In the second Magnolia Beach romance by USA Today bestselling author Kimberly Lang, a small Alabama waterfront town is the perfect place to start over...
At first sight, Molly Richards knew Magnolia Beach, Alabama, was the perfect place to escape her unhappy life. And though she's proud of the small coffee shop she’s opened, something is missing. But she won’t let herself be burned by love—again.
Veterinarian Tate Harris finds the local dating scene awkward, since he's known most of the eligible ladies his whole life. But he's finding it hard to resist the unassuming charm of the sweet-faced owner of Latte Dah. And when a late-night pet emergency finds Tate at Molly's house, that fascination turns into a potent mutual attraction.
But just as their relationship begins to take off, Molly's haunted past returns. Fortunately, Tate is determined to help Molly fight for the life she's been wishing for...
About the Author
Kimberly Lang, author of Something to Prove, is a Southern belle with a troublemaking streak and a great love of strong heroes and even stronger heroines. A former ballet dancer and English teacher, she now does yoga and writes the kind of books she always loved to read. She’s married to her college sweetheart, is mom to the most amazing child on the planet, and shares her office space with a dog named Cupid.
Read an Excerpt
Also by Kimberly Lang
Excerpt from the Magnolia Beach Series
About the Author
It’s nearly impossible to keep a secret in a small town.
But nearly impossible means it is still possible. It was just damn hard to do it.
Molly Richards felt like she knew most of the secrets in this particular small town. She wasn’t a therapist, preacher, bartender, or even a hairdresser, but running a coffee shop—the only coffee shop in Magnolia Beach, Alabama—had to come close. People didn’t have to tell her secrets. She overheard them at Latte Dah—whether she wanted to or not.
But she wasn’t a gossip. She never repeated what she heard, never even dropped hints, because everyone had something they’d rather other people not know.
But she also never forgot those overheard tidbits, either, and it gave her a more complete picture of this town and its people than most folks who’d lived there a lot longer than the two and a half years she had.
In a way, it made her love Magnolia Beach all the more. Not only did she know what was going on, she also knew the why, the who, and often the whoa-you-won’t-believe-this. It was a quirky little place, and the key to appreciating it fully was understanding it.
The buzz today was all about the engagement of Sophie Cooper and Quinn Haslett, but that was news,not gossip—literal news as Quinn had announced it himself on the front page of The Clarion.
That’s one benefit of owning the paper, Molly thought with a giggle.
There were sighs over the romance, speculations over the timing—they’d been together less than a year, after all—and a bit of jealousy from the younger single set that Quinn had been taken off the market, but it made Molly smile all the same.
It was spring and love was in the air. And she was a sucker for a love story. She’d once thought that her own failed marriage would—or at least should—sour her on all relationships, turning her into one of those crotchety types grumbling at romance. She’d even gotten a cat in preparation for that day, but it never happened.
Even after everything, she still believed that everyone deserved a happily-ever-after. And she got to see lots of relationships start, grow—and occasionally end, too—over cups of coffee in the overstuffed chairs of Latte Dah.
Jane, who’d been with her from almost the day she’d opened her doors, blew her blue-streaked bangs out of her eyes as she passed carrying a tray full of dirty coffee cups.
“There are three applications under the register. Hire someone, or I’m going to quit.”
“I will,” Molly promised. In addition to Jane, Molly had two part-timers, but they were high school kids, so the hours they could work were limited. And while it was very nice to be busy enough to need another employee, she was enjoying the security of the extra cash after two years of just making ends meet. Right now, she was in a good position—she’d invested in the shop and padded her savings a little bit—but that cushion could deflate quickly. She couldn’t risk losing Jane, though, and they’d only get busier once the summer season started. She tugged the envelope with the applications out and opened it as she followed Jane into the kitchen. “Any of these you particularly like?”
Jane didn’t look up from loading the dishwasher, but Molly saw the triumphant smirk. “Samantha Harris or Connie Williams. Patrice is a little flighty.”
Molly knew of both Samantha and Connie, even if she didn’t know them personally—Magnolia Beach was pretty small, after all—and she didn’t have a strong feeling either way. “I’ll call them both back for interviews, and if they’re good, I’ll see who can start next week.”
“This week,” Jane insisted. “I’d like to have a life, too.”
Molly sighed. “Fine. Can you call them and see if they’ll come in this afternoon? Maybe one at four and the other at five?”
“Thank you. Now I won’t have to poison your coffee today.”
She grinned. “Then thank you.” A glance around told her the morning rush was officially over. “I’m going to run out for a while. I’ll be back before the Bible study group arrives.”
“Bring back change,” Jane called from behind her. “We’re low on fives and ones.”
Molly nodded as she hung up her apron and then held the door for a mother pushing a stroller with a sleeping baby. Outside on the sidewalk, she took a big breath of non-coffee-scented air and turned her face up to the sun. Late spring was quite possibly one of the best times of year here weather-wise: warm days, and nights that were just cool enough to require a light jacket. But the frizzing of her already unruly curls meant summer—and its humidity—were right around the corner.
