Just want you all to know that THEN THERE WAS YOU is on sale TODAY ONLY, Thursday, October 10, at all online retailers, for $1.99.
This is a terrific way to start the series before Book 3 releases in a couple of weeks!
Also, the SPECIAL PREORDER PRICING on ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS YOU will only last until release day, October 29th. The two-for-one price of $3.99 also includes Annie Rains’ book CHRISTMAS ON MISTLETOE LANE.
Here is a sneak peek at ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS YOU! I must confess, this book features a couple I really adore! Rafe is a dedicated firefighter and Kaitlyn is the hardworking owner of the Bean, Angel Falls’ favorite coffee shop. They’ve been best friends, but that is about to change forever…
Being naughty was nice, but now these friends-turned-lovers are in for an unforgettable Christmas…
Just when Kaitlyn Barnes vows to get over her longtime crush on Rafe Langdon, they share a sizzling evening that delivers an epic holiday surprise: Kaitlyn is pregnant. And if that weren’t life-changing enough, everyone assumes they’re engaged — a charade they must keep alive through the holiday season. But Kaitlyn knows Rafe better than anyone, and Rafe settling down is about as likely as Santa skipping Angel Falls this year…
Rafe would rather Kaitlyn believe a lie — that their night together was a fling — than face his own dangerous truth: he’s falling for her, hard. After a devastating loss, Rafe swore he’d never risk his heart again. Yet the longer they pretend to be engaged the more Rafe starts to want the real thing. But now he has to convince Kaitlyn he wants to be by her side — and their baby’s — for all the Christmases to come.
Includes the bonus novel Christmas on Mistletoe Lane by Annie Rains!
Release date: October 29, 2019. Out now!
“A scrumptious holiday treat!” ~ Publishers Weekly
It was a very bad day to take a pregnancy test, Kaitlyn Barnes decided as she washed off the counter at her coffee shop, the Bean, on a snowy late November evening. But she’d taken the test, and in light of how crappy she’d been feeling lately, the bright blue plus sign hadn’t come as a surprise.
She was way too busy to even think about being pregnant, let alone ponder how on earth it could ever have happened.
Okay, she knew how it had happened. And when. And she wasn’t going to lie to herself: the sex with Rafe Langdon had been, after years of dancing around their attraction to each other, epic. But with two forms of birth control, how on earth…Nope. She wasn’t going there. Not now, not with worries about her family, her business, and her life at the forefront of her mind.
Mary Mulligan, the last customer in the shop, brought her empty mug up to the counter, her kind but mischievous blue eyes twinkling. “You’re good friends with Rafe Langdon, aren’t you, dear?”
“Oh, yes, I’ve known Rafe forever.” Kaitlyn squeezed her eyes shut to avoid thinking of his strong, muscular body, his square jaw, his dark, well-defined brows. And other parts of him that she really was not going to think about.
“I haven’t seen him in here lately. How’s he been doing?” Mary asked.
Kaitlyn wouldn’t know. She hadn’t spoken much to Rafe since what she was coming to call the incident, which consisted of one wedding, a few drinks, a rainstorm, and a much too inviting cabin. “I-I haven’t seen him,” Kaitlyn said with a shrug. “Maybe he gave up coffee.”
Yet not even a minute had gone by that she hadn’t thought about him, and his nice full mouth that always seemed to be turned up in the tiniest smile.
Oh, that smile. That’s what had gotten her in trouble—Rafe’s ability to take any kind of worry or concern and somehow lighten it up with that easygoing, assured grin. It was irresistible—he was irresistible, especially to her, whose life was typically chock full of worries and concerns.
She blinked to find Mrs. Mulligan staring at her. “I’m sorry, Mary,” Kaitlyn said. “What did you say?” She had to stop her mind from wandering.
“I said I hope you’re going home soon, dear. You look peaked.”
Kaitlyn flicked her hand in a dismissive gesture. “Just a little tired.” And nauseated. And losing her lunch on a regular basis. And breakfast. “Want another cup of tea?” Kaitlyn asked. “It’s no trouble.”
“Oh, no thank you. I know you’re closing. I just can’t get over how Rafe posed for next year’s first responder charity calendar. Mr. December—Chief Walker made a poster of him to help sell the calendars and gave it to a lot of the shop owners on Main Street. Someone even hung one at the base of the angel statue. All the girls in the beauty shop were talking about it. Don’t you think he’s a hottie?” Mary punctuated her statement with a knowing look.
First off, the police chief, Colton Walker, was Rafe’s best friend, and he’d goaded Rafe, a firefighter, into posing for that calendar, knowing full well that including Rafe’s image would sell dozens. Second, Colton had not delivered her a copy of Mr. December (not that she wanted one), but she wondered why, since her coffee shop was right in the middle of the main drag. And yes, Rafe was a complete hottie, but she knew too well he didn’t do serious. So it didn’t really matter what she thought.
She skimmed her hand lightly over her abdomen, which was a little fuller than usual but still flat enough that no one would suspect a thing. Another wave of nausea hit her, but she clutched the counter and took a deep breath to quell it. Like it or not, she’d be thinking of Rafe Langdon for a long time to come.
“He’s sure going to sell a lot of calendars for Children’s Hospital,” Mary said, clapping her hands together. “What an inspiration for the Christmas season.”
Yes, Christmas. Even now, outside the big plate glass windows that faced the street, snowflakes eddied around the orange glow from the streetlight. Swirls of chaos that reflected how Kaitlyn felt inside. Someone from the Angel Falls maintenance crew had hung a big lit-up candy cane on each light post, making the Main Street cheery and festive, and she herself had strung multicolored lights around all the coffee shop’s windows. She loved Christmas. It was her favorite time of year. But not this year. Not now. She felt anything but festive.
“How’s your niece doing, dear?” Mary asked. “I heard she’d gotten into some kind of trouble.”
Ah, Hazel. Kaitlyn’s older sister, Nikki, had sent her seventeen-year-old daughter to be with family and away from the bad influences at her huge high school in LA. Needless to say, Hazel was beyond thrilled to be dumped off in Angel Falls to complete her senior year far away from home. Kaitlyn knew that Hazel was simply biding her time until she turned eighteen and could kiss Angel Falls and their whole family goodbye.
“She’s…settling in. Thanks for asking, Mary,” Kaitlyn said. Hazel was having some serious problems fitting in at Angel Falls, but Kaitlyn had learned a long time ago not to feed the gossip mill of their close-knit town, no matter how concerned and kind her customers were.
Suddenly the shop bell tinkled, bringing in a few eddies of snow as well as the police chief himself, who was holding on to Hazel’s bony elbow. With her thin frame, big brown eyes, and delicate bow-shaped mouth, Hazel still reminded Kaitlyn of a pixie, a sweet, fragile creature. Except it was difficult to get two words out of her now, and personality-wise, she nowhere near resembled the little girl who used to love spending summers here. Catching Colton’s worried eye, Kaitlyn braced herself and set Mary’s tea mug on the counter with a thunk.
“Colton. Hazel. Is everything all right?” She wiped her hands on her apron and bolted around the counter.
“Thanks for the tea, sweetie,” Mary said, blowing Kaitlyn a quick kiss. With a wave to Colton and a wink at Hazel, Mary astutely let herself out the door.
Kaitlyn approached her niece and held her by the upper arms, a move that forced Hazel to face her. Hazel’s eyes met hers with their usual stoic look of well-practiced indifference. But just for a flash, they might’ve held fear, until she made her expression go flat again.
Colton gave Kaitlyn a sympathetic look. He practically made a second career out of helping the misguided youth of their town, so she knew whatever Hazel had done, it must’ve been serious for him to drag her in at closing time like this.
“Tell your aunt what happened, okay?” Colton said. It came out as more of a command than a question.
Hazel crossed her arms and tossed Colton a glare. “Why don’t you just tell her? You’re the one who insisted on bringing me here.”
Kaitlyn braced against another wave of nausea, willing it away. Oh please, oh please, she prayed. Not drugs. Anything but drugs.
“Okay, fine,” Colton said, blowing out a patient sigh. “Hazel here decided she wanted to get a magazine over at the pharmacy—without paying for it.”
Kaitlyn frowned. “A magazine?” She turned to Hazel, who was nervously shifting her weight from one foot to the other, a move that showcased her Chuck Taylor high-tops. Under her coat, she wore a burnt-orange sweater with a crazily patterned scarf that looked straight out of the seventies. A thief with fashion flair. “I could’ve given you the five dollars.”
Hazel’s face flushed, which Kaitlyn took as a sign that maybe there was the teensiest bit of the old Hazel left in there somewhere.
“Mr. Barter said this isn’t the first time,” the chief said. “He’s looking to press charges.”
Kaitlyn gasped. Oh, this was not good. “Colton, no.”
“Hazel, do you have anything to say?” Colton asked.
“I didn’t do it.”
Struggling not to roll her eyes, Kaitlyn looked at Colton. “Can I talk to you—privately?”
She pulled him off to the side, next to a vintage life-sized sign of Santa holding a cup of coffee up to his mouth and winking. “Look, I’ve been…preoccupied the past few weeks. I should’ve been looking out for her more.” Guilt pummeled her. “I’ll hire her here…as punishment. And to keep an eye on her.” Not exactly the best plan to recapture the relationship they once had, but what else could Kaitlyn do?
Colton narrowed his observant cop-eyes at her. “You okay? You look almost as bad as Rafe.”
“What are you talking about?” she asked, narrowing her eyes right back.
“It’s no secret you two have some kind of tiff going on.”
“It’s not a tiff.” She really didn’t know what to call sleeping with someone you never should’ve slept with in the first place, someone you couldn’t avoid because his sisters were your best friends and his family was just like your own. Complicated and awkward—yes. But a tiff—no.
“Well, whatever it is, he looks like crap too.” Colton dropped his voice. “Look, you told me Hazel’s done this in LA. That makes her a repeat offender. Letting her slide again isn’t going to do her any favors in the long run.”
“I’ll be more diligent. I won’t let her out of my sight. Please, Colton. If you tell Mr. Barter that, he’ll listen.”
Colton grimaced. “You can’t be responsible for everyone, just to let you know.”
Colton was well aware of Hazel’s situation, and Kaitlyn appreciated his understanding, but still, she felt like she’d been too wrapped up with her own…issues. She’d left the tending of Hazel to her mother, and that had been a mistake. “Thank you, but…I can handle it.”
He let out a heavy sigh. “It’s against my better judgment, but okay, I’ll see what I can do. But next time…” He made a cutting motion across his neck with his hands…accompanied by the faintest lift of his lips.
“Thank you,” she said, giving him a hug.
“And you’d better go get some sleep. Or make up with Rafe or something.”
She ignored that, then walked back over to the table where Hazel sat drawing patterns in the sugar she’d dumped from packets onto the table.
“So, are you throwing me in the clinker?” Hazel asked, her mouth pulled up in a smirk. Kaitlyn tried not to be upset.
“You’re going to work here,” Kaitlyn said. “Every day after school.”
“What?” She sat up and shot Kaitlyn an outraged look.
Kaitlyn forged on. “That’s the deal. And when your shift is done, you’ll do your homework in the back. And if your fingers get sticky again, I won’t be able to stop anyone from pressing charges. That will look bad on your college apps.”
