First in the new Lake Sullivan Romance series.
Lake Sullivan, Vermont, has plenty of attractions for movie star Ashley Carlsen—pristine nature, local color, and a handyman with a bad reputation for all the right reasons . . .
Ashley’s movie-star life is starting to feel like an act. She’s desperate to be taken seriously, and after her boyfriend’s affair with a costar, she’s ready for a new scene. A vacation at Lake Sullivan with Hollywood power player Jasmine McArthur might be the answer to all her problems. And according to Jasmine, all Ashley needs is a hot summer fling with local stud Josh Sullivan.
After one look at the handsome handyman, Ashley has a hard time saying no. But Josh is tired of playing boy toy for rich women like Jasmine and her friends. As determined as he is to stay away, he can’t shake the feeling that Ashley is different—and he can’t help noticing her auburn hair and dancing green eyes. But when their budding romance hits the tabloids, will it be another Hollywood scandal, or happily ever after?
About the Author
Cate Cameron's life path may not be a straight line, but it has definitely zigged in some interesting directions. With a work history that ranges from historical interpreter to garden designer, office manager to school librarian, she's had a lot of experiences and tries to bring these to life in her writing. She is the author of the Lake Sullivan Romance series, including Just a Summer Fling.
Read an Excerpt
ASHLEY CARLSEN WAS drunk. She’d been drinking at the lake house all afternoon, and then they’d piled into the car and been driven to town where they’d found more delicious alcohol, and now? Drunk. It wasn’t unheard of for Ashley to have a few drinks too many when she was at home with her friends. But she’d never been so reckless as to lose control of herself out in a public place. She had an image to cultivate and maintain. Now that she’d dared to cut loose, though? She thought maybe she liked it.
“I love this band!” she told Jasmine McArthur just as their song ended.
“I think you’ve loved everything about this bar so far,” her friend replied with a laugh. “The name, the neon sign, the wooden door, the sports posters, the mismatched tables, the servers’ aprons . . .”
“It’s a good bar!” Woody’s wasn’t fancy, but that was fine by Ashley. She squinted up at the stage and saw the musicians packing up. “Wait a second! Are they leaving?”
“Just taking a break, I think. There’s a jukebox if you want to put a song on.”
A jukebox. Like they were in the fifties or something. It was too damned perfect and Ashley absolutely did want to put a song on. Jasmine pointed to the far wall, past the bar, and Ashley craned her neck to see. Her gaze got caught on a broad set of shoulders before she found the jukebox. The man was facing away from her, but even from behind he was worth paying attention to. When he half turned, giving her a look at his silhouette, she forgot the jukebox entirely.
“Oh,” Ashley said. It came out more like a moan than it should have. “Nice.”
Jasmine draped herself over Ashley, leaning across to see what had caught her eye. “Oh,” she said with a bit less enthusiasm than Ashley had displayed.
“He’s lovely,” Ashley said. But that wasn’t the right word. “He’s . . . God, what is he?”
“A bit of a whore,” Jasmine answered. “He’s a local handyman. He takes care of our place, and quite a few others. But that’s not all he takes care of, if you know what I mean. He’s a handy man when husbands aren’t in town, as I understand it.”
Ashley didn’t have any reason to feel so disappointed. This was just one more man unable to keep his dick in his pants. She’d come to this small Vermont town to escape one man-slut and no sooner had she stepped into a public space than she’d encountered another. It was tedious maybe, but certainly not a reason for her to feel let down. “Oh,” she said quietly, and took a sip of her wine.
“I’m not saying he’s off-limits, Ashley. . . . He’s . . . well, I’m having trouble thinking of any man who’s more on limits than Josh Sullivan.”
“Josh Sullivan? Like . . . Lake Sullivan? That kind of Sullivan?”
“According to him, his great-grandfather was one of the first settlers to the area.” Jasmine sounded bored. “Who knows if that’s true. But, yeah, he says the lake’s named after the old guy.” She shrugged. “Honestly, though, who cares about his family?” Her face grew more animated and her smile was almost crafty as she said, “He could be just what you’re looking for after that mess with Derek in the city! I know you say it was just your pride that was hurt, but even if that’s all it was, it still has to sting. Getting a little action from a rugged country boy? That could be the perfect antidote to a bad case of cheating-boyfriend syndrome.”
Ashley had only been staying with Jasmine for two days, and she’d already figured out that the woman liked drama. If there was none naturally occurring, she’d go out of her way to create some. Ashley tried to laugh it off. “Oh, I don’t think Derek made me sick enough to need any medicine.”
“So maybe it’s not about Derek, then.” There was something new in Jasmine’s voice, something Ashley wished she was sober enough to puzzle through. But she and Jasmine didn’t know each other all that well, and Ashley couldn’t get a read on what Jasmine meant when she said, “You’re looking for something new, aren’t you?”
Was she? Professionally, yes. But that couldn’t be what Jasmine was talking about. “Something new?”
“You just got dumped. You’ve flown across the country to escape a messy breakup. You should live a little. Take your tight little ass over there and let Josh Sullivan know he’s yours for the night.”
That was not Ashley’s style. Not even close. Her best friend, Charlotte, was the take-charge type; Ashley usually just sat back and watched. She had a pretty good come-hither stare, but it only worked if the man would look in her direction long enough to get stared at. And that was about as forward as she’d ever gotten.
“It’s the twenty-first century,” Jasmine said firmly. “You say you want to be in control of your life and your career. But you’re still sitting around waiting for some man to notice you and decide whether you’re worth his time! You decide, Ashley!”