It might be an odd little town, but there sure wasn’t a much prettier place than Magnolia Beach on a bright spring afternoon. The town was practically a movie set labeled “small-town Americana”—tidy buildings set along clean, narrow streets and flags waving lazily in the breeze. Even the newer buildings intentionally had that older aesthetic, giving the impression the town wasn’t necessarily stuck in the past, but instead rather gently resisting change wherever it could.
That feeling was part of what drew tourists to the area. That, and the water, of course. Magnolia Beach was locked in on three sides by water: Mobile Bay to the east, Heron Bay to the south, and Heron Bayou to the west.
The Yankee snowbirds had already left town for their northern cities and climes, but in a few more weeks the town’s population would nearly double in size as all that water drew folks down to the coast. The Mobile Bay shore—called “The Beach” by the locals—had white, sandy beaches, perfect for sandcastle building and walks along the water, while the Heron Bay shore—called “The Shore” to avoid confusion—offered fishing off the jetty and a boardwalk along the rockier, man-made beach. Add in a marina full of boats to charter, airboat tours into the bayou, and long, hot sunny days, and Magnolia Beach was a summer paradise.
While the tourists looking for wild parties would head over to the east side of the bay to Gulf Shores and the Florida Panhandle, families and those folks wanting a more low-key vacation would come to Magnolia Beach. And when they weren’t on the water, tourists had a full selection of restaurants, quaint shops, and family-friendly activities right at their doorstep.
Trapped as it was between the water and unable to sprawl, the town was rather compact, making pretty much everything within walking distance. The tourists loved that perk, and Molly liked it herself, leaving her car at home except on the most miserable of days. And since she tended to nibble at the pastries—strictly for quality control purposes, of course—she needed all the exercise she could get. That would be another perk of a new employee: she could find the time to start running again before the winter weight became permanent.
More importantly, though, she liked the walk. In the early mornings on her way to open Latte Dah, the whole place felt quiet and still, and that was better for clearing her mind and relaxing her soul than any kind of meditation. In the afternoons, the streets were busy and active, but not stressed and crowded, and there was always someone to stop and speak to, making her feel like a real part of the town. Making it feel like home.
Only better. She had no desire to really go home.
Fuller, Alabama, was only six hours away, but as far as she was concerned it might as well be on the other side of the planet. She was proud of what she’d built here, and the person she’d been just a few years ago seemed like a stranger. Eventually she’d have to go back—her day of reckoning would come—but until then, it was easy enough to forget Fuller even existed. This was where she wanted to be.
The bank, post office, and grocery store were quick, easy errands and she made it back to her place, a tiny guesthouse beside Mrs. Kennedy’s house, in plenty of time for her own lunch and maybe a short nap. Even after over two years of getting up to open the shop, that five a.m. alarm was still hard to handle sometimes.
She dropped to the couch and kicked off her shoes, and Nigel jumped into her lap with a purr. Threading her fingers through his soft gray fur, Molly closed her eyes with a sigh.
And—of course—there was an immediate knock at her door, followed by Mrs. Kennedy calling, “Molly?”
Nigel hissed in the general direction of the door, voicing her feelings quite nicely. While the place was clean, cozy, and affordable, her landlady had boundary issues and a rather interesting interpretation of the tenant-landlord relationship.
Grumbling, she moved Nigel off her lap and rolled off the couch. Knowing Mrs. Kennedy could see her through the glass window in the door, she pasted a smile on her face as she opened it. “Hello, Mrs. K.”
Eula Kennedy was welcoming warm weather with a bright fuchsia sundress and a color-matched faux hibiscus in her carefully coiffed white hair. Molly could only hope that forty years from now she’d have the nerve and ability to carry off something like that.
“Hello, dear. I’m so glad I heard you come in. I was about to head to Latte Dah to find you.”
“I just came home for lunch.” As I do most days. Her schedule wasn’t a secret or anything.
“Well, I won’t keep you but a minute.”
Molly had no choice, really, but to open the door wider for her to enter. Mrs. Kennedy was carrying a bulging grocery sack from the Shop-N-Save, but it didn’t look like groceries. As she set the bag on the coffee table with a sense of satisfaction and purpose, Molly had a bad feeling she wouldn’t like the explanation of that bag.
“I got a call from Jocelyn last night.”
Jocelyn was Mrs. Kennedy’s niece, currently pregnant and living over near Destin. Molly nodded absently while she eyeballed the bag. Oddly, it looked like it was full of notebooks. “I hope she’s doing well.”
“The doctors have put her on bed rest. Worries about an incompetent cervix.”
That got her attention. Molly had no idea what that diagnosis might mean, but Mrs. Kennedy looked worried, so it probably wasn’t good. “I’m sorry to hear that. Please let me know if there’s anything I can do,” she said automatically.
“I’m so glad you said that,” Mrs. Kennedy said in a tone that had Molly wishing she’d stopped talking after “sorry.” “There’s no way Jocelyn can rest the way she needs to with two other little ones running around, so I’m going to go stay with her and help until after the baby is born.”
“I’ll keep an eye on things at the house, no problem.” She often looked after the place while Mrs. Kennedy traveled. It was one of the reasons her rent was so cheap.
“I know you will, and I appreciate it, but the house is really the least of my issues. I’ve got my Sunday school class and volunteer shifts at the library covered, but there’s no one to take over the Children’s Fair on Memorial Day weekend.”
