SIX

Kat lay curled on her left side, eyes open just enough to observe Riley move through the bedroom, bending and scooping up pieces of his clothing as he wentgrabbing a sock here, snatching his boxers over there, unearthing his slacks from beneath the comforter that had been thrown onto the floor at some point in the night. Kat wished she could smile as she watched him. She wanted to be filled with a sense of warm well-being. She wanted to believe that everything would work itself out, that she hadn’t just made the most ginormous mistake of her life.

Since all that was beyond her abilities, she opted to remain very still.

She didn’t want Riley to know she was awake, because he’d probably want to talk. He’d want to know how she felt and what their next step should be, questions she had no answers for. So she remained quiet and allowed herself the luxury of worry-free looking. As it turned out, watching Riley move around the room, naked and free, his fine, taut flesh on display, was nearly as pleasurable as touching him.

He’d always been put together elegantly. Tall and slim, long fingers and long legs. He moved with economical grace, never a wasted motion. She remembered watching him on the basketball court all those years ago.

This body right here in this bedroom was the same body. Taller by a few inches. Leaner. But it was the body she remembered. And the oddest thought occurred to KatRiley Bohland would be the only man she would ever see naked at sixteen and then again at thirty-seven.

She didn’t want to think of how many women had gotten a look at the goods in the years between.

Where the hell is my other sock?

Kat stifled a giggle. Riley’s brow had creased in a frown as he mumbled to himself, dragged his fingers through his short black curls, and scanned the room in vain. She watched the muscles in his butt flex and relax with each movement, and her belly grew hot. She wanted him again.

In any normal circumstance, she would be in a coma by now. But obviously, there was nothing normal about this morning. She’d come back to Persuasion. She’d found him. She’d told him about Aidan. They’d spent the last seven hours devouring each other in this monstrosity of a bed, like they’d been starving for each other.

Oh, fuck it. Riley yanked on his blue pinstripe boxers and then his chinos. He zipped the fly but left the belt buckle dangling. He pulled a white undershirt over his head, whipped a tie around his neck, and shoved his arms into the dress shirt, leaving it unbuttoned at the front. He slipped his bare feet into his loafers and stared at the single sock for a moment in puzzlement, then shoved it in his pants pocket. Next, Kat watched him clip a pager, a cell phone, and a digital organizer onto his belt. Even with all the twenty-first-century nerd accessories, Riley Bohland was too damn sexy for West Virginiaor any other state, for that matter.

Kat couldn’t help it. She let out a sigh. Immediately, she shifted in bed in the hopes that he’d think her sigh had come from the depths of sleep.

Riley stopped moving. After a moment, she felt him climb onto the bed and lower his face near hers. He put his lips to her ear and whispered, I’m on call as of three minutes ago. He kissed her cheek gently, lingering to breathe her in. The gesture felt impossibly tender to Kat, and full of affection. She was just about to throw her arms around him when he said, Gotta go. We’ll talk later.

In a flash, he’d let himself out of the suite. Kat sat up in bed, staring absently into the sitting room, wondering if all of Riley’s morning-afters were so abrupt. She yawned, reaching under her left thigh to find out what was pressed into her flesh, and her hand came up with the missing sock. She studied it dangling from her fingers, suddenly quite lonely.

Kat flopped back onto the pillow and stared at the ceiling. She might only have an associate’s degree, but she’d definitely earned her Ph.D. in life in the last twenty years, and her research results were consistentmen would abuse you, use you, suck you dry, or sell your grandmother’s jewelry on eBay, but they would never be all you needed them to be. Virgil Cavanaugh and Riley Bohland were her firstand most effectiveteachers. And she’d learned her lessons well.

Yet here she was. Age thirty-seven. Alone in a strange bed and holding one sock.

This is a disgrace. It’s after seven in the morning and he’s just now leaving? He didn’t even bother to get completely dressed! My God, Maddieyou completely screwed up.

Carrie got no response from Madeline but heard the loud clack and bustle of the B and B kitchen in the background.

Madeline? Are you there?

I’m in the middle of making a batch of cranberry-orange muffins. I’ll have to get back to you.

Carrie huffed in disbelief. Muffins? You’re worried about stupid muffins? I am telling you that my manmy /fiancй,/ Madelinejust spent the entire night in that woman’s room, and you’re fixated on a pan of muffins?

After a moment of nothing but more kitchen noise, Madeline cleared her throat. Please don’t tell me you’re still sitting out there. Did you sleep in your car? Because if you did, /that’s/ fixation.