“It’s just not really—”
This was ridiculous. They were both grown women but Jasmine was acting like a little kid. And not a very nice one. “I’m not scared,” Ashley said as calmly as she could. “I’m just . . . There’s a difference between admiring someone’s appearance and wanting to have sex with him.”
“Why? Because you’ve got a boyfriend to be faithful to? Oh, nope, you don’t. Because you’re saving yourself for . . . Oh, no, there’s no way Derek Braxton dated you for two years and didn’t get any sex out of the deal. Unless that’s why he had to go and sleep with his little tramp? Because he wasn’t satisfied at home?”
Ashley stared at Jasmine. She knew her mouth was hanging open, but she couldn’t pull herself together enough to close it.
Jasmine watched her with an arched eyebrow, then smiled almost sweetly. “No,” she said. “That’s not what happened. Derek cheated because he’s an asshole, not because you’re a prude. Right?”
“I’m not a prude,” Ashley managed to say. At least she got her mouth closed at the end of the sentence.
“I know that.” Jasmine was almost motherly now. “But does anyone else? I see how they treat you at home, like some kind of frilly little ornament. Because they still see you that way. They don’t think you’ve got the guts to be a strong woman, the kind who sees something she likes and then takes it.”
Ashley had no idea how she’d gotten into this conversation. She felt like anything she said would be stepping into one of Jasmine’s traps. And she couldn’t afford to offend Jasmine; she was part of one of Hollywood’s biggest power couples, and she wasn’t afraid of throwing her weight around. The invitation to the McArthur summerhouse had been a professional dream, but it would end up a nightmare if Ashley pissed Jasmine off.
“It’s just . . . it’s not really my style,” she said.
“You want to play with the big boys? You’ve got to act like the big boys. And the big boys don’t see something they like and then decide it’s not their style to go get it. They fucking take it.”
Ashley wished she’d had a little less to drink. “Okay, I think maybe we’re talking about something a bit beyond picking up people in a bar.”
“It’s all the same. You’ve either got the fire or you don’t.”
“I have plenty of fire!”
“So prove it,” Jasmine said with a cocky grin. “I’ll bet you . . . lunch at The Warwick when we get back home. You chicken out, you owe me lunch. You go over there and take that rugged lumberjack home, and you win twice over. Sex, plus I owe you lunch.”
“This is ridiculous,” Ashley protested.
“I’m serious! This is not . . .” Not what? Not her style, she’d said, and that was true. But what the hell good was she getting from being true to her style? Her acting career was stagnant, her last relationship had just publicly imploded, and she’d practically run away from home. Maybe Jasmine was right and it was time to change her style. “I could go talk to him,” she said.
“You have to actually leave with him,” Jasmine warned. “This isn’t a points-for-effort situation. You take him to bed or you lose.”
Ashley looked again at the broad shoulders by the bar. Josh had turned away and she couldn’t see his face, but she remembered enough of it to know that she’d really like to see more. And getting an up-close view might be nice, too. Bet or no bet, she’d rather talk to that man than to Jasmine McArthur. All she had to do was find the guts to approach him. She looked at her empty wineglass, then reached for Jasmine’s vodka tonic and lifted it to her lips. She had it drained in two gulps.
“Okay,” she said. “I’m doing it.”
Jasmine clapped her hands. “Fun!”
There was no point in thinking too much more about it. So Ashley stood up, straightened her clothes, and then headed for the bar. She tried to look confident, as if this was something she did every day.
Josh Sullivan was standing at the bar, his back turned to the crowd. He seemed to be dividing his attention between a baseball game on the television behind the bar and a few casual comments to the guy sitting next to him. And, damn it, the guy next to him was the tall, blond lead singer from the band that had just left the stage. Shoulders as wide as Josh’s, so the two of them had to sort of angle themselves in just to have room next to each other at the bar. Two handsome men were even more intimidating than one had been.
How exactly was Ashley supposed to do this? If he’d been at a table she could have snuck around to the far side and caught his eye, but as it was she was stuck behind him, being ignored, and she felt like an idiot. Was she supposed to tap him on the shoulder to get him to turn around? That wasn’t too cool.
People talked to strangers in bars all the time. There had to be a system. How did men approach her in bars? No, that wasn’t a good line of questioning. She generally found the men who approached her in bars to be annoying, or even sleazy. Not the impression she was trying to create here. But it was probably better than the other impression she must be creating, hovering there behind the guy’s back like a dog hoping for a treat from the dinner table.
She turned and looked back at Jasmine, who was laughing her ass off, of course. Ashley threw her hands up in a “What now?” gesture, and Jasmine just responded with a little shooing motion. Ashley waved emphatically behind her to show that there was no access point, and her flailing hand met soft fabric covering a hard, warm stomach.
She jerked around to stare at Josh Sullivan, who had apparently stood up to give his bar stool to a friend. Excellent.
“Sorry,” she blurted.
She realized she was apologetically patting his stomach, then realized that her motivation was only partly apology. Damn, the man was solid, and very nice to touch. “I’m a little drunk,” she said. The words were out loud, but she’d only meant them for herself.
“If you’re going to be drunk, you picked the right place for it,” Josh said. His voice was low and warm, loud enough to be heard over the din of the bar without sounding like he was yelling. He smiled gently at her and she knew she was staring but she didn’t seem to be able to stop. The alcohol was part of the problem, but there was absolutely more to it than that.
She wanted to stare at him all night. But for some reason he was turning around, edging to the side, going back to his damn conversation about the stupid baseball game. He was blowing her off!