Hazel snorted, and Kaitlyn knew why. Because there were no college apps. And possibly because of the fact that she’d said “sticky fingers,” as if she’d been watching too many old mafia movies.
The point was, Nikki had worked long hours and sometimes multiple jobs to give Hazel everything a kid needs. But she’d struggled, and funds for college were simply…not there. And with Hazel getting into trouble recently, both with her grades and with the shoplifting, her shot at a scholarship or a free ride to college had slipped away.
At parent-teacher conferences a few weeks ago, Hazel’s teachers had said she was bright but undisciplined. Unfocused. She didn’t seem to care. Maybe that was because she didn’t think anyone else did.
“I’d like to go back to Gram’s now,” Hazel said, not looking her in the eye.
“I’ll drop you off on my way to the station,” Colton said.
Kaitlyn thanked Colton. “I’ll see you here after school tomorrow,” Kaitlyn said to Hazel, as Colton ushered her out the door. She didn’t get an answer back.
Kaitlyn locked the door after them and dimmed the lights. Then she sat down at a table and put her head down on the cool wooden surface.
She had to do something to help Hazel before it was too late. But she couldn’t help wondering if maybe she was already too late, that Hazel’s decisions so far had set her on a certain course and changing that would be almost impossible.
Kaitlyn had no experience in her own life to compare—she’d always been responsible, a good daughter and a faithful sister. Nikki had always been the more emotional, more impulsive one. She’d gotten pregnant at eighteen and had ended up marrying her high school sweetheart, but things hadn’t worked out.
Kaitlyn had always been determined not to allow her emotions to rule her decisions like her older sister had. But hadn’t the same thing happened to her? She’d acted rashly with Rafe. She’d gotten swept away. How could she not, when every time he looked at her, her pulse skittered and desire rushed through her like a tidal wave?
In the darkened coffee shop, the strings of Christmas lights were as cheery as always, and the blinking lights from the ice cream shop across the street continued to remind her that life was going on as usual for most everyone else.
That crazy night with Rafe had led to something that would change—was already changing—her whole life. She was going to be a mother, something that, at nearly thirty-two, she was beginning to think might not happen. A baby—hers and Rafe’s—was growing inside of her right now. That was overwhelming, frightening, miraculous, and…awesome.
She imagined how Christmas next year would include a whole brand-new little person in their lives…a sweet bundle to hold and love and carry around, tiny arms outstretched toward all the shiny ornaments on the Christmas tree.
She wanted to be a mom more than anything, even if the circumstances weren’t perfect. She was going to do all she could to make smart choices so her baby would have the best life she could give it. That meant growing up, setting aside her misplaced feelings for Rafe, and focusing on securing her business.
She reached into her apron to examine the clipping she’d ripped from a baking magazine earlier in the day. Win $15,000 Plus three Months of Pastry Classes for the Best Christmas Cookie Recipe! the headline read. Kaitlyn tapped the clipping on the table. She had to start thinking of sustaining her business. Becoming a real businessperson. Growing. Winning this contest would give her a chance to put her café on the map. And it would give Hazel a shot at college.
As for pastry classes…well, Kaitlyn had always dreamed of taking those. She’d always wanted to expand her baked goods section, which was popular. Plus, she knew exactly the recipe she’d submit—one for the most amazing Christmas cookie in the entire world. Her grandfather’s chocolate snowcap cookies, which were slightly crunchy on the outside, gooey on the inside with melted chocolate, and coated with powdered sugar that cracked in the oven so they looked like snow-covered mountains. She’d grown up eating them after school in the Bean, her grandfather placing a warm plate full of them before her and Nikki and asking them about their days.
She had to start securing her future. Because she hadn’t needed a pregnancy test to tell her that she was going to have Rafe Langdon’s baby.
“There’s our pretty boy,” Jonathan McDougal, said, as Rafe walked into the Tap, a flurry of snow swirling in as he shut the door behind him. Jon was the owner of the popular neighborhood hangout, and apparently, he had seen the calendar.
“Pretty boy, Jon?” Rafe said, raising a brow.
“Oh, he’s just jealous,” Jon’s wife, Maggie, said, brushing her gray hair aside as she slid some menus into the holder on the wall behind the bar. “We all know Rafe’s more than just a pretty boy—he’s Mr. December.”
“Ha ha, right. Thanks, Maggie,” Rafe said. Maggie was also a paramedic, and he was used to her ribbing. Off to his right, he heard a giggle. Two young, pretty women sitting at the other end of the bar were looking at him and whispering to each other. One of them wiggled her fingers in a little wave.
He smiled back, but it wasn’t genuine. Not his usual lady-killer smile. But the woman flashed him a big smile back, and he knew that if he wanted to, he could land her number in a heartbeat.
Not that Rafe was cocky or arrogant. He just…knew women.
Well, some women. But definitely not one woman in particular whom he couldn’t figure out for the life of him.
It was really unlike him to get his suspenders in such a twist. He should be excited that Mr. December was bringing him new dating opportunities, but he just…wasn’t. He was losing his touch. Had been for the past few months. What was wrong with him?
Across the bar, the women stood up and began to head to the door. The one who waved at him earlier was trying to make eye contact, but he made sure not to look.
“Mr. December?” Eli Nelson, a carpenter buddy who was sitting at the bar, chuckled as he took a swig of beer.
Evan Marshall, the full-time police deputy who sat next to Eli, teased him. “December’s going to be a great month for you—every day will be like Christmas with all the women you’re going to meet.”
“He had on Santa pants and a cute Santa hat,” Maggie said, gesturing excitedly as she handed Rafe a beer, “and the only thing hiding those amazing abs was a tiny little kitten. Next December’s going to be my permanent calendar page.” Her voice faded as Jon stared at her.
“Oh, honey,” she said, kissing her husband on the cheek and lovingly patting his beard, “you’ll always be my favorite Santa.” Everyone knew that Jon played Santa for the women’s shelter Christmas party every year.
“Aw, look at that,” Rafe said, watching Jon’s ruddy complexion turn even ruddier with a blush.
Jon smiled at his wife, mollified. Turning to Rafe, he said, “Maybe you should do something with all that Santa talent.”
“Yeah, like what?” Rafe asked, taking a sip of his beer.
“How about taking over being Santa this year for the women’s shelter?”
“How come you’re not doing it?” Rafe asked. Jon had the great beard, the deep laugh, and the stockier build. The perfect Santa.
“One of our kiddos has a Christmas program that night,” Maggie said. “As much as we love helping out the shelter kids, we’ve got to pass this year.”
“So how about it?” Jon said. “I’ve seen you with your niece and nephew. You’re a natural.”
Being a fun uncle was one thing. But playing Santa for an entire roomful of shelter kids was another thing entirely.
“The only people who get to sit on my lap are single women.” Rafe grinned to punctuate the joke and left it at that.
Evan and Eli howled, and Jon threw up his hands.
Maggie, however, shook her head. “I’m glad you’re having fun being a pinup now, Rafe, but sooner or later you’ll be happier to have a baby on your lap and a wife at your side.”
He flashed his brightest smile and used his most joking voice, but deep down, he meant every word. “Don’t hold your breath, Maggie. Sorry.” Because it would never happen.
Rafe had been there, done that, and vowed to never go there again. Eight years ago, his fiancée had died in a car accident, on the way to a doctor’s appointment. She’d been eight weeks pregnant, a fact that only a few people knew.
Rafe understood himself pretty well, and he knew he was not capable of surviving that kind of loss again. And if joking about never settling down made him seem calloused, or insensitive, or whatever, he was okay with that. He knew his limits.
“Hey, a couple of us are going into Richardson tomorrow night to have some fun,” Evan said with a grin. “Want to come?”
“Thanks, Evan, but I’m busy this weekend,” Rafe said. He wasn’t that busy—he just wasn’t in the mood to pick up women. Which was odd because usually he was all in for that.
But lately, all he could seem to think about was Kaitlyn.
Kaitlyn, whom he’d known forever. Who was best friends with two of his sisters and practically part of his family. Whom he’d impulsively slept with after they’d had too much fun together at a wedding because he’d been unable to resist her. And he’d regretted it ever since.
If he were completely honest with himself, over the past couple of years, on top of their friendship, there’d been something else brewing. Attraction. A certain…fondness. Feelings.
Somewhere along the line, Kaitlyn had gone from that nice-enough girl who always hung out with his sisters to a funny, vivacious woman who made him laugh and who sometimes knew him better than he knew himself. It was no wonder they struck up an even closer friendship after she broke up with her last boyfriend. But he knew from the start that he had to draw a thick line in the sand, one that could never be crossed.
He’d tried to keep her at arm’s length, but he’d let his guard down that night—and the unthinkable had happened. But it would never happen again. Sleeping with her had messed everything up—their easy conversation, the jokes and banter he looked forward to every day. And now he had no idea how to get them back to the fun and easy friendship they had.
Because not having Kaitlyn in his life ironically made him think about her more. And that was ruining his mojo. He hated having his mojo ruined.
“C’mon, Rafe,” Eli said. “You’re scaring us. Snap out of it, because wingmen need love too.”
Rafe turned to Evan and Eli and sighed. “Buy me another beer and that might twist my arm.”
For the next half hour, Rafe managed to laugh and make small talk and buy another round. So maybe he wasn’t really in the mood to do any of these things, but what was it that his mom used to say? Even if you don’t feel like doing something, do it anyway—and you’ll be surprised how your mood will change.
Have to take your word on that, Mom, he thought, lifting his beer a little in salute. She’d been gone a long time, but one thing he remembered: his mom had used humor to make people feel better. The only trouble with that was that people expected you to be funny all the time, regardless of what you were feeling underneath.
A half hour later, the beer gone, Rafe said his goodbyes and walked out into the cold. It was snowing pretty heavily now, the flakes big and fat, the kind that stuck to your eyelashes and your coat. The cold air felt good—it woke him up and pulled him out of his thoughts, made him focus on something other than Kaitlyn.
His truck was parked in the lot, but he didn’t get in, just kept going. He told himself he needed a brisk walk to clear his head, that he didn’t care where his feet led him. But he did care. And he knew exactly where he was headed.
* * *
The Bean was closed for the night, but Rafe found himself on his way there anyway. He imagined Kaitlyn inside tidying up before tomorrow’s morning rush. He missed seeing the way she tucked her pretty blond hair behind her ear and smiled. And talking to her about everything and nothing. He missed her, period.
And, heaven help him, he missed the thing that had ruined their friendship. Sinking onto her softness, murmuring her name as he brushed his lips against her soft full ones, hearing her little moans as she kissed him back and came apart in his arms.
He shook his head to clear the images. But he couldn’t, and they’d already affected him, if the tightening in his pants was any indicator.
He told himself he was going to the Bean to set things right. Because she meant too much to him to let things continue as they were. After all, they’d been best friends until that had happened.
“Rafe?” a familiar voice said. “What are you doing out there?”
Kaitlyn. Startled, he realized he’d been standing in front of the Bean’s big plate glass windows, staring in. He wasn’t sure for how long.
She was fussing over him, tugging him by the arm. “It’s freezing out here, and you haven’t even got your jacket zipped. And where are your hat and gloves? Geez, you’re covered with snow.” Her busy hands dusted off the coating of snow that had accumulated on his hair, his coat.
