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Exclusive Standalone Contemporary Romance Ebook Bundle

Exclusive Standalone Contemporary Romance Ebook Bundle

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Grab this amazing offer soon! 14 full-length novels in digital format from #1 NYT Bestselling Author Barbara Freethy. These are some of her classic books, all of which appeared on the USA Today and NYT Bestseller Lists. Intricately plotted, heartpounding, page-turning novels of romance, family and drama, all in one magnificent digital book bundle!



Present Day...

Julia DeMarco felt a shiver run down her spine as she stood high on a bluff overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a beautiful, sunny day in early September, and with the Pacific Ocean on one side of the bridge and the San Francisco Bay on the other, the view was breathtaking. She felt like she was on the verge of something exciting and wonderful, just the way every bride should feel. But as she took a deep breath of the fresh, somewhat salty air, her eyes began to water. She told herself the tears had more to do with the afternoon wind than the sadness she'd been wrestling with since her mother had passed away six months ago. This was supposed to be a happy time, a day for looking ahead, not behind. She just wished she felt confident instead of... uncertain.

A pair of arms came around her waist, and she leaned back against the solid chest of her fiancé, Michael Graffino. It seemed as if she'd done nothing but lean on Michael the past year. Most men wouldn't have stuck around, but he had. Now it was time to give him what he wanted, a wedding date. She didn't know why she was hesitating, except that so many things were changing in her life. Since Michael had proposed to her a year ago, her mother had died, her stepfather had put the family home up for sale, and her younger sister had moved in with her. A part of her just wanted to stop, take a few breaths, and think for a while instead of rushing headlong into another life-changing event. But Michael was pushing for a date, and she was grateful to him for sticking by her, so how could she say no? And why would she want to?

Michael was a good man. Her mother had adored him. Julia could still remember the night she'd told her mom about the engagement. Sarah DeMarco hadn't been out of bed in days, and she hadn't smiled in many weeks, but that night she'd beamed from ear to ear. The knowledge that her oldest daughter was settling down with the son of one of her best friends had made her last days so much easier.

"We should go, Julia. It's time to meet the event coordinator."

She turned to face him, thinking again what a nice-looking man he was with his light brown hair, brown eyes, and a warm, ready smile. The olive skin of his Italian heritage and the fact that he spent most of his days out on the water, running a charter boat service off Fisherman's Wharf, kept his skin a dark, sunburned red.

"What's wrong?" he asked, a curious glint in his eye. "You're staring at me."

"Was I? I'm sorry."

"Don't be." He paused, then said, "It's been a while since you've really looked at me."

"I don't think that's true. I look at you all the time. So do half the women in San Francisco," she added.

"Yeah, right," he muttered. "Let's go."

Julia cast one last look at the view, then followed Michael to the museum. The Palace of the Legion of Honor had been built as a replica of the Palais de la Legion d'Honneur in Paris. In the front courtyard, known as the Court of Honor, was one of Rodin's most famous sculptures, The Thinker. Julia would have liked to stop and ponder the statue as well as the rest of her life, but Michael was a man on a mission, and he urged her toward the front doors.

As they entered the museum, her step faltered. In a few moments, they would sit down with Monica Harvey, the museum's event coordinator, and Julia would have to pick her wedding date. She shouldn't be nervous. It wasn't as if she were a young girl; she was twenty-eight years old. It was time to get married, have a family.

"Liz was right. This place is cool," Michael said.

Julia nodded in agreement. Her younger sister Liz had been the one to suggest the museum. It was a pricey location, but Julia had inherited some money from her mother that would pay for most of the wedding.

"The offices are downstairs," Michael added. "Let's go."

Julia drew in a deep breath as the moment of truth came rushing toward her. "I need to stop in the restroom. Why don't you go ahead? I'll be right there."

When Michael left, Julia walked over to get a drink of water from a nearby fountain. She was sweating and her heart was practically jumping out of her chest. What on earth was the matter with her? She'd never felt so panicky in her life.

It was all the changes, she told herself again. Her emotions were too close to the surface. But she could do this. They were only picking a date. She wasn't going to say "I do" this afternoon. That would be months from now, when she was ready, really ready.

Feeling better, she headed downstairs, passing by several intriguing exhibits along the way. Maybe they could stop and take a look on the way out.

"Mrs. Harvey is finishing up another appointment," Michael told her as she joined him. "She'll be about ten minutes. I need to make a call. Can you hold down the fort?"

