First 2 chapters of Stay With Me!

 

Chapter One

I can’t say that I was proud of myself. Whoring out my perfectly healthy mutt just to get a moment with the hot new veterinarian—well, it probably wasn’t one of my more upscale moments. The old me would have been disgusted with such a girly move, but I ignored that thought.

On the flip side, my Gracie was the best-maintained dog in town. And thought a trip to the vet was a play date.

“It’s Gracie Barnes again,” said one of the receptionists as the other two came around the counter to greet her wiggling bulk. Everyone loved Gracie. The one talking to me, however, was a girl named Gretchen who I’d gone to school with and was never a fan. “What’s her problem this time?”

Seriously? I wanted Gracie to bite her. “She’s itching really badly,” I said as Gracie scratched on cue. You’d think we rehearsed this. “I don’t see a single flea, but she scratches constantly.”

“Okay,” Gretchen said, with a look that said she knew what my game was. “Dr. Spoon is in surgery, so she’ll have to see Dr. Weatherly.”

I tried to keep the lip curl off my face, but I felt it. Dr. Weatherly was a crusty old woman who looked like she ate small children in her free time. That was probably unfair—I’m sure she was a very good doctor. She ran the clinic solo for fifteen years before hiring on Duncan Spoon, so she must have done something right. And my dad told me that she was at the top of her class back in the day. But her bedside manner was, well, left at home. Possibly in a house made of candy.

“That’s fine,” I said, smiling back.

“It’ll be just a minute,” she said. Turning to one of the other women, she widened her eyes and whispered, “Hopefully she won’t steal the magazines.”

“Really?” I said. “I’m right here. And all grown up. Are you?”

She sighed and scoffed and busied herself with papers. I turned to find a bench seat, thankful as usual not to recognize anyone in the lobby. Which was silly. I wasn’t doing anything wrong, and I was used to blowhards like Gretchen. People who lived for rumors and gossip. Even decades after the fact.

And as for why I was there—again—well, there was nothing to be embarrassed about. Still, the twitch I felt coming on had a voice. A voice that sounded ironically like me twenty years earlier. This was what getting old does to you. It makes you crazy. And sink to levels you would have laughed and pointed at with disdain in your prime.

There was a happy thought.

Gracie wasn’t bothered a bit. She was wiggling from head to toe from all the attention she was getting.

“Come on, Gracie girl,” I said, pulling her along with me.

She followed for two whole feet before the need to go say hello to the dachshund and pit bull in the room was just too strong. The dachshund wasn’t in a social mood and made a big to-do before retreating under his owner’s chunky legs. Said owner then gave me the really? look. Which I then gave back to her. I mean, come on.

The pit bull was very friendly, however, and willing to play. And her owner was more interested in her cell phone than in my waning vet lobby etiquette. She looked familiar but I couldn’t quite place her.

“What kind of dog is that?” dachshund-lady asked, eyeing Gracie as if she were an alien being.

“Not sure,” I said. “She was free. Mom was a rat terrier, but—”

“That’s no rat terrier,” she said, eyebrows lifted to convey her belief that the misconception was some sort of evil plot.

I smiled and nodded, watching Gracie do the bounce-around thing with the pit bull. No, she wasn’t. Unless there was some recessive rat terrier gene hidden in her right toe, I’d been duped. Or her mom had a very unfortunate experience with the baby daddy. Because my beloved long-legged Gracie, with her soft brown and black brindle coat, black face, and thick body, resembled a small Rottweiler with height issues or a Labrador on steroids.

“No, she’s her own special mix,” I said. “She’s just a Gracie.”

At her name, Gracie bounded back to me, full of love for this place we frequented just to find her new playmates. Or so she believed.

I should just leave, I thought. But that would just satisfy prissy little Gretchen, and so I sat. Ran a hand over my ponytail absently, and then dropped my hand into my lap. What the hell was I doing, acting like a high school girl with a crush. Making up reasons to run into Duncan Spoon accidentally on purpose. I had to be above this, right?

I was forty-three, with a grown daughter, who I was pretty sure had outgrown this behavior. A respected business owner. Sort of. And yet I got sweaty palms and heart palpitations every time I saw Duncan Spoon. I hadn’t been that physically affected by a man since—ugh—since he who shall not be named left town.

As the minutes passed, I busied myself noting the little things that were always there. The two little cameras up high in the corners and the keypad on the door to the supply room, clearly visible to the lobby. The cameras weren’t part of a security system—there wasn’t one—and the girls going in and out of the room never changed the pass code. And the front door only had a standard lock. I never understood that.

