In this fast and funny contemporary romance, one woman must decide between two men who both want her for keeps . . .
When Willow Cayton runs into her old crush from school, Luke, she’s a grown woman with a new look—not to mention a good amount of cash from a rather substantial inheritance. Could she be lucky enough to score a fortune and her dream hunk at the same time?
Then she meets Cal—a computer geek with a quirky sense of humor—and they immediately strike up a friendship that may be destined for something more. But Willow suspects that there is far more to the unassuming man than meets the eye.
Soon, she’ll find herself struggling over which man is the one she wants—and which man is the one she really needs . . .
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'My grandfather's left me his nose. It's in a matchbox.'
The whole bar went quiet (except for Jazz who only goes quiet under the influence of veterinary-strength drugs) as my friends appreciated the embarrassment of my legacy.
'I'd forgotten it was the day they read the will. Wondered where you were.' Jazz came over to our table with the drinks, walking carefully in his huge platform boots. His current look was Goth, but the out-of-control hair and enormous shoes made him resemble a member of a heavy metal band training to be a funeral director. 'I mean, I thought our Friday nights were sacred. In a purely non-religious way, obviously.' He plonked the tray down, swirled himself onto a stool and the three of us drank in silence for a moment or two.
'Okay, well, look at it like this.' Katie, best friend and absolutely the person you want to have with you in any crisis, including the unexpected bequest of body parts, eventually patted my arm. 'You're no worse off, are you? In fact,' she screwed up her face, attempting to put a positive spin on my bequest, 'wasn't it always what he called his "lucky nose"?'
She didn't understand. I'd adored my grandfather. I'd even worked with him on some of his more outrageous inventions and stood on more wooden platforms holding electrical wires than anyone not called Igor. I had stitched, stapled, glued and on one memorable occasion even welded parts of myself into some of his contraptions in the interests of scientific advancement – and I got a nose in a matchbox? Admittedly he'd not been a rich man, but he'd promised ...
'No,' I said sadly to Katie, whose benevolent expression was beginning to get on my nerves. 'I'm no worse off.'
'Might bring you luck, you never know,' Jazz said thoughtfully to his pint. And then, appearing to think more deeply about the matter, which might have been an illusion because Jazz and Deep Thinking went together like Labradors and dinner parties, 'it is, like, preserved, yeah? It's not all green and runny, is it? 'Cos I'm not sure you'd want the sorta luck that came from something green and runny. Though I suppose it could be, like, you'd never get a cold again. That sort of luck.'
'Shut up, Jazz.' Katie and I spoke as one. We spent so long telling Jazz to shut up that it was an automatic response.
'Of course it's preserved,' I added, defensively. Obviously I was taken aback, but I didn't want my late grandfather to come over as completely demented. 'He had it embalmed after it got cut off in that bandsaw accident.'
'I'd hate to see his unlucky nose then.'
'Jazz, you've really got to cultivate that little thing we talked about called tact,' Katie said. 'It's no wonder you only manage to keep girlfriends for three days. Anyway, Will? Willow?'
But I was suffering from what will be, if they ever make the film of my life, an extremely expensive special effect – the whole bar had receded into darkness, and a tunnel of light was all I could see. A tunnel which began at the newly opened door to the Grape and Sprout, and ended at my feet. It was like a near-death experience, with vodka. I was aware Katie was talking, but her voice had gone far, far away. They may need to use CGI to properly replicate the whole thing.
'Willow?' Now Katie was shaking my arm. 'Are you okay? You've gone all pale.'
'Delayed shock,' Jazz confidently diagnosed. 'She needs another drink. Oh, and while you're up, Kate, I'll have another pint.'
'It's him,' I said, indistinctly because my tongue got in the way.
