Cover of the new book "Caribou Crossing "

Come Home With Me

 

Excerpt from Come Home With Me

Chapter 1

“Guess what?” Miranda Gabriel’s brother cried, raising his girlfriend’s left hand like a boxing referee proclaiming the champ. “We’re engaged!”

Diamonds sparkled on Eden’s finger, and when Miranda stared from the ring to Aaron’s face and his fiancée’s, their excitement was no less dazzling.

Miranda’s heart sank like a heavy, cold stone.

She had been peeling sweet potatoes in the big kitchen at SkySong when Aaron and Eden burst into the room. Tonight’s dinner at the serenity retreat was planned as a celebration of Eden’s tidying up all the details around the sale of her family’s home in Ottawa now that she, her parents, and her sister were becoming Destiny Island residents. Aaron, owner of Blue Moon Air, had flown over to Vancouver in his Cessna seaplane on this chilly, early December day to pick Eden up after her Ottawa flight. Now it seemed the celebration would be a dual-purpose one.

“He proposed on the dock,” Eden said, her voice bubbly, neither she nor Aaron seeming to notice that their wet jackets were dripping on the terra-cotta-tiled floor. “Right there in the middle of Blue Moon Harbor.” She laughed up at him, her amber eyes glowing with happiness and love. “In the rain, and it was the most romantic thing in the world.”

Engaged.

Eden’s aunt and uncle, Di and Seal SkySong, who owned this rustically lovely retreat on four acres of waterfront, rushed over to the happy couple, offering hugs and congratulations. Miranda’s two-year-old daughter remained in her booster chair at the kitchen table, still absorbed in the tea party game she and Di had been playing with one of Ariana’s cloth fairy dolls. And Miranda herself stood rooted at the teal-topped kitchen counter, her feet as leaden as her heart.

Of course she’d known where Aaron and Eden’s relationship was heading. In truth, the depressed, pessimistic, defeated spot in her soul, the one she hated to surrender to, had known ever since that day back in June. The day when her pride had hit an all-time low. Evicted from her tiny apartment, without the funds to rent another, she’d felt worthless and powerless. For the sake of her precious daughter, she had phoned Aaron and admitted she had no choice but to accept his offer of help. There she’d been, more pathetic than ever before in her life. She’d had no strength left, no option but to leave Vancouver and drag herself and Ariana to Destiny Island, a place she’d always hated, to shelter under her big brother’s roof.

But Aaron, the one person who’d always been there for her, was away in Ottawa, visiting a woman he’d just met.

Sight unseen, Miranda—selfish bitch that she was—had hated Eden Blaine for threatening the one bit of stability in her and Ariana’s lives. But then she’d met the smart, sensitive, beautiful Eden, seen her with Aaron, listened to what her brother said and didn’t say. She’d seen that despite the huge problems the two lovers had faced, Eden made him happy. And Aaron’s happiness was the second-most important thing in the world to Miranda. Only the welfare of her daughter ranked higher.

Now, realizing she’d been silent too long, she forced herself to walk across the kitchen. Normally she found this room so warm and welcoming, with its white-painted wood and brick walls and cabinets, accented by a hodgepodge of vividly colored chairs, kitchen accessories, and artwork. But today her heart was a frozen lump in her chest and it would take a lot more than Di and Seal’s cheerful, eclectic décor to warm it.

Throwing her arms around the happy couple, she squeezed both of them, but Aaron a little harder. Her handsome, dark-haired brother, her best and only real friend for all their lives, now belonged to someone else. “I’m so happy for you guys.”

It wasn’t a lie. Honestly, it wasn’t. It was just a truth that jostled uneasily side by side with her selfishness and her envy. The guy who’d been so cynical—or, as he called it, realistic—about love had had, for the very first time, the guts to throw his heart into the ring. And what did he get? A freaking happy ending. As compared to her. She truly did believe in love and she’d been brave enough to go for it, to love and lose and try again, over and over. She’d been doing it ever since she was a tiny child hoping against hope that one day her mom would love her and be there for her. And yet here she was, twenty-seven years old and still alone.

So many times, as the children of a cocaine-addicted prostitute, she and Aaron had been the kids left outside, looking in windows at happy families eating together, at stores full of shiny new toys and games, at grocery shelves stocked with more food than anyone could possibly eat in a lifetime. Wanting, always wanting, but not getting.

