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She grabbed her keys and coat and went to her car, pumping herself up for what could devolve into an ugly situation. When she arrived in town, she parked a block from the restaurant. She stared at the window boxes filled with silk ivy and ruby-red geraniums while calling in a takeout order, which would provide her an excuse to leave after ten minutes. Plenty of time for Peyton to apologize, yet not enough time to turn the event into an episode of The Jerry Springer Show.

While it might be unfair to spring herself on Peyton, fairness wasn’t her concern. After all, Peyton had been less than fair with her.

She heaved a sigh and got out of her car. Heavy, clumsy feet made the two hundred yards to the door seem like a ten-mile hike. Her shortness of breath only made it worse. The anxiety attack annoyed her. This was her home turf, after all. She inhaled cold air and held her breath, then blew it out, slow and steady, before throwing back her shoulders and opening the door.

The divine aroma of coconut, seafood, and spice stirred her hunger. Lawana, the owner’s daughter, greeted her.

“Your order’s not ready yet, Claire.” Her rich skin and dark eyes always made Claire feel plain and pale. Logan would probably love to photograph Lawana, with her lush mouth and inky hair. Imagine what her ponytail could paint on his walls!

“That’s fine. I’m not in a rush.” Claire smiled, remembering why she’d come and wondering if Steffi and Peyton were behind her at a table. If so, had they seen her? Every hair on her body vibrated. “Let’s get the bill out of the way.”

She signed the credit card receipt, then slowly turned and glanced around the room. She spied Steffi and Peyton in the corner.

Steffi saw her first, her eyes widening in shock. Peyton looked in Claire’s direction and set down her chopsticks before wiping her mouth and lowering her hands to her lap.

Claire shuffled toward the table, the heat in her cheeks nearly unbearable. Sweat formed on her back and scalp, but she refused to take off her coat or give the impression she’d be staying. She hadn’t thought to check to see if anyone else who knew them was watching. She hoped so, only because then the whispered dialogue would finally shift away from “poor Claire” commentary.

“Hello.” She cleared her throat while coming to a stop behind an empty chair. She nodded at Steffi before facing Peyton, wishing she’d prepared a speech. Extemporizing wasn’t her strength. “I’m sure you know that I’m working with Logan now. You’re lucky to have such a thoughtful brother.”

“I know.” Peyton’s thin, ruddy skin looked dry and raw. She tugged at her head scarf and then at her cardigan. “He’s the best.”

Peyton’s apparent shame and fragility twisted through Claire’s indignation, loosening the knots that kept her trussed up in anger.

“He’s asked me to let you apologize. While I don’t like being pressured, I also can’t, in good conscience, accept his money while simultaneously denying him something he wants so badly. So I’m here to listen, if that’s what you want, of course.”

“It is.” Peyton darted a look at Steffi.

“I’m going to the ladies’ room.” Steffi rose from the table and patted Claire’s shoulder before she gave them some privacy.

“Do you want to sit?” Peyton gestured to the empty chair.

“No.” Claire remained safely behind the vacant seat. “I’m leaving as soon as my lunch is ready.”

“Okay. I understand.” Peyton drew a breath. “I told Logan not to interfere, but thank you for giving me the chance to tell you, in person, how very sorry I am. It was horribly wrong to hurt you that way.

“I’ve gone back through the years, remembering all the ways you were a good friend to me. Like when you went to bat for me when Mrs. Morton blamed me for tromping through her garden. Or how you sat with me, holding my hand for the longest two minutes of my life at twenty, and then celebrated the fact that I wasn’t pregnant. How you encouraged me to pursue a writing career in spite of the fact that I knew I could never live up to my great-grandfather’s legacy.

“I can’t understand, let alone explain, why I did what I did, Claire. I justified it a hundred ways in the beginning. The way I first met Todd at the coffee shop before knowing that he was your Todd. How I then tried to ignore him once I realized the situation, but that only seemed to make us both more crazed. The way he convinced me we . . . well, it doesn’t matter. Why I thought I could be happy going forward while knowing what I’d done to you I’ll never know.” Her voice cracked, so she paused to sip some hot tea. Claire hoped her face hadn’t winced each time Todd’s name had come up.


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