Read an Excerpt
I' ll be back in an hour. I promise. Serena Matlock remembered Cole's exact words as she stood at the front window of the Cosmic Bean and watched the silver BMW stop a block down.
It hadn't been an hour. It had been thirteen years. Thirteen years, a baby, a divorce, a college degree and a new business since Cole St. Germaine had said that to her on the night of their high-school graduation. But more than the words she remembered the heartbreak.
She watched Cole get out of his vehicle and climb the steps of the Purple Jeep Touring Company, his once boyish face now that of a mana man who still carried himself with confidence, even though in high school that confidence had stemmed from a humon-gous chip on his shoulder.
He'd filled out over the years, and his dusty-blond hair seemed even thicker than the last time she'd seen himat the jail when she'd told him goodbye. Her throat closed and she swallowed. Cole St. Germaine was back.
She shut her eyes. Damn you, Cole. Why did you screw everything up? Why did you have to come back?
Serena swung around to face her friend Natalia, who sat in one of the easy chairs a few feet from the café window. "Does he think everything will be fine? Does he think no one will remember?" An angry knot formed in Serena's stomach.
Business had slowed since the breakfast group had arrived and left, so she went back to the coffee bar to clean the copper espresso machine.
"Maybe he doesn't care what other people think."
"Well, you're probably right about that. He never cared before, so there's no reason to believe he might now."
Serena ground her teeth and polished the copper even harder. "I don't get why mybrother is so willing to bend over backward for someone who never gave a rat about him."
"I thought they were friends."
"We were all friends. But when a friend screws you over, he's not a friend anymore."
Natalia shrugged. "Apparently, you're the only one who feels that way."
"Well, friendship won't fix the leg Ryan almost lost. It won't bring his business back from bankruptcy. Some things can't be fixed."
Like the night Cole said he'd return the night she was going to tell him about the baby and he'd blown her off to party with his friends and Ginny Gentry.
Like her brother's injuries and her and Cole's baby. The baby she'd given up for adoption. Without ever telling Cole she was pregnant.
"Do you know what happened that Ryan had to file for bankruptcy?" Natalia asked.
"Only what he told me, that the business didn't bring in enough money to pay his mortgage and other bills. And if he doesn't get on the ball and start doing something, he'll be in even worse shape."
"Well, if it's any consolation, a lot of people are having that problem right now."
After pausing to get her breath, Serena said, "Yeah. That's true." Yet, Ryan's financial woes weren't burning a hole in Serena's gut. It was the fact that Ryan could simply pick up his friendship with Cole as if nothing had ever happened.
But Natalia wouldn't understand. Though Serena had told her friend almost everythingthat Cole had been the love of her life, the father of her childshe couldn't tell Natalia or anyone what it was like to lose a child. To wonder where that child was, if he was happy, healthy or if there was something she could've done differently. That burden was hers alone.
And it would stay that way.
Natalia sipped her coffee. "Maybe he's just here to visit his mom and won't be here too long."
"Any time is too long for me." What had happened that night had been a defining moment in her life. Cole's reckless behavior had changed everything. Nothing would ever be the same. Not for any of them.
She continued wiping down the sides of the espresso machine, which took up one end of the old soda-fountain counter she'd salvaged from a Flagstaff drugstore that was going out of business. Almost everything in the caféthe old ice-cream tables and chairs, the easy chairs, jukebox, the embossed-copper tiles behind the counter, the kitchen equipmenthad been salvaged from somewhere.
The bell on the door jingled and she looked up to see Ryan walk in. "Hey, ladies."
"Hey," Serena answered as he walked toward her for a hug. For twins, Ryan looked nothing like Serena. She was fair like their father, whereas Ryan resembled their mother, a dark-eyed brunette who liked to flaunt her gypsy heritage. Ryan's undisciplined nature was similar to their mother's, too, and the exact opposite of Serena's. She liked order, liked to have a plan, liked to know as much as she could whenever she had a decision to make.
"Good news," Ryan said. "I have a way to get the business out of Chapter 11."
"That is good news. I wasn't aware anything could do that."
