Keepsake for Eagle Cove - M. L. Buchman - ebook
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-an Eagle Cove romance- In the heart-warming conclusion to the Eagle Cove series: Tiffany Mills hides a secret about the small Oregon Coast town of Eagle Cove. The line between her past and her present grows blurred. Until, with her life as a recluse threatened, she must defend her beloved homestead in the woods. Devin Robison wants nothing to do with women, at least for now. He needs a summer as far away from his past as he can get. The opposite of Chicago? A renovation job on a remote Oregon lighthouse keeper’s cottage feels just perfect. But when their pasts collide and their present unfolds, they both discover the Keepsake for Eagle Cove.

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Keepsake for Eagle Cove

a small town Oregon romance

byM. L. Buchman

Chapter 1

Envying other people wasn’t something Tiffany Mills had much experience with and she didn’t like it. Especially not when they were hugging her so fiercely.

She’d always thought of Natalya Lamont as the calm and collected one of her friends. Well, not her friends, but Natalya’s. Maybe it was Natalya’s own wedding that had her bubbling like a giddy schoolgirl.

Of course Natalya’s mother also was exhibiting similar behavior as it was her wedding day as well—a mother-daughter marrying a father-son event. But Gina Lamont was a generally more effusive type, so at least it was expected of her.

Tiffany wanted to ask Natalya what it felt like to be so happy, but resisted the urge. Delaying a bride making the rounds wouldn’t be fair…and, with Natalya’s present mood, probably not even possible. It was awfully kind of her to notice Tiffany at all—she was as close to being a friend as Tiffany had allowed in years.

“I really appreciate you being here,” Natalya finally let her go, then gave her another quick hug with a loud “Ooooooo” of sheer delight before spinning back into the congratulatory crowd surging through and around the Lamont B&B.

“No, it was my pleasure,” Tiffany ended up saying it to herself, always remembering too late to speak her thoughts aloud when she was with others. If it meant she had lived too long alone, she wasn’t going to think about it now.

It was a gorgeous day for spring in Eagle Cove, Oregon. The big Victorian overlooking the Pacific Ocean was packed with wedding revelers. The parlor and the kitchen overflowed out onto the porch on the warm May day. That was where Tiffany had retreated to, a small bench on the wrap-around verandah that let her overlook the events on the lawn without getting snarled up in them.

Becky Billings had lobbied to have the event out at her brewery, as her own wedding had been, and they would have moved it there if the weather hadn’t cooperated. But it was one of those magical spring days after a long, wet winter that made everybody smile. Natalya and her mother Gina had thrown a lunch—catered by Greg, the town’s master chef, of course—then had the wedding, which left plenty of time for dancing on the front lawn. It overlooked the ocean and was well filled with people during the warm afternoon; the cool evening would chase everyone inside, but not for a few hours yet.

Gina and Natalya had both wanted to be wed in the family home, the last house before the big headland that defined the end of Eagle Cove. The town was spread over two miles of shoreline and the town’s founders—a mother and daughter as well—had built two grand Victorian houses on the high bluff below the rocky palisade of Orca Head. One house became the Lamont B&B, and Judge Slater owned the other.

Not for the first time, she felt a pinch. Gina and Natalya Lamont belonged here in Eagle Cove, direct descendants of the daughter. They even still lived in the family home, at least Gina did, and Natalya had grown up in it.

Tiffany was connected to the town as well, but it was a connection from long ago and one that she had kept secret for the three years since she’d moved here.

Of course she wasn’t exactly in town, which made her feel a little less guilty. She lived alone, homesteading a full mile farther out of town into the forested hills. She had found a small gap between two plat surveys of adjacent state forests and, much to the Oregon Department of Forestry’s surprise, had purchased the ten-acre anomaly from the state. She lived in “unincorporated” forest—technically, she wasn’t even in a county.

Maybe she should declare her own county, or better yet her own country! Occupancy: one human, thirty chickens (unless some more eggs had hatched this morning), a half dozen goats, and her guard dog. There was also an exceptionally lazy cat the black-over-white color of an orca whale—and roughly the same blobbish shape—who kept Tiffany’s lap warm on cold nights. Fitz only roused herself for mouse hunting, a task at which she excelled.

