Dean couldn’t believe he was walking Mr. Doodle—or that he had to wait for the damned thing to do its business. Under the blazing sun.
Wearing his jacket seemed smart when he was getting ready to go see Charlie. The leather made him look badass. He hadn’t known that image would be ruined by his walking a poodle, of all dogs. It could have been a Rottweiler or a Bulldog—hell, a Great Dane. But no. He was stuck with eleven pounds of curly white demon, that wouldn’t finish up so Dean could walk it home and take things from the top.
He’d stick to his plan, cold feet or not. He’d knock on her door, say he saw her go in—or he’d come up with something wittier than that—and ask her out for coffee.
He grimaced. This wouldn’t be the first time a so-simple plan of his to get her attention backfired and made him look like an ass. He didn’t have a lot of luck where his efforts to win Charlie’s heart were concerned. Blunder Number One was on the very day he first laid eyes on her, when he decided he wanted to be with her.
Sadly, he didn’t specify when that being-with-her thing would start, so here he was months later, still trying to catch her eye.
Chapter One (a.k.a. That Fateful Day)
Dean had a shopping list. A very specific shopping list. He was supposed to buy a six-pack of beer, tortilla chips, mayo, sandwich bread, coffee, and a carton of orange juice. The latter was so he could tell his conscience he was consuming something healthy. The rest were essential, to survive the long hours on his computer.
He was on the dairy aisle, when a glare made him squint. A band of sneaky sunbeams had found its way inside the supermarket and bounced off the open refrigerator door, to hit him in the face.
He groaned and averted his gaze. This was why he didn’t do mornings. This and his late-night writing.
His shades hung from the neckline of his T-shirt, and the thought of wearing them indoors was too tempting, but he preferred not to be branded the town diva. He’d had enough to deal with in the month since he moved to Bankford, to write his next best seller—weird looks, whispered theories, and women throwing themselves at him because he was a published author who might whisk them away from the small California town. Dean doubted he could afford to move back to L.A. unless he started coming up with ideas on the new book soon, but the locals didn’t know he spent his savings on the small house—the white-picket-fence variety—and was living off the modest sum he made off his book deal. He was only thirty, and his book made a couple of best-selling lists. The locals assumed he was a success. His lack of what his mother called a real job helped maintain that misunderstanding.
From the corner of his eye, he saw the glare shift direction, then disappear all together. Good. He was about to resume his walk down the aisle, when he saw Her.
Her—with a capital H, because there was no way she was a mere mortal.
Snap out of it, man. He had to cut down on the silly purple prose, even in his own head, if he was to be taken seriously as a writer. Still, the young woman in front of him could easily be a nymph, with her lithe frame, huge blue eyes, and long chestnut hair pulled back in a loose ponytail. And that smile… It shone brighter than the annoying sun.
No, not annoying. He needed another word there. Maddening, maybe.
A woman in her fifties whispered something in the brunette’s ear, and they dissolved into giggles. The lines on the older woman’s face smoothened out, and her eyes twinkled. She looked so much like his nymph, she had to be her mother.
He wished he could be in on that private joke, that moment the two women shared. He felt like a peeping Tom, studying them so intently, but the writer in him ached to know more about her, to have a story to go with the pink tube top, jeans cutoffs, and brilliant white sneakers.
She laughed again, the sound clear and sparkling and infectious—the song of the Sirens. Dean was entranced by how her mirth radiated off her entire body. Her slender shoulders shook. Her eyes glowed. Her ponytail bounced…
She was across the store, when he realized she was heading toward the express lane. His heart constricted; once she’d left, he had no way of finding her again. He needed to move.
Forgetting all about his grocery list, he hurried after her. It wasn’t easy, with other shoppers set on presenting obstacles to his course. At one point, he had to avoid running over a toddler, while simultaneously sidestepping a cart aimed at his right thigh.
By the time he reached the cash register, she was done bagging her shopping.
The cashier—Betty, her nametag read—gave him a bored look. “Gotta go ’round, ’less you’re buying something,” she said, chewing her gum. She smelled of spearmint.
He looked around in a panic. His nymph was out the door.
An elderly lady in a baggy T-shirt and entirely too-tight pink skirt came up behind him. Dean glanced at the basket that hung from the crook of her elbow. Not really thinking of what he was doing, he grabbed the first thing he saw in it—a banana.
The lady glared and started objecting, but he gave her what he hoped was his most disarming smile. “Do you mind? I need it, to get the love of my life.” He pointed to the exit. “Please?”
The lady shook her head, but she was grinning. “If it’s for love, go ahead.”
Betty rang up the banana, and he handed her a dollar, grabbed his fruit, and ran for the sliding doors, ignoring his receipt and change.
He burst out of the busy store, and suddenly he didn’t hate the sun any more. He couldn’t hate it, the way it hugged her from behind, making her skin glow and streaking her hair with bronze highlights that framed the soft lines of her face. She looked angelic. Dean had been desperate and more than a little dramatic when he called her the love of his life, but if her inside matched her outside, she could be more than that.