“I was at the Tap for a while,” he said. He’d never admit it, but he enjoyed her fussing. Her touch.
He wondered if this was how it was going to be, that they were both going to pretend everything was normal between them, like they hadn’t been avoiding each other for months.
As she pulled him inside of the warm, deserted cafe and steered him over to a table, he noticed she smelled good, like dark rich coffee. And apples and cinnamon.
She placed a hand on a hip and assessed him. “Did you eat dinner?” she asked. “Don’t even answer. I’m making you a sandwich. And I’ve got some chicken soup left.”
“Why are you still here?” he asked. “It’s Friday night. Don’t you have a date or something?” Oh no. Why did he say that?
“I was…going over some numbers,” she said.
“You look pretty,” he said. Oh, even worse. Why had he come here when it was clear his foot was going to spend the entire time in his mouth?
She halted halfway to the kitchen and turned. “Rafe Langdon, are you drunk?” She frowned and tiny lines appeared between her eyes. He wanted to smooth them with his fingers. No, he wanted to kiss them away.
What on earth was he thinking? He had to stop being an idiot.
“Just a little,” he said. He wasn’t at all. But if saying so would help excuse his foot-mouth situation, so be it.
“Are you okay?” he asked. Getting the attention off of himself was a relief, but he was genuinely worried, noticing the dark circles rimming her eyes. He could swear she blushed at his question.
“Of course I am.” She sounded fine—maybe a little too fine, in his opinion. Like she was trying hard to convince him. “Why would you ask that?”
He shrugged. He knew everything about her too well. The way she blushed when something was bothering her, the way worry filled her blue eyes and made her press her lips together in a tight line. “Just that you look tired.” On the table was a clipping from a magazine. He lifted it up. “What’s this for?”
She took it out of his hands. “Nothing. It’s…nothing.”
He snagged it back and read it. “A recipe contest?”
She shrugged nonchalantly, but her fingers tapped restlessly on the table. “It’s just something I’m thinking of entering.”
He searched her eyes as he slid the clipping back in her direction. “I’ve been worried about you.”
“My sisters told me your niece is having some problems. Everything all right?”
“Yes. Everything’s fine.” She lowered her eyes. “Actually, just between the two of us, she got caught tonight trying to lift a magazine from the pharmacy.”
Her pretty blue gaze flicked up at him. Between the two of us. What would it be like for there to actually be a two of them? But he knew better than anyone that there was no chance of that ever happening. After he’d lost Claire and their unborn baby, he’d made a pact with himself…never again. Never. Again.
No matter how much he cared about Kaitlyn or how sometimes he had moments where he thought they’d be amazing together…she deserved someone normal. Unscarred. And capable of love. Which he was not.
“Just a magazine?” Rafe asked.
Kaitlyn frowned. “There’s no such thing as ‘just a magazine.’ Plus, you know she was caught shoplifting in California too.”
“What I mean is, if you’re going to be bad, why not go for the cash register? Or the narcs.”
“Rafe!” Her voice sounded horrified but it was clear she was suppressing a laugh.
He grinned. It was so easy to loosen her up, to make her smile. He felt a sudden surge of pride that he hadn’t lost his touch with her at least. “Wasn’t she supposed to get a job to teach her some responsibility? And you know, so she wouldn’t have time to shoplift?” he asked. “I thought that was the deal your mom made with her.”
“My mom never insisted on it. So I just hired her.” Kaitlyn sent him a look that he knew meant What have I done? But she’d never say that.
He blew out a breath. “Kaitlyn, that’s kind of you, but—you sure that’s a good idea? It sounds like the kid needs more than a job.”
“I’ll be able to keep a better eye on her this way. And maybe I could…I don’t know. Try to figure out what’s going on with her.” She dropped her voice. “I couldn’t just do…nothing.”
He nodded sympathetically. Kaitlyn was known for taking on lost causes—stray cats, lonely customers…him. Before he could say anything, she’d jumped up and run into the kitchen. She came back a minute later with soup and a sandwich, which tasted like the best he’d ever had, and he thanked her.
“So why the recipe contest?” he asked as they sat together while he finished eating. “Don’t you have enough to do?”
She heaved a sigh. “My grandfather had this recipe for chocolate snowcap cookies that was amazing. I know it would win the contest. But it’s…lost. No one knows where it is and my mom doesn’t remember how to make them.”
“And this is important why?” Her voice held an edge of passion, and something else—desperation, maybe?—but for a recipe contest?
Kaitlyn blushed. “Nikki makes too much money for Hazel to qualify for full financial aid for school. So she’d have to take out massive amounts of loans. If I win this contest…voila…college money.”
“Is Hazel going to take pastry classes too?” He tried not to sound skeptical, but he hoped this scheme wasn’t all for Hazel. He knew how much Kaitlyn loved the Bean and how she always wanted to experiment with new recipes.
“Those are for me. For the Bean’s future. I know it’s crazy and a long shot but…it’s a shot I want to take.”
“Well then, you’ve got to take it.” He sat back and smiled—because he couldn’t help it.
“What? What’s so funny?”
“Just that it reminds me of that time you invented that coffee milkshake to sell in the Bean.”
She put a hand to her forehead. “Don’t remind me. That tasted terrible!”
“It wasn’t that bad. You looked pretty hot serving it up to everyone who walked by wearing that stuffed coffee bean costume.”
“What?” she said, rolling her eyes. “Quit joking. That stuffed bean costume was not sexy.”
“I mean, I’m just joking,” he backpedaled. “You always look nice.” Okay, he was blathering, and he needed to stop. Right now. Even though the coffee bean costume had been kind of hot—with her long pretty legs in yellow tights under the stuffed bean part. But why he was even thinking about that he had no idea.
Frankly right now, she looked more than nice. And that way she had of nervously worrying her lower lip was making him crazy. He wanted to stop talking about baking contests, reach over the table, pull her into his arms, and kiss her sweet full lips. He had a few other ideas too, about how to get her to relax. All of which were completely out of line.
Instead, he gave a nonchalant shrug. “The point is, you went for it. And I think you should follow your instincts on this too and go for it. Why not?”
She smiled. “Well—thanks for your support. It means a lot that you don’t think I’m crazy.”
“You are crazy but…Nothing ventured, nothing baked.” He quirked his mouth in a wry grin.
She gave a snorty, sudden laugh. “Okay, you’re crazy too.”
“Probably,” Rafe said, setting down the clipping. “You look tired. Are you sleeping okay?” He’d said that already—probably because he was too afraid to say what was really on his mind.
Kaitlyn swallowed and dropped her gaze from his. “I’m fine. How have you been?”
He ignored the question and placed his hand over hers on the table, and she immediately stiffened. But he cut to the chase anyway. “Kaitlyn, I—miss you. I miss how we used to talk. I miss my…friend.”
“We became more than friends that night at the wedding, Rafe.”
He smoothed his thumb over the back of her palm. “That part was…That was really good too.” What was he doing? He had no business touching her. Wanting her. Or allowing her to believe he could give her what she wanted. “Not that I remember much, that is. I mean, we’d both had too much to drink, and…”
“Yeah,” she said, sitting up straighter. “I mean, I don’t either. Remember, that is.”
“Oh.” She didn’t? The truth of the matter was he remembered too much. The way she felt, soft and warm in his arms. The way she kissed him, breathless and passionate, their kisses breaking down a mountain of forbidden feelings between them.
At least that’s how it had been for him.
But he couldn’t tell her that because he had no intention of acting on any feelings he might have for her. He didn’t have feelings.
He pushed down his irrational disappointment and continued. “It was obviously a mistake. One we won’t be stupid enough to make again.”
“No, of course not,” she said hurriedly. Disappointment riffled through him, settling in his stomach. She didn’t care about him like that. So why wasn’t he relieved?
“I value our friendship a lot,” she said, sounding like she was letting him down gently.
“Me too. I would never want anything to mess that up. Especially not a dumb…mistake.” It was a dumb mistake, right? He almost expected her to cut in, interrupt him. Deny it. “I mean, I’d never want to ruin our friendship by trying to have a…relationship.”
“Rafe, I’m not one of those women you have to try and get out of things with.” She squeezed her eyes shut tightly. Great. He knew what that look meant—that she was 100 percent serious about something. “I don’t…expect anything from you.”
He sat there, tapping the tops of his fingers together on the table. Of course she wouldn’t be demanding or pressure him for more. She was different than other women. Still, her low expectations of him niggled in a way he couldn’t quite explain.
“So how about we go back to being…just friends?” That he could handle.
“We’ll always be friends, Rafe.” She looked right at him, her pretty blue eyes deep with feeling. But he couldn’t shake the sense that she was rejecting him. Writing him off. “But after what happened, I can’t…It can’t go back to the way it used to be. Things are…different now.”
“They don’t have to be.” He sounded a little desperate, but he needed things to go back to the way they were before. Their relaxed, easy friendship. Sharing laughs, hanging out. Talking to her about the latest crazy news around town or really anything that was on his mind. Surely they could put this inconvenient…attraction aside for both their sakes. They had to.
Kaitlyn sighed. “Well, they are different. Look, I have something to say, and I’m just going to come out and be honest. I’m—”
She was interrupted by Rafe’s phone ringing. On the phone a photo came up beside the caller’s name. It was of him and a woman he’d met at a bar with his friends, his arm around her, both of them smiling for a selfie. He pressed ignore, hoping Kaitlyn didn’t see it.
Too late. Kaitlyn glanced from his phone to him but didn’t say anything.
“What were you saying?” he asked.
“The night of the wed—”
His phone rang again. Same woman calling. Again he pressed ignore.
“Maybe you should get that,” she said. “It looks important.” She nodded toward the picture on the phone.
“I doubt it. She’s just someone I met out the other night.” Someone who was clearly interested.
“You two look pretty cozy.”
His first impulse was to tell her the truth. That it had been the woman’s idea to take a selfie together and put her number into his phone. And that he’d rather sit all night with Kaitlyn than answer a call from someone else.
But what good would that do? He knew the answer to that, and he also knew what he had to do. He picked up his phone and pressed a few buttons and looked Kaitlyn dead in the eye. “I always do that when someone wants my number.”
“Do what?” she asked innocently.
“Take a selfie so I don’t forget who she is.” He pocketed the phone and stood to go, trying not to wince at what he’d just said. “I’m glad you don’t hate me, Katie. Your friendship means too much to me.”
Friendship, he reminded himself. Just that and nothing more.
“Rafe, you’re such an idiot. But I could never hate you.” She stepped forward and hugged him. Her voice sounded a little funny, a little cracked.
Only she would hug him after he’d been such a jerk. He inhaled the sweet smell of her hair, felt the softness of her cheek as it brushed past his. Deep down, his stomach ached from the lie. After a few seconds, he pulled back and held her at arm’s length. “You know I love you, Katie.” Then his phone rang again, vibrating from his pocket. “What was it you were going to tell me?”
Kaitlyn was staring at him, her eyes a little watery. “Oh, just…just that…that your friendship means a lot to me too. And…and we’ll figure out where to go from here.”
Where to go from here? That didn’t sound good. But he had faith they’d figure it out, now that he knew she didn’t hate him. “We will.” Then he tossed her a wave and headed back out to the street.
