Cricket O'Malley can't wait to plant roots back home in Georgia, where she's returned to restore an abandoned flower shop to its former glory, and become the go-to place for bridal bouquets to set the tone for the perfect wedding day. The only blemish? Her neighbor's house is even more neglected than her old flower shop, and its occupant seems as surly as he is darkly handsome.
Devastated body and soul after a tough case went south, New York City detective Sam DeLuca thought he'd have no trouble finding solitude in the quiet small town of Misty Bottoms, but his precocious neighbor seems determined to spread her perky positivity into Sam's life. Sam is equally determined to close himself off, but his heart says otherwise.
Readers are falling head over heels for the Magnolia Bride series:
"The charming side of small-town living and some creative flower-arrangement tips make this sweet romance a delightful read."Publishers Weekly
"All about small towns, community, and sweet and sexy romance."Booklist
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Sam DeLuca had never run away from a fight. Until now. And look where it had landed him.
Smack-dab in the middle of nowhere.
"This has to be the stupidest idea I've ever had."
He'd forgotten how dark country nights could be. A thin moon scuttled from cloud to cloud and only a rare star twinkled in the inky sky. His Harley's single headlight cut a narrow swath through the darkness.
Not a solitary light shone from the windows of any of the houses he passed. Was every single person in Misty Bottoms, Georgia, asleep?
He checked his GPS. He was close. As he approached an intersection, he slowed, watching for a street sign. And then he spotted it. Frog Pond Road. Thank God.
Eighteen years had passed since he'd last stepped foot in this town, and he'd been all of twelve. Sitting at the crossroads, he couldn't remember if he was supposed to turn right or left. Well, roll the dice and pick one. He could always turn around if his choice proved to be wrong. Traffic sure wasn't a problem.
The clock on his instrument panel read a little after one a.m. He'd expected to get here while it was still daylight. But between his late start and all the holdups due to interstate construction, well, it was what it was.
His already-sour mood took a further dip when he caught sight of his great-aunt Gertie's house. Hell, his house now. Or what remained of it.
Sam pulled up in front of the deserted building and sat on the motorcycle, legs spread, studying it in the nearly nonexistent light. No street lamps. No porch lights. He cursed small towns and rundown houses as the Harley idled smoothly beneath him.
He backed up and turned the motorcycle so that he sat perpendicular to the house, his headlight bathing the tumble-down two-story.
"Nope, not a very well-thought-out plan, bud."
Muttering a curse, he wondered if he shouldn't book a room at some little motel for the night-if he shouldn't pull a U-ey right here and head north, back to the city.
A person would have to be crazy to even consider doing anything with this place. But then he was crazy, wasn't he? Why else would he be here?
Maybe it was karma, and he was meant to move into this dump, which looked as broken-down as he felt. Maybe the two of them could nurse each other back to health or at least some semblance of sanity.
Squinting, he studied the place once more before setting his kickstand and climbing off the Harley. Nah. Who was he kidding? He and the house had both passed the point of no return.
Hands on his hips, he stood at the curb, sizing up the place the way he would a suspect and deciding on his approach.
The weeds and overgrown yard made it nearly impossible to even see the house itself. Tree branches, long overdue for a trimming, scraped against the siding, sending a chill along his spine. Damned if some film producer couldn't walk right in and shoot a horror movie here.
A New York City detective, he'd charged into many a dark alley, faced more than one drawn gun aimed at him by some badass high on meth or cocaine or simply the thrill. Yet the idea of wading through that waist-deep grass in the pitch-black had him sweating. Who knew what hid in those weeds?
From the time he was eight till he'd turned twelve and become obsessed with Little League baseball, he'd spent two weeks every summer here with Great-Aunt Gertrude. That was plenty long enough to learn that snakes lived in this stuff. Gertie had insisted they were more afraid of him than he was of them. Guess he'd have to take her word on that because if it were true, he sure as heck was safe. There wouldn't be any reptiles within twenty miles. They'd all have turned tail and slithered away.
