Laurel stared at the ceiling. An overhead fan was twirling lazily. She didn’t really need it, the temperature in the room was perfectly comfortable, and the breeze unnecessary, but the sight was mildly hypnotic.
Her life had gotten really strange. Maybe she was dreaming?
She didn’t feel like she was dreaming, though.
She turned onto her side. She needed to think. Calmly, coolly, dispassionately. She needed to consider everything that had happened and…
She flipped back onto her back. She did not want to think.
Maybe it had to be done, but not yet, not now.
Instead, her thoughts floated back to her dinner companions. Now that was something to think about.
She hadn’t accepted their invitation to join them on their family trip, despite the seeming sincerity of the invitation. But she had promised to consider it and decide in the morning. That was — she turned to her side again, looking for a clock, but the room had no bedside clock. She picked up her phone from the bedside table and looked at its screen.
She felt like she’d been lying awake forever, but it wasn’t even midnight. She set her phone down and collapsed back onto the bed, thoughts turning to the rest of the evening.
Her dinner had been as delicious as promised, but a little strange. She’d never ordered. She’d never even seen a menu. The waitress had been serving the others and she’d set a plate before Laurel and Laurel had tried to explain that she hadn’t asked for it. But it was busy and the waitress was moving fast and, well, somehow that meal just became Laurel’s.
If she’d seen a menu, she probably would have ordered the exact same thing, but it was still odd. Not so much the waitress making a mistake — that could happen anywhere — but the calm acceptance everyone at the table had shown about it. Not that Laurel expected anyone to make a scene, but… well, it had been a good meal. Something about it felt slightly surreal, but there was no point worrying about it.
And she didn’t have to worry about Sadie, either. After dinner, Niall and Noah and Grace had walked her back to her car. Noah didn’t have a code reader, whatever that mysterious device was, but he’d tightened her gas cap and suggested she turn the car on. Like magic, the check engine light had disappeared. She might have felt stupid about that, but Niall and Noah had started bouncing stories about car disasters off one another and she’d been too busy laughing to feel like an idiot.
They were fun. It would be fun to go to Disney with them. Certainly more fun than going by herself. But…
She sat up, picked up her pillow, plumped it furiously, then plopped down on it, staring up at the moving fan again.
With the check engine light resolved, Laurel could have driven away. But it had been dark by then, and it wasn’t like she had reservations anywhere. No one was waiting for her. So instead, she’d walked with Grace and the brothers through the springlike evening to the Sunshine Bed & Breakfast, just a block up from the main street. It was a lovely little place, with a white picket fence and a brick walkway, and one available room left, the room in which she was currently not sleeping.
It was a nice room, and the bed was comfortable, with great sheets. But she was too restless to sleep and staying in bed was just making it worse. The innkeeper had shown her where the tea and coffee were kept and told her to help herself. Maybe a cup of tea, some nice herbal flavor, would be relaxing.
She hadn’t, of course, packed a robe. It hadn’t even occurred to her. But her pajamas were presentable enough: skimpy shorts and a t-shirt that said, ‘On Sundays, we stay in bed.’ She debated shoes for a second, but then, barefoot, pulled open her door.
The house was hushed. She could hear a low murmur of sound from one of the nearby bedrooms — maybe a conversation, maybe someone watching a video on a computer or tablet — but the lights were dimmed in the hallway. She felt an impulse to tiptoe going down the stairs, but resisted. She wasn’t being surreptitious, she was just getting herself a cup of tea. Still, being quiet was only considerate.
At the bottom of the stairs, the heavy front door stood slightly ajar.
It was late. Why was the door open? Quietly, she padded over to it and peeked out. It was dark, but a lamppost by the gate spread a warm yellow light across the peaceful lawn and gardens.
“Hey.” A voice came out of the darkness.
Laurel squeaked as she jumped back into the house, heart racing.
“Sorry.” The voice held a laugh that she recognized. It was Niall. “Didn’t mean to startle you, just didn’t want you to close the door and lock me out.”
