Friday, August 15, 2014

Getting Dirty-- Chapter One

 Welcome back to Sapphire Falls!

Sapphire Falls book three


A chicken crossed the road in front of her.

Presumably to get to the other side. There didn’t seem to be any other reason.

Not that she thought she really understood why a chicken would do anything.

Lauren Davis stared at the bird as it started to peck the ground on the other side of the path. A chicken. She was in the middle of a place where chickens roamed free.


She jumped and spun.

And cows. Chickens and cows.

Technically, it was a calf. But it was roaming free. And looking up at her with big brown eyes.


She did not like cows.

“No,” she told it. “I don’t know what you’re asking, but, no.”

It continued to stare up at her with what she would have described as either affection…or predatory intent.
Lauren gave it a frown and propped her hands on her hips. “No.”

The calf moved forward and bumped its head against her leg.

So maybe it was affection. It didn’t matter. She did not like cows.

“Listen, where I work, you’re food. You might want to keep that in mind.” She took a step back. The calf followed her.

She wasn’t sure what it was about cows that she didn’t like, but she didn’t. It wasn’t a fear or a phobia exactly. But they were big lumbering things. That didn’t smell very good. And that attracted flies. And that turned into steaks.
She was a part of an organization that had a mission to feed the poor, specifically by teaching them to farm. Her company, Innovative Agricultural Solutions, specialized in crops, but they also partnered with a group that provided livestock. Sometimes that meant chickens and cows for egg and milk production, but sometimes it was for their meat.

That freaked Lauren out. In her mind, the food she liked was completely separate from the animals they supplied to the villages. She worked hard to keep it that way. It was silly but necessary. She wouldn’t make it long as a vegetarian.

“Stop it,” she admonished the calf. “I can’t look at you and think about filet mignon at the same time. That’s creepy. And I like filet mignon so don’t think you’re going to talk me out of that. Just knock it off.”

The calf stretched its neck and lapped at the hem of her skirt. Its tongue grazed the skin at the side of her knee and she shuddered.

“I don’t think so.” She stepped back again.

The calf took a step forward, took a hold of the edge of the skirt and sucked on it.

“No fucking way.” She pulled the material from the thing’s mouth.


“Forget it,” Lauren said. “You can’t suck on my skirt. I draw the line there. And we can’t be friends. Go find your mom or something.”

It just blinked its big eyes at her.

“Whatever.” She was leaving. What the hell she was doing in the midst of chickens and cows, she didn’t know. This was Sapphire Falls and it was the annual town festival—most of both of those things didn’t make sense to her.’’

She turned her back on the calf…and ran directly into a hard chest.

And something cold and wet.

“Ah!” She jumped back and shook her hands free of the icy liquid that cascaded down the front of her. It soaked into her shirt and froze her skin.

It was a warm June afternoon so she was quickly more concerned about the fact that the liquid was purple. 
On her white shirt. Because of course it was.

She looked up into the grinning face of the man whose grape slushy had just soaked her.

Travis Bennett. Because of course it was.

She sighed. Mud, cornstalks, manure…she’d had all of that on her at various times in Sapphire Falls, and Travis Bennett was always the cause.

Why am I always getting dirty when you’re around?” she demanded, grasping the front of her blouse and pulling the wet stickiness away from her stomach.

He chuckled—the bastard. And it was a low rumbling sound that made her realize her nipples weren’t perky just because of the cold slushy all over them. The bastard.

“Oh, darlin’, that ain’t dirty.”

No apology, no reaching for a napkin, no sheepish look. All she got was darlin’ and the word ain’t. In a drawl that was like fingernails on a chalkboard. Oh, and a big fat cocky grin.

“I’m soaking wet!”

His grin pulled up more on one side. “Now that I have some theories about.”

Lauren narrowed her eyes and planted a hand on one hip. “Theories about what exactly?” She knew where he was going with this, but she wanted him to say it so she could shoot him down. Like every other time he’d made any kind of sexual innuendo.

“You being soaking wet when I’m around.”

She gestured to her clothes. “Clearly, you need carnival food to get me wet, Farmer Boy.”

“No kiddin’. I woulda pegged you for a fancy schmancy wine-and-caviar girl.”

Liquor actually. She loved a good martini.

“But hey, a girl who likes meat on a stick and funnel cakes is my kinda lady.”

Meat on a stick. Yeah, right. Though funnel cakes weren’t horrible. They involved powdered sugar after all.
She blew out an exasperated breath. Travis talked like a hick. Why did she want to put her hand down the front of the blue jeans that had been covered in who-knew-what in the course of the years he’d owned them?

Travis was a farmer. A small-town farmer. A small-town farmer who had never traveled outside of the county in which he’d been born—and his father had been born and his grandfather had been born. She knew the type. Too well. She’d been surrounded by the type, involved with the type, in love with the type, until she’d escaped to the city. Where she’d found real life. Real culture. Real coffee.

And it didn’t matter what city. She loved them all. Traffic, people, action…life. And not a cornfield or haystack for miles.

She was a city snob, small-town-phobic. She knew it. She owned it.

And no good-looking, suntanned, slow-talking, cheap-beer-guzzling small-town farmer was going to change her opinion.

“Clearly, the slushy needs to be applied externally for it to get me wet,” she told the cheap-beer-guzzling small-town farmer she wanted to lick from head to toe. In a cornfield.

She hated him.

“You city chicks are into some weird stuff,” Travis said. “But darlin’, I’ll apply anything you want anywhere you want.”

Stupid tingles all over her body.

She put on an unaffected expression. “And I suppose it would be some sexy setup like the bed of your truck with mosquitos buzzing around and maybe some straw poking me in the ass while we’re at it?”

He gave her a slow grin. “You, me, the bed of my truck…I’ll put twenty bucks on soaking wet in five minutes.”

The bed of his truck. Of course.

But it wouldn’t take five minutes and he knew it. Somehow.

Damn him.

She was hard to read. She worked at being hard to read. She’d practiced it for years. And yet this guy…
Either he was really insightful—she almost snorted out loud at that—or he was really, really full of himself.
Lauren looked him up and down, from his well-worn seed-corn cap to the brilliant blue eyes, past the day’s growth of scruff on his chin, the red wrinkled T-shirt and the worn-and-washed-over-and-over blue jeans all the way to the scuffed work boots.

He was really, really full of himself.

She reached into her purse, pulled out a fifty and handed it to him. “It’s pretty clear you need this way more than I do. I’d feel so bad taking that twenty off of you.”

Travis grinned, took the fifty and tucked it into his jeans. “I don’t care what they say, Dr. D. You’re not all bad.”

She wanted to smack him.

She hated when he acted like he didn’t care a bit what she thought of him. She had yet—in the almost two years of running into him on and off in Sapphire Falls—to really feel like she’d gotten the best of him.

And she also hated when he called her Dr. D.

And said stuff like, “I don’t care what they say.” They who? What did they say?


“Well, you can tone down the country-boy charm, because I don’t do farmers.”

His grin hadn’t faded a bit. He leaned in. “Is it the penises?”

She narrowed her eyes and leaned in as well. “Actually, it’s the smell. Eau de Barnyard doesn’t really do it for me.”

But that wasn’t the problem with Travis. At all. He smelled like man and laundry that had been hung outside to dry. And sunshine. He smelled like sunshine. For God’s sake.

Travis wasn’t bothered by her comment. He chuckled. “Well, glad to know I don’t smell like all those pretty girls you usually go for.”

No, he sure didn’t. He smelled better. And that was saying something since she really liked how those girls smelled.

She wasn’t a lesbian. But she’d had relationships with women. She had embraced her bisexuality during her sophomore year of college. But on the spectrum of sexuality, she still went for men more often than women. She hadn’t been with a woman in over a year. She hadn’t been with anyone in almost seven months.
But Travis Bennett did not need to know that. He didn’t need to know anything about her sex life. Like that he was totally her type. Totally.

She loved men like Travis. Men’s men. Guys who used their hands to get things done and had muscles sculpted by hard work rather than by a gym. Men who were comfortable in their own skin without any hair products or a daily moisturizing regimen.

Country boys.

But country boys made her stupid.

And she was not going to live in the country. Never again.

So she steered clear. Really clear. She dated men who knew wine and theater and spa treatments. And there was nothing wrong with any of those things. She was attracted to them, she enjoyed spending time with them and they were okay in bed. Some had been better than okay. A couple had been damned good.

It still took more than a smile and a darlin’ from them to get her going though.

Which was good. She didn’t want to be falling for anyone. She had important stuff to do.