And now here he was back in Misty Bottoms. Gertie was gone, but because of the bond they'd forged, she'd left this place to him when she'd passed two years ago. Some Southern lawyer had mailed him the deed and a key. At the time, Sam had sworn he'd never step foot in the house again. He'd had every intention of putting it up for sale.
But he hadn't, and now he needed a hidey-hole, a place to take stock of his life, to heal physically and emotionally. This place had seemed as good as any other. Until he'd seen it again, anyway.
Still, why was he hesitating? For Pete's sake, it couldn't be worse than those dark alleys of New York, could it? But then, hadn't one of those alleys betrayed him? Hadn't he ended up facedown on the rough pavement in a pool of his own blood, the stench of garbage permeating the air?
Not for the first time, the idea that the department had missed someone, that one of Nikolai Federoff's men was still out there set on revenge, wrapped him in a stranglehold. Fighting off the bleak memories, he shoved the paranoia into his back pocket and waded in.
Halfway to the house, an owl hooted, and he automatically reached for his shoulder-holstered gun, the gun that wasn't there anymore. His rueful laugh sounded loud in the once-again silent night.
Sam unlocked the door and winced as it creaked open. When he flipped the light switch, nothing happened. Mentally, he kicked himself. Of course he had no electricity or air-conditioning. Other than the taxes and insurance, he hadn't paid any bills or contacted anyone. After all this time, the electric company was bound to have shut off service. He wouldn't have water, either, and that was something he should have factored in, but because he'd been in such a hurry to get away, he hadn't.
Some insurance agent had sure been ripping him off because there was no way this place was worth the stated valuation. But he'd worry about that later, in the light of day.
A spider's web brushed his cheek, and he swiped at it. The flashlight on his cell played over the wallpaper in the hallway and up the stairs. Years of sitting empty hadn't been kind to the house. A neighbor had closed it up after Gertie passed. Sam himself had been undercover and hadn't made it back, then or since.
His nose wrinkling at the musty smell, he pried open the two living room windows. "Got to get some air in here," he mumbled. "Some circulation. Tomorrow I'll see about having the place fumigated."
Neither window had been locked despite the house having been closed up for so long, yet no one seemed to have been inside. No graffiti. No garbage. No used needles or beer cans and no whiskey bottles. Small town Misty Bottoms, so very different than the city he was used to.
Thankfully, both windows had screens that seemed to be intact. Hopefully they'd keep out whatever insects hadn't already made their way into the house. A moth had come through the door with him and fluttered around the edge of his phone. He swatted at it, and it darted away.
As his flashlight's beam swept the room, he swore again. Coming here had been as bad an idea as booking passage on the Titanic. He'd pretty much run out of options, though. After he grabbed some much-needed shut-eye, he'd see about making the place habitable. Right now, four- and six-legged varmints were about the only things that could have been comfortable in this house.
Sam waded back out to his bike, relieved to breathe clean, fresh air. He opened one of his saddlebags and removed a bottle of water, then grabbed the package that held his brand-new sleeping bag. In the other pouch, beneath his all-weather gear, he dug out a change of clothes. He'd crash on the living room floor tonight. Even Bill Gates couldn't pay him enough to venture up to the second story in the dark.
Back inside, he guzzled the water and wondered vaguely about the house's plumbing. Que será, será. With a shrug, he stripped off his jeans and shirt and slid into the bag.
Hot, road-dirty, and bone-tired, he hoped to sleep long and hard. His imagination, however, had different ideas. The thought of what might be keeping him company had him on full alert. When he did finally drop off, it was a light, uneasy sleep.
* * *
Bang, bang, bang!
What the hell? Sam sat bolt upright and glared at the weak stream of sunlight that stole around the edges of tattered drapes.
Rubbing sleep from his eyes, he tried to remember where he was. Aunt Gertie's. His gaze traveled over the room, which looked even worse than it had in the dark.
But none of Federoff's goons would announce themselves, so he cursed, flopped back down, and tugged the sleeping bag over his head.
The banging started up again.