Does it matter? I’d camp out on the polar ice cap if Riley asked me to.

Uh, Carrie? The sound of dishes knocking around in the sink nearly drowned out Madeline’s comments. I hate to point this out, but Riley is not technically your fiancй anymore. He hasn’t been for over a year. And he didn’t ask you to pull an all-nighter in your Volvo. Besides, don’t you have to be at work soon?

Carrie could not believe what she’d just heard. After all she’d done for that woman! Apparently, Madeline Bowman had gotten a little taste of sweet success and had turned huffy on her. Carrie switched the cell phone to her other ear and smirked. So how’s it working out with Matt?

What do you mean?

What I mean is, are you enjoying dating the second hottest man in all of Randolph County? And have you forgotten who got your business where it is today?

Hold on a second.

Carrie heard rustling, a door closing, and then silence. Madeline began hissing a loud whisper. God, Carrie! It’s not my place to stop Riley from doing whatever he wants to do. He’s a grown man and I’m just a B and B owner, not a prison guard!

Carrie looked heavenward, summoning patience. She was beginning to regret ever booking this ungrateful cow’s inn for the last year’s rural health luncheon.

And I know you encouraged Matt to ask me out after my divorce, but really, it’s not like you introduced usour mothers did that at the sandbox when we were toddlers!

Carrie gazed out the windshield at the row of adorable little craftsman-style houses, all built before the depression, when the coal mine was in full swing. It was admirable the way the owners had meticulously restored the homes and fixed up the yards.

Besides, Matt hasn’t asked me out in months. He’s moved on.

That’s too bad. Carrie had grown tired of this conversation. Where are you right now, Madeline?

In the pantry. The couple staying in the Silver Birch minisuite is already in the dining room, waiting like hyenas for me to finish setting up for breakfast. I didn’t want them to hear me.

I see.

Can we finish this conversation later?

Carrie’s mouth fell open at what she was seeing. Her breath began to come fast and hard. Unbelievable! The teen sleaze queen herself had just bounced out of Cherry Hill’s front doors, sporting a pair of black yoga pants, a very chic little jacket, and a postcoital grin. Oh, it was Kat Cavanaugh, all right. Carrie had seen pictures of the junior jezebel in Riley’s old photo albums. She must have stumbled into money somewhere.

Maybe she was a call girl. Carrie made a mental note to warn Riley that he was in the clutches of a professional.

Carrie?

What?

I really have to go.

Did I tell you that I’m setting up a regional health-care conference for the spring? I plan to present my study results at the new clinic’s community center.

Really?

Yes.

That’s nice, I guess. I’ll talk to you after As always, you are failing to see the bigger picture, Maddie. The conference will go an entire week. As Carrie spoke into the cell phone, she watched Kat Cavanaugh turn the corner. She was pretty. She had a nice body and a quality haircut. Carrie hated her. She wanted her dead.

A whole week?

Every room in your place will be booked every night. Carrie allowed her target to get a half a block up Main Street, then put the car in drive to follow her, making sure to pull to the curb every couple blocks to stay inconspicuous. I have guest speakers coming in from all over the East Coast. You could get some valuable exposure.

Carrie checked her watch. She would have to call Alice and let her know that she wouldn’t be in until after lunch, and that they needed to look into the possibility of throwing together some kind of small conference around the time her study results were released.

All right, Carrie. Madeline sounded defeated. What do you want?

Just the tiniest little favor. It’s so small, it’s almost nothing, really.

Kat pulled her jacket across her chest, tucking her hands beneath her arms to stay warm. Though the sun was out, she’d forgotten how chilly early autumn mornings could be up in the mountains.

She walked at a steady pace, letting her eyes take in Persuasion’s Main Street district, a place at once familiar and exotic. Most of Kat’s life had taken place in only two geographic locations: this small Appalachian town and the working-class streets of Baltimore. Her only vacations had been the annual jaunts she took with Phyllis and Aidan to the boardwalk at Ocean City and the lone lost weekend spent with Nola back in 1991 in Virginia Beach, where Nola had met the man who would become her first and shortest-lived husband.

After a quickie wedding and an even quicker divorce, Nola made this request of Kat: Promise me that no matter how ass-kickin’ hot he may be, you will never again allow me to fall for a man with a beer can collection.

