Finding Home

Harlequin Special Edition | Share

by Amy M. Newman

Pitch

Bad-boy turned bush pilot Conner Morgan was content with his life until Andie Turner reentered it. He could easily fall for her, if only her Christmas shop wasn’t in his building—the one he’s about to sell to developers.

Andie hasn’t seen Conner since he broke her heart in high school. She’d never get involved with him now, but only he can save her little shop on the shores of Lake Superior. As they work together to renovate the historic building in hopes of attracting a different buyer, Andie wonders, is the bad-boy actually good for her now?

Chapter One

"Really, Shawn? You know Logan‘s way too young to use a knife." Andie Turner reached over and tugged the gleaming chef’s knife from her nine-year-old brother’s hand. "Can’t I leave you guys alone for one afternoon?"

Shawn, her older brother by two years, snorted as he stirred a pot on the stove. Done for the day at the vet clinic, he’d already changed out of his scrubs. "Yeah, who says he’s too young?"

"Me. End of story." Andie poured herself a glass of white wine, then added another half an inch to make up for the tour bus of tourists that had flooded her shop a mere five minutes before she’d planned to lock the doors. As she passed the fridge, she scooped up a couple hearts of Romaine lettuce, then handed them to Logan

"Here, you rip up lettuce for the salad. I can chop the tomatoes and red onion." She grabbed another cutting board and sat down at the old, scarred dinning table.

"Ah, man. I’m not a baby you know," Logan said. But he tore into the crisp leaves with his fingers.

"I know, kiddo. I just feel better this way." Andie took a large sip of wine then wrapped her fingers around the knife. For a minute the only sounds were the sizzle from the stove, the crunch of lettuce and the sharp slap of the metal against the cutting board.

"Our day was interesting. " Shawn grabbed a beer out of the fridge, popped the cap and took a long swallow before he leaned back against the stainless steel door.  "Mrs. Johnson decided to try to groom her dog. After she’d had a couple of glasses of wine."

"Mrs. Johnson is a menace. What is that, the second time now?" Andie bit her lip to stop the mean words that wanted to tumble out. "Is Pooka okay?"

"He’s okay now, but his tail is an inch shorter than it was." Shawn moved back to the stove and dumped a bunch of chopped onions in with the garlic. Andie knew if she was disgusted with the dog’s owner, it was nothing to what her brother was feeling. She wouldn’t be surprised if he took a run to the police station after dinner.

Logan gave her a wide-eyed, slightly wild look. "Shawn let me assist! It was awesome! There was this flap of skin hanging off and he pulled it over the stump of bone-"

She could picture it; the wet gleam of blood, the sharp metallic scent of it. Her stomach pitched hard. "Ugh. Please."

Logan giggled. "Oh, yeah. I forgot about your blood thing. Sorry, sis."

Andie pressed one hand to her belly, willing it to calm itself. She usually managed to control her phobia, but too much blood and she’d have to race for the bathroom. Or worse, she’d pass out. Which was, of course, not only horribly inconvenient, but embarrassing as all heck, too.

A couple cans of crushed tomatoes joined the garlic in the pan and the smell that had been making her hungry before suddenly made her feel so sick that beads of dampness formed on her forehead. She stood up, grabbing the mail with one hand and her wine glass with the other as she went. "I think I’ll go sit on the deck until supper’s ready. I need some air."

Shawn shoved his hair out of his face with the same hand that was holding the marinara spoon. A splotch of red sauce dropped off it and onto the bottle green of his T-shirt, but he didn’t notice. "I’ll come get you when it’s ready."

"Sounds good." Andie stepped through the sliding glass door. Her favorite Adirondack chair stood in a gleaming patch of sunlight, the red and white seat cushion invitingly plump. It took her less than a second to drop down into it and prop her bare feet up against the deck railing.

Below her, the small town of Port Haven, nestled in the forests of northern Wisconsin, spread out in neat little patches of lawn and trees until it reached the shore of Lake Superior. A curve of soft, tan sand marked the border between land and water. The lake shimmered, almost too brightly to look at, as sailboats with snowy white sails skimmed across the surface. The scent of the pine trees that surrounded the house, spicy and sweet, curled around her like a hug. This was home, had always been, despite the two and a half years she’d been able to get away for college.

At the time, she’d never thought she’d be back so soon, never thought she’d be raising a three-year-old while finishing her bachelor’s degree at the local, private college, but that’s exactly what had happened. When tragedy struck and a drunk driver had claimed her parents’ lives, she and Shawn had pulled together, surrounding Logan with love and family. Making him a home. He was nine now, and happy. She couldn’t ask for more than that.

Andie took a sip of her wine. The dry, slightly bitter taste spilled over her tongue as she set her glass on the little teak table her dad had built and tore through the mail.

Bills, bills, bills. She frowned when she came to the last envelope. Someone had scrawled her name across the front. It didn’t look like a bill. She ripped it open and scanned it, then read it again, more thoroughly, squinting to make out the blur of words. The paper was shaking. No, that wasn’t right, her fingers were shaking. She knew they were, because she could see the tremor racing through them, but she couldn’t feel it. She couldn’t seem to feel anything. She read the letter a third time, trying to understand, trying to make sense of the words that swooped sickeningly in front of her face. Her little Christmas shop, her heart’s wish come true, was in danger.

But according to the letter, the owner of the building didn’t want to be the owner anymore. Not only was he going to sell it, he was going to sell it to one of the biggest hotel chains in the country. All the businesses currently in the building would have to vacate within three months, by the end of November at the latest. Which was, of course, when Andie’s shop was busiest.

Oh, God. This couldn’t be happening. How would she and her brothers survive? Shawn’s clinic was just getting off the ground; he didn’t even have an income yet, let alone one that would support them all. Andie rubbed at the sudden pain in her chest and wondered if twenty-seven was too young to have a heart attack. She pulled her knees into her body and let her head fall forward onto the papers, the powdery-sharp smell of it assaulting her nose. She needed her shop, for the money to keep her family going, but for herself, too, for her soul. Other than her family, nothing meant more to her. Nothing.

Andie lifted her head, her eyes dry and burning. No. She wouldn’t let this happen, not without battling it with every bit of fight left in her body. She would not let some faceless corporation destroy her dreams, destroy the very stability she’d rebuilt for her family, inch by painstaking inch.

She smoothed the crumpled paper out on her knees, scanned to the bottom of the letter again to see who had signed it in the hopes that she could find them, talk some sense into them. She read the name and this time, she was convinced her heart stopped beating altogether. Of course. It had to be him. Because things weren’t bad enough.

Conner Morgan had been her brother’s best friend in high-school, Port Haven’s resident trouble maker, the prodigal son who had returned home only a few months before. More than that, he’d been her best friend, her hero. He was the boy who had broken her heart.

She hadn’t talked to him since he’d graduated over ten years ago, but she knew who he had been intricately well. Yes, she remembered Conner, and what he’d done to her, and she hated him for it.

*

Andie’s best friend, Diana Lu, shut off the ignition to her old, beat up truck and then gave Andie a long, measuring look. "You want to tell me what we’re doing here now? I know something’s wrong. ‘Fess up."

Andie shoved her chin length blond curls out of her face with fingers that had gone icy cold and stiff, thanks to her Reynaud’s Syndrome, which shut down the blood circulation to her extremities every time she was nervous or cold. She tucked her hands under her arms to warm them and stared out the passenger window at the front of her shop building. The side that housed her shop was pitch black, but the other side streamed light, sound and people onto the sidewalk. Even from here, the thump of bass shook the vehicle. And she wondered if she could do it, if she had the guts to go in, to confront him.

"Andie?" Diana grabbed Andie’s chin between her fingers and gently turned her head until they were looking at each other. The gear shift jabbed at Diana’s hip as she leaned toward Andie, but she didn’t even wince. "What is it?"

Andie grabbed her cow-patterned purse from the floor and plopped it onto her lap. "Did you know Conner owns this whole building?"

Diana’s eyes widened a little as she stared up at the huge building. "Conner?" Diana gave her a sharp look. "Your Conner? No, I didn’t. I had no idea. He split out of town so fast after graduation I never thought we’d see him again. I didn’t think he’d be the kind to tie himself to Port Haven by owning property here."

Andie opened the little side-compartment of her purse and took out two of the bobby pins she always kept there. She shoved them between her teeth and flipped down the little vanity mirror over her seat. "Yeah, well, me either, it was just a company name on the lease. But he does, and now he wants to sell it. And he’s not ‘my Conner.’" His name tasted so bitter on her tongue that she itched to wipe it off with a tissue, her shirtsleeve, heck an old map would do.

Diana’s whole body jerked as she craned her neck to look at Andie’s store. "No! Oh, Andie! You love that store! Maybe the new owners might let you keep it, don’t you think?"

Andie pulled back the section of curls that kept drooping in front of her eyes, twisted it a couple of times and slid the bobby pins into it, forming a neat x. "The new owners are going to bulldoze it." She flipped the vanity shut with a sharp slap that seemed to echo in the cab of the truck.

Diana cracked her knuckles like she was getting ready to box the current heavyweight champion of the world. "Yeah, I don’t think so. That’s not happening, no way."

"It is going to happen, unless we convince Conner to change his mind." She unbuckled her seat-belt as she took a deep breath. The truck door let out a sharp creak as she pushed it open. "That’s why we’re here. So let’s do this."

Diana leaped down from the truck and was on the sidewalk in a matter of seconds. Andie stood there a moment longer, fighting to control the swirl of emotions raging through her, pulling together what scraps of peace she could find. Then, she followed Diana through the pub door.

If the noise, light and people had seemed overwhelming on the sidewalk, it was nothing like the whole body slap of noise she got once she was inside. The pub was packed wall to wall with people; people eating, talking, flirting, gossiping, dancing. A live band was set up in the corner, playing the classic rock that had been shaking their truck. The scent of fried food was so strong that Andie doubted she’d get the smell of it out of her hair for a week. And there behind the huge, polished oak bar, stood Conner Morgan. Not the boy she’d known, but the man he’d become.

Andie’s breath caught and held somewhere behind her ribs as she watched him, watched the way his wide, strong hands effortlessly pulled a pint of beer, then sent it spinning down the bar to the waiting customer. Someone bumped hard into her back and she forced herself forward, forced her feet to keep moving.

So what if he’d only become more gorgeous in the last ten years? So what if he’d grown taller and his body had filled out with muscle, making his jaw line a sharp slash below his face? So what if she could see the burn of his leaf green eyes from here? Did it really matter that he’d let his coal-colored hair grow out from the ruthlessly short buzz cut his dad had insisted on, long enough that the dark, silky black strands of it brushed and caught against the dusting of stubble on his high cheekbones?

No, it didn’t matter, Andie told herself firmly, because he was still the same reckless, devil-may-care guy who’d so callously thrown her feelings back in her face eleven years ago. Every bit of gossip surrounding him, every thing she’d heard since he’d come home a few weeks ago, did nothing but confirm it.

Andie hitched her purse up over her shoulder, curled her fingers around the black and white strap so tightly that the skin across her knuckles ached and pushed her way through the crowd of giggling women clustered in front of him.

She knew the instant he recognized her. For the slightest of seconds, his whole body stilled, his gaze finding and holding hers in a way that was far too intimate. Then, he pushed another pint of beer toward the man waiting for it, collected the money and dropped it into his till. The whole time, he never looked away from her.

He pulled up the pass through and stepped out onto the main floor. "Johnny, I’m going on break."

The young guy behind the counter did a little two fingered salute to acknowledge he’d heard him before grabbing a cocktail shaker.

Conner took a step closer to Andie, leaned forward to shout in her ear over the noise. "Let’s head outside for a minute. It’ll be quieter. I’m guessing you think we need to talk."

Andie’s skin tingled when he placed his hand on the small of her back, guiding her through the crowd. She wanted nothing more than to pull away but she fought the urge, remembering that she needed to beg, plead if need be, whatever she had to do to save her store. Diana slid her arm through her elbow in a silent gesture of support. Andie was grateful for it. They stepped through the heavy, wooden door and into the twilight.

Even though the streetlight on the corner shed a pool of orange light onto the sidewalk, it was far enough away that Andie could see the pinpricks of stars scattered across the indigo sky above her. The spicy scent of the huge pots of glowing golden mums on either side of the door curled around her. She’d potted those mums herself, in her own planters, to spruce up the entrance to the building. She’d always thought of this as her place, her building. Clearly, she’d been a fool.

Time to get it over with, she thought. She hitched her purse a little higher on her shoulder and turned toward Conner. "Please. You can’t take my shop. We need to talk about this. There has to be something we can do."

Conner scrubbed a hand over his jaw, the stubble rasping against his palm. "I expected I’d see you sometime in the next day or two. I’m sorry it’s like this, Andie, I really am, but I need to sell and the hotel guys are the only ones offering." He shrugged one shoulder. "Life is rough sometimes. You’ll land on your feet. You always do."

The urge to shriek at him rose in Andie’s throat and she ruthlessly shoved it back. "You can’t do this. You can’t. I need that shop. My family needs it. Don’t you care about Shawn? He used to be your best friend. We won’t have enough money for our bills if you take my shop."

"Look, I’m sure you’ll find another building to rent. It’s not that big of a deal. Don’t blow things out of proportion." Conner leaned back, bracing his shoulder against the rough, sandstone blocks of the building, looking like what he was, a man enjoying his break. The very fact that he was so laid back, so nonchalant about Andie’s business, about her very survival, infuriated her.

"It is that big of a deal! Do you have any idea how long it would take to find a new building, assuming that I could even find one in as good of a spot as this? And then to box up my entire inventory, move it all to the new place, set up the displays and shelving and arrange everything? We’re talking about months! I’d miss the rest of tourist season and in all likelihood, I’d miss the holiday season as well! That’s most of my yearly income! Gone, just like that-"

Diana squeezed her hand, cutting off the blast of anger. Andie pressed her lips together to keep the words crowding her mouth from spewing out.

Conner rubbed at his face again. "Look, I’m sorry, really I am. I need the money so I can buy a plane. There’s nothing I can do."

An airplane! Was he kidding her? That was what was more important than her family’s well-being? Andie practically lunged at Conner, ready to burn the ears right off his head with a few choice words. Diana caught Andie around the waist, then stepped in front of her.

"What if you could sell it to someone else?" Diana asked. "I mean, it doesn’t have to be the hotel. Have you signed anything yet?"

"No." Conner said the word slowly, drawing it out. "But the thing is, no one else is going to buy it. I mean, the shop and the pub are in good shape, but let’s face it; the rest of it is a rat nest. There’re holes in the walls, the roof is leaking in a couple of spots, the plumbing is old and not up to code. It would be a massive project. No one’s going to want to take that on."

Diana grinned, wide and fierce, and took another step toward Conner. "Do you think you could put off the hotel for a little bit, a few months maybe? Say, until after Pumpkin Fest?"

Andie frowned. Sure, she’d get to at least finish out the summer season that way, but still. She’d miss the whole holiday shopping rush, and she’d never find a spot as good as this one. She’d never get the income she generated now from foot traffic if there wasn’t any foot traffic to generate it, which was precisely what would happen if she had to move to some little hole in the wall off Main Street.

Conner glanced over at the pub door as it swung open, nodded goodnight to the couple that emerged, clinging to each other as they stumbled down the steps. Judging by the way that they were giggling you’d think it was the funniest thing in the world. "Yeah, I guess I could, but I don’t see how that’s going to make a difference."

Diana’s grin got wider. "What if we fixed the place up? Did a bunch of repairs, staged it nice, you know, like one of those house-flipping shows, except for a business instead? Then you could have an open house the whole week of the Pumpkin Fest. If that doesn’t get you some interested buyers, I don’t know what would."

Andie’s mouth went dry with the sudden sharp rush of hope. It was a good idea. If they could make it work, make the building look like a good business investment, then a potential buyer might very well let her stay; after all, she was an established and lucrative business.

Conner shook his head. "That’s great and all but I have zero cash to spend on a thing like that."

He had to give this a chance. He had to. Andie thought fast. "I bet that wouldn’t be a problem. We could do some fundraisers and stuff. I bet people don’t want to see this building torn down. It’s been here for at least a hundred years."

Diana nodded. "I’m sure we could come up with the cash, and I know a lot of people who’d help with the repairs, me and Andie included. But we’re not going to do all that work for nothing. You’re going to have to agree to two things; you have to promise to wait until after Pumpkin Fest before you make any decisions regarding the building and you have to agree to help with the repairs."

Wait a minute, help with the repairs? Andie had no problem at all working on the building, but she sure didn’t want to be stuck working with Conner. She couldn’t imagine a situation more humiliating than having to be with him day in and day out, trying to pretend she hadn’t thrown herself at him, that he hadn’t told her that yeah, they might be friends, but as far as anything else was concerned, she was nothing but a little girl. How he laughed, laughed, at her and her foolish declaration of love.

She looked away from him, looked at the swirl of twinkle lights shimmering on the fake snow of her display window, and knew it didn’t matter what she thought, how she felt about Conner and their past. She’d do anything to keep her shop, to keep her family together, even subject herself to daily humiliation.

Conner shoved away from the wall, pulling her attention back to him. "Look, I want to help out Andie and everything, but why would I agree to this? I mean, the hotel is offering me money now, money that I need for that plane."

Diana turned slightly toward Andie and winked at her with the eye that wasn’t facing Conner. "I’m sure you wouldn’t want it to get around town that you’d thrown Andie out on her butt, would you? You’ve still got a lot of friends here, your dad’s here, you wouldn’t want to get that kind of reputation would you?"

Andie kept her face perfectly straight as she chimed in. "Plus, I don’t know but this building is pretty old. It might even be historical. Can you tear down a historical building? I’m pretty sure a judge could stop that until they decide whether or not it should be put on the historical register. I’ve heard of that happening, haven’t I, Diana?" She had absolutely no idea if that was true or not, but hey, desperate times called for desperate measures, right?

Diana nodded hard enough that the ends of her shoulder-length hair caught and held against the seams of her rough, canvas work coat. "Oh, I’m sure I’ve heard of that happening. And if it was put on the historical register, the property would be pretty much worthless to anyone who’d want to tear it down to build something new."

Andie bit her lip to keep from grinning. It might not be true, but it sure sounded good. She could all but see the string of curse words rolling through Conner’s brain right now.

"All right, fine. You have a deal, but only until Pumpkin Fest. After that, I’ll take whatever offer I get."

When Andie opened her mouth again, he held up his hand to stop her. "I’m willing to take a little less cash to sell to a buyer who won’t tear the building down. Despite what you might think, I’m not a complete jerk. Shawn’s a buddy, I don’t want to see him in a tight spot. But I do need the money I’ll get when I sell the building. You have until Pumpkin Fest is over. That’s the first week of November this year. And yeah, I’ll help you fix it up. When you’re ready to start with that, come find me and we’ll get to work."

Diana smiled. "Excellent. Let me get a pad of paper from the truck and we’ll write something up. We’ll all sign it. It’s not exactly a legal document, but it’ll be close enough."

And she walked away, leaving Andie alone with Conner.

Andie’s purse strap was digging into her palms now and she focused on that, the sharp irritation of it, as she pretended to watch the older couple sitting on the bench across the street. They were actually kind of cute. They had a huge ice cream sundae, but only one spoon. The man fed the woman a bite and she smiled up at him in a shy way, like they were newly-weds, like they’d found their home in each other. Andie’s heart ached watching them.

"Andie."

Andie blinked and discovered Conner was right next to her, staring down at her, his mouth curved into a frown. He’d sidled up on her and she hadn’t even noticed. She took a couple of stumbling steps back, then forced herself to stop.

"What?"

Conner leaned forward, his gaze level with her face. "I wanted to say I was sorry. For what happened between us in high school."

"Um." Andie laughed, a nervous chuckle that sounded shrill, even to her. "That’s all right. I’d actually totally forgotten it." Lie, Lie, Lie. But really, what else was she going to do? Roll out her list of all the ways he’d hurt her?

Conner raked a hand through his hair, shoving it off his face impatiently. "But I am. Sorry, I mean. I treated you like crap. I should have found a nicer way to…" He trailed off, clearly uncomfortable.

Please make him stop, Andie silently prayed. "Yeah, no. It’s all water under the bridge, right?" And if he didn’t stop right then and there, she was likely to spew some of her rage out at him and ruin the whole deal Diana and she had put together.

"Okay." Conner took a step back, fiddled with the thick, leather strap of his watch. "Okay," he said again.

Diana swung her car door open and popped out. "There. All done. Now let’s sign this bad boy and get going!" She slapped the paper on the hood of her truck and held out a pen.

Conner stepped forward, read the few lines on the paper and then signed his name. He handed Andie the pen and she wrote her own name in neat cursive under the scrawl that he must have intended to be his signature.

Diana took the pen from her friend and signed with a flourish. "There! Thanks, Conner for agreeing to this. We know that you didn’t have to and we appreciate it."

Andie swallowed hard. "Yeah, thanks." And no one would ever have to know how hard that had been for her to say.

Chapter Two

Conner stood outside the nursing home, wondering what he was doing there. The building was long, low and made of brick. Conner supposed it was nice enough, at least as nursing homes went. A long porch lined the front and several people sat in the shade reading books or sipping cool drinks. A garden wound around the side of the structure, spilling into the front yard, with banks of color and scent drifting all the way up to the sidewalk, and even from there, he could hear the burble of a fountain. Still, he stood there, frozen.

The thought of going inside, facing his father, was almost too much. Almost, but not quite. He laughed bitterly as he realized that he still had a kernel of the little boy he had once been inside him, the one who was desperate for approval and love he had never received from his father.

Conner put one boot in front of the other, climbed the stairs and pulled open the glass door. The scent of lemon cleaner, underlined by the faintest whiff of urine, curled around him as he walked down the hallway.

He knew where he was going; this wasn’t his first visit since arriving home in June. He didn’t know why he kept coming back. There was no love between them, never had been. Growing up, his mom had been his rock, his shelter, the only person who stood up to his father and his incessant, unrelenting demands for order, conformity. Then she had passed away, leaving him alone, leaving him to fend for himself. And that was when the real fun had begun.

Conner paused outside his dad’s room, steeling himself against the onslaught. Preparing for battle. Which was fitting enough, as his father had spent most of his life in the military. He’d made every day a war at home, a fight between their wills. Conner knocked once and shoved open the door.

His father looked up; a shrunken shell of what he once was, cradled in his hospital bed like an egg in a carton. “Hello.”

Conner stepped into the room then stopped at the foot of his bed. “Hey, Dad. How’re you doing today?”

“I’m fine.” His dad looked away, staring out the window at the sparkling patch of lake barely visible between two old maple trees.

Conner’s lips twisted down. Anything’s better than looking at your own, son, huh, Dad? But he tried again. “How’s your hip feeling today?” Conner grabbed the pitcher on the side table, filed the empty glass sitting there and brought it to his father. His dad shook his head, and Conner set it down on the rolling table next to him.

“It’s fine.” His dad pulled at the white, waffle-weave blanket covering his legs, straightening it and smoothing out the wrinkles. “Where’s your fiancée? When are you going to bring her to meet me?”

Conner winced. He’d phoned his father months ago, told him he was going to get married. He didn’t know why, but he had. Of course, he hadn’t bothered to phone back to tell his dad that it’d all gone down the toilet. In fact, he’d kind of been hoping his dad had forgotten about it.

Conner sat in the one chair in the room. It looked like it had been stolen out of a hospital’s waiting room. He shoved his hand through his hair, then let it drop when his dad frowned at him, at the slightly long style he wore. His father, of course, still had his hair at regulation military length, even though he couldn’t even walk to the bathroom on his own.

“I’m not getting married,” Conner said.

His dad snorted. “Screwed it up, huh?”

A hot rush of anger pounded through Conner’s chest as he stared at the man who should have been on his side, who should have assumed the best of him, not the worst. “Guess so.”

Yeah, maybe he had. But so had she. She’d become a totally different woman after they’d gotten engaged; controlling, demanding, shrill. As the wedding plans grew bigger, the guest list longer, the budget higher and higher, Conner had gotten the distinct impression that she didn’t care who she was marrying, as long as she got to have the perfect wedding. He might have been the little plastic groom on top of the cake for all she cared. He’d made a huge mistake. When he’d broken it off, she’d gotten nasty. Within hours of the breakup, she’d completely emptied their joint checking and savings. No need to tell his father that, though. He could hear the river of criticism that would flow from that little revelation.

His dad looked at him a moment longer, then reached for the remote and flipped on a golf tournament. Conner watched the perfectly manicured greens, the aqua blue ocean shimmering beyond the sway of palm trees for a few minutes, then got up and left. His father didn’t even say goodbye.

Outside, the sun had shifted behind a thick bank of clouds and the air had turned muggy. He stood on the sidewalk, his hands jammed in his pockets, looking west, regretting that he’d agreed to Andie’s demands. Yeah, sure, he didn’t want to put her and Shawn in a rough spot, or the kid either. They’d been through enough already. But what about him? What about what he wanted? No, that wasn’t right. What about what he needed?

There was a job as a bush pilot slash adventure guide lined up and waiting for him in Montana. All he had to do was provide his own plane, maybe a little four-seater, nothing crazy. If he still had the money Bridget had cleared out of their accounts, he’d have been gone already. But he didn’t. He’d lost everything but his Jeep and the property he owned here in Port Haven when they’d split. So he’d come back, his tail between his legs. It had only taken him a couple of weeks to realize what a mistake that was. There was nothing for him here. Nothing.

*

At four o’clock, the little sparkling snowmen on Andie’s favorite clock spun in a circle to Waltz of the Flowers while she flipped the open sign on her shop door to closed. But as she turned the lock, someone knocked on the glass door. Andie smiled as her big, pet-hair bedecked brother came in, even as a little tickle of tension shivered up her legs. He held his arms tightly to his sides. No matter how many times he’d been in her shop, no matter how many times she told him he wasn’t going to break anything, he couldn’t seem to get over the fear that he’d pulverize her entire store if he didn’t keep himself reigned in.

“Shawn!” She leaned over the counter and squeezed him hard. When she’d gotten home last night, he’d been crashed on the couch, Logan curled up next to him. There hadn’t been any point waking them up, worrying them over something they couldn’t fix. But she hugged him a little longer than normal now, glad to know she wasn’t alone.

Shawn grasped her shoulders, pulled her away long enough to study her face. “You okay, sis? I heard. I heard what Conner’s doing. Why didn’t you tell me?”

Andie narrowed her eyes at him. “You were asleep when I got in. I didn’t want to wake you. It’s not like I was keeping secrets from you.”

Shawn shook his head. “Nope. Not good enough. What about this morning? There was plenty of time to tell me what was going on then.”

“I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want you to worry.” She stepped around him and pulled the plug on the white, flocked Christmas tree directly behind him. She sighed as the bright lights winked out. It was always a little bit of a let down, even though she did it every day.

She walked from tree to tree, light display to light display, shutting off the cheer and happiness, leaving the store in darkness for the night. “Did you know that the Germans made the first artificial Christmas trees out of dyed goose feathers?”

Shawn trailed after her, his elbows tucked in tight to his sides. “Come on, Andie. Stop trying to change the subject. I’m responsible for Logan, for our family, too. It’s not all on your shoulders, no matter how much you might act like it is. I need to know what’s going on. How can I help fix things if you don’t tell me stuff?”

Andie spun around and drilled her finger into his chest. “Do you really think I wasn’t going to tell you? Come on, Shawn. I only wanted you to be happy one more day before I dropped the bomb on you. We’ve always handled these things together and we always will.” Andie watched as his shoulders un-hunched and dropped about two inches.

“Yeah, okay. I know that. Sorry. I feel so… helpless.” He picked up a small Santa carved from mahogany and rubbed his thumb over the satiny surface of the Santa’s gift bag.

Andie flipped on the security light in the back of her store before making her way to the cash register to close it out. “Yeah, you and me both. But I think we might have figured out something, at least a temporary sort of fix.” While she tallied the receipts and made sure everything balanced, she told Shawn about her meeting with Conner the night before, the agreement they’d come to.

“Well, that’s something I guess.” He looked down, his eyebrows sliding upward when he saw he still held the Santa in his hand. He was walking back to the display, when Conner walked through the door.

Shawn placed the Santa on the glass shelf with a snap loud enough to make Andie wince. “What the hell, man? I thought we were friends. How could you do this?”

Conner shoved his hand into the pockets of his jeans and rocked back on his heels. “Look, I’m trying to make this right. I’m not trying to ruin anyone’s life here. I want to sell this building. My building.”

Shawn scoffed. “Yeah. To buy a plane. Because that’s so much more important than making sure a nine-year-old kid has food to eat.”

A bright spill of red stained Conner’s cheeks. “I didn’t know, okay? You have the vet clinic. I thought-“

“Yeah, well, you thought wrong. I’ve got huge student loans and the clinic is only getting off the ground. I can’t even afford to pay a receptionist! My lab tech has to do both jobs.” Shawn swept his arm back in a wide gesture and Andie jumped forward, barely managing to catch the large, china snowman he’d clipped with his elbow.

“Okay, guys, that’s enough.” She stepped forward, tugged at her brother’s arm. “Look, Conner’s agreed to help us fix the building up and he’s agreed to wait until after Pumpkin Fest before he signs anything with the hotel. He’s been more accommodating than I expected he would be. It’s not our place to judge what he needs the money for, even if it is nothing but a silly plane.”

Suddenly, Shawn and Conner were both staring at her like she’d put on a tutu and started doing the cha-cha. Andie shoved the curl tickling her cheek behind her ear as she looked from Conner to Shawn. “What?”

Shawn shook his head. “Really? You’re going to stand up for him?”

Andie fiddled with a glass reindeer in her display window, turning it this way, than that. “I’m not standing up for him. Believe me, I don’t like it any better than you do. For whatever reason, he needs the money. It’s his property, not ours. Yes, if he sells it to the hotel we’ll be in big trouble, but we’re not entitled to anything. And there’s not a darn thing we can do about it.” And yeah, she’d never thought those words would come out of her mouth, but they were the hard, cold facts. It didn’t matter that they had a painful past, it didn’t even matter what he needed the money for. None of it changed the facts, no matter how she might wish it.

Shawn pinched the bridge of his nose, hard. “All right, fine. Whatever. I’m out of here. The clinic reopens after supper on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so I’ve got to go grab some food.” He gave Andie a sharp glance. “You going to be okay with him for a few minutes?”

Andie rolled her eyes as she spread out some white glitter around the base of a reindeer. “I’m sure I can handle it. Get going or you won’t have time to eat. I made you a sub sandwich. It’s in the fridge on the left side.”

“All right.” Shawn pulled the door open then paused. “If you need me to help out with the repairs let me know. Any free time I have, it’s yours.”

Conner gave him a grin. “Thanks, man.”

“I wasn’t talking to you. I still don’t see how an airplane can be a necessity.” And he walked out.

Conner stood next to the door, a beam of sunlight making his black hair gleam. He looked at Andie uncertainly. “Thanks.”

“Yeah.” She slipped the deposit envelope into her purse and touched the little gold cow pinned onto her silk blouse, feeling the warm metal. “So, um, why are you here?”

He rubbed a hand over his face, once, hard. “The plane’s for the new job I’m supposed to start. It’s not like it’s some toy I want to buy.”

Andie felt her eyebrows shoot up toward her hairline. “Really? What kind of job could you possibly need an airplane for?” She held the door open for Conner, a wordless command, until he walked through. She slipped out after him, then turned the key in the lock. She turned around and nearly bumped into Conner, he stood so close behind her. He stood there a minute longer, so close, too close, until Andie’s breath caught and held in her throat.

He gave her a grin as he moved back, the single dimple he had on the right side of his face winking at her. “Well, right now I’m working as a bartender at my pub, but most of the time I’m an adventure guide and bush pilot.”

Andie’s breath caught again, but this time in anxiety. She didn’t know Conner anymore, didn’t even like him let alone have a connection to him, but the mere thought of someone wanting to do something so dangerous with their life scared her. “Why would you want to do that?”

The words popped out of her mouth before she could stop them and the grin slid off his face.

He looked toward the shimmer of the lake at the end of the street. The ferry boat’s horn blew once, then twice, a loud, mournful wail in the distance. “Yeah,” he said. “It’s not for everyone.”

Andie fought back a shudder. Not for everyone? It seemed downright idiotic to her. But still. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to insult you.”

“You didn’t.” But he didn’t smile at her again. “Anyway, I stopped by because I thought we could set up a walk-through of the building tomorrow, figure out what needs to be done. Maybe before you open your shop for the day.”

Andie wrapped her fingers around the strap of her purse. She shouldn’t have said anything. Everybody was entitled to do what they wanted with their lives. And she wouldn’t worry about if she had hurt his feelings. That was ridiculous; he’d pulverized hers years ago. “Yes. That sounds fine. I’ll see if Diana and Shawn can join us, too.”

“All right then, see you tomorrow.” He nodded at her, then strode away down the street, toward the water.

Even from where she stood, the tension in his shoulders was obvious; he held them scrunched toward his ears. Suddenly it struck her; no matter how carefree and reckless Conner’s life might seem, it didn’t change the fact that he was miserable.

*

It was six a.m. when Andie, shivering inside her hooded sweatshirt and paint splattered jeans, walked through the pearly light of dawn down the main street of Port Haven. The scent of syrup and fried food drifted out the doors of more than one café, as Andie took a sip from her travel mug of hazelnut coffee.

The huge, old brownstone building soared into the sky as she neared it, its shell still majestic, giving no sign of the squalor within. Conner sat on the top step, hunched around a cup of coffee. When he saw her coming, he rose to his feet.

He held up another cardboard cup from the gas station. “I got you this, but I guess you don’t need it.”

She stopped, swaying a little on her feet, not sure what to think of his thoughtfulness. It went against everything she knew of him, at least the man he’d become since the night that everything changed, the night of his graduation party.

