Is there anything sweeter than first love?
Don't ask Claire Keyes. The twenty-eight-year-old piano prodigy has never had a regular boyfriend, much less a real romance. Her music career has left little room for friends or family-which is just part of the reason she hasn't seen the family bakery or her two sisters in years.
But now Nicole is sick, and Jesse is AWOL. Despite the fact that Claire can't boil water, she's determined to play caretaker. Connecting with her sisters tops her to-do list...along with falling in love, or at least in lust, for the first time.
Ruggedly sexy Wyatt just might fit the bill. Although he keeps saying that he and Claire come from entirely different worlds, he lights up hotter than a bakery oven whenever Claire is near. If this keeps up, she just might sweet-talk him into her bed...and her life.
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New York Times bestselling author Susan Mallery has entertained millions of readers with her witty and emotional stories about women. Publishers Weekly calls Susan’s prose “luscious and provocative,” and Booklist says “Novels don’t get much better than Mallery’s expert blend of emotional nuance, humor and superb storytelling.” Susan lives in Seattle with her husband and her tiny but intrepid toy poodle. Visit her at www.SusanMallery.com.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Claire Keyes jumped to answer the phone when it rang, deciding an angry call from her manager was more appealing than sorting the pile of dirty clothes in the middle of her living room.
"Hi. Um, Claire? It's Jesse."
Not her manager, Claire thought, relieved. "Jesse who?"
Claire kicked aside a blouse and sank onto the sofa. "Jesse?" she breathed. "It's really you?"
Surprise didn't begin to describe it. Claire hadn't seen her baby sister in years. Not since their father's funeral when she'd tried to connect with all the family she had left only to be told that she wasn't welcome, would never be welcome and that if she was hit by a bus, neither Jesse nor Nicole, Claire's fraternal twin, would bother to call for help.
Claire still remembered being so stunned by the verbal attack that she'd actually stopped breathing. She'd felt as if she'd been beaten up and left on the side of the road. Jesse and Nicole were her family. How could they reject her like that?
Not knowing what else to do, she'd left town and never returned. That had been seven years ago.
"So," Jesse said with a cheer that seemed forced. "How are you?"
Claire shook her head, trying to clear it, then glanced at the messy apartment. There were dirty clothes piled thigh-high in her living room, open suitcases by the piano, a stack of mail she couldn't seem to face and a manager ready to skin her alive if that would get her to do what she wanted.
"I'm great," she lied. "And you?"
"Too fabulous for words. But here's the thing. Nicole isn't."
Claire tightened her grip on the phone. "What's wrong with her?"
"Nothing...yet. She's going to have surgery. Her gallbladder. There's something weird about the placement or whatever. I can't remember. Anyway, she can't have that easy surgery with the tiny incisions. The lapi-something."
"Laparoscopic," Claire murmured absently, eyeing the clock. She was due at her lesson in thirty minutes.
"That one. Instead, they're going to be slicing her open like a watermelon, which means a longer recovery time. With the bakery and all, that's a problem. Normally I'd step in to help, but I can't right now. Things are...complicated. So we were talking and Nicole wondered if you would like to come back home and take care of things. She would really appreciate it."
Home, Claire thought longingly. She could go home. Back to the house she barely remembered but that had always placed so large in her dreams.
"I thought you and Nicole hated me," she whispered, wanting to hope but almost afraid to.
"We were upset before. It was an emotional time. Seriously, we've been talking about getting in touch with you for a while now. Nicole would have, um, called herself, but she's not feeling well and she was afraid you'd say no. She's not in a place to handle that right now."
Claire stood. "I would never say no. Of course I'll come home. I really want to. You're my family. Both of you."
"Great. When can you get here?"
Claire looked around at the disaster that was her life and thought about the angry calls from Lisa, her manager. There was also the master class she was supposed to attend and the few she had to teach at the end of the week.
"Tomorrow," she said firmly. "I can be there tomorrow."
"Just shoot me now," Nicole Keyes said as she wiped down the kitchen counters. "I mean it, Wyatt. You must have a gun. Do it. I'll write a note saying it's not your fault."
"Sorry. No guns at my house."
None in hers, either, she thought glumly, then tossed the dishcloth back into the sink.
"The timing couldn't be worse for my stupid surgery," she muttered. "They're telling me I can't go back to work for six weeks. Six. The bakery isn't going to run itself. And don't you dare say anything about me asking Jesse. I mean it, Wyatt."
Her soon-to-be-ex-brother-in-law held up both hands. "Not a word from me. I swear."
She believed him. Not because she thought she frightened him but because she knew he understood that while some of the pain in her gut came from an inflamed gallbladder, most of it was about her sister Jesse's betrayal.
"I hate this. I hate my body turning on me this way. What have I ever done to it?"
Wyatt pushed out a chair at the table. "Sit. Getting upset isn't going to help."
"You don't actually know that."
"I can guess."
She plopped into the chair because it was easier than fighting. Sometimes, like now, she wondered if she had any fight left in her.
"What am I forgetting?" she asked. "I think I've gotten everything done. You remembered that I can't take care of Amy for a while, right?"
Amy was his eight-year-old daughter. Nicole looked after her a few afternoons a week.
Wyatt leaned forward and put his hand on her forearm. "Relax," he told her. "You didn't forget anything. I'll look in on the bakery every couple of days. You've got good people working for you. They love you and are loyal. Everything will be fine.You'll be home in a few days and you can start healing."
She knew he meant from more than just the surgery. There was also the issue of her soon-to-be-ex-husband.
Instead of thinking about that bastard Drew, she stared at Wyatt's hand on her arm. He had big hands— scarred and callused. He was a man who knew how to work for a living. Honest, good-looking, funny.
