Cassie Edwards, a former foster child, purchases an 1870s Victorian mansion, the one home from her childhood where she felt like part of a family. She’s spending her summer lovingly restoring it, with dreams of one day raising a family of her own here.
Rayne Tucket, a photojournalist, is haunted by the death of his best friend in Afghanistan, a death he thinks is his fault. He survives day to day. Forever is not in his vocabulary. Swearing off photography, he answers an ad for a handyman—mindless, no emotion involved.
As the two of them renovate her house, can Cassie show Rayne that love is strong enough to heal all wounds?
|Publisher:||The Wild Rose Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.61(d)|
Read an Excerpt
The lawn mower wouldn't start. Again. Cassie wiped a straggly piece of blonde hair off her forehead, blowing out a breath in frustration. With a grunt, she yanked the starter cord. Nothing.
"Stupid idiot!" She kicked it. "Ow!" She grabbed her foot, hopping in a circle.
"Want me to give it a try?"
She shrieked. Her heart raced. The pain raced up her foot. She tried to catch her breath. As the pain in her foot receded to a dull throb, she braced herself to get ready to run if necessary. The stranger looked harmless enough with a crew cut, white T-shirt, and worn but neat jeans, but a person never could tell. Keeping the lawn mower between them, she met his gaze. "Jeez, you scared me. Who sneaks up on someone like that?"
"I didn't mean to sneak up on you. I was passing and heard you yelling. I thought you might need help, although I assumed you were yelling at a person, not a machine." He grinned. A single dimple punctuated his left cheek.
Her face warmed. She hadn't realized she'd been so loud. Gripping the handle, she tried to calm herself as she decided whether or not to trust the man.
"You could have given me a clue you were there."
"I thought I did."
She pushed her hair out of her eyes once again, looking from the man to the mower. "If you want to beat up this thing for me, I probably wouldn't object. It's the most ornery piece of equipment I've got. Came with the house I'm renovating. I should just get rid of it and buy a new one." Why was she babbling to a stranger?
"That just means it has character. Here, let me give it a try." He dropped his backpack on the ground then walked to the mower.
She backed up. Her sore foot touched the ground. She winced.
"I won't hurt you." He held up his hands in surrender, solemn hazel eyes wide.
She exhaled. "Sorry, I'm not used to strangers. Small town, everyone knows each other. We all either stay here or return here."
"I'm Rayne Tucket." He held out his hand.
After a moment, she took it. It was calloused, warm, and firm. "Cassie Edwards. Nice to meet you. What are you doing out here?"
"Passing through. Since we're no longer strangers, do you want me to start your mower?"
She bit her lip. She was a pretty good judge of character. While she didn't usually trust strangers, Rayne exuded something that made her believe she could trust him, even if he was avoiding her question.
"Yes, please." She looked around for his car but didn't see one. "How'd you get here?"
Walked? Was he serious? He pulled the starter. When nothing happened, he squatted next to the machine, fiddled with a few things, tipped it to look underneath, fiddled with some more things, and stood up. He tugged on the starter. The mower roared to life.
"There you go."
He wiped his hands on his jeans and turned to look out at the yard. "That's a nice-sized piece of property you've got there. You planning to mow it yourself?"
Great. She hadn't pegged him for a sexist jerk. "Just because I lost the battle of the starter, doesn't mean I can't mow my own lawn."
"If you're half as strong as you are loud, you can do anything," he said, an annoying ghost of a grin tugging at his mouth. "But I'm happy to do it for you if you'd like."
"Don't you have something better to do or someplace to be?"
He shrugged. His gaze passed from the top of her pony-tailed hair to the tips of her worn sneakers. Her body tingled at his slow, easy perusal, and she crossed her arms. Had it been that long since a man had looked at her?
"Well, if you want to mow the yard, I wouldn't mind. There's more gas in the carriage house out back." She pointed beyond the old Victorian house.
He nodded, resting his backpack beneath a tree. He cut the grass, his long legs eating up the distance between the sides of her property. After a few minutes, she walked back to the house. Entering from the side door that led directly into the kitchen, she locked it behind her. She checked to make sure the front door was locked as well. Just because she let the guy mow her grass didn't mean she wanted him sneaking into her house, regardless of how good looking he was.
His crew cut had highlighted chiseled bones in his face and the cleft in his chin. His T-shirt had clung to his body, emphasizing bulging biceps and a well-sculpted chest. Jeans had clung to well-toned legs. Her heart skipped again. She shook her head.
Hands on her hips, she turned in a slow circle. There wasn't much in the way of drinks for guys. No beer and only diet soda. She hoped he liked lemonade. Reaching into her pantry, she pulled out a bag of lemons and plopped it on the counter. She juiced them, added sugar and ice, and stored it in the refrigerator to cool.
She stared at her mixer. How corny would it be to make cookies? He hadn't mentioned payment, but she assumed she'd have to pay him something. Would homemade cookies in addition to cash be considered too much? Or would he think she was trying to feed him instead of paying him? Maybe she should just get out money from her wallet ... Argh, stop overthinking this! He was nice enough to offer to mow her grass before discussing any kind of payment. She was making him cookies. End of story.
