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Love Me at Sunset

Love Me at Sunset

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  • 205 Pages
  • 4-5 Hours
  • 63K Words
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An ex-con reforming his life. A pregnant widow hiding her past. Will the price of her secrets cost her his love?

Catarina Romano has lost everything: her husband, her house, her lifestyle. She flees to her cousin’s empty manor in the heart of Portugal, trying to find peace and to hide from the scandal spun by the media, only to discover she is pregnant.

Afonso Cortez is done with all the lies. Fresh out of prison for trusting the wrong person, he’s ready to leave the past behind and look ahead to new opportunities. The remote Sunset Manor, in need of a groundskeeper, is the perfect solution, promising to provide Afonso with the solitude he craves while he restores the grounds to their former glory.

Catarina avoids Afonso at first, not wanting to further complicate her life. But Afonso is intriguing, and she feels drawn to him. If only she didn’t feel guilty for all the secrets she’s keeping from him.

When suspicious accidents start occurring at the property, Afonso believes his past is catching up with him. Will he be able to protect Catarina or will he lose the woman who might restore his belief in love?

If you like sweet romance stories set in a remote countryside manor house with a reformed ex-con and pregnant widow hiding her secret baby, you'll love this fresh twist on a classic trope! Unforgettable stories of family, love, and learning where you belong. Discover Northern Portugal with the Romano cousins as they fall in love when they least expect it. Perfect for fans of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Virgin River, and Chesapeake Shores!

Main Tropes

  • secret baby
  • second chance
  • forced proximity

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Synopsis

An ex-con reforming his life. A pregnant widow hiding her past. Will the price of her secrets cost her his love?

Catarina Romano has lost everything: her husband, her house, her lifestyle. She flees to her cousin’s empty manor in the heart of Portugal, trying to find peace and to hide from the scandal spun by the media, only to discover she is pregnant.

Afonso Cortez is done with all the lies. Fresh out of prison for trusting the wrong person, he’s ready to leave the past behind and look ahead to new opportunities. The remote Sunset Manor, in need of a groundskeeper, is the perfect solution, promising to provide Afonso with the solitude he craves while he restores the grounds to their former glory.

Catarina avoids Afonso at first, not wanting to further complicate her life. But Afonso is intriguing, and she feels drawn to him. If only she didn’t feel guilty for all the secrets she’s keeping from him.

When suspicious accidents start occurring at the property, Afonso believes his past is catching up with him. Will he be able to protect Catarina or will he lose the woman who might restore his belief in love?

If you like sweet romance stories set in a remote countryside manor house with a reformed ex-con and pregnant widow hiding her secret baby, you'll love this fresh twist on a classic trope! Unforgettable stories of family, love, and learning where you belong. Discover Northern Portugal with the Romano cousins as they fall in love when they least expect it. Perfect for fans of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Virgin River, and Chesapeake Shores!

