Carmen Frost hates honey. And bees. And in her hometown of Charmed, Texas, which practically invented the stuff, that’s a problem. The good news is that the summer Honey Festival is finally over. Even better, so is the annual Lucky Hart carnival, a road show that made off with her dreams years ago—including the boy she loved. Now she’s got a divorce behind her, and a successful law career in front of her, but in a tiny town, big memories die hard. Or they don’t die at all—as Carmen discovers when she runs into an all too familiar pair of eyes—older, wiser, and just as heart-melting as ever . . .
Sully Hart has had enough of the nomad lifestyle. Travelling with his father’s carnival gave him adventures, but it cost him much more. Now he’s home to stay, contracted to create an entertainment complex in Charmed. He wants roots, a house with a yard and all the mundane pleasures that go with it. But the girl he loved has become a woman who still wants freedom. Can she still want him? It seems he and Carmen are at each other’s throats one minute—and on each other’s lips the next. Someone’s gotta give . . .
"Fans of the first installment (A Charmed Little Lie) will enjoy this second one just as much and be clamoring for the third." — Library Journal on Lucky Charmed
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"C'mon people," I muttered, crossing the grocery parking lot for the third time. "The sales aren't that good this week. It's time to wrap it up."
I could go to the bigger supermarket in Charmed, but I preferred Brewsters, a smaller one in Goldworth, near my office. Fewer people. Less judgment.
Fewer parking spaces.
Spotting a mom shouldering two reusable canvas shopping bags with two kids in tow, I cranked the wheel in her direction. She smiled quickly and pushed her kids in front of her as she approached an SUV, as if she was used to being stalked. As anyone who shopped here should be.
I groaned under my breath at the big cartoonish honey bee sticker on her back window saying, "It's sweeter in Charmed!"
I was so tired of honey. I despised it, honestly. That might sound like a random and insignificant fact, but living in Charmed, Texas — which lives and breathes the stuff — it can become a thing. Not that I was averse to sweets. Chocolate, for instance, could easily run from my tap and I'd celebrate, but I had issues with a substance that was made by one insect throwing up on another, who then spent the next couple of days playing in it.
There should be a disclaimer on the World Famous Honey welcome sign for a town that breeds bees: You'll get to know a little too much about the process.
Summer was the hardest to stomach — no pun intended — with the annual Honey Festival kicking off right after school ended. It was even more everywhere than usual. Every retailer sported a stash of jars from whatever apiary hit them up first. Every restaurant sold them at the checkout. Hell, even the Quik-Serve convenience store had a supply on the counter last time I was in. I couldn't pop in for a coffee and a package of chocolate donuts without being accosted by honey jars.
This summer was a little better. My best friend, Lanie, was back in town with her new hubby (wink, wink) and so the consummate honey frenzy was overshadowed by a tinge of gossipy drama. The festival's annual dance had all eyes on her, and no one noticed that I showed up to help her out. I don't usually go. Most of the good townspeople of Charmed don't care much for me, and that's okay. I gave up on that fight a long time ago. Small towns are good at holding onto the past, whether it's ancient grudges or high school drama. I get it.
Once upon a time, my eighteen-year-old self was scandalous. Heaven forbid. My sins then evidently tainted the next decade, the sainted (cough) man I married, and my mother, who apparently could never again hold down a job. (Side note: she wasn't holding down a job the previous decade, either.)
So anyway, there was the festival, including the ridiculous Honey Wars, with crazy people hawking their self-labeled jars on every sidewalk, and then the Lucky Hart carnival a month later. It wasn't honey-driven, but it's crazy too. Or it was, anyway. I hadn't stepped foot inside that carnival in six years, since my divorce from said saint, now-the-mayor, Dean Crestwell.
As honey-bee-reusable-bag-mom drove away, I pulled into the spot and got out, ready to load up on chocolate anything in those evil plastic grocery bags that I'm gonna go to hell for. My cell buzzed. I laughed as I answered, entering the store.