Oregon State law had some considerations that might make it implausible to declare independence and Federal law definitely did. Of course, if she did declare her own state, she’d have to decide whether or not to sign onto the Interstate Commerce Commission for fair trade with other states. Would that be necessary for when she sold her chicken eggs and excess garden produce to Greg at The Puffin restaurant in Eagle Cove? As a bonus she could elect a governor. Of course, with only one resident, the choice would be obvious and the balloting blessedly painless.

Tiffany raised her right hand, “And the ayes have it.”

“Good. They can keep it,” Jessica Baxter stepped up, slapped Tiffany’s raised hand like a high-five, then eased herself down on the bench as close as Tiffany had observed best friends often did.

Tiffany’s other shoulder was against a wall, so she had nowhere to go.

“If my husband ever tries to touch me again, he’s going to get a big-ass nay.”

“You’re huge!” At eight months pregnant, Jessica seemed to be expanding daily, but she sat so close beside Tiffany, that Tiffany could see Jessica’s belly almost from the owner’s perspective. Jessica had been the first of Natalya’s friends to get married. She’d gotten pregnant right away and every one of those eight months showed on her belly. She was five-ten—Tiffany wouldn’t have minded those extra four inches herself—and slender as could be, except for the pregnancy. From the back she looked perfectly normal, as she had one of those pregnancies that went straight forward.

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Jessica groaned with a happy sigh of relief at being off her feet.

“Okay, you probably don’t know why your five-times-great-grandmother stopped speaking to her daughter,” for Jessica Baxter was Gina’s niece and also a descendant of Pearl Lamont. And then Tiffany wished she could cut her tongue out. It was something Jessica wouldn’t know, but it said so much more than Tiffany wanted to reveal. Ever.

Jessica blinked at her in surprise.

Tiffany could only hope that it would be written off as “just one of those things that Tiffany Mills says.” Her own four-times-great-grandmother’s journal was what had led her to Eagle Cove in the first place. Lillian Lamont had been one of the founders of the town. But if Tiffany wished to survive, her past had to stay hidden, cut off, forever.

“Wait.” Jessica furrowed her brow as she massaged her back. “Five times…you’re talking about the founders of Eagle Cove.”

Tiffany really didn’t do well with people who lived outside of her imagination.

Jessica, she knew, had been a journalist and was incredibly tenacious. Now that she’d latched onto it, there wasn’t a chance that she’d let go. Tiffany didn’t want to reveal how she knew what she did or that she had any connection to the town prior to the founding of the State of Tiffany in the woods. She suspected that her normal ploy of shaking her long hair forward and “going shy” while focusing on her knitting wasn’t going to work this time. Especially as she hadn’t brought her knitting to the wedding. Running might be an option. But if she started, she might never stop. Then where would she—

“Hi.”

Tiffany looked up at the man now standing eye-level to them, two steps down from the porch. He was lean and had brown eyes beneath tousled hair of the same color. He wasn’t dressed like a wedding guest, but rather in unseasonably early shorts, a plain t-shirt, and hiking boots. He looked like a trekker, certainly had the strong legs of one, but she glanced around and saw no sign of a pack.

“I don’t want to crash the party, but I think I’m in the right place. This is the Lamont B&B?” He appeared a little lost and a lot overwhelmed, two feelings that Tiffany knew well.

Grabbing any distraction she could, Tiffany rose to face him as he climbed the last two steps. He was only a few inches taller than she was. “It is. It’s also the Lamonts’ weddings, both of them.”

“Oh, that explains the crowd. Maybe I’ll, uh, just come back in a few days.” He looked around as if trying to find somewhere to go.

“Did you have a reservation?” Tiffany almost grabbed his arm as he started to turn away. Jessica hadn’t moved from the porch seat close behind her and Tiffany was still trying to distract her from the accidental revelation.

