Are you ready for this excerpt? I am.
“What time did you say this chick was arriving?” Finn asks around his cigarette.
“Tomorrow morning,” I say, rapping my toe against a funny-looking floorboard and wincing when it buckles.
“Huh.” Finn exhales and looks out the window.
I know that tone. “What?”
“Seems she might have gotten here early,” he says, a second before the quiet afternoon erupts with the sound of my dog losing his mind, mingled with the shrill piercing yap of a much smaller dog.
Finn shrugs and nods. “There’s a girl outside.”
“Shit,” I mutter as I head toward the stairs, dodging the two broken ones.
Ranger’s about as good a dog as they come, wouldn’t hurt a fly. But he’s a big dog with a big bark, and one serious weakness: gleefully humping smaller dogs. He’s a rescue, and though he was fixed after they brought him in, he’d already gone through canine puberty, or whatever. He’s still got the fierce urge to hump, although it’s more habit than hormones.
I exit out the front door just in time to see my big brown Lab leap forward, his clumsy paws finding the shoulders of a blond girl who lets out a shriek, holding a cat above her head like that scene from The Lion King.
“Ranger, no! Down.”
I run forward, my hand finding the collar of my dog and yanking him backward as I search the ground to find the source of the small-dog barks still piercing the air.
Then I register that the sound is coming from above, and realize . . .
The cotton ball isn’t a cat.
That orange piece of fluff is a dog, and Ranger is apparently in love.
“What the heck is wrong with your dog?” the girl says as she slowly lowers the puffball from over her head, cradling the hideous little monster against her chest as it continues its high-pitched bloody-murder yips.
“At least my dog is actually a dog,” I say, staring in horror at the pointy face of a canine that could fit in one of my hands. “I’ve seen dust bunnies bigger than that thing.”
“Dolly’s a Pomeranian,” she says, setting a hand on top of the monster’s head. “She’s supposed to be this tiny.”
“Well, Ranger’s a Lab. He’s supposed to be this normal.”
“He attacked me,” she says, giving Ranger a wary look as his tongue hangs out the side of his mouth, his eyes locked lovingly on Dolly.
“He didn’t want you, he wanted the . . . dog,” I say, forcing myself to acknowledge that the creature in her hands might be part of the canine family.
“For what, dinner?”
I don’t respond, because now that the crisis is averted, I’ve managed to shift my attention from the dogs to the girl, and . . .
I’m not sure I’ve ever been sucker-punched by equal waves of lust and disdain before.
Jenny Dawson is hot as hell.
I knew that going in, but up close she’s even more mouthwatering. Her white skirt is short and tight, her legs long and toned.
She’s wearing some billowing pink top, so I can’t get a good look at what’s happening there, but it doesn’t really matter. I’ve always been a legs man, and I can’t stop looking.
The legs are a 10.
The face is a 10.
And the long blond hair spilling over one shoulder definitely begs to be spread over a man’s pillow. My pillow.
And yet even as my cock says yes, my brain is saying hell no.
Gorgeous as she is, she screams diva from the pink toenails to the sky-high stiletto sandals and all the way up to the carefully made-up face.
I just turned my entire life upside down trying to get away from a woman exactly like this one, so this is definitely a look, don’t touch situation.
But I’m looking. I’m definitely looking.
“Hi there! You must be Mr. Walcott!” Her smile is pretty, even if it’s probably fake, and she pushes her big sunglasses on top of her head, revealing wide blue eyes.
I open my mouth to respond, until I realize she’s not talking to me. Her eyes are locked over my shoulder, and I turn to see Vaughn and Finn walking toward us with a slightly dazed look on their faces.
Finn has Ranger’s leash in his hand, and I snatch it as he gets close, clipping it on my big horny dog as I glare at my big horny friends.
It’s obvious why Jenny’s question is directed at Vaughn. In his fussy suit, he looks the part of Preston Walcott, and I open my mouth to shoot down her snotty assumption.
Only instead of telling her the truth, the most bullshit thing comes out: “Obviously this is Mr. Walcott.”
Her eyes flick over me, cool and disinterested. “And you are . . . ?”
“Noah Maxwell,” I say, deliberately not going forward to shake her hand. “The caretaker.”
She wrinkles her nose and looks back at Vaughn in confusion.
Vaughn is staring at me in confusion.
“Problem?” I say before he can open his fat mouth and ruin my little game.
Jenny lifts her shoulders. “I guess I just assumed the Eddingtons would still live in the caretaker’s cottage. Foolish, I suppose. They were elderly ten years ago. Have they . . . are they passed?”