No. She couldn’t possibly be thinking that I should . . .
Memorial Day marked the official start of the summer tourist season, and Magnolia Beach always went all out for the weekend with concerts and an arts and crafts fair downtown, a fireworks show over Heron Bay, services at the War Memorial, a parade, and, of course, the Children’s Fair, which was originally Mrs. Kennedy’s idea and her pride and joy. More importantly to this conversation, though, it was a huge undertaking, with a dozen different parts. Not to mention all the children. She liked kids—honestly, she did—but in small manageable groups, not large screaming masses. “Oh, Mrs. K, I couldn’t. Really. I wouldn’t know where to begin, and I’d hate to mess it up.”
Mrs. Kennedy waved that away. “It’s impossible to mess it up. Most of the heavy lifting is already done, and the folks involved are old pros at it by now, so it will mostly just roll along on its own. I just need someone to keep an eye on it.”
“Have you already agreed to volunteer somewhere else?”
Molly wished she could lie. “No, but—”
“Then this is perfect. A great way for you to get your feet wet.”
Get her feet wet? This would be like jumping into the deep end of the pool. With dumbbells strapped to her legs. And the pool would be full of small screaming children.
“I don’t—” Molly started her protest, but Mrs. K just patted her on the arm—firmly, but kindly nonetheless.
“Everything you’ll need to know should be in those notebooks, and if it’s not, just ask Margaret Wilson or Tate Harris for help. They’ll know. Now . . .” Mrs. Kennedy started unloading the notebooks as she talked, placing them in Molly’s hands so that she was forced to either accept them or end up with bruises on her feet from dropping them.
Molly was being steamrolled and she knew it, but damned if she knew how to stop it. Mrs. Kennedy kept talking as if it was a done deal, with or without Molly’s agreement, and Molly couldn’t bring herself to interrupt a sixty-something-year-old woman. And since Mrs. Kennedy never seemed to stop to take a breath, she had no place to interject an objection.
The flood of words and instructions rolled on, interspersed with assurances of Mrs. Kennedy’s confidence in Molly’s ability to pull this off. Molly was still blinking in confusion and formulating her plan of resistance when Mrs. Kennedy gave her a quick kiss on the cheek and was out the door.
Leaving Molly with the Children’s Fair literally in her hands.
Nigel blinked at her from his perch on the back of the couch, then stretched out his neck to sniff disdainfully at the load in her arms. A second later, he pulled back quickly, ears lying flat against his head.
“My thoughts exactly.”
She didn’t have time for this. She had a business to run, and she was shorthanded right now anyway. Equally important, she didn’t want to do this. She, too, was from a small town, and this was exactly how people got sucked into the volunteer pit, never to surface again. She was all for community spirit, but there was no way she wouldn’t screw it up somehow. And since it was a big fund-raiser for . . .
Damn—she didn’t even know where the money raised actually went. It had to raise a lot, though. Christ, she was going to mess this up and be the reason some deserving charity couldn’t make its budget this year.
This was insane.
She was still standing there trying to figure out a graceful way to decline the honor when she saw Mrs. Kennedy go back out carrying a suitcase. She hurried to the porch, ready to claim illness, insanity, incompetence, any reason not to be in charge of this, but Mrs. Kennedy was very spry for her age and was already driving off with a honk and a cheery wave.
Damn it. She was well and truly stuck now.
• • •
Tate Harris stood under the shower and let the hot water beat the tiredness from his shoulders. After a long spell of nothing but checkups and routine procedures for weeks, it seemed every pet within a twenty-mile radius had decided today was the day for illnesses and accidents. He’d been on his feet all day, without even a lunch break, gone through multiple changes of clothes, and Mr. Thomas’s Pomeranian, Florie, had taken a bite out of his hand.
It was days like today that made him wish he still drank.
With that option off the table, though, he stayed under the spray until the water ran cold and forced him out. He scrubbed a towel over his hair to dry it, then grabbed a clean pair of jeans and a T-shirt.
Now that the animal smells were washed away and out of his nose, he caught the faint scent of lemon furniture polish and bleach floating through the house, meaning Iona had come today—a day earlier than usual. Suddenly hopeful, he went to the kitchen and opened the fridge. There, in neatly wrapped and labeled packages, were his dinners for the next several nights.
He’d been not exactly dreading, but not looking forward to either, a cold dinner of ham sandwiches, so the sight of Iona’s pot roast made his mouth water. Feeling better already, he stuck it into the microwave to heat.
A fresh pitcher of tea sat on the counter, holding down a note from Iona, explaining that she’d come today because she had a doctor’s appointment tomorrow, and if he’d text her a list of any personal items he might need from the store, she’d take care of that on her next trip.
But the fact she’d signed that note with just an initial and a small heart—well, that was a little disconcerting.
When he’d hired Iona last year, he’d been drowning, overwhelmed by a busy practice and trying to have some kind of life while still having clean clothes, decent food, and a house that didn’t look like the health department needed to intervene. Iona had laughed at her interview and said he actually needed a wife. He hadn’t disagreed with her. And she’d been an absolute godsend, taking over and running this part of his life with ease. Unfortunately, the feeling that Iona might be wanting to take on the title as well as the job had grown stronger over the last few months.
