Stacey is jolted when her friends Simon and Emily get engaged. She knew she was putting her life on hold when she stayed in Willow Creek to care for her sick mother, but it's been years now, and even though Stacey loves spending her summers pouring drinks and flirting with patrons at the local Renaissance Faire, she wants more out of life. Stacey vows to have her life figured out by the time her friends get hitched at Faire next summer. Maybe she'll even find The One.
When Stacey imagined "The One," it never occurred to her that her summertime Faire fling, Dex MacLean, might fit the bill. While Dex is easy on the eyes onstage with his band The Dueling Kilts, Stacey has never felt an emotional connection with him. So when she receives a tender email from the typically monosyllabic hunk, she's not sure what to make of it.
Faire returns to Willow Creek, and Stacey comes face-to-face with the man with whom she’s exchanged hundreds of online messages over the past nine months. To Stacey's shock, it isn't Dex—she's been falling in love with a man she barely knows.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.47(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.88(d)|
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It all started with a necklace.
A beautiful pendant, made of gleaming silver in the shape of a dragonfly, strung on a green silk cord. Its eyes were tiny crystals that caught the light, and the wings were a delicate filigree. I spotted it on the last day of the Willow Creek Renaissance Faire, while Emilyor Emma, since we were still in characterand I strolled the grounds. We were in our usual tavern wench costumes, with our personalities to match: a little louder, a little more brash and flirtatious than we were in real life. We stopped to interact with patronsespecially tiny ones dressed as knights or piratesand we did a little surreptitious shopping as the vendors took one last chance to sell stock before packing it all up and moving to the next Faire on the circuit. That was when I saw the dragonfly, winking up at me from a jeweler's table.
"What d'you think, Emma, dear?" I held it up so we could both see it. I was wearing the pewter Celtic knot I'd gotten the summer before last, but my outfit needed a refresh. As the silver dragonfly rotated slowly at the end of its cord, its eyes flashed at me, whispering, Yes. You need me.
"Oh, Stacey, it's so pretty!" Emily clapped a hand over her mouth and turned wide eyes to me as she realized her errors. First, she'd called me by the wrong name, and second, she hadn't even made an attempt at her usual Faire accent. "Sorry," she said around a grin.
The vendor snorted. "It's all over but the shouting now. No one's going to notice you breaking character."
"I mean Beatrice, of course." To her credit, Emily slid back into character in a heartbeat. "Because that's your name. You truly deserve something new. I think it would do quite nicely."
"What's going on here?"
Now my wide eyes matched Emily's as we looked at each other in reaction to the stern voice behind us. Then we turned in unison to face Simon Graham, the Faire's organizer and Emily's boyfriend. He was still in costume as Captain Blackthorne the pirate: all black leather and roguish smile. But his forbidding tone was pure Simon the English Teacher, as though he'd already shaved his beard and cut his hair short as he did at the end of each Faire season.
So I scoffed at him, because a pirate and a tavern wench were roughly the same in the hierarchy of things, and out here he wasn't my boss. Not while we were in character. "Nothing wrong with a bit of shopping, Captain. Surely you wouldn't deprive your ladylove of a little indulgence."
"Oh, I don't need anything." Emily's hand went to the pendant she wore around her own neck-a deep blue crystal hanging from a silver chain. Simon had gotten it for her from one of the other vendors earlier this summer. "Why would I, when I have this?" Her eyes practically glowed when she looked at him, and I could tell she wasn't just talking about the necklace.
Simon raised an eyebrow, his stern expression melting away as though he had trouble maintaining it in front of Emily. "Quite right." He bent to brush a kiss across her mouth.
I coughed and glanced over at the vendor, who rolled her eyes good-naturedly in my direction. We probably had matching expressions. "Get thee a room," I muttered, and the vendor snorted in amusement. I fished in my belt pouch for the cash I carried to pay her for the dragonfly necklace. I didn't have anyone buying me gifts; I had to get my own. But I didn't mind. That way I was guaranteed to end up with something I liked.
Simon turned his attention back to me, and his brows drew together again. "Are you sure about that necklace, Stacey?" His voice was pitched low since he'd dropped the accent and his character. "It seems a little . . . elaborate for a tavern wench."