“No. Not really. And not yet. I’m a couple days early. Once I got in my truck…” he waved vaguely back toward the long drive clogged with guests’ cars, “I just drove.”

“I think the B&B’s full with wedding guests, but let’s go check.” Tiffany took his hand and led him inside. At the last second she risked a glance at Jessica, and saw that she hadn’t gotten away with anything. But more than that, Jessica was looking at Tiffany as if she was suddenly an alien or something. She grabbed the man’s hand more tightly and plunged into the crowd.

# # #

Devin Robison had rarely felt so out of place in his life. He’d slept in the back of his pickup last night in the Boise National Forest. Up with the sun, he’d landed in Eagle Cove nine hours later in the middle of a wedding. It was terribly disorienting, and not just the road-weariness-meets-wedding scenario.

He’d thought that growing up in Chicago had prepared him for great expanses of water. Lake Michigan was Chicago’s front yard—three hundred miles long and a hundred wide. He’d even boated on the Caribbean a few times. But as he’d crossed the country, the towering peaks of the Rockies had been as disorienting as if he’d traveled to the moon. The real shock had been when he’d broken out of the Coast Range forest before the final descent into town and seen the entire Pacific Ocean before him; he’d nearly crashed his Toyota in surprise. Unless you happened to stumble on an island, Tokyo was five thousand miles away. The expanse was impossible to comprehend.

Neither Chicago nor the towns he’d driven through in the last four days had prepared him for the tiny size of Eagle Cove. One mile from forest to ocean and two miles along the beach…and it wasn’t densely populated. The next town of any size was thirty miles up the coast. He’d been on the verge of turning around from an attack of agoraphobia, the fear of open spaces—or maybe just plain nerves. It was news to him that such obscure places even existed. Eagle Cove was so remote, so wild. He hadn’t seen a single fast food place in the town. Maybe they weren’t allowed; every business, actually every road except the main drag of Beach Way, had been named for a bird: Blackbird Bakery, Warbler Market, Rusty Pelican Tavern. Strange place.

Devin had come west looking for a fresh start, or at least a break. He needed the latter desperately, but he’d left “middle America” somewhere staggeringly far behind.

Finding the massive Victorian home had been easy. “Find LBB Lane at the far end of downtown,” which was their grandiose term for a business district four blocks long. “Go to the end of the road Little Brown Bird Lane. You’ll know when you find the right place.”

And he absolutely had. The house was gorgeous. It was exactly the sort of structure that had led him into architecture school. Three stories of classic, early-1880s American Queen Anne Victorian. He’d fallen in love the moment he’d seen it. The house was one of the best examples he’d ever seen of that style. Unlike so many of the ones in Chicago, the whimsy had not been allowed to overwhelm the beautiful lines and overall cohesiveness of the design. Yet it was still playful, with circular turrets, balconies, and a wrap-around porch.

A verandah clogged with people.

Devin floated through a kitchen packed solid, anchored in this reality only by the hand of the woman leading him.

The woman leading him.

Few greeted her, though they readily moved aside, allowing her a straight line passage. His first sight of the kitchen had made him wonder if it was even possible to cross. Yet for whoever-she-was, the crowd made way. He was half tempted to guess that it was magic, as people almost didn’t notice that they had moved aside for her. They certainly didn’t break their conversations for her passage.

He usually at least knew the name of someone he was holding hands with. Had there been introductions? He didn’t think so.

He’d headed for the woman on the verandah the moment he’d spotted her. Her nearly waist-long fall of thick tawny hair had acted like a guiding beacon. Only a model had hair like that, not normal people, yet she looked to be perfectly in her element. Then, as he climbed the steps, he’d become aware of her eyes watching him from beneath the wide brim of her felted hat—twin glints of blue-gray carefully hidden by shadow.

Her blouse and skirt were…rustic, for lack of a better word. Perhaps bohemian, as the maroon belt made by a wrapping of fabric defined a trim waist and made her billowy sun-yellow blouse and light spring-green skirt look very nice. Maybe someone’s mild-mannered and carefully cloistered cousin. Except for her hands. The one holding his was firm and, even if she didn’t hold on hard, the strength of her fine fingers was obvious. And hard calluses. She worked with her hands a lot.