Hand to her heart, Laurel looked out again. He was sitting on the steps, leaning against the post. She must have looked right over him.
“What are you doing out here?” She stepped out onto the porch, shivering slightly as the cool night air hit her bare legs and arms.
“Oh.” He let out a long sigh, then lifted a wine glass in her direction. “Appreciating the night. Or drowning my sorrows, take your pick.”
“Drowning your sorrows?” Laurel stepped closer to him, trying to see his expression. Was he kidding?
“I’ve been dumped,” he said, setting the glass down next to him. “By text, no less.”
“Ouch. That’s cold.”
“It is,” he agreed fervently. “And her timing—“ He shook his head. “Not the best. Although…” He laughed, but it sounded pained. “Check it out.”
He shifted but Laurel couldn’t see what he was doing, until he held his hand up with something in it.
She stepped closer. He was holding a small, square box in a distinctive shade of blue. “Is that—?”
“Yep.” He didn’t lower his arm, still holding the box out to her. “Go ahead, take a look.”
She took the box away from him and opened it. There was enough light to see the ring inside. It was a diamond, probably close to 2 carats, wrapped in ribbons of pavé diamonds, set in a platinum band of more diamonds.
“It’s gorgeous,” she said politely.
“It’s gaudy,” he replied.
“Well…” She bit back her smile. “Yeah, maybe. Not really the kind of thing I’d want to wear every day.” She handed the box back to him.
“Me, neither.” His mouth twisted, smile wry, as he put the box back into his pocket.
“It’s beautifully made, though,” Laurel said. Had agreeing with him been rude?
“She would have loved it.”
Laurel dropped down onto the step next to him. “Are you okay?”
“I had it all planned,” he told her. “I’ve got dinner reservations at Cinderella’s Castle during the fireworks show. The view’s not supposed to be that great from inside the castle and the food’s just okay, but it seemed romantic.”
“Definitely,” she agreed. “Happily Ever After fireworks, right? What could be more romantic than that?”
He sighed again. “The funny thing is…” He let the words trail off.
After a few seconds, Laurel prompted him. “The funny thing?”
“I thought I was ready for a change,” he said, then corrected himself. “I am ready for a change. But… this is embarrassing to admit.”
Laurel waited. When he didn’t say anything more, she shifted her position, making herself comfortable leaning against the other porch post.
“You aren’t going to ask?” He sounded amused.
“Well…” She was pretty sure he’d tell her eventually. She wasn’t going to pry, but he obviously needed someone to talk to, and she was the only one around.
“I need another glass of wine for this,” he said. “Would you like one?”
“Ah — sure?” Where was he going to find a drink this time of night?
But he stood and disappeared into the house, returning a couple minutes later with another glass, a half empty bottle, and a lightweight blanket.
He draped the blanket around her shoulders. “Grabbed it off the couch for you. It’s a lot warmer than New York, but not that warm.”
“Thank you.” She snuggled into the blanket, holding it closed with one hand.
He poured red wine into both glasses, then handed one to her. He tapped his glass against hers. “To running away.”
She chuckled. “To running away,” she agreed. “Where did you get the wine?”
“Leftovers from Avery’s Wine O’Clock. I should have asked if you wanted white. There might be some in the fridge.”
“No, this is fine.” She sipped, cautiously, but it was a pleasant red, not overly intense.
Silence fell between them, but it wasn’t awkward. It felt companionable.
Laurel finally broke it, asking, “Are you going to tell me what you’re embarrassed about?”
He gave a faint laugh. “Wouldn’t you rather tell me your story than hear my pathetic tale?”
“Not really. In fact, not at all.”
“Ah, a lady of mystery,” he said lightly.
“Not really that, either. Just…” She tried to imagine explaining her story to him. “It’s complicated.”
“I like complicated stories.”
She smiled into the darkness, not looking at him. “Maybe someday. But not tonight.”
“Fair enough. My story then.” He said the words, but then he fell silent again.