Somebody'd better be in the middle of a life-or-death crisis. Throwing the bag open, he sat up again. Who in the hell would come barging in on a total stranger at practically daybreak? He glanced at his watch. Nine o'clock. Okay, slightly past daybreak. It didn't matter.
He'd ridden hard yesterday and God only knew when he'd finally actually fallen asleep. Hauling on his jeans, his fly half-zipped, he staggered shirtless to the door, where the banging continued.
When he threw it open, a furious woman stood there in baggy clothes, her short, choppy blond hair framing a pixie face. She yanked a slim phone from the pocket of her oversized, olive-drab cotton pants. "I'm callin' the sheriff. You're trespassing."
Raking fingers through his hair, he closed his eyes and counted to ten. God save him from do-gooder neighbors.
"Good idea. See if he delivers coffee."
"What?" Storm-colored eyes widened.
He made to shut the door, but she crammed a sneakered foot in it.
"Oh no, you don't. Who are you?"
"The big bad wolf," he growled. "And I eat little girls like you for breakfast. Go on home to your mother."
She sputtered. "My mother? For your information, I-"
"I don't want any information. I want sleep. Move your foot."
"No, I won't. Who are you?"
"I already answered that question."
She simply raised a brow, and her foot stayed in his door.
Sam squinted. The bright morning sun behind this infuriating stranger hurt his road-weary eyes. Her hair looked like she'd stuck her head in a blender. Kind of. Snipped short at the top and in front, it hung just past her jaw on the sides. He'd never seen anything like it. Yet, now that he looked closer, that blond, blond hair with its darker roots framed one heck of a face. And those winter-storm eyes? Whew!
She smelled like fresh rain and sunshine. And wildflowers.
He didn't care. It didn't matter what she smelled like or what her face looked like as long as she removed it from his sight.
When he attempted to close the door again, she wedged her body against the doorjamb.
"What is wrong with you? You're not welcome. Go away."
"Who are you?"
On an exasperated sigh, he gave in. "Sam. Your name?"
"Like the bug?"
She ignored that. "What are you doin' here?"
"I own the place."
"You do not. Ms. Gertie owns it."
A sense of sadness and loss pinched at his heart, and his voice softened. "Gertie died."
"I know." She raised the hand that still held her phone and hit a number.
The woman had absolutely no street smarts. Sam stood close enough that he could have plucked the phone from her hand if he'd wanted to, then dragged her inside and had his way with her. Was her naïveté the product of rural America rather than the worldliness of the cosmopolitan he usually dealt with, or was it only her? Could things really be that different here?
He heard a male voice answer and strained to catch his words.
"Hey, Cuz, did Ms. Gertie leave her house to some guy-"
"Her great-nephew," Sam snarled.
"Some guy named Sam." Her eyes traveled over him. "Dark, kind of surly. Claims he's her great-nephew."
"Yep." The answer, short and clipped, carried to Sam.
"Okay, thanks." Without so much as a good-bye, she ended the call and studied him again. "Your eyes are bloodshot. Have you been drinkin'?"
"Any law against that?"
"No, I guess not, since you're not behind the wheel of a car or a motorcycle." She glanced contemptuously over her shoulder at his Harley. "Still, it seems kind of early."
"See, there's the thing. You hit it right on the head. It is early considering what time I got to bed. And I was driving the Harley. For sixteen hours straight yesterday. I need sleep-which is exactly what I was doing till you started banging on my damn door."
She ignored that, her eyes narrowing. "So maybe I won't call the cops."
"I am the cops."
She snorted. "That's what they all say, Sam."
He toyed with the idea of badging her, then decided against it. She wasn't worth the bother. Besides, his badge wouldn't carry any weight here in Georgia, and he doubted it would even faze this woman.
"You don't know me from Adam, yet you come tromping over here pummeling my door, assuming I've broken into the house and am a squatter. No weapon, no defense at all."
"This is Misty Bottoms."
"So it's safe here. Where are you from?"
"Not Misty Bottoms, that's for damn sure." Again, he closed his eyes momentarily, then opened them to meet hers. "Look, the fact remains that I could be a serial killer. Don't you have any survival skills, any sense of self-preservation?"