Now Aaron had crossed over and he was on the inside. And she was left outside, no longer shoulder to shoulder with her big brother but all by herself.

She drew in a long breath, trying to flush the sour gray tang of depression and self-pity from her mind and heart. The fact was, she wasn’t alone; she had Ariana. Having a daughter made life so much richer and more wonderful but also created pressures so heavy that a few months back, Miranda had almost cracked under them. Because it was one thing to be strong and resourceful enough to look after yourself. It was quite another when you were responsible for a small, fragile human being who deserved so much more than you’d ever been able to give her.

Miranda went over to the table where her beloved black-haired fairy princess of a daughter had stopped playing with her doll and, it seemed, belatedly come to the realization that everyone’s attention was focused elsewhere than on her. Her cute face had gone pouty, a warning that a TTT—terrible two tantrum, as Miranda called them—was threatening to explode, as so often happened when the toddler felt neglected or thwarted.

“Sweetie, this is so exciting,” Miranda said, hoisting her mocha-skinned daughter, so unlike her own fair self, into her arms. The familiar weight and warmth, the delicate scent of the baby oil Di made from the petals of wild roses, soothed Miranda’s nerves.

Forcing enthusiasm into her voice, she brought the little girl over to the newly engaged couple. “Uncle Aaron is getting married.” She glanced at his fiancée, the walnut-haired lawyer who’d given up her entire life in Ottawa to move to Destiny Island. “I guess that’s going to make you Aunt Eden?”

Eden beamed, her happiness so vivid that, if Miranda had been a normal woman rather than a seething mess of insecurities, she’d have found it contagious. “I can’t think of a bigger honor.” She took Ariana’s small hand gently in hers. “What do you think, Fairy-ana?” The nickname had been bestowed by Aaron a few months before, when his niece became obsessed with fairies. “Will you let me be your aunt Eden?”

Now that the attention was back on her, Ariana was happy. “An-te-den?” she ventured.

“That sounds so good,” Eden said, turning to put her arm around Aaron, as if she couldn’t bear to go more than a moment without touching him.

“It sure does,” he said.

Oh God, Miranda’s big brother, the guy who’d taught her to shoplift and pick pockets as necessities of survival, had gone all schmaltzy. With a reluctant grin, she had to admit it was actually pretty adorable.

And it was high time she stopped being so freaking pathetic and looked on the bright side. Aaron’s happiness proved he’d been wrong to say that love wasn’t in the cards for either of them. She was right: they could find true love. They could beat their track record of being unloved by their mom, their two dads—because, in truth, she and Aaron were half siblings—and their grandparents.

But right now wasn’t the time to muse about love. She had to think about her and Ariana’s immediate future. They couldn’t keep living in the guest room at Aaron’s small log home. That arrangement wasn’t fair to him and Eden.

Resting her right hand on her shirtsleeved left forearm, she summoned the power of the tattooed dragon that lay beneath the faded blue cotton. The dragon that symbolized her strength and ability to cope with whatever life tossed her way.

Eden’s aunt and uncle got back to the dinner preparations, Seal taking over the sweet potatoes Miranda had abandoned. Eden and Aaron went into the mudroom to take off their jackets and boots, then returned, pulled out chairs at the table, and sat down side by side, hands linked.

Bouncing Ariana gently in her arms, Miranda listened to the conversation with half an ear while she formulated a plan for finding a new home for herself and her daughter.

“Eden, you’ve told your mom and dad?” Di asked.

“Yes, we stopped at their cabin first.” Eden’s parents and younger sister were living in one of the eight scenic log cabins at SkySong, though Helen and Jim planned to buy a house on Destiny Island in the spring. “Mom and Dad are thrilled to bits. They’ll be over for dinner shortly. Kelsey was out for a run, so she doesn’t know yet.”

Eden went on, gushing about how she couldn’t believe how wonderful the past year had been, finding her long-lost aunt Di, discovering this wonderful island, and best of all meeting the love of her life.