He was . . . this lothario, this man who was handy for so many women . . . and he was done with her? He hadn’t seen anything to catch his interest?
She glanced back toward Jasmine. Jasmine just grinned and made the shooing gesture, urging Ashley to keep trying.
She wasn’t going to slink back over to the table with her tail between her legs, so Ashley stepped around Josh’s broad back and smiled at him. “Can I buy you a drink? As an apology for that little groping thing I did?”
He looked at her, assessing, then said, “Sure. I’ve been drinking beer, but I was just about to make a switch. You want to try something new?”
“I absolutely do!” She tried to make it sound as if she were feeling adventurous about more than her choice of beverage, but probably just came off as dementedly enthusiastic about alcohol. Damn, she was going to regret this when she sobered up. But now that she’d set it all in motion, she wasn’t quite sure how to stop.
Josh turned to the bartender, caught his eye, and then tapped his watch and held up two fingers. What the hell kind of mountain-man sign language was this? But the bartender seemed to understand. While he was working, Josh edged back a little, making room for Ashley near the bar and forming a sort of half circle with the blond guy. “This is my cousin, Theo Linden,” Josh said, and Ashley stuck her hand out to shake. A bit more traditional than her ab-patting move with Josh.
“Nice to meet you,” she said. “I really like the band! Do you guys have any albums out?”
The guy’s smile was sweetly self-deprecating. “We’re just a bar band. Just covers, no original stuff. But if you need any roofing done, I’m your guy.”
“I do not need any roofing done. But I appreciate the offer.” Damn. If Ashley hadn’t already seen Josh Sullivan, this guy might have been her crush for the evening. But she’d seen Josh first, and she was satisfied with her choice.
“Cal Montgomery,” Josh said, and Cal turned and smiled. Another fine-looking man, tall and lean and strangely refined, despite the setting. Did Ashley have the world’s worst case of beer goggles or was this town absolutely full of gorgeous men?
The bartender arrived then with two pint glasses, both filled with ice and a clear liquid, garnished with slices of lime. Intriguing.
“Cheers,” Josh said as he handed her an icy glass. She took it in two hands and raised it to her lips at the same time he did.
An enthusiastic swig from him, a cautious sip from her. Then she snorted. “Water?”
He grinned. “I have to drive home. And you’ve been hanging out with Jasmine, right? So you could probably use a break, too.” He stopped with a frown, as if he’d just realized something. “Or not. I can order you something else, if you want.”
“No. The water’s good. You’re right, we’ve been drinking since noon.” She decided to accept it as a small victory that he had at least noticed what table she’d come from and who she’d been with. “You call her Jasmine? You work for her, right?”
“You think she should be Mrs. McArthur?” Josh smiled, but it wasn’t quite as sincere as some of his other efforts. “I have one pair of clients that I call ‘Mister’ and ‘Missus.’ They’re in their eighties, and I think they appreciate the respect. The rest? First names.”
“That’d be nice,” Ashley said. “My housekeeper always wants to call me ‘Miss Carlsen.’ I mean, she washes my underwear! I feel like we could cut past the formal titles, you know? But she doesn’t want to.”
He nodded. “Probably not a bad idea.” His voice was so quiet in the noisy bar that she was reading his lips more than hearing him. “It’s good to remind yourself of things sometimes.”
She was pretty sure she wouldn’t have understood that even if she hadn’t spent the day drinking in the sun. She glanced over at Jasmine, who raised a glass in a silent toast to what Ashley had accomplished so far and then made another “go on” motion with her free hand.
Damn it. But Ashley couldn’t afford to blow off Jasmine McArthur. And maybe Jasmine hadn’t been totally wrong about the best strategy for getting over a breakup. If one horse bucks you off, maybe you don’t get back on the same one, but you should get back on someone. She had no idea what the appropriate next step was, but she hoped that a man like Josh Sullivan would appreciate the direct approach. Theo had faded out somewhere, maybe back off to the band, so there was a bit more room for Ashley to maneuver as she leaned in toward Josh. “It’s loud in here,” she said. “You want to go somewhere quieter?”
Josh froze for a moment, then sipped his drink. He obviously knew she was suggesting more than just conversation. Finally he said, “Better not. I’m not safe to drive yet.”
“We could take a cab.”
“You’re staying at the McArthurs’? But you don’t want to take me back there. So to my place. But I live out in the country. There’s only one cab in town and Tony’s not going to waste most of a Saturday night driving way out there and all the way back.”
One cab. It was ridiculous. But not unsolvable. “He’ll do it if we pay him enough.”
She could tell it had been the wrong thing to say, but she really didn’t know why. Then Josh said, “Not everyone’s for sale, you know.” He sounded almost hostile.
She tried to laugh it off. “I don’t want to buy him. Just rent him.”
Josh’s smile was tight. “Still. No. Not a good idea.”
“The cab’s not a good idea? Or us going somewhere else isn’t a good idea?”
“Neither one’s a good idea.” He said it with finality, and there was something about his tone that pissed her off. She’d been hearing too much of that lately. Men telling her that what she wanted wasn’t a good idea, as if they were doing her a favor. As if they knew better than she did what she wanted and what was best for her. She’d had enough. Jasmine was right; it was time for a change, and this was as good a place as any for that change to begin.
She set her glass on the bar, then leaned forward and brought her mouth to Josh’s ear. “I think it’s a good idea,” she whispered, and she nipped his earlobe.