“What’s your name?” She didn’t look up at him. They’d come to a small nook in the back corner of the kitchen. It felt oddly quiet here though he could hear a dozen different conversations. She let go of his hand to pull out a register. The woman spoke softly, but he could hear her despite the other noise.

“Devin. Devin Robison.”

She didn’t offer her own, but began flipping through the pages. Then she stopped as if shocked. She looked up at him sidelong.

Yes, more gray than blue, at least the one eye inspecting him.

“Who are you?”

Devin figured that if he could answer that one, he wouldn’t be twenty-three hundred and seventy-nine miles away from everything and everyone he knew. “Am I in the book?”

She nodded with a mesmerizing slide of long hair. “Yes.”

“Is there a problem?”

This time the hair shimmered side to side.

“And?” What a curious person she was.

“Gina Lamont gave you the best room in the house other than her own. Until today it was her daughter Natalya’s, though she’s been living with her now-husband in town.”

“I take it that’s unusual.”

She tipped her hat back enough that he could at least see a hint of a smile. “More than a little.”

“Maybe we should check with her.”

“Wedding day. I think she has enough distractions. Let me show you the way.” She took a classic skeleton key from the hook and once again led him away, though without taking his hand this time. He kind of missed it.

Devin wanted to inspect the house as they went, but found himself unable to look away from the still nameless woman leading him up the twisting stairs and along a narrow hallway.

She knocked perfunctorily on the door and had the key inserted when someone called out, “It’s open.”

She eased open the door and peeked in.

“Tiffany!”

At least Devin now had a name for her. It fit. Fragile as glass in some ways, but enduring and undeniably beautiful. Also completely different from any woman he’d met before. The women in his Chicago social circle were consistently sharp, perfectly maintained, and elegantly attired.

A short blonde, dressed in a tight-fitting black dress with a dangerously bountiful cleavage, yanked the door wide and grabbed Tiffany by the wrist to haul her into the room, even though she was already retreating. Then the blonde, who seemed part small tornado, leaned around to look at him past Tiffany.

“Ooo. He’s cute. Way to go, Tiff. Natya, check this out. We’ll get out of your way, Tiff,” she made the last lurid and suggestive.

The room was as classically Victorian as the house itself, high-ceilinged and it incorporated one of the circular towers as a small seating area. A white wedding dress lay spread across a dark quilt on the bed. Art covered the walls. Paintings and drawings of women. Powerful women.

Before he had a chance to notice more, a tall, dusky-skinned brunette spun to look at him. She too wore black. At a wedding? Above her left breast was pinned a corsage of tiny bud roses…spray-painted as black as her dress. Maybe some kind of joke? He was glad Tiffany instead wore the colors of spring; they looked very cheery on her compared to the other two women’s, admittedly sexy, black.

The instant she spotted him, the brunette’s expression went from surprise to narrow-eyed suspicion. She looked as if she’d leapt straight out of one of the paintings on the wall and was ten times more daunting in real life than the numerous two-dimensional women who seemed to be glaring at him also.

“No, I—” Tiffany was protesting as the blonde pulled her farther into the room.

It was easy to see what was going on and Devin was hard-pressed not to laugh.

The tall brunette stepped up close in front of him and his desire to laugh dissipated rapidly as he looked up at her. She stood at least five-ten and that was, he risked a glance to check, barefoot.

“If you so much as touch her, I’ll personally—”

“No, Natalya,” Tiffany cut her off. “He’s a guest. I’m just showing him to his room.”

The tall Natalya glanced over her shoulder, then she turned back to glare at him, her protective ire only slightly tempered.

“Hi, I’m Devin,” he held out a hand. “I’m actually not a guest.”

Natalya was halfway to shaking his hand, but stopped.

“A Gina Lamont hired me.”

“Mom hired you?” The handshake never completed.

