Chapter Two


Bad things come in threes.

And bad thing number one, he of the very-fine-ass, stood outside her studio the next morning holding three coffee mugs.

“My boots are clean,” Harley said after she’d opened the door.

He angled his chin down, and like a trained monkey, she followed it with her gaze. Down the tight, grey marl tee, which clung to his wide chest and bagged a little over nicely sculptured abs. Down to the battered leather tool belt slung around his hips, which served as a weird kind of arrow, directing her gaze farther south to worn-soft denim cupping a sizeable bulge and strong, lean thighs.

She never made it to the dirt-check of his work boots.

“But the rest of me feels dirty from the eye-fucking you’re giving me.”

Her gaze shot to the smirk on his mouth.

“In your dreams, hotshot.” She whirled away from the doorway.

In your dreams? The verbal equivalent of poking out her tongue. Very mature. She continued to walk across the studio, past the stainless steel sink where she kept a row of glass jars soaking brushes, as well as a tray of tea-and-coffee-making supplies. “Kettle is there. Help yourself.”

Sitting at the desk in the studio’s corner, she forced her eyes to focus on the tiny digits of her spreadsheet. Harley remained silent, the click and hiss of the kettle heating up the only signs she wasn’t alone. The soft squeak of his footsteps on wood caused her fingers to clench on the mouse. She clicked away from the spreadsheet to another tab where she was adding some more details to the plan for Piper’s baby shower on Saturday.

Tiny hairs prickled on her nape as her nostrils filled with the scent of sawdust and warm man. He stood directly behind her office chair; she could see him in her mind’s eye, as if he were one of the shadowy negatives developed in her darkroom. He was a negative—her negative. Dark-haired to her blonde, risk-taker to her conservative nature, male to her female. Especially the male to her female.

Testosterone pumped off the man.

Bree tensed, waiting for a smart-ass comment about the photo used in the event invite—a black and white shot she’d taken of Piper in an armchair, laughing at Diablo, Holly’s adopted cat, who was perched on her pregnant belly, washing his paw.

“You see her, don’t you?” he asked. “Who she is under her tough ex-cop shell.”

“She’s my friend. And she’s not so tough.”

Harley chuckled, moving to sit on the desk edge. Bree camouflaged a flinch by crossing her legs and smoothing her skirt over her kneecaps. This morning, she’d triple checked her outfit in the bedroom mirror before coming downstairs to open up the gallery.

“No. Not as tough a nut to crack as you are, Brianna.”

“Bree,” she said. “Did you want something else?”

A rasping sound met her ears as Harley scratched some part of his sexily stubbled face. She couldn’t tell what part, exactly, since she refused to glance away from her screen.

“Shaye implied yesterday afternoon you’d make a good muse.”

“Shaye was yanking your chain.” Tappity-tappity-tap. She added an updated list of suggested baby gifts to a post, then a link to some baby-shower-themed snacks for guests to contribute to the pot-luck dinner.

“Probably. Think she could be onto something though. I’d be bloody inspired if you’d do some life modelling for me.”

Heat mushroomed into her face like an atomic explosion, and her fingers stilled on the keyboard. He was dredging that up from her first year at The Fine Arts & Design College? Partly because she was cash-strapped but more as proof she wasn’t repressed or a stick-in-the-mud, Bree had life modelled—for non-artists, that meant modelled stark naked—at a community-based art class on the other side of Christchurch.

Somehow Harley had found out about it and said he would’ve paid twice the going rate to see her twisted into pretzel-like poses while in the buff. She’d taken his teasing as a sign that perhaps Harley saw her as more than the girl from his hometown. Maybe even liked her as much as her eighteen-year-old self had liked him.

Delusions of the grandest order.

Bree swivelled her chair toward him, the skin pulling taut and hot across her face with the effort of maintaining her necessary-to-survive chilled composure. “Let you draw me like I’m one of your French girls? I’ll pass. And you don’t believe in an artistic muse, anyway. Not unless it’s a demon from hell disguised as your father.”

The words dropped from her tongue like poison-coated bombs, punching through the kettle’s boiling hiss and the tinkle of bells as the gallery door opened out front. Bree’s gaze rose from Harley’s hands clamped on the edge of her desk to the harsh bob of his Adam’s apple. Oh God. The cruellest possible thing she could say—

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “That was totally uncalled for.”