If she shut her eyes, she could still see it; the bonfire in the middle of the field, sparks snapping against the star-dusted sky, the smell of wood smoke drifting across her face, the way her pulse had pounded through every part of her body as she bared her feelings for him. And then, the sound of his laughter, choked at first, then loud and rough across her skin as it broke free. She shook her head once, to clear it. She hadn’t been that girl for eleven years. None of it mattered. “Um, thanks, but I’m all set. Ready to do this?”

Conner drained his coffee, then nestled the full cup inside the empty one. He dug a flashlight out of a small tool bag he’d placed on the steps.

He held up the big, steel flashlight. “Bring yours?”

Andy pulled a small, household flashlight out of her pocket. “This is all I could find.”

Conner shrugged. “It’ll do. Stay close to me and let me go first, okay? I’m not sure what the floorboards are like. There might be some weak spots.”

“All right.” Andie said the words, but she didn’t move. The building that had looked so majestic a few moments ago suddenly seemed forbidding, even ominous. What if something happened? Life was fragile, she knew that all too well. How would Shawn and Logan survive without her if she got hurt and couldn’t work? Or worse, if they lost her? A spiral of hot, sticky anxiety screwed into her gut.

“Andie.” Conner’s face swam into her vision. He let his hands rest on her shoulders, the warmth of them seeping into her muscles.

“Andie? Are you okay? We don’t have to do this now, you know. We could wait, maybe do it tomorrow after work.”

Andie took a deep breath. It caught her occasionally, that panicky, shaky feeling that came out of nowhere. But no matter how she felt, she would not lose it in front of Conner. Besides, the sooner they got this done, the sooner they could get to work. The building had to be in tiptop shape before Pumpkin Fest if they wanted any chance of their plan working.

She stepped back quickly, relieved when Conner’s hands slid off her shoulders, when his nearness wasn’t crowding out all rational thought from her brain.

“I’m fine,” she said. To prove it, she jogged up to the door and yanked hard at the handle. It took her a couple of seconds to realize it was locked, like it had been every morning for the last six years.

Conner strode up the stairs and slid his key into the lock. “Try it now,” he suggested. His face was curiously still and Andie had the feeling that he was trying not to smile. She huffed out a breath and walked through the door to the back of the short hallway. An antique wooden door, trimmed with rubbed bronze fittings, stood in the back wall with a newer, gleaming deadbolt at waist-level.

Andie would never admit it to Conner, but she’d stood here many, many times wondering what was on the other side of the door. She’d even tried it once or twice, but it was always locked. Not that she would have gone through it if it had been open. She couldn’t take that kind of a chance, not with two brothers who depended on her, but it wouldn’t have stopped her from popping her head through and looking around.

Andie’s heart beat a little faster, not only from anxiety this time, but from anticipation as well. “Have you ever been through here before?” she whispered.

“Yeah,” Conner whispered back, his lips curved up in a faint smile, making her realize there was no reason at all to be whispering. “When I did the walk through before I offered on the building. I always meant to come back and explore but…” He shrugged his shoulders, as the key clicked in the lock and the door swung open.

Murky twilight and the musty smell of a room shut too long enfolded them. Conner switched on the flashlight and stepped forward. “At least it doesn’t smell like mold on this floor. That’s a good sign. Stay behind me, okay? The floors should be decent, but you never know.”

“Got it.” Andie switched on her flashlight and swung it around until she found a light switch right inside the door. It clicked upward when she pushed at it, but nothing happened. She reached in her sweatshirt pocket and pulled out a tiny notebook and pen and made a note to have someone check the wiring. When she looked up, Conner was grinning at her.

“What?” The word came out more as a snarl than a question.

“Nothing,” Conner shook his head, grinning. “I don’t remember you being this… prepared back in high school.

Andie snorted. “Really? You want to bring up high school? Should we talk about it, Conner? Should we talk about how I was only a kid, how I’d turned sixteen, and I took a chance and spilled my guts to you? Should we talk about how you laughed in my face, how you crushed me? Is that what you want?” The words spilled out, even as some smaller, more rational part of herself begged her mouth to shut up. She was breathing hard and knew that she might have done some serious damage to her plan. And in that moment, she didn’t give a care.

The smile melted off Conner’s face like a cinnamon scented candle left in a car on a hot summer day. “No. Actually, I don’t want to talk about it.” He moved away, shone his flashlight on each section of the floor before he stepped on it.

Andie strode after him. “Yeah, but what if I do?’

He spun around. “You think I was a jerk. I get it. I’m the biggest, baddest jerk on the planet, right? And we’re going to forget about the years when we were friends, and all the fun we had together, and instead focus on a stupid, drunken mistake I made. All right, fine. I’m a jerk. Was that what you wanted?”

Andie twitched her shoulders. “Whatever. But it’s pretty hard not to think that, when you were a raging jerk the last time I saw you, when I don’t have anything but that last memory to base an opinion on.”

He stared at her, his eyes narrowed and hard, before shaking his head and walking away. Andie blew the tangle of curls out of her face but didn’t answer. From somewhere ahead of them came scratching, scuttling noises. Andie winced, but Conner kept going.

Conner suddenly swung around, shone his light right in her face. “You know, I was drunk and young and stupid. If you think I was so awful, why were you so hung up on me anyway?”

“Come on!” Andie tried to bat at the flashlight, but couldn’t see beyond the sun-bright beam in her face.

“Sorry.” He lowered the light, but it didn’t make much of a difference; Andie still couldn’t see anything except the big, black spot burned into her retinas.

He walked toward her until he was pushing into her personal space, his clean, outdoor scent curling around her. “Well? There must have been something good about me.”

Yeah, like she was going to sit here and list all the reasons she’d had a crush on him. She wasn’t so deeply immersed in her grudge that she couldn’t admit, at least to herself, that there had been reasons for how she’d felt. He’d been funny, always with a joke ready to make her laugh, teasing her like Shawn did, but in a nicer way. He’d taken care of her; shared his lunch with her when she’d forgotten hers, or driven her home on rainy days so she wouldn’t have to walk. He’d been at their house more than he’d been at his own home. She couldn’t count how many times she’d woken from a bad dream and padded down to the kitchen for a cup of tea and found him already there, with enough hot water in the pot for her. They’d had long, wonderful conversations sitting around her kitchen table, where they talked about anything and everything. And of course he had been so handsome it had nearly taken her breath away. He hadn’t only been a crush, he’d been her best friend too, which made it even more devastating when he’d turned his back on her.

She shifted, leaning as far away from him as she could, ignoring the little shiver of awareness creeping across her skin. She couldn’t admit that he’d had more good than bad, but she couldn’t tell a complete lie either, and say he was the heartless jerk.

Conner took a step closer, let the flashlight beam bounce off her sweatshirt so that the reflected light illuminated her face. “Andie?”

There was enough light that she could see his face as well, and for a second she swore she saw something flit through his eyes, something that looked like hope.

“All right, fine! You were pretty decent, at least up until-“

Conner swore in disgust and let his flashlight drop. “And we’re back to that. Look, I was a stupid kid. Didn’t you make any mistakes when you were a kid?”

“No.” And she hadn’t. There hadn’t been time. All too soon she’d had to take on the mantle of caregiver, provider, substitute mother. She couldn’t allow herself to make mistakes, not when she was all her brothers had.

Andie jerked her chin toward the darkened room. “Let’s get this done, okay?”

Conner hunched his shoulders up under his jacket and looked away from her. “Fine. Whatever you say.” He walked away, into the room, but when he got about fifteen feet from her, he stopped, waiting for her to catch up. She scampered after him, refusing to feel guilty that she might have hurt him.

He played his light across the back of the room, over boxes, crates, mounds of junk, old tarps.

“Whoa,” Andie whispered. It would take forever to clear this out enough to get to work. “Was this the store room or something?”

Conner shrugged, the beam of light jerking with the movement. “The best I remember, all of the rooms look like this, more or less.”

Andie walked over to the nearest pile. Sure, there was a lot trash, but there were delicate, filigree picture frames stacked against the wall. And right next to her was a sturdy looking, old-fashioned trunk. When she swiped her finger across the surface, wiping away a thick layer of dust, the rich gleam of mahogany glowed.

“You know,” she said, “Some of this looks like it could be worth some money. Did you have plans for it?”

Conner was poking at another pile, a frown twisting his otherwise gorgeous face. Andie shook her head, knowing that she was a fool to even be noticing how he looked. She’d been down that road before and she knew it didn’t lead anywhere good.

“I doubt there’s anything worth much money here, but you never know, I guess. We’re going to need a bunch of dumpsters to get rid of this trash. We’ll be lucky if we find enough decent stuff to pay for those. They cost like you wouldn’t believe.”

Andie grabbed her pen again and added dumpsters to the list. She’d probably be able to take care of that today between customers. Except she didn’t have much in her savings account. Maybe the first step would be to sort through all the stuff and have a yard sale. Of course, that would be almost impossible unless they managed to get the lights working. They’d have to set up a separate bank account for any cash they raised too. Andie wrote it all down, trying not to think of the amount of work they’d have to cram in a short window of time.

She stepped pack from the piles of stuff. “All right, let’s keep going.”

They walked through room after room. One was huge and echo-y, and must have once been a courtroom. Most of them were filled with stuff, as Conner had predicted they would be. Everywhere they looked there were holes in the walls, broken windows, lights that didn’t work, bathrooms that didn’t have running water. It would be a monumental task to get it into sellable shape, but they’d have to try. She couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to lose her shop, how it would affect her family. How it would affect her.

Andie shone her flashlight on her watch. It was twenty to eight. “I’m going to have to get going so I have time to get cleaned up before I open the shop.”

Conner swiped a bunch of cobwebs off his face, leaving behind a streak of dirt in their place. “Look, I don’t have a bunch of cash. I-” He stopped, cutting off whatever explanation he was about to blurt out. “Anyway, I do have enough to pay for the first dumpster so we can get started with that, and I’m sure we’ll make a little money with a yard sale. But we’re going to have to think about doing something for a fundraiser. ‘Cause that’s about all the money I have.”

Andie resisted the urge to snort; no point in offending him any more than she already had. But yeah, she doubted there was much money in being an adventure guide, or in bartending. He probably flitted from job to job, blowing whatever money he did manage to save on a new toy whenever he felt like it. No responsibilities, nothing tying him down. Andie couldn’t even begin to imagine the freedom of that.

But as she watched him go around the room, testing light switch after light switch, it occurred to her that being that free would come with its own price.

If you floated from town to town, you never really stayed long enough to put down roots anywhere, never grew into a connection with a certain place, never had a true home. While Andie couldn’t imagine not having responsibilities, she wouldn’t want to imagine not having a home, a place where you belonged, with people that loved you. She couldn’t imagine how empty a life like that would be.

Conner walked over to her, shone the light close enough to see her face. “I’m going to get a dumpster then, unless you have some reason not to.”

“No, sure, that’s fine, and I have an idea to get our fundraising started.” She bit her lip, her instinct to stay as far away from him as she could warring with the need for his help. The need won. “Could you come over tonight? I’ll get Diana to come, too. Shawn and Logan can help, and maybe Mrs. Brown. Bring as many large jars and jugs as you can find. Big ones only though.”

Conner rubbed his palms hard against his jeans. “I don’t think Shawn would be excited to have me there. He didn’t seem too happy with me yesterday.”

Andie followed Conner back through the door and into the hallway, blinking in the bright light streaming through the windows that lined the street. “You know Shawn. He boils fast, but cools down as fast, and he never holds a grudge.”

Conner’s gaze pinned her in place. His thoughts were so clear they might as well have been written in lights over his head, Vegas-style; Shawn might not hold one, but you sure as heck do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Three

Conner scrubbed at his still damp hair with a towel as he stood in the middle of his living room. There were two good things about his apartment; it was near the water, with a nice view of the lake and it had a cozy little wood stove with glass doors so he could watch the flicker and leap of a fire. Otherwise, he hated it.

The apartment was small and nearly every day something would break, or stop working. The little bit of furniture he’d managed to save after he split with Bridget still wasn’t enough to fill the minuscule place. Even though he’d tried, it certainly didn’t feel like a home.

Not that he’d ever known what a home felt like, at least not first hand. He tossed the damp towel over one of the metal and plastic dining chairs and moved into the kitchen. He dug through the cabinet, found a non-stick skillet that was only slightly dented and slapped it down on the stove. In a few minutes, he’d scrambled up a big batch of eggs, cooked in too much butter, exactly the way he liked them. He grabbed a phone book before he sat down at the table with his eggs.

He flipped through the directory, intending to find a sanitation company with dumpster services, but as he put the first bite of egg in his mouth, he let the book drop. It had been years since he’d first learned to scrambled an egg. It wasn’t his mother who’d had the time and patience to teach him; it had been Andie’s mom, Sheila Turner.

It wasn’t that his mom hadn’t loved him, because she had, with a love that had stood over him like a tent, a thin barrier that shielded him from the worst of his father’s harshness. But she’d loved his father as well, which he hadn’t understood, not when his father’s love had come not unconditionally, but thoroughly tied with an endless list of rules and regulations.

One of those rules was that Conner was not allowed to cook. According to his father, that was women’s work, and because his mom loved his dad, he’d been banned from the kitchen.

It had been Shelia who had shown him the basics. He’d spent several hours in their kitchen, the scent of garlic and onions, of broiling steaks and baking lasagna, of banana bread and chocolate chip cookies filling the kitchen. It was a good thing he’d taken the time to learn, because he’d been cooking for himself for eleven years now. Eleven years he’d been on his own, kayaking, biking, hiking and flying from one wilderness area to another, with only himself to rely on. After all this time, he was still alone, still the only one he could count on.

He finished stuffing the eggs in his mouth and carried the plate to the sink, but he couldn’t stop thinking about the Turner’s kitchen. He’d spent more time there than he had at his own home, and after those first cooking lessons, Andie had been the one to take over. Their kitchen had quickly become his favorite place to be, in that steamy room, the air redolent with scents that made his mouth water, working side by side with Andie.

Andie. He thought of her now, the way that one sunshine colored curl of hers kept tickling her face despite her best efforts to keep it ruthlessly pinned back, the way her golden brown eyes looked at him like they saw every secret he’d hidden. But he had a hard time tying this Andie, the woman, to the girl he’d known.

She’s always been cute, but now, with her features honed and her body filled out with luscious curves, she was downright beautiful. But that wasn’t what bothered him, what niggled at him constantly whenever he was with her.

It was that her personality, the very core of her, had changed. Yeah, there was a layer of hurt and anger painted across the surface of it, but he could see past that easily enough. And what was underneath had become damaged and fragile.

Andie’d always been so spontaneous and outgoing, and almost as wild as he had been. Hell, she’d been a terror on that sharp red snowmobile that she used to bomb around on, going faster, farther and taking more risks than he ever had.

But that girl was long gone. Now she held herself rigidly, like if she moved too fast, she might shatter. He knew she’d been through tough times, but he’d always assumed she’d come through them, that she’d handled them. Seeing her now, he was beginning to wonder if she had really coped with it at all.

Conner thought again of the girl he’d known, the laughing sprite of a girl, dancing around the kitchen to Sweet Home Alabama, a spoon filled with cookie dough in her hand, and he felt a smile tug at his lips. So she hadn’t handled things well, but maybe all she needed was a little nudge in the right direction. No matter what bad feelings might be between them now, he still cared for her, cared for the girl who had tried to lighten the constant gloominess that his life had been as a child.

He grabbed the phone book and arranged for a dumpster to be dropped off the next day, before he snagged his car keys off the hook on the wall and headed for the grocery store.

*

Andie slogged up the steps to her back deck and shoved her way into her kitchen. She barely managed to set the multitude of heavy bags from the local craft store down on the kitchen table before her fingers gave out.

Logan jumped back as one of the bags tipped over, spilling colored paper and jars of glitter in a wave that lapped at the edge of his plate of leftover spaghetti. “Jeez, you must have bought out the whole store. You know, you didn’t have to carry it all in in one trip.”

“Yeah, you would think I wouldn’t have to carry such heavy loads, especially since I’ve got such a nice, strong little brother. Maybe, someone should get off his butt and help his poor, old sister. And I didn’t bring them all in. There’s another load in the car.”

Logan stood up, grumbling under his breath. “Yeah, yeah, fine. Don’t touch my spaghetti or you will be in big trouble. There’s someone waiting for you in the living room. I called Shawn and he said it was okay to let him in,” he called over his shoulder as he slammed out the door.

Andie, who had been reading the back of a box that explained in intricate detail how to make glittered letters, didn’t register what Logan was saying until he was already out the door. “What? Who’s in the living room?” she asked, but Logan was long gone.

Andie walked down the hall then stumbled to a stop. Conner lay sprawled across the old, brown micro-suede couch, fast asleep. He slept with his head cushioned on the arm he’d bent behind his neck, one leg trailing off the couch, his toes brushing the floor. How many times had she’d found him there, in that exact same position? How many times had she’d sat down at his feet and tickled his toes until he’d woken? If she’d been the fanciful sort, she’d have assumed she’d traveled back in time.

Something shivered deep in her chest, a translucent wisp of the love she’d once felt for him, and it took every ounce of her willpower to keep from sitting down exactly where she used to, to keep her hands to herself.

“Conner. Conner. Conner!” When he still didn’t wake, she took a few steps toward him, and gave him a good, sharp poke in the elbow.

“Ouch!” he sat up, a frown on his face that slowly disappeared into a sleepy smile when he saw her.

Andie looked away. She wouldn’t, couldn’t, let him get to her. Just because he looked like the boy, the friend, she remembered, didn’t mean that was who he was now. In fact, she had more then enough evidence to point to the contrary.

“What are you doing here, Conner? I wasn’t expecting you until later.” She bent over, grabbed the pillows he’d knocked onto the floor and plumped them up before putting them back on the couch. He’d always been a restless sleeper.

Conner unfolded himself from the couch, stretching as he went, then scooped a brown grocery bag off the top of the old, upright piano that stood against the wall. “If we’re having visitors over, we have to have snacks. I thought we could make everybody something to eat, you and me. Like the old days.”

“This isn’t the old days anymore, and we’re not doing anything. I’m having visitors, not you.” Andie smoothed the wrinkles out of the quilted table runner that she kept draped over the piano. Her father’s piano. She trailed a finger over the lid, wondering if anyone had played it since he passed.

Conner took a step closer, than another. He was too close. She could feel the heat of his body, shimmering off him. She hadn’t even realized she was cold until he stood next to her, warming her. Andie couldn’t move back; she was trapped between him and the piano. Andie pressed her hand against her throat, like somehow, that would help her catch her breath.

“Believe me,” Conner said, “I know it’s not the old days. If wishing worked, we’d be back there right now. There sure are a few things I’d like to change.” He shifted the bag so that its weight was on one hip, then reached forward and tucked one of Andie’s curls behind her ear. “Do you have any regrets, Andie?” he whispered.

Andie let her eyes slip shut for a moment as images bombarded her; her mother and father, Logan as a tiny baby curled in her mother’s arms, and herself, first as a carefree teen, then weighed down with more responsibilities than she had ever known existed, a few years later. “I have more regrets than you will ever know.” She opened her eyes, pushed her shoulders back. “But wishing doesn’t work, and regrets don’t matter. The past is the past. And it will always be the same, no matter how many times you wish that you could change it all.”

She scooted around him, each footstep worsening the ache in her heart. “I’ve got to shower. But I didn’t think of food and I would appreciate some help. Feel free to get started in the kitchen. I’ll be down in a little bit.”

“Andie, wait.” Conner took a few steps toward her, and she broke into a jog. She wasn’t running away, not exactly, but she couldn’t be here with him, not alone. She wouldn’t remember, she wouldn’t regret and she darn well wasn’t going to take one more trip down memory lane with him. It might break her open like one of her beloved ornaments dropped on a cement floor.

*

She took as long as she could in the shower, but when she stepped into the kitchen, Conner had only started to stir together the batter for the special, dark chocolate brownies, the recipe they had come up with together. The whir of the lawn mower slid through the open windows. She glanced out at where Logan was making sweeping passes between the house and the woods, the smell of cut grass flowing in through the screen. Of course, she had to check to make sure he was wearing sturdy shoes and long pants for safety’s sake, she couldn’t help herself, but then she shut her eyes and took a deep breath, savoring the sharp scent of fresh cut grass. It wouldn’t be too long now before the lawn mower would be cleaned, serviced and shut in the garage until next year. Already a few of the maple trees had become tipped with scarlet.

She felt, rather than heard, Conner step into place behind her, his nearness causing a sting of nervousness to race through her, her fingers tightening with the cold and lack of blood flow that always went along with her Reynaud’s attacks.

“You doing all right, Andie?” he asked.

“Yes. I’m fine.” She rubbed hard at the ache in her temple, before slapping on a smile as she turned to face him. “We might as well get to work.”

Conner handed her two sticks of butter. “You melt these. But first.” He walked over to the grocery bag and took out an IPod, then docked it in the stereo in the corner of the kitchen. The opening notes of Sweet Home Alabama flooded the kitchen.

Andie laughed in surprise. “It’s been awhile since I’ve heard this.”

“I’m sure it has.” Conner’s dimple sparked to life as his lips curled up. He surveyed her a moment before going back to chopping chunks of unsweetened chocolate into smaller pieces.

Andie plopped the butter in a glass bowl and popped it into the microwave as she hummed along. She couldn’t resist her favorite song. She watched Conner out of the corner of her eye as she waited for the microwave. She couldn’t believe he’d remembered her favorite song after all these years, that she’d preferred older, classic rock and country music to pop.

She didn’t want him to be sweet to her. She didn’t want him in her life; she didn’t need any more complications. And she could guarantee he’d be nothing but trouble; with the way he never wanted to stay in one place, as well as the fact that he’d picked something incredibly dangerous for his life’s work. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t enjoy the moment. She was older now, wiser and in complete control of her life. She would decide who she let into her heart, and would keep complications out of it. It was as easy as that.

The microwave beeped and she grabbed the melted butter, stirring it in time with the music. Conner slowly poured his chocolate into her bowl of hot butter, careful not to splash her. Their shoulders touched and Andie shifted away. Totally in control.

She danced over to the grocery bag he’d brought and peeked in. “Did you have anything else in mind to feed everybody?”

“Lasagna,” he said firmly.

“Of course. I should have known.” He’d devoured the stuff in high school, pan after pan, along with her famous cheesy garlic bread. In fact…

She reached into the bag and pulled out a package of grated cheddar with one hand and a hunk of parmesan cheese with the other. She let one eyebrow wing upward as she looked at him.

“Please?” He walked over to her, slid an arm around her waist and squeezed gently. “You know you want to.”

Andie forced back the tremor that wanted to race through her and shoved her elbows back until his arm dropped. “All right, all right. Did you get any bread?”

He pointed at the top of the fridge, where a long white bag rested. “You can’t blame a guy for trying.”

Andie stretched on her toes to snag the bag. “I don’t know. When guys try stuff it always leads to trouble.” She set it on the counter, before sashaying over to the cabinet where she kept the garlic.

Conner’s head whipped toward hers and for one long minute they stared at each other, Conner’s eyes darkening with something hot, making Andie’s stomach clench.

Outside, the lawn mower shut off, leaving the kitchen in complete silence until an old Tim McGraw song came on, breaking the tension. Andie let out a long, shaky breath as she peeled the paper skin from the first clove of garlic. She felt Conner watch her a minute longer before he slid the brownie pan into the oven. By the time she had all the garlic cloves peeled, she had managed to beat the sizzling, unsteady feeling in her belly into submission.

They worked together to assemble the lasagna and garlic bread. While it baked, they put the extra leaves in the dining table. Conner moved around the kitchen, setting the table and mixing up iced tea, like he’d been there only yesterday, instead of eleven years ago. Every time he brushed against her, every time their fingers touched, Andie had to fight back the awareness that flared through her. Even with that complication, the music, the mindless task of cooking, the presence of Conner’s company, combined to make her feel younger than she’d felt in years.

Andie was throwing together a salad and singing along with Miranda Lambert when Shawn popped in the back door.

He set his lunch cooler down by the door and stared at Andie. “Who are you and what have you done with my sister?”

When Andie laughed, a smile spread slowly, hesitantly across Shawn’s face, before breaking into a full-on grin. He grabbed her hands and swung her around the kitchen in time to the music.

Conner leaned back against the counter top, watching them, a satisfied smile on his face. “There,” he said, “now that’s how I remember you guys.”

The timer on the oven buzzed and Andie skidded to a stop. “The lasagna!”

She rushed over to check it, then took the foil off and popped it back in to brown the top, as Logan came in the door. She handed him a glass of lemonade, ice clinking against the sides. “Thanks for cutting the lawn, Logan. You and Shawn should go shower. Diana and Mrs. Brown are going to be here soon.”

Shawn waited for Logan to drain his glass and set it down before he grabbed him in a headlock. “I’ll wrestle you for it.”

Logan giggled helplessly as he swatted at Shawn’s hands. “No way, man. I’m all sweaty, I get to go first. Besides, you always use up all the hot water.”

Shawn rubbed his knuckles into Logan‘s hair once, then one more time for good measure, before he let him go. “And you don’t use it all?”

“Yeah, yeah. I’ll keep it short.” He jogged up the stairs, peeling off his damp shirt as he went.

Andie slid the lasagna out of the oven and replaced it with the cheesy bread at the same time someone knocked at the door. She turned around to see Shawn and Conner eyeing each other. “Can I go get that? Or are you guys going to have some sort of macho temper tantrum now?”

Shawn sighed. “I guess, we’re fine. He made you laugh, anyway. That’s something. I can’t remember the last time I heard you laugh. You’re usually too worried.”

Andie strode out of the kitchen and opened the door for Diana.

“Hey,” Diana said, as she pushed up the sleeves of her canvas shirt. “I’m here and I’m ready to work. Is he here?” she asked, wiggling her eyebrows toward the kitchen.

“He is. He’s actually been pretty helpful,” Andie said. Of course, she didn’t mention the confusion that was swirling through her. No need to bring that up. She knew what Diana would say, that she’d tell her she was foolish to even think about going down that road again. And she was right.

But as Andie led Diana to the kitchen, she couldn’t stop thinking about what Conner and Shawn had said, about the fact that she was always worried, and she wondered if that was true. As she thought back over the last few months, she felt a frown creep across her face. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d really enjoyed herself. When had that happened? When had she stopped taking pleasure in life? When had she stopped having fun?

When had she lost herself?

*

The sun was high in the sky by the time Andie dropped off all the donation jars and pulled into the cobblestone alleyway behind the building. She parked as far away from the gleaming green dumpster as she could, then picked her way through the neat stacks of boxes that already lined the street. Music blasted through the open service door, making Andie smile. It was the same playlist they’d listened to last night.

“Hello?” she yelled over the noise. “Anyone here?”

Conner popped out from behind a towering wooden cabinet right next to her. Andie shrieked and hopped back. Her legs rammed up against something solid and she swung her arms, fighting for balance, before toppling over a box. Her bottom hit the old, wooden planking harder than she would have thought possible and for a minute, she lay there, stunned.

Conner bent over her, gently pushing the hair out of her face. “You okay? Are you hurt anywhere? Can I pick you up or do you think you might have hurt your back?”

Andie pushed at his hands and, when that didn’t stop him, slapped at them. “The only thing hurt is my pride.”

Conner’s dimple winked to life. “Well, in that case…” He reached down and lifted her up like she weighed no more than the angel on the top of a Christmas tree. Andie stared up at him, the curve of his lips, the sharp line of his jaw, and was far too aware of the warm touch of his hands, the way her skin tingled under the contact. She wanted more than anything to take a step back, a step away, but couldn’t chance it in the junk strewn room.

He steadied her with one hand, cupped her cheek with the other. When she jerked her head away, he let his hand drop. “You’re sure you’re okay?”

“Yes. I’m fine. Can we get to work?” She knew she sounded testy, and she didn’t care. All she wanted was distance between them and she was willing to use whatever it took to get it.

Conner let his hands drop, took a step back and hefted a heavy box. “Let’s keep sorting stuff for awhile then. This is the toss pile, this is the maybe pile and this is the keep pile,” he said, pointing to each one in turn. “When we get tired of that, we’ll go on light bulb duty.”

Andie walked to the far corner of the pile of stuff and shut her eyes for a minute, focusing on the deep field of black, trying to pull together whatever scraps of calmness she could find. Then she pulled a couple old binders out of the stack of stuff and let them drop into the toss pile. “What’s light bulb duty?”

“Well, basically, it’s you holding the ladder for me so we can go from overhead fixture to overhead fixture, screwing in light bulbs and seeing if they work. It sure would make things easier if we could see more than a couple feet in front of our face.”

Andie shoved an ornate lamp base in the art deco style into the keep pile. “Are you sure you don’t want to do the light bulbs first?”

“Nope. I want to get as much of the toss pile in the dumpster as I can before we start perching up on ladders.” He shifted the heavy box, then strode out the door.

Andie bent over the pile again, saw the bright swirl of paint. She dug in her jeans pocket for her penlight and shone it on her find. The painting was beautiful, a vibrant outdoor scene of Port Haven in what looked to be the late eighteen hundreds. A horse pulling a carriage trotted past trees aflame with fall colors. Off to the left, stood the Lutheran Church, which Andie recognized instantly. It looked exactly the same now as it did in the painting; it had been preserved by the historical society decades before.

Andie crouched in front of the painting, lost in it, in everything it symbolized to her; tradition, stability, home. She didn’t even notice at first when Conner walked up behind her.

“Wow. That’s really nice.”

“Nice?” Andie shook her head. “It’s exquisite. I think it’s one of the most beautiful paintings I’ve ever seen.”

Conner picked it up and Andie had to stifle the cry of protest that rose in her throat, the instant surge of loss that flowed through her.

“That’s the keep pile for sure,” she said, struggling to make her voice sound normal. It was only a painting. It was irrational and ridiculous that she would have developed an instant attachment to it.

Conner narrowed his eyes as he scanned her face. “Nope.” He tucked the painting under his arm then held out his hand to her. “Give me your car keys.”

Andie unfolded herself from her crouching position and wiped her hands off on the legs of her jeans. “Why?”

“Consider it payment. It’s my turn to give you something back, and since I don’t have any money, this is the only way I can do it.”

Andie shook her head, but even that little denial cost her. She wanted that painting, wanted it desperately. But still. “It’s probably worth some money. You should sell it and put the proceeds toward the building.”

Conner’s hand was still extended toward her and now he wiggled his fingers impatiently. “No. It’s yours. Give me the keys. I’m not going to sell it now, even if you won’t take it. I’ll only keep it in my apartment until you change your mind.”

“I … All right, I want it but I feel like I shouldn’t take it.”

Conner took a step closer. “I want you to have it. I wouldn’t have offered otherwise. If you won’t take it as payment, then take it as an apology for what happened the night of the graduation party. I wish I could go back and take away the pain that I caused you. You have no idea how much I wish I could change what happened that night, but since I can’t…” And he pushed the painting toward her.

“All right. If you really mean it.” When he nodded, she dug in her pocket and handed him the keys.

He was only gone a moment. When he came back, she tucked her keys back into her pocket and they started to work. Sometimes they worked in silence, sometimes they chatted, but it was never awkward or uncomfortable. Something had changed between them.

The tension and the anger were gone. Andie’s heart had grown lighter; she’d forgiven him. Maybe he’d been a jerk, maybe he’d been stupid, but he was genuinely sorry now. Andie couldn’t stay mad or hurt in the face of his sincerity. And wasn’t that a pain in the butt? It was easier to hold on to her righteous anger, to tell herself he was a jerk, to keep a distance from him.

She’d forgotten how much she’d enjoyed Conner’s company in the aftermath of his betrayal. Or maybe she’d made herself forget; maybe it had been too painful to remember that she’d lost her best friend as well as her crush, all in the same night. But he was back now, here with her, if only for a short time. Even as she thought it, she knew she shouldn’t. But she let herself think it, and she let herself smile.

By the end of the day, the room was empty, except for the small pile of keep items that sat in the center of it. Conner stood in the center of the room, his clothes and face streaked with grit. He shoved his hands into his pockets as he made a slow turn, surveying the progress they’d made. “This place is going to be a money pit.”

Andie pressed her fingers to the tiny silver cow hanging on a chain around her neck, under her sweatshirt for protection, but it comforted her to know it was there. She moved to stand next to him. “Yes. It probably will. I still think we can do it.”

Conner grinned down at her. “Maybe we can.”

“So, um.” Andie bent to straighten an oak file cabinet that didn’t need straightening at the edge of the keep pile. “So… It’s Thursday. It’s Labor Day weekend coming up.”

“Yeah, I guess it is.” Conner walked over to the light switch and flipped it off, leaving them in darkness for a minute before he flipped on his flashlight.

Andie watched as he picked his way toward her, a shadowy figure behind the beam of light. “We’re having our annual potluck on Saturday, like we always do. You’re welcome to come if you’d like.”

Conner picked up her hand, like she hadn’t just exposed a part of her heart, then led her out of the building. “I’ll be there. Thanks.”

Heat and light enveloped them, dazzling after a whole day spent in the cool gloom of the brownstone. Andie tugged her hand free of his, pretending that she needed both hands to dig out her car keys. Conner followed her to her car.

“Thanks again for the painting. That was very, very generous of you,” Andie said.

Conner smiled, a slow, sexy smile that had her fingers chilling with nerves. He reached down to tug one of the curls that had escaped her clip. “I was glad to be able to do something for you after all you’ve done.”

“Well, thanks.” Andie reached for her car door, then hesitated. “Do you need a ride home?”

“No. I’m fine. I’ve got some errands to run.” The words sounded innocent enough, but the smile and warmth had disappeared from his eyes.

“Okay. Well, then. I’ll see you here tomorrow, after work? But I won’t be able to stay long. I’ll have to head home and get some of the cooking done for the potluck.”

