by Melissa West
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Pub Date: 5/30/17
There aren’t many things Charlie Littleton values more than his lifelong friendship with his buddy Lucas, currently home from a tour in Iraq. But when he discovers that Lucas’s younger sister, Lila, is back to assist the town’s overburdened veterinarian, Charlie is torn. She’s no longer the skinny, awkward kid he remembers, but a gorgeous woman—one Lucas would never approve of him dating. When Lucas asks him to watch out for Lila when he’s called to duty again, Charlie can’t say no—but he can’t pretend it’s easy to ignore his feelings either.
As a teen, Lila crushed on Charlie—hard—and the man he’s grown up to be is even more wonderful than she dreamed. Relationships are a tricky business, though, and too much history is at stake to risk one now. But every moment they’re together is heated by their simmering attraction—and one day an impulsive kiss leads to much more. What’s tangled in a matter of loyalty soon becomes a question of the kind of love worth chasing…
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Patty a look. “You know he doesn’t bark.”The bakery owner placed a hand on her hip and cocked it for ef- fect. Like always, she wore an apron with the AJ&P Bakery yellow- and-blue logo on it, though you could scarcely see it through the flour and spices smeared across the apron.
“Right,” Patty said now. “A dog that don’t bark. Is that sort of like a man who don’t eat? Because as far as I’m concerned that’s a fic- tional being. Like the dog. But if you do find a man who will share his sandwich, you be sure to point him in my direction, okay? But seeing as how that man don’t exist, kind of like that nonbarking dog don’t exist, I don’t expect you to be introducing me to him anytime soon.” She winked at him and clucked her tongue. “Now, you take that cute bottom of yours out of here, leave the dog in your truck, then come back and I’ll make you a roast beef with extra au jus.”
Charlie peered around the bakery, the smells of fresh baked bread and toasted hot sandwiches hitting his nose. His stomach grumbled. Of course, the small bakery and sandwich shop was packed today, half the town there to witness Charlie getting put in his place. A part of him wanted to remind Patty that his family’s farm supplied most of her produce and could just as easily refuse to deliver, but he’d learned long ago to retreat slowly and carefully when dealing with the bakery owner.
“Fine, but I’m holding you to that extra au jus.”
Patty flashed him a grin. “It’ll be waiting for you, honey.” Then she waved her hand through the air in a sign that he better get mov- ing, and then she went to greet someone else. Someone without a dog.
Resigned, Charlie pushed out of the glass door and eyed his old Husky. “Sorry, boy. I’ll bring you some leftovers, though.” He un- locked his Silverado, cranked the truck, and rolled down the win- dows. It was a mild sixty out in Crestler’s Key, Kentucky, a perfect early spring day, but Henry meant more to him than most of the peo- ple in the town, and if he was going to be forced to stay in Charlie’s truck, then he’d do it with a nice breeze.
With a long glance down Main Street at the row of shops— Southern Dive, his family’s sports and outdoors shop at the very end—Charlie couldn’t help wondering if he was making the right de- cisions in his life.
He’d moved back to Crestler’s Key after living in the Florida Keys for five years. There, he’d operated a small scuba diving busi- ness, his life as much under water as above it. And he loved every moment of it. Then there were the women, too many to count, al- ways around, always eager to occupy a little bit of his time. He’d been content with that life, never asking for more and never wanting it. He was a typical twenty-something and enjoyed every bit of his young age.
Then he met Jade, and hell if he didn’t fall hook, line, and sinker. Still to this day, years later, he remembered with painful clarity her walking down the dock at the marina and stopping outside his houseboat, long sun-bleached blond hair and even longer legs. She was beautiful in that natural, God-made way—his kryptonite, when
it came to women, so all it took was one look and he was gone.
It took mere days, maybe even hours, for her to rope him into her world. She had innocence behind that beauty that he couldn’t refuse, and weeks passed with them tangled in each other’s arms, a new kind of happiness swirling in Charlie’s chest. She would never fill the spot someone else had once filled, someone he was never allowed to care for, someone he told himself he could—would—forget, but Jade made him feel good. They meshed together perfectly, peanut butter and freaking jelly.
