"How deep is it? I can't look," Chris said as he squeezed his eyes shut, his palm
"I can't tell," I said tightly. "You have to hold still." I fought a wave of dizziness
as I dabbed at the wound on his hand. "It's not deep. Just long."
"That hurts," Chris complained. He tried to pull his hand away, but I tightened my
"Hold still," I said. I dabbed the cut with a disinfecting wipe. "You're lucky you're
not on your way to the hospital for a tetanus shot."
The future youth center looked more like a construction zone. Jagged ends of two-
by-fours had been discarded beneath the rusty scaffolding that barely propped up the
sagging ceiling. Sawdust floated through the air, filtering the weak winter sunlight as it
worked its way through grime-covered windows.
As I shifted my feet, my toe bumped against the wrench that had caused Chris's
injury. This place was going to be the death of me. Or the death of Chris. I might kill him
for dragging me into this mess. "Maybe you do need a shot," I muttered.
"Believe me, I don't need a shot, Nurse Ratched," Chris said sourly, although his
lips twitched in a barely contained smile. That was Chris, finding the humor in every
I opened a bandage and pressed it to the wound. At least he had a first aid kit.
"Why am I always taking care of you?" I asked, trying to remain stern but recognizing the
way Chris's charm always worked its way under any annoyance I might feel.
The boyish grin that always made my stomach drop like I was riding a roller
coaster spread across his face. "Because you love me," he said confidently.
I wrapped gauze around his hand. "Who said anything about love?" I teased.
"Ouch!" Chris clutched his chest as if I'd dealt him a fatal blow. "You really know
how to hit a guy where it hurt, Guinevere Stevens."
"No way," I protested. "No pulling out the Guinevere. That's fighting dirty."
Chris's eyes twinkled mischievously. He knew I hated my full name, given to me
courtesy of my wonderful father, who also happened to be obsessed with all things King
Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. It was no accident our family business was
named Camelot Flowers. At least he hadn't used my middle name too. Then the cut on his
hand would be the least of his worries.
"Fine, Gwen," he said, relenting. "We both know you love me."
I scooped up the debris from my makeshift nurse's station. "Oh, please," I
countered. "What about what's-her-name? Bambi, Tiffany, Crystal? I'm sure she's already
in love with you."
Chris chuckled as he scooted off the counter and said, "So, all the women I date
have stripper names?"
"What would your mother say if she heard you talking like that?" My words were
scolding, but I couldn't keep the grin off my face. I'd walked right into that one.
Chris draped his arm over my shoulder. "It's a good thing she's not here." He
scanned the open space, his smile tightening. "Thanks for all your work today. Not many
people would spend their day off in this dump."
I could already envision the groups of teens hanging out, having fun, knowing
Chris was there to talk them through the most difficult parts of adolescence. I'd given him
the same pep talk a dozen times over the past year, but it was clear he needed it again.
"This place is exactly what the town needs," I started. "We know what it was like
growing up here. It's easy to get into trouble with nothing to do."
"Are you saying I got into a lot of trouble growing up?" Chris teased.
"We both know exactly what you were like in high school," I said with a grin.
Chris picked up the wrench and tossed it into the overflowing toolbox on the
counter. "So does everyone else in Star Junction," he said, his tone bitter.
"Forget about everyone else. The people who matter recognize how much you've
Chris huffed out a breath, as if releasing the weight of everyone else's
expectations. His boyish good looks, blond hair, and perpetually sun-kissed skin, even in
the middle of an Illinois winter, only amplified his wide grin and cornflower blue eyes.
"You're right," he said. He leaned against the counter, the doubt gone, replaced by
the patented Chris Crawford charm. "As usual."
"Don't you forget it," I joked as I brushed at a strand of hair that had fallen out of
my ponytail. I caught my reflection in the small mirror Chris had hung above the sink and
almost fell over from fright. "Why didn't you tell me I looked like this?" I said in horror.
Chris glanced over from where he was collecting paintbrushes to rinse off.
"Looked like what?" he said absently.
I bugged my eyes out at him in disbelief and gestured at my hair, my face, and
then my whole body. A fine layer of dust covered my normally honey-brown hair until it
looked like I'd prematurely aged in the five hours I'd been helping Chris.