It’d first become noticeable when his best friend, Helena Wheeler, had moved back to town last fall. The amount of time he’d spent with her ignited Iona’s jealousy. He’d faced weeks of bland food and scratchy, wrinkled clothes. Once Helena had started dating Ryan Tanner, however, his life had gone back to normal.
That was enough to make any sane man think carefully before asking a woman out, however casually. Especially if he liked his creature comforts.
Then Iona had starting making him cookies. Specifically, her super-secret recipe peanut butter chocolate chip ones that he loved, saying he was too skinny and needed fattening up. He rubbed a hand over his belly absently. Those cookies would do it for sure.
Last week, he’d found a lacy pair of Iona’s panties “accidentally” mixed in with his laundry, and now she was leaving notes signed with a heart.
It made him hesitant to eat the cookies, fearful of what Iona might read into it.
She managed to dance perfectly along the line of what was appropriate, never really crossing it and making it impossible for him to call her on it.
But he was going to have to do something. Soon. And he was selfish enough to not want to do it simply because Iona took such good care of him. If he rejected her, she might quit, and he didn’t want to go through the trouble of finding someone else.
And if he did ask Iona out, he was only rushing that moment of truth along. He doubted Iona would accept payment for cooking and cleaning if she considered herself his girlfriend, and he couldn’t not pay her for the work. He’d either have to marry her almost immediately or find someone else to take over at home—and he doubted Iona would like that much, either.
The whole situation was a disaster waiting to happen.
The thing was, there wasn’t anything wrong with Iona Flemming. Cute, sweet, kind—she’d make some man very happy one day. But that man wasn’t going to be him.
Taking himself out of the local dating scene entirely might seem an extreme step to avoid upsetting Iona and sending his life back into chaos, but it was a sacrifice he was perfectly willing to make right now. And dating outside the city limits wasn’t that much of a hardship anyway. He had enough exes in Magnolia Beach as it was, and no matter what people said, it wasn’t easy to “still be friends” with someone after you broke up.
He’d have to face the music with Iona at some point, but for now the price of domestic tranquility and delicious food was ignoring innuendo and playing dense as a tree when she flirted.
Working long, unpredictable hours didn’t hurt, either. Maybe he’d hold off looking for a partner at the clinic for a little while longer . . .
He burned his fingers on the plate as he took it out of the microwave, nearly sloshing the rich gravy off the edge. The smell made his stomach growl as he carried it to the table. Now ravenous, he grabbed a fork, only for his phone to ring before his first bite.
Almost any other ringtone would have been ignorable, but not Sam’s. Since her divorce had brought her home—and back to Mom’s house—over a year ago, she’d been a little fragile. And he could talk to his sister and eat at the same time, rude or not. He answered with a “What’s up?” and shoved a forkful of pot roast into his mouth.
“Guess who got a new job today?” Sam singsonged, obviously in a good mood.
“That’s great,” he mumbled around tasty bliss, then finished chewing and swallowed. “Where?”
“Latte Dah. I’m a barista now.” She rolled the r with gusto.
“But you don’t even like coffee.”
“Doesn’t matter. I know how to make it, and that’s far more important.”
He put his fork down. “What about the library?”
“I’ll still have that, too, if I want it. But Molly’s offering more hours and better money. That means I’ll have the money to get my own place even sooner.”
Sam didn’t like living with their mother—not that Tate blamed her—but she wouldn’t move in to his extra bedroom, either, however temporarily. He sighed and rubbed his forehead. “I told you I’d give you the money so you could move out.”
“And that’s very kind of you, but no. I don’t want your money,” she insisted.
Stubborn girl. “Then why don’t you come work at the clinic instead of picking up part-time jobs all over town?”
Sam snorted. “Besides the fact that I don’t want to work for you?”
He sighed. “Yes, besides that.”
“If I had any training or experience in the veterinary business, or even any interest in learning, I’d consider it. But I don’t want a pity job from my big brother.”
It was times like this when he wished Sam was more like their sister Ellie: sweet, quiet, and much more persuadable—at least when he was doing the persuading. But Sam . . . Sam often made him want to pull his hair out. They were too much alike. “It wouldn’t be a pity job.”
“Then what would it be exactly?”
He thought for a moment, then grinned, since she couldn’t see it. “Nepotism.”
“Because that’s so much better.” He could almost hear her eyes rolling. “Thank you, but no,” she added seriously. “I need to do this myself.”
“Sam . . .”
“Tate . . .” she echoed in the exact same exasperated tone. “I called you because I wanted you to be happy for me.”
“And I am. I just don’t want you killing yourself when you don’t have to.” He wasn’t rich, but he could certainly help his sister through a bad time. If she’d just let him do it, for God’s sake.
“Put your cape away, Superman. I don’t need rescuing tonight,” she said, as if she could read his mind. “Look, I know the offer’s there,” she continued in a much kinder tone, “and I promise I’ll take you up on it if it all gets to be too much or goes rocketing into hell. But let me at least try to fix my life by myself first, okay? I got myself into this mess—and, well, I have my pride, too.”