“So you could move back a few feet,” she said, giving him a little push. “Or across the sidewalk. Or across the square completely.” He always stood so damned close.

Of course, she noticed how hot and hard his chest was when she pushed him.

He chuckled again and the sound washed over her, making all the body parts she didn’t want to think about when Travis was around say, “Well, hello, Travis.”

“Aw, I’m not goin’ anywhere, darlin’,” he said in that irritatingly sexy slow way he had. “This is my town, remember? You’ll never get away from me entirely.”

It seemed to be true. She ran into him every day. All. The. Time. Of course, Sapphire Falls was a small town with only twelve hundred and six other people besides Travis. The odds were against her. Especially when she figured in the facts that there were only two places in town with coffee, and she and Travis were both devoted morning-coffee drinkers, that there was only one bank, one post office and one gas station—and they both used all of those places regularly—and that Travis was one of the farmers working with Lauren’s company, Innovative Agricultural Solutions, also known as IAS. They were bound to run into each other. Like it or not.

“You could at least try to keep your stuff off of me.”

He grinned at that. “You mean my stuff that’s making you wet and sticky?”

She really didn’t like him. Or the way he got to her.

“Well, I’m nothin’ if not a gentleman,” he said.

And he stripped off his T-shirt.

He handed it to her. “You can use this to dry off.”

She was vaguely aware of a scattering of gasps and a wolf whistle from the people wandering through the square, but there was no way she was going to glance at any of them. Not when she had this view. Her mouth never went dry when seeing a man’s chest for the first time. Then again, it had been a long time since she’d seen a chest like Travis’s. Toned, tanned and completely lickable.

Muscles rippled under smooth skin with just the right amount of light hair dusted over defined pecs. It trailed down between the ridges of his abs and dove into his waistband. There was a tattoo that curved from the top of his shoulder down over the biceps that she attempted not to stare at. It was an elaborate letter B, she assumed for Bennett, that bunched and stretched as he moved his arm.

And speaking of arms…he didn’t even have a farmer’s tan.

The jerk.

Her synapses stopped sending lick-him, lick-him signals and finally switched over to quit standing here like an idiot.

She dragged her gaze from his chest to his face. She gave him a little half smile. Then she began unbuttoning.
She was gratified to see his gaze riveted on her fingers as her shirt parted. She shrugged out of it—briefly noting more gasps and an ego-stroking, “Holy shit,” of appreciation—and handed it to Travis. He didn’t take it. He was too busy studying the white lace she’d revealed.

“Thanks, Farmer Boy.” She draped her shirt over his arm and pulled his T-shirt on. “I’m completely dry now, thanks to you.”

His shirt was warm. And smelled like fricking sunshine.

It was big on her. The bottom hung past her butt and the sleeves fell to her elbows.

Still enjoying his stunned expression, she tied a knot in the bottom of the shirt to keep it at her waist.
His gaze roamed over her and she cursed the tingles again.

“White lace and chicken poop,” Travis said thoughtfully. He shrugged. “I don’t get it, but I’m sure you know more about this fashion stuff than I do.”

“Chicken poop?”

He pointed at her right shoe.

No, please, not my Jimmy Choos. She looked down with trepidation. But sure enough, there was a glop of something on the toe of her right shoe. She wasn’t sure she’d ever seen chicken poop up close, but she trusted Travis in this. She was grateful the shoes weren’t open-toed.


The man had distracted her to the point of not noticing an animal pooping on her shoe?

She looked from side to side, trying to locate the culprit. She loved chicken marsala. And cordon bleu. And fajitas. But there were at least six chickens and over a dozen chicks running around on the grass. “What the hell is going on here? Chickens and cows just running loose all over the square?”

“They’ll be corralled in a minute. They’re putting the fence up now.” He pointed toward the cluster of trees in the north corner of the town square.

There were three men and two little girls putting up a temporary fence, setting out hay bales, and feed and water buckets.

“Petting zoo,” Travis filled in.     

A petting zoo. Full of barn animals.

“And they just let the animals wander while they set up?” Lauren looked at her shoe again. How was she going to get chicken poop off of it? And would she really ever want to wear it again once she did?
“Someone will catch them and shoo them back in that direction.” As he spoke, he flapped her shirt at two of the chickens, sending them running in a northerly direction.

“What if someone wanted to steal one?” Lauren asked. She couldn’t just wipe her shoe on the grass. She could use her shirt, she supposed. It was stained with grape syrup and ruined anyway. But it rubbed her wrong to clean chicken poop with silk.

Travis chuckled. “Everyone around here has their own chickens. And cows, rabbits, goats and sheep.”
Sure enough, all of those other animals were also present, though sticking closer to where they belonged.
“So what’s the point of a petting zoo in a town where everyone has their own animals to pet?” Lauren wanted to know. A paper napkin probably wouldn’t work. She was just not going to be able to salvage the shoes. Or her shirt. Why had she agreed to help out at her friend’s booth during the festival today? This was so not her thing.

But the scent of cotton candy hit her at the same moment a shriek of laughter came from the Ferris wheel and she sighed. This actually was kind of her thing. She was a sucker for sweet, charming little towns. And Sapphire Falls was nothing if not sweet and charming. All the damned time. Everywhere she turned. Their annual festival, their Fourth of July street dance and barbecue, their community theater production of Alice in Wonderland, their Thanksgiving reenactment—it was all sweet and charming. She freaking loved it all.

She couldn’t afford to get sucked into Small Town USA. She had important stuff to do. Stuff that took her around the world. Some of her time was spent in fancy offices and conference rooms and ballrooms with politicians and other VIPs. Some of her time was spent in the poorest, saddest, most worn-down areas of the world.

But none of it involved cotton candy and Ferris wheels.

So rather than tempt herself with the idea of turning her life upside town and buying a house with a wraparound porch and a couple of rocking chairs, she spent as little time in Sapphire Falls as possible.
If her best friend, Mason, hadn’t fallen in love with a woman who loved Sapphire Falls, Lauren would have never set foot in the quaint little town in the first place. And she wouldn’t know that their Knights of Columbus made the best pancakes she’d ever eaten or that the town’s Christmas pageant made her want to believe in Santa again.

Travis chuckled at her question about the petting zoo. “All I know is that there’s always been a petting zoo at the festival. Just like there’s always been a haunted house.”

She shook her head. She knew of the festival and the traditional haunted house, but she’d never attended. Because it just seemed wrong somehow to binge on cotton candy when there were people literally starving in other countries. “A haunted house at a summer festival is weird.”

He shrugged. “The city council talked about saving it for Halloween only, but the whole town protested.”


He gave her a wink. “Lots of good memories made inside that house at festival time.”

She could imagine what those memories consisted of. And she would guess just as many were made at Halloween too. Teenagers in the dark. That’s all anyone needed to say.

“Got it.” With a sigh, she stepped out of her shoes and hung on to them by their heels. The sidewalk was warm under her bare feet and she wondered briefly when she’d last gone barefoot.

“So, stimulating as always, Dr. D, but I’ve gotta get to the kissing booth.”

There was a kissing booth? The festival just got cuter and cuter. Dammit.

Lauren raised an eyebrow. “You’ve got to pay to get kissed? That’s sad.”

He gave her a slow grin that curled only half his mouth. “I’m in the kissing booth, baby doll. We’re gonna get the money for the new welcome sign in a couple of days.”

Baby doll? Really? And it actually made her a little tingly too. Really?

The biggest damned problem with this sweet, charming town wasn’t the cotton candy or the Pies and Ties event where everyone dressed in formal wear to eat pie—she still wasn’t sure why they did it, but it was cute—or the local band that covered John Denver and Elvis—only John Denver and Elvis—and whose youngest member was seventy-one.

The problem was the hot farmer boys.

And there were several. Whatever the mothers in Sapphire Falls fed their baby boys, it turned them into hot, charming men almost across the board. Someone should really patent it.

“Who else is in the booth?” she asked. Heck, she could contribute to the new welcome sign.

Which would probably be really, really cute.

Travis cocked an eyebrow. “Drew and Tucker during this shift. Why?”

Drew was a sweet guy who also farmed locally. He was a great dancer. She lifted a shoulder. “I’d pay a buck to kiss Drew for a good cause.”

“You’d come to the booth for Drew?”

“I didn’t say that. But if I was already there, I’d give Drew a dollar too.”

Travis indicated his naked torso. As if Lauren could have forgotten.

“I think this is gonna cost you more than a dollar, City.”

Did he seem interested? Had he leaned in slightly? Had his pupils dilated a little?

