Meet Julia and Jesse . . .
I’m smart enough to choose love over revenge . . . aren’t I?
Liam Bailey is the golden boy of Birch College—he’s hot, rich, a track star and the only son of a popular senator. For nearly a year, I was the lucky girl on his arm.
That is, until he dumped me in the most spectacularly humiliating way.
I’m over him now. I mean, do I want some payback? Sure. When the opportunity to plot my revenge comes along, I’m not going to pass up the chance.
But I hadn’t planned on meeting Jesse. He’s cute, intelligent and the way he looks at me takes my breath away. Jesse is everything I ever dreamed of, and even better, he feels the same about me.
When I realize that my revenge scheme might get in the way of my new love, my choice should be easy. Only . . . I really want to see Liam squirm. I need him to feel as bad as I did. But do I want that so much that I’m willing to risk Jesse?
Read the first chapter now!
“I didn’t even like him.”
I threw down the shirt I had just pulled from my suitcase and sank onto the edge of my bed. “I didn’t like him that way. I thought he was a jerk. I didn’t want to go out with him. Remember? I said that. I had a crush on Mason Thomas. I wanted him to ask me out. Not Liam-freaking-Bailey.”
Across the room, sitting at her desk, Ava lay down her pen. She was surrounded by piles of glossy textbooks we had just picked up from the campus bookstore, and her laptop was open to the syllabus for abnormal psych. Classes didn’t start until Monday morning, but we always came back to campus a few days early to get settled.
As she turned in her chair, I had the sense that Ava was smothering a sigh.
“Yes. You told me that. You didn’t like him. You told me then, you told me right after the birthday party, you told me during finals. You told me the night you got so drunk, I was afraid I wouldn’t get you home. You told me the days you couldn’t get out of bed because you’d been crying all night.”
“I’m driving you nuts, aren’t I?”
She finally gave in to the deep sigh and regarded me with that ever-patient Ava stare I’d come to know and love in the three years we’d been roommates.
“Of course not. I kind of hoped that maybe over winter break, you’d have time to process this a little, maybe start to move past it. But here we are, and you’re telling me the same things you did a month ago.”
I groaned and dropped back onto the bed. “I’m a loser. I’m a loser who can’t keep a boyfriend, even one I didn’t want in the first place.”
“Sweetie.” Ava sat next to me on the bed and took my hand. “Seriously. I know you have to go through all the stages of grieving this relationship, and you have the added issues of humiliation. But it’s been six weeks. Maybe it’s time to move on.”
Having a roommate who was a psych major had its own particular charm. Not that I didn’t appreciate her support, but getting analyzed all the time could be irritating. I bit my tongue and just barely kept from rolling my eyes.
“If I knew how to move on, don’t you think I would? I’m telling you, Ave, my heart isn’t broken.” She smiled a little and shook her head at my use of her nickname. She always said I was the only person who could further shorten a three-letter name.
“I’m not really grieving.” I went on, ignoring the interruption. “I mean, I miss having a date on weekends and someone to meet me between classes for coffee and I definitely miss-” I patted the bed. “You know, this. But I don’t think I miss him.”
“Then why are you still talking about him? Not to be mean, but if you don’t care about Liam, why can’t you let it go?”
“I think it’s what you said before. Humiliation. I thought people would stop talking about it by now, but I still hear whispers. ‘There’s the girl who was dating Liam Bailey and didn’t know he had broken up with her.’” I mimed a look of shocked glee.
Ava nodded. “He hurt your pride. I get that.”
“And why did he dump me? What did I do? What did I not do? I wasn’t clingy. I gave him space. But I was supportive, too. I showed up at his track meets. I tried to be the perfect girlfriend. I went to dinner with his parents when they came to visit. My God, Ave, I slept with him. I didn’t plan to, but I let him talk me into it.” I rolled over and burrowed my face into the blankets.
“Jules.” Ava lay down next to me and put her arm over my back. “Don’t. You didn’t do anything wrong. He’s a prick. Maybe he hid it for a little while, but prick will always come out.”
I peeked up over one arm. “Prick will always come out? Is that a new Ava-ism?”
“Maybe. Ava-isms are always accurate.”
Pulling over a pillow, I flipped around to lie on my back again. “Jamie says I need something to take my mind off the whole thing.” I grimaced, thinking about my visit home for Christmas and the advice my sisters had given me. “Pretty sure I was driving her, Jen, and our parents crazy. They were glad to see me come back here.”
Ava bit her lip and tilted her head. I recognized that expression, too. “Your sister might be on the right track. You need to change up your routine, try something new.”
I shook my head. “I’m not ready to date yet. A new guy is the last thing I want.”
“I’m not talking a guy. I’m talking, like, a hobby. Volunteering somewhere. The best way to take your mind off your problems is to do something for someone else. Or, I don’t know, play an instrument, or take dance lessons.”
“Dance lessons? I don’t think so.” I paused and turned my head to look at Ava. “I did have an idea, though. It’s not exactly volunteering or being selfless.”
“That’s okay.” She turned so she was sitting on her knees, looking down at me, her eyes bright. “That was just one option. What’s your idea?”
I smiled. “Revenge.”
“Are you sure this is what you want to do, Jules?”
We were huddled in the corner booth of Beans So Good, the shabby little coffee shop just off campus. It was quiet for a Thursday night, but then again, the spring semester was just barely underway. Taking into account the sudden cold snap that had hit Birch College as well as all of southern New Jersey, it wasn’t surprising that most people wanted to stay at home.
But Beans was our home-away-from-dorm, as Ava said, the place we went when we couldn’t stand looking at the same four walls anymore. She swore their espresso had saved her grades second semester freshman year when she was carrying an eighteen-credit load. She held one in her hand now, a serious expression on her face as she looked over the rim at me.
I stabbed my straw into the iced mocha on the table. “I don’t necessarily want to do it, but I think I need to.”
“You know what they say about holding a grudge. Free rent in your head and all that.”
“I’m not holding a grudge. I’m righting a wrong. Sort of.”
“So doing this—whatever this is—will change Liam? Make him realize he’s a jerk?” Ava set her drink down, centering it carefully in the middle of the cardboard coaster. “You’re not trying to get him back, are you?”
“Definitely not.” I shook my head. “I don’t want him back. I want to move on. But at the same time, I want Liam to know how bad it feels like to be treated like that. I need him to know that he was wrong. ”
She nodded. “Okay. I get it. But how do you see this playing out? ”
“I’m not sure,” I admitted. “I haven’t gotten that far yet. If I thought showing up at party with another guy would do it, I would. But that would mean finding someone who’d be willing to go out with me. I wasn’t exactly turning them away before Liam asked me out.”