So the wedding dress had been Natalya’s, Natalya Lamont’s—Tiffany had said it was both Lamonts’ weddings today. At a quick glance he saw that she and the cheery blonde both wore wedding rings. He double-checked, but Tiffany wore no jewelry. Neither rings nor earrings, at least not that showed through her hair.

“Well, isn’t that convenient,” the blonde said suggestively, winking at Tiffany, who blushed fiercely.

She fist-pumped at Tiffany’s reaction.

“Yes! We’ll be wearing black for you next. Another one bites the dust!” She began a small stomping dance, her bright red cowboy boots marking a muffled circle on the rich Oriental carpet.

Devin finally got the joke of wearing black—the “death” of another single woman.

Tiffany shook her head fiercely, creating a cloud of hair, but kept her peace.

Natalya’s continued glare told him that her interrupted threat was still in place.

Devin felt as if he was suddenly swimming in deep waters. He’d come here for a fresh start, a reset on a life that had gone sideways (way the hell sideways), and he was already in it neck deep.

Welcome to Eagle Cove, buddy.

# # #

Tiffany slipped the key into Devin’s hand and abandoned ship. She felt bad about doing that to him but she’d suddenly felt so claustrophobic, the room and the two strong personalities crushing in on her, that she had to run.

Downstairs was little better. The kitchen crowd surged into the parlor. Dance music sounded from out on the lawn. Danny McCall on vocals, the Judge (as everyone called the retired Judge Slater) on stand-up bass, and his wife playing a rocking lead acoustic guitar. Becky would be on the drums soon now that the music was gearing up. Tiffany played her harp with them on occasion, but not today.

Through the window, she could see that Jessica was still on the verandah bench. Tiffany didn’t dare go out that door or she’d be trapped in a conversation she didn’t know how to avoid.

She retrieved her harp from where she’d tucked it behind the basement door and made for the B&B’s back door, ready to flee Eagle Cove just as her ancestor Lillian Lamont had over a century before…though Tiffany would only go as far as her farm, not all the way to San Francisco as Lillian had. Tiffany was never going back there.

Tiffany made it through the crowd, using the harp in its case as a shield, and opened the back door to escape just as Becky swept down the rear stairs. She hooked an arm through Tiffany’s.

“Come on! They’re waiting for us.”

“There’s no need…” Tiffany tried to point out that the band was already playing and people were already dancing on the lawn; therefore, no one was waiting for them, especially not for Tiffany. But she never had the chance.

Becky didn’t let go, so Tiffany was helpless to head back to her home in the hills. Instead she was towed out the back door and around the house to where the band had set up under the spreading branches of a big old cherry tree on the front lawn. Becky deposited Tiffany on her usual seat, a nicely carved stump of a tree that had gone down in the Christmas Day Gale of 2005. She knew that because of the date carved by the chainsaw artist who had reshaped the stump.

At a loss for what else to do, she pulled her Celtic harp out of the padded case. The harp stood about three feet tall and had twenty-six strings, exceptional for a harp that she could carry on a shoulder strap and play while standing. As she was seated, she screwed in the lapbar crosspiece that would rest on her knees. The harp was one of her prized possessions, one of only two from her entire childhood—the only two she had brought north with her to Oregon and later to Eagle Cove. From the inlaid Celtic knots of shimmering abalone to the smoothness of the dark walnut wood, she loved everything about it. It was one of only two things she had ever felt to be absolutely and completely hers.

Tiffany listened for the harmony line in the Cat Stevens ballad. She slid in on the beat and kept her head down.

As it always did, the music soothed and lifted. She’d come to enjoy the rare community events when they played in the group. She knew her harp added a warmth to the sound. They occasionally tried to have her take a solo. An offer she always refused except for a few Harry Chapin songs, where she took the soulful cello part, or anything by Sting; she preferred being an accent rather than a statement.

Usually she watched the townspeople. There was always something amusing to learn, something to watch. Some were the great forces that shaped the town: Judge Slater, Gina Lamont, and Maggie Winslow—the town’s second-grade teacher and a primal force for decades. Then there was the upcoming generation of Jessica, Natalya, and Becky, the self-declared overseers of the town’s future. But there were other, subtler forces at play and she enjoyed watching those as well.

