TICKET TO RIDE
The best thing to welcome Claire to Twin Elks stood on the porch of Winters House with his back to her. And, damn, what a back it was.
Claire took her shades off to get a better look. She had definitely not seen him around before.
In a mesmerizing stretching and bunching of muscle beneath his white T-shirt, he was hammering something above his head. Denim lovingly cupped an ass that deserved to be carved in marble.
The view was almost worth the trip to a miserable little town full of people who wouldn’t spit on her if she was on fire.
Almost, but not quite.
The knot of apprehension riding her belly the entire two-hour drive from Denver expanded. Looking at the imposing Queen Ann mansion made her feel three years old and clinging to her mother’s hand again. The overgrown garden had been tamed since Claire’s last visit, and the exterior boards given a fresh whitewash. The house’s trim and scrollwork had been painted forest green.
Porch hottie dropped his arms and tucked the hammer into his utility belt.
She couldn’t sit in her car all day. She wasn’t that frightened child anymore but a grown woman. A woman with needs. No, not those sort of needs—okay those as well—but other, more immediate needs like making sure she could eat. She would get out and begin her fight for those needs. In a minute or two.
Short dark hair poked out beneath porch hottie’s black ball cap and clung to the sides of his sun-bronzed neck. She got stuck on his wide shoulders as she wrestled with her nerves.
A quick makeup check in the visor mirror confirmed that her war paint was still in place, but she did touch up her lipstick. Take-no-prisoners scarlet gave her a courage boost. A woman with bright red lips was not a woman to be trifled with. Her black pencil skirt and white blouse were a statement, her battle armor.
She was Claire Mathews, and she was there to save her inheritance. After all her pain and suffering, that inheritance was hers. She’d earned it.
Porch hottie turned, pushed back his ball cap and stared at her car. He sauntered down the walkway toward her car like he needed to slap a pair of six-shooters on those slim male hips.
With a last fortifying breath, she opened her car door and swung her legs out. Her favorite pair of sky-high heels hit the sidewalk with a satisfying click, and she straightened to her full five foot nine and squared her shoulders. Propping one hand on her hip, she gave the car door a nonchalant flip closed. “Good morning.”
That was a good start. Her voice had sounded calm and firm.
Stopping, he made no secret of the slow journey his gaze took from her black stilettos, over her hip-hugging skirt, up her tailored blouse, and stopped at her mouth. He grinned and said in a deep voice with a light rasp, “And hello to you.”
Claire lifted her chin and stamped on her urge to fidget. Even in that God forsaken town she would have expected a bit more subtlety. If he thought that caveman bullshit would discomfort her, he hadn’t met Claire Mathews yet.
Which he hadn’t, because she’d never seen him before. So, it stood to reason that he hadn’t met her either.
Dear God, she wanted to leap back into her car and run away.
She caught herself midturn and forced herself back around. “Do you mind?”
“Not at all.” He didn’t look the least abashed. “We don’t get a lot of women like you around here.”
“Shocker!” She loaded as much derision as she could into one word. Praying she didn’t hit a pothole, she strode forward. “I’m here to see Horace. Is he here?”
“Horace?” He blinked at her.
“Yes, Horace Winters.” Claire spoke clearly and carefully. “The man who owns this house.”
“Well…” The confusion lifted from his face and he snapped his fingers. “Of course, you are.”
Claire needed to save her dwindling store of ballsiness for the real battle, for when she saw her father. She strode forward. “Indeed.”
He stood in the middle of the path and impeded her progress. “He’s probably expecting you. All things considered.”
“What?” That threw her off balance. Horace forewarned would be Horace forearmed. And what did “all things considered” mean? She reined herself in and gave him a haughty stare. “You’re in my way.”
“Sorry about that.” He grinned down at her, easily topping her by a couple of inches, even with her heels, and held out his hand. “I’m Finn.”
Before she could stop herself, she put her hand in his. His warm, work-roughened clasp sent tingles up her arm. To hide her reaction, she added more frost to her tone. “And you’re still in my way.”
“I know.” He kept hold of her hand. “I’m hoping to keep you here long enough to get you to talk to me.”
“Subtle.” She had to fight to hide her smile. Finn had cobalt blue eyes brim full of laughter and charm.
“Normally I am, but the shoes threw me off my game.” He leaned in, smelling of sun and warm skin. “I’ve got a weakness for shoes like that.”
“Those same shoes really need to get past you.” Gah!Now he had her playing along. Most men would be giving her a creeper vibe by now, but somehow Finn got away with it. And he was distracting her when she really needed to keep it together. She went to sidestep him, but her heel sunk into the grass to the side of the path, and she stumbled.
His tanned hand shot out and cupped her elbow. “Watch yourself.”
“I’m fine.” Claire snatched her arm away and straightened her skirt. A clump of soil stuck to the end of her stiletto.
He cocked his head at her shoe. “Want me to get that for you?”
“That’s quite all right.” Claire snatched at the crumbling edges of her dignity.
He kept his face straight, but his eyes twinkled. “I’d be more than happy to sort you out.”
“Really?” Somebody needed to put him in his place. It might not be her if he kept looking at her like she was a bowl of ice cream, and he had a craving. “Does this approach work for you?”
“I’m not sure.” He raised an inky brow. “How am I doing so far?”
“Damn.” He shook his head. “And here I thought I had you at hello.”
She tried to stifle her laugh, but he caught it anyway and grinned.
“That’s better,” he said and stood to the side. “I’m sure watching those heels go will be as good as watching them come.”
Claire almost stumbled. “You can’t say things like that.”
“Yeah, I know.” He winked. “But I got you to smile, damn near got a laugh out of you, and that’s better than you marching in here like Mike Tyson entering Maddison Square Gardens.”
Whatever that meant. She hurried away from him before she made more of a fool of herself.