“Well, let’s put it this way,” she said, tipping her head and wetting her lips. “I might need that fifty back.”
Sapphire Falls wasn’t stupid. Manning the kissing booth with Travis and Tucker Bennett would ensure the funds in a few hours, not to mention a couple of days.

Tucker was Travis’s brother. He was equally hot and significantly nicer to Lauren. In fact, she was pretty sure Tucker had a little crush on her. And every time they flirted, it seemed to annoy Travis. Which made it even more fun.

“Might have to come up with somethin’ special for fifty,” Travis said. He definitely leaned in.

“Special,” she repeated. “I like the sound of that.”

“In fact, maybe you get to pick where you get kissed if you hand over fifty.”

She tapped her finger against her chin, pretending to ponder that…and ignoring the damned tingles. “Okay, I think I want Tucker to kiss me…on the bridge over the pond in the park.”

The park was adorable, the pond had adorable ducks, adorable weeping willows surrounded it and an adorable white wooden bridge arched over the water.

“That’s not really what I meant by where… Wait, Tuck—” Then realization dawned and he leaned back. “Okay, you got me, City.”

“It’s just that Tucker is so…” She trailed off with a sigh, as if she just couldn’t think of the right word. And she couldn’t. Tucker was a great guy. Hot. Sweet. Absolutely worthy of big money in a kissing booth. But he didn’t give her tingles like Travis did.

Which was fine. She wasn’t going near Tucker Bennett for real. Tucker was looking for a wife. To live on his farm. He probably wanted someone who would hang the laundry on the clothesline and take care of a bunch of chickens and can things. So the right word for Tucker was forbidden.

Travis pulled the fifty she’d given him from his pocket and handed it to her. “Tell you what, baby doll. You take this back. I wouldn’t feel right taking money from my sister-in-law.”

She took the money. It was her fifty dollars after all. “Maybe Tucker’s not the best choice for a kissing booth if he’s going to propose to every girl who lines up.”

Travis shook his head. “Not every girl. But you? I hear wedding bells by the time the leaves change.”

She grimaced and he laughed.

“Yeah,” he said, pointing his index finger at her nose. “You remember that.”

She slid the money into her pocket. She wasn’t going to kiss Tucker Bennett. Not even for a good cause.
She could, however, stuff herself on cotton candy and funnel cakes. Fifty bucks would go a long way in junk food.

“And I’m thinkin’ that a fifty-dollar kiss from you might just kill Drew,” Travis added.

“How sweet of you to look out for your friends,” she said dryly. But she wasn’t so sure he wasn’t right. 
Drew was a nice guy, but…he was a nice guy. She, unfortunately, needed a little cocky to get her going.

“Aw gee, Dr. D, it’s what we do ’round here. So, you be nice to the chickens and cows now, ’kay? I’d better be gettin’ to my post.”

She watched him walk away in spite of herself. The view of his naked back was every bit as nice as the view from the front.

’Round. ’Kay. Gettin’. The guy dropped letters all over the place. And he said gee and aw. Why did she want to ride him in the front seat of his truck? And not ride with him in his truck. No, she very much wanted to ride him.

He’d be thinking aw gee then.

God, even the cows liked her.

Travis shook his head as he started toward the kissing booth. He’d seen Dr. D crossing the town square and had been so startled it had taken him a minute to realize she was talking to the cow that was trying to suck on her skirt.

But wow.

Lauren Davis was impossible to not notice anywhere she went. She was gorgeous and haughty and always dressed to kill. But in the Sapphire Falls town square, surrounded by the festival activities that included things like a merry-go-round and little kids getting their faces painted to look like cats and princesses, she definitely stood out. When he’d seen her in the short black skirt, nearly see-through white blouse and crazy high heels that wrapped around her feet in some weird criss-cross pattern and hoisted her at least three additional inches off the ground, he’d stopped mid-stride and simply stared. Exactly as he would have if he’d suddenly come upon the most beautiful sunset of his life. Or an alien space ship.

She was as out of place as anyone could be. Who wore high heels to a carnival? Who wore high heels like that anywhere?

Lauren Davis didn’t fit in in Sapphire Falls. She was not the kind of girl who should be turning his head. But he’d made a beeline for her anyway.

And as he’d drawn closer, he’d heard her talking to the calf about filet mignon rather than acting squeamish or running away, and Travis had felt something even more worrisome than the attraction he’d felt since he’d first seen her at the edge of his cornfield—he’d felt intrigued.

“Why do you do that with her?”

Travis turned to find Tucker leaning against a tree.

“Do what?”

“Act stupid.”

Travis grinned. “Maybe I’m not acting.”

Tucker fell into step beside him, also on his way to the kissing booth. “You are. You’re saying ain’t and drawling.”

Travis shrugged. “It’s what Lauren expects.”

“She seems to distinctly hate when you say ain’t.”

“I know.” Travis loved that. “Have you ever met a woman more full of herself? She thinks she’s better than the rest of us. Especially me.”

“Why is that?”

“Because she’s from the big city where guys wear suits and ties and pronounce everything perfectly and never burp or fart.”

“Did you fart in front of her? Because lots of women don’t like that.”

Travis chuckled. “Nothing so simple. Though I’ll keep that idea in mind.”

“I think Dr. D is nice,” Tucker said. “I don’t know why you’re always irritating her.”

Travis knew that Tucker thought she was nice. Tuck liked the stuck-up city girl. Which was no good. Tucker would think he could win her over, charm her with the country life, talk her out onto the farm…because he’d never met a girl who didn’t want the life he had to offer.

But there was no way Miss Spray Tan Salon Highlights would want to live on Tucker’s one-thousand acres. She liked the word gourmet where Tucker liked homemade. She liked designer while Tucker liked practical. Wearing high-assed sexy heels to a small-town festival was anything but practical.

“Because irritating her is so easy. And fun.” Travis thought about the way Lauren’s cheeks flushed and her eyes flashed when they talked. It was fun pushing her buttons. She was polished and sophisticated. She clearly took a lot of pride in looking all put together and out of reach. She wore her stylishness like armor. No one else seemed to notice, but nothing riled her up like something messing up her clothes, shoes, hair or makeup.

Like when he’d accidentally swiped a dirty glove across her cheek, leaving a streak of mud and she’d about bitten his head off. Or when he’d accidentally caught the fancy twist in her hair with a cornstalk and her hair had fallen in sexy waves to her shoulders and she’d leveled him with a glare that would have made a less confident man’s knees shake. Or when he’d not-as-accidentally dumped a bucket of mud and manure on her shoes and she’d called him an ignorant, insensitive lumbering boor. She probably thought he didn’t know any of those words.

Some of those had truly been accidents.

The way he talked to her was completely on purpose.

She’d arrived on day one of his partnership with her company, IAS, at his field, in thigh-high red leather boots, a short black fitted skirt and enough attitude to fill his barn from floor to ceiling. Twice.

What was a simple country boy supposed to do when confronted with a prissy girl in red leather? Admire her, of course.

He’d even included a long low whistle and said, “Well, Dorothy, those aren’t quite how I imagined the ruby slippers lookin’, and this sure ain’t Oz, but I’d be happy to play the wizard and grant you a wish or two.”
That drawl and grin always worked on women.

Lauren hadn’t been amused. In fact, in the course of multiple interactions, Travis had come to the conclusion that amused was something Dr. Lauren Davis simply didn’t feel.

She’d given him a look that said, “Yeah, right,” and then proceeded to talk to him like he was a kindergartner.

He’d had her number right then.

She thought small-town farmers were dumb. They didn’t go to college because they couldn’t cut it. They didn’t do big important things because staying home and taking over Daddy’s farm was easier.

And Sapphire Falls was small because no one wanted to live here.

The vibe from her had been strong and clear. She didn’t want to be in Sapphire Falls and they needed her more than she needed them.

Everyone knew that her partner and friend, Mason Riley, was the reason their company had relocated their growing projects to Sapphire Falls. It was true that they had been successfully growing and testing various crops for years before Mason had fallen in love with Adrianne and decided to live full time in his tiny hometown. It was also true that the influx of money and people to Sapphire Falls had helped the town’s economy and had put them on the map for some significant agricultural and scientific contributions.

But Sapphire Falls had been very good to IAS. The employees were welcomed with open arms, the grocery store had started ordering things like tofu, and the Stop, the gas station/convenience store/pizza place/ice cream shop in town, had started making a spinach-and-mushroom pizza and serving chai tea.

He could take her looking at him like he wasn’t worthy, but she also disparaged his home town and insulted his friends and family by assuming they were making their lives in Sapphire Falls because they couldn’t do any better.

