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!!