CONTEMPORARY ROMANCE AND ROMANTIC SUSPENSE
Original Finish Excerpt
Sean Galloway could think of ten places he’d rather be. A hundred things he’d rather be doing.
Anything but refereeing a wedding planning debate.
“Really, Mrs. G, peach is just so last year. My attendants’ gowns are apricot, remember?”
It wouldn’t have been so bad if his fiancée hadn’t ended her comment to his mother with bless your heart and a not-so-hidden smirk.
Daphne’s dad might be paying for the wedding, but Mom had spent dozens of hours addressing invitations, hosting a bridal shower, and working with Aunt Anne on the catering.
Ouch! What the—dammit. His pain-in-the-butt sister, Nicki, stood beside him, butter knife in hand, poised to jab him again. A quick check proved she hadn’t harmed the custom-made, powder-blue cotton pinpoint shirt Daphne had ordered from London.
“You gonna let her get away with that?” Nicki hissed from where they stood at the edge of the dining room. Leave it to the oldest of his three sisters to shove her nose where it wasn’t at all welcome. Why couldn’t she—and most of his friends and relatives, when it came to it—understand there was more in play here than just keeping the peace between his fiancée and his big extended family?
This was about his future. Building the career he’d dreamed of since he was teenager. The life he’d dreamed of. Big house, European sports car, skiing the Alps. Creating his own destiny.
And making enough money to right old wrongs.
“Let it go, Nick. Daphne doesn’t mean anything by it.”
And she didn’t; not really. Daphne was raised by a parade of nannies, private-schooled, had vacationed all over the world. Spoke four languages and claimed one college degree more than Sean did.
What this glossy, polished, high-society chick saw in small-town Sean Galloway was a mystery to his buddies. He understood it, though. His charm and good looks might have gotten her to finally go out with him, but his drive and ambition were what had sealed the deal.
“You’re a dick, big brother.” Nicki yanked off the Kiss the Cook apron she’d donned to help at what was supposed to be a bury-the-hatchet dinner, tossed the smock in the general direction of the kitchen and took off for the foyer.
Frickin’ drama queen. Like he needed two of those in the house at the same time.
Nicki opened the front door. She gasped, looked back at him, wide-eyed, then hustled outside, closing the door behind her.
Daphne appeared at his side. “What do you think of this shade for the tablecloths, darling?” she purred.
Give me strength. He pasted on a smile and walked her back into the dining room. For just four more weeks.
Cassidy Vance watched Nicki’s mouth drop open as the screen door slammed shut.
“Yeah, it’s me.” Cassie set her suitcase down on the sidewalk. Hoped her voice sounded the opposite of how she felt—which was capital-P-panicked.
“Ca—Cassie?” Nicki grabbed the top of a nearby wicker chair. At least she wasn’t screaming at her to get lost, so that was something.
She should have been prepared to run into her childhood best friend. The one whose calls, texts and emails Cassie had ignored after she left town over eight years ago.
Deep breaths, Cass. She licked her lips, tasted salt. Was she crying?
“Oh, Cassie!” Nicki launched herself down the steps and across the flagstone walk, her arms steadying Cassie against the swoon she felt coming on. “It is you!”
And then they were hugging, tears shared against cheeks held close together. Nicki Galloway was the sister Cassie’d never had.
But while this was good, it wasn’t what she’d come for. She needed to talk to Sean, get the business over with, and then hurry to Gram’s.
“Hey.” Nicki’s voice was soft, encouraging. “C’mere. Let’s sit down.”
They sank onto the wooden steps.
Nicki held Cassie’s hand, examining it like she used to for blisters and splinters after one of their adventures. “So are you back for good, or just here for a visit? Does your grandmother know you're coming?” She glanced at Cassie's old overnighter.
Cassie squeezed her friend’s hand. “It’s a long story, Nick, and I’ll tell you…I promise. But first I need to talk with your brother.”
“Umm…right now might not be the best time.”
Sweet, caring, Nicki. “I know about the wedding. This has absolutely nothing to do with it. I’m glad for him, actually.”
Well that was an exaggeration, but it sounded good. Like she meant it. And she did. Really.
Nicki’s face brightened. “You could stay for supper! Everyone’s here. Even Anne’s kids.” Her nostrils flared. “Daphne specifically requested ‘the children’ not attend. At least Sean overruled her, for once.”
“Thanks but no thanks, Nick. I don’t have much time on the island, and I want to spend most of it with Gram.”
Nicki smiled. “And some of it with me, right?”
“Yes, of course. But right now, could you ask him to meet me around back?”
“Okay. Just make sure you find me before you leave.”
No way that would happen. Today was tough enough as it was. “Sure thing, Nick.”
For the third time in an hour, Nicki pulled Sean out of the dining room for a lecture, and he’d had enough.
