Ryder Copeland is an accomplished architect and one heck of a father...not to mention tall and sexy. He's everything a hero should be, and Lord knows, Maisy Kelly has read enough of her great-aunt Eloise's romance novels to recognize one when she sees one. But like all fairy tales, Maisy can't help but wonder if this Prince Charming is too good to be true...
Ryder is drawn to the shy, curly haired professor who hires him to convert the Victorian house she's inherited from her aunt into a romance bookstore. Attracted to a woman for the first time since his divorce, Ryder finds himself wishing for a future with Maisy that he knows is impossible. Ryder has never wavered from his plan to leave the small town of Fairdale, North Carolina, so he can give his daughter the life she deserves. But suddenly he's not so sure. And the closer he gets to Maisy, the harder it's going to be to walk away...
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Jenn McKinlay
When Jake took off his cowboy hat and pulled her close, Clare wrapped her arms around him and the two became one. When they kissed she knew they were making each other a promise for today, tomorrow, and forever. Clare sighed. For the first time in her life, she knew that no matter what happened, this man, who was her partner and her best friend, would be by her side. For all time.
Maisy Kelly closed the book, One Last Chance, pressed it to her chest, and sighed. Jake Sinclair, the perfect man—why did he reside only in the pages of a book? It wasn’t fair. She was twenty-nine and none of the men she’d ever dated had been even remotely as caring or charming as author Destiny Swann’s swoon worthy hero Jake Sinclair.
Knock knock knock.
Maisy blinked. Someone was at the door. No, no, no. She had a book hangover and she didn’t want to deal with the world right now. If forced to, she might curl up in a fetal position right there on the floor and never move.
Knock knock knock.
They weren’t going away. Maisy rose from where she’d been seated on the bottom step of the stairs. In theory, she was supposed to be cleaning out her great-aunt Eloise’s house; in reality she was binge-reading Auntie El’s hoarder’s trove of romance novels. It wasn’t making the task, which was heartbreaking to begin with, any easier.
Knock knock knock.
“All right, all right,” Maisy grumbled. “I’m coming.”
She strode to the door and yanked it open. Probably, if she had bothered to glance through the peephole or one of the long windows beside the door, she would have been prepared, but she hadn’t and she wasn’t.
Standing on her front step, looking impossibly handsome and imposing, was a cowboy. Maisy glanced down at her book. On the cover was the artist’s rendering of Jake Sinclair, in jeans and a white T‑shirt, sitting on a picnic table in the middle of a pasture, with a cowboy hat tipped carelessly over his brow. Maisy could practically hear the cattle mooing in the background.
She glanced back up. Jeans, white shirt, and a cowboy hat. This guy had it all going on, except where the artist had left Jake’s face in shadow and not clearly defined, this guy was a full-on 3‑D HD of hotness, with full lips, faint stubble on his chin, and quite possibly the bluest eyes Maisy had ever seen this side of the sky. She had a sudden urge to poke him with her pointer finger to see if he was real.
“Mornin’, miss,” the man drawled—drawled!
Miss? Huh, she hadn’t been called miss since she’d started teaching at Fairdale University. Why would he . . . ? She glanced down.
She was wearing her favorite floral Converse All Stars, ripped-up denim shorts, and her old Fairdale University sweatshirt, the one with the sleeves that hung down past her hands, oh, and she had on no makeup and her hair was held back by an enormous pink headband. She probably looked like one of her college students, possibly a freshman.
In that brief shining moment, she was certain if it were possible to die of embarrassment, she would expire in three . . . two . . . one. She gave it a second. Nope, still standing. Damn it.
“Listen, I’m sorry, sir, but whatever you’re selling, I’m not interested—” she began but he cut her off.
“Oh, I’m not selling anything,” he said. He looked bewildered. “This is 323 Willow Lane, right?”
“Yes, it is. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back—” She let her voice trail off, hoping he’d get the hint. He didn’t.
“I have an appointment with a Ms. Kelly,” he said. “Or Mrs. Kelly, I’m not sure.”