Intro into Chapter One

How much hope could a place hold for a new beginning?
Afonso arrived at the stone wall and dropped the canvas bag on the side of the road. The intricate monogram on each panel of the iron gate confirmed he was at the right place. Casa do Sol Poente—Sunset Manor. Was this his fresh start? A place named after his favorite time of day could only bring good luck.
In the valley below, the first shadows cast by the setting sun already inched closer to the foothills of the small village of Sete Fontes. The view opened far beyond the winding river to the red-roofed houses dotting the hills on the other bank.
He reached for his water bottle and took a long swig, appreciating the differences in the air around him. No traffic noises. No congested streets and crowded sidewalks. And more notably, no sounds of churning industrial-sized washers, the hiss of steam irons, and the always-present loud-cursing men he’d had to put up with during laundry duty.
Only the languorous clangs of the church bell and a couple of dogs barking at each other on a farm down the hill.
A slow smile pulled at the corners of his mouth. He liked it already.
The walk from the village had taken close to an hour, and he hadn’t passed any other houses or farms in the last fifteen minutes. The promise of solitude bloomed more real than he’d thought possible.
Afonso swung the bag over his shoulder and placed the empty bottle in an outside pocket. The gate was ajar, and he passed through easily, noting the signs of neglect. The original color was hard to pick amid the rust stains, and it could use a good cleaning and a new coat of paint.
As he climbed the winding road past the bend, rows of hydrangea bushes lined the lichen-covered walls, the large blue petals brightening the old stones. Through the branches, a peek of stone caught Afonso’s attention, but the thick foliage hid the rest of the house from view.
After the paved road curved sharply in the other direction, Afonso stopped. A woman stood at the edge of a weed-infested path, facing a row of mature linden trees. The golden light outlined her delicate figure, contrasting with the wildness of the bushes and vegetation behind her, a mass of twisted greens of various shades speckled with tiny buds of the red, pink, and yellow of a once-grand rose garden.
Before he had the chance to make his presence known, the woman clutched her middle and doubled over, retching violently.
Afonso turned away from her and took a step back, torn between the urge to help her and the need to give her privacy. Had she eaten something bad, or was she ill? His former training kicked in and his mind went through a list of possibilities.
After a few moments, she straightened and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. She mumbled something and shook her head, the disgust in her tone clear and unmistakable.
Afonso shifted his bag. “Hey, are you okay?”
The woman shrieked and jumped back with a hand over her chest. When she turned to face him, her eyes widened with surprise, which was quickly replaced with something stronger. “This is private property,” she yelled. “Who are you, and what are you doing here?” She flicked her eyes to the ground and her cheeks flamed red. “Are you some kind of pervert spying on people?”
Afonso shouldered his bag behind his back and raised his hands in a show of conciliation. “I’m sorry if I caught you at a bad moment. I promise I’m not spying on you.” He spoke slowly, trying to diffuse the tension. “I’m here to meet with the owner.”
She crossed her arms over her middle, and this time the disgust in her expression was surely directed at him. “He should be in the main house.” Her tone was curt.
Afonso stepped back onto the private driveway and nodded a quick thanks to her.
Her eyes narrowed at him as she watched him go by. “You better not be lying.”
He paused and met her eyes. “I don’t lie.” All the lies were in the past. He was done with that life.
She didn’t reply, but her left eyebrow raised. In contradiction or skepticism, he couldn’t tell.
When Afonso reached the clearing, he looked back, but she was gone. He gave himself a mental shake to push the strange encounter from his mind.
The manor house was large and almost as imposing as he’d expected. Its neoclassical style was reflected in the symmetrical lines of the windows on the ground floor and the row of Juliet balconies on the first floor. From the red-tiled roof, a pair of attic dormers rose on each side. A wide staircase led to the front where a heavy, paneled wooden door matched the green of the painted shutters. The effect was almost striking, minimized only by the intense disarray of all the vegetation surrounding the area. In its glory days, the granite house’s grandeur must have been impressive.
Afonso climbed the steps. Even the door knocker was a classic. He lifted the iron hand holding a ball and smacked it against the metal plate on the wood surface.