“What?” he snarled at his sister. “Make it quick and then find someone else to harass.”
She ushered him through the front door.
“Okay, just listen.” For once, she didn’t look ticked off. More at a loss for words. Which was patently ridiculous, because Nicole Galloway always had something to say.
“Spit it out, squirt. I need to get back there before Aunt Anne tosses that Selection of Seasonal Crudités in Daphne’s face.”
A deep breath brought her shoulders to her ears. “Just know I had nothing to do with this. Zero. Zip. Nada.”
Screw this. He gripped her elbows and moved her aside.
He froze. Those two words stole every coherent thought from his mind.
Sean turned back to look at her. Her face was as blank as his brain. “If this is some sort of joke…”
“No joke, big brother. She said she needs to talk to you.”
His head bobbed back and forth, up and down, as if it would jump-start his grey cells. He looked around, and sure didn’t see his high school girlfriend. The one who’d skipped town without a word of explanation. Why she’d left in the first place and what had brought her back after all these years couldn’t have mattered less.
“Wait a minute. Is this about…?” The lobster puff he’d just downed curdled in his gut. He glanced through the window to the dining room, at the table cluttered with fabric samples and appetizers. And most of the women in his life gathered around it.
“Nothing to do with the wedding. She swears this is about something else entirely.”
“Whatever it is, I don’t have time for it. Tell her I’m busy.” He turned toward the door, done with this conversation and even more done with Cassidy Vance.
And felt a tug at his waist, where Nicki had hold of his belt.
He would’ve paid a few bucks into Mom’s swear jar, but his sister’s face was pained, her eyes glassy.
“She left me, too, Sean. And she didn’t say so, but she’s probably back to help Minerva, which means she’ll be in town for a while. You’ll be back in Portland on Monday, but I’ll be right here in King’s Harbor. She used to be my best friend. If we’re going to mend fences, you’re only making it harder for me if you blow her off.”
“Not my problem, kiddo. I don’t have time or interest in any frickin’ fence-mending. I’m getting married in a few weeks, as you darn well know.” His exhale was almost a snort. “We’re sure as hell not inviting her to the wedding.”
Nicki shook her head. “Nobody’s asking you to. But whatever this is, I think it’s important. You don’t want her showing up in Portland, do you?”
That’s all he needed. His ex, making a scene in front of the big boss—who just happened to be his fiancée’s father.
Sean bit his lip and tasted iron. It wasn’t worth the risk. “Where is she?”
Nicki gestured to the porch’s side steps. “Out back.”
Cassidy Vance. Now that his heart had restarted, his shock turned to righteous anger. Did she think she could just show up after nearly nine years of silence and he’d roll over like a puppy and forgive her? Welcome her back to his family?
“Fine. If Daphne’s looking for me, tell her I’m taking out the trash.”
Cassidy marked the time by her breaths. Slow in. Slow out. Eighty-nine. Ninety.
She glanced up at the maple tree overhead. She and Nicki had spent hours up there when they were kids. Nicki gave her the birds-and-bees talk in those branches when Cass was twelve and Nicki a year younger. Not a lot of secrets when you had three older brothers like Nicki.
The big manila envelope lay closed on the table. The legal form the private investigator had thoughtfully included with his report was tucked inside. Sean simply had to sign the form, and she’d be out of his life forever.
Surely he’d do it. Her news would totally mess with his wedding plans. Daphne Wheldon—really? Cassie had been speechless when Gram tossed that tidbit into their monthly phone month. And then things got even more alarming when her roommate’s PI boyfriend gave her the shocking news.
Ninety-three. Ninety-four. Marie’s garden looked good. Corn was knee-high, right on schedule. Carrots and string beans, beefsteak tomatoes. Sean’s mother used to can enough vegetables to take the family through February, at least.
“All right, what is it?”
And here he was. An arm’s length away. Simmering with fury. Clenched jaw, flared nostrils. He was mad all right.
All her resolve, her conviction to do the right thing evaporated.
She grabbed her belongings and scooted out the opposite side of the bench.
“Hey! Wait a minute!”
Somehow, she’d propelled herself across the yard, around the detached garage and to the driveway.
And suddenly Sean Galloway’s hand was a brand on her bare upper arm.
Get a grip, Cassidy. You’re not that bookish little mouse any more. “Sorry to interrupt your party. This was a mistake.”
She took a step backwards, and he kept right up, his hot, beefy fingers firm on her skin.
“Let go of me.”
He glanced down, seemed surprised to see he was holding on to her. He released her arm with a jerk. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have—”
“—I’ll just be going,” she said over his words.
He had that confused look she remembered from high school. Narrowed eyes, squinched-together brows. It was cute, once upon a time.
Never mind. She’d just deal with everything on her own, and let the messy pieces fall where they may.
A few more rushed strides took her to the street. She knew the way to Gram’s blindfolded.