Kat hugged herself, taking in the changes of her hometown. It seemed that several of the old brick storefronts had been torn down, and most everything that remained had been spruced up. The old Rialto movie theater was still in business, advertising a teen slasher flick and a romantic comedy. The five-and-dime appeared to be going strong, though it now referred to itself as a dollar store. There were coffeehouses and bookstores where there used to be pharmacies and insurance offices, a yoga and Pilates studio where there’d once been a candy store, and a bustling copy and express-shipping business in the building that used to house Millhouse Fashions. That’s where Kat stopped.

She stared into the plate-glass windows, remembering the day her mother brought her here. They’d come to buy the red wool dress coat with the black velvet Peter Pan collar that Kat would wear from third to fifth grades. She’d loved that coat, and it wasn’t due to the style, because it was insanely old-fashioned. It was what it representedone of the few days she’d ever spent alone in her mother’s company, with her full attention. On that day, Kat felt treasured, for no other reason than she was her mother’s daughter.

Kat closed her eyes to hold on to the memory. But it slipped away, immediately replaced by the dull ache of loss. Today was the first day she’d woken up knowing with certainty that she’d never see her mother again.

Kat glanced up at the sound of laughter. Three college girls were headed her way, all with long straight hair parted down the middle, heads held high, walking the walk of brazen confidence. Kat smiled at them. Good morning, she said.

Good morning!

She looked over her shoulder to watch them head into the coffee shop. In Kat’s opinion, the single redeeming feature of Persuasion had always been the campus of Mountain Laurel College, and it pleased her to see that the regular influx of young people had kept the blood pumping in this town for the twenty years she’d been away.

Kat continued on for a moment, then stopped in her tracks. In the display window of Wilson’s Gallery of Fine Art, between a hand-woven shawl and a selection of pottery, was a style of sculpture she’d recognize anywhere. A small white card propped against the figure read: /Untitled No. 236, alpha gypsum and polymers, V. L. Cavanaugh, 2007./ She leaned her forehead against the cold glass and stared. Had her mother died just before he did this? Or had he come back from visiting her in the hospital and headed right to his studio? Either way, Kat could see the pain in the sculpture of a man’s hands reaching upward and bursting into flames. As always, she wondered who would buy such a thing and place it somewhere to be admired. A Satan worshipper? Some aging hippie who remembered her dad’s place in the Andy Warhol days of the New York art scene?

Kat cupped a hand around her eyes and peered inside, seeing a dozen or more of her father’s bizarre creations displayed at various intervals through the gallery. If nothing else, it seemed her father’s career was still in full swing.

Kat shoved her hands into her pockets and continued on down the street.

She glanced to the right, down College Avenue toward the classic limestone buildings of the campus. It struck her as funny how she’d once fought so hard against her parents’ plans for her. They expected her to attend Mountain Laurel on a faculty scholarship, but she stubbornly fought to be allowed to go anywhere but the local college. She laughed to herself softlyshe’d sure won that battle, and here she was twenty years later, staring at the quaint campus with longing.

As she strolled on, Kat watched each puff of her breath mix with the cold air. She had no clear idea where she was headed or what time it was but felt the need to keep walking. She no longer felt in a rush to leave town, not after that head-spinning reunion with Riley. She’d shoved a note under Nola’s door before she left the B and B: /I went out to get some fresh air. Take all the time you need this morning. We have to talk!/ What they’d be discussing was a bit unclear to Kat at the moment, since she didn’t know exactly what had happened last night. Riley seemed pleased enough when he left, but preoccupied, maybe even unsure. Well, of course he was! How else could he possibly feel? How else could /she/ possibly feel? How else would two people feel after trying to make up for twenty years of anger, loneliness, and hurt in one night? Without words? Because there’d been very little talking going on, that was for sure. The night had been 90 percent desperate physical need and 10 percent dozing off. The whole surreal business had left her a jumble of sensations, raw and off-balance.

As Kat continued to walk, she took inventory of herself. Her spirit felt sore. Her heart was full enough to burst. And her body was a wreckinsides swollen and hot, lips puffy, right hip bruised from crashing into the nightstand at some point.

But it was her mind that had really taken a beating. It was careening all over the place. Unrealistic hope kept popping into her head, fantasies of herself and Rileyalong with Aidanpiecing together some kind of family where there’d never been one. It was a seductive vision. And impossible. Kat knew there’d be nothing left after they’d hacked their way through twenty years of bitterness. Too much to forgive. Too much to risk.

