Pilar Soliz, dry beneath the canopy attached to the five-star resort, lifted her face to the tropical storm. The winter wind mixed with rain fluttered her still-dark hair and she hugged her scarf around her shoulders. On Grand Bohemia, an island in the Caribbean where the rich and famous tended to gather, no one was going to say a word to her about belonging ever again. She’d gone from a maid to a billionaire through hard work and determination, and she’d done it all because she loved her children more than life itself.
In the spirit of Christmas, the hotel on Grand Bohemia—an island where the rich and famous tended to gather—had wrapped red and green lights around the palm trees near the property. The white pillars and hand-painted ceiling reminiscent of European royalty was nothing like her everyday life, but if her daughter Caro was happy marrying into the House of Morgan, Pilar was happy for her. Pilar let her scarf down and watched it flap in the wind.
Soon it would be sunshine and blue skies again, but Pilar cherished the wind. Her husband had disappeared twenty years ago, swept away without a trace. Life had a habit of changing quickly, yet she’d always found her way no matter what obstacle was thrown in her path, which was why she enjoyed storms.
Pilar heard her daughter’s sigh from inside the ballroom of the hotel. She folded her scarf around her again. Maybe she hadn’t physically heard her about-to-be-married daughter, but she felt it in her soul, so she left the outside canopy and returned to the conference room that had huge bay windows overlooking the beach. Once the storm dissipated, the area would be full of natural light, and its beauty was the reason Caro had chosen this venue for her Christmas Eve wedding. Her daughter stood near the pillars of flowers by the trellis where she would take her vows.
Pilar walked into the room toward Caro—they shared brown eyes, an oval face, similar deep brown hair, but her daughter had an elevated sense of style and looked chic even in her simple white knee-length dress. Pilar lowered her scarf. “Caro, the flowers should be on both sides of the aisle, no?”
Caro cautiously scratched the back of her head in confusion, careful not to disturb the updo from her practice makeup and hair session earlier. “You don’t think both in the middle?”
The last thing Pilar wanted was to stress her daughter out. She’d never presume to tell any of the Morgans she’d worked for how to handle their business, and she’d not interfere with her daughter’s wedding either. She’d overseen thousands of high-end parties for years and it was second nature to command the household staff for the House of Morgan, but her daughter insisted on a resort to ensure Pilar enjoyed herself. She shrugged and regretted her suggestion. “It’s your wedding, mi’ja. I just thought the pillars of flowers on both sides balanced the beauty that surrounded you and your Luke, creating more cascades of color behind your back.”
Caro motioned with both hands to have two of the hotel workers separate the wall of flowered trellises. Her eyes narrowed as she saw them in front of the two Christmas trees decorated in pink and blue, her wedding colors.
“I see what you’re saying now.” Caro nodded at the workers, who left the flowered trellises and went to get the pink and peach roses for the aisles. “Okay, Mom.” Her daughter then frowned at whoever walked in the front door and pouted as she asked, “Why did you invite Jennifer again?”
Ah. Jennifer Gonzales, her famous almost daughter who never quite left her family, though technically she had no blood ties. Pilar had slipped Jennifer food ever since she was a child and Jennifer’s mother was too busy calling her daughter fat and keeping her on a diet. Pilar was offered twenty-five invitations for Caro’s wedding, but had just used one. “I’m happy your brother and Jennifer are just friends, as together neither could make each other happy, but Jennifer spent so much time in our home, she’s almost like another daughter, Caro. And I hope one day she’s as happy as you and Rafe. You both make me proud, but I do wish Jennifer grew past the influence of her own mother.”
“You’re not getting coal in your stocking mi’ja.” Clearly her daughter was stressed out. Pilar massaged her shoulder lightly and said, “You’re one of the sweetest girls I’ve ever met, Caro, and I’m so proud you’re my daughter. Don’t worry about anything.”
Caro smiled at Jennifer. “Thank my mother. She thinks of you like another daughter.”
Jennifer then threw her arms around her neck and hugged her tight. “Pilar, I needed to hear that. Part of me thought coming was a bad idea after what I did. But I wanted to see you at Christmas and I promise that I will be on my best behavior.”
Jennifer had caused the House of Morgan tons of drama over the years because of her obsession with Peter Morgan, the oldest son. The latest stunt was trying to steal his sperm to impregnate herself and not let Peter and his wife have their own child. Pilar patted her back and said, “Jennifer, you caused issues at the fertility clinic, but that’s over now.”