I'd walked in a woman six months away from turning thirty and was leaving
looking eighty. There was a streak of what I was praying was dirt but could be some kind
of toxic mold under my right eye. My light-blue sweatshirt and black yoga tights were
streaked with dust. A mysterious wet patch on the middle of my sweatshirt was
concerning since it wasn't wet to the touch. Gross.
Chris shrugged and said, "You look like you worked hard today."
"I have dinner with Penny in..." I glanced at my Apple Watch. "Twenty minutes.
I'm probably going to have to wash my hair a dozen times to get all plaster dust out."
Chris paused in his cleaning and really looked at me. "Where're you guys going
for dinner?" he asked.
"Bucky's," I said, not sure where he was going with this line of questioning.
Chris smirked, and I knew some kind of joke was coming. "I guess even that
place has standards."
I picked up a shop towel and threw it at him playfully. "That wasn't nice," I said.
"I'm kidding. I'm kidding." He walked over and wrapped me in a hug. "You look
like my best friend," he said as he wiped at the smudge under my eye with this thumb.
"Dirty hair and all." While his smile was still charming, it was also genuine. "What would
I do without you?" he asked.
I melted into his embrace, momentarily forgetting I looked more like a zombie out
for brains than a florist helping her friend realize his dream. "Probably die of tetanus," I
said into his solid chest.
Chris chuckled, sending a tendril of warmth through my body. He pulled back and
patted my arm before moving to gather up the tools lying around the room. "What've you
got planned for the rest of the weekend? You know, besides girls' night at Bucky's." Chris
grabbed a large screwdriver off the scaffolding and pointed it at me for emphasis. "And
why Bucky's? That place is a pit," he added.
"Bucky's might be a little rough around the edges, but we've been going there
since high school. It's tradition," I said defensively.
"Some traditions are meant to be broken," Chris said as he set the screwdriver into
"Not this one," I insisted. I tucked my water bottle into my purse.
"Say hi to Penny for me," Chris said as I prepared to leave.
"Sure thing," I said. Or not. She doesn't need to know I spent all day with you.
I skirted past a set of sawhorses to reach my jacket and scarf hanging on hooks
near the door. As I wrapped the scarf around my neck, the door jerked open, a blast of icy
air slapping me in the face.
Justin Hunt barreled into the room, his jeans and work boots dusty, his thick black
brows pulled down over dark-brown eyes that flashed with anger. Black hair curled at the
nape of his neck, and he sported the olive skin tone of his Italian heritage.
"Crawford!" Justin shouted at Chris. "You lying, cheating—" Justin skidded to a stop, annoyance flashing across his face as his gaze met mine. "Gwen," he greeted me, the
acknowledgment anything but friendly.
That was fine with me because I wasn't feeling particularly friendly either. Justin
may have been a six-foot-three-inch pile of muscle, but I'd known him since we were
both toddling around the sandbox in diapers. I didn't care how angry he was. He wasn't
going to get away with almost running me over.
"What on earth is wrong with you?" I snapped. "You scared me half to death."
Justin's eyes narrowed into slits. His gaze was fixed on Chris, although he spoke
to me. "Sorry," he said, sounding anything but sorry.
I'd never seen Justin and Chris fight. Not like this. "What's going on? Why are
you charging in here like a man intent on causing trouble?" I asked.
"Nothing you need to worry about," Justin said. His words sounded reassuring,
but the anger rolling off him in waves had me on edge.
Chris stopped in his efforts to clean up the space, gripping the hammer he was
holding a little too tightly. "Go get ready for dinner," Chris said to me. "Just a little
misunderstanding. Nothing that can't be worked out." Chris's reassuring smile never
faltered, but the tension in his eyes betrayed him.
The growing pit in my stomach warned I should stay. "I don't need to rush off," I
Chris slipped the hammer into the toolbox and said, "It's okay, Gwen. Really."
I would've felt better if Justin had also assured me everything was fine, but if
Chris wanted me to go, I'd go. I glanced between the two men one last time before
walking past Justin into the cold winter air.
The wind cut through my sweatshirt as I hurried to my green Jetta. Justin's cherry
red truck was parked next to it. I glanced at the closed door. Should I go back in? I'd left
them standing like two gunslingers facing off at high noon.
I climbed into my car and got the heat going. The dirty windows of the building
reflected back the late-afternoon sunlight, preventing me from seeing inside. I waited a
beat longer before pulling out of the parking spot and pointing my car toward home.
