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Exclusive Excerpt from The Promise Of Us

Chapter One

Claire would rather stand naked in the middle of Sanctuary Sound’s town green to expose her scars than start this conversation with Steffi. She’d dismissed her father’s warnings about going into business with a friend, certain that she and Steffi could weather any dispute. After all, they’d managed a workable solution to the Peyton problem when Claire couldn’t have imagined anything more difficult. Apparently, her imagination hadn’t worked hard enough. This current mess, Steffi’s beloved 1940s bungalow that had exacerbated their remodeling company’s financial troubles, proved that a personal bond was exactly what made partnership conflicts so sticky.

Before taking her seat, she leaned Rosie—her worn rosewood-and-ivory cane—against a chair at the dining table. Overhead she heard Steffi’s boyfriend, Ryan—his heavy footfall on the bathroom tile, followed by the sound of the waterfall showerhead at full blast.

While Steffi poured them each a mug of hot chocolate, Claire inventoried the recently renovated interior for the millionth time. They’d tested six blends of “Espresso” and “Jacobean” stain before settling on the darkest one for all the floors. A gray glass-tile backsplash and white quartzite counters had been splurges. The assortment of modern lines and rustic, antique finishes might inspire a Town & Country feature, but that didn’t make the project any less fiscally irresponsible.

“Did you highlight your hair this morning?” Steffi grabbed a can of whipped cream from the refrigerator. “Strawberry blonde’s tres chic.”

“Thanks.” Claire threaded her fingers through the front of her hair self-consciously. The impulsive decision had more to do with Peyton’s impending return than with a desire to be stylish.

Peyton Prescott, the other part of the childhood triumvirate Steffi had named the Lilac Lane League. Peyton. For the past eighteen months, any mention of her name had nicked another piece of Claire’s heart. Bad enough that she’d swept through town and bewitched Claire’s then-boyfriend, Todd. Worse that Todd then ran off with Peyton on her travel-writing adventures. Betrayal by a man sucked. Betrayal by a man and a former bestie—although Peyton obviously hadn’t been a true friend—was excruciating.

In truth, Claire could admit Peyton wasn’t the only woman more venturesome than she. The lame hip and chronic pain from the bullet wound had put Claire’s high-adventure days in the rearview mirror since before she learned to drive. No more tennis. No hiking. No heels. Even dancing could be iffy, especially on dank nights. Her cane had become her most reliable companion, which was why she’d given it a name. And travel? Claire had put the worst of her PTSD behind her, but hypervigilance remained a family credo. No city or vacation destination was worth the risk of another life-altering event.

So be it. She was alive, which beat the alternative despite her limitations. But moving on didn’t mean rolling over, so Claire had declared good riddance to both Peyton and Todd, thankful she wouldn’t have to face them again.

She’d never dreamed Peyton would come home to live, even if only temporarily. Claire wasn’t dating anyone now, which meant the only thing left for Peyton to steal was her pride. Given Claire’s state of mind, it could happen. At the very least, Peyton’s return would stir up dust and make Claire the subject of more gossip. Unlike when she used to compete in the USTA New England’s district tournaments, Claire now hated being the center of attention almost as much as she hated brussels sprouts.

Peyton’s return would also bring her brother, Logan—the star of Claire’s teenage fantasies (and only real rival to her girlhood crush on then up-and-coming junior tennis champ Andy Roddick)—to town. He’d been different from other teen boys—more clever and creative. The last time she’d seen him, this past fall, she’d stammered and scampered away. That recollection made her hot—in a bad way.

She’d sworn to herself that the next time she saw either Prescott, she’d be prepared.

Determined to be on equal footing with her golden-haired rival, Claire had lightened her hair. Silly? Sure. But in the heat of the moment, it had made perfect sense. Then she’d remembered Peyton’s ongoing battle with breast cancer—and her probable lack of any hair—and prayed for forgiveness for such petty thoughts.

Claire smoothed one hand across the waxed surface of Steffi’s farmhouse table, her fingers tracing the ridge between two planks of wood. This bargain find—a benefit of having lived her entire adult life within a ten-mile radius of home and knowing every local craftsman—had been a coup. Claire smiled to herself, picturing Steffi, Ryan, and his daughter, Emmy, carving the holiday roast and blowing out birthday candles at this table.

