First Two Chapters of A Forest Between Us



“Never have I ever…” Elena trails off, swirling the liquid in her champagne flute around while eyeing me carefully. “Cut my bangs while drunk.”

I narrow my gaze, dutifully taking a swallow of my mimosa.

She grins smugly. “Kelly’s twenty-fifth was a wild night, wasn’t it?”

I roll my eyes. “You set that question up. You were the one who dared me to do it.” And who had the bright idea to actually give me scissors?

“Don’t hate the player. Hate the game.”

I motion to her glass. “Shouldn’t you be drinking, too? You’ve cut your bangs before.”

She wags a finger at me. “Yeah, but I was sober.”

“You and your technicalities,” I mutter. “Fine, never have I ever kissed a stranger in a Chicago bar.” I know for a fact she has because it was the same night I’d cut my bangs. It had taken them forever to grow out.

She lets out a long peal of laughter, and the two women at the table nearest us on the restaurant’s patio glance our way. Let them look, though. After the week Elena and I had at work, we deserve to blow off some steam.

“Touché.” She tips her glass toward me before draining the rest of it. Taking a drink has never been a punishment for her in our long-running game.

“Never have I ever,” a new voice says, and we both turn to find the third member of our normal Saturday morning brunch trio, Kelly, approaching the table. Her cheeks are flushed, a wide grin spread over her lips as she raises her left hand, a monstrous diamond catching the light. “Been engaged,” she squeals, finishing her sentence.

“Oh my God!” Elena and I shout in unison.

I push my chair back and rush to her, enveloping her in a hug as Elena grabs her hand and inspects the new ring.

“Mateo finally make an honest woman out of you?” she asks.

“Yes.” Kelly radiates delight, glowing with an internal happiness that leaves me with a contact high, my heart bursting with joy.

I lean back, my mouth tipping up at the corners. “Tell us everything.”

The next twenty minutes fly by as she recounts last night’s romantic proposal from her boyfriend of three years.

Reaching over, I grab her hand and give it a squeeze. “I’m so freaking happy for you. You’ve been waiting so long for this.”

“And that rock,” Elena exclaims, still in wonder over the size of the ring. “Your hand’s getting a workout just holding it up.”

Kelly looks down, biting her lip to hide a grin. “I can’t believe he picked this out for me. It’s perfect.”

I tap the table with my index finger to get her attention. “So, what are you thinking for the wedding? Congress Plaza? Stan Mansion? I know you’ve already started planning.”

She hides her smile behind her hand, her ring sparkling brilliantly in the late morning sun. “Who me? I’ve never planned a thing in my life.”

The three of us laugh. The girl is Type-A to the max.

“Okay, so maybe I looked into a few things,” she admits. “But the more I looked, the more overwhelmed I got. I’m tempted to say fuck it and have the wedding in Vegas.”

I smile, signaling to our server that I’d like another mimosa. “Yeah, but then you’ll have to marry for real somewhere else.”

Kelly blinks in confusion. “What?”

“You know the saying.” I make a vague gesture with my hand. “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Those weddings aren’t real.”

She lifts a brow dramatically. “Um, yes, they are.”

I roll my eyes. “Very funny.”

“Harper, they’re real,” Elena says, uncharacteristically serious. “You’re messing with us, right?”

The beginnings of doubt trickle through my veins, my heart picking up in speed.

No, no. They’re the ones messing with me. Though they rarely take it this far…

Kelly’s gaze darts over my face, her brows knit together now. She pulls her phone out and says, “Siri, are Vegas weddings real?”

“Here’s what I found,” the robotic voice answers smoothly. On the screen is link after link about the validity of a Vegas wedding.


I twist and grab my purse off the back of my chair, rummaging through until I find my phone. Opening the browser, I do my own search, page after page of results telling me that yes, Vegas weddings are perfectly legal.

Oh, God.

Nausea rolls within me, quick and sure, and I tamp it down, clutching my stomach with my free hand.