His phone buzzed yet again. He was a second away from blocking the number when he hesitated. Took a deep breath of frosty air. This time when he picked it up, he decided to follow his mom’s advice again. “Hey, Jade. Yeah, I’ve been thinking about you too.”
Maybe if he willed that to be true, he could drive all thoughts of Kaitlyn out of his head for good.
* * *
One last thing…my webmaster Chris has done a miracle – I mean, he always does an amazing job, BUT now he’s made it snow on my home page! Just looking at it makes me want to be in Angel Falls for the holidays right now! (And trust me, I’ve spent a lot of time in Angel Falls where it was Christmas for months on end while I was writing the book. 🙂 )
Let me know if you like the snow!
Hope you enjoyed the sneak peek…thanks for reading and for your support!
Flash 99¢ Sale Through Thursday, Sept. 12th!
I wanted to let you know that starting today, Sept. 10th, and going through Thursday, Sept. 12, THE WAY YOU LOVE ME is on sale for just 99¢.
If you like grumpy single dads and spunky heroines, hope you’ll give it a try for this great price! (You can click on image for details.)
Read a fun excerpt of THE WAY YOU LOVE ME
The couple in my upcoming holiday book, Rafe, a hunky, commitment-phobic firefighter, and Kaitlyn, a hardworking and determined coffee shop owner, have been in all 3 Angel Falls books. Well, in THE WAY YOU LOVE ME, SOMETHING happens between these two “best friends” at a wedding, in a cabin, during a blackout…hmmm…You can read an excerpt of THE WAY YOU LOVE ME below to try and figure out the burning question…DID THEY OR DIDN’T THEY?? 😉
And if you can’t wait to find out..you can read the blurb for ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS YOU.
Special Preorder Price for ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS YOU
The special preorder pricing for my Christmas book is still going on…you can get ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS YOU plus Annie Rains’ CHRISTMAS ON MISTLETOE LANE for $3.99, two novels for the price of one!
You can click on the image below for details.
Excerpt of THE WAY YOU LOVE ME – Did They or Didn’t They??
At around two in the morning, Gabby was startled from her half-awake state. She heard voices from outside the door.
“Katie, please. It’s not like that.” It was Rafe.
“Gabby’s probably sleeping,” Kaitlyn said in a hushed voice. “Please go before you wake her up.”
“Don’t be angry with me,” the first voice implored.
“I’d rather you not touch me right now,” Kaitlyn said.
Uh-oh. Did that mean Rafe didtouch her…before?
“I can’t help it those women were texting me,” he said. “I swear I didn’t give them my number. The guys must’ve put them up to it.”
“Admit the truth. You came here for an easy lay. Not to spend time with me. And those floosy girls know it.”
“That’s not true.”
Gabby froze under the covers. She shouldn’t be listening to this, yet part of her could not wait to hear what was next. And for once she had the perfect excuse to eavesdrop—she was literally stuck in place.
“Then why did you keep looking at your phone when we were…you know?”
“Kaitlyn, I’d rather kiss you than look at my phone any day of the week.”
Kissing? They’d beenkissing?
“I don’t believe you.”
“I’m sorry I seemed distracted,” Rafe said. “Look, I care about you a lot. You’re just…”
“I’m just what?”
“You’re just a settling-down type of girl, and I’m…”
“Don’t even finish that sentence, okay? Good night, Rafe.”
Gabby heard the door click and froze in place in her bed. She heard Kaitlyn’s long, drawn-out breath as she latched the chain. Heard her tiptoe to the bathroom and the water running as she brushed her teeth.
A few minutes later Kaitlyn sank into the bed beside her.
“You okay?” Gabby asked.
“No,” Kaitlyn said, her voice sounding muffled and strange.
Gabby clicked on the light. Kaitlyn had clearly been crying, judging by the mascara stains under her eyes and the wad of Kleenex clutched to her chest. She blew her nose loudly before dropping her head back onto the pillow.
“I’m sorry I woke you,” she said.
“I was awake,” Gabby said. “I heard you and Rafe. Is everything all right?”
Her eyes got teary again and she shrugged. “I don’t want to talk about it, if that’s all right.” She blew her nose again. “How about with you? I saw you with your cute professor.” Why did everyone refer to Cade as herprofessor? It reminded her of Professor Bhaer in Little Women, a character she desperately tried to love. But after Laurie, anyone else in the world would be second-rate for Jo.
“Oh sure. Nothing to say. He’s pretty much a straight arrow about not mixing business with pleasure.”
“Is he gay?”
No. Definitely not gay. “Maybe,” she found herself saying, going a little overboard to avoid suspicion. “You sure you don’t want to talk about it?”
About the kissing. And touching. Or lack thereof.
Kaitlyn gave a tired sigh. “I felt like we were getting somewhere. He seemed really into me. We did a slow dance, and I don’t know, I just felt this…electricity. It was powerful, and I could tell he felt it too.” She tossed a skeptical look at Gabby. “I know you don’t believe me, but don’t pity me, okay? This time I learned my lesson.”
“I don’t pity you,” Gabby said softly. Just the opposite. She knew exactlywhat Kaitlyn was talking about. “I just don’t want you to get hurt.”
Tears leaked out of Kaitlyn’s eyes, and Gabby felt at a complete loss for words.
“Look, you’ve got a great brother,” Kaitlyn said. “But he’s an emotional black hole. I mean, he’s so damn charming, and I’d had a few drinks, so he was probably even more charming than usual, and I was at the point where I’d do anything to have him for one night. So we started making out in his cabin, you know? And then…”
“The lights went out?” Gabby offered. She really didn’t want to hear the private details. She was afraidto hear the private details. And as for Rafe, she was going to kill him at the first light of dawn.
“Yes, but we barely noticed that, and things were really fantastic until his phone kept flashing. Not once or twice, but like, continuously. I couldn’t help but notice it with the lights out. Finally I looked at it and it was all texts from women.”
Gabby frowned. “What kind of women?”
“Apparently half the single women at the wedding were trying to hook up with him. And he kept looking at the texts. Honestly, I almost threw the phone at him.”
Gabby believed Rafe when he said Kaitlyn’s friendship was important to him. So he wouldn’t…he didn’t…oh dear. “Rafe would never go out of his way to hurt you.” No, but he could hurt her in a careless, not-really-getting-it Rafe way. But surely he wouldn’t have…slept with her?
Kaitlyn gave a sad shrug. “It’s all right, Gabby. I was hoping he thought of us as something different. Before this weekend, he was acting like that was possible, and when he asked me to take a walk and one thing sort of led to another…Well, I was wrong. I’ve been wrong this whole time.”
“Kaitlyn, did Rafe—did you—I mean…”
She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Maybe if you two can talk it out…” Oh, she was not being helpful or consoling. Rafe? Talk it out? She couldn’t picture it. “Forget what I just said. Rafe needs to get his act together, and I’m not sure you—or anyone—can help him do that.”
“I’m done,” Kaitlyn said. “It’s never going to work out between us. I don’t have any more time to wait until he grows up.” She blew her nose again. “And he has problems but I’m not his shrink! I’m not anyone’s shrink. I just want a normal guy without…intimacy issues.”
“Oh honey,” she said, patting Kaitlyn’s back.
“It’s all right, Gabby. I’m sorry. I know Rafe’s your brother, and I don’t want you to think badly of him.”
“Don’t be sorry. I know Rafe has his issues.”
At least Kaitlyn had thought this out before she’d slept with him. If she’d slept with him. Gabby hoped to God she hadn’t.
This is just a quick message to let you know that the electronic version of my upcoming brand new release (coming October 29th) ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS YOU, is just $3.99 at all e-tailers for a very limited time.
This deal includes a copy of Annie Rains’ book Christmas on Mistletoe Lane for FREE in the back. (I loved it!)
I don’t know how long this special pricing will last…but I wanted you to have an opportunity to check it out before it disappears!
Click on the image below or check out my bookshelf page for more details!
Are you subscribed to my newsletter? Because there’s a super sale on my second Angel Falls book, THE WAY YOU LOVE ME, coming very soon! Be sure to sign up so you don’t miss anything!😉
Thanks and Best,
Hope you all are enjoying the summer as it winds down!
Do you hate to see it go, or are you thrilled for pumpkin spice everything and those crisp fall evenings? (Let me know in the comments!) I guess I feel a little bit of both…
Exciting things are happening here – as I get ready to launch my last Angel Falls book, ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS YOU (starring Rafe, my hunky, loveable, commitmentphobic firefighter), I thought I would provide a few chapters of the first Angel Falls book for you to read right now!
See below under the book cover for the first 3 chapters of THEN THERE WAS YOU!
I was sad to say goodbye to the Langdon family, but I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed being friends with them! Hope you feel the same way!
Here’s what reviewers are saying:
“Top pick! Five stars! Ms. Liasson has delivered one of the best books I’ve read this year so far where the chemistry between this couple was off-the-charts; the romance was full of wonderful heat and passion that show how perfect these two are together; and the ending had me loving the hero’s determination to win Sara back.”―HarlequinJunkie.com
“Emotional, heartwarming romance you can’t put down.”―Lori Wilde, New York Times bestselling author
“Liasson will make you laugh and melt your heart in this can’t miss read.”―Marina Adair, #1 bestselling author of Summer in Napa
“Ably tugs at the heartstrings with this poignant contemporary.”―Publishers Weekly
“A delightful and sexy small-town tale of love lost and found!”―Fresh Fiction
Click on the image below for more information about my Angel Falls books and for retailer purchase links.
Thanks so much for reading! ❤️
Copyright © 2018 by Miranda Liasson
Then There Was You
Sometimes the last person on earth you want to be with is the one person you can’t be without.
—Tagline for the movie Pride and Prejudice, 2005
Dr. Serafina Langdon stood in the Angel Falls Community Hospital ER before the door to exam room three, squeezing her eyes shut, struggling to be a better person. Clearly a higher power was telling her she’d made the wrong decision, returning to her hometown of Angel Falls, Ohio. Because the name on the sheet of paper in her hand said that the patient occupying the room in front of her was Colton Bentley Walker.
Not him. Anyone but him. She’d hoped to ease back into town, get herself established, and then confront—on her own terms—the man who’d helped ruin her engagement a year ago. Who’d been a burr in her side for years—since she was fourteen, really. She’d known this day would come; she just hadn’t expected it during her first ER shift.
Sara sucked in a deep breath. She could handle this. She reminded herself again of the reason she’d returned to this sleepy small town to join her dad’s medical practice after her high-powered Ivy League training at Columbia. Her sweet, precious grandmother had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and Sara wanted to do all she could to help the woman who’d been her rock, her support, her unwavering cheerleader her whole life. She could face the demons of the past for Nonna’s sake.
Sara opened her eyes. Slid the sheet of paper back into the metal pocket on the wall. She couldn’t do it. Not today, and maybe not ever. She turned on the soles of her Dansko clogs and walked at a fast clip back to the nurses’ station.
The ER was just as white bright at two on a Saturday morning as it was at high noon. And just as busy. Even the administrative assistant was on the phone. Sara peeked around the corner to find the doc she was sharing this shift with. Sara was a primary care doctor, but in a town as small as Angel Falls, the primary care docs worked alongside the ER docs to help staff the ER. Brian Graves, a guy from the next town over whom she knew from residency, was her partner this shift. He had one claim to fame: he’d bedded more women than an eighties rock star.