Maisy closed one eye and squinted at him. She usually reserved this trick for her English 101 students when they asked if they could make up the final exam because they’d had a more pressing engagement, like recovering from their hangover, but she was more than willing to use it on tall, dark, and good-looking here.
She knew she didn’t have any appointments today. That was why she’d indulged herself in a good long reading sesh. This guy was probably a hustler, trying to con her to buy some property insurance or new windows. Ever since she’d inherited this monster of a house from Auntie El she’d had all sorts of scammers climbing out of the cracks in the sidewalk, trying to get her to refinance or buy a security system. It was exhausting.
The man met her squinty stare with one of his own. He shrinkled up one eye and mimicked her look of disbelief right down to the small lip curl. The nerve! Then she saw the twinkle in his one open eye, and she burst out laughing.
He grinned at her and her ire diminished as she noted the cowboy had a sense of humor. Okay, that was a bonus point for him. She decided to give him a break and at least take his name and number. She could call him later and decline whatever it was he was hawking.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “What was your appointment with Ms. Kelly about?”
“It’s about the house, actually,” he said.
Uh-huh. Maisy would bet her front teeth he was going to pitch all the reasons why she should take out a line of credit now.
“My name’s Ryder Copeland,” he said. “I’m a restoration architect, and you are?”
“Ryder Copeland?” Maisy’s eyes went wide. So much for keeping her teeth. “But our appointment isn’t until tomorrow, you know, Tuesday.”
“Today is Tuesday,” he said.
“No, it isn’t,” she said. “It’s Monday.”
“Sorry, it really is Tuesday. Wait,” he said. “Our appointment? You’re Maisy Kelly?”
“Uh.” Maisy stalled. What to do. What to do. She pulled her phone out of her pocket and gave it a quick glance. There was a notification waiting. It said she had an appointment. Right now, in fact, with a Ryder Copeland. She checked the date. Today was Tuesday.
She glanced back up at him. He was looking at her in surprise, as if he didn’t believe she was the owner of this house. She supposed she could fib and say Ms. Kelly was out but he’d figure that out the next time they met. Plus, she was a horrible liar. She blushed and stammered whenever she tried to prevaricate. Truly, it was just embarrassing. Finally, she nodded and whispered, “I’m Ms. Kelly.”
“Pardon?” The man pushed back his hat and leaned in, although he didn’t step any closer, probably knowing that at his height, she guessed him to be about six feet tall, he would tower over her and might scare her back inside the house like a rabbit jumping back into its hole.
Maisy cleared her throat and pushed her square-framed glasses up on her nose. Then she repeated, “I’m Ms. Kelly.”
There. She used her professor voice. That’d tell him who was boss. Sure, that was why he looked perplexed as he studied her. She tipped her chin up, daring him to say anything about her youthful appearance or general slovenliness.
“It’s nice to meet you.” His smile was slow but when it came, it was wide and warm and genuine. He didn’t look put out that she’d tried to give him the bum’s rush. He also did not look like an architect. He looked like a man who’d be more at home on a horse, herding cattle, than drawing up designs for her old home.
Maisy felt her face get warm under his steady regard. She ignored it. Maybe she could redirect him.
“You aren’t what I expected,” she said.
Mr. Copeland’s eyes moved from the pink headband in her short, curly dark hair to her bright floral sneakers, and he nodded. “I’d say we have that in common.”
His tone was as dry as a hot summer breeze and it made Maisy laugh out loud, in a full-hearted chuckle. He grinned at her as if her laughter had been his aim all along.
“I’m Ryder,” he said. He held out a hand that looked like a big old bear paw.
“Maisy,” she returned.
She slid her slighter hand into his, feeling the callused warmth of his palm surround her more delicate fingers. His grip was firm, yet gentle, not trying to prove anything but not treating her like spun glass, either. It let Maisy know without words that he viewed her as an equal. Huh. She liked that.
“Sorry about mixing up the dates,” she said. “Clearly, I wasn’t prepared for our meeting and I apologize for that. I know your time is valuable.”