“Hey, Claire,” he called after her.
Son of a bitch! He’d known who she was. Claire turned and gave it to him with a double-barrel glare.
He settled his cap back on his head. “Welcome home.”
“This is not my home.” No way would she ever consider Winters House her home.
“Damn straight it isn’t.” Her father, dressed in crappy trousers and a drab shirt, stood on the porch. Hair sticking out all over his head, he looked certifiable. And wore that charming combination of anger and bitterness on his face that Claire was sure he reserved for her. “What do you want?”
Claire forced a big smile. “Well hello, Horace.” She threw her arms wide. “Surprise!”
Finn really liked the way Claire’s ass twitched in that tight skirt as she sashayed into the house. He was less admiring of how tightly the woman was wound. She’d climbed out of her car vibrating tension.
Horace scowled at him. “Are you staring at my daughter’s ass?”
“I’m not dead yet, Horace.” Finn took a stroll over to the car she’d arrived in.
As entrances went, Claire’s had been a good one. Very film noir. He got the feeling she’d planned it that way.
Claire’s packaging said ball breaker, but her big green eyes screamed lost and out of her depth. It’s why he’d flirted so outrageously with her. Well, that and the fact that she’d thrown him for a loop with how gorgeous she was. He had wanted to see the woman under the permafrost.
And he’d glimpsed enough to know he definitely wanted to see more.
He popped the trunk and pulled out her baggage. Matching, of course, and high quality but not quite LV. Also, there was a lot of it. He grabbed the two large suitcases, along with a smaller one and an overnight bag, and climbed the stairs to where Horace stood. “Looks like she’s staying a while.”
“Huh.” Horace ran a hand through his hair and gave it the Bart Simpson coif. Finn caught the brief flare of hope in Horace’s eyes. Like father, like daughter, all tough and crusty on the outside, but Horace hid a tried and true heart of gold. “She didn’t tell me she was coming.”
“Does she ever?” The bags were heavy, and Finn moved around Horace into the house.
Horace limped after him. “Nope, but she only ever comes for a day or two. Stays at Pattersons hotel so I don’t know why you’re playing bellhop.”
Claire’s heels clacked on the stairs as she climbed. She had killer legs and a fantastic heart-shaped ass that a man would have to be dead not to want to sink his teeth into. Saying so would probably earn him a slap from Claire, and Horace was handy with his cane.
Dragging his bum leg behind him, Horace trailed him up the grand walnut staircase. Stubborn old coot needed to get that hip fixed and fast. Living with pain was bullshit, but Horace was like the frog in boiling water, he’d gotten used to the pain.
Stained glass on either side of the landing threw jeweled patterns across the wood floors. It was pretty as hell and a romantic gesture from a man to his young bride. The first Horace had built the old mansion for his English bride.
Claire appeared in the doorway of Finn’s bedroom. Under different circumstances, he’d be happy to see her there.
Her gaze snapped to her luggage and took a detour via his biceps. Then she looked away, blushing. “What are you doing?”
“I thought I might try my hand at stealing your bags.” He gave her his most infuriating grin. Since Horace had appeared, she had all her walls back up. “I thought I’d show them to you first, so you could pick out the good stuff for me.”
This time he didn’t get a flicker of a smile. Instead, she leaned on the doorjamb and dangled one of his T-shirts from her forefinger. “Is this yours?”
“Yup.” He put the bags down and flexed blood back into his fingers. He glanced at Horace. “Unless you’ve taken a liking to Nirvana.”
“I’m a Christian.” Horace had his miserable bastard face on, but the yearning gaze pinned on his only child made a liar out of him.
You could stir the atmosphere in the hallway with a paddle. Finn’s fight reflex kicked in and he breathed deep to dispel it. Tension was a normal part of life. It didn’t always mean danger.
Claire dropped his T-shirt on the floor and nudged it with her come-fuck-me shoes. “It’s in my room, and I’m going to need you to move it.” She waggled her fingers at the room’s interior. “Along with the rest of your stuff.”
“Yeah.” Not going to happen. Finn picked up the bags and moved to the room opposite his. Four rooms on the second floor occupied opposite corners of the hallway with bathrooms sandwiched between. “How about we put you in here?”
“You’re using my mother’s room.” Heels clopping across the wood, she followed him.
Finn winced for the wood under the pressure of those stiletto points. “As she hasn’t used it in…” He glanced at Horace. “How many years?”
“Thirty.” Horace smirked.
“Yup, thirty.” Finn nudged the door open with his toe. “I figured it was up for grabs.”
“You figured wrong.” She got in front of him and stood with her arms wide. “Like a lot of people figured wrong about me and this house. I’m here to set them straight.”
He guessed that last bit was aimed at Horace. Poppy had told him how Claire had arrived before, breathing fire and righteous indignation about her inheritance. The same inheritance Horace had tried to give to Poppy.
Damn, things could get ugly. Adrenaline prickled beneath his skin.
“I should have known that’s why you’re here.” Horace sneered. “Scared you’re not going to get everything?”
“I’m not going to let you give it away to a stranger.” Claire squared her shoulders and stuck her chin out.
Adopting a mirror pose, Horace glared back. “Don’t see as how you can stop me. I’m not dead yet.”
“Maybe I can’t stop you, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to make it easy for you either.”
Claire was all ready to do battle with Poppy. Finn’s former sister-in-law was as honest as they came with a heart of caramel covered marshmallow, and she would be the first one to point out the house belonged to Claire and not her. She’d already done so.
Interesting days ahead.
Finn motioned the bags and looked at Claire. “Until you two get this straightened out, where should I put these?”
The struggle played across her face, but eventually she decided she had bigger fish to fry. “This is the smallest room up here.”