No idea. Who the hell are the Eddingtons?
A quick call to my father’s attorney had confirmed that there was in fact a property in my father’s name, but there’d been next to no information.
“They’re in a retirement home,” Vaughn says smoothly, apparently deciding to play along, although I don’t know why. “The family pays for it, of course.”
She smiles prettily at him, although the smile slips when her gaze slides back to me. “And Mr. Maxwell here is the replacement?”
“Truth be told, I’ve just hired him,” Vaughn says, giving me a cool, appraising look as though deciding whether I’m worthy of the right to be on my own property. How did I not know the guy was such a good actor? “But he seems competent enough.”
“Wonderful,” she says. “But the dog can’t stay.”
I blink. “I’m sorry?”
“The dog.” She gestures with her chin at Ranger, who’s settled down, but barely. “Dolly will be staying here with me, which means your dog needs to go.”
“He’ll be kept on a leash,” Finn says before I can reply. He steps forward, apparently deciding that he too wants in on the game.
“I’m Finn Reed. The electrician. Came out to fix a couple of wiring problems,” he says, extending a hand to her.
Electrician? That’s new.
Jenny shifts the cotton ball to her left arm and shakes Finn’s hand, either unaware of the way he’s checking her out or so accustomed to it that she knows not to show a reaction.
“Are the wiring problems all fixed?”
“Yes,” Vaughn says nervously, shooting me a quick glance. “But Ms. Dawson, I need to make it clear what bad shape the house is in. Worse than I realized when we first emailed, and—”
“It’s all right,” she says quietly. “As long as the walls stay standing upright, it’ll be perfect.”
She gazes up at the house with a faraway smile on her face. The guys glance at me, and I roll my eyes and shrug.
“I know you think I’m crazy,” she says, not looking at us. “But I wrote my first song here, and it felt magical.”
She turns back and looks at Vaughn. “I’m sorry to hear about your father. I never met him in person, but the fact that he opened up this beautiful space to young musicians without charging them a dime . . . he must have loved music.”
Vaughn’s smile is strained, and when Jenny looks away he gives me a what the hell shrug.
I don’t respond.
The truth was, my dad didn’t love music. I mean, sure, he’d go to the odd concert or have music playing on the car radio when he wasn’t barking on the phone, but he didn’t love music.
No, but he had loved Caleb, and Caleb had loved music. No doubt my father had hoped that one of his charity cases, someone like Jenny Dawson, might carry on with Caleb’s legacy in a way that I couldn’t.
Jenny was walking around the side of the house, a happy smile on her face despite the fact that all I could see was weeds and chipped paint.
“What the hell are we doing?” Finn says out of the corner of his mouth.
“Yes, what are we doing?” Vaughn asks me in a low voice. “Why’d you tell her I was you?”
“I don’t know. She pissed me off.”
My friends only look at me, their skepticism clear. I don’t blame them. It’s not the right answer. Or at least not the full answer.
The truth is, I didn’t tell her my name because for a crushing moment I didn’t want to be Preston Walcott Jr., heir to this, that, and the other thing.
I wanted to go back.
Back to a simpler time when I knew myself only as Noah Maxwell. Back when I believed my mother’s quiet claims that my father was dead. Back before he’d shown up on my fourteenth birthday, informed me that the brother I didn’t know I had was dead and that his wife had left him, and asked if I wanted to come live with him, though it wasn’t optional.
I hadn’t wanted anything to do with him or the life he offered.
But then the bastard had dangled the one carrot in front of my mother that she hadn’t been able to say no to: education.
I’d been enrolled at the Academy the very next day, and by the time I graduated and headed to LSU, my only connection to that former life was Finn and a fragile, strained relationship with my mother.
“I called off the wedding,” I say quickly, quietly, as Jenny and her dumb dog start making their way back toward us, her steps careful as she tries to navigate the uneven ground with those ridiculous shoes.
“Come again?” Vaughn says.
Finn swears and rubs a hand over his hand. “Shit, man.”
“Why?” Vaughn asks. “Yvonne Damascus is perfect.”
“For someone like you, maybe,” Finn mutters, earning a middle finger from Vaughn.
“Can we not?” I say wearily. “I don’t want to talk about it. I just . . . I need some time. Away.”
“So book a trip to the Bahamas. Don’t stay here,” Vaughn says, looking around in horror as he smooths a hand over the shitty purple tie.
Finn reaches for his cigarettes. “Country Club’s right. You’ve got money, man. Use it.”
I do have money. More than I know what to do with.
