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Erin handed her sister an airline ticket, her phone charger and her suitcase.
"I've got this, Heather. Go have fun." She nodded toward the door of their jointly owned boutique, Last Chance Vintage, figuring her organized younger sister would never get under way without a hard shove and possibly a crowbar. "You've been babysitting me too long. Time to let me do my own thing."
Erin and Heather were expanding the tiny shop on Heartache's main thoroughfare, taking over an ancient cobbler's storefront to make way for the new design. They'd done a lot of the labor themselves to save money, their DIY skills reasonably strong since their father had owned a construction business and their older brother still ran the family's building-supply store. Erin had finished sanding the hardwood floors in the new space two days ago. Even now, the pungent scent of a fresh coat of stain permeated the heavy plastic divider that sectioned off the workspace behind the front counter. Heather had tried to mask the scent with lavender chips in an electric warmer, but so far, the wood stain was winning out.
"Babysitting?" Heather dropped the bright teal suitcase on the rag rug, beside a display of necklaces artfully draped on the spokes of an old bicycle wheel. "As if. Last Chance is my store, too, you know. I can't help it if I want to oversee the redesign."
The freckles across Heather's nose aligned when she scrunched her face into a mad expression, a quirky characteristic no one but a sibling would notice. Heather and Erin had looked a lot alike growing up, so the freckle pattern was familiar from Erin's own reflection in the mirror. Her hair had been as red as Heather's once upon a time, too, but Erin had been dying it different colors since she was old enough to buy Clairol at the local drugstore without Mrs. Bartlett threatening to tell her mother.
Erin was almost done with the Goth-girl black on her lopped-off curls, knowing she looked way too much like a caricature of a pissed-off woman. But the inky shade sure did suit her mood lately. The store expansion had been her brainchild, prompted by a sudden desire to wield a sledgehammer.
She put her hands on her hips. "I've got the redesign well in hand, and you know it. The expansion is no excuse for you sticking to me like glue these days." Erin kept her voice low even though there was no one else in the store, and probably wouldn't be, since closing time was five minutes away. After her mother's legendary tirades, Erin tended to keep a tight rein on how she displayed her emotions. "You have to admit you've been hanging out at my house every day after closing time. And we never talk about the store."
Erin loved her hometown for a lot of reasons. But the shoulder-to-shoulder proximity of her brother's, mother's and sister's homes was not really one of them. However, since the Finley land had been free for building and gifted in parcels to each of them, that was exactly how things had panned out. A couple of acres separated each house, and the farmland nearby was still mostly vacant.
"So sue me for preferring to share a bottle of wine." Heather rearranged the silk daisies tucked inside the bicycle basket, her hot-pink manicure showing off metallic emerald stripes. Erin had painted her sister's nails earlier in the week while sharing one of those bottles. "It's been nice having both of us in town for a change. I get tired of doing the dutiful daughter thing here by myself."
For years, they'd traded off time in Heartache to keep tabs on their mom's health. It was no different now that they owned the store. They each traveled to scout new items for the store or to sell on their website. Last Chance Vintage had cornered a niche market on antique linens and silverware, catering to numerous independent decorators who liked doing business with smaller companies. Sometimes, in their flea market scouring, they found genuinely valuable antiques, as well, and they'd been in business long enough that they knew which of their clients would love them.
Still, Erin knew she'd done the lion's share of the traveling in the past two years while Heather had been at home to weather more of their mother's crises. Heather deserved to get out of Heartache more often. She'd stifled her own dreams as a musician for the sake of a job that kept her in town.
"I'm planning to stay closer to home in the future, so I'll be here when you get back. And clearly, someone needs to do some buying if we're going to fill the new floor space." She gestured at the heavy plastic sheet hanging between the old store and the new expansion. "It's definitely your turn to rack up the frequent-flier miles."
It was stupid, but the thought of setting foot in an airport again practically made Erin hyperventilate. She hadn't left town since returning six months ago. She'd methodically cut every reminder of Patrick out of her life, from giving away the landscape painting he'd done for her to dumping every card, memento and shared concert ticket in the trash. After chucking her cell phone and changing her numberoverkill, but that was how she rolled these daysshe'd also gotten rid of her landline in the Heartache house because Patrick had that number, too. She had planned an extended hiatus from dating and men since she didn't trust her judgment anymore.