Kat extracted her Dolce amp; Gabbana sunglasses from her jacket pocket and slipped them on to shield her eyes from the morning sun. She focused on the sound of her shoes tapping against the sidewalk, letting her arms swing free at her sides. It was Kat’s policy to never put herself in a position where a man could hurt her. She’d had some good times with men, yes. But she never loved any of them, or allowed herself to believe they loved her. It was a policy that had worked for her.

Suddenly, Kat stopped, realizing where she’d walked. Her parents’ house was just a few houses down, on Forest Drive, but she would not be going there. She didn’t even turn her head to look. As if on autopilot, she continued walking, stopping only when she arrived in front of what had always been the unofficial heart of town. She stared at the hard-to-miss monstrosity of a house, its redbrick tower rising sharply into the sky, five thick columns along the front porch, the whole structure the same outrageous spectacle it had always been. As a kid she’d heard that the house was featured in most every American architecture textbook because of its unusual combination of design elements. Tourists would sometimes stop their cars across the street and stare, take pictures, or even sketch the house. All Kat knew was that for as long as she’d been alive it had been the Bohland House, her secret childhood refuge, home of Big Daddy Bohland and his boys. And at that moment she stood gawking at it, like a fool, not even sure why she was there or who lived there these days. /Aaaarrrooooogggghhh./ Kat jumped, suddenly aware she wasn’t the only one wondering what her business was at the Bohland House: A rickety old dog made its way down the porch steps and brick walkway, harrumphing halfhearted warnings along the way. Kat smiled at the creature, knowing that this couldn’t possibly be the same hound Riley had had back when they were kids, but it looked like it could be a descendant. What had they called that dog?

Waylon? Willie? All Kat could remember was that Big Daddy always named his dogs after his favorite country singers.

The dog came to a stop at Kat’s feet and sniffed, wagging its tail in what must have been the seal of approval to her visit. As Kat reached her hand down to pat the dog’s head, a shiny, black SUV whipped into the drive. It took Kat all of one second to realize it was the same vehicle that had splashed mud all over her yesterday at the construction site.

It would look ridiculous if she turned and ranlike she was doing something wrong by being on a public streetbut it couldn’t be any more embarrassing than staying put. What if Riley was a passenger in that car? Would it seem she was stalking him? Kat gulped and waited for the driver’s side door to open.

Oh my God, she whispered. It was Aidan getting out of that car. But it wasn’t Aidan. Kat blinked, trying to get her mind and eyes to cooperate.

Of course it wasn’t Aidan. So it had to be Riley’s kid brother, Matt, who must be into his thirties by now.

Kat waved awkwardly. Matt stared at her, hands in pockets, like he didn’t know whether to ignore her or say something. Kat’s heart sank.

She supposed that’s all she was to any of the Bohlandsthe girl who stole Riley’s son.

Matt lowered his gaze and shook his head slowly. When he looked up, a tentative grin appeared on his face, much to Kat’s relief. He walked toward her, the dog running up to greet him with a howl. In a moment, he was close enough that Kat could make out the image of a shield on his navy blue windbreaker, the words /Persuasion Police Department, Chief Bohland/ in yellow print below.

Kat couldn’t suppress her laugh. The hound dog chimed in so loudly that Kat had to shout over the wails. So?Mad Matt’ Bohland grew up to be one of the good guys?

He reached his hand toward hers and shook it firmly, still trying to hold back his smile. Kat. You’re back. And just for the record, I’ve always been one of the good guys.

Really? In my mind you’ll forever be a twelve-year-old pain in the ass.

He nodded, his grin expanding, then patted the dog’s head. Whisht, Loretta. Now, up! Matt snapped his fingers and the dog made her way up the brick walkway and onto the porch, plopping down at the top of the steps. Matt turned his attention back to Kat. So. You here to see Riley?

Uh… Kat knew it was a simple question. She must seem like an idiot.

But she was so nervous she could hardly speak. Not really. I mean, unless he lives here. Does he live here? Anyway, I was just going for a walk.

Matt’s eyebrow raised in question. Kinda chilly this morning.

It feels great. I needed to clear my head. Kat was struggling to sound as nonchalant as possible, but her heart was beating violently. She knew her cheeks had to be screaming red with embarrassment.

Matt stood in awkward silence for a moment. Riley came to see you last night?

The words sounded almost like an accusation, and though Matt’s face remained friendly enough, it was now a guarded kind of friendly. It occurred to Kat that Matt was protecting his big brother/from her./ He stopped by. We talked.

Matt said nothing.