Helen and Di had been separated since their teens, when Di, the older sister, had run away from their Ottawa home along with her new, secret boyfriend, a member of the Mi’kmaq First Nation in Nova Scotia, who was also a teen runaway. They’d traveled west, all the way to Destiny Island, where they’d joined the Enchantery commune. Last summer, a long-lost letter had provided a clue that brought Eden here, and the rest was history. A family reunion, not to mention a new love.

Di, who’d been emptying glass canning jars of chopped tomatoes into a large pot on the stove, glanced over her shoulder. “Have you two talked about a wedding date?” The serene woman in her mid-sixties looked a bit like the hippie she’d once been, wearing one of the woven Guatemalan tops she loved, with her walnut-and-silver hair gathered into a long braid.

“Soon,” Aaron said.

“But Aaron,” Eden said, “I start my new job at Arbutus Lodge after New Year’s. There’ll be so much to do, and I need to concentrate on that rather than giving them short shrift.”

Yeah, that was Eden. Superresponsible and organized.

“Do not tell me we’re going to wait a year,” Aaron said, sounding a little panicky.

“No, no, of course not. It’s just, this is such a surprise. I need to get my head around it, and planning a wedding does take some time and effort.”

He groaned, and Miranda gave him a sympathetic smile. Just wait until the poor guy found himself being dragged into discussions about flowers, music, and catering.

The scent of cooking tomatoes and herbs drifted across from the stove, stirring guilt in Miranda. She always tried to pull her weight and really should be helping with the meal. But right now something else was more important. She plunked down on a sky-blue chair across from Aaron and Eden, with her daughter in her lap.

Eden, gazing at Aaron, said, “How about the spring? April or May?”

“I guess I can live with that. After all, we’ll be living together anyhow.”

And there was Miranda’s cue. “Ariana and I will clear out of the house as soon as I can find a place.” She’d been in denial, should have done this back when Eden decided to move to the island.

Cuddling her daughter, she said, “I’ll talk to Iris at Dreamspinner. She and her family know everyone on the island.” The Yakimuras’ bookstore and coffee shop were the heart of Blue Moon Harbor village. “I bet some of the summer folks would be willing to rent their place at least until May or June, and by then I’ll have found—”

“Whoa,” Aaron said, casting a quick sideways glance at Eden.

“That’s for sure,” his fiancée said. “Miranda, Aaron’s place is your home, yours and Ariana’s, just as much as it’s mine. We don’t want you to leave.”

Even as she appreciated Eden’s generosity, Miranda’s heart gave a twinge at the we. Already, Aaron and Eden were a we who made decisions together.

“Besides,” Aaron said, “if you pay rent somewhere, you’ll have to increase your work hours, and that won’t give you as much time for your studies.”

For years he’d been urging her to further her education. As an eleventh-grade dropout who’d never done well in school, she’d had no desire to go back to the books. And she’d been busy, what with the waitressing and retail jobs she’d held, and her pre-Ariana active life as a young single woman in a dynamic city. But then she’d gotten pregnant and life had changed.

Last summer it had sunk in that, if she was going to give her daughter the kind of life she deserved, she needed higher-paying work. So she’d worked her butt off for the past few months and almost finished her GED online. Turned out, she wasn’t all that bad at schoolwork if she applied herself. In the new year, she’d start the online courses to get certified as an early childhood educator. Even if she busted her butt on those, too, which she fully intended to do, it would take her more than a year. “I’ll still study,” she said grimly.

“Are you sure?” he asked.

She’d have snapped at him for his lack of faith, except he had plenty of reason to doubt her. But now she was committed to building a better future for herself and the precious girl whose weight and stillness now indicated she’d dozed off on her mom’s lap. “Yes, I’m sure.” Somehow she’d find the time.

“And you guys need privacy,” she said firmly. “Stop being so nice and generous and all that good stuff and be realistic.” She managed a one-sided grin for her brother. “Isn’t that what you’ve been telling me all these years? To be realistic?”

“Yeah, but—” he started.

“I have an idea.” The calm voice was Di’s, reminding Miranda that she and her brother had an audience.

Miranda glanced over her shoulder to see that Eden’s aunt had turned away from the stove, where a pot of spicy tomato sauce now simmered. “Stay here, Miranda,” Di said warmly.

“Here? At SkySong?”