“Julia, don’t be ridiculous. If you wanted a guy, you could have one. The only thing that keeps boys away from you is that don’t-touch-me attitude you have. That’s why Liam saw you as a challenge. He wanted you because. . .” Her voice trailed off, and she frowned.
“What’s wrong?” I pushed back my cup.
“Nothing. I was just thinking. I might have an idea.” Ava straightened up, shifting her legs out from beneath her on the bench seat. “We need a plan. I want to give it some thought. I mean, you’re talking about more than just slashing his tires and keying his car, right?”
“Defile the Beemer?” I clutched my heart in mock horror. “As tempting as that sounds, yeah, it wouldn’t do the job. Not the way I need it to.”
Ava smiled. “Then don’t make any plans for this weekend. You and I are going to have a down-and-dirty get-even planning session. I’ll buy the ice cream.”
Meet Tori and Hunter . . .
Who doesn’t love a love song? Especially a love song that’s crooned by Hunter Jaymes, the hottest new star in country music?
I don’t have time for love songs. Now that I’m finally moved off my parents’ farm and ditched my cheating, lying boyfriend, I’m ready to start life on her own terms. Those terms definitely do not include falling in love with the sexy and irresistible Hunter. Yes, he’s the kind of guy who makes me laugh, takes my breath away with a single touch and tempts me to imagine what could be . . . but he’s also not planning to stick around Burton.
When I look at Tori, I see the possibility of forever. The road is my life, but she feels like my home. Unfortunately, convincing this woman to give love a chance will take more than a song. But I’m not giving up on her. Not when I know she sings the song of my heart.
Read the first chapter now!
“C’mon, Tori. Please. I’ll owe you forever.”
Narrowing my eyes, I stared down my baby brother. “You have got to be out of your mind, Matt. No way.”
Matt heaved a huge sigh and flopped back onto my couch. I winced a little; my furniture was second-hand, and it hadn’t necessarily been top-of-the-line even when it was new, but still, it was mine, and I wanted to take care of it. My brother was a good kid, but he was also a fifteen-year-old, and he didn’t care about things like that.
“Tore, you’ve got to take me. If you don’t do it, I can’t go. I’ll miss meeting Hunter Jaymes. You don’t want to deny me my dream, do you?” He sat up and leaned forward. “If I don’t meet him, I’ll probably be so depressed that I’ll give up music. Then I’ll end up having to get some dead-end job to pay the bills, marrying the first girl I date, and we’ll be stuck here in this Podunk town for the rest of our miserable lives. You’ll have to live every day with the knowledge that you’re the one responsible for ruining my life.”
I rolled my eyes. “Drama much, Matty? I think you’ll get over it. Besides, Mason has bands playing at the Road Block almost every weekend. In a few years, you’ll be able to get in on your own and meet them. You don’t have to, uh, give up your dream.” I made air quotes with my fingers. “God forbid.”
“Tori, Hunter Jaymes isn’t just any musician. I’ve been following him forever. Since I first started paying attention to music and what I like to listen to. I know every one of his songs. I can play most of them. I just want to see him in person.”
I exhaled long and heavily through my nose, but I didn’t answer him. Taking that as a sign of encouragement, Matt went on.
“The minute I saw Hunter was coming, I asked Mason if I could work the night of his show. He laughed and said no way in hell was he getting in trouble for having a minor working the bar at night. But then I told him how much I love Hunter’s music, and finally, today he said that if you came with me to the first set, he’d let me in. As long as we leave after and I don’t try something stupid, like getting a beer or whatever.” He frowned, shaking his head. “As if I’d even want to do that. I want to be there for the music, not for the booze.”
“Why did Mason suggest I take you?” I was suspicious about the bar owner’s motives. I’d known Mason Wallace for a long time, and I was friends with his wife, Rilla. He knew how I felt about country music. I never made any secret about it, even though I knew that Mason’s former life had been all about that industry.
“Well, he didn’t say it had to be you, exactly,” Matt admitted. “He said an adult member of my family. So technically, Mom or Dad could take me.”
“Hmmm.” I regarded my brother. “Did you ask them?”
“No.” Matt shrugged. “The thing is, if I asked Mom or Dad, I know one of them would do it, no questions asked. But they’re so tired all the time as it is. Asking them to do something extra like this . . . it would make me feel horrible.”
“Ah, but it’s okay to ask me, huh?” I loved that Matt was the kind of kid who was considerate enough that he realized our parents worked themselves practically to death on our family farm. He was right, too; they were such wonderful parents, it would never occur to them to tell Matt no about something they could do. They’d just get by with a little less sleep the next day.
They were the same way with me, and that’s why I realized that I really didn’t have a choice here. I had to take Matt to the Road Block, if not out of love for him, then out of compassion and gratitude toward my mom and dad. And seriously, I reasoned with myself, was it that big a deal? Sure, I detested country music, but I could grit my teeth and get through one show.
The truth of the matter was that there was a bigger and more compelling reason for me to avoid doing this favor for my brother. I hadn’t been back to the Road Block in over six months, not since the night that I wanted to forget had ever happened. Maybe I was making too big a deal over it, and maybe no one else would even remember, but I did. I gave a little shudder and opened my mouth to tell Matt no way, no how.
But I made the mistake of looking at him before I spoke, and the earnest, pleading expression on that sweet face took my voice away. This kid . . . he’d been wrapping me around his little finger since the day he was born when I was nine years old. I’d never been able to deny him anything that I could give, and I realized now that today wasn’t going to break that streak. It might be hard, and it might be unpleasant, but dammit, I was going to end up taking the kid to see his idol this weekend.
“What time should I pick you up on Friday?”
“Tori!” He yelled so loud, I was pretty sure the glasses in my cabinet reverberated with the sound. “Oh, my God, you’re the best sister in the entire world. Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
“Yeah, and don’t you forget it.” I pushed my finger against his adorable nose, the same way I used to when he was a toddler. “I’m going to make sure you won’t.”
He rolled his eyes, but I could see his excitement there anyway. “Whatever. I don’t even care, as long as I get to see Hunter Jaymes. I can’t believe I’m going to actually meet him.”
“Well, I don’t know about that.” I frowned a little, concerned. “Buddy, you know, you might not get the chance to meet him or talk to him. I know the Road Block is a pretty small venue and all, but still—Mason might not want you stalking the talent. He’s kind of protective of the acts he books.”
Matt shook his head, impatient. “Tori, Mason told me I could meet Hunter. He said if I get there early enough for the first set, I could help with soundcheck. And he promised he’d, like, actually introduce me to him.” He grabbed my hands. “We’re going to hang out with Hunter Jaymes.”
“Whoa, there.” I disengaged my fingers. “I’m not hanging out with him. I’ll sit in the car until Mason says I have to be inside with you. I don’t need anyone thinking I’m a fangirl.”