It nearly killed him, but he reluctantly agreed. Then he ate more pot roast to keep himself from arguing with her about it as she moved on to other topics. He’d just have to start hanging out at Latte Dah more when she was working and make sure to tip well. He could slip her a little extra so she couldn’t refuse it without making a scene.
He heard his mother in the background, followed immediately by a muttered curse from Sam before she said she’d talk to him later and left him holding a dead phone. Sam’s pride really was running the show; otherwise she’d be begging him for a loan to get her out of that house.
Hell, he knew that was why she’d gotten married so young, but since she’d been burned by her poor choices, she was being more careful now. And here he was with the money to help assuage his guilt for leaving her and Ellie there with their parents while he went to school, and she wouldn’t take it from him. This was his chance to make that up to her, and she wouldn’t let him. It was frustrating.
Ellie, at least, seemed happy enough, up in Mobile, married to a marine biologist she’d met when he’d been down here studying fish or shrimp or something like that. He couldn’t complain about Doug—much—and she had the kids and some volunteer work to keep her busy. She’d warned him that it was best to let Sam find her own way, but at the same time she wasn’t here dealing with their mother or watching Sam barely keep her head above water.
He ate more pot roast, but his irritation at the orneriness of all women in general had sucked all the enjoyment out of it. He swallowed the last few bites and stuck the plate in the dishwasher.
There was nothing he could do about Sam or Iona or anyone else tonight, and in a way it felt good to just accept that. Anyway, after the day he had today, he deserved a lazy, brain-dead evening of doing nothing. He grabbed a couple of Iona’s cookies and took them to the other room with him.
He’d certainly earned them.
“You can do it, Molly.”
Molly wanted to throw a cruller at Helena. Instead, she took a bite and chewed slowly, waiting for the urge to waste perfectly good pastries to pass. “Everyone keeps saying that and totally ignoring the fact that I probably can’t.”
“Only because you don’t want to.”
Helena’s reasonableness was really grating Molly’s nerves today. But Helena Wheeler was also her best friend and the only person she could really complain to about this without risk. “Here, then,” she said with a smile, pushing a pile of Mrs. Kennedy’s notes across the table to Helena. “Why don’t you do it?”
Helena used one finger to gingerly push it back as if it might have claws to grab her and pull her in to the event against her will. “I’ve got enough on my plate, thanks. I’m on four different committees already.”
“Who knew you were such a joiner?” When Helena rolled her eyes, Molly understood. “I see. That’s what you get for sleeping with the mayor, honey.”
“No,” Helena corrected her. “That’s what your boyfriend’s mother does to you when you can’t tell the woman no because she doesn’t need another reason not to like you. It has nothing to do with Ryan’s mayoral duties.”
“It’s sweet to see you in fear of your future mother-in-law.” As if dating the mayor wasn’t enough pressure to conform and behave, the Tanner family as a whole was kind of a big deal in Magnolia Beach. Molly remembered all too well the expectations that came with aligning yourself with the family in town—and especially formidable mothers-in-law. She patted Helena’s hand as she got up to refill their coffees from the urn behind the counter. The shop was empty except for her, Helena, and Toby Baker over in the corner on his laptop frowning at his Great American Novel as he did every Wednesday.
“I choose to view it more like purgatory.” Helena sounded resigned to the fact. “I’ve got quite a few sins to atone for.”
“And your penance is coordinating bake sales and charity raffles?” She had a few sins of her own to atone for . . . Maybe that was why the Children’s Fair had landed in her lap.
“And the annual Best Dessert Contest and the church rummage sale. It’s the eighth circle of hell, I tell you.”
Molly bit back a giggle. Poor Helena—also known as “Hell-on-Wheels” in certain circles—still had a lot to live down. Their wayward youths were something they’d bonded over when Helena had returned to Magnolia Beach last fall, but Helena was facing down her past with strength and class—and succeeding brilliantly. It was a little annoying, really, when Molly thought about it. “I’m surprised they let you in the door of a church.”
“They’re not too picky when it comes to sacrificial lambs.” Helena accepted the refill with a grateful smile. “I’m just surprised you weren’t suckered into doing anything long before now.”
“I keep a low profile,” she admitted. “Especially around sign-up sheets. But because everyone sees me all the time in here and around town, they just assume someone else has their hooks in me and that I must be doing something somewhere.”
“Lucky,” Helena grumbled.
It was both the blessing and the curse of owning a coffee shop: she knew everyone and everyone knew her, but the relationships were all pretty superficial. At first it had been a relief, giving her a clean slate and a chance to create her own story in a town that didn’t know anything about her. She’d enjoyed the anonymity and the freedom and the simplicity of it all.
By the time it started to feel a little lonely, Helena had arrived and became the first real friend she’d made in Magnolia Beach, the first person she’d gotten close to in the last few years. “To be fair, though, I thought you’d have to wrest control of the rummage sale out of Edith Mackenzie’s cold, dead, arthritic hands.”
“The old guard is getting, well, old. New blood needed and all that,” Helena concluded grimly. “It was bound to happen eventually.”