Steffi carried a round metal tray with the oversize mugs and whipped cream into the dining room and set it on the table, then handed a mug to Claire. “Here you go.”

“Thanks.” She inhaled a whiff of milk chocolate, then gently blew into the cup to cool the beverage. “Looks like you’re almost finished unpacking.”

“Can’t believe how long it’s taking, but I won’t complain.” Steffi sat, slung her dark hair into a low ponytail, and rolled back the sleeves of one of Ryan’s faded “BC Law” sweatshirts. “Sometimes I wake up and need to pinch myself. I never dreamed I could be in love again and living out my teenage dreams.”

Claire reached across the table and squeezed Steffi’s hand. “I couldn’t be happier for you.”

She couldn’t. Mostly.

Steffi and Ryan had worked through a lot of mistakes and Steffi’s violent assault to get to this place. They’d earned their happiness, which was why Claire had agreed to take on this project and let them buy the house at practically no profit. Maybe her dad hadn’t been wrong about the complications of mixing friendship with business, but she could hardly regret this choice.

“Thanks.” Steffi’s gaze strayed from Claire’s open laptop to Rosie and back to Claire’s face. She patted Claire’s hand. “I want you to be happy, too. Ryan has a cute colleague . . .”

“I am happy.” Claire withdrew her hand. Totally true, although that didn’t mean a little pang didn’t squeeze her heart now and then from the way her own love life had fizzled. Fizzled? No. Exploded—imploded?—or, more accurately, absconded.

But she’d moved on—really, she had. She no longer pictured Todd with horns and green eyes. She stifled a smile at the thought of that favorite pastime. She’d done it so often that she’d sort of forgotten what he actually looked like.

Now, most nights she collapsed into bed, eager to read a good book after a long, productive day. Only the occasional unexpected moment unlocked that bleak, frosty spot in her chest that ached as much as her hip, like when she watched diaper commercials or decorated a nursery or watched The Notebook.

Steffi offered a smile, then cracked her knuckles.

Enough about Peyton and Todd and my nonexistent love life.

“I’ll be happier once we sort out our financial problems.” Claire snatched the whipped cream and shook it hard before layering three full rotations of foamy, chilled sweetness atop her cocoa. Simple pleasures nourished the soul, and enough of them strung together made up for the inevitable disappointments and devastations everyone faced. “All the time spent on this project kept us from finding new ones. At the moment, my small decorating jobs can’t keep us both employed and pay our bills.”

“Bigger reno work will start up soon. People generally try to avoid construction projects during the winter.” Steffi cast a glance through the French doors to the snowy backyard, where young Emmy was building an igloo.

Claire rarely recalled the time before her injury, when she’d been carefree, dragging her toboggan up Nob Hill, battling in neighborhood snowball fights, and snuggling up in the window seat near the hearth of her parents’ home to watch giant flakes swirl to the ground. Now the pleasant memories spread bittersweet warmth through her chest.

Steffi sighed. “I know the business took one on the chin so Ryan and I could afford this house. I swear, I’ll make it up to you.”

“I did it with love, so you don’t need to ‘make it up’ to me. But we veered from our original business plan in order to do this project, and to take on a small crew. We need to be more strategic. Let’s go back to our plan to rent retail space to help drive business.” Her former job at Ethan Allen had taught her the value of having a space where potential customers could easily walk in, ask questions, and see samples. She’d already planned out their retail space on paper—gigantic plateglass window, white-and-cottage-blue interior, round worktables, and assorted fanciful light fixtures—and couldn’t wait to see it come to fruition. “To do that, we need more money ASAP. I’m not complaining, but we need new leads and more traction with our website and social media presence.” Claire closed her eyes and massaged her temples. Neither of these things eased her stress the way a good junk-food binge could, but Steffi hadn’t put cookies out, so this was her best option.

When she heard Steffi add more whipped cream to her mug, she opened her eyes and peered across the table. Steffi had fallen silent while sipping her cocoa, but her constipated expression snagged Claire’s attention.

“What are you thinking?” Claire dropped her hands to the table.

Steffi shook her head, waving one hand. “Nothing.”

“Don’t lie. Is there another problem I’m not aware of?”

“No.” Steffi inhaled, held her breath, then exhaled slowly. “I know of one project that would make a sweet profit and let you really stretch your talent. ‘Sky’s the limit’ kind of budget.”