He didn’t put up with people looking down on the things and people he loved best about his life.

He could be in her face about it. But instead, he was biding his time.

For one, she was a diversion in a town where things were always pretty routine. Not that he minded routine. He loved it in fact. The routine and comfort were two reasons he lived here, after all. But it wasn’t bad to shake things up once in a while.

For another, the more she ticked him off—and the more times he ran into her, the more she ticked him off—the more fun it was going to be to take her down a peg. Or two. Or three.

“So you’re really okay with her thinking you’re a dumb country bumpkin?” Tucker asked.

Travis chuckled. “No.”

They stopped at the tent where the United Methodist Women were displaying their quilts and selling baked goods. They each got a bottle of water and Tucker grabbed a brownie. Travis got one too—you didn’t turn down homemade desserts in Sapphire Falls—but he handed it to Tucker as soon as they were around the corner of the tent. Travis didn’t make a habit of turning down brownies, but he’d already had a corn dog, a soft pretzel, a deep-fried Snickers bar and a grape slushy. Well, half a grape slushy.

“But you keep doing things to make her believe you’re a dumb country bumpkin,” Tucker said, refusing to drop the subject of Lauren, and Travis’s tendency to drive her nuts.

“For now.”

They arrived at the tiny wooden structure that was painted bright red with Kissing Booth in bold white letters across the front. Drew was already there and there was a line.

As he stepped inside for his hour-long shift, Travis glanced in the direction of the Scott’s Sweets booth where Lauren’s friend, Adrianne, was giving samples and selling her gourmet candies. There was a dunk tank, a display of handmade jewelry and a stand selling fresh-squeezed lemonade between them, but he still felt itchy with her that close.

He really wished he didn’t know that her bra was made entirely of white lace and was see-through enough that he knew what her nipples looked like. His icy drink had perked them right up—though he liked to think that he’d had a bit of an effect too—and they would have been grape flavored.

He cleared his throat and focused on Tucker again.

“For now?” his brother asked.

“I’m just waiting for the perfect chance to show her how wrong she’s been with all of her assumptions,” Travis said. He caught the T-shirt Drew tossed to him in one hand.

“You’re waiting for the perfect chance to make a fool of her,” Tucker clarified.

Travis lifted a shoulder and then pulled the T-shirt over his head. It said A hug—$1. A kiss—$2. I won’t date your daughter—$10.

“Grandma wouldn’t approve of you embarrassing a lady,” Tucker said as he pulled his own kissing-booth T-shirt on.

“Grandma wouldn’t approve of Dr. High and Mighty’s attitude either.”

Kendra Bennett was as opposite from Lauren Davis as two women could get. Kendra had farmed right beside her husband every day until the day he’d had a heart attack while harvesting their corn and died with his wife and three of his sons beside him in the dirt he’d loved his whole life.

Her fingernails got dirty, her nose got sunburned and her back ached from the manual work she did. But she did it with a smile and a sense of gratitude for honest work that could support her family, a body that could physically work for the things she needed, and the beautiful land they’d been blessed to have in the Bennett family for five generations.

Travis knew roots. He knew how to appreciate the things he had. He knew hard work.

And he wouldn’t trade any of it for anything that Lauren Davis had in that big city of hers.

“That’s probably true,” Tucker said of their grandmother. “But you can’t humiliate the good doctor.”

The thing was he probably could. But he wouldn’t. “Nah, I’ll…surprise her.”

He didn’t know how or when it would go down, but one of these days he and Lauren would be in the same place at the same time with the perfect opportunity for her to realize that she was not a bit better than him—and he’d take that opportunity.

“I figured you’d just fuck her and show her who’s best,” Tuck said and then swigged the rest of his water.
Travis’s water went down the wrong pipe.

He hacked and coughed until Tucker beat on his back and Travis could pull in a deep breath again.
Holy crap.

“You okay, man?” Tuck asked.

He was not okay. “Why would you say that?” he demanded.

Tucker looked genuinely puzzled. “The two of you have some major heat. And she’s…hot. Really, really hot. Are you telling me you don’t want to sleep with her?”

He didn’t.

Well, he didn’t want to want to sleep with her. If that counted.

But yeah, okay, so he spent his time around stuck-up, sophisticated Dr. Lauren Davis irritated and turned on. In equal parts.

“I don’t think sleeping with Dr. D is a good idea,” Travis said causally. At least he tried for casual.

“Why not?”

“I don’t like her.”

Tucker just looked at him.

Travis frowned. “I don’t.”

“You don’t like the way her company has made our family farm a part of something that will guarantee our stability for the next decade and possibly the rest of our lives?”

Travis shook his head. “That’s Mason.”

“Mason is the one working with the crops,” Tucker said. “He’s the one who’s come up with what we’re doing here.”

Travis knew there was a but coming.

“But Lauren is the one making sure the reporters are putting our names in their articles too. She makes sure we get paid, and that the government folks know what’s going on out here and that we have the supplies and machines we need.”

Yeah, yeah.

Tucker was right.

IAS was known world-wide for their innovative farming techniques and their humanitarian efforts in some of the poorest areas in the world.

The money for those programs came from the government and charitable organizations. What paid the bills for IAS were the things they developed for the private sector in the US and other large, wealthy countries. Not all farmers were poor.

It was true that Travis often didn’t follow Mason when he explained what he was doing. Mason was a scientist. Travis was a farmer. He knew how to plant and cultivate and harvest crops. But he didn’t feel bad about not understanding Mason. The man was a genius. Literally. Something like two percent of the world was at Mason’s level of intelligence.

Then there was Lauren.

Mason was the one with the ideas for the actual seeds and the planting techniques and the soil and water adjustments they were working on. The meat and potatoes. The direct, actual product they were creating.
However, without Lauren, the whole thing would have fallen apart a long time ago. She was the brains behind their public and government relations. She didn’t do all the work herself, but she was definitely the driving force.

This was the second growing season since IAS had partnered with local farmers around Sapphire Falls and it was even better than the first. They were not only producing successful crops with Mason’s seeds, but they were getting attention from both the government and private sector in the form of grants and donations. 
Multiple companies had lined up to supply everything from the latest tractors to caps and blue jeans. They had been interviewed for farming magazines, had been the subject of a documentary on PBS, and the farmers—three of whom were Bennetts—had posed for a Country Boy calendar. Including Travis.

He remembered Lauren had been at the photo shoot. And she’d seemed mildly amused that day now that he thought about it. Probably because most of the guys had been pretty shy in front of the camera. It had taken the photographer almost thirty minutes to get Drew out of his T-shirt. Lauren had seemed even more entertained when Travis had offered to be Mr. July in Drew’s place. The photographer had told him that he’d make a perfect Mr. October and that he should leave his flannel on.

Being the subject of her humor had rubbed him the wrong way. But it had been nice to see the smile.

“Okay, she’s not all bad,” he finally admitted to Tucker. “But she’s hoity-toity and doesn’t like to get dirty and bitches about the coffee around here constantly.”

Tucker shrugged. “Those hoity-toity heels look damned good on her, the coffee around here sucks, except for Adrianne’s, of course, and I’m not the only one thinking that Dr. D probably does dirty just fine.” He tossed his water bottle and two napkins into a bucket in the corner and then slapped Travis on the back. “Let’s do some kissin’.”

Travis watched his brother move in front of one of the windows and give the girls in line a big Bennett smile.

The asshole.

The last thing he needed to be thinking about were the high heels that always gave him hard-ons or getting Lauren dirty in any way that didn’t involve mud or manure.

But the memory of see-through white lace didn’t help. Nor did the idea of grape-flavored nipples.


Thursday, July 10, 2014

Getting Worked Up CHAPTER ONE

Getting Worked Up
Sapphire Falls, book two

Erin Nicholas

Available everywhere July 17th!