“Not by much.” He knew because he’d measured every inch of them as he helped Hank Styles restore the glorious old Victorian grand dame to her former beauty. Under Poppy’s influence, Horace had finally consented to spend money on the house. It wasn’t like he couldn’t afford to either. Rumor had it, Horace was loaded. Rumor also had it that was the only reason Claire ever came here.
“It’s also the only one free right now.” He jerked his head. “Ryan, my nephew, is right next door, and he’s convinced his room is part of Professor Xavier’s mansion, so good luck getting him out of there.”
Placing her bags next to the massive oak wardrobe, Finn ran his hands over the piece. Beautiful wood grain shone beneath the gentle patina of polish. Built solid and to last forever, she was a thing of beauty.
From the door, Claire watched him, and uncertainty flickered over her face. “What about the master?”
“Ben and Poppy are in there.” Horace limped into the room. “The couple needs the biggest room.” He stomped out again. “They’re welcome to stay anywhere they like in my house.”
And only Finn saw the raw hurt on her face, and only in the second it took her to disguise it and sneer at Horace.
Before he and Claire went any further though, Finn needed to set the record straight.
“Just so you know, I’m Poppy’s brother-in-law. Poppy used to be married to my brother, Sean.” Finn hoped she wouldn’t hold that too much against him.
“Great.” She smiled, but it looked forced, and her eyes told him an entirely different story. “Go Team Poppy.”
As Claire’s evil nemesis, Poppy Williams was a severe disappointment.
Poppy stepped into the kitchen laughing at something one of the four children behind her had said. She caught sight of Claire, and her smile dropped. “Hello, Claire.”
Below average height and fragile looking, Poppy had a sweet face beneath a cloud of dark, wavy hair. Dressed in jeans and a pale pink sweater, she would never have gotten the part of grasping gold digger.
She also looked like the sort of woman Claire would have liked to befriend.
Claire clung to her purpose. Poppy was a threat, and she needed to be neutralized. “Poppy.”
Poppy’s stamp was all over the kitchen, children’s paintings pinned to the fridge, fresh herbs on the windowsill, a jug of wildflowers in the center of the scrubbed kitchen table.
Claire had come to make a cup of tea, and now she felt like she was the interloper, which was crazy, because Winters House belonged to her. Poppy wasn’t even from Twin Elks. She’d only appeared a couple of months earlier. Claire gave Poppy props for having made good use of the time to get cozy with Horace so quickly.
Claire filled the kettle and put it on the range to boil. Good manners made her ask. “Would you like a cup of tea?”
“No, thank you. I was about to get the children some lunch.” Poppy helped her oldest son hang his backpack on the pegs beside the backdoor. “You look well.”
“Thank you.” Children needed to eat, and none of it was their fault. “I can get out of your way.” And then she wanted to kick herself because the only person she was ousting was herself.
“No, that’s fine.” Poppy supervised her twin daughters hanging their bright yellow coats.
The twins took their shoes off and stared at Claire. Identical twins, they both had their mother’s dark hair and eyes, and delicate bone structure.
The silence made Claire want to fidget, and she caught herself picking her nail polish. Also red, to match her kickass lipstick. “You look well too.”
Poppy managed a tight smile. “Thanks.”
Poppy looked much better than when Claire had first seen her a few months back. The stress lines around Poppy’s mouth had eased, and she carried a lightness around with her that hadn’t been there before.
The twin wearing an adorable checked dress stared at her. “Who are you?”
“Brinn.” Poppy shot her daughter a look. “If you’d like to know someone’s name, you introduce yourself first.”
Brinn looked momentarily abashed but recovered her grin and bounced up to Claire. “Hi, I’m Brinn.” Thumb jerk at her sister. “This is my sister Ciara. We’re twins.”
“So, I see.” Claire grew dizzy watching Brinn hop from foot to foot. “I’m Claire, and I can hardly tell you apart.”
“A lot of people have that problem.” Brinn pointed at her feet. “I like your shoes.”
Brinn’s ponytails bounced around her head as she hopped.
“Thank you.” You had to like a kid who had great taste in footwear. Speaking of which, Brinn’s socks had big smiley bees and flowers on them. “I like your socks.”
“Ciara has dragonflies on hers.” Brinn pointed at her sister’s feet.
A still counterpoint beside Brinn, Ciara had joined them and watched Claire with wise eyes that seemed to see too much. “I like them because they’re blue,” Ciara said.
“I like blue.” The oldest boy joined his sisters. His features resembled Finn’s, so he probably took after his father more, but with Poppy’s dark eyes. “Are you Horace’s daughter?”
A toddler lurched toward her and fastened sticky, chubby arms around her knees. She winced for her linen skirt.
The toddler looked up at her and raised his arms. “Up!”
Claire barely suppressed a shudder as she took in the sticky, filthy hands and the green and pink smears all over his baby cheeks. But he looked so earnest she bent anyway.
“Whoa! A Sean frosting alert.” Finn swept into the kitchen and scooped up the toddler. He grinned at her over the little boy’s head. “I’m already hot and sweaty.”
Sean shrieked and giggled and grabbed fistfuls of Finn’s dark hair.
For a moment, Claire envied those chubby fists their grip on that shiny dark hair. Which was the weirdest thought she could have had. It must be the stress of the situation.
“Uncle Finn!” The other three set up a clamor for his attention.
Nobody Claire knew had children. Surely that level of noise couldn’t be normal? She barely contained her wince at the ear-splitting pitch.
It didn’t appear to bother Finn at all as he simultaneously stopped Sean from scalping him, listened to a football story from Ryan and expressed the appropriate admiration to Brinn for someone called Maddy’s new hair ribbons.
Poppy smiled at Finn and her children as she tidied up bags and shoes. She ducked past Claire on her way to the fridge. “Excuse me.”