There had to be, like, horse pills and doggie Xanax back there. But then that was coming from the distrustful mind of a past life. A life I hadn’t seen in, well, long enough.

Carter the dachshund was called back, as was Gracie’s new friend, Harley. At which point I recognized the woman. It was Julianna Doucette, another girl from high school, who now ran a bookstore on the other end of Main. Probably wasn’t Doucette anymore, but I sucked at keeping up with people, and we were never tight. She either didn’t remember me either or was ducking the issue as much as I was. Damn small towns. You could never escape yourself.

Then, as I sat staring at the door, considering faking a phone call so we could leave, he walked in from the back.

Still in blue scrubs from surgery, looking like he’d just rescued a great panda from extinction, Dr. Duncan Spoon strolled behind the counter. He commented something to one of the girls about contacting the patient’s owner for a status, and then he glanced out to the lobby. And smiled. At me. Shit.

I felt sweat pop out between my boobs, and I suddenly wished I’d worn my hair down. Not that it was long and lustrous like my sister’s, Lily, or the strikingly beautiful blonde hues of my daughter, Abby, but I suddenly felt exposed with everything pulled behind me.

“Well, hello, Savanna,” Duncan said, his voice smooth and deep and causing all kinds of wiggling to occur inside me. “Gracie okay? Or are we just trimming her nails again?”

I tried not to wince at the word again.

“She has an itch,” Gretchen supplied helpfully. “I have her down for Dr. Weatherly.”

A ruckus of panicked barking came from the hallway. Duncan glanced behind him, where Carter’s worse nightmares were clearly being realized behind a closed door with Dr. Weatherly.

“She’s a little tied up, it seems,” Duncan said, chuckling. “I’ll take a look at Gracie.” He gestured at me. “Come on back, Savanna.”

Oh, the things that went on down south when he said my name made Gretchen’s wretched eye roll totally worthwhile.

Gracie followed him like he was her daddy inviting her to play. He could be. I wasn’t averse to that idea at all. Especially when he held the door open for us and I walked past him and his blue eyes and perfect smile. Probably professionally whitened, which rang the high-maintenance bell in the back of my mind, but I didn’t care. I pictured vacation photos with him on Facebook. His dark hair, messy and spiky from the breeze, pressed against my not-so-exciting blonde locks, our faces aglow with happiness.

Gracie barked to be let up on the table, pulling me from my Facebook fantasy, which was good because old me was about to jump out and slap the shit out of myself.

“Wow,” he said on a laugh. “Not many of them want up there.”

I laughed with him, willing myself not to pat at my face, where I felt an instant sheen of perspiration land at once.

“I think she just believes that’s where all the love happens,” I said, to my utter horror.  Where all the love happens? Really?

Duncan just chuckled, however, and hoisted her up. “She’s ten months now?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Hopefully full grown.”

“Most likely.” He cupped her face and scratched her, letting her lick him. “What’s going on with you, huh? Feeling itchy?”

Gracie wiggled and squirmed under his hands. I completely understood that.

“Let’s see,” he said, running his fingers methodically backward up her spine so he could see her skin. To her credit, her back leg twitched a little when he hit a good spot.

“I’m not seeing any skin issues or fleas,” he said. “You obviously take good care of her.”

He smiled at me as he said that and my knees nearly buckled.

“I do what I can.”

“She’s probably just got some allergies,” he said, working his hands through her coat. Gracie’s eyes got heavy, like she was getting a deep tissue massage. “Use some oatmeal conditioner when you bathe her. Should help.”

I nodded, as if he’d just suggested a cure for a terminal illness. “Thanks,” I said.

“Is this your first pet?” he asked, his eyes all kind but with an intensity he always had with me.

I chuckled and hoped my head didn’t light on fire. Of course that was how it looked, me with my once-a-week visits about skin allergies and toenail length. How far had I fallen?

“No, but she’s my first inside dog, and—you know . . .” I said, hoping my rusty flirting skills worked. “It’s just she and I there, now that my daughter is on her own. Empty nest and all that.”

What the living fuck just fell out of my mouth?

Empty nest and all that. I either sounded pathetically horny or a hundred and four.

“So, not much else to focus on,” Duncan said.

Oh, God. I eyed the door, looking for a graceful exit. He still held Gracie’s leash.

“Guess not,” I said, smiling painfully and averting my eyes. I looked at my hand as I reached out for the leash. “Thanks for seeing us—her.”