But Conner was looking down the street, a scowl on his face. He nodded once at her, then strode off down the alley.

Andie bit her lip and watched him go, wanting to stop him, wanting to ask him what was wrong. But he was a loose cannon, dangerous and reckless. It wouldn’t be wise for her to get involved.

But as she slid into her car, she looked at the gorgeous painting in the back seat, and she couldn’t stop the sunny feeling that flowed through her chest, no matter how hard she tried. And she tried as hard as she could.

*

Andie walked to her shop the next morning with a plate of cookies in one hand and a caramel macchiato in the other. The cookies were for Conner, a thank you for the painting, but the sweet, delicious coffee was for her. The morning was cool, with lemon-yellow sunlight pouring down around her, beautiful, even with its lack of warmth. She pulled her jacket a little tighter around herself and smiled when she saw Diana sitting on the top step to her building.

Diana stood when she saw her. “Do you have time to go get a muffin at The Lakeside Café with me?”

Andie glanced at her watch. 8 o’clock. She didn’t open the store to customers until nine, but she was always in by eight setting up for the day.

“Come on, you’re all right. Besides, I could really use a friend right now.”

Andie looked closer at Diana, noticed now that her face was pale and there were dark smudges under her friend’s eyes. “Sure.” She unlocked the main door, slipped the plate of cookies inside, then relocked it. “Let’s go. What’s wrong?” She asked the question, even as the skin of her fingers tightened with anxiety. She curled them around the heat of her cup, hoping to ward off the Reynaud’s attack.

Diana slapped a few twigs off her Carhartt jacket before linking her arm through Andie’s. “I’m not sure.” Her voice trembled.

Andie stopped walking as dark waves of dread pulsed through her. “What is it?”

Diana looked down at the sidewalk. “I found a lump in my breast. I have an appointment with the doctor first thing Tuesday morning. I wanted to get in today, but the doctor took a long weekend for Labor Day.”

Andie’s stomach lurched, hard. She knew Diana’s mother had battled breast cancer a few years before. She was in remission now. But Diana was only 27. That was too young for cancer.

Andie scooped her friend into her arms and held on tight. “It’s going to be okay. It will. I promise.” And Andie would make it okay. No matter what happened, she would make sure Diana was okay.

Diana returned the hug, sniffing back the tears. “I’m trying not to worry. It could be nothing. But I…”

“I know. It’s scary, but we need to think positive. You’re so young. And just because you’re mom had cancer doesn’t mean you will.” Andie squeezed her again, then let her go. “Let’s go get a doughnut. The ooiest, gooiest ones we can find. Preferably chocolate. It’s hard to worry when your mouth is full of chocolate.”

The late summer air flowed against their faces as they walked, cool and sweet with the smell of the petunias still blooming in the baskets hanging from each light post. Andie knew it was only a matter of weeks now before the first frost crept in, before she woke up to find its sparkling crystalline surface covering everything. It would be beautiful while it lasted. But when the first rays of the morning sun touched the plants beneath it, Andie knew it would be over for the petunias. As they warmed under the golden light, their frozen cells would burst, then the whole plant would blacken and die.

Andie pulled her friend a little closer as they walked. Diana was as much her family now as Shawn and Logan were. And she’d be darned if she was going to loose one more member of her family.

*

By the time lunch rolled around, the last thing Andie wanted to do was bring Conner the cookies she’d made him for a thank you for the painting. Now, with Diana’s news still on her mind, she wished she could go home and curl up into a ball in her bed.

But still, here she stood, in the long, quiet hallway of Conner’s apartment building, her stomach burning from the mix of fear and adrenaline that had poured through her after her talk with Diana. Andie knew she was going to have to get him the cookies and get out of there before the fragile control she was maintaining broke. She rang the doorbell once, then again, but there was no answer. She was wondering if she should leave the cookies in front of his door with a note, when it swung open.

Conner stood there in nothing but a pair of unfastened jeans. His golden skin gleamed under the fluorescent hallway lights, highlighting each ripple and dip of muscle. A light dusting of hair spread across his chest before narrowing into a line that disappeared beneath his jeans.

Andie’s head jerked back as a fist of emotion slammed into her. It was embarrassment and something that felt suspiciously like sexual attraction, something she had no business feeling. Not when she had to focus on Diana.

“Andie?” he asked. He was rubbing his eyes, and it was clear that she had woken him. Then she took a closer look. Something was wrong. Really wrong.

Andie bit back the sigh that was pushing at her throat. “What is it? What happened?” She scanned him quickly for injuries.

Conner peered at her blearily. “What are you doing here?”

“I brought you some cookies to say thank you for the painting.” There was no helping it; she was going to have to deal with whatever crisis was beating him down too. She shoved the plate into his hand and pushed him into the apartment, doing her best not to notice the warmth and hardness of his body under her hands, the answering surge of heat low in her belly.

Conner looked around his room, his eyes not quite focusing on any one thing, like he was at a loss for what to do now. She pressed him down on the couch before prying the plate of cookies out of his hands. The coffee in the pot in the kitchen was cold, but smelled fresh. She poured a cup for him and popped it in the microwave. It only took a minute to arrange a few cookies on a plate and splash a little milk in his coffee. As she worked, she snuck little looks at Conner. He scrubbed his palms over the stubble on his face, before letting his head drop in his hands for a minute.

When she handed him the cup of coffee and cookies, he finally seemed to focus on her. “This is nice of you, Andie, but I’m fine. Really.”

Andie let one eyebrow drift upward. “Good. Then you won’t mind if I stay while you eat the cookies and drink your coffee.”

He didn’t look like a zombie anymore, but he sure didn’t look fine. His shoulders were hunched up toward his ears and he kept clenching the fingers of his left hand into a fist, over and over.

Andie let the fingers of her hand rest on his, stilling his nervous tick. “Please. Tell me what’s wrong. Maybe we aren’t close now, but there was a time when we were. A time when we were best friends. You can talk to me.”

Conner took a gulp of the coffee, winced a little at the heat of it. “I went to see my dad last night.”

“Oh,” Andie said. Conner’s relationship for his ex-military father could only be described as turbulent. Andie let her thumb swirl in circle on the back of his hand, and told herself all she was doing was comforting him.

“Yeah. I …” Conner bit into a cookie and shook his head.

“Look, I know it can be hard to get along with family sometimes, but maybe if you made an effort-“

Andie heard Conner’s breath hiss out like she’d punched him.

“Made an effort?” He laughed, the sound as sharp and dangerous as broken glass. “Do you really think I haven’t?”

“I didn’t mean-“

“That’s all I’ve done! My whole life, I’ve tried over and over. Hell, when I was a kid, I practically begged him to love me. All I wanted was something, anything, some sign that he cared about me even a little!” Conner snapped his mug down on the coffee table, then rose to pace back and forth in front of the breakfast bar.

This was bad. Very bad. That wasn’t at all what she meant. She tried again. “I know, I-“

Conner reeled around to face her. “Well, maybe I’m done trying, done with him. There’s nothing for me here. There never has been. At least I’ve got a job waiting for me in Montana, a job that I like. The sooner I can get out of here, the better.”

Andie unfolded herself from the couch, her body as stiff and brittle as a sapling in an ice storm. She couldn’t have heard him right, must have misunderstood. “So that’s it? You’re going to give up, walk away? Turn your back on the only family you have? Without even seeing if you could fix things between you?”

“You act like it’s so awful. It’s not turning your back on someone if you never had them to start with. He’s not my family. I’ve never been more to him than another nuisance he had to keep in line.” Conner picked up a magazine, then tossed it back down on the table.

The burn in her stomach and the pounding of her heart combined to make Andie feel nauseous and dizzy. She knew she had to get out, but still she stood there, trying to make him see why he couldn’t abandon his family. The image of her parents, of all she had lost, shimmered behind her eyes. “You can’t be serious. I don’t believe you.”

“Well, believe it. I’m done with him. Done with Port Haven. Once I get out of here, I’m never coming back.” He swung his arm wide in a slashing gesture that caught the edge of the breakfast bar, but he didn’t even seem to feel it.

Andie wrapped her arms around herself, ignoring the shiver of fear his words caused. “I know your father is difficult, has always been difficult. But to give up your only family.” Andie shook her head. “It’s easy to say, even easy to do maybe, but your father isn’t getting any younger. Let me tell you from personal experience, once they’re gone, they’re gone, there’s no bringing them back. All the unsaid things, the hurts you might have caused, the conversations you never got to have and the love you could have shared, is gone with them. Forever. So you better be real sure that’s what you want before you make that decision.”

Andie stumbled for the door, fighting against the trembling iciness that was spilling through her extremities. She yanked it open then paused to look back at Conner, who was watching her with a stricken look on his face.

The greasy swirl of nausea tightened her belly, but she didn’t run, not yet. “I would give anything to have one more day with my parents, to talk to them one more time. You have no idea how it makes me feel, that you would so casually throw away what I’d give my left arm to have back.”

And she staggered out the door, not even managing to pull it shut behind her.

Chapter Four

Andie stood at the edge of her lawn, pushing her fists into the ache of her back, the weight on her heart lifting slightly as she surveyed her work. The red, white and blue tablecloths were the perfect backdrop for the cheerful vases of white daisies and brown sunflowers. Pebbles, worn smooth by the rough roll and tumble of the wind-blown lake, were scattered down the center of the tables, interspersed here and there with red and white crystal cups that held vanilla scented tea lights. Those wouldn’t be lit until the sun rode low in the sky and the light dimmed, making the sparklers the children would swirl through the air seem all the more dazzling.

It would be the perfect Labor Day. Andie turned, ready to go in and take a quick shower, then froze. Conner stood not ten feet behind her, his face shadowed with stubble, his eyes dark with apologies.

He shoved his hands in his pocket and looked past her, into the yard. “It looks nice, exactly how I remember it.”

Andie recalled Conner at the Labor Day parties, as a boy seated next to his parents at one of the tables. He didn’t run and race like the other kids, but sat quietly, never interrupting or making unnecessary noise. But every now and then, his mom would bend her head down next to his and whisper something. Then, the quiet little boy would light up, practically radiate joy.

“Conner-” Andie began, but he held out his hand to stop her.

“I owe you an apology. No, I do,” he said when Andie started to shake her head. “I said some things yesterday that I shouldn’t have said in front of you, considering your past. It was wrong of me.”

Andie stepped forward and caught one of his hands in both of hers. “No, Conner, don’t you see? It’s wrong that you would want to throw it away at all, not that you talked about it in front of me. He’s your father. You’re not close, I get that, but maybe, with time, okay, lots and lots of time, you could be.”

Conner looked away, into the dark shadows of the trees, and shook his head. “I don’t know, Andie. I… I don’t think Dad is like everybody else. I don’t think he can feel. When I was little, I used to think he was like the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz, that he didn’t have a heart.”

Andie bent her arms, bringing his hand to her cheek for the briefest of seconds, offering Conner, the man, and Conner, the hurt little boy, what comfort she could. “I know, but he does have a heart. I know, somehow, that he cares for you.”

Conner looked down at her, his eyes dark and shadowed. “Andie. If only you could share yours. You have a heart big enough to split with my dad and a hundred other people, and still have enough left over.” He let his free hand drift up to cover her cheek. His palm was warm and rough, and underneath his touch, her skin seemed to buzz, like from an electric current.

“You have a beautiful soul, Andie. I wish I could be more like you.” He let his hand drop and took several steps back.

Andie realized she still held his other hand and let his fingers slip away from hers. “Well, I better go hop in the shower. You’re welcome to come in and relax for awhile. I’m sure Shawn and Logan are up by now. They’re probably in the living room having cereal and watching cartoons.” She laughed, a naked burble of nerves.

Some of the bleakness left Conner’s eyes at the mention of cartoons. “You guys used to have the best Saturday morning cereals. Lucky Charms, Cocoa Pebbles, Fruit Loops; you had them all.”

Andie gestured for him to follow her up to the house. “What do you mean, ‘had’?”

Conner eyed her. “Don’t tell me you still buy cereal like that? With all the chemicals and dyes and preservatives?”

Andie slanted him a glance. “What do you think? I’m raising a nine-year-old boy.” She jogged up the steps to the deck and pulled the sliding glass door open for him. He all but ran into the house.

Andie tried to shower and get ready as fast as she could, but by the time she came back down the stairs the house was empty. The TV in the living room had been shut off, the pillows on the couch straightened. But Andie caught the fluorescent glow of Fruit Loops scattered under the coffee table and she smiled.

The sound of voices from the backyard drifted through the kitchen window. She leaned her elbows on the counter and peered down, watching Logan, Shawn and Conner toss a football back and forth. She laughed aloud as Conner gently tackled Logan, before pretending to hop on top of the boy and pin him. Shawn was laughing too, and shouting directions at Logan, which, as far as Andie could hear, seemed to be that he should, “squiggle and squirm!”

Andie checked her face in the reflection of the stainless steel toaster. She’d taken extra time to make herself look nice, scrunching her curls with gel and even swiping on mascara and lipstick. And she was wearing her favorite dress; a vintage, 1950’s style with a sweetheart neckline, a full skirt and tiny black polka dots spreading across the deep blue fabric. She’d told herself that she was only dressing up for the party, but even as she tried to convince herself, she knew it wasn’t true. All she had to do was look at Conner, to feel the odd little thread of warmth swirl through her chest, to know that she was lying.

*

Conner was smiling as he walked up the alley to the back door of his building, and it was all for one reason; Andie.

When he’d gone over there yesterday to apologize, he hadn’t intended to stay for the party. Get in, say what he had to say, get out. But Andie had looked up at him with those big, golden eyes, pressed his fingers to her cheek and offered him comfort, something he hadn’t experienced since his mom had died. He’d stayed, not willing to leave that feeling, to leave her, so soon.

He slid the key into the padlock on the back door and clicked it open. It only took him a few minutes to walk through the few large rooms on the lower floor, switching on the handful of lights that actually worked. He did it mechanically, his mind still on the day before.

Andie had been beautiful to him even in her old t-shirt, her face gleaming with perspiration after the hours she’d spent decorating, but when he’d looked up from the ground where he’d been wrestling with Logan and seen Andie coming down the deck stairs, he’d been stunned, frozen.

She’d done something different to her hair, the spiral of curls left loose in a riot around her face. Her lips gleamed, making them look like they’d be sweet to the taste if he laid his mouth against hers. And suddenly, he’d desperately wanted to.

He’d looked away, needing a moment to compose himself, to shove the feelings that were engulfing him aside. They’d been growing, slowly but steadily, but the strength of them had crashed over him like white-water, and it was all he could do to keep his head from going under. He wanted her, like he’d never wanted another woman before, even as he knew he couldn’t, shouldn’t, act on them.

So he’d watched her, made sure there was always a safe distance between them. But as twilight descended, he’d been drawn toward her. When someone switched on the stereo and soft music cascaded out of the speakers in the garden, when other couples swayed together in the fading light, Conner had no longer been able to resist her.

He’d found himself at her side. When he’d held out his arms in invitation, when she’d moved within them and linked her hands behind his head, when he’d finally held her warmth against him, he’d been swamped with emotions he didn’t quite understand.

It was foolish, Conner knew it was, but damned if he could find the will to stop them. He’d lost that will somewhere in the deepening dusk, in the feel of her soft curves against him, in the soft brush of her hair. He wanted to be with her. And he would.

He checked his cell phone. It was ten a.m., which meant he’d see her soon. They’d planned to work together for the whole afternoon, make a massive push to clear the decks before the work-week started the next day. The thought of seeing her, being with her again, made his chest and stomach burn with anticipation.

Conner was still grinning to himself as he pushed his way into the largest room on the bottom floor, the one that must have once been the main courtroom. He slowly circled in the center of the room. It must have been beautiful once. The entire back wall was made of huge, multi-paned windows that faced the lake. They were fogged with decades of grime now, but miraculously, they remained unbroken. The walls were covered with the ugliest wallpaper that Conner had ever seen, a cream color with a pea green flocked pattern that reminded him of the smears his hiking boots made in mud. That had to go, but otherwise all the room needed was a good cleaning.

Conner was looking for the light switch when Andie’s voice called for him.

“I’m back here!” he yelled, then walked to the door to meet her.

She stepped into the room and smiled at him. “Hi.”

“Hi.” He took a few steps closer and grabbed her hand to tug her into the room. And to touch her, to feel her skin against his. “I had a lot of fun last night.”

Her cheeks flushed pink and he stepped a little closer, feeling the tension in the air as she tried to hide the tremor that raced through her body.

“Yeah,” she said. “I did too. Who knew you were such a good dancer?”

“It was easy when you were my partner.” And it had been. Conner had felt like they were spinning in the sky, the swirl of stars dancing with them.

Andie cleared her throat and Conner realized he’d been staring at her. “Right, well, let’s get to work.” His voice sounded too loud in the huge echoing room. He let go of her hand and walked to the nearest wall, his body suddenly surging with want, burning through his veins, driving him to taste, to touch, even as his brain told him it wasn’t time. Not yet.

“This room doesn’t need much, but this wallpaper has to go.” He reached up and grabbed a piece that was dangling above his head and pulled it down and away. A strip over a foot wide peeled neatly off all the way to the floor. Conner let it drop from his hand, focused on the bright colors that had been hidden underneath.

Andie stepped into place beside him. She touched the surface with one slim finger. “Is that…”

Conner touched it too. “I think it has to be a mural. A really big one.” He reached for another strip of paper.

Andie’s hand shot forward and grabbed his wrist. “No! You might ruin it. We’re going to have to get someone in here to do it for us, someone who knows what they’re doing. An art restorer or something.”

Conner let his hand drop. “You’re right. I don’t know what I was thinking.” But art restorers cost money. Money he didn’t have.

Andie grinned up at him. “What, money like this?” She held out a bank book.

Conner took it, frowning as he flipped past deposit after deposit. When he got to the total, all the air left his chest in one hard whoosh. “Twenty-five thousand dollars? How is that possible?”

Andie twirled in a circle, unable to contain her excitement anymore. “I know! Isn’t it wonderful? I know it’s not nearly enough; we have to keep making an effort. I thought we could host a bake sale in a few days. Do you think you’d be up to helping me with that?”

Conner stepped into her space again, unable to help himself. “I’m up for anything if it involves being next to you.”

The air in the room seemed to grow thinner as she stared up at him, tension sparking to life between them. She took a step back, and then another.

Conner ignored the sting of disappointment and looked at the bank book again. “Where did all of this come from?”

Andie chafed her hands together, like she was cold, even though the room was only moderately cool. “The jars we left at the stores are filling up like you wouldn’t believe! But a lot of this came from last night. I went into the kitchen to start the clean up and there was a big, manila envelope in the middle of the table. And inside were all these checks.” Her voice cracked and she had to clear her throat before she could continue. “And there was a card. Everybody had signed it and said how much our family meant to them, how much my parents had meant to them-” this time she couldn’t go on. She covered her face with her hands as she swayed slightly.

“Are you okay?” Conner took a quick step forward, wondering if he was going to need to catch her.

Andie shook her head. “I’m fine.” But she pressed her hand to her mouth, and Conner could see the way her fingers trembled.

So Conner did what he’d wanted to do since last night; he pulled her into his arms and held her close, close enough that her heart beat against his own. She hesitated for a moment, her body rigid, before the tension drifted away. Her breath floated warm across his chest as she nestled her face into his shirt. Her arms wrapped around his back and he let his chin rest on the top of her head. Finally, finally, he had her where he wanted her, wrapped in his arms, her body pressed against his. But it wasn’t right. Not because he didn’t still want her, because he did. No, it wasn’t right because it was all his fault.

It was his fault that she was worried about losing her building, her family’s livelihood. His fault that the town had had to pull together to try to save the building. Even as guilt pierced his heart, even as he wished that he could make it right for her, he knew that he couldn’t. He couldn’t stay in Port Haven. No matter how much he craved Andie, there was nothing here for him, nothing but a father who despised him, a gravestone that marked his mother’s final resting place, and so many bad memories that he felt like he’d suffocate under the weight of them.

*

Could this day have gotten any worse? Andie still couldn’t believe it, couldn’t believe this was happening. Kayla Anderson was back. Wasn’t it bad enough her brother had killed their parents? But no, she was back, the new principal for the elementary school. On top of that, she’d brought her brother’s little boy with her.

Even though he was a kid, Andie’s heart lurched with hatred. And apparently, so had Logan‘s. Except his hatred had taken a physical, and unacceptable form, which Kayla had icily informed them of in her office this afternoon. She and her nephew had every right to return to their hometown and the job offer had been one she couldn’t refuse, she had explained, as she sat there behind her big metal desk, every hair in place, totally calm and collected while Andie and Shawn’s entire world lurched out of place.

Andie sat on the edge of Logan‘s bed now, tucking the summer-weight quilt around his shoulders. “How’re you feeling, little buddy?”

“I’m all right.” His voice was quiet, calm, but his fingers clutched at the quilt, one their mother had made, like it was the only thing anchoring him to the bed.

Andie studied him. His face was swollen and the deep color of storm clouds all along one side, but the bleeding had stopped, and thank goodness, because her stomach was still protesting. Shawn had cleaned him up, then carefully applied steri-strips along the worst cuts, holding them shut. Logan‘s hands were a puffy mess too, but Shawn had assured her nothing was broken and he didn’t require stitches. Shawn was out on the deck now, huddled down in the dark, with a beer in one hand and one of the cigars he rarely smoked in the other, a sign that he was horribly upset. Andie knew she would have to see to him next. She struggled to keep her shoulders upright, forced them back when all she wanted to do was crumple into her own pain, her own sorrow.

She leaned down and hugged Logan gently. “I’m not going to lie. It’s going to be hard, Logan. For all of us. This is going to drag up memories and emotions we’d thought we’d put away, that we thought we’d made peace with. But Shawn and I are here for you, and we’ll always be here for you, no matter what.”

Logan grabbed her and held on, so hard she knew his torn up hands must be hurting. He stuck on a shaky smile. “Well, unless you’re in the bathroom barfing because you saw me bleeding.”

Andie knew he was trying to make a joke, so even though his words sliced with a sharp edge across her skin, she forced her mouth into a reproduction of a grin. “Right. Except for that.” She brushed her lips across his uninjured cheek. “Sleep tight, little one. I love you.”

“Love you too.” Logan started to snuggle down under the quilt, then popped back up. “Sis? Can you leave the door open a crack? You know, in case I need anything?”

“Of course.” She swung it back open. “I’m going to go talk to Shawn on the deck. We’ll be right out there if you need us.”

“You promise you won’t leave?”

“Yes. I promise, and you know me, I never break my promises.”

“I know.” Logan‘s voice was slurred and sleepy.

Andie tiptoed out into the hallway, then hovered there a few minutes, waiting. When she heard his long, quiet snores, the same noises he’d been making in his sleep since he was three, she knew he was all right, at least for tonight.

Andie trudged down the stairs, but paused in the living room doorway, letting her temple rest against the cool wood trim. Her heart ached. Her stomach still burned. Any time she shut her eyes, the room swung around her. But she unbent the hopeless slump of her back and straightened away from the wood.

Shawn needed her too. He wasn’t a little boy, but that didn’t make it any easier. His grief was a man’s grief, deep with the fast swirling currents of pain that Andie could understand. She understood because she was caught in those same currents herself. Except in her case, she had to push them aside, because her family came first. Always.

She was about it step out onto the night-cloaked deck, when the doorbell rang. If she felt like she’d been relieved from duty, well, that was only to be expected.

When she pulled the door open, Conner stood there, illuminated by the yellow glow cast by the overhead bug light.

“What are you doing here, Conner?” Andie asked, too tired for good manners.

“I heard what happened. I came to see if you need anything. Where’s Shawn?”

Andie sighed and pulled the door wider. “He’s on the deck with a beer. Why don’t you grab one too, and we’ll all head out there?” She stopped in the kitchen to splash a little of her favorite white Zinfandel into the bottom of one of the wide, deep wineglasses, then followed Conner out into the darkness.

The soft shush of a night breeze slipped around them as the stars shivered through the sky. The air was cool and Andie was grateful for the warm sweater she’d put on. She tucked one hand inside its sleeve and took a sip from her glass with the other.

Shawn lifted his cigar, the orange light from it throwing odd, flickering shadows across his face. “Why is she here?” His voice was so low, Andie strained to hear it.

Conner jerked his shoulders. “I don’t think anyone really knows why she came back. I mean, obviously she had nothing to do with the accident. I don’t think anyone blamed her. But her whole family left.”

Shawn slammed a hand down on the railing, making the deck shudder. “Why the hell is she back?”

Andie took another sip of wine, a larger one, letting the warmth of it flow through her. “I can’t stand to see her face,” she whispered. “I know she had nothing to do with the accident. I know it’s not logical. I don’t care. Her family destroyed my family. Destroyed it. I don’t want to see her. I don’t want to be anywhere near her.” Andie’s throat throbbed, like it was filled with the shards of the ornament she had shattered a few days earlier.

Conner crossed over to stand behind her, let his hands kneading her shoulders. “What are you going to do about Logan?”

Andie knew she shouldn’t let him, shouldn’t take comfort from him. But she allowed her eyes to slip shut. “I don’t know.”

“I say let him beat the crap out of the little snot,” Shawn said, taking another long pull on his cigar.

“Shawn.” Andie pressed cold fingers against her aching eyes. “Even I know that a nine-year-old didn’t have anything to do with what his father might have done.”

Shawn took a breath so deep it made his shoulders shudder. “I know. I know. I don’t want the kid to get hurt. Or Logan either. I only…” The words trailed off, spun out into the night, a bright ribbon of pain against the darkness.

“It will have to be dealt with. We’ll all have to deal with it.” Andie said the words, meant them, but damned if she knew how to do it. She shut her eyes, focusing instead on the weight of Conner’s hands on her back, the warmness of them, the nearness of him, and she realized they’d formed a unit and left Shawn out in the cold.

She reached across the space between her and Shawn and took his hand in her own, linking them. No matter what might happen, no matter what might come at them, they’d be together. They’d handle it together.

*

Andie flipped the open sign on her shop to closed, then taped a handwritten sign below it; “Out for lunch. Back in an hour.” She glanced at her watch, a slim silver affair that had been her mother’s, and thought of Logan. His face was still bruised and scabbed, but he’d gone back to school today. He could because he knew he had his family backing him, something that Conner had never had. And Andie had known it was time to do something about it.

She pulled the door of her shop closed and smoothed her pretty, white sundress, before hoisting the heavy picnic basket she’d set at her feet. She’d called the nursing home and asked to have Mr. Morgan, Conner’s father, brought to the park for a picnic. After all, she knew it was a mistake for Conner to throw away his family, without even giving reconciliation a chance. But now, in the bright light of day, nerves were getting the best of her. Well, there was only one way to find out if she’d made a mistake.

It only took a few moments to walk the three blocks to the little pocket park on the lake. As she got closer to the little gazebo surrounded with climbing roses, her heart took a couple good, hard hops in her chest. A man in a wheelchair sat inside, a woman in scrubs hovering over him. Andie took a deep breath, checked to make sure her hair was still in its clip and walked the rest of the way to the graceful, white building.

“Mr. Morgan.” She held out her hand, shook his firmly. “It’s a pleasure to see you again.”

He looked at her, his eyes widening slightly. “You’re Maggie’s little girl.”

“Yes, sir. My name’s Andie.”

“I remember. I’m not senile yet, even if I look like I am.” He slapped a hand down on the arm of his wheelchair, making it shudder.

“No, sir. I didn’t think you were.” Andie sat down on the bench across from him. He was a distinguished looking man, with his salt and pepper hair cut neatly, his face still firm and well defined, his body trim. Of course, she knew that he’d broken his hip, that he had trouble walking now, had trouble even caring for himself. She imagined that this hard, independent man chaffed at the indignity of it.

Mr. Morgan let her study him for a minute before waving a hand at her impatiently. “So, missy, what am I doing here? Not that I don’t mind getting out of that madhouse for an hour or two.”

Andie met his gaze steadily. “Mr. Morgan, I don’t know if you remember, but I lost my parents nine years ago.”

The hardness in his eyes softened. “I remember. A tragedy like that is hard to forget.”

Andie took a deep breath to steady herself. “Yes. Well, I’ve been working with your son to fix up the brownstone building he owns downtown. My shop is in there. The North Pole on the South Shore. He wants to sell the building to a hotel chain. Of course, I’d lose my shop-” Andie squeezed her hands together in her lap, forced herself to stop babbling. She hadn’t meant to say that, didn’t want sympathy. That wasn’t why she had taken this risk, wasn’t why she was here in this park, with this man. This was about bringing together an estranged family.

Mr. Morgan’s eyes narrowed. “So you thought that if you could make Conner and me all fine and dandy together, you’d save your hide.”

Andie shook her head hard enough that her curls flapped around her face. “No, Mr. Morgan, that’s not it. I see your son and I think… It’s about my parents, how they’re gone forever. It’s because I don’t want to see either of you lose an opportunity to be close with your family, especially when you never know when you might lose them.”

Mr. Morgan looked at her, his mouth twisted into a frown. “Understood, but-” And then his whole body stiffened as he looked past Andie’s shoulder. Which could only mean one thing.

Conner was here.

He stood in the entryway to the gazebo, his hands fists at his side, the dark stubble that dusted his cheeks making him look like exactly what he was in that moment, a very dangerous man.

“Would someone like to tell me what the hell is going on?” Conner scanned their faces, then zeroed in on Andie. “Andie?”

“Um.” She looked hopefully at Mr. Morgan who laughed.

“Don’t look to me, girl. This was your idea so it’s your mess.”

Andie glanced at the nurse who was extraordinarily busy studying her shoelaces.

Andie pressed her fingers against the little gold cow she’d pinned to her dress and met Conner’s gaze. “It was my idea. I thought if we could get together, talk everything out-“

“You thought?” His voice shivered with icy rage. “You thought? What gave you the idea that it would be okay for you to think about this? About my Dad? Did you really think you could fix us?” His whole body was vibrating with anger as he stood there, pinning her in place with his eyes.

“Um.” Andie twisted her fingers in the hem of her dress, wrinkling the fabric. “I know it’s not my place, but-“

“No, it’s not your place!” He slammed his fist into one of the gazebo’s columns, making the whole structure shudder. “This isn’t some magical Christmas story, where everybody falls on each other’s shoulders and cries and apologizes, and then everything’s okay. Don’t you get it? We aren’t like you. We aren’t a family. We don’t love each other and we never will.” Conner spun on his heel and strode out of the pavilion and up the street.

Andie was torn between which man to go to first. In the end, she thought Mr. Morgan might need her more; he’d slumped forward in his wheel chair, his eyes shut as his breath came hard and fast. She went to her knees in front of him, the grit on the cement floor grinding into her skin, fitting punishment for the pain she had caused.

And she had caused pain. No matter what Conner said, she had seen the way that Mr. Morgan had flinched. He’d visibly paled when Conner had said they didn’t love each and never would. He cared for his son, even if he couldn’t find a way to express it or even show it.

She wrapped her hands around Mr. Morgan’s trembling fingers. “I’m so sorry; sorry he said such hurtful things, and so sorry that my plan exposed you to them.”

He scoffed, but it didn’t hide the unhappy turn of his lips. “It’s not your fault, girl. I know your history, why you did it. You had good intentions. It’s not your fault that my stubborn, mule-headed boy couldn’t see that too.”

Andie shook her head. “He cares, he has to, and I know you do too. As far as I can tell, you’re both being stubborn and mule-headed.”

A tiny whisper of a smile curled his lips. “That may be so, for all it’s worth.” He scrubbed a hand over his face, watched one snowy white sailboat skim across the water in front of them. “The truth is, I was a bad father. I know that now. I was unrelenting, demanding, too strict. I thought that the tighter I held him, the less likely I’d be to lose him, but I’ll be damned if I can work up the gumption to tell him that now.”

“Oh, Mr. Morgan.” Andie squeezed his hands. “If you want to be close to your son, we’ll find you a way. I promise. I’ll do whatever it takes.”

“You’re a good girl, Andie. Your parents would be proud of you.” He pulled his hands free and tugged at the wheels of his chair, rolling in reverse toward the door. “If that son of mine can’t see what kind of girl you are, if he gives you any trouble, you point him in my direction. And Andie,” he smiled, a real one this time, “If you want to marry my boy, you have my blessing. You’d be good for this family.”

“I, we, I, what?” Andie couldn’t form a complete sentence, couldn’t even finish her thought. Holy crap. Marriage to Conner. She couldn’t even begin to list all the things wrong with that statement.

“Think on it,” he said, then let the nurse roll him over the little step down to the sidewalk.

Andie plopped onto one of the benches facing the water. She stared out over the vastness of the lake and focused on taking long, calming breaths. She didn’t know what she had been thinking. Maybe she was naïve; maybe she had thought that forcing them to confront each other was all it would take to clear the air. Maybe Conner and his dad might have more obstacles standing in their way than she had thought. Conner had been mad, very, very mad. She knew that she’d have to apologize, have to deal with his anger with her. And she would. In a minute.

She sat there, letting the sparkles glinting off the water dazzle her eyes as slow warmth crept through her chest. She replayed the conversation over, then over again. The pain, the hurt, the distrust, in both the men had been clearly visible, and that could only mean one thing, that somewhere inside of them, they cared. Because you sure as heck didn’t feel pain if you’d given up. You’d feel numb maybe, but you wouldn’t hurt. Which meant that she’d been right after all.

Andie stood up, her feet suddenly as light as an angel’s wing. Because she knew that Conner and Mr. Morgan would reconcile sometime. They had to. There was love there still. And you don’t turn your back on family. Or on love.

Chapter Five

Andie stood in the alley behind the building with Mr. Davis, the art restorer they’d hired to clean the mural. Conner had set up this meeting after they’d found the mural behind the wallpaper. Of course that had been before the failed picnic.