"Sure." Julia sat down on the couch, wishing Michael hadn't left. She really needed a distraction from her nerves. As the minutes passed, she became aware of the faint sound of music coming from down the hall. The melody was lovely but sad, filled with unanswered dreams, regrets. It reminded her of a piece played on the balalaika in one of her music classes in college, and it called to her in a way she couldn't resist. Music had always been her passion. Just a quick peek, she told herself, as she got to her feet and moved into the corridor.

The sounds of the strings grew louder as she entered the room at the end of the hall. It was a tape, she realized, playing in the background, intended no doubt to complement the equally haunting historic photographs on display. Within seconds she was caught up in a journey through time. She couldn't look away. And she didn't want to look away—especially when she came to the picture of the little girl.

Captioned The Coldest War of All, the black-and-white photograph showed a girl of no more than three or four years old, standing behind the gate of an orphanage in Moscow. The photo had been taken by someone named Charles Manning, the same man who appeared to have taken many of the pictures in the exhibit.

Julia studied the picture in detail. She wasn't as interested in the Russian scene as she was in the girl. The child wore a heavy dark coat, pale thick stockings, and a black woolen cap over her curly blond hair. The expression in her eyes begged for someone—whoever was taking the picture, perhaps—to let her out, to set her free, to help her.

An uneasy feeling crept down Julia's spine. The girl's features, the oval shape of her face, the tiny freckle at the corner of her eyebrow, the slope of her small, upturned nose, seemed familiar. She noticed how the child's pudgy fingers clung to the bars of the gate. It was odd, but she could almost feel that cold steel beneath her own fingers. Her breath quickened. She'd seen this picture before, but where? A vague memory danced just out of reach.

Her gaze moved to the silver chain hanging around the girl's neck and the small charm dangling from it. It looked like a swan, a white swan, just like the one her mother had given to her when she was a little girl. Her heart thudded in her chest, and the panicky feeling she'd experienced earlier returned.


She jumped at the sound of Michael's booming voice. She'd forgotten about him.

"Mrs. Harvey is waiting for us," he said as he crossed the room. "What are you doing in here?"

"Looking at the photos."

"We don't have time for that. Come on."

"Just a second." She pointed at the photograph. "Does this girl seem familiar to you?"

Michael gave the photo a quick glance. "I don't think so. Why?"

"I have a necklace just like the one that little girl is wearing," she added. "Isn't that odd?"

"Why would it be odd? It doesn't look unusual to me.”

Of course it didn't. There were probably a million girls who had that same necklace. "You're right. Let's go." But as she turned to follow Michael out of the room, she couldn't help taking one last look at the picture. The girl's eyes called out to her—eyes that looked so much like her own. But that little girl in the photograph didn't have anything to do with her—did she?

* * *

"It cost me a fortune to get you out of jail," Joe Carmichael said.

Alex Manning leaned back in his chair and kicked his booted feet up onto the edge of Joe's desk. Joe, a balding man in his late thirties, was one of his best friends, not to mention the West Coast editor of World News Magazine, a publication that bought eighty percent of Alex's photographs. They'd been working together for over ten years now. Some days Alex couldn't believe it had been more than a decade since he'd begun his work as a photojournalist right after graduating from Northwestern University. Other days—like today—it felt more like a hundred years.

"You told me to get those pictures at any cost, and I did," Alex replied.

"I didn't tell you to upset the local police while you were doing it. You look like shit, by the way. Who beat you up?"

"They didn't give me their business cards. And it comes with the territory. You know that."

"What I know is that the magazine wants me to rein you in."

"If you don't want my photographs, I'll sell them somewhere else."

Joe hastily put up his hands. "I didn't say that. But you're taking too many chances, Alex. You're going to end up dead or in some prison I can't get you out of."

"You worry too much."

"And you don't worry enough—which is what makes you good. It also makes you dangerous and expensive. Although I have to admit that this is some of your best work," Joe added somewhat reluctantly as he studied the pile of photographs on his desk.

"Damn right it is."

"Then it's a good time for a vacation. Why don't you take a break? You've been on the road the past six months. Slow down."

Slowing down was not part of Alex's nature. Venturing into unknown territory, taking the photograph no one else could get, that was what he lived for. But Alex had to admit he was bone tired, exhausted from shooting photographs across South America for the past six weeks, and his little stint in jail had left him with a cracked rib and a black eye. It probably wouldn't hurt to take a few days off.

"You know what your weakness is?" Joe continued.

"I'm sure you're going to tell me."

"You're reckless. You forget that a good photographer stays on the right side of the lens." Joe reached behind his desk and grabbed a newspaper. "This was on the front page of the Examiner last week."