Sometimes, she woke up punching her pillow in a fury, and it had been half a year since she'd found out he was a lying cheat. If she hadn't loved himhadn't thought for sure he'd been about to propose and seen for herself how gooey and blind that had made hershe might have been able to control the anger better. But knowing she'd been played for a fool, that she'd been in love with an illusion, rocked her.
"I know." Heather sighed, removing one of the silk daisies to wrap around her wrist in an impromptu bracelet, an accessory that actually looked pretty cute with her sunshine-yellow blazer and jean capris. "But I'd gotten into a good groove with my students here and part of me worries you're only sending me out to shop because you don't want to end up on the same plane as Patrick or something weird like that."
A gifted singer and musician, Heather had never pursued her love of music other than to give lessons to locals. Erin hoped that one day her sister would make the trip north to Nashville to live out her own dreams.
"That is very weird." Although no stranger than hyperventilating near airports. "And totally untrue. Patrick's wife probably has him on a choke chain these days. For all I know, he changed jobs or moved." She shrugged, genuinely not caring about her former lover's life. She cared more about his kids, whom she'd never met. The guilt sneaked up on her at odd times.
"Okay." Biting her lip as she studied Erin, Heather turned back to the bicycle basket and plucked another daisy. "I'm going to go." She wrapped it around Erin's wrist. "And I'm not going to think about you spending 24/7 on the store expansion, which I know you're going to do without me around to force you to go home. You love that sledgehammer too much."
Erin smiled in spite of herself while Heather took a photo of their matching wrists with her phone. Her sister might be bossy, but she meant well. Heather was practical, organized and the business mind behind Last Chance Vintage. She also happened to be much better with their mothera calming presence that soothed Diana Finley's fractious nerves. Erin had always envied Heather's ease with their mom.
"Awesome." Erin gave her a quick hug. "If you leave now, you can still grab a coffee for the road. Plus, I hear there's a storm coming in tonight. It would be good to stay ahead of it."
Heather peered outside at weather that had gotten more overcast as the day had gone on.
"Right." Heather frowned, tucking her phone back in her shoulder bag. "I just worry you won't follow through on the promotions I've set up."
Erin suppressed a groan, and instead recited the mental list. "Dress sale on the first Tuesday of the month, free champagne for shoppers during Friday lunch hours and thirty percent off anything spring-related next week."
"Yes, fine." Heather nodded absently, her heavy turquoise earrings rocking against her curtain of long red curls. "But I mean the press releases about the grand reopening for the updated store and the social media presence I'm trying to maintain. I've sent out a lot of feelers to try and attract some media attention. We need to bolster that stuff to support the expansion."
Erin tried not to grind her teeth. She and her sister could not be more diametrically opposed on this issue. The last thing Erin wanted was to turn a kitschy small-town boutique into some regional shopping mecca. But retreading old ground now would not get Heather out the door.
"I will probably not do as good a job as you, but I will try." She stretched her lips into what she hoped passed for a reassuring smile.
She held her breath.
"Fair enough," Heather said finally, and surprised the hell out of Erin by picking up her suitcase. "Austin, Texas, here I come."
When Heather swished out the door, the welcome bell ringing in her absence, Erin slumped against the front counter. She was too mentally exhausted to celebrate that she'd ousted her sister before Heather's wise eyes had seen through the Goth-girl hair and the sledgehammer-wielding nights to the truth that Erin was still a broken mess and not really over a lying scumbag she should hate with a passion.
How long would it take for her brain to get the message Patrick's wife had delivered so succinctly six months ago? He was the antithesis of everything Erin hoped for in a man. But some days, it was hard to reconcile that image of him with the guy she'd fallen for, possibly because she'd never confronted him about it, had purposely avoided any interaction with him ever again. She'd never gotten to see his expression as she called him on his lies, never gotten the chance to see the charming facade fall away.
Maybe that would have helped her to hate him more.
Okay, she actually hated him quite a bit.
And that was the whole problem. She wanted desperately not to care.
