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Darby Watkins’s red curls ruffled in the wind of the open window as she drove down Main Street toward the center of town, her eyes drifting over the familiar line of historic homes and storefronts. She pulled her car into an empty spot just outside the small art gallery she’d visited occasionally during her annual summer stays with her aunt, uncle, and cousin as a kid.
Her stomach clenched as she surveyed the calm street, the nearly empty sidewalks, searching for any faces she might recognize or who might recognize her. But, truth be told, there was really only one face she was worried about.
Her fingers instinctively brushed the charm hanging from a chain around her neck—a five-sided pendant of thick, pressed silver with tip pointing downward. She undid the clasp and tucked the necklace safely away in the glovebox of her old, beat-up Buick LeSabre, just in case. It wasn’t the reason she was here, and the quicker she got what she needed and got the hell out of Dodge—or, in this case, the small Georgia town of Willow Creek—the better it would be for everyone.
A jingle of bells rang out in the cozy art gallery as the door eased to a close behind her. The light blue walls were covered in various paintings and photographs while sculptures of every shape and size filled several wall shelves and some stands strategically placed around the open floor space. On the left side by the front door was a small checkout counter, complete with register and computer monitor. Aside from the fresh paint and new shelves, the place felt very much the same as when her cousin used to drag her in here more than a decade ago.
Logan had been so disappointed when the owner of the little gallery had to leave town and ended up closing its doors. According to Darby’s cousin, the owner had returned a few years later and, with Lo’s help, reopened. Looking at it now, Darby could hardly tell it had ever been closed.
“Feel free to take a look around,” a female voice called from behind a cracked door leading to what Darby assumed was some sort of back room. “I’ll be with you in just a second.”
Darby took a turn around the room, observing the multitude of pieces scattered seemingly at random across the walls. She wished, not for the first time, that she was the type of person who could truly appreciate art, recognizing aspects like style or color or brushstrokes. But it would appear it all went just as far over her head now as when she was a kid.
“Hey,” Darby called out to the formless voice in the back room as she tried in vain to make sense of an abstract painting of colorful blobs and swirls. “Do you guys sell any statues here? I need to get a housewarming gift for my cousin.”
Something shifted around on the other side of the cracked door. “Uh, sure. We’ve got a few on display out there, and we have another coming soon from the same artist. Do you have anything particular in mind?”
“I was really hoping for a naked guy. You know, like one of those old Greek statues with the man’s junk all out there for everyone to see. I always found them a little underwhelming myself, but my cousin saw one when she was twelve and couldn’t stop giggling. It was pretty much all downhill for her from there.”
The rustling in the back room went silent, and a second later the woman emerged. She was tall, had on dark jeans and a white silk blouse. She stared with narrowed eyes for only a second before they doubled in size and her jaw fell.
She grinned. “Hey, Lo.”
Logan squealed, darting across the room to wrap her in a tight hug. “I thought you just got settled in Fort Worth. What are you doing here?” Her eyes ran over Darby’s mess of shoulder-length red hair, wrinkled tank top, and jean shorts. “You didn’t drive here straight from Texas, did you?”
Darby shook her head. “I stopped at a hotel in Jackson last night, then drove the rest of the way this morning.”
“So what brings you all the way out here then?”
“Well, I was making my way to DC and thought I’d swing through town to see you.”
Logan beamed. “I’m so glad you did. I haven’t seen you in years. Not since you came to visit me in Austin for a couple weeks my sophomore year. You were, what, seventeen then?” Lo stepped back and gave Darby another quick onceover. “You look so grown up.”
Darby wanted to point out that, at twenty-eight, Logan was only three years older than her, but she couldn’t deny that Lo seemed to have done a lot of growing up herself. The hair she’d kept short for most of her youth was now long and wavy down her back. Her face had thinned out some, a side effect Darby suspected was from shedding the last of the baby weight.
The bell at the front jingled as the door swung open, and an older woman with graying brown hair tied back in a braid and wearing an orange, floral maxi dress entered.
“Louise, do you remember my cousin Darby? She used to stay with us every summer.”
“I seem to remember you lugging this poor girl in here a couple times against her will.” She smiled at Darby as she took her place behind the small counter. “Nice to see you again.”
“So how long are you in town for?” Lo asked with continued enthusiasm. “You’ve got to stick around at least for a couple days so we can hang out. Oh, and, of course, you have to meet Maddie!”
“I wish I could, but I’ve got a place lined up in DC, and I’m supposed to meet the landlord tomorrow morning.”
“Oh no, that’s too bad. I really wanted to spend some time with you and catch up.”
“Well, we have a bit more time before I have to get back on the road.” Darby glanced at the woman behind the counter and lowered her voice. “And I was hoping you and I could talk before I head out.”
“Of course. You want to run over to the café and get some coffee?”
“God, yes.” Just the thought of caffeine was enough to ease some of the nervous tension she’d built up in her belly during the long drive. She was anxious enough being back in town and seeing her cousin for the first time in years, and that didn’t even include the real reason she’d come. “Coffee would be amazing.”
“Okay if I step out for a few minutes, Louise?”
“Of course. Take all the time you need.” She looked at Darby. “It was good to see you.”
“You, too, Ms. Snyder.”