Until that fateful day when he woke to discover she’d taken every- thing he owned. His dog. His wallet, which she used to drain his checking account. His prized possessions. Even the coin collection his grandfather had left him. Every. Single. Thing. Hell, if he hadn’t been on the houseboat, he felt sure she’d have sailed off with it, too.
And while, yeah, the money thing sucked, and the coin collection sucked even more, what really dropped him into the depression bucket was losing his old dog, Rocky.
He’d rescued Rocky as a puppy from the pound, more mutt than anything, and with a broken left leg. Thousands of dollars in vet bills later, and that dog was his only friend down there. And his idiotic self had let some vixen walk in and steal him.
The thought brought on a fresh wave of guilt, and he contem- plated going to talk to Patty again, convince her that they could sit out on the back patio, but then he’d been through this argument with her before. Besides, this was Crestler’s Key, not Florida, and he knew everyone in town. No one would take his dog.
Still, just to be safe, he hit the locks on his truck twice, before heading back into AJ&P, determined to rehash this with Patty before he left if she hoped to continue to get discounted produce from the farm.
“There you are, cute bottom.”
Grimacing, Charlie pivoted to find his best friend, Lucas, already seated at one of the white-washed wooden tables, a giant smirk on his face. “Funny,” Charlie said. “You know, I was excited to see you and then you had to go and open that big mouth.” The men laughed, then hugged, because it’d been too damn long.
They took their seats and Lucas joked, “Thought you were going to cry there when she said you couldn’t bring Henry in here.”
Charlie peeked out the window at his truck before returning his gaze to his friend. “Well, she ought to remember who’s supplying all her produce.”
“So you’re going to hold her produce ransom until she lets you bring in your dog? Dude, you need a chick in your life. Stat.”
Charlie laughed, until he glanced around and noticed several of the women he’d dated off and on eating at the bakery, half of them glaring at him. “Yeah . . . think I’ll pass on that one. Thanks, though.” “What’s the deal with your insane overprotectiveness of Henry
anyway? He’s a giant dog. He can take care of himself.”
Yeah, well, Rocky had been a big dog, too, and that didn’t save him from that thieving witch of a woman. Charlie had searched for the dog for nearly a year, all to no avail. Jade was probably halfway across the world now, with his money and his coin collection and his dog. Damn woman. No, damn women. They were more trouble than they would ever be worth.
Lucas continued to stare at him with a questioning look, but all Charlie could say was the same excuse he always said. Because no one, not Lucas, not his brothers Zac or Brady, no one knew about Jade or what she’d done to him. The humiliation would be too much.
“Henry had a rough childhood. Gotta protect the boy now.” “Right . . .”
MaryAnn, one of AJ&P’s waitresses, came over then to get their order, and Lucas smiled a little too wide at his former high-school flame before clearing his throat and trying for mock-cool. Charlie suppressed a grin. MaryAnn, with her wavy blond hair and deep brown eyes, still looked exactly as she did in high school. And just like in high school, she was still 100 percent in love with Lucas. “Hey, there,” MaryAnn said, matching his smile. “I didn’t know you were home.”
Lucas shrugged. “Three-day leave before going back.”
“When is your tour over?” she asked, her eyes filling with a bit of hope that she probably wished wasn’t there. She and Lucas had mu- tually ended their relationship when she realized he intended to be a career soldier, and having lost her brother in Iraq, she said she couldn’t live that life. It was a mature decision, they had both said, but now ten years later, they both still looked like they regretted it. And come to think of it, Charlie couldn’t remember a single woman Lucas had dated seriously since ending things with MaryAnn.
With another careful glance at his old girlfriend, Lucas relaxed into his chair, the single thing between them now back front and center. “Three months, then I’ll have a few weeks off, before another one.”