Tiffany had moved to Eagle Cove shortly after Ma Slater’s death. Tiffany had seen right away that Peggy Naron was going to be the Judge’s next wife…even though it had taken him three years to learn the same. Cal Mason Jr. and Sr., who had just married Natalya and Gina Lamont today, weren’t chaotic influences. Rather, the two big men were solid, stabilizing influences to their dynamic women.

But today she didn’t watch even though she could hear their laughter, pick out their voices. She kept her head down and focused on the music.

Until the moment a second guitar joined in on a chorus of the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.” A glance to her left had her fingers jangling on the harp strings.

“Hi,” Devin Robison sat cross-legged on the ground close beside her with a beautiful Martin twelve-string acoustic in his lap. He easily picked the backup line, filling in spaces between Peggy’s lead and her own harmony.

“Hi,” she tried in response but it came out strange and discordantly squeaky. Her fingers found their way back into the music. Once she was solid, he ducked over to the harmony himself, teasing her with a descant to her line, counterpointing the harmony. She responded by leaving him in the harmony and sliding in above Peggy’s melody.

He chased her through a tricky round of rock and roll, Maroon 5 and Five for Fighting, which were always a challenge on the harp. She teased him with half harmonies in Jimmy Buffet and Fleetwood Mac, forcing him to fill in around her gaps so that the harmony line wouldn’t shatter.

Only when Peggy finally called a break was Tiffany aware of how sore her fingertips were—they must have played at least a double set for them to be so sensitive. They’d played long enough for the sun to slide well down toward the ocean, making it painfully bright to look westward. Somewhere in that shining blur, the crowd began applauding wildly. All of the musicians were bowing. Even Devin had risen to his feet to join the others. Tiffany used the harp in her lap as an excuse to stay seated and simply bowed her head.

The applause went on far longer than normal. When each of the band members made a point of stopping by to shake Devin’s hand and tell both him and Tiffany how wonderful their playing had been, Tiffany knew she’d messed up again. She’d always been careful to play simple harmonies, avoiding notice; but with Devin challenging her, she’d played far beyond what she normally let others see. Had her life been different, she might well have accepted the San Francisco Symphony’s request for her to audition for them—one of her only regrets about abandoning her past.

As the band dispersed into the crowd, some calling for drinks, others simply heading for them, Devin remained by her side.

“I’m fine,” she assured him.

“You are fine. You play wonderfully.”

“I meant you can go join the others.”

He shrugged as he sat back down on the grass close beside her and she couldn’t help but look over at him.

“You have a nice smile.” She bit down on her tongue. Tiffany had meant to compliment his playing.

“Thanks. I’m waiting for you to smile to see if you do.”

“Really, I’m okay by myself.” Was he flirting with her? The whole flirting thing had somehow passed her by without her ever learning how to do it.

“I don’t know anyone else here.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“Why are you sorry? You’re the one person I do know. Other than Natalya Lamont.”

He said it in a way that was funny.

“Oh,” he said softly, “you don’t have a nice smile.”

Tiffany slapped a hand over her mouth to hide it.

“You have a great smile. Do it again.”

# # #

Tiffany just shook her head, but her smile really was incredible. Even over the hand presently covering her mouth, Devin could see her eyes sparkling.

It made him feel as if he’d done something right. As if leaving everything he knew back in Chicago and driving into the coastal wilderness might, just might, not have been the most idiotic maneuver of his entire lifetime. Well, no, the absolutely most idiotic moment had been six weeks earlier and that had launched him on the path to Eagle Cove. But maybe there was finally a glimmer of light in his personal tunnel.

“I’m sorry I left you with Natalya. She’s mostly wonderful,” Tiffany spoke from behind her covering hand.

“Except when she’s teasing you?”

Tiffany nodded uncertainly, then shook her head, covering half of her face with her hair.