Now, before I explain about 'him', there are a few things you should know about me, in case you're ever the casting director when they do my life film. I'm thirty-two, never been married, never had any particularly long-lasting relationships, lived in York all my life, youngest of five kids of hippy parents (hence the name, I got off lightly, you wait until you meet my brothers and sister) and I have this ... problem. Cameron Diaz could probably play me if she's prepared to put on four stone, mostly on her bottom. She's a bit older than me, but I was once told I looked a bit like her, although the person that said it subsequently turned out to need a cataract operation so – yeah, maybe scrub that suggestion. All right. Back to him.
'Him?' Thanks, Jazz. Always ready with the unnecessary link.
'Over there. Just come in. With the two guys in suits. Don't turn round.'
Both Katie and Jazz swivelled, although at least Katie did it subtly. Jazz got his long leather coat caught in the rotating mechanism of his stool and fell over.
'Okayyyyy,' Katie said slowly. 'But you have to help us on this one, Will. Who exactly is he?'
'You're looking at the guy in the middle, yes? The one with the cheekbones and the stubble? The one with the violet eyes?'
'You can tell all that from back here? Bloody hell, Will, yeah. That's the one we're looking at.'
'His name is Luke. We ... I ... we were at uni together. Surely you remember him, Katie?'
'He does look a bit familiar.' Katie screwed up her face again. She and I met at university, where she also met her husband, Dan, and thus never went back to her native Ireland, which was, apparently, not in need of any more English graduates, unless they were also good with cows. She was, therefore, more like an honorary sister than a friend, and when you meet my sister you'll see why. Lovely woman, Bree, but all the emotional warmth of a packet of fishfingers, and sometimes you just need ice cream and a hug, not a chat about 'where you went wrong'.
I gave a small cough and Jazz and Katie looked at me. They raised eyebrows at each other, exchanged one more look then picked me up bodily, hands under my armpits. Then they dragged me, feet flailing against the floor like Scooby-Doo in cartoon retreat, and dropped me outside the Sprout in time for me to be heartily sick down the nearest drain.
'Close one, that time.' Jazz mopped his face theatrically and rearranged his hair over the collar of his coat. 'You're really gonna have to get help y'know, Will.'
'It wears off,' I muttered indistinctly from around the large handkerchief I was wiping my mouth with. 'It's only the first few times.'
And there you have it. The essence of my little problem. Whenever I see a man I find halfway attractive, I start throwing up. Can't help it. It's happened ever since my teens. My doctor says it's stress-related. Oddly enough, it never happens at work – although that might be because Katie and I work in a department of the local paper where the only men are moribund and/or pensionable. But it means that, of necessity, all my friends are women. If you don't count Jazz and I've known him since primary school so I'm immune. Even though people tell me he's good looking, I can't see past the buck-toothed, toad-loving ten-year-old.
Another one of the unpleasant things about my problem is that it can give rise to misunderstandings. Following a visit to a pantomime and a case of food poisoning, I had to spend six weeks convincing Jazz and Katie that I fancied neither of the Chuckle Brothers. I'm sure I don't have to tell you how embarrassing that was.
'Can we go back in now? It's freezing out here.'
'Are you sure?' Katie raised an eyebrow. 'I mean, it's been a rough time for you, Will, with the funeral yesterday and all this today. Wouldn't you rather go home?'
What, and miss the chance of ogling Luke on an empty stomach? 'I'm fine. Honestly.'
We tried to re-enter nonchalantly, pretending we'd only popped out for a breath of air. 'Okay then, Willow. Spill the beans,' Jazz said, then slammed a hand over his mouth. 'Sorry. I meant, fill us in. Details about this Luke, please, and I mean details.' He waggled his eyebrows in a way suggestive of ... well, actually just suggestive. Sometimes Jazz is such a girl. That's why we like him.
'There's really not much to say. He did some kind of science degree. I used to see him now and again hanging round the Union bar. He had a job in town, in a record shop, went out with most of the girls in our year.'
'Uh-huh. So you never went out with him?'