“Harper, you’re scaring me,” Kelly whispers.

Yeah, I’m scared, too. If Vegas weddings are real, that means I’m…

“Have you been to Vegas?” Elena asks calmly. She’s using the same tone of voice you’d use with a frightened animal you don’t want to run away.

I swallow thickly, trying to get the words to come out, but my body won’t obey my command. I nod instead.

“Did you… marry someone?”

“I think so,” I croak out, memories from five years ago coming back to me.

A tall man with broad shoulders, his quiet strength more memorable than the exact features of his face. Drinking with him at the hotel bar… getting tipsy… getting buzzed… getting sloshed… and then…

Kelly claps her hand over her mouth as Elena asks, “Was it just a ceremony, or did you go to the courthouse and get a license? It’s not legal if you didn’t get a license.”

“I…” My stomach flutters disconcertingly. “The hotel had this wedding package that took us in a limo to the courthouse and a chapel. I thought it was part of the experience…” I trail off, the extent of my past stupidity slamming into me.

A hysterical burble of laughter escapes Kelly from behind her hand. “I can’t believe you’re married.”

“No,” I protest, even though the evidence is clear as day against me.

“What county is Las Vegas in?” Elena asks, on her phone now.


“I’m looking at their clerk’s office. You can usually look up marriage records online.”

The three of us are silent as she completes her search, and I stick my hands under my thighs so they stop trembling.

I’d never even questioned my long-standing belief that Vegas weddings are all pretend. Never bothered to look it up after the fact. It had seemed so inconsequential. Just a fun weekend. A day, really. I’d only met the guy that day.

Damn their marketing department.

Elena turns her phone around to face me, expression grim. On the screen is Calloway, Harper under the first column. Next to it is Taylor, Owen.

That’s right. Owen.

I guess it’s official, then. I’m married.

My stomach does another slow roll, threatening to expel the mimosa I just downed.

“What’s he look like? Maybe we can find him online.” Elena stares at me expectantly.

“Um…” I rack my brain, the fuzzy memories getting a little clearer the more I try to remember. “Dark hair, light eyes, tall…”

“That doesn’t narrow it down,” Elena mutters, already at work searching on her phone.

I throw my hands up, frustration replacing the nausea. “It was five years ago and I was drunk.”

She doesn’t bother to hide her smile.

“Ooh, this Owen Taylor’s a baseball player. Is this him?”

I study her screen. While the man is good looking, he doesn’t ring any bells. “No, not him.”

Kelly pulls out her phone too, and we spend the next ten minutes going through every kind of social media profile and image we can find online, but none of them are quite right. Then again, I could definitely be misremembering considering the length of time and amount of alcohol involved.

“The guy doesn’t exist,” Elena declares in disgust. “You married a ghost.”

I motion for her phone. “Let me see that clerk’s office page again.”

I study the screen, trying to glean any additional information I can, but the only thing there is a column with our names. No date of birth, no place of residence, no picture of the marriage license or certificate. Apparently, I’d have to pay twenty dollars and wait three weeks for them to send it to me by mail.

What a racket.

I hand her phone back to her and stand. “I need to figure this out. Sorry to steal your thunder, Kelly.”

She waves off my concern. “What are you going to do?”

I blow out a long breath, grab my purse, and sling it over my shoulder. “Try to get an annulment, I guess. I just have to find him first.”

I give them both hugs and head to the train station around the corner, continuing to search on my phone during the short ride home. There’s still bupkis, though.

How can someone have no social media presence? It’s practically criminal in this day and age. Looks like I’ll have to rely on my memory for more clues.

Good luck with that.

I close my eyes, conscious of the other riders, the sway of the train car, my grip on my purse in my lap. What do I remember about that night?

