As I am gearing up to launch When I Come Home Again, which is Craig Erikson’s story (the guy from Ordinary Snowflakes, which you can find here, if you haven’t read it yet!) I thought I’d give you just a taste from the book.
So, without much ado, here we go (but PLEASE NOTE, this version is UNEDITED! We’re working on the final copy)…
She hadn’t forgiven him.
The entire reason Craig had stayed gone now stared at him from across the room, and he saw it as plain as an incoming blitz. Seven years hadn’t undone anything. Before she blinked, he saw every spark of anger and resentment, still hot. Still fresh.
After she blinked, a desperate attempt at indifference. She shifted the paper lunch sack she’d carried and latched onto Grant Hillman’s hand, which had been anchored on her elbow. As their fingers threaded together, she slid her gaze away from Craig’s and pushed a smile onto her lips.
The fake kind. Did she really think he couldn’t tell the difference?
They moved together. Grant and Brenna. The chord of their names together hit Craig sharp. Wrong. It had never been Grant and Brenna. Always Craig and Brenna. As their synchronized steps brought them closer, he looked toward the ground, hoping the quick squeeze of his eyes would both go unnoticed and clear the burn of emotion flooding through him.
Grant and Brenna.
That was the reality now. He had known this. He was good with this.
“Brenna!” Sophie’s enthusiastic pitch was only what he could assume was her nature. She’d been using it all day, so he had safe reason to assume she was a normally optimistic person. Like himself—normal Craig—in any other moment but this. “I’m so glad Grant talked you into coming. Look who I found.” Her hand wrapped around his arm and wiggled, the smile in her voice oh-so innocent.
Eyes up, but don’t telegraph. Don’t let the defense read you.
Was it ridiculous that he still thought in terms of football? No. Certainly it wasn’t. Besides, in this moment, he was definitely not on offense. Not with the way fire had leapt in her eyes the moment they met his. The snap in that glance dredged up a memory. One he couldn’t afford to look into at the moment.
“Craig Erikson.” Her voice was chill reserve. As if they’d met at some business meeting somewhere in the distant past and she remembered reading his name on a card. The hand she offered—after she untwined her fingers from Grant’s—clasped his all casual-aloof. Like this reunion nothing to her.
Something feral awoke within him. No, it barked. I’m not letting you sideline me. Act as if we were only ever tame friends. The thoughts—the feeling stirred in equal parts irrational and dangerous. But he moved in, her hand firm in his grip, and wrapped his free arm around her. A move that surely looked friendly, by-gones-let-go, casual friends reunited.
It wasn’t. At all. And she knew the truth every bit as much as he.
Her spine rammed stiff. Shoulders pulled back, though she didn’t risk causing a scene by stepping away. Breath held. The energy lifting from her stiff frame was as far from indifferent acquaintance as Pluto is from the sun. Rather, it was hot warning. Resentment.
The wild pitch within settled. Her pain—it still festered. Right where he’d left it. He had no business picking at the wound.
“It’s good to see you Brenna,” he said, stepping away. Inside, he folded. Outside, he dropped the hand that had rebelliously drifted down her arm and brushed over her fingers.
She swallowed. Looked toward the floor while her hand sought the safety of Grant’s. He stepped closer, secured an arm around her waist. That seemed to baluster her. Steady the reality that Craig had intentionally rocked.
“So…” Sophie stepped in the space he put between them, her chipper tone unsteady.
Craig regrouped. Smiled down at her and then at the couple across from them. “So. Lunch, right? Sophie and I were discussing the genius of turkey, provolone, crisp bacon, and a slice of green apple.”
“Brenna’s favorite.” Grant nodded, his mouth testing a smile that his eyes didn’t attempt. Anger didn’t linger there. Just… confusion? Concern? Maybe the furrowed brow of study from reading things—people—as he would. Because Grant had a gift as a people barometer. He could gauge the rise and fall of pressure, and the oncoming storms that would follow a drastic change.
Craig wondered if he’d predicted this heated moment of awkward, when the past caught up to Brenna and him and, though they’d known a face-to-face meeting was inevitable, neither had prepared for it. Wondered what Grant would do with this silent storm in the private moments only he and Brenna would share.