Trying to evade her, Claire nearly stepped on Ciara. “Oh!” The idea of her heels connecting with Ciara’s feet made her wince. “I’m so sorry.”
“That’s okay.” Ciara smiled at her.
Next time she might not be so lucky, so Claire retreated to the far counter.
Poppy had a loaf of what looked like homemade bread on the counter and was slicing it. “Brinn can you tell Horace that lunch is nearly ready?”
Brinn hopped on one leg out the door and yelled, “Horace! Mom says lunch is ready.”
Poppy’s gaze connected with hers. Understanding flared between them, and Poppy gave her a tiny smile and an eyeroll. “I meant you should go and find him and tell him lunch is ready,” she said to Brinn, who swapped legs and hopped to the kitchen table.
“I don’t like ham.” Ryan hung off the end of the counter edge where Poppy was working.
“Yes, you do.” Poppy put ham on the bread slices. “And please stop doing that.”
The mound of sandwiches in front of Poppy grew. She was now cutting vegetables and arranging them on a platter. “Ciara, please set the table. Ryan, get water glasses. Brinn, get everyone a plate.”
“And one for Claire?” Brinn hopped over to the welsh dresser.
Poppy looked at her questioningly. “I’ve made plenty. You’re welcome to.”
“No. No, thank you.” Those sandwiches looked delicious, pillowy and fresh and packed with ham. But she couldn’t break bread with the enemy. Eating Poppy’s food and then kicking her and her kids out was below even her.
Although she couldn’t kick them out just like that. The kids needed a place to stay. She hadn’t been thinking about them when she came here.
“You sure about that?” Finn kissed Poppy’s cheek. “Poppy’s bread is the closest thing to heaven you’ll taste this year.”
Finn’s blue eyes heated Claire’s skin, and she looked away to hide her reaction. “I’m sure. I had something on the drive here.”
“You’re missing out.” Finn draped an arm over Poppy’s shoulder. “When are you gonna dump that cop and marry me?”
Poppy laughed and shoved him away. A look passed between them that spoke of a private joke. “When hell freezes over.”
“Just thought I’d ask.” Finn stepped back and spread his arms wide. He’d put another T-shirt on, the Nirvana one she’d kicked across the hall, and the logo stretched over his chest.
Claire dragged her eyes away.
Horace walked into the kitchen, leaning heavily on a wooden cane. “What’s all this noise about?”
Immediately Claire wanted to jump in and defend the children.
“Horace!” The twins ran up to him, and Ciara took his hand.
Brinn got in front of him and walked backwards. “Maddy’s got new hair ribbons.”
“Is that so?” Horace touched Ciara’s cheek. “You okay, Mouse?”
Ciara beamed up at him and nodded.
“Yup.” Brinn nodded and sent her pig tails flying again. “They’re green and blue with swirly things on, and they stick up on either side of her head.”
Claire knew she was staring, but she couldn’t stop. She’d never seen Horace interact with children. He looked like he was comfortable doing it, and even more surprising was that the children looked like they were fond of him.
“Hey, Horace, guess what?” Ryan waited for Horace to sit and then stood beside him. “I played football at recess today.” He leaned closer to Horace with wide eyes. “With the older boys and they let me play.”
“Of course, they let you play.” Horace nodded at him. “You’ve got a great arm. I bet your arm is even better than theirs.”
“It is.” Ryan climbed on the chair beside Horace’s. “I’m a phenom. Uncle Finn says so. Ben says I should try out for the team.”
Ben Crowe, the local police chief and former husband of the closest thing Claire had to friend in that town, Tara.
“Then that’s what you should do.” Horace caught sight of her and frowned. He turned away again.
It didn’t hurt. It didn’t. Only it did, and it shouldn’t.
“Everybody sit down. On your own chair.” Poppy carried the platter of sandwiches and the vegetables to the table and set them down. Before she sat, she glanced at Claire. “You really are welcome to join us.”
To hear Tara tell it, Poppy had lured Ben into her trap, coming across all sweet faced and helpless and then working her way beneath his defenses. Tara hadn’t told her that she could add Finn and Horace to the list of Poppy’s conquests. Not in a romantic way, but it was clear that both Finn and Horace thought the world of her.
Finn poured three glasses of milk and a sippy cup for Sean. He then popped the cap on a beer and gave it to Horace.
“Claire?” He held a beer up to her.
Not if she wanted to stay in her skirt. “No thanks.”
“Iced tea?” He peered in the fridge. “Apple juice? Milk?”
“Um…water.” The rest of the kitchen watched her with interest. “San Pellegrino?”
Claire wanted to kick herself. Of course, Twin Elks didn’t have San Pellegrino, and she’d made herself look like a snob. Not that she cared what they thought of her, but she wasn’t a snob.
“What’s that?’ Ryan sprayed sandwich over his sisters.
Brinn gave him a shove. “Eww, Ryan! Mom, tell Ryan not to speak with his mouth full.”
“You just did.” Poppy mopped up the damage without so much as a flinch. “And Ryan knows better, because if he doesn’t, he will not be able to eat at the table with the rest of us.”
Not at all bothered, Ryan chewed with his mouth shut.
Finn appeared in front of her with a glass of water. “All out of San Pellegrino I’m afraid.” He raised a brow. “Also out of Perrier, Voss and Evian.”
She wanted to crawl away somewhere and hide.
“Tap water’s fine for everyone else,” Horace said. “Otherwise talk to Bart Grover he can get those fancy waters for you.”
Bart Grover would rather tar and feather her and run her out of town. Claire took the glass and dried her hands with a nearby towel. Next, she dried the sides of the glass. “Tap is fine.”
“There ya go.” Finn toasted her with his beer and took his place at the table.
Now she regretted not taking the beer.
The family tucked into their lunch, talking to each other. Nobody paid any attention to her, and the familiarity tasted sour in her mouth.