A flash of anger rose like bile in the back of my throat, and I swallowed hard against it. He was right, of course; the necklace didn't match my costume. Tavern wenches weren't high-class characters; my pewter Celtic knot was as fancy as I dared. But I'd inhabited this same character for six years now, and it was starting to chafe. I was tired of plain. Tired of settling.
My fist closed around the pendant, the dragonfly's wings digging into my palm. "Perhaps it's time for a change, then, Captain." I kept my voice light, almost teasing, so neither of them could see my irritation. This was a new revelation, and I wasn't quite ready to share it.
"She has a point," Emily said. "The taverns are mostly run by volunteers now, and you know I spent more time working on the Shakespeare skits with the kids than I did serving beer. Maybe the time for tavern wenches has come to an end, and Stacey and I can come up with different characters next summer."
"Perhaps." Simon shifted from one foot to the other as his Faire accent crept back. He didn't like change, especially when it came to Faire. But Emily looped her arm through his, bringing his focus to her again, and the smile returned to his face. "Perhaps," he said again. Fully back in character, his voice was pure pirate now, and he bussed Emily's temple. "For now though, I'm due on the chess field. Would you lasses care to join me?"
"The last human combat chess match of the year? I wouldn't miss it." Emily's devotion was adorable, especially since the chess match was as choreographed as the joust we'd just watched. Twice a day, Captain Blackthorne fought Marcus MacGregor, played by our friend Mitcha giant of a man wearing little more than a kilt and knee-high boots and carrying a massive sword. And twice a day, Captain Blackthorne lost said fight. But Emily still cheered him on, every time. She was his biggest fan.
I wasn't in the mood to watch the chess. I'd seen it. Many, many times. "I'll walk around a bit more, if you'll forgive me." I was too restless. The last thing I wanted to do was stand still and watch a show I'd seen so often I could probably perform it myself.
Emily peered at me with shrewd eyes. "Everything all right, love?"
"Yes, yes." I waved her off. "I'd simply like to take in the scenery a little while longer."
"Of course." She squeezed my arm in goodbye as Simon doffed his hat and gave me a friendly bow. "Meet you at pub sing, then."
I had to laugh at that. Emily never made it up front for the farewell show of the day. But hope sprang eternal.
Alone now, I stowed my old necklace in my belt pouch, tied the green silk cord around my neck, and set off down the lane again, my long skirts kicking up dustit had been a dry summer, and Faire lanes were made up mostly of dirt paths that cut through the woods. I took the long way around the perimeter of the site where we held Faire every year.
It was midafternoon and the sun was still high in the sky, but for me the sun was setting on the summer. There was something magical about the last day of Faire. Months of rehearsal and weeks of performance had come to an end, and it all culminated in this day. I always thought the sun coming through the trees looked a little brighter, since it was the last day I'd see it like that for another year. I wanted to catch it with my hands and hang on to it.
Many of the shows had finished, but I passed a children's magic act that was about halfway through its set, so I stopped to listen to the magician's patter for a few moments. The ax-throwing booth was still going strong, and I gave that a wide berth. What were we thinking, letting people who had no idea what they were doing fork over a few bucks to try and hit a target with a deadly weapon? The attendant didn't look too concerned, though, and he waved at me as I walked by. Multicolored banners hung from the trees, glowing in the sunlight as they blew gently in the breeze. A couple kids ran past me, headed for the lemonade stand. The sound of a tin whistle floated from somewhere nearby.
I ducked inside a booth displaying hand-tooled leather items, inhaling the heady scent. Inside, the wire-mesh walls were lined with leather goods of all kindsvambraces and belt pouches, as well as modern-day accessories like belts and wallets.
"All handmade," the attendant said, not bothering with a faked accent. She was my age, maybe a year or two older, but definitely not more than thirty. Her dark brown hair was pulled back in a long plait, and she wore low-key peasant garb: a long, dark green skirt and loose chemise, pulled in with a leather waist cincher.
"Do you make all this yourself?" I touched a soft blue backpack made of buttery leather that hung on the end of one display.
"My husband and I do, yes." She bent down to scoop up a toddler in a long chemise with grubby bare feet. Even the kids dressed period here at Faire.