Please let me the hell out of here.

Instead of her leash landing in my hand, his warm hand grasped mine, making me look up. His smile was genuine and those blue eyes of his locked in on mine with a warmth and intensity that never failed to turn my legs to Jell-O. My mortification was temporarily suspended as all my girly parts woke up.

“My pleasure,” he said, holding me with his gaze. Four more seconds passed and he didn’t blink.

“Would you like to get coffee tomorrow morning?” I asked.

I asked?

Holy hell, I’d lost my mind, and the horror must have shown on my face, eyes wide in terror, because Duncan just squeezed my hand and smiled.

“Sure, I’d love to,” he said. “Anyplace in particular?”

“I—” He said yes? Sweet Jesus. “Um—the butcher shop—” I pointed behind me as if that made sense from two miles across town. “McMasters Meats on Terrell and Main?  Across from the river?”

“I know it,” he said. “Isn’t your family’s resale shop there, too?”

“Old Tin Barnes,” I said, nodding, slightly flattered that he knew that, even though it was probably because of my father. “Right across the street. I eat over there every morning. I mean, I know it sounds funny for a butcher shop, but they have the best coffee in town. Even better than the diner down the street. Great breakfast tacos, too.”

“Good endorsement,” he said, stroking Gracie’s neck.

“Well, it’s sort of family, as well,” I said. “My brother-in-law’s family. Well, I guess that puts my sister in it, too. But it really is good.” Good grief, find me duct tape.

To Duncan’s credit, he nodded like I actually sounded intelligent. “So, what time?”

“I’m usually there at seven. Or is that too early?”

“Not at all,” he said easily, flashing me those teeth again. “I’ll see you there.”

“Great,” I said, hoping my smile was good, because I couldn’t really feel my lips.

I didn’t remember leaving or paying, although I guess I did since Gretchen didn’t chase me out the door for skipping on the bill or stealing a pen or something. All I knew as I sat in my car with Gracie and saw that I had a text from my dad and two missed calls from my sister was that I had finally sold my dignity for a coffee date with Duncan Spoon.

“Holy shit,” I breathed, gripping the steering wheel. “I am such a preteen.” I hoped like hell that I had some chocolate ice cream in the freezer, because I was going to need it tonight. Chocolate courage. I backed out and headed toward the house. “Dropping you off, my girl, and then I have to go to work. But first I need to go tell Aunt Lily that your mom needs serious help.”

Gracie wagged her tail in agreement.

Serious help, indeed. I needed to get my head on straight and my sister was the best one to do it. She always was.

**

 

Chapter Two

Lily was the levelheaded one. The one who always did things at the right time, in the right order. Married the perfect man, had the perfect kids, lived a Mayberry life.

Me—not so much.

Lily was Mom’s girl, inside and out. She had her dark hair and porcelain skin, her smooth movements and stunning smile. She was a rule follower and a model first child.

They must have had a rude awakening when I came along. I was born questioning everything. Pushing every boundary, opening my mouth when I shouldn’t. I had my dad’s penchant for that, as well as his light hair and dark eyes. And probably all the flaws that Lily missed out on. But that just made her a better big sister. She learned early on how to bail me out of trouble.

It was probably logical that the McMasters boys and the Barnes girls would someday hook up. Lily and Jim McMasters were the same age, as were Ian and I. Our families’ businesses being across the street from one another pretty much assured we all grew up together, even outside of school.

But where Lily and Jim became the perfect love story, me and Ian, well, we had a different pattern. One made up less of flowers and L words and more of motorcycles and sweaty hormone-crazed nakedness. Which worked for us. Until it didn’t.

Lily was behind the counter when I got to their shop, her long dark hair twisted up in a clip at the back of her neck. She smiled and chatted up the same customers she’d seen for twenty years, still making them feel special. That was Lily’s gift. Jim came back and forth, moving to help her when he could, laying a hand on her back as he passed.

I felt the familiar pang of longing. I envied them the easiness they shared with each other. The hand telling her I’m here. The softness her eyes took on when she looked at him. Their funny banter.

I used to wonder why everything always worked out so much easier for Lily, but I didn’t anymore. Mom had worded it well before she died ten years earlier. She told me that my path wouldn’t be so rocky if I stopped supplying the rocks.

“You and your father,” she’d said. “You’ll throw a boulder in your way just to climb it.”

She was right, of course. And that was the difference between me and Lily. She never felt the need to climb anything.

But that got her the hand on the back.