“No one would ever think that about you.” His voice was dry. “But you can’t sit outside. That would be weird.”
“I’m okay with weird.” I sent him a sunny smile. “Cut your losses here, bud. I said I’m willing to drive you to the bar, and I’ll go inside during the show so that Mason doesn’t have to worry about you. But that’s it. Once he’s off the stage, you and I are out of there. Got it?”
“Yeah, okay.” Matt reached down for his backpack, which was on the floor next to his feet. “Whatever you say.”
“And now, I suppose, you’d like me to drive you home.” I folded my arms over my chest. “I assume that you missed your bus and walked over here to my house.” My tiny cottage was only about five blocks from the high school, and it wasn’t unusual for my brother to drop in if I happened to be home.
“It was more the other way around.” He cast me a winsome smile. “I walked over here so I could talk to you, and so the bus left without me. I didn’t really miss it so much as it missed me.”
I gritted my back teeth. Lord, save me from teenage boys. “Semantics, Matty. You need a ride home. Get your bag, and let’s go. I have work to do.”
He frowned as he stood up and hefted the backpack over his shoulder. “But today’s your day off.”
I scooped my keys from the small primitive antique bowl that sat on the table by my front door. “It’s my day off from the boutique, but I have blog work to do.”
“You’re always working.” Matt’s tone verged on whining, but I pretended I didn’t hear that.
“Yeah, I am.” I swatted his arm. “That’s how I got this sweet crib and all my killer threads. Not to mention my bitchin’ ride, yo.”
“Tori.” He looked pained. “Please don’t try to sound . . . you know. Like you’re cool. You’re using all the wrong words.”
“I know. I did it on purpose to annoy you.” I grinned widely. “Now let’s get moving, bud.”
We both climbed into my ancient truck, and I patted the dash before I started her up, mentally whispering a prayer of gratitude when she turned over without issue. Matt buckled his seat belt and leaned back.
“Since you’re raking in all the dough now, pretty soon you’ll be getting a new car, right?” He patted the worn molding on the door of the truck. “When you do, I get the old hussy, right?”
I smiled. My grandfather had bought this truck new when I was a baby, and he’d taken good care of it, the way he had everything in his life. He’d been proud to hand me the keys when I was sixteen, telling me that it was mine for as long as I needed it, but that when I was ready to move on, the old hussy, as he called his truck affectionately, had to come back to the family.
“We’ll have to see, Matty.” I swiveled in my seat to look out the window as I backed out. “It’s fine with me, but really, it’s up to Mom and Dad.” Shifting into first gear, I shot him a look. “And you know, you have to keep your grades up and be able to cover your car insurance on your own. Just like I did.”
“Yeah.” He sighed. “I can do that. Well, the grades, I mean. But I don’t know what kind of job I could get to afford to own a truck. I don’t make much at Mason’s.”
“You’ve got time to think about it. Another two years, anyway.” I turned onto the main street of our town. Burton wasn’t a bustling metropolis by any means, but still, all the shops along here were pretty busy this afternoon. It was spring, and people were thrilled to be outside again. More than a few of those strolling along the sidewalk waved to me. The old hussy was familiar to just about everyone in Burton.
Matt and I didn’t talk much on the fifteen-minute ride out to the farm. I could make the drive on automatic pilot as I’d been taking this route since I’d been seventeen. Once we were out of Burton proper and on the rural highway that meandered through the surrounding farms, we rolled down the windows, and I turned up the radio, blaring Ed Sheeran as we sang along.
“You’re so weird, you know that?” Matt shouted to be heard over the wind and the music. “We’re in a pickup truck on a country road in Georgia. This scene is just begging for Garth Brooks or Brad Paisley or Miranda Lambert!”
“Nooooo!” I yelled back. “No country music!”
He laughed at me. “You were totally adopted.”
It was an old joke in our family, a ridiculous poke at the fact that my coloring was identical to my father’s while Matt looked just like my mom. But my brother wasn’t wrong about me being the anomaly, in that I was the only one of us who wasn’t a huge country music fan. Growing up, I’d been dragged to festivals and forced to endure hours of twanging songs about heartbreak, Mama, apple pie, dogs, and pickup trucks. The minute I’d been deemed old enough to stay home by myself, I’d seized the opportunity.
Happily, by that time, Matt had been old enough to go—and he’d enthusiastically embraced all things twangy. Not only did he love our parents’ favorite tunes, he actually had a gift for playing just about any instrument he picked up—and he possessed an incredible singing voice.
When I still lived at home, he used to harass me about being the oddball when it came to music, and I’d taunted him for being a stereotypical good ol’ boy, a camo-wearing redneck. There was very little we agreed on. But then I’d found Ed Sheeran, and even though he couldn’t be classified as even remotely country, Matt had decided that he respected the man for his amazing musical abilities—and that he enjoyed his songs, too. That’s why we always played Ed when we were together. He was our demilitarized zone.
Slowing as the truck approached the driveway that led to our farm, I felt the familiar sense of pride in the weathered wooden sign that my great-grandmother had originally hand-painted over a century before.
Westin Family Farm
Over the years, the lettering had been touched up by various family members—most recently by me—but none of us ever changed the design. In the dining room of the big old farmhouse where I’d grown up, there was a framed photo of Great-Grammy next to the sign, and I’d always thought that her wide smile was a little like my own.
“You coming in?” Matt glanced at me as we bumped up the drive. “Mom’s probably getting ready to make dinner. She might even make fried chicken if you stay.”
“That’s mighty tempting, honey, but I need to get home so I can—”
“Work,” he finished for me. “Right.”
I held my foot on the brake and reached over to tousle his sandy brown hair. “Hey, I need to make sure I’m caught up, because it turns out I have this hot date on Friday night, and I don’t want anything getting in the way of that.”
He grinned. “Okay. Can you pick me up by six on Friday?”
“You got it, buddy.” I watched him maneuver the handle to open the door, which often stuck. As he swung his legs out and hefted the backpack from the seat, I added, “Give Mom a hug from me and tell her I’ll be home Sunday for dinner. Oh, and tell Dad I’ll be here early enough to watch the Braves play.”
“Sure.” He slammed the door—which he had to do so that it wouldn’t fly open on the road as I drove back to town—and gave me a quick wave over his shoulder. I watched him jog up the steps of the wide porch that wrapped around our family home and then round the corner, heading for the kitchen door. We never used the front entrance except for company, weddings, or funerals.
As I drove away, I pictured the scene that probably greeted him once he’d gone into the kitchen. Mom would be there because it was a point of pride that she never missed greeting us after school. Even during the busiest planting or harvest season, my mother was waiting for us, always with some kind of snack and a drink. No matter what else was going on in her life, she paid careful attention to our chatter and looked over our homework and other school papers.