After a few knocks, the door swung open.
A dark-haired man in his midthirties stood at the entrance. “Hello. Can I help you?” His tone was friendly.
“I’m looking for Filipe Romano,” Afonso said.
The man extended his hand. “I’m Filipe Romano.” His grip was strong, and he made eye contact. “Are you Afonso Cortez by any chance?”
Afonso nodded. “I am.”
Filipe Romano’s expression relaxed into a smile. “Praise the heavens. I thought you’d changed your mind about coming. Please, come in.”
The faint scent of new construction and aged wood permeated the air. The area was clean and void of furniture but for a large rug covering the aged marble floor in front of the stairs and a free-standing coat-rack made of heavy wood. The main staircase split in two at the first landing, one to each side of the house. The oval skylight let the sunshine in to spill naturally down the staircase, casting shadows into the corners.
Afonso took a moment to study Filipe Romano. He looked like a slightly older version of his cousin Matias, Afonso’s former boss. The family resemblance was evident in the same brown eyes and high forehead. “Sorry I’m late. The walk up was a bit longer than I thought.”
“You walked from the village?”
“I’m without my own transportation at the moment.” He was without a lot of things, a car being the least of those.
Filipe brought a hand to his chin as he gave Afonso an appraising look. “Well, I’m glad you made it.” He gestured to the floor by the door. “Just leave your things there. I’ll show you later where you can put them.” He turned down the hallway to his right, and Afonso followed him to the first room.
“This is the music room. Well, it’s an empty room now, but that’s what the original design called for and I tried to preserve that.”
In the corner, under a cover, the skeleton of a grand piano stood silent. Afonso turned away from it and flexed his fingers involuntarily.
Filipe glanced in the same direction. “That old piano came with the house, and I still don’t know what to do it.”
Afonso pretended he didn’t either.
“I’m nearly done with the interior remodel.” Filipe kept walking and gestured at the door opening as they passed from one room to the next without the connection of a hallway. “The kitchen and bathrooms are all done, and the interiors have all been painted. I’m trying to decide what to do about the decorating.”
“Impressive work,” Afonso said. The wood floors looked original as well, having been refinished to a polished gloss.
Filipe pushed the last door, and they entered a room that looked half-lived-in. A heavy mahogany desk sat by one of the windows, and a pair of wing-back chairs and a sofa in dark leather were positioned in front of the fireplace. The wall opposite the windows was lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves in the same mahogany, conspicuously void of books. From what he’d seen so far, even without furniture and decoration the mansion was grand.
“The books are in storage, and I didn’t have the time to unpack them yet.” Filipe gestured around. “So this is the office and library. In case you’re wondering, the built-in shelves are original, but I had the desk made to match. Not exactly my taste but it goes with the house.” He walked to the desk and cleared a pile of papers to the side. “The house sits square with the cardinal points and we still call this side the west wing.” He unfurled a blueprint, tucked the corners under books, and set a solid glass paperweight on the surface.
Afonso approached and listened to Filipe’s explanations of the house.
“For the time being, you’ll be working in the areas immediately surrounding the house.” Filipe tapped the paper again. “The road from the gate to the front door needs to be cleared. And the formal gardens require a lot of attention.” He brought a smaller map from under the blueprint. “These are the original plans that I was able to unearth in Castelo Branco’s register. There’s an English-type garden with roses and boxwood hedges.” He paused and looked up to Afonso. “You do have experience with yard work, don’t you?”
“I have hands-on experience, but no formal training.” All the summers Afonso had spent at his grandparents’ working on the farm might finally pay off.
“That’s good enough for me.” Filipe turned back to the map, and Afonso followed along a series of geometric designs with numbers and a key written in a curled script on the margin.
Filipe slid a drawer open and drew out a tablet. “I hired a landscape designer who outlined each stage of the cleaning and restoration that needs to happen before the new plants come in.” He pushed the tablet into Afonso’s hands, and Afonso swiped the screen as he looked through the color-coded plans. “For now, I decided to start clearing the overgrowth and moving on with some of the smaller projects. It’s all there on the tablet. Of course, you can always call me or send me a text if you have any questions,” Filipe said.