Finally, he said, “The embarrassing thing is that I mostly feel relieved. That ring — I spent a small fortune on it. I did it because I knew it would matter to Sierra, that it was what she would expect. But I should have known it was a mistake when I was looking for the ugliest ring they had.”
Laurel tried to disguise her snort of laughter as a cough, not very successfully. “It’s not that bad.”
“I didn’t buy the ugliest one,” he protested. “I just looked for it. Not a good sign.”
“Why did you want to marry her?” Laurel asked.
“She’s beautiful?” Niall laughed. “Damn, but that makes me sound superficial. She is beautiful, though. She’s a model. You might have heard of her, Sierra Harlow?”
Laurel’s mouth didn’t drop open, but it took an effort. She had indeed heard of his girlfriend. Probably anyone who paid any attention at all to fashion would have. Sierra Harlow was tall, skinny, glamorous, with perfect skin and elegant cheekbones. She wasn’t just beautiful, she was spectacular.
“Um, yeah.” Laurel was glad her voice didn’t squeak. “I’ve heard of her.”
“Turns out, she doesn’t like Disney. She thinks it’s for children. And she doesn’t like kids, either.” Niall sounded horrified. “Who can not like kids? They’re just small people. And they’re so interesting. They have such weird ideas.”
Laurel liked kids. And she liked guys who liked kids, too. But she wasn’t going to say either of those things aloud. Instead, she asked, “Why was she coming with you, then?”
“It was a surprise,” Niall said, sounding gloomy. “A week’s vacation. I thought it would be fun. But somehow she got the idea that we were heading to Saint-Tropez. I don’t even know why she’d want to go there. She doesn’t like the sun, it’s bad for her skin. She doesn’t like salt water, it’s bad for her hair. She doesn’t like beaches, because sand. Why would I have taken her to Saint-Tropez?”
Laurel pressed her lips together to stop her laugh from escaping. She wanted to be sympathetic, truly she did, but he sounded so plaintive.
“You have to come with us now,” Niall said.
“Excuse me?” Laurel’s eyes widened. His girlfriend dumped him so she had to join them? What kind of suggestion was that?
“I’m odd man out in this crew. I’ve barely met any of them, except Noah, of course, and — well, yeah, that’s a long story, too. But you can’t abandon me to being the third wheel with my brother and his girlfriend. It would be cruel and unusual punishment. Sadistic. And me with a broken heart and all.”
He was leaning forward and she was almost positive that he’d batted his ridiculous eyelashes at her.
“Are you fluttering your eyelashes at me?” she asked sternly.
His bark of laughter was loud enough that he covered his mouth and looked toward the door. “Oops. Don’t want to wake the neighbors.”
“Your heart is not broken,” Laurel said dryly. But her own heart was beating a little faster. Going to the Magic Kingdom with a family not her own was one thing — maybe more fun than solitary wandering, but maybe lonelier, too.
Going with a cute, funny guy, though? That was tempting. Really tempting.
“Nope, it’s not. Not even the tiniest bit broken, which definitely makes me think I dodged a bullet. But I’m serious. I wouldn’t have come on this trip if I’d thought it was gonna be just me.”
Laurel hesitated. She drank a little more of her wine, swirling it around in her mouth before swallowing, while she considered. Finally she set the glass down on the step next to her and said, “Tell me the long story. The one about you and your twin.”
Niall picked up the bottle and added more wine to her glass. “Evil twins unite? I’ll tell you if you tell me.”
“If I tell you what?”
“Why you’re the evil twin. Or not, as the case may be. I saw the way you had to think about it.”
Laurel’s mouth twisted. “Yeah.” She stared at her bare feet, wiggling her toes. She wasn’t going to tell Niall the whole story, not all of it. Not why she was running away.
But he was a total stranger. Maybe it would help her think things through to talk about it with someone else. “All right. But you first.”