“Naked in his bed when he gets home, wearing the engagement ring on a chain around my neck.”
Phoebe Sherwood wrote the words as she spoke and then folded the piece of paper and put it in the beer mug Hailey Conner held out for her.
She bent her head to write again. “On one knee on his porch with the engagement ring—and pizza—when he opens the door.”
She folded option two and put it in the beer mug.
On the third piece of paper, she wrote, Public proposal in the town square during the festival.
After Phoebe added the scrap of paper to the mug, Hailey put her hand over the opening and shook the tiny squares before pulling her hand back and grinning.
“Okay, pick one.”
Phoebe glanced at the other women at the table.
Lauren Davis rolled her eyes. “How come none of those papers say ‘just man up and tell him’?”
“It has to be a grand gesture at this point,” Hailey said. “Phoebe’s been in love with him for three years. She should have told him how she feels about him at least two years ago. Now he’s in love with someone else, so she has to make a real impression.”
It was a little amazing to Phoebe that Hailey, of all people, understood this.
“And he’s a little slow,” Hailey went on, “so this has to leave no question about what she wants.”
Phoebe frowned. “Hey. He’s not slow.”
Hailey laughed. “Then how do you explain that he’s the only person in Sapphire Falls who doesn’t know you’re in love with him?”
“I…” Phoebe looked around the table. Lauren saluted her with her margarita glass but didn’t deny what Hailey had said. “Adrianne?” Phoebe asked her best friend.
Adrianne shrugged. “Mason didn’t know.”
Even Phoebe had to laugh at that. Mason was Adrianne’s husband. And he definitely wasn’t slow. In fact, he was a genius. Literally. He had an IQ of one hundred and thirty six to prove it. But he didn’t pay attention to much beyond his world-renowned agricultural discoveries and his wife.
“That doesn’t make me feel better,” Phoebe said. She sighed and drank from her own margarita glass. When the tequila and lime were gone, she set the glass down with a thump and took a deep breath. “Okay, let’s do this.”
She reached for the beer mug with the three options for how she was going to let Matt know how she felt about him.
“You sure about this?” Adrianne asked just as Phoebe touched one of the papers.
Phoebe sighed. “I have to be. I’m running out of time.”
“What do you mean?” Lauren had just motioned to the waitress for a refill on her margarita.
“He’s going to propose to her.”
The three women at the table with her all froze and stared at her, completely silent for several seconds. Which in itself was an amazing thing.
“Matt’s going to propose to Nadia?” Hailey asked.
“How do you know?” Lauren asked when Phoebe nodded miserably.
“He told me.”
Matt told her everything. Especially big things like proposing to the woman he’d met only six months before.
Phoebe dropped her forehead onto her arms on the tabletop. Matt was proposing. The guy who was happily, purposefully single. The guy who had been her best friend her whole life. The guy who she’d loved for three years. The guy she’d not thrown herself at—repeatedly—because he wasn’t ready to be serious about anyone.
The waitress approached. “Need a refill?” she asked.
“I think you better bring a pitcher,” Lauren said.
“He told you?” Adrianne finally asked.
Phoebe lifted her head. “Yeah. Last night. He called me to come over and showed me the ring.” She took a shuddering breath. “It’s gorgeous.”
“What did you say?” Hailey asked.
“What could I say? I told him it was gorgeous.”
Lauren gave a frustrated huff. “How about ‘I’m in love with you. Don’t marry her’?”
“Because I…” This was going to sound so stupid. “Because he won’t believe me without a huge gesture. I need the ring, at least. Naked or public square would help.” She sighed and frowned at the beer mug. “In fact, let’s take the front porch on one knee thing out. I think I definitely need naked or the public square. Maybe I can figure out a way to combine them without getting arrested.”
Adrianne snorted, Hailey dug the second option out of the mug with a grin and Lauren asked, “What do you mean he wouldn’t believe you?”
“We’ve been friends forever and…” She swallowed. “We’ve talked about it before.”
Lauren set her glass down and sat up straighter. “You’ve talked about being in love with him before?”
Phoebe shrugged. “Kind of.”
Hailey took the new pitcher of margaritas and filled Phoebe’s glass. “Talk.”
She sighed. “Okay, fine, when we were sophomores, I was crazy about Greg Harper. Matt and I were drinking strawberry wine at the river and talking one night and I told him I was in love. He turned to me with panic in his eyes and said, ‘But you’re supposed to marry me’.”
The girls all froze with their glasses partway to their lips.
“Are you kidding me?”
Matt said you were supposed to marry him?”
She nodded, knowing how ridiculous it sounded. “At the time, I really was in love with Greg and I’d never looked at Matt like that. He’d been my best friend forever. So I told him that I thought he was just worried about losing me as a friend and that he wouldn’t be the main guy in my life anymore. We agreed that was all it was.”
She took a deep breath, regretting for the four billionth time that she hadn’t just eloped with Matt that night. “He said that he’d always assumed we’d end up together when we were ready to be really serious. And I told him that maybe that would happen, but it wasn’t something that we should talk about when we were tipsy. So we agreed that if one of us was truly serious about it someday, we’d make a big public gesture that took planning and foresight so the other would know we really meant it.”
She took a big drink of tequila and lime.
“That was when I did start looking at him as more than my buddy, and it grew from there. But I’ve known that he wasn’t ready to be serious. I mean, a relationship between us would be a lot more than messing around or dating. There would be no breaking up without turning both our worlds upside down, so it would have to be the relationship. The last one. The big one. So I’ve been waiting. Then Nadia came to town with Mason and Lauren and met Matt. And now…he’s proposing to her.”
Hailey shook her head. “Wow.”
Lauren added, “Damn.”
Adrianne grinned. Phoebe frowned at her and then noticed that Adrianne was looking at someone, or something, over Phoebe’s shoulder.
She turned and saw Mason. Phoebe started to roll her eyes. The two of them were amazing together. And sickening. Especially when Phoebe so wanted what they had together and was on the verge of watching it all slip away.
But then Mason shifted to his right and she caught sight of the guy with him.
Holy hot new guy, Batman. She swung to face Adrianne. “Who is that with Mason?”
It wasn’t that she was looking for a replacement for Matt or anything. But this was Sapphire Falls. Hot new guys didn’t happen often. It was kind of like seeing the Northern Lights. You might like the regular night sky just fine, but that didn’t mean you wouldn’t rush outside to look at the rare, colorful streaks of light if they appeared.
His dark hair was nearly black, as was the stubble on his jaw, and the eyes beneath the thick eyebrows were just as dark. He was muscled but trim, like he went to the gym and specifically sculpted his arms and chest versus the thick, brawny muscles of the farm boys she was used to. His skin was tanned, but she’d bet he didn’t have too many scars or calluses on those big hands holding his beer. His teeth were white—probably from whitening treatments and a lack of chewing tobacco—also unlike a lot of the guys here. If the obvious use of hair products wasn’t a giveaway, his clothes definitely said outsider. Denim was the town fabric in Sapphire Falls. Along with cotton in the form of T-shirts or plaid work shirts and leather in the form of work boots. This guy wore khakis and a button-down dress shirt that should have been paired with a jacket and tie. They were both missing and he had the top button unfastened and the sleeves rolled up. Still, he looked too good to be hanging out at the Come Again.
Adrianne gave her a big smile. “I got you a present.”
Phoebe’s eyes widened. Hey, she was the first one to admit that it had been a while since she’d had a guy she’d wanted to do more than two-step with, but Adrianne was giving her him?
He wore dress shoes and probably socks that matched. Phoebe liked guys who were a little more laidback about their appearance and drank beer straight from the bottle or can. She preferred T-shirts to ties and while his end-of-the-day stubble was up her alley, she liked hair that was messed up from the wind and skin tanned from working outside.
She watched him take a drink of beer from his glass and then laugh at something Mason said. His laugh made the beer-out-of-a-real-glass thing a little less offensive. His eyes crinkled at the corners like he smiled a lot. He turned and leaned against the bar then. He moved with confidence, and if anyone could win her over to the khaki side it was him. His long legs and tight ass looked just fine in the tan fabric.
“That’s really nice of you,” Phoebe commented. If she hadn’t been preparing to propose to her best friend, she might even be willing to see if he could country two-step in those khakis.
“You’re giving her Joe?” Lauren asked.
“Joe?” Phoebe repeated. “You know him?”
Lauren lifted a shoulder. “Yeah. He works for us.”
“Specifically, he works with me,” Adrianne added. “He’s the one who went to DC with me last month.”
That was Joe? The new wonder boy that Adrianne had hired to help her with the government relations she headed for Mason and Lauren’s company?
Innovative Agricultural Solutions—IAS for short— had started out in a lab in Chicago with Mason and Lauren alone, but it had grown quickly, and once Mason had fallen in love with Adrianne, he’d moved the actual planting and growing to Sapphire Falls. Their need for land had been a big boost to several local farmers, and the employees they’d brought with them who needed homes, groceries and gas and other things had helped the local economy.
The public relations and marketing people, along with accounting, government affairs and the other departments that didn’t need to put their hands in the dirt, were still based in Chicago.
Lauren spent most of her time in Chicago overseeing business operations and acting as a kind of human-resources supervisor, while Mason oversaw all the scientists and projects, preferring to play in the dirt and sunshine beside his people. Since she’d met Mason, Adrianne handled their PR and all of their government relations—of which there were many. She was the perfect buffer between her genius nerdy husband and the government, media and everyone else who needed things broken down into lay terms and sometimes repeated more than once. As the company grew and their overseas projects became bigger and more successful, it became clear that Adrianne needed some help if she was ever going to have a chance to leave DC and spend time with her husband on their farm in Sapphire Falls.