“Bee-bee? Are you out back?”

And…it looked as if bad thing number two had shown up.

Praise-Jesus-I’m-saved thankful, Bree turned toward her mother’s voice. Which went to show how much Harley had rattled her composure. She shoved her rolling chair backward, keeping her gaze well away from his face. “Yes, in here, Christine.”

Her mother strode across the floor in a flurry of beaded turquoise skirts, the gold bracelets encircling her wrists tinkling as she yanked on a wheeled overnight bag. “I just got off the ferry—which, by the way, is still a barbaric way to travel—and came straight here. Oh.” She halted in the archway, her face a brittle mask of exaggerated surprise. “You have company.”

Company said in the tone she’d also use to inform Bree of a cockroach infestation.

“Harley’s making coffee. The, um, water’s been switched off next door.” Bree rose from the office chair, feeling like a teenage girl caught with the town’s bad boy her parents had expressly forbidden her from dating.

“Nice to see you again, Christine.” Harley also stood, moving with panther-like grace around Bree to the kettle boiling away on the counter.

Her mother smoothed her sleek blonde bob. “And you,” she said. “Your brother and the Harland boy are outside. Are you helping them?”

“Yep,” he said.

“Instead of painting?”

“I’m painting. Walls, mainly. Three and a bit inside and one big one outside.” 

Harley popped off the instant coffee jar lid and dumped a spoonful in each mug, forgoing the little coffee plunger and fresh ground beans Bree kept to feed her mid-morning addiction. Couldn’t blame him for wanting a fast exit when she wanted to run upstairs and lock herself in her bedroom.  

Christine huffed through her nose. “You always did have a flippant attitude toward your gift, Harley.”

Bree’s insides contracted into a sickening ball. “Why are you here, Mum?”

Her mother gave a tinkling laugh, but her eyes were cool-blue chips of ice. “Christine, Bee-Bee. You haven’t called me Mum since you were a child.” She wrangled her suitcase forward, parking it inside the studio. “And I thought it was time to check on my gallery since I haven’t visited in a while.”

Nine years to be precise. The week after Bree had left for art college, Christine had packed her bags, shut the gallery doors, and caught a one-way flight to the Gold Coast of Australia. “And to make sure my youngest daughter hasn’t run it into the ground.” Another tinkling and oh-so-fake laugh. 

Bree folded her arms, sensing the heat of Harley’s gaze in her peripheral vision. Don’t do it, she ordered him silently. Don’t you dare remind her how I raised the gallery from the dead after she abandoned it. How I’ve kept this place running for four years. How I’ve clawed and fought and lived on baked beans some weeks to remain in business. How I’ve smiled at customers who’d rather buy a dozen kitschy souvenirs and framed landscape prints than one photograph I’ve taken. Don’t you dare play the hero and come to my defence—because you don’t know me anymore.

But Harley kept his own council, stirring the coffees and then dumping the teaspoon into the sink.

“I’m off. Thanks, Bree.” He angled his chin at her mother. “Christine.” Hooking his fingers through the mugs’ handles, he disappeared out the back door, kicking it shut behind him.

“I see New York hasn’t erased his attitude. But then someone with God-given talent like his can get away with being an ass.”

“He’s not an ass.” Totally was, at times, but Bree would rather poke out an eye with a sharpened HB pencil than agree with her mother’s character assessment.

“After everything he put you through, you’re still defending him?” Christine clucked her tongue and dug into her purse, removing her smartphone.

Bree refused to crack open that particular squirmy can of worms, so she kept her mouth sealed while she examined the dimensions of her mother’s suitcase. How long did Christine plan to stay?

Christine held up the phone and took a couple of shots of the studio. She swivelled on the balls of her leather sandals and held her phone landscape to capture a wide-angled view of the gallery through the archway.

Icy pebbles tumbled into Bree’s stomach in a rockslide of really bad juju. “Christine?”

Her mother walked farther into the gallery, taking more photos.

“What are you doing?”

“Taking photos, dear.”

Clearly, Christine believed Bree had the brain capacity of a field mouse when it came to deductive powers.

“I can see that—”

“Don’t worry. I know they won’t look professional, but it’s just to give an initial impression of the place. I’ll get you to redo the shots with all your fancy-pants gear later.”