Logan grabbed a purse from behind the counter and led the way to a cute little café just a few doors down on the main strip. They were immediately greeted by a woman, probably in her fifties, with dark skin, dark hair, and a bright white smile. Byrdie, as Darby recalled, told them to sit anywhere and, less than a minute later, was taking their drink orders.
Darby asked for a tall, black coffee, no cream or sugar, while Lo just asked for her “usual.” Darby found herself staring at the display of breads and muffins and other baked goods, her hands fidgeting in her lap as she tried to figure out how to work up to the question she’d traveled a thousand miles to ask.
“She’s amazing and easily the most gorgeous three-year-old you’ve ever seen in your life, though apparently I’m sort of biased. Here, let me show you a picture.” Lo pulled out her phone, swiped a few times, and held up a picture of a toddler with a thick head of dark hair. She was sitting in a tiny green dress on a plush, brown sofa, and even Darby could see that, aside from the dark brown eyes, this little girl was the spitting image of her mother. Next to Maddie sat a little boy with light red hair and dimples.
“Did I miss something? I thought you only had the one kid.”
Lo shook her head. “That’s Carly’s little boy, Carter. He’ll be six in August.”
“Jesus. How is that even possible?”
Byrdie dropped off their drink orders, giving Darby time to marvel at her cousin. The girl who’d once wanted nothing more than to be wild and free had settled down and gotten married. And she actually looked happy. So damn happy Darby almost couldn’t make sense of it. But then, marriage was always the one subject Darby never did understand.
“I still remember you and Carly having sleepovers and staying up late talking about boys and first kisses and how you were going to get back at Cole Tucker.”
“I know. It’s crazy. Carly and Darren actually just had their second kid a few months ago.” She swiped through her phone again before showing Darby a picture of a blonde baby girl with chubby cheeks and legs.
“She’s so cute. What’s her name?”
“Lenora Catherine Whitehead.”
Darby’s grin fell. “God, really? She sounds like an old grandma.”
Lo laughed. “I see you’re still as blunt as ever.”
She shrugged and sat back in her seat. “It’s a New York thing.” Her mother used to tell her that it was her greatest character flaw. Fortunately, her cousin was used to her lack of filter by now.
“I’m pretty sure it’s just a Darby thing.” Lo took a sip of her coffee. “It sounds old because she’s named after Carly’s great-grandmother. We all call her Nora Kate for short.”
“So DC, huh? That was fast. I thought you only just settled in Fort Worth a few weeks ago.”
“I did. It just didn’t suit me, so I decided it was time to move on.”
“That’s so cool. I remember when you used to talk about all the places you wanted to go, but to see you actually doing it…how many cities has it been now?”
“Geez. Fifteen cities in seven years. And what about a job? What have you been doing for money?”
“Anything I can find, really. Waitressing, bartending, stuff like that. I even had this wake-up call gig I did in Seattle. You learn some weird stuff calling people at four in the morning.”
“Sounds like you’ve had some crazy adventures.”
“You’re not lying there. There’ve been some rough scrapes.” Her stomach clenched, and she took a long sip from her cup, wishing they’d gone somewhere she could have ordered a coffee of the Irish variety. “Actually, that’s part of why I wanted to come by.”
Okay, this was it. What she’d come all this way for. Time for simple and straightforward.
I know I haven’t seen you in over seven years, but I need to borrow ten thousand dollars.
Maybe that was a little too straightforward.
So, Logan. You remember all those times I helped cover for you with your mom while you were off breaking the law with Cole Tucker? I’ve decided you now owe me…ten thousand dollars to be exact.
Lord, help her. There really was just no right way to do this.
“There’s something I need to ask—” The shrill ring of a phone cut her off.
Lo winced, fishing around in her bag. “Sorry. Let me just…” She pulled the phone out. “Shit. I have to go. I need to get Maddie, Carter, and Nora over to my mom’s and head to the police station.”
“Is everything okay?”
“Oh, yeah, it’s fine. I’ve been helping out during the evenings for some extra income.” She laughed. “Turns out money gets tight with a new house and a baby. Especially on an art dealer and a firefighter’s salary. Who would have guessed?”
She put her phone away and reached across the table to grab Darby’s hand. “I’m so, so sorry. I wish we had more time before you had to leave.”
Darby watched as Logan stood from her chair, something heavy settling in her stomach. She needed help, and Lo had been her only option. Now what was she supposed to do?
“Well, maybe I could stay one night. That way you and I can really catch up.” And Darby could come up with a new plan.
Lo beamed. “You mean that? You’ll stay in town a bit?”
“Sure. Why not? Maybe we could get breakfast in the morning.” One more day. She could figure out her next move and get out of town before anyone else even knew she was here. One night couldn’t hurt, right?
“That would be perfect.” Logan wrapped her arms around Darby. “You’re welcome to stay with me and Cole, but we’re keeping Carter and Nora Kate for the night. So I can’t promise you’ll get much sleep. If you want to stay somewhere quieter, my friend Harper runs the cutest bed-and-breakfast just down the road. You should check it out. Just tell her I sent you.”
Darby forced a smile on her face. “Sounds great. Thanks.”
“I’ll call you in the morning about breakfast.” She hugged Darby again before grabbing her bag and bolting out the door.
End of Excerpt