She hated to approach him, but what was worse? Asking a favor of a guy who wanted to get her in the sack or inflicting irreversible pain and suffering on the man she blamed for ruining her chance at happily ever after?
An unwanted flash of herself in her mother’s wedding gown passed before her, pivoting slowly in front of the big mirror at Katie O’Hara’s bridal shop, while her sisters and her grandmother and her stepmother oohed and aahed. Sorrow over the future that had come crashing down around her stabbed her in the gut, as it tended to do at the worst times. She didn’t want to be reminded of all that pain, and she could notsee Colton without wanting to kill him. All righty then. Brian it was.
She found Brian sauntering down the hall to an exam room, eyeing the butt of a nurse as she made the usual two a.m. pot of coffee.
“Trade me a patient?” Sara asked.
He reached out and took the electronic tablet she carried in her hand. “Oh, Chief Walker.” He looked from the tablet to her. “You running away from the law or something?”
He chuckled at his own joke and trained his baby blues on her. Many women found them mesmerizing, but she was definitely immune to his slithery brand of charm.
Brian handed her back the tablet, but when she made to take it, he continued to hold on. “Can’t do it. Sorry. Although it’s an easy case, not sure why you’re worried. A few stitches and a tetanus shot and you’re done. Unless you’re afraid you’ll fall for the cop. You’d be better off with a hot doc like me. I love danger too, by the way, if that’s what you’re looking for.”
She rolled her eyes. “I knowit’s an easy case, and I do nothave a thing for him. What are you working on?”
“Potential cardiac arrest. Or maybe the guy just has bad heartburn from eating at that new Mexican place off Route 44. I already saw him and ordered tests, or I’d trade. Next time I’d be happy to accommodate.” He let his gaze drag up and down, as if she were wearing a boob-uplifting cocktail dress instead of blue scrubs, a white coat, and a stethoscope adorned with a little fuzzy koala bear. Her best friend Kaitlyn had given her the koala as a welcome-home gift, so that the kids Sara saw wouldn’t be so afraid.
“Um, OK. Thanks.” He was still eyeballing her with that yucky I-want-you-babe look.
“Speaking of accommodating…”
“Not going to happen, Brian.” She yanked hard on the tablet. “Thanks, though,” she called over her shoulder as she walked away.
Oh, what the hell. If she could handle horny Brian, she could handle He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. So she knocked on the exam room door and walked in.
There, lying on the gurney watching late-night Spanish soccer, was Colton, his long lazy frame sprawled out, one elbow behind his head as he inclined toward the wall-mounted television. The hospital gown fell away from his arm, revealing its sinewy, tanned glory for all the world to see.
All that manly muscle distracted her momentarily from his problem, which she now saw clearly. His left arm was laid out straight, exposing the jagged edges of a bloody wound that curved around his biceps.
His very toned biceps. He was a fit man, lean but muscular. Not that she was noticing in any other manner but that of a physician evaluating her patient.
He would be handsome, if not for the fact that he was the world’s biggest jerk. That he was tall and strong and broad shouldered only mattered from the standpoint that if you had him with you in a dark alley, you’d totally be covered. His hair used to be longish and thickly layered but was now cut in a no-nonsense buzz. He flicked his eyes—cool, devastatingly blue, with too-long eyelashes—from the TV to her. She saw the moment recognition set in, and hey, was that fear?
She certainly hoped so. After all, she would be the one wielding the needle. This was herterritory. And Sara was not going to allow him to forget that, not for one second.
He looked her over in that bored, detached way he had, as if she were far beneath his notice. Before she could stop herself, her hand flew up to her glasses, which she suddenly remembered she was wearing for her middle-of-the-night shift. She caught herself from adjusting them in time. Reminded herself that high school was eons ago, that she wasn’t that gawky, awkward girl with blazing-red frizzy hair he used to mercilessly call Sara Jane the Brain. Followed by more years of being mostly ignored and patiently tolerated, which made it especially awkward as he was her ex-fiancé Tagg’s best friend.
Tagg was at the Cleveland Clinic an hour away, working as a neurologist, while she was back home in Angel Falls trying to carve out a life for herself that looked nothing like the one she’d envisioned a year ago. On the bright side, being back home with family reminded her of how much she’d missed them, although the fact that her dad was less than thrilled at having her as a partner at his practice still stung.
Sara had opened her mouth to utter what she hoped would be a professional greeting when the door opened behind her. Brian stuck his head into the room.
“Hey, Colt, great to see you, buddy,” he said. “Wish I could stitch you up myself, but I’m busy with a critically ill patient. You know how that goes.”
“Yeah, he needs two Tums stat,” Sara said. “Better hurry.”
Brian laughed. “Very clever. I like my women with spunk.”
“And I’d like to get going on my work.” She held the door open and gestured for him to exit. Which he did, unfortunately winking at Colton first.
“I didn’t know you and Brian were a thing,” Colton said. Of course his first words would raise her blood pressure, his favorite pastime.
“We are nota thing,” she said.
“Well, I just assumed. Judging by the lovey-dovey looks you two were exchanging just now.”
Lovey-dovey looks?Was the man out of his mind? “I guess you don’t need great powers of deduction to be the police chief in this town.”
“Ouch,” Colton said, pretending to be offended. “Well, excuse me for assuming. You’re a little too wild for him anyway, huh, Red?”
Sara felt her cheeks heat, the curse of the redhead. No one called her that ridiculous nickname but him, and she hadn’t heard it for years. No one poked fun at her for being buttoned up and uptight except for him, and he’d taken great pleasure in doing it ever since high school.
“Grow up, Chief.” She washed her hands at the sink and pulled suture materials from the drawers. “I just want to remind you that I’m going to be wielding a needle here shortly, so you might want to restrain your mouth. If you’re capable.”
He held up his good hand. “Hey, more than capable, Doc. You just do your job so I can get back to work, OK?”
She walked over to the exam table. “You also might want to pull a bullet out of your holster and bite on it while I’m stitching you up.” He suddenly looked a little pale. She should have felt guilty, but instead she was just glad it shut him up for a minute. “So you got gashed by a rusty fence?”
“I was crawling under it to catch a perp.”
“Did you catch him?” She forced her focus on the jagged bloody wound. And away from the biceps.
“I’m surprised a well-educated lady doc like you is so sexist,” he said in a deep baritone that seemed to reverberate right through her. “How do you know it wasn’t a she-criminal?”
“Because we sewed himup a half hour ago. What took youso long to get here?”
He grinned, but she remained totally unaffected by his bright, broad, and just-imperfect-enough-to-melt-panties smile. “Paperwork at the station.”
“You were bleeding like this and you stopped to do paperwork?”
He leveled big blue eyes at her and shrugged. Which she interpreted as an “I can handle it all even if I am bleeding like a stuck pig” gesture. His arrogance didn’t seem tempered even after all these years.
Her eyes flicked to his too-handsome face. Colton had been blessed with angel-kissed good looks that had been turning the heads of females since he was a boy. He’d been popular, a stellar athlete, and quarterback on the football team until an injury had sidelined him and caused him to lose his college scholarship. He was the guy who’d sat on homecoming and prom courts, and who’d always had his pick of women.
Bringing her focus back to the task at hand, she prepared a soapy solution by squirting a bottle of antiseptic scrub into a bowl and brought it over to his bedside.
“Maybe I should wait for the nurses to do that,” he said, sounding a little nervous.
“They’re all tied up,” Sara said sweetly, holding the curved suture needle up so he got a good view of it. “Better if I do it all and get you out of here quicker. I’m going to soak your arm in the antiseptic now.”
“Will it sting?”
“The last patient cried for ten minutes, but he was six. Since you’re a tough guy, I’d anticipate you’d be fine in half that time.”
His dark gaze met hers, his thick brows knit together. Under all that bravado, Mr. Arrogance did seem a little worried. Which made her unconscionably happy. To his credit, when she lowered his arm into the soapy tub, he didn’t even flinch. Truthfully, he didn’t have to, because the solution they used didn’t sting at all.
As she irrigated and scrubbed, she felt his gaze on her, quiet and assessing. She didn’t usually get unnerved when people watched her, but she didn’t like being this close to him, smelling his spicy, woodsy smell, feeling his eyes drill a hole through her.
When she glanced at him, he steered his gaze quickly away. “Um, not to question your professional ability,” he said, “but are you sure you can see out of those things? I mean, I wouldn’t want you to screw up. My arm is one of my better features.”
Her cheeks burned, and for an instant she was back in ninth grade, feeling the same acute anguish. You ever think about getting contacts, Brain? There just might be a pretty girl under all that glass.
He was the kind of man who used his charm and good looks to get away with acting like a jerk. Still.
She couldn’t believe she’d ever expected him to have her back last year, when he’d failed to keep her fiancé from “celebrating” so hard he fell face-first into his bachelor party cake—andthe woman in it. Valerie Blake had always had a thing for Tagg in high school, a fact everyone knew. Especially Colt, who’d hired her for the party.
Tagg had been Sara’s first boyfriend, and he’d loved her despite her ugly duckling phase. He’d seen who she was and loved her for her brains, not despite them. She’d often wondered why someone as good-looking as Tagg would want her, and sometimes that had kept her up at night. But he’d proposed, and suddenly everything she’d ever wanted was about to come true—a great job, a loving husband, a home of her own.
Until Colton had gone and waved a half-naked Valerie in front of him. Colton had always had a way of knowing her deepest fear and shining a spotlight on it. And his actions last year hadn’t just shone the spotlight, they’d blown up her entire life.
Yes, Tagg was to blame. She understood that. But Colton had lit the match. If he’d been a good best man and contained the party, Tagg would’ve gotten over his last-minute panic without incident. They’d be married now, all settled and enjoying life in the house they’d picked out in a pretty suburb of Cleveland. The one that Tagg was now living in with his girlfriend, aka Cake Girl.
Sara stood up straight. She couldn’t afford to wallow in the past. “My glasses may not be attractive,” she said, “but I can see twenty-twenty out of them. Of course, if I miss a stitch or two, the scar will just make you look a little tougher. Because you’re kind of a pretty boy now.”
He threw up his hand in defense. “Hey, no offense, Dr. Einstein. Just making a joke. I trust you.”
He was looking at her oddly. For a moment she wondered if he felt bad for the glasses joke. Or maybe he’d made it on purpose to throw her off-kilter. It didn’t matter.
Some people never grew up, never changed. Colton was obviously one of those people. But she had. And he couldn’t hurt her anymore. She wouldn’t let him.
* * *
Colton shouldn’t have ribbed her about the glasses. He immediately saw that in her eyes. To be honest, he’d said it because he felt…uncomfortable. A little too close to Sara Langdon, who was all grown up and nothing like the shy, homely girl she’d been in high school. But to her he was still an emotionally stunted adolescent who needed to grow the hell up.
Surely Sara had to know how attractive she was now. All that thick hair the color of copper and those stunning green eyes. Not to mention her killer curves. She was Dr. Knockout, nothing like the Coke-bottle-bottom-glasses-wearing fourteen-year-old he’d known so long ago when he was a smart-mouthed hotshot and she was an easy target. Lest he soften, he reminded himself she was still the most type A personality he’d ever met. And Colt didn’t do type A.
“Lie back,” she said, flicking off the TV.