'But you wished you had?' Sometimes, for all his comical affectations, Jazz can be quite perceptive. I was only now realising that misery had no statute of limitations on it.
'Willow.' Katie frowned at me. 'Is this the guy you had that enormous crush on? The one who played in that band that you made me go and see about fifty times? Used to be so skinny he made Johnny Depp look fat? That guy?'
Yes, Kate, I wanted to say. That guy. The man I lost sleep over, the man who haunted my dreams, who slid his hand down my thigh in my hottest fantasies. 'Could be,' was what I, in fact, said, mitigating wildly. 'Looks a bit like him.'
'Luke Fry.' Katie glanced over again and clicked her fingers. 'That's his name. He asked me out once, you know.'
What! 'You never told me that.'
'Well, I knew how much you fancied him.' The rest of the sentence went unsaid, but if it had been pronounced, it would have contained words such as 'never even noticed you were alive'.
'Did you go?' Despite the churning of my stomach, I let my gaze roam over and rest on the back view of Luke Fry. He was still slim, though the scraggy body had filled out to be merely slender and, in contrast to his friends, he wore stonewashed jeans and a dark blue shirt. Flanked by the two suits, he looked like a rock star being minded by accountants.
'Ha. Did I, hell.' Katie turned a thoughtful gaze my way. 'Too bloody cocky for my liking. Anyway, I had Dan.' And that is just one of the reasons why Katie is my best friend. Oh, not for calling Luke 'cocky', but for turning him down. She'd always had her pick of men at uni, whilst I'd been more – ah, limited in my choices due to the whole vomit thing. Knowing that she hadn't just upped and gone out with the man I would have sold my entire family for one night with made me love her all the more.
'And you still do.' Jazz tapped his watch. 'But only for another twenty seconds if you don't get home in a hurry. You told him you'd be back by five, remember?'
'Oh, shit.' With much scrabbling around under the table for coat, bag and phone, Katie prepared to leave. 'I thought having him as a stay-at-home dad was going to be the end of my problems with childcare, not the beginning of a whole new world of guilt. I'll call tonight, Wills, yes? Just to make sure you're okay. Provided the twins go to bed all right. For some reason, a Friday with their father is usually enough to wind them up beyond all human understanding. If not, you'll be in tomorrow, all day?'
'Course. Love to Dan and the boys.' But my eyes had swivelled of their own accord to the impeccably tailored back of Luke Fry. God, how I had wanted that man. You'd think, wouldn't you, that the intervening ten years should have wiped out at least some of that longing, the sheer emptiness I'd felt at the end of every day when he had once more failed to acknowledge so much as the space that I occupied. But, here I was, old enough to know better and still, God help me, still wishing he'd turn around, catch my eye and smile that particular smile.
'You okay, Will?' Jazz patted my arm. Owing to the enormous weight of silver rings he was wearing, it was like being caressed by a carthorse in full harness.
'Fine, Jazz. Look,' my voice was shaking slightly, 'I'd better be off home, too. I suspect a family conference is going to be thrown, now we've all found out what Granddad left us, so ...' I kept my eyes stapled to his face. Why should I look at Luke Fry? Why should I even want to?
Jazz stared at me. Although he'd dyed his hair black to go with the whole undead thing, his eyebrows were still distressingly pale, giving him the appearance of an unfinished painting. 'Sure you're all right? You've not done the up-chucking thing for a while now.'
'I know. It got me a bit by surprise, but I'll be okay.' I pulled my jacket on and backed towards the door, my face pink with the effort of not glancing over at the bar. 'Better get back, you know what my family is like, they'll be imagining me mugged and in a ditch by now.'
'Who'd mug you for a nose?' Jazz lifted his drink again.
'I don't know, Tycho Brahe?' Then, because he was doing the 'blank face' of a man whose hobbies only include reading if the words are printed on the back of a beer bottle, I said, 'Look it up. Anyway, if you're at a loose end tomorrow, pop over. I'm not doing anything, as usual.' I finished speaking, spun round to open the door and collided hard with another body.