He was a dumbass. His muse stood feet away, arms laden with shopping bags, and the woman he’d labeled her mother wasn’t in sight. This exquisite creature was there alone, and instead of talking to her, Dean ogled her like an old perv—and how was that for avoiding purple prose? His editor would love it.
Her fumbling with the bags was his cue.
He had to say something witty—had to make her laugh. It was imperative that he make her laugh. His first words to her had to stick with her. He could do it. Words were what he did best.
He approached with a confident smile. She was more beautiful up close, and when she turned her questioning gaze his way, his heart skipped a beat.
He had to deliver the perfect opening line.
“I can help you with those”—he pointed at her shopping bags—“but you’ll have to hold my banana.”
He was mortified, even before she scrunched up her adorable nose.
“Really? You actually said that?” She smirked, and he wanted to die.
“I’m wondering the same thing,” he mumbled. Then, since the earth wouldn’t do him the favor of opening up and swallowing him whole, he turned tail and left, the sound of her laughter ringing in his ears.
Chapter Two (a.k.a. He Didn’t See her All Summer)
Dean had gone from spending his days cooped up in front of his computer to trying every single café, and on occasion visiting the grocery store the goddess had graced with her presence. He wasn’t looking for her, he told himself, but he should have run into her on one of his million strolls. Yet she seemed to have vanished. Was she an out-of-towner?
He sipped his cappuccino, pretending not to hear the guy at the next booth scoffing about pretentious city boys, and then picked up the menu. Like he didn’t know it by heart.
Other than offering the best apple pie in the known world, Sweetapple Café faced the town square, which usually buzzed with activity—as much as this place could buzz with anything. Dean wasn’t into people-watching as a rule, but he couldn’t focus on his writing, and where there were people, there was inspiration.
Or effervescent nymphs with long legs, huge blue eyes, and hair that shone in the sun.
An ancient Volkswagen Beetle rattled and spluttered in front of the bay window, mocking his horrible, repetitive description of his dream woman.
A horn sounded, and Next-Booth Guy jumped up. “Dude, Charlie is back.”
Dean didn’t see who dude was, but a different male voice hollered, “Charlie.”
Dean allowed himself a grimace at the noise Charlie, Next-Booth Guy, and Dude made. He returned his gaze to the menu, wondering if he should go for the burger instead of trying his luck with a frozen dinner at home, when he caught a swirl of brown tresses from the corner of his eye. He snapped his head toward the window again, to see her waving at the loud guys next to him, who all but scratched the glass window, gesturing back.
She was Charlie.
Maybe Charlene would fit her better? Charlize? No. Charlie sounded perfect, and he was a pretentious city boy. Whether by chance or because some deity took pity on him—or got tired of his moping around—he’d crossed paths with his muse again, and he was debating whether her name was good enough.
Why was he still in his seat?
He tossed his menu on the table. He would run outside and say something spectacular to Charlie, to erase what he said last time.
A sizable bosom got in the way as he stood, and he all but face-plummeted into it. Doreen read the nametag by the deep cleavage, and the kind, perma-smiling face above it belonged to the waitress who’d been taking his order for weeks.
“Everything okay, hon?” she asked. “You look flummoxed.”
Flummoxed. As good a word as any, to describe what he felt. “I… Yes. Fine. I’ll be right back. I just need—”
Vroom. Rattle. Zoom. The Beetle peeled off the sidewalk as fast as its creaky frame allowed, and Dean’s heart ripped its way out of his chest, to hurry after it.
“I thought I saw someone I knew,” he mumbled. His legs gave way, and he sat down again.
“Who? Charlie?” Doreen asked.
Dean realized the untapped potential in front of him. “I thought it was my old neighbor… Louise?” He hadn’t met a single Louise in his life. “But you say her name is Charlie? You sure?”
Doreen nodded. “I’ve known Charlie since she was born. She’s all grown up now—teaching fourth grade. You wouldn’t have seen her before, though.”
“No?” Dean clasped his cup with both hands, to keep from fidgeting. If he had a tail, he’d wag it.
“Nah. She left for Europe right after you moved here. She must be back for good now; school year is about to start. She lives—what?—six blocks from your place.”
No need to ask how Doreen knew where he lived; there was no privacy in Bankford. He mulled over her words. Six blocks. Six blocks separated him from his destiny. It was a manageable distance. He didn’t ask which way; he could cover a six-block radius. If he left now, he could catch up with her.
Doreen hovered, studying him with those too-knowledgeable eyes of hers. Did he have a sign over his head with I LOVE CHARLIE?
He didn’t love Charlie. He didn’t know Charlie, and in his thirty years he’d learned not to fall in love with appearances. But her smile tugged at his heart. Something about her playful warm gaze said he could love her. He might have written a future for the two of them in his head, but that was what writers did—they made up stories.
His phone buzzed, saving him from Doreen’s scrutiny. Gabe. Shit. Dean had promised him a progress report. And some actual progress. A month ago.
He’d cut two scenes since. Added none.