Elementary school lunches all on her own. Claire Mathews with her perfect dresses and neat braids, too scared to get her shoes scuffed or her dresses ripped. Mommy would be so angry if she did. She would look so disappointed and talk and talk about how Claire should know better, and how being a lady was not something you picked and chose.
The feeling of being invisible drove her out of the kitchen, and she took her water to the front porch. New, unpainted wood contrasted with older wood along the porch railings. The intricate scrollwork was also in the process of repair. That must have been what Finn had been working on when she arrived.
A porch swing invited her to take a seat in the shade, and Claire took the invitation. Her flight to Denver had come in late, and she’d been up early that morning to make the drive.
Fall had turned the foliage around her, but the grass still maintained its green. In the old rose garden, the overgrown rosebushes had all been trimmed down in preparation for winter. The sundial in the center had been straightened.
With a push of her foot, Claire got the seat moving. A flicker of motion in the rose garden made her look over again.
She must have imagined it, or perhaps it had been a bird. Birds were currently arguing over a bird feeder hung from the opposite end of the porch.
Though she hated the house and everything it represented, she still felt peaceful sitting out there watching the quiet street in front of it. She closed her eyes and breathed the fresh air deep into her lungs. When had she last sat so still?
“There you are.” Finn propped a shoulder against the door jamb. “Kids a bit much for you?”
Claire dodged the question. “I’m not around many children back home.”
“And where is that.” He sipped his beer. “Boston?”
“I’ll go back to Boston when I’m done here.”
His blue gaze narrowed on her.
Her evasions hadn’t gone unnoticed, but she wasn’t here to share her life story. “Once I sort this situation out.”
“Situation?” Finn straightened and strolled over to the banister. He tested one of the new spindles. “You mean this house being yours?”
Claire appreciated his candor, but something about his manner put her hackles up. “This house is mine.” Everybody in town judged her anyway. What did one more matter? Still she avoided his gaze. She didn’t need to see disapproval written all over his handsome face.
Finn propped his hips on the balustrade. “I’m sure Horace would disagree with you there. This house is still his.”
“Horace makes it a point to disagree about whatever he can with me.” Claire tamped down on the anger. Her mother had been trapped in an abusive marriage in that awful house, and Claire wanted to raze it and destroy those memories for her. “And you don’t know anything about me or why I do what I do, so don’t think that you do.”
“Fair enough.” He kept his face blank. “Then give me a chance to know you and make up my own mind.”
She almost laughed in his face. “Why would I do that? Twin Elks made up its mind about me years ago. I don’t care enough what they, or you, think of me to bother.”
“I reckon that’s part of your problem,” Finn said.
The nerve of this guy.“I wasn’t aware I had a problem.”
“Really?” Finn looked at her as if he couldn’t quite believe that. “You don’t see that you’re a little…” He waggled his hand.
“What?” Damn the defensiveness in her voice. “I’m a little what?”
“Highly strung.” He grinned at her.
Too shocked to produce a comeback, Claire glared at him. He didn’t even know her. Certainly not enough to make assumptions about her. That Greg had said much the same thing before she left didn’t help. Right before he’d proposed they take a break. “You don’t even know me.”
“I don’t have to know you that well to notice that about you.” He raised a brow in silent challenge.
She’d accepted the criticism from Greg. He was her boyfriend, or something like that. They hadn’t left things on clear terms. But Finn, who had only met her today, had no right. No right at all. “You know nothing about me.”
“But I’d like to,” he said.
As if she would believe that after he’d called her highly strung. “All you need to know is that I’m planning to get back what is mine, and I won’t let anybody stand in my way.”
He cocked his head and studied her.
Resisting the urge to fidget, Claire held his gaze. Those eyes looked like they saw way too much.
He set his beer on the floor. “Can I give you some advice?”
“No, you can’t.”
“Before you come in here guns blazing, take a moment.” He shrugged as if he didn’t care if she wanted to hear it or not. “Poppy is not who you think she is. Take some time and get to know her before you climb into the ring with her.”
“Poppy will be fine. If she doesn’t get in my way.” Claire kept her tough-girl face in place. She’d perfected it over years, and she could rely on it. Nobody saw beyond the mask to the girl beneath, and Claire liked it that way. “You have no idea what this house cost me and my mother. I’m not going to stand aside and let it be taken away from me.”
“I hear you.” Finn picked up his bottle and straightened. “But I still think you’re going about this the wrong way.”
“Yeah?” She raised a brow at him and kept her expression stony and blank. “Only problem is, I really don’t care what you think.”
Finn chuckled and strolled off the porch.
Why had he thought to come out there in the first place? God that man had gotten under her skin, which she really shouldn’t have allowed because he meant nothing to her. That was the only reason she wasn’t going to chase after him and demand he stop laughing at her.
Ciara stepped on to the porch and gave her a shy smile.
Claire nodded a greeting.
Clambering onto the porch swing beside her, Ciara peered up at Claire. “I’m Ciara.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“People sometimes mistake me for my sister.” Ciara heaved a huge sigh. “It’s because I’m the quieter twin. People remember Brinn, but me…” She shrugged. “I don’t mind.”
“Nope.” She shook her head snaking her long, dark braid down her spine. “While Brinn is talking, talking, talking, I’m doing the watching.”
The wisdom of that staggered Claire. “I was quiet too.”
“Did you also watch?” Ciara cocked her head.
Had she? “No.” Claire recalled herself at Ciara’s age. “I think most of the time, I didn’t want people to see me.”
“Hmm.” Ciara gave a Yoda-like nod.
Claire had to ask. “What?”
“I understand now.” Her dark eyes brimmed with empathy. “Cecily said you were sad.”
Something ice-cold slithered down Claire’s spine. The name struck a chord inside her. “Cecily?”