"Just couldn't stand it, could you?"
"I know. I'm worse than a mom."
It was Lanie. Calling from Vegas, where she and Nick were vacationing after renewing their vows. With real rings. That's a story for another time.
I was envious of the trip, but not completely, because of the other reason I was feeling all jiggy over this summer. I was going on vacation. A long one.
"Are you kidding me?" I said. "You are a mom. You fawn more over that dog than anyone I've ever seen."
I was house-slash-dog sitting while they were gone. Lanie kind of inherited a Rottweiler when her old neighbor skipped out, and while it was a little iffy at the beginning, Ralph had won her over. The jury was still out for me in that regard, but I had to admit, Ralph was kind of sweet. When he wasn't licking himself.
I would have nothing for Lanie to sit for when I left on my vacation, except maybe an unfortunate plant on my porch. That wasn't as sad as it sounded. I liked it that way. No strings. No obligations. No arrangements to make if I wanted to suddenly pick up and go to Tahiti. Not that I'd ever done that, but I might. Stranger things could happen. Stranger things just might.
"He's family," Lanie said.
"Well, he's fine," I said. "I shared my blueberry muffin with him this morning, and gave him a bacon treat before I left."
"See, Carmen, you're a softie, too," she said.
"Don't ever say that out loud." I stopped in front of an end cap of chocolate syrup. I'd seen some vanilla bean ice cream in Lanie's freezer and that would be a great complement. I kept walking, though. It was a maybe. I could always come back. "How's Vegas?"
"I'm down a hundred already today," she said. "So I'm playing the penny slots and waiting on my handsome hubby to finish his game and come whisk me off upstairs for naked room service."
I was hit as always with that mix of being so damn happy for her, after she fought through her baggage to find her soul mate, and feeling so damn envious.
"So you're calling me why?" I asked.
"I saw a slot machine themed with pancakes and I thought of Ralph," she said.
"Of course you did."
"Did we miss anything interesting at the carnival?" she asked. "Or did you skip it?"
I snorted. "What do you think?" I picked up a bag of peanuts and then put it back down. Salty wasn't the thing tonight. It had been a long day at the office, and besides, celebrations were all about the chocolate.
It was over. As of yesterday, that damned infernal beast that descended upon the little town of Charmed every year was over. Forever. Not everyone shared my view or saw the summer carnival as beastly. Kids loved it, of course. A lot of adults still rolled out for it in spades, probably grabbing the one last chance to mingle and see who was doing what — or who — since the Honey Festival the month before.
I always looked at it as one more year in the bag. One more summer of successful absenteeism. That festival would probably go on till the end of time, but now, with Charmed taking on a new entity — a planned outdoor entertainment area that everyone was buzzing about — the carnival itself would stop here no more.
The Charmed city council had voted in a bid to build a permanent mini-theme park, boardwalk, and restaurant-and-retail row on Bailey's Pond near my mother's trailer park. Lots of sales-tax dollars from surrounding towns, more local jobs, something for people to get excited about beside flying insects and honey (thank God). And an end to the yearly nomadic reach of Lucky Hart Carnivals.
It was a win-win, and I was so friggin' excited, I couldn't stand it.
I'd forced myself to go out there with Dean for years, just to prove a silly point. I would smile, flirt, and go overboard doting over my husband every time a certain hooded gaze landed my way. A gaze that was once the most intense and mind-altering drug I could ever know.
Prove a point to whom? To Dean? To myself? To the man behind the eyes?
Yep. Absolutely. And now I never had to think about it, demean myself, or avoid an event again. Not that I ever should have in the first place. I should have been above it all. But hey, small towns have big memories and every time I tried to forget about the very public Carmen Frost Public Humiliation of Summer 2001, someone was always around to remind me.
I breathed in deeply, savoring the satisfaction as I rounded the cookie aisle. Chocolate-covered graham crackers were just the ticket to celebrate.