Excitement lifted Claire’s spirit, straightening her spine. Anything that accelerated plans to open a retail outlet merited her attention. “Sounds amazing. What’s the catch?”

Steffi hesitated.

“Never mind. You won’t take it, so let’s move on.” Steffi spooned whipped cream into her mouth. “Oh! Molly says that Mrs. Brewster is thinking of remodeling her master bath.”

Mrs. Brewster’s late husband had left her comfortably well off, but you’d never know it. She clipped every coupon available to humanity—Claire had been behind her at the grocery store more than once. She put only two dollars in the collection basket at church each week, despite having enough money to leave more. And she gave out bite-size candy at Halloween. Bite-size!

“We can’t rely on Ryan’s mom as our major source of leads, and Mrs. Brewster spending big bucks on a remodel sounds improbable. Betcha she pretended to be interested so she could get the inside scoop about our business from Molly.” Claire leaned forward, elbows on the table. “Don’t make me beg. If you have a solution, I won’t dismiss it out of hand, I promise. I’m not an idiot. We need income. I’ll do whatever it takes to keep the doors open.”

Steffi went still, her chin just above the mug held midair. “Whatever it takes?”

Claire’s hair stood on end, but she motioned “Let’s have it” with both hands.

Steffi hesitated. “How would you like to redecorate a high-end condo in Chelsea?”

“In the city?” Her entire body prickled painfully at the thought of putting herself in the midst of that chaos and danger. She’d already been one madman’s random victim. Manhattan teemed with crazy people, not the least of whom were the ones who drove their cars like heat-seeking missiles. “Who’d hire us instead of any of the premier designers there?”

Steffi met Claire’s gaze. “Logan.”

Claire’s tongue seemed to swell and turn sticky. Work with Logan . . . Her blood thickened like warm syrup. Tingles and terror all at once—a sensation she both loved and loathed. Her own brand of crazy. Maybe she did belong in New York, after all. “No.”

“You just said you’d do whatever it takes.”

“Not that. Never that.” Claire didn’t need to look into a mirror to know that her fair, lightly freckled cheeks now looked like someone had smeared them with ripe strawberries.

“As I suspected.” Steffi shrugged nonchalantly, as if she hadn’t just pulled the pin from a grenade and dropped it on the table. “So that leaves us a little tight until something else comes up. In terms of our social media presence, I just read an article . . .”

Claire heard Steffi talking, but the words ran together like white noise because Claire’s brain was still stuck on the idea of working with—no—for Logan Prescott. His obvious ploy made her want to laugh. Did he really think he could buy her forgiveness for his sister? Well, Claire would never, ever forgive Peyton. Not even if he paid her a million dollars to renovate his condo.

The very condo Peyton had moved into while undergoing chemo because Todd had dumped her when she got sick. Given how Todd had treated Claire, his leaving Peyton shouldn’t have shocked her. Either way, it served Peyton right for breaking a cardinal rule of friendship.

Eyes closed, Claire pressed her palm to her hot cheek, silently asking for forgiveness for yet another bitter thought.

“Claire? Did you hear anything I said?” Steffi turned her hands out in question.

“Sorry.” She rubbed the scowl from her forehead. “I’ll find another way to turn up new leads. Working with Logan is a hard no.”

“Too bad. You’d have so much fun decorating his place. I’m sure he’d let you do whatever you wanted. Anything would be better than how it looks now. Guess he never cared before, since he was rarely around to enjoy it.”

Only a Prescott would own a million-dollar property that sat vacant as often as it was occupied.

Their family’s legacy stemmed from their great-grandfather’s famed body of literature. The Prescott mystique—and coastal home here in town—was like something out of The Great Gatsby. Logan, like his sister, had chosen a career that let him jet-set around the world. Former fashion photographer turned documentary photographer. Cool jobs. Suited to his enchanting mix of charmer, adventurer, activist, and artist. Not that she paid too much attention to his comings and goings.

“I’m not an idiot.”

“Did I call you one?” Steffi had the gall to look stunned.

“This has Peyton’s paw prints all over it. I’d bet my last penny that she put him up to it. I don’t know what I hate more—that she did it, that you took the bait, or that she knows we’re desperate for money.”

“It’s not a conspiracy. I mentioned that I felt bad about putting you in this situation because of this home. Logan tossed out the idea on the spot.”