The teen runaways had been together forever now. Never married, they’d rechristened themselves, changing the first names their parents had given them and taking the surname SkySong, and over the years they’d created this retreat by the same name. In addition to the lovely old wooden two-story home where Di and Seal lived, the scenic property included log guest cabins and a huge organic garden.

“We’d be happy to have you,” Seal agreed, looking up from spreading something on a loaf of homemade French bread. Garlic and herb butter, from the delicious smell of it. He, like his partner, showed his hippie roots, clad in faded tie-dye and wearing his graying black hair in a ponytail secured by a leather thong. His deep brown eyes were sincere behind wire-framed glasses.

“I can’t take your charity.”

“It’s not charity,” Di said firmly. “Nor is having Helen, Jim, and Kelsey in a cabin.”

“No, of course it’s not, with them,” Miranda said. “I mean, they’re your family.” Not to mention the SkySongs were assisting in Helen’s recovery after surgery and treatment for a recurrence of breast cancer.

“You’re family, too,” Seal said.

“No, I’m not.” Aaron and Ariana were her only family.

“Of course you are,” Di said, coming over and resting a hand on her shoulder. “Aaron’s about to be our . . . uh, nephew-in-law and you’re his sister. Besides, you sure can’t accuse Seal and me of being sticklers for convention, can you?” Her bright blue eyes danced.

Miranda’s lips twitched. “I wouldn’t dare.”

“For us,” Di said, “it’s the family of our hearts that counts. You and Ariana most definitely have a place in our hearts.”

“It’s the truth,” Seal said.

Miranda swallowed, trying to clear away the lump that had formed in her throat. If she could believe them, she might cry. It was more acceptance and support than she’d had from her own grandparents, not to mention the unknown father who’d knocked up her mother. Or the mom who’d put her next fix or her current boyfriend ahead of her children’s welfare.

“We’re never full up in winter,” Di went on. “You and your sweet girl can have a cabin for the next four or five months at least. You’ll have lots of able babysitters, so—”

“It’s no problem for me to take Ariana to the store.” Blowing Bubbles, where she worked part-time, sold children’s toys, furniture, strollers, and so on. Kara, the owner, brought her own little one along with her and encouraged Miranda to do the same. There was a fenced playpen for their toddlers and the kids of customers, and Kara gave the children toys and stuffed animals to keep them happy. She said the best advertisement was to see a smiling child loving one of the store’s products. Mind you, since Ariana had turned two at the end of July, the whole happy-child thing wasn’t happening as often as it used to.

“You might want to go out in the evenings, though,” Di said.

“Going out isn’t on my list right now.” She hadn’t had time to make female friends here. As for dating, her history with men was a succession of screw-ups: from the musician she’d moved in with when she was fifteen; to the gorgeous African-American actor who’d hung around long enough to father Ariana but not to see her born; to the chef she’d fallen for last year before realizing he changed women as often as he changed his special of the week.

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Aaron said she looked for love in all the wrong places. Maybe he was right. All she knew now was that this wasn’t the time to be looking. And, though she had no affection for Destiny Island, she had to admit it was a good place to be if she wanted to avoid temptation. There weren’t many eligible guys, and those she’d seen were way too wholesome and boring to appeal to her. “My spare time’s for Ariana and for studying.”

“Wise priorities,” Aaron said.

She sent him an eye roll just as the kitchen door opened again. This time it was Kelsey, Eden’s younger sister. She wore damp jogging clothes and with one hand flicked raindrops from her spiky, blond-streaked hair. “Eden, Aaron? Mom and Dad say you have big news.”

A grinning Eden held up her left hand.

Kelsey squealed and threw her wet arms around her sister and Aaron. “I’m so happy for you! For all of us!”

The commotion woke Ariana, who let out a demanding screech.

Kelsey said, “Oh, sweetie, are you getting ignored?” She came over to scoop the child from Miranda’s arms and made funny faces that worked magic in calming the incipient tantrum.

Eden repeated the proposal-on-the-dock story and then Di said, “Kelsey, Miranda wants to move out of Aaron’s house and I’ve told her she and Ariana should take a cabin here.”

“You totally should!” Kelsey said to Miranda, her eyes—the same blue as Di’s—sparkling with excitement. “That would be so cool. More additions to our big, happy family.” She gazed down at Ariana again. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you? I’d see lots more of you. Mom and Dad would love it, too. They’re just crazy about you, you little sugarplum.”