He didn’t move. She had no idea what that meant. Damn it, she’d never done this before. Josh was supposed to have fallen over himself as soon as she’d suggested the possibility of a hookup. He should have been giddy with excitement. That was how this was supposed to work, wasn’t it? She had no idea, but she knew he still wasn’t moving.
She needed to do more. She had no idea how this had become so important to her. This was . . . Ashley had no idea. She’d think about it when she sobered up. For the time being, she kissed her way down Josh’s neck. His skin was warm and surprisingly soft, and she felt a churn of desire in her gut when she felt his pulse beating strong and fast beneath her lips. This wasn’t about Jasmine McArthur anymore. Ashley genuinely wanted this man. She hooked her fingers into the waistband of his jeans, and that was when he caught her hand in his.
“Not a good idea,” he said, and he stepped back, holding his arms out to keep her from following.
“Why not?” she demanded.
“You’ve had too much to drink.”
She stared at him. “What? You’re the bar police now? You watch people’s drinks and then decide who gets to go home with whom?”
“No. Just who gets to go home with me.”
“Like you’re some sort of prize?” she said, trying to dredge up some face-saving scorn.
“You seem to think I am,” he said quietly. “But, no, I wouldn’t put it that way.” His voice was harder as he said, “I wouldn’t think of myself as an inanimate object that has to go home with whoever wins it.”
She stared at him. What the hell was going on? How had everything gone so wrong? And more importantly, how much of it was her fault?
Pretty much all of it, probably. She was out of control. She’d had too much to drink, she was frustrated by her career, her boyfriend had just cheated on her very publicly, and now she was making a fool of herself in a backwoods Vermont bar.
“I’m sorry,” she said. She took a step backward. “I’m . . . I don’t know. Sorry.”
His face was impassive as he looked at her, then over at Jasmine, then back at her. “It’s okay,” he finally said. “We all do stupid things sometimes. It’s not a big deal.”
And that was that. She’d messed up, been forgiven, and now it was over. She reluctantly turned away, heading back over to Jasmine’s table.
She didn’t make it all the way.
“Hey! Ashley! Ashley . . . something! From that show . . . the one with . . . with the family . . .” The man who had accosted her was obviously drunk and leaning toward her in a way that suggested he was about to sprawl all over her, but she was more upset about his ignorance of classic American television.
“Mayfair Drive,” she prompted. “One of the longest-running drama series in television history? Following the trials and triumphs of the Anderson family, including their youngest daughter, plucky Amanda Anderson, played by . . . ?”
“Ashley something!” the guy said triumphantly. “Yeah, I knew it was you. Hey . . .” He leaned even closer and breathed on her, and she knew what was coming. “I saw you in something else. Last year. That movie. That thing with . . . with the chick from that high school show.” His eyes were wide with excitement as he stage-whispered, “I saw your tits.”
“First time you’d seen any?”
He scowled. “What? No! I’ve seen plenty!”
“Oh. So . . . I’m not quite sure why you’re so excited about that.”
“Might be the first time he saw any and didn’t get slapped in the face right after,” a new voice said, and Ashley half turned to see Josh looming into the conversation. Damn, he was tall. And wide in the shoulders. And his big, strong hand was hovering protectively just over her shoulder while his amber eyes were locked challengingly on the guy who’d stopped her. “That what it was, Driscoll?”
“Fuck you, Sullivan,” Driscoll said, but the words were clearly just to save face. Ashley wished she was sober enough to catch the subtleties of the way he took in Josh’s hand placement, his size, his confidence. She could use those reactions in a future role, if she ever needed to play someone who was backing down from a superior opponent.
Josh didn’t respond to the words. He just stood there, staring, and Driscoll faded away without another look in Ashley’s direction. She couldn’t decide whether to be grateful for Josh’s protection or annoyed at his interference. “Thank you,” she said. “I could have handled that—it’s part of my job, really. But thanks.”
“You shouldn’t have to handle it,” he said. “I guess you know what your job is better than I do, but putting up with assholes shouldn’t be part of anyone’s job.” Then he caught himself and shrugged. “At least, I don’t think it should be.”
“I . . . yeah, I agree, actually.”
“Well, sorry. You know, on behalf of Lake Sullivan, or whatever. We’re mostly not like that.”
“I know,” she said quickly. “I mean, I haven’t been here very long, but almost everyone’s been really nice.” She supposed it was rude to push any further just because he’d been a gentleman, but she was having a really hard time making herself go back to her seat. “Everything’s so beautiful up here. The lake and the forest. And the rocks. They’re so rugged and wild.”
He nodded cautiously. “I don’t know if rocks can be tame, really. Or wild. They’re just rocks.”
“Yeah, okay. Good point.” Ashley knew she wasn’t making much sense, but she didn’t seem to be offending him, either. “Jasmine said there’s wildlife, right? I mean, wild life. She said we have to be careful not to leave food out or we’ll get bears. That’s crazy. Like, at home, I’d worry about getting ants! Up here, I might get bears!”
“And ants.” He was smiling. They were okay. It shouldn’t have been so important to her, but it was.
She smiled back at him, trying to get her pulse rate back where it belonged, and trying to forget the feeling of his skin under her lips. “It’s like a kids’ alphabet book. A list of hazards in Vermont. ‘A’ is for ants, ‘B’ is for bears, ‘C’ is for . . . ?”
She stared at him, startled. “No. Not cobras.”
“Yeah. Sorry, but it’s true. There are three species of cobra that live in the Vermont wilderness.”
She was pretty sure she would have heard about this little fact, but he seemed sincere. “What are they? The three species.”