He was in Vegas for work, I was there for a friend’s bachelorette weekend. The girls I was with had left for the airport but I couldn’t get a flight back home until the next day, so I’d struck up a conversation with the cute guy sitting alone at the hotel bar. We’d started taking shots… and maybe gone a little too far. One thing led to another and…

There’s that sickening roll in my stomach again. I push it down, racking my brain for what I can recall about him. He was from a small town, I remember that. Somewhere in… Washington? No, Oregon. Did it have the word moon in the town name?

I open a new tab on my browser to search, but nothing that comes up sounds right. Was it moon? Or something else? Think, Harper, think.

Something about it being the kind of place no one would ever have a reason to go, hidden up in the mountains. Or between mountains? A valley? God, I have no clue.

Exiting the train car when my stop arrives, I hoof it to my apartment and make a beeline for my laptop, ready to do a deep dive on Owen Taylor and his mysterious small town. But no matter what combination of keywords I search for, there’s no sign of him. It’s as if he doesn’t want to be found.

Sighing, I rub my temples as a headache forms. How am I still finding myself in messes like this? Acting without thinking has always got me in trouble, this time being no exception. How in the world could I have fucked up this much? Who doesn’t realize they’re married?

I’ll figure this out, though. There’s no other option.

Taking a break to clear my head, I clean up around the apartment, tidying the accumulated mess from the week. It’s not until an hour later in the middle of washing dishes that an inkling forms in the back of my mind. It wasn’t a valley he lived in, it was something else. God, what’s the word?

I steer toward my laptop again, searching for synonyms. Nothing sparks my memory until I scroll further down the list. Pass. Some kind of pass.

I type Oregon small town pass into Google and there it is on the second page of results. Crescent Pass. I guess I was thinking of crescent moons when I thought it had moon in the name earlier.

A quick search of his name and town yields no results, though. Damn it.

I smack my forehead when the obvious solution occurs to me. If the town has a library, they would know Owen’s information.

And lo and behold, the Crescent Pass Library is open right now, according to Google.

I’m nearly giddy as the line rings, and grab a paper and pen off the side table for when they give me his number.

“Hello, this is Abby at Crescent Pass Library,” a soft voice answers on the third ring. “How may I help you?”

“Hi, I’m looking for information on one of your residents. Do you know Owen Taylor?”

There’s a pause and then her hesitant answer. “Yes, I know him.”

Relief splashes hot in the pit of my stomach. Finally I’m getting somewhere. “Great. Can you give me his phone number?”

“No, we can’t give out a customer’s personal information.”

Wait, what? “But I need to get in touch with him.”

“I-I’m sorry,” she stutters. “That would be a breach of confidentiality.”

My nostrils flare in annoyance. It’s a library, not the FBI. “Well, how am I supposed to reach him? I can’t find him online anywhere. No Facebook. No Instagram. No Twitter. It’s like the man doesn’t exist.”

“Owen’s a pretty private guy. I don’t think he does social media.”

Of course not. That’d be too easy. “Can you give him a message from me, then? My name’s Harper Calloway. I met him five years ago in Vegas—”

“Ma’am,” she interrupts. “I’m not comfortable with this. I have no idea who you are.”

Oh, no. She ma’am’d me. “I understand, but I really need to speak with him. I’m his wife.”

The words leave a funny taste in my mouth. I’ve never been remotely close to being anyone’s wife before.

“Is this a prank call?” she asks after a moment. “Owen doesn’t have a wife.”

Well, at least she didn’t say he’s married to someone else. “I know what it sounds like, but I promise I’m not pranking you. I need to get in contact with him.”

“I can’t give you any private information. I’m sorry.”

I bite back the swear that wants to let loose. “What about public information? Is there some sort of database you can access with public records?”

“What kind of public records are you looking for?” she asks warily.

“I don’t know. Anything. I will literally take anything you can tell me about him.”

“Please give me a moment.”

Hold music ensues, some generically pleasant melody that I’ll immediately forget after hanging up. If this turns out to be a bust, how else am I supposed to get in touch with him? If I can’t get information from a freaking library of all places, where can I get it? Will I have to fly to Crescent Pass myself and go door to door until he answers?