And yes, Bree had heard her mother’s opinion on Bree’s choice of art many, many times. Christine had taken it as a personal attack when Bree had switched her portfolio from the medium of paint to photography in her last year of college. Christine was a small-to-moderately successful artist, and their shared love of the watercolor medium was the last common strand connecting mother and daughter. Photography was in the same league as finger-painting in her mother’s worldview—and God help anyone who mentioned the latest craze of adult coloring books in her presence.

“Why do you need photos of the gallery?”

Christine’s mouth pinched into a hard line. Most people were fooled by her hippie-dippie clothes, flirty smile and gypsy-ish air. Bree and her older sister, Amy, weren’t most people. Beneath their mother’s flamboyant, artiste persona was a woman whose day-dreamy air was due to her self-absorbance, not creative temperament.

“I’m tired of living in Australia,” Christine said.

Bree’s heart triple summersaulted. Oh. Dear. God.

“You’re moving back to Oban?”

Christine pressed a hand between her breasts and barked out a laugh. “Here? To the boondocks, where the locals wouldn’t know real art if it sprang up under their noses and belted out the ‘Halleluiah Chorus’? I think not.”

“Then what are you saying?”

“I’m moving to Christchurch to be closer to Amy and my grandson.”

Christchurch was a one-hour ferry trip across the Foveaux Strait and then a seven-hour drive away. Bree’s shoulders sagged. The news could’ve been a lot worse. She could’ve been acquiring a roommate to squeeze into the tiny, two-bedroom apartment upstairs.

“Your father dragged me down here in the first place with the promise of this”—she flicked a hand at the gallery walls lined with watercolors and acrylics and a couple of oils done by local artists—“and because I was savvy enough to get him to sign the building over to me, I have an asset worth something.”

Worth something? The chilled prickles spreading over her scalp froze when her mother’s gaze landed on Bree again.

“I plan to open my own little boutique gallery in Christchurch,” Christine said. “But in order to do that, I have to sell this place.”


Blood thumped wildly in Bree’s eardrums. “Sell the gallery? But you gave the gallery to me.”

Her mother’s almost perfectly smooth forehead creased. “No, I gave the gallery into your care when you needed a place to run home to. I never signed the building over. It’s the only asset I own. I have to think about my future.” She shrugged a shoulder under the floaty folds of her top. “I’m not ready for a retirement home, but I’m not getting any younger either.”

What about my future? What about my home? Bree wanted to wail, but instead, she kept her mouth shut. Appealing to Christine’s maternal instincts had always been an exercise in futility.

Something in Bree’s expression must have pierced her mother’s little bubble of self-absorption, because Christine gave a little chuckle. “Oh, come on now, Bee-bee. It’s not as if there’s anything holding you in Oban now. With your father in Nelson and Amy and me in Christchurch, you can move up with us—start another little photography business or apply to one of the high schools as an art teacher.”

Bree’s jaw felt wired together by the time her mother had finished her spiel. “You’ve got it all planned out, haven’t you?”

Christine flicked a dismissive hand and returned her phone to her handbag. “Christchurch is a lovely city. It’s a haven for the arts.”

As opposed to Oban, where the arts took the form of the local book club. Or Ford, Harley’s brother, playing his guitar at the pub. Or the amateur theatre group, which put on an annual production at the community centre. The monthly group of poets and wanna-be authors who met in the Great Flat White Café over coffee, often to listen to Mrs. Randal’s musings on the royal family. The children’s art program Bree ran during the year at Oban’s primary school. The small group of local artists, from whom Bree took only the minimum cut for selling their work in the gallery. Maybe Oban wasn’t an art haven, but what it lacked in sophistication, it made up for in authenticity and passion.

“I don’t want to move. My home and my friends are here.” The last word gave Bree a painful little twinge near her heart. Even though her family had moved to the Island nearly twenty years ago, she still sometimes felt like the skinny nine-year-old who’d tried too hard to carve out friendships among the local kids.

“None of those women are really your friends, you know.” Christine’s nose crinkled. “Besides, there’s not much chance of finding yourself another Scott with the beer swilling, jeans-wearing scruffs around here. You’ll be thirty soon enough, Bee-bee. Tick-tock.”

Scott-the-dickhead-ex was one of many subjects Bree refused to discuss with her mother. Instead, she focused on taking three deep and hopefully calming breaths. Channelled her hurt and frustration into the river of emotion she’d learned to wall off beneath a cool exterior. “What are you hoping to get for the gallery?”