Enter Joe Spencer.
Adrianne had gushed to Phoebe about how charming and smart and passionate Joe was. And how polished and sophisticated he was. And how impressed the vice president—yes, of the United freakin’ States—was with him. Phoebe had never thought to ask what Joe looked like.
“I’m not giving him to you like that,” Adrianne said. “But he can help with the Nadia and Matt situation.”
“I thought he was here to get an in-person look at our operations,” Lauren said.
“Sure. That too,” Adrianne told her. “I mean, that’s what Mason and I thought. But then…” she leaned in, her forearms on the tabletop, her eyes twinkling, “…he showed up on our doorstep last night at midnight.”
“What?” Lauren asked, glancing at where Mason and Joe had taken seats at a corner table. “Why?”
“It’s actually really romantic,” Adrianne said. “He showed up, looking like hell. He had just gotten a text from Nadia telling him that she is planning on proposing to Matt. He tried calling her but she didn’t answer, so he booked a flight, then rented a car and showed up.
Phoebe’s stomach dropped. “What?” she demanded.
Adrianne nodded, still grinning, and this was no grinning matter.
“Nadia and Joe are long-time friends. They’ve known each other since they were kids, like you and Matt. Turns out, he’s in love with her.”
Phoebe slapped her hand down on the tabletop. “Are you kidding me? Brainiac Barbie has two hot men in love with her?”
Hailey giggled. “You call Nadia Brainiac Barbie?”
“Well, ever since Lauren gave her that makeover, she’s not just the cute, geeky scientist; she’s got that sexy-librarian thing going on.”
“I am good,” Lauren said.
“But you had to make Nadia over, didn’t you? You really couldn’t let her keep wearing the lab coats and the buns?” Phoebe asked. “You’ve never offered to give me a makeover.”
“Well, for one,” Lauren said, “I’m really best with nerds.” That much they had to agree on. Lauren had met Mason in college and had known him for three days before giving him the big makeover that had turned the nerdy genius into one of the sexiest guys to ever come out of Sapphire Falls.
“For another,” Lauren went on, “you don’t need a makeover.”
Phoebe cocked an eyebrow. “Well, thanks.”
“Seriously. Nadia needed the makeover because she was clueless with eyeliner and she was shy. She needed some confidence and a curling iron. You on the other hand…” Lauren was seated next to Phoebe so she could sweep her gaze from Phoebe’s head to her toes. “What would I possibly makeover on you?”
Phoebe couldn’t help but grin. It wasn’t just that Lauren had impeccable taste and always looked amazing herself, she was also a lesbian—well, bi-sexual, technically—so she looked at other women and their appearance a little differently than most.
“I’d totally be all over you if you gave me even the tiniest lesbian vibe,” Lauren told her.
Phoebe laughed. “And if I ever had any curiosity in that…area…I’d come to you,” she assured the other woman.
“Hey, what about me?” Hailey asked Lauren. “You’ve never even mentioned the thought of hitting on me.”
“Honey, you so don’t give off the right vibe,” Lauren told her.
“And I do?” Phoebe asked.
“I’m not talking about the lesbian vibe,” Lauren said. “I mean the I’m-sweet-and-accommodating-and-will-do-whatever-you-say vibe. That’s what I’m looking for from here on out.” She gave Hailey a once over. “And you, girl, do not have it.”
No one could argue with that. Sweet and accommodating were not Hailey Conner’s style.
“I’m not the will-do-whatever-you-say type either,” Phoebe protested. She was, however, fairly sweet and often accommodating.
“That’s one reason I haven’t tried harder to get you naked,” Lauren said.
“What’s another reason?” Adrianne asked, wide-eyed.
“She likes men.”
So,” Phoebe said to Adrianne, trying to get back on track—these women were incredibly intriguing…and very distracting. “Let’s talk about this Joe’s-in-love-with-Nadia thing.”
Adrianne shook her head and picked up her story. “Okay, last month when we were in DC, Joe mentioned that he’d like to come to Sapphire Falls. He thought that getting an in-person look at the operation here would help him when he was in discussions in DC. I couldn’t argue.”
“He didn’t mention Nadia then?” Lauren asked.
“I knew they were friends. She was his main reference for the job,” Adrianne said. “But I didn’t know how far back they went, and I didn’t know he was in love with her.”
“So he came to stop her from proposing,” Hailey said. “But Nadia isn’t here. She’s gone for two weeks right?”
“She’s in Haiti for the next two weeks overseeing the new crop for us. But he didn’t know that,” Adrianne said. “When he found out last night, he was pissed. We talked him into staying with us for the next few days to see the operations, get to know the town and make a plan.” She pinned Phoebe with a direct look. “Which is where you come in.”
“Yes, this gift thing.”
“Joe is the answer to your problem, and he needs your help.”
“He is? He does?” Phoebe asked, but her wheels immediately started turning. She looked over at Mason and Joe. They were drinking and chatting. They watched the dancers on the dance floor and the band, Mason kept an eye on Adrianne and…Phoebe sat up straighter as she realized that Joe was checking her out.
“What did you tell him about me?” she asked Adrianne.
“Nothing. I didn’t even tell Mason why I thought tonight was a good night for them to have a beer together. But it’s perfect.”
Hailey leaned in, one of her I’m-not-convinced-I-care-but-I’m-willing-to-hear-more frowns in place. As mayor of Sapphire Falls she wore that expression a lot when confronted in the grocery store or post office by citizens with concerns. “Go on. I’m intrigued.”
Phoebe was frickin’ intrigued too. Any plan that didn’t involve her getting naked in the public square to convince Matt how she felt sounded great to her.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Adrianne asked.
“Yes,” Phoebe answered. It was to her.
Lauren yawned.
“Spell it out,” Hailey said.
“He tells Nadia how he feels, sweeps her off her feet, she breaks up with Matt and he’s all mine,” Phoebe said.
“Sounds easy,” Hailey said. “But if she’s in love with Matt—”
“Look at him,” Phoebe said, gesturing toward Joe’s table. “Come on.”
Hailey laughed. “I thought you thought Matt was the epitome of all men.”
“He is,” she agreed. “But—” she glanced at Joe again, “—that’s gonna be hard to say no to if he’s coming at you with romance and sex, you know?”
Hailey nodded. Adrianne nodded. Even Lauren nodded.
“Plus, Nadia’s known Joe her whole life. She’s known Matt for six months. That’s totally to Joe’s advantage, just like me knowing Matt so well. It’s pretty hard to ignore someone who’s been there with you through so much for so long.” At least, she hoped that was true. She and Matt had a lot of history. That had to count for something. Of course, she didn’t really know anything about Joe and Nadia’s relationship. Still, he’d known her for a long time. Unless he was a moron, he knew stuff about her that would matter when it came right down to it.
Lord, she hoped he wasn’t a moron.
“Oh, and there’s something even better,” Adrianne said excitedly.
“Awesome, what ya got?” Phoebe asked.
“Apparently, Nadia’s had a crush on Joe for years.”
Okay. Now they were talking. “I can totally work with that,” Phoebe said enthusiastically. “Him, looking like he looks, a history with her and a past crush? Oh, yeah, this will be a piece of cake.”
“So you’ll have him sitting here waiting for her when she gets home?” Lauren said. “You really think she’s just going to dump Matt like that?”
“Well, see, here’s the brilliance,” Phoebe told her, the entire plan coming to her like magic.
Because Nadia was Matt’s girlfriend and Matt was Phoebe’s best friend, Phoebe had heard Nadia gushing about her new life in Sapphire Falls plenty of times. She loved it here. Phoebe suspected that eighty-percent of Nadia’s feelings for Matt actually stemmed from her feelings for his hometown, friends and family. “Nadia is in love with Sapphire Falls. She’s crazy about our little town. Matt embodies everything she loves about it, and with him she’s smack dab in the center of everything from the town festival to the baseball team’s championship win to the park rebuilding project. She’s nuts about all that stuff. She likes the simple life, the sense of belonging, the laidback good times. And Matt’s the king of all of that.”
Matt was involved in every aspect of life in Sapphire Falls—volunteer fireman, Little League coach, president of the alumni association.
“Good point,” Hailey admitted. She knew perfectly well that there were only three people in Sapphire Falls who could take the job of mayor away from her if they wanted it. Matt was one of them. Phoebe and Adrianne were the other two.
It wasn’t that Phoebe thought Nadia was aware that her affection for her new home and lifestyle had spilled over to the guy who embodied that home and lifestyle.
But Matt deserved better. He needed a woman who knew and loved all his layers, not just the Crown-Prince-of-Sapphire-Falls layer. Phoebe had known him since they were four. She knew every endearing and annoying thing about him. That was real love—knowing every way the other person would irritate the crap out of you but wanting to be with him anyway. Phoebe could absolutely say she knew every way Matt was less than perfect. No way could Nadia feel the same way about him. She’d known Matt for six months. Anyone could look good for six months.
“So what does that mean for Joe?” Lauren asked. “He’s not from here and he’s definitely not a Sapphire Falls golden boy. That guy grew up in the city. He has dinner with politicians. He’s a charmer, but not in the good-ol-boy way Matt and the guys here are. He’s charming in the slick and sophisticated I-can-sell-ocean-front-property-in-Iowa way.”
Phoebe grinned. “But he’s going to hang out with me. And I’ve got two weeks until Nadia gets back from Haiti. I’ll turn him into a Sapphire Falls favorite son with a week to spare. If we combine everything she loves about Matt into that package, and add the cherry on top—the fact that she’s wanted him in the past—Brainiac Barbie won’t have a chance.”
Hailey raised an eyebrow in an expression that was rare indeed—she looked impressed.
Figuring that meant she was as ahead as she was going to get at this table, Phoebe finished her margarita and shoved her chair back. “Okay, I’m going to go introduce myself to my new best friend,” she said with a smile.
It wasn’t going to be a hardship spending some time looking at Joe Spencer over the next few days, that was for sure. She just hoped his charm and polish could be adapted to small-town Nebraska.
If anyone could help him with that, it was her.
“Hey, Ad, help me out by getting your husband busy with something else, ’kay?” Phoebe said.
Adrianne grinned. “No problem.”