"I certainly do," she drawled. "And they're tellin' me to walk away from you. Think I'll run on home and fix myself a nice big stack of pancakes. I don't need your negative vibes."
But she'd already made it down the rickety front-porch steps and was picking her way along the weed-choked sidewalk.
He started to slam the door but instead leaned against it and watched her cross the road, her pale blond hair shining.
Nothing, absolutely nothing about her matched his ideal woman, the type he found attractive. Still, there was something. Those eyes. Oh, yeah. And that mouth and sexy Southern drawl. She'd smelled good amid the decay of this house.
Speaking of smelling. Now that she'd mentioned them, darned if he couldn't all but smell a stack of warm, golden pancakes, swimming in syrup and melted butter.
His stomach growled, and he patted it absently.
There had to be somewhere in this flyspeck on the map where he could get a decent breakfast-without any of the complications a meal with Cricket would surely entail.
Slowly, he closed the door.
Talk about starting off on the wrong foot. But that was actually a positive, wasn't it? He didn't want to be a good neighbor, didn't want to get involved in anybody else's mess. He had a big enough one of his own.
He'd come to Misty Bottoms, to Gertie's, for solitude. He'd come to be left alone.
To get away from suspicion, betrayal, and lies. Away from sympathy and pity.
* * *
Cricket slammed into her kitchen. Holy Toledo! The man was hot! And rude.
So okay, she'd jumped the gun. In his place maybe, just maybe, she'd have been a little put out, too. She'd wakened him from a deep sleep and insinuated he'd broken in. The red eyes? He'd been telling the truth. She hadn't smelled any alcohol on him, so no doubt the bloodshot eyes were the result of long hours on that big motorcycle, like he'd said.
She moved to the kitchen window and fingered back the curtain over the sink. The big, black bike hunkered down at the curb. How had she not heard him roaring up the street on that last night? Had she really slept that soundly?
When he'd yanked that door open, her heart leaped into her throat. He looked for all the world like some dark god standing there, jeans half-zipped and bare chest with that trail of hair leading to-well, to the unsnapped waistband of those well-worn jeans. And he'd made not a single move to cover himself or make himself presentable.
Yep, the big, bad wolf incarnate.
She fanned herself. Best not go any further.
A nasty, fairly new scar marred that otherwise perfect chest. A story there?
None of her business.
Reaching into the cupboard, she pulled out a mixing bowl and the O'Malley family's secret pancake recipe, then dug around for the ingredients she needed.
Did he actually intend to live in that house? She'd caught a glimpse of it when she'd planted herself halfway inside. What a disaster. And the smell. Stale with an underlayment of... She didn't want to think about it. Yuck!
Sam must be hurting for money. Why else would anybody in his right mind even consider staying there? She'd noticed the sleeping bag spread on the floor. That couldn't be comfortable.
Watching out the window, she saw not a sign of life in the house. He'd apparently gone back to sleep. What a waste of a beautiful day. Well, his loss.
She turned up her stereo and did a few hip swivels to Miranda Lambert's gritty, empowered-woman lyrics. That lady always made her feel good.
Half an hour later, her resolve to ignore her neighbor had evaporated. She could at least feed him. From the way his jeans drooped at the waist, she guessed he'd lost some weight recently. Of course, it could simply have been that he hadn't bothered to button them before answering the door.
Whatever. She crossed the street once more, this time with a plate of warm pancakes drenched in melting butter and maple syrup in one hand and a cup of freshly brewed coffee in the other. Now if she could navigate the cracked, uneven walk of weeds again, she'd be good.
The steps were rickety, and she held her breath as she tiptoed across the porch, certain it would give way beneath her any minute. Hands full, she bumped the peeling front door with her elbow. Once, twice, three times.
The door flew open, and she almost tumbled inside.
"Yep, and I come bearing gifts."
He eyed the plate hungrily. "Damn Trojan horse."
"Nope." She shook her head. "Nothin' hidden here. What you see is what you get."