Cassie combined the butter, brown sugar, eggs, flour, baking soda, and chocolate chips in the metal mixing bowl. The whir of the motor blended with the sound of the lawn mower outside. For a moment, her perspective shifted, the lines between indoor and outdoor a blur. She stopped the mixer, checked the dough, and spooned it onto the cookie sheet. When she stuck the first batch into the oven, she went to work on her parlor, prepping it for painting. Over the next hour, whenever the oven beeped, she stopped her sanding, slid the finished cookies onto the cooling rack, filled the cookie sheet with more dough, and stuck it back in the oven. By the time she finished sanding the window frame, all the cookies were baked. She arranged them on a plate and looked out the kitchen window. Rayne had moved onto the backyard.
He'd also removed his shirt.
Cassie dropped a cookie on the floor. The hint she'd gotten of a well-toned body under his shirt didn't do him justice. His skin was a golden tan, slightly lighter where his shirt had covered him, but definitely not a farmer's tan. Shoulder and back muscles worked in tandem as he pushed the mower across the grass. Perspiration beaded his neck and, when he turned around, his chest. A drop trailed down his chest. Her throat went dry. His muscles came from hard work, not a gym. How did she know that? She didn't, but these were not the over-sculpted muscles of a steroid junkie. These looked natural, like they'd been achieved with time and hard work. He was lean without an ounce of fat she could see. His waist tapered before disappearing into his jeans. The blur of a tattoo shadowed his shoulder; she couldn't make out the words from this distance.
She swallowed as she stepped away from the window. He was one seriously good-looking man. If she didn't watch it, she'd make a fool of herself. Grabbing the lemonade from the fridge, she put it on a tray with a glass and brought it out to the wide back porch. She set it on a small table and waited for Rayne to turn toward her. When he did, she motioned to the pitcher. He smiled, cut the engine, and walked to the porch.
"I thought you might be thirsty. If you'd rather something other than lemonade ..."
"Nope, this is perfect."
He filled his glass, tipped it toward his mouth, and swallowed. His adam's apple bobbed with each swallow. Her stomach fluttered. Her cheeks flushed.
When he finished, he swiped a hand across his mouth and returned the glass to the tray. "Thanks. I should be done in about a half hour." He returned to the idling mower.
If she remained on the porch, she'd look ridiculous, so she went back to the work in the parlor, this time, moving onto the crown molding. When the rumble of the mower stopped, she brushed her hands on her jeans, grabbed a plate of cookies and her purse, and went back to the porch.
He'd just finished another glass of lemonade. His eyes lit up at the sight of the cookies. Her gaze alternated between a drop of lemonade perched on his lips and the amber light shining in his eyes. No matter where she looked, she was doomed. Giving herself a mental shake, she walked to him.
"Thanks. You gave me time to work inside. How much do I owe you?"
"The cookies and lemonade are enough payment," he said as he bit into a cookie. "Jeezum crow, these are amazing!"
Her lips twitched at his odd expression. "Seriously, I have to pay you."
"Consider yourself paid in full." He finished chewing the cookie, scooping three more from the plate.
She followed him as he returned the mower to the barn and retrieved his backpack from under the tree. "Where are you headed?"
"South? That's more of a direction than a destination, unless you're a bird."
He laughed, a bark, really, and swung his backpack over his shoulder. "I'm no bird."
"Well, then, do you need a ride south?"
A shadow crossed his face, gone so fast she almost thought she imagined it.
"No, I like walking. But thanks." He held a hand up in farewell and headed down the road.
As she entered her kitchen, her phone rang.
"Cassie, sweetheart, was that Rayne Tucket, Bob and Dinah Montgomery's grandson I saw mowing your lawn today?"
"Hi, Mrs. Murdoch, yes, that was Rayne." She rolled her eyes at the cackly voice of the town's busybody. Fortune's Rock was a small town. The gossip chain shouldn't surprise her. "I didn't know he was the Montgomery's grandson, though."
"On his mother's side. He spent some of his summers here when he was just a little thing. He sure grew up fine. Looks exactly like his grandpa."
She could hear the appreciation in the old woman's voice. Cassie didn't know whether to agree or cringe. Rayne was more than fine, but Mrs. Murdoch was old enough to be her grandmother.
"Is there anything I can help you with, Mrs. Murdoch?" Cassie wanted to go into town before it got too late. If she didn't control the conversation, Mrs. Murdoch would keep her on the phone forever.
"Oh, I'll let you go. I know how busy you are with fixing up that house of yours. But you be sure to tell Rayne Mrs. Murdoch says hi."
"I will, Mrs. Murdoch."
It's not like she would see the man again.
Rayne walked along the winding road, surrounded by trees on both sides. He licked his lips. Those cookies tasted good. They reminded him of the ones his mom used to make. Maybe she still did — he hadn't been home in so long, he didn't know for certain. The summer heat beat down on his head. Although the silence soothed his soul, the cool relief he'd received from the lemonade disappeared. If he remembered correctly from his summers here as a child, there was a diner up ahead where he could stop for a drink and something to eat.