I pointed at the child. "Made that too, I assume."
She grinned in response and bounced the child on her hip, smoothing the babe's snarled hair. "Oh, yes. Though between you and me, the leatherwork's a lot easier. Do you have kids?"
"Oh, no." I shook my head hard. I didn't have a boyfriend. Kids weren't even on my radar.
She shrugged. "No rush, believe me." She turned to greet another patron who had ventured out of the sun and into the cool shade of the booth. As she walked away, she looked over her shoulder at me. "Anything you like, let me know. You'll get the Rennie discount: thirty percent off."
"Oh. Thanks." A warm feeling went through me at her words. Not at the discount, but at what it represented. She considered me one of them. As much a part of the crew as those who traveled the circuit with her. Even though I put a lot of effort into this Faire each summer, I'd never considered myself to be on the same level as the performers and the vendors who came through every year. They had their own culture, almost their own language, and I was just a local, on the outside looking in. After today these woods would be empty while the acts and vendors around me moved on to the next Faire, and it was a sharp pain to the heart. As if life were moving on without me, and I was being left behind. Sometimes I wished I was the one packing up and moving on. Sometimes I was tired of standing still.
I blew out a long breath, trying to chase those unsettled feelings away with it. Where had this come from? The Renaissance Faire had been my happy place since I was eighteen, but I didn't like the way I was feeling now. Had I outgrown the Faire? Or had it outgrown me?
I took one more glance at the blue backpack before making my way out of the booth. One necklace wasn't enough retail therapy to keep this melancholy at bay. Thirty percent off . . . I was going to have to come back for that.
I continued to wander the lanes with no conscious destination in mind, trying to get my thoughts in order, when my feet brought me to the Marlowe Stage. The Dueling Kilts' last set was about to begin. Perfect timing. I slipped into the back of the crowd, between a couple costumed vendors, right as the guys took the stage.
The Dueling Kilts were a trio of brothersthe MacLeanswho played Irish standards mixed with slightly naughty drinking songs, all on a hand drum, guitar, and fiddle. Their instruments were acoustic, their kilts hit just at the knee, and they were all very, very easy on the eyes. My eyes strayed, as they usually did, to the guitar player. Dex MacLean. The best eye candy at Faire. His red kilt was shot through with just enough dark green to keep him from looking like a stoplight, but it was still bright enough to draw attention. As though his powerful legs weren't doing that well enough on their own. The hem was a little ragged, and he wore it as casually as he'd wear a pair of jeans. Dex carried himself like a man who'd been born with plaid wrapped around his hips.
His off-white linen shirt did nothing to hide his broad, muscled shoulders, and he stomped one booted foot in time with the music he played. He shook his long dark hair out of his eyes as he turned to his compatriots, and his smile made something thud in my chest. Dex MacLean had been my favorite part of Faire for the past two summers. The man had a body like a Hemsworth, and I'd explored just about every inch of it. Just as he'd explored mine. He'd been clear from the start, of course. No strings. Just sex. I was fine with that. I wasn't looking to settle down anytime soon, and I didn't like Dex for his conversation. Again, body like a Hemsworth. What kind of fool would I be to pass that up?
After last summer, I'd been looking forward to a repeat of our sexual acrobatics this year, but things had turned out differently. He'd lost his phone over the winter and had apparently gotten a new number as well, so my initial texts had gone unanswered. We'd managed a night or two together, and it had been just as electric as ever. But the urgency hadn't been there as it had the summer before, and I wasn't disappointed when he didn't ask for my number again. I didn't volunteer it.
No strings, remember? The man wasn't relationship material.
So now I watched Dex play his last show on the last day of Faire with a curious mix of satisfaction, smugness, and regret. I've had that, the smug-and-satisfied side of my brain said. But why hadn't I gone back for more? I pushed down the latter thought, opting instead to appreciate whatand whomI'd done.
Next to me, one of the vendors sighed. I recognized her; she sold tarot cards and crystals out of a booth shaped like a traveling wagon. She leaned over to the woman next to her. "So much pretty on one stage."
Her companion nodded. "Should be illegal, those legs. Thank God for kilts."