“I can’t deal with the strings that would come with his offer.” Except now Claire couldn’t focus on anything else because thinking about Logan took up all the space in her head. If Peyton hadn’t stolen Todd, Claire might’ve pounced on a chance to work closely with Logan. Of course, then she wouldn’t have been free to act on her desire. Not that she had ever acted on it before Todd, either. The hawkish way Logan could stare at her turned her to jelly around him and—oh, just no. “I thought you finally understood that.”

“I do. That’s why I wasn’t going to say anything.” Steffi crossed her arms. “You forced me to tell you.”

True enough. Logan’s image flickered through Claire’s mind again, poking at the tender spot of her pointless longing, like always.

She’d memorized his face so long ago, during the countless hours she’d hung out at his house with Peyton and Steffi. Sandy-blond hair, worn in lengths ranging from shaggy to shoulder-length, which had the added bonus of annoying his father. Piercing green eyes that glowed like phosphorous in the dark. A patrician profile that befitted his family’s prominence. All that and a surprisingly generous smile. Logan Alder Prescott. Even the sound of his name belonged on a lighted marquee.

From their very first meeting, when she’d barely been thirteen years old, she’d concocted adolescent fantasies about him professing his secret love for her. He had fulfilled her wish for him to be her first kiss. He hadn’t known that wish part—at least she hoped he hadn’t. She’d been fifteen, but he’d kissed her only because he felt sorry for her after her surgeries. Just thinking of his gentle lips made her pelvic area throb as if the bullet were striking anew.

She shook her head, dislodging all thoughts of Logan. “I’ll catch up with Mrs. Brewster and pitch a proposal for her bathroom. But we also have to scrape together funds to advertise and update the website, and you need to scare up reno work pronto. Promise me we’ll earmark new revenue toward retail space—”

A knock at the door interrupted her monologue.

Ryan called downstairs, “Steffi, can you get that? I’m not finished dressing.”

“Sure.” Steffi held up her index finger, silently begging for Claire’s patience, before she rose from the table and disappeared around the corner.

Claire added another dollop of whipped cream to her last bit of cocoa plus a spray to the tip of her finger, grateful for her superhuman metabolism. From the other room, she heard Steffi’s surprised voice say, “Oh, we didn’t expect you so early.”

“Hope that’s not a problem,” replied Logan, in his unmistakable baritone.

Claire choked, spewing bits of whipped cream and cocoa across the table. She grabbed at paper napkins to start cleaning up, which was impossible while her vision blurred.

 

Logan noticed Steffi’s jaw twitch. She remained still in the doorway except for a quick glance over her shoulder. He couldn’t stop a stupid grin from forming when he realized he might’ve just cock blocked his buddy Ryan. “Am I interrupting?”

She batted his shoulder while rolling her eyes, although he noted tension tightening her smile. “No . . . Ryan’s upstairs dressing.”

Uh-huh. As he’d suspected. He guessed those two had a lot of catching up to do. They’d been gaga for each other back in high school, but he never would’ve believed Ryan could forgive her for ghosting him in college. If Ryan could forgive Steffi, then Logan could hope that, one day, Claire might forgive Peyton.

In his ragtag circles, loyalty was a rather flexible concept . . . as was friendship. What his sister had done to Claire, however, had shocked him, given the history of the Lilac Lane League. But he loved his sister, and she regretted her actions, missed her friend, and wanted to atone. Seeing her suffer so much these past months—contemplating her mortality and begging to make amends in case she died—made him desperate to help her earn Claire’s forgiveness.

“Can I come in, or should I freeze my ass off out here on your porch?” he joked, shoving his hands in his coat pockets.

“Sorry!” Steffi smiled and backed up. “Come in. I, uh, I—”

A noise from the left caught his attention, but the living room was empty. And inviting.

Logan whistled, his eye noting the shadowy crisscross pattern cast by the French door mullions. The hot spot of honey-colored light glinting off the oval mirror on the corner elevation. The contrast of coarse and soft textures of the fabrics. “Picture-perfect, Steffi.”

A massive river rock fireplace anchored the room, but its refinished beams drew his eyes up. The L-shaped navy sofa absorbed most of the floor space. Coral-colored mix-and-match pillows filled the sofa’s corners—but his attention fixed on the needlepoint one displaying Ryan’s, Steffi’s, and Emmy’s names written in the shape of a heart.