There was a sudden smell of expensive cologne, an impression of firmness and the scratch of linen against my face. Then my mortification was completed by a hand under my elbow helping me upright until I could stare into the face of —
'I'm terribly sorry, wasn't looking. Hold on a moment. Don't I know you? Your face is really familiar. Give me a minute. It's Willow. Willow Cayton, isn't it? Good God, that's incredible. Do you remember me? Fry. Luke Fry? We were at university together?'
With deep breathing and an empty stomach, I could just about keep things down and under control, but I hoped he couldn't see the desperate clenching that was necessary. 'Oh. Ah. Hello.'
'Good grief, after all these years. You look wonderful, Willow. Absolutely ...' and he left a pause, during which he looked me up and down quickly enough not to cause offence, but slowly enough to gratify my ego '... fantastic.'
'I ... er.' Now I was sure I had most of my bodily functions suppressed, I allowed myself to stare upwards and into his face. Oh. Oh, wow. I could feel my pupils dilating. I really needed Jazz to rush up, slap me and carry me away to the Land of the Sane. But the best I could hope for was that he'd stump up in his ridiculous shoes and want to be introduced. Jazz was barely ever within hailing distance of the World of Sanity. 'Yes. I think I remember you.' I dropped a shoulder in a shrug of assumed insouciance. 'You were in a band.'
'Fresh Fingers. Jeez, yeah, fancy you remembering that.'
Oh boy. He still looked, a few years notwithstanding, exactly the same. His eyes really were clear violet. He still had cheekbones like a hungry vampire and his hair was the slightly long, slightly curly blueprint of perfection it always had been. Shit. This man had been my mental benchmark for boyfriends for ten years and this was the first time he'd acknowledged my existence. In fact, this was the closest I'd ever stood to him, if you don't count the time I managed to press myself up against him in a crush at the Student Union bar. That makes me sound really stalkerish, doesn't it? I wasn't, honestly. Just a bit ... well, obsessed, probably.
'Well. What a coincidence, bumping into you like this. It's my first time back in York for, what, about eight months, and the first thing that happens is I meet up with someone I haven't seen for ten years. Amazing.' His gaze floated up towards my face again, then glanced behind me. 'Look, sorry, mustn't keep you. Your boyfriend is looking daggers at me and you're obviously in a hurry.' He waved a casual hand (gorgeous, long musician's fingers, no wedding ring, we are talking Jude Law at least casting-wise) at my jacket slung over my shoulder and half-turned away.
'He ... it ... that's Jazz. Not my. Er, he's not.' I scrambled around in my brain for a coherent sentence. 'It was nice to. Too. To see you again. Too.'
'Hey, then, perhaps we could catch up sometime? I'd really like to find out what the old crowd's been getting up to.'
'The old ... oh, yes, right. I, I live in York so ...' The 'old crowd'? Either he'd forgotten that the old crowd had packed themselves so tightly around him that I'd metaphorically been stuck in the turnstiles, or he was mistaking me for someone else.
'You stayed in York? Cool. Here, give me your number.' He brought out his phone and I berated myself a little bit for noticing it was the brand new model. I wondered what he did these days, the trendy clothes and up-to-the-minute phone seemed to indicate that he was massively successful at it, whatever it was. I tried to hide my own phone's 'two generations old' casing in my shaking hands as I got it out to check my number – I was so rarely asked for it that I didn't know it off by heart. 'Great. Thanks. I'll call soon, yeah?'
I could hardly breathe as I fell through the door he held open for me, and my treacherous stomach felt squeezed and heavy like a rubber knapsack full of leaking batteries. Slowly, carefully, I walked home, ignoring the bile which chattered away at the back of my teeth.
Excerpted from "Can't Buy Me Love"
Copyright © 2017 Jane Lovering.
Excerpted by permission of Choc Lit Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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