“No harm done,” he said. His voice was kind, and Maisy glanced up and noticed that his eyes were kind, too. “Your message said you were looking to restore your house.” He stepped back to where he could see all three stories and tipped his head back to take it all in. “I’m assuming this is it?”
“Yes, in all its Queen Anne glory,” she said. She forced her gaze away from his square jaw and the wide set to his shoulders, cleared her throat, and stuffed her fascination with him down deep, squashing it flat by talking in her teacher’s voice. Calm, assured, capable, yes, that was better.
“Built in 1880 by my great-great-great—you get the idea—grandfather Stuart Kelly for his very well-to-do bride Margaret Hanover. Margaret is actually my given name, except it never fit, sort of like pants that are too long, you know?”
Ryder glanced from the house to her. He looked momentarily confused and then smiled and nodded. “In my experience pants are usually too short, but I get where you’re going, Maisy.”
She liked the way he said her name. It sounded as if he was trying it on for size and liked the fit. Be still her heart.
The last date she’d had was with a geology professor at the university, and while he’d been friendly enough, she’d lost her enthusiasm for the date when he’d gone into great detail about an article he’d just read called “Pedotransfer Functions of Soil Thermal Conductivity for the Textural Classes Sand, Silt, and Loam.” She was certain it had made sense to him, but she’d spent the meal overeating to compensate for not having one word, not even a syllable, really, to add to the conversation.
She had a brief fantasy, truly no longer than a peripheral glimpse into a crystal ball, of having dinner with Ryder Copeland and talking about books, houses, and whether she could wrap both hands around his muscle-hardened bicep or not.
Ryder pushed his hat back and a swath of dark hair fell across his forehead. His eyes really were the purest blue she’d ever seen, like a midmorning sky after a night of rain, surrounded by long dark lashes that curled up at the tips. Again, he smiled at her and Maisy lost her train of thought for a moment.
House! They were talking about the house.
“Yes, well, my great-great—let’s just call him Stuart—was smitten with Miss Margaret, but her father didn’t like him, detested him actually, so Stuart built this house to prove that he could provide for her,” Maisy babbled. She knew she should stop, but like a runaway train without its engineer she was incapable of putting the brakes on the spray of words spewing forth from her lips. “Finally, after Margaret threatened to run away and elope, her father gave in and approved the marriage. The house is almost one hundred and forty years old, and I’m afraid it’s beginning to show its age, like gray hair, crow’s-feet, and a double chin, only it’s manifesting in leaky pipes, faulty wiring, and chipped plaster.”
Ryder lifted his eyebrows. “That bad?”
Maisy shrugged. “Auntie El lived here alone until the last few months of her life and then it was me and a crew of nurses looking after her. She was a tiny little thing and didn’t take up much room. Her collection, on the other hand . . .”
“Collection?” Ryder tipped his head to the side. “Now I’m intrigued.”
Maisy thought she should warn him, but really how could she? Seeing was believing.
“Did you want to tour the place?” she asked. “I can show you around and give you an idea of what I’m hoping to accomplish and what needs to be done.”
“Absolutely,” he said.
Maisy pulled the door open and gestured for him to come in. Ryder followed her, his gaze fixed on the house as if he couldn’t wait to see inside.
Maisy would have laughed, because, boy, was he in for a surprise, but his arm brushed against hers, just the lightest contact, as he walked by and she felt a jolt of awareness. A zip zap of electricity and the intense feeling that this man could alter her life course with a snap of his fingers. It shook her to the core.
He stepped fully into the house and lifted his arm to take off his hat. The contact was broken and Maisy felt her common sense fall back into place like sand on a beach after being rolled by a wave. Seriously, she had to get out more.
“Can I get you anything? Water? Sweet tea? Lemonade?” she asked as she closed the door behind them.
Ryder didn’t answer. Small wonder. He stood in the foyer, slack-jawed and boggled, looking at the sitting room to the left. Maisy couldn’t blame him. Although she had begun to sort and arrange the titles, the room was still packed to bursting with books. Only a narrow three-foot pathway plowing through the center of the room to the settee and matching wing chairs on the opposite end made the room accessible.