“I’m going to go kiss my wife,” Mason said, pushing back from the table as he drained his glass.
Joe thought maybe this was the perfect time to make his escape from the small-town bar where he knew no one and where he’d gotten a funny look from the bartender when he’d asked for a glass with his beer.
“Thanks for the drink, Mason.” He started to rise as well.
“Hi, Joe. I’m Phoebe.”
Joe looked from his boss into the brightest blue eyes he’d ever seen. That they happened to be on the knockout redhead he’d seen sitting with Adrianne and Lauren seemed like icing on the cake.
“Hi, Phoebe.” He couldn’t help the grin he felt stretching his mouth.
“Joe,” she said, pulling out the chair next to him and taking a seat, “you’re gonna want to buy me a drink.”
He might be in town for another woman, but there was no way he could look himself in the mirror in the morning if he said no to that. “My pleasure.”
“A beer. No glass.” She looked pointedly at the glass in front of Joe.
Right. He signaled the waitress, raised Mason’s empty bottle and then held up two fingers. When in Rome and all.
Then he studied the woman beside him. He’d noticed her right away. She was the kind of woman who got noticed wherever she went. Which meant the type he’d bought drinks for all the time—in his past life. The life he’d had before he’d awakened in a hotel room in Phoenix—though he hadn’t known he was in Phoenix when he first woke up—alone, naked and unable to remember the previous twenty-four hours. Other than the multiple shots of Patron and the gorgeous blond who’d occupied the bar stool beside him at the casino in Vegas earlier in the night. She’d worn a shimmery gold dress. Very shiny. Like Phoebe. Which meant Phoebe was the type of woman he should stay far away from.
He was here for Nadia. Quiet, reserved, conservative Nadia. Nadia, who didn’t even wear jewelry most of the time, not to mention shiny, shimmery clothes. He was going to marry her and settle down in this tiny, boring, casino-less town and he’d get over his penchant for gambling, drinking and flashy women. He was safe here. So he could talk to and admire this gorgeous thing without worry.
He sat back in his chair. Phoebe’s hair, a deep red color that glowed with strands of gold under the bar lights, was a mass of curls held back from her face by a bright green silk scarf. The scarf was tied behind her head and trailed down the back of her neck over the tank top in the same sparkly green. She wore white denim capri pants and tiny white sandals.
Of course, he couldn’t see her shoes while sitting at the table.
Joe frowned. He hadn’t realized he’d cataloged so many details—including her tiny feet—from across the room.
When he met her gaze, the bright color of her scarf complemented the glitter of mischief in her eyes and her bright smile.
Bright. Bold. Tempting.
Definitely a woman he should steer clear of.
“Hey, Phoebe,” the waitress said as she set their beers down. “Sandra had a baby girl. This morning. Twenty-seven hours of labor.”
Phoebe bounced out of her chair and grabbed the waitress. “Oh my God, that’s awesome. I knew it! Right? I told you it was a girl.”
The waitress squeezed her back, grinning. “You did. And she took your name suggestion too.”
“Shut up,” Phoebe exclaimed. “She named her Macie? No way.”
The waitress nodded. “She loved it. She’s going to send you a gift.”
“No,” Phoebe said firmly. “No, no, no. I’ll send it back. You tell her that.”
The waitress laughed. “I know. I already told her. I guess we’ll see if she listens.”
“Well, if I get a package from Sandra, I’ll send it back along with something that costs twice as much.”
“Okay, okay.” Still grinning, the waitress moved off.
Phoebe reclaimed her chair, but as soon as her butt hit the seat she pivoted and yelled after the waitress, “Unless it’s my birthday or Christmas. Then she can totally send me something!”
“I’ll tell her.”
Phoebe turned back to smile at Joe. “I am about to be one of your favorite people ever.”
Joe narrowed his eyes. “Is that right?”
“I understand that you’re here because you’re head over heels for Brianiac Barbie.”
Joe frowned. “Who?”
“Nadia. Sorry, Dr. Nadia.”
“Um, okay. Yes, I’m in town to see Nadia.”
Phoebe leaned in. “Oh, honey, you’re gonna have to do better than just see her.”
“Is that right?” Something about this woman rubbed him the wrong way, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. Maybe it was that he could not keep his gaze off the earrings swinging in her ears. They were big gold hoops. Just gold, just circles. There was nothing strange or weird about them. But they were big. And shiny.
Like Phoebe herself.
He liked big, shiny things.
No, that wasn’t entirely true. He was attracted to big, shiny things.
Like neon signs and sequined bustiers and Porsches.
“It is right. But don’t worry,” Phoebe said. “I’ll make sure you’re doin’ everything right.”
Her smile was big and shiny too.
“Actually, I think I’m fi—”
“Phoebe Sherwood, you’ve got to be fuckin’ kiddin’ me,” another loud voice interrupted. The owner of the voice was, shockingly, dressed in flannel.
Phoebe blinked up at him. “Oh, hi, Travis.”
“Cassie said you’re puttin’ your fruity girl drinks on my tab?”
Phoebe shrugged. “You owe me fifty bucks, and you’re not payin’ up. Figure this is one way to get it out of you.”
Travis didn’t look upset. He looked amused as he crossed his arms and stared down at her. “I do not owe you fifty bucks.”
“You do. You said that if I sank that putt you’d give me fifty bucks. I’ll admit it was an amazing shot,” she said, “but I made it and you owe me.”
“You don’t have any proof,” Travis protested. “You had Janie distract me. For all I know, you picked it up and dropped it in the hole.”
Phoebe sprang to her feet, her expression a cross between menacing and hurt.
Joe sat back in case any fists started flying. He also patted his wallet. He’d put his money on the fiery redhead.
“You were too drunk to remember half that game, so I knew it would come to this. I had Drew record that shot with the camera on my phone while you were busy making out with Janie.” She pulled her cell phone from her pocket, ran her thumb over the screen a few times and then thrust it in Travis’s face. “There. See?”
Travis frowned as he watched the video. Then he shook his head. “I don’t remember anything about that shot except you bragging you could make it and me betting the money.”
“Well, now you have proof. And don’t think I’m not going to spend every dime of that fifty bucks in here. Tonight. In fact…” Phoebe swung her chair around until the seat faced out from the table. Then she climbed up on it and said loudly, “Excuse me!”
The people in the immediate vicinity quieted but it took some shushing to get the whole room to stop talking. But it happened. Joe was impressed.
Travis looked a little pale.
“Travis is buying a round for the house!”
A loud cheer went up, Travis cursed and smacked Phoebe on the butt, but he headed for the bar to pay up.
“How tough was the putt?” Joe asked as Phoebe reclaimed her seat at the table.
“Oh, impossible.” She took a drink of beer.
“But you sank it.”
“Nah, I did that video later. He was too out of it to know the difference.”
Joe raised an eyebrow. Sneaky and shiny…not a good combination in a woman in his experience. “Why the grudge against Travis? He an ex or something?”
She grinned. “A friend. I gave fifty bucks in his name to the Girl Scout troop in town for their park clean-up project. The bet or the bar tab was the only way to get the money back from him.”
“Why not just donate it in your name?”
“’Cause it’s way more fun for every little girl in town to run up to say hi to him everywhere he goes. He has no idea why they all even know who he is. It’s hilarious.”
Joe smiled simply because her smile was so big.
“So anyway,” she said. “I want you to know that I’m fully committed to getting you and Nadia together. But I need to know a few things first.”