“Rock cobra, river cobra, stone cobra.”
“Rock cobras are different from stone cobras?”
He kept his face still for a moment longer than he should have been able to, then let it fall into a grin. “I panicked. I couldn’t think of a third cobra name.”
“Lake cobra. Swamp cobra. Forest cobra. Or you could have gotten away from the habitats entirely. Grey cobra, hooded cobra, spitting cobra . . .”
“Damn. Next time I play ‘let’s make up snake names,’ I want you on my team.”
“But not in your bed.” Damn it. Why had she said that? Just when things were going nicely, she had to ruin it.
But he didn’t seem too offended by her bluntness. “Not when you’re drunk. Not the first time, at least.”
So. It was that simple. He had a rule, and it didn’t really seem like a bad one. She was pretty sure that she’d approve of it when she sobered up. For the time being, though, she was still tasting his skin on her tongue and still wanting to peel away that raggedy T-shirt and find out just what lay beneath it. But he’d said no. Repeatedly. It was over. But that didn’t mean she had to go back and admit defeat to Jasmine. It didn’t mean she had to tear herself away from Josh Sullivan.
“Just so we’re clear,” she said, “there are cobras up here, or there aren’t?”
“There aren’t,” he said reluctantly. “Not technically. Maybe ‘C’ could be ‘coyotes.’”
“Okay,” she agreed, and they went on with their game.
JOSH WONDERED IF he would have had the self-control to say no if Jasmine McArthur hadn’t been sitting over at her table watching them with such wicked interest. If it had just been him and Ashley. She’d been tipsy, maybe, but not really drunk. And, damn it, she was a beautiful woman. Long auburn hair, dancing green eyes, and a hell of a body. It was too bad that she was an actress, but everyone had faults.
And now, in the bar, she wasn’t acting like a spoiled movie star. They were working through their alphabet of Vermont hazards. “M” had been easy, both of them saying “mosquitoes” at the same time and then moving on. “N,” though?
“‘Norwegians?’” Josh suggested. “There are a lot of them up here. But they’re ex-Norwegians. They came generations ago. And I don’t know if they’re a hazard, exactly. Not all of them.”
“I think Norwegians are a noble people. Not a hazard. And I already let you have ‘Dutch’ for ‘D.’ This list is serious business, Josh! It can’t just be an excuse for you to slam different countries of origin.”
Josh nodded. “Yeah, okay. That’s fair. So . . . ‘N.’ Maybe ‘neighbors’? Mine are okay, but only because they’re distant. Most people up here like their space.”
“I guess that’s why you’d live here.” She nodded as if pleased to have an answer to the question of why anyone would settle in such a godforsaken land. But then she smiled and he wondered if he was being a little oversensitive. She liked the lake, after all. “Okay, ‘neighbors.’ What’s ‘O’?”
But that was when Jasmine arrived. Josh smelled her familiar perfume before she’d even tucked her hand into the back of his jeans, that familiar claim of ownership that he hated so much. He reached behind him to pull her hand out, but he tried to do it subtly. Ashley couldn’t see what was going on back there and he’d just as soon she not know about it.
“So, you two are getting along?” Jasmine asked. Her smile was sharp. “I was just going to call for the car. For myself. Josh, can I trust you to make sure Ashley gets home safely? Eventually?”
She’d taken her hand out from inside his jeans but now she had it resting on the curve of his ass, her fingers digging in a little where they wrapped underneath. How many people in the bar were seeing that? Seeing her treat him like a possession that she could paw at will, or give away to her friends if the whim struck her?
He stepped away from her entirely. She and her husband had a lot of friends, and most of those friends were Josh’s clients. He really couldn’t afford to alienate her, but he wasn’t going to stand there and let her molest him, either. “I’m just about to head out myself,” he said, working to keep his voice light and calm. “Ashley, maybe you want to go with Jasmine?”
She nodded slowly. “Yeah. Okay.”
“Oh,” Jasmine said. Her disappointment was a little too blatant to be real. The emotions Jasmine displayed for public consumption rarely had any relationship to her actual feelings; Josh had learned that the hard way. “But you two seemed to be getting along so well. Do you just need a little more time? I don’t have to leave now. . . .”
“No,” Josh said firmly. He didn’t want to get dragged into whatever the hell this was. “Like I said, I’m about to go.” He set his empty glass down on the bar and nodded. “Ashley, it was nice to meet you. Enjoy your stay in hazardous Vermont. Be safe.”
She grinned at him. Damn, he liked her smile. And he liked how often she used it.
“I’ll try. I’m a little worried that I haven’t identified all of the risks yet. If I’m approached by something from ‘A’ to ‘N’, I feel like I’ll be prepared. But if something from ‘O’ on attacks . . .”
Jasmine laughed. “You two have a little game! How adorable!”
Josh was not a fan of being called “adorable,” and from the expression on Ashley’s face he could tell she felt the same. So he smiled just at Ashley as he said, “We are pretty fucking cute.”
“Might as well accept it,” she replied, and her shoulder shrug was a lot more relaxed than it would have been a moment earlier. Somehow, in that quick second, they’d become a team. The two of them united against Jasmine.
And Jasmine could tell. “Fine, then,” she said, her joking tone gone. “Ashley, if you’re coming with me, let’s go. Josh, I really would like the path through the trees re-mulched as soon as possible. I asked you to do that several days ago. And there are some boards on the dock that are rotting. We need them replaced before someone puts a foot through them.”