I didn’t know if I would ever have kids, but if I did, she was the kind of mother I wanted to be.
Thinking about kids and family and parents made me a little lonely and wistful. I loved my new independent life here in town; at twenty-four, it was time for me to be on my own, and I’d worked hard to make it happen. Still, I missed the easy camaraderie of my family, the meals around the table, the steady dependability of my parents, and the fun of being with my brother. My little cottage was adorable, but it was also quiet.
Growing up on the farm, I’d come into Burton for school, and of course, I’d made friends. But most of those people had either moved away or were occupied with their own busy lives. In the six years since graduation, we’d all changed, and I wasn’t in touch with anyone from high school.
But that didn’t mean I was a big old lonesome loser now. With that in mind, I took a left instead of the right turn that would’ve taken me back to my house and pulled up in front of a small shop with lighted windows.
The sign on the door read Phoenix: Beauty from Ashley. That door opened as I hopped out of my truck, and two women, one about my mother’s age and the other a few years younger than me, stepped outside. Both smiled when they saw me.
“Hey, Tori. How’re you doing?” The older woman called over. “You going in here, honey? Ashley’s with a client, but she’s about done, I think.”
“Hey, Mrs. Hyles. Hey, Donna.” I leaned against my truck for a moment. “Yeah, I was just stopping in to chat a little. Thanks. I’ll wait for her in reception.” Taking the door Mrs. Hyles held for me, I added, “Y’all have a good evening.”
I slipped inside the salon, inhaling deep. I loved the scent of this place. Phoenix didn’t smell like most beauty parlors. There was no lingering sulfuric odor from old permanents or the overwhelming cloying hairspray. Somehow, Ashley’s place was all relaxing and pleasant scents. She swore it was a matter of excellent ventilation, but I wasn’t sure about that. I was pretty sure she had some kind of magic voodoo that made the difference.
“. . . but I told her she was out of her mind.” Ashley’s voice floated out to me, and I heard the click of her heels on the tiles. “I mean, who does that? It was—” She appeared in the doorway that connected the main salon with the reception area and spotted me. “Well, look what the cat dragged in. How long have you been out here, sugar?”
I shrugged. “Not long. Mrs. Hyles just let me in as she was leaving.”
“Oh, good.” Ashley turned to face the tall, good-looking man who’d followed her out. He had a square jaw and dark hair that clearly had just been cut. He stood a good head above my friend, and the eyes he turned to me were light blue and friendly.
“Zane, this is my friend Tori. Tori, this is Zane, my favorite client.”
He reached over Ashley’s shoulder to shake my hand. “Nice to meet you, but I’m pretty sure she tells all her clients the same thing.”
Ashley gave us both wide eyes. “No way! Some of them I can barely tolerate. Ask Tori. She hears all my horror stories.”
I nodded. “It’s true. Some of the people she takes care of are crazy demanding and downright mean.”
“Not like you at all.” She beamed at him and then pointed toward me. “Tori is the most creative person I know. See what she’s wearing? She makes almost all of her own clothes or repurposes things in new ways.” She folded her arms over her chest. “Tell me what you’ve got on today.”
Nice way to put me on the spot. I glanced down at my body, as though I’d forgotten what was on it. “Uh, the overalls came from a thrift shop in Savannah. I cinched the middle and added the sash in this floral cotton from another dress I’d bought, and then I turned up the cuffs and covered them in the same material.” Plucking my shirt away from my chest, I added, “And I bought this shirt at the boutique where I work.”
“She works at a shop in Farleyville,” Ashely told Zane. “Where her talents are totally wasted.”
“Ashley.” I rolled my eyes. “Please. I like my job at Niche.”
She turned to face her client. “You could give Tori an old burlap sack and a yard of ribbon, and five minutes later, she’d have a beautiful dress. She’s that good. And she’s working at a store that sells frumpy suits to old women.”
Zane glanced at me and then back at Ashley, uncertainty in his eyes. “Uh, okay. I guess that’s bad?”
“Of course, it’s bad. She has this fashion blog that has a ton of followers, because she’s so awesome, and she needs to stop wasting her time dressing the elderly and pay attention to growing her own career.” She tilted her head and drilled me with steely, narrowed eyes, daring me to tell her that she was wrong.
The annoying thing was, Ashley wasn’t wrong. I’d been working at Niche since I was sixteen, and the truth was that my original plan had been to quit four months ago. But that had been back when the plan had included Andy the asshole, my ex-boyfriend. I’d assumed we’d be marrying . . . or at least moving in together. Since that was never going to happen now, I’d had to make the decision to stick with my day job for a little longer.
Ashley knew the practicalities of my plan, but she was more impatient than I was. That was the sign of a good friend, I decided, which was why her nagging wasn’t quite pissing me off. Yet.
So I ignored her pointed words and cast a brilliant smile at Zane, who seemed more than a little uncomfortable caught between two strong-minded women discussing a topic he didn’t quite understand.
“Are you new in Burton, Zane? I don’t think I’ve seen you around.”
He grinned ruefully. “If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard that . . . yeah, I’m from Charlotte. Just moved here about three months ago.”
“He took over Clark Morgan’s law practice,” Ashley added.
“Well, welcome to Burton.” Hooking my thumbs into the belt loops of my baggy overalls, I leaned into the wall. “Everyone here is nosy, and they’ll give you advice even when you don’t ask . . .” I slid my friend the side-eye. “But they’re also the kindest, most loving folks you’ll ever meet.”
“So far, I’d have to agree.” I didn’t miss the way his gaze lingered on my friend, and instantly, my attraction alert went off. He liked Ashley. Did she know this? She hadn’t even mentioned this guy to me.
If Ashley noticed Zane’s attention, she didn’t show it. “Tori, let me cash out Zane so he can get going, and then I’ll be right with you.” She began leading him toward the desk in the corner. “I hope you want to go eat because I’m famished.”
I stayed quiet, watching her go through the process of ringing up the charge, accepting Zane’s money, and being sweetly surprised when he insisted that she keep the change. When he said good-night to us both, he added that it had been nice to meet me. With one more glance at Ashley, he left, the bell over the door jangling as he did.
“Well, he’s adorable.” I quirked an eyebrow. “Hmmm, funny that I don’t remember you telling me about him.”
“Didn’t I?” Ashley busied herself with something on her computer, running the end-of-day sales report. “Huh. Well, I don’t tell you about every client who comes in here.”
“Sure, but one who’s hot as hell and clearly wants you to take off more than just his hair? I just think it’s, uh, very interesting that you’ve been so close-mouthed about it. I assume he’s single.”
“Yes, he’s single, but he’s not looking for anything with me, I promise.” She sighed and slid the cash drawer closed, turning the key in the lock. “He’s in love with his receptionist.”
I wrinkled my nose. “Why do you think that? And who is she?”