“Ms. Calloway?”

I grip the phone tighter. “Yes?”

“My search yielded one result from the county property appraiser. There is a listing of residence for one Owen Taylor in the county. However, I cannot confirm this is the same Owen Taylor you’re searching for. Would you like the address?”

It has to be the same Owen, right? Especially if there’s only one. “Yes, I’d like it.”

I jot down the address, not sure what to do with it once I have it.

“Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“So, just to make sure, you can’t give me his number? His email address? Any kind of direct contact with him?”

There’s a long pause. “No,” she finally says. “I can’t violate our privacy policy.”

I grumble to myself for a moment about how he gave up the right to privacy when he drunkenly married me. “And you won’t relay a message for me?”

“It’s not within the scope of my job to take personal messages for residents.”

Ugh. What a canned response. “Thanks for his address, then.”

I hang up and look at my notepad. 72 Trail Marker Way. What the hell am I supposed to do with this?

I plug it into Google Maps, but there’s not much to tell from the satellite view. There’s no sign of a house, only trees, and a glimpse of a dirt path leading from the main road. The rest of the town doesn’t look much better. One main thoroughfare with shops on either side, a few streets branching off from it with other buildings, a number of family homes, and that’s pretty much it. He wasn’t kidding when he said there wasn’t a reason for anyone to visit there.

Calling up Elena, I explain what I found and ask her for advice about what my next steps should be.

“I guess you could hire a process server to go out there and serve divorce papers.”

I swallow heavily. “Divorce? I don’t want a divorce on my record. I’m only twenty-six.”

“You act like it’s a prison record.”

“You know what I mean. Besides, he doesn’t even know we’re married, either. He can’t, right?”

“I’d assume not.”

“So I need to talk to him and explain everything. Then he’ll agree to the annulment.”

“How? All you have is his name and address.”

“I… I guess I’ll have to fly out there.”

She laughs, then quiets a moment later. “Wait. You’re serious?”

“What else am I supposed to do? Pay someone to go out there and ask him to call me? The lady at the library already thought I was a stalker. No, I need to physically talk to him.”

“Well, what are you going to do about work? Want me to tell Sandra you’re deathly ill or something?”

“No, I’ll say I have a family emergency. It’s technically not a lie.”

“When are you leaving?”

“I’ll take the first flight I can find. I don’t want this hanging over my head. My anxiety’s already through the roof.”

“Good luck, then.”


I’ll need it.


Twenty-four hours later, after a fitful night of sleep, a maxed out credit card, and a car rental experience from hell, I’m driving down the surprisingly picturesque main road of Crescent Pass, charmed by the old-fashioned storefronts and vivid fall foliage. Nestled between two mountains in the Cascade Range, the town has a three hundred and sixty-degree view of snow-capped peaks and multicolored forests of blazing yellows and vibrant reds. It’s like I’m in the middle of a postcard.

The flip side of these gorgeous mountain views is that my cell service is practically non-existent and my maps app stopped updating about ten minutes ago. Time to stop and figure out where Owen lives. Might as well load up on snacks for my two and a half hour drive back to the airport, too.

I roll down my window, taking in a lungful of crisp, fall air, and pull into a parking spot in front of an honest to goodness general store, as if I’m back in the 1800s. The only difference is the mannequin in the display window has flannel on instead of a hoop skirt.

Grabbing a couple bags of Doritos and Fritos, I bring them to the counter, swiping a pack of peanut M&M’s at the register, too.

“Passing through?” the elderly man asks as he rings up my purchases.

“Something like that.” I lean closer, marveling at the vintage bronze-plated cash register, complete with clacking buttons and levers. People still use these? “I’m actually trying to find Trail Marker Way. Do you know how to get there from here?”

He eyes me carefully. “You looking for Owen?”

Does my reputation precede me from that phone call to the library? Or is he the only one who lives on that road?