Kelsey, at twenty-two, was seven years younger than her sister and almost five years younger than Miranda. She was spontaneous, generous, and optimistic, and she was also completely devoted to her mom. So much so that she’d taken a year off from university at McGill to move here with her parents to help out.

A big, happy family. It was the one thing Miranda and Aaron had always wanted. He was getting it, but she couldn’t truly accept that it was being offered to her. Or that she deserved it. She glanced at her brother, who sat with his arm around Eden. His gaze met hers. A quarter of a century ago, the two of them had learned how to communicate without words. Now she knew he’d read her unspoken question.

Sure enough, he said solemnly, “Eden’s right, that our place is yours, too. Never think you need to leave. But if you want to, I think you should accept Di and Seal’s generous offer.” His tone lightened. “Ariana would love having all these people to spoil her.”

Miranda looked around the kitchen. A few minutes ago, everyone’s attention had been on Aaron and Eden and now it was on her as they waited for her answer. Her brother knew exactly how to manipulate her. She’d do anything if she believed it was good for her child.

But could she really move to SkySong and be part of all this? The idea was overwhelming. She was so used to living alone with Ariana and had barely gotten adjusted to being in Aaron’s house. Could she be a good guest here, pull her weight, ensure that Di and Seal didn’t regret having made the offer?

Of course, she and Ariana would have a separate cabin. It wasn’t like they’d all be living on top of one another. A lot of the time, she and her daughter would have more privacy than they did at Aaron’s.

She gazed at her child, so contented in Kelsey’s arms. Ariana was her anchor. Her heart.

Slowly, she said, “Di and Seal, if you’re really sure, I guess that’s what we’ll do. But you have to let me at least pay something or cook meals or garden or—”

“Miranda, shut up,” Seal said with a smile that deepened the curved lines bracketing his nose and mouth.

In the next moment, Di’s arms came around her. Almost like a mother’s.

Which was a dangerous way to think, because if there was one thing Miranda knew, it was that she couldn’t rely on a mom.

Chapter 2

With his twin boys’ fourth birthday coming up this weekend, widower Luke Chandler was, for the millionth time, thankful for two particular Blue Moon Harbor businesses. He relied on Blowing Bubbles for stuffed animals, toys, and games, and on Dreamspinner for books.

Now, in the late afternoon of a gray January day, carrying a Dreamspinner-logoed bag with two picture books, he pushed open the door to the kids’ store. Normally, he asked Kara McConachie, the owner, for advice, but a quick scan of the bright space with its cheerfully crowded shelving and displays told him she wasn’t there. In fact, the store seemed deserted but for a stormy-faced little girl in the fenced hexagonal play area. Curly black hair framed a brown-skinned face that would probably be cute when it wasn’t all scrunched up. She looked to be somewhere between two and three. Having suffered through that age with Caleb and Brandon, that storm-cloud face made him wince in anticipation of a howl or shriek.

Hoping to ward it off, he strolled over to the multicolored plastic fence and squatted down to her level, giving a reassuring smile. “Hey there, sunshine. Are you minding the store?”

His veterinary practice clients and staff said he had a magic touch with animals. Sadly, it hadn’t carried over to his own two-year-olds, and apparently, it hadn’t improved since then because the child let out one of those piercing shrieks that could shatter glass.

“Ariana!” a woman’s voice called from the back area, where he guessed the stockroom and office must be. The voice grew closer. “Honestly, I leave you alone for one second and—oh!” The owner of the voice stopped dead and he rose to his feet.

It wasn’t Kara, but an attractive blonde who looked to be a year or two younger than his own twenty-eight. He recalled hearing that Kara had a new part-time employee, but this was the first time he’d run into her.

Her gaze darted from him to the red-faced Ariana, and then back again. With a touch of wariness, she said, “I didn’t hear the doorbell.”

“I don’t think it rang.” He walked over to the door, opened and closed it again, and there was no sound.

“I’ll tell Kara we need to get it fixed.” She reached down and hoisted the wailing child into her arms. The motion seemed effortless even though the woman’s body, revealed by snug-fitting jeans and a pale gray sweater, was slender rather than sturdy.