Jenny Dawson is back in hearing range, and as I find myself checking out those long legs, I wonder if Finn and Vaughn are right. If I need to escape, spending time with this diva is not the way to do it.
But here’s the douchebag part of all this, where I tell you I feel some weird connection to this place I haven’t ever been to before today—a place I didn’t even know existed until a few days ago.
My dad left me a shit-ton of property, more fancy cars than I know what to do with, and enough money to employ an entire fleet to take care of both. This is the one thing to my name that feels like it can be mine. Already my mind is racing with the sheer number of projects around here to keep my hands busy. To keep my thoughts off . . . things.
“I’m staying,” I say out of the corner of my mouth. “And not a word to the pop princess here about my real name.”
“She’s a country singer,” Finn says.
I snort. “Barely.”
“Heard that,” Jenny says sweetly with a smile that doesn’t even pretend to be real.
She teeters over to her car in her sexy shoes, setting Dolly in the backseat before she rummages around for something in the front passenger seat, giving all three of us a rather prime view of her backside.
Ranger’s no longer the only one whose tongue is lolling out of his mouth.
“Here we go,” she says, emerging a moment later with some paper and a pen.
“What’s this?” Finn asks as she flutters a piece of paper in his direction.
“A what?” Finn asks.
“Nondisclosure agreement,” Vaughn supplies.
There’s no mockery in Vaughn’s tone for once, but I sense Finn stiffen anyway. The man doesn’t have a lot of soft spots, but feeling dumb is one of them. Especially when compared to Vaughn.
“Mr. Walcott here’s already signed one,” she says, gesturing at Vaughn, who’s signed no such thing.
I, of course, have already signed it, but I sign this one as well, as Noah Maxwell.
“Sign it,” I snap at Finn. “It just says that you can’t tell anyone you saw her here.”
“Well, that sucks,” he mutters as he scribbles his name across the bottom of the paper.
“Perfect,” she says with a little wink for Finn. “You never saw me. Got it?”
Finn shrugs. “Sure.”
She gives me an expectant look, and I glare at her. “I’m stuck here with you, princess. Who’m I gonna tell, the mosquitos?”
“Well, you’ll have to leave the property at some point,” she says pragmatically. “Surely you get a day off. How do I know you won’t tell people at the local Piggly Wiggly or whatever?”
I glance at Vaughn. “Boss? Do I get time off?”
“Sure. Whatever. Two days off,” Vaughn says impatiently, obviously tiring of the game.
Time to wrap this up.
“I’ll need to go get some food,” I say. “You’re a day early, and we weren’t prepared.”
“I’m sorry about that,” she says, sounding genuinely contrite. “I emailed and then tried to call, asking if it was okay, but the call went straight to voicemail.”
“No service out here.”
I say that with no small amount of glee, expecting her to freak out, but she sighs in relief. “Perfect. That’s perfect. And I stopped at the store on the way. Plenty for both of us. I‘m assuming you‘re living in that little cottage? The one where the Eddingtons lived.”
That little cottage.
As in the caretaker’s cottage that I didn’t know existed, much less where it’s actually located.
The reality of my situation is setting in, and I come very close to calling a halt to my little charade, but then I remember the stubbornness on Yvonne’s face when I tried to tell her the wedding was off.
Over my dead body, Preston, she said.
Yeah, no. I’ll be taking my chances here with the Nashville princess, thanks.
Jenny tugs the NDA out of my hand with two pink fingernails before going to the car and putting the papers back in the passenger seat. She retrieves her yapping dog and a guitar case.
“It was lovely to meet you, Mr. Walcott,” she tells Vaughn with a smile. “You look nothing like your father, but you’re every bit as lovely.”
Finn snorts around his cigarette but covers with a cough when she turns her smile on him.
“Lovely to meet you as well, Mr. Reed. I’m sure Mr. Maxwell will be in touch if there are any further problems with the wiring.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he says, barely hiding a smile. The only thing Finn knows about wiring is how to hot-wire a car.
“Wonderful.” Jenny beams at us, although her smile slips when she looks at me. “I’m going to go take a look inside. Could I trouble you to bring my stuff in?”
“No trouble at all,” I say sarcastically. “I’ve been waiting for the honor.”
She either misses my sarcasm or ignores it, sauntering up the wide steps toward the open front door, and we all turn to watch, my mouth practically watering at the sight of the back of her thighs.
“No trouble at all, huh?” Finn says from beside me.
He’s right. I’m totally fucked.
I’m not normally a fan of secrets in a book but I have every faith that Lauren Layne will deliver a great story for both Noah and Jenny. I’m so looking forward to digging in.