“I assume Claire designed all this?” The room practically glowed with warmth and love—two things noticeably absent from his condo. Not that he needed those. Life lived in the moment couldn’t thrive inside the picket-fence trappings of the suburbs. Spending a single afternoon with his parents proved that fact of life.

“She did.” Steffi’s expression changed as she cleared her throat. “She’s great with personal touches, like that handmade pillow.”

“Not a surprise.” He recalled that Claire had always been thoughtful and attentive to details, like with the gift she’d given him for his sixteenth birthday—Lee Child’s Persuader. She’d wrapped the book in a desk blotter–size monthly calendar page, circled his birthdate in red marker, and tied the package in a red ribbon, leaving it for him on his bed. Her short note had revealed that she’d spied him reading Jack Reacher novels at the library, presumably because his parents sneered at anything other than literary fiction.

It’d been disquieting to be so unaware of being watched, yet somehow sweet at the same time. Most of the women he’d known in his life never knew him—or even attempted to know him. They’d been more interested in his face, his money, and his name. Claire had always been different from most women.

He strode into the cozy space—a sort of foreign concept to him, given the formal places he’d called home. He fingered the chenille sofa, then went to the fireplace to inspect the framed photographs on display, which were sure to be the sort of uninspired candid snapshots taken with smartphones. It perturbed him when people didn’t bother to capture interesting images. He didn’t get a chance to let his critical eye go to work because motion to his right drew his attention . . . to Claire.

He gripped the mantel.

She’d always been cute with that shy smile, but something had changed. Gold highlights. A longer, angled bob that brushed her shoulders. Its lighter color didn’t suit her skin tone as well as her natural shade, although it didn’t look bad. Her eyes remained the same, thank God.

Most would call her irises blue. He would not. Setting aside the enlarged jet-black pupils, Claire’s irises were an ever-changing medley of arctic blue, turquoise, and cobalt—with occasional streaks of white to make them glitter—rimmed in navy. A quick assessment proved them as round and kind as ever, but not as trusting.

She remained stiffly seated beside Rosie, the souvenir of a psychopath. That old cane had been a talisman of strength and survival after an unfortunate mass shooting at the Yankee Crossing Outlets killed her promising tennis career. Better the death of that dream than a literal one, though.

Having one of its own become a victim of random violence had shaken their small town, which had then rallied around the McKennas. Although Claire had been fifteen at the time, he’d never once caught her feeling sorry for herself despite being forced to walk away from a top tennis ranking in her division. Never seen her break down or give up while relearning to walk. In her quiet way, she’d shown more mettle than he’d ever been required to muster.

Her bravery had moved him in ways his sixteen-year-old self hadn’t fully understood. To this day, that uneasy awe remained with him, affecting the rhythm of his heart.

“Claire.” He nodded, oddly tongue-tied. He’d hoped to run into her soon, but on his terms, not hers. Not unprepared. He had a plan, after all. One that required careful plotting. He wouldn’t let Peyton down. And if spending time getting reacquainted with Claire was part of the process, well, that would be no hardship.

“Logan.” Claire’s voice squeaked. It did that often when she spoke to him. Sometimes she’d sputter, too. Endearing, frankly. He’d secretly liked her little crush on him. It’d been so authentic—another thing he was unaccustomed to with most.

“Didn’t mean to interrupt.” He gestured around the space. “But since you’re here, let me extend my compliments. You did a beautiful job. I can only imagine what it looked like when old Mrs. Weber lived here.”

“Thank you.” She fidgeted with her hair, which was a couple of inches longer than his. “Steffi and I have similar taste, so it was easy.”

“It’s comfortable, unlike my museum in the city.” He purposely avoided meeting the stony gaze he felt coming from Steffi. “Maybe you could transform my place to better reflect me?”

“But a museum is perfect for you,” came Claire’s brittle reply. “You can display all your photographs to impress all your girlfriends.”

He flinched. When he’d last seen her a few months ago, she’d been harried in her attempt to dodge him. Of all the reasons he’d imagined for her running from him that afternoon, he’d never considered that her feelings toward him had changed because of Peyton.

The loss of her affection deflated him.

Surely she couldn’t disapprove of him supporting his sister. Then again, maybe Peyton had nothing to do with Claire’s change of heart. Throughout the years, he’d enjoyed a different date on his arm for each social event that his family expected him to attend. After Claire’s experience with Todd, she’d probably lost all patience for that kind of thing.