Ashley waved her hand. “I don’t know, some girl just out of the community college. Younger than you and me. This is her first job. And I think that because it’s true. You should see him when he talks about her.”
“I think you might be wrong about that, Ash.” I dropped into one of the overstuffed chairs that served as waiting room seating. “I think he likes you.” When she opened her mouth to contradict me, I only shook my head. “I’m not going to argue with you about it. Time will tell. So what were you thinking for dinner? Kenny’s or barbecue? Or Franco’s?”
She came out from behind the desk and leaned against it. “I guess it wouldn’t do any good for me to suggest the Road Block, would it? It’s only Tuesday, and it’s early. It wouldn’t be crowded. We’d bring down the average patron age tonight, eating with the early bird special crowd.”
“Ha, ha, ha.” I stuck out my tongue. “And no, I don’t want to go to the Road Block. I need someplace cheap. I’m broke, remember?”
“Broke has nothing to do with why you won’t go eat at Mason’s place,” Ashley retorted. “You’re still afraid people are talking about what went down there with you and Andy. Get over it, girlfriend. The rest of the town has. They’ve all got better things to talk about.”
“I hope they do because it turns out I’m going to be there on Friday night.” I dropped that little bombshell and waited for her to react. I didn’t have to wait long.
“No way!” Her mouth dropped open, and she pretended to stagger backward. “No way in hell. You’re not only going to the bar, but you’re going on a Friday night?” She narrowed her eyes. “Do you have a date? Who asked you out?”
“No one, and you should know that. The Road Block is the last place I’d take someone if I was interested in making it something important. As for who asked me out, that would be Matt.”
“Awwww . . .” Ashley shoved out her lower lip. “That’s so sweet. He’s taking big sister out?”
“No, big sister is going along as his chaperone, so he can see his musical idol. Mason made my being there a condition of him getting in. And I’m such a sucker for that kid that I said yes, against my better judgment.”
“Oh, you’ll have a great night.” She began making the rounds, closing the blinds on all of the windows in the reception area. “It’s about time for you to go back there, honeybunch. Your boycott has been seriously impacting our social life.”
“Sure, it has,” I laughed. “That’s a nice thing to say, Ashley, but I know you haven’t been staying away from the bar.”
She lifted one shoulder. “Well, I haven’t been able to enjoy it as much without you. You’re my favorite dancing buddy. So a big thank-you to Matty. Tell him his next trim’s on me.”
“I’ll pass on the message.” I wriggled to sit up on the edge of the chair. “Are you almost ready? I’m starved.”
“Yep. Just let me go turn off the lights.”
I watched my friend make her usual end-of-the-day rounds, checking that curling irons, flat irons, and hair dryers were all unplugged, that all the faucets were turned completely off, and that the lights were out. This salon was Ashley’s baby, and she was passionate about both nurturing it and making sure it grew. She was one of the savviest businesswomen I knew, and I understood that her own passion for entrepreneurship was one reason that she pushed me to make my move forward. She was afraid that I’d get stuck in the relative safety of being a paid employee at Niche, where things were safe and secure, if somewhat limited in opportunity.
But I wasn’t going to rush anything. I had a plan, and even if I’d had to tweak it here and there, I knew it was a good one. I just had to be patient for a little longer.
“All set,” Ashley announced as she sailed back into the waiting room. “And I’ve decided I’m craving fried chicken, so let’s go to Kenny’s.”
“Sounds good to me.” I stood up, stretching my back a little. Ashley had the most comfortable chairs in any salon waiting area I’d seen—she said that the pampering should begin the minute a person walked in—but they wreaked havoc on my posture.
“And Tori . . .” She paused next to me, laying a hand on my forearm. “I was teasing before, about you avoiding the Road Block, but it really is time for you to go back. It’s crazy that you’ve let Andy keep you away so long. It’s going to be fine, you know.”
“Sure.” I mustered up a smile. “Of course, it is.”
And maybe if I said those words enough between now and Friday, I’d even start to believe it.
Meet Jenna and Linc . . .
I celebrated my twenty-first birthday by persuading Trent Wagner, the guy I’d been crushing on for months, to sleep with me. When he broke my heart and crushed my dreams by rejecting me afterward, I did the unthinkable. I tried to end my life.
Over two years later, I’m finally finding my balance again. My job at the county historical society is steady and predictable, two elements I appreciate right now. I’m living on my own, and my world is peaceful, if lonely.
That is, until hot single daddy Lincoln Turner comes to town.
When my wife was killed in a car accident, she left me with two small children and a bleak future. Six years later, I’m a recovering alcoholic who’s just gotten my kids back. I’m ready to tackle a new position as co-owner of a building restoration company.
I’m not looking for any attachments. But I’m also not ready for the irresistible attraction I feel for Jenna when a huge project brings us together.
The road to true love has more bumps than we could imagine. Making our way to a happy ending won’t be easy. But when two bruised souls find their way to each other . . . forever is possible.
“The water feels amazing.”
I turned my head toward the glare of the ocean as Abby Donavan—uh, Abby Kent now, I had to remember that she was married—dashed up the beach to where I sat next to her husband Ryland. I had to smile; I still wasn’t used to this more spontaneous, impulsive version of the contained Miss Abigail Donavan. When I’d met her a few years back, she had been our boss on the restoration of an old hotel, and I’d described her as steely. Maybe even a little bit icy. The lady had definitely melted, and I knew for sure it was more than the heat of the Florida sun that had done the trick.
In the beach chair next to me, the man who was responsible for most of Abby’s melting grinned. “Looking good there, Mrs. Kent.”
She shot him a saucy smile before dropping to the beach blanket in front of me, where my daughter sat with her arms around her knees. “Becca, come out with us! It’s so much fun. You can body surf with Ollie and me.”
Becca’s jaw tensed as she shook her head. “No, thanks. I’m fine here.”
“Bec.” I nudged her rear end with my foot. “Why don’t you go enjoy the water? This is your first beach trip. Don’t you want to play in the ocean? Have some fun, darlin’.”
My daughter replied without turning her head to look at me. “No, thanks. I don’t want to go into the ocean.” She paused a beat before adding, “It’s not safe. See that flag? It means there’s a rip current. People get carried away, and they can’t swim back.”
“We’re not going that far out, sweetie.” Abby pulled a towel out of her bag and dried off her legs. “I’m keeping my eye on your brother, too. We won’t go any further than just our hips, okay?”
“No, thanks.” Becca hugged her legs a little tighter as she repeated the words. “There could probably be jellyfish, too. And there can be bacteria in the water. Sometimes people die just from putting their feet in.”
I fought the strong desire to roll my eyes. “Becca, don’t be—”
Ryland jabbed an elbow into my ribs. “Hey, Becs, how long have I known you?”