The guys would work it out. They'd been friends since elementary school. Played
football together in high school. Gotten into enough trouble around town to irritate the
adults in their lives but kept it innocent enough to never experience any real
consequences. Chris had matured in the years since high school. Justin not as much.
Despite all of that, they'd remained friends. Whatever Justin was upset about would blow
over. It had to.
Thirty minutes later, I pushed my way through the scarred wooden door of
Bucky's with wet hair and an apology ready for being late to dinner. The greasy smells
wafting from the kitchen transported me to Friday nights as a teenager spent gossiping
over who was going to ask whom to prom and whether or not our American Government
teacher was wearing a toupee. My gaze traveled the room, searching for Penny. I found
her waiting at a booth in the back, reading something on her phone.
"Gwen!" The shout came from the direction of the bar, and I turned.
Mitch Alcomb was sitting with some of his buddies. His flannel shirt tucked into faded
Wranglers fit right into the Friday night crowd at Bucky's. As always, he was wearing a
beat-up baseball cap that said Texaco on it. His bushy brown eyebrows danced on his
forehead like two fuzzy caterpillars. "I heard you spent the day helping Crawford clean
up that old heap down on Lincoln," he called across the room.
I glanced in Penny's direction to see if she'd heard him. Ugh. Of course she had. I
caught Penny's gaze and held up one finger before crossing the room to Mitch. "Yep.
Making some real progress over there," I said.
"He better watch it," Mitch said as he chuckled. "That dump is an accident
waiting to happen."
"That's what I told him," I said, finally feeling justified in all the lectures I'd given
Chris about the safety of the building and doing the work to fix it up himself.
Mitch tipped his beer in my direction and said, "Maybe I'll see you on the dance
Maybe," I hedged.
Dancing and I weren't exactly friends. It started the moment I'd gotten paired up
with Charlie Green for the square dancing section of PE class in middle school. The
embarrassment of having to dance with a boy who clearly never showered had translated
into two left feet. I'd never recovered.
"Hey Gwen, long time no see," a voice said from behind me.
I turned at the greeting. "Tony? What are you doing in town?" I asked in shock.
Tony Reagan grinned, brushing a lock of his dark hair back out of his eyes. "Just
visiting my folks for the weekend. Ran into Mitch at the Piggly Wiggly, and he invited
me out for drinks with the old gang," he explained.
Mitch slapped Tony on the shoulder and said, "Needed to make sure Mr.
Investment Banker from the big city hadn't gotten too big for his britches."
Tony snorted out a laugh, but on closer inspection, I could see the changes from
the small-town Tony I'd grown up with. While Mitch and the other guys at the bar wore
faded jeans, T-shirts, flannel shirts, or the occasional sweatshirt, Tony wore dark jeans, a
little too fitted to his body to be at home in Star Junction. His sweater was black with a
slight V-neck, and also fitted. The whole look was stylish without being fussy. Tony
might be comfortable at Bucky's drinking beer with the boys, but moving to Chicago two
hours to the northeast had definitely changed him, or at least his style.
"How are things in Chicago?" I asked. "Do you love living in the city?"
Tony shrugged and said, "It's fine. Building investment portfolios pays well, but
it's not what I wanted to be doing with my life."
"Damn right it pays well," Mitch chimed in. "That's why this round is on Tony."
Mitch tapped the bar, getting the bartender's attention. "Another round on Tony," he said
loudly enough for everyone sitting at the bar to hear.
Tony grinned and held up a finger as he said, "One round. One round is on me."
I'd often wondered what it would be like to live in Chicago. A few field trips as a
child to Shedd Aquarium or the Field Museum combined with family vacations over a
long weekend had been fun, but I was well aware that visiting a place and living there
were two very different things.
I'd left Star Junction for college, getting my business degree from University of
Wisconsin Whitewater before moving home after graduation. Whitewater, Wisconsin
was small by Chicago standards, but with a population around fifteen thousand, it was
three times the size of Star Junction. That was all the "big city" experience I needed.
My phone buzzed, and I glanced at it to see a text from Penny. If the food comes
and you're still talking to the boys, I can't be responsible for what happens to your fries.
I shot a look in Penny's direction. She quirked an eyebrow before bending her
head back over her phone. My phone buzzed again. I'm starving.
I got the hint. I turned to Tony and Mitch, who were deep in conversation about
the Chicago Bears' chances in the playoffs. "It was nice to see you, Tony. When do you
head back?" I asked.