Ciara gave her another enigmatic smile. “She said you would know her when you’re ready.”
Claire didn’t sleep well and woke the next morning with gritty eyes and a pounding headache. She’d known before she had gotten on the plane that the trip would be difficult.
Seems that had been an understatement, and she hadn’t accounted for Finn and the children. Less than twenty-four hours, and she wanted to tuck her tail between her legs and run. She had skipped dinner and cowered in her bed the night before, and despite her growling belly she stayed put.
Above her in the nursery Ciara and Brinn clomped across the floor like they were playing Whack-A-Mole.
The motion and noise escalated fast. Taps got turned on and off. Pipes squealed and groaned. Poppy’s voice stayed calm and gentle as she woke the children and chivvied them through their morning routine.
“Ryan?” A deep bass voice that didn’t belong to Finn joined Poppy’s. “Find your shoes, and let’s get to breakfast.”
“Someone stole them,” Ryan said. “You’re the police. You should open a case file.”
“Nobody stole your shoes,” Chief Ben Crowe replied, it had to be him. “And I’m not wasting police time looking for the same shoes you lose every morning.”
“Maybe we need the FBI?” Ryan sounded hugely hopeful.
Ben chuckled. “We don’t need the FBI.”
Their voices faded as they descended the stairs.
In the kitchen, Claire pictured Poppy making breakfast. Probably Horace would join them and Finn.
“Girls,” Finn called. “Brinn? Ciara? Come on, or you’ll miss breakfast.”
Damn Finn and his assumptions about her. Those had kept her awake along with everything else last night. He was messing with her composure when she needed to stay focused. Even though they lived in the same house it would be best if she stayed away from him.
Twin footsteps clattered down the stairs from the nursery.
“Where’s Claire?” One of the girls asked. They even sounded the same.
“Still sleeping,” Finn said.
“Will she be at breakfast?”
“Probably not.” Finn’s voice faded as his footsteps moved away.
“But breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” said the twin.
Finn laughed, a warm, male sound that skittered down Claire’s spine and made her want to laugh with him.
And that needed to stop. Right now.
She intended to avoid Finn and stay well out of the way of his charm and even more devastating opinions. Snuggling deeper into her comforter, she waited. She needed coffee, but she couldn’t brave the family breakfast to get it.
Only once the house fell silent, and stayed that way for ten minutes, did she risk going downstairs.
She almost took a shower and got dressed before she went, but it was her house, dammit! If anyone had issues with her or the way she dressed, they could move out. Bravado aside though, she did concede to tossing a robe over her tank top and boy shorts.
Sneaking into the kitchen she grabbed the full coffee pot before it could become a mirage and disappear on her. Breakfast dishes still littered the table, along with food debris that hadn’t made it into mouths.
Surely Poppy could have cleaned up?
She was being a bitch, and an intolerant one at that. Poppy got four kids and three adult males through breakfast every morning. From the condition of the rest of the house, Poppy did a good job keeping it clean.
Sipping her black coffee, Claire cleared dishes and put them in the dishwasher. It wasn’t like she was doing anything else anyway.
A knock at the door startled her. Tying her robe around her waist she went to answer it.
“Bitch!” Tara Parsons nee Crowe stood on her doorstep. Dressed in skintight jeans and an off the shoulder sweater beneath an artfully open cashmere coat, she looked like she’d taken the wrong exit off the interstate. “Why didn’t you tell me you were in town?”
“Hi.” At last someone who didn’t look at her as if she stank up the place. Claire raised one cheek and then another for a kiss. “I only got here yesterday. It was kind of a spur of the moment thing.”
As in, losing her job and her boyfriend, and then getting the enormous bill for Mom’s care all in one week.
“I, for one, am thrilled to see you.” Tara pushed her sunglasses into her honey blonde silk curtain of hair. Stilettos clacking on the wood, she brushed past Claire and into the kitchen. “We’ve wasted enough time already.”
Feeling at a distinct disadvantage with her bare feet and pjs, Claire trailed Tara.
“Thank you, Jesus.” Tara reached for the coffee pot in a crash of gold bracelets at her wrist.
Claire handed her a cup.
“Thank you, darling.” Tara gave her a grateful smile. “I haven’t had nearly enough caffeine to deal with today.”
She took a sip and put the mug down on the counter with a shudder. “Ugh! Ben made that. God love the man, but he couldn’t make a decent roast to save his life. It all tasted like police drama sludge.”
“Well, he is a cop.” Claire was enjoying Ben’s coffee to be honest. Not that she’d dare say that to Tara. Tara got a mite territorial where Ben was concerned. If, say, a mama grizzly could be considered a mite territorial.
Tara shrugged out of her coat and stood with it in her hand as she surveyed the messy kitchen. “What happened in here?”
“Breakfast.” Claire toyed with refilling her cup, but that would be tantamount to admitting she liked Ben’s coffee, and it was far too early in the day for that sort of furor.
“Ugh!” Tara made a face. “God, I get that the woman dresses like a slob, but couldn’t she clean in here before she left?”
Ignoring the conscience twinge that reminded her she’d had a similar thought, Claire said, “I’m sure she’ll get to it when she gets back.”
“Where is she anyway?” Eyes glittering Tara peered about the kitchen, looking for her prey.
“Taking her children to school.” Claire didn’t want to see what Tara would do if Poppy showed up now. “Why don’t I throw myself in a shower, and we can get coffee somewhere?”
“Fabulous idea.” With evident relief, Tara shrugged back into her pale blush coat. “We can go to Kelly’s little dive.”
“Great.” Claire liked Kelly’s coffee shop, despite the fact Kelly always served up a sneer and a dollop of disdain with her coffee. Kelly was a firm member of Team Horace and Poppy.
Actually, other than Tara, the entire town was on Team Horace and Poppy.