She glanced back at us, frowning. “Ummm . . . I don’t know. All my life?”
“Yeah, just about. Did you know you were the first baby I ever held? Your mom didn’t give me a choice about it. She just plopped you into my arms. Now, would your mom have done that if she didn’t trust me?”
She gave a tiny headshake.
“Okay. And you know how much I love both you and your dweeby little bro?”
For the first time all day, my daughter’s mouth curved into a slight smile. “Yeah.”
“So you also know I would never, ever let you do anything where you might get hurt, right? Never. I’d throw myself in front of a speeding train to push you out of its path. Take on a grizzly bear if it were chasing you. You got that?”
“Then do you think, really think, that I’d let Aunt Abby take you down to the ocean if there were anything the least bit dangerous there?”
She pursed her lips and lifted one shoulder. “I don’t know.”
Ryland cocked an eyebrow at her. “We got to stick to logic here, tootsie roll. And logic tells you the truth.”
“But Uncle Ry—”
“Hey.” He pointed to her. “Not finished yet. Because I want you to think of something else. Do you know how much I love Aunt Abby?”
Becca sighed. “Yeah.”
“So you know I’d never want her to do anything where she might get hurt either.” Ry glanced at his wife. “I’m going to tell you something I haven’t even told your dad. Aunt Abby and I are going to have a baby.” He paused, letting that news sink in. “As much as I love you and Ollie, as much as I love Aunt Abby and this little peanut in her belly, would I sit back and let all of you do anything where you might get hurt?”
Becca’s head swiveled in Abby’s direction. I could almost feel her struggling to accept what Ryland was saying, to let it begin to overcome the fear. Finally, she gave a tiny shake of her head.
“Okay. I’ll go down.” She stood up, brushing sand from her legs. “But only a little bit in, right? Not deep.”
Abby rose, too, and extended her hand. “I promise, baby girl. No further than you want.” Over my daughter’s head, Abby smiled at me and winked. “We’ll just play around by the surf.”
Hands linked, the two tripped across the sand. I watched them go, grinning when Ab body-checked Becca and pretended to be sorry. It gave me a sense of relief to see my little girl finally relaxing a little bit. She might’ve been going on twelve, but she was always going to be my baby.
Which reminded me . . .
“So.” I tilted down my sunglasses and folded my arms across my chest, fastening Ry with a glare that was more bark than bite. “Something you needed to tell me?”
His smirk was huge and not at all repentant. “Hey, the situation called for something big, so I gave it to her.”
“Yeah, jackass, telling my daughter before me that you’re going to be a dad. What the hell, man?” I couldn’t hold the faux-mad any longer. Reaching across between the chairs, I punched his arm. “Congratulations, bro. ‘Bout time.”
The expression on Ryland’s face could’ve lit up NRG Stadium. “Yeah, right, about time. More like a miracle. Between Abby working so hard to get the hotel up and running and me being on the road all the time, trying to move the business down here, what’s more amazing is that we were in the same state long enough to make it happen.”
“So is this the reason you’ve decided to stop traveling altogether?” I pushed my glasses back into place and leaned against the webbed chair.
Ry shrugged. “Well, it was in the works anyway, you know. It was always the plan, for me to move all the operations down here, so we could start a real life together. We figured that we’d talk babies after that, but it turned out someone had other plans.”
“Babies are like that.” I stared out into the blinding blue of the ocean. “I don’t think I ever told you this, but Becca wasn’t exactly planned. Sylvia and I had only been married about seven months, and we were living in this cramped apartment, barely more than a room. Working for Leo Groff back then, remember, but still pretty far down the food chain. Syl and I had plans—we had that crappy little apartment so that when I had to travel for a job, she could come with me. I came home one night, absolutely dead on my feet. Filthy from a project we’d just started. I remember I was pissed because I could tell she hadn’t started dinner yet, and I was starved. Syl was curled up in the corner of this ratty old sofa we’d inherited from her aunt, and she’d been crying. I finally got it out of her that she’d taken a pregnancy test.”
“Oh, man.” Ry’s voice was filled with empathy. “What did you say?”
“What could I say?” I lifted one shoulder. “I mean, it was a done deal. And she hadn’t exactly gotten knocked up by herself. Takes two to tango, and let’s just say, I always liked a good tango. So I hugged her tight, told her she’d just made me the happiest man on the planet, and we started picking out baby names. After Becs came along seven months later, neither of us could imagine our lives without that kid.” I sighed a little, remembering. “All this stuff works out for the best.”
“Yeah.” Ry fidgeted, his chair creaking as he settled again. “You know, Linc, I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve heard you talk about Sylvia without . . . I don’t know. The deep pain. Like maybe you were about to lose it. It’s good to hear you say her name again with a smile.”
“We had good times. We had a great marriage, and I’ve never regretted one minute of our life together.” I hesitated, waiting for the usual boulder of grief to roll over me. But this time, as it has been lately, the feeling was not as devastating. I still missed Syl every day. I still sometimes talked to her when no one else was around. But the pain didn’t feel like it was going to consume me anymore. It was sadness, but it was no longer despair. “It’s not that common to find the love of your life when you’re seventeen. I was one of the lucky ones, and I’m never going to forget it.”
“So you believe that?” Ryland regarded me with curiosity. “That we all get only one great love?”
I dug trenches in the sand with my heels until I hit the cooler damp layer. “Don’t you? Isn’t Abby your one and only love?”
“Of course.” He didn’t miss a beat in replying. “And I’m counting on us having at least a hundred years together.” When I raised one eyebrow, he lifted his hands. “What? My family is very long-lived. But if something wacky happened and I bought the farm after five years, I’d like to think Abby might find someone else. Someone not quite as attractive as me, of course, because hey, you can’t expect to hit the jackpot twice.”
“Don’t forget humble,” I added dryly.
“Never would. I’m just saying, maybe sometimes second chances come along. Look at Jude and Logan.”
Jude and Logan Holt owned the hotel whose restoration had brought Ryland and me to Crystal Cove two years before. They’d been married as long as I’d known them, but Ry had told me their story: Jude had been married to Logan’s best friend and business partner, Daniel, for over twenty years before he passed away from cancer, leaving her with two nearly-adult kids, her own beach-front restaurant and their company’s unfinished projects. Apparently, although he’d never let it be known, Logan had secretly loved Jude all those years. It was only well over a year after Daniel’s death that he’d begun to court his friend’s widow.
Knowing them now, as I did, I couldn’t imagine any other ending for those two. Logan clearly worshipped the ground Jude occupied, and she was head-over-heels for him. They shared not only their businesses—which had only expanded in the past years—but also her grown children and her two grandchildren.