There were television ad shampoo models who didn’t have such incredible hair. It was hard to look away from its shimmering length as it reflected Tiffany’s every move and mood.

“No, Becky was teasing me. Natalya was…” Tiffany tapered off, looking puzzled.

“Protecting you,” that much had been obvious.

“Really?” Her eyes went wide and her hand dropped to clutch the harp that she held against her chest like a warrior’s shield. Because he was seated below her, he could see every expression despite the wide-brimmed hat... No, more than that, he could see every emotion. There was a purity that couldn’t be real. Humans were never that honest. Not brothers, not ex-fiancées, and not conniving—

He shook his head, trying to shed the sudden, dark thoughts.

“She was guarding you like a mama bear,” he said and liked the image though he wondered how the woman in question would feel about the description. “Natalya threatened to feed me to an orca whale.”

“I have an orca-colored cat. Does that count?”

Devin laughed. “Absolutely.” He almost asked if he could come see that, but decided against it at the last moment. He remembered the way she’d bolted from the upstairs bedroom—her hand had actually been shaking as she pushed the key into his palm. Shy. She was remarkably shy and it again made him wonder that she’d taken his hand in the first place. A momentary lapse? He liked being her momentary lapse.

That smile slipped back. This time he didn’t comment on it for fear of scaring it away again. There was no calculation behind the smile, just a brightness to her eyes and a curve to her very nice lips. Again that strange dichotomy as she switched back and forth between seeming just a little simple and then having a quick humor. And the way she’d played, it had taken his breath away. She was beyond performance-level skilled; she should be playing concerts on international stages or something. He tried to remember if his brother’s weekend band had ever been that much fun to play with before it all went so wrong, but not that he could recall.

“Excuse me?” Tiffany’s voice was so soft that he’d almost mistaken it for a trick of the breeze.

“Yeah?”

“If you don’t mind my asking, why are you h—” But Tiffany was cut off by a stern voice.

“Now we’ll get to the bottom of this.”

Devin looked up and wondered what new disaster was headed his way. The very pregnant blonde from the porch was approaching, arm in arm with a gray-haired battle-ax of a woman.

Tiffany jolted to her feet. But rather than running off, she handed her harp to him and rushed to assist the pregnant woman.

“I’m not an invalid,” she protested as Tiffany and the older woman practically forced her into the seat Tiffany had just vacated. “I’ve got another month of this? Why didn’t anyone warn me!”

Devin noted that Natalya wasn’t the only over-protective one in this group as Tiffany quickly fetched the padded stool from Becky’s drum kit and offered it to the gray-haired woman.

“You will not find me perching on that, Tiffany Mills.”

“We’ll trade,” the blonde began to lever herself up.

“Sorry, Mrs. Winslow,” Tiffany whispered as the older woman pushed the blonde back into her seat. “I’ll get a chair from the house and—”

“I may be gray on top but I am not dead. I stand all day in the classroom,” she folded her arms and glared at all three of them. “I can certainly stand here. Now sit yourself down.”

In response, Tiffany sat straight down where she was standing, close beside the stool, but not on it. She ended up on the grass almost close enough for Devin to rub shoulders with her.

He silently offered her harp. She took the instrument and wrapped it protectively in her arms once more. It was as big as her torso, ornately carved, and well-used. The sweeping arch climbed past her shoulder, reaching higher than her head. He wasn’t a harp aficionado, but while his Martin was one of the best commercial twelve-string guitars made, it was clear that her harp was a custom piece of a whole other class.

“Now what is this I hear?”

Devin cringed, having no idea what was about to happen.

“Jessica…”

That must be the pregnant blonde.

“…tells me that you have knowledge of what divided our town a hundred years ago.”

So this wasn’t about him. Still, his nerves were having trouble relaxing. Mrs. Winslow reminded him of too many dictatorial teachers from his past. Though now that her obvious displeasure was aimed elsewhere, he discovered in himself a desire to protect Tiffany just as Natalya had. Though there was something about her, that enigmatic quality to her reactions and the way she’d leapt to Jessica’s aid, that made him suspect that perhaps Tiffany didn’t need as much protecting as all of her friends thought. And her playing had nothing to do with timidity in any form.