Nonetheless, her prickliness provoked him. “I’m getting older. Who knows, maybe one of these days I’ll follow in Ryan’s footsteps and start a family of my own?”

She snorted a laugh, then covered her nose and mouth with one hand, mumbling, “Sorry.”

“Apology accepted.” He smiled because she’d unwittingly given him an opening regarding his sister. With a happy sigh, he said, “Gee, that felt good.”

“What did?” Her brows gathered.

“Letting you off the hook.” He tucked his hair behind his ears and nodded at Steffi before returning his gaze to Claire. “Forgiveness is such a win-win, don’t you think?”

Claire’s expression turned as icy as the sidewalks outside. She pushed herself out of her chair, shoved her laptop into its case, and grabbed Rosie. “Steffi, we’ll finish our discussion later. In the meantime, I’ll find a way to tempt Mrs. Brewster.”

Claire limped across the room to the coatrack by the front door, each uneven step leaving an imprint on his gut as if she’d trampled right over him. Needling Claire had been a shitty move—a knee-jerk reaction to her cold shoulder, and in poor form. “Hang on. Let me help you to your car.”

“I can manage.” She rose onto her toes to reach her jacket at the top of the coatrack.

He dashed across the room and reached for her bag. “I insist.”

She yanked her arm away, but he’d clutched her elbow too tightly for her to escape. “Claire, it’s slick out here.”

“And yet I got inside on my own.” Her gaze flitted around the entry like a butterfly looking for a safe place to land.

He tipped up her chin, hungry for her eye contact, which somehow simultaneously calmed and excited him. “But you weren’t upset when you first arrived.”

She stared back at him. A flicker of something—sorrow, regret, surrender—rippled through those azure pools.

Ryan came trotting down the stairs, oblivious to the tension in his entry. “Where are you going?”

Logan slapped Ryan’s shoulder, sparing his old friend a brief smile. “Just helping Claire to her car. I’ll be right back.”

“Maybe we should salt again,” Steffi said to Ryan, although her gaze remained fixed on Claire.

“I’ll take care of it.” Ryan grabbed his coat from the rack and dashed ahead of them, kissing Claire on the cheek on his way out the door. “See you later, Claire.”

Logan followed Claire onto the porch. Ryan’s footprints wound around the house toward the detached garage. His disappearance left Logan alone with Claire for a few minutes. All around them, snow blanketed every shrub, lawn, and branch like a thick coat of icing. He kept hold of her elbow, allowing her to set the pace, somewhat distracted by the play of light and glitter on the snow. If he’d had his camera with him, he’d have caught some intriguing images.

Once they crossed the porch and descended its two steps, she turned. “Logan, I’m fine. Please, let me go.”

He stopped and held her in place on the walkway, softening his voice. “I didn’t plan on bumping into you today, you know.”

Claire glanced at an orange VW Beetle at the curb before raising one brow. “You didn’t see my car?”

“I didn’t know that was yours.” He covered a smile because he could picture her tooling around town in the miniature car. Bright and preppy like her, in her turtleneck, corduroys, and fuchsia crewneck. “I figured it belonged to someone on the street.”

Her cheeks flushed bright scarlet. He’d always liked that trait because it made her easy to read. Today was different. She didn’t smile or fidget with her hair. She didn’t stutter. She held her arms stiffly at her sides.

“Claire, what’s with the hostility? Come back inside and let’s catch up. Steffi’s told me about your business, but I’d love to hear how you’re liking it.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Don’t play dumb. I know you’re exploiting our financial situation as a way to buy my forgiveness for your sister. Well, listen up. I’d rather lose my business than forgive Peyton.”

Logan crossed his arms, the chill in his body having nothing to do with the single-digit temperature. “You’ve changed.”

She huffed. “I’ve wised up. I’m no longer too shy to speak my mind or willing to take a back seat simply to make everyone else happy even when it makes me miserable.”

Her words settled between them like a barbwire fence. He said nothing, hoping she’d take them back. When her gaze didn’t waver, he said, “I always thought you were naturally generous and kind, which was so appealing. Pity to learn it was all an act.”

Her nostrils flared, and those bright eyes darkened with a mix of pain and something else he couldn’t identify. “Just like your sister’s friendship, I guess.”