“Hey, man. Can’t really talk righ—”
“You’re busy writing, huh?”
Dean pretended not to hear the sarcasm dripping from Gabe’s words. “Yeah. You know how it is.”
“Weird. I don’t see a laptop on your table.”
The lined died, and Dean looked up bewildered, to see his friend and agent glaring at him.
Gabe looked scruffy as he always did outside the office. Hard to believe the guy with the worn out T-shirt and baggy pants could sell a book like nobody’s business. He ran his fingers through shaggy blond hair. “There were no chapters in my inbox. Again.” His voice was even, and he smiled, but his green eyes blazed.
Dean pushed out a chair with the toe of his shoe. “My internet was down. I’ll send them to you tonight.” If he managed to write six chapters during the day. Fuck. He was screwed.
Gabe took the proffered seat and slipped a wide strap down his shoulder. It was attached to a duffel bag.
“What have you got there?” Dean asked.
“Clothes. Underwear. Socks. Shoes. Figured it’d take me a couple weeks to snap you out of this funk.”
No way. “You’re not staying.”
“Like hell, I’m not. Something’s on your mind, other than the next Blaze Inferno novel, and I’m here to take care of it. If you don’t get back on top of things, those checks that pay for your cozy new place will stop coming in, and then—”
“Can I get you something, hon?” Doreen leaned one hip against the table and took in Gabe from head to toe.
“You sure can.” He gave her his patented dazzling smile, baby blues sparkling and chin dimple at full force. This was the smile that got him publishing contracts and convinced writers they could make it in the industry. “Is your apple pie as delicious as it looks?”
“Better,” said Dean, glad for the change of subject.
“I’ll have a large slice with ice cream and a cup of coffee. Black.”
“You got it.” Instead of leaving, she indicated Gabe’s bag with a tilt of the head. “You in town for a while?”
She was nosy, but Gabe didn’t seem to mind. His smile widened. “I am, indeed.”
“Well, if you’re interested, my sister owns the Bed and Breakfast by the bay.” She lowered her voice and added, “You must be about my niece’s age.”
Dean chuckled. Gabe wasn’t here ten minutes, and the matchmaking was on.
Gabe sank lower in his seat and stretched his legs. “Thank you for the kind offer, ma’am, but I’m staying with my boy here. Need to keep a close eye on him.”
Doreen glanced from one to the other and winked. “Whatever floats your boat, hon.”
Gabe cracked up, but Dean was mortified. Doreen knew Charlie. What if Dean and Charlie one day became an item and Doreen decided to tell her he was into guys? What if she mentioned it before Dean had a chance to approach her? “We’re not—” He sputtered. “He’s my agent. We’re just friends. Nothing’s—”
Doreen cupped his shoulder. “No need to explain yourself. I don’t judge.”
Panic lodged the words in Dean’s throat, until he noticed Gabe giving her a thumbs-up. “You’re messing with me,” Dean said.
Doreen pinched his cheek. “I’ll be right back with that pie and coffee.”
“You could do worse than me,” Gabe told Dean when she was gone.
Dean chuckled. “No doubt.”
“So why aren’t you writing?”
And boom went Dean’s mood. He could lie to Gabe over the phone, but not while looking him in the eye. “There’s a girl.”
“When isn’t there?”
Yesterday and the day before that, and the past three months or so. Except in his head. She was always there, though he pretended otherwise. “This is different.”
Gabe shrugged. “No two women are the same. It’s why I love all of them.” And slept with as many as he could. “You dating her? The honeymoon phase is fun, but you need to get your head on straight and finish the book, man.”
“Not dating. Best case scenario, she’s forgotten I exist.” Dean shared his humiliating banana-related story and how he found out who she was.
Gabe let out a cough that sounded suspiciously like a startled laugh. “I can see why you’d like her to forget you. Know what would work wonders for that? Locking yourself in your house and writing like a maniac.”
Dean sat back and drummed his fingers on the table. “I know I should, but I can’t get her out of my mind. I’ve tried.”
“Then talk to her. Go find her, give her your usual moves, and get your writing mojo back.”
His usual moves…
Dean had game, once upon a time. Not the kind that came with being a best-selling author from L.A. in a small town, but real, actual game. He knew how to get women. Gabe said it was the writer thing, but Dean never lacked female company before he was published, either. He liked to say it was because he knew how to talk and listen, but it might have something to do with good genes that gifted him with a lean, hard body, chiseled jaw, and his grandfather’s dark-green eyes.
“I think my usual moves are dead. And buried. Probably rotting somewhere.”
“You do know how to paint a picture; it’s why you get the big bucks. But come on. Can’t be that hard to say, Hi. I like you. Have coffee with me?”
“You’d think that, but I opened with an offer for her to hold my banana.”
Gabe didn’t contain his laughter this time. “At least you were honest about what you’re looking for in a relationship.”
“Jackass.” But it felt good, being with someone who knew him so well. “Maybe it’ll be fun having you around.”
“It will be. And I won’t overstay my welcome. Promise.”