MaryAnn nodded slowly, and then flipped her attention over to Charlie for the first time, like she couldn’t bear to look at Lucas an- other second. “Your regular?”
“Yeah, though Patty promised extra au jus if I left Henry in the truck.”
“What’s up with you and that dog?”
Lucas laughed. “Didn’t you know? He’s married to that dog. Pa- pers and all.”
Both MaryAnn and Lucas laughed, until they made eye contact with each other and both went mum. She took their order and saun- tered off, her shoulders drooped a little, and Charlie couldn’t stand it anymore.
“What?” Lucas asked.
Charlie deadpanned. “What? Are you freaking kidding me? The whole town could feel that tension. Why not try?”
Lucas took a drink of his sweet tea, set it down, then did it again, like he wasn’t ready to speak yet. Or maybe he didn’t know what to say. “She made her intentions clear years ago. Her mind’s not changing.”
“She’s older now. Y’all were teenagers then. Maybe she wants you to make the first move.”
“Says the dude who hasn’t been on a real date since . . .” Lucas cocked his head. “Come to think of it, I don’t think you’ve ever been on a real date.”
“Whatever. I date.”
“Sure you do,” Lucas said, relaxing now that the spotlight wasn’t on him. “You sound just like Lila, always deflecting.”
And just like that, just the mention of her name, and Charlie sat up taller, eager to hear anything that might have to do with Lucas’s little sister. “What’s up with Lila these days? Still in vet school?” He thought of Lucas’s only sister, two years younger and forever tag- ging along with the two boys when they were kids. She’d always been pretty in a sweet, natural way, her smile and laugh infectious. Charlie looked after her when Lucas left for basic, but then Charlie moved to the Keys and Lila moved away to college, and he hadn’t seen her since.
“Actually she finished school. Went to work in Charlotte for a while, but she moved back to town a week ago.” He took another drink of his tea, his look distant now, and Charlie got the distinct im- pression that Lucas was keeping something from him.
“Why’d she move back to town?” Charlie asked. He wondered what Lila looked like now, if she’d kept her black hair cropped short like she had when she was little. But then most women changed their hair all the time, so it could be long now—beautiful. She probably had men waiting in lines to get her attention, that bright smile of hers forever turning the eye of everyone she passed. It had certainly caught his eye.
Lucas shrugged. “Work stuff.”
MaryAnn returned then with their food, saving Lucas from ex- plaining, but something was definitely going on. Still, it wasn’t Char- lie’s business, and he was never one to pry.
“She ever marry?” All right, so maybe he was one to pry. “Nah, not her thing.”
Charlie perked up at the thought, his heart light—happy. Wow, Lila wasn’t married. He’d expected her to be--
But before he could finish the thought, Lucas pointed at him. “Don’t even think about it.”
Charlie threw up his hands. “Think about what?” “Lila. And you. You and Lila.”
A sarcastic laugh broke from his lips, despite the uneasiness in his chest. “You go insane again? This is me. She’s like a little sister to me.”
Lucas settled in his chair again, but his face was still tense. “Right . . . just like the last time. My thoughts on this haven’t changed.” Cringing, Charlie thought of that fateful day in high school when he’d asked Lucas about his sister. It was a simple question—Is Lila around? Three words, nothing more. He and Lucas had always been best friends, but somewhere along the way, Charlie started noticing Lila more and more. Curious where she was, how she was doing. But needless to say, the conversation with his friend didn’t go well.
Lucas went ballistic, shouting all the reasons Charlie wasn’t to touch his sister, and their friendship meant enough to him that he didn’t.
“Relax, man. I’m not going after your sister.”
Besides, Lila was the furthest thing from Charlie’s type now. He wasn’t into doctors or the professional type. Lucas had nothing to worry about. Nothing. But still, he couldn’t deny that he was curious what adult Lila looked like and whether she would remember the time they’d almost . . .
No, surely not.
Even if he would never forget.
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