Claire put her cup in the dishwasher. “I won’t be long.”
“Take your time.” Tara wiggled her fingers. She dug her phone out of her bag. “I have like a hundred messages I need to respond to anyway.”
After a lightning-fast shower, Claire stood in front of her open suitcase. Time demanded she throw on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt and be done with it. But going out with Tara dressed like that invited unfavorable comparison. Then again, why should she care? Sighing, she conceded that she did care. Hanging out with gorgeous, glamorous Tara could be hell on the ego.
God, being a girl came with drawbacks.
She settled somewhere in the middle for a cashmere sweater paired with jeans and heeled boots. Yes to basic makeup and no to straightening her hair.
Entering the kitchen about thirty minutes later she crashed headlong into an atmosphere tense enough to turn the air to jelly. The same atmosphere she’d hoped to avoid by getting Tara out of the house.
Poppy looked up from where she was wiping the table. “Good morning.” Her tight smile spoke volumes about how she felt about Tara in the kitchen and Claire with her. “Did you sleep well?”
“Yes, thank you.” She didn’t want to get into the truth in front of Tara. Tara had a way of cobbling random bits of information together and drawing her own picture, a picture that had a fast and loose relationship with the truth.
Poppy nodded. “Good. Did you have breakfast?”
“Always the concerned little mother.” Tara didn’t bother to look up from her screen.
With a deep breath, Poppy dropped the cloth on the table and took handfuls of glasses to the dishwasher. “I am a mother,” she said in that quiet, dignified way of hers. “I was just being polite.”
“You know she’s not a guest in this house.” Tara looked up from her phone. Loathing beamed across the kitchen at Poppy.
“It’s really fine.” Claire jumped in. Tara spoke the truth, but Claire didn’t feel it was Tara’s argument to get into. “I’ll get something at Kelly’s.”
“Oh.” Poppy looked relieved, and Claire didn’t blame her. Even though Tara was the only friend she had in Two Elks, the woman could be a total bitch. Claire wouldn’t want Tara and her axe grinding in her kitchen first thing in the morning any more than Poppy did.
Wait a minute! It was her kitchen Tara was in, and it was first thing in the morning.
“Try the carrot and walnut muffin,” Poppy said. “Kelly is trying out a new baker.”
“Muffins!” Tara made it sound like pond slime. “Claire doesn’t eat carbs. How do you think she stays that size?”
“Genetics.” Poppy shrugged Tara’s antipathy off. “Horace has stayed slim all these years.”
Claire had spent her life trying to forget her genetic connection with Horace. “I am nothing like my father.”
“So true.” Tara put her phone away. “Shall we?”
Poppy gave Claire a long look.
The sympathy in Poppy’s dark eyes made her uncomfortable, so Claire turned and strode for the door.
Tara clippity-clopped behind her.
Once they reached the front walk, Tara let out a groan of exasperation. “I can’t stand that woman.”
“Poppy?” Poppy had committed the cardinal sin in Tara’s book of taking Ben’s attention away from her. Claire had her own axe to grind with Poppy, but she didn’t share Tara’s anger.
Shouldn’t she though? The woman was here to steal her inheritance from her. Claire should dislike her even more than Tara did. But it was hard to dislike Poppy. So far, the reality of Poppy had refused to comply with the money-grubbing, gold-digging opportunist that existed in Claire’s imagination.
Tara bleeped the locks on her car parked at the curb.
Being divorced from a local police chief wouldn’t buy that set of wheels. Tara must have someone, or a group of someones, taking care of her finances for her.
Curiosity got the better of her as Claire slid into the smooth leather seat. “So? You seeing anyone new?”
“Bitch!” Tara gave her an exaggerated eyeroll. “This is me we’re talking about. I’m always seeing someone new.”
For as long as Claire had known Tara, that had been true. Even when Tara was married to Ben, there had been new someones lurking in the shadows. It didn’t make any sense that Tara still clung to Ben like he belonged to her.
Tara recycled one man for another without a pause in between. Claire didn’t know how Tara did it. Before Greg, there had been long dry spells, and it looked like Claire was entering another of those dry spells.
The look of unadulterated approval Finn had given her yesterday popped into her mind. She kicked it right out again. She needed to get it into her head that there would be no breaking bread with the enemy, and no fraternizing either. Although the idea of fraternizing with Finn left her a bit breathless.
Tara started the car, and something popular blared from the surround sound system. Claire had heard it on the radio, but she didn’t really listen to modern stuff. She liked to keep it old school.
She envied Tara her ability to find men. For a girl who had been twenty-one before she’d had her first boyfriend, it didn’t seem possible. Claire never had one man lined up while she got rid of another.
Exhibit: right now. If she’d had someone in her life, she wouldn’t be there dealing with things on her own.
Kelly’s Koffee Klatch had opened about three years ago and had quickly become the place to gather in Twin Elks. Along with great coffee, Kelly served fresh baked goods and a dose of cheerful sass. Except, not to her, or Tara.
Silence descended as they stepped into the coffee shop. All gazes swung in their direction, and the natives did not look friendly. Claire caught her thumb worrying the edge of her other nails and shoved her hands in her pockets.
“Tara.” Kelly’s wide, smiling mouth tightened. “Claire. How are you?”
“Yo, Kelly!” A man called from the other side of the shop.
Kelly glared in that direction. “Slow your roll, Vince, I’m getting there.”
“But where exactly is it that you’re getting? Ecuador, so you can pick, roast and grind the beans yourself?”
Claire giggled but quelled it under Tara’s furious look. What the hell? Vince was a funny guy.
Spinning on her heel, Tara looked down her nose at Vince. “Ink dry on the divorce yet, Vince?”
“You should know.” A tall, dark-haired guy with clean-cut good looks, Vince sunk his chin to his chest and crossed his arms. “You always did spend more time with my ex than me.”