The one thing he didn't remember was Cassie. She was pretty, and someone he'd pursue if his life had worked out differently. Blonde curly hair, pert nose, cute body. She made him laugh, something he hadn't done in a long time. She'd been afraid of him at first, smart for a woman on her own, but still it had surprised him. He wasn't used to people being afraid of him. Had the war changed him that much? He shook his head — he knew it had. His soul was weary, filled with a bone-wringing exhaustion he couldn't ease no matter what he did. Memories haunted him; promises lay heavy on his heart. He wished he'd never taken that damn photo job.
If he hadn't, he wouldn't be walking through this town. He'd be settling down in it, or in one like it. A small town, where everyone knew everyone else, where people looked out for each other, where no one was alone. It was exactly the kind of place he'd dreamed of living someday — of settling down and putting out roots. Raising a family. Becoming part of a community. But that was the old Rayne. This new version, one he'd tried to adjust to, like a new shoe that didn't quite fit, had no use for commitment or roots. Just the thought of eating a meal in the same place two days in a row made his mouth go dry. Instead, he was passing through, like he'd done in all the other towns, stopping only long enough to make a few bucks and rest up before continuing his trek.
As the town unfurled in front of him, he studied the façades of the buildings with his photographer's eye for balance, shading, and perspective. The main street was postcard-perfect with clean sidewalks, flags flying, potted flowers blooming.
One main street with local mom-and-pop-shops on either side of the street — a pharmacy, grocery store, and Sally's Restaurant & Café on one side; Troy's Hardware Store, a clothing boutique, and a beauty parlor on the other. Side streets housed a bar, the post office, police headquarters, and a few local businesses. Help Wanted signs hung in a few windows next to posters for upcoming town activities. A dog tied to a post waited for an owner Rayne presumed was in the store. Cars passed slowly. A few people even waved.
He was in no hurry to get to his destination — the deadline loomed like the timer in the dark room, daring him to remove the film too early, berating him for doing so too late. Maybe this was the place to stop for a while — not to put down roots, but to draw breath and replenish his funds. As he entered the diner he half remembered, he decided to think about it over a cup of coffee. The town was cute; Cassie was even cuter. It might be worth some of his time.
"Early bird special?" Cassie pointed toward the dining room of her best friend's family-style restaurant. The play of light from the late afternoon sun created pockets of shadows and light, like a checkerboard.
"More like hot guy wanting coffee," Sally replied.
"Oh, where?" She peeked through the kitchen door's small window. She widened her eyes in appreciation. Although she couldn't see much of the man, what she could see made her heart thud. Mahogany highlights created by the large pendant lights over the front Formica counter, slashed through his brown hair, which was longer than a crew cut. His head was tipped down as he studied the large plastic menu, but chiseled cheekbones were visible above the top of the laminated page. Long, tanned fingers gripped the menu. Cassie's gaze wandered up muscular arms and well-defined shoulders. "Wow! Makes me wish I was his coffee cup."
"I know, right?" Sally glanced at her friend. "Want to bring it to him?"
Cassie snorted. "And take over your job? I don't think so. Besides, I'm admiring him, not applying for a job here."
Sally swatted Cassie with a dishrag, grabbed the coffeepot, and swung through the door. Before it fully closed, Sally peeked back into the kitchen. "Can you keep an eye on that pot?"
Cassie nodded as the door swung shut. The water in the large pot on the stove bubbled. Mouthwatering smells of roasted garlic and Old Bay spices made her stomach growl. By the looks of things, Sally was cooking soup. She picked up the knife to chop carrots.
"Watch out, I may have to hire you," Sally warned, as she returned to the kitchen a few minutes later.
Cassie snorted, put down the knife, and wiped her hands on a towel. "Not until after I finish my house. I'm still working on my parlor. Then I have the rest of the first floor to redo. With the amount of supplies I still need, I'm singlehandedly keeping Troy's Hardware Store in business."
Sally's face lit up at the mention of her boyfriend's name. Troy and Sally had dated for years. Cassie expected an engagement announcement any day now. "Believe me, he's happy to oblige."
Cassie opened her mouth to tell her about the latest step in the renovation process, but Sally held up her hand. "As much as I'd love to hear all about the minutiae of restoring an old Victorian mansion, I have a customer to see to." She took a napkin and silverware and returned to the otherwise empty dining room.
Cassie leaned against the counter, waiting for her friend to return. She loved this pokey town of Fortune's Rock, Maryland. The residents knew each other, looked out for one another, depended on each other. She'd never had many people to depend on; most of the foster families she'd grown up with had taken good enough care of her, but had done so on a superficial level and only as long as it suited them, or out of pity for the "poor orphan girl." This place had been special. After she put herself through college, she'd come back here, where her memories were the happiest. She planned to put down roots and build her life here. Her house, when it was finished, would enable her to do that.
Excerpted from "In the Moment"
Copyright © 2017 Jennifer Wilck.
Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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