Her mother rattled off a figure at least one and a half times what the property was worth. She threw in some wild statements about the gallery’s reputation and goodwill—all of which was due to Bree’s hard work in the last four years, not that Christine would acknowledge it—and finished with another frown. “You’re not considering buying the gallery?”

“I am,” Bree said. “Maybe you own the building, but the gallery is mine. The artists who show here, the kids who come during the school holidays, the portrait side of my photography business, which has gotten a lot more interest since the Harlands introduced their overnight romance tours on Ben’s boat…”

Her mother’s lip curled at that one.

“I want to buy the gallery from you,” Bree said. “Please, Christine.” She softened her tone. “It means a lot to me.”

That was the closest she could come to the truth. The gallery was everything. Having lost everything before, not once but three times—the bad things come in threes again—she couldn’t bear a fourth loss.

Christine cocked her head. “I’m not like your father, the old softie. I won’t buy your affection the way he bought mine when I agreed to move with you and your sister down here. I raised you girls to be strong, independent women.”

Bree struggled to keep her eyes pointed front and centre instead of rolling toward the ceiling. Bree and Amy—who was six years Bree’s senior—had practically raised themselves, while their mother had locked herself away in her studio. Guess Bree could attribute some of her strengths to learning to run a household with a father who was often off-island for business and a distracted-to-the-point-of-obsessed mother.

“And as such,” her mother continued, “if you want this place, I’ll sell it to you for the market-evaluated price.”

Warmth seeped into Bree’s bones. “That’s fair. Thank you.”

Forcing her feet forward, Bree crossed to her mother and wrapped her arms around her. Christine tolerated Bree’s embrace for a couple of seconds and then patted her shoulder briskly and pulled away.

“Well, then. You’ll have work to do getting your affairs in order. I’m staying at Due South tonight and then flying up to Christchurch to Amy’s tomorrow.”

“Oh, only one night?” Hypocrisy burned her butt, but she’d at least make an effort to not sound relieved. “How about I spring for dinner tonight. Del Westlake is the head chef at Due South now.”

“Wasn’t he in that Ward on Fire reality cooking show?”

“Yes. And he’s engaged to Shaye Harland now.”

Christine’s lips parted in a genuine smile. “Ah. A man who can cook is worth his weight in gold. But a man who cooks for you and heats things up between the sheets every night, he”—Christine pointed a finger at Bree—“is a man worth keeping around.”

“Great. Shall we say seven?” Bree returned her mother’s smile through a mouth frozen like a carnival clown.

“Perfect. Get one of those strapping big men out there to bring my suitcase over, will you? I’ll go check myself in.” Christine swept over to the gallery’s front door. “Remember what I said, Bee-Bee. Scott was quite the whiz in the kitchen.”

And a cheating, lying bastard elsewhere. Being able to whip up a four course meal with complimentary wines to impress his snobby peers at a dinner party didn’t make up for being an asshole.

Bree turned away from the now-empty gallery and slid back into her office chair. Stared at the jumble of numbers on her spreadsheet while a memory, bittersweet and perfect, projected into her mind. Harley, aged twenty. All sexy, attitude-drenched, naked inch of him, standing at the stove in his cramped student flat in Christchurch, cooking them scrambled eggs. He’d glanced over his shoulder as she’d entered the tiny kitchen, cracks of sunlight slanting across his back from a nearby window. Tiger stripes, she’d thought. His smile as he’d scanned Bree standing there in only his discarded shirt had confirmed her suspicions. She’d tangled with a man wild enough, dangerous enough to leave permanent bloody stripes across her heart. And like a wild animal, when Harley had exhausted his supply of easy prey he’d moved on to greener pastures. He’d left her and her silly, girlish dreams razed in the wreckage.

Bree exited the spreadsheet and powered down her laptop, dropping her face into her shaky hands. Right now, she had more to worry about than old scars that had never completely healed.

Right now, she was the only one she could count on to pull her dreams from the wreckage. 


 Two days later, Bree saw her mother off at Oban’s tiny airport and then took the ferry headed to the mainland, where she had an appointment with her bank manager.

Hours later, she stood at the ferry’s railing with Oban wharf growing closer and closer. Her stomach lurched in time to the slap of the waves, the rise and fall of the boat plowing through the chilly waters of Halfmoon Bay Harbor.