Andie checked her watch. The sun had risen awhile ago and it was going on seven thirty now. She’d have to leave soon to open her shop. The cool morning air slid down her neck, making Andie shiver as she wrapped her cranberry-red cardigan a little tighter around herself.

The sound of shoes scraping the pavement filled her with relief.

“Sorry to keep you waiting, Mr. Davis,” Conner said in a voice as cool as frost. “I had some unavoidable business this morning.” He unlocked the padlock, then slipped the key ring into his pocket before flipping the light switch. “Let me go first. I’m still not sure how safe the floor is in some areas.”

“Of course,” Mr. Davis said. His voice was soft and warm and went well with his studious, professor-like air.

Andie hesitated a moment at the doorway. Conner hadn’t even acknowledged her presence. She might have been invisible, a ghost, for all the attention he paid her. She shivered again as a streak of uneasiness curled into her chest. What if she’d damaged their friendship? She’d wanted to help, but clearly, she’d hurt him deeply.

Andie pulled her shoulders back and told herself it didn’t matter what he thought of her. They hadn’t been friends in a long while, it didn’t matter if she lost him now. What mattered was reuniting him with his father. He was so alone; he and his father were both so alone. They needed someone to show them that, to guide them back to a relationship together.

Andie listened to the murmur of their voices drifting out of the building. Hadn’t she been cleaning this place like a maniac for the last couple of weeks? She’d put in as much time as Conner. She’d sweated and pulled muscles and suffered bruises and cuts. She had as much right to hear what Mr. Davis said as Conner did. Andie jammed her fists into the pockets of her cardigan and stalked into the building and straight to the old courtroom.

“-can’t be sure until we remove more of the wallpaper, until we can see what we’re dealing with here, but this looks very promising.” Mr. Davis’s voice wasn’t quiet now; it was laced with a barely restrained excitement. “If it’s fine with you, I’d like to run down to my office and get some supplies and get started right away.”

“Sure. That’s what you’re here for.”

“Wonderful, Mr. Morgan! I’ll be back in fifteen minutes.”

Andie watched Conner’s lip curl up in distaste. “Call me Conner,” he yelled after Mr. Davis.

His voice echoed in the large room, making Andie all too aware of how alone they were. Andie took a side step toward the door and then another. Maybe she could sneak out and he wouldn’t notice.

Conner scowled at her. “Where are you going? You and me, we’re going to talk.”

“Um.” Andie smoothed back her loose curl. “Of course.” She leaned back against the doorframe, needing the support. Conner was a good guy, but even good guys have their limits. She’d walked all over the line he’d drawn and she knew it.

Conner stalked toward her, but Andie held up a hand to stop him.

“Before you start,” she said, “I want to apologize for springing that meeting on you. That was wrong and I’m sorry, but-“

Conner growled as he closed the rest of the distance between them. “But you knew I would never show up if you had told me beforehand. Shouldn’t that have been a clue, Andie?”

“Yes, and I can only say I’m sorry.”

Conner slapped his palm down on the wall next to her, effectively caging her in. “Sorry isn’t good enough, Andie. You can’t do this to people, shove them around, thinking you can push them into place, like some little scene for your display window! This is real life, and not everything can be perfect. You had no right to manipulate me that way.”

Andie sighed. Everything he was saying was true, but still. “I don’t want to watch you lose the only family you have.” And, unable to stop herself, she reached out, ran a thumb down the smooth, freshly shaven surface of his cheek. “You’re so alone, Conner. It makes my heart ache.” His eyes filled with a bleak awareness, one that told her that she’d been more than right in her assessment. But then he blinked and the anger was back.

He pulled his head away from her hand. “I’m fine. I’ve been on my own for years now and I’m fine. I’m always fine.”

Andie leaned her head back against the wall behind her, the better to see his face. “Are you? Have you always been alone? You’ve never had a relationship? A serious girlfriend? Shouldn’t that tell you something?”

Conner growled again. “I’ve had serious girlfriends. I was even engaged for awhile,” he said defensively.

Andie ached to wipe away the pain she saw in the tightness around his eyes, the grim set of his mouth. “What happened?”

Conner pulled away, turned his back to her. “She didn’t want me. She wanted to be married. To somebody. Anybody. When I broke it off, she emptied our checking account, all of our savings. Because of her, I have nothing now, nothing but this building.”

Andie let her hand skim down his back, her fingers buzzing with the contact. “She was a fool, Conner. She didn’t realize what she had. She’ll regret it.”

Conner shrugged her hand away, rejecting her comfort. “What about you? From what I hear you don’t even date, let alone have a boyfriend.”

The lash of his words left Andie gaping for a split second before the anger rolled in. “It’s a little hard to find the time to date when you’re raising a kid!”

“Is it? I think it’s something else. I think that’s an excuse so you don’t have to put yourself out there!” Conner whirled back to face her, his cheeks flushed with red.

The anger mixed with something else, something that made Andie feel as hollow and fragile as an antique ornament. “Maybe I am protecting myself. I think I have a right to. Haven’t I been through enough?”

Conner sighed and raked a hand through his hair. “I know. I’m sorry.”

Andie crossed her arms, shielding herself from the sudden chill in the room. “I’m sorry that I manipulated you. I truly am.”

“You can’t control people, Andie, or try to force them into some perfect vision that you see for their life. It’s my life and I’ll live it the way I want. Trying to make me into a different person than I am makes you as bad as my dad.”

And that, Andie knew, was the problem; he was viewing everything through the warped lens of his past.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

Conner held out his hand like he wished to call back his harsh words. “I didn’t mean that, Andie. That wasn’t fair.”

“It’s okay, I get it.”

They studied each other, their gazes locked. Andie’s fingers trembled and her skin ached with the anger, and sorrow, and pity trickling through her.

Conner looked equally miserable, his whole body slumped forward, his shoulders hunched up around his ears, his eyes dark with hurt.

He turned and walk down the hall.

“Except- Wait!” Andie jogged after him. “What about the bake sale tomorrow? You said you would help man the table with me. After what happened yesterday, would you rather not?” Andie didn’t look at him as she spoke, instead keeping her gaze trained on the wall behind his head, not wanting to see the rejection and condemnation on his face. But the funny thing was, she was half hoping he would reject her, for a whole lot of reasons that she wasn’t willing to look at too closely.

“I said I’d be there, so I’ll be there.” Conner’s voice was quiet, even, and Andie looked at him in surprise.

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, it’s fine. But Andie, don’t ever do something like that again.” He didn’t wait for her to answer before he strode off down the hall.

*

Andie glanced at her phone, willing it to ring. She knew Diana had been told her lump was suspicious and that they’d done a biopsy. She was expecting the results sometime today. Andie’d assumed it would be before lunch, but it was eleven now and still nothing.

Andie pressed a hand to the sick burn in her stomach as she wandered her shop, stopping in front of the display of snow globes. They took up the whole corner and came in every shape, color and size imaginable. But Andie’s favorites were the ones that plugged in. These had large iridescent flakes of glitter and the globes came in a variety of translucent shapes; snowmen, Santa’s face, a stylized reindeer. The heat from the little, multicolored bulbs inside caused the liquid and glitter to circulate in a never-ending swirl of color. Andie stood in front of them for several long minutes, mesmerized.

And suddenly, a memory from her childhood burst upon her. She had been small, probably five or so. They had plugged in their Christmas tree for the first time, and Andie had lain down under the branches, staring up through the needles and glittering ornaments to watch the lights. The tree had large, old-fashioned bulbs and about half of them were what her mom had called “flashers.” They winked on and off independently of each other, making an ever changing pattern of multicolored light and shadow on the ceiling.

The tree wiggled slightly as her father laid down next to her, tucking his big body up under the branches. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it, lightening bug?” He cradled her hand in his, brought it to his face and gave it a smacking kiss.

“Daddy!” She’d giggled and pretended to try to tug her hand away. “Your whiskers are too scratchy!”

“What, these old things? This bothers you?” And he’d rubbed one rough cheek lightly over her wrist.

Andie had collapsed in giggles and Daddy had tugged her into his arms squeezing her tight.

“It’s a beautiful tree, lightening bug, but it will never be as beautiful as you.” And they’d laid there, her head cradled on his chest.

Andie’s cell phone jangled out its jaunty ringtone, shocking her out of her memory. “Hello?”

“It’s me,” Diana said, her voice dull and muted. “I have invasive breast cancer.”

Andie found herself on the floor in front of the checkout counter, not even sure how she got there. “Oh, Diana. No.” The words came out as a rough croak.

“I’m sorry, Andie.”

“No, Diana, no. We’ll fight this together. There’s nothing to be sorry for. What we need is a plan. Have you talked to the oncologist yet?” It took Andie every ounce of will power she had to make her voice sound brisk, businesslike, unworried, but nothing could stop the tremors that were racing over her entire body. Not Diana. Not Diana too. Don’t take her.

“Tomorrow. Mom’s packing up a few things at her condo tonight and will come over in the morning. She’s going to go with me. She wanted to come up tonight, but I said no. I didn’t want her fussing over me.” Diana was answering the questions, but her voice was so flat, so devoid of emotion. Andie knew she shouldn’t be alone; not now, not like this.

“I’m going to come over, okay? I’ll stay there with you tonight.”

“Okay. I’ll be here.” And the phone clicked off.

Andie pulled her legs into her chest and pressed her cheek into her knee. How could this be happening to Diana, sweet, young, fun Diana?? And even though she knew it was horribly selfish, she couldn’t stop the whisper of the thought that it wasn’t fair, that she’d lost so much already. She shouldn’t have to loose her best friend too.

The bell over the door jangled. Andie managed to peel her eyes open, but she couldn’t lift her head, even though she desperately wanted to. She’d be mortified for someone to find her here like this, but she physically wasn’t able to do it.

“Andie?” Conner’s voice was loud, a little impatient, as he strode into the store. The minute he spotted her, the floor went from shuddering under his feet to completely motionless.

“Andie? Andie?” Conner knelt down next to her, lifted the curtain of hair off her face. “Are you all right?”

“No.” The harsh whisper didn’t sound like her voice at all. “Diana has cancer.”

Conner swore. “I’m sorry, so sorry, Andie. Here, let me help you.” He slid one arm behind her knees and another across her back, lifting her like she weighed no more than a snowflake. He set her carefully in the leather chair behind the checkout counter, before walking around the store, unplugging everything.

“There.” He came back around the counter, rooted through it until he found her purse and handed to her. “I’ve got my car in front of the building. The puppy’s in there. We went to the store and got some supplies. Can you walk?”

Andie nodded and got shakily to her feet, swaying slightly. “I’m fine. I have to get to Diana’s.” To comfort her, yes, but she also had a desperate need to see her, touch her, make sure she hadn’t faded away in the few moments since they’d hung up.

Conner wrapped an arm around her waist, towing her to the front door. “I know. Come on.” He flipped the open sign to closed, then unclipped her keys from the carabineer attached to her purse and locked the door.

He led her to a large black Jeep that had seen a lot of wear and tear. “Go ahead and get in. I’m going to pop into the IGA for a minute.” While she hoisted herself into the front seat, Conner opened the back door, then slammed it shut again. Before she even knew what was happening, he’d deposited s soft, furry puppy into her arms.

“You hang on to Jack for me for a minute.” And he slammed the door and walked away.

Andie and the puppy stared at each other for several long moments. Then he leaned forward and swiped his tongue up her chin. “Hey, little guy,” she whispered. He gave a soft little bark, wiggled down into her arms and promptly fell asleep.

A soft golden light sifted through the windshield, warming her skin. She let her breath slow, match that of the sleeping puppy. The tremors that had been racing through her body gradually stopped. Andie shut her eyes, breathing in the scent of something delicious frying in one of the restaurants close by. Slowly, her world revolved back into focus.

“Hey,” Conner smiled at her as he loaded four brown paper bags into the back seat. “You two doing okay?”

“We’re all right.” And they were. For now, anyway.

Conner hopped into the front seat and reached across her for the seatbelt, securing both Andie and the puppy. “Okay, hang on, guys. We’ll be there in a few minutes.”

The Jeep flashed through town, past restaurants, boutiques and the marina, before he turned the SUV toward the hills outside of town. Fields, lit with the hazy golden light of early autumn, alternated with both stately and cozy country homes, as the road slowly wound up and away from the lake.

Conner pulled up in front of a sprawling, white farmhouse tucked within the trees of an apple orchard. Diana had lived here all her life. Behind it, several big, red barns watched over the orchards beyond. Silence blanketed the rows of trees, the workers gone for the night. The harvest bustle had already begun; crates of early ripening apples were stacked inside the door of the nearest barn, with mountains of empty crates next to them still waiting to be filled.

Conner turned toward her in the semi-twilight of the Jeep. “I’d like to carry the groceries in. Do you think that would be okay with Diana?”

“Those are for us?” Andie twisted in her seat, trying to see what was inside the bags.

“Yeah. You guys can have a girl party or something.”

“I don’t know how much of a party this will be.” Andie struggled to undo her seat belt one-handed, trying again and again, until Conner’s strong, steady fingers closed over hers, taking over the task.

He picked her hand up, warming her chilly fingers with his own. “That’s the thing, Andie. I don’t think Diana needs a depressed best friend, I think she needs a good time.”

Andie looked up at the house, each window a dark square despite the fact that the daylight was fast fading away. “I suppose you’re right. Can I bring the puppy in with me for a minute?”

“You bet.” He hopped out of the Jeep, walked around the front and pulled open the door. Before she could stop him, he wrapped his arms around both her and the pup and lifted them out together. “Go ask her if I can carry in the groceries.”

“I’ll be right back.” She walked up to the house and paused to look back at Conner when she reached the porch. He leaned against the Jeep, his white t-shirt gleaming in what little light was left. He grinned at her, the dimple in his cheek winking to life and Andie felt a little twinkle of light and warmth flicker in her chest. Conner might live a life that was inconsistent, reckless and downright dangerous at times, but no one could ever accuse him of being uncaring. having him there bolstered her, made her feel more confident, more capable. And she’d take any help she could get right now.

She knocked on the door, then pushed it open without waiting for an answer. “Diana?”

“In the living room.”

Andie walked down the hall, her heels tapping against the pale maple flooring. She knelt next to the deep, crimson couch where her friend lay, a throw pillow covering her face.

“Diana. Diana.” Andie whispered her friend’s name, but she didn’t move. “I brought someone to meet you.”

That got a reaction.

Diana lurched forward, the pillow flying up and bashing the overhead light fixture. Andie winced as the Tiffany-style pendant lamp swayed precariously.

“You did what?”

“Yup. Here you go.” Andie placed the sleeping pup in Diana’s lap.

And like that, Diana smiled. “Oh. He’s so cute.” She ran a finger down his back and the puppy shifted, then stretched his little paws out, kneading Diana’s leg. He yawned, his tiny pink tongue curling out, and they both laughed. “Is he yours?”

“No. I think Conner adopted him. I didn’t even ask where he came from.”

Diana lifted her head, scanned Andie’s face. “Is Conner here with you?”

Andie hesitated, then nodded. “Yeah. He brought us presents. He wants to bring them inside, but I told him I’d ask first. It’s only Conner. He’s practically your brother.”

“A brother I basically haven’t seen more than a handful of times in eleven years.” She pushed at her tangle of dark hair, trying to smooth it into some semblance of order.

“It won’t matter. As soon as you’re with him, it’ll seem like he’s never been gone.” She said it without thinking and then winced, realizing how it sounded.

Diana didn’t miss it either. “Andie Turner! Don’t tell me you have feelings for him again!”

“Um. Uh.” Andie stuttered for a moment before her brain kicked in. “No. Of course not. Well, as a friend maybe. Nothing more.”

Diana scanned her face. “A friend, my foot.” She stood cradling the puppy to her chest, then giggled when he licked her face. “Oh, what the hey. You might as well have him come in. I could use a few presents.”

Diana padded down the hall barefoot after Andie, flipping on lights as she went, then followed her out onto the porch.

Night had descended and overhead a sprinkling of stars pulsed and glowed, bats silhouetted here and there against the pinpricks of light as they scooped up insects. The air had turned downright chilly and Andie shivered, rubbing her arms for warmth.

As she descended the steps, she saw Conner had already hefted the bags out of the SUV in hopes that Diana would be okay with the visit. He effortlessly strode toward them, despite the heavy weight of the bags he carried.

He grinned at Diana as he jogged up the stairs. “I hope you don’t mind, I brought you a few things.”

“Presents are always good.” Diana led him down the hallway to the kitchen and flipped on more lights before shimmying herself awkwardly up on the house’s original marble countertop as best she could while still clutching the puppy to her chest. “I hope you brought something good.”

“Of course.” Conner set the bags on the huge, oak trestle table that took up the whole end of the room. Andie knelt in front of the old woodstove, matches in hand. It was a matter of minutes before a cozy fire was snapping and spiraling behind the glass. It might only be early autumn, but the air outside was growing chilly and the cold breeze slithered through all the minuscule chinks in the old farm house. Besides, there was nothing like a glowing fire to chase away the gloom.

Andie swung her leg over one of the benches lining the table and sat down next to Conner. “Well? Let’s see it. Show us what you got. And it better be good.”

Conner rooted through the bags, setting item after item on the table. There were ice creams and chocolates, chips and salad ingredients. There were movies, funny and romantic. There were several bottles of wine and an entire roasted chicken from the deli, along with tubs of pasta salad and coleslaw. Very last, he pulled out a huge spear of sunny yellow gladiolas and handed them with a flourish to Diana.

“So? How’d I do?” he asked with a grin.

Diana shifted the puppy to one arm and took the flowers in the other. She inhaled deeply, then looked up at him. “These are my favorite color. Did you know that?”

Conner reached behind her and took three deep cereal bowls from one of the cabinets. “Sort of. I remember you used to wear a lot of yellow, so I figured. Where’s your ice-cream scoop? Let’s eat the good stuff first.”

Diana glanced at Andie, who pursed her lips in an attempt not to laugh, but it was doomed to failure. A loud and unladylike snort escaped her.

“What?” Conner put on his most wounded, puppy dog face. “I can’t stay? Come on. Look at all this good food! And that is my puppy. You know you want me here.”

Diana shook her head at Andie. “What do you think my chances of getting rid of him are?”

“I’d say slim to none. The ice cream scoop is in the drawer next to the sink. I want the Turtle Tracks ice cream.” Andie winked at Conner.

Conner looked back at Diana. “I think that’s a vote in my favor.”

“Yeah, yeah, you can stay, but there better be a tub of cookie dough ice-cream.”

“Oh, there is.” Conner grabbed the scoop and balanced it on top of the bowls as he made his way back to the table. He set them down, then finished unpacking the last bag. He pulled out carton after carton of ice cream, until seven varieties marched down the table in a parade of cream and sugar.

“I wasn’t sure what flavor you ladies liked so I pretty much got one of everything. I hope you have a big freezer somewhere, ‘cause I hate to tell you, but that little one over there isn’t going to cut it.”

“Boy,” Diana said, looking at Andie, “he sure makes it hard to kick him out.”

Andie scooped up a large spoonful of Turtle Tracks and licked off a big chunk of it. “Tell me about it.”

Conner scooted out a chair and heaped a bowl with Brownie Fudge Burst. “That’s the plan.”

As Andie watched him shovel ice cream into his mouth, a sudden cold chill settled over her, despite the warmth of the fire at her back. Conner was good at fitting in, making people like him, and want him around.

And while Andie was grateful to have Conner there, another part wanted run as fast and far from him as she could get. Because she’d had enough; enough hurt, enough people leaving forever, enough of being the one left behind, with nothing but despair and heartache.

Conner was leaving, whether she wanted him to or not. Conner had a job she could never tolerate lined up and ready to go. And the biggest strike of all, Conner was going to walk away from his only family, to follow his own dream, without regard for anyone else.

Charm and humor and kindness were great, but they’d never be able to erase who he was, or her past. Those two things combined to make him the worst possible man in the world for her. She knew it with every fiber of her being, no mater what her stupid, lonely heart might be urging her to do.

Chapter Six

Andie slipped one foot out of her high-heeled sandals and rubbed at the ache in her arch. The air might have been slightly chilly, but the September sun was still hot enough that, despite rubbing on multiple coats of sunscreen, the sting of a burn had spread across her skin. But underneath the folding table she sat at was a metal lock box full of money, money that would go a long way toward saving her building, her shop, her dream.

“Thanks,” Conner said, to a young mom as he handed her a huge, assorted box of cookies. “You’re going to make your little guys very happy.”

The mom rolled her eyes as her oldest boy tugged at her sleeve for attention, while the toddler in the stroller wailed like a police siren. “That’s the plan. Or hope, I should say.”

Conner grabbed an ice cold bottle of water from the cooler under one of the other tables that was now sparsely populated with baked goods and leaned over to hand it to the toddler. “Here you go, buddy. You look thirsty.”

The mom unscrewed the cap and handed the bottle back to little boy, who immediately quieted. “Thanks again,” she said, and slowly made her way down the paved trail that wound along the lake’s edge in front of them.

Andie had been lucky enough to score a spot in the middle of the Art in the Park event. They had set up between a woman making beautiful sterling silver jewelry and a man who had the most gorgeous, framed nature photos Andie had ever seen, and they couldn’t have been luckier. The constant foot traffic to those two popular booths meant they had a huge amount as well, and they’d sold almost all of their treats. She supposed it didn’t hurt that they had the world’s cutest puppy with them either. She smiled as yet another kid raced over to pet the dog and her mom, who dutifully followed, decided to buy a cake for an after dinner treat.

Andie looked up when someone called her name. Shawn and Logan were winding their way up the lake walk toward them. Logan‘s face was only a raw, red looking area now. It would probably be sore for awhile, but there was no lasting damage. Andie wasn’t sure she could say the same for his heart. An anger had settled on him the day of the altercation, and no matter what Andie or Shawn did, they couldn’t seem to get Logan to shake it.

It worried Andie even more because she felt the exact same way. How could she tell Logan to forget it when she was stuck in the exact same place?

But Andie refused to think about Kayla Anderson on such a perfect day, refused to let the memories of the past swamp her and spoil it. The deep blue of a fall sky stretched overhead and the cool air flowed over her skin like a hug. Her family was safe and well and together right now. That was the most important thing to remember, especially when Diana’s illness had reminded them all too well how fragile life could be. Not that they weren’t going to make every attempt to fight it; she had a mastectomy scheduled within a week and aggressive chemotherapy planned after that. Andie had been calling Diana twice every day to check up on her, until Diana had told her to knock it off and give her a little room.

She slapped a smile on her face. “Hey, guys!” Andie jumped out from behind the table and squeezed Shawn in a gigantic hug before doing the same to Logan.

Shawn grinned down at her, tousling her curls into a mess. “What’s that for, sis?”

Andie tried to run her fingers through her hair, push it back into some semblance of order, but when her hand became hopelessly tangled, she gave it up for a lost cause. “I’m glad to see you.”

“Well, you’re gonna be even happier in a minute.” Logan flashed a gigantic grin, then slung his backpack off his shoulder and rooted around in it for a minute. “Ta da!” He held up her most comfy pair of sneakers. Right before she’d left this morning, Shawn had tried to talk her into wearing them instead of her cute, strappy pink heels, but Andie had been adamant. Soon enough she’d have to encase her feet in heavy winter boots, and even then they wouldn’t be warm. From mid-October to May, she’d have constant Reynaud’s attacks, turning her fingers and toes to a waxy white, each nail a dull purple. If she wasn’t carful, she’d end up with tissue damage, especially on her toes. She wanted to enjoy her summer shoe collection, and the warm sun on her feet, for a little bit longer.

“All right, all right. You guys were totally right. My feet are killing me. I don’t suppose you brought any socks, did you?”

Logan whipped out a cozy, thick pair of hiking socks and Andie nearly swooned.

She pulled both the socks and shoes on her feet then let out a sigh. “Heaven. So, what are you guys doing here?”

“We came to take over the bake sale for awhile. Why don’t you go get something to eat? Get some supper or an ice-cream cone. We can handle it from here,” Shawn said.

Andie glanced at her watch. 5 o’clock. Already the sun was riding low in the sky and the warmth of the afternoon was leaching away. Her brothers could probably handle the last few hours of the sale. She shivered and Logan grinned again.

“What?” she asked.

He reached into his backpack and pulled out her favorite sweater.

A laugh burbled up out of Andie. “And here I thought I was the one taking care of you!”

Logan plopped down in one of the folding chairs behind the table. “We take care of each other.”

Shawn let one eyebrow drift upward. “And it might be good if you remembered that every once and awhile.”

And it was true. Sometimes, Andie forgot. Sometimes, it felt like all the responsibility for their family fell on her shoulders, but the truth was, she put it there herself. Shawn was a capable and thoughtful man. He was as responsible as she was, but she had a hard time letting go, letting anyone else be in control. And the only person she had to blame for that was herself. Even Logan was getting older now, able to do stuff for himself that he hadn’t done before. Maybe it was time to let go a little, to let herself have fun, to find enjoyment where she could. For years, she’d been wishing for this very thing, but now that it was actually here, a little tingle of fear snaked across her scalp. Because if she didn’t have the role of adopted mom, or the provider, to hide behind, then who was she? She wasn’t sure she was brave enough to find out, but at least she could take a step in that direction.

She moved away from the table. “You’re sure?”

Shawn nodded. “Yup. Get going. It’s not only your shop we’re trying to save. It’s our family’s shop. We should do our fair share.” He walked over to where Conner sat in the other folding chair and gave him nudge. “You too, man. Leave the puppy, too. We’ll take care of him for a little bit. Get out of here. I know you’ve been here all day and that your shift at the pub starts at eight. Go get some food.”

The two men stared each other down for a second, some sort of wordless communication passing between them. Then, Conner grinned, his dimple sliding into place. “Thanks, dude.” He stood up and slapped Shawn on the back. “I am hungry.”

He stepped over to Andie, tucked the curl that kept poking her in the eye behind her ear. “Want to get something to eat?”

She smiled up at him, ready to enjoy the evening, despite the tingle of nerves in her belly. “Sure, but do we have to go inside? It’s so beautiful out.”

“Why don’t we walk down by the water? We could get some hot dogs or something to go at Lakeside.”

“That sounds about right.”

Andie buttoned her sweater over her chest, grateful for the warmth as they walked by the shore. Gentle waves swished against the thick wall of boulders that lined the long, grassy expanse of land that flowed from the hotels and restaurants all the way to the water. White tent canopies glinted in the sunlight as people strolled from vendor to vendor, enjoying the artwork and blaze of red and orange leaves that decorated the trees overhead.

Andie tipped her face up, toward that deep blue sky that only appeared during autumn, the haze of summer washed away by the crisp rain. “Isn’t it gorgeous?”

Conner stared down at her, his eyes shuttered and unreadable. Then he reached for her hand. “It is.”

Andie’s heart skipped around in her chest as the warmth of his skin enfolded hers. “Conner…” She said it slowly, knowing that this shouldn’t be happening, but reluctant to stop it.

“Don’t think right now. Let’s … be.” Conner squeezed her hand and tugged her a little closer to his side.

A little skittering shiver of uneasiness tickled down Andie’s spine, warred with the surge of heat shimmering under her skin. “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. Maybe I should head back. Diana-“

“No. Diana’s with her mom tonight. Her family. You of all people should know what that means.”

Andie froze, literally, with one foot inches from the sidewalk, her heart lurching into her throat.

Conner turned to her, let one thumb skim her jaw. “That’s not what I meant,” he said in a gentle voice. “I meant they’ve closed ranks, huddled together. They’re going to get through this, but they need each other right now. You’re about as close as family to Diana, but she needs them too. Don’t think about that right now. Don’t think about anything that worries you right now. Breathe.”

Conner scanned her face searching for something. “That wasn’t enough. Okay.” He scrubbed at his cheek, then smiled. “Come on. I know where we can go.”

He towed her through the park and down to the marina beyond. The pier swayed a little under her feet as Conner led her to one of the last slips. “Here we are.”

She knew this boat. It was his father’s excursion boat, his pride and joy. She and Shawn had been on it a few times as kids, either to fish or for a day trip out to one of the islands. She hadn’t gone often though. The way Mr. Morgan had ordered everyone around, shouting when his first command hadn’t been followed quickly enough, had always left her feeling like she wanted to punch something. And Andie never punched anything.

But the boat. She’d always loved the boat, with its polished wood glinting in the sunlight and the gleaming brass accents setting it off perfectly. There was a seating area on deck, upholstered in leather as smooth as satin, and below, a living area made of the finest materials.

The boat sat silently now, waiting to fill itself with the happy memories that had never come.

Conner grinned at her, his dimple flashing. “After you.”

Andie looked at Conner, then back over her shoulder. The park was so far away now that she couldn’t even see their booth. “Oh, I don’t know.”

“Well, I do.” And like that, Conner’s hands were closing around her waist, strong and firm. For a second she was flying, weightless, through the air, before her feet touched softly onto the polished wood decking. It took Conner less then a split second to vault over the rail behind her. He led her to one of the low leather sofas and gently pushed her down onto it.

“You sit here. Relax. I’m going to see if I can’t find something for us to eat.” He lifted the seat of the sofa across from her and pulled out a woolen blanket, flecked with a red and yellow plaid pattern. “Tuck up. Keep warm. I’ll be right back.”

So she did. For the first time in a long time, years maybe, Andie sat still and did nothing. She didn’t worry, or think, or plan. She sat there and watched the gulls arrowing across the sky, the sun sinking lower and lower toward the water, the glitter of light on the gentle waves. As she sat there something loosened, then spooled away from her chest, freeing her from some invisible restraint she hadn’t even known was there. For a split second, something clenched in her heart, urged her to clutch at whatever she was losing, and then it was gone. She relaxed into the stillness of the late afternoon.

The sky blazed with color; reds and oranges, before deepening to a deep indigo. Stars winked to life overhead, one after the other, a handful of glitter flung against velvet. And then light glimmered around her as a wash of twinkle lights blinked on, their warm glow casting a puddle of contentment around her.

Conner came up from below, balancing a plate in each hand, with a bottle of champagne tucked under his arm. “I did the best I could with what was in the pantry. I don’t imagine Dad’s been here recently.” He set a plate of pasta in front of her. Coating the noodles was a sauce of olives, chunks of tuna, tomatoes and what looked like jarred garlic.

“It smells delicious,” Andie said. She meant to smile at him, wanted to smile at him, but she couldn’t quite get her lips to move right. Until that moment, she’d never realized that the only men who’d ever cooked for her had been her father and her brother. She was twenty-seven years old, and the only relationships she’d ever had with a man, no, a boy, had been the two flings she’d had in college. And wasn’t that the most pathetic thing she’d ever heard?

Conner handed her a fork and a paper towel to use as a napkin, then slid in next to her, close enough that Andie felt the warmth from his body. She hadn’t even realized she was cool, until his nearness had chased away the chill.

“Eat then, but first.” And Conner popped the cork on the champagne.

Andie gasped at the noise, then laughed at herself. “What are we celebrating?”

“Being together. This night. That the bake sale went well. Take your pick.” He handed her the bottle of champagne.

She held it in her hand, looking at it uncertainly. “Um. Glasses?”

Conner shrugged. “Couldn’t find ‘em.”

Andie lifted the bottle in a salute to Conner. “When in Rome…” The bubbles exploded on her tongue, bitter and slightly sweet at the same time, as she took a sip. “Thanks, Conner, for everything.”

Conner shook his head, watching her with eyes that had suddenly gone dark with some emotion she couldn’t quite identify. “No, thank you. Thank you for all you’ve done for me, all the help you’ve given. Even when I didn’t want it.” He smiled a little at her.

“You’re welcome.” Andie took another sip of the champagne, then handed him the bottle. “Let’s eat before it gets cold.”

So they sat under the stars and ate the pasta that was very good, even if it wasn’t great. They talked, and they laughed. Andie did remember why she had cared for him so many years ago, no matter what she might have pretended before. She knew, if she let herself, that she could care for him again. It was thoughtless and reckless and probably one of the worst ideas she had ever had. But for tonight, she was going to let herself think it. The morning would be soon enough to go back to being sensible, responsible Andie. And, God, she was so sick of playing it safe.

So when Conner took her plate, stacked it with his and set them on the floor, she didn’t stand immediately like she normally would have. When he slid closer, so that they were touching, shoulder to shoulder, knee to knee, she didn’t lean back.

Conner lifted his hand, tucked one loose curl behind her ear. But then he lifted his other hand too, cupping her face. His lips curved into a smile. And then he leaned forward and settled his lips against her own.

Heat rushed through Andie and it felt like she was finally warm for the first time in years. She let her arms slide around his back and revealed in his heat, in the feel of his body against hers, in the knowledge that at this moment, he was thinking of her and only her.

“Conner.” His name was a whisper on her lips before she let her tongue sweep forward. He tasted so good. He felt so good. She wanted him, wanted this more than anything. She wanted to feel him against her. She wanted to forget everything but the man sitting next to her. She wanted to remember what it felt like to be wanted.

His lips skimmed across her cheek then back to her mouth, an unexpectedly tender touch that sent a spiral of longing through Andie’s heart. In that moment, she knew she wanted too much. If she opened that door, let all those old feelings and emotions out, she didn’t think she’d be able to bear shutting them up again when this ended. And it would end.

Andie leaned back, feeling the cool night air flow between them, an intangible, but very real barrier. “I should get home. Thank you for supper.”

Andie watched Conner’s eyes flick back and forth as he scanned her face. His lips were still pink from their kisses, his body bowed toward her with the strength of his desire for her. But finally, he nodded. His hands dropped away from her face, leaving Andie with nothing but the dusty taste of regret on her tongue.

Conner rose, gripped the brass railing of the boat as he stared out over the marina. “It’s getting late. Let me wash up these dishes and I’ll walk you home.”

Andie folded the blanket into a precise square. “No, I can walk home myself.”

“I’m sure you can, but tonight, I’m going to walk with you. Besides, I have to pick up Jack.”