She raised her gaze to his dark eyes. "Why couldn't I have fallen in love with you?" she asked.
He smiled. "Back at you, kid."
They would have been so perfect together...if only there had been a hint of chemistry.
"We should have tried harder," she muttered. "We should have slept together."
"Just think about it for a minute," he told her. "Tell me if it turns you on."
"I can't." Honestly, thinking about having sex with Wyatt kind of set her teeth on edge, and not in a good way. He was too much like a brother. If only his stepbrother, Drew, had caused the same reaction.
Unfortunately with him, there had been fireworks. The kind that burned.
She pulled back and studied Wyatt. "Enough about me. You should get married again."
He reached for his mug of coffee. "No, thanks."
"Amy needs a mother."
"Not that badly."
"There are great women out there."
"Name one that isn't you."
Nicole thought for a minute, then sighed. "Can I get back to you on that?"
Claire arrived at the SeaTac Airport early in the afternoon, feeling very smug about making her own travel arrangements. She'd even booked a car for herself. Normally she would have used a car service, but she would have to drive back and forth to the hospital, then to the bakery. Nicole might need her to run errands. Wheels of her own made sense.
After wrestling her two very large suitcases off the baggage claim belt, she grabbed one in each hand and dragged them toward the escalator. The catwalk to the parking garage was long and the bags heavy. She was breathing hard by the time she reached a bank of elevators she had to take down to the rental car place. By the time she got to the Hertz office, she was regretting the long wool coat she'd shrugged on. Sweat trickled down her back, making her cashmere sweater stick to her.
She waited in line, excited about being here, nervous and filled with resolve to do whatever it took to reconnect with her sisters. They were being given a second chance. She wasn't going to blow it.
The woman at the counter waved her forward. Claire dragged the two suitcases along as she approached.
"Hi. I have a reservation."
"Claire Keyes." Claire handed over her driver's license and her platinum credit card.
The woman studied the driver's license. "Do you have insurance or do you want coverage on the car?"
"I'll take your coverage." It was easier than explaining that she didn't own a car and had, in fact, never owned a car. The only reason she had a driver's license at all was because she'd insisted on lessons when she'd turned eighteen and had studied and practiced until she'd passed the test.
"Any tickets or accidents?" the woman asked.
Claire smiled. "Not one." Getting a ticket or an accident would require actual driving. Something Claire hadn't done more than once or twice in the past ten years.
There were a couple of forms to sign, then the woman handed back the license and credit card.
"Number sixty-eight. It's a Malibu. You said midsize. I can get you something bigger, if you want."
Claire blinked at her. "Number sixty-eight what?"
"Your car. It's in slot sixty-eight. The keys are inside."
"Oh, great. I'll pass on something bigger."
"Okay. You need a map?"
Claire tucked the map into her purse, then dragged her suitcases out of the glass structure. She saw rows of cars and numbers at the end of each parking space. Counting as she went, she found number sixty-eight and stared at the silver Malibu.
It had four doors and looked huge. She swallowed. Was she really going to drive? A question for later, she told herself. First she had to get out of the parking lot.
Challenge number one turned out to be getting her luggage into the trunk. There didn't seem to be any way to open it. No buttons, no knobs. She pushed and pulled, but it wouldn't budge. Finally she gave up and maneuvered her two big bags into the backseat. Then she slid behind the wheel.
It took her a couple of minutes to get the seat moved up so she could actually reach the pedals. She managed to get the key in the ignition and turned it. The engine caught immediately. Claire carefully adjusted her mirrors, then drew in a breath. She was practically on her way.
Next she turned to the GPS system. It greeted her in French.
Claire stared at it. What on earth?
She pushed a few buttons. Yup, it was speaking French. Okay, sure, she also spoke the language, but not well enough to deal with it while driving. The potential to freak while on the road seemed big enough without adding a foreign language to the mix.
She punched buttons until she'd scrolled through Dutch and Japanese. Finally she heard the pleasant female voice in English.
The need to run screaming into the night faded slightly.
She continued reading the instruction card, then carefully punched in the address of the bakery. She'd forgotten to ask Jesse for the name of the hospital where Nicole would have her surgery, so the bakery seemed like the best place to start. Finally, she braced herself to drive out of the space.
Her chest was tight. She ignored that, along with the prickling that started on her back and moved over her whole body.
Not now, she thought frantically. Not now. She could panic later, when she wasn't about to drive.
She closed her eyes and breathed, pictured her sister lying in a hospital bed, in desperate need of help. That's where she needed to be, she reminded herself. With Nicole.
The sense of panic faded a little. She opened her eyes and began her journey.
The parking structure seemed dark and closed. Fortunately there weren't any cars in the row in front of her, so she would have extra room to turn as she drove out.
Slowly, carefully, she put the car in Drive. It started to move right away. She jammed her foot on the brake. The whole car jerked. She eased up on the brake and it moved again. Moving six or eight inches at a time, she managed to make it out of her space. Fifteen minutes later she'd made her way out of the parking structure and onto the road that led out of the airport.
"In five hundred feet, stay to the right. I-5 is on the right."
The voice from the GPS system was very commanding, as if it knew Claire was totally clueless about driving in general and where she was going in particular.
"I-5 what?" Claire asked before she saw a sign for the I-5 freeway. She shrieked. "I can't go on the freeway," she told the GPS. "We need to go on regular streets."
There was a ding. "Stay to the right."
"But I don't want to."
She looked around frantically, but there didn't seem to be any other way to go. The road she was on just sort of eased into the freeway. She couldn't move to her left—there were too many cars in her way. Cars that suddenly started going really, really fast.
Claire clutched the steering wheel with both hands, her body stiff, her mind filled with images of fiery crashes.
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