“Hey! Game’s on,” he said, but he hadn’t really been paying attention to it. He knew he shouldn’t be so difficult at every turn, but he couldn’t seem to help himself. Irritating her was too much fun.
Warm soapy water flooded his arm and trickled into a basin she placed under it. She worked quickly and competently, and he felt his eyes closing. He was finally coming down from the adrenaline rush and it was, after all, the middle of the night. He even got pretty close to falling asleep, until he felt the sting of a needle.
He opened one eye and looked at her. “Warn a guy, will ya?”
She didn’t respond, all concentration and focus. Whatever she’d injected had numbed him, so he watched her loop the needle in and out, suture and cut. Repeat. In and out, suture and cut.
“Is it bad?” he asked.
She turned her gaze on him. Even behind the big glasses he could see the soft moss green of her eyes, just as pretty as he remembered. “I think you’ll live. And I’m no plastic surgeon, but the scar will be minimal.”
She worked in silence for a few minutes. The ticking of the old wall clock was the loudest thing in the room. Outside in the hallway there sounded a scattered symphony of beeps and alarms, intercom noises, and even the crackling fuzz of an EMS radio announcing another ambulance on its way.
When she bent her head he could smell her hair. Lemons.Nice. It made him recall a time, long ago, when things could’ve been different, when the animosity that gaped so large and wide between them might’ve turned into something else. But then Tagg had moved in and swept her off her feet.
Sara’s life had been full of choices Colton had never had. After he’d busted up his knee in high school, he’d lost his football scholarship to Penn State. The policemen who’d worked with his dad—who’d started out as an Angel Falls cop before moving to Chicago, where he’d died in the line of duty—took him under their wing and helped him get to college. After college Colton had returned home to take care of his grandmother and sister, end of story. Whereas Sara had left town to conquer the world, attending Princeton on scholarship and medical school in New York City.
The opportunity for anything more between them had long passed, and the intervening years had cemented their relationship as antagonistic. He also understood she was furious at him. That ass Tagg had gotten drunk the night of the bachelor party despite Colton’s best efforts to cut him off. Colton had arranged for the cake stunt but had no idea the woman the company would send to pop out of the cake was someone Tagg had had the hots for in high school. And apparently still did.
Sara blamed Colton. After all, he’d been the best man. He was supposed to keep order and prevent things from getting out of control. What Sara didn’t know was that Tagg had been nervous as a teenage shoplifter the entire week before the wedding. Colton had tried to quell his doubts and calm him down the best he could, had even driven Tagg home himself to keep him out of trouble the night of the bachelor party, but Tagg had still figured out a way to break Sara’s heart.
Finally Sara was done, and he sat up, looking over her handiwork.
“Fifteen stitches,” she announced, walking over to the counter.
“Thanks. Am I done?” He got ready to hop off the gurney.
“Not just yet,” she said, coming to stand in front of him, blocking his exit. She pulled a syringe from her white coat pocket and uncapped it, displaying a needle that seemed to be the size of a quarter-inch drill bit. “Bend over and drop your drawers.”
“No.” As in, there was no way in hell he was going to drop trou in front of her.
She raised an elegant brow. “What do you mean, no?”
“I don’t want it in my ass.”
“Well, unless you want your arm to fall off, you probably want to do as the doctor orders.” She flicked the syringe with her finger. Put her finger on the plunger.
“I’ve never seen a needle that big for a shot. I’ll just wait until Monday when my usualdoctor can see me.” She didn’t have all the control here…did she?
“As you like. Except by then lockjaw will have set in and you won’t be able to swallow or breathe.” She bit back a smile. “Oh, and did I mention the drool? There will be lots of it.”
She was enjoying this way too much. But the picture her words conjured was enough to keep him planted. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”
Tapping the syringe with her finger, she said, “Dead serious. Drop ’em, Officer Walker.”
“ChiefWalker,” he mumbled as he stood up and dropped his pants, leaning over the gurney.
He smelled the antiseptic scent of alcohol, felt the rub of a cotton ball on his ass cheek.
That was when he decided not to let her get the best of him. At the last minute, he cranked his head back and gave her his most charming grin. Sara glanced up, maybe even looked a little startled.
“You can turn around now,” she said, cool as a cucumber.
“I’d rather watch,” he said, not backing down.
“Suit yourself,” she said, drawing back and stabbing the needle into his flesh.
Son of a bitch.Charm got him nowhere with her. It never had.
The needle sliced through his muscle, burning and stinging. It felt like an ice pick boring into his flesh. He bit down on the insides of his cheeks to take the pain.
Then she was talking again. “The most common side effect of a tetanus shot is pain at the injection site. You’ll be fine in a week or two.”
He pulled up and belted his pants before she could inflict more damage. Blew out the breath he’d been holding. “A weekor two?”
“You just won’t be able to sit comfortably for a while. Stitches come out in a week to ten days. Come back if anything looks red or swollen.” She discarded the syringe in the red sharps container on the counter, pulled off her gloves with a snap, and tossed them in the trash. Then she wrote a few things down and handed him a clipboard. “Sign out here.”
He took a step forward. His butt cheek hurt like he’d just been bitten by a yellow jacket. Still, he signed on the dotted line and managed a smile. “See you around, Doc.”
She shot him a wide, innocent smile. “See you.”
A light summer rain was pattering on Nonna’s old slate roof when Sara awakened the next morning in her mom’s old bedroom under the eaves of Nonna’s little craftsman bungalow. The sound of the rain on the shingles above the sharply slanted ceiling brought her back to her childhood, when she used to snuggle and giggle with her sisters under this same patchwork quilt her grandmother had made when she was a young bride.
Desperate to know the mother they’d lost to cancer when Sara was just thirteen years old, her sisters and she used to carefully sift through her mother’s childhood possessions—classic books like Little Womenand Gone With the Wind, award ribbons for track and basketball, literary awards for writing and English. Air Supply and Journey posters pinned up on the closet door, endless balls of yarn and colorful handmade scarves. Every empty perfume bottle, every old notebook filled with notes and doodles was an endlessly fascinating clue to who their mother had been, a tiny piece of her to hold on to just a little bit longer.
But waking up in a shrine was lonely. She thought of Tagg, waking up under the eaves next to his girlfriend in the brand-new house he and Sara and had meant to call home.
His rejection still hurt, but now her grief was more for the life she would’ve had rather than for Tagg himself. Being married, decorating their new home, planning a family…thatwas the life she mourned. After all, she was almost thirty-one years old. She’d wanted that life, dammit. A happy life with a partner she loved, settling down. Being able to do all the things she’d put off for years because she was too busy studying, working, and being broke while all her other friends already had great jobs and had started their real lives. She was tired of delayed gratification. And she wanted a dog.
For ten years she hadn’t thought of her life as being any other way but with Tagg. And then suddenly…everything had changed. She’d gotten over the shock, yes. But she felt adrift, unmoored. Bobbing around in the middle of the ocean with no compass.
Her grandmother had always been her guide, and now Sara was losing her too. All the more reason to make every moment with Nonna count. To be there for Nonna the way her grandmother always had been for her.
Sara dug under the bed for her fuzzy purple slippers and tiptoed down the hall. The wooden floors creaked a little, but Sara wouldn’t trade this old house for anything. She’d always dreamed of someday having a quirky house with a lot of charm, but Tagg had preferred a brand-new house in a cookie-cutter subdivision that looked like all its neighbors, and she’d gone along with it. How much else had she gone along with, not really wanting to?
It was definitely too early for soul-searching. Nonna wasn’t up yet, which meant Sara had time to start the Sunday routine, one Nonna had followed without deviation for fifty years. First up was starting the coffee and homemade cinnamon rolls, then getting ready for Mass at St. Alfonso’s, followed by coffee and doughnuts and socializing in the church hall, followed by a trip to the grocery store and an afternoon of cooking for Sunday dinner.
Sunday dinner was a tradition that had been going on for generations. During her years of medical school and residency, Sara had missed everything about it—the food, the easy camaraderie, the squabbling—typical family stuff that made anything else the world had to throw at you bearable. Gathering at Nonna’s every week was nonnegotiable; unless you were overseas or serving a life sentence, you showed up, on pain of death.
Sara loved cooking alongside Nonna, spending time with her and learning to make the special Italian dishes that had brought her family together for generations. Not for the first time since she’d been back, it hit home hard that time with anyone was not an endless gift. Today would be the first time she’d see her entire family since she’d been back, and though her crazy family came with its own set of challenges, they loved each other a lot, and she never would’ve made it through the last year without them.
As Sara descended the stairs, she was greeted by the familiar clicking of Nonna’s dog Rocket’s toenails as he raced to her across the old pine floors. Rocket was a bull terrier with brown ears, a brown patch encompassing his left eye, and another on his right flank. A combination of pirate and Guernsey cow. His personality was definitely more on the pirate side; he was charming, sneaky, and a trickster.
“You got up early this morning, didn’t you?” Rocket usually slept curled up against her back, since Nonna often shoved him out of her bed, claiming she couldn’t sleep well. But he’d left her room sometime before dawn. Maybe he had insomnia too. Sara could relate. The events of the past year had kept her awake many a night.
“Oh, I bet you want some bacon, don’t you?” she crooned as she scratched behind his ears. “Because it’s Sunday, yes it is. Want to go get the paper?”
At the word bacon, the dog’s ears perked up and he started jumping up and down, practically levitating with glee.
“OK, let’s go.”
She couldn’t find a robe, but when she got to the front hall, she found Nonna’s purple raincoat with a row of ducks along the bottom and slid it on over her pj boxers and T-shirt. Rocket, true to his name, darted out the front door into the wet morning to do his business.
The mid-June rain was steady but not pouring. The dark clouds and the fact that it was still quite early—before seven—cast the day in gray. The smell of clean fresh air mingled with the scent of roses in crazy, brilliant bloom along the driveway. Sara located the paper in the grass near the road and, kicking off her slippers, ran barefoot to where it lay, encased in bright-blue plastic. Just as she bent over to pick it up, Rocket swooped in and grabbed it up in his mouth.
The dog was quick, but Sara was quicker. She clamped on to one end of the paper and tugged. Unfortunately, Rocket seemed to think she was playing his favorite game. As she tugged, he tugged harder. Her hood fell off, sending a cascade of cold rainwater spilling down her back.
With one wrenching pull, the dog sidestepped away, bolting for the yew hedge that separated her grandma’s property from the street. Sara ran through the wet grass after the dog. He teased her by showing her the paper, an arm’s length away, but as soon as she reached for it, he dashed into the hedge.
He emerged a few seconds later, wet and leaf covered…without the paper.
There it was, lying in the mud under the hedge, surrounded by prickly branches that rivaled Sleeping Beauty’s briar patch. Sara walked around to the road side, having no choice but to get down on her hands and knees and dig out the paper. Ugh, and all this before coffee. She stuck her arm into the tangle of branches and was trying to capture the bag with her fingers when she heard a car idling behind her. And something that sounded suspiciously like a whistle.
Sara immediately popped her head up and turned around. A spotlight with the wattage of the noontime sun beamed on her. Through the glare she could make out a police cruiser. There sat Colton behind the wheel, his arm sticking out the window. The arm that she’d stitched up just a few hours ago. Clearly healing well, due to her excellent care, thank you very much.