“Oh. I’d forgotten about him. All right then, but I’m going to help you clean up.” Because if you couldn’t give yourself to a man, helping with the dishes might be an adequate substitute, right? And she bent to pick up the plates before following him down into the tiny galley.

As soon as she was there, she knew she’d made another mistake. They were all but in each other’s arms as they washed and dried the dishes and pans, wiped the counters, put away supplies. Each whisper of a touch, each time their skin brushed together, a shiver of awareness shook Andie’s chest, in an area that felt suspiciously like her heart. When she turned to put the pasta strainer away, and instead rammed directly into Conner’s body, she knew she couldn’t take it anymore.

“Why don’t I go wait on deck? There clearly isn’t enough room for two people in here.”

Conner tucked the dishtowel neatly through a towel rack on the side of a cabinet and grinned at her. “Too late. All done. Come on.” He took her hand in his before she could stop him and tugged her up the narrow, step stairs and into the star-lit darkness. He swung her back onto the dock, then grabbed her hand again. When she pulled at him, trying to free herself, Conner looked at her, one dark eyebrow shooting upward.

“Don’t tell me you’re afraid of a little handholding?”

“No, of course not,” Andie said, immediately going still. Which, she was sure, had been precisely his intention when he’d challenged her. Her pride demanded that she prove him wrong. It was one of her weak spots, and it always had been, even back when they were kids. And, of course, he knew that, knew precisely what he was doing.

So they walked home in the darkness, their hands intertwined, and a sick burn of anxiety, knotted together with want, squeezing Andie’s stomach.

Conner would be gone soon, in a matter of months. Even if, by some miracle, he stayed, he wasn’t right for her. How could she be with someone who didn’t value family or home? With someone who would risk their own life day in and day out, in the reckless pursuit of the next adrenaline surge?

Andie’s brain had neatly analyzed the situation and told her to run, but her traitorous heart hadn’t gotten the memo, because it insisted on doing foolish flips and dives the entire walk home.

Chapter Seven

The windows in the courthouse had been scrubbed clean, allowing the bright autumn sunlight to stream across the huge mural covering the entire wall. Bright colors portrayed a large group of men standing aboard a pitching raft made of gigantic logs, as they floated down a river toward the lake in the background. While it was only a painting, somehow the artist had managed to capture the movement, the bustle, the danger, perfectly.

Mr. Davis danced from one foot to the other, his breath escaping in little puffing gasps. “Isn’t it magnificent? It’s the finest example I’ve ever seen! And to think some moron had covered this with that atrocious wallpaper. It’s stunning, simply stunning!”

“Holy cow.” Shawn took a step closer, studying the image. “Did you have any idea this was here?” He turned to look at Conner, slouched against the door jam.

Conner took a step closer, careful not to trip on the extension cords powering the lights. “Nope. What do you mean, ‘one of the finest examples.’ Examples of what?”

“I think it’s one of the lost WPA murals!”

When they all stood there, staring at him, Mr. Davis shook his head like they were the biggest bunch of imbeciles he’d ever met. “It was created for the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration. It’s New Deal artwork. During the Great Depression, artists were out of work too. The federal government commissioned works of art for its buildings to generate income for artists. All across the country, works of art like this one have been lost, destroyed, stolen. To recover one, and one as significant as this, is a great, great thing!” And he beamed at them, like he’d handed out candy canes on Christmas morning.

Conner shoved away from the wall and took a few steps closer. “So this mural, it’s worth something then?”

Mr. Davis nodded so hard his glasses slid down his nose. “Oh yes. Certainly. I’d say perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars. But this painting doesn’t belong to you. It’s the property of the Federal Government. I’ve already notified them.”

Conner yanked a hand through his hair, not even noticing when several strands wrapped around his fingers and were jerked out. “Great. So I find a priceless painting in a building I own and it’s not mine. This building is for sale, Mr. Davis. Can I do that or will that not be allowed by the Federal Government either?” He all but growled the words and Mr. Davis took several hasty steps backward.

“I’m sure I don’t know. I imagine it would be best to wait until you hear from someone from the GSA. I imagine they’ll have someone here within a week or two. A find of this magnitude, well, it’s truly amazing.”

Conner swore and left the room, his work boots rapping hollowly against the wooden floorboards of the hallway.

Mr. Davis bent and shoved his tools back into a large duffel bag. “You may tell him no payment is necessary. To be recorded in history as the man who rediscovered this artwork is quite enough for me.” He shuffled out of the room.

Andie looked at the painting, trying to ignore the sick weight of disappointment that had settled in her chest. “It really is beautiful,” she whispered.

Shawn stepped next to her and wrapped his arm around her shoulder. “It is.” He tucked her neatly against his side, like he could keep her there, keep her safe forever. “Andie, do you have feelings for Conner?”

She turned her face into his chest. “I don’t know.”

“Conner, he’s a good guy, but he isn’t like us. He doesn’t feel… connected to Port Haven like we do. I don’t think he’ll settle down any time soon.” Shawn put a finger under her chin and tipped her head back until he could see her face. “I don’t want you to be hurt. You haven’t dated anyone seriously since Mom and Dad… You work so hard to hold everything together. You’re so strong, but, Andie, you’re rigid. You don’t flex or bend. One good storm, and I’m worried you’re going to crack.”

“I’m fine,” Andie said. The denial was automatic, she didn’t even stop to think about the words before she said them. But were they the truth? To be honest, Andie didn’t know.

She’d thought she was fine for a long time now, but lately, she was beginning to wonder. Was Shawn right? Was she on the verge of breaking?

Andie’s whole life had shattered into a million pieces with the death of her parents. She’d worked long and hard to put those pieces back together. She’d thought she’d managed it, not reassembling them, but fusing them back together, so that the broken sections of her heart, her soul, made a whole as seamless as a piece of glass. But maybe the truth of it was that Andie hadn’t been looking too closely. Andie had the sickly feeling that if she could find the courage to look close enough, maybe, the clear glass of her life wasn’t so clear after all. Maybe, she’d find thin, snaking, hairline cracks running everywhere, in all directions. And she was worried what one, hard blow might do those cracks.

*

When Conner had called the night before, Andie had been emotionally exhausted from spending the day with Diana at the hospital, toughing out her first chemo session. He understood that, but he knew that wasn’t why she turned down his request for a date. She didn’t trust him, didn’t think that he could want her. He couldn’t blame her, either, not when he’d told her that he’d never see her as more than a sister back on graduation night. But man, had he ever been wrong.

So he’d simply shown up this morning at her house, coffee in hand. It took an hour to convince her to go out with him, but he’d done it. He still couldn’t quite believe that she was here with him now, as the canoe glided through the reeds, the soft shush of their dry leaves blended with the lap of water against the hull of the boat to make a quiet music. Conner’s breath slowed, calmed, as stripes of sun and shade slid across his skin. Ahead of him, Andie’s curls shone bright as the birch leaves that shimmered overhead.

He watched her, waiting for her to let go, to relax, but he could tell by the way that she sat, still as a sharp spire of granite, that she was afraid.

“Andie,” he said, careful to keep his voice low and soothing. “We’re not going to tip.”

“No, I know.” Her voice was high and shaky and she laughed a little at herself. “I know, but I can’t stop worrying that we will.”

“This is my job. I’ve spent the last eleven years becoming an expert at this. I’ve canoed white-water that regular people can’t even get a big rubber raft down without tipping. I can handle this.” He sliced the paddle effortlessly into the water, watching the shimmer of water droplets rain down as he lifted it again, brighter than any diamond in a store. And, making a split second decision, he changed their course. Instead of continuing to head up the river, deeper into the forest and away from the lake, he skimmed across the water toward the grassy bank on their right-hand side.

The bottom of the canoe shuddered as it beached on the sandbar beneath them. Conner leaped out and pulled the boat forward even more, until he knew it wasn’t going anywhere. He held out his hand to Andie, helped her to her feet, then swung her up into his arms and waded through water so cold it made the bones in his feet ache, until he reached the shore. He tightened his grip slightly, feeling the warmth of her against him, the slide of her breasts against his chest, before depositing her on the grass.

He grinned when she stared at him, her eyes slightly wide, baffled. “Be right back,” he said. He slogged to the canoe, lifted the rain jacket she’d thrown in the back. Underneath was the picnic basket and the armful of warm, wool blankets he’d cradled it with.

“Wow, you are smooth aren’t you?” Andie asked, and for the first time the fear was gone from her voice.

Conner spread one of the blankets in the patch of sunlight at her feet. “It’s a date, Andie. You don’t really think a canoe ride by itself could be considered a date, do you?” He reached out and gave one of the little golden cows hanging from her earlobes a gentle spin.

“I’ve had worse.” Andie settled down on the blanket.

Conner took another of the blankets and wrapped it around her shoulders. “Are you warm enough?”

“Yeah, I’m fine, but what about you?” She pointed to the wet shoes on his feet.

“These are water shoes.” He slid them off and placed them on a warm black rock in the light. “They’ll dry in about two seconds. In the meantime, since it’s fall…” he reached into his pocket and pulled out a pair of thick socks. “See? I really do know what I’m doing.”

And a soft, radiant laugh spilled out of her mouth. Finally. He sat down next to her on the blanket, close enough that their knees bumped together. She stiffened and he could all but see her fighting the urge to scoot away from him.

Conner sighed and pulled the picnic basket closer. “Andie, what happened to you?” He handed her one of the still-cold cans of Coke he’d packed, and then looked at her, waiting for her to answer, not willing to let her off the hook. “You’re so cautious, so controlled. What are you so afraid of? I don’t remember you being like that. Hell, remember your snowmobile? You never lost a race on that thing.”

Andie pulled her knees into her chest and wrapped an arm around them, before taking a sip of her soda. “Life. Life happened to me. And I’m afraid of it happening again.”

Conner shook his head as he handed her one of the sub sandwiches he’d put together that morning. “But you can’t be afraid of life. Crap happens, that’s for sure, but it shouldn’t stop you from having fun. I get that you lost your parents and it was awful. I understand that, but it’s been six years. The pain will never go away, but you should be enjoying your life by now.”

“I do enjoy my life.” Andie bit into her sandwich, avoiding his gaze. “And what about you? You’re still holding your father’s actions from over a decade ago against him. When are you going to let go?”

Conner scrunched his empty can in his hand, feeling the sharp metal edges bite into his fingers. “That’s different.”

“Not so much, not really.” And now there was a sting to her voice.

Conner set his sandwich down and shifted closer. “Don’t be mad, Andie. I don’t want you to be mad. I don’t want to be mad either. I don’t want to think about my dad. I don’t want to make you sad. I hate to see you like this, all shut down and locked away.”

Andie looked at him, finally, her lips trembling before she pressed them into one hard line. “Maybe I have. Maybe you do what you have to do to get through, to hold it together.”

Conner reached forward, brushed the hair back from her cheek and let his thumb graze the smooth, soft skin under her eye. “Maybe you do. But I wish I could help you, help you find the spontaneous, laughing girl I remember.” He watched her, watched the shiver of pain skimming under the surface of her skin, the misery swimming in her eyes. He wanted so badly to fix things, to help her remember who she was once, to make her happy again that it was overwhelming. He brought his other hand up, until he was held her face between both palms, then slowly eased his mouth down over hers.

The kiss, her nearness, the sweet, cinnamon scent of her, curled through him, making the air around them seem warmer, more brilliant. He felt the pulse in her neck leaping under his fingers and his own sped in response. His breath caught somewhere behind his ribs and went no further, until the trees were spinning and swooping around them. In the end, Conner, who had climbed sheer rock cliffs, flew planes into remote wilderness areas, hell, even sky-dived, had to pull away, had to let his forehead rest against hers until the ground settled underneath him again.

“Wow,” she said.

“No kidding.” He forced his lips up into a smile, but it felt brittle. In fact, his whole body felt brittle, and he knew he was the one that was shaking in his boots now. Because that one kiss had changed everything.

Before it, he’d known that he was attracted to her, that it had grown until his whole body ached with want for her, on top of the feelings of friendship he’d had since they’d been kids. But now, now there was something else there, something as bright and golden as her hair threading through him, something so strong that he was scared as hell it was going to pull him under.

He knew he had a choice. He could shut whatever it was he was feeling down, cage it up and let it die away. Or he could move forward and see what it was, how deep it ran. If he chose the second option, to move forward, he knew that it would probably end with him getting shot to hell. He wasn’t long term relationship material. He always screwed it up, couldn’t quite seem to pull it off.

She would see it eventually, see what he was, who he really was. She would realize he wasn’t stable enough, responsible, controlled enough to manage any relationship, especially not one with her, where everything had to be neat, and tidy, and safe all the time. And then, she would leave him. The leaving might very well crush him.

But Conner had never been afraid of pain. Looking at her, the curve of her cheek in the sunlight, the way her long, slim fingers kept tucking her hair behind her ear; he felt a constant, nagging pull, urging him closer, pushing him to haul her into his arms, cradle her against his heart.

So he did, promising himself he would taste her one more time, that it couldn’t go any farther than that today, here underneath the canopy of trees, the river singing its song as it rolled past them.

With her lips moving beneath his, her breathy sighs feathering his face, he decided he’d deal with the pain, with her rejection when it came. That it was enough to have her with him now, enough to enjoy her for every minute he had. He’d be able to walk away when she asked him to; he’d never look back. And he ignored the little voice, whispering in the back of his head, that said a few hours, days, weeks, would never be enough.

*

The air had gone from chilly to down right cold by the time the canoe was secured in the back of the truck. A line of clouds, sharp as a knife blade, had crested the horizon, bringing with them punishing bursts of wind that thrashed at the trees above them. A shower of blood-red leaves skimmed down on top of them and Andie shivered.

Conner grinned at her over the hood of the truck and an intense ache sprang to life in Andie’s stomach. She didn’t linger over the feeling for long, but she knew it was a mix of longing, and want and something else, something sharper, harder, more serious.

“Ready to go?” he asked.

A soft growl of thunder vibrated through the ground under Andie’s feet and she nodded. Conner came around the truck, opened the door for her, then lifted her in. When a squeak of protest slipped out of her mouth, his gaze slid to her lips and the smile slipped off Conner’s face, replaced with a fierce mask of need. His mouth took hers again, a quick, hard, thunderbolt of longing. His arms crushed her against him, hard, and harder still until all Andie could do was hold on.

And then he was freeing himself, stalking around to the other side of the car, jamming the key in the ignition. But instead of turning it on, he slumped forward, shutting his eyes as he rested his head against the steering wheel.

Andie laid a hand on his back, felt him flinch under her touch. “Are you okay, Conner?”

He drew in a tattered breath, sat up and then nodded. “Yeah. I’m fine. Let’s get you home.” He leaned toward her and pulled the seatbelt across her chest, his hands brushing her breasts for a split second before he snapped the belt buckle in.

As they pulled out of the gravel boat landing, hard drops of rain plopped against the windshield. Conner reached over and curled her hand into his, apparently needing to touch her more than he needed both hands to steer through the storm. Andie squeezed back, until her fingers ached, but she didn’t let go, not until they pulled into the driveway. Then, her hand dropped limply from his.

There was a police car in the driveway.

She tore out of the car, her feet scrambling on the asphalt before it had even stopped rolling under the tires. She heard the hard squeak of the brakes behind her, but she didn’t stop. She jumped the porch steps and flung open the door.

“Shawn? Logan? Shawn!” She was screaming now; she heard it, knew it was her, knew that somewhere between the truck and the house her control had shattered.

Shawn burst out of the living room door and wrapped his arms around her. “We’re fine. We’re all fine. Everybody’s fine.” He repeated the words over and over.

Andie stared at his face, at the way his mouth shaped the words, until finally they registered. She pressed a hand to her lips, but a harsh, ragged breath tore past it, and then another. She crumpled to the floor, as the panic drained out of her. Shawn sank to the floor with her, holding her harder.

The door open behind her, and she knew it was Conner.

“What’s wrong?” He bent down next to her, put a hand on her back to steady her, rubbed it slowly in circles.

Logan thought it would be a good idea to throw some eggs at the Anderson house. He was stupid enough to get caught,” Shawn said.

“I’m not stupid.”

They all turned. Logan stood in the living room doorway. The cop stood next to him, his thumbs hooked through his belt loops, his feet planted against the floor, not making eye contact with the broken group of people on the floor.

Shawn stood, a swift arrow toward the ceiling, his gaze narrowing on the boy’s face. “Really? You’re going to stand there and tell me that this,” he jerked a thumb at Andie, “is okay? That what you did today was a smart thing? ‘Cause I’m not seeing it, buddy. Why don’t you explain it to me?”

Logan stood there, his face as white as if Shawn had hit him.

Conner slowly got to his feet. “Shawn, why don’t you take Andie into the kitchen and get her a cup of water? I can handle this.”

“I’m fine,” Andie said, managing to push the words out past the jagged edges of her throat, but even as she said it, she knew it wasn’t true.

She needed to be there for Logan, for Shawn too, but she couldn’t catch her breath, couldn’t get the burn of pain and fear to even slow, let alone stop. There was something wrong with her, something broken inside of her. She had ignored it, thought she had everything under control, for years now, but she was wrong, so wrong.

“I’m fine,” she said again, but even she could hear the total lack of conviction in her voice.

Conner squatted back down next to her, cupped his hands under her elbows and pulled her to her feet. “I know, baby. I know you are. You need a few minutes to get yourself together. I can handle this. I’ll talk to the police and see what happened. We’ll figure out what needs to be done to make it right. It might be easier if you let me do it. I’m not family, I get that, but that might be good for this situation. I’ve got a distance from all of this that helps me see what’s happening more clearly.”

Shawn wrapped an arm around Andie’s waist, shifted her weight from Conner to himself. “You’re probably right. Go ahead, then. I’ll take care of her.”

Andie wanted to shout that she could do it, that she was fine without anyone’s help. But she couldn’t. That cop car in the driveway was like a hammer brought down on a piece of ice, shattering her soul into shards. And everybody knew you can’t stick broken ice back together.

She leaned on Shawn and hobbled to the kitchen. She let Shawn shove a glass of water in her hand, sipped at it slowly until she could pull the flow of fear and pain back into herself, not stopping it, no, never stopping it.

She realized now that all she’d ever been able to do was push it all into a hard little ball in her chest. It had been sitting there, somewhere in the dark recesses behind her heart, since the day her parents died. She had been fooling herself, assuming she was healing, when all she’d been doing was ignoring the massive collection of spider-web thin cracks that had snaked, insidiously, into every part of her.

Her empty, tearless, frozen sobs quieted. She could hear the soft murmur of voices, the tramp of feet up the stairs, then the front door opening and closing. Through it all, the rain continued to pat its cold fingers against the window next to the table. Shawn slumped into the chair next to her, a cup of untouched coffee cooling in front of him.

Conner moved into the room, leaned a hip against the doorjamb and studied her. “Are you feeling a little better now?”

Andie nodded, then let her head drift down, staring at the scarred surface of the table, too ashamed of herself, of her weakness, to meet his gaze.

She heard the fast stomp of his feet as he strode over to her, then knelt down at her side. “Don’t do that, Andie. You look at me now. Do you hear me? You look at me.”

“I shouldn’t have fallen apart.” Andie twisted her fingers together, locking them into a hard snarl. “I didn’t handle that at all.”

Conner laid his fingers on top of hers, still and calm. “So? You don’t need to handle everything. Sometimes, you can let other people handle things for you.”

“Not my family. That’s for me and me alone.”

Conner used the back of his fingers to lift her head. “Well, then, you need to get in a place where you can do that. You’re not there now. You thought you were. It even seemed like you were, but you’re not. You’re going to have to find a way to get there.”

His words were like hot needles against her skin and she jerked her head back, away from him. “I’m fine. There’s nothing wrong with me. I’ll be fine in a minute.”

Conner watched her, his eyes steady on hers. “You can’t keep fooling yourself, Andie. You aren’t doing it on your own. You’re going to need help to get past this.”

Andie ripped her hands from his and jolted back from the table. “I’m fine. I said I was fine, I’m fine. Now, I’m going to go check on Logan. You two can do whatever you want to do.”

She saw the way the two men looked at each other, some sort of silent communication about her, about the way she’d fallen to pieces. She couldn’t find it in herself to care. Everything in her was numb, like she’d been in the snow so long that even her insides had frozen. She slipped out of the room and up the stairs, paused outside of Logan‘s door. All was silent inside, and she stood there, feeling the panic and overwhelming weight of responsibility settle back on her shoulders. And she did something she never thought she’d ever do. She didn’t go in. She couldn’t do it.

She loved her family, so much sometimes that it hurt. She’d spent six years doing nothing but caring for them, loving them, protecting them, providing for them. And now, when they needed her, she was worried she had nothing left to give.

*

The early morning air was chilly as Andie stepped out her front door to head to work. Instead she bumped directly into Conner.

“Do you have to be at work right away?” he asked as he steadied her with his big, warm hands. “Because I have something to show you.”

“No. I’m already late opening. A few more minutes doesn’t matter.” His smile was infectious, like a little boy’s on Christmas morning, and she found herself grinning right back at him.

“Great.” And he tucked her into his truck and roared down the drive. He left one hand on the wheel for steering, but he reached for her with the other, wrapping his fingers around hers. He lifted her hand to his mouth, kissed it softly, then let their entwined hands rest on his leg.

Andie did the best she could to ignore the sudden jolt to her heart and focused instead on the flash of fall leaves streaming past her window. Brilliant reds, fiery oranges and sunshine yellows shone against the deep blue sky. Every year, Andie thought the colors were the most beautiful that she’d ever seen, and this year was no exception.

It only took a few minutes for them to zip through town, and then they were parking in the alley behind their building.

Andie let her eyebrows drift upward. “This is what you wanted me to see? The building I’ve come to six days a week for the last six years?”

Conner snorted. “C’mon.” And he slid from the truck.

Andie was out her door, the heels of her brown leather boots clicking against the pavement, before he even made it past the hood.

“I was coming to get you.”

“I’ve been taking care of myself, my little brother and my big brother for the past six years too. I think I can handle getting out of your truck.” She slammed the door and pulled down the deep blue, knit top she wore.

Conner tucked his hands behind her, against the truck, caging her in. “I know, but getting you out is the fun part.” He leaned forward and for a second she thought he was going to kiss her, but instead, he took a deep breath, then wrapped his arm around her waist and guided her up to the building.

“Okay. Shut your eyes,” he said.

She squeezed them shut, resisting the urge to peek, as she heard the padlock click open and he led her into the building. She heard the light switch click on.

“Okay. Look.”

They were in one of the offices and it was beautiful. The woodwork and floors gleamed a deep chestnut brown. A fresh coat of cream-colored paint brightened the whole place, and everywhere there were windows framing the deep blue sparkle of the lake.

“Oh, Conner. It’s wonderful.” On the shorter wall, Conner had hung some of the paintings they’d found as they cleaned. Andie walked over to it, studied one of them. A little girl in a white dress held her father’s hand as they stood on the end of a pier, watching sailboats slip by. And suddenly, loss burned at Andie’s throat, reminding her that no matter how long it had been since her parents had passed, she would never get over it.

Conner slid his hand into hers. “I thought it might help the building sell faster. I hung most of the paintings we found. Come on. There are more things I want to show you. I never thought of myself as being a handy guy, but actually it was kind of fun. I wouldn’t mind doing it again sometime.”

He led her from room to room, pointing out each detail, each little touch that he or one of the crew of volunteers had created. In one room, a lovingly restored chandelier hung, its crystal drops suspended from curves of gleaming brass like drops of ice. Another room held a large fireplace, its frame of blue and white hand painted tile cleaned and polished until it shone. Every door had had its vintage hardware buffed by hand until it sparkled. The building hadn’t been repaired; it had been restored to its former glory.

Finally, they where in the last room, the room with the floor to ceiling mural. The colors glowed brilliantly at one end of the room, while the golden light of fall streamed in the bank of windows from the other end.

“It’s truly beautiful,” Andie said. “You did an exquisite job.” The building was done; and they were one step closer to finding a buyer for it, one step closer to Conner leaving for Montana. An unexpected sadness pinched its cold fingers around her heart.

She was being ridiculous; she’d known all along that he was leaving, that it was foolish to get attached. But darned if she hadn’t decided somewhere along the line that she wanted something with him, even if it was a momentary pleasure.

She turned her back to him, wrapping her arms around herself.

“Andie?” Conner asked, his voice suddenly uncertain. “I thought you’d be happy.”

“I am. It’s wonderful.”

Conner stepped into place behind her, wrapping his arms around her and snugging her back against his chest. “You don’t sound happy.”

“Well, I am.” But the misery in her voice shivered off the wall in front of her, bouncing back against her face.

“Hey,” Conner said, turning her so that he could see her face. “Everything’s going to be okay. I’m sure we’ll find a buyer now.”

He thought she was upset about whether she’d lose her shop or not. Andie laughed, a sharp, bitter noise. That probably was what she should be worried about right now, but the thought hadn’t even crossed her mind; how could she be worried about that when she was terrified that she lost something else, something more?

She tipped her head up to him. “Kiss me.”

His eyes went from being soft with concern to hot with hunger instantly. His hands pulled her closer, tighter, until they were pressed together, chest to chest, and then his mouth was on hers. It was hot, and fast, and if there was tenderness there, it was buried beneath their raw desire. His tongue swept her lips and she opened her mouth, letting him in. His taste, of apple and cinnamon and Conner, flooded through her as her heart beat fast and then faster, until she felt like she’d never catch her breath. Conner groaned, a dark sound of need, and then his hands swept down her back, cupping her bottom, pressing her against himself.

A wild swing of emotion poured through Andie. Even as she deepened the kiss, she knew this was the wrong thing to do, that it would only strengthen her attachment to him, to a man she knew would walk out the door soon. One dark, urgent thought poured through her; she didn’t care. To heck with what happened after, for now, all she wanted was to feel. When she was with Conner, all those dead and icy nerves came to life. This was Conner, and it felt like she’d wanted him, needed him forever. And she was darn well going to take what she could get now. There was no tomorrow for them.

So she slipped her hands under his shirt, let her fingers skim over the heated surface of his back, up his sides, then to the soft hair covering his chest, then down the hard ridges of his stomach. A soft sound slipped past her lips, even as she tried to keep it in. He was so beautiful, so hard, so sexy. She wanted him desperately, and even as she wanted, she knew that he would never be hers. Her whole body was trembling with her need, until she thought her knees might turn to mashed potatoes and dump her on her butt. She swayed slightly and held on tighter.

His mouth never left hers as he walked her several steps, bracing her back against the wall, so that her knees were no longer responsible for holding all of her. She ran her lips along the rough line of Conner’s jaw and felt a dark surge of satisfaction flow through her when he trembled. His mouth left hers to make a scorchingly hot path along her cheek and down her neck, stopping at her collarbone, as his hand slipped under her sweater.

And then his hand left her, and she cried out at the loss of it, as the cold air replaced the heat of his skin. But it was only momentary, as his palm squeezed her hip before sliding down along the length of her silky trousers, until he was grasping her above her knee. He pulled, wrapping her leg around his hip, Andie thought she might die from the pleasure of it.

And even as she thought that, even as some primal instinct had her pressing against him, she knew that it had gone too far, that it had to stop. She couldn’t give herself to him, not like this, not here, in an empty, echoing courtroom, filled with nothing but dust motes and the ghosts of the past. So she had to stop it. And she would. After one more kiss.

Chapter Eight

Conner pressed himself into her, mindless with the need that was pouring through him. Andie whimpered again, a soft sound in her throat that made him wonder what noises she would make when he had her clothes off, when he slid into her in one long, satisfying stroke.

He skimmed his hand under the edge of her bra, feeling the smooth weight of her in his hands, rubbing his thumb over the tip of her. She moaned out his name, and Conner had the vague thought that there were far too many clothes between them. He slipped his hands free of her bra and slid them to the edge of her shirt, then tugged. It took him a moment to realize her hands had closed over his. That she was saying his name now in a way meant to get his attention.

“Conner,” she said again.

He took in a ragged breath, then held it, using every ounce of will power he had to still his hands, to lift his head away from her neck. He looked down into her eyes, clouded still with desire for him, and had the thought that if he had two more minutes, he could make her forget everything else, forget everything but him and the pleasure he could give her.

“Conner,” she said, “I can’t do this. Not here, not now. Not like this.”

Conner let his head slump forward, rest on her shoulder. He breathed in the scent of her, somehow like cookies baking in the oven, sweet and delicious, and felt his heart squeeze in his chest.

She was right, he knew she was right. Hell, they were in the middle of an old courtroom. Not only that, one whole side was windows. Things couldn’t have gone any farther then they had, probably shouldn’t have even gone as far as they did. He knew too, that if they got physical, their relationship would go to a whole new level, a level he wasn’t sure he was ready to commit too, a level that would make it damn hard to walk out of Port Haven, to take his dream job in Montana.

But he wanted her, wasn’t sure he could go on living without having her.

He let his lips slide along the side of her neck, tasting her one more time and felt her shiver with it. He ached for her, ached so badly it was like having the flu. Letting go of her, taking the three steps back, was one of the hardest things he’d ever done.

They stood there, in the pale spill of morning light through the windows, and stared at each other. He knew they couldn’t go forward, he knew she knew it too, but damn if either of them could take that step back that would release them from the desire he could all but see shimmering between them.

“Mr. Morgan?” a woman’s voice called from somewhere in the building. “Mr. Morgan? The door was open. Are you here?”

Conner swore. “Real estate agent,” he said to Andie, then walked over to one of the corners and pretended to be studying something. He took several deep breaths, willing his body to calm.

He saw surprise flash across Andie’s face, and then loud laughter spilled out of her. She laughed until she was holding her stomach, until she was doubled over with it.

“You think this is funny, huh?” he asked. He kept his voice rough, but he could only keep his face straight for a second or two before he felt a grin crack across it. “Okay. Maybe it is. Can you go stall her please? Do something?” He could hear the desperation in his voice, and didn’t care. The real estate agent sounded like she was only a room away now.

Andie laughed again, a bright clear sound, one he had only heard a handful of times since he’d come home. She stepped over to him, wrapped her arms around him from behind and gave him a fierce hug. “Oh, Conner. God, you make me feel so… alive again. I forgot what it felt like, you know.” She squeezed again, then let go. “Okay, okay. I’m on it.” She ran her hands over her clothes, her hair, to make sure everything was in place and then walked out of the room.

And Conner finally let his knees buckle, sliding down the wall until he sat on the floor. He drew in one hard, shaky breath, trying to erase what had happened from his mind. Not because he regretted it; he could never regret it. It had been one of the sexiest movements of his life, despite the fact that nothing had happened, that they hadn’t even taken any of their clothes off. Damn, all that fierce, wild need pouring from her, the raw aching want for her burning through his body. He shook his head, trying to clear it.

He had never wanted someone as badly as he wanted Andie. More than that, when she was near, he couldn’t seem to think straight, to focus on anything but her; the seductive sweep of her lips, the soft curves of her body, the tantalizing smell of her, the taste and feel of her. He knew that if he had her naked and moving beneath him, once wouldn’t be enough. It would never be enough.

It couldn’t happen. He couldn’t tie himself to someone that way. He’d never be caged like that again; desperately waiting for approval, acceptance. Love, a little voice whispered in the back of his head. And finding out that everything about him was wrong, that he’d never be good enough. It was better to be free, to escape those harsh chains, to live his own life free of emotional cages.

Conner stood, raked a hand through his hair and then strode out of the room, following the sound of the two women talking. He couldn’t let anything happen between himself and Andie. He couldn’t. The easiest way to do that was to sell the building and get the hell out of here.

*

The nurse at the front desk looked up as Conner swung through the doors of the nursing home. She gave him a once over, then pressed her lips together, like she didn’t like what she saw. And hell, wasn’t that the story of his life?

“Good evening, Mr. Morgan. Your father had a hard day today, but I believe he’s still up.”

Conner strode over to the desk, his feet squeaking on the chipped, over-used floor. “What do you mean, he had a hard day? Is he okay?”

The puckered prune of the nurse’s mouth relaxed a little. “Well, now, don’t go getting upset. He had his physical therapy, and that wears a body out, but I think he’s feeling a little blue, too.” She didn’t say the rest, but she didn’t have to. He could see what she was thinking; a good son would cheer him up, not need a warning not to make it worse.

Conner jammed his hands in his pockets, took a deep breath. “Can I go see him?”

“Yes. make sure you aren’t back there too long.” She slid her glasses down her nose, gave him a good hard look.

“Yes, ma’am.” The words were automatic, left over from growing up in a military household, but the nurse must have liked it because, for the first time, she smiled at him. Sure, it was a tight little smile that didn’t reach her eyes, but still.

Conner left his hands in his pockets as he walked down the hall. As he passed each open door, heads swiveled to get a good look at him. TVs blared so loud his ears shuddered, and he passed more than one dinner cart loaded with trays of chicken, mashed potatoes and Jell-o. The food didn’t seem terrible, but he had a feeling it didn’t taste as good as it looked. They probably didn’t use any butter or salt here, which would make the food tasteless and bland. A little trickle of pity worked its way down Conner’s chest before he pushed it away. He wouldn’t feel bad for his dad. He wouldn’t.

Conner stopped in the doorway, the room in front of him lit by the flickering blue light of the television, and waited for his dad to realize he was there.

His dad looked away from the documentary he was watching, something about sharks. “You’re back.”

“Yeah.” Conner took a step into the room.

“Didn’t expect I’d see you again. Didn’t expect you’d still be in Port Haven.” His dad muted the TV, let the remote rest on his chest. He was wearing a sweatshirt with a sailboat across it, and Conner felt his eyes narrow as he took it in.

“Where’d you get that shirt?” Conner knew that shirt, had seen it a couple times now, hanging in Andie’s shop.

His dad glanced down. “This one? I can’t say as I remember.”