Afonso raised his head from the screen. He must have missed something. Why would he need to call Filipe? “Won’t you be here every day?”
Filipe sat on the sofa and indicated the chair to Afonso. “My plans changed. I’m in the middle of acquiring a property by the coast, and I need to be there. As much as I’d like to supervise the garden’s restoration, it’s not as pressing as the other project is. That’s why I need a person I can trust to stay here.”
Afonso returned the tablet to Filipe. “You do know where I’ve just come from, don’t you?” What exactly had Matias Romano told his cousin about Afonso? As much as Afonso wanted this job, if Filipe wasn’t aware of his past, he would quickly take back his offer.
“If you’re referring to your recent release from prison, yes, I am aware of that.” He leaned back and crossed an ankle over his knee. “Even though I haven’t seen my cousin in a while, we stay in touch. Matias knew I needed someone to take over the grounds keeping, and he recommended you. I don’t know you, but I trust my cousin, and that’s enough for me.” He paused. “We all make mistakes. It’s how we learn from them and move forward that proves our integrity. Do you still want the job?”
Afonso appreciated that Filipe was direct. “Yes, I do,” he said slowly, trying to tamp down his eagerness. Afonso wanted this job more than he remembered wanting anything in his recent life. He would do his best to make sure he was worthy of that trust.
Filipe spent the next half hour going over a detailed list of each clearing stage, taking the time to answer all of Afonso’s questions about the house and the property. He pulled out two sets of key rings. “This one has the keys to vehicles, including the one to the truck. You’ll need to get supplies from town and haul equipment around the property. This ring has the keys to the house, the detached garage, and the outbuildings. There’s a small house to the east side where the caretakers live. They pretty much came with the property when I bought it, and I didn’t have the heart to kick them out. I restored their house and renewed their contract even though they’re getting on with years and I’d rather they retire.” He glanced at his watch. “I was going to introduce you, but I think they left already. The Silvas are only here between Monday mornings and Friday afternoons, as they spend the weekends at their home in the village. Sometimes they have family who comes by, and then they drive down together.”
Afonso nodded, adding another mental note to his list.
After all the instructions, including the location of the Wi-Fi tower and login information, Filipe presented two copies of a simple contract, which they both signed. Five months—from the last of May to the end of October—with an option to renew, if both parties agreed.
He handed Afonso a credit card. “All the expenses associated with the house and property are on this card. You don’t have to worry about bookkeeping. I got someone for that.”
Afonso resolved to keep all the receipts just in case.
“There’s one more thing.” Filipe paused and rubbed his chin. “I have a relative staying in the west wing.” He indicated the area above them. “She’s been here for a few weeks, and she’s staying for as long as she wants or needs to.” He reached for his wallet and drew out another card. “Anything she needs goes on this card.”
Afonso hesitated. “Wouldn’t it be better if she keeps the card herself?”
“She has a card of her own, but she’s quite stubborn and doesn’t drive. I usually take her lists when I go shopping as well. Just make sure she’s got what she needs.” After a pause, he added, “She was recently widowed and hasn’t been ready to socialize much.”
At first, Afonso thought of the woman in the old rose garden, but she was far too young to be widowed. His experience with older people was limited to the interactions he’d had with the ship’s passengers, but he had observed plenty of stubbornness in that age range.
He took the card from Filipe. “I’ll keep the receipts and send you digital copies.”
Filipe looked at him. “Sure, that works. She’s resting or I’d introduce you. Actually, it might be best to give her a wide berth until she’s feeling better. Grieving has taken a toll on her, and she’s been quite sick.”
“Yes, of course.”
“And she might need some rides to Castelo Branco, but you can hire somebody for that if you’re too busy.”
Afonso nodded, not knowing what to say until he knew the old lady better. “Do you have problems with villagers coming on the grounds?”
Filipe blew out a long breath. “It hasn’t been a problem, since the house is a bit of stretch from the village. Just be firm, but kind, if you see anyone around who’s not supposed to be here.”
Afonso frowned. The mysterious woman must be a relative of the caretakers, visiting them for a few days. He was not looking forward to another confrontation with her. Hopefully they wouldn’t cross paths again.