Lily paused and smiled when she saw me, and nodded toward the tables, but there was something else in her expression. Wariness. And maybe weariness. That was new. I grabbed my usual spot by the window and waited as she finished up, took off her apron, and headed over with two iced teas and a pile of sizzling crispy bacon.

“Lunch?” I said. I wasn’t even hungry, despite missing breakfast, but my mouth watered on sight.

“It’s what’s left,” she said, already nibbling at a piece. “May as well eat it as throw it out.”

“Well, when you make it sound so appetizing,” I said, picking up a piece. “How can I resist? Missed your calls this morning, what’s up?”

“You didn’t come for coffee,” she said, the fact that she didn’t answer me directly registering but still in the back of my mind somewhere. Too many other things were up front. Things Duncan and crazy. “Were you sick?”

“Um, no,” I said, taking a long swallow of the sweet tea. “Had some errands. And Gracie had an appointment at ten, so I told Dad I’d be in after lunch.”

Lily stopped chewing and gave me a smirk. “Gracie.”

“Yes.”

“You’re pathetic, you know that?” she said, shaking her head.

“Really?” I said, leaning forward, mentally shaking off that word.

“Yes, really,” she said, grabbing a napkin to wipe away crumbs. “Poor thing doesn’t even know she’s bait.”

I chuckled. “Well, that bait doesn’t suffer for it, let me assure you.” I felt the smugness pull at the corners of my lips, unable to be contained any longer. “And—guess what?”

Lily shrugged, humoring me. “Gracie has to go back for a gum check tomorrow?”

“Don’t need her tomorrow, actually,” I said. “She gets to sleep in. I have a date.”

Lily’s eyes opened wide, the tired boredom over my sad manipulations disappearing in light of fresh news.

“What?” She smiled, then her brows moved together. “Wait, a date—in the morning?”

“Duncan Spoon,” I began, feeling a tingle cover my skin at the thought, “is meeting me for coffee and breakfast in the morning.”

“Holy shit, Savi!” she said. “That’s wonderful, how’d he ask you?”

I opened my mouth and then closed it again, tilting my head. “I asked him, actually.”

She blinked, and that of course look painted her features. “Ah,” she said, going back to her bacon.

“No, not ah,” I said. “It wasn’t like that.” I remembered the look he gave me. “There was this moment, and then I turned into a teenager and the words were out of my mouth and he was saying yes before I knew what happened.”

Lily laughed. “Oh, a moment, huh? And what teenager did you turn into, because that was never you.”

I rested my face in my hands. She was right. I was never the giddy girly teen. That was her. I was the one laughing at girls like her as I straddled the ass of a hot guy on the back of a hot bike.

“God, I really am pathetic.”

She laughed again and pulled my hands away. “You aren’t the challenged one in the family, Savi. Dad is.”

“Speaking of, he texted me that he was leaving Mrs. Sullivan’s house this morning,” I said, rubbing a temple. “Why would he do that?”

“Because he made us do that,” she said. “Heaven help us if we didn’t find a phone to call home before we got in a car.”

“Well, I’m pretty good on him driving across town,” I said. “And I really don’t need to know about his visits to Mrs. Sullivan.”

“Jigsaw puzzles,” Lily said.

“Yeah, you gotta love that they have a code word for it, I’ll give them that,” I said.

“Don’t you think she needs to drop the Mrs.?” Lily said, her nose crinkling. “I mean, I understand respecting the deceased and all, but once you’re doing—jigsaw puzzles with another man, I’m thinking it’s time to let that go.”

“Especially when Dad says it,” I said, getting a body shiver over the image of them. Nope, wasn’t going there.

“Well, at least Duncan said yes,” Lily said, making my body shiver change direction.

“Oh, good, we’re back there, are we?”

She laughed. “It’s a good thing. Gives you something good to focus on.”

The words hit a nerve, as I recalled Duncan saying something similar about my focus. “And now I’m a hot mess.”

“Why?” she asked. “It’s what you’ve wanted since he hit town.”

“I know, but I turn into a babbling idiot around him,” I said. “I don’t know why. Any other man, I’m myself, I’m mature. I take control. I hold the cards.”

She eyed me over her tea glass. “Wow, romantic.”

“It works,” I said, sitting back. “That may sound unromantic to you, but . . .”

“If it worked, Savi, you wouldn’t still be doing it over and over,” she said. “Men aren’t estate sale contracts. Or old rusty crap to pick over.” She laughed at that. “Well, some of them are.”

I paused and toyed with a piece of bacon, letting her words settle. “Romance and I aren’t friends.”