Serena took a deep breath. Every time she saw Ryan and the scar that covered the metal plate in his head, or saw him struggle to do something with his bad leg, she was reminded that Cole had never meant what he'd told her. In fact, he'd out and out lied. But she'd been young and in love and her love had colored everything even common sense.
"I'm thinking a good advertising campaign will bring in more business. I'll need some help in that area, though, someone who has the expertise."
"And where will you get money for that?" Serena wadded the towel into a ball and chucked it into the dirty-towel bin. She walked over and stood in front of Ryan, feet apart, hands placed on the counter. "I'm tapped out. You know that."
Her brother drew back. "I'm not asking you. I have another idea."
"Geez, Ryan. Even if you could get the money, throwing good money after bad isn't the way to go. It might be better to start figuring out another occupation. Go back to school get some training."
Ryan threw his hands into the air and headed down the hall toward the bathroom. "I screwed up. I admit it. But I didn't do it on purpose, and I'm going to fix it."
He reached into his shirt pocket and immediately Serena's nerves went on alert. "Ryan?"
He turned, and when she realized he had a cell phone in his hand, she heaved a sigh of relief. No pills.
"Um nothing." She waved him off.
He began walking again. "Just forget it. Okay? Forget I even mentioned it."
Forget it. She could forget a lot of things, but her brother's welfare wasn't one of them. As twins, she and Ryan had rarely been separated. Even during the period she'd spent in Phoenix when she was pregnant, he'd come with her, had dropped out of college. Then they'd enrolled at ASU together.
After the baby, and a brief marriage that never should have been, she'd gotten her act together, and now everything was turning out just the way she wanted. She had great friends, lived in the most beautiful part of the state, her flaky parents were finally settled in Oregon and her café was holding its own.
Up till now, with the exception of Ryan's problems, everything in her life had been going smoothly. And if she had anything to do with it, it would continue that way.
"I'll be leaving now," Natalia piped up.
Oh, God. Serena had forgotten Natalia was there. "Geez, I'm sorry, Natalia. I just get so upset with Ryan"
"It's okay. I totally understand. I have a flight in a couple of hours, and I should get ready."
Natalia had moved to Spirit Creek five years earlier, not too long after Serena had moved back, and they'd quickly become good friends. As a helicopter pilot in Iraq for four years, Natalia was now using her skills as a search-and-rescue pilot. "Do you want some coffee to go?"
"No, thanks. I've had my fill. I'm outta here."
Serena watched until Natalia got into her red Mustang convertible and sped away. Hearing that Ryan had returned, she pivoted. "You make people uncomfortable when you spout off like that."
"What? You're the one who started it. Besides, it was only Natalia."
"Precisely. Friends deserve respect." Serena grabbed a dishcloth to clean off the counter. If she said anything else, she'd probably regret it.
"Look at you," Ryan said, sitting on a stool. "You're wound so tight your head's going to snap off. I know it's because Cole is back. Why don't you just chill. A long time has gone by. We're not the same people we were years ago. Cole's not the same."
She stopped and gazed at him, head cocked. "You're probably the only person in this town who believed that."
In a small town like Spirit Creek, everyone knew everyone and everything about them. Loyalties ran deep and memories stretched long. People didn't forget. It was one of the things Serena both loved and hated about her hometown. Funny how being away for five years had made her miss even the bad parts. "I noticed the sheriff giving Cole a ticket this morning. I bet he hasn't forgotten anything."
"My guess is that the sheriff is just doing his job.
Cole has to remember he's not driving in Chicago anymore."
"So, you're defending him now?"
"I'm not defending anyone," Ryan said. "What I'm doing is trying to get a cup of plain black coffee. Not that double-, triple-, super-espresso, mocha-latte-flatte crap I can't even pronounce and that you charge an arm and a leg for."
Serena stifled a laugh. Her brother had a way of talking her down. She sighed, got him a cup and went to sit on the stool next to him. "You're right. I need to chill."
Ryan smiled, dimples showing. Despite the scar running down his temple, he was a good-looking guy. And she loved him dearly, no matter how frustrated he could make her at times. He knew her better than anyone, and sometimes he knew what was going on in her head even before she did. Like the baby. He'd known she was pregnant, even though she'd taken great pains not to tell anyone. The connection between her and her twin was almost eerie.