“You can turn the floodlight off,” she said. “And did you just whistle? Because that would be completely unprofessional.”
“Of course not.” But he was biting down on his cheeks to keep from laughing. “I just happened to be driving home, minding my own business, when suddenly there it was…plain as day.”
“There whatwas?” Sara asked, lifting a brow. He’d better not mention anything about her behind. That would be…inappropriate. But, she couldn’t help thinking, completely par for the course as far as their relationship went.
He swept his hand in her direction to demonstrate. “A roadside distraction.”
She rolled her eyes.
“Need some help?”
“Thanks, but I’m fine. I was just fishing the paper out of the hedge.” Rocket sat next to the cruiser at full attention. Colton reached under his seat and tossed him a dog biscuit. Clearly something he’d done before, judging by Rocket’s expectant look and the fact that his tail was wagging faster than the speed limit.
As if on cue, the front door of the house opened and her little gray-haired grandmother stepped out on the porch. She was wearing a bright flowered apron and waving excitedly. “Colton! Yoo-hoo, Colton!”
“Hey there, Rose,” he called back. “I’ll be right up.”
Sara shot him a startled glance. Right up?
“Hurry up, dear,” Nonna said. “I’m just going to put some cinnamon rolls in.”
The thought of Nonna baking sent a stab of fear through her. Dad and her stepmom, Rachel, had already gently and painstakingly taken away Nonna’s car…Surely operating an oven was just as dangerous as driving.
Colton gave Sara a satisfied grin and backed up the cruiser, pulling it into the driveway while she dug around in the hedge and rescued the soggy paper. They walked silently to the house, the dog trailing happily at Sara’s heels. She felt aware of Colton in an uncomfortable way—a way that prickled the hairs at the back of her neck. Extreme irritation could do that to you, she supposed. It had nothing to do with that white, just-short-of-perfect smile that lit up his face and made little crinkles appear around his stunning blue eyes, which were filled with amusement. These traits might make him seem like a warm and caring person, yet she reminded herself he was not. “After you,” he said, holding open the door.
It took the willpower of the ages not to roll her eyes again. Once they were inside, she took off her grandma’s rain jacket and shook it, then hung it on a hook in the foyer to dry. When she turned around, she saw Colton quickly avert his eyes.
Realization dawned, sending heat blazing to her cheeks. She was wearing pj boxers and a black T-shirt with a rib cage on it that read “I Got an ‘A’ in Anatomy.” She grabbed Nonna’s long gray sweater off a hanger and tugged it on, along with the purple slippers she’d left on the foyer floor.
Nonna appeared in the doorway. “Come in, you two. I just put coffee on.”
Sometimes Nonna amazed her and seemed completely unaffected by the disease that had crept up so insidiously. It was a cruel thing, the dementia. Even though Sara was a doctor and knew the course, the moments Nonna acted exactly like herself made hope soar, as if this whole thing were a nightmare and she would wake up and Nonna would be…Nonna again. Then the next moment her grandmother would repeat a thought for the tenth time, and hope would come crashing down.
“Here you go,” Colton said, handing her grandmother a nice dry newspaper. Sara looked at the soggy blue bag in her hand, pierced with multiple fang marks.
Ass kiss, she mouthed behind Nonna’s back.
“Oh, you are a dear,” Nonna said, patting Colton’s hand. “I bet you worked all night too.”
“I did have the night shift, yes, ma’am,” Colton said, grinning widely. His charm knew no bounds, affecting women of all ages. And dogs, as Rocket had no reservations about accepting Colton’s friendly scratch behind the ears as an invitation to glue himself to his side.
“You must be starving then.”
Was this what had been going on while she’d been gone? Colton had insinuated himself into her grandmother’s good graces. For free meals and other grandmotherly services, no doubt. Like socks-darned, buttons-sewed, shirts-ironed kinds of things.
In the kitchen Sara was surprised to see her younger brother Rafe sitting at the heavy oak table, still in his firefighter uniform. He rose, walked over, and kissed Nonna. “I let myself in,” he said, gesturing to the back door. “I see I’m just in time for breakfast. Hey, Colton. Hi, Sis.” Sara hugged her baby brother, who was around three years younger than she but was also a broad-shouldered, muscular six two, so babyprobably wasn’t quite the right term. Colton and Rafe shared some kind of complicated handshake that made it clear they were on friendly—fist-bumping—terms.
“Tough night?” Colton asked, sitting down with Rafe at the table. Rocket flopped down at his feet and promptly fell asleep.
“Big three-alarm blaze in the next county. Took us most of the night to put it out. Fortunately it was an abandoned warehouse, so no one was hurt.” Rafe spoke animatedly with his hands, and his whole face lit up.
“You firefighters can’t wait to rush to a great fire, can you?” Colton said.
Rafe laughed. “At least no one’s shooting at me. Or making me chase them under barbed wire fences. Your arm OK?”
Sara helped Nonna put the rolls in the oven, then watched Nonna disappear into the dining room to fetch a platter. She sneaked a glance at Colton, whose response to Rafe was a shrug and a smile. Today, as in the ER, he seemed to take pains to downplay the danger of his job. She wasn’t sure if he was just cavalier or if maybe time had humbled him a little. Probably the former. He always had been Mr. No Big Deal.
He sat there talking shop with her brother, looking the picture of masculinity in his navy-blue uniform, his hands grasping his coffee mug. Sara couldn’t help but notice the sinewy muscle that ran the length of his tanned arms, and the elegant, long fingers curled casually around his cup.
“I heard you were in the ER,” Rafe said. “Hopefully your doctor did a nice job fixing you up.” Rafe gave Sara a wink.
“Yeah,” Colton said, “my doctor did a nice job but also gave me a nice pain in the ass. But I guess that’s OK, because she also complimented me on it.”
Sara dropped the mixing bowl she was carrying into the sink. “I didnotcompliment you on your ass.” There was no way she was going to let him get away with that in front of her brother.
“Maybe not, but I could tell you wanted to.”
What an ass. Literally. “That is the most ridiculous—”
Nonna shuffled back into the kitchen. “Sara, be a dear and pour Colton some coffee, would you?” Nonna asked.
“Can I put arsenic in it?” she mumbled as she took the coffeepot out of its holder.
“I heard that,” Colton said quietly as Nonna proceeded to wipe off the counters. “So much for the Hippocratic oath.”
“That only applies to patients,” Sara said.
Colton slid his cup toward her as she approached the table. “You did sew up my arm, so I guess you aremy doctor.”
“A one-time visit to the ER does notmake me your doctor.”
“You’re right. I’m not a one-night stand kind of guy.”
Rafe laughed. “That’s not what I heard.”
Colton’s face turned red. Sara was surprised he was capable of a good strong blush. “I could tell stories about you, Rafe,” Colton said, “but out of respect for your grandma I’ll refrain. Besides, you’re listening to too many rumors.”
Rafe patted Colton on the back. “They’re not rumors, Colt my man, they’re legend.”
Sara made an involuntary gagging noise.
“Sara, are you choking on something?” Nonna asked.
“Just the thought of all those poor women,” Sara said so only the men could hear. “I’m fine, Nonna,” she said louder.
“Don’t feel bad for those women,” Rafe said. “They were all very…happy.”
Colton gave Rafe a cease-and-desist look. “Rafe, so help me God, if you do not shut up, I’m going to tell everyone about the time we all went out for your birthday and you decided it would be fun to take a little dive into the river buck naked with that—”
“Hey, Nonna,” Rafe said loudly, “those rolls ready yet? I sure am hungry.”
These guys and their fish stories. Sara found it interesting that Colton seemed so eager to downplay his reputation. Rafe had told her once that the firemen and the town’s one deputy police officer jokingly referred to Colton as the Revolver, and it wasn’t because of his gun.
“Oh, you boys go out and have fun together, do you?” Nonna asked, bringing the sugar bowl to the table.
“Yes, Grandma,” Rafe said. “Colt and I go out all the time.”
Sara was happy to take a seat at the far end of the old oak table and tune out their banter. Since she’d been gone, it seemed Colton had become part of the family. She hadn’t counted on negotiating that now that she was home to stay.
A big bay window overlooked her gran’s backyard and a giant old oak tree that she and her siblings used to climb. In the years when her grandpa was alive, they used to swing on a swing he’d hung from the lowest branch, which was now much higher than she remembered. The swing was long gone. Even the dirt patch underneath, worn by little feet pushing higher and skidding to a stop, had filled in with grass.
Sara supposed she’d have to get used to such change. After all, this was not the world of her childhood, or even the world she’d left behind when she left town for college and med school. Or, for that matter, the world she’d left last year when her engagement went bust.
“I can’t find that darn pot holder,” Nonna said, rummaging through a drawer.
Sara got up to help, found the pot holder on top of the toaster, and pulled the rolls out of the oven.
“Would you like some cream, Colton?” Nonna asked.
“No, thanks, Mrs. Faranaccio. I take it black,” he said.
Sara helped Nonna ice the cinnamon rolls. When she returned to the table, she noticed a full, steaming cup of coffee sitting at her place.
Nonna couldn’t have poured it. Rafe was at the other end of the table, near the back door. That left Colton.
She must have looked a little puzzled. He passed her the cream, chatting to Rafe about some kind of potluck the police and fire departments were going to host.
How did he know she took cream?
“Colton, would you like cream, dear?” Nonna asked again as she brought the rolls to the table and sat down.
“I’m good, thanks, Mrs. F,” Colton said politely.
Sara caught his gaze across the table. He hadn’t embarrassed Nonna or pointed out that she’d asked twice. Still, Sara got busy stirring her coffee, unwilling to let him see her concern.
Every little slip-up Nonna made caused a little trickle of dread to churn in her stomach and gave her a tip-of-the-iceberg kind of feeling. Nonna, however, was in a great mood, laughing and joking with the guys.
After polishing off half the cinnamon rolls, Rafe said, “I gotta run.”
“I’ll walk you out,” Sara said, following him out the front door and closing it behind her.
“What’s the deal with you and Colton?” he asked as soon as they were out of earshot. “You were busting his chops.”
“You knowwhat the deal is.”
Rafe’s brows pulled down as he frowned. “He’s a good guy.”
Sara crossed her arms. “Legends? Antics with women? And you pal around with him.”
“You certainly seemed amused about his dating history,” Rafe said. “Maybe you’re a little jealous?”
“Jealous? Of the Revolver? You’re…you’re nuts!”
“Right. Well, you know how I feel about things,” Rafe said. “Tagg got his just deserts, if you pardon the cake pun. All he thought about was himself. Good riddance.”
“God, Rafe, I wish you’d have more conviction about things,” Sara said, smiling. He’d always been a straight shooter, and he’d always been quick to stand up for her, even when they were kids. She had to admit it felt really good to have her grown-up little brother defend her. But that didn’t mean she was going to agree with him about Colton.
“Anyway,” Rafe said, “give Colton a chance. He might surprise you.”
“Um, last time I checked you were my muchyounger brother, and therefore it goes against natural sibling order for you to offer me advice. You’re forgetting I’ve known Colton longer than I’ve known Tagg. Once a jerk, always a jerk.”
“Geez, give the guy a break, OK? People can change.”
“Dad swears most of his patients still have the same personality they had when they were thirteen.”
“That’s fatalistic,” Rafe said.