"Tomorrow. Bright and early. Got to beat the weekend traffic," he said. While
he'd been animated in his conversation about football, he sounded suddenly weary at the
thought of heading back to the city.
"Say hi to your folks for me," I said before turning to Mitch to include him in my
goodbyes. "Have fun tonight, boys. But not too much fun."
"I'm going to check in on that dance later," Mitch said, reminding me I'd need to
come up with an excuse for that.
"No promises," I teased right back.
I weaved through the tables that would be moved to the side later once the live
band started and slid into the other side of the booth across from Penny. "You already
ordered?" I asked, not bothering to pick up the laminated one-page menu.
Everything about Penny was bold, from her jet-black hair cut into a sharp bob at
her shoulders to large, hazel eyes rimmed with expertly applied eyeliner. Tonight, her
wide mouth, which was pulled into a tight, disapproving line, sported hot-pink lipstick.
As the silence stretched, I fought the urge to squirm in my seat.
"I'm sorry I was late," I finally said. "Believe me, you're glad I took the time to
shower." If the lecture was coming, I'd just as soon get it over with so we could enjoy the
rest of the evening.
But she didn't mention my tardiness. What she was upset about was much worse.
"You spent the day with Chris? Again?"
I dropped my gaze to the menu. They'd added a salad, although the only dressing
option was full-fat ranch. I guess even Bucky's could change. Slightly. "I helped him with
some painting at the new building," I explained.
"Do you think that's wise?" Penny said. Her tone was in full-on teacher mode. It
was a tone that had been known to make the high school football players in her English
class quake in their Nikes.
I played with the straw sitting next to a stack of napkins. "Chris is my friend. I
help my friends with things."
"But that's the problem," Penny said as she leaned forward, her voice filled with
concern. "I've tried not to say anything. I've tried to let this thing run its course, but it's
been almost eighteen years and nothing seems to be changing."
"What are you talking about?" I said, playing innocent, but part of me knew what
she was about to say.
"You need to face reality. You and Chris are friends. You're probably his best
friend. But you don't want to just be friends, and that's the problem."
Our server, Nancy, approached. Her thick blonde hair was streaked with gray and
pulled up in a high ponytail. Her glittery blue eye shadow belonged to the 80s more than
in the present day, but Nancy had been rocking some kind of glittery eye shadow ever
since my first memories of her sitting across the aisle from us in church when I was a
child. I could only hope I was willing to embrace what I loved when I was her age, no
matter what anyone else thought.
We spent a minute engaging in the obligatory chitchat that came with living in a
small town like Star Junction. This time it was about the weather and the upcoming pie
social. I played my part in the conversation, but my heart wasn't in it. Penny's tight smile
hinted that our conversation about Chris and my nonexistent relationship with him wasn't
Nancy segued from discussing the upcoming pie social to talking about the task at
hand. "Your food should be out any minute. Do you need anything? Refills?"
We both had waters, but Penny also had a glass of what I expected was Dr.
Pepper. "Can I get a Diet Coke?"
"Sure thing, hun," Nancy said. She tucked her pencil behind her ear before
heading back to the kitchen.
Penny nailed me with a pointed look and said, "I don't like seeing you get hurt."
I smoothed my napkin over my lap. "I won't," I said quietly.
Penny's hazel eyes softened. "There's a pattern with you and Chris Crawford.
You're important to him. I'll admit that. But because of that, he does things that seem
flirty." She threw her hands up in the air. "Heck, flirty is who he is. You've been in love
with him since sixth grade—"
"I wouldn't say—" I interrupted, but she interrupted me right back.
"You've been in love with him since sixth grade," Penny said pointedly. "And so
you start seeing something that's not there. You get your hopes up, and when it becomes
clear he sees you as just a friend, you're crushed."
Penny had made comments about how much time I spent with Chris before, but
she'd never laid it out so plainly. Her words stung. "That's what you think happens?" I
"That's what I know happens," she said.
I watched a couple slow dancing to a country song on the jukebox, not bothering
to wait for the live music.
Penny's tone softened as she said, "I'm worried about you. Chris has had eighteen
years to fall in love with you. I don't want you to waste your life following him around
like a lost puppy."
This just kept getting worse. "You think I follow him around like a lost puppy?" I
asked in horror.
