they were cute—for thieving little cookie heathens. The little girl, Brenna, looked him right in the eye and winked. Dean focused on his sneakers, trying not to let the munchkin charm him.
“What do you have to say for yourselves?” Shannon eyed them all, her face stern, and her features grim.
“We’re sorry, mister,” they offered in unison. Dean doubted that was the first time they’d had to apologize for something like this.
“It’s okay, I guess. You owe me some new cookies, though.” He folded his arms across his chest and cast a forlorn glance at the empty plate. He really had been looking forward to those cookies.
“That’s right, kiddos. You are going to spend tomorrow afternoon in the kitchen with me. No outdoors time until we get a nice batch of … ” She offered him an opening.
“Chocolate chip—no nuts.”
“Right. You all will be baking chocolate chip cookies, with no nuts, for Mr. Dean. You will not cut through the gap in the bushes to deliver them, but will instead use the walkway, like civilized neighbors.”
Shannon silenced the groans of disappointment with a single look. Dean was impressed. She sent the children on their way back to their own yard and turned to him. He stood still while she gave him the once over, his nerves on edge as he waited to see if she’d recognize him. He panicked, reaching up to his bare head, when he realized he wasn’t wearing his hat. He always wore a hat.
Shannon looked like she was in her mid-twenties, just the right age to have been a fan when Five of Hearts was at the top of their fame. If she recognized him, it would blow any chance of his hiding out in blessed anonymity in this quaint seaside town. Instead, she merely ducked her head shyly and played with the hem of her shirt. Whew. Maybe he was in the clear.
“Sorry about that heathen crack. They’re cute kids. Are they triplets? You must be the older sister, then.”
“Thank you … to the cute kids and to the older sister bit. That wasn’t necessary. Totally welcome, mind you, but not necessary. Nope, they’re all mine.” She blushed.
“Wow. I can’t even imagine one kid, but three at once? What did your husband say when you guys found out you were having triplets?”
“In a word? Goodbye.” Shannon shrugged, feigning indifference. “Let’s just say he didn’t find himself up to the challenge.”
“What a slimeball!” Dean clapped a hand over his mouth, embarrassed that he’d let that judgment be voiced aloud.
What kind of man would abandon his children? It was something Dean had been accused of many times—but something he would never do, if a child were actually his.
Dean hadn’t been quite seventeen years old when he was named in his first paternity suit. He hadn’t been an angel, but he’d been careful. His manager had drilled it into all of them just how important it was to use protection. Dean had known the girl was lying. And yet he’d been advised to settle out of court, pay the girl what she wanted, and keep it out of the news.
But when this latest paternity suit surfaced, he knew he couldn’t keep paying off these women and hoping the problem would just go away. He needed to take a stand, and stop the madness once and for all.
Shannon’s trill of laughter was music to his ears.
“Eh, I like to look at it as him doing us a favor.” Shannon turned toward the opening in the hedge. “Listen, I’m really sorry the kids invaded your space like this. It’s just that they were used to playing over here. The house has been on the market for years. This just kind of became an extension of our backyard. I’ll try to keep them out of here in the future.”
“Yeah, okay.” Dean watched her duck her head and pass through the tight space in the bushes.
This new life was not shaping up to be the tranquil escape he’d been looking for. He’d sworn off women—especially women that showed up on his doorstep with a child. Triplets! Screw the Arborvitae. He was going to have to build a fence. A really tall one.
Dean went back to his hammock and tried again to take that nap. If he heard sweet harp music in the background, he paid it no heed. He dreamed of tiny pixies with crumbs on their cheeks surrounding a beautiful fairy queen with gossamer wings and long, bright red hair.