“Sorry about the, uh, crying,” he said. “She looked kind of thunder-cloudy and I tried to cheer her up, but it backfired. What is she? Two?”

For the first time, a smile lit the woman’s pale face, making her even prettier. Rubbing Ariana’s back as the screeches subsided to snuffles, she said, “Two years, seven months.”

“Five months to go.”

The smile brightened. “You know something about two-year-olds.”

“I had a couple of my own. We survived. Somehow.”

“Gee, thanks, that’s so encouraging.” Huge grayish-blue eyes the shade of well-washed denim danced, tweaking some association from long ago. “I call it the TTTs, the terrible two tantrums,” she said.

“Fitting.”

“Would you give me just a minute, and then I’ll be right with you?”

“Do what you need to. I’ll browse.”

But when he perused the shelves, the sound of the woman’s voice as she soothed the girl distracted him. He peeked through a menagerie of stuffed seals, kittens, puppies, and bears to watch her gently bounce her daughter in her arms. When Ariana settled down and was back in the play pen, offering pretend tea to two cloth dolls, the salesclerk came over to him. “Finding anything? Can I help?” She shoved up the sleeves of her sweater.

His gaze automatically followed the motion, to see a tattoo of a colorful dragon on her left forearm. Lots of women had dragon tattoos, especially since that Swedish bestseller. But this dragon, combined with those denim eyes—and he remembered hearing a rumor that Aaron Gabriel’s sister had returned to Destiny Island a few months earlier. Some of his clients gossiped, but he paid little attention unless their chatter related to the animals he was treating.

He looked up at her face again, trying to recall images from . . . what would it be? A dozen years ago?

“What is it?” she asked, that hint of wariness back in her voice. With her left hand, she brushed her shoulder-length hair away from her face. The gesture revealed a delicate ear, double-pierced with a dangly blue earring in one hole and a small silver heart in the other.

No black hair with fluorescent streaks; no bizarre makeup. No Goth black leather and ripped clothing. No nostril studs or eyebrow piercings. No attitude. But still there was something familiar. And did he see tiny scars where silver studs and rings might once have been? There was also her daughter’s name: Ariana, like a feminine version of Aaron. “You’re not Miranda Gabriel, are you?”

Dark brown lashes flicked down and then up again. As far as he could see—and he knew a bit about makeup, having spent years watching his wife carefully apply hers—this woman wasn’t wearing anything except maybe lip gloss.

“Yes.” She frowned at him. “Did we go to school together or something?”

She’d been a year behind him at Blue Moon High, for the couple of years between the time she moved to the island and the time she dropped out of school and ran away to Vancouver. But he’d sure noticed her. Despite the genuineness of his love for Candace and the fact that he was a total straight arrow, bad-girl Miranda had held a weird kind of allure. Like the way you could crave an ice cream sundae even though you knew it was bad for you. No, that was a poor analogy, because there’d been nothing sweet about Miranda.

Thinking of how the grown woman had cooed to her little girl, he reflected that it was more than her appearance that had changed. “You don’t remember me?” he asked. “Luke Chandler?” Why would she? She’d been a loner, a rebel, much like his stepbrother Julian. Rather than hang out with the local kids, she’d hopped the ferry over to Vancouver on weekends. She’d had nothing good to say about Destiny Island, so he’d pretty much discounted the half-heard rumor that she was back.

“Luke . . .” She scrutinized his face, and did a quick up-down of his body, not that his jeans and winter jacket would have told her much. “Wait a minute. Straight A student, dated that redheaded cheerleader?”

He swallowed at the mention of his wife. “There were a couple of Bs. And yes, I dated Candace Yuen-Byrne.” His best friend had turned into his girlfriend and then the love of his life. They’d planned a bright future but instead he’d lost her in childbirth. Fighting back a surge of melancholy, he said, “You’ve changed some.”

She snorted. “You think?”

“Ariana’s yours? Named after your brother?”

“Yes. He’s the best man I’ve ever known,” she said solemnly, making him wonder about the father who’d given Ariana her dark coloring.

She went on. “And you have two of your own, you said? You and Candace?”

He swallowed. “Yes, but no. She died giving birth, so I’m raising the twins on my own.” Before she could rush in with some platitude, he said, “They’re turning four. Two boys, identical twins. I’m looking for gift ideas.” He and the boys’ grandparents tried hard to make the birthday a day of celebration despite their own sad memories of losing Candace.