Penny backpedaled, her face stricken. "I didn't mean that. Not like a puppy. Not
Was that what everyone thought? I glanced around the room at people I'd known
all my life. Friends of my parents. Former teachers, coaches, and neighbors. My friends
from high school. Did they all pity me?
My phone buzzed, and I pulled it from my purse to see a text from Chris. Thanks
again for helping today. Sorry you had to see that with Justin. It's no big deal. We'll work
it out. You're the best. I'll buy you dinner this week as a thank-you. Anywhere but
My smile came automatically, but just as quickly, it slipped off my face. This was
what Penny was talking about. I shoved my phone back into my purse. I could do this. I'd
never succeeded before, but this time would be different. "Then I'm done with Chris
Crawford," I said emphatically.
"Let's not be overly dramatic," Penny said, rolling her eyes. "No one said you had
to be done with him. Just find some balance. There are plenty of guys who would love to
sweep you off your feet."
Penny had clearly been out of the dating scene too long. "We've known everyone
in this town our whole lives. Believe me, there's no one to date. You got lucky Jack was
willing to move back here with you after college. You married a great guy and managed
to stay close to family."
Nancy set our food on the table and wiped her hand across her brow, pushing her
graying bangs to the side. "Can I get you anything else?"
"More ketchup?" Penny asked as she shook the nearly empty bottle.
"Coming right up," Nancy said with a smile.
I pulled apart my chicken tenders, letting the hot steam escape. "There's no one
for me to date in this town, but I hear what you're saying about Chris. I can't help it.
Those broad shoulders, the way his hair falls over his forehead just so, and when he
touches me..." I shook myself back to reality. "Plus, what we went through all those
years ago was traumatic. Everyone knows shared trauma bonds people together. It's
Penny snorted, almost choking on her Dr. Pepper. "Trauma? I don't think both of
you being forgotten by your parents after school and having to walk home together
counts as trauma."
"Getting chased into the woods by Mr. Kowoski's giant, evil dog and then getting
lost and having to wait until a search party found us huddled in the dark was traumatic," I
"I guess you're right," Penny conceded. "The whole town was pretty scared that
day. Your mom must have called my mom a dozen times, checking to see if you'd turned
up at my house."
"Chris and I have needed each other ever since," I said before popping a piece of
the chicken into my mouth, savoring the greasy goodness you could only get at a dive
Penny grimaced and said, "That's what worries me. Chris needs you, but he
doesn't want you. You deserve to be wanted."
I waved my hand around at the room. "Then help a girl out, because it seems that
all the good guys are taken."
Penny glanced around the room at the groups of people enjoying a night out after
a long week of work. The corners of her mouth pulled down. "You might be right," she
said, sounding defeated.
"Maybe Chris will come around," I said. "He did hug me today, and it was
perfection." I fanned myself and pretended to swoon, earning a laugh from Penny.
"I refuse to let you waste any more time waiting for Chris to figure out how
amazing you are. I'll think of something." Penny stared off into space, absently chewing
on a french fry. She straightened up and slammed her hand down on the table. "I've got
it," she practically shouted.
I bit down on the inside of my cheek and yelped as pain shot through my mouth.
"Seriously, was that necessary?" I said as I cradled the side of my face.
"Sorry," she said, but she didn't look sorry. "What about the new guy?"
I carefully chewed the rest of my bite. "What new guy?" I asked.
"The new guy," Penny said. Her hazel eyes sparkled with excitement. "The new
detective at the police department. Baxter or Butler or something."
It wasn't like me to miss out on town gossip like this. "Uncle Stan mentioned they
were hiring someone from out of town, but I didn't know he'd started already. How did I
not know this?" I asked.
"Maybe because you've been too busy helping hunky Chris make his decrepit
dream a reality," Penny teased.
"Shut up." I tossed a fry at her. "You can't criticize my crush and tease me about it
at the same time."
"I'm pretty sure I just did," Penny said as she tucked her dark hair behind her ears.
Then her smile softened. "I worry about you."
"I know," I said with a sigh. "And you're right. Chris has never shown any interest
in being anything but my friend. My head knows it, but my heart can't seem to catch up."
Penny laid her hand over mine and said, "His loss."
The front door banged open, interrupting our sentimental moment. Cold air
snaked through the room, sending a chill up my spine.
"Hey! Shut the door!" someone yelled from near the bar.
I twisted in my seat. Justin stood in the open doorway, his hands balled into fists
and his nostrils flared. "Where's Chris!" he shouted.