“Yeah, that’s true.” I gave Ryland a brief nod of agreement. “But I think that’s the exception, not the rule. Most of the people I know who end up married again, or in another relationship after they lose a spouse, don’t find the same fire. They’re together for comfort and companionship. And that’s great, but it’s not an epic love. I don’t think anything can ever touch that first time you fall.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.” Ryland fisted sand and let it sift through his fingers. “So, you ready for this change? Ready to become a man who stays in one place again?”
“I think so.” I stretched out my legs, letting the sun bake them. “It’s going to be good, I’m pretty sure. Burton seems like a nice town, and it’ll be a fresh start. For all of us.”
“And you need it.” My friend stared out ahead of us. “How’s it going, anyway? The transition with the kids, I mean. They seem to be doing okay.”
“It’s hard to tell yet.” I rubbed my fingers over my forehead. “We haven’t settled down to real life yet, you know? I picked them up from their grandparents’ house just about a month ago, and since then, we’ve been on vacation, more or less, down in Orlando and then up here visiting with you and Abby. That’s nothing different than what we’ve done other summers. The real adjustment will come when we’re alone in our new house, just the three of us, and I have to enforce the rules all the time. I’ll have to come up with a routine, and they’ll be getting used to new schools. That’s going to be the test.”
“Still.” Ryland cast me a sideways glance. “They seem happy.”
“Mostly.” I wanted to be optimistic, but the truth was, realism served me better. “But you see Becca. She’s scared of everything. Afraid to move and afraid to stay still. We were at a theme park last week, down in Orlando, and she got a little ahead of me in the crowd. I didn’t worry, because I had my eye on her the whole time, but when she looked around and couldn’t spot me, she freaked out. Took me nearly an hour to calm her down.”
“Hmmm.” Ry frowned. “That seems a little extreme.”
“It is. Maybe not for a five-year-old, but Bec’s almost twelve.” I lowered my voice, although there was no way either of the kids could hear me down in the waves. “That’s Doris. She’s always been a little bit of a worrywart, but since Sylvia’s accident, she sees disaster and tragedy around every corner. Becca’s picked that up, and it’s going to be a tough habit to break.”
“Maybe once you three are settled in Burton, she’ll relax a little. Have you thought about therapy?”
I nodded. “Both kids have had some counseling over the last six years. We might have to step it up a little in Becca’s case, though.”
“Ollie seems pretty happy.” Ryland watched my son as he splashed the females and made them squeal.
“Yeah, but he worries me, too. I don’t think the kid has quite wrapped his mind around the idea that they’re living with me now, for good. The other day, he said something about when he goes back to Texas. You know, he was only three when Sylvia died. He doesn’t remember her at all, and Doris and Hank are the only parental figures he knows. I was more like a visiting uncle than a dad to him.”
Ry gripped my shoulder briefly and then released me. “It’ll come together, man. Don’t stress it too hard. Kids are resilient, right? Isn’t that what everyone says?”
“I guess.” I sighed. “We needed this week in the Cove. I appreciate you and Abby letting us stay.”
“Hey, our hotel is your hotel.” He laughed. “Or something like that. And don’t worry. When we find a house, we’re going to make sure it has plenty of room for you guys to come down whenever you want.”
“You’re seriously going to move out of the Riverside?” Since before their marriage, Abby and Ryland had lived at the hotel that our company had restored. Abby was the manager, so it was easier for her to be on property. They had a roomy, comfortable apartment, and I’d never heard either of them complain.
“We are. We thought about trying to make it work there for a while longer, but the truth of the matter is that no hotel guests want to hear a crying baby in the middle of the night, and I’m given to understand that sometimes babies do that. Cry at night.”
It was my turn to smirk. “Now and then.”
“Yeah, well, anyway, Ab wants to do up a nursery, and I want a place where I can put in my own workshop. I’ve talked Cooper into partnering with me on some local projects, and it would be nice to have a place to do some of the work at home.”
“You’re becoming domesticated, Ry.” I ignored the twinge of envy I felt. “It looks good on you.”
“I never could’ve gotten here without you, buddy.” Ryland cleared his throat. “If you hadn’t come on as my partner and agreed to head up the new headquarters of Kent and Turner, I’d still have to be on the road. I’d still have too much responsibility to handle the local stuff, the artisan work. So . . . thanks, Linc. I can’t tell you how much Abby and I appreciate it. How much we owe you.”
I coughed away the lump in my own throat. “You don’t owe me anything. You . . . Ryland, you stuck by me when everyone else was ready to give up. When I was an ugly mess from the booze, when I cried my way through every day after Sylvia, you’re the only one who stayed. If it weren’t for that, I’d probably be dead in a ditch somewhere, and my kids would be orphans, raised by their grandparents. And you gave me the courage and the wherewithal to take them back, too. If you hadn’t believed in me, I’d have let Hank and Doris keep them. I’d still be miserable, alone. So don’t think I’m doing you some big favor. You’re giving the kids and me a way to start over. To make a new life.”
“Guess we’re both good for each other.” Ryland didn’t look my way, which was fine by me. After all, we were men, and gazing fondly into each other’s eyes wasn’t our thing.
After a few minutes, I felt like it was safe to speak again. “Really appreciate you hooking me up with Meghan Reynolds, too. She found us a house that looks to be perfect for the kids and me. I’m looking forward to getting up there and settling in.”
“I think the location will be just what we need business-wise, too.” Ry took a swig of his water bottle. “There’s still a lot of historical restoration work going on in the greater Savannah area, and you’ll be central to jobs in Atlanta, too. Alex Nelson gave me some contacts from when he used to live there.” Alex and his partner Cal now ran the Hawthorne House, a bed and breakfast that was also owned by Jude and Logan Holt. Before he’d moved down here to the Cove, Alex had worked in corporate event planning in the Georgia state capital.
“I can’t believe I forgot to tell you.” I smacked the arm of the chair. “I had an email this morning from the Baker Foundation. The approval came down from the state on restoring that old plantation house, and we got the contract. So my first big job is going to be local to Burton.”
“Dude.” Ry lifted his hand for a high five. “That is huge. How’d you forget to tell me?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I saw it on my phone right as we were leaving for the beach, and then Ollie couldn’t find his other shoe, and with one thing and another, I guess it just slipped my mind. Oh, and keep it quiet for now, okay? The local historical society hasn’t been informed yet. This was just a heads’ up from one of the Baker Foundation board members.”
“Will do. But hey, this is awesome. I’m jealous, though. A plantation? I’ve always wanted to take on that kind of project.”
“You’re welcome to come up and put in some hours whenever you want. Bring Abby, so she can see our new house and hang out with the kids.”
“We’ll plan on it. Don’t worry, I won’t be able to keep her away from checking out your new digs. Plus, I’m pretty sure she’s gotten attached to your kiddos.”