Those grayish-blue eyes, sorrowful and sincere, held his as Miranda refused to accept his attempted diversion. “I’m so sorry about Candace. It’s terrible to lose someone you love.”

Though he’d hoped to avoid this conversation, he found that her simple words touched a chord. “Yeah, it is.” He lowered his voice so her daughter wouldn’t hear. “How about you? Ariana’s dad is . . . ?”

“Isn’t. Never was, not since I told him I was pregnant.”

“Asshat.” The word burst out loudly before he could stop it. He cast a quick glance over at the little girl, but she was still happily absorbed with her dolls. “I’m sorry he ran out on you,” he told Miranda quietly.

“Yeah, well.” She shrugged. “Sometimes life sucks, as you well know. Anyhow, the guy might’ve been bad judgment but the result was Ariana, and she’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

“I feel the same about the boys.” For their own sakes, and for the constant reminders of Candace that he saw in their light gray eyes and infectious laughter.

He and Miranda shared a smile. “So,” she said, “identical twins. What’s your approach? The same stuff for each of them so they know you love them equally, or different stuff so they know you see them as individuals?”

“Oh, they’re individuals all right. They insist on different hairstyles, different clothes. I’m not sure if it’s their reaction to looking the same or if it’s their intrinsic personalities. Maybe the latter, because Brandon’s like Candace: outgoing, impulsive, always on the go. Caleb’s more like me. He’s quieter, more reflective, and I think he prefers animals to people.”

She cocked her head, humor dancing in her eyes. “You prefer animals to people? I remember you as being a popular kid.”

He shrugged. “That was the Candace effect. She had such a wide circle of friends, I got drawn in.” He’d valued all those relationships because things at home had been weird. His dad got cancer and died, and after that his mom was kind of lost, deep in her own grief. Then she fell in love again, remarried, and Luke acquired a stepfather and a stepbrother. If it hadn’t been for Candace and her friends, and Viola Cruickshank and the animals at her veterinary clinic, he’d have been one miserable kid—like his stepbrother Julian. “I don’t prefer animals, it’s just that sometimes they’re easier to be around. They’re so straightforward.”

“I don’t know much about animals, but I agree that people are complicated. But that’s what makes them so intriguing.”

“I suppose.”

“Anyhow,” she said, “we keep getting off track. You’re here to buy presents.” She moved closer, gesturing to the shelves of stuffed animals, and a faint scent drifted his way, reminding him of the lily of the valley that bloomed in his mom’s garden in spring. He’d always liked that scent, and the simple, bell-like white flowers. He’d bet that Goth-girl Miranda hadn’t smelled like lily of the valley.

Miranda said, “We should use this window of opportunity before Ms. TTT realizes she’s no longer the center of attention.”

He laughed. It was easy to get distracted, with this new Miranda. Though she looked so conventional compared to the old days, she was even more attractive. And easy to talk to. Back then, they’d had nothing in common. Now, as single parents, they did.

In his entire life, he’d only ever dated one woman. Despite the best efforts of several well-meaning islanders, including his mom and stepdad and even his in-laws, he’d had no interest in dating since Candace died. He’d always suspected he was a one-woman man, and the fact that for four years he’d felt no desire to be anything other than friends with attractive women had confirmed it for him. But now . . .

Oh, man, what was he thinking? Was it just barely possible that he might want to date Miranda Gabriel? That was a big—no, make that gigantic—leap.

But perhaps going for coffee one day . . . Getting to know each other better. He could find out if what he was feeling was just an odd residual attraction from the fascination he’d felt as a teen. Coffee was only a small step. He could do that, couldn’t he?

“Luke? Where did you go?”

He blinked and saw Miranda gazing up at him with puzzlement.

“Sorry,” he said. “What did you say?”

“I asked if Caleb’s into stuffed animals. And, if so, what does he already have?”

“Oh, right.” He’d gotten distracted again. “Is there a man in your life now?” The words blurted out. No wonder, since he’d never done this before. With him and Candace, their relationship had evolved organically.

No surprise that his clumsy approach resulted in the beginnings of a frown. “No,” she said. “Why do you ask?”

“There’s no woman in mine.”