“No, no it’s not.” Jennifer ended the hug but kept her head down with her cheeks flaming red.
“You promised to use good judgment.” Oh no. Inviting Jennifer was now going to cause more problems even though she’d sworn she’d be on her best behavior. Pilar’s skin prickled as she asked, “So what do you mean?”
Caro’s face went white as she stood beside Pilar like a sentinel. “My mother thinks of Peter as another son, Jennifer.”
At least Caro hadn’t mentioned Peter was the brother of her fiancé Luke, and driven home her point that her mother had made an awful mistake.
“I didn’t know I was pregnant when I promised, Pilar,” Jennifer said fast. “I thought it hadn’t worked and I’d been stupid to want my own child with Peter.”
Pilar instantly transformed her face into her ‘I’m the mom, don’t mess with me face’ that Caro and Rafe now laughed at but her son imitated with her grandson now, but Jennifer needed to take every word seriously. “Don’t turn Caro’s wedding day into another drama in your life, Jennifer.”
“I won’t say a thing.” Jennifer looked at both of them and held up her hand like she swore an oath. “Caro’s wedding will go off without a word from me.”
Pilar shook her head and turned around, then clasped her hand to her heart, feeling as if she’d just been stabbed. That shadow! It looked familiar but couldn’t be. She gently pushed her daughter toward the window and pointed to a masculine silhouette. “Caro, do you see that man over there?”
Caro and Jennifer shared a look and then Caro asked, “Mother, are you interested in a man?”
“No.” Pilar thought she’d seen Samuel, her missing and probably dead husband, father to Rafe and Caro. But she blinked and the man with a familiar firm jaw and strong nose outside the window disappeared. She massaged her temples. “He’s gone now. I must have imagined the whole thing.”
Jennifer asked quietly, “Imagined what?”
An episode like this hadn’t happened in years now, but she used to daydream that her husband had returned—that dream offered comfort in hard times. Pilar met Caro’s concerned gaze. “That I saw my Samuel—alive and well, with a young woman your age.”
Her daughter tenderly brushed Pilar’s hair behind her ear, like she was comforting her mother the way Pilar had once comforted her, when she’d been a child. “Impossible, Mom. My father died twenty years ago.”
Pilar patted her shoulder and offered them both a smile. “I know mi’ja. Never mind.”
Jennifer rubbed the small of Pilar’s back in an attempt to be kind. “Pilar, if you want my help in dressing up to go out and find a new man, I’m more than happy to assist. You still have a great figure for a woman your age.”
Her age. Right. Fifty-five didn’t feel old at all. She smoothed back her hair and shook her head so both of the young women understood her answer. “Jennifer, that’s not why we’re here. We’re here to celebrate Caro and Luke’s wedding.”
Caro’s bright smile didn’t fade but she blinked like she didn’t want to be an excuse. Pilar and Caro’d had multiple conversations about moving on with her life too, but Pilar still loved Samuel, the husband of her heart. He’d been taken from her years ago, but she wasn’t the type to just move on and forget.
Jennifer scanned the room with an assessing eye for detail. “Which looks like it’s going to be beautiful. Especially now that you’re dressing more like a classical beauty and not a tomboy who cut her own hair off because it was in your eyes. Your style and grace has definitely improved.”
Caro pursed her lips and made that face like she’d argue. Pilar didn’t want to hear that old song and dance so instead she took her daughter’s hand and Jennifer’s in the other. “Let’s go find your fiancé, mi’ja.”
Caro nodded and they all walked toward the door that led to the lobby and eventually the restaurant on the other side of the hotel, as Caro said, “Luke was organizing the cocktail party and getting something to eat in the restaurant.”
The moment they entered the lobby, Pilar’s entire body stilled and she gazed at the man near the elevator banks. He was with a pretty woman about five years younger than Caro. She couldn’t budge her feet as she watched the man hug the girl.
Jennifer stepped in front of her and Pilar blinked as Jennifer asked, “Pilar, your face is pale. Do you feel okay?”
Caro brushed the top of her back with a quick pat. “Mama, are you getting sick?”
Caro glanced around the lobby and asked, “Where, Mama? Where do you think you see my father?”
“By the elevators.” Pilar pointed right behind Jennifer who then scooted out of the way.