Block that. Didn’t want to think about it.
Craig grinned harder. Because surely that wouldn’t look weird to anyone. “Well then, Sophie and I will go grab our sandwiches and join you two.”
“Right,” Grant nodded, his expression almost neutral. “Except, I’ll come with you. Brenna grabbed her lunch because she felt wrong about eating off the district’s dime even though she works for them.”
“No. I don’t.” Brenna cut a sharp look at him. “I contract with them, and that’s not the same. Anyway, I brought my own, so I’ll save us a spot.”
She didn’t wait for his answer, and he didn’t seem to mind. Craig pondered what she meant by us. The four of them? Her and Grant?
Surely the four of them. Because they were making plans as a group. So that’s what she meant. Or not.
As they moved toward the tables set up as a buffet, Sophie in front of him, he glanced back at Brenna. If there existed a chance for this homecoming to work, he needed to stop analyzing her. And looking at her.
She’d gone darker with her hair now. Used to be blonde. Why had she dyed it? Not that it looked bad. It didn’t. The dark auburn seemed to absorb the light, shining back a hint of red, and made her blue eyes appear bigger. A touch of bold highlights weaved around her face. Really, not very Brenna-ish at all. She hadn’t been one to do daring hairstyles. Long blonde hair, kept in a ponytail most of the time. It was easier, she’d said.
Craig had liked her hair down, but didn’t mind the ponytails. Made for a fun little interlude—sliding that stretchy hair-tie from her gathered hair while she twisted and squealed for him to stop. The moment it was set free, her thick tresses would fall over her shoulders, around her face, and his fingers would dance their way through the beautiful mess…
Stop that too.
His heartrate had hiked north a bit. Enough to be noticeable, which was a bad sign. Those years-ago memories seemed as fresh and vivid as the scrambled eggs and toast he’d had for breakfast that morning. We’ve both moved on?
“How are the meetings going?” Grant saved him from himself as they stacked sandwiches and grapes on thick paper plates.
“Fine. Just like going back to school.”
“I imagine you generally got to skip staff meetings with your old job?”
Craig was fairly certain that was a jab. Maybe not. He was a little wound up. “Yeah, for the most part. Not really necessary when you’re a floater.”
His chin dipped once—a thoughtful nod. “Perhaps it’ll be good to be settled. To be part of the group—the family, as it were?”
“I’m looking forward to that. And to seeing the same kids every day. Building relationships with them.”
Grant nodded. With approval? “Yes, I could see how that would be a challenge and maybe something to be missed with your other arrangements.”
It was bizarre to be talking to a person you were pretty sure was analyzing you—politely—and likely nailing it, while all you had pounding in your brain was I was in love with your girlfriend.
He seemed to not notice—or more likely, noticed and quietly tucked the information away while he moved on. “Ashton and Trent are good boys, at the heart of it. It was good of you to come back for them.”
“And my mom. I need to be here for her.”
“Of course. But the boys…” His implied question trailed off.
Craig molded his pressed lips into a smile. “Will stay put. I’m approved by the state, and everyone involved is aware of the situation.” He stopped, pinned a direct look on Grant while they waited for their turn at the watercooler. “But I assume you’re aware of the situation. Right?”
Yeah, that was loaded. Grant was aware of the guardianship Craig would share with his mom over Trent and Ashton. As the district counselor, he’d be in the know.
And the other situation?
His focus drifted from Grant, finding Sophie, who had finished gathering her food and drink ahead of them. He followed her progress across the room until she stopped at a long table near the middle, set her plate and cup down, and slid onto the bench across from Brenna.
“I’m aware of the situation.” Grant’s voice was low. Controlled. Not threatening, but telling.
Heat churned in his stomach, and a sharp stab flicked near his heart. Yes. Grant had known Brenna and Craig had history. He’d known the agony that had wrecked them both concerning Scottie. He’d known that, because everyone in Big Prairie knew. That wasn’t why Craig suddenly felt hot and sick and wanting to run all over again.
There were things that the general public didn’t know. Things only between Brenna and Craig. The reality was, they’d been wrecked before they lost Scottie.
He wondered how much, if anything at all, Grant knew about that.