“While that is both true and reasonable, it doesn’t address the fact that I have the entire freakin’ Children’s Fair to deal with. I called Mrs. Wilson yesterday and you’d have thought she’d never even heard of such a thing being done before.”
Helena snorted. “That’s because Mrs. Wilson wouldn’t touch the Children’s Fair with a ten-foot pole.” Molly felt her jaw drop, causing Helena to laugh. “She and Mrs. Kennedy had a huge argument over it about fifteen years ago,” she explained. “No one seems to know exactly what it was about, but it was a whole big hoopla. Mrs. Wilson still chairs the Memorial Day committee that oversees all the events, but the Children’s Fair is its own thing.”
Typical. The one piece of gossip that would have been immensely helpful to know was the piece she’d never heard. “How do you know all that?”
“My grannie, of course.” Helena grinned. “Mrs. Wilson and Mrs. Kennedy are still friends and still play bridge, but they just don’t bring up the Children’s Fair.”
“Then why did Mrs. K tell me to call her if I needed help?”
“Great.” She’d spent hours going over Mrs. Kennedy’s notes the day before, but they were disturbingly incomplete to have been handed off to someone with no experience. Hell, she’d never even set foot in the Children’s Fair area. She didn’t even know exactly what the hell she was organizing. “I’m so screwed.”
Helena sipped her coffee. “You should talk to Tate. I heard his name pop up in connection to the Children’s Fair at one of my committee meetings. I’m sure he could sort it all out.”
Tate was Helena’s best friend, second only to Ryan in the “great and perfect men” pantheon. But Tate was Helena’s champion, not hers, and Molly didn’t necessarily share her friend’s complete and utter confidence in his charity-organizing abilities. “Mrs. K mentioned him, too, but I can’t seem to figure out exactly how he’s involved with this,” she hedged. “I see he’s signed some checks, but . . .”
“If he’s got hands in the money, then he knows something about it. Does it really matter how he’s involved, as long as he is and can help?”
“Well . . .”
“Then call him up. You have his number, right?”
“Actually, no, I don’t.” She knew Tate, of course; he was Nigel’s vet and often came in for coffee. And she’d gotten to know him better recently since hanging out with Helena also often meant hanging out with Tate. But they weren’t friends; they were more like friendly acquaintances. Hell, she’d gotten to know Ryan a lot better in the last few months, too, but she wouldn’t feel comfortable calling him up for a favor, either. Beggars really shouldn’t be choosers, but . . . “I don’t know. I’d feel bad for dragging him into my new mess.”
Helena waved that away. “That’s what friends are for.”
“Tate’s really more your friend.”
“He’s your friend, too,” Helena insisted.
“But we’re not tight or anything.”
“You don’t have to be for something like this.” Once again, Helena was being very reasonable, but Molly wasn’t sure she was in the mood for reasonable at the moment. She wanted more sympathy first.
But Helena was sort of right, now that she thought about it. Since at least half of the money raised from the Children’s Fair supported the county animal rescue—and probably explained Tate’s involvement with the event—it made sense for her to involve him. But it didn’t make her more comfortable with the idea of asking him. Admitting her inadequacies to Helena was one thing. Admitting them to Tate was something else. But the other half of the money went to the women’s shelter—a cause she supported wholeheartedly—so she had really big expectations sitting on her shoulders. And she didn’t want to screw this up.
Helena glanced at her phone and tilted her head in apology. “I gotta run. I’m meeting Ryan for a late lunch.”
She had a small smile on her face, though, which made Molly think they wouldn’t be having that lunch at Ms. Marge’s diner. Helena and Ryan were quite possibly the strangest match in Magnolia Beach—a reformed hellion and the town mayor sounded more like the premise of a romance novel than an actual working relationship—but they were happy and that made Molly happy. Plus, without Ryan Tanner in the picture, Helena would have gone back to Atlanta last fall, and Molly would have missed her new friend terribly. “That’s fine. Just leave me here.” She sighed. “I wonder if a million paper cuts count as slitting my wrists . . .”
Helena met her eyes. “Seriously. Call Tate.”
She shrugged. “I’ll keep digging through this, see if I can make heads or tails of it first. If I can’t . . .”
“Do you have book club tonight?”
“No.” Her “book club” had first been a cover for her trips to Mobile to see her therapist and then for that self-defense class she took. Why she’d felt the need to hide it, even from Helena, she had no idea. This wasn’t Fuller, and people weren’t keeping tabs on her.
“You haven’t been in a long time.”
“It kind of fizzled out.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Let me know if you want to start one up here. My brain could use the exercise.”
Helena wanted to join a book club. She really was settling in. Molly laughed. “Talk to me after Memorial Day, okay?”
“So if you’re not busy tonight, why don’t you come to Grannie’s for dinner?” Helena offered. “Grannie knows everything about everything, so between the three of us—and Ryan, too—I’m sure we can figure it all out.”
Sometimes she forgot that this wasn’t Fuller, and she wasn’t on her own anymore. She had a posse—however small. “That would be great. Thanks.”
Helena waved good-bye and nearly sprinted out the door.
Molly felt a little better. Ms. Louise would be an excellent—and obvious, now that Helena mentioned it—source of advice. And if the three of them couldn’t get it figured out . . . well, she would just suck it up and call Tate.