This daydreaming hadn’t happened in fifteen years. The first five years after Samuel’s disappearance along with Isabelle, these visions had left her emotionally drained, but then they’d stopped. Not even Isabelle being found alive had brought them back. Why now? Pilar straightened her spine as an idea took root. She shrugged and told her daughter as she led the women toward the restaurant. “Probably because we’d always dreamed he’d give you away during your wedding.”
They swept past the maître d’ and Caro seemed to know where her Luke would be as she said, “That’s sweet, but I’ve long given up hope of ever seeing my father again.”
Caro didn’t run ahead but rather stayed next to her as they entered the area half-full of various Morgans—luckily, not Peter or Belle. “I am glad you’ve accepted Luke as the love of my life, Mama. I waited a little for this wedding because I want you to be happy too.”
That wasn’t necessary. Her daughter needed to grab at happiness with both hands and hold tight because a sudden wave that might destroy everything could show up at any moment. Pilar hoped her words expressed half of what she wanted as she said, “My initial reservations were because he was a Morgan and I didn’t know him well. Luke is a good man and you love him. No one should stand in the way of love.”
Pilar had worked for the Morgans for forty years now as their maid, and now her daughter was marrying into the family. Her only son, Rafe, already had, and he and his wife had given Pilar her first grandchild. Pilar had retired her white apron as head of the household staff, but she refused to be part of any scheme against her employees and pseudo extra family. She kept Jennifer near the door of the private dining room, closer to the public side to have a quick conversation.
Her daughter and Luke went inside and greeted their guests while Pilar gently tugged Jennifer to stay in the enclave of the door and restaurant for a moment. They both backed up a little as Pilar said, “Jennifer, what is your plan? Are you here to tell Peter you’re pregnant to break up his marriage to the woman he loves?”
Luke’s eyes grew big at the unexpected news.
Jennifer’s face went red. “I used to be the woman he loves.”
“Jennifer, it’s hard when the ones we love leave us, but what you have done… Jennifer, there is no forgiveness for that.”
Pilar took both of Jennifer’s hands in hers and met her velvet-brown eyes. Jennifer was physically beautiful, but inside she had a heart that she’d buried deep. Her outward appearance was a sophisticated shell, but Pilar still saw the frightened girl underneath all her hardness. She held those trembling hands as Jennifer said, “I wanted to have the child of the only man I’ve ever truly loved, even if he never returns to me. I make enough money these days with my second movie. If he tries to take my baby, I have the funds to fight him in court.”
Fight the House of Morgan? Jennifer had to know they had more resources than any one person might ever earn in their lifetime.
But this wasn’t what she needed to focus on. Her daughter was happy. Rafe was happy, but Jennifer was a disaster. The mother’s heart inside of her hoped one day the girl who spent more time in her home than at her real mother’s home had a shot at happiness too. Pilar patted her hands. “Jennifer, you’re young and beautiful. You don’t have to manipulate people like you do.”
Jennifer ignored that there was a Morgan in this conversation at all and stared at her and Caro, her back to Luke. “Pilar, Caro. I think of you both as family too. Rafe is like my brother and best friend and he’s pretty much on your family’s party line. But I can’t help it. I have always loved Peter Morgan.”
Caro returned to the small group inside, probably to insist that they both come inside and join the party instead of hiding in the doorway.
Part of Pilar understood Jennifer. Even after twenty-five years, she still loved Samuel Soliz, her husband that had disappeared without a word. Pilar blinked and saw the front door of the restaurant. This time she swayed on her feet. This version of Samuel had silvery gray feathering the sides of his hair now and a small bald patch, but the man before her looked so much like her husband that her heart lurched. She released Jennifer suddenly, forgetting the conversation and sidestepped to get a better view. “There, Caro. Do you see the man and girl at the front door waiting to be seated?”
Caro came beside her and patted her back. Pilar turned away and then when she turned back to the front, Samuel and the girl he was with had disappeared. Caro’s brow furrowed. “No, Mama. Where?”
Three times today. This was too much. She clutched her stomach and hoped she wasn’t going insane as she stepped back and told the group. “Nothing. Everything is fine. Let me go to the ladies room to freshen up.”
Before Caro or anyone else could say anything, Pilar rushed out of the private back dining room and headed to the public bathroom. She made a beeline for it, refusing to look anywhere. She needed to splash water on her face and get her mind in order. This was too much—everyone was right. Her husband was probably dead. Nothing had changed, except that now she was seeing things.