I nod hesitantly, relaxing when he gestures toward the window. “About four miles up the road on the left. Looks more like a dirt path than a road, so be careful you don’t miss it. Don’t think there’s a sign, either.”

Finally. Someone who doesn’t care about privacy issues. “Thank you,” I tell him sincerely. How long would I have spent searching for a street with no sign?

“What business you got there?”

“Just… business.” Probably best not to broadcast my motive for visiting when I’ll never see him again. No reason to make Owen’s life difficult with the people in town.

He makes a gruff noise of acknowledgment and bags up my snacks.

“Your store’s cute,” I comment as I take the bag from him. “Love the old-timey vibe.”

He gives me a deadpan stare. “Glad I have your approval.”

I press my lips together tightly so I don’t laugh and head out, searching closely along the left-hand side of the road as I drive up the street.

There. That has to be it.

I turn, a thick cover of trees shading the narrow path, like someone only cleared out just enough of the forest to drive through. I take in another deep breath of air, wondering if I can somehow bottle it up and bring it back with me to Chicago.

The path opens into a small clearing ahead, with a dusty pickup truck parked next to some kind of workshop, its open barn doors showcasing a number of heavy-duty tools inside. A modernized log cabin sits squarely in the center of the clearing, with a beautiful chalet-style roof and rocking chairs on the front porch. The forest provides a sheltering canopy overhead, and there’s a bark from inside as I park next to the truck.

I grab my things and head up the steps, pausing as the door opens before I can knock. I’m caught off guard for a moment at the size of the man in the doorway, the breadth of his shoulders, the way he towers over me the same as these trees surrounding us.

I forgot how physically aware of him I once was, another memory returning to me of kissing those firm lips, those stormy, gray eyes alight with happiness as a gaudily dressed Elvis declared us husband and wife. And despite being drunk off my ass, feeling like this was the start of something new, that one of my impulsive decisions finally led to something right.

I shake off the sensation, reminding myself that was the alcohol talking, not my rational brain.

“Harper?” he says in disbelief, my name in that deep voice making my belly go warm and loose.

He remembers me?

I thrust the papers in my hand at him, tongue-tied for some reason.

He takes them, his gaze never leaving mine. “What’s this?”

“We need to get an annulment.”



I blink, unsure what’s happening, if I’m actually in the middle of a dream. God knows I’ve dreamed about this woman enough. “I… What?”

“You’re a hard man to get in touch with,” she says instead of answering my question. “No social media, no phone number listed online. It’s like you don’t want to be found.”

“I don’t.” What does that have to do with anything, though? “Did you say something about an annulment?”

She nods, her brunette curls brushing the tops of her shoulders. “Do you remember that night in Vegas? Turns out we actually got married.”

My mouth opens, but nothing comes out. There’s no way. She wasn’t even seriously interested in me. She’d given me a fake number. And now she’s telling me she’s… my wife?

“Did you know?” she asks in that sweet voice.

“No, I… I remember getting drunk with you at the bar, then things get hazy. I vaguely recall getting in a limo… and after that, not much of anything.” I’d woken the next morning alone in my hotel room with a massive hangover. “So you’re telling me we’re married? You’re sure?”

“I found our marriage record on the county clerk’s site. It’s official.”

“What did… How did…” I brace a hand on the door frame to steady myself. What the hell is going on?

She points to the papers she handed me. “This is information I could find about voiding a marriage in Oregon. We’ll need to file a petition soon.”

My head swirls as I skim the pages, unable to make sense of the words. “Can we slow down a second? Here, come in. Duke, move.” My German shepherd whines but does as he’s told, padding over to his bed in the corner of the living room.

Harper breezes past me, a delicate floral scent lingering. Damn, she smells amazing.

“It’s beautiful in here,” she comments, glancing around my home. “Upscale rustic but still inviting.”

“Thanks.” I stick my hands in my pockets, not sure what else to say.

She presses a hand to her temple. “Sorry. I just finished a campaign for an interior design company. It’s all I can see now when I go to new places.”