Tiffany nodded reluctantly—he was learning to read her. Like her music, there were complex interactions that were as much body language as facial expression.

“A little bit longer than that actually.” Then she rested her chin on the smooth curve of the neck that formed the top of the harp as if to clamp it shut.

“You know that I value our town’s history.”

Tiffany nodded carefully.

“And yet you did not tell me, though we’ve known each other two years.”

“Two years, eleven months.” Then Tiffany actually bit down on her lower lip and stayed very still.

“Is your reason good?” That had Jessica looking up sharply at Mrs. Winslow. She’d clearly never thought there might be a reason.

Tiffany tipped her head, rolling it enough to lean her cheek against the upsweep of the pegboard…then shrugged uncertainly.

“You will not make it too much longer,” Mrs. Winslow did not make it a question.

Tiffany shook her head, but Devin could see the deep reluctance there.

The older woman considered them all for a long moment, nodded once, and turned to go.

“No, wait,” Jessica called after her. “There can’t be any reason for her to not tell us now what—”

“Hector Jackson,” Mrs. Winslow said as she walked off, “has asked for my hand in the next dance when the band starts once more. I must find him and confirm if that is still his intent.” And she was gone.

Devin couldn’t help laughing. “Why in the world does she talk that way?”

“Second-grade teacher,” Tiffany said quietly. So quietly that Jessica didn’t hear though she sat only a few feet away.

“She was my second-grade teacher,” Jessica answered in kind. “Started long before me and still is, though she’s past retirement age. She wants to exemplify the English language to her students. She firmly believes that contractions will not communicate the importance of learning the language properly to young minds,” Jessica sounded a little like the woman herself. “But after so many years, she can’t switch it off when she’s out of the classroom either.”

Devin could hear the love that poured out of Jessica as she spoke. He was used to home, where people always seemed to have a hidden knife waiting in every conversation. Here people protected one another like, well, he was going to say kin, but experience had taught him that was the least true of all.

“Why would someone choose to teach second grade their whole life?”

Jessica spun on him, suddenly looking as dangerous as Natalya.

Devin held up his hands, “I meant that with nothing but respect. I just remember me in second grade and I was no blessing.”

“I’ll bet,” her tone was as dry as the prairie in August. “Who are you?”

“Devin,” he was getting tired of that question. As if everyone already knew everyone. Then he glanced at the number of wedding guests spread across the lawn and guessed that some fair portion of the town’s population was here…and knew each other. And if they’d all shared the same second-grade teacher—he couldn’t even guess how many second-grade classrooms there’d been at Alexander Graham Bell Elementary. That had him laughing again.

“What?” Jessica sounded only a little friendlier than the dangerous bride had been.

“I just realized that my elementary school back in Chicago was a couple times bigger than this entire town. And my high school was ten times that.”

“Chicago?” Jessica lit up like he’d just said the magic password. “What part of the city?”

“North, mostly. And central,” and it felt like dust on his tongue to even say that much.

“The Gaztro-Wagon,” Jessica said with a happy sigh.

“The Southern Mac & Cheese Truck.” Devin did miss the food already even though he’d been gone for only three days. To find another fan of the Chicago food trucks out in the wilderness of the Oregon Coast was something of a relief. Maybe civilization wasn’t so far away.

“The Mexican-wrestling-mask and sombrero guys,” Jessica offered next. “Their truck had a weird name.”

“Tamalli Space Charros! Those guys are the best.” Devin felt a sudden homesickness so deep he almost felt ill.

“No,” Jessica said as if commanding him not to go there. “The Flirty Cupcakes food truck. They’re the best.”

And he did feel a little better for meeting her.

# # #

Tiffany had watched their reactions.

Jessica’s acceptance of Devin grew rapidly based on no more than shared gastronomical experiences in a city thousands of miles away. Such simple things to tie people together. Why did she never find that? Her connections were never simple.