Joe frowned. “You’re going to help me get together with Nadia?” Okay, that was a new one. He wasn’t sure he’d ever had a drink with a woman he was attracted to only to find her trying to set him up with another woman. Unless of course it was intended to be a threesome. That had happened. A few times.
“Why?” Maybe there was a threesome thing happening…
“Because I don’t want her to be with Matt.”
Joe just looked at her for a moment before understanding dawned. Ah, no threesome then. Which was fine, considering Phoebe was exactly the kind of woman—and threesomes were exactly the kind of thing—he was trying to avoid. “Got it. Matt’s the ex.”
“Matt’s the hasn’t-been-yet,” Phoebe told him, “and if we don’t break Matt and Nadia up before the last night of the festival, he’s gonna take her on that big ol’ Ferris wheel and propose.”
Joe sat forward. No. That was not going to happen. He was here to ensure that did not happen. “Don’t worry. I’m on it. There’s only one proposal Nadia’s going to hear.”
Phoebe looked at him and nodded. “I really appreciate the enthusiasm. That’s important. But you can’t just charge in there and propose the moment she steps off the plane in Omaha.”
Not only could he, but that was precisely the plan. “Yes, I can.”
“No.” Phoebe reached out and put her hand on his arm, her expression serious. “Joe, you can’t do that. You’ll just fluster her and piss Matt off.”
He ignored her hand on his arm—kind of. She wore multiple rings and bracelets that clinked at her wrists. All were shiny and…okay, not that big, but still…he ignored them. Mostly.
“I don’t give a shit about Matt.”
She nodded. “Yeah, exactly. But you should.”
“Matt and his feelings are not my problem.”
“But see, they kind of are.”
No. Nadia had known Matt for six months. Six months. Joe had known her his entire life. At least all the parts he could remember. That was supposed to count for something. And dammit, she’d promised him. “Nadia and I have history.”
“Which is definitely in your favor. But you can’t build your entire campaign on that.”
“My campaign?”
“Your campaign to win her heart,” Phoebe said, putting one hand dramatically over her chest.
“I don’t need a campaign,” Joe said with a scowl. “I need to talk to her. That’s it. Just once.”
“Will this talking involve a diamond ring?” Phoebe asked.
“Then no.”
“No?” This woman was something. He was gritting his teeth even as he was tempted to lean closer and see if the waft of green apples he’d sensed had come from her.
“I can’t let you do that.”
“Because you have to protect poor Matt’s feelings?” Joe asked.
“Because you’ll crash and burn, and then where will we be?”
Before he could respond to that he heard, “Phoebe!”
A woman was yelling to her from several feet away. Joe sighed. He was trying to have a drink and a conversation—okay, an argument—with Miss Fucking America here.
“You are in so much trouble, bitch.”
Well, maybe not Miss America…
“Hey, Amanda.” Phoebe gave the woman a little wave.
“You’ve been keepin’ those hot cowboys all to yourself all this time?” Amanda said.
That got his attention. Joe sat up straighter and looked at Phoebe. “Cowboys? Plural?”
She grinned. “Sometimes.”
“And they have rope and they know how to use it.” Amanda laughed and blew Phoebe a kiss. “You’re my favorite, girlie.”
Joe was still watching Phoebe. Her grin grew.
“You’re welcome.” Phoebe laughed and turned back to Joe.
“You have multiple cowboys that you share with your girlfriends?” He took a long draw of his beer. Sapphire Falls had just gotten a whole lot more interesting.
Phoebe gave him a wink with those playful blue eyes. “Yeah, I had to pay for them, but I let my friends borrow them for free.”
“Ah, happy to hear that I could make a little cash on the side if needed.”
She laughed out loud then. “Oh, Joe, honey, don’t think you could pull the cowboy thing off. Or the ropes.”
He lifted an eyebrow. Little did she know. He might prefer silk to rope, but in his experience, once he pulled the silk ties out, the woman didn’t care what he was wearing.
He resisted telling her that, but he really did want to see if he could make Phoebe Sherwood blush. Though if she was used to a bunch of cowboys, it might take him some effort. He could do it, but it would take more creativity on his part.
“You don’t think I have what it takes to fit in here in Sapphire Falls, huh?” he asked.
“Exactly,” she said, with enthusiasm. “That’s what I’m saying. You need to fit in here to win Nadia back, and I can help you.”
“Don’t tell me Nadia’s met your cowboy friends.” He wasn’t alarmed by that so much as stunned. Nadia was not a tie-me-up kind of woman.
At least, he didn’t think she was.
Phoebe laughed. “Not yet. Hailey had them before Amanda.”
“You just pass them around?” Not that he thought the guys would mind.
“They’re books, Joe,” she said, grinning.
“They’re…books?” He wasn’t following.
“The hot sexy cowboys using ropes? They’re in books. Romances. Really sexy romances.”
Ah. That made more sense. “That you share with your friends.”
“Right.” Joe took a long drink of beer. “Are they gay romances?”
Phoebe’s eyebrows went up with that. “No. I mean, there’s more than one guy sometimes, but they’re with a woman. She’s the center of the attention.”
Joe nodded. “You ever loan those to guys?”
She tipped her head, looking at him with interest. “Huh. No, not yet. But now that you mention it, that’s a great idea.”
“We have lots of rope around Sapphire Falls that’s not being used to its full potential.”
Joe couldn’t help it. He grinned. This woman was loud and bright and bold and gave off a vibe that attracted him and at the same time caused him to be wary. But she made him smile.
“Now back to our plan,” she said.
He figured they had about two minutes before someone else needed her for something.
“Phoebe, I have a plan. Thanks, but I don’t need your help.”
“You have it all covered? Everything’s good. You’re confident, good to go, no worries?”
“You do realize that you’re competing against Matt Phillips.”
Joe frowned. “So?”
“So, Matt’s like a celebrity here. No, more like Prince William is in England.”
“Royalty, huh?” Joe asked. Good grief. So the woman was in love with Matt, but royalty was a bit much.
“Well—” she lifted a shoulder, “—yeah. He’s got a lot of power around here, everyone’s interested in what he does and he’s got the charm and the brains and the looks and—”
“I got it,” Joe broke in. “He’s King Matt. Great. Whatever.”
“Yeah, and he’s about to propose to the woman you want.”
“But she doesn’t know how I feel.”
“You’re just going to tell her how you feel and she’ll fall into your arms?”
“Something like that.”
Phoebe shook her head. “It’s not enough.”
“It’s kind of hard to get a big ego around you, huh?”
She chuckled. “Sorry. It’s not you, it’s…him.”
This was annoying. Part of him liked Phoebe. She seemed like a lot of fun and he definitely liked looking at her. But he didn’t need coaching or mentoring or whatever in how to win Nadia over. She’d been in love with him since they were seventeen. And she’d promised to marry him. Okay, they’d been eighteen. And tipsy at her sister’s wedding. But Nadia was responsible and intelligent. All he had to do was remind her—as if she could have forgotten—and they’d be right back on track.
“Thanks, Phoebe. I understand your heart’s in the right place, but I’m fine.”
“Hmm.” She studied him for a moment. Then she tipped her beer back and finished it off before shrugging and pushing to her feet. “Okay, Big Joe. Can’t say I didn’t offer. You hang out here, observe, chat, do it your way. Go for it. But if you change your mind, let me know. I’m easy to find.”
He didn’t doubt that for a second.
In spite of himself, he watched Phoebe wind her way between the tables on her way to the bar. Her hips swayed as she went, and he couldn’t help but smile. She really was something.

Available everywhere July 17th!!