She’d sworn to never sacrifice her pride again, but failure wasn’t an option.
Desperate times called for desperate measures.
• • •
“I have been brought here under false pretenses,” Tate protested to Helena. “I was promised food.”
He’d been a little surprised at Helena’s sudden dinner invitation, but he was beginning to regret accepting it. She was his best friend, and he adored her, but friendship had its limits, and surprise grill assembly was definitely crossing that line.
“Oh, I’ll feed you,” Helena said, standing over him with a screwdriver in one hand and a drink in the other. “But I can’t cook it until you put the grill together.”
“And why isn’t Ryan doing this?”
“He was supposed to, but there was an emergency at the Kaufmans’. He’s been there all day with Colby.”
Tate snorted. “An emergency? Right.” Ryan was a general contractor, for God’s sake. “What? The cabinets don’t match the crown molding?”
“They had a bad water leak. Their ceiling is now on their floor.” She shook her head, trying to shame him. “They have eighteen-month-old twins, Tate. He has to at least get their house in a livable condition.”
So now he felt like an ass. But he was hungry and needed three E-17s to connect to the regulator thingamajig and nothing in the pile looked like an E-17. He’d been working on this for over an hour now, and the actual cooking of food was starting to look like a pipe dream. They’d all starve long before then. “Call for pizza. On me,” he offered.
The screen door slammed and Molly came down the steps onto the patio. “Helena, Ms. Louise needs you inside.” Then she looked at the pieces of what should have been a grill, and an eyebrow winged up. “This does not bode well.”
“I offered to spring for pizza,” he said.
“You’re a well-educated man,” Helena said with a sigh. “All that schoolin’ and you can’t put together a grill?”
“I’ll remind you that I’m a veterinarian. Does any part of this look like a Labrador retriever to you?”
Helena shrugged. “Well, maybe Molly can help you figure it out. I’m going to go see what Grannie wants.”
“I’d be willing to go halfsies on the pizza,” Molly muttered as she knelt next to the mess of parts and frowned. “I can’t help but notice that Helena isn’t trying to put this together.”
“That’s because Helena couldn’t put two Legos together and she knows it.”
Molly laughed and picked up the instructions. “That’s mean.”
“Who wrote these instructions?” The laugh gave way to a frown. “Is this even English?”
“I need three of these,” he said, pointing to the picture of E-17. “Do you see anything that looks remotely like it?”
Molly gamely joined him in sifting through the pile. “Not really,” she finally admitted. “Wait, this might be it.”
“Nope. I’ve already tried that. It’s an E-19.”
“Well, hell,” she muttered and pushed her hair out of her face. He’d noticed that when she wasn’t at Latte Dah, Molly let her blond curls roam free, and without the restraint of her headband, a rogue lock fell right back to its previous position. It was cute, and it made her look younger than he knew she was. “What about this one?” she offered.
“Darn.” As Molly sorted, she made little organized piles, something he’d given up on twenty minutes earlier out of frustration. Her eyebrows were a shade darker than her hair, and they pulled together as she compared and then rejected each piece. They worked in silence for a few minutes, and it wasn’t uncomfortable or anything, but he felt he needed to say something.
“Fat and sassy,” she answered, same as she always did. The fact he knew that probably meant he needed to come up with something new to ask her. He searched for a different topic. “I hear you’re taking over the Children’s Fair.”
Molly made an odd snort-like sound, but when he looked up, her face was calm except for a slight twitch of the corner of her mouth. “News travels fast.”
“So it’s going well?”
She shrugged a shoulder. “As well as could be expected.”
Molly hesitated. “Mrs. K didn’t leave very clear instructions as to what was happening. I’m still sorting through it all, trying to figure it out.”
Understanding dawned. “Now I know why Helena suddenly invited me to dinner tonight.” Not that I’ll ever get to eat. “And here I thought the false pretense was the grill.”
“I didn’t know this was her plan. She invited me over saying she, I, and Ms. Louise could brainstorm and figure it all out.” There was an apology in Molly’s big coffee-colored eyes. “She never said she’d be dragging you into this.”
“I believe you. This is just typical of Helena.” He sighed. “So what’s the problem?”
Molly seemed to be debating with herself. “I’m in way over my head,” she finally confessed.
I’m going to regret asking this . . . “How so?”
“Honestly, I can’t make heads or tails of Mrs. K’s notes. I’ve never even been to one of the Children’s Fairs, so I don’t have a clue what’s even supposed to happen there.”
He’d agreed to serve on Mrs. K’s “committee” in the first place only because it was really a committee of one, and Mrs. K micromanaged every detail. At the same time, there was an edge of desperation in Molly’s voice that was impossible to ignore. And since the thing had been dumped on her without warning, he’d have to be a real ass to not at least offer what assistance he could. “I can meet you tomorrow if you’d like, and see if I can help sort it out and point you in the right direction. I confess I’m mainly a rubber stamp for Mrs. K, but I do have a basic understanding of how it all works.”
“That would be awesome.” The relief that crossed her face as the tension left her shoulders made him feel like Superman saving the day. “Come to Latte Dah? I’ll buy you a cup of coffee . . .”