Until then, she would simply keep moving forward, building her new life here and hoping that by walling out the rest of the world, she'd finally find some peace.
Remy Weldon had never seen fog like this. It had come from out of nowhere in the past two hours, causing his visibility to shrink. It looked as though someone had dumped a few metric tons of wet cotton balls along the back roads of central Tennessee. In theory, he was scouting locations for one of his shows that was floundering in ratingsInterstate Antiquer. But since he couldn't see what street he was on, he didn't hold out hope he'd see much of the shop he'd been searching for, Last Chance Vintage.
In his six years as a TV producer, he'd never had a show plummet in viewership so fast, but then, he'd never had a successful show's host walk away midseason to make a documentary on a turn-of-the-century American painter. As if that film project would lift the guy's career more than Remy's show? Either way, Remy was at his wit's end trying to patch together the rest of the contracted shows with guest hosts while doing the heavy lifting himself on everything from location scouting to script development.
Everything sucked. Much like the thick gray fog that cloaked the headlights on his crappy rental car. Much like life since his wife had died two years ago and he'd relocated from Louisiana to Miami to escape the memories. There seemed to be no end to gray fog and suck-age.
"Arriving at destination," his GPS informed him with obnoxious cheeriness, her electronic voice sounding smug at having landed him in a downpour thick with rain, fog and inky darkness.
If he was truly near Last Chance Vintageone of ten businesses he planned to scout this tripthere was no sign of it outside the car window. Then again, he could barely see the road in front of him as he braked to a stop, the headlights picking up a drain in the street where water rushed from all sides. He must be near a curb.
Shutting off the engine, Remy sat for a minute, letting the stress of the drive slide off his shoulders. He'd been away from his home in Miami for three days alreadylong enough to be apart from his adopted daughter. Liv's daughter. His first priority should beand wastaking care of Sarah until she finished high school and started college. But since her mom had died, he'd struggled with being overprotective to the point of overbearing. He was trying to return to a more regular travel schedule even though being away from his daughter made him uneasy after what had happened to his wife.
In fact, if he thought about it too longknowing full well Sarah was staying with extremely responsible friends of the familyhe stood a very real chance of a panic attack while sitting on the side of the road.
She was safe. She was safe. She was safe
The mantra didn't work as fast as Remy needed it to, memories of his wife's deathwhile home alonereturning too fast for him to block them out. Two years wasn't too long to grieve. Not when Liv's death had been Remy's fault. He hadn't been home when two drifters had shown up, targeting their home for easy-to-pawn goods and cash. They'd known about the house thanks to a shared jail cell with Sarah's biological father, Brandon, who was doing time at a medium-security facility for some kind of hacking crime. The guy had bragged that his ex-girlfriend had struck it rich when she had married, spilling details about the new house Remy had built in Lafayette, Louisiana.
The weight on his chest increased, the air in his lungs leaving in a rush of breath and fear.
Feeling along the passenger seat in the darkened car interior, he found his cell phone and punched in the speed dial code for his daughter. He'd be all right once he heard her voice. God, let her be okay
Dialing. The device showed it was dialing. And dialing.
Then the call screen disappeared and returned to his home page. Remy punched in her number again. Only to repeat the process.
How far away from civilization was he that he couldn't grab a cell signal? The delay did zero for the onslaught of panic. He snatched up his phone and keys and shoved open the car door, heading out into the rain. A stupid idea. Except he needed to get in touch with Sarah. Now.
Torrents of water streamed from the sky, soaking him instantly. The street was a rushing river, filling his shoes and plastering the hem of his pants legs to his ankles.
He was a dumbass. This fear was irrational. And so real he didn't give a shit. Maybe he'd get a better signal if he got out of the rain.
Crossing the street, he could make out the shape of buildingsred brick and clapboard side by side. A few awnings shielded him from some of the rain, but not enough that he trusted using his phone without ruining it. He cursed the rain, his luck and the growing fear in his chest. He picked up his pace and sloshed along the cobblestones, hoping to see a pay phone. Talk about an antique
What were the chances he'd find one?
A series of sharp sounds cut through the rumble of the deluge. Thwack! Thwack!