"I know," Lanie said. "I just thought maybe you'd surprise me. Where are you?"
"Brewsters," I said. "Getting some party food."
"You having a party without me?"
"Can't help you had to go honeymooning," I said. "I filed two briefs today, settled a divorce case in mediation, and spent most of the afternoon avoiding Judge Constantine and his unibrow." And Lucky Hart Carnivals was trucking along their merry way. "And in case I haven't mentioned it enough, I'm going on vacation in a few weeks."
"Seems to ring a bell," she said.
"So I'm having a comfort food extravaganza to celebrate."
Lanie chuckled. "Comfort food meaning three batches of brownies?"
I laughed too loudly, and held up a hand to a woman who took a break from studying various Oreo flavors to give me a double-take.
"Sorry, I'm having a moment," I said. "Don't mind me."
I grabbed my package of bad-for-me and turned back. Smack into a wall of broad chest, with a set of arms that felt just as solid. A hand gripped my upper arm as the chocolate grahams crushed between us.
"Oh! I'm so —"
I looked up. Into the eyes of the drug I thought I'd never see again. Eyes that had gotten older and wary and were supposed to be gone. They flashed with as much surprise as I'm sure mine did, in the two-second span we both stood frozen with cell phones to our ears.
"Shit," I exclaimed.
"Carmen?" Lanie voice called from somewhere far, far away.
Backing up a full step so that he had to let go of me, my mind went on a roller coaster ride. Roller coaster. That was ironic. Or perhaps I was having a stroke and my life was flashing by as the man I'd spent fifteen years trying to forget stared down at me. Regardless, I got a five-second speed reel in my head of all of it. All of us. Me and Sullivan Hart.
"Sully," I finally croaked.
"Sully?" Lanie said. "As in Sully?" She sounded like a bird chirping in my ear.
I tried to be subtle as I gave him the once-over. The thick dark hair wasn't as long as it used to be, but there was enough to be held back by what looked like a leather strap, with a pair of Ray-Bans shoved up on top. His smell was the same heady mix of wood and adrenaline that I'd still know if I were struck deaf, dumb, and blind. And he still had the same habit of running his hand over his face, taking a deep breath and lowering his eyes when he was nervous.
He was nervous?
He mumbled something into his phone and put it in his pocket.
Suddenly, I was eighteen again. Standing in the second empty parking lot of the day and sweating through my clothes. Clutching a duffel bag as the wretched sickly sweet smell of melted cotton candy baking on the asphalt stung my nose. I'd seen him since then, of course. From a distance. Years ago. I was so over it.
So why did this one-on-one give me chest pains? Why were his eyes so friggin' intense? Ignore it! So what that your fingers are going numb! Maybe it was a stroke. He was supposed to be gone, damn it. Gone with that cursed carnival.
"Let me call you back, Lanie." The phone was halfway down my body before the words were out of my mouth.
Sully cleared his throat. "Hey."
I willed my face to go neutral, but I couldn't really feel it anymore. I would have given anything for superpower speed, so that I could flash out of there the next time he blinked. Assuming he blinked. He hadn't yet.
"How've you been?" he asked.
No. We weren't doing that. We weren't catching up like old buddies.
"I thought — you —" I gestured something with my hands that I hoped demonstrated go away.
His eyes narrowed. Crap. He didn't understand the universal sign language for Why the living hell are you still here?
"You thought what?" he asked.
"The carnival left," I said. "I assumed you were with it."
He nodded. "You don't know."
"Know?" I echoed, crossing my arms and backing up another step.
No, I clearly didn't know. Was I supposed to? Were there people that knew and left me out of all the things to know? My heart thundered so loudly in my ears, it was all I could do not to clamp my hands over them.
Why was he here?
"About the Bailey's Pond project?" he prompted, crossing his own arms.