“You got a job in marketing like you wanted?”

“I… Yes.” She eyes me carefully, and I get lost for a moment in the deep brown depths. The way she was looking at me that night, gaze sparkling with delight at some joke I’d made… No one’s ever looked at me like that before. “You remember that?”

I shake off the memory. This isn’t the time. “The beginning of the night is crystal clear. It’s only the end that’s blank.”

She nods. “What was your job again? Something with carpentry?”

“Yeah, I do custom woodworking. Lots of yuppies in Portland pay big bucks for pieces.”

She folds her hands in front of her. “Right. So, how should we handle this?”

“I… I guess I’ll call my lawyer.”

Her brows raise. “You have a lawyer?”

“Not on retainer or anything. He handled a property line dispute for me a few years back when I bought this land.”

“Great. Probably best to have someone who knows the law to guide us. I want to make sure everything’s taken care of legally.”

My gaze wanders over her, from those beautiful eyes down to her pert nose and lush lips, her lithe body and toned legs. She was like a fantasy come to life approaching me at that hotel bar, her effervescent attitude drawing me out of my normally reserved shell, something about her hypnotic, like I couldn’t get enough. I’d never met anyone like her—someone so witty, smart, and fun, someone I was so instantly attracted to, so at ease with. Never met anyone like her since, either.

Her showing up on my doorstep is like… a sign. A second chance. As awful as it was to discover she was gone that next morning, this could make up for it.

“You know, if you wanted to give this thing between us a try… I mean, we were obviously attracted enough to each other to get married in the first place.” The tips of my ears burn red, my awkward phrasing hanging in the air. If my family were here, they’d be on the floor howling at my attempt at flirting. “It’s just, from that first meeting, it was like we clicked. There was this connection with you I’ve never felt with anyone else.”

My heart is pounding in my ears, unable to tell what she’s thinking. Did she feel that way too five years ago?

Her lips finally tip up in amusement. “You must get a lot of women with that line. A plus for delivery, but I’ve heard them all.”

My heart crashes to somewhere around my knees. Guess it was one-sided, then. How could I forget she gave me that fake number, too?

“Right. I’ll give Larry a call.”

I retreat into the back room, Duke close at my heels. He sits at attention as I slump on the bed and pull my phone out of my pocket, and I scratch behind his ears as I look through my contacts. What the fuck was I thinking saying that to her? Like we’re going to pick up where we left off five years ago getting wasted at the bar? She doesn’t even live here.

Larry’s office line goes to voicemail, not that it surprises me on a Sunday afternoon. And from his message, it sounds like he won’t be open again until Tuesday.

“Bad news,” I tell her, rejoining her in the living room. “They’re open Tuesday through Saturday. I’ll make an appointment first thing Tuesday morning.”

“There’s no other lawyer in town?”

My jaw firms for a moment. “Crescent Pass doesn’t even have a Wal-Mart. You think we have two lawyers?”

She crosses her arms over her chest. “Is there another town nearby we can go to? An actual city or something?”

“I’ve known Larry since I was a kid. I trust him to handle this. What’s the rush, anyway? It’s been five years.”

She throws her hands up. “I’m on borrowed time. I can’t leisurely wait for an appointment like you. I need to get back to work.”

“Let me handle the lawyer, then. I’ll call you with whatever I find out.” I stick my hands in my pockets, turning my head to the side. “Not that I have your number,” I mutter.

“No, I want to speak to the lawyer, too.” She jabs a finger at me. “And I gave you my number. Why’d you ask for it if you were never going to call?”

My brows narrow. “You gave me a fake number.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Oh, so you’re Dorothy Fischer?”


I pause at the sincere confusion on her face. “That’s who answered when I called.” The lady had sounded as if she was about a hundred years old, confused beyond belief as to why I was calling her asking for Harper.

“You must have misdialed, then.”

“You created the contact in my phone.” I bring it up and show it to her.