Seasickness, no. Wrenching devastation after walking away from her bank, yes.

Bree adjusted the celebrity-style sunglasses on her nose and forced her lips into a straight line to prevent them trembling. Though she’d been up half the night before, planning and practicing her loan pitch, organizing and scheming and recalculating her finances, it’d been for nothing. The hound-faced manager had apologized profusely but said the odds of her securing a mortgage were slim to none. She kept her It’s fine, I’m fine smile locked in place the whole walk from his office to Queens Park, where she’d sat on a secluded bench and allowed herself a ten-minute weep-fest.

She’d figure out something. She always did.

Bree stepped onto Oban’s wharf, keeping her head tucked down and her satchel of waste-of-time financial papers hugged close to her chest. One breath and then another. Don’t think any further than one minute ahead. All she wanted to do was slip home, tell Jean Brailsford, the woman who worked part time in Bree’s gallery, that she had a migraine, and crawl upstairs to bed. With a bottle of wine. And her gel pens and coloring book for grown-ups, which was as soothing as an hour spent meditating. Screw anyone who criticized, and yeah, she took pride in coloring within the lines.


Bree looked up at the curly haired brunette waving to her from the nearby Great Flat White Café outside tables. Kezia. And next to Kezia, her husband Ben, and across from him, Piper.

Brain machine-gun firing a string of curses she’d never utter aloud, Bree raised a hand in greeting and headed over, pride dictating she at least make polite chit-chat for a moment. To do otherwise would raise suspicions that something was wrong. Her gut clenched as the cold knot in her stomach twisted. Above all else, smile…even while shit rained down. She should get a tee shirt printed.

“Nice for those who can afford to take the afternoon off and drink coffee.” Bree came alongside Piper and applied her best snarky smile.

“Hah,” Piper said. “Nice for those who can still stand the taste of it. Which isn’t me, by the way.” She nudged a chair leg with one of her purple combat boots. “Pull up a pew. We were just discussing the new safety diver who’s taking over for me this summer. You can imagine the logistics of trying to cram my post-baby-bulge into a wetsuit.”

“Like junior’s daddy would allow you anywhere near a shark cage while you’re lactating—and don’t ask me who gave me that brain-worm of a word.” Ben scanned Bree shrewdly from beneath the peak of his baseball cap. “What’s put that lemon-sucking expression on your face? Other than your mother’s flying visit.”

“Nothing.” The snarky smile slipped into a lip tremor—and she couldn’t seem to will it to stop.

“Sit down,” Kezia said, her dark eyes full of knowing sympathy. “You look tense enough to shatter, cara.”

A couple of years ago, Bree would’ve brushed aside the invitation, claiming the ability to deal with the raining-down-of-shit alone. That arrogance had been worn down by the persistence of her small circle of friends—Piper, Shaye, Holly, and Erin…women she’d known since childhood—and also by newcomers to Oban, like Kezia, one of the Island’s schoolteachers and Ben’s new wife. While the occasional coffee-date or shopping trip might pass for friendship in the city, on Stewart Island, cut off from the mainland by the turbulent and wild stretch of ocean known as Foveaux Strait, a once-a-month, casual get-together didn’t cut it. On Stewart Island, friendships were serious investments, and resistance to investing in each other’s lives was futile.

So Bree sat.

Piper clicked her fingers at the café’s barista, who’d come out to deliver another table’s order. “Yo, Simon. One of those chai latte things here, please.” She switched her narrow-eyed gaze to Bree. “You definitely don’t need a shot of caffeine. Kez is right. Your cracks are showing. So what did Christine do this time? Another attempt to convince you to take that weasel Scott back so you can have lots of little WASP babies before your eggs dry up?”

“You always did have a way with words, Piper.”

“You always did have an iron rod jammed up your bum, Bree,” Piper shot back with a grin. “But, as Ben said, something’s happened to put that look on your face.”

Bree hissed out a sigh and crossed her legs. “Christine is going to sell the gallery.”

A fresh gust of sea air swooped along the wharf, taking Kezia’s and Piper’s gasps along with it. The breeze ruffled the feathers of a seagull waddling hopefully toward their table, and it let out an indignant squawk.

Ben leaned back in his chair, folded his arms. “And you plan to buy it?”