"Oh yeah?" Shamelessly, he allowed his gaze to travel the length of her. Those damn baggy clothes kept him from catching so much as a hint at what lay beneath them.
A smudge of flour streaked across one cheek, and his hand lifted to wipe it away. Fortunately, he caught himself and lowered it back to his side.
"I don't know if you take cream or sugar in your coffee." She held it out to him.
He couldn't resist. Against his better judgment, he reached for it. "Black." The scent of it tickled his nose, and he took that first sip. Manna. Whatever else this woman did or didn't do, she made a mean cup of coffee.
"You're welcome," she said.
"I didn't thank you."
"Pretty darn cheeky, aren't you?"
"You're pretty darn rude."
Despite himself, he laughed out loud. It almost startled him, it had been so long. "Thank you."
Without a word, she held out the plate, silverware, and an actual cloth napkin.
Juggling the coffee, he took them. "Thanks."
He nodded toward the living room. "I'd, ah, invite you in, but this place is in seriously bad shape. It's filthy and stinks to high heaven."
"Why don't we sit on the steps?"
"You think they're safe?" he mumbled, eyeing them. A few spots of paint hung tenaciously to the otherwise bare wood, and they leaned crookedly to one side.
"They've held so far."
He dropped to the top step and she moved down a couple, leaning on a banister that tilted precariously.
Hungrily, he wolfed down the cakes. He doubted even his last meal at Delmonico's had tasted as good. His new, temporary neighbor reminded him of the cheerleaders in high school, all perky, fresh, and outgoing.
He hadn't been very nice to her earlier. Catching himself, he almost laughed at the understatement. He'd been in-your-face rude, yet here she was feeding him. What was up with that?
"I don't know what shape your bathrooms are in or if you even have any water." She nodded at his house. "I thought after you eat, you might want to come over and take a nice, hot shower. If you really did travel as long as you said-"
"I did," he answered around a mouthful of pancake. "I have a lot of faults, Bug, but lying isn't one of them."
He thought of his last undercover assignment. But that wasn't actually lying. That had been doing the job, a job that nearly got him killed.
"Yeah, you said that was your name."
"I did not."
"My name's Cricket."
"Cricket. Bug. Same thing." He shrugged.
With a small sound of annoyance, she grabbed for the not-quite-empty plate. "Maybe I'll take these back home with me. Feed them to the birds."
He moved the pancakes just out of her reach. "You wouldn't."
"Want to test me?"
"Not this morning." He speared the last couple bites before she could carry through on her threat. "Not sure why you fed me after I about bit your head off, but thanks. These are some of the best pancakes I've ever eaten." He held up his coffee cup. "This, too."
"You can have another cup while you shower."
He narrowed his eyes. "Why are you being nice to me?"
"Because we're neighbors. Here in the South, we watch out for each other."
"You don't think I'm from the South?"
"New York would be my guess."
He leaned back, resting on his elbows. "Really?"
She nodded. "Despite sleeping half the day away, I doubt you sit much. You've got a restless edge about you."
Damned if she wasn't right. He'd have to keep an eye on her. She read people too easily, and he didn't want her stumbling on the nightmare of his life, didn't want her catching even a glimpse of that reality.
But he'd accept her hospitality once more. Yesterday's ride, coupled with last night in that filthy house, left him desperate for some soap and shampoo.
"Besides," she said, "you've got a New York plate on that big motorcycle of yours."
He barked a laugh. "Got me." He paused. "You serious about that shower?"
"Yes. But I need to head into town pretty soon. My new shop's grand opening is set for next Friday, and I still have a ton of things to do."
"I'll make it fast. What kind of a shop?" he asked as he headed inside for his clean clothes.
"A flower shop. There were, um, some problems with the last owner."
"Oh?" He stuck his head out the door, clothes bundled under one arm. Considering, he shut the door but decided locking it would be the ultimate in foolishness. Nobody else would head in there without a hazmat suit and a darn good reason. "So you're from here?" he asked as they crossed to her house. Then he kicked himself. Don't ask questions. Don't get involved. You're not here to make friends. Still, something about this woman tugged at him.