Yeah. Good reminder of his place in their social structure. He told himself to be grateful for it. “I can try to get to the dock tomorrow—you’ve got some extra boards in your boathouse, so it won’t take long to replace a few weak ones. I’ll probably get to the mulch early next week. Everyone came up this week and found a lot of stuff they want done, so I’m working through the list as quickly as I can.”
“Most of the names on that list are there because we referred you to them. Why don’t you do the boards and the mulch tomorrow?”
Another good reminder. So he made himself smile. “I appreciate the referrals. But the mulch is a bigger job, and nobody’s going to get hurt if a path isn’t mulched. So it’s lower priority.”
“It would be a shame if we had to find someone else to recommend to people.”
Okay, there had to be an end to it. “If you can find someone else who does work of my quality at my price, I guess they deserve your support.” He stepped backward, disengaging from the conversation, then said, “Good night,” and turned for the parking lot.
He was halfway to the door when he felt a warm hand catch his, and he turned to see Ashley looking tentative but determined. “Good night,” she said quickly, and she brought her free hand to the back of his neck and pulled his head down. She stood on her tiptoes and pressed a quick kiss to the corner of his mouth. “Thank you.”
It made no sense to let her go. He wanted to drag her out of there. No, not drag her—pick her up and carry her. But she’d been drinking, and Jasmine was . . . Jasmine was Jasmine. Always playing her games by rules only she knew. Josh wasn’t interested in being her pawn anymore, and he felt a bit protective about Ashley, too. He had no idea what Jasmine was up to, but Ashley shouldn’t get dragged into whatever it was.
“It was nice to meet you,” he said, and he gently eased out of her grip.
She blinked and let him go. “I’m here for another week,” she said. “Until next Friday. Do you think maybe—”
“This is the busy season for me,” he said quickly. “Paths to mulch, you know? Very important stuff. No time for much else.”
Another blink. “Okay,” she said.
She sounded sad, but he bet he could kiss her into a better mood without much trouble. Except he wasn’t supposed to be thinking that way. He knew better. “Good night, Ashley.” He turned before she could say anything else that tempted him to do something different. He was dimly aware of people watching him, trying to figure out why the hell he was walking away from the woman behind him. It was a small town and half the bar knew who he was. They knew he’d made different decisions in similar situations in the past.
Ironic, he supposed, that he gave up on summer women right before he met one who seemed like she might be something a bit more. But he shook his head as he headed out the door and toward his pickup. Ashley was in town until Friday. Had he lost his mind, thinking there was going to be something more that developed over that time? Summer women were transient. For a while, that had been their biggest charm. But he was too old for that crap now, and he was tired of being the one getting left behind when they went back to their glamorous city lives.
“You heading out early?” he heard, and turned to see Theo standing just outside the bar door. It was the smoking area, but Josh had never seen Theo actually light up—he probably figured just being around smokers was enough of a nod to the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. “Had enough already?”
“I guess so, yeah. I’m getting too old for it maybe.”
“Ninety percent of the guys in the bar would have cut off a body part to have either of those women fighting over them,” Theo said philosophically.
“You want an introduction? Ashley seems nice enough, but Jasmine? Mess with Jasmine at your own risk.”
“What would you do if I said yes?” Theo leaned a little closer, trying to get a better look at Josh’s face in the dim light. “Not Jasmine. . . . I’ve already been chewed up and spat out by women like that, thanks very much. But if I asked for an introduction to Ashley . . .”
“I’d say you didn’t need it. You’ve already met. She likes your band, remember?”
“She likes my band, but as soon as you gave her the time of day, I might as well not have existed. That’s Ashley Carlsen, you know. The movie star. That’s who you just walked away from.”
“Yeah,” Josh said slowly. “I think I noticed that.”
Theo shook his head in amusement and mock disgust, and they stood silently for a moment before Theo headed back in to his band and Josh started for home.
He was climbing behind the wheel of his pickup as a black sedan pulled up to the bar door. It looked completely out of place in the surroundings, but he knew why it was there. He’d spent enough time in the backseat of the damn thing. Sure enough, Jasmine came staggering out of the bar, her arm looped through Ashley’s. They were both dressed for city clubbing, totally over-the-top for a Vermont bar, but Josh hadn’t noticed that inside. He’d just seen Ashley, a pretty girl with a sweet smile.
Now, as Jasmine’s shrieking laughter stabbed his eardrums even from across the lot, he could see how ridiculous it all was. Ashley was part of another world. A glamorous land where housekeepers washed her underwear, drivers took her home from bars, and handymen spread mulch on her friends’ pathways. He’d visited that world, but he’d never belonged. And he didn’t want to be a visitor anymore.
He had enough to worry about. He wasn’t a kid anymore, and he didn’t have the energy for getting involved with something he knew was going to end badly. So he watched the car pull away and he drove home by himself.
* * *
JOSH usually got caught up on his paperwork on Sundays and then took the rest of the day off, but he wanted Jasmine McArthur off his back. And, maybe, just maybe, he wanted one more look at Ashley Carlsen. He knew it was stupid, but once she’d dropped the whole seduction routine, he’d really liked her.
Yet in his typical contrary manner, he carefully arranged to visit the McArthur place at the time he was least likely to run into anybody. Especially anybody who’d been out late the night before, drinking and carousing.
The sun was barely over the horizon as he parked off to the side of the driveway, well away from the expensive cars of the people who belonged there, and hoisted his toolbox and the replacement boards out of the truck bed. The McArthur cottage was, like many others on Lake Sullivan, on top of a low cliff overlooking the lake; he found his way to the long wooden staircase that connected the house to the waterside and made his way down.