He hated that Claire’s tongue was now as sharp as a scalpel, although maybe he shouldn’t judge her for it when Peyton’s behavior might well have been the whetstone.

She turned from him and took two quick steps. The next few things happened in slow motion: Rosie skidding on a patch of ice and Claire’s feet going out from under her. She landed with a dull thud, faceup, in a snowdrift.

“Claire!” Logan lurched forward to help her up. “Are you hurt?”

She waved him off, but not before he saw tears shining in her eyes. “Just leave me alone, Logan. Please. Go inside.”

He hesitated, jaw clenched, arms lowering as fists formed at his sides. Every ounce of breeding he’d ever had pushed him to assist her, but her flinty attitude held him at bay. “Fine.”

He turned his back on her and strode to the porch just as Ryan came around the side of the house, carrying an open bag of salt. Ryan took in the scene, scowled at him, and then dropped the salt bag and jogged toward Claire.

Logan watched Claire take Ryan’s hand as he helped her stand. She never once glanced over her shoulder at Logan, but she must’ve known he was waiting on the porch while watching them. Ryan loaded Claire’s bag into her back seat, then closed her door and waved her off.

She pulled from the curb and crept down the residential lane, where kids were building snowmen.

“What the hell, Logan?” Ryan scoffed as he retrieved the discarded salt bag.

“She ordered me to leave her alone.” His lungs now had frostbite from Claire’s chilly new attitude.

Ryan scooped some salt and tossed it across the walkway. “What did you say to upset her?”

“Nothing. I complimented her work. She threw the first barb, and the second. Even then, I tried to help her to her car, but she broke free.” He crossed his arms, newly affronted. “If anyone has the right to feel pissed off, it’s me.”

“Get your head out of your ass.” Ryan hoisted the bag onto his hip. “You know you’re the second-to-last person on the planet she wants to see. She didn’t expect to face you this morning. Give her a break. She and Steffi are under a lot of pressure now, and you’re a life-size reminder of something else that’s painful.”

Logan resented being persona non grata because of what his sister had done. “Well, she’d better get used to seeing Peyton and me around town. Despite what my sister did, she has as much claim on this town as anyone, maybe more.”

Their great-grandfather, William Herbert Prescott, or Duck as Logan had named him because of the way he’d often spoken to kids in a Donald Duck voice, practically founded the town. A Prescott had lived on Lilac Lane for ninety years. Logan should know. In less than two months, he’d be required to attend an annual fund-raiser to celebrate that fact and raise money for the local library’s literacy program.

Ryan narrowed his eyes. “Don’t pull the Prescott card, buddy. It doesn’t suit you.”

In some ways, it didn’t. He’d rather be admired for his own talent than the long shadow of his family name. While he’d had moderate success, he’d yet to produce a truly noteworthy project. This morning, however, Claire’s dismissal had thrown him out of sorts, although he couldn’t honestly say why it hurt him so much.

It wasn’t like he saw her often. She’d simply been part of his life here, like the rambling mansion his mother and father still called home, and Donna, the aging waitress at the diner who knew to bring him black coffee and coconut cream pie when he sat down, and the sense of peace he knew when kayaking on the sound during the golden hours. “Sorry. Maybe I should go. Steffi’s likely to chew my head off, too.”

Ryan rolled his eyes. “Shut up and get inside. Her bark is worse than her bite. Besides, she planned a whole lunch thing.”

“She cooked?” Steffi Lockwood was not someone anyone would deem domestic.

“Takeout.” Ryan smiled and raised his index finger to his lips, forcing a chuckle from Logan. “Lasagna from Lucia’s.”

“Thank God coming home can still yield a few good surprises.” Logan smiled and headed for the door, noticing for the second time its canary-yellow appeal. A nice contrast to the Wedgwood-blue clapboard trimmed in cloud white.

It’d been a long time since he’d spent more than a few hours in Sanctuary Sound. When his sister first announced her wish to come home for her double mastectomy after the final round of chemo, he’d been skeptical. Her relationship with their parents was only slightly better than his own, and Peyton had burned some serious bridges last year. The sleepy town also wouldn’t offer much entertainment.

But a growing part of him had looked forward to catching up with old friends. He’d assumed that list included Claire, but apparently his last name had cost him that privilege. That left him with two choices: pursue his original plan or let her go.

The past six months had been a grueling challenge with Peyton, so how hard could one more battle be?