“You can’t judge that off one man,” she said, the earlier cloud of distraction coming back to her eyes as they met mine. “Maybe this guy is different because you’re thinking with your heart instead of your business sense.”

“Well, my heart needs to grow up a little before tomorrow,” I said. “And you’ve got to come to my rescue if you see me sinking.”

“Me?” she said, and then the cloud got ominous. “You’re coming here?”

I widened my eyes. “Where else would we go for breakfast?”

“The diner? I mean, wouldn’t you want to be alone?” she said. “Without eyes around?”

I shook my head. “The diner’s not alone, Lily, it’s got more eyes. And the ones here I know,” I said. “It’ll help distract me when I zone out into the stupids. What could go wrong with that?”

Lily licked her lips and narrowed her gaze like she was thinking out her words, making me feel like I needed to hold on to something. “You’d be surprised,” she muttered under her breath.

I frowned, the warning flags from earlier waving a little closer to the front now.

“What?”

“Wanted to let you know we’re going to have a house guest for a while,” she said. “Or the shop is. The room upstairs. Someone is coming into town tonight.” When she paused in her very uncharacteristic rambling and I just stared at her, she sighed like I was forcing the words from her. “From Florida.”

New tingles hit my skin as her meaning hit the mark, and not the good kind. More like that feeling you get when you’re told a tornado is about to rip through your world.

“Ian?” I breathed, and then cleared my throat. “Ian’s coming home?”

My voice sounded funny to my ears. But that could have been the blood rushing through my head.

Lily nodded. “Afraid so.”

“For how long?”

She glanced around, as if the subject was making her itchy and she wanted customers to rescue her. “I don’t know,” she said. “I think . . . maybe indefinitely.”

“Maybe indefinitely,” I echoed. I stared at the bacon in my hand and set it back on the plate.

Maybe indefinitely.

• • •

Ian McMasters and I were like gasoline and fire. Chemistry I could feel from a mile away, and more addictive than any drug.  Together, we were explosive.

That was fine. For a long time, in fact, that worked for us. We were both wired that way—off the beaten path. Or the rocky one, according to my mother. Romance and love were silly things we avoided, at least with each other. Probably because we weren’t good at it.

I thought I found it briefly in my early twenties with a musician who rolled through town dripping with sex appeal and dreamy eyes. I spent a week telling myself that it was love at first sight, waved my heart around and let my guard down. Evidently all my guards down. Three weeks after the guy rolled away, I found myself pregnant.

Ian was there. He was always there—my rock and my hard place, all in one. Telling me it would be okay. That I wasn’t alone and we’d find the way like we always did. Reminding me that our reality was so much more trustworthy than words.

And it was. We may have been trouble together, but we were solid. Sex and excitement were real. Tangible. Any worries or fears were drowned in a sea of adrenaline and steamy, mind-blowing sex. It worked for us. No strings, no expectations. No overnight stays, even. Just a fix to a craving. Ian, with his intense smoky eyes and sexy swagger. His constant hunger to go do something crazy. His voice that whispered naughty things against my skin. It was easy with him.

When Abby was born, she made things whole. I calmed my wild ways a bit and fell in love with being her mother, but Uncle Ian was always in our lives. He was all I needed—a best friend and a lover, who always went home because not staying kept it real.

Until we broke our own rules, and he broke my heart.

I’d become stronger in his absence. I turned the rebel attitude to my advantage and became a kick-ass mom, a hard-nosed negotiator in my dad’s business, and steeled myself around men. Well, except when it came to Duncan Spoon, evidently, but I wasn’t counting that. That was just a silly crush on my part. But no one hurt me anymore. I didn’t need that, and I didn’t need the work of romance and gush and all that fluff. Men were icing, not the cake.

Now, my biggest heartache, my kryptonite, the original cake before any icing, and the one person aware of all my broken places, was coming back.

“Why?” I asked Lily, but she shrugged it off, saying he was just working with Jim on some things with the business. Stepping up and being “family” for once. I took that as her very nice way of saying they were bailing him out of something. I figured his diving business in Key West was flopping, and Jim, the quiet responsible brother, was waving a life buoy.

Jim and Lily, the eternal pillars of doing the right thing. That had to get exhausting.

“Are you gonna be okay?” she asked me before I left.

“Of course,” I said, mumbling something about time and water and bridges.

In reality, I was eyeing the clock, wondering what time the ripple would hit me. The one that would knock me to the floor and throw walls up around my heart once Ian McMasters was within my radius.

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