“I’ll have to double-check my schedule at the clinic, but maybe around ten or so?”
“I’m available at your convenience. You’re doing me the favor, after all.”
He rolled his eyes at their current project. “Well, I’ll owe you since you’re helping with this.”
To his surprise, Molly dropped the piece she was holding and dramatically dusted off her hands. “Oh, screw this. I’m going to declare that piece E-17 does not exist, therefore this grill is not going to be put together today. Helena can cook chicken breasts in the oven the way God and the creators of kitchen appliances intended us to do.”
He laughed. “All-righty, then.”
“Unless . . .” she backtracked.
“Unless your ego is caught up in this now and you have something you need to prove by completing it.”
Molly was clever. Even if his ego had been invested, there’d be no way to admit that now without sounding like a complete tool. “Not in the least,” he assured her. “Ryan can deal with this mess.”
“Good.” She pushed to her feet and dusted off the seat of her jeans. “I’m going to go give Helena our verdict.”
He wasn’t going to argue with that. Chivalry didn’t include sacrificing his head to Helena when Molly was willing to take one for the team. Friendship had its boundaries.
Helena and Molly were an odd pair. Molly was sweet and sunny and perky, and Helena was . . . well, she was none of those things. Helena had sharp edges to her personality and could be downright prickly, whereas he’d never seen Molly with anything other than a smile on her face. What they had in common, he didn’t know, and how they managed to get along so well was beyond him, but he was glad to see Helena with a girlfriend for once. And while most people were still a little afraid to get on Helena’s bad side, it seemed odd that perky little Molly was not cowed by Helena at all.
He put the grill parts back into the box and made it back onto the porch about the same time Helena came outside. “Quitter,” she said, shaking her head at him in disappointment.
“I gave it my best shot. Your poor planning isn’t my fault.”
“Waiting until it’s time to cook before making sure you have something to cook on? Tsk-tsk, Helena. Bad hostess.”
She shrugged. “I guess I didn’t get the party-planning gene.”
“Are you sure you’re Southern?” he said in mock horror as he collapsed onto the swing.
“Bite me.” She nudged him aside and sat as well, putting the swing in motion. “So how’s life? I barely get to see you these days.”
“Busy, same as yours, which is why we barely get to see each other.”
“Well, I’m glad you came tonight.” She cut her eyes at him. “Even if you can’t put together a simple grill.”
“It’s missing pieces,” he reminded her. “That’s not my fault.”
“It turns out I forgot to get a propane tank anyway, so . . .”
Good Lord. “It’s a good thing I gave up, then, or I would’ve had to kill you.”
Not the least bit scared of that possibility, Helena waved a hand dismissively. “Molly already read me the riot act about that, so you don’t have to. But dinner should be ready soonish. Grannie was precooking the chicken anyway.”
God bless Ms. Louise. “Should we be helping?”
Helena shook her head. “You know how Grannie feels about men in her kitchen. That’s why she sent me out here to talk to you.”
“You’re going to make your grandmother and Molly cook our dinner?”
Sighing, she leaned her head back and closed her eyes. “They both like cooking. And Molly’s much better at it than I am anyway. And,” she added primly, “it would be rude to leave a guest alone to entertain himself.”
“Most people consider it rude to invite a guest over under false pretenses.”
“I’ve apologized for the grill.”
“I meant Molly and the Children’s Fair.”
Completely unrepentant, Helena shrugged. “Molly didn’t feel comfortable asking you, and you’d have said no if I asked you, so I just gave you the chance to make it your idea to help her out.”
“What would you have done if I told her no?”
She snorted. “Like that was even a possibility.”
He looked at her. “I have no urgent desire to work on the Children’s Fair.”
“I know that, but I also know that you can’t resist the chance to rescue a damsel in distress.”
“Don’t even try to deny it,” she interrupted. “It’s sweet, really. But it makes you easier to play than ‘Chopsticks.’”
He was tempted to prove her wrong, but that wouldn’t be fair to Molly. “Such Machiavellian maneuverings.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Helena biting back a smile. “Oh Lord, what now?”
She was up to something and it worried him. “What?”
“Let’s change the subject,” she said, a little too brightly. “So . . . how’s your love life?”
“Just great. Thanks. And yours?” The answer and the tone were intentionally noncommittal.
“The same, of course,” she answered flatly. “You seeing anyone?”
When he didn’t elaborate, she elbowed him. “And why not?”
“Between the clinic, my family, and the rest of my life, there’s not a lot of time.” That wasn’t a lie, and it was a convenient, if not terribly pleasant, truth.
“But you want to. Date, that is.”
While phrased as a statement, it was obviously a question. And a very loaded one, by the tone of her voice. “What exactly are you asking me, Helena?”
She hesitated in a very un-Helena-like manner, which immediately put him on guard. Pausing the swing, she turned to face him. “I think you should ask Molly out.”
It could have been worse. “Why?”
“Because Molly’s great.”
“I’m sure she is.”
“So . . . ?” Helena prompted.
He nudged her foot, releasing its hold on the porch, and set the swing in motion again. “I’ve decided not to date locally.”
Excerpted from "Everything At Last"
Copyright © 2016 Kimberly Lang.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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