We talked a lot.

Please accept my apology for the mud yesterday.

Kat laughed a little, relieved that Matt had changed the subject, even if he’d done it with no finesse whatsoever. Thanks. It did kind of ruin the moment.

He winced. I am really sorry for that, Kat. And I’m sorry about your dad, too. Matt shifted his weight, then gestured back toward the house.

Look, would you like to come in for a cup of coffee?

Oh! Well, no. But thanks. I’ve got to get back to the bed and breakfast.

Nola’s expecting me.

Matt’s gaze suddenly shifted to behind Kat, and his whole demeanor changed. His face lit up with interest. His shoulders straightened.

Nola? That’s her name?

Nola Maria D’Agostino. She’s my best friend from back in Baltimore.

You don’t say? His smile went full throttle. /Boo!/ Kat jumped, spinning around to see Nola behind her, cheeks flushed from running in the cold. She jogged in place, rolling her eyes in a not-too-subtle attempt to get Kat to introduce her.

Nola, this is Riley’s younger brother, Matt. Matt, this is Nola.

Matt extended his hand. Nola stopped jogging and extended hers for a shake, but Matt lifted it to his lips, bowed, and placed a soft kiss on her skin instead. Nola Maria D’Angelo, he crooned. We finally meet.

Nola’s eyes had gone huge. She was speechless.

Kat corrected Matt. Actually, it’s D’Agostino.

D’Angelo’s close enough, Nola said, smiling.

Matt’s cell phone began to buzz and Kat decided to take this opportunity to cut the conversation short. We should probably Wait. Matt checked the number and ignored the call. So, how long you two pretty ladies in town for?

Kat laughed, amused by Matt’s direct approach and his West Virginia accent. There’d been a time in her life when she’d never noticed that people here had one, but now it sounded almost cartoonish to her. Not sure. We’d planned to be on the road by now, but We’ve decided to stay, Nola chimed in, nodding with enthusiasm. We love it here.

Kat frowned. When did we decide that?

Right now, she said.

Matt’s phone buzzed again, and before he could delay her escape once more, Kat said, We really need to get back to the B and B. It was wonderful seeing you.

Kat turned to go, practically dragging Nola with her, and started to run. Kat was suddenly overflowing with a sense of loss. That man back there was /family/Aidan’s look-alike uncle, her son’s father’s brother, and a stranger. Hell, Aidan’s own father was a stranger to him. They were all strangers to one another!

Slow down, will ya? Nola panted, pulling on Kat’s jacket until she stopped. I only jogged that one block because I wanted the Bohunk brother to think I was athletic. I gotta walk the rest of the way.

Oh, jeesh.

He’s hot.

Kat looked at her sideways. I am almost certain he has a beer can collection.

Madeline had been dreading this sound, but there it was. The heavy oak front door had just opened and closed, and in seconds Kat Cavanaugh and her rude friend Nola Something-or-Other would be coming in here for breakfast. And Madeline would have to smile at Kat like she wasn’t getting ready to lie to her.

But truly, it wasn’t such a big lie, was it? In fact, Madeline had figured out a way to get the message to Kat without uttering a single untruth. In any case, it wasn’t like a little twisting of the facts would alter the course of the universe, right? Besides, if Kat truly wanted Riley Bohlandtruly /deserved/ himthen she would’ve found a way to show up a little sooner than she had. Twenty years? What did Kat expect?

Did she really think that a man like Riley would pine away for his high school sweetheart for a lifetime, that he’d be single and available after twenty years of neglect? Puh-leeze!

Hey, Madeline.

Good morning, Kat, she said cheerfully. To Nola she said, Hello again.

Kat and Nola were flushed as they swept into the dining room, bringing in a whiff of cold air with them. Madeline retrieved the coffeepot, rolling her eyes as she did so. Kat and Nola were runners? Of course they were. How else could Kat have kept that figure all these years?

Godshe was such a mouse back in school, totally unaware of how cute she could have been if she’d made the effort. Well, she was clearly making the effort now, and spending serious money doing it. What was it they used to say/gag me with a spoon/?

Madeline spun around, cheerful once again. I heard your father is doing well. You must be so relieved! She set two cups and saucers on the white lace tablecloth, then continued. The cleaner brought your clothes back last night as a personal favor to me, and I’ve already placed them in your room so you can pack up. She gestured toward the sideboard behind her. The eggs, sausage, and hotcakes are in the chafing dishes here, and on the table near the window you’ll find a selection of homemade muffins, homemade low-fat granola, fruit salad, yogurt, and a variety of cereals, milk, and juices.