Chelsea had cut Vince loose? Claire found that hard to believe. More Tara’s friend than Claire’s, Chelsea had her hooks sunk deep into her husband and liked to drag him along behind her.
Not anymore. Claire nodded to Vince. “I’m sorry to hear you’re divorced.”
“Thanks.” Vince’s dark eyes softened, and he almost smiled at her. “But we’re both moving on.”
“What will you have?” Kelly gave her a hard stare, clearly communicating she was not happy Claire was there and didn’t give a crap if she knew it.
“Coffee. Black, please.” Nobody in the coffee shop looked glad to see her. Some looked openly hostile. Twin Elks was always like that. The weight of it pressed down on her. She should have suggested she and Tara go out of town.
Except that felt like running away. Because it was running away. She didn’t owe Twin Elks anything. They had treated her mother like an outsider, barely tolerating her and making her miserable. It had been partly because of their hostility that life in Twin Elks had grown unbearable for Mom. Trapped in that house by Horace and with nobody to reach out to, was it any wonder she’d run away in the end?
Now they were under the mistaken impression they could bully her. Claire straightened her shoulders.
Her mother hadn’t known what they were like. She’d arrived in Twin Elks as a new bride with some hazy notion about the welcome of small towns. Boy had that bitten Mom in the ass.
“Claire Winters.” Peg Hardwhistle stormed through the door. Permed hair tendrils twitching, her blue eyes fastened on Claire like manacles. “What brings you here?”
“Mathews,” Claire said. “My name is Claire Mathews.”
“Is that what it says on your birth certificate?” Peg folded her arms beneath her jutting breasts.
It wasn’t any of Peg’s business. “I go by Claire Mathews.”
“What brings you to town?” Peg had never cared about personal boundaries. If she wanted to know a thing, she asked. Subtlety would not deter her.
Claire forced herself not to drop her gaze first. “I have business here.”
“Business!” Peg snorted and shook her curls. “I bet that mother of yours heard all about Poppy Williams and sent you hotfooting it down here.”
Claire’s mother wasn’t sending anyone anywhere anymore. In fact, she barely remembered her name on good days. But these people had treated her mother abominably and didn’t deserve the truth.
“Is that what you would have done?” Tara sneered at Peg.
Peg’s scrutiny transferred to Tara. “Don’t start on me, Tara. Everyone knows you’ve got a bug up your ass because Ben is getting remarried. Maybe if you spent less time being a bitch, you might have had a chance there.” Peg smiled a thing of evil incarnate. “Better luck with the next one, dear.”
“Heya, Peg.” Kelly grinned from ear to ear. “What can I get you? And this one is on the house.”
“Pfft!” Peg flapped a hand. “You’re never going to get anywhere if you keep giving everything away. I’ll have one of those mocha, frappy, creamy thingies.”
Kelly laughed and twiddled knobs on her coffee machine. “One mocha, frappy, creamy thingy coming up.”
“You know what I admire about you, Kelly?” Tara turned her spite toward another target.
Claire really didn’t get why Tara had to make a bad situation worse and braced for it.
So did Kelly. “I can’t wait to hear this.”
“It’s how you just don’t care.” Tara showed her perfect teeth in a feral smile. “You walk around in the first thing you threw on this morning, and you don’t care what anyone thinks of how you look.”
Wow! Claire almost choked on her coffee. Sometimes Tara soared way over the line and rubbed it out behind her with her claws.
Kelly folded her arms and gave Tara a flat stare. “You want to drink your coffee or wear it, because either way you’ve outstayed your welcome here.”
“Come on.” With a nonchalant shrug, Tara glanced at Claire. “We can find somewhere better to enjoy our coffee anyway.”
Hastily Claire jammed a lid on her coffee. She dug a ten-dollar bill out of her purse and put it on the counter. “For the coffee.”
“God, I hate this town.” Tara stood by her car, hands fisted as she breathed deep and fought for composure. “One day I’m going to walk right out of here and never look back.”
“You could do that any time.” Claire didn’t want to rub salt in the wound, but Tara had been saying the same thing for years. “Pack your stuff and go. There’s nothing holding you here.”
“Poppy would love that.” Tara yanked open her car door and slid into the seat.
Claire climbed into her side.
“But I’m not going to do it.” Tara started her car. “I’m not going to walk out of here and let her take what she wants. Somebody has to stop her.”
Having come for almost an identical reason, Claire could only nod.
Except, Ben didn’t belong to Tara. They’d been divorced for years before Poppy appeared in Twin Elks. Still, Tara was her friend, and Claire owed her loyalty. “If Ben is what you want then you should fight for him.”
By the time Tara dropped her back at the house late in the afternoon, Claire’s mood had slid into lousy. There were reasons her mother had hated the place, and most of those reasons had taken every opportunity to tell her all about how unwelcome she was. Everywhere she and Tara had gone today, the judgy gazes had tracked them. Of course, some of that had been for Tara, but still it had stung.
Finn was working on the front porch again. He stopped and watched her walk up the front walk and on to the porch. “You were out with Tara?”
“Yes.” The way he said Tara’s name made her think he wasn’t a fan either.
Finn looked disappointed. “You won’t win many friends with that one by your side.”
The disappointment thing stung, which made no sense because it shouldn’t. She didn’t care what Finn of the sexy body and smoldering blue eyes thought of her. “Let me go upstairs right now and cry into my pillow about that.”
Finn’s expression softened. “Rough day?”
“Not especially.” Nobody saw past her mask if she didn’t want them to. Certainly not someone who had only met her yesterday. Except, the way Finn was looking at her with empathy worried her.
The sooner she sold that dilapidated old piece of shit of a house and got the hell out of Twin Elks, the better for everyone.