Bree’s mouth twisted. “That was the plan. Until the bank turned me down for a mortgage this morning.”

“How can she sell it?” Piper leaned forward until her baby belly bumped the table. “You’re the owner.”

Bree rolled a shoulder forward. “Technically, I’m not. When I came back from Christchurch, my parents’ divorce was being finalized. Christine told me over the phone she wanted nothing more to do with Oban, and since I was the only other artist in the family, I could have the gallery if I wanted to revive it. I didn’t think to engage a lawyer and make it official.”

“She hasn’t shown any interest in the gallery since she left, and you pay her rent, so why would you?” Ben asked.

Bree just hugged the satchel of papers tighter.

“I can’t believe your mother would do this to your home—your passion,” said Kezia. “How can she be so cruel? So thoughtless?”

Bree briefly met Piper’s and Ben’s eyes before turning to Kezia. The Harland siblings had known her mother back when her parents and her sister were a family—and she used that term lightly.

“I don’t believe it’s cruelty, Kez.” Though why Bree was once again defending her mother, she had no clue. “She’s probably gone through the last of the divorce settlement money, and in her head, selling the gallery in order to move back to New Zealand is totally justified. She wouldn’t have thought about her actions affecting other people.”

“It’s all about her, in other words.” Piper’s lip curled. “What about your dad, then? Have you hit him up?”

“Yeah, but…” Bree shook her head. As much as it had made her cringe into a ball of shame, she’d called her father after the bank’s rejection to ask him for a loan. But following an ear-bashing rant about her selfish mother, Bryan had confessed he was going through a financial rough patch himself. Bree had told him not to worry; she’d find some other way to acquire the gallery. Her dad had murmured something positive and non-committal and changed the subject.

Ben pulled an exaggerated frown. “So, ask money-bags Komeke. He’d give you a loan.”

But Ford doesn’t have any money. The words popped into her brain mere seconds before her stomach plummeted into the soles of her professional-height black pumps.

Harley. He means Harley. The one person in the world she couldn’t accept a loan from. She had enough barbed-wire cords tying her to the man as it was. Like hell would she bind herself to him financially.

Kezia’s mouth spread into a wide smile. “Perfecto. A fellow artist would be sympathetic and he’s a very generous man, isn’t he?” She beamed at her husband, who gave her a gooey-eyed glance in return, then they stared at Bree expectantly.

Bree held up a hand, willing the shakiness spreading throughout her whole body not to show. “There’s some bad blood between Harley and my mother.” Not to mention her and Harley, but they wouldn’t go there. “Christine once called him a pretentious hack, and that was one of her kinder insults.”

“Until he became the poster boy for Maori artist makes it big. Then she would’ve started ass-kissing.” Piper snorted and stole a chunk of Ben’s muffin, stuffing it into her mouth.

Kezia’s brow wrinkled. “Surely the two of you could come to an agreement—he wouldn’t hold a grudge against you for something your mother said?”

No. Not for her mother’s snooty criticism of his art. But for other reasons? And if Harley ever found out those other reasons? A shudder rippled down her spine.

Simon appeared at Bree’s side, lowering a steaming glass of chai latte in front of her. She thanked him and forced a smile across the table at Kezia and Ben. “I’m sure he wouldn’t. I’ll consider asking him.” Bree gave her latte a brisk stir. “Enough about me, tell me about this new safety diver you’re considering.”

Ben launched into a running monologue about the man’s qualifications. Bree nodded in the appropriate places and slanted a glance at Piper, who’d gone strangely quiet. Her once nemesis and now friend stared back with big hazel eyes, her steady gaze calling bullshit. Part of the reason for the friction between them as kids was neither would sacrifice pride for anything.

Piper knew Bree wouldn’t ask Harley for a loan, though Piper didn’t know why. Nobody in Oban knew why. And Harley wouldn’t understand why Bree couldn’t come to him, either—after all, Bree was just a woman he’d banged while a student at college. They had history, most of it amicable enough, but a history that should’ve ended when he left for New York. She didn’t doubt he’d bail her out if she asked. Probably even without strings attached, as God knew, it wasn’t as if she meant anything to him.

So Bree angled her chin away from Piper and continued to pretend Ben’s conversation was riveting, ignoring the dull thud of her heart as it pounded out a rhythm of defeat.

She was going to lose everything.