“Done.” Niall leaned back against the post. He seemed to be thinking, then said, “I guess it’s not such a long story, really. When we graduated from high school, Noah joined the service, I went to college. He wound up in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I wound up on Wall Street. It—“
His voice roughened. “It messed us up. Messed him up, really. He nearly died once, but he went back anyway. Then he just, he shut down. He stopped calling, stopped writing. After he got out, he disappeared. We didn’t know where he was for months.”
Laurel could barely breathe. Their stories weren’t the same, not really. Her brother had no war to explain his choices. But at the same time…
She kept her voice even, nonjudgemental, as she said, “Drugs?”
Niall shrugged. “If so, he’s never said. About a year ago, he—“ He seemed to be picking his words carefully. “—he resolved some shit. That’s his to tell, not mine. But since then, we’ve been trying, both of us. All of us, really. He visited our mom in Maine last summer, and I saw him, too, just for a weekend. Then he came home for Christmas, which was a really big deal. And then this — this’ll be the longest time we’ve spent in the same place in a decade or so. He invited our mom, too, but she couldn’t make it.”
He exhaled. “The evil twin thing — we used to do this shtick in high school. All about picking up girls, really, arguing who was the good twin, who was the bad. Girls like the bad one, usually. But I don’t want him to ever think that I’m judging his choices. Or his past. I spent our twenties having fun on Wall Street and he spent them serving our country. And then wrestling with his demons. He doesn’t ever get to be the evil twin again. He’s a fucking hero, whether he believes it or not.” The words were unexpectedly intense. He shook his head, then lifted his wineglass and drained it.
Laurel waited until he set the glass down. “I wish I could say the same about my twin. He was a baseball player. Really good. Obsessed. But he blew out his elbow in our junior year of high school. They gave him painkillers for the surgery and now…” She blew out her own long breath of air.
“He’s an addict?” Niall asked.
Laurel tightened her grip on the blanket. Unconsciously, she clasped her left wrist with her right hand, stroking the skin of her arm with her thumb.
“Doesn’t that make him the evil twin, then?”
The corners of her lips lifted but it wasn’t a real smile. “It’s complicated. And still depends on who you ask.”
“Is that what you’re running away from?”
Her smile deepened and turned real. “Also complicated. And not the story I promised to tell.” She picked up her glass and finished off the wine in it, then stood, bringing the blanket with her.
Niall rose, too. He was standing two steps below her on the porch, which put them almost at eye level. “Please tell me you’ll play with me at Disney. I have FastPasses.”
He made the final phrase sound like a temptation, as if he was offering her ice cream or some chocolate treat.
“FastPasses?” Laurel asked.
“When you buy your admission ticket, you can schedule times for the most popular rides, so you don’t have to wait in line. Otherwise, the lines can last for hours. Sierra won’t be using her admission, obviously, but I’m sure I can transfer it to you. Or you could pretend to be Sierra all week.”
He was looking her straight in the eye, a smile curving his lips, and Laurel felt her color rising. She was quite sure he meant that exactly as flirtatiously as it sounded.
“I don’t think I can pass for a supermodel,” she said, keeping the words light.
“No,” he agreed, far too readily. But then he added, eyes alight with mischief, “You have curves she would kill for.”
She made a scoffing noise and he spread his hands. “What can I say? I’m a guy, we notice such things.”
She shook her head at him, but she couldn’t help smiling.
“Say you’ll come,” he coaxed. “We’ll have fun, I promise. I’ll take you out to dinner at Cinderella’s Castle. During the fireworks, even.”
She laughed. “No view and mediocre food, according to you.”
“There’s that.” The blanket was starting to slip. Niall reached out and tugged it up over her shoulder.
But he wasn’t sleazy about it. He wasn’t making a pass, wasn’t trying to stroke her skin, didn’t let his fingers linger along the curve of her breast. He was just helping her stay warm.
“All right,” she told him.
She nodded, smile tugging at her cheeks. She wasn’t sure what she was doing. Running away to Disney World was bad enough; picking up a strange guy along the way was clearly nuts. Even if he was a gorgeous, hot, funny guy.
But this was going to be fun. They were going to have fun.