We both looked down to the ocean. Becca had ventured far enough in that the water hit her knees, and she was giggling as she watched her brother pretend to be a dolphin. My breath caught for a moment; I couldn’t remember when I’d last heard my daughter laugh with that kind of abandon.
“I think the feeling’s mutual.” The edges of my mouth curled. “Makes me wonder if we should’ve settled here instead. The kids would have you and Ab, and there’d be a sense of familiarity, at least.”
“Maybe. But at the same time I’d love to have all of you right here in town, I think it’s like you said. You need a fresh start, and in Burton, you’ll get that. You won’t be that far away from us, and we can visit.”
“Yeah.” A lump rose in my throat. “I guess there’s part of me that’s scared shitless I’m going to screw this up. The kids, I mean. Becca’s growing up. She’s going to hit those teen years before I know it, and how do I talk to her about all the ‘your changing body’ shit? That was supposed to be Syl’s job.”
Ryland blanched. “Dude, don’t look at me. I guess you’ll have to find some female up in Georgia who can help you out. Ask Meghan. She’s a chick.”
“But that’s just the beginning. There’s always going to be stuff I need to handle, not just as a dad, but as a mom, too. It’s terrifying, Ry. You think this baby part is going to be a tough gig? Just you wait, buddy.”
“Thanks, Linc. Appreciate all the encouragement.” He shook his head and gnawed at his thumbnail. “You know what, though? It’s going to be okay for both of us. We’ll make it through, ‘cause we’re both strong manly men. We got this.”
Scooping up a handful of powdery sand, I let it sift through my fingers. “I hope so, Ry. I really hope so.”
Everything in life is a tradeoff.
At least, that’s the way I look at things. Take today, for instance. Here I was at the end of a twenty-four-hour shift at the hospital, and by all rights, I should have been heading back to my condo to collapse into bed for a solid eight hours of desperately needed sleep. But instead, I’d turned left out of the hospital parking lot and aimed my car toward the small town of Burton, located about forty-five minutes due west of Savannah.
I wasn’t driving all the way into town today, even though I was tempted to pop into my friend Celeste’s adorable lingerie shop and shoot the breeze with her. No, my destination was about ten miles outside of Burton: I was driving to a picturesque little piece of property that boasted a small lake, two acres of wooded land, and over a hundred years of fascinating history.
Oh, and it also included a rambling old mansion that hadn’t been occupied for several decades. Seeing the beauty it could become hadn’t been easy, but I had a discerning eye for spotting potential, and this house had it in spades. I’d fallen head over heels for the place and made a rare impulsive decision. I’d forsaken the search for a cookie-cutter suburban starter home and committed to another year or two in my soulless Savannah condo in order to fund the rehab of my dream home.
Last month, the work on the bones of the house—the structural support, electricity and plumbing—had all been finished. This week, the company I’d hired to handle the historical rehab was supposed to begin working its magic, and I couldn’t wait another moment to see what they’d done so far.
Hence, the tradeoff. I was giving up sleep in exchange for a quick walk-through of my dream home.
It was late afternoon, so I wasn’t completely surprised to see that there weren’t any trucks in the winding driveway that led to the house. Was I a tiny bit disappointed? Sure. I wanted to think that the people I’d hired were giving my precious project all of their time and energy and attention, but the truth was that they probably had other jobs going on at the same time.
Anyway, being alone would give me a chance to really soak it all in without anyone there to rush me along or ask pesky questions. There you go—yet another tradeoff.
I let myself in through the front door only because I wanted the full effect of stepping into the magnificent foyer. I wasn’t disappointed. The walls were freshly painted in an updated shade of their original color, and the woodwork we’d selected for this space was already up, and even though it hadn’t been finished yet, I could already see how gorgeous it was going to be.
“Oh, baby,” I murmured. “You are going to be so beautiful when they’re done. I’d say we’re restoring you to your former glory, but I think it’s going to be even better than that. Kind of like getting a facelift that makes you look like a sexier version of your twenty-year-old self.” I giggled to myself, thinking of all the women who would line up for that kind of surgery.
Kneeling down, I ran my fingers over the baseboards and craned my neck to examine the molding that ran along the top of the walls, seeing in my mind’s eye the old photos one of my contacts at the county historical society had dug up for me, the ones that we’d used to make style and color decisions. It really was like the original, only better.
I was about to stand up again and make my way toward the kitchen when I heard footsteps upstairs. That was disturbing; if the crew had left for the day, no one should have been here. But there they were again: yeah, someone was definitely upstairs, and whoever it might be wasn’t making any effort to disguise his or her presence.
My mind raced through a number of possibilities, landing on the worst one first. I’d heard that sometimes vagrants or addicts or criminals scoped out empty houses and camped out there when they were fairly sure no one else was around. My place was pretty far off the beaten track, but still . . . if someone happened upon it, they might not like the idea of being chased away, and if they felt cornered or had a weapon, I could be in trouble.
I moved slowly, reaching into my purse and groping blindly. Like most women, I’d learned young the defense method of threading keys through my fingers, and if I could find them now, I might be able to buy myself time to get to my car. I thanked my past self for feeling safe enough out here that I’d left it unlocked. The door was just a few feet away, and if I could get to it silently—
And then the footsteps sounded again—this time louder and coming closer. My heart pounded, and sweat broke out all over my body. I tried to swallow, but my throat was bone dry. I took a deep breath and was about to make a run for the door when I heard a deep voice.
I looked up, lifting my eyes to the banister on the second floor where a man was staring down at me. I blinked, my mind darting this way and that as I tried to make sense of the stranger above me who knew my name.
It wasn’t Linc Turner, the co-owner of Kent and Turner, the historical restoration company I’d hired. I’d have guessed it was one of the men who worked for him, but I hadn’t met any of them. It might have been someone local to Burton—someone I’d met with Celeste or maybe through Young Survival Coalition, the breast cancer support network and organization where we both volunteered. But it wasn’t. Somehow, I knew I hadn’t seen this face in a long time.
But I didn’t know him. The familiarity was frustratingly fleeting and vague. I frowned, rising slowly as the guy who seemed to know me jogged down the steps. My keys were still in my hand, so if he turned out to be psychopath who somehow happened to know my name.
“I didn’t put it together . . . I mean, Hudson is a common name, right? But then I heard your car in the driveway, and when I looked out the window to see who was here, I knew it was you.” He took a step toward me.
I moved backward. “I’m sorry. I don’t . . .” My voice trailed off. “How do you know me?”
He was quiet for a moment, and then a half-smile curled his lips. My heart sped up again, but this time it wasn’t fear making my pulse race. It seemed that my body had realized who he was, but my head was slow to catch up.
And then he spoke, his voice low and husky.
Just like that, it all came flooding back to me, and I knew without a shadow of doubt who was standing in front of me.