A tattoo peeked out from under a shirt sleeve. The tattoo. Shit. It was all I could do not to run my thumb across my left breast where its clone resided.
My mouth went dry as all kinds of confusion exploded in my head. Keep it together. Don't show weakness. He left you.
He left you.
A calm washed over me and all my strength as a professional business woman, as an adult woman who'd been through and seen a few things, came back and held me up. What did it matter that the love of my life, the man who shattered me into a million pieces in a stadium parking lot, was standing in front of me fifteen years later, looking good enough to lick from head to toe?
I was better than that.
"What about it?" I asked. "Your carnival won't be coming through here anymore."
He raised his right eyebrow. The light overhead flickered, flashing in his hazel eyes. "That's right. Aidan will bypass all of Cedar County from now on."
Something familiar poked at me. Something I should know. Seemed there were quite a few things I should know.
"My brother," he said, gesturing to his phone like that would clear it up. Bingo. Aidan Hart. I had a vague recollection of a sulky pre-teen boy hanging on the outskirts. Sully's stepbrother. "He's running the road show now."
I blinked, and the warning bells started to ding. Aidan was on the road? Sully wasn't on the road? Hell no, he wasn't on the road; he was standing in my grocery store. My grocery store.
"And so you are — ?" I prompted, a sick acidic burn starting low in my belly.
Somewhere deep in my psyche I knew the answer before he could tell me.
"The major investor in the development," he said smoothly. His tone was deep and the words slightly lazy as they rolled off his tongue, just as I remembered. Why did I remember? "The park will be named The Lucky Charm, but that's not public knowledge yet."
I nodded. "Good for you," I said, as my legal brain started ticking away.
Being an investor — especially one getting the name of his company included in the project — meant bringing major capital to the table. Investing that kind of money would mean sticking around long enough to watch the progress. Or it would for me. An accountant would probably set up a per diem for his stay. And seeing as nothing had even started yet — dear God he could be there in Charmed for months.
"So you're here for a while, then?" I dug my nails into my upper arms.
Sully blinked a couple of times, studying me like he was contemplating his words. That was bad.
"I got a house, Carmen," he said. "In Charmed. I'm not leaving."
There was one of those moments where things spin around and lights look funny. I blinked it clear and breathed in lieu of words. There were none. He bought —
"You —" I shook my head and forced a smile. "You what?"
Sully gave me a long look, followed by a glance toward the Oreo lady. She's not gonna save you, buddy.
"I assumed you'd probably heard."
I snickered. "Why?" I asked. "Why would I hear about random people moving here?"
I mentally patted myself on the back for making him a nobody. But why didn't I fucking hear about him buying a house? I went to those monthly breakfasts at the Chamber of Commerce. Occasionally. Someone there should have known. I couldn't pump gas without someone telling me about my ex-husband's latest hilarious Facebook post. Or my mother's most current medical issues. But let the hot carnie that made me an overnight scandal come back and buy a house in Charmed, and nobody has anything to say?
Sully held up a hand. "I don't know. Never mind." He laid the hand against his chest, and my eyes fell to it.
Damn it, I'd loved his hands. The long, roughened fingers of a working guy, even back then. My mind flashed to what they looked like — what they'd felt like on my skin a hundred years ago, and heat rushed to my face.
"I mean, what do you think? I hang out with Realtors?" That sounded stupid even to me.
"Well, it's actually a rental for now." He backed up, looking like he'd rather be anywhere else. "With an option to buy if everything works out."
Oh dear God, thank you for that. He could still go. Things just need to not work out. Man, that was catty.
"But I guess I figured — small town. You're a lawyer —"
"How'd you know that?" I asked.
His tired expression focused as he tilted his jaw. I saw the spark. The challenge. The grin that pulled at his lips. He grabbed a new package of chocolate grahams from the shelf without breaking eye contact, and switched them out with the one in my hand.
Excerpted from "Lucky Charmed"
Copyright © 2017 Sharla Lovelace.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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