Conner strode over to the bed, let his hands curl around the metal rail. “Don’t lie to me, Dad. Did Andie give you that shirt? Has she been to visit you?”

His dad looked up at him, frowning now. “Why do you want to know, son? I have few enough visitors. Would it bother you to know that she was here, that she checked on me, tried to make me comfortable?”

“Yes!” The word exploded out of Conner’s mouth without him really meaning for it to, but since he’d said it… “Yes! It bothers me! I don’t want her here, don’t want her messing around with you, trying to get us back together. Damn! Can’t she leave well enough alone?”

His dad sat up as straight as his bad hip would let him, his thick, black eyebrows drawing together like smoke from a grease fire. “She came to see me. She was worried about me. She said she knew I was alone and that she’d be happy to help me in any way that she could. She never talked about you once. She wanted to help, which is more than I can say for some.”

Conner brought one fist down on the railing, making the bed shake. “Don’t give me that crap, Dad. If you wanted a son who cared then you should have raised one. I’m a product of my upbringing.” He felt a sneer twist his face. He’d heard those words more times than he cared to remember, usually in his high-school guidance counselor’s office.

His dad’s lips went pale, like he was in pain, but he never let his body slump, never let his rigid demeanor slip for a moment. He gave sharp jerk of his head. “That’s a fact, I’ll give you that. I made mistakes.”

Those three words sliced across Conner’s heart. He’d never heard his father admit to screwing anything up, not once in his life, but it wasn’t enough. It couldn’t be enough, not after the decades of misery and hurt his dad had pounded him with. “Admitting that doesn’t make it okay. It doesn’t change anything. Do you expect me to forget how you never once showed me you were proud of me? How you made me feel like what I did wasn’t ever good enough, how I wasn’t ever good enough for you?”

His dad wrapped his hand around the metal railing and held on. Conner took his hand away, unwilling to be that close to him, unwilling to let their hands accidentally touch.

“No,” his dad said, “I know that doesn’t make up for it. I don’t know how to make up for it.”

Again, his unexpected words shook Conner right to his core. He felt each harsh breath as it dragged through his throat, felt his chest expanding with them, but somehow, he still felt like he was suffocating.

The walls of the room seemed to press closer, caging him in. He stared at his dad, his mind filled with a roiling blackness that slithered to every corner, making thought, speech, everything impossible.

His dad stared back, his eyes wide, his breath coming as rapidly as Conner’s. They remained like that, frozen like bugs in amber, for a moment more, before Conner got the feeling back in his legs. And as soon as he did, he used them to stalk out the door.

*

The whiskey burned in his throat as he tossed it back, the taste making him want to wince.

“Another, boss?” Johnny asked from behind the bar, and Conner shook his head.

“No. Give me a beer, a Honey Weiss.” He asked for his favorite beer, from the Leinenkugel’s brewery in Chippewa Falls. He never drank hard liquor, hadn’t acquired the taste for it. Give him a good, American beer any day.

Johnny set the bottle in front of him and he took a good long swig, then another. It might take longer than whiskey, but beer would do as fine of a job emptying his brain.

Shawn slid onto the stool next to him. “What are you doing here?”

Conner eyed him without turning his head and wondered for a brief moment if he could pretend that Shawn wasn’t there.

“Dude, what’s wrong?” Shawn gave him a good hard elbow jab in the ribs.

Nope. He wasn’t going to be able to ignore him.

“Nothing,” Conner said and took another deep swallow of his beer.

Shawn signaled to Johnny that he wanted two beers, then turned on his stool to face Conner. “You do know that we were best friends for almost two decades, right? Are you really going to sit there and try to lie to me?”

Conner rubbed at the sudden ache in his temples. “Why are you here? Don’t you have someone else to bother?”

“Yeah, I do. I’m bothering that cute little brunette over there.” He winked at a woman wearing a skimpy black tank top, shaking her butt to the music thumping out of the massive speakers. “But I have time to bother you too.”

“Go away,” Conner said.

Shawn gave him a long, cool look. “Seems to me, you’re still a smart guy. What I wonder is, if you’re so smart, how come you’re here, miserable, getting drunk, when my sister is stuck at home, not six blocks away, with Logan having a Transformers movie marathon? Seems to me, that’s the kind of thing that you’d enjoy. You’ve never been about booze, and bars, and forgetting your troubles. That’s not you.” And Shawn grabbed the beers and threaded his way through the crowd of bumping bodies and over to the girl who had to be a good five years younger than him.

Conner shut one eye and looked down into his beer bottle. Empty. He could stay here, order another, chat up the blonde girl currently bumping hips with the brunette chick. But even as he thought it, he knew it wasn’t going to happen, that there wasn’t a single spark of interest for that girl, or the beer, in his entire body. He wanted Andie. He’d told himself he couldn’t have her. He’d used all his will power to keep from getting too close to her. His willpower was long gone now. To hell with what might happen after. He wanted her and he was going to have her. No point in fighting himself any longer. He was done with that crap.

Conner stood, nodded once at Johnny and walked toward the door. He was fully aware that Shawn was grinning like a jerk behind his back. Conner knew if he turned around, acknowledged the idiot, he’d have to stay, for appearances sake.

So he didn’t turn around. Instead, he pushed through the glass door and out into the night. The air slid like ice cubes along his face and his breath puffed out in a silvered cloud as he walked.

Within two blocks, he was away from Main Street, away from the streetlights. The stars overhead were so big and so bright, he felt like he could reach up and tickle one to make it twinkle. He didn’t imagine the stars could be any more beautiful in the wide-open skies of Montana than they were now, hanging over the largest, coldest lake in the world.

Conner shook his head, pulled his leather jacket tighter around himself. He wasn’t going to go there, not tonight. He wasn’t going to think about his dad, or the job waiting for him in Montana, or how, in the last few weeks, something had started to grow, to change inside of him. How, suddenly, there was this tiny little voice in his head, whispering, whispering, that maybe he did have something to stay here for after all.

He knew it was foolish. It wouldn’t pay to listen to that voice. He had before and all it had gotten him was a rusted out Jeep and an empty bank account. But tonight, with the cold air making him feel more awake and alert than he had in years, tonight was about impossible possibilities.

He was on Andie’s front porch in minutes. Metal crashed against metal, booming out of an excellent sound system, rattling the windows slightly. The door swung open about five seconds after he knocked. Andie stood there, silhouetted against the golden light behind her.

“Oh, thank God,” she said, then reached out, fisted her hand in his shirt, and yanked him inside. “Logan! Look who’s here!”

The boy leaned his head over the arm of the couch, a grin sliding across his face when he saw Conner. He vaulted over the back of the couch, not willing to take the extra half a second walking around it would have cost him.

“Dude! Did you bring your puppy?”

Conner shook his head. “Nope. He’s out with Diana and her mom tonight, keeping the predators away from the apples.”

Logan threw him a doubtful look. “Do apples have predators?”

“Yeah! Are you forgetting about raccoons? And porcupines? And hey, what about woodchucks? They love to sink their long, yellow teeth into an apple!”

“Yeah, I guess. Wanna watch Transformers? It’s not fun watching it alone.”

“You’re not alone. Andie’s watching it with you,” Conner pointed out.

“Yeah. I guess, but she keeps asking girl questions.”

Conner slanted Andie a look. She shook her head and muttered something about how she still didn’t see how giant, metal machines shaped like humans could possibly be aliens from outer space. For the first time in a long time, Conner felt a laugh bubble up in him, a laugh that wasn’t from a momentary amusement, one that would be gone in a second. No, this one was because of the deep and sudden surge of happiness flooding him. Which, yeah, scared the hell out of him, but damn if he wasn’t happy too, so why not live it, right?

“I hate to tell you this buddy, but girls don’t get this kind of thing.” Conner shook his head like it was the saddest thing in the world. “Why don’t you go save me a spot on the couch and I’ll see if I can’t talk you’re sister into making us some kettle corn.”

Logan cocked his head to the side and gave him a squinty-eyed look. “The real stuff? Not some microwave crap?”

“Please. What do you take me for? If I can’t get her to make us the real stuff then I’ll relinquish my badge as the master.”

“Yeah, all right, but don’t take too long, guys. The good part’s coming up!” And he ran three steps, leaped into the air and disappeared back behind the couch, oblivious to the way the abused piece of furniture shuddered as its two back legs briefly left the floor, then came crashing down.

Conner watched as Andie shut her eyes, and began to move her mouth, like she was silently saying a prayer for patience. This time, Conner let the laugh out, let it roll through him, shiver off his skin, and shake his whole chest.

Andie stared at him a second, then gave him an offended little sniff as strode away into the kitchen.

Conner felt his chest suddenly tighten in anticipation. This was going to be fun.

*

The cast-iron Dutch oven made a satisfying crash as Andie brought it down on top of the stove, but still, it was nowhere near as loud as the crashing and screaming she’d already endured for the last three hours. She’d begun to seriously regret that she’d grounded Logan for two weeks after the egg throwing stunt. She was pretty sure she was getting more of a punishment than he was. Whoever had invented grounding was a sick, sadistic jerk.

She dumped some canola oil and a whole bunch of sugar-in-the-raw into the pan and clicked the burner on. She was reaching for the jar of popcorn kernels she kept in the top shelf next to the refrigerator, when she felt Conner sidle up behind her.

His hands cradled her waist, then slid around under her shirt, his rough, warm palms gliding over her stomach as his mouth found the side of her neck. “Mmmm.” The sound of pleasure hummed low in his throat. “You taste so good.”

And like that, all the irritation sparking and sputtering through Andie’s system vanished, replaced instead with a smoldering ache. She let her head fall back against his chest. A low moan slipped from her throat.

“Shhh,” Conner whispered. “Logan‘s in the next room.”

“I know. We shouldn’t be doing this,” she said, even as she let her hands slide up around her neck.

His hands slid under her bra, his fingers smoothing across her skin as his mouth moved to her ear.

“Conner.” Andie moaned his name, totally unable to control it. The low, rough sound of her voice seemed to snap something in Conner. Suddenly his hands were turning her instead, so that he could take her mouth with his, press himself against her hard, and still harder, like he couldn’t get close enough to her.

He slid his tongue between her lips, filling her with the taste of him, the scent of him, and with an arousal so strong the room seemed to shimmer around her.

Conner tore his mouth away from hers, skimmed it down the column of her throat, then lower still until he found the slight swell of her breast that peeked above the v-neck of her shirt.

“Oh, God, Andie. I want you so bad.” His voice was muffled against her skin, as if he couldn’t bear to tear himself away from her, not even for a second.

Andie let her hands skim down his back, pulling him hard against her, feeling every inch of his body, the way it shook with his need for her. She felt his mouth on her skin, his arms holding her close. She felt his heart, booming rapidly under his ribs.

“You do want me.” She said it as a quiet whisper, but even she could hear the shock in her voice. Who would have thought that eleven years ago, they’d have come full circle? That they’d be standing here in her kitchen, wrapped around each other, shaking with need, her nerves alive and sparking with fire?

Andie had thought at the time that she’d never see him again. At sixteen, everything feels like the end of the world, but his rejection, her broken heart, had stayed with her for years. Somehow, some way, here was her second chance, if she was brave enough to take it. And thank God that this time, she was old enough that she could experience the whole range of benefits this chance was going to give her. No way was she letting this slip through her fingers.

Andie threaded her fingers through his hair, swept her tongue against his. “Conner,” she murmured against his lips. “Did you know that kissing under the mistletoe actually originated with pagan festivals? And that the plant is a very ancient symbol of virility and anybody standing beneath it is signaling that he or she is sexually available?”

“What?” His voice sounded husky, dazed, as he cupped her bottom, squeezing her body against his in rhythmic pulses. “What are you saying?”

Andie smiled, her lips curving against his. “Ask me out. On a proper date. Drinks, dinner. Invite me in for coffee.” As she said the last word, she let her hand trail down his body, down the hard planes of his chest, the ridges of his abdomen, past the button on his jeans.

Conner’s whole body jerked and he moaned like he was in pain.

“Ask me out.” And she pressed her hand against him.

Conner’s head slumped forward, his breath coming out in harsh gasps, like she was torturing him. “Andie. Please. Please.” He took a deep breath, then another. “Will you go out with me tomorrow night?”

Andie let her hand slip away from him. She gave him one slow, tender burn of a kiss, then stepped back. “I can’t tomorrow. Diana’s got her first chemo. I promised I’d be there, but I don’t have anything planned for Friday. And Logan does; he’s got a sleepover with Trent Peterson.”

Conner leaned over the counter, bracing his fisted hands against it, his eyes closed, taking in one long, slow breath after another. Finally, he opened his eyes. “I don’t know if I can make it until Friday. I think I might die first.” He looked at her, his eyes dilated with desire.

Andie laughed, then spun in a circle, her arms out at her sides, like she was flying.

“Um.” Logan stood in the doorway, his eyes sliding uncertainly back and forth between Andie and Conner. “Is the kettle corn ready?”

Conner grunted something about needing some air, then strode out the back door and onto the deck. Andie laughed again, reached down and grabbed Logan‘s hands and spun him in a circle. She didn’t stop until they both tumbled to the braided rag rug on the floor.

“Man, grownups are weird,” Logan said, flopping onto his back, but his cheeks were pink and he was smiling.

Andie flopped down next to him. “Life is weird. Weird and wonderful and sometimes, the most beautiful thing in the world!”

Logan looked over at her, squinted one eye. “Well, does this beautiful world have any kettle corn in it or what?”

Chapter Nine

Andie skidded to a stop, her legs stiff from the hours she’d spent in the hospital waiting room, frozen at the sight of Diana. She lay stiffly in a bed covered with a soft, pink blanket, a wall of windows spilling light over her pale face. The room might have been cozy if Diana hadn’t had wires and tubes snaking away from her body and her arm curved protectively over her suddenly asymmetrical chest.

“Hey.” Andie gave her friend’s fingers a gentle squeeze. “This is going to be fine. There’s nothing to be afraid of. We’re going to get you better. What’s wrong? Can you tell me?”

“Oh, Andie.” Diana’s fingers tightened until she had a death grip on her. “It’s awful.”

“What’s awful? Does something hurt? What should I do?” Andie glanced wildly around, looking for a nurse, a doctor, someone, anyone.

Diana let out a cold little laugh and Andie froze.

“No, Andie, it’s awful, I know, but my breast, I… I can’t wear any of my bras anymore.” And two tiny tracks of tears streaked down her cheeks.

Andie cradled Diana’s hands against her face, stunned. She was her best friend; she knew everything about Diana. She of all people should have realized, should have remembered. Ever since middle school, not a day had gone by that Diana hadn’t worn a pretty, lacy matching bra and underwear set. The habit had become even more important to her as she’d become an adult and taken over the orchard. She spent every day in work overalls and rubber boots, rain slickers and Carhartt pants. How many times had Diana told Andie she didn’t feel like a woman without her fancy underclothes, that she didn’t even feel like herself without them now? How could Andie have forgotten?

“Don’t you worry, Diana,” she said. “I’ll take care of it today, as soon as I leave here. There’s a store over in Greenfield that sells really pretty bras for people who’ve had mastectomies. Do you want… should I get you…” Andie trailed off, not sure how to say what she was thinking.

“A replacement boob?” Diana smiled tightly. “Yes. I don’t want to walk around all lopsided until I can have my reconstructive surgery. Do you think you could go now?”

“Are you sure? I thought you wanted me to stay here with you?” Andie reached forward and tucked a long, silky strand of Diana’s hair behind her ear. “I’ll do whatever you want.”

“I want to feel pretty again.”

Andie stood, clapping her hands together briskly. “Then that’s what I’ll do. Lucky for you, Mrs. Brown is watching the store today. You want me to send in your mom?” Diana gave her a quick, sharp nod, so Andie spun on her heel, then paused at the door. “And Diana?”

Diana stopped fussing with the ties on her hospital gown and looked up at her. “What?’

“If you’re a good little girl, and take your medicine, I’ll tell you all about the date Conner and I have planned for tomorrow night.”

“No! Really? A real one? I can’t believe it!” And Diana smiled, a bright grin that chased away a layer of fear from her face.

“Mmm hmm. So be good!” Andie waved a finger at her like she was telling her to behave, then strode out the door. She only managed to get halfway down the hallway before she had to prop herself against a wall and fight the anxiety that wanted to swarm over her. She felt like the worse friend ever. How had she’d forgotten such a core part of Diana’s personality? She should have seen it, should have realized what was happening and taken care of it. No wonder Diana had been feeling so bad since the surgery.

Andie let her head drop back against the wall, shut her eyes and willed herself to be calm. And then, she knew she wasn’t alone anymore.

“Hey. What’s wrong?” Conner slid his palm down her arm, all the way to her fingers, then interlaced them with hers.

“It’s a girl thing.” Andie shoved away from the wall. “I’ve got to go over to Greenfield and run an errand for Diana.”

“Then we’ll go to Greenfield.” He started to tow her down the hall. “What about Diana?”

“She wants me to send her mom in. Hey, wait a second. Conner, wait.” When he finally seemed to register the worry in her voice, the way she was jerking at his hand, he stopped.

“What’s wrong?” His gaze swept over her from under the dark length of lashes, his mouth set in a serious line.

“I -” Andie paused to blow a fluffy curl out of her face. “Don’t you have something to do? Somewhere to be? This is going to take up the whole afternoon. I can’t ask you to give up your time like that.”

His dimple shimmered in and out of existence as he stepped closer, nudging his body against hers. He cupped his hand around the back of her head, tipping it up so that they were eye to eye. “I don’t want to be anywhere else, with anyone else but you. Right now, you are all that matters to me. Is that clear?”

“But-“

Conner placed a finger against her lips, stilling them. “No. You are all that matters.” And then he replaced his finger with his mouth. They slid into the kiss together, a long slow, tender meeting of the lips. The warmth of it filled Andie, first her head, then her heart, until she felt like she’d swallowed the sun.

“Okay,” she whispered against his mouth and he laughed, then laced their fingers together again.

“So,” he asked as he led her toward the waiting room. “Where are we going?”

“Lingerie shopping,” Andie said, still too dazed to realize how that might sound.

“Even better.” He slid her a glance, one that had something hot and shaky coiling low in her belly.

“Nuh uh. Don’t get any ideas. I have to pick up some stuff for Diana and bring it straight back.”

“Straight back? We couldn’t say, take a ten minute detour?” He slid his thumb back and forth over her palm until her skin felt like it had a dozen angry bumble bees inside of it.

“No. No ten minute detours. You can take all the… ten minute detours you want tomorrow, on our date.” She paused outside the waiting room door and let her head rest on the cold, cinder block wall for a minute.

Conner slid his hand free from hers, pressed his thumbs into the tension knot at the base of her neck. He rubbed gently, easing a little of the pressure. “Hey, want me to go in there? I can get Susan.”

“No. I’m going.” And she did. She talked to Susan, had a quick whispered conversation with Shawn, who assured her he’d be able to pick up Logan from school, that he’d pick up Conner’s puppy from his house and take him to the clinic for the afternoon, and then she was out of there.

The cold, October air blew through her hair, slipping its icy fingers under the warm wool sweater she wore. Andie realized guiltily that she felt like a little kid, let loose from school ten minutes before the start of the big test, the one she hadn’t studied for.

Conner gave her a narrow look then slung an arm around her shoulders as he led her through the parking lot and over to his Jeep. “It’s okay to feel like that, you know.”

“Like what?” Andie asked. But she knew he knew and she couldn’t manage to meet his eyes as she pretended otherwise.

“Like you got a ‘get out of jail free’ card. This is a damn hard thing for everyone to be going through. It’s going to be heck for everyone back there, watching her, waiting, worrying. When you get a reprieve, when you walk away from that, it’s normal to feel some relief.”

“Even if it’s my best friend?” Andie asked as he opened the door for her.

“Especially if it’s your best friend.” He boosted her into the truck, one hand on the small of her back, the other on her butt. When she gave him a steely glance over her shoulder he laughed.

“What? This isn’t a ten minute detour.” And the hand that was still on her butt, gave a good hard squeeze.

“No, it’s the side road that leads to the detour. Hands off, at least for now.”

“Okay, Okay.” Conner walked around the hood of the truck and slid into the driver’s seat, the keys in his hands, but he didn’t turn the ignition. Instead, he gave her a wicked smile. “I’m doing a good thing here, right? That means I deserve a reward.”

“What kind of reward?”

Conner looked at her, all traces of the smile gone. “I want you to try on some of the lingerie. I want to see you.”

“Nope. No way.” God, could he have picked anything worse? Yeah, maybe she felt a little sting of excitement at the thought, and yeah, she wanted more than anything to feel alive, to feel free again. She could see herself, nearly naked, under the buzzing florescent lights. No way was that happening.

Conner looked at her, and then, instead of putting the keys in the ignition, he slid them into the pocket of his leather jacket.

Andie’s stomach pitched with nerves. “I can’t. Not in the middle of the store, but you can pick out… something for me. I promise to wear it on our date.” And hell if that didn’t make her feel as bright as a thousand candles, all lit at once.

Out came the keys. “Good enough, but not on our date. I want you to wear it the whole day tomorrow.” He shifted as close as he could to her in the confines of the SUV. Close enough that his scent could curl around her, dragging at her body, urging her closer. “I want to know it’s there, our secret, under your prim, shop-lady clothes.”

Andie’s mind thrummed. There was being alive and then there was being foolish. “Uh. Wait. You can pick out something within reason. Within reason!” She repeated louder when he only laughed.

“Too late. You already agreed. And I know you’re a woman of your word, Andie Turner.” He threw her a wicked little smile that had his dimple creasing his cheek before he started the truck.

And all Andie could think was, “crap.”

*

A loud banging on his apartment door pulled Conner from his sleep. “Go away!” he shouted, then buried his head under the pillow. No way he was getting up. He’d had a hard time falling asleep last night and when he finally had, he’d been wrapped in seductive, torturous dreams of Andie. He’d seen her as clearly as if she’d been right in front of him, the soft curves of her breasts wrapped in the sheer, creamy bra he’d picked out. The matching garter belt, clipped to the stockings covering her long, luscious legs. Best of all, the tiny scrap of fabric centered over her core, barely covering anything at all…

He was sliding back into the dream, back into the heat of her, when the thumping came again.

“Hell!” He shoved back the comforter, then thought better of it and wrapped it around his waist, hiding the evidence of his dream. “I’m coming!”

As soon as he stepped out of the bedroom, he could hear the wind hammering against the lakeside windows. The glass rattled under the impact, underscoring the heavy thump of pounding rain.

“Something better be on fire!” he shouted, then ripped open the door.

“Or flooding?” a dripping wet Shawn asked, his face twisted into a scowl.

“What?” Conner hitched the blanket a little higher.

“The wind tore a bunch of shingles off the roof of your building. You’ve got rain pouring into the upper floor, and on top of that, the basement has about two inches of water in it. Andie sent me to get you. Power’s out. Cell service too. Let’s go.”

When Conner stood there, his brain completely blank, Shawn made a sound of disgust.

“Come on! Do you want all the work you’ve done to be ruined? Let’s go!” And he gave him a small shove to get him moving. So Conner went.

It took him approximately sixty seconds to get dressed, throw on his rain coat and a pair of slop boots and follow Shawn out to the parking lot.

“Let’s take my SUV. The roads could be washed out.” Conner paused at his Jeep, looking at the small slice of the lake framed between the buildings. He didn’t need to see more to know it was raging. It was a dull, deep gray, its waves rising higher then he’d ever seen before, exploding into massive walls of white spray as they hit the huge boulders of the breakwater.

“Where the hell did this come from?” He vaulted into the Jeep and was peeling out, into the street, in a mater of seconds.

Shawn shook his head. ” Blew up out of nowhere. It’s bad. There wasn’t much warning. I imagine the Coast Guard’s going to be very busy today.”

Logan?” Conner asked as he squealed around a corner.

“At Mrs. Brown’s house.” Shawn looked into the backseat. “Where’s your puppy?”

Conner pressed his lips together as he urged the accelerator a little higher. “He’s not my dog anymore. He’s Diana and Susan’s dog now. Diana needed him more than I did.” And if that thought caused a little sliver of pain to slide though his heart, well, he’d be damned if he was going to show it. “Is your sister okay? You didn’t leave her alone there, did you?”

“No. Johnny’s there, and Mrs. Brown’s son, Jake, the one that did your plumbing. They’ve about got most of her merchandise out of the basement. We stacked it in the old courtroom for now. It’s the driest room. I don’t think you even have to worry about the mural getting wet, as long as we stay on top of things. All the roof leaks are over on the other side of the building.”

Conner sighed as he screeched to a stop. All he’d wanted to do today was think about Andie wearing her sexy underwear under her work clothes while he worked the afternoon shift at the pub, then get his apartment cleaned up as decent as he could, get the pasta he’d planned for supper prepped. And think about the underwear…

“Dude!” Shawn shouted, practically in his ear. “Snap out of it. Let’s get this done! I’ve got about four hours, and then you’re on your own. I’ve got a clinic to run. You know how it gets during a storm; lost animals, hurt animals; crazy people. So let’s go!”

“Yeah, yeah.” Conner shoved out of the SUV, sinking his head deeply into his collar, trying to evade the sting from the bulleting rain drops. The wind hurtled past him so hard that it felt like it was snatching the air out of his throat, his lungs. He literally had to struggle to get a breath and lean at an angle to walk through it. When he opened the glass door to the entranceway, the wind snatched at that too, and it took the two of them to wrestle it closed.

The sudden silence pounded at his ears.

“Holy crap,” Conner said.

Shawn wiped a hand over his face, flicking away the rain. “You’re telling me.”

“Shawn?” Andie popped out of the door of her shop, her face lit by the soft glow of the oil lantern she carried. Another gust of wind slammed into the side of the building and Conner heard something creak and shudder. Andie jumped, then laughed nervously.

“Don’t worry,” Conner said. “This building isn’t going anywhere. I don’t know if even a tornado could touch it.”

“No, I know.” But he could still see the way she shivered when the next gust hammered against the windows.

Shawn grabbed a huge electric torch from his sister. “You get all your stuff out?”

Andie grimaced. “Most of it. Some of it was ruined.”

Conner swung his jacket off, gave it a good shake, then hung it on one of the coat racks by the door. “All right. Let’s round up some buckets. Andie, you can stay here if you want. I don’t know if you should be traipsing around in the dark, especially not in heels.” And then he realized that along with the heels, she was wearing a sapphire-blue sweater dress, sashed tight around her waist with a white leather belt. Her feet were clad in white leather boots with spike heels and white stockings slid up the long, long, columns of her legs, only to disappear under the hem of her dress. White stockings. She was wearing the stockings. Which meant she was wearing everything else.

He was pretty sure he heard the trickle of liquid as all of his blood gushed south. His eyes skated over her body, then back up to her face. Her cheeks were a deep rosy red.

“The storm wasn’t so bad a couple hours ago, when I was getting dressed, and the power was still on. I opened the shop. I thought maybe I might get a few customers. I didn’t know it was going to turn into this.” She pressed her fingers to her lips, like she was trying to stop the flow of words from her mouth.

Conner took five steps forward, took the lantern from her, set it on the floor and then tugged her against him. He knew Shawn was right there. He knew his building was flooding. He knew that if he didn’t stop it, he’d never be able to sell it, to live his dream in Montana, never be able to get away from his dad and his disapproval. In that moment, he didn’t give a crap about any of it, any of it but her.

He took her mouth with his, swallowing the gasp of shock and arousal as it poured out of her throat. He could feel her pulse thudding under her breasts, racing in time with the thunder of the storm, with his own heart. He tasted and took until his mouth filled with the flavor of her, his lungs with the scent of her, his body with fiery need for her. It was one of the hardest things he’d ever done to pull his head away from her, to step back.

He ignored Shawn’s grunt of disgust, focused totally on Andie. “We’re still on for tonight, right?”

Andie looked out into the dark gray wall of water and wind lashing against the glass. “I don’t know what kind of date we can have in this.”

Conner cradled her cheek, let the pad of his thumb slip across her lower lip, watched her eyes dilate with pleasure. And thought he might die right there from the strength of his want for her, his need for her. “Please. I’ll figure out something. Give me something to look forward to at the end of the day.”

She ducked her head, peeked up at him through her lashes. “All right. If you’re up for it, so am I.”

And he knew that she was agreeing to a whole lot more than a dinner and a movie.

*

Andie stood in the middle of her shop, a faceted, crystal star in her hands, watching the shimmer and spark of the candle flames reflected in it. And tried to ignore the fact that her hands were icy, her fingers shaking. She’d been in a dull state of panic all day. Well, panic and arousal. She couldn’t lie about that, not to herself. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t stop thinking about him. About Conner.

What little light there was in the sky was fading fast as the storm continued to thrash against the building. Shawn had made it to the clinic, then safely home again. Logan had gone for his sleepover, despite the storm. In fact, he was probably safer and happier there, as the Peterson’s had a generator, which meant lights, cooked food and as much X-box as Logan and Trent could play.

In that moment, not a single person needed Andie.

She turned in a slow circle in her shop, watching the shimmer of flame and gold and crystal. She felt lost. The thought scared Andie. Not that she was lost, but that she should feel it, that she had somehow given away so much of herself that when she was no longer required to give, she should feel like there wasn’t enough left to be Andie, to be her own woman, anymore.

The door to her shop swung open and Conner stepped through. He was covered with dirt and grime and sopping wet. Even though Andie knew his eyes were green, at that moment, she could have sworn they were black. They pulled her in, pulled her closer, and the dull ache inside her sparked hotter. And that heat was enough to help her remember, at least a little bit, who she was.

” A minute,” Andie said. She went from candle to candle, snuffing each flame, watching as the smoke spiraled into the air, then died away. She wrapped her thick, wool coat around her and covered her head with her scarf. Then she put her hand in Conner’s and let him lead her out into the night.

The wind lashed at her, threatening to tear her coat right off her body. Conner picked up the pace, towing her along with him, then boosted her into the SUV.

“Ready?” he asked as he turned on the headlights. He smiled, but it was a hungry smile and Andie shivered, suddenly not sure she was ready for this, for the changes that might come after, no matter how it would make her feel in the moment, no matter how she needed it.

“Conner.” She whispered his name, so quiet she wasn’t even sure he had heard her, but he had.

He let his hand rest on her thigh, heavy and warm, for a moment before returning it to the wheel, needing it to wrestle his way through the storm. “It will be okay, Andie, I promise. It’s going to be better than okay.” And he gave her a grin, his dimple flickering at the corner of his mouth. It was enough for her. Enough to know that it was Conner, that it had always been Conner. She wanted this more than she would have ever thought possible, and if things changed after, well, they’d deal with it then.

They were at his apartment in a matter of minutes. Conner used the flashlight on his phone to light the way into his kitchen and showed her the drawer where he kept the emergency candles, flashlights and matches. “Why don’t you light some of these? I’m going to take a quick shower, try to scrape the worst of the dirt off. Okay, Andie?” He tucked one of her curls behind her ear.

“Yes, okay.” She handed him one of the flashlights. “Hurry.”

Conner laughed, leaned forward to press a quick kiss against her forehead. “Your wish is my command.” And he disappeared down the hallway.

Andie set lighted candles in the kitchen and living room. She slipped out of her boots, then padded down the hallway, stopping in front of open doorway to his bedroom. Then she stepped through, setting candles on the dresser and the nightstands.

The furniture was utilitarian, had probably come with the apartment, but the bed was covered in a thick, golden brown comforter with cozy red flannel sheets peaking out from beneath. The room smelled of lemon furniture polish and Andie could see the tracks from the vacuum in the cream colored rug. It touched her, in a way that she hadn’t expected, to think of big, tough Conner cleaning for her, preparing for her.

Andie felt her breath catch in her throat as she heard the shower shut off. Just like that, the reality of what was happening, what was about to happen, hit her. Some of her courage deserted her and she fled for the living room.

Conner stepped out of the bathroom, his hair still slick with wet, his white t-shirt and jeans clinging to his damp body. He stood at the entrance to the living room, his shoulders filling the opening, as he stared at her, sunk into the couch. “I had everything planned. I was going to cook pasta. I had champagne. I still have champagne, I guess, although I’m not sure how cold it is now.”

“Can we have some champagne? I wouldn’t mind a glass.” And wasn’t that the understatement of the year? She was desperate for a glass, anything to ease the horrible ache in her throat, the nerves burning in her fingers. She fought back a nervous laugh; nobody could say she wasn’t alive now. She felt so alive she thought she might levitate with it.

Conner popped the cork on the bottle, the crack of noise making her jump. He filled two flutes and brought them to where she sat, but instead of handing her one, he placed them both on the coffee table. He bent over the small wood stove and lit the pile of kindling inside. The flickering glow slid over his skin as he lifted her feet off the floor, swung her around so that she was reclining back against the arm of the sofa, then sat, placing her feet in his lap.

He handed her the champagne glass. “Shut your eyes.”

“Conner. I don’t-“

“Shut your eyes, Andie. stop thinking for a little bit.” His voice was rough, commanding, and Andie could sense an underlying tension in him, as if he barely had himself under control. He pressed his thumb into the arch of her foot, his fingers sliding slightly against the silky material of the stockings.

Andie shut her eyes as a wave of pleasure washed over her. It felt so good. She hadn’t even realized that her feet ached from the boots she’d been wearing until he began to work the tension and stress out of them. His hands were warm, almost hot against her skin as he worked his way from the arch down to each toe. They slid up her calf.

Andie gulped the rest of her champagne, hoping to ease the dryness in her mouth, then opened her eyes. He was watching her, his eyes half closed, the thud of his pulse at the base of his throat visible even from here. A sudden burst of wind battered the windows and Andie jumped.

Conner’s eyes grew even darker, and then he was standing up; moving her legs and placing his still full glass on the coffee table, before kneeling on the carpet next to her.