That was when he saw her. She stood on the end of the McArthurs’ dock, still and graceful as a heron, silhouetted against the rising sun. She was wearing a simple one-piece bathing suit, watching a family of loons swim past.
Josh felt like a peeping tom, invading Ashley’s moment of peace and solitude. Just as he was about to turn away and find somewhere else to start his day’s work, she raised her arms and gracefully dove into the water, like a mermaid returning home after too much time among the humans.
She stayed under a long time, long enough that he started worrying about submerged rocks her head might have connected with. His feet were on the gangplank when she reappeared thirty feet away from the end of the dock. She’d turned around underwater, so she was looking back toward the shore, and he still had the sense that she was returning to her own world. He could see it in his mind, the way she’d dive again and disappear with a quick flash of her tail fin.
But she didn’t. She just raised an arm to wave at him, then ducked back underwater. By the time he got to the end of the dock he could see her skimming along just under the surface of the water, a long, pale line against the dark green of the lake.
She smiled as she lifted her face out of the water and looked up at him. “You’re here early. Is there a mulch emergency?”
“Just trying to get the dock fixed before it’s covered with people.”
“Should I stay in the water, out of your way?”
“No, it’s fine. One person won’t be a problem.”
She didn’t climb out right away, though. She floated on her back, her eyes closed, as he tried not to look in her direction. He was there for a job.
He had the old boards unscrewed and stacked by the time she climbed up the ladder and wrapped a towel around herself.
“You’re up early, too,” he said. If he’d thought about it he’d have kept his mouth shut, but he’d been distracted by trying not to watch the towel as it edged down over her breasts. “Especially since you were drinking yesterday.”
“Swimming’s the best hangover cure I know,” she said with a smile. “Nice cool water, and I swear the pressure of it against my skull helps squish my brains back where they’re supposed to be.”
“That seems medically unlikely.”
She shrugged. “I don’t ask questions, I just feel grateful that it works.” She settled onto the diving board and leaned back, her eyes closed again, her face turned toward the sun.
He worked quietly for a couple minutes, then glanced over to find her watching him. “You know what you’re doing, huh?”
He frowned. “It’s not too tricky. Take out the old boards, put in the new ones. They’re already cut to the right length, even.”
“I wouldn’t know how to do it.”
“You already do.” He held his cordless drill out toward her. “I’m using this as a screwdriver. I just place the board, slap in a couple screws, and it’s done. You want to try?”
She didn’t answer right away, then said, “Yeah, I kinda do. Is that okay?”
“Sure, if you want. There’s not much to mess up.”
She practically skipped across the dock, and stood so close to him he could smell the clean lake water in her hair.
“This trigger controls the drill. Push it gently for slow, or speed it up by pushing the trigger all the way in.”
She took the drill, played with the trigger a little, and then they crouched down and he held a board in place while she drove in a few screws. “That easy?” she asked, a pleased grin on her face.
“Can I do one all by myself?”
“Be my guest.”
So he took her place on the diving board and she found a board and fit it into place. She didn’t look totally natural. She dropped one screw and it fell between two slats, landing in the lake below with a soft splash, and she looked up at him with an almost comic expression of guilt.
“It’s not a big deal,” he reassured her. “They don’t cost much, and one wood screw won’t hurt the lake.”
She nodded and went back to work, and when the board was attached she turned to him with a triumphant grin. “Look! I did that!”
“Nice work. Looks secure.”
“Holy smokes.” She was still beaming. “I can’t believe how proud I am!”
“Neither can I,” he admitted with a laugh. “You want to keep going, or should I take over?”
She looked tempted, then shook her head and held the drill out to him. “You’d better take over. I want to go out on top, before I mess something up.”
They traded places again and Josh quickly finished the remaining boards. He was done. It was time to go. But for some reason he was reluctant to leave.
“Hey!” Ashley whispered excitedly. “Look! I saw those guys before. Are those loons?”
Josh looked out at the lake. He kept his voice low as he said, “Yeah. A nice little family, huh?”
“I saw them yesterday, too!”
“You come back next year, you’ll probably see the same ones. At least the parents. They fly south for the winter, but they come back to the same lake every year.”
“Yesterday it looked like . . .” Ashley frowned. “I was going to look it up on the Internet, but I got distracted. But it looked like the babies were riding on the mom’s back. Do they do that?”
“Yeah. I’m not sure why. . . . They do it more when the water’s cold, so maybe it’s to help them stay warm? But I guess it would be good protection against predators, too.”
“Predators? Who eats baby loons?”
“Turtles. Big fish. Hawks, probably.”
Ashley looked toward the lake as if she were worrying about an attack.
“I’ve been on this lake for thirty-one years and I’ve never actually seen it happen,” Josh said. He didn’t want to ruin the poor woman’s vacation with imagined loon carnage.
Ashley relaxed a little. “Did we count any of those on our list of Vermont hazards last night? We haven’t gotten to ‘T’ yet. Maybe that should be ‘turtles.’”
“Or ‘S’ for ‘snappers.’ There’s some nice little turtles up here who wouldn’t hurt anybody, not even a baby loon. It’s the snappers you want to watch out for.”
“I think ‘S’ should probably be reserved for ‘snakes.’ Anywhere snakes live, they should be the number one ‘S’-related hazard.”
“Fair enough,” Josh agreed. He didn’t mind snakes himself, but he wasn’t in the mood to argue.
They watched the loons in companionable silence for a few more minutes, and then the dock vibrated a little as someone stepped onto the gangplank. They both turned.