Alex winced at the picture of himself being hustled into a police car in Colombia. "Damn that Cameron. He's the one who took that photo. I thought I saw that slimy weasel slinking in the shadows."

"He might be a weasel, but he was smart enough to stay out of jail. Seriously, what are you thinking these days? It's as if you're tempting fate."

"I'm just doing my job. A job that sells a lot of your magazines."

"Take a vacation, Alex; have some beer, watch a football game, get yourself a woman—think about something besides getting the next shot. By the way, the magazine is sponsoring a photography exhibit at the Legion of Honor. Your mother gave us permission to use the photographs taken by your father. You might want to stop by, take a look."

Alex wasn't surprised to hear his mother had given permission. Despite the fact that she'd hated everything about his father's job while they were married, she had no problem living off his reputation now. In fact, she seemed to enjoy being the widow of the famous photojournalist who had died far too young. Alex was only surprised she hadn't pressed him to attend. That might have something to do with the fact that he hadn't returned any of her calls in the past month.

"Why don't you check out the exhibit tonight?" Joe suggested. "The magazine is hosting a party with all the movers and shakers. I'm sure your mother will be there."

"I'll pass," Alex said, getting to his feet. He needed to pick up his mail, air out his apartment, which was probably covered in six inches of dust, and take a long, hot shower. The last person he wanted to talk to tonight was his mother. He turned toward the door, then paused. "Is the photo of the Russian orphan girl part of the exhibit?"

"It was one of your father's most famous shots. Of course it's there." Joe gave him a curious look. "Why?"

Alex didn't answer. His father's words rang through Alex's head after twenty-five years of silence: Don't ever talk to anyone about that picture. It's important. Promise me.

A day later Charles Manning was dead.

* * *

It didn't take Julia long to find the necklace tucked away in her jewelry box. As she held it in her hand, the white enamel swan sparkled in the sunlight coming through her bedroom window. The chain was short, made for a child. It would no longer fit around her neck. As she thought about how quickly time had passed, another wave of sadness ran through her, not just because of the fact that she'd grown up and couldn't wear the necklace, but because her mother, the one who had given it to her, was gone.


She looked up at the sound of her younger sister's voice. Liz appeared in the doorway of the bedroom a moment later, the smell of fish clinging to her low-rise blue jeans and bright red tank top. A short, attractive brunette with dark hair and dark eyes, Liz spent most of her days working at the family restaurant, DeMarco's, a seafood cafe on Fisherman's Wharf. She'd dropped out of college a year ago to help take care of their mother and had yet to go back. She seemed content to waitress in the cafe and flirt with the good-looking male customers. Julia couldn't really blame Liz for her lack of ambition. The past year had been tough on both of them, and Liz found comfort working at the cafe, which was owned and run by numerous DeMarcos, including their father. Besides that, she was only twenty-two years old. She had plenty of time to figure out the rest of her life.

"Did you set the date?" Liz asked, an eager light in her eyes.

"Yes. They had a cancellation for December twenty-first."

"Of this year? That's only a little over three months from now."

Julia's stomach clenched at the reminder. "I know. It's really fast, but it was this December or a year from next March. Michael wanted December." And she hadn't been able to talk him out of it. Not that she'd tried. In fact, she'd been so distracted by the photograph she'd barely heard a word the wedding coordinator said.

"A holiday wedding sounds romantic." Liz sat down on the bed. You have a lot to do in the next few months." She paused. "What's that in your hand?"

Julia glanced down at the necklace. "I found this in my jewelry box. Mom gave it to me when I was a little girl."

Liz got up from the bed to take a closer look. "I haven't seen this in years. What made you pull it out now?"

Julia considered the question for a moment, wondering if she should confide in her sister.

Before she could speak, Liz said, "You could wear that for your wedding—something old. Which reminds me..."

"What?" Julia asked.

"Wait here." Liz ran from the room, then returned a second later with three thick magazines in her hands. "I bought up all the bridal magazines. As soon as we get back from Aunt Lucia's birthday party, we can go through them. Doesn't that sound like fun?"

It sounded like a nightmare, especially with Liz overseeing the procedure. Unlike Julia, Liz was a big believer in organization. She loved making files, labeling things, buying storage containers and baskets to keep their lives neat as a pin. Since taking up residence on the living room futon after their parents' house had sold, Liz had been driving Julia crazy. She always wanted to clean, decorate, paint, and pick out new curtains. What Liz really needed was a place of her own, but Julia hadn't had the heart to tell Liz to move out. Besides, it would be only a few more months; then Julia would be living with Michael.

"Unless you want to start now," Liz said, as she checked her watch. "We don't have to leave for about an hour. Is Michael coming to the party?"

