"I'm not in the market for romance," Cassie amended. Her childhood illness had pushed her toward being quiet and quirky, not to mention her nonsexy aches and pains and frequent need to rest. Men weren't interested. Which was a good thing, because relationships meant dependence. Cassie had had enough dependence to last a lifetime.
She had things to do, a business to run.
"Good. You'll be better off single. And you'll always have a place with me and Donald."
"Right." She and Mom went downstairs, Ace running ahead of them, and there was a flurry of introductions. The white-haired woman turned out to be Mary Rhoades, who'd started the Victory Cottage program, and she somehow herded Mom and Donald into the kitchen so Evan and Cassie could carry her things out to the truck.
"Mom, take Ace," Cassie said, and Mom called the big dog. He trotted into the kitchen. He'd comfort Mom by his loving presence, help her keep it together.
"That was brilliant, bringing the Victory Cottage woman along," Cassie said to Evan once they were upstairs.
"I know your mom will like her," he said. "And she'll offer a little more reassurance than I could provide. Mary's great."
"Thank you so, so much for this. It's the only way Mom would agree to the trip, and she really needs to go." She wrapped her arms around Evan in a big hug, just like always.
Just like she'd always hugged Josh.
A heavy feeling settled behind her eyes and made her throat hurt. She'd never feel her brother's embrace, never hear his ready laugh again.
Evan tightened his arms briefly around her as if he could read her thoughts and then let her go quickly, half pushing her away. "None of that. We've got work to do."
He tested the weight of a carton before letting her carry it, waved away her protest that she could carry more as he picked up three of her actually heavy boxes and started downstairs.
She needed to make sure he didn't expect to keep her in bubble wrap, even though he had a point regarding her ability to lift and haul heavy boxes. "You know I'm healthy now, right? Stronger all the time. I lift weights at the gym." She flexed her arm to show her decent biceps.
He raised an eyebrow, one side of his mouth quirking up. "So now you're Wonder Woman?"
"I could take you," she said, the words coming out automatically before she could even remember why: she'd used to make that threat to him and Josh, back when she was a little kid trailing after them.
Then, though, it had been "I could take you both." Now there was only one of the duo to joke around with. That heavy feeling settled behind her eyes again.
Evan must have had the same thought, because his smile slipped away.
They walked through the living room and he stopped before a family picture: Mom, Josh and Cassie. "Hard to believe he's gone." She saw him swallow hard.
"Yeah." Her eyes strayed to another picture, pushed to the back. It was a rare whole-family picture taken when Cassie was a baby, before Dad left and Cassie got sick and Mom got depressed and Josh... She swallowed. "We should get on with it."
As they headed through the house and up the stairs, he kept looking around, and it hit her: he hadn't been here for years. He had to be remembering all the days he'd spent hanging out with Josh in their living room. They'd been as close as brothers at one time. She wrapped an arm around him as they reached the top of the stairs. "It's hard, I know."
"Yeah. Let's go." He extricated himself, and they grabbed the last load of boxes.
Cassie closed the bedroom door behind her, the quiet click resonating. Despite what Mom had said, she had the feeling she wouldn't be coming back home, not as the same person, anyway, and not to stay.
She closed her eyes for a fraction of a second, then turned and followed Evan downstairs.
They loaded the last boxes into the truck, and then he looked over at his old house. "Who lives there now?"
"A nice family. They have a couple of young kids."
"Good." He laughed, but it sounded forced. "About time your mom had some decent neighbors."
"Oh, Evan." His parents had continued to live there until a couple of years ago, when they'd moved south. They'd slowed down their drinking, Mom had told her, because both of them had developed some health problems.
Unfortunately, they'd never been the nurturing types, and that hadn't changed when they'd sobered up.
Evan was looking over at his old house, his eyes far away, and she figured he was seeing into the past, a difficult childhood where he'd had to fend for himself.
Mom, Donald and Mary came out the front door, Ace pushing his way past them to run to Cassie.
This excerpt is from the paperback edition.
Monday we begin the book All the Duke I Need by Caroline Linden.