"You should talk to him," Ryan said out of the blue. "I'm sure he'd like to talk to you."
On that note, she zipped her lips, got up and went to the storage room, where she took out the salt and pepper to fill the containers on each of the tables. But she couldn't keep that fateful night from replaying in her head. Couldn't keep from wondering what she might have done differently. As always, she arrived at the same conclusion. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
From what Ryan had told her after the accident, he and his girlfriend, Celine, had gotten in the car to talk Cole out of driving. That night Cole had done exactly what he'd told Serena he wouldn't do. Instead of making an appearance at his friend's party and then coming back for their own private celebration, he'd stayed, started drinking and ended up with another girl, drunk and almost dead after missing a turn and crashing into a tree.
For the longest time, she wasn't sure what hurt most. The lies or the betrayal. She was sure that the night was branded in her memory. She'd never forget how Cole had hurt her how he'd hurt so many people. She'd never forget that he'd ruined their future. She couldn't understand why Ryan didn't feel the same. Celine had been his girlfriend. Cole had ruined their future, too.
That Ryan thought she'd ever want to talk to Cole again was almost laughable.
She wasn't in the market for more hurt. Not for anyone.
"Okay, if I'm going to get the silent treatment, I'm leaving," Ryan called out. "I've got to make some arrangements for the advertising I told you about."
Serena poked her head out from the storage room. "And how will you manage that?"
Ryan's brow furrowed. "The only way I can." He waited a moment, shifted from one foot to another. "Cole's going to do it. He has advertising experience."
His words hit her like a blow to the stomach with a baseball bat. Suddenly unable to breathe, she reached for the back of a chair to steady herself.
"I don't have any other choice, Serena. I have to do this."
Cole St. Germaine had two choices. Confront the problem or ignore it.
He glanced once more down the street to the Cosmic Bean coffee shop, where Serena was carrying boxes from her van into the café.
He couldn't see her facecouldn't see her big brown eyesbut the early-morning sun glinted off her strawberry-blond curls, just as it had when she was seventeen.
He'd spotted her twice in the four weeks he'd been back in Spirit Creek, but she'd always turned the other wayas if she couldn't even bring herself to acknowledge him. And every time, he'd been filled with regret and longing.
She hated himfor good reason.
Cole shook off the feeling. His reasons for returning to the small town didn't include mooning over a lost love. He shut the car door and then strode toward the Purple Jeep Touring Company to greet Ryan, Serena's brother.
When Cole's mother had phoned and said she was about to lose her house, Cole had been too shocked to speak. Once he'd found his voice and asked why, she wouldn't say. But Cole knew it had to do with himand the accident that haunted him even now, thirteen years later. She felt guilty over what her son had done.
Drunk driving. Manslaughter. Jail. That was Cole's legacy in Spirit Creek. And nothingnot his time in jail, not his regret or remorsecould compensate for the sorrow he'd caused so many people. If he hadn't been seventeen at the time, he would've spent longer than a year in jail.
Ryan nodded toward Serena's café. "She'll thaw out sooner or later."
Cole settled one foot on the bottom step of Ryan's store, turned and looked again. "Doesn't matter. I'll be leaving as soon we get this business back in the black."
Ryan frowned, then went inside. Cole followed. Apparently, his old friend didn't like being reminded why Cole was there. Growing up, he and Ryan had been as close as brothers, and Cole's mother had taken Ryan under her wing like a second son. Ryan's own mother had been absent most of the time, and he'd reveled in the love and attention Cole's mom bestowed on him.
"Business should pick up now that the weather is cooling down," Ryan said as he went around the rustic wood desk and opened the blinds. "Then everything will be fine." He cleared his throat. "And you can go back to your other life."
Ignoring the edge in Ryan's tone, Cole said, "I hope. Filing for Chapter 11 buys time to reorganize the business, but it's time we have to use wisely."
Ryan stopped in place and ran a hand through his hair. "Yeah, I know." He let out a long sigh. "I'm really sorry, Cole. Your mom insisted on helping me, and I never in a million years expected the business to tank."