“So is dating a different girl every week,” Sara said, tossing him a pointed look.
“I said people can change—if they want to. I, however, have no reason to, seeing as I’m in my sexual prime. See you tonight for Sunday dinner?”
“Yeah.” She kissed her brother on the cheek. “See you.” Sara couldn’t be too critical of her brother’s dating habits. His longtime girlfriend had died in an accident when he was just twenty-one, and for years he’d barely dated at all. She supposed the fact that he was dating now and joking about it was a big improvement. She just wasn’t sure how much of his attitude was bravado.
She watched from the front porch as Rafe got into his shiny black F-150 with custom chrome rims and drove away. Colton came out of the house carrying two rolls in a baggie. No one ever left Nonna’s house without a full doggie bag.
“Thanks for letting me stay for breakfast,” he said.
She shrugged, although she was secretly surprised he’d bothered with a thank-you. “Not my choice. It was Nonna’s.”
Colton was standing very close. So close she couldn’t help noticing the vibrant blue of his eyes, a cross between summer sky and Caribbean ocean. Man, the guy had been kissed by the gods in looks. A real heart-stopper.
Not that he stopped herheart or anything.
“Bye, Mrs. Faranaccio,” he called to her grandmother, who was still in the house. “See ya, Red.” His gaze flicked quickly up and down Sara. “I tend to agree with your shirt. You do get an A in Anatomy. But it’s a shame, because the rest of you is a little salty.” He gave Sara one last sweeping look, put on his hat, and headed out into the rain.
At four forty-five p.m. Nonna’s kitchen smelled like spaghetti sauce and freshly baked bread. As Sara pulled the homemade rolls out of the oven, she silently declared Nonna’s house ready for Sunday dinner.
“Nonna, where’s Gabby?” she called to her grandmother, who was in the dining room setting the table.
“Oh, I don’t know, dear,” she said as she set two forks by one plate. Before Sara could intervene, Gabby’s voice called from afar.
“I’m up here!”
“I’ll grab Gabby and be right back to help you finish setting the table,” Sara said.
“Take your time,” Nonna said, lining up yet a third fork near the other two.
“Here” turned out to be the attic, up the pull-down ladder at the top of the stairs to a space under the dormers lined by old crossbeams and layers of fluffy pink insulation. A solitary light bulb hung on a chain from the central roof beam.
Sara climbed halfway up the ladder, her head at floor level, debating going the rest of the way up. “Hey, Gabs, dinner’s in fifteen minutes. Can you come down and help? Nonna needs some help setting the table.”
“Oh, sure,” Gabby said, crinkling up her cute nose. Gabby was Sara’s closest sister, in age and in bonding. They were only fifteen months apart, and they told each other nearly everything. Gabby was one of the big reasons being back home was tolerable.
“Come up here, I’m scared,” Gabby said, exuberantly holding out her arms. Did Sara mention she was the dramatic sister as well as the imaginative one? “I need my big sister. Especially since I’ve barely seen you since you’ve been home. Besides, Nonna sent me up here to look for those pretty dessert plates with the white scalloped edges, and I can’t find them. Remember those?”
Sara hauled herself up the remaining rungs and sat down near Gabby on a couple of stacked wooden crates.
“This place always creeped me out,” said Gabby, who was sitting in the middle of the wooden floor surrounded by open boxes. “Rafe used to tell me terrible stories about families forced to live in the attic—like in those novels everyone was reading years ago, remember?—and I believed every word. I never wanted to come up here as a kid.”
“You always had the biggest imagination too,” Sara said.
Despite being a wills and trusts attorney, Gabby was a dreamer, and Sara wouldn’t be surprised at all if she’d gotten caught up in rifling through Nonna’s stuff, completely losing track of time.
Sara took a glance around under the dim light of the solitary bulb. For an attic it was pretty meticulous: Boxes lined up and tidy. Rolls of fabric propped in one corner, covered in plastic. An old wooden rocker and a baby bassinet hanging from hooks, plastic zipper bags containing old curtains, an old aluminum washtub that they used to wash their dog in.
“Maybe while you’re at it you can find my thirteenth-birthday present.”
“You still haven’t given up on that, have you? God, we looked everywhere for that.”
Sara shrugged. Her mom had been very sick on her thirteenth birthday and had died just a week later. “Mom was really good about that. She never forgot a birthday. Maybe she just hid it so well we never found it.”
“Well, I’m happy to keep looking. And while we’re at it, you can help me find Mom’s journals.” Gabby dug into a nearby box and took out something wrapped in yellowed newspaper. “Wow, look at this.” She held up a ceramic flamingo standing on one pink foot. “Fabulous. I might need this for my apartment.”
“Nice,” Sara said. “Mom had journals?”
“She was always writing in spiral notebooks, do you remember that?” Gabby said. “They have to be here somewhere.” She pulled out another box. Also filled with newspaper-wrapped objects.
Sara reached in and unwrapped one. “Oh, Nonna’s Fiestaware!” She dug though the box. “In all colors of the rainbow. I remember this stuff!” A thought suddenly occurred to her. “Does Dad know where Mom’s journals are? Maybe he’d have them instead of Nonna.”
Gabby shook her head. “I’m checking here first. I mean, when Dad married Rachel, he probably gave most of Mom’s stuff to Nonna. That makes sense, doesn’t it? You wouldn’t keep your dead wife’s personal belongings in your attic, would you?”
Sara had no idea. What she did know was that even now, her dad said very little about their mother. He never talked freely, and when questioned gave the briefest answers possible.
Sometimes she longed to sit down with him and have a heart-to-heart. Ask him about their mom, their childhood, happy memories. With Nonna’s memory fading, she wished her dad would share more about her mother.
Actually, she wished her dad would share more, period. With her mother gone, her dad had turned into a man who was very involved in guiding and shaping their life decisions as he saw fit. Without their mother’s more relaxed and intuitive attitude, her father sometimes pushed for things he felt strongly were right but weren’t necessarily so.
“Have you asked Nonna?” Sara asked.
“All she says is, ‘Your mother was always scribbling in those notebooks of hers.’”
“Maybe someone got rid of them. Jane Austen’s sister burned two-thirds of her letters, did you know that? Presented to the world only a certain scrubbed version of events. Some people claim she ruined her sister’s legacy.”
“I’d call that a good sister,” Gabby said.
Sara laughed. “Maybe so. But Gabby, journals are private. Maybe Mom wouldn’t want us reading them.”
“I need them,” Gabby insisted. “Don’t you ever feel you wished you knew her? Not how we knew her as children, but how she was as an adult?”
Sara got up and hugged her sister. It was a relief to know she had as many questions about their mom as Sara did. “I wish that all the time.” She sat down next to her on the floor, pushing aside a box of recipe clippings. “I wish Dad would talk to us more about her.”
“Dad has a different life now. He hates talking about Mom, and I always feel uncomfortable bringing it up in front of Rachel.”
“Well, I think looking for her journals is a great idea, and I’ll help.” Sara examined the old box of cut-out recipes, for sure Nonna’s doing. “So, everything going OK with Malcolm?” Gabby had reconnected with her college sweetheart, who was a hedge fund manager they’d all been very relieved she’d stopped dating years ago. At the time he’d spent more time exercising than being with Gabby, and that about said it all.
Gabby flashed a bright smile. A little too bright, but maybe that was just Sara’s imagination. “Things couldn’t be better. Malcolm is awesome. He showers me with gifts and never fails to tell me how much he loves me. In fact, he’s planning to come out to dinner with the whole family sometime soon. Are you free?”
“For you, I’m free anytime.”
“Great. You know, we’ve gotten pretty serious.”
Sara raised a brow and tried hard to put a nonjudgmental expression on her face. “Really?”
Gabby nodded. “I know you didn’t like him that much, but he’s changed. Grown up. I think you’re going to really like him.”
Sara’s recollection of Malcolm was that he was always into things. Bigger, better, more expensive things. One look at Gabby’s face and Sara realized her sister was waiting expectantly for her to say something. ScreamingGet out while you can!probably wasn’t what she wanted to hear.
“Gabby, my main objection to Malcolm back then was that he was really into himself. He spent a ton of money on you, but it seemed like that was all part of his image. I hope that’s changed.”
“Malcolm’s very ambitious. Dad would love that. He’s a hard worker but he still finds time for me. He doesn’t beat children or kill cats. Plus I’m twenty-nine. He’s not perfect, but who is? Maybe he’s as close as I’m going to come.”
“Oh, Gabby.” Sara hated the idea that Gabby seemed to be talking herself into believing how great this guy was. “You’re not over the hill yet.”
She shrugged. “Not yet. But it’s getting really hard to meet nice guys who aren’t already taken, going through nasty breakups, or who aren’t just plain weird.” She paused. “Oh, and who also meet Dad’s criteria for a good spouse: educated, makes good money, worthy of his daughters.”
Sara laughed but had to admit Gabby was right about their father. He definitely had certain expectations about the men he wanted them to marry.
“Also, I have one more bit of news: I just got promoted to partner, but that’s less thrilling. Overall, life is great!” Gabby worked for a law firm in downtown Cleveland and had a gorgeous loft apartment there.
“How come you didn’t tell us about the partnership? That’s fantastic! Another reason to celebrate.”
“The money’s good, but it’s dullsville, Sara. I’m working eighty hours a week, and every single minute, I feel like pulling all my hair out one strand at a time.”
“I know. Please don’t tell Dad, but I’m working on an exit plan. Besides, for now, Malcolm makes up for how crappy I feel about my job.”
Worry riffled through Sara like a good strong wind before a storm. Their father had urged Gabby, wonderful, artistic, creative Gabby, to go to law school. It had probably saved her from becoming a hippie. It also appeared to have made her very unhappy.
Despite the bad vibes, Sara put on a cheery smile. “Well, we can’t wait to see him again.” She pulled something out of a box. “Oh, look what I found!”
“Is it the dessert plates?” Gabby asked.
“No, it’s my beat-up old copy of Pride and Prejudice. Look.” She held up the battered book with curled edges and yellowed pages, which looked as if it had definitely seen better days. The first thing she did was to put it to her nose and sniff it. God, she loved the smell of real books. Especially old and beloved ones, and this one had been—and still was—her favorite.
“Oh, you carried that thing around for years,” Gabby said.
Sara grinned. “I love it. I just never thought Pride and Prejudicewould become my life.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Oh, just Tagg. I mean, I thought he was my Darcy.” She sighed.
Gabby sat down beside her and gave her a squeeze. “Tagg would definitely play the role of the perfidious Wickham in your life. But then who would be Darcy?” She tapped a finger against her lips. “Oh, I know. Colton!”
“I was just going to tell you how much I missed you and how happy I am to be home because you’re here. But after that comment I can’t.” Sara paused. “And besides, Colton would have to be Mr. Collins,” she said, pulling a face.
“First of all, he can’t be Mr. Collins because he’s not our cousin.” Gabby laughed. “Plus he’s nowhere near hideous.”
“Not in looks, but in personality he is.” Sara rose and headed to the stairs. “Come down and help me fix Nonna’s creative table setting before everyone gets here.” There were definitely no Mr. Darcys on her horizon. She certainly hoped for Gabby’s sake that Malcolm had transformed during the intervening years from a Wickham to a Darcy, but she seriously doubted it.