“Books,” Ryder said. “Your great-aunt collected books.”
“Uh-huh.” Maisy squeezed past him. “Romance novels, specifically.”
Ryder said nothing. His eyes moved slowly over the room, the hallway, and the stacks on the stairs as if his brain could not comprehend the piles and piles and piles of paperbacks.
“Did she read them all?” he asked.
“Every one,” she said.
“So, you have some decluttering to do,” he said. “Before you get the house ready to sell?”
“Yes, sell,” she said. The words stuck in her throat but if Ryder noticed he didn’t say anything. She hated the idea of parting with Auntie El’s house. It had been in the family for generations. “The rest of the house is equally crammed full to bursting and what’s worse is I can’t seem to find anyone who wants the books. The fact that they’ll likely end up in a landfill would have broken Auntie El’s heart.”
“Is that the only option?” he asked. “Maybe a library would—”
Maisy shook her head.
“Prison?” he asked with a grimace.
A laugh bubbled up, surprising Maisy. “I actually hadn’t thought of that, but I have to do something with them all, don’t I?”
She knew her voice sounded forlorn when Ryder gave her a sympathetic close-lipped smile.
He put his hand on the back of his neck and said, “Maisy, when I meet with clients about renovating their property, the one thing I ask them, so that we’re both clear about the project from the start, is how they want their space to function after the renovation. So, what is it that you really want to do with this house and these books? I saw your face when you said ‘sell.’ It wasn’t the expression of a person who wants to part with something.”
A little flicker of hope, or possibly agita, fluttered in her chest. Ryder was right. For the past few months, she’d been dithering about the house and its contents while she grieved for her aunt. But now she had to make a decision. What did she want to do with the house? She liked that he put it that way. He wasn’t like her two older brothers, telling her what she had to do or what she should do, or what they would do in her place. No, he was asking what she wanted to do.
Completely disarmed, Maisy said, “Well, I think I know, maybe, what I want to do, possibly . . . perhaps.”
“And?” He tipped his head to the side, his blue eyes regarding her with infinite patience.
She took a deep breath and said, “I want to turn this house into a bookstore, a romance bookstore.”
Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God.
Maisy bolted up the stairs to the third floor. She burst through the door of her makeshift apartment and thumbed through the contacts on her phone until she found the voice of reason listed under Bestie. She pressed the number and put the phone on speaker.
“Maisy, my favorite Southern belle, what’s up?” Savannah Wilson answered on the second ring.
“Rescue one,” Maisy said. She waited a beat and then pulled the pink bandanna out of her hair, fluffing her dark, chin-length curls with her fingers.
“Uh-oh,” Savannah said. “If you’re deploying ‘rescue one’ this is serious. Are you on a date? Do you need me to text you a bogus emergency to get you out of there?”
“Have you been arrested? I’d love to help with bail but I’m kind of strapped right now. Think they’d take a promissory note? Or is it really bad and I need to show up with a shovel, no questions asked?”
Maisy started to laugh. This was why she’d called her former college roommate.
“No, it’s nothing like that.”
“I’m relieved and yet oddly disappointed. Go ahead. I’m all ears. What’s happening?”
“I think I may have just scared off the only restoration architect in all of Fairdale, North Carolina,” Maisy said.
“Whoa,” Savannah said. “What happened? Did you two have a breakdown in the old form-versus-function debate?”
“No, first, I got the date wrong for our appointment, so rude, and then I let him into the house, and I think the sheer number of books Auntie El tucked into every available space may have freaked him out,” Maisy said. She glanced in the mirror and drew in a breath at the sight of her reflection. In disgust, she yanked off the sweatshirt and stuffed it into the hamper.
“Why would you think that?” Savannah asked.
“Because his jaw hit the ground when he entered the house and I don’t think it ever went back up,” Maisy said. She smoothed the tank top she had on under the sweatshirt. “Can I really blame him?”
Savannah started laughing. “No, I haven’t been in that house in seven years and even I remember feeling claustrophobic from all the books, and I am not what one would call an exacting housekeeper.”