Madeline wasn’t such a yokel that she didn’t catch the way Nola’s dark eyes had flashed when she’d mentioned taking the cleaning to Kat’s room.

She also didn’t miss the way Nola inclined her head as if to say, /Get a load of this hick,/ as Madeline took the time to courteously explain the breakfast options. And she didn’t appreciate it. Not at all. In fact, she didn’t much care for Kat’s friend Nola. She seemed a little rough around the edges. She laughed too loud, and she had the annoying habit of calling everyone hon.

Thanks for the rundown, hon, Nola said.

It all looks great, Kat added, smiling.

At that moment, the retired couple staying in the Silver Birch minisuite decided to end their feeding frenzy, and Madeline thanked them profusely.

She busied herself tidying up but couldn’t help but overhear part of the conversation between Kat and Nola, though they were whispering as quietly as their excitement would allow. She heard Kat say something about that old hen Rita Cavanaugh, the perennial principal of Underwood High School. Then, when Kat whispered something about Riley throwing her on the bed, Nola released a series of whispered exclamations that Madeline didn’t quite catch, which really hacked her off, because the conversation was obviously getting good. After a few more minutes of mostly unsuccessful eavesdropping, Madeline decided she’d just get the entire mess over with.

Excuse me, but do you have a minute?

The women stopped their conversation and Kat nodded politely. Of course.

Madeline set down the stack of dishes, pulled a chair from a nearby table, and joined them. I couldn’t help but hear you mention your aunt.

She’s still at the high school, believe it or not. She’s got to be close to seventy years old at this point.

Kat shifted uncomfortably in her chair. Thanks for letting me know.

Of course. Madeline folded her hands in her lap, summoning the courage to do what had to be done. Kat, I really don’t know how to say this, since it’s technically none of my business, and a rather delicate matter …

She could swear that Nola did that thing with her eyes again.

Kat frowned. What’s up?

Well, I suppose I should just tell you and not beat around the bush. I mean, no matter how I say this, it’s going to be uncomfortable.

It’s already plenty uncomfortable, Nola said.

Madeline managed a smile. It’s about Riley.

Kat’s spine straightened, and Madeline could immediately see the fear in her eyes. Briefly, Madeline considered that what she was doing was wrong. Maybe Kat had real feelings for Riley. Maybe there were details of this story she wasn’t privy to. Matt had never wanted to talk about any of it, after all, saying that Kat had run off and broken his brother’s heart, and it was all ancient history. But Kat was sitting there looking like she was going to faint, and Madeline hadn’t even gotten to the good part.

Did something happen to him? Just tell me. Is he all right?

Madeline was startled. The poor woman looked spooked. Oh no! He’s fine as far as I know. I just thought that you might benefit from a little background information.

Kat’s frown intensified. Madeline watched her take a breath and a small sip of her coffee before she looked back at her. I’m not all that interested in old gossip, Madeline.

I see, she snapped. Well then, I’ll just forget the whole thing.

Madeline started to stand up, but Nola’s hand smacked down on her forearm.

I’m interested in anything you got, hon, Nola said. Lay it on us.

Now it was Kat’s turn to flash her eyes at Nola.

Madeline cleared her throat. Well. I’ll start by asking you something, and it’s only because I don’t want to see you hurt.

Kat nodded. OK.

Did Riley mention to you that he was engaged to be married?

Both women stopped breathing. Madeline waited for several seconds before it became clear that no one was going to answer.

A Christmas Eve ceremony is planned. It’s very hush-hush right now, but I can tell you that there is a woman who fully expects to be Mrs. Riley Bohland in less than three months. I just thought you should know. I didn’t want you to get your hopes up.

Kat stood abruptly, her chair making a spine-tingling scrape against the wood floor. She ran out of the room and down the hallway, the sound of her thumping up the steps echoing through the downstairs.

Nola briefly glared at Madeline, then got up without a word.

A half hour later Nola and Kat checked out. Kat’s hair was still wet and her hands trembled as she signed the bill. Madeline pulled aside the curtain in the front bay window in time to see Nola flatten the sedum blossoms in her haste to back out of the parking lot.

Madeline sighed deeply and shut her eyes for a moment. She reassured herselfyet againthat not a single thing she’d told Kat Cavanaugh was a lie. Not technically, anyway. And she could be proud of that.

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