“Well, you’re up early!” Jasmine said with exaggerated cheer. She had a glass of orange juice in her hand, and Josh knew from past experience that it would have at least champagne but more likely vodka in it. Ashley might swim to control her hangovers, but Jasmine preferred a hair of the dog approach. Just one more thing Josh wished he had no reason to know.
Ashley and Josh had been speaking quietly enough that the loons had come quite close, but with Jasmine’s arrival they were heading away. Josh figured it was time for him to follow their example. “I got the boards replaced,” he said, nodding at the wood beneath their feet. “And I’ll be by on Wednesday, probably, for the mulch.”
“Wednesday.” Jasmine pronounced the word as if it had an unpleasant taste. “You’re here today. Why not today?”
“Church,” Josh said. He hadn’t been inside a church since the last wedding he’d attended. And Jasmine would know his Sunday routine as well as he knew her hangover cures. But he didn’t think she’d want to explain how she’d come by that knowledge, not with a witness. So he smiled blandly at her then nodded in Ashley’s direction. “Snakes and turtles,” he said. “But I think we missed a couple letters in the middle somewhere.”
“Next time,” she said.
He knew better, but he smiled anyway, then gathered the discarded boards and tucked them under one arm while he carried his toolbox with the other and headed off the dock. He tried not to react at all when Jasmine followed him.
When they reached the top of the stairs she said, “So you two are still being adorable, are you? With your little game?”
“We just can’t help it, I guess. We were born that way, you know?”
“Well, I hope Ashley doesn’t think that our game is still in play.”
“Ashley’s and mine.” Jasmine looked at him and her face transformed into the first genuine smile he’d seen from her in ages. “Oh, Josh! She didn’t tell you?”
Anything that made Jasmine that happy was going to make someone else sad, and Josh had a pretty good idea who the “someone else” would be in this situation. “So hopefully I can do the mulch on Wednesday. Might not be until Thursday, though.”
But Jasmine wasn’t so easily distracted. “I’m surprised she didn’t mention it to you, with all the giggling you two have been doing together.”
Josh was pretty sure he hadn’t been giggling, but he was at the truck now, tossing the wood into the back and not bothering to secure his toolbox as carefully as he usually did. He wasn’t going to engage with whatever Jasmine was up to, certainly not to debate whether he’d been laughing. Then he turned and saw Jasmine leaning against the driver’s door. She wasn’t going to let him leave until she said whatever it was. He braced himself and she smiled wickedly.
“I bet her she couldn’t fuck you.” Jasmine waited for a reaction, but Josh was pretty sure he managed not to give her one. Jasmine’s shrug was over-casual. “She’s having a bit of a tiff with her boyfriend at home, and I thought she could use a little distraction. For all your failings, Josh, you’ve always been a good distraction that way. So I thought you might be good for her, but she wasn’t interested. I mean . . .” She ran her eyes down Josh’s ragged clothes. “Not really her type, obviously. But with the bet? The girl’s a competitor, I’ll give her that. That’s what made her come over to you in the bar.”
It was just one more sleazy interaction with Jasmine. Just one more opportunity for her to poke at him, looking for holes in his armor. This wasn’t anything new. There was no reason for Josh’s stomach to be churning.
Excerpted from "Just a Summer Fling"
Copyright © 2015 Cate Cameron.
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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Just a Summer Fling is a perfect summer's-just-getting-started kind of book. I read it over Memorial Day weekend, and the beginning had me giggling like a lunatic on the plane. Fortunately the flight wasn't at all full, so I'm pretty sure the only person who noticed was my daughter, who was one seat away. I even read her one of the parts, so we were both giggling like lunatics at one point! Only problem? The flight from Buffalo to Baltimore is just too darn short! Up until now I've only read Ms. Cameron's YA series, (Corrigan Falls Raiders) which I love, love, love--romance, humor, and hockey; what else could you possibly need? ;) but when I heard she had a contemporary romance adult series, I knew I had to get my hands on it. I wasn't sorry! (Well, except that I've got a bazillion books I have to read right now for deadlines, and book 2 in the series, Hometown Hero , is just sitting there taunting me. Darn it. It might have to come to work with me once I finish the print book I'm reading for review.) I just loved the humor in this book. When Ashley and Josh were creating the alphabetical list of hazards in Vermont? Just. Too. Funny. The romance was absolutely adorable--once they let there be a romance, at least (Josh was a bit of a butthead towards the beginning, for reasons we learn later. Mostly it's him. Plus, there was a misunderstanding caused by a total shrew of a woman that slowed things down for a bit. Honestly, the woman's a total cow and I just wanted to b*tchsmack her into the next century)--and the ending? Sweetness overload. I was a bit skeptical that the whole movie star/normal guy relationship could end up working and be believable (don't get me wrong, though, I totally wanted them together!) but Ms. Cameron managed it in a way that made me just want to melt. And smile. And melt some more. Seriously, I had so much fun reading this book and cannot wait until I have a chance to read the next--the teaser at the end of this one really drew me in. Fingers crossed that the series is going to continue! Something needs to keep me occupied between now and when the next Corrigan Falls Raiders book comes out ;) Rating: 4 1/2 stars / A-
Cate Cameron's book, Just A Summer Fling is a perfect read for the summer. Just A Summer Fling is packed with drama, bits of humor, lovable characters and a little sizzle. I enjoyed this story and look forward to reading more from Cate Cameron in the future. Just A Summer Fling is a complete book, not a cliff-hanger. I won a copy of this book from Goodreads.