Chapter Two

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A trio of young girls performed cartwheels on the freshly trimmed edge of the town green in front of the pub. Beckett waved back to the trio of supervising mothers who collectively smiled and waved at him.

"Mr. Beckett! Watch!" One of the little girls was wearing a candy green dress over white leggings, her body leaning forward as she shouted to him. "We're going to do four cartwheels, then four jumps, then four spins because it's the Fourth of July. Four for the Fourth. Watch!" she instructed again.

Obliging, he paused his stroll toward the town bakery and watched the entire choreographed routine move for move, giggle for giggle. When the show was complete—which he judged by the flurry of curtsies and bows—he gave them a loud round of applause and a sharp, enthusiastic whistle.

God he loved this crazy little town.

Red, white, and blue balloons surrounded the town's central gazebo, bumping against one another in the dancing breeze. And barbeques were already letting off scents of char that swept through like an aromatic preamble to the day.

Stonebridge knew how to celebrate independence, Beckett thought as he made his way across the street, through the cascade of sunlight that splashed happily onto everything in sight. There was no shortage of a good time to be had.

But for the first Independence Day in many, he wouldn't see the fireworks over the small town that was as familiar to him as the pair of scuffed and scraped jeans he sported. Instead, in an unprecedented move, they would close the pub for the day. And later in the afternoon, he and Danielle would board the private helicopter belonging to billionaire entrepreneur Liam Wyatt, and they'd head to Liam's famously mysterious Camp in New Hampshire to join him and his wife Emerson, Ben and Kara, and Abigail and Declan. It would be their first holiday together as a whole crop of new and soon-to-be new in-laws.

His sister, Abigail, was now married to Declan Fitzgerald, a man she'd loved since their days in high school. And his brother was engaged to Kara, a woman who'd caused Ben to swoon since the day he met her. His family had all been bit by the matrimonial bug—except him. And he considered himself lucky for having avoided such a bite.

He liked things just as they were. Promises and strings made for tangles and tears.

"Two coffees, sweetie?" Gennie asked from behind the counter at the Rolling Pin bakery.

"Two coffees," he confirmed. Then his dark brows tugged together. "How'd you know I wanted two?"

Gennie provided a round and energetic laugh while she poured from the large silver coffee container. "I see you around town with your Danielle. You two make a cute couple. Anything to eat?"

"My Danielle..." he repeated, still frowning.

"You two have big plans for the Fourth?"

Feeling like a lead helmet had landed on his head, his thoughts struggled against the weight of what had descended. "She's not my Danielle. She's..."

Gennie's soft, sunny face smiled. "Honey, when you've been dating a woman for months, and you spend almost every waking hour together—don't deny it," she told him, angling to give him a good, teasing glare, "then that woman is your girlfriend."

He wanted to argue the point, explain that they were just two people enjoying each other, but he couldn't. The words were caught in his throat that'd turned to sandpaper.

"What're you going to do when she leaves for whatever fancy job she gets, now that she's graduated from that fancy school of hers?"

He coughed out the heated threads of panic that tickled the back of his parched throat at the thought of Danielle leaving.

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