“You’re a slob, Savy,” Maisy said. “Your laundry used to be knee-deep in our apartment. I had to wade through your sweaters to get to the bathroom.”
“Your point?” Savannah asked.
“Some people find messes off-putting,” Maisy said. “And I’m betting an architect is one of them.”
She kicked off her Chucks and slid out of her shorts. Over the back of a chair, she found her black flared skirt with tiny roses on it, which matched the shade of her tank top. She located one black flat under the couch and another behind a chair. She hopped on alternate feet while putting the shoes on.
“Um,” Savannah said. “Where is he now?”
Maisy crossed the small apartment, which at one time had been her great-great-something-or-other’s rooms for the domestic staff, and glanced out the long window to the driveway below.
“He’s getting a briefcase out of his truck or making a run for it. Hard to say,” she said. She paused to watch him for a moment. Despite their awkward introduction, she had not forgotten that he was a fine-looking man. Yeah, a man who thought she was a college student. “He called me ‘miss.’”
“Why would he do that?” Savannah sounded mystified.
“Probably because I was wearing my old Fairdale U sweatshirt, had no makeup on, and looked like I should be peddling Girl Scout cookies from a flowered basket on my bicycle,” Maisy said.
She grabbed the phone and darted across the room to the small bathroom and retrieved her makeup bag from the vanity.
“I hope you corrected him,” Savannah said. Her voice sounded tight, like she was trying not to laugh. Maisy couldn’t blame her.
“Not right away. I was too embarrassed to have forgotten our appointment,” Maisy said. “I thought about pretending ‘Ms. Kelly’ wasn’t home.”
“Stop!” Savannah roared. “That’s classic. I bet he felt like a dope when you introduced yourself.”
“He was very decent about it, actually.” Maisy lined her eyes and fumbled with her mascara. Lastly she put a little color on her lips, a deeper rose than her top. “He seems very nice.”
“You sound weird, like you’re putting on lipstick.” Now Savannah was full-on laughing. “Let me guess. Right now you’re frantically trying to slam on makeup and a grown-up outfit before you go back out and face him.”
“Precisely,” Maisy said. She adjusted her top and skirt, grabbed the phone from the shelf in her bathroom, and headed for the door. “The question is—”
“Is it too late?” Savannah asked. “Has he already decided you’re as crazy as a soup sandwich and is even now escaping down the driveway planning to change his phone number?”
“Well, if he can’t handle a little originality then he isn’t the architect for me,” Maisy said. She left the third floor and wound her way down the stairs through the maze of books.
“Exactly,” Savannah agreed.
“Ugh, who am I kidding? Maybe he’s right to drive off. What am I going to do with all of the books in this house?” Maisy asked. “I mean, I am completely overwhelmed.”
“What do you want to do?”
“Sell them, donate them, burn them, I guess.”
“Yes, maybe, absolutely not. You’re not a savage,” Savannah said. “You know you don’t have to figure it out this second. After that horrible breakup with your ex, who now has the full-time professorship that should be yours, you’re out of work, right?”
“Yeah, I handed in my notice.” Maisy thought about her ex, Dean Berry, and her stomach churned. The dingleberry, as she liked to call him, had romanced a promotion right out from under her. She closed her eyes. She refused to think about what an idiot she had been.
“So, why not take this opportunity to do the thing you’ve always talked about?” Savannah asked.
“Skydive?” Maisy asked. “I hardly think now is the right time.”
“No, you know that’s not what I’m talking about.”
“I know. You mean the go-to-Paris daydream, the one where I live in a loft apartment with a sliver view of the Eiffel Tower and exist on cheese and crackers and red wine while I pen my first novel.”
“You are being deliberately thick,” Savy chided her. “I’m talking about what you suggested doing after you lost out on the promotion to that loser Berry. Your brilliant plan—come on, it’s still in there, I know it is.”
“You mean the crazy idea—”
“Yes, that’s it. The one where you take the substantial trust fund Auntie El left you and remodel her house into a romance bookstore, like that supercool shop, The Ripped Bodice, we visited on vacation in California last summer, and shake off that miserable career at the university and become your own boss at last,” Savannah said.