He swept her hair back from her face. “You’re so beautiful, Andie.” He leaned forward and let his lips brush against hers, soft and slow, tantalizing and teasing, until Andie’s lips burned with the light touch, until she ached for something deeper, something harder. She tugged him closer, desperate for more.

Conner’s tongue swept her bottom lip, tasting her. His scent, soap and that smell of fresh outdoor air he always seemed to carry, invaded her, sending her head swimming, driving her a little crazy. She wrapped her hands around his shoulders, trying to pull him toward her, but still it was only his mouth that touched hers.

“Conner.” Andie gasped his name, and he used the opportunity to slip his tongue inside her mouth, sweeping through her, exploring her until her whole body ached with wanting him.

Conner leaned back, his gaze running over her, so hot she almost swore that its path left a trail of blisters. He wrapped her hands in his and tugged until she rose to her feet. Andie’s head fell back as Conner left a trail of scorching kisses across the small sliver of skin bared by the slight scooped neckline of her dress. Andie was suddenly desperate to feel more, to feel all of him, and she couldn’t hold back the shudder that raced through her.

Conner groaned, a low rough noise and jerked her against him. His hands slid to her hips and he pressed into her, causing Andie’s heart to suddenly beat in an odd, erratic flurry.

“Conner, I-” Andie’s voice was stuck in her throat and she had to take a deep breath, try again. “I haven’t done this in a long time.” Which was a huge, massive understatement. Andie hadn’t been with anyone since college, since before her parent’s death. At first, she’d been lost in grief, then she’d been lost in raising a child, and then, somehow, she’d just become lost, her true self buried behind mountains of responsibility and worry and everything else she’d let pile up, until she’d forgotten that she had ever been anything other than a caregiver, a protector, a provider.

“It’s okay,” Conner whispered the words against her neck, the feel of his lips moving against her skin causing another tremor to shake her. “Relax. Everything’s fine. Everything’s better than fine.” And he gave her a grin, his dimple flashing at her for a moment, before he bent forward and scooped her into his arms.

Andie’s heart took one wild swoop as Conner stepped around the couch and carried her into the bedroom. The candlelight flickered over his face, a sharp shadow slicing underneath his jaw. Andie let her head tip forward, pressed her lips to that shadow, then traced it with the tip of her tongue. Conner’s arms tightened around her and she heard the sharp intake of his breath, the pace of his heartbeat speeding at her touch, and suddenly she forgot her nerves. She forgot everything but the moment, the man and the unbearable, aching romance of it.

Conner let her legs swing down, let her body take a slow and luxurious slide along his, until they were both gasping for breath as they stood there on the carpet, staring at each other.

Conner turned her to face away from him and slid the zipper of her dress down a few inches, before leaning forward to let his lips skim over the skin he had exposed. He did it again, and again, until the heat and pressure of them against Andie’s lower back drew a soft moan from her lips. The rough rasp of his callused palms slid back up her spine, over her shoulders and down her arms, sweeping against her dress until, with a soft shoosh, it slithered down her body to pool at her feet.

Andie stood there, in the undergarments Conner had picked out, her back to him. Suddenly, she was afraid. Afraid to turn around and face him. Afraid to take the next step. And most of all, afraid of the vulnerability that would come after. She hated herself for it, for the weakness and the fear, but even as she hated, it didn’t do one thing to diminish it.

“Andie.” Conner wrapped his arms around her, letting his hands rest against her stomach, holding her close, sheltering her. “It’s okay. I promise.”

“I know.” But still she stood there, biting her lip as she fought with it, fought with the sheer terror of giving herself to another person, of letting someone in that far, of exposing herself to the possible pain that might cause.

But then his lips were at the nape of her neck, the slightly-too-long sweep of his hair tickling the skin of her shoulders, his thumbs rubbing slow circles under her belly button. She wasn’t fighting anymore, wasn’t thinking anymore. All she could feel was pleasure, and heat, and the pure, unadulterated rightness of the moment. Of him.

So she turned in his arms, until she faced him, until she could see the hunger he felt for her in the tight skin around his eyes, in the tension he held in his shoulders. Until she could see the way his gaze swept her barely clothed body, taking in all of her. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed hard, his fingers convulsing lightly on her hips like he wanted to drag her against him.

He ripped the shirt over his head, then went completely still as her hands skimmed over his skin. His eyes were dark now, so dark that they might have been black, as he looked down at her pale fingers against his honey colored skin.

Conner cupped her face with both hands. His mouth teased hers, nipped at hers, as she let her hands roam the hard contours of his back. His mouth slid lower and lower, his head nestled against her chest, until his tongue swept under the rim of creamy material covering one breast. And Andie’s knees turned to water.

Conner caught her, lowered her to the bed, his body settling heavily against her side. The wind pounded against the windows, and even safe and warm in their cocoon of candlelight, Andie could hear the harsh, metallic ring of the sailboats’ rigging as it slapped against their metal masts.

“Conner. Please,” she said. The words were jagged and she could hear the note of pleading underneath them. And she didn’t care. All she knew was that she felt like she had waited for this moment, for this man, for eleven years. She couldn’t wait any longer. She arched into him, felt him slide home.

Conner’s breath was a harsh rasp in his throat, and she could feel the tremors racing through his arms as he fought his impulses, as he fought to keep things slow.

Stillness fell over both of them for a moment. Andie stared up at Conner, at the dark swirl of emotions in his eyes, as the purest, most powerful pleasure she’d ever felt soared through her, shivered through every inch of her body, curled into the very core of her heart.

And then they we’re moving, they’re bodies sinking into a perfect rhythm, their hearts beating in unison. The sweet smell of vanilla and candle smoke filled the air as the spiraling need grew hotter, more desperate, until Andie thought she couldn’t bear it anymore. The air around them seemed to turn hazy, then suddenly crystal clear, as Andie gave a harsh little cry and her body plunged over the razor sharp edge of pleasure. With a loud groan, Conner followed her over.

Chapter Ten

A cold curl of wind pulled Conner out of his sated daze. Andie mumbled something as he levered himself back a few inches. Her eyes had slipped shut; her lips were swollen and pink from his kisses. He felt her skin brush against his chest and it caused a surge of want to roll through him again. But the cold breeze blew across his spine, making him shiver.

Conner looked over his shoulder and realized that one of his windows was open a sliver, the curtains billowing in the icy wind. He’d cracked it when he was vacuuming, to let the dust out, something his mom had always insisted on. He must have forgotten to close it. He cursed his stupidity silently as he rolled off Andie and levered himself from the bed.

“Where’re you going?” she asked, her voice husky with sleep.

Conner smoothed her hair back from her face, dropped a kiss on her forehead. “The window’s open. I’m shutting it. I’ll be right back.”

He yanked his boxers back on before he crossed to the window. It shut with a loud bang when he yanked on it, a curse slipping from his lips when he realized the windowsill was sopping wet. He grabbed his t-shirt off the floor and balled it up, using it to sop up the worst of the mess, then stood there, the wet, clammy fabric clenched in his hands as he stared outside. Or rather, attempted to.

It was pitch black out there, not a single light on anywhere. If he squinted hard, he thought he could make out the ghostly white curl of the waves, breaking against the rocks along the shoreline, but that was it. He could still hear the wind, moaning now as it hammered the windows, the building, the boats in the marina. He could hear the harsh tap of the rain against the window too, and knew the storm hadn’t eased at all. His vision blurred for a moment before his focus shifted, and he found himself not looking out, but staring instead at the candlelit reflection of Andie, splashed across the dark glass.

She lay on the bed, the comforter pushed down around her ankles. Her eyes were still closed, her hair tousled around her face, one hand curled beneath her cheek. The flickering light from the candles slipped and slid over her, highlighting the curve of her hip, then the deep indent of her waist. There was a smile spread across her face and her body was limp. This was the Andie he remembered, free and spontaneous and relaxed. It was the only time he’d seen her like this since he’d returned home. He felt a burst of pure male pride at the thought that he’d done that, he’d put that smile there.

He touched his thumb to the icy glass, to the cold, reflection Andie. She put everyone before herself. She was so alone, so closed off, so brittle. She was barely hanging on, and Conner didn’t think she even knew it. He could only assume that it had something to do with her parents, with her being afraid of getting hurt, of losing someone. And that was a problem, a big, big problem. Because he wanted in. He wanted all of her. He wanted her to love him.

He turned and stared at her, watching as she shivered slightly in her sleep. He took a step toward her, and then another. And when reality plowed into him, as hard as one of those frigid waves battering the shore, it took all of his willpower not to drop to his knees.

He was in love with her. Somehow, some way, she’d stolen his heart, one little piece at a time, until she owned it, owned him.

He loved her. Totally and completely. And wasn’t that a kick in the head? He’d fallen in love with a woman he could never have a future with, a woman who would eventually reject him, a woman who would never give him her heart in return.

Andie opened her eyes, gave him a sleepy satisfied smile. “Hey.”

“Hey.” He rubbed a hand across his heart, trying to shove away the sudden ache burning there.

“Come back to bed.” And she held her arms out to him, her curves, her acres of bare skin an invitation so lush that it was like a punch in the gut.

And he took it. He slipped into her arms, covering her chilled body with his, claiming her lips with his. He shifted her, pressing into her, desperate to feel her against him. Even as she sighed while she road the soft currents of pleasure, Conner knew it wasn’t enough, this wasn’t enough. He wanted all of her, and he was desperately afraid that he’d never have it.

*

Andie woke slowly, her body utterly relaxed and so warm and cozy. She blinked open her eyes and found Conner’s face inches from hers. His eyes were still closed, but his arms tightened around her, snuggling her closer. Every lamp in the room was blazing. The power must have come back on during the night.

She leaned forward and pressed her lips to his jaw, tasting the salt of his skin. His hips shifted against her and she smiled as she realized that a part of him was fully awake.

“Morning,” he whispered into her hair. “Hungry?”

“No.” She wasn’t hungry. She was gloriously, beautifully alive. Every nerve in her body was singing, and she wanted to feel it again and again. She pushed him gently onto his back, then swung one leg over his hips to straddle him. He opened his eyes now as he looked up at her. His hands gripped her hips, then slid up to cover her breasts.

Andie paused. He wasn’t smiling, and there was something there, something in his eyes when he looked at her, something that made a little sliver of fear shiver into her stomach. But then his hands were on her hips, pulling her down as he thrust up into her, and she forgot the spark of something she’d thought she’d seen, forgot the fear it had made her feel, and instead lost herself in him.

And, a long, long time later, when she was snuggled against his side, and he asked her again if she was hungry, her stomach rumbled, answering for her.

Conner laughed and rose from the bed, tugging her to her feet. “Come on.” He pulled her down the hallway and turned on the shower, adjusting the temperature before stepping under the spray and pulling her in after him. He rubbed the bar of soap between his hands, working up a froth of lather, then slid his hands over her shoulders, her back, her neck, washing every inch of her. Andie smiled when his hands covered her breasts, paused to explore. She felt arousal tingle through her, even though a minute ago, she’d thought her body was exhausted. She stepped closer and waited for his hands to slide lower.

But they didn’t. Instead, he turned her, tipped her head back into the spray of water. His hands slipped into her hair, working the shampoo he’d squirted onto his palm into her scalp. Something about the moment, about the unbearably tender way he took care of her, had Andie’s throat clenching, had her shutting her eyes against the sudden sting of tears. Oh, God. Tears.

“Conner,” she said. And her voice was harsh with an unspoken warning.

“Shh.” Conner let his head tilt forward, pressed his lips to the exposed line of her throat, his arms still around her, his fingers rubbing soothing circles along the base of her skull. “Let me take care of you. For once, let someone take care of you.”

The water was a warm cascade down her back, the heat of Conner’s soap-slicked body pressed to her front. All she could hear was the thump of the spray against the plexi-glass door. The shower was so small that if she’d lifted both elbows at the same time, she’d probably have been wedged in so tightly it’d take a crowbar to get her out.

It shouldn’t have been romantic. It shouldn’t have meant anything to her, but it did. Conner had seen through the hard shell she’d surrounded herself with, the one she hadn’t even been entirely aware of until a few weeks ago. Somehow, this man who she hadn’t so much as talked to in eleven years, had cut through the shell to the core of her, the woman she’d forgotten, the woman she hadn’t even thought existed anymore. He’d seen that she felt alone. Even though she was always with Shawn and Logan, she was alone. If you’re always the giver, the provider, if you never have anyone to lean on, to help share the burden, you are always alone. He’d seen that. He’d seen her. And he’d washed her hair.

The warm water streamed down her face, and it pooled against her skin, in her pores, the heat and the warmth of it shimmering through her body to settle into her heart.

*

A few days later, while Andie was sharing a cup of hot cocoa with Conner and Diana, the doorbell rang. When Andie pulled her door open, she felt the contented smile slide off her face. “What are you doing here?”

Kayla Anderson stood on the porch, her red hair tucked neatly back into a bun, her suit crisp and immaculate. But the fingers of her right hand kept twisting and untwisting themselves in the thin gold chain around her neck, until Andie wanted to reach forward and still Kayla’s hand, for fear that she might snap it.

“I need to talk to you for a minute,” Kayla said. When Andie stood there, staring at her, Kayla let out a huff of air. “Please. I know this is hard for you, but it’s no walk through the park for me either. Please.”

“All right.” Andie stiffly stepped to the side to let her in. When she turned, she saw Conner leaning against the doorway, his arms crossed over his chest, a dark scowl twisting his face. He must have followed her out of the kitchen. She could only hope that Diana and Mrs. Brown stayed where they were, sipping their tea at the kitchen table. Kayla saw him too and froze mid-step.

Andie didn’t blame her; with his dark hair, wide, well-muscled chest, and the stubble that was now more than a hint, he looked downright dangerous. A tiny little thrill skittered over Andie’s skin at the thought, but she gave him the smallest of head shakes. He nodded, but didn’t leave his post by the door.

“Come on,” Andie said. “The living room’s through here.”

Kayla followed her, her eyes immediately going to the framed picture of Andie’s parents on the mantel.

Andie stepped around her, blocking the photo with her body, not willing to let Kayla look at it, as if her gaze could sully it. “What do you want?”

Kayla stood inside the door, shifting from foot to foot. The gesture of unease made Andie realize that Kayla might look like an ice queen, but she actually couldn’t be much older then twenty-four or twenty-five. The hard shell around Andie’s heart softened a little.

“Look,” Kayla said. “What my brother did was unbearably, horribly wrong. My parents are gone now. My brother might as well be. I’m all that’s left of our family. So I wanted to come here today and say…” She took a long breath, to find Andie’s eyes with her gaze. “I wanted to say I’m sorry. I’ve always felt that you were owed an apology. That someone from our family should be here, should look you in the eye, and say ‘I’m sorry.’ I know that in no way will it help to bring your parents back, to heal the terrible hurt my brother caused. But for what it’s worth, I’m sorry. So, so, sorry.”

It should have been her brother standing there, her brother apologizing. It shouldn’t have meant anything coming from Kayla. Except that somehow, it did.

The room suddenly felt like it was closing in on Andie, like her own ribs were squeezing the air out of her chest. She dragged in a breath, trying to fix it, to make herself strong, but she felt weaker and weaker. She heard Kayla’s voice calling for help, but it seemed like it was coming from far away. She fought for her breath, she fought the ache in her heart, and then suddenly, she was fighting to keep the hot rush of tears gathering in her throat from spilling out. To keep everything inside.

But then Conner was there, lifting her into his arms. Diana was behind him, her face a mask of anger and pity. Andie hid her face in Conner’s neck, closing out everything but him. She felt him moving, heard the voices getting farther and farther away, until he was laying her on her quilt, soft as feathers from almost a century of washes, until he was laying down beside her in the dark four-poster bed that had been first her great-grandmother’s, then her grandmother’s, then her mother’s, and was now hers.

Something shivered in her soul. It shivered and shook so hard that it cracked, a bright, hot fissure that spilled pain, and sorrow, and hurt, and anger. Andie knew there would be no keeping it back, no keeping it in, anymore.

Conner nestled her against his side, kissing one eyelid, then the other. When the hot burn of tears slid down her cheeks, he kissed those too.

“I hate her,” Andie managed to choke out. “I know it’s not her fault. I know it’s wrong, but I hate her. I hate all of them. What they did to my parents, what they did to Logan. What they did to me.” The pain of it crested over her, swamping her, pulling her under. She didn’t know if she’d ever be able to surface again.

“It’s okay. Shh. It’s okay. It’s okay.” Conner whispered the words softly as she sobbed on his chest, until her throat grew raw, until the sunlight faded in the sky and a soft veil of darkness slipped over them both. His voice seemed to come from farther and farther away, and then she was sliding, sliding into the deep dark pool of sleep.

*

Conner stepped out of Andie’s room, closing the door softly behind him. He carried his shoes in one hand as he padded down the center of the faded Oriental rug and into the kitchen. Shawn sat at the dining table, his head in his hands, the overhead lamp casting a harsh circle of light over his body.

Shawn lifted his head and stared blearily at Conner. “She okay?”

“I think so.” Conner snagged two beers out of the fridge and flopped down in the chair next to Shawn. “What about Logan? He get home from his friend’s house okay?”

“Yeah. Diana called me after Kayla showed up to let me know what was happening. She offered to pick him up. He’s asleep now.” Shawn twisted the cap off his beer, then suddenly chucked it across the room. “What the hell happened?”

Conner took a long pull of his beer, then sighed. “Kayla apologized. Said she felt like someone in her family should say the words, considering how they wronged you guys. It was like something broke in Andie. I’ve never seen anyone cry like that.” Conner shook his head, remembering the rough sobs, the way she’d twisted her fingers in his shirt, holding on as if he was her anchor. Remembering the hot flood of joy he’d felt as she clung to him as if he meant everything to her. He shook his head at the stupid fantasy and took another slug of his beer.

Shawn’s head swung up, his eyes widening. “She did? Andie cried?”

“For about four hours.”

“Holy crap.” Shawn stood up, started pacing from the table to the stove and then back again. “But she seemed all right?”

“Shook up, maybe, but not like she was going to fall apart or anything. Why?”

Shawn slumped back down in his chair. “She never cried. Andie never cried.”

“What, never?”

Shawn shook his head. “No. Not when our parents were in the hospital, not when they died, not at the funeral, and, as far as I know, not a day after that. It was like all that crap that should have come out, the grief or whatever was locked inside of her, froze. She did all the right things, said all the right things, took care of us, especially Logan, but something wasn’t right. It’s never been right in her since that day.”

He drained his beer and then his gaze lifted to study Conner. “Well, I shouldn’t say that, ‘cause it’s not true, not totally. She’s changed a little, come back a little since you two started dating.” And then his eyes narrowed as he considered Conner’s face.

Conner lifted his hands to ward him off. “I know what comes next. You’re going to give me that whole BS line about how if I hurt her-“

“Well, are you? Going to hurt her?”

Conner took another swig of beer, then looked down at the long, twisty scar that ran through the table’s finish right in front of him. “You know what, man? You’d be better off giving that speech to her.” He looked up, looked Shawn right in the eye. He didn’t say he loved Andie, he didn’t say he didn’t ever want to let her go. He didn’t have to. He looked at Shawn and Shawn looked at him. And Conner knew that he knew.

Shawn shook his head. “So Kayla Anderson apologized for her brother?”

Conner pressed his thumb against the sharp ridges of the bottle cap he still held in his fingers, feeling the little tingle of pain, even through the thick calluses he’d developed renovating his building. “Yeah. Actually, it was pretty gutsy of her.”

“Yeah. Maybe it was.” Shawn stood up, set his empty bottle in the recycling bin near the back door. “You going to stay the night?”

“No. I don’t think so. She might be a little embarrassed in the morning. It might be easier for her if I wasn’t here when she woke up, but-“

“Don’t worry. If she hasn’t pulled herself together by morning, I’ll give you a call.” Shawn stepped toward the doorway, then paused. “Thanks for taking care of her, Conner. You’re a decent guy. For awhile there…” Shawn shook his head. “I guess I wasn’t so sure. But you’re a good guy. I’m sorry I thought otherwise.”

Conner couldn’t keep the grin from slipping across his face. “Hey, don’t sweat it. You’ve always been a real jerk when you get pissed. Not everybody can change for the better, like me.”

Shawn laughed. “Yeah, well. I didn’t say it before but… welcome home. Call me sometime. We’ll get a drink or something. Take you’re time with your beer, and lock up when you go.” Shawn gave Conner a sharp slap on the back before he disappeared down the hallway.

Conner sat there another fifteen minutes or so, watching the moon rise over the woods behind the house. The bare tree branches reached toward the shimmering silver circle, stretching toward the light, like if they pushed a little harder they might be able to snag it, to hold on, to save it forever.

Conner shoved back from the table and turned off the overhead lamp. The only light came from the moon as it moved relentlessly forward, its glowing, perfect beauty forever out of reach. Conner slid on his leather jacket and stepped out of the warm house and into the sharp, slashing cold.

Chapter Eleven

The little bell over the door into Andie’s shop chimed cheerfully as Conner pushed it open. A spicy scent surrounded him, reminding him of wood fires, pine trees and the cold, slightly metallic smell of fresh snow. Andie was behind her checkout counter, ringing up the purchases of two younger women. She threw him a huge grin and started to shove their items into the shopping bags a little faster.

“Thanks for shopping at The North Pole on the South Shore!” she called as the women stepped past Conner. They both looked him up and down and the blonde threw him a wink. Andie saw it too, and the warm welcoming look froze into a scowl.

Interesting. Conner smiled down at the blonde, but slid a glance at Andie out of the corner of his eye. Yeah, she didn’t like that at all. Her hands fisted at her sides now and her breath was coming a little too fast. Maybe she didn’t love him. Maybe she wouldn’t be with him much longer. But she sure as hell didn’t like the idea of him flirting with other women.

Conner stepped past the blonde as she left and kept on walking until he could wrap his hands around Andie’s hips, his fingers slipping slightly on her silky slacks. “You okay?”

She blushed a little, the faint tinge of cherry pink on her cheeks making him want to taste her there, to see if she was as sweet as she looked.

“Yeah, sorry about yesterday.” She shifted her weight, pulling away from him slightly, but he squeezed his fingers on her hips a little tighter, holding her in place.

“There’s nothing for you to feel sorry about. Nothing.” He tugged at her, bumping their bodies together, and even though he hadn’t meant to, his mouth was on hers, his tongue teasing and tasting her, her vanilla scent invading his body until he felt light-headed with wanting her.

“Well,” Andie said, when he lifted away from her. “I was going to be mad at you for flirting with that woman.”

Conner leaned forward, brushed his lips against hers again. “And now?”

“Now I’m wondering how long it is until I can close up and get you in bed.”

Conner laughed, even as his body sprang to life at her words, hardening into instant arousal at the thought that she wanted him that much, that he could make her want him that much. “As much as I’d like that, I came here because I had something to tell you.”

He watched the contentment in Andie’s eyes fade a little. “You have an offer on the building?”

“No, not yet. I’ve been offered a guide job. Here. It’s late in the season, but Wilderness Outfitters has a kayak trip through the Apostle Islands planned. One of their guides is pregnant and can’t go and the other had a family emergency pop up. It’ll be a week and a half of paddling through the islands and wilderness camping. I’ll be leading a group of fifteen people. Isn’t it awesome?” He looked down at her, feeling a huge grin spread across his face, waiting for her to squeal in excitement, waiting for her to realize that this was a great opportunity for him, a way for him to stay here, a way for him to be with her, to make a life here.

But she didn’t. Instead, all the happiness slid from her face and she shook her head. “But it’s almost November. It’s literally freezing out. Not to mention this is one of the worst times of the year for storms. You’re not seriously thinking about doing it, are you?”

Conner shifted uncomfortably. “Well, yeah. It’s my job. It’s what I do.” Why was she acting like this? Why didn’t she see that he was trying to find a way to stay here? Or maybe she did see and didn’t care.

She pushed back, out of his arms. “It’s ridiculous. It’s one of the most ridiculous ideas I’ve ever heard.”

Conner felt his throat clench and had to work to swallow. “It’s not ridiculous. It’s my job and I love it.”

Andie snorted. “Your job? That’s not a job. That’s playtime, and it’s super dangerous and irresponsible. You’re not a kid anymore, Conner.”

Conner turned away from her, struggling to calm himself. “What are you saying, Andie? That I need to grow up?” He turned to face her now, needing to see the look on her face, needing to see the emotions there.

She looked down at the carpet, picked up a scrap of ribbon that glimmered there. “That’s not what I meant, Conner.”

“Isn’t it? I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what you meant, that it’s exactly what you’ve been thinking all this time. Come on, Andie, admit it. You don’t respect me or what I do.”

“Oh, Conner, no.” Andie stepped forward, pressed her hands to his chest. “I respect you so much. You’re a good man. I care about you. I care about you so much that I don’t want you to do anything that might put you at risk. It’s not a shock to you that your job is risky. It’s dangerous.”

Conner sighed, enfolding Andie’s hands with his own, before pressing them against his heart. He knew she was afraid and he couldn’t be angry with her for that. She did care about him, and she was scared for him. He understood that, understood where she was coming from. But he couldn’t give this up. From the time he’d been a little kid, the outdoors had been his safe spot, the refuge he ran to when his dad had been too intense, when Conner had done yet another thing wrong and hadn’t quite understood what it was.

He’d grown up. He might be a man now, but he still needed time outdoors, in the stillness and beauty of nature. He found a peace there that he’d never found anywhere else and that wasn’t something he would let go. He pressed a kiss to Andie’s fingers.

“I have to do this, Andie. This is who I am. I’m sorry, but I can’t change that.”

Andie stared at him a moment, her golden eyes wide, stricken pools. And then she took a step back. “And you shouldn’t have to. What I think doesn’t matter. We both know that this can’t last, we can’t last. It can’t go anywhere permanent. You need to do what’s best for you. When do you leave?”

Conner fisted his hands at his sides, forcing them to stay still, forcing them not to reach for her. “In the morning.”

Andie shredded the ribbon into little bits, one relentless rip after another. “Will I see you when you get back?”

This time, he couldn’t stop himself from taking that step toward her. “I’d like to.”

“Yes. I’d like to, too. I’ve enjoyed our time together, Conner. I’d be sad if it was over already.”

Conner closed the distance between them, his mouth slanting down on hers, claiming her, the shredded ribbon bits raining down around their feet like confetti. This time, the kiss felt desperate because, for him at least, it was. He could already feel her pulling away, shutting him out. It was like a fist to the gut.

He poured everything he had into that kiss, and when he pulled away, her eyes were unfocused, her fingers trembling against his chest, her eyelashes damp against her cheeks. He knew if he stayed here any longer, he’d tell her he’d do whatever he needed to do to keep them together. And he couldn’t do that, not for anyone, not even for the woman he’d fallen in love with.

He zipped his leather jacket up, then paused inside the door, not willing to leave things, her, like that. Something told him that if he did, it would be the end of them. “So I’ll see you in a week and a half?”

Andie gave him a little shaky smile. “See you. Be careful, okay, Conner? For me?”

“I’m always careful, Andie. It’s my job to be safe, to keep everybody safe.”

“I know.” Her voice was nothing more than a whisper as she leaned back against her checkout counter. And even from the doorway, Conner could see the disbelief in her eyes. Ignoring the burning feeling of dread in his belly, he pulled the door shut behind him.

*

The week and a half without Conner seemed to drag on forever. Andie hadn’t realized how much she’d come to enjoy their time together, how much joy he’d given her. That week without him seemed gray and dull by comparison. Well, except for the moments where she was suddenly consumed by a blinding, gut wrenching panic that something had happened to him. She couldn’t call those moments dull at all.

The morning Andie woke up and knew that Conner would be home by supper time seemed like the brightest day of the week, even though it was actually a cold, dreary, late October day. Andie walked to work that morning under a low ceiling of gray clouds. A harsh wind whipped past her, scooping up fallen leaves off the ground, only to throw them back at her face. The bare branches of the trees reached upward like bony skeleton arms, adding to the spooky Halloween feel of the decorated homes that she passed, but for Andie, it was as bright and warm as a summer day. Not even the fact that she would be going with Diana at three o’clock for her last chemotherapy could dim her good mood very much.

Andie unlocked the door to her shop, took a deep breath and then almost dropped to her knees. The scented candles she sold always made the store smell wonderful, but today something had changed. Somehow, all the different scents had combined in a new and wonderful way. Her shop smelled exactly like her mother’s Christmas pies had smelled, a scent she’d never been able to duplicate. For a moment, she could feel her mother’s presence, a warm hug enfolding her. Then the smell shifted slightly, became something else, and the moment was gone.

But it was enough. Enough to fill Andie’s heart with hope and joy. And those good feelings never dimmed, not when she put out more Christmas stock, not when she took her lunch break, and not when she switched out the reindeer display in the front window for a Halloween scene, made entirely of vintage Halloween ephemera.

She’d put a Victorian era black cat in the window when the phone rang.

“Hey, Andie,” Shawn said. “I’ve got an emergency at work. I can’t pick Logan up from school.”

Andie felt her heart sink. “But today’s Diana’s last chemo. I promised I’d be there.”

“I know. So here’s the solution I came up with. Conner’s home and he’s here with me. He wants to get Logan and take him hiking. I’m fine with that, are you?”

Andie shifted her weight from one foot to the other as she pressed her phone a little tighter to her ear. “Yes. I suppose so. You’re sure you can’t do it?”

“No. I’ve got a dog that was hit by a car coming in. It sounds pretty bad. I imagine we’ll be in surgery until this evening.”

“And you don’t want Mrs. Brown to take him? I’m sure she’d be able to do it.”

“It’s up to you, but I’ve got to get going right now. Do you want to handle trying to get a hold of Mrs. Brown?”

Andie looked up at the clock and realized she’d have to leave in twenty minutes for the hospital. “I guess I don’t have time. Tell Conner to be careful, okay?”

“Yeah. I’ll call you when I’m out of surgery, and Conner says he’ll have his cell phone on him the whole time. What?” Shawn covered the phone for a minute and Andie could hear muffled shouting. “Conner says to tell you he wants to see you tonight, and that he came home early to see you,” Shawn said his voice tinged with disgust. “Come, on man, you can tell her the rest yourself. You’ve got a phone!” Shawn shouted.

Andie felt her lips curve into a smile. “Tell him I’ll try to call him after I get to the hospital if I get a chance.”

“Yeah, yeah. Talk to you later.”

“Bye, Shawn. Good luck with the surgery.”

“Thanks, I’ll need it,” he said before he hung up.

Andie shoved her phone in her pocket, then went around the shop, shutting off light displays. Each step seemed to shake her stomach, until it clenched tight with worry. Andie wasn’t quite sure what was worrying her, though. Not that that was a new sensation for her. She’d lived with a low, constant hum of worry pretty much since her parents had died.

She locked her door as Susan pulled up outside the building.

“Ready for this?” Susan asked as Andie slid into the car.

“Are you?” Andie asked, turning toward Dianna’s mom. Her skin looked dry and dull and her normally sleek black hair was pulled into a tangled ponytail.

“Yes. I have to be, don’t I? But I’ll be glad when it’s done. It’s been rough on her.”

“Yeah.” Andie took a deep breath and let it out slowly. The chemo had really weakened Diana, especially over the last week or so. She’d lost so much weight and seemed almost… fragile now, a word Andie would never have used to describe tough, scrappy Diana in the past.

Andie reached over and took Susan’s hand in hers. Susan grabbed it and held on. She held on while they parked, while they walked through the sliding glass doors, and all the way up to where Diana waited in one of the rooms. And that’s when Susan finally let go. She let go so that she could hold on to her daughter instead, as if the connection would let her take on the pain and nausea, the weakness, that was currently her little girl’s world.

Andie sat on the other side and held on too. Between them, they kept Diana anchored as the last dose of poison entered her bloodstream.

When Diana let her head slip back and her eyelids slide shut, Susan gave Andie a little nod. “Why don’t you go get some coffee? I can stay here with her until it’s time to get her home.”

Andie slowly released Diana’s hand, then clenched and unclenched her own fingers, trying to get the feeling back in them. “Are you sure? It’s not a big deal. I can stay.”

“No. Go stretch your legs. We’ll be fine.”

Andie rose from the folding chair, the joint in her hip popping loudly, then crossed over behind Susan to squeeze her shoulder. “I’ll be back.”

Susan smiled up at her, the skin around her eyes creased with tiredness. “I know.”

Andie had stepped into the hall when her phone rang. Oddly, it was the hospital calling. She’d pressed the “accept call” icon when Shawn came sprinting down the hallway. Shawn. Who was supposed to be in surgery, but he wasn’t. He was here.

Oh, God. Andie felt her phone slip from her hand, heard the crack as it hit the tile, but it was muffled, like her ears had been stuffed full of cotton balls. She took two steps forward before she was caught up in Shawn’s arms.

“It’s okay,” he whispered, squeezing her hard. “It’s okay. Just a little accident. Nothing serious.”

But his words didn’t reassure her, not one little bit. “What happened?” She pushed the words out, fumbling with the sudden numbness of her lips.

Shawn squeezed harder. “It’s not serious. Logan was too close to the cliff on the hiking trail. The edge crumbled and he would have gone over, but Conner saved him. Logan‘s fine.” He squeezed again, then pushed back a little to see her face. “Logan is fine. His ankle’s sprained and they’re wrapping it up. He has a few cuts and bruises and is a little shook up. We can go see him now, okay?”

Andie nodded, her heart fluttering helplessly in her chest. And she looked at Shawn and didn’t move. She waited. Because he’d said Logan was okay. Logan, but nothing about Conner.

Shawn scrubbed a hand over his jaw then sighed. “Okay, Conner’s going to be all right, but he’s… not in as good of shape. He pulled Logan back over the cliff edge and then it collapsed and he fell. Not far, but far enough. He looks worse than he really is, okay? You can see him too, but he’s… out of it. He’s got a concussion or something. They’ve got him on some medication for the pain.”