"I was born here, but I've been away now for, oh gosh, twenty years. So I guess you could say I'm new in town, too. I have family here, though."
"Yeah, I gathered that."
Her forehead creased.
"Your cousin. The one you called when you wanted to have me thrown in jail."
She mock grimaced. "Sorry about that. That was Beck Elliot. He and his family are practically the backbone of the town, along with the Beaumonts. Beck's family owns the lumberyard, and he runs a construction company."
Sam rubbed a hand over the stubble on his jaw. "Good to know. My guess is I'll be on a first-name basis with Cousin Beck if I decide to do anything with Gertie's place."
"Ms. Gertie taught my mom in Sunday school, and they kept in touch. Gertie was old school and still believed in letter writing."
"Yeah, she wrote to me, too."
What a difference, he thought, as he neared Cricket's house. Night and day from his, everything was all neat and tidy, including a fresh coat of white paint with deep-green trim. Some kind of flowering plant arched over a trellis.
He fingered one of the sweet-smelling flowers. "What is this?"
"Wisteria, Yankee boy. One of the South's treasures."
"Uh-huh." More flowers hung from the porch while others lined a white picket fence. The porch, one step up from sidewalk level, held still more plants in colorful pots. He guessed it made sense since she owned a flower shop. Colorful Adirondack chairs waited for someone to sit and take a load off. All in all, the house was homey. Nice.
She obviously sensed his interest. "I brought some things with me, but a lot of my furniture is donations and hand-me-downs. Mrs. Michaels wanted to move to Wyoming to live with her daughter and grandkids, so I got the house dirt cheap. It still needs some work, so don't expect too much."
He shook his head. "You're wrong. This is cozy. I could sit right here with a cup of coffee and a good book all day."
"Somehow I doubt that. You feel like a bundle of nervous energy to me."
"I'm working to lose that. It's part of the reason I'm here." Damn. He hadn't meant to let that spill. What was wrong with him? Where was his cop training? This woman made it way too easy to talk.
She swung the door open, and he grinned.
The kitchen smelled of pancakes and coffee. A pot of sunflowers sat on the counter beside fresh produce. He chuckled. Whatever else Cricket was, "tidy chef" would never earn a spot on her résumé. Bowls, spoons, measuring cups, and spilled flour cluttered the counter and farmer's sink. She added his dish and cup to the mix.
"Sorry." She ran her fingers through that choppy, blond hair, standing pieces on end. "I wanted to get your cakes to you while they were still warm."
"And I and my stomach thank you. I'll help you clean up since the cook shouldn't have to. That was always the rule at my house."
"I like that rule, but I've got it today. Why don't you grab your shower?"
She led him down the hallway, a country song echoing through the house.
"You a country music fan?"
"You bet I am. You?"
"No, not so much."
He caught a glimpse of her living room and a spare bedroom. The door to the master hung open, giving him a view of strewn clothes and an unmade bed. Cricket was a free spirit from the word go, no doubt about it. Guess she'd rather play in the dirt than do housework. Though to give her her due, take away the clutter and the house was squeaky clean.
"The towel is fresh, and there's a new bar of soap in the shower. Feel free to use the shampoo."
"Thank you. I can't tell you how much I appreciate this." He closed the door, turned on the water, and stripped. The water was hot and plentiful, and he almost whimpered as it rained down on him, rinsing away the road grime and the tension of the past few weeks.
He poured shampoo in the palm of his hand and smelled Cricket-light, floral, and woodsy. He'd either have to pick up something a little more masculine in town or be prepared to turn in his man card.
And when he bought the shampoo, he needed to load up on garbage bags. Lots of garbage bags. Gertie's house-his house, he reminded himself-needed a thorough cleaning out regardless of how long he stayed. The time had come to quit straddling the fence. The house needed to go on the market-if it could be salvaged.
As he lathered his hair, he found himself hoping he could save the place. Gertie had lived a good life in that house and, for five years, had shared a few happy weeks of summer vacation with him there. He'd hate to see it crumble beneath a wrecking ball. He owed Gertie more than that.