“Funny you should mention that. I did run the idea of turning the place into a bookstore by the architect.”
“And what did he say?”
Maisy smiled. “He said, ‘Let’s get to work.’”
“Well, there you go,” Savy said. “And in a weird circumstance of planets aligning, I have some free time. I can help you set up an online presence for your bookshop. Who knows, maybe there is a huge market for vintage romance novels.”
“You’d do that?” Maisy asked. She paused on the landing as Savannah’s words kicked in. “That’s so nice of . . . wait. What aren’t you telling me?”
“Savy.” Maisy used her friend’s nickname to remind her that she knew all of Savy’s deep, dark, warty secrets and now was not the time to withhold. Maisy twirled one of her chin-length curls around her index finger and then pushed it out of her face. “You are a publicity powerhouse for a top publisher, you don’t have time to sneeze much less help me unless—”
“All right, all right, you don’t have to badger me,” Savannah said. “I am temporarily out of work.”
“Something like that. Publicists are always the first to go,” she said, sighing.
“Damn, I’m sorry,” Maisy said. She was indignant on her friend’s behalf. No one was as clever as Savy at promotion. “It’s their loss.”
“Yes, let’s hope they realize that and soon. Rent in New York City is positively unreasonable.”
“Then, come here,” Maisy said. As soon as the words left her mouth she knew it was the perfect solution for both of their situations.
“Come back to Fairdale, the itty-bitty city full of all-you-can-eat pie, horseback riding, and watching the grass grow?” Savannah asked. “Lawd, I haven’t been back there to live since we graduated from Fairdale University seven years ago.”
“I know the town’s a bit tame compared to life in the Big Apple—”
“Sweetie, when watching fireflies light up the sky is your idea of a big night out then you have been living in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina way too long,” Savannah said.
“Aw, come on, you’re not as immune to the charms of Fairdale as you sound—”
“Ack! I forgot you’re a native and therefore required to be a lover of all things Fairdale.”
“It’s not that I’m a lover. Okay, I totally am,” Maisy said. “Fairdale is home, and you haven’t been home in forever. Don’t tell me you don’t miss all-you-can-eat night at Pie in the Sky bakery. They still make your favorite coconut cream. Come on, Savy, you know you want to come home.”
Savannah’s sigh was so long and so loud, Maisy was pretty sure she was going to pass out before she inhaled again.
“Fine, I admit it. I love Fairdale, I do,” Savy said. “I loved going to school there. I loved having you as my roommate and best friend. I loved the old Victorian mansions in the center of town, and I loved the wild beauty of the surrounding mountains and rivers and streams, but I love it more in my rearview mirror than in my windshield. You know what I’m saying?”
“You don’t want to come back,” Maisy said. She lowered her voice just to give it that little zing of pitiful and added, “Not even for me.”
There were several beats of silence and Maisy knew that Savannah was wrestling with her desire to help her versus her desire not to drag her butt all the way down to North Carolina.
“I cannot believe I’m going to say this,” Savy said, sounding genuinely surprised at herself. Then she laughed. “I have to be out of my apartment in a few days and I was planning to put all of my stuff in storage and crash at my parents’ place on Long Island until I find a new job, which, given the dysfunction that is my parents’ and my relationship, will be miserable for everyone involved. I suppose I can job hunt from Fairdale as easily as I can here.”
“Yay!” Maisy cheered. “You won’t regret it. We’re going to have the best time and you can help me convince Ryder to take the job if he balks.”
“Ryder, huh? Is he cute?” Savannah asked.
Maisy stepped around several towering piles of books to get to the window by the front door. She moved the lace curtain aside and covertly studied the man now standing at the front door. He hadn’t run away. Bless his heart.
“Honestly, he looks like he stepped off the cover of one of Auntie El’s cowboy romances,” she said. She felt her pulse pick up and she swallowed audibly. Oh, dear.
“Well, there you go. It’s a sign,” Savy said. “I guess I’ll go pack my elastic waistband pants. All-you-can-eat pie, here I come.”