***

Catarina leaned back against the stuffed chair in Filipe’s bedroom as she watched him pack. “Say that again, please? I don’t think I heard you right.” Her mouth pressed into a hard line.
Filipe chuckled. “Don’t start pouting, Catarina. That doesn’t work on me. Besides, you knew I was looking for someone to take over the grounds before I leave.” He shoved a few items of clothing into a day bag. “I should have hired someone two months ago.”
She crossed her arms over her chest. “Do you really have to leave? I won’t have anyone to talk to.”
“Why didn’t you call your mom like I suggested? Or one of your brothers? Or even a friend?”
She shook her head. “It’s still too soon for that. I wouldn’t want the media rags to get a clue on my maiden name.” She hadn’t used the Romano name in over six years. She was hiding in the district of Castelo Branco, hours away from Lisbon and from everything that had been her former life, hopefully far enough that no one would recognize her. Staying inside the property ensured nobody would. And even though Filipe was a high-profile business man, well known throughout the country, he’d never announced the purchase of the manor house. The remodel had been slow going as well, not attracting any attention beyond the few villages around the area. Any kind of attention was the last thing she wanted at this point in her life.
Filipe pulled the zipper closed. “You can always come with me.”
“I can’t.” The less she was out and about the better, and the coast was more populated than this area.
“It’s your choice, but I’ll be away for a few weeks at least. The new guy I hired can get you anything you need, but you’ll have to talk to him.” He smoothed the traditional bedspread on the bed, then hoisted his bag. “I should have introduced you two before he left to the village.”
“You hired him already? Did you even run a background check on him?”
“Yes, he’s hired. Got the contract signed, the financial paperwork filled out, and he’ll be around for at least five months.” Filipe paused and looked pointedly at her. “And I did run a background check even though he was personally recommended by Matias.”
Catarina wrinkled her forehead. “Matias who?”
Filipe arched an eyebrow in response. “Matias Romano. Our cousin. I know you’ve been away from the family scene for a while, but you remember Matias, don’t you?”
Catarina ignored Filipe’s remark. She carried enough guilt for keeping away from the family without needing reminders. “What room did you put him in?”
“I put him in the east wing, away from you. The guest bedroom facing the rear court.”
“You gave him a room in the east wing?” For sure she’d run into the man even with him on the other side of the house.
Filipe looked up. “Should I have put him in the servants’ quarters? Oh that’s right, I don’t have any.” His mouth pressed in a straight line. “Don’t be such a snob, Catarina. The attic is unfurnished, and the room off the kitchen is too small for someone staying this long.”
Was she being a snob, or did she simply have a higher common sense?
“But you’re leaving me with a stranger,” she argued. How could he not see her point of view?
“The Silvas are here too.”
“Not on the weekends.”
Filipe gestured at the tablet sitting on the dresser. “Their phone number is on the list of important contacts. You can call them, and they’ll be here in twenty minutes or less. Sete Fontes is not too far.”
“It will still just be me and this guy in the house.”
“I doubt you’ll see him that much, with him so busy and you on the opposite side.”
The farther from her, the better. “I’m not so sure about this new guy. I caught him watching me throw up by the rose bushes.”
“You’re still puking? I thought you were feeling better.” Filipe opened the door, and they both exited the room.
She followed him to the landing. “So did I, but apparently not.” She’d spent the last month and a half in close proximity to the bathrooms in the house. Today was the first day she’d ventured outside in a long time, and her moment of humiliation had been witnessed by a strange man. Just her luck.
Filipe stopped before descending. “Are you all right? You can’t afford to lose any more weight. You should probably go to a doctor to see what’s wrong with you.”
Catarina sidled a hand over her still-flat belly and quickly moved it to her hip. “I’m pretty sure I’m on the mend.” She could blame it on her little stowaway, even if she didn’t tell Filipe. Kind of ironic that she’d finally lost the five kilos Juan-Carlos had nagged her about.
She flinched at the thought. Where had that come from? She didn’t want to spare him any thoughts. He didn’t deserve them.
Filipe watched her but didn’t say anything. He probably regretted taking in a long-lost cousin who came with so much baggage. If Catarina had another choice, she’d take it, but she had nowhere else to go. She was much like the baby she carried: clandestine and totally dependent on someone else for the most basic needs.
They walked through the kitchen and stopped outside the back door.
Filipe playfully pulled a lock of her hair. “You take care of yourself, and don’t get in too much trouble.”
Catarina rolled her eyes. “You’re just my cousin, not my older brother.” The five-year gap between them had been more noticeable when they were children.
“I’m exactly the same age as Tiago. But maybe I’ll call him instead.” He smirked.
“Don’t you dare.” She leaned on the open jamb as he crossed the paved path to the rear courtyard toward the garage. “Are you taking the Audi or the Jeep?”
Filipe held up his keys. “The Jeep. Afonso has the keys to the Ford, and the Audi is there for you.”
“Not funny,” she called back to him.
Minutes later, the red jeep rolled out of the garage and Filipe waved at her. She held a hand up in return, unable to the hold back the small smile that pulled at the corners of her mouth when he honked the horn before disappearing around the house.
Catarina walked back to her bedroom. Two questions came to her mind. What was she going to do with herself without her cousin around?
And how was she going to avoid the man who’d just moved in?

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