“Can’t believe how long it’s taking, but I won’t complain.” Steffi sat, slung her dark hair into a low ponytail, and rolled back the sleeves of one of Ryan’s faded “BC Law” sweatshirts. “Sometimes I wake up and need to pinch myself. I never dreamed I could be in love again and living out my teenage dreams.”
Claire reached across the table and squeezed Steffi’s hand. “I couldn’t be happier for you.”
She couldn’t. Mostly.
Steffi and Ryan had worked through a lot of mistakes and Steffi’s violent assault to get to this place. They’d earned their happiness, which was why Claire had agreed to take on this project and let them buy the house at practically no profit. Maybe her dad hadn’t been wrong about the complications of mixing friendship with business, but she could hardly regret this choice.
“Thanks.” Steffi’s gaze strayed from Claire’s open laptop to Rosie and back to Claire’s face. She patted Claire’s hand. “I want you to be happy, too. Ryan has a cute colleague . . .”
“I am happy.” Claire withdrew her hand. Totally true, although that didn’t mean a little pang didn’t squeeze her heart now and then from the way her own love life had fizzled. Fizzled? No. Exploded—imploded?—or, more accurately, absconded.
But she’d moved on—really, she had. She no longer pictured Todd with horns and green eyes. She stifled a smile at the thought of that favorite pastime. She’d done it so often that she’d sort of forgotten what he actually looked like.
Now, most nights she collapsed into bed, eager to read a good book after a long, productive day. Only the occasional unexpected moment unlocked that bleak, frosty spot in her chest that ached as much as her hip, like when she watched diaper commercials or decorated a nursery or watched The Notebook.
Steffi offered a smile, then cracked her knuckles.
Enough about Peyton and Todd and my nonexistent love life.
“I’ll be happier once we sort out our financial problems.” Claire snatched the whipped cream and shook it hard before layering three full rotations of foamy, chilled sweetness atop her cocoa. Simple pleasures nourished the soul, and enough of them strung together made up for the inevitable disappointments and devastations everyone faced. “All the time spent on this project kept us from finding new ones. At the moment, my small decorating jobs can’t keep us both employed and pay our bills.”
“Bigger reno work will start up soon. People generally try to avoid construction projects during the winter.” Steffi cast a glance through the French doors to the snowy backyard, where young Emmy was building an igloo.
Claire rarely recalled the time before her injury, when she’d been carefree, dragging her toboggan up Nob Hill, battling in neighborhood snowball fights, and snuggling up in the window seat near the hearth of her parents’ home to watch giant flakes swirl to the ground. Now the pleasant memories spread bittersweet warmth through her chest.
Steffi sighed. “I know the business took one on the chin so Ryan and I could afford this house. I swear, I’ll make it up to you.”
“I did it with love, so you don’t need to ‘make it up’ to me. But we veered from our original business plan in order to do this project, and to take on a small crew. We need to be more strategic. Let’s go back to our plan to rent retail space to help drive business.” Her former job at Ethan Allen had taught her the value of having a space where potential customers could easily walk in, ask questions, and see samples. She’d already planned out their retail space on paper—gigantic plateglass window, white-and-cottage-blue interior, round worktables, and assorted fanciful light fixtures—and couldn’t wait to see it come to fruition. “To do that, we need more money ASAP. I’m not complaining, but we need new leads and more traction with our website and social media presence.” Claire closed her eyes and massaged her temples. Neither of these things eased her stress the way a good junk-food binge could, but Steffi hadn’t put cookies out, so this was her best option.
When she heard Steffi add more whipped cream to her mug, she opened her eyes and peered across the table. Steffi had fallen silent while sipping her cocoa, but her constipated expression snagged Claire’s attention.
“What are you thinking?” Claire dropped her hands to the table.
Steffi shook her head, waving one hand. “Nothing.”
“Don’t lie. Is there another problem I’m not aware of?”
“No.” Steffi inhaled, held her breath, then exhaled slowly. “I know of one project that would make a sweet profit and let you really stretch your talent. ‘Sky’s the limit’ kind of budget.”
Excitement lifted Claire’s spirit, straightening her spine. Anything that accelerated plans to open a retail outlet merited her attention. “Sounds amazing. What’s the catch?”
“Never mind. You won’t take it, so let’s move on.” Steffi spooned whipped cream into her mouth. “Oh! Molly says that Mrs. Brewster is thinking of remodeling her master bath.”