She takes my phone carefully, looking up at me with pinched brows. “You still have my number in here?”

I shrug, crossing my arms.

“Looks like the last digit’s off,” she says softly. “It’s a three instead of a two. I… I’m sorry.”

I nod, taking my phone back from her. Guess it wasn’t a fake on purpose, then.

“Were you really going to call?”

I glance over, her expression softer now. “Yes,” I admit.

She blinks up at me. “But I lived halfway across the country.”

I shrug again, unwilling to say anything after she practically laughed in my face before.

“I guess I can wait an extra day,” she says when I don’t respond. “Nowhere would be open today, anyway.”

Duke barks and lifts on his back legs to look out the window, nosing at the blinds, the same as he did when Harper showed up. Who the hell’s out there now? Don’t they know this is private property?

I peek through the slats and groan. “Give me a sec.”

Duke runs into the yard when I open the door, barking happily as my twin niece and nephew exit out of my sister’s van to greet him. High-pitched squeals ensue as Jamie finds Duke’s rope toy and throws it for him, then Jenny runs after it, too.

Kristen rolls down her window, a weary smile on her face. “Thanks again for watching them,” she calls out. “They’ve been asking all day if it was time to come over here yet.”

I rub the back of my neck and shut the door behind me. Not that I’m trying to hide Harper, but I’m still wrapping my head around her even being here. “Uh, yeah, sure.” I have a vague recollection of agreeing to babysit. “What was it you’re doing again?”

She smooths a hand over her hair. “Getting my hair cut. I didn’t realize it’s been over a year since I’d last done it until Tanya called me.”

Shit. It’s not like I can ask her to cancel. Kristen hardly does anything for herself. “Right. Well, have fun. Everything will be normal here.”

She gives me a sidelong glance. “Okay…”

She reverses, then stops and pulls forward again. “Whose car is that?” she asks, pointing to the red Kia parked next to my truck.

“I’ll tell you when you get back.” How am I supposed to explain I’ve been married for the last five years?

“Is someone in your house?”

There’s a healthy dose of skepticism in her voice, which I don’t blame her for. I never invite anyone over.

“Just go. You’ll be late.”

She wavers for a moment, then purses her lips, glaring at me as she turns the van around and leaves.

I breathe a sigh of relief, ready to put off my explanation until later.

“Uncle Owen, I need to go to the bathroom.”

I blink, finding Jamie in front of me, holding his crotch exaggeratedly. “Uh…” Harper’s in the house. It’s not like I can hide her forever, though. “A friend of mine is inside, so—”

“I want to meet him,” he exclaims, bathroom request forgotten as he races up the porch steps.

Pinching the bridge of my nose, I call for Jenny and Duke, wanting to keep an eye on everyone.

Jamie doesn’t make it in, though, as he stands frozen in the doorway. He looks up at me, eyes wide. “You have a girlfriend?” he whispers.

“No. She’s…” My wife, apparently. “A friend.”

He steps back, suddenly shy as he hides himself half behind me, peeking around my hip as Harper approaches.

“Hi.” She gives a wave and takes a seat in one of the rocking chairs. “I’m Harper. I’m just visiting your uncle for a bit. You’ll have him all to yourself again soon.”

Jamie nods, relaxing as his sister and Duke join us on the porch.

Duke goes straight to Harper, nosing at her hand until she pets him. That’s strange. He doesn’t usually take to new people so quickly.

“Why are you visiting?” Jenny asks, never afraid to stick her nose in where it doesn’t belong. “No one comes here to see Uncle Owen except us and Grandma.”

Way to call me out, kid.

Harper’s gaze cuts to me and away, so quick I almost miss it. “I… wanted to catch up with him. It’s been years since we’ve seen each other.”

Jenny nods, accepting her answer. “How do you know him?”

A nervous chuckle escapes me. “Okay, enough with the questions.” I ruffle Jenny’s hair and take a seat in the other rocking chair. “Harper, these are my sister’s kids, Jenny and Jamie. Guys, be nice to Harper while she’s here.”