"He'll be a little late. He had a sunset charter to run."

"I bet he's excited that you finally set the date," Liz said with a smile. "He's been dying to do that for months." Liz tossed two of the magazines on the desk, then began to leaf through the one in her hand. "Oh, look at this dress, the satin, the lace. It's heavenly."

Julia couldn't bear to look. She didn't want to plan her wedding right this second. Wasn't it enough that she'd booked the date? Couldn't she have twenty-four hours to think about it? Julia didn't suppose that sounded very bridal-like, but it was the way she felt, and she needed to get away from Liz before her sister noticed she was not as enthusiastic as she should be. "I have to run an errand before the party," she said, giving in to a reckless impulse.

"When will you be back?"

"I'm not sure how long it will take. I'll meet you at the restaurant."

"All right. I'll pick out the perfect dress for you while you're gone."

"Great." When Liz left the room, Julia walked over to her bed and picked up the catalogue from the photography exhibit. On page thirty-two was the photograph of the orphan girl. She'd already looked at it a half-dozen times since she'd come home, unable to shake the idea that the photo, the child, the necklace were important to her in some way.

She wanted to talk to someone about the picture, and it occurred to her that maybe she should try to find the photographer. After researching Charles Manning online earlier that day, she'd discovered that he was deceased, but his son, Alex Manning, was also a photojournalist and had a San Francisco number and address listed in the phone book. She'd tried the number but gotten a message machine. There was really nothing more to do at the moment, unless...

Tapping her fingers against the top of her desk, she debated for another thirty seconds. She should be planning her wedding, not searching out the origin of an old photo, but as she straightened, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Instead of seeing her own reflection, she saw the face of that little girl begging her to help.

Julia picked up her purse and headed out the door. Maybe Alex Manning could tell her what she needed to know about the girl in the photograph. Then Julia could forget about her.

* * *

Twenty minutes later, Julia pulled up in front of a three-story apartment building in the Haight, a neighborhood that had been the centerpiece of San Francisco's infamous "Summer of Love" in the sixties. The area was now an interesting mix of funky shops, clothing boutiques, tattoo parlors, restaurants, and coffeehouses. The streets were busy. It was Friday night, and everyone wanted to get started on the weekend. Julia hoped Alex Manning would be home, although since he hadn't answered his phone, it was probably a long shot. But she had to do something.

She climbed the stairs to his apartment, took a deep breath, and rang the bell, all the while wondering what on earth she would say to him if he were home. A moment later, the door opened to a string of curses. A tall, dark-haired man appeared in the doorway, bare chested and wearing a pair of faded blue jeans that rode low on his hips. His dark brown hair was a mess, his cheeks unshaven. His right eye was swollen, the skin around it purple and black. There were bruises all over his muscled chest and a long, thin scar not far from his heart. She instinctively took a step back, feeling as if she'd just woken the beast.

"Who are you and what are you selling?" he asked harshly.

"I'm not selling anything. I'm looking for Alex Manning. Are you him?"

"That depends on what you want."

"No, that depends on who you are," she stated, holding her ground.

"Is this conversation going to end if I tell you I'm not Alex Manning?"

"Not if you're lying."

He stared at her, squinting through his one good eye. His expression changed. His green eyes sharpened, as if he were trying to place her face. "Who are you?"

"My name is Julia DeMarco. And if you're Alex Manning, I want to ask you about a photograph I saw at the Legion of Honor today. It was taken by your father—a little girl standing behind the gates of an orphanage. Do you know the one I'm talking about?"

He didn't reply, but she saw the pulse jump in his throat and a light flicker in his eyes.

"I want to know who the little girl is—her name—what happened to her," she continued.

"Why?" he bit out sharply.

It was a simple question. She wished she had a simple answer. How could she tell him that she couldn't stop thinking about that girl, that she felt compelled to learn more about her? She settled for, "The child in the picture is wearing a necklace just like this one." She pulled the chain out of her purse and showed it to him. "I thought it was odd that I had the same one."

He stared at the swan, then gazed back into her eyes. "No," he muttered with a confused shake of his head. "It's not possible."

"What's not possible?"

"You. You can't be her."

"I didn't say I was her." Julia's heart began to race. "I just said I have the same necklace."

"This is a dream, isn't it? I'm so tired I'm hallucinating. If I close the door, you'll go away."

Julia opened her mouth to tell him she wasn't going anywhere, but the door slammed in her face. "I'm not her," she said loudly. "I was born and raised in San Francisco. I've never been out of the country. I'm not her," she repeated, feeling suddenly desperate. "Am I?"