Andie looked down, watched the hospital light shimmer off the sterling silver, cow-shaped pin she wore, the one that had been her mom’s favorite, and took several deep breaths, trying to calm the raw fear ripping through her. “Why is he in pain?”

“He fractured a couple ribs, and it was a rough fall. But he’s going to be fine. Really.” He squeezed her hand then guided her down the hallway. “You’ll feel a lot better when you can see for yourself. Come on.”

Andie watched the toes of her boots click against the tile. She could feel Shawn’s hand wrapped around hers, smell the sharp sting of anti-septic everywhere they went, but she couldn’t seem to shake the dull buzz from her ears, or the fuzz from her brain.

And then they were in the emergency room. The curtain dividing two of the beds had been pulled back. Logan lay in one, his eyes shut, a bruise painting one cheek the color of midnight. But Conner… Oh God, there were splashes of blood everywhere. His eyes where shut too, and one side of his face was distorted with massive amounts of bruising and swelling.

“Andie, it’s not as bad as it looks. It’s not as bad!” Shawn said the word sharply, gave her a quick little shake, but it was too late. The buzzing in her ears and the fuzz in her brain combined into one dark, gapping hole and Andie felt herself disappear down into it.

Chapter Twelve

“Well, I guess it was a good thing you were in the emergency room, huh?”

Andie could hear Conner’s voice and she struggled to open her eyes. She was lying on a hospital bed, staring up at a drop-tile ceiling. It took her a moment to remember where she was, why she was there. And then she turned her head to look at Conner in the bed next to her.

He tried to grin, but it was a little lopsided. He winced as it pulled at the mess of his face. “Man, a guy tries to help someone out and look where it lands him.”

“Oh, Conner,” Andie whispered. She swung her legs over the edge of the bed, then sat there a minute as the room took a slow, sickening swing around her.

“Easy there,” Conner said. He looked around like he was trying to find a nurse to keep her where she was.

Andie put her feet on the floor, then slowly stood up. When she managed that fine, she walked over to the bed, gently gathered Conner’s fingers in her own. “What happened?”

He shrugged one shoulder then let out a little gasp as his free hand pressed against his ribs. “Logan‘s ankle twisted and he stumbled. The edge of the cliff started to crumble and I pulled him back. I got caught in it. It was a freak thing.”

“It wasn’t his fault, Andie. It was mine,” Logan said from the next bed, his voice loud in the hushed room. “He told me I was walking too close to the cliff and I didn’t listen. The only reason he was close enough to get to me was because he was coming over to haul me back. It was my fault. I should have listened.”

Conner gave him a look. “Yeah, you should have listened, but a cliff edge crumbling isn’t anyone’s fault. I’ll be fine, and next time, you’ll know better. That’s what a guide’s job is; to tell you when something isn’t safe.”

“Yeah. I’m sorry.”

Andie could see the edge of Logan‘s face as the shimmer of tears slid down one cheek. She sighed. Yeah, everyone was fine. This time. But what about the next time? And for Conner, there would always be a next time. Like he’d said, it was his job. How long would it take before he was seriously hurt? Before he was killed? How long before she had to bear another unthinkable loss?

She looked down, at Conner’s bruised and broken body against the hospital pillow and thought of her father, how he had laid in a bed like this, how he had broken and slipped away. Something flared and burned in her heart so suddenly and so fiercely that for several long moments she couldn’t even manage to drag a breath in past the pain of it.

When she managed to tamp it down, when she managed to focus on Conner again, he was watching her. And she could see the pain and the fear in his eyes as his fingers tightened around hers. He knew.

“Don’t, Andie. Don’t do it. It was an accident.”

She laughed, the rough edges of it tearing at her throat. “An accident. It’s always an accident, isn’t it? Do you know what the definition of an accident is, Conner? I do,” she said, not giving him the chance to answer. “I do because I memorized it after my parents died. An accident is ‘an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in damage or injury.’ Unexpected and unintentional, Conner. So how can you tell me you’ll be safe, that nothing will happen to you? How can you tell me it’s okay to take a risk on you? Because the way I see it, the odds aren’t in your favor. You’re a bush pilot for God’s sake! You put yourself in survival situations for fun! It’s only a matter of time, Conner, and you know it. Are you going to give it up for me? Are you going to put aside the one thing in the world that makes you the happiest? And even if you would, do you think I would let you?” She stared at him, feeling the pressure in her chest squeeze tighter and tighter, until every nerve in her body felt like it was on fire. But it was nothing compared to the despair she could see starting to smolder behind his eyes.

“Andie, no. Please. Don’t do this.” His hand held hers tighter until she could feel the bones in her hand grinding against each other under the pressure.

“I thought I could do this, be with you, but I can’t. I can’t do this, Conner. I can’t do this with you.”

“I love you,” Conner said. The words were low and rough, but sharp enough that they still drove straight to her heart, piercing it with the weight behind them.

Suddenly the room was spinning around her again and the pain was so strong she felt like she physically couldn’t bear it, couldn’t stand there a minute longer.

“I can’t,” she managed to gasp out, and then she was running, ignoring Conner’s yells for her to stop. She didn’t stop until Shawn caught up with her and physically stopped her, pulling her into his arms.

And then she crumpled, her sobs coming so fast and hard that she felt like she couldn’t breathe. She cried out the fear she’d held for Logan, the pain of losing her parents, the pressure of being the frame that held their whole family up for the last six years.

But mostly she cried for Conner. She cried because, oh, God, she did love him. She loved him so much that she could feel it in every one of her bones, every cell of her body. She was desperately and horribly in love with him.

And it didn’t matter at all. She would never be with him, never have a life with him. She couldn’t risk the pain and potential loss, couldn’t get past the sheer terror of it. So she cried for the dream of love that had been within reach, the dream that now lay shattered and dead at the base of that cliff that had crumbled a few hours ago.

*

The following days passed in a slow, agonizing blur for Andie, one day edging into another. It was like her heart had cracked open and everything she’d managed to keep shut up, every thing she’d pushed away so that she could be a functioning adult, had come pouring out in one excruciating torrent. Once she allowed herself to feel one thing, she felt everything, whether she wanted to or not.

The first few days, Mrs. Brown looked after Andie’s shop, while Andie stayed home with Logan. But his ankle injury really wasn’t all that bad, and soon he was back to school.

So Andie hauled herself to her shop every day, and then lugged herself back home. Slowly, the pain eased. Well, not really, but she pretended it had. She missed Conner every second of every day.

“Andie! Andie!”

She could hear Shawn storming through the house looking for her. For a minute, she snuggled deeper under her blanket on the couch and debated whether she could get away with not answering him. But then she sighed and threw back the afghan her grandma had crocheted.

“In here!” she yelled back as she sat up and ran her fingers through the snarled mess of her curls.

Shawn stepped through the doorway, then paused, a pinched look on his face. “This has to stop,” he said softly. “You can’t go on like this. You’re miserable. He’s miserable. Admit that you love him already and get back together.”

“I can’t do that, Shawn.”

Shawn folded his arms across his chest and leaned back against the door jamb. “Can’t you?”

“No. I can’t.” Andie stood, folded the afghan neatly, and laid it on the back of the couch. “Was there something you wanted?”

Shawn stepped forward and pulled her into a hug. “Yeah. My sister back. You know, Pumpkin Fest is next week. They’re counting on your float for the parade. Have you even started work on it yet?”

Andie bit her lip. She hadn’t started it, and he was right; she had to do it, no matter how crappy she felt. It was the last float of the parade, the one that Santa always made an early appearance on. It had always been one of her favorite things to do. Somehow, she had to move past this pain, get over Conner and find, if not joy, than at least some level of contentment in her life.

“Tomorrow’s Saturday,” Shawn said. “I can take the morning off from the clinic and we can get to work. I bet Logan‘ll help too. What do you think?”

“All right. You’re right, I suppose.” She kept her arms around his back, not quite ready to step out of the warmth of his hug, to move forward into her future, a new future with no Conner in it. She wasn’t ready to face the bleakness of that.

“I’m you’re big brother. I’m always right. Now go take a shower or something.” He freed one hand so he could gently pat her hair. “Is there something living in there? Is that why it looks like that?”

Andie laughed. It sounded rough and creaky, but it was a real laugh. “Yeah, yeah.” She let him go and headed for the stairs.

“Andie?” Shawn called.

She paused, one hand on the railing. “Yeah?”

“Mom and Dad would hate this. Hate that you let their deaths damage you so much that you’d rather spend your life alone than take a risk on love.”

His words were an arrow, tipped with a razor blade that sliced through her back and into her heart. She hunched her shoulders, absorbing as much of the pain of his words as she could take, then turned silently and trudged up the stairs.

*

Glitter was flying through the air, along with clouds of fake snow. Heavy rock music pounded against Andie’s ears; she’d been overruled by Logan and Shawn for choice of radio station. The music, along with the frenzied flashes from the defective Christmas lights that lay in a big jumble in front of her, combined to give her the most massive headache ever. Then the music sliced off, dead in the center of a song.

A little ripple of awareness raced down the back of Andie’s neck. She turned in time to see Conner step around a life-sized plastic reindeer. He was moving slowly, stiffly, like he was made of glass, and any sudden movement might cause him to fracture. The bruises on his face had faded to an ugly purplish yellow, and there were several long scratches down his cheek that, while scabbed over, still looked painful. But he was there. In their garage.

Shawn darted out from behind a half decorated Christmas tree, nabbed Logan by the shoulder and started to drag him away.

“Hey!” Logan shouted. “I wanted to say hi to Conner.”

“Later,” Shawn said, then disappeared out the service door, before Andie even had time to scramble out of the trailer bed she’d been trying to decorate with the knotted lights.

Conner jammed his hands in his pockets. “Hey.”

“Hey,” Andie said back, but it came out more as a whisper.

Conner stared at her a minute, then turned to the float. “It’s looking pretty good.”

“Yeah.” Andie wiped her glitter bedecked palms on her thighs. “It’s getting there. Did you… Um. Do you want something?”

Conner whipped around, his eyes tight with anger, anger mixed with something else, something a lot more painful. “Seriously? You’re going to stand there and ask me that? Like we’re strangers?”

“Um.” Andie took a step back and then another, bumping up against Shawn’s old mountain bike. Her heart was racing, her fingers tingling with the urge to reach out, to lace them through his silky black hair, to pull him closer, and closer still, until she could feel every inch of his body against her.

She stared at the cold cement floor and took several deep breaths, until she had everything pushed back down below the surface, until she could look at him and not be afraid that her eyes were filled with every aching need in her heart.

When she looked back up, she realized he’d taken advantage of the moment to move closer. He was only feet away from her. She pushed back against the bike, heard a sharp metallic clang as something tipped over behind her. She glanced wildly to the side, wondering if she could make it past him, but it was too late.

Conner stepped into the gap, trapping her between the bike and the wall. This close, Andie could tell something was wrong. His eyes had deep, dusty purple circles under them and his clothes hung on his body like he’d lost a few pounds. But his eyes, his eyes were on fire.

“Don’t shut me out, Andie.” And he eased his hand forward, until he was cupping her face.

Andie felt one hot tear slip down her cheek before she turned away. What could she say? She was shutting him out. She had too. There was no other way. No matter how much she loved him, no matter how brightly her world shone when she was with him, it couldn’t happen. It was too much of a risk. He was too much of a risk.

She turned her head away from his hand. “Please, Conner. Just go.”

His palm fell away, replaced by chilly air, but Conner didn’t step back. He stood there, letting the silence stretch between them until Andie looked at him.

His eyes were bleak, his mouth pressed in one hard line, as he searched her eyes. “Fine.” He took a couple steps back, one hand pressed to his ribs as he moved. “I got an offer on the building.”

“That’s…” Andie had meant to say that was great, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. It would be the end of everything. There’d be no going back then, nothing to keep Conner here.

Conner watched her, his gaze steady on her face. “But it’s an offer from the Federal Government. They want to turn it into a museum, dedicated to the shipping and logging past of Port Haven. It’s the only other offer I’ve gotten.”

Andie felt the breath whoosh out of her and managed to sit back down on the trailer before her knees gave out. “My store?”

“You’d lose it. But they did say they’d agree to a ninety day closing which would give you until the end of January to get out.” Conner stood there, his hands in his pockets. Waiting.

Andie pushed up to her feet, shoved her shoulders back. “Do it.”

“What?”

“Do it. Sign the deal. It’s what’s best for you; probably what’s best for Port Haven. A museum would bring in more tourists, more revenue for the town.” And she would lose her shop, lose her family’s livelihood.

So she’d start over. She’d done it before, she could do it again. It would be heart-wrenchingly hard, but it wasn’t the end of the world. It wouldn’t hurt anywhere near as bad as she was hurting right now, knowing that Conner was going to walk away, that he was going to leave Port Haven and probably never come back.

Conner turned his back to her, his shoulders hunching forward. “Are you sure?” And his voice was laced with as much pain as Andie was feeling.

“Yes.” Andie stepped forward, let her hand rest on the leather of his jacket sleeve for a fraction of a second. “Go. Live your dream.”

Conner turned back to her, his face a mask of bewilderment, betrayal, hurt. “Andie, you’re my dream now.”

She pressed a hand to the sharp ache behind her eyes. “I’m sorry, Conner. Sorry I couldn’t be what I needed to be to make this work.”

Conner laughed, a short, bitter sound. “I don’t think you even tried, Andie.” And he walked out of the garage.

“Good bye,” Andie whispered the words, then slumped down into a pile of fake snow, her heart scooped empty by the pain, so empty that she couldn’t even cry.

Chapter Thirteen

The driving wind was throwing sharp flakes of snow past the beams of Conner’s headlights as he parked his Jeep outside the nursing home. He sat there in the puddle of warmth cast by the heater, a country song playing low on the radio, and stared at the building.

The windows glowed with light, making the surrounding twilight seem all the more dark. Inside, some of the residents clustered around a piano, laughing and singing and enjoying themselves. Conner let his head rest against the steering wheel and debated whether he could actually make himself go in, make himself interact with… well, anyone.

Truth be told, he’d spent most of the last few weeks holed up in his apartment and even when he worked his shifts at the bar, he kept himself to himself. It was simple preservation. If he had to endure one more look of pity, one more well-intentioned snoop asking how he was doing, he would crack.

But he’d got a call this morning that his dad had pneumonia. No matter what he said, or how he told himself he felt about his dad, he hadn’t been able to stop the little thread of worry that had wormed its way into his heart.

So he got out of the car, shrugging his shoulders up to keep some of the icy wind from spilling down his neck. He gave half-hearted smiles to anyone who called his name, kept his head down and plowed his way to his dad’s room.

His dad was lying back in his bed, his eyes closed, stubble as pale as frost covering his cheeks. His hair was longer than Conner had ever seen it. The cranky but strong man his father had been only a week ago had somehow contracted into this shrunken, elderly body. Conner stepped up to the bed, put his hand over his father’s. He touched him for the first time in over a decade.

“Dad?” Conner’s voice cracked as he spoke. He cleared his throat, knowing his dad hated any sign of emotion.

“Conner.” His dad opened his eyes. Then, he smiled.

The sight of it stunned Conner, as much as if he had given him a good hard shot to the face.

His dad flipped his hand over, wrapped his fingers around Conner’s. “I’m glad you came. I’ve been wanting to talk to you. Why don’t you pull up a chair?”

The heavy, upholstered chair squeaked a little on the linoleum as he shoved it over to the bed. His heart was beating hard in his chest, not from exertion, but from fear. He’d never seen his dad like this, not ever, and it was scaring the hell out of him. Conner sat, then leaned forward and took his hand again. “What’s wrong?’

His dad lifted a weak hand, batted at the air. “Nothing. I’m fine, or will be in a week or two, anyway. I’m sick, son. I’m not dying.”

Conner leaned back in his chair, the breath leaving him in a sharp whoosh that made his semi-healed ribs ache a little. “Then what is it?”

“Well, I told you, didn’t I? I want to talk to you.” He rubbed a hand over the stubble and sighed. “Look, I know I told you a few visits ago that I made mistakes raising you. I don’t know if you’re going to forgive me or not, but I’d like you too. The truth is, I kept you on a tight leash ‘cause I was afraid of losing you. You were always so… wild. So unpredictable. It scared the hell out of me.”

Conner pulled his hand away. “Why, because you were afraid of how it would look?”

“No, you hard-headed ass, because I love you!”

The words echoed in the room, the only other sound the tap of ice pellets against the windows.

His dad’s cheeks flushed red, but he didn’t look away from Conner. “I have a hard time with that, with showing how I feel. I’m a product of a different time, a different generation. We weren’t all touchy feely like you all are supposed to be now, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t love you, that I don’t love you.”

Conner laughed, but there wasn’t any happiness to it. “You sure took your sweet time letting me know.”

“I’m old, Conner. Look at me.” He gestured to the hospital bed, the oxygen tube snaking up to his nose. “Best case scenario, I heal up, get out of here, and then what? Maybe another ten, fifteen years, tops, right? A man starts to think differently, do things differently when he knows that his days are numbered.”

Conner leaned back in his chair, pressed his thumbs to his aching eyes. “Dad. You can’t erase all those years.” He took his hands away, took a deep breath. “All I ever wanted was for you to be proud of me. To care about me. Would that have been so hard?”

“But I am proud of you. I always have been. Like I said, I have a tough time showing it. I’d like to start over with you. I know I can’t change what happened, but I thought maybe we could get to know each other now.” His dad watched him, his eyes wary, but with a glint of hope in them. “I’ll try if you try, Conner. Things will be different. I promise.”

Conner stared out the dark window, barely making out the orange glow of a streetlight through the whirling snow. It’s true his dad hadn’t been much of a dad, but it was also true that he probably wouldn’t live much longer. And Conner wanted now what he’d always wanted. To be loved and accepted by his parent. He’d hid it for years, stuffed the feeling down inside, tried to pretend that it didn’t exist, but it had always been there, under the surface.

“Yeah, all right,” Conner said. “I guess we could give it a shot.”

And his dad grinned at him, the biggest smile he’d ever seen. To the right side of his mouth, a dimple winked; an exact replica of Conner’s own.

“Now that that’s settled, why don’t you see if you can get one of the nurses to bring us some coffee? I heard you sold your brownstone?”

“Yeah. To the Feds. They want to make it into a museum, preserve the WPA mural that’s there. It’ll be good for Port Haven.” He walked over to the door, signaled to a nurse. She gave him a cheery wave and held up held up a hand, indicating she’d be there in five minutes. Conner stuffed his hands in his jeans pockets and moved back over to the bed.

“But not so good for Andie’s business. Or yours either for that matter. I imagine the pub brought in a bit of steady income for you.”

Conner shrugged a shoulder, wincing as the dull ache in his ribs slipped up a notch on the pain scale. He couldn’t deny that for a little while there, he’d been building castles in the sky, of him and Andie and a happily ever after. And yeah, maybe he’d thought about staying in town, maybe he’d thought about keeping the pub as a business. But they’d been nothing more than stupid dreams, and there was definitely no reason to stay now. In fact there was one very good reason to leave.

“I heard about you and Andie,” his dad said with a shake of his head.

Conner felt his shoulders stiffen. “And? Now you’re going to tell me how I screwed it up?”

His dad glared at him. “Is that you trying to turn over a new leaf with me, son? ‘Cause it sounds pretty crappy. And no, that wasn’t what I was going to say. You forget, I know Andie. I’m not blind. I can see she’s got some pretty strong issues going on there. I can’t say that I blame her; she’s had it rough. Do you love her?”

Conner’s shoulders slumped. “Yeah. I do.”

“Does she love you?”

“I thought she did. At least, it felt like she did. She never said it, though, and I guess, in the end she didn’t or she wouldn’t have been able to walk away from me.”

“That’s a load of BS, son, and we both know it. You can walk away from anything, as long as you’ve got the guts to shoulder the hurt that comes along with it. We’ve had some rough patches you and me. There were lots of times I didn’t agree with things you did, hell, I didn’t even understand them. But one thing I’ve always thought, one thing I’ve always been proud of, is that you’re a fighter. Hell, you get some damned notion between your teeth and you’ll worry at ‘til you get it all straightened out. You always have.” His gaze locked with Conner’s. “You’re a fighter, Conner. You really going to roll over and give up?”

Conner walked over to the window, pressed his head against the icy glass. “You don’t understand, Dad. You don’t know what happened.”

“Don’t think I need to know. I’m stating a fact. You’re a fighter. I don’t give a damn what happened between you, it doesn’t change who you are.”

The door swung open and the little, red-headed nurse popped in. “Well, gentleman, what can I do for you?”

Conner’s dad gave her a big grin, his dimple flashing. “Well, now. I thought my son and I could have a cup of coffee. And maybe a wee smidge of pumpkin pie to go along with it?”

The nurse gave him a stern look that didn’t do anything to dim the twinkle in her eyes. “That pie is for tomorrow and well you know it, Mr. Morgan.”

“I don’t know that anyone would notice two tiny slivers missing, and my son might not make it here tomorrow in time for the Thanksgiving supper. I have a feeling that something’s come up, something he’s got to take care of.”

“I suppose two itty-bitty pieces wouldn’t hurt anything.” She pressed the button on the bed remote, raising the head of it a little.

“With a squirt of whipped cream.”

“You can’t have one without the other,” she said. She fussed about the room a little, but Conner’s attention had slipped. He stared out into the snow and the dark, his eyes straining to see the hill behind the nursing home. He knew it was impossible, but still he looked for that one, warm, welcoming light at the top, stared into that darkness and whirl of snow until his eyes ached as much as his heart. But even though he tried as hard as he could, the night stayed as black as ever.

Chapter Fourteen

The smell of turkey and pie still filled the house, though the dishes had long been cleared away. Wind roared off the lake, battering the house. They’d gotten a foot of snow already, and it showed no sign of slowing down. The plows were out, but the snow was falling so fast that they couldn’t keep up with it, leaving the roads drifted with snow and impassible. Diana and Susan had managed to get to Andie’s house earlier that day, but there was no leaving now.

Andie snapped a sheet in the air, then let it drift down over the guest bed. As she bent to tuck in the corner, Diana stepped into the doorway.

“Well,” she said, “My mom is out like a light on your couch. I guess I get the guest bed after all.” Diana stood there, a frown on her face as she watched Andie. “We’ve been best friends for a long time, Andie. Since we were little. I’ve always loved you and stood by you, no matter what choice you made, but I can’t stand by you in this one. I can’t.”

Andie opened her mouth, bewildered, but Diana held up her hand. “No. I don’t want to hear it. I can’t watch you do this anymore. I know it’s wrong, and horrible of me, but God, Andie. I hate you so much right now!” And Diana gave the plump, down pillows stacked neatly by her feet a good hard kick, sending them crashing into the window.

Andie pressed her icy fingers to her mouth, trying to keep her gasp of shock from escaping. “Diana-“

“No! I do! I hate you! I hate you for throwing your life away, for living like you’re already dead! Don’t you get it? You’ve got this whole, long life ahead of you! You can make plans, have dreams, live. And I have nothing! Nothing! You have an amazing man who loves you, and you’re too damn scared of taking a risk to do anything about it!” She whirled and slammed her fist into the mattress with a good, solid thump. “Yeah, someday, you’ll die. So will Conner, and Shawn and Logan. But in all likelihood it will be decades from now. Do you even know how lucky you are? What a luxury that is? What gives you the right to say, ‘Oh, gee, thanks for this nice life, God, but I don’t think I want to live it. It’s too scary’? And you know what else? Your parents would hate it too, if they could see it! Do you think they’d like what you’ve done to yourself? Do you think they’d be happy that you let their death twist you into this cold, frightened, empty person you’ve become?” And then she stopped, her chest heaving like she’d run a race.

Andie slid to the floor as Diana’s words sliced through her. The room spun around her as she struggled to breathe under the crushing weight of her accusations.

No, not accusations. Truth. Andie knew it in her heart for awhile now, but had been afraid to confront it. She’d chosen to ignore it, but she couldn’t ignore it now. Not when Diana was standing in front of her, her head bald, her body emaciated. Diana was so right. What did Andie have to be so scared of? That she might get hurt? That she might lose someone she cared about? Had being so scared, so ruthlessly careful, saved anyone she had loved and lost? Had it kept Diana from getting sick? Or Logan from getting hurt? Had it kept Andie from being miserable?

Andie’s parents would hate that she’d taken their lives, all the wonderful memories, and twisted it into some kind of screwed up shield, using it as an excuse to try to protect herself. The stupid thing was, even if she kept everyone she loved healthy and safe, eventually they’d get old. What would Andie have to show for her life other than a huge pile of regrets and always, always, a bright ribbon of pain through it all?

Diana slid down next to Andie, let her head rest on her shoulder. “And do you know what the worst part is? You pushed Conner away to keep from getting hurt. But look at you. You’re miserable without him. Can you truthfully tell me, right now, that you’re not in pain, that you don’t miss him? That you haven’t been hurting constantly, ever since he walked away?”

Andie took a deep shuddering breath. “No. God, I miss him so much. I didn’t even realize how much I loved him, how being with him made me feel happy, until he was already gone. But it’s too late, Diana. He’s leaving for Montana tomorrow. He doesn’t want me anymore.”

“That’s a load of crap and you know it. He doesn’t leave until tomorrow. Go convince him to stay.”

A huge gust of wind slammed into the side of the house, making the windows creak in their frames. Andie felt her heart begin to beat hard and fast in her chest. “But the storm-“

Diana shook her head. “No more excuses. You’ve still got your snowmobile, don’t you? You used to be hell on wheels on that thing, before you became, you know…”

Andie scrambled to her feet. “Go ahead, you can say it. Before I became a wimp. Shawn!” she yelled, sprinting out into the hallway. “Shawn!”

Diana had followed her out of the guestroom. “He’s walking Mrs. Brown home. I can keep an eye on Logan until he gets back.” And Diana grinned at her, a huge, happy grin. “Thank God. Now I don’t have to hate you anymore. It was exhausting.”

“Tell me about it.” Andie snagged her old snowmobile suit out of the storage closet at the end of the hall. “Think this thing still fits?”

“Only one way to tell.”

It was only a matter of minutes before she was suited up and in the garage, flipping the ignition on her old, red snowmobile. It was still in perfect shape, even full of gas. Shawn must have been maintaining it for her all these years. She sent out a silent promise that she’d thank him later, and then roared out into the dark, snow filled streets.

The snow and wind beat against her, but it was no match for the heat surging through her, the exhilaration of the powerful machine snarling under her, as she flew through the night.

And then his apartment complex appeared through the wall of snow. The roar of the machine was replaced with the roar of the wind as she flipped the ignition off. But as she removed her helmet, some of the heat and joy in her heart was washed away by a wave of cold fear. What if it was too late?

Her hands were shaking as she tucked the helmet under her arm and marched toward the building. She’d driven here through a freaking blizzard; she could do this. She was so intent on giving herself a pep talk that when she slammed into something big, and solid, and warm, when she started to skid on the black ice coating the sidewalk, she couldn’t pull herself out of her thoughts quickly enough to keep from falling on her butt. There was a flurry of movement in front of her, and then someone hit the ground next to her. Hard.

“Crap.” Conner lay there, flat on his back with a halo of snow blowing around him. He looked about as stunned as she felt. He twisted his head toward her. “Andie?”

“Yeah.” She stood up, brushed the snow off the seat of her pants, trying not to wince at the dull ache. “Are you okay?”

He sat up, touched his chin gingerly, then swore. He took his hand away, wet with blood.

“I think I have a tissue here. God, I’m sorry. This is all my fault.” She unzipped her suit a little, and slid her hand into the pocket of her slacks, puling out a napkin with a grinning turkey on it. She pressed it to his chin, keeping the pressure steady as the warmth of his blood seeped through the paper. Oddly, she didn’t feel the slightest bit sick or faint. “Were you… going somewhere? I thought your flight out wasn’t until tomorrow.”

“It’s not.” He gently batted her hand away, taking the napkin from her before he stood up. “I’m okay. What are you doing here, Andie?’

“I came to see you. I wanted to talk.”

He stared at her, not even a hint of a smile on his face, his eyes dark with something she couldn’t quite identify.

Andie swiped her helmet up from the snow bank. “Um. Can I come in?”

Her question hung in the icy air between them. Oh, God. Maybe it really was too late. Andie’s knees liquefied and she locked them. She might lose him, but she sure as hell wouldn’t give up without a fight.

Conner took his keys out, the slight jingle they made a metallic counterpoint to the low base notes of the wind. He wiped at his chin again, then crumpled the napkin in his hand. “Yeah. All right.”

And he turned and walked into the building. At least he held the door for her. That had to mean something, right?

Conner walked down the hallway to his apartment, unlocked the door and flipped on the entryway light. He stood there a minute staring at her, the abrasion on his chin raw and red, then shook his head. “Do you want some tea or something?”

Andie grabbed at the offer like a lifeline. “Yes. Please. Do you mind if I take my suit and boots off?”

Conner shrugged. “Whatever.” And walked past her into the kitchen.

Andie blew out a shaky breath, then bent to wrestle with her boots, her fingers stiff with fear, making the task take about five minutes longer than it should have. She stripped out of the suit, hung it neatly on the coat rack, then padded into the kitchen after him.

Water spilled out of the faucet and he splashed it over his chin, then dried it with an old towel. He placed a mug in front of her, before leaning back against the counter top, taking a sip from his own. The silence stretched again as he watched her.

She wrapped her hands around the mug, for the heat and the comfort it provided her. “Okay. So… I hurt you, and I’m really, really sorry.”

He clicked his mug down on the counter so hard that a little of the tea sloshed over the rim and then strode around the counter until he was inches from her. “You said I was reckless and irresponsible.” His voice was a low growl of anger and her fear deepened as a twinge of hopelessness threaded through it.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. She looked up into his eyes, held steady. “I was wrong. That was wrong. You are thoughtful, and charming, and optimistic and sexy.”

The tightness around his lips eased a little. “I told you I loved you and you threw it back in my face.”

And God, wasn’t that ironic? That she’d done the thing that she’d condemned him for doing years before? And she didn’t even have the excuse of being dumb and stupid. Well, maybe the stupid part fit. “I know. I’m sorry for that too.” She stepped closer, until their legs brushed against each other, her eyes still on his face. “I was stupid, Conner. So stupid. And, yeah, I was sacred out of my mind. I let my parent’s death mess me up. I’m not saying I’m not still messed up, because it’ll probably take me a long time to finish healing. I think I need some therapy maybe, I don’t-“

Conner’s hands flashed out, curled around her arms, gave her a gentle shake. “Andie. Focus. What are you saying?”

She let her hands drift up, cover his chest. “I love you, Conner. I love you and I want to be with you. I was stupid and I let fear control me, but I’m not afraid anymore. You said in the garage that I was your dream now. Stay here. With me.” And she leaned forward the few inches separating them and pressed her lips against his.

“Andie.” Conner groaned her name against her lips as his hands streaked up to bury themselves in her hair. “Say it again. Say it again.”

“I love you. I thought I knew where I belonged, what my place was. But then you showed up and you changed everything. You brought me back to life. You lead me back to my self, to the person I’d thought I’d lost forever.”

Conner’s hands slid down, covered her breasts, and Andie let her head fall back as his mouth trailed down her neck. “You, the love I feel for you, it’s so huge and bright and God, you make me feel so… alive,” she said.

Conner lifted her in his arms, carried her to the sofa, then set her gently down on the smooth leather. His weight settled heavily on her as his mouth closed over hers again, his tongue slipping into her mouth, filling her with the scent, the feel of him. Cool air touched Andie’s belly as he lifted her sweater, tugged it over her head.

Conner’s lips moved over her feverishly. “Oh, God, Andie.” He said the words against her skin as Andie arched into to him, glorying in the heat and the weight of him, letting her hands move over him, re-learning every inch of his skin as her heart swelled with love and desire for him.

“Conner, please,” she said. “I can’t wait anymore.”

His mouth never left hers as he unhooked her slacks and slid them down. He shoved at his own jeans, only managing to get them about halfway down before Andie hooked her legs around him and guided him home.

A long time later, Andie pressed her arms as tightly as she could around him, holding him close, as their breath slowed. Conner leaned back, kissed first one eyelid and then the other, before placing another long, tender kiss on her lips.

Andie smiled up at him as she trailed her finger down his cheek. “Does that mean you forgive me?”

Conner laughed, a deep, low chuckle that sent vibrations all the way to her heart. “I was coming to get you.”

“What?”

“Tonight. I was coming to get you. I decided I couldn’t give up on you with out trying one more time. I love you, Andie. I think I might have always loved you, but I was too stubborn and stupid to realize it back when we were kids. I’ve always been searching for something, a place to belong, a family. I guess I didn’t think I could find it here in Port Haven, not when I’d been so unhappy here. So I left, and I saw the world. I didn’t find what I was looking for, not until I came back here, came back to you. And then I found it.”

Andie pressed her lips to his, feeling the heat and love burn through her until she was as clear and bright as a candle flame. “What did you find, Conner?”

He smiled down at her, his dimple flashing. “I found love. I found my home in you.”

Warmth washed through Andie, a searing glow that heated every part of her as she pressed her lips against his. “I love you too, Conner. Welcome home.” And she held out her arms and let him in.

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  1. Karen Horan

    Her descriptions of place and space are very vivid and clear for the reader which makes her writing style so easy and entertaining to read. I can visualize and conceptualize at the same time. I like that in a good book.

  2. Denise Osterholm

    When I saw this, I wanted to vote fro Amy, but in the process started reading the wrong story by accident… The story was a bona fide thriller positively a lot faster moving, and I thought I’d comment positively as a curtesy… I soon realized I was reading the wrong story…Amy’s writing is slower, but she has the unique ability to emotionally pull you into her stories, a talent that few possess. I vote for Amy because I think she is a bonafidely an exceptional writer… I also enjoy her background reference to Northern Wisconsin and the economy there as it is… Excellent job Amy… denise.