“Oh, you should do Duke’s voices for her,” Jenny says, her blue eyes sparkling. “She’ll love it.”

I shift in my seat. “No, let’s do something else.”

“Please?” Jenny begs, folding her tiny hands under her chin and sticking her bottom lip out so it’s quivering.

“Yeah,” Jamie pipes up. “I like when you make him act like Mr. Cooper. Please?” He joins in on mimicking Jenny’s theatrics.

Heat crawls up my neck. “It’s dumb,” I mutter to Harper. “You don’t want to see it.”

She crosses one leg over the other, settling in her chair. “Oh, you’ve got me intrigued now. Come on, let’s see it.”

I sigh heavily, not sure how I can get out of this. I should be impressing Harper, not scaring her off. “Okay, fine.” Catching Duke’s attention, I pat my lap, and he excitedly climbs up. He’s too big to sit like this normally.

Crouching behind him as he sits tall in my lap, I take hold of his front paws and do my best imitation of Fred, the owner of the general store in town. “Back in my day, we didn’t have all these newfangled phones and computers,” I tell them in a crotchety, old man voice. “We used telegraphs and newspapers to get what we needed to know.”

Jenny laughs and claps her hands in delight. I have no idea why she finds this so funny. “You didn’t have an iPad, Mr. Cooper?” she teases.

“An iPad?” I huff. “I was lucky to have a chalkboard in school. Had to walk five miles there in the snow, uphill both ways.” I swing Duke’s arms around, pointing at the kids as they giggle.

I don’t dare peek my head over the dog to see how Harper’s reacting. She’s probably already on the phone booking her flight out of this crazy house.

I play along with their questions for a few minutes longer, then call an end to it, stretching my back. I can’t stay in that cramped position for too long.

Jenny goes to my side, resting her hands on my forearm. “Will you do the southern belle voice next? Please, please, please?”

“No,” I tell her firmly. There’s only so much I’ll put myself through. “It was a mistake to even do it that one time.”

“I’ll do it.”

I glance at Harper, surprised to find her smiling at me.

“If that’s okay with you,” she adds. “Though it might be hard to top your impression.”

Jenny abandons me to clutch at Harper’s arm. “Oh, will you? You have to make Duke sound like a sweet Southern lady. It was the funniest thing ever when he did it.”

Everything is the funniest thing ever to her.

“Have at it,” I tell her. Why she’d volunteer is beyond me.

I get Duke off my lap and point to Harper’s. “Sit here.”

Duke looks at me questioningly, then turns to Harper, who pats her hands on her thighs in encouragement.

He gingerly places a paw on her, then another, but when he puts his full weight on her, she groans. “Holy sh—”

She cuts herself off, giving a pained smile. “He’s a big boy, isn’t he?”

“About eighty pounds. Here.” I pick him up and settle him on her lap. “That better?”

She nods, situating herself behind him, and I swear the dog seems like he’s enjoying himself.

She takes hold of one of his paws, placing it on his chest. “I do declare, Miss Jenny, you are the most precious peach I’ve ever laid eyes on,” she drawls in a sickeningly sweet Southern accent.

Jenny smiles, revealing the gap in her bottom row of teeth. “What’s a precious peach?”

“Why, it means you’re cute, darlin’.” Harper carefully extends Duke’s paw to boop Jenny’s nose.

She laughs delightedly and Jamie crosses his arms over his thin chest. “What about me?” he asks petulantly.

“Now you, sir,” she twangs, pointing at him with Duke’s paw, “are a bona fide gentleman. As is your uncle.”

He glances at me and stands straighter. “I’m going to be just like Uncle Owen when I grow up.”

She chuckles. “And what about your daddy? Like him, too?”

I suck in a breath, not quick enough to delay Jenny’s sure-to-be blunt response.

